Lean In(credible): Career Passion In Mid-Life
Relaunching your career in mid-life is never easy — and that’s doubly true when you have ADHD. Read up on how these trailblazers overcame layoffs, depression, and other setbacks to find jobs that suited their passions, in their 50s and beyond.
Sandra is whip-smart, holds a doctorate in psychology, and is unemployed. Again. She’s looking for a job in a market flooded with eager Gen Z-ers, who will work for less money, have better technology skills, and have a lot more energy. Most of them weren’t diagnosed with ADHD, as Sandra was, less than 10 years ago.
“I’m 61, and everyone else my age is thinking about retirement. I’m not ready to slow down, I’m just getting started,” she says, with a tinge of regret. “I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, but they don’t add up to much, and I certainly don’t have a retirement plan. I’ll have to keep working forever.”
Launching and Re-Launching
Sandra’s lament is familiar to many adults with ADHD, who find themselves relaunching their careers for the third, fourth, or tenth time. Like Sandra, they have been underemployed most of their lives, taking positions that were not commensurate with their intelligence, education, or ability. For Sandra, finding a new job in her field is especially difficult because she has failed the state-licensing exam six times. It’s likely that her ADHD contributes to her disappointing performance, but she was denied any accommodation during testing.
So, while most of her peers have reached their peak in earning power and responsibility, Sandra is still trying to make enough money to survive. “I have bills to pay!” she says.
Even when adults with ADHD manage to find a job that sustains them financially, too often they are fired or forced to resign for ADHD-related issues, such as tardiness or insubordination. Or they may be fired for reasons that don’t always make sense to the ADHD brain.
Harriet is still trying to understand why she lost her job as the educational coordinator at her local community college at age 59. “I loved my job and I was good at it,” she says. “I was a hard worker and did everything they asked of me, but a new supervisor came in and kept raising the bar, so that I couldn’t keep up. My ADHD has something to do with that. When they fired me, they claimed I wasn’t doing my job well enough. I really didn’t know how to fight back, so I left quietly and fell into a deep depression.”
Since Harriet is raising her pre-teen granddaughter alone, she had no choice but to pick herself up and dig into the job market again, with uneven results. “It’s been torture,” she says.
Sometimes, ADHD trips up a career at home rather than at the office. “I was a successful research chemist before my first daughter was born. Then I became overwhelmed to the point that I couldn’t keep up with the demands of my job,” says Bill, now 49. “Parenthood hits some people with ADHD hard; kids are a big thing to focus on.”
Bill moved his family to South Carolina, and quickly found another job. With the arrival of a second newborn girl, however, his professional and personal life began to unravel. He got divorced, then was laid off and couldn’t find work in his field. “I’ve been trying to make a living as a consultant for attorneys who handle drug cases, with limited success,” he says.
Bill, Sandra, and Harriet demonstrate one of the common strengths of adults with ADHD: a resilient mindset. Their ability to rebound after a major life upset reflects a deep-seated optimism about the future, despite a blow to the ego — and to the bank account.
“Resilient individuals have a set of assumptions or attitudes about themselves that influence their behaviors and the skills they develop,” write Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., and Robert Brooks, Ph.D., in their book, The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. The authors cite several factors that make a resilient mindset:
- feeling in control of one’s life
- ability to manage stress
- solid problem-solving abilities
- dealing effectively with mistakes
- developing islands of competence (e.g., skills for work and life)
- accepting yourself and others
By adulthood, the individual with ADHD has weathered many assaults on his self-confidence. Perhaps rebounding again and again — like a rubber ball — is a necessary part of the ADHD experience. No one knows the rubber-ball effect better than Joe.
“For the most part, I’ve had my ADHD under control, but I’ve always known I was different,” he says. “My ADHD can’t cope with a lot of public interaction, so I took a job behind the scenes, at a bank. There, I could listen to music and let my mind wander, as long as I stayed on task.”
After several years, the bank changed owners and Joe took a job in a warehouse that shipped computer parts. He hated the mundane routine, so he switched fields and worked as an armored car driver. “I liked the fact that I was not confined to one spot,” he says. “I have inattentive ADHD, and I have a restlessness that never seems to fade.”
Though he loved the freedom of driving, the job ended and he moved into sales. A cubicle and a headset were not the best fit for him. “I got to the point where I started shaking and was short of breath. I had to turn in my resignation,” he says.
In rapid succession, he tried his hand at being a security guard, then a courier, and he finally returned to the armored car business. For 14 years, life was good. But in today’s economy, no company is exempt from the possibility of a corporate takeover. His new bosses micro-managed and constantly criticized their team, much to Joe’s chagrin. “I became detached, bewildered. I turned to alcohol to ease the pain and anxiety. I bought things impulsively that I really didn’t need, just to feel alive again,” he says. “I craved a sense of peace, a greater purpose, greater intimacy.” Three years later, he reluctantly wrote another resignation letter and bounced out of yet another job.
Psychologist Roberto Olivardia, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, says Joe is right to include his specific ADHD requirements in his job interviews, and he urges other job seekers to do the same.
“It’s important for adults with ADHD to realize that their past failures weren’t due to incompetence, but rather to lack of education about themselves,” says Olivardia. “Educate yourself about what the ADHD brain does, its strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to work with the brain you have.”
Olivardia also recommends completing a comprehensive values inventory to set the stage for making decisions about a new career or realignment of a present one. From that data, you can assess your personal, financial, and career goals, and decide what is most important to you.
“The person who does this won’t feel like a failure. Instead, he is trying to live his values, regardless of how much or little money he makes,” he says. “You must find a way to do things you love, whether at work or outside of work.”
Unfortunately, when adults with ADHD fall victim to the rubber-ball effect, they usually bounce back haphazardly. “They are so desperate that they try any job that comes their way,” says career counselor Wilma Fellman. “That’s hard on self-esteem. Their takeaway is ‘there’s nothing out there for me.’”
Fellman says it takes more than revising your resume to find a job that matches your talents and goals. She advises taking time to evaluate your strengths and values. “You have to do the same kind of careful prep to make sure you are in the right (career) place, whether you’re 21 or 61,” she says.
A career coach is a good investment for people with ADHD who have bounced around a lot, she adds. “Most of the time, job seekers who have ADHD don’t know why they are failing (to get a job). They might have screwed up the interview or demanded too much money or they were under- or over-qualified. If you take six weeks (with a career coach) to find out if you are on the right track, your job hunt will be more successful.”
Career coaches, who are available privately and through most community college career centers, provide assessments, such as the values inventory, and then offer guidance and feedback. “We worked with a gentleman who came across as very aggressive during our mock interviews, so we taped him and then played the recording back to him,” says Fellman. “His reaction was: ‘I wouldn’t hire that guy!’”
Because adults with ADHD have a history of underachievement in many areas of their lives, it is very important for them to prepare mentally and physically for a job hunt. “If I was 61 with a bunch of employment failures, walking into an interview, my attitude might reflect my failures instead of competence,” says Fellman. “People who are well prepped for an interview have a different demeanor — they sit differently, they have more ammunition to get the job.”
Fellman warns against putting all your hopes into a single “perfect” job or interview. “If you don’t get that dream job, you feel defeated and it shows,” she says. “You need to plant lots of (job) seeds. When you finish one interview, you should have three more lined up after it.”
For the “starting over after 50” crowd, age plays a negative role in getting hired, but Fellman believes that ageism is overblown. More employers recognize the benefits of hiring mature workers. “Usually, (mature workers) are self-starters, their attendance is higher, and they have experience that you can’t find in younger workers.”
In a twist on internships, some progressive companies are offering “returnships” to mature workers who want to update their skills. As with an internship, there may not be a job at the end, but new skills could open doors elsewhere.
Traditional retirement may be impossible, not only for adults with ADHD, but for most mature workers. In her book, Don’t Stop the Career Clock, Helen Harkness writes, “We will likely have an additional 20 to 30 or more healthy years to add to our life beyond retirement age.”
Fellman says that is good news for adults with ADHD. “Retirement would be the kiss of death for them. It’s boring, it’s unstructured. The challenges that have been faced and overcome will pop back up, because adults with ADHD are out of their comfort zone. They need structure, and a job is a great way to get it.”
Our intrepid friends from above are still bouncing back from previous careers. Sandra is applying for several positions in her hometown. Bill has an 8-5 job, but sees an uncertain future. Joe is still unemployed, and he fights depression. Harriet lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her granddaughter. She has a job in a medical clinic, marketing a product that could prove profitable. “My salary will go up as the company grows. So some day soon, I might actually be making enough money!”
Vive la ADHD resilience!
How to Start Over
- Realistically reassess your strengths
- Complete a values inventory
- Map out a plan of action that matches your values
- Plant lots of job “seeds”
- Don’t put all your hopes on one interview
- When one interview ends, have three more lined up
- Keep your confidence high
- Rely on your ADHD problem-solving skills
- Get some help — therapist, career coach, friends
- Remember the rubber-ball effect — bounce back!