Today’s successful entrepreneur might possess an MBA, well-connected parents and plenty of chutzpah, but there’s one often misunderstood component and it goes by the four-letter acronym known as ADHD.
Experts say Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurological condition shared by most entrepreneurs, some of whom have a knack for controlling their ADHD so they can foster success in their professional lives.
“I bet 80 per cent of entrepreneurs have it,” says Dr. Ned Hallowell, a U.S. psychiatrist and leading authority on ADHD. “Although way fewer have been diagnosed with it. Almost every entrepreneur I meet has it and when I talk to groups of entrepreneurs and describe ADHD they’re all jumping out of the chairs saying that’s us.”
Many of ADHD’s traits are those needed to win in the business world: creativity, high energy, risk tolerance, quick thinking, multi-tasking and resilience. Or, as Hallowell puts it, it’s like having a Ferrari engine for a brain with bicycle brakes. Some manage to harness its power, while others fail.
ADHD impairs how people manage their attention. Some people with ADHD flit from one thing to another, others hyper focus. What makes it tricky to diagnose is that many of its long list of symptoms can be thought of as extreme forms of normal behaviour. Ever been called a chatterbox? Told you have ants in your pants? Are you forever losing your keys and missing appointments? Do you blurt out your thoughts or do things before thinking them through? Do you spend a lot of time daydreaming or playing video games? Are you easily distracted, overly sensitive and forgetful? They may be signs of ADHD, or not.
Conservative estimates peg four to five per cent of the population as having the condition. It’s commonly believed to be a disorder that only children have, but adults do, too. And don’t let the acronyms fool you. ADHD and ADD are one and the same. Medical professionals generally refer to it as ADHD, while media, educators and entertainers seem to prefer ADD because it’s easier to say and remember. October is ADHD awareness month in Canada.
In good company
After years of struggling with anxiety and depression, scattered and impulsive thinking and being a workaholic, comedian Rick Green was diagnosed at 47, shortly after his son had been diagnosed with the disorder, a common occurrence as ADHD is highly hereditary.
“I went through life in a wrestling match with an invisible opponent,” says the now 62-year-old Green, who today uses his comedy to tell others about ADHD. “And the thing about that was I didn’t even know I was in a wrestling match. I just thought this is what life is like for everyone and it’s not.”
An adrenaline junkie, he excelled as a comedic actor, writer and producer, co-creating and performing on The Red Green Show and TVO’s Prisoners of Gravity. Despite his success, fits of unproductiveness plagued his career. Why he could never complete the many movie screenplays he’d started became apparent after his diagnosis. They would take months to write, an insufferable amount of time to the mind of someone with ADHD, who bore quickly and are easily distracted. Green excelled at skit writing, a comparatively quicker though equally challenging craft.
“Anything I was successful at I could make sense of and the things where I struggled, like trying to finish a screenplay, never happened,” says Green. “And I could see why and let go of the guilt and take all that energy to other projects.”
Green’s website TotallyADD.com is filled with witty videos, blogs, and webinars. In operation since 2009, the website is on track to hit two million visitors this year. A labour of love, Green says at one point, he had to sell his house to keep the website up and running. Books, DVDs and merchandise are for sale on the site, but there’s plenty of free information, including a coaching directory and chat forums. He also offers presentations, workshops and talks on ADHD and his currently performing his one-man show on the subject, titled My Award-Winning Coast-to-Coast Mental Disorder.
Other entrepreneurs who have the disorder include:
Cameron Herold has built three companies beyond the $100 million mark. Previously vice president of Ubarter.com and COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, he is now chief operating officer of coaching company BackPocket.
Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, who quit school at 15 and had trouble into his fifties distinguishing the difference between the terms gross and net, is a wealthy adventurer who leads an empire comprising more than 400 companies.
JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman told ADDitude magazine: “If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADD, I would take ADD.”
Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea struggled with severe dyslexia and ADD/ADHD as a child, which made it impossible to follow along in the classroom.
Ingvar Kamprad, Swedish founder and chairman of IKEA stores, stated he adapted the inner workings of his business to compensate for his ADHD and dyslexia.
According to Forbes.com, research suggests that a tendency to be self-employed and an entrepreneur is dominant in those with ADHD. A notable U.K. study showed a genetic link between a dopamine receptor gene variation associated with ADHD and the tendency to be an entrepreneur. Sensation seeking, common in ADHD, is more common among entrepreneurs than in the general population and anecdotal reports bolster this point, saying that people with ADHD are three times more likely to own their own business.
Making the most of ADHD in business
So if entrepreneurial ADHD is a real thing, what can people with ADHD who aren’t the Richard Bransons or David Neelemans of the world, do?
Learn to create systems and delegate mundane tasks to an assistant or partner, recommends Linda Walker, a Montreal-based ADHD coach whose specialty is entrepreneurs. Find someone to do the paperwork or administrative work. Typically, these business bright lights aren’t short on good ideas, but they have difficultly executing their schemes, trouble with time management and they bore quickly with routine tasks. Something as basic as accounting could derail an entrepreneur’s grand plan.
“It’s not a lack of will that makes them have difficulty writing a proposal it’s just a question of ‘where do I start?’” she says. “We look at energy patterns. When are you most able to focus and focus for a long time? How can we optimize those periods of the day? ADHDers are very much powered by interest, competition, novelty and sometimes urgency.”
Hire a coach, eat a balanced diet, exercise, meditate, try medication, find the right career or business and find the right life partner are all on the to-do list of the entrepreneur with ADHD. Left unchecked ADHD can lead to a slew of issues that include addictions, anxiety, depression, impulsive spending, frequent accidents, poor relationships and underachievement at school, work and at home.
Getting the medical profession to grasp ADHD is a big part of the problem, says Hallowell, who believes physicians and psychiatrists often misdiagnose ADHD for other conditions.
“I can fill many buildings with Nobel prize winners, Pulitzer prize winners and self-made millionaires and billionaires who have ADD,” Hallowell says. “The diagnosis can truly change your life dramatically for the better. Don’t be afraid of it.”