It has been eye-opening to understand the link between my ADHD diagnosis and my decision to pursue self-employment.
In elementary school, I struggled with anxiety, an inability to focus, and irregular sleeping patterns. In high school, I discovered a natural talent for writing. In university, I decided to pursue a career in journalism. At 23, I quit my first job in media to become a self-employed freelance journalist. At 33, I was diagnosed with ADHD. And just a few weeks ago, at 34, I discovered that all of these things are acutely interconnected.
In reading up on some of the latest research on the subject—and by talking to some of the researchers themselves—I’ve discovered that those with ADHD tend to struggle in traditional academic and professional environments; they tend to be more creative; they tend to be more impulsive; they tend to be better multitaskers; they tend to pursue self-employment, and—depending on the circumstances—they also tend to have better outcomes compared with other entrepreneurs.
The list of successful entrepreneurs with the same condition is long, though it only includes those who have sought a diagnosis and publicized the results. They include Virgin founder and CEO Sir Richard Branson, Ikea founder and CEO Ingvar Kamprad, and JetBlue founder David Neeleman, to name just a few. The list gets even longer when you include celebrities like Paris Hilton, Adam Levine, Dave Grohl, and Howie Mandel, and professional athletes like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Terry Bradshaw, Pete Rose, and Michael Jordan.
HYPER FOCUS AND HYPER BOREDOM
Having ADHD feels like an eternal restlessness; a never-ending stream of thoughts and ideas competing for attention with real-world activities. When those internal thoughts and external actions are aligned, it facilitates boundless energy, creativity, and innovation; when they’re misaligned, it creates a painful and sometimes paralyzing tension.
Those with ADHD often find themselves going into a trance-like state when focusing on something they’re passionate about, and experience a near total breakdown when faced with unavoidable tasks that are objectively boring, like doing taxes or folding laundry. This, in a nutshell, is what made it so hard to take direction in school and in formal workplace settings, and what made self-employment so natural and freeing to me personally, and countless other ADHD sufferers.
“People with ADHD tend to be bored easily, they need thrills to get their drive going, and I think entrepreneurship offers that risky feeling,” says Ingrid Verheul, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management. “What I also see a lot with entrepreneurs who have ADHD is that, because of the struggles they had earlier in life, they really want to demonstrate their value, and the best way of doing it is independently.”
RESTLESSNESS MAKES IT HARD TO KEEP A REGULAR SCHEDULE
Verheul, who has published academic research demonstrating a correlation between ADHD-like symptoms and entrepreneurial intentions among Dutch university students, says those with the condition also tend to thrive in environments where they have greater control over their schedule. Here, too, I offer myself as a prime example.
Those irregular sleeping patterns I experienced in childhood persist to this day, and research suggests they’re quite common among those with ADHD. As a student or employee, I couldn’t exactly push back my start time to accommodate a sleepless night, but as an entrepreneur I can adjust my schedule to better manage my insomnia.
“For people with ADHD the most fundamental thing to note is their circadian rhythm is quite unusual,” explains Johan Wiklund, a professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University. “Maybe you wake up at 5 a.m, and that’s when you’re really energized and want to work and need to take a nap at 10 a.m.; that’s really hard with an office job.”
WHEN A LACK OF IMPULSE CONTROL IS AN ASSET
Wiklund says there are three primary reasons why those with ADHD tend to pursue self-employment: “You’re outside of the norm, you like uncertainty, and you jump first and think later.”
Wiklund began studying ADHD 11 years ago after being diagnosed with it himself. He says that at the time most of the research focussed on the negative attributes associated with his condition, so he decided to explore the overlooked strengths. “What I have found in my research is that people who have ADHD and operate their own businesses are more innovative,” he says.
That and other advantages, however, are typically only realized under the right conditions, according to Wiklund’s research. For example, those that fail to finish school and pursue entrepreneurship primarily due to a lack of alternative options tend to fare worse than the average entrepreneur. Those who earn a postsecondary degree, however, tend to perform better than other entrepreneurs.
Wiklund also found that entrepreneurs that have ADHD outperform those who don’t if they get and stay married, or if they have a business partner who doesn’t have ADHD, though he can only speculate as to why.
“Self-regulation is challenging if you have ADHD,” he suggests. “[Partners] can make sure you don’t work until midnight every day, make sure that you eat and sleep and do other things you need to do in order to be productive.”
NOT ALL ADHD DIAGNOSES ARE THE SAME
The advantages described by Wiklund, however, are not universal, as ADHD can present itself in several—and often dramatically different—ways.
According to the CDC, there are three distinct types of ADHD presentation. “Predominantly inattentive” is characterized by inattention to detail, forgetfulness, difficulty following instructions, and difficulty finishing tasks. “Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive” is characterized by restlessness and impulsivity. Some also have “combined presentation” that includes elements of both.
“It seems to be the hyperactivity and impulsivity that has the positive influence on entrepreneurs—which relates to willingness to take risks and enjoy uncertainty, to acting first and thinking later, and to having a hell of a work capacity, which you need if you’re self-employed,” Wiklund explains. “There seems to be no positive effects of inattentive [ADHD] on entrepreneurship.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Dale Archer, however, doesn’t find this method of categorization particularly effective for adults with ADHD, suggesting that the two presentations tend to blend together after a certain age.
While writing a book on neurodiversity, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional, Archer identified with many of the attributes he described in a chapter on ADHD and was officially diagnosed by a colleague soon after. In his follow-up book, The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength, he suggests that ADHD exists on a spectrum, and offers a ten-point scale for measuring its severity.
“Below five, the ADHD traits would be so insignificant as to be hard to recognize; five to eight is where you start seeing them, and that’s the sweet spot in terms of the advantages,” he says. “Once you get above eight to nine or 10 or 10+, then you’re in the severe range, where any ADHD advantages would be overpowered by the negative sequelae of the condition.”
Archer says all the successful entrepreneurs he interviewed for his book fell into that five to eight range, adding those who fall above typically rely on medication to manage their symptoms.
He, along with the other researchers, believe that of all the career options available to them, entrepreneurship tends to enable those with ADHD to best leverage their strengths, but only in the right circumstances.
WHERE THAT LEAVES ME, AND OTHER ADHDERS
When I was diagnosed a little over a year ago, it helped explain the source of some of my greatest struggles in childhood, and so I viewed ADHD as a curse. Now that I’ve researched the topic in relation to self-employment, I can appreciate how the same attributes enabled my success later in life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when I became an entrepreneur 10 years ago, my hyperactivity made me more proactive; my restlessness enabled greater creativity; my impulsivity gave me a higher risk tolerance; and my anxiety compelled me to obsess over small details, and stay ahead of deadlines. Working independently has also allowed me to reach a degree of professional accomplishment that would have been virtually impossible otherwise. Being able to determine my own schedule, being accountable only to myself, having individually incentivized assignments rather than an annual salary that feels disconnected from day-to-day tasks, and working from home where I feel more comfortable and less distracted have all made me more productive than I could have been otherwise.
At the same time, I must acknowledge that I only ended up where I am today because of a series of difficult choices and bold risks—like pursuing a career in what most labeled a dying industry, taking the leap into self-employment, and not giving up when the going got tough.
When I first learned of the connection between my ADHD and my natural advantages as an entrepreneur, I felt a sense of relief that all of these circumstances and decisions landed me in the best possible situation for someone with my condition. My second thought, however, was empathy for the countless ADHDers who never got the opportunity to achieve their full potential, still bound by rules and structures that treat it as a weakness, despite its potential—under the right circumstances—to be their greatest strength.