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Useful career advice

  • tamsin338

ADHD career strengths and successes

As part of my MSc programme a few years ago, I undertook some research into ADHD careers. It was something I felt strongly about for personal and professional reasons. At the time (and arguably, still) ADHD isn't brilliantly understood within career support, and I was very keen to explore ADHD in a positive way, and by talking with adult ADHDers about their experiences. Roll on five years, and I finally managed to get around to publishing the work, which I'm really pleased about. What follows here is a lay summary, and there is a link to the full research at the bottom of the page. It's worth your time if only to read some of the incredibly powerful narratives of my participants - all awesome, self-aware, and incredibly articulate with their insights.

Research summary

This research offers a positive-focused exploration on the perceptions of career-based strengths and successes of ADHD adults. The paper reframes the predominantly pathologised view of ADHD, offering important insight and guidance for coaching professionals working with neurominority clients, and presenting nuanced, relatable narratives for the ADHD community.

We interviewed seventeen participants, all self-identifying as successful in their careers. We used the feedforward interview technique, which focuses on positive experiences and ‘high points’ to elicit empowering personal narratives. We found this a very useful technique in a qualitative research with a neurominority. Findings revealed two core themes: the paradoxical nature of strengths, and career success as an evolving narrative. Participants expressed achieving career success 'in spite of' and 'because of' their ADHD.

They constructed strengths in three ways: firstly as ‘core strengths’; these seemed to be strengths that were particularly attributed to their ADHD, such as spontaneity, making connections, and justice sensitivity: “the things we ADHDers do best, are the things that we do out of an emotional response…” (Kaj, Police Inspector). Strengths such as hyperfocus, altruism, humour, and resilience were framed as ‘adaptive’, often as a response to trickier elements of the ADHD condition: “…by helping other people knock down their barriers, I am mothering the ghost of the girl I used to be” (Sarah, Tutor). Finally, certain strengths were identified as regularly being ‘overplayed’, such as autonomy and energy: “As soon as you get momentum with ADHD, it’s amazing where you can go. But the momentum works both ways… if you get in a bad place, it’s very easy to go down.” (Pete, Entrepreneur)

The participants had a range of responses to the concept of career success. It was interesting to combine these into a visual model with an evolving narrative, ranging from a fundamental difficulty in recognising their success, through to confidently embracing their achievements and future potential; often moderated by the diagnosis of ADHD and the self-awareness that it brought. It was clear that participants felt that their most authentic successes occurred because of their ADHD; successes achieved in spite of their ADHD had been hard-won.

“I do think that the biggest difference came when I accepted my strengths and found strategies for my weaknesses… when I stopped trying to fit into boxes I wasn’t going to fit in...” (Jenny, Project Manager)

We developed the model below to illustrate how the construction of strengths interact with perceptions of success:

Crook, T. and McDowall, A. (2023), "Paradoxical career strengths and successes of ADHD adults: an evolving narrative", Journal of Work-Applied Management, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.

Link to full research, here.

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