Being tall is an obvious advantage when you’re at a concert, but it can be an ordeal when sitting in coach class on an intercontinental flight. The same is true for ADHD. It can be debilitating when sitting in a classroom learning a foreign language. You squirm and fidget in your seat, staring at the clock as the minutes tick away. But when you’re lost in a foreign country, you thrive on the sense of adventure, and suddenly the words come to you. In short – the pros and cons of sticking out depend upon context.
People with ADHD often struggle in contexts that require patience, analysis, attention to detail, following rules and repetition. It is useful to view ADHD as a condition of being easily bored. Contexts that can make anybody bored are likely to make ADHDers extremely bored, inattentive and even disruptive.
That is why entrepreneurship can be a particularly good fit for people with ADHD. There are some remarkable examples of extremely successful entrepreneurs diagnosed with ADHD, but the connection between ADHD and entrepreneurship runs much deeper. By definition, entrepreneurs choose a field they love, explore unchartered terrains, take risks, and venture into the unknown-- theperfect antidote for boring.
When you look at ADHD traits through the entrepreneurial lens, distractibility becomes an aptitude for multitasking, restlessness becomes a desire to explore uncharted terrain, and risk-taking can be redefined as “functional impulsivity.” In other words, when you look more closely at what qualities make a successful entrepreneur, the so-called “symptoms” of ADHD emerge as distinct advantages. Suddenly, risk taking no longer seems reckless. Instead, it is an ability to operate well under conditions of uncertainty – to pull the trigger without overanalyzing, before the opportunity is forever lost.
While there has long been plenty of anecdotal evidence of ADHD’s entrepreneurial superpowers, few researchers have put this phenomenon under rigorous academic study. Until now. Johan Wiklund,(the co-author of this article),,an entrepreneurship professor at Syracuse University recently examined how “disorders” such as ADHD influence the decision to engage in entrepreneurial action and the success of entrepreneurial action.
The research uses a grounded, multiple-case study of fourteen entrepreneurs previously diagnosed with ADHD, highlighting impulsivity and hyperfocus as a major driver of entrepreneurial action. Delving into the causal link between ADHD and entrepreneurship, the results strongly convey that the ADHD brain is better tuned for entrepreneurial action.
One of the most fascinating findings of the research is the role that impulsivity plays. Impulsivity increases the propensity for action under uncertainty. A key feature of this trait is that it involves little or no consideration of what will or might happen; it is driven by an internal sense of what is appropriate to do. For people with ADHD, what is appropriate is to act, not to think or wait.
By traditional metrics, we deplore impulsivity when making decisions because it does not seem ‘rational’. How can you act ‘rationally’ under uncertainty without analyzing the situation in depth?
Intuition is the answer. One entrepreneur cited in the study, George, believes this decision-making style boosts productivity in his fast-paced line of work. With more analysis going into decisions, he is afraid his productivity would deteriorate. Thus, whether rational or not, in the entrepreneurial context, acting without thinking is associated with greater intuitive decision making.
It’s a kind of inner logic among ADHDers that often leads to success despite the conventional wisdom of those who operate inside the “normal box”. There is no guarantee that entrepreneurial endeavors will succeed, so it’s virtually impossible to know the right course of action, or what the outcomes will be.
So, it is meaningless to spend time and energy making detailed plans because everything can change in an instant without warning. Planning is simply of limited value because there is so little useful information available for plans. Most people will be uncomfortable and anxious in such situations. They use the strategy of ready, aim, aim, aim but never firing because the target is not perfectly clear. It may take forever until more information becomes available and reduces the risk, but by then, the window of opportunity may have closed.
Not so people with ADHD. They become experts at improvising, making intuitive decisions and dealing with chaos because they are so used to it, having done it their entire life. Their strategy is ready, fire, aim. While this can certainly lead to mistakes and failure, the chance of succeeding is certainly much higher than for those who never act due to uncertainty.
Restlessness, or impatience, is another trait that lends itself to an entrepreneurial career. It keeps the ADHDerconstantly looking for new opportunities. As such, it reflects pro-activeness which is characterized by the experimentation with and development of new opportunities whenever possible
Another subject, Mary, mentioned that she had started her first business selling less than ten different products. A few years later, she sold 250 products, and employed 20 workers. The introduction of new products was driven by her boredom with the status quo and the eagerness to engage in new activity. Thus, an implication of impatience is that activities tend to swell. Rather than waiting to engage in a new activity until previous ones are established and routinized, or extensively evaluated and potentially abandoned if unsuccessful, many sample entrepreneurs engaged in several novel activities simultaneously and constantly generated new ideas.
Finally, hyperfocus is among the greatest superpowers for the ADHD entrepreneur. Hyperfocus is the ability to focus intensely on a task at hand to the exclusion of all else -- sometimes including eating and sleeping. It is seen in The ADHDer when pursuing something they truly love. For example, David Neeleman told me how he was easily distracted and couldn’t pay attention in the classroom, yet was able to hyperfocus relentlessly on the problems within the airline industry, which led to the founding of JetBlue.
It’s all connected. In the entrepreneur, doing something you love is a given, since you picked the field of endeavor. Over time, your restless nature will generate and test a multitude of new ideas on which to hyperfocus. This leads to the development of expertise in the given field thus increasing the chance for success when an intuitive decision must be made.
This latest research confirms what I already knew based on my clinical practice and conversations with dozens of ADHD success stories. It explains the experiences of my interview subjects in “The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was A Diagnosis May be Your Greatest Strength”. It also opens the door for yet more formal academic and scientific study on positive ways to approach ADHD. It’s not always a diagnosis; it’s a difference, and one that can be the catalyst for mind-blowing success when it comes to starting and growing a business.
Sticking out has plenty of “pros.” Many of the ADHD entrepreneurs we’ve studied knew this instinctively. Now a greater awareness can help the next generation to hone their unique strengths and make the most of who they are.
This article was written in collaboration with Johan Wiklund, Professor Syracuse University, USA and Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden
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