How to be successful in spite of your ADHD / learning disability
Despite having ADHD, a learning disability, and a sleep disorder, I’ve maintained a healthy 15-year-long career as a professional web developer. Knock on wood.
In fact, I didn’t even know that I had ADHD or the learning disability until the age of 30. I sensed that something was different about me, and that I struggled in a way people didn’t. And I developed a lot of strategies for dealing with my differences – long before I knew what they were.
So I want to share just a few of these that were among the most powerful. I could talk for hours in detail about this, but i’m going to touch on some of the major points for the sake of brevity.
Embrace Being Different
If you’ve got ADHD or any kind of LD, you’re different from people without them. The longer you deny that, the longer you’ll be wasting time trying to be like everyone else. If you want to excel with the brain you’ve got, you have to accept that what works for other people won’t always work for you. You learn differently, think differently, and get things done differently. And you can achieve a lot by doing things YOUR way.
One of the most inspiring, powerful moments of my life was when I got diagnosed with ADHD. Why? For one, I spent a chunk of my life thinking I was stupid. For some reason, many simple things seemed way harder (or much slower) than they did for other people. When I said things that were out of the ordinary, people gave me strange looks. I sometimes acted impulsively or in ways that were socially awkward.
Once I got my first diagnosis (and the later ones as well), a weight was lifted from my chest. “There’s a reason I’m like this,” I thought. And I realized I wasn’t lazy, stupid or crazy like I had once thought. I was atypical, in ways I was only beginning to understand. And those ways in which I’m atypical gradually turned from hindrances into great assets.
Know Thy Brain
So in order to learn the best way to “do things your way,” you’ve got to learn what the hell “your way is.” It’s a constant learning process, but you can learn a ton with a few big steps.
Learning about your brain as much as possible – constantly – is a huge asset. After my ADHD diagnosis I did several full intelligence tests, various online assessments, and read a bunch of books and articles on ADHD and LD. I learned that my brain is weak in terms of speed and rote memorization, but strong in verbal ability. I also learned that I was very easily distracted by sounds. Armed with this information, I could start to build a working life that was more suited to my strengths and weaknesses.
Accept & Circumvent Weaknesses; Build Around Strengths
As I learned more about my brain’s “differences,” I gradually accepted them as something that I couldn’t change (at least, not easily). So I started to find ways to compensate for my weaknesses.
- Since sounds distracted me, I got noise canceling headphones. I tried to work in quieter areas.
- Since movement distracted me visually, I sat in my office in areas that had less movement. I kept my workspace very minimalist, which is helpful for focus.
- Since I was bad at memorizing & remembering, I made good use of Evernote to remember anything. I took notes at meetings. I kept a todo list in Evernote. When people wanted me to do something, I requested they send me an email as a reminder. Any appointment or meeting I had went into Google Calendar, and I got 2 reminders for each, so I didn’t forget.
I also did a StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment and found out other things I was good at, and started to focus on them more and more. For example, the assessment said some of my strengths are:
- Ideation – fascinated with ideas and concepts, and figuring out the patterns that connect them.
- Input – inquisitive and addicted to collecting bits of interesting information, for possible use later.
- Futuristic – forward-thinking, and energized about visions of what could be.
So I’m great at (1) collecting things, (2) concepts, ideas and analysis (3) thinking about what’s cutting edge, and what’s to come.
So how did I apply this as a web developer? For one, I already collected lists of new pieces of technology that were interesting and potentially useful for me. I did this in Evernote, and later on in a Google spreadsheet. Since I’m bad at remembering, anytime I run into a situation where I need some code that does XYZ, I look it up in my spreadsheet. Now anytime a client says “hey, is it possible to do X?” I can peek into my spreadsheet and see if I have tools for it in my toolbox. Boom.
The futuristic thinking is something that is always beneficial; businesses of all sorts are always interested in what’s new and hot, and are trying to constantly plan for the future. So I apply this by paying attention to the latest technology trends, and being ready to suggest ways to implement ideas related to them.
That least us to my last tip for today, which is most important:
Make up for the things you’re bad at by being exceptional at the things you’re good at.
That is the money statement right there. Memorize it and make it your mantra.
In my case I picked a few aspects of my job (i.e., a few marketable programming technologies) and learned them VERY well, rather than chasing every new thing that comes out. By being really specialized, I have a deeper understanding of those technologies than the average developer. This is really important, and what I believe many successful ADHD people do. In fact, I think a lot of successful people in general do this.
I will write more on this topic. The truth is there is a LOT you can do with an “atypical” brain to excel and achieve farther than where you are. The sooner you start embracing the way your brain is the sooner you’ll start reaping the benefits.
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- Vipassana Meditation and ADHD (or, How I Felt After 10 Days of Silence)
- Impulse Spending
- Mind Over Matter: How I Overcame My Learning Disability to Build a Successful Tech Career
- My “Brain Hacks and Upgrades” Presentation
- Evernote for ADHD People
- What ADHD Feels Like
- Thoughts on Being an ADHD Computer Programmer
- The Alexander Technique, Back Pain and ADHD
- It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work – Book Review for ADHD Programmers
- You’re Not Lazy.