Most of us know what attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) looks like in kids — fidgety, impulsive, inattentive, disorganized, and hyperactive. But about 60 percent of kids continue to have symptoms of ADHD into adulthood.
ADHD looks a bit different in adults. It may present as restlessness, disorganization, and trouble focusing. But ADHD also comes with a unique set of strengths. Choosing a career that capitalizes on strengths and doesn’t depend too heavily on areas of weakness is the key to professional success with adult ADHD. That, and successful ADHD treatment.
There are several job traits that play to the strengths of adults with ADHD:
- Fast pace
- Hands-on and creative
Some careers will employ just one of these qualities, but many offer several in the same job, creating an even greater likelihood of success.
Many people with ADHD are motivated by interest and urgency. Jobs where you’re passionate about the subject matter provide motivation and focus, which can help you succeed. This can be any field that you have a deep interest in — the sky’s the limit.
“The key is interest!” says Honey McKenzie, an adult living with ADHD. She’s been most successful at jobs that allow her to focus on what she enjoys.
Sarah Dhooge lives with ADHD and works as a pediatric speech-language pathologist. “I have a very large caseload of families whose children are newly diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and communication delays/disorders. I am successful at what I do because I love it, I know what it’s like to have ADHD, and I am honest with my families about my own challenges and struggles.”
Social worker Rosetta DeLoof-Primmer also uses her inside knowledge of what it’s like to have ADHD to help her clients. “Having a passion for what I do is extremely important. Without that drive and desire, it would be hard for me,” explains DeLoof-Primmer. “I also feel I relate to my clients on a different level, given that I can both personally and professionally understand where they are coming from and their struggles.”
Since we know many people with ADHD are motivated by urgency, jobs with an inherent sense of urgency help to overcome some ADHD weaknesses.
“People with ADHD tend to work well in a fast-paced, high-intensity environment, like that of an emergency room or ambulance,” says Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, a clinical psychotherapist and assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Careers where a life is on the line provide the ultimate sense of urgency.
“My husband has ADHD. He is a trauma doctor and he thrives in his field,” Miriam Kahn tells Healthline. “He’s absolutely brilliant at it to the point where he’s so focused [that] nothing else exists [in that moment]. His success must be due to the pace — it’s hectic, non-stop action!”
April Race, a nurse living with ADHD, enjoys the rush of working in the operating room. “There’s nothing more exciting than being called in to assist on a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. This job works for me because I only have one patient at a time, I love what I do, and there’s often the added component of adrenaline.”
Jobs in this area include nurse, trauma doctor/surgeon, EMT, and firefighter.
While some adults with ADHD choose jobs that are driven by urgency, others prefer jobs that are highly structured. “Employees with ADHD thrive in environments where they have clear instructions and directives,” Dr. Sarkis says. A structured job is one where there’s a specific workflow and clearly defined tasks. There’s no grey area and no question of expectations.
“I work for a healthcare software company on the training team,” shares Ms. Jones, an adult with ADHD. “I post online training content and troubleshoot e-learning issues for our customers. It’s a lot of strictly following checklists and repeating technical procedures over and over. I cannot function without structure and routines, so this is what makes me successful at it.”
Jobs like this can exist in every industry, but some options include data processing, factory assembly line, and quality control.
It’s no secret that thoughts are constant and moving very fast for most people with ADHD. Harnessing that attribute can mean success on the job. Many adults with ADHD report that they find pleasure in constant change. They thrive in an environment that is stimulating, and one in which they have to adapt and analyze.
“Working in preschools and daycares works for me,” says Stephanie Wells. “That environment lets me be creative and moving all the time!”
Kristin Leslie also enjoys working in education, saying, “I never stop, and I’m never bored.”
“I worked for a major book store in various jobs for years and loved it,” says Kristi Haseltine-syrek. “I walked in the door and hit the ground running. It’s an extremely fast-paced job that allows creativity, and it is never boring.”
Jobs in this area include trauma doctor or nurse, housekeeper, publishing, teacher, sales, and sports coach.
Hands-on jobs are great for those who are restless or easily bored at a desk. They often offer the use of creativity and problem solving skills — areas people with ADHD often excel in. Research supports the common idea that people with ADHD are more likely to reach higher levels of creative thought and accomplishment. The racing ideas in the minds of people with ADHD can contribute to creative thinking.
“Being creative and in control works best for me,” Jacky Moore says. “That’s why I choose to be self-employed in a field that taps into my creativity.”
Jobs in this area include musician, artist, dancer, entertainer, inventor, teacher, construction, mechanic, graphic designer, and interior designer.
Not only does an entrepreneur start their own business, but they are willing to take risks and think innovatively. Those are two positive skills inherent in many people with ADHD. It must be a field they are passionate about though, since running a business also requires areas where people with ADHD struggle, such as planning, organization, and self-motivation.
Successful entrepreneurs with ADHD include Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group; David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways; Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinkos; and Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA.
The bottom line is that it’s possible to have ADHD as an adult and still succeed in the workforce. The key is to seek jobs or fields that use your strengths and interests, but don’t require much of your areas of weakness. With the right motivation, you can thrive on the job.