A common scapegoat for the bored, forgetful, and disorganized, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are referenced so frequently (and often flippantly) that a diagnosis can seem more colloquial than medical. But for roughly 4% of adults, it's a serious neurological condition. And the poor concentration, restlessness, and impulsivity that accompanies it can easily derail a career.
“People are struggling with this,” says David Ballard, Ph.D., assistant executive director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Research suggests that people with ADHD are often underutilized, underemployed, and in jobs that are below their actual capabilities. Often, how they’re functioning may not reflect how smart and capable they actually are.”
Certain accommodations, like organizational systems that manage workflow and desk spaces designed to minimize distractions, can help some employees with ADHD function effectively, Ballard says. But like every other group of people, this is a diverse bunch — there’s no job, industry, or task that will resonate with all of them.
There are some jobs, however, that attract more ADHD employees than others. If you (or your kid) has been diagnosed, here’s a mini-career guide to the big ones.
Roles that are challenging, rewarding, and ever-changing offer an escape from the usual office drudgery. ADHD employees tend to gravitate towards these jobs and research suggests they may be uniquely positioned to succeed in them.
A report published last year in the Journal of Business Venturing Insights suggests that for entrepreneurs with ADHD, symptoms like hyperfocus and impulsivity could actually give them an edge.
The study, led by Johan Wiklund, Ph.D., of Syracuse University, tapped a group of entrepreneurs who had been previously diagnosed with the condition.
“For people with ADHD, what is appropriate is to act, not think or wait; to seek novelty,” it says. “Our results suggest that ADHD symptoms—despite their otherwise negative connotation—convey a different logic, which seems better attuned to entrepreneurial action.”
Jim Fowler, founder and CEO of the business insight platform Owler, says this isn't a secret in the business world.
“You don’t meet many entrepreneurs who are good at focusing on one thing for a long time,” he says. “In this business, you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see the person to blame if things don’t work. That solves a lot of the potential boredom issues. I wear a lot of hats, and I jump from department to department. I have ADD, so it’s perfect for me. “
“There’s a certain adrenaline rush that comes with sales,” Fowler says. “It’s constantly changing, every sale has a new process. I came up through the tech industry in sales, and I loved it.”
In a column for ADDitude magazine, clinical psychologist and ADHD specialist Russell Barkley writes that sales positions have indeed provided a successful career path for some of his adult patients.
“These jobs involve freedom of movement, changes in setting, a flexible schedule, frequent meetings with new contacts, opportunities for talking and social interaction, and passion for the product,” he writes. “Adults with ADD/ADHD may need assistance back at the home office with completing reports and paperwork, but they do well in the field.”
Cooking, bartending and serving gigs offer a mix of creativity, instant gratification, and quick, manageable tasks — a good combination for some people with ADHD, according to Barkley.
“Unusual or flexible hours, with sporadic ebb-and-flow pacing, add just the right touch of excitement to keep you alert and focused on the work at hand,” he writes in the ADDitude column.
Last year, the UK-based chef Heston Blumenthal told the education news site TES that he struggles “quite severely” with the condition.
“But I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says. “I have a very busy head.”
Medical professionals like nurses and emergency room staff are constantly on their toes, leaving little room for the redundancies that tend to make ADHD employees cringe.
“In the medical field you truly do not know what to expect every time you step into your place of work,” says Joel Klein, a New York-based business coach and producer of BizTank. “There are so many new faces that you see every day, new circumstances, different results. And making a difference in other people's lives gives you the drive and energy to keep going and not get bored.”
In a recent Reddit thread for people with ADHD, users made a long list of the jobs they’ve found amenable to their condition. Hospital escorts, X-ray technicians, and therapy assistants were among the many medical professions that made the cut.
Teaching requires self-direction, ample preparation, and lightning-quick reactions — a good fit for some ADHD minds.
“It’s a job that does not require you to sit at a desk, read through emails and have the same type of experience every day,” Klein says. “You hardly will teach the same thing twice, and when you do, it’s to a different audience. No two days are the same, especially when you work with small children.”
Tulsa-based career coach Mike Whitaker, author of The Decision Makeover, says that for ADHD employees who fear the mundane, teaching and other “interactive positions,” (career coach, waitress, personal assistant, physical therapist) are the best career bet.
“You don’t know how your day is going to go, and that is interesting and challenging," he says. “You respond to the needs, questions, requests and urgency of other people. It is less predictable and more varied in what is asked of you.”