Entrepreneurship is about moving forwards. It involves branching out, a search for the new, starting a journey in which the destination is unknown. In a sense then, it is not an entirely rational process, in which actions are driven by considerations of consequences. Instead, entrepreneurship requires a certain impulsiveness and an ability to act without fear of consequence. Precisely the symptoms seen in people diagnosed with ADHD.
ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – is a common neuro-development psychological disorder characterised by problems with focus, impulsivity and high activity level. It is normally associated with a range of negative consequences such as crime, social exclusion, and academic under-performance.
But in an entrepreneurial context, we have found, it is a condition which brings clear advantages. Our recent study into the experiences of entrepreneurs with ADHD offers a glimpse into a different kind of thinking and acting. Prominent entrepreneurs such as Ikea founder, Ingvar Kamprad, Virgin boss, Richard Branson, and airline mogul, David Neeleman, have often been in the press in relation to having ADHD, and some view the condition as instrumental to their success.
Neeleman said in an interview:
If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], I would take ADD.
With the disorganisation, procrastination and inability to focus, and all the other bad things that come with ADD, there also come creativity and the ability to take risks.
It is therefore the context rather than the condition itself that determine its value. Entrepreneurship and academia could not be more different: one opens up new possibilities and the other rationalises them. Our study set out to explore the possible advantages that aspects of ADHD bring to entrepreneurship.
One key plus point was that impulsivity leads to bold business choices, undeterred by unknown consequences, such as buying a business on the spot. Acting without thinking places intuition and gut feelings at centre stage.
Impatience triggers proactive behaviours and a constant churn of new ideas. One entrepreneur we interviewed from the education industry had introduced 250 new products in just a few years. The need for novelty enables risk taking and improvisation in unexpected situations. Such circumstances could be highly stressful for others, but as the respondents indicated in our in-depth interviews into the interplay between their personal conditions and entrepreneurial journeys, they felt at ease and stimulated.
Focusing on the good points
Hyperfocus, an intensive concentration and complete absorption in tasks, also gave rise to passion, persistence, and time commitment. While people with ADHD can get easily bored with tasks they do not find interesting, their high levels of absorption in areas that do capture their attention can create a higher work capacity. It can also hone skills and expertise that can give them competitive advantage. In addition, running their own business enables them to set their own hours and match the pace of work with their own energy levels.
Not all attempts at entrepreneurship work out, of course. But failures and setbacks go hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship and are an indelible part of the experimentation it demands. It is by trying many things and experiencing dead ends that those in the business world get to discover what works and what ideas gain traction. The prospect of failure induces fear of the unknown, of taking the first step. ADHD in those we spoke to shortcut through this paralysis. The actions and activities it propels need no external justification. They are internally anchored, with their own sense of appropriateness.
Entrepreneurship research has a strong bias towards positive personal characteristics and positive outcomes. Meanwhile, research on ADHD has tended to focus on its negative consequences. Whether the outcomes of entrepreneurial efforts will be positive or negative cannot be ascertained in advance. But accepting both possibilities is difficult when the rationality of our actions is subject to the judgement of others. ADHD appears to provide useful tools for reducing this fundamental tension. Perhaps in entrepreneurial situations it shouldn’t be called a disorder at all.