Get Ahead

Work was overwhelming. I couldn't stay motivated. I'd get let go. Turns out I have ADHD.

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That's me.
Photo courtesy Gili Malinsky

I have been let go and fired a few times … More times than I'd like to admit. 

In part, it's my field. Media is constantly trying to keep up with public interest, and whole teams can get cut when they're suddenly deemed irrelevant. To quote fashion mogul Heidi Klum: One day you're in, and the next day, you're out.

And regardless of industry, it's typical to get let go or fired at some point in your life. "Plan on being 'let go involuntarily' at least twice in your career," says Julie Bauke, founder and chief career strategist with The Bauke Group. "Whether this is due to performance or as a part of a large layoff, it happens to the best of us."

For me, it turns out an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder might've also played into it. At 33, I found out I have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. And looking back, now that I know I have it, I can see how it affected my performance.

ADHD impairs your executive functions, which enable you to plan, focus and juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, according to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. All of those are crucial for success in today's workplace. 

At one staff writing job, for example, I remember being overwhelmed constantly. The directives themselves were pretty simple: create daily slideshows, send boss potential language to introduce pieces on social media, research content for future work. But remembering it all and having it be somehow organized in my brain was impossible. It felt like there was no way those tasks were going to stick and straighten out. It was just too much information all at once.

That's pretty common, says J. Russell Ramsay, associate professor and co-director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania. The functions involved with being able to see all of the information then break it down are part of the brain's working memory. And "a weakened working memory is a facet of ADHD," he says.

Four or five months into every job, I'd also experience a great loss of motivation. I wanted every role I got, but somehow, after those four or five months, I'd have to force myself to do it. It felt like a chemical switch in my brain. Getting myself to write or edit an article was a constant fight with my will. I remember going home every night and reading articles about motivation and productivity. Nothing worked. 

Plan on being 'let go involuntarily' at least twice in your career.
Julie Bauke
Founder and chief career strategist, The Bauke Group

That early period in any job is "sort of like a honeymoon period in a relationship," says Ramsay. It's new, it's exciting, it's a little scary. You want to make a good impression. But, "It always wears off," he says. And folks with ADHD feel that more sharply. Those chemicals in your brain that help you stay motivated even after that initial phase, like oxytocin and serotonin, are more erratic in their effectiveness in the ADHD brain. People with this disorder need more external motivation to keep them going.

There was also the perennial distractedness associated with ADHD. My distractions tend to be more internal than external. My brain always preferred to be imagining the speech I'd give at my alma mater Boston University's commencement (post Pulitzer, of course) or a date with some hot celebrity (Andrew Garfield, amiright) than about anything else I was doing.

Sometimes those distractions were deeper. Over time, I grew angry with myself. I was constantly worried I wouldn't be able to perform, and it was only a matter of time before I'd mess up again. I believed I was a failure, and I was likely destined to fail. I carried this weight and it pulled my attention from whatever I was doing.

Internal distraction can be harder to deal with than external, says Amishi Jha, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and the author of "Peak Mind." "With internal distraction, it's with you no matter where you are, wherever you go," she says.

Given all of this, my output sorely suffered. And, eventually, I'd get let go.

Luckily, with every painful work experience came lessons. I learned to break down tasks for myself and schedule them throughout the day in a calendar, notebook or Excel spreadsheet. I learned to tackle the big, scary projects first because the only way out is through. I learned to ask for praise when I was doing a good job because I need that external motivation. 

Two weeks before I got my diagnosis, my therapist suggested that, maybe, I have ADHD. I cried. It suddenly clicked that maybe this difference I'd been feeling in how I function versus everyone else has a name. And that it's real. For the first time I felt like maybe I could actually forgive myself my many f---ups. Maybe they weren't entirely my fault. 

When it comes to that internal emotional distraction, "Once you release that," says Jha, "you all of a sudden have more capacity available to you" to focus on everything else. After I got my diagnosis, that anger and fear began to dissipate.

These days, I read books about my disorder to get a sense of how this brain works. I'm vocal with friends, colleagues and managers about it. I do mindfulness meditation every morning, which, while it can't exactly fix the system, has given me a greater awareness of where my attention is at any given moment. I, myself, am not medicated, though, I know that's a great help to others. And I try to forgive myself whenever I mess up. 

Poster for "This is My First ADHD Support Group."
Photo by Lauren Shamo and Kiersten Schmidt

I even wrote a monologue loosely based on my experiences that got into a theater festival this year. (I stress loosely because a lot has been embellished for the sake of comedy.) It's called "This is My First ADHD Support Group" and chronicles the main character's many times getting fired until she finally finds out she has ADHD. The crux of the piece is self-compassion.

Around 4.4% of U.S. adults have ADHD, according to a 2006 University of Michigan survey of 3,199 people ages 18 to 44, which experts still cite today. That's about 8 to 9 million adults. Most are undiagnosed and untreated. I am terrified to publish this piece, but I'm hoping it's of some help to them (or anyone, really). For me, finding out I have ADHD was monumental. 

My diagnosis was three years ago. And I haven't been let go or fired since.

For credible information and guidance from professionals familiar with ADHD, go to Children and Adults with ADHD, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, or the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders.

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