How to Succeed in Business with ADHD
Entrepreneurs and business leaders with ADHD are among the most creative and resourceful. Here, five top executives share how they transformed a deficit into an asset to their careers.
A student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), 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 successful entrepreneurs with ADHD, in order, Alan Meckler, a publishing executive and former CEO of MediaBistro; 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 of JetBlue Airways.
Besides having difficulty in school, these executives share another thing in common: They all live with 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.
Founder, JetBlue Airways
“If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADHD, I would take ADHD,” 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 ADHD, 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 remarkable chutzpah, 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.
“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 ADHD 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 ADHD is one of them.”
His ADHD career advice? “Look at the positives of having ADHD,” he says, “and don’t get discouraged. Don’t ever give up.”
The Copy Chief
Founder, Kinko’s (now FedEx Office)
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 “ADHD 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. His copying business eventually expanded until it was acquired by FedEx.
“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 ADHD, 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 ADHD 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.
“I can’t write a letter and I can’t fix a machine,” says Orfalea. “My biggest advantage is that I don’t get bogged down in the details, because of my ADHD. I hire capable people to handle that.”
Looking back on his own education, Orfalea believes that different children have different learning styles, and that the education system needs to recognize that fact before more children are left behind. “If No Child Left Behind had been around when I was in school,” says Orfalea, “I would still be in third grade, because that’s how bad a speller I am.”
Economist and Author
Wondering where the Dow will be at year’s end, or how fast the U.S. economy is growing? The go-to expert for economic prognostications is Diane Swonk, author of The Passionate Economist: Finding the Power and Humanity Behind the Numbers and, until recently, the chief economist at Bank One in Chicago. But ask her to write down her forecasts on paper, and watch out! “I flip numbers constantly,” she says. “I joke about it in front of audiences, asking them what’s the difference between 1.9% and 9.1% GDP growth? A world, actually.”
For Swonk, the youngest person to serve as president of the National Association for Business Economics (past presidents include former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan), flipping numbers comes naturally. Swonk doesn’t have ADHD, but she has dyslexia and has trouble remembering phone numbers, as well as her PIN for the ATM.
Her numerical problems haven’t held her back in her career. She is a brilliant thinker who processes information “multidimensionally rather than in linear form.” This allows her to view “the endgame before others do,” a distinct advantage in a profession where money is made or lost in seconds. Her special way of seeing the world, she believes, “serves me extremely well for a science like economics, where, if one thing happens, another thing happens, in response.
“You realize that the worst forecasting in the world takes a trajectory, a trend, and says that it will go on forever,” says Swonk. “Sometimes the recent past is just a stage, not the trajectory of where we are heading. My learning difference allows me to say, ‘Hey, when X happens, it doesn’t mean that the next steps are going to be Y and Z.’ The next step may be to go back to A.”
As a youngster, Swonk felt isolated, even though her parents also struggled with the same learning disability. She had to deal with teachers who thought she was lazy because her spelling was atrocious or her mastery of math facts was poor. But her parents taught her to persevere. “If you had to butter your bread with a chain saw, you did,” says Swonk. “You always had to find an alternative way to get things done.” That lesson challenged her to find ways around the obstacles that dyslexia placed in her path.
Swonk’s struggle with her learning disability has given her a disarming sense of humility. “I know what it’s like to be scared when you’re crossing the street and to wonder if you’re going to be lost once you get to the other side. Or to get behind the wheel of a car and not know if you’re going to reach your destination. I have learned to take that in stride.”
Swonk believes that humility is a virtue in business. “You never get too far ahead of yourself when you’re humble,” she explains. “You can be secure, but it’s good to keep a clear and open mind about things. My dyslexia probably made me insecure when I was younger, but now it serves as an underlying reminder of my own humility.”
The Internet Mogul
Alan M. Meckler
Publishing Executive; Former CEO for Mediabistro
“My lack of concentration, my inability to read charts, and my difficulty in deciphering documents made me a much better business person,” says Meckler. “And my lack of patience forced me to cut to the chase.” His dyslexia was diagnosed only recently, after the long academic struggle of his youth. “I used to daydream in class a lot — I’d just find my mind wandering off,” recalls Meckler, who had problems with standardized tests. “I wasn’t able to spend much time on something if I couldn’t come up with the answer right away.” Arithmetic, which he refers to as “math block,” was his biggest bugaboo.
Despite his difficulties with numbers, he learned to turn his disabilities to his advantage. In high school and college, he says, “While most people would take lot of notes during a lecture, I could figure out the key points by just listening to the teacher. I have developed that skill in business. I am able to pick out the important details rather than getting bogged down.”
At the former company Jupitermedia, Meckler was famous for short meetings. He insists that if you can’t describe something succinctly, then it isn’t a good idea. “I believe in ‘keep it simple, stupid,'” says Meckler. His skill at digesting very complex issues, to “listen to them, not read about them,” enabled him to spot business trends and to take advantage of those opportunies before the competition did.
“I spotted the Internet as a business opportunity three or four years before anyone else,” he says. “I started a newsletter and reporting service that covered the development of the Internet, then turned it into a magazine, then into a trade show. Internet World became the fastest-growing trade show in history, and was very big from 1994 to 1999.”
While the information industry generates reams of data, diagrams, graphs, and charts, Meckler depends on colleagues to interpret them for him. “I can understand very simple bar graphs,” he says. “Once the chart has multiple lines, I can’t follow it.” When it comes to interpreting economic data, “I’ll go to my chief financial officer and say ‘take me through this.’ I’ll digest it instantly if I know the topic, but I can’t follow it otherwise.” Balancing his checkbook is also left to others.
This takes him back to his youth, his passion for baseball, and his learning disabilities. New York in the 1950s had three baseball teams, so there were plenty of statistics for young Meckler to keep track of. He overcame his math block through those stats. ” I would devour the statistics,” he recalls. “I memorized baseball averages, taught myself thirds, averaging out, and how to compute earned run averages.” Then he confesses: “I still have problems if you tell me to divide — I can’t figure out the numerator or the denominator — I have to go back and think of baseball averages to help me.”
Founder and chairman, Charles Schwab & Co.
Growing up in a family of modest means in a small town outside of Sacramento, Schwab had to struggle through Stanford before landing a job in a small brokerage house. It was a modest beginning for the man who would start the nation’s fourth-largest brokerage firm.
As a child, he didn’t know he had dyslexia — it was identified when the disability was spotted in his son. But he did know that he had to work much harder than other kids in school. He was good in math and science, but weak in reading and writing. “I eventually overcame dyslexia because I was a reasonably competent kid and had a pretty outgoing personality,” said Schwab in Fortune Small Business. “I could communicate with my teachers, and I asked lots of questions in class. I think that’s why I became favored among teachers. They’d say, ‘Gee, Chuck really works hard at it. We gotta give him the B instead of the C minus.’ ”
His struggle with his learning disability shaped him as an entrepreneur. It taught him humility. “You’re never quite certain you’ve accomplished what you wanted to do. It’s wonderful fuel for motivation.” It has helped him accomplish some things in his career that he wouldn’t have believed possible.
“I was always aware of the fact that I excelled with numbers, even though I struggled with reading,” he says. “I focused on my strengths and used my natural affinity for numbers and economics as the focus of my career.”
Like economist Diane Swonk, he says, “I found something I was good at and became passionate about it. I also discovered that many skills and talents, in addition to reading ability, are as important in the making of a top executive. Character, ethics, communication skills, consistency, analytical and relationship skills. Those are important for leaders. I have some of those skills, and I work with a lot of great people who bring other strengths and talents to the table.”
Add to that list of his assets, a spirit of generosity. After Schwab’s son was diagnosed with dyslexia, the entrepreneur and his wife, Helen, decided to help other families who had learning-disabled children. They started The Schwab Foundation to give parents the answers to the million-and-one questions they have when their child has learning problems.
Like most executives, Schwab values teamwork. “I have strong people around me who focus on day-to-day planning and organization,” he says. “They know how to streamline my paperwork and to minimize my reading. It’s really no different from most people who run companies or large departments. It takes a team to make things work well.”
What advice would Schwab give to others with ADHD or dyslexia or another learning disability? “Find out what you can do well, focus on it, and work doubly hard,” he says. “We all aspire to do the best we can with what we’re dealt. Focus on your strengths. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to admit you need it.” Look where that advice got Schwab.
Updated on February 18, 2021