Career Advice from the Corner Office: Famous People with ADHD

Five top executives share tips on how they transformed their learning disability into an asset in the workplace and how they joined the ranks of famous people with ADHD.

David Neelman, one of many famous people and entrepreneurs with ADHD, talks about his symptoms. ADDitude Magazine

Look at the positives of having ADD and don't get discouraged. Don't ever give up.

David Neeleman, founder of Jet Blue Airways
   
 

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A student with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), three with learning disabilities, and one with both conditions seemed to be heading nowhere -- fast. A teacher hurled an eraser at one of them, and asked, "Time passes, will you?" Another graduated at the bottom of his high school class and was strongly advised by his principal to go into carpet laying. The third was labeled lazy by her teachers because she had trouble memorizing basic math facts". The fourth was a whiz with numbers but found reading a book was a difficult task. The last was always falling behind in his schoolwork and concluded that he was stupid. "How am I going to be successful in anything if I can't read and write? he wondered.

You might say that these nowhere kids turned their lives around. They are now all famous people with ADHD, in order, Alan Meckler, chairman and CEO of Jupitermedia; Paul Orfalea, founder of the copying empire, Kinko's; Diane Swonk, a world-renowned economist; Charles Schwab, a pioneer in the discount brokerage business; and David Neeleman, founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways.

Besides having difficulty in school, these executives share another thing in common: They all suffer from ADHD or learning disabilities. Neeleman has ADHD; Swonk, Meckler, and Schwab have dyslexia; and Orfalea has both. Each managed to turn his or her liabilities into assets on their respective career paths.

If you have difficulty with organization, reading, or remembering math facts, these entrepreneurs prove that such limitations don't preclude a bright future.


Flying High

David Neeleman
Founder, JetBlue Airways

"If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADD, I would take ADD," says Neeleman, who foregoes medication to manage the condition. "I'm afraid of taking drugs once, blowing a circuit, and then being like the rest of you."

Countless airline passengers are thankful that Neeleman skipped the medication. If he hadn't, perhaps JetBlue Airways wouldn't have gotten off the drawing board. Neeleman prided himself on thinking out of the box when creating the airline. "With the disorganization, procrastination and inability to focus, and all the other bad things that come with ADD, there also come creativity and the ability to take risks," he explains.

Neeleman boldly told the New York media, "We want to be New York's new low-fare, hometown airline." His statement could be interpreted as naïve confidence or remarkablechutzpah, coming, as it did, from a third-generation Mormon from Utah. Despite the myriad naysayers - from the venture capitalists who walked away from investing in the budding airline to the media - Neeleman changed the flying experience by introducing such innovations as live in-flight television and unparalleled customer service - on a discount airline.

"I knew I had strengths that other people didn't have, and my parents reminded me of them when my teachers didn't see them," says Neeleman. "I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions. I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, 'How can I do this better?' My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things."

Neeleman's personal life isn't the same success story. "My wife can't always figure out what the heck I'm thinking, and my kids want me to focus on just one thing with them. I find it difficult. It's hard for me to do the mundane things in life. I have an easier time planning a 20-aircraft fleet than I do paying the light bill."

Neeleman does try to rein in his wandering mind. At the office, he surrounds himself with people who are good at the details of the business. "My assistant helps me write letters and keeps my calendar," he says. "I have no idea what I'm doing one day to the next." At home, he has trained himself to put his wallet and keys in the same place so he doesn't lose them. He also wears a Casio DataBank watch, which allows him to type in reminders of appointments or ideas as they pop up.

"Life is full of trade-offs," he says, "and living with my untreated ADD is one of them."

His ADHD career advice? "Look at the positives of having ADD," he says, "and don't get discouraged. Don't ever give up."

The Copy Chief

Paul Orfalea
Founder, Kinko's

He flunked second grade, did poorly in high school, and got C's and D's in college. But that didn't stop Orfalea, who is dyslexic and has "ADD to the max," from becoming an entrepreneur. Instead, it motivated the curly, red-haired executive (nicknamed Kinko) to exceed everyone's expectations.

The idea for Kinko's came to Orfalea in 1970, while he was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He noticed all the people lined up to pay 10 cents a page to use the library photocopier. He decided he could provide the service cheaper. Orfalea borrowed $5,000 and opened his first Kinko's in a converted hamburger stand near the university. It was equipped with a lone Xerox machine. Today, his copying empire, which FedEX now owns, is worth $2.4 billion, and Orfalea, 56, has retired.

"My learning disability gave me certain advantages, because I was able to live in the moment and capitalize on the opportunities I spotted," says Orfalea, as he looks back on his career. "With ADD, you're curious. Your eyes believe what they see. Your ears believe what others say. I learned to trust my eyes." So when customers came into his store looking to use a computer - not to copy documents - Orfalea saw an opportunity. He expanded Kinko's to include computers. As a result, the company captured many small business owners as customers, as well as the self-employed.

His ADD provided him with the right temperament on which to build the business. "Because I have a tendency to wander," he explains, "I never spent much time in my office. My job was going store to store, noticing what people were doing right. If I had stayed in my office all the time, I would not have discovered all those wonderful ideas to help expand the business." A Kinko's that remained open for 24 hours was an idea he picked up from his steady customers.

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This article comes from the December/January 2005 issue of ADDitude.

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TAGS: ADHD Role Models, Focus at Work, Organization Tips for ADD Adults, Famous People with ADHD

 

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