May 6, 2021

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, so I wanted to share a few reflections on what it’s like to be a founder with ADHD. There’s lots of articles out there about why people with ADHD make good entrepreneurs. We’re visionary! We can see the big picture! We have boundless energy! But I don’t think they tell the whole story.

While I appreciate the attempt to make neurodiversity seem positive, I think it’s important to not forget the challenges. What are the things that make it hard, and are there any ways to cope with those issues? Now I’m not a trained coach or mental health professional, but I do have some experience having ADHD and trying to start a business. It’s my hope that in writing this I can share what’s worked for me, but also, and perhaps most importantly, convince someone else out there that they’re doing just fine on their own journey.

Every time I visit LinkedIn I notice a bar on the right side of the page about popular online courses, and for the past several weeks the top one has been something called “The Six Morning Habits of High Performers.” The modern workplace is full of this idea, that professionals need to have the equivalent of an athlete’s regimen to be successful. Of course, as someone with ADHD those sorts of headlines are enough to make me break out in hives. Mornings? No thanks. Habits? Definitely not my strong suit. It can be infuriating to constantly feel pressure to match someone else’s ideal of a founder.

You know what else can be challenging for someone with ADHD? Rejection. Recently I became aware of a new concept in ADHD circles called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. I know what you’re thinking. “But Kathleen, no one likes rejection. You have to just get over it if you want to start a business.” RSD isn’t a normal fear of rejection, though. RSD is why I had to recently step away while giving a quiz to get some anti-anxiety medication because I had shared the wrong link to an answer form and in my head Anywhere League was completely doomed now and I should just give up hope. I spent the rest of the day on the couch. Frequently RSD is misdiagnosed as a mood disorder because of how a person can go from normal to completely unable to function in such a short period of time.

People also assume ADHD means you spend your day bouncing around from one thing to another without so much as a passing thought to what’s actually on your to-do list. Most of the time, however, the opposite is true. If something is particularly interesting to me, I’ll happily spend an entire day scrutinizing every detail. We call that hyperfocus, and it’s a blessing and a curse, especially when you’re a solo entrepreneur who’s putting off other things you should be doing but you’re obsessing over the design of your latest instagram post.

How do I cope with all of these things? Well, one small bright spot in this insane pandemic year is that I’ve somehow managed to start accepting myself more. Instead of focusing on all the ways I feel I’m failing, I’m doing a better job of giving myself credit for what I do accomplish and setting realistic goals. It’s an extremely personal lesson to learn so I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but for me it’s been important to constantly remind myself that I’m playing a completely different game. One thing that definitely helps is therapy and having someone remind me on a bi-weekly basis that the world is designed for neurotypical people so of course I’ll be frustrated sometimes. 

I’ve also learned to adapt the lean approach to my own life. I can try something, and if it’s not working for me, I can move on to something else without feeling bad about it. This works for all kinds of things — productivity methods, organization, even business tasks like sales. If something’s not working, just move on. I find occasional journaling helps me monitor things and provides clues to when I need to shake things up a bit.

This is all my way of saying that whatever you’re doing, whatever stage you’re in, give yourself credit for doing OK. Remember that the advice out there isn’t going to work for you. Seek out supportive spaces. Splurge to pay someone else to do the tasks that you just can’t. Most importantly: talk about the challenges. It’s hard, but if we lift each other up we’ll all have better results.

Starting a business is never easy, and ADHD only complicates things more. But I don’t know how to do it any other way and I consider myself lucky to be able to do what I do. And you’re probably starting to notice that I’m rambling a bit. In the spirit of acknowledging my own weaknesses, one of which is definitely a tendency to keep talking long after I’ve made my point, let me just remind you that whatever challenges you’re up against, you’re doing just fine. Keep building, keep experimenting and find ways to manage the challenges so you can let your strengths shine. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of articles to tell you what those are.