Is ADHD a creative superpower? Why does it matter? How science and self-discovery about ADHD and creativity have transformed my perspective on my past and future. And what you’re missing if you don’t have a neurodivergent thinker on your team.
I accidentally discovered that I’m a poster child for adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) during the pandemic. I can thank my daughter for this perspective-changing epiphany. The proverbial apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
How did I get here?
When attending a school-sponsored mental health Zoom webinar, the last thing I expected was to go down a rabbit hole on the origins, symptoms, and solutions to manage ADHD. While info-gathering on behalf of my daughter, I soon realized that the more I read about ADHD, the clearer it became that it described me. That one little webinar launched me on a path of self-discovery that has turned my perspective and narrative of my life upside down.
Along the way, I discovered exceptional resources to help ADHD individuals (which, depending on the numbers you believe, affects 9.4% of children and 4–9% of US adults), such as Seth Perler, an ADHD coach who specializes in workaround systems to deal with Executive Function, or EF.
Executive Function challenges
EF is the part of ADHD that results in daily life challenges like starting and finishing projects, staying focused, and prioritization. ADHD is commonly diagnosed in kids when they begin to struggle in school with academic achievement. These students are typically bright but easily distracted. The tendency of individuals with ADHD is for distraction and lack of organization to lead to stress and low self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, this is when many of their parents are diagnosed as ADHD adults.
Superpower or Achille’s Heel?
Nearly all ADHD narratives focus on the negative impact of this mental disorder/condition/problem. Yet, as I considered my lifetime of real-world creative achievements to date, I began to wonder if I could have gotten here without ADHD.
7 Superpower Traits
Deep, hyper fixation research and evaluation of this topic helped me conclude that several of my ADHD traits, like generating original ideas outside traditional conceptual boundaries help me outshine my neurotypical counterparts. Multiple studies so far have identified positive correlations between ADHD and creativity. Breaking it down from there, I’ve identified these seven ADHD tendencies as superpowers, not detriments.
I co-founded my agency at 23. That was over 30 years ago. Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. The journey can best be described as a life-long rollercoaster, filled with high highs and low lows. There’s always a new challenge to overcome. You learn as you go. And once you have it down, things change. We’ve navigated 5 major pivots during that time, adjusting to market conditions and business trends. I don’t even think about the changes anymore; I keep moving forward.
Emotional Sensitivity and Empathy
Yes, I can be impulsive and intense. And yet, I can also easily imagine a customer or prospect’s product experience, including what they feel as they move from one step to another in their customer journey. Empathy is an advantage that I use as the perfect launchpad for developing marketing campaigns that connect people to products and compel them to take action. It’s often a roadmap for how we overdeliver, as we often identify and recommend ways to make the CX just a bit better, which ultimately helps create advocates for our clients.
Empathy is an advantage that I use as the perfect launchpad for developing marketing campaigns that connect people to products and compel them to take action.
For example, in our award-winning Triple Tribbles Game for Playmates Toys’ Star Trek license, we connected to the most popular episode of all time, The Trouble with Tribbles. We took it a step further by offering as the grand prize a living room makeover: Paramount set designers would remake the winner’s living room to resemble the bridge of the Enterprise, complete with a Captain’s chair.
Creativity isn’t atop the list because I wouldn’t be here without the resiliency trait. And empathy is required to ensure that the creative connects with the target audience. Several studies have confirmed that neurodivergent ADHD brains demonstrated more prolific creative abilities than neurotypical counterparts. Scientists believe that ADHDers think outside the box because we’re not aware of the traditional edges of the box. Our clients rave about our creativity, but I am most proud when a campaign exceeds expectations, like this Go All In demo incentive for Sage that exceeded sales targets by 400%. Marketing creative for creative’s sake is cringy.
My friends and family have always said that I’m incapable of relaxing. I’ve never been able to lounge poolside, chill at the beach, or do nothing on vacation. I try to explain that my brain never stops. It jumps from one topic to another. As a result, I am constantly thinking. About my clients and their campaigns. About business. About what’s next. It’s a blessing and a curse.
I have to talk through ideas to get them out of my head. My business partner has become a master at listening to my ramblings, then asking the right trigger questions. This process helps migrate raw, half-baked ideas through challenging questions that tighten the initial thoughts into well-conceived concepts that we believe will best set up our client for success. She always supports the outlier idea (because there’s always one). Sometimes, the outlier becomes the client’s first choice. Other times, clients stick to the safer creative option.
Neurotypical ADHD brains are chemically wired to crave dopamine because we’re a quart low on these neurotransmitters. One way to get a dopamine hit is to try or learn something new. Although all humans crave novelty, the ADHD brain constantly searches for what’s next. This need for newness drives my creativity, as I am constantly searching for:
- innovative ways to express timeless thoughts, like saving time and money
- new ways to develop and deliver offers, like new media
- new rewards that would attract prospects, like trending technologies and “it” gifts
With guidance and support from my business partner, we’ve succeeded by combining proven tactics with emerging technologies to give clients the best of both worlds. Our history is littered with “firsts,” many of which we featured in this video:
- In-store Baby Shower events in 1990
- Winback campaign in 2001
- Online comedy contest in 2001
- Text-to-win games in 2005
- Instant Tweet-to-win vending machine in 2013
As an ADHDer, I suffer from time blindness. I lose track of the months, let alone hours. However, I am 100% committed to on-time delivery when I have a client deadline. The ADHD world calls this “accountability.” A personal deadline is a struggle (like going to the gym at 6), but being accountable to someone else is as iron-clad as a contract signed in blood. Coupled with my business partner, whose type-A commitment to making good on every client promise is unwavering, has led us to deliver on impossible deadlines regularly. More than once, we’ve created, printed, shipped, and delivered holiday campaigns to thousands of retail doors in less than a week. A fellow agency executive once quipped, “You guys to launch campaigns faster than it takes for us to develop the SOWs.”
Hand-in-hand with intensity, this ADHD trait means that I am all in on supporting a client. As my business partner says, it’s all or nothing with me. Clients know that when we’re working on a project, they’ve got my attention 24/7. At meetings, I walk a fine line. I have to thoroughly explain the merits of each idea (because it’s not as apparent to everyone). Then I have to temper my enthusiasm and be mindful not to overexplain, allowing clients to digest what they’ve heard. In the end, our clients feel the passion. “I know you have other clients, but I always feel like I’m your only one” is one of my favorite testimonials.
Since my ADHD epiphany, I fear that I’ve become that friend that talks incessantly about their new love interest/hobby/spiritual belief. I share TikTok videos of relatable moments from ADHD creators, coaches, and doctors to explain and apologize for those past moments of perceived failure.
I’ve now filled my TikTok account (which I started for the research and the dopamine) with fantastic ADHD creators who share relatable tendencies. I learn new things, like keeping a half dozen beverages on your desk is a commonplace ADHD occurrence.
Divergent Thinking is Real
These creators remind me that I’m not alone and that neglecting to make my bed doesn’t make me a failure. And while it seems implausible that I don’t notice that stack of books that’s been on the stairs for 3 months, my new ADHD community confirms my truth. They’ve helped me better understand how my brain works, and they offer systems and tools specially designed for ADHD individuals with neurodivergent brains. Some of my favorite TikTok creators include:
These creators fuel my fire as I continue to nod my head in agreement with their relatable descriptions, inspiring comments of support, and valuable recommendations for management.
Seeing my childhood through the ADHD lens
Reflecting on my childhood resulted in many AHAs. I was the kid with the messy room and locker. The one who didn’t start assignments until the night before they were due, finishing right before class. Yet, I excelled. I had terrible study and time management skills but still received highest honors in high school and breezed into college.
As a young adult, I became frustrated by my lack of sticking to any long-term goals. I had difficulty creating good habits, like going to the gym or completing daily time sheets. I gave myself a lot of grief for many years. I didn’t know exactly what to do with my future, but I loved marketing, having worked in the field since high school, so given the opportunity to start an agency with a co-worker, I jumped.
ADHD brings clarity
Now, I’ve forgiven myself. I know I’m not lazy or messy, or unmotivated. I’ve got ADHD. My neurodivergent brain processes information differently. This epiphany did not surprise my friends and family, who have come to accept my shortcomings over the years, developing their own workarounds.
This diagnosis has helped me discover new systems to manage my EF challenges better. Like time blocking each day the night before so I know what I’m doing when I wake up each day. And leaning in to helpful gurus like Brendon Burchard to stay focused on short and long-term goals.
I feel fortunate to have found a path that allows me to do what I love every day in the real world, surrounded by a network of people and solutions that understand and support me. I no longer feel guilty about the tasks I don’t manage well, like keeping my desk clean or making my bed daily. Instead, I use that time and energy to lean into my superpowers, like learning new things and developing amazingly creative campaigns for my clients. I’m good with that. Given the choice, I’d rather make a living by creating brilliant, successful campaigns on the entrepreneur rollercoaster than ride the merry-go-round of doing repetitive tasks to earn a paycheck.
History is filled with ADHD brains
Some of the greatest minds in history struggled with ADHD, based on the descriptions of their childhood and tendencies as adults, including Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Mozart, and Walt Disney. Their stories reveal a common thread: struggles in school, difficulty focusing on one thing, being forgetful yet productive, succeeding as a problem-solver, and imagining a world different than what exists.
Diversity in thinking
Years ago, a major CPG company proudly announced that its employees were required to leave the office with a clean desk every day. While this was music to my business partner’s ears, it sounded like a nightmare to me. Chances are ADHD innovators probably didn’t last there. They didn’t fit the mold.
Tom Peters once wrote that change happens on the edges of an organism, not the middle. If you want to move forward, seek those who look at things differently from the rest.
As you build out your team, consider how those who don’t fit the mold could improve your team. Sure, neurodivergent thinkers may be more challenging to manage (autistic individuals can miss social cues, for example), they also can drive innovation within the workplace. Having team members who perceive the world differently can spark ideas for a different approach to product design; creative thinking can also general creative solutions for new products or categories.
If you need a fresh approach from a source that will be all-in on your assignment, reach out.
NOTE: I had planned to drop this blog during Mental Health Awareness Month. Naturally, I tried but didn’t quite get it done in May. Since the blog is important but not a client project, it’s not as much of a priority. Oh, the irony.