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Career Profile: How a Mid-Life Diagnosis Helped Me Become an Entrepreneur

How one adult’s attention deficit diagnosis — and subsequent treatment — helped her turn the corner, mentally and professionally.

An illustration of a person with ADHD climbing towards success after being diagnosed.
An illustration of a person with ADHD climbing towards success after being diagnosed.

Candace Sahm, an adult with ADHD, knows how to juggle. She is a single mother who raised two children, son Gordon and daughter Helen. She’s also a successful entrepreneur, who has an ADHD coaching practice, and founder and director of Positive Learning Experiences, in Washington, D.C., a tutoring and learning center for children and adults with learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD.

Sahm understands her clients’ problems. As a child, she had difficulties — lack of focus and an inability to stay in her seat. As an adult, she was forgetful and had a hard time waiting in line. It wasn’t until she was 37, when her son was diagnosed with ADHD, that she discovered the cause of these academic and social problems. “I was relieved to find the reason for my struggles and for my feeling different all those years,” says Sahm, who worked with a psychiatrist and took medication for anxiety before she was diagnosed with ADHD. She now believes that both conditions were related to ADHD.

“In the process of helping my son and myself, I became an advocate for those with ADHD,” says Sahm. “That’s why I started Positive Learning Experiences. People with ADHD are smart, but they learn in different ways. I help them break through the negative thoughts they have about themselves. My aim at the learning center, and in my life, is progress — not perfection.”

Despite her personal struggles in the classroom, Sahm had a passion for teaching and found that she excelled in the subjects she loved. In high school, she did well in a teaching development course. She attended University of Maryland, where she majored in special education. At 21, she taught special-ed classes at a high school in Prince George’s County, while earning a master’s degree — and a 4.0 GPA — in education at George Washington University.

After marrying, at 25, Sahm put her teaching career on hold and spent the next 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, doing part-time tutoring before she and her husband divorced. Then came the diagnoses — her son’s and hers.

[Free Resource: 8 Dream Jobs for Adults with ADHD]

It was a turning point. “I didn’t go into a negative spiral, as some people do. Instead, I focused first on getting my son’s ADHD symptoms under control.”

Career Strategy #1: Take medication.

“When I was diagnosed with ADHD, in my late 30s, I took medication. Soon after beginning Ritalin, I went to the Kennedy Center to see a long play. For the first time in my life, I could sit still and focus on a plot. I was ‘tuned in.’ At home, I finally figured out how to set a light timer and how to fit two shoes in a shoebox.”

Career Strategy #2: Explore alternative treatments.

“I use yoga, meditation, vitamin and omega-3 supplements, coaching, and behavior therapy. I attend Al-Anon meetings, even though I’m not an alcoholic. Twelve-step programs are great for people with ADHD because they give you hope.”

Career Strategy #3: Don’t hide behind the diagnosis.

“I’m not embarrassed about my diagnosis. I never hid the fact that my son and I have ADHD.”

[Free Handout: How to Manage Your Time at Work]

Career Strategy #4: Believe in yourself.

“When I started my business, I heard, in my head, people calling me ‘crazy’ or ‘dumb brunette’ from my years of being late for appointments or making social miscues. My self-esteem was bruised. A lot of people warned me that my fledgling company might fail. Surprisingly, my ADHD, along with my father’s encouragement, gave me the chutzpah to keep going. I told naysayers, ‘I will stick with my business.'”

Career Strategy #5: Hire a coach.

“My ADHD held me back as my business took off. I couldn’t prioritize tasks or make decisions in a timely way. I knew I was smart enough to do routine things — pay the bills, audit the books — but I preferred to brainstorm ideas that would help the business thrive. So I hired an ADHD coach, Sandy Maynard, who helped me focus on tasks. Sandy and I meet periodically to talk through what I need to get done.”

Career Strategy #6: Take care of your health.

“Sandy and I rearranged my schedule so I could fit in more sleep and eat better. Good health gives you the perspective and energy to make changes in your life.”

Career Strategy #7: Delegate tasks to stay on top of projects.

“About a year and a half ago, I hired a writer/marketing specialist, to help me with a project I was working on. She kept me focused when I lost attention. She’d say, ‘This project is most important right now.’ She’d use a hand motion that signified ‘time out,’ when I went off on other topics. When I would get revved up about something, she would stare at my computer screen, not paying me any attention. I knew that meant we should return to the task at hand.”

Career Strategy #8: Stay optimistic.

“When I work with children and adults at the learning center, I use the strategies that helped me meet my own challenges. I never preach to my clients, because I still struggle — with organization and execution. But I tell them that they can get there from here.”

Career Strategy #9: Redefine success.

“I accomplish big goals one day at a time. I try to live by that philosophy, and I encourage other ADDers to think that way. I tell the students and adults I work with that I am living proof we can learn the skills and strategies to meet our challenges and to use our gifts. We succeed by doing what we love. I know that firsthand.”

[Free Resource: 20 Questions to Figure Out Your Career Calling]

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