By Melody Wildling
We often think of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a condition that prevents people from performing at their best. But what if ADHD – when managed properly – could actually give you a competitive advantage?
Increasingly, studies show that symptoms of ADHD are valuable in entrepreneurship. Want proof? Take a look at billionaire Sir Richard Branson who speaks openly about how ADHD positively benefitted his success. In fact, researchers say entrepreneurs with ADHD show strengthsin creativity, grit and perseverance to name a few.
To better understand the emerging science of ADHD and entrepreneurship, I spoke with Dr. Perpetua Neo, a psychologist who helps high-performers go big without burning out. In this interview, she shares her personal story navigating a career with ADHD and discusses ways to handle the challenges that come along with the condition.
Melody Wilding: What inspired you to want to help entrepreneurs with ADHD?
Dr. Neo: Society demonizes differences. Consider for instance, how an introvert is told by their managers to speak up more and urged to shoehorn themselves into the behavioral profile of an extrovert. Then extrapolate that to other differences in our wiring like ADHD. As a psychologist and coach, I champion the concept of neuro-diversity, which means celebrating how we are different and being able to leverage these differences as our superpowers.
My story is also personal. I've never been diagnosed [with ADHD] because of the era I was raised in, but have always known I have ADHD: short attention spans juxtaposed with obsessive hyperfocus, the need to keep moving and a brain moving faster than it probably should. Much as it gave me many shortcuts to my learning and performance, it also made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Teachers and my elders would point that out, and then I'd feel like a mean and difficult person for not being able to focus in group settings or when something didn't spark my attention.
Thankfully, I escaped relatively unscathed, sorted out the internal blocks from the stigma, and designed a lifestyle around my ADHD and where I leverage it. When I watch others struggle because their lifestyles and mindsets are fraught with ideas that their ADHD traits handicap them, are crippled via the effects of pharmaceutical medications, or when I see them blame themselves relentlessly, it is painful to watch. It reminds me of where I could have ended up. Championing neuro-diversity is my social responsibility.
Wilding: What are we learning about the relationship between entrepreneurship and ADHD?
Dr. Neo: People with ADHD are the explorers of the universe, whether it is the physical world or their inner world. They are curious and restless. So they are wired to learn voraciously, taking in every detail excitedly and curiously and their high levels of creativity means they can synthesize conceptual links that previously didn't exist before.
Psychiatrist Dale Archer loosely divides people into the "explorer" vs "settler" types. When times are good, people like to settle. But in a crisis, we need the explorers to discover new lands, resources and opportunities. That's why the ADHD gene continues to be selected for by evolution. Entrepreneurs are the explorers. To quote [author and scholar] Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his latest book Skin In The Game, "Entrepreneurs are the heroes in our society. They fail for the rest of us."
There may be few studies done on this, but the current research shows that people with ADHD-like traits are likelier to be self-employed.
Wilding: In what ways can ADHD actually help entrepreneurs succeed? How can they make the most of these traits?
Dr. Neo: Traits associated with ADHD are amazingly ripe with promise. They include:
Of course, these traits may also be detrimental. For instance, impulsivity and risk-taking when applied in the wrong context can create a descent into substance abuse. But when these are applied to a career where the person with ADHD's brain comes alive and the individual can throw themselves in with great passion and gusto, then they are a potent cocktail of prowess.
Wilding: What should someone do if they suspect they may have ADHD?
Dr. Neo: Seek out mentors, psychologists and coaches. Someone who gets who you are, and is invested towards helping you to leverage your inherent gifts, rather than someone trying to medicate or therapy you, to effectively shoehorn you into something else that suppresses your wiring and all the wonderful things that come with it. The work you do together should focus on leveraging your ADHD superpowers, getting over the stories in your head, honing the skills you need, and understanding who you are...
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