Is there a specific type of brain that has a drive to create, to innovate, and results in an entrepreneurial spirit?
A mind with a combination of traits that can look at the world a different way, make new connections, has a knack for out-of-the box problem solving, and makes life more beautiful and enjoyable?
Meet the ADHD mind. Trust me, you already know someone with ADHD (or ADHD traits) who has made your life better, you just don’t realize it.
What is ADHD or having ADHD traits?
Having an ADHD brain means that you have a brain with unique wiring that can lead to creative thinking, adventurousness, courage, integrity, and perseverance.
Does this surprise you? That’s because we don’t look at ADHD that way.
The medical diagnosis of ADHD is made based on 3 factors: distractability, hyperactivity and impulsivity, which impair functioning. This is the medical model of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) which focuses on impairments, and uses specific measurement tools.
But Dr. Hallowell, renowned expert in ADHD, who has ADHD himself, has seen the other side. Over his career he met many people with ‘ADHD traits’ but who did not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with ADHD. He has also recognized that many of these people have specific strengths that fueled their success (although usually in a quirky way!).
He has come up with the term VAST (which stands for Variable Attention Stimulus Trait) for having ADHD traits. But you could think of it as ‘ADHD lite’, in which the impairments of ADHD do not outweigh the benefits.
And by caring for and understanding how an ADHD brain thinks, you can support yourself and others with ADHD.
Inside The ADHD Brain
ADHD brains respond differently to the neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine.
This results in a ‘variable response to stimuli’. Translation: we can be very passionate, focused and persistent when we are interested, but procrastinate or get easily distracted when we are bored.
If you don’t have an ADHD mind yourself, you definitely know and admire someone who does. People with ADHD personalities include: Pulitzer prize winners, Nobel prize winners, billionaires, doctors, lawyers, actors, trendsetters, entrepreneurs, inventors, and many others…..
ADHD Positive Traits
There are many well known ADHD success stories, particularly in the business world. JetBlue founder David Neeleman credits his ADHD for his success.
“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.”David Neeleman
But how can this be? We only think of ADHD as a cluster of symptoms that are impairing: distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity.
Well, let’s look at this a different way, how the ADHD brain thinks could be beneficial:
The positive traits seen in a group of high functioning adults with ADHD were studied in 2018. Key positive traits were Cognitive Dynamism, Courage, Energy, Humanity, Resilience and Trancendence, with sub-themes for each trait:
- Cognitive Dynamism
- Divergent thinking
- Social Intelligence
- Recognition of feelings
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
Now, this is a list of positive traits!
Creative thinking, ability to hyper-focus, bravery, integrity, persistence, humanity, energy, resilience, appreciation of beauty and excellence…
ADHD Thinking: Distracted vs Creative
The ADHD and VAST brain regulates attention differently, specifically the control of switching attention between activities. This is the ‘distractability’ part of ADHD diagnosis.
But that is just what it looks like to the outside world. People ADHD don’t like they are distracted, they actually feel they ‘get stuck’ on an activity, focusing intensely. This is called hyperfixation, and I discuss the definition here.
This can definitely be a problem if not managed well, but could this difference in regulation of attention have a positive aspect?
Could this be the cause of the ‘Cognitive Dynamism’ (Divergent thinking, Hyper-focus, Creativity, and Curiosity) seen in the study?
ADHD Thinking: Daydreamer vs Problem-Solver
The ability to focus intensely but also notice all sorts of details (distraction) may give ADHD brains a creative, problem solving edge.
ADHD brains that deep dive into research seem to be able to take in a wide breadth of information and be able to find patterns and make connections that others do not.
One example is successful internet pioneer and publishing executive, Alan Meckler, who has ADHD, and a knack at predicting business trends and getting ahead of his competitors.
And Will Henshall, a successful serial ADHD entrepreneur and founder of Focus@Will a music streaming service of music that helps you focus. (It works! My review of Focus@Will here.)
ADHD Thinking: Hyperactive vs Driven
When we think of ADHD hyperactivity we think of physical hyperactivity. Hyperactivity can feel a like a physical restlessness, giving you the drive to pursue a goal.
But ADHD hyperactivity can also be internal, a ‘restlessness of the mind’, a constant churning of information and ideas.
Could hyperactivity and impulsiveness lead to the positive attributes of Courage (Non-Conformist, Adventurousness, Bravery, Integrity and Persistence) and Physical Energy seen in the study?
Many people with ADHD describe having many ideas at once, like kernels popping in a popcorn machine, and a love of problem solving.
A constant tumbling of ideas mixed with creativity results in out of the box solutions, for example a better way of doing a routine task.
ADHD Thinking: Impulsive vs Bold Entrepreneur
What about ADHD impulsivity? The need to do or have something right now? It can be real problem with impulse shopping or saying the first thing that pops in your mind.
But impulsivity can also lead to someone deciding to start their own business!
A creative brain sharing exciting new ideas gets frustrated when they are dismissed with ‘this is the way we always do it’. But a person who is very driven (hyperactive) just cannot stop.
Knowing our ideas have merit, traits of integrity and persistance lead to a desire to follow our instincts. Our non-conformist (stubborn) desire to prove the naysayers wrong is extra fuel.
Add in some bravery and adventurousness (impulsivity), and you have a willingness to take risks for an idea you believe in.
So what’s this creative, brave, non-conforming, problem solver with integrity and persistence likely to do with a great idea they believe in?
Well, if they have the talent and the support, they will probably set out to make their idea a reality.
These ADHD traits are literally a recipe for entrepreneurship, which unsurprisingly has been linked to ADHD.
But wait, one more ingredient that has been left out….
The ADHD Brain is Emotional
The ADHD brain experiences emotions more intensely than the average person, becoming extremely passionate about their interests.
We can be very moved by beauty or compelled by a desire to fight an injustice.
This passion can result in an exciting and engaging personality, which can help us in sharing ideas and persuading others to get enthusiastic about our plans.
One example is Mark Brand, an ADHD social entrepreneur who has worked to create safe injection sites and access to food security.
For the ADHD brains, strong emotions, matched with creativity, courage, adventurousness, integrity and persistence is a potent mix.
ADHD Thinking Changes the World
An ADHD brain is a powerful asset, with divergent thinking, creativity, courage, adventurousness, integrity and persistence.
Could it be that an ADHD brain is designed for creative innovation? It is not hyperbole to say that historical figures who demonstrated ADHD traits have changed the world.
This is the other side of the coin for the ADHD brain.
ADHD symptoms of distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity and emotional dysregulation can be disabling when exhibited very strongly, and I am not suggesting otherwise.
However, these same traits, when managed and used to pursue a goal can lead to amazing things: an entrepreneurial spirit, the drive to fight for a cause, the invention of the newest must have gadget.
You may not realize it but you have seen this yourself, because ADHD brains are everywhere, including your neighbourhood.
ADHD Thinking: The Entrepreneur
You know that little business that opened up around the corner?
You thought it was a risky idea at the time and thought ‘Well, good luck to them!’ as you went to your day job, counting the days until your pension kicks in.
The business did seem to struggle initially, but slowly word got out about the surprising flavours: roasted marshmallow, black forrest cake and candied bacon sprinkles!
You popped in to show support and ordered the pistachio ice cream and as soon as it hit your tongue it was as though you were transported back in time, back to a vacation in Rome you took years ago.
You have never forgotten the flavour of a pistachio gelato you tasted there, nothing has ever come close to it… until this.
Now you can’t imagine your neighbourhood without that little ice cream shop. In fact, it became so successful that other shops opened up in your neighbourhood.
There’s that new flower shop, the cute coffee/book shop that makes the best cappuccino and that hip little restaurant in what used to be a mechanics shop.
The ice cream shop is known as the best in the city, with lines of happy people snaking down the block on a hot summer day.
You love popping in and chatting with the owner, her quirky sense of humour makes you smile every time you go in. Lately you’ve been loving your neighbourhood, it has such a great vibe.
You were just thinking how lucky you are to have bought into the neighbourhood when you did, because the price of real estate in the neighbourhood has increased since the famous little shop opened.
Real estate agents actually mention how close a house is to the ice cream shop, as this is considered a desirable selling feature for a home. She has a whole team now and is planning to open two more locations, and you laugh as you remember your initial doubts about the successful shop.
That shop, my friend, was opened by an ADHD brain.
There are ADHD minds who are Nobel prize winners, Pulitzer prize winners, Academy Award winners.
There is also your neighbour who took a chance on starting a new business, sharing her passion, and made your neighbourhood and your life more beautiful.
That is the power of the ADHD brain.
Think about that for a minute.
Now think about your other favourite shops, or the surgeon who came up with a new technique that saved your friend’s life, or the woman who organized and stopped the demolition of those historic buildings, or that play at the local theatre that moved you so much.
Hmmmmm. I wonder….
Maybe you are starting to realize that you know a lot of ADHD or ADHD trait brains…
In case you weren’t sure what the trait ‘trancendence’ meant in that study I mentioned. That is trancendence.
- Delivered from Distraction, Hallowell and Ratey, 2017
- ADHD 2.0, Hallowell and Ratey, 2020
- VAST discussed in Dr. Hallowell’s Distraction podcast
- Creativity in ADHD: Goal-Directed Motivation and Domain Specificity
- The positive aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder:a qualitative investigation of successful adults with ADHD
- Emotion dysregulation in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analysis, Similarities between emotional dysregulation in adults suffering from ADHD and bipolar patients
- Exploring the association between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and entrepreneurship
- Does attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder medication reduce entrepreneurship?
- Distraction Podcast: Passion and Purpose