Entrepreneur Peter Shankman on Why ADHD Is Great for Business
By: Anne Fisher
Can a “disability” be an advantage in the workplace? Yes, says Peter Shankman, author of Faster Than Normal.
In many ways, Shankman is typical of people with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). From childhood on, he struggled to tune out distractions long enough to finish an assignment, follow instructions, or organize a project.
At the same time, though, Shankman bubbled over with ideas. A serial entrepreneur who has started and sold three thriving companies, he now runs two enterprises while traveling constantly, giving hundreds of speeches a year. He hosts a popular podcast called “Faster Than Normal”; he’s authored three previous books, two of which were bestsellers.
His prodigious output isn’t despite ADHD, he believes, but because of it. “Simply put, the ADHD brain is an untapped, nearly limitless source of creative ideas, energy, and passion,” he writes, “much, much more so than a ‘regular’ brain.
“The caveat,” Shankman adds, “is that we need to learn how to tap into it…[and] how to channel, harness, and properly utilize that power.”
Faster Than Normal is a detailed, down-to-earth guidebook on how to turn ADHD from a potential liability into an asset.
It’s a skill that more employees, and their managers, may find they need. Roughly 5% of the total U.S. workforce has been diagnosed with ADHD. That’s about 800,000 employees, and it seems the number is growing.
A detailed new study on disabilities in the workplace from the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit research group, notes that—due in part to recent advances in the study of brain chemistry—44% of Millennials in white-collar jobs have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, including ADHD, versus 25% of Baby Boomers and 37% of Gen X.
Monster recently spoke with Shankman about how to make the most of ADHD at work to maximize employee performance.
Q. Most people tend to think of attention-deficit disorder as a problem, but you say it’s been behind “most of my success.” Why?
A. The same brain chemistry that causes symptoms you don’t want, like difficulty concentrating, also has some effects you do want.
People with ADHD are usually innovators, because they see connections between seemingly unrelated things and ideas. Thinking differently, not following the crowd, can be a huge advantage in any business.
The “hyperactivity” part of ADHD matters, too. Many regular people come up with an idea and then spend so much time thinking about it that they never actually do it.
People with ADHD don’t have that problem. We move fast. I came up with the idea for one of my online companies on a flight from Houston to L.A. I had a whole business plan by the time the plane landed, and the web site was up the next day.
Q. How do you manage someone with ADHD differently?
A. There’s been plenty of research showing that people with this disorder tend to change jobs more often, and have less success in their careers generally, than most employees. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Managers can help people with ADHD do truly stellar work by making a few fairly simple changes, including:
- Work off their excess energy. Someone with ADHD absolutely needs a physical workout during the day. It’s not optional. So don’t hesitate to allow that person an hour to go to the gym, or just out for a long, brisk walk at midday.
- Provide a firm deadline. ADHD makes it hard to focus on a task without a deadline. So never say to someone with ADHD, “Just get to this when you have time.” That is the kiss of death. Give us firm deadlines.
The point really is to allow each employee to find the zone where he or she is most productive. Because we have trouble tuning out distractions, that might mean letting an ADHD employee work flexible hours.
Personally, I come into the office at 6 a.m., because I do my best work in the three hours before other people come in and start distracting me.
Q. As a manager with ADHD, what has helped you most?
A. One thing that helps me tremendously is making sure I hire people who are good at following up on details. ADHD often means you are great at seeing the big picture, but not so good at the practical nuts and bolts. So surrounding myself with detail-oriented people has taken a huge weight off my mind.
Something else to be aware of is that, with ADHD, your mind works faster than other people’s. So, before a meeting, make a conscious effort to take several deep breaths, focus your attention, and get ready to speak calmly. Slow down your train of thought enough so that other people can follow you.
Q. You’ve interviewed lots of fellow entrepreneurs and other businesspeople with ADHD on your podcast, “Faster Than Normal”. What have these conversations revealed about ADHD?
A. The main thing is that having a faster-than-normal brain does not mean you are ‘broken’. Kids grow up thinking that, if they’re not like everyone else, there’s something ‘wrong’ with them.
But it’s no coincidence that many super-successful people, like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, have either been diagnosed with ADHD or have shown distinct signs of it.
Having a faster brain is like having a Lamborghini versus a Honda. The Lamborghini is better—if you know how to drive it.