By DYAN MACHAN
People who have it sometimes like to call it their superpower, but in reality, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a learning disability. Still, it's surprisingly common among high-achieving business founders, and entrepreneurs afflicted with it are in good company, with Kinko's founder Paul Orfalea and JetBlue founder David Neeleman among the many who talk openly about their having attention-deficit issues. It stands to reason that ADHD would thrive among those calling the shots. While they are often labeled as misfits inside big organizations, their restless creativity dovetails with the high-drama problem-solving associated with running a start-up.
In cases of ADHD, the brain chemicals that regulate attention and brain activity function differently than in the "normal" brain. For those with the disorder, it's harder to buckle down and concentrate and to anticipate the outcomes of their actions. Still, many entrepreneurs have learned to cope when their brains are flooding them with information, and their strategies can be helpful for anyone facing information overload. For people with ADHD, biology is probably to blame. For the rest of us, it's living in 2011.
On the plus side, people with ADHD often have an immense amount of energy, and they think outside the box -- because their ideas could never fit inside one box. On the minus side, they have an inability to focus on what bores them, can make sloppy errors when rushing (which is almost always) and have a stronger-than-average tendency to put a foot in their mouth.
Steve Ferree, 57, says his ADHD and his inability to slow down came into sharp focus after he bought into a Mr. Rooter Plumbing franchise in Portland, Ore. If he had been more thorough, he says, he might have seen an expense overrun that eventually cost him $30,000. He got frustrated with one employee who didn't think as quickly as he did and would snap at that worker -- "something I regret," he says. If at all possible, folks in Ferree's position should get a personal assistant to sweat the small stuff, advises Kathy Marshack, a psychologist in Portland whose practice treats folks who fit the ADHD description. When it comes to those kinds of errors, she says, "people don't care if you meant it or not." In Ferree's case, medication helped; so did getting his wife, a detail person, more involved in his work. They made a vow to sleep on any big decisions. And when he starts to get frustrated, he'll go for a walk or drink a glass of water.
New York based angel investor and technology expert Peter Shankman, 38, has leveraged his ADHD while running his consulting firm The Geek Factory. He once confused Shanghai with Singapore when making plane reservations; on another occasion, he booked dinners on the same night on two different continents. He, too, has embraced the necessity of executive assistants who are involved in every aspect of his life -- or technology that does the same: "Google Calendar is my friend," he says.
Attention-challenged folks like Adam Boettiger, 45, benefit from having rigidly structured days. That was no problem when he was in the military, but it became an issue when he started his own digital marketing firm, Eyes on Target, in Oregon. Learning about his ADHD has made him an expert on data overload, and he's writing a book on how to minimize digital intrusion. "With overload, you start to lose function," he says. Now he has several tools that help him work without distraction. In a typical day, he'll have 40 to 50 new ideas. Instead of letting them derail him, he jots them on an index card and drops them in a box to review the next morning. He also uses Vitamin-R, a software program that helps him slice up time for big tasks.
No fan of multitasking, Boettiger tries to focus on one job at a time. He believes in turning off all his mobile devices. "I give myself permission to be unreachable," he says, "and get into the zone." Shankman takes that concept to an extreme. Asked to write a book in two weeks, he reserved a business class flight to Tokyo. When he got there, he drank a few espressos in the lounge, turned around and came back. He finished the book in 30 hours. The trip cost $4,000 and was "worth every penny," he says.
Shareholder advocate, movie critic and entrepreneur Nell Minow figured out boredom was her ADHD's most troublesome symptom; it was the reason she was labeled an underachiever in high school. Since her realization, she has rarely worked at fewer than two jobs -- "I like having lots of things coming at me at once," she says -- and has organized her life to avoid meetings. "If I am chairing a meeting, I can keep it going," she says. Otherwise, "I curl up in a fetal position."
Of course, there are times when we all have to face boring stuff; it's just a bit harder for those with ADHD. When Shankman feels a spell coming on -- a wall of resistance to paying attention -- he drops for 10 push-ups, "if it's not too strange for people." And if he has the time, he'll also take a day for skydiving. Like the amphetamines that are frequently prescribed for ADHD, high thrills seem capable of helping quiet an overfiring brain. That's yet another reason these folks might not be comfortable working at some corporate behemoths -- and that's those companies' loss.