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The Mysterious Paradox of Being a High Achiever With ADHD

Today was an awesome coaching day.

I sat back after work and reflected on my day. One client after another was insightful about their own strengths and limitations, creatively and bravely designing new ways of thinking and doing to make real, positive changes. When I was basking in this little glow, I realized that, even though each of my clients is working toward more effectively managing their lives having ADHD, they are, each and every one, very successful adults. As lawyers and professors, they have extremely high educational attainment (more than me, for example). Most are married and raising functioning families. They are effective in their jobs (even though they often don’t feel that way). They can manage their money (at least enough to get by). They think about their health. They are high achievers on all of those things we consider adult outcomes of success.

But, then I bumped into a mysterious paradox: How can this be?

ADHD makes it harder to direct your own intentions, actions, and thoughts. Harder to act on what you know. Harder. And, therefore life outcomes tend to be less rosy. Statistics support the negative effects of ADHD on life outcomes. Bad stuff, like not graduating from high school, not going to or graduating from college, getting fired from jobs, greater frequency of alcohol or drug abuse, poor health habits, money trouble, marriage problems, and more accidents (Barkley, 2008). ADHD is about a lot more than feeling a little bored at today’s meeting, losing your keys, or finding yourself checking your Twitter feed when you should be working. ADHD can look like those things, but when you add up a lifetime of ADHD challenges, you can get mired in negative outcomes that are pretty awful.

So, how can it be that so many people with ADHD are such high achievers?

High Achievers With ADHD Have Unique Talents and Interests

Going back to my clients for just a moment will make it plain that high achievers with ADHD typically have quite special interests and talents. One argues legal cases of international importance (which I cannot legally name nor understand), another reports to the UN on her very specialized research (which, also, cannot be spoken of, but we should thank her). Others are scientists working in esoteric fields of study (that I cannot pronounce). These are people who have developed very specialized interests and talents and have built their life’s work around those interests and talents.

Dr. Thomas Brown, my favorite ADHD scholar, calls this phenomenon the “central mystery of ADHD.” In his book, Outside the Box, he writes that, “Although they have considerable chronic difficulty in getting organized and getting started on many tasks, focusing their attention, sustaining their efforts, and utilizing their short-term working memory, all of those diagnosed with ADHD tend to have at least a few specific activities or tasks for which they have no difficulty in exercising these very same functions in a normal or even extraordinary way” (Brown, 2017, p. 6). These specific activities or tasks can be the foundation for high achievement, as we have seen in the press, which loves to talk about CEOs, famous singers, actors, and athletes who have ADHD.

High Achievers With ADHD Can Do Well in School

Even though educational attainment is lower for people with ADHD in general, some do extremely well in school. Anna Levine, a lawyer with ADHD and the Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned with Lawyers of Massachusetts, explains, “Many people associate ADHD with professional or academic dysfunction. While this can often be the outcome, it is not necessarily so. I always did well in school and even was an excellent test-taker.”

Research shows that being really smart may actually mask the symptoms of ADHD (Milioni, 2017). Highly intelligent children and adults with ADHD have been shown to rely on more efficient parts of the brain to make up for the weaker executive functioning associated with ADHD. So, people with high IQs tend to perform better in school and in life despite their ADHD. Life as a person with a high IQ does not necessarily mean an easier life, but it can mean you do better in school. Similarly, doing better in school does not automatically lead to high achievement and some very high achievers did not do so hot in school. However, there are certain types of work in life that do require higher educational attainment. Just ask the lawyers and professors I work with.

High Achievers With ADHD Work Harder

One of the most common complaints I hear is that things take longer when you have ADHD. This is sometimes true and sometimes people with ADHD can work at surreal speeds, especially if they are up against a deadline. Most of the people I know with ADHD work really hard at their jobs to handle some of the inherent inefficiencies that come along with ADHD. More than one lawyer with ADHD I have worked with has explained how they will “discount” some of their billable hours in order to make up for what they perceive as a slower working style. They will work later, on weekends, or during lunch to make sure they are producing as expected (at least as expected by themselves). Getting a doctoral degree, building your own business, or researching for the UN are difficult enough. Imagine how hard you have to work to do achieve those very things when you have ADHD – when organizing, prioritizing, activating to work, avoiding distractions and managing your time are so challenging. They work harder.

Working harder can also mean working on the things that matter and not working on the things that do not matter to you. So, you don’t have to work hard at everything. Michael Phelps, who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, worked really hard to be the best swimmer ever, but he might not have to work so hard at less-important-to-him things. (For more on working on the things that matter and not on the things that don’t, read this.)

High Achievers With ADHD Seek Support

Generally, those who achieve a lot in life have support from others – their parents, a special teacher or mentor, a spouse, or a coach. This is true for adults with ADHD as well, but can be even more important. Not forgetting Michael Phelps, in a 2017 interview he said, “I think the biggest thing for me, once I found that it was okay to talk to someone and seek help, I think that’s something that has changed my life forever,” he says. “Now I’m able to live life to its fullest.” Talking to someone and seeking help can help lead to high achievement.

Support includes appropriate treatment for ADHD. According to research, treatment for ADHD significantly improves long-term outcomes, even though it often does not “normalize” outcomes (Shaw, 2012). This treatment can include ADHD diagnosis, medication, and what is called “non-pharmacological” treatments like ADHD coaching. Part of being a high achiever with ADHD is seeking out support when you know you would benefit from the help, a new perspective, or a little guidance. (For more on the benefits of group support, read this.)

Today when I bumped up against the mysterious paradox of being a high achiever with ADHD, I thought carefully about my clients. I realized that part of their experience is to

exist in the paradox – that being a high achiever with ADHD means that they must deeply understand that life outcomes are more difficult for them to achieve, while, at the same time, relying on their interests and talents, their smarts, working harder at what matters, and getting support to help them achieve quite a lot.

Learn more about the Mysterious Paradox of Being a High Achiever with ADHD in this episode of ADHD Support Talk Radio with Tara McGillicuddy and Lynne Edris:

Unlinked References

Barkley, R., Murphy, K., Fischer, M. (2008). ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Brown, Thomas E. (2017). Outside the Box: Rethinking Add/Adhd in Children and Adults - a Practical Guide. Arlington, VA: Amer Psychiatric Pub.

Milioni, A. L. V., Chaim, T. M., Cavallet, M., de Oliveira, N. M., Annes, M., Dos Santos, B., … Cunha, P. J. (2017). High IQ May “Mask” the Diagnosis of ADHD by Compensating for Deficits in Executive Functions in Treatment-Naïve Adults With ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 21(6), 455–464.

Shaw, M., Hodgkins, P., Caci, H., Young, S., Kahle, J., Woods, A. G., & Arnold, L. E. (2012). A systematic review and analysis of long-term outcomes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: effects of treatment and non-treatment. BMC Medicine, 10, 99.


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