My Story and What it Means for Diversity, Inclusion, Innovation and the Future of Work
As many of you know, I’ve been working on — and struggling — to write a book for a while. Part of the challenge has been a full to bursting workload and part of the challenge has been refining the unique insight I have to share. It would be relatively easy to write a how-to book about effective community cultivation but there are many excellent books by Peter Block, Nancy White, Etienne Wenger, Jono Bacon, Richard Millington, and many others. I also want to reach an audience beyond those who already believe in the idea of communities — because structuring them effectively is actually the easy(ish) part. Shifting the mindset to understand their power and value and connect it to business models is where I can add the most value — but it’s a harder case to communicate.
I am nearly the end of a three-month sabbatical that I took to reflect and write, in large part because I was struggling and burnt out. What I’ve discovered is that the biggest challenge in writing a book is my own mind.
It’s taken me a long time to realize my mind doesn’t work like other people’s — or at least not like the minds of most of the people I’ve known and worked with over the years. My mind is both what allows me to be insightful — sifting through so many layers of mental flotsam and jetsam and identifying the salient underlying assumptions and issues — and it is what holds me back. I am an intellectual omnivore — vacuuming up information from a huge range of sources and topics. My superpower is cross-disciplinary synthesis and prescience. My intuition is finely tuned. My ability to process, organize, and communicate all of that information, however, is…. spotty.
Over the years, I have honed my ability to communicate short bursts of information; I have done so many one-hour presentations that I no longer need a timer because I intuitively self-regulate. Blog posts come fairly easily. But organizing and wrapping up everything in my head into a neat package has been an enormous struggle. The fact that I am struggling so much doesn’t even really make sense to me — and it’s very frustrating.
While I’ve been working on the book I have also been working with my daughter to identify some of the things she struggles with. That process has prompted a lot of self-reflection on my part as well and, in turn, helped me see my challenges more clearly.
It will likely come as no surprise to those that work with me closely, that this reflection led to the discovery that I have ADHD. It never even occurred to me that might be my issue because I am not physically hyperactive — if anything, I am the opposite. Only when I realized that it often presents, especially in girls and women, as inattentive ADHD — a hyperactive mind instead of a hyperactive body — did it make sense. And oh yes… that definitely makes sense. My mind never shuts off… ask a few people who interact with me daily and I bet you will get an earful. It makes my life very noisy even when there is no external stimulation.
So what does this mean? ADHD is essentially an attention management issue that makes it quite hard to filter, adjust, and prioritize attention — everything is interesting! You might imagine how, in the digital age, this might go bad in a hurry, especially since I work in technology. ADHD also makes sustained effort and attention difficult because there is not enough dopamine (stimulus) in the brain to sustain the motivation/reward cycle. I struggle to self-motivate and it is hard to feel joy (yes, that part sucks).
What happens for most of us with ADHD is we learn to accommodate or self-medicate in some way. Me? I self-medicated through stressful and high-intensity jobs. Stress floods the brain with cortisol and adrenaline creating enough stimulation for me to focus and get work done. I am relatively lucky — many people self-medicate through alcohol and drugs, becoming self-destructive in the process. But stress also has its issues — you can only be stressed for so long before it causes burnout. I have essentially learned to live with constant mental fatigue and exhaustion, never really recovering.
One of the other things that comes with ADHD is constant emotional stress related to administrative and detailed tasks that come with life and the busier I get, the more of those details there are. I’ve always had a continuous relationship with my email inbox, I’ve found partners to be responsible for finances (that is a really good thing), and the day-to-day paperwork of life makes me shut down — even fairly innocuous things like opening the mail. I stopped sending out birthday cards a long time ago (sorry!). Interestingly, I can handle emotionally charged discussions and relationships because the intensity of emotion also acts like a stimulant, which helps me focus (that has led to some less than helpful relationships over the years as you might imagine).
The avalanche of details has pushed me over the edge in recent years. As a busy executive, you live and die by your calendar and email inbox — things that make me feel boxed in, tense, and irritable. Add to that a busy family life and the daily tasks of life became a crushing emotional burden. I was beating myself up — I had done everything in my power to create a life that I could tolerate. I started a company, hired cleaners, engaged people to off-load scheduling and logistics, and kept my work hours reasonable and flexible. And yet I couldn’t understand why I was still shutting down so often and constantly overwhelmed. It made no sense to me until I started to understand the attention issues.
Looking back, for most of my life I thought I was stupid. I did OK in school until it was time to prove it and I almost always disappointed — I could rarely get the A. I call myself an 80percenter — I can get almost to the finish line but I often choke. Without any other good explanation, I was left to assume I was dumb. The impact of that on self-confidence is significant — when I was younger I often accepted poor situations because I didn’t believe I deserved more.
As we’ve been helping my daughter with her challenges, we’ve discovered she has a pretty high IQ. This puts her in a category of children called ‘Twice Exceptional’ for their immense abilities paired with significant challenges. Depending on the balance, either the ability or disability can dominate and mask the other. For my daughter, her intelligence dominates and the challenge is helping her and her teachers understand she also has legitimate weaknesses and that when she can’t do something, it is not because she is lazy.
This all sounded sort of familiar. It’s hard to go back and revisit history (particularly because my memory is hazy, also a symptom of ADHD) and I have never had my IQ tested, although I did get a 780 on my LSATs long ago, without studying (also because… ADHD). I suspect my disability — my ADHD — masked my ability. I was a late reader. I have always been a poor speller. I was sloppy at math. I am a horrible editor, particularly of my own work. What my ability did do was allow me to absorb the hit of ADHD without failing completely. So, I stumbled through, capping my academic career by writing a 30-page paper on the political history of Cambodia the night before my final day of college. No doubt the adrenaline got me through.
What my ability also has done, is make me a voracious learner. This has obvious benefits. The excitement of learning, like stress, can generate enough stimulation in my brain to plow through work. This is the situation in which I have done some of my best work. However, once I’ve figured out the giant hairball, I quickly lose interest — creating a situation where I am both bored and overwhelmed. The boredom doesn’t generate enough stimulation for me to focus on what is overwhelming me and I shut down — I just can’t focus.
Writing a book involves neither acute stress nor a high degree of learning. It does involve a lot of tedious organization of information. Combined, it has made me hit the wall of my ADHD head-on — and it is what ultimately prompted me to explore what was going on and seek a diagnosis.
That all may or may not be interesting to you — it’s my personal struggle. However, I’ve realized that it is also integral to the work I do. Because I struggle with work and relationships, I am sensitive to the way our organizations work and the way we relate to each other. And, as someone who prefers experiential learning over the structure of classrooms and syllabi, working in a fluid way with more self-determination is how I thrive.
What I’ve realized is that my ADHD makes me a lead user of life and work. Lead users are those people on extremities who can ‘stress test’ products, services, and experiences. Because they see and use things differently, they are quite valuable in their ability to find otherwise unrecognized benefits and flaws. These benefits and flaws exist for everyone but more often than not go unnoticed.
I suspect my ADHD is the reason I see the issues of organizations and work so acutely and clearly. What is tolerable and even annoying to most people is painful and exhausting to me. A neuro-typical brain can more easily put up with the negative or annoying aspects of work in exchange for a stable, well-paying job. Over time, those aspects of work just blend into the background for most people. But the negative and annoying aspects of work are hard for everyone — even if most people accept them without questions because it is easy enough to ignore.
All this to say: I am good at what I do because of the ADHD. I am good at innovation because of my ADHD. I’m good at synthesis and analysis because of my ADHD. I’ve been able to see and understand things about work — and how to change them — because I’m more sensitive; both more sensitive to what works and more sensitive to what doesn’t. That sensitivity also makes me thorny as an employee or colleague; I am the person constantly challenging what is accepted as a matter of course. It’s likely hard for many people to deal with me because I ask for more than exists today because what exists often doesn’t work for me. I see subtle differences more starkly than many others. Because of that, I am both valuable AND challenging.
While ADHD is my challenge, everyone has some kind of difference. Those differences are all challenging — but they are also all valuable. When we try to whitewash those differences and create conformity in our culture we hurt both the individuals and the performance of the organization. All of those differences challenge us to do more. That can feel overwhelming if it is seen as an exception. But what if we assume from the outset that everyone will need unique support of some kind? What if we see that, not as a burden, but as a strength? If we can reframe it in this way, we will both include everyone equitably and make things better for everyone. That challenge will make us better — and drive the creativity and innovation that comes with it.
I am not 100% comfortable ‘blaming’ my challenges on a mental condition that many still don’t even believe exists. I come from a long line of stoic, suck-it-up and power through types. However, it is also the thing holding me back and keeping me from joy. I am old enough that I don’t want constant stress and exhaustion. I want to thrive. So I can either accept this challenge and address it or ignore it and continue to struggle and spiral. And luckily, there are lots of options to address it — lucky me!
I’ve shared my story to help me make sense of it for myself but also to welcome others to explore or share what makes each of us unique. Our biggest vulnerabilities are also paradoxically our biggest strengths and when we own them, we flourish.
My hope is that by owning not just my strengths but this challenge, I can get beyond it. It has already helped me be compassionate with myself and see how hard I’ve tried — and how well I’ve done in spite of the ADHD. It also explains so much of my story — giving me a lens with which to make better decisions in the future. I never fit into the boxes I tried so hard to fit into. Now I know why.
What is your biggest vulnerability? How does that also reflect in your superpower? Do you know how to optimize your life so that you see more of the superpower and less of the vulnerability?
I would love to hear your stories!