Those With ADHD Might Make Better Entrepreneurs. Here's Why.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is defined by three primary symptoms: Hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsivity. These conditions don’t always correlate with success in institutional settings such as schools and corporate environments, but an ADHD diagnosis didn’t limit JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman or Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
When Dr. Johan Wiklund was diagnosed with ADHD in 2012, the professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management formed a hypothesis: People who have ADHD might gravitate toward entrepreneurship and the flexibility it offers. Further, they might be successful as entrepreneurs not in spite of their ADHD, but because of it. He’s now in the midst of a series of systematic studies that seek to explore how ADHD may suit and benefit entrepreneurs.
ADHD traits might lead entrepreneurs to focus intently on tasks they’re passionate about, such as building their dream company. Entrepreneurs and people with ADHD are both commonly risk-takers who seize opportunities. Entrepreneur spoke with Wiklund about how individuals with ADHD can harness their symptoms to their entrepreneurial advantage -- and the implications that shining a positive light on ADHD might have for individuals with the disorder.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Explain your research. Why did you decide to explore the influence of ADHD on entrepreneurship and success?
Four years ago I got diagnosed myself, and then of course, as an academic, I started reading about it. When you talk about the characteristics of people with ADHD, I could see how that seemed to lend itself to entrepreneurship. So I spoke to a medical doctor and a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD.
Then I interviewed people with ADHD, all who were operating their own businesses. It was very, very fascinating, because everybody said, “I would rather be the way I am and have the diagnosis than not have the diagnosis.” And everybody also said, “Running my own business is the best thing for me. I could not imagine working for somebody else.” I asked them a lot of questions and I was able to develop a model for how ADHD was manifested in their businesses.
Why are these findings important?
Those who have ADHD symptoms have higher entrepreneurial intention. So that means that they kind of intuitively feel attracted to this more than other people.
The reason this is important is because a lot of people with ADHD, they suffer. That’s actually part of the diagnosis, is that it creates distress. So I think that this could be a viable career option for at least some of them, and a way to flourish and contribute to society in a way that might be difficult in other walks of life.
What’s surprising about the findings?
It almost blew my mind, to be honest. I took a sample of highly successful entrepreneurs, and then I used a standardized measure with 18 questions that doctors use as a part of a ADHD diagnosis. I just split the ones who had the symptoms from those who didn’t, and then I saw that those who had the symptoms actually performed better than those who didn’t. I’m very happy about those results, but it was very surprising.
How can entrepreneurs with ADHD make the most of traits such as hyperfocus and impulsivity?
It seems that there are essentially three traits of ADHD, which would be hyperactivity, attention deficit and impulsivity. And it seems that the attention deficit is not positive. It’s the hyperactivity and the impulsivity that are actually helpful.
The advantage of hyperactivity is essentially work capacity. So how do you actually harness this? Well, I think it gives this innate advantage of being able to focus and work day and night. If they’re interested in something, they have this hyperfocus and can focus and forget. I mean, I even met people who had to set an alarm for when they needed to eat, because they would get so carried away by their businesses.
Impulsivity is not just one thing -- it’s many things. One dimension is called sensation seeking. These people with ADHD typically don’t get as scared as you might be of a situation that is high risk. I interviewed this guy by phone. As an Initial question, I asked him, “How many businesses do you operate?” And he said, “Two...oh no, no! Three! … I bought a business this past Monday. I forgot … I went to lunch with a friend who is also an entrepreneur, and he said that he was getting close to retirement … Within 10 minutes, we decided that I was going to buy it and we agreed on a price and shook hands.”
The other element of this is lack of premeditation. It means that you act first, and you think afterwards. You would say, “How can that be an advantage?” Many people tend to do things based on gut feeling -- in the moment. And that, of course, can be highly, highly dysfunctional. But in entrepreneurship, you have to act. You don’t know what’s going to happen. These people have an action-orientation. They’re poor at planning, but they’re very good at acting. They kind of live in the present. And through their experiences in life, they have learned that they do what feels like the right thing to do without necessarily rationalizing a lot. A rational person would kind of sit down, analyze and then quite often realize, “Ooh. I don’t know enough. I have to wait and collect more information.” And thus, they never act.
When can an entrepreneur tell when they’ve taken one of these traits too far?
Generally speaking, people with ADHD have bigger problems with self-reflection than the average guy. So it is more challenging to know, “When am I doing what I’m supposed to, and when am I kind of going overboard?”
One way is to seek professional help from the health-care system. It’s also understanding that bookkeeping is probably something that you should not even attempt. Nobody I’ve met is able to do their own bookkeeping. They hate it. It creates all sorts of anxiety. I’ve interviewed several people who, every freaking quarter, they are delayed filing their taxes. They have to pay extra fees. Typically, they need people to help them.
A lot of the males actually rely on their wives to help them out in their businesses. They are the ones to keep them in check, to keep them on track so they don’t go overboard or don’t run off and do these completely crazy things they will regret the next day.
A lot of the people I have spoken to take ADHD medication. For example, I’ve met several people who have said that, “If I’m going to go do tedious work or boring work, I take my medication. But if I’m going to be brainstorming, I don’t take my medication.” They feel they’re more creative and more inhibited if they don’t take their medication, but they’re more structured and have more self-control if they take the medication.
How might working in teams help mitigate “acting without thinking?”
To date, I’ve only looked at individuals. I have not looked at, “How does one of those guys or gals with ADHD work together with others?” But based on my observations and interviews, the problem is they can wear people out. These people are quite intense. So although they greatly benefit from working in an entrepreneurial team, it might be hard for them to find people who are willing to work with them.
Entrepreneurs are really seen now as modern-day pioneers and leaders. Could this study help change people’s perceptions of those with ADHD?
You’re giving me goosebumps.
When I got my diagnosis, I knew absolutely nothing about mental health at all. The great thing about being a scholar is that I have access to all of these resources. I was actually baffled -- baffled by the fact that there were 10,000 papers, at least, written about how bad it is to have ADHD, and I couldn’t even find a handful [that were positive]. If we could change the conversation, it would be phenomenal, because it’s so stigmatized, it’s so negative.
At the same time, I don’t want to pretend, “Oh, ADHD, that’s just something you get on a paper from a doctor. It doesn’t create any problems.” That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t think that everybody who has ADHD is suited to be an entrepreneur. I haven’t really been able to dig down as deep as I want there. It is my intention to look at these things in even more detail.
What other implications does this research have for entrepreneurs? How can people use this information and your findings to their advantage?
My first and most important insight when I started this research was the very simple idea that, I’m a very tall person. I’m six-foot-seven. And if you’re very tall, you can ask, “Is that a good or a bad thing?” And I would say, it depends. It’s really bad if I’m flying across the Atlantic. But it’s pretty darn good if I’m in a big crowd.
It’s the same thing with ADHD traits. They are largely dysfunctional. There are 10,000 papers saying that it can lead to a lot of problems. So very often, they are like tall people on board an airplane. But the good thing about running your own business is that you can adapt it to your own personal needs.
This leads to the following conclusion: Even if I, as a person with ADHD, may not perform better than someone without ADHD, at least I will perform better as an entrepreneur than as a non-entrepreneur. It might be very hard for me to find a regular job that fits my needs.
So what I would suggest is that we don’t compare entrepreneurs who have ADHD with entrepreneurs who don’t have ADHD. But maybe we compare entrepreneurs who have ADHD with people who have ADHD who are not entrepreneurs. That’s also why I was really surprised when I did compare entrepreneurs who have ADHD to those entrepreneurs without ADHD and still found that those people with ADHD perform better than the entrepreneurs without ADHD.
I hope to do two more studies within the next year or so. Then I will have five different studies looking at different aspects. Then I want to write more of a handbook. Essentially, “If I have an ADHD diagnosis or if I identify with ADHD symptoms, what do I need to think about: A, If I want to start a business, and B, If I’m already operating a business.”
I’m also interested in teaching people who have these symptoms about entrepreneurship. I’m in the process of developing a game to make that happen.
I think a lot of folks with these conditions will end up in entrepreneurship. Our research seems to suggest that, and they’ll be better off if they have some education and training before they do so.