Creative Mayhem: Life as a founder with ADHD
This article took me four weeks to finish. During this time, I’ve had ideas for more than ten articles, started writing them in parallel, delaying this one so much that I almost gave up ever publishing it… It wasn’t until I read Driven To Distraction that I stumbled upon an explanation for why I was struggling to finish. Through this book and my doctor, I’ve discovered that I have a condition called Adult ADHD.
While the adult variant of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has recently started to become a serious subject of research, it’s difficult to find testimonies about it related to work, in particular entrepreneurship. Early results show that there’s a positive correlation between ADHD and the desire and act to start a company. I’ll share how adult ADHD can affect a founder’s experience and how it played a role in the successes and stumbles of my life as the cofounder and CTO of Truework.
Backstory and the entrepreneurship drive
From an early age, I had trouble remembering important things like my birthday (learned around age 7), how to tie shoes (learned age 12), or even why I entered a room in the first place (to this day, this keeps happening). All the way to the end of high school, getting good grades was easy. However, early signs of difficulty focusing popped up here and there: even when required to, I wasn’t able to sit down and learn. For example, in France, students must memorize entire poems, then are expected to recite it back the next day. As hard as I tried, when I stepped in front of the class my mind remained blank, unable to recall the words I had tried to learn the day before. The teacher, exasperated by my silence, called me “lazy” and “rebellious.”
After high school, I was accepted into the best schools in France. Difficulties focusing on homework became more problematic as advanced maths, physics, and chemistry required deeper focus and concentration to understand complex topics. My grades were now in the middle of the class instead of being at the top. For the first time, I started to feel the deep frustration of not being able to focus when I needed it.
As I started my professional life, things became more interesting. I was hired as a Software Engineer at LinkedIn and finally, it was an environment where my creativity could be unleashed. I suffered from “too-many-project-itis”, a made-up condition for engineers who start too many projects and finish too few. I learned to let go of most of them while focusing on the ones that would yield tangible results. Eventually, one of these ideas, a place to get verified information about people, motivated me enough to want to stop working at a big company and create a company that became a real startup: Truework.
The pressure of long hours and stress to find product-market fit during early startup days pushed my mind to new highs and lows. What I thought were quirks of my personality quickly became signs that something in my brain was different than my peers. These inherent differences, while frustrating at times, also led to surprising successes for our business. Adult ADHD symptoms fall into three categories as they relate to an entrepreneur’s experiences: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Just like in the famous scene they will, throughout your life, face each other or even duel at times: it’s your responsibility to have the “Good” win.
“The bad” are the parts of ADHD that are not pleasant to deal with, for you or others. These behaviors, if not dealt with, will be a challenge to your success as an entrepreneur.
- Anxiety. Research shows that close to one in two people with ADHD suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. As with most ADHD symptoms, it’s hard to predict how anxiety will show up in your life. For me, it’s heightened stress during unexpected events, like the departure of a key employee or a serious bug in the code. In these moments, I need to remind myself that it’s OK and surround myself with people who can keep their heads on their shoulders. In fact, to cope with anxiety, I’ve built a comprehensive incident management system that we use daily at Truework. Research has a name for it: productive paranoia, an attribute that distinguishes companies that thrive in chaos instead of suffering from it. Anxiety is rarely talked about in entrepreneurship stories, but in my experience is very common. If channeled constructively, it’ll help build defense mechanisms for when bad news strikes. Remember, the journey to build a business is a rocky one and it’ll certainly trigger intense moments of anxiety and doubts.
- Lack of filter. “insensitive”, “harsh”, “direct”: if you have ADHD, you’ve probably heard these comments about your behavior. For founders, the difference between a successful outcome and a disastrous one often lies in how carefully you choose your words. Over time I’ve trained myself to consciously think before speaking: no more “thinking out loud” in front of my reports. You may need to reach into the depths of your willpower to stop yourself from blurting words that may get you in trouble, but trust me, it’s worth it.
“The ugly” parts are the frustrations of daily life. They’ll make you feel a bit “different” from others or “off”. I’ve found they have little impact on my journey as a founder but instead can bring your enthusiasm and confidence down. Keeping them under control will improve your overall well being as a person which is very important for founders.
- Problem of focus. This is the first thing people think about when they think ADHD, and with good reason. It’s difficult to describe to a non-ADHD person how quickly the ADHD brain gets distracted. For me, any notification will stop me from writing an important article or work on an important task. For founders, tasks calling for your attention and interruptions will grow exponentially with the size of the company. While disturbing to most people, it can be absolutely overwhelming for people with adult ADHD. Keep it simple: turn off all notifications or go back to pen and paper when deep focus is needed.
- Time management. Being at a meeting on time, being ready for the meeting, planning in advance. These tasks are not easy for a person with ADHD. Before most deadlines, I seem to remember to do everything but the task I’m supposed to do. Time management is a crucial skill for founders and soon after you start your company your calendar will fill with dozens of meetings and other obligations per week. I’ve found it’s best to hire and rely early on somebody that can help you with organization. Alternatively, reminders, TODO lists, and other software can help you stay on top of tasks and meetings
Finally with the “the good” parts. Let me preface this part by saying that the qualities listed below are not superpowers. But they may give you an edge in specific situations.
- Deep Focus. It appears to contradict the part above about the lack of focus, but people with ADHD report having an ability to deeply focus on topics they are passionate about. Currently, I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about the topic of documentation, in particular knowledge organization. I often lose track of time after sitting down with a compelling article and forget to eat a meal As founders start their journeys, they face incredible challenges: only the passion for their work will allow them to continue and overcome obstacles. Founders who are able to channel that “hyperfocus” towards the company’s future will leapfrog their competitors and be the engine that drives their company’s vision forward.
- Creativity. Research points out that adults with ADHD show a higher level of creativity compared to other people. It’s been my observation that it has been easier for me to think “outside the box” when faced with a difficult problem than a lot of my peers. For founders, this is an advantage that they need to nurture in themselves, as success for a startup lies in doing things in a way that wasn’t thought possible before.
- Impulsivity/Gut Feeling. The lack of filter which sometimes negatively impacts personal and professional relationships has a positive aspect as well. The life of a founder is punctuated by moments when it’s necessary to make an important decision with only partial information. It’s crucial to get over “analysis paralysis” and trust your instinct. When hiring the first few people who will come to define your company, you’ll need to make a decision of who to bring on board. Trust your gut and go with the people that you think will make you successful.
- Appetite for risk. Last but not least a rarely discussed aspect of adult ADHD is an above-average appetite for risk. This characteristic is of course essential to even start a business as a founder where nothing is for certain. As you grow, that “risk mindset” will be crucial to keep the company from playing it too safe after finding some initial success. For founders, pushing the boundaries is a requirement to survive as you grow.
ADHD traits, described by the media, seem largely dysfunctional. While there’s some truth to it, they affect a founder’s life in contradictory ways: one day you’ll be extremely anxious and wondering why you took the leap in the first place, and the next you’ll be riding high, loving the risk of being an entrepreneur.
It’s too easy to let yourself be defined by the conditions you are born with and see them as roadblocks to your success. With most things in life you don’t get to choose what you’re born with, only what actions you take: if you want to become a founder, ADHD is just one of the problems you’ll need to solve along the way.
For any questions or experiences to share, feel free to reach out to me directly.