Entrepreneurship and ADHD - A Good Fit?
Last week, I had the privilege of appearing on Tom Bronson’s Maximize Business Value podcast to talk about Family Business Coaching and how I help families navigate their communication and emotions while trying to run a business together. It’s a great conversation, check it out! In case you don’t know Tom, he is a serial entrepreneur who has bought and sold over 100 businesses over the course of his career. During the podcast though I became curious as Tom spoke about himself. I had also noticed it on other podcasts of his that I had listened to. So, when our recording was over, I asked him, “Do you have ADHD?” He laughed, and said that although he wasn’t diagnosed, he probably did, and why did I ask?
Well...I heard him talk about procrastination, and how he used it as a tool to ensure that he had all of the information he needed before completing a task. He also mentioned his emotionality, being a class clown, being able to hyper-focus on reading, and his reliance on his brother or others for the more mundane aspects of running a business. “Do you struggle to do things you find uninteresting?” I asked him. His response, “No, I don’t struggle, because I just don’t do them.”
Ah, yes, the hallmark of well-managed ADHD. You understand your strengths, and you have found ways around your struggles - usually, in no small part, due to your ability to charm people into letting you get away with anything.
I noticed these signs quickly. Previously, I worked in Special Education and Behavior Therapy before becoming a full-time coach. I have ADHD. And I am drawn to working with neurodivergence. Also, in the past few months my business has shifted to where most of my clients are business owners who have ADHD. This is far more common than you might think. According to Forbes magazine, people with ADHD are three times more likely to own their own business.
Why would a neurodevelopmental disorder make you a better entrepreneur? People with ADHD are chronically under-stimulated. They are constantly looking for novelty and excitement. Where a neurotypical brain is content working in a cubicle, an ADHD brain is searching for something more, and rapidly generates ideas and innovations. Though they sometimes struggle with busywork, they easily provide a dozen suggestions for how a business might improve. For someone with ADHD, following a passion, no matter how large the task, is less daunting than completing a simple task they are uninterested in. David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue airlines, and owner of an ADHD brain said in an article, “I have an easier time planning a 20-aircraft fleet than I do paying the light bill.” So, it isn’t surprising, then, that instead of trudging through the morass of a 9-5 job, many people with ADHD opt for entrepreneurship instead.
Another fascinating trait of the ADHD brain is that we are the problem solvers. Neeleman also is quoted as saying, “My ADHD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things.” If you vent to us, we respond with a dozen ideas and then some for how to solve the problem at hand. Folks with ADHD spend our lives struggling with tasks that folks without ADHD find simple. Because of this, we are experts at finding workarounds. Often, it is genuinely easier for us to design a new - and frequently more efficient - way of getting a job done. For example, I know someone who found it so unbearable to “show his work” in math class that he instead programmed his TI-83 to do it for him. To the average person, this seems like more work, but to someone with ADHD, the excitement of finding a new solution is much more motivating than the monotony and repetitiveness of conventional methods. Someone with ADHD is likely to come up with new business ideas, as they try to solve the problems of the world around them. Which is precisely what Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad and Kinkos founder Paul Orfalea did, both of whom have ADHD.
Hyperfocus is another ADHD “superpower.” It is commonly seen and experienced by outsiders as “spacing out.” ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but in reality, folks with ADHD don’t have a deficit of attention, they just struggle to regulate it. Mostly diagnosed in children, there are currently 8 million adults in the U.S. living with ADHD. While someone with ADHD might find it impossible to focus on reading the details on a licensing agreement, when they find something that interests them, they can’t take their focus away from it. If you’ve ever tried to talk to someone with ADHD while they were in the middle of something, it’s like you don’t exist at that moment. They are not trying to ignore you, they are hyperfocusing, and their brains are so entirely occupied with the task at hand that all outside stimulus disappears. This allows people with ADHD to be experts on subjects that they are interested in very quickly. They spend hours reading or researching a topic, and want to know about it from every angle and perspective. This level of focus, high-energy and resilience is what allows an ADHD entrepreneur to rise to the top of their field and earn prestige.
Folks with ADHD don’t have a deficit of attention, they just struggle to regulate it.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that ADHD is a diagnosable disorder, which means that all of these strengths are also accompanied by significant impairments. (Like remembering to pay your light bill.)
Some of these impairments are more easily noticed in childhood, when we are forced to sit and listen to topics we don’t care about for 6 hours a day. Truthfully, this is not an optimal learning environment for anyone, but it’s especially ill-suited for someone with ADHD who needs to be interested and engaged, and who frequently benefits from a “learning by doing” approach.
People without ADHD can persevere with a task even when it bores them because they motivate themselves through thoughts of rewards or long-term benefits. But for people with ADHD, however, benefits that are not immediate are not enough to keep our brains engaged. This means that we struggle to complete assignments, stay organized, or even keep track of what page we are supposed to be on. Many of us had teachers who assumed we were misbehaving or being disruptive on purpose, and who berated us for our impulsivity and distractibility, or for “spacing out.” I commonly hear from my clients that they were “always in trouble but didn’t know why.” If you attended a school with poorly trained teachers or without funding for extracurriculars, you may have spent so much time focusing on your weaknesses that you were never able to cultivate your strengths. You may believe that no matter how hard you try, you will never be good enough.
As you get older, these struggles can manifest in different ways. Someone might struggle to keep their home clean and organized, or to handle the demands of bureaucracy in a timely manner. Your friends or romantic partners may feel that they are being ignored or disregarded. ADHD also often comes with an imposter syndrome - feeling undeserving of your successes because you are so well acquainted with your shortcomings. Not surprisingly, this can lead to anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide. I have clients who are very financially successful, but internally are in a constant battle with their minds. The first thing we address together is combating shame.
Business isn’t the only place you will find a high percentage of people with ADHD - 40% of long-term prison inmates have an ADHD diagnosis. The same impulsivity and penchant for risk-taking that can compel one person to start a business can cause others to get in trouble with the law. This is the result of a lack of understanding and support from early in life, and a lack of opportunity to see how their ADHD can be beneficial.
Many of us are lucky. We had support, resources, and we learned to utilize our gifts while finding ways around our weaknesses. We made deals or hired people so we could avoid mundane tasks, and we learned that when you have passion and ideas, people are happy to do the small things for you, just to feel like they are a part of something. Not all of my clients struggle deeply; some just need a little help with coping strategies or ways of understanding their brains better. They figured it out! They learned how to work the system to their benefit. I remember in High School figuring out that I could get out of class if I joined Mass Media. Instead of being in trouble for skipping class, I was praised for my creativity and growing my job skills. I never stopped finding those workarounds.
Success with ADHD or any neurodivergence relies on your ability to recognize and work within the parameters of your strengths and weaknesses, and finding the right environment for you to thrive. The more that we create spaces and support for those who think differently, the more successful innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs we will see, and the more that we as a society can enjoy the fruits of their labors.
If anything I have discussed here, you identify with or struggle with, please reach out to me at email@example.com. I would love to chat and see what we can do to help you overcome obstacles, move forward and be an even better you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sheila Henson is a therapeutic teacher and coach specializing in Family Business Coaching and ADHD Coaching. She helps others manage their relationships, emotions, and behavior patterns in a variety of settings and circumstances. In addition to working with individuals, Sheila works with businesses and organizations, providing mediation, conflict resolution, training, and coaching. You can find her at HensonCoaching.com.
Tom Bronson is the founder and President of Mastery Partners, a company that helps business owners maximize business value, design exit strategy, and transition their business on their terms. Mastery utilizes proven techniques and strategies that dramatically improve business value that was developed during Tom’s career 100 business transactions as either a business buyer or seller. As a business owner himself, he has been in your situation a hundred times, and he knows what it takes to craft the right strategy. Bronson is passionate about helping business owners and has the experience to do it. Want to chat more or think Tom can help you? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his book, Maximize Business Value, Begin with The Exit in Mind (2020).
Mastery Partners, where our mission is to equip business owners to Maximize Business Value so they can transition their business on their terms. Our mission was born from the lessons we’ve learned from over 100 business transactions, which fuels our desire to share our experiences and wisdom so you can succeed.