Written by Mark Suster, Entrepreneur
This weekend I was reading the NY Times online and I came across this excellent piece about ADHD written by Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry. In the article the author talks about the condition of the brain – which affects up to 11% of American children in which people with ADHD (or ADD, which doesn’t have hyperactivity) – in which people with ADD have a low tolerance for routine tasks and thus they seek out “novelty”.
“are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world.”
The author talks about one of his patients who was bored and unsatisfied in his job and found his tasks too routine.
“he quit his job and threw himself into a start-up company, which has him on the road in constantly changing environments. He is much happier and — little surprise — has lost his symptoms of A.D.H.D.”
This sentiment is probably familiar to many entrepreneurs and it must certainly resonates with anybody who suspects he or she has ADD. Many of us jokingly talk about ADD because we recognize the tell-tale signs like inability to focus on one task at a time, inability to finish projects (or articles or books) that don’t hold our interests intensely.
The funny thing about ADD is that many of us were told that people with ADD didn’t do well in school, had learning difficulties and perhaps struggled in life. It turns out the opposite can be true, but who knew? If you have ADD or think you might have it you may enjoy hearing about my story.
I never knew I had ADD until I was 40 (I’m now 46). I had already begun working at Upfront Ventures and my assistant at the time, Laura, told me I had ADD. I had never been told this by anybody, had all of the stereotypes of ADD built in my head and laughed it off. Then she bought me a book that changed my life. It was called “Delivered from Distraction” and it outlines many successful executives with ADD and in particular some famous entrepreneurs.
In the book there was a long quiz about traits of ADD and as you can guess I was a “yes” for like 90% of them:
- Inability to focus on routine tasks
- Often doing many things at once
- Often finish 80% of tasks but too bored to finish the final 20%
- Inability to sit through boring meetings
- Late for meetings
- Drive fast
- Overly salt or sugar foods
- Inability to sit still – as in at movies, theater or in classrooms
- Reading 5 or 6 books at once but never completely finishing any
And on and on. It was a playbook for my brain. My wife read the list and couldn’t believe it. She felt like she finally understood a deeper me. She now knew why I couldn’t relax until I got “the right” table at a restaurant or why I turned into Larry David if I didn’t get the bill delivered when I was ready to leave (impatience, stuck in my seat, when my brain wants to be elsewhere). She knew why I fidgeted at movies if I wasn’t totally enraptured. Or why I was so crap at paying my monthly bills even though I had plenty of money.
I had secretly built coping mechanisms for my behavior over the years and hadn’t even realized it. My whole life I have surrounded myself with what I call “completer-finishers” because I know my weakness for giving up when the task is at 80% and I know the importance of 100%. But until reading this book I had always felt bad about my behavior as though my actions were some sort of failure versus how my brain is wired.
I also knew I had a gift. I couldn’t describe it other than to say I would have extreme moments of creative breakthroughs when I worked on projects with extreme time pressure. I even wrote about this phenomenon called “The Urgency Addiction” which if you have it you may enjoy reading. With enough time pressure I could accomplish anything I wanted or needed.
The book profiles the founder of JetBlue who is apparently classic ADD. It talks about his early days at SouthWest Airlines and why he ultimately was asked to leave. He would sit at meetings where they were talking about meaningless drivel and he would burst out verbally that they were wasting time or he would throw out big ideas and try to push for change.
This hit me over the head. I’ve always struggled at meetings. I often felt like it was a sort of Meeting Tourette’s Syndrome problem I had but when people present and move very slowly covering obvious ground and making no point the pressure in my builds and builds until I almost accidentally blurt out uncontrollably. I wish I didn’t. In fact, I’ve learned to control this through coping mechanisms but I notice many of my peer VCs do this at meetings and I often think to myself knowingly, “Aha, that dude has ADD baaad.”
So as I realized that ADD is a trait found in many successful CEO and entrepreneurs and that it has this creative benefit I started to feel better and look at how to improve my life. Just knowing that there was nothing “wrong” with me was a 40-year weight off my shoulder and I’ve started to make sure that parents I know whose kids have the same problems I had in school are aware of the symptoms and coping mechanisms. I was the one done with my math very quickly and then couldn’t sit still in my chair to wait for others so inevitably I would rip the eraser off my pencil and throw it at somebody. A’s in grades but in behavior – not so much.
Anybody who knows me well knows I enjoy the odd debate … ok, argument. I always just figured this was part of my Jewish culture since all Jews seem to love to argue. But I realized that all of my behavior was biological and in many ways evolutionary. I realized that when I read “Healing ADD” by Daniel Amen. In layman terms (if you’re a doctor feel free to correct anything in the comments) I would say that ADD is caused by a slow functioning frontal cortex and that anything that helps stimulate the frontal cortex (being late, being under pressure, arguing, caffeine) helps to get proper brain function going. So at least I had answers.
I case you’re wondering I actually went last year to a clinic and had radioactive isotopes put in my blood to do a brain scan so they actually physiologically confirmed my ADD while also pointing out that I had other regions of my brain wired for confidence, risk-taking and creativity so I felt balanced and whole.
By the way, people with ADD CAN concentrate but only when something holds their interest. Thus I can go deep for hours on stuff I love but totally tune out to anything I find boring.
As for coping mechanisms:
- In meetings I often bring a pad of paper. If I’m not stimulated rather than rush the presenters or ask 10 questions I often start taking notes. These notes are often about whatever else I have to do next. I know how this sounds. But the truth is that people with ADD often think about when else they need to do when they are supposed to be in the present. I’m often planning meetings or actions while watching movies, for example. So if there’s a choice between arguing or interrupting a presenters or calmly taking notes to clear my brain I’ll choose the later.
- Just knowing that I’m pre-wired to argue has helped me at times to recognize the need NOT to speak up in certain circumstances. This is a help in itself.
- When I’m responsible for completion of tasks I had process management off to others and I own work completion of tasks. So I might have to write a document, complete a spreadsheet, handle a negotiation or plan an event but somebody else is telling me when each task is due and we both hold me accountable for my work outputs.
Note also that food & sleep play HUGE roles. Food in particular. If I have sugar I’m fucked. You only learn this when you have kids and see how they act after sugar then you know the impact. But I started to track how my brian felt after sugar and the truth is that little ping-pong balls bounce around in my head after sugar. And until recently I didn’t quite equate carbohydrates as sugar but since they often convert quickly into sugar they have the same effect. I only realized this after reading the Amen book and visiting his clinic.
Through trial-and-error I learned that carbs in the morning make me sluggish (bagels, cereal, oatmeal … you name it). Like anybody I just though “oh, I don’t feel great on carbs” but then I realized that MY BRAIN didn’t feel good on carbs. Once I started eating mostly protein in the morning my concentration went up x10.
If I don’t sleep enough I feel my brain wandering more but at least if I have an important meeting and I’m sleep deprived I can orient my thoughts to avoid drifting.
One thing you should also know if you have ADD is that it apparently has a hereditary component. So I monitored my boys closely who ended up getting more of my wife’s calm disposition. Both are teacher pleasers which as you can guess I was not. And know that if you are a woman with ADD (lower percentage by the numbers) apparently the hereditary component is stronger from mom to daughter than any other combination. I’m not a doctor but I read this in a book so thought I’d pass it along.
I can’t profess that my ADD and my brainwaves are the same as anybody else who has this wonderful condition. But I can encourage you to read about it, feel better about yourself since it’s not a “disease” or a failure. Seek treatments. For me this is 99.9% natural remedies of less sugar & carbs, more coping mechanisms and trying to get enough sleep. I did try Adderall and it wasn’t for me. I didn’t really feel a strong benefit and/or maybe my condition isn’t severe enough to warrant it. On the other hand I’ve seen a few documentaries where people had magical effects on the drug. So basically go so a doctor and get recommendations from him or her.’
Good luck. Enjoy your brain if you’re wired like me. Take all the benefits and compensate with wonderful people wired differently to help you accomplish your life’s goals. And don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be successful if you have ADD. We’re more common than you think.
p.s. if you really have ADD you probably didn’t finish the article or at least you skimmed a bit. Go on – admit it
p.p.s. if you ever wondered why I hate proof reading now you know. With ADD I figured if I made my point that’s good enough. Re-reading and editing is for completer finishers. And why don’t I send it to somebody to review before I publish? Because I don’t have “impulse control.” I write. I need to hit send. Come what may.
p.p.p.s Disclosure: This beautiful photo comes from Sketching Souls Photography in India. I like to embed photos from 500px. I used to buy the digital rights but they’ve changed their structure making it much harder to do this but they promote the embed feature for free. Rather than use the embed function I copied the image and linked back to 500px. I did this because I want to size the photo in the way I want to size it and with the link should provide them the same functionality as their free embed. I hope this ok with all involved.