Jenny Dearborn remembers as a kid in the 1980s being told to leave class and run laps around her school to burn off her excess, fidgety energy.
“The more I moved my body, the easier it was to focus my mind. If I forced myself to sit still, my mind would race and my hearing would be affected,” Dearborn said.
Her grades weren’t good enough to get her into a four-year college. So she went to a two-year community college and worked in the school’s administration office. Her managers noticed how bright and articulate she was, and suggested she get tested for learning disabilities. She found out she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“As soon as I was diagnosed I was hugely relieved and incredibly angry at everyone who had told me I was stupid or ‘retarded,’ at every teacher or counselor who dismissed me,” Dearborn said.
Dearborn went on to become a successful Silicon Valley executive, holding c-suite level positions with SAP, Hewlett-Packard and other technology companies. Today, she’s a board member, adviser and investor in several companies focused on education technologies and on the hiring, development and motivation of employees.
ADHD was not a widely known or well understood condition before the 1990s. And it is still predominantly diagnosed in children and adolescents.
Symptoms include an inability to keep still or focus on anything that doesn’t fully absorb one’s interest, disorganization, regularly missing appointments, poor performance in school or at work, and poor impulse control. Official estimates suggest 4.4% of US adults actually have ADHD. And the majority go undiagnosed and untreated, said Dr. Lenard Adler, who is the director of the adult ADHD program at NYU Langone Health.
Adults with ADHD who go untreated can run a higher risk of car accidents, divorce, job loss and sexually transmitted diseases.
But some very successful people who have ADHD believe the condition has helped propel them by encouraging their creativity. Dearborn now says she feels “blessed” to have it because it pushed her to show those who doubted her as a child just how successful she could be.
Damien Hooper-Campbell, 40, didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD until his mid-20s.
When he was a kid, he said he was hyper-focused in certain areas, but had little attention for others.
“I might miss English or math to stay longer in painting or drawing because I was so locked into it,” he said.
More from Success
Hooper-Campbell did okay grade-wise in college but not nearly as well as he might have, he later realized. “Things got done, but in a very disorganized way.”
After a post-college stint on Wall Street that he knew wasn’t his calling, he landed a job he loved at a nonprofit focused on economically revitalizing underserved communities. But it became clear something was off.
“I thought, this doesn’t make sense. I have a passion for this work, but for the life of me I can’t focus on anything,” Hooper-Campbell said.
In the course of consulting with a psychiatrist, he was diagnosed.
Today, Hooper-Campbell is eBay’s chief diversity officer, a job he took after running diversity efforts at Google and Uber.
Keeping their condition secret
Both Dearborn and Hooper-Campbell managed to get as far as they have by learning to accommodate their challenges, which in Hooper-Campbell’s case includes taking medication.
They also both decided to eventually disclose their condition at work officially.
Hooper-Campbell brought it up when interviewing with eBay. “I knew it was going to be the biggest leadership role of my career. And I knew my success was dependent on being as transparent as possible.”
He also now speaks about it openly after an experience of losing his medication before giving a talk to 300 eBay employees in Europe. He told them he might be “a little quirky” because he lost his meds. Afterward, he noted, an employee came up to him and said, “I also have ADHD and have medication. Would you like some?”
The lesson Hooper-Campbell learned is that “it’s ok to be open. That level of vulnerability helps others to be open. And those with learning disabilities have often suffered in silence and tried to cover for it. Now I intentionally talk about it.”
Before she went public, Dearborn, 49, spent years accommodating her condition by, among other things, standing during meetings. If asked why, she’d lie and say her kids kept her up all night and that she’d fall asleep if she sat down.
She’d also require her employees to keep emails very short. “When I’d get a long email, I wouldn’t even read it. I’d send it back and say whatever you’re telling me you have to tell me more succinctly. They just thought I was a super busy executive,” Dearborn said.
But when she was at SAP, she said she decided to talk about her ADHD and dyslexia, because she was in such a high position. “It was quite calculated. I knew it would be inspirational for others.”
Staying on task
Symptoms alone are not enough to diagnose ADHD, Adler noted. They need to seriously impair you in two out of three major areas in your life: Work or school, home life and social settings.
Also adults with ADHD are able to trace its roots back to childhood, Adler said.
Symptoms typically start to show up in force when the demands on your attention, time and organizational skills ramp up.
In adults that can often mean when you get a promotion or have children.
“I’ve treated executives who say, ‘I just want to play with my kids,’” Adler said. For instance, they have a hard time paying attention when reading to their children.
The inability to stay on task can be masked at work for executives because they have people helping them. Sometimes an executive will go to see Adler when they’ve lost their best assistant and start falling behind on projects. Hooper-Campbell refers to his executive assistant as his “business partner.”
Some ADHD specialists will say those who succeed do so despite their condition not because of it. But there’s widespread agreement that the condition does not preclude success if it’s treated – whether through medication, cognitive therapy or setting things up in a way that ameliorates the challenges ADHD presents.
Although not benign, “it’s a perfectly treatable condition,” Adler said.