In the world of work, attention-deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) can present some daunting obstacles to career success. It's not easy to set and meet goals if there is a constant struggle to focus, set priorities, and avoid distractions that others easily tune out. How can you get things done if you can't get out from under your own desktop clutter? How do you follow through on critical work assignments and projects if your mind automatically moves on to something else?
No wonder workers with ADD often fall short of expectations -- their own and those of the boss.
But the struggle with deadlines or organization is only half of the story. Because, in addition to creating obstacles to job success, ADD provides traits and skills employers admire -- enthusiasm, extraordinary creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, and, of course, the boundless energy for which ADDers are known. Workers who learn to capitalize on these strengths do very well, indeed.
In this article, we'll meet three people who -- by dint of hard work, openness to new ideas, and help from others -- overcame ADD-related setbacks to forge productive, satisfying careers. Their names have been changed, but their remarkable stories shine through, serving as inspiration for every ADDer who has ever struggled to make a go of it on the job.
From Struggling Student to Top Attorney
If you saw Katherine L. now, you'd never guess that this articulate 40-something lawyer almost dropped out of high school. Growing up in a working-class area of Los Angeles, Katherine struggled in school. Her reading skills and memory were poor, and she was terribly restless. Teachers were unable, or unwilling, to help. "No one thought I could do much of anything," she says. "I got bored if I sat longer than 30 minutes."
After receiving her high school diploma, Katherine started working as a hairdresser. She spent several years hopping from job to job, and then enrolled in a local community college, where her academic difficulty resumed. Finally, at the urging of one of her professors, she got evaluated for learning problems and was told that her disability had a name: dyslexia.
Following her diagnosis, Katherine started allotting more time for the reading and writing required for her courses. Her grades improved. In fact, she did so well that she was able to transfer to a four-year college. She aced the LSATs, and, with the help of school accomodations, got into a prestigious law school. Soon thereafter, she was diagnosed with adult ADD and started taking a stimulant medication.
Despite the medication, Katherine feared that she would flunk out. After class each day she made a beeline home, where she spent hour upon hour studying. The extra study time helped. So did substituting books on tape for ordinary textbooks. In addition, she began making PowerPoint presentations that summarized the readings. That helped improve her comprehension.
After graduating from law school, in 1998, Katherine won a grant that allowed her to develop a program that provides legal services to ADD and LD children. Today, she helps hundreds of low-income families get services for their kids -- the kind of help that she had been denied. In addition to her work at the center, Katherine runs workshops about kids' legal rights with disabilities.
What's the secret of Katherine's success? Medication helped, of course. So did her ADD-friendly study strategies. And Katherine was savvy enough to recognize that she'd do better in a job that was more -- rather than less -- demanding. (That's often the case with ADDers.) She initially considered paralegal work but doubts that she would have been able to keep all the paperwork organized. Being a lawyer suits her, she says, because "it's more big-picture than details. Law fits into the way I think, on five levels at the same time. I created the program and a job for myself. I can do 10 things at once, and I make it fun."
As soon as a case is assigned to her, Katherine breaks down the workload into discrete steps. That keeps her from feeling overwhelmed. "There are procedures I have to follow to get things done," she explains. "I have to start projects in enough time, and I can't take a shortcut." She still burns the midnight oil -- but only because that's when her office is quietest.
Katherine continues to struggle with reading and writing. But she manages, with the help of a Kurzweil 3000 device, which reads aloud legal briefs -- as well as with the help of colleagues, who proofread her briefs.
Katherine is passionate about work, and she gets a big charge out of helping children. "It's inspiring for a kid who has issues to find out that I graduated from law school after nearly flunking out of high school," she says.
This article comes from the June/July 2006 issue of ADDitude.