That guy who says he has ADHD and can’t stay still in lecture? He’ll probably make a great entrepreneur when college is over, a new study has found. The disorder’s associated traits seem to foster entrepreneurship, making people more willing to embrace new experiences and demonstrate passion and persistence in their work.
ADHD gets a lot of bad rep, being associated with hyperactivity, poor concentration, and impulsive behavior. And overall, it’s a disorder that’s viewed as having a negative impact on someone’s performance, be it academic or in the workplace. So why then do successful entrepreneurs often exhibit this disorder?
“We noticed sometime that some symptoms of ADHD resemble behaviors commonly associated with entrepreneurship — in a positive sense,” says Prof. Holger Patzelt of the Entrepreneurship Research Institute at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).
Working together with Professor Johan Wiklund at the Syracuse University Dimo Dimov at the University of Bath, Patzelt surveyed 14 self-employed people diagnosed with ADHD about their diagnoses, career path, and personal background. Their study shows that central traits of ADHD have had a decisive role to play in the subjects’ decision to go into business as well as their approach to entrepreneurship.
First on the list is impulsiveness. People with ADHD are notorious for their short attention span and patience, and several of the participants listed boredom as a big factor in their decision to self-employ — as it allowed them to pursue their own ideas whenever they desired. One woman said that running her own company has allowed her to introduce 250 new products in just a few years. Many participants also reported being at ease, even stimulated, by situations that others would find stressful, such as meetings with important customers.
“Their impulsiveness, resulting from ADHD, gives them the advantage of being able to act under unforeseen circumstances without falling into anxiety and paralysis,” says Patzelt.
Most of the subjects also reported they often act without thinking of the consequences, relying on intuition even for choices that have far-reaching effects. One participant described how he found out a friend was retiring and deciding to buy his company over the course of a single lunch. Others say they make investments with no strategy and are willing to commit large sums of money on projects with highly uncertain outcomes. Some say that this kind of quick decision making is key to staying productive, and are willing to suffer some setbacks from time to time — others have difficulty coping with structured activities.
This willingness to try new things and take risks is “an important entrepreneurial trait,” Parzelt says. However, he notes that these impulsive actions led to success only when they focused on activities essential to the development of the respondents’ businesses.
But it does come with a drawback, too. All participants mentioned they have problems with routine tasks such as bookkeeping.
If they develop a strong interest in a task or subject, people with ADHD can sometimes pursue it with an incredible level of single-mindedness, know as hyperfocus. One of the subjects said he often becomes completely absorbed in his work — crafting customer solutions. Another said he keeps up with new technologies in his field to such an extent that he is now often contacted as an expert on the subject.
Many of the respondents also said they work day and night without taking time off. This could come down to their hyperfocus, but can also be explained through the physical restlessness associated with ADHD. Because their energy levels can fluctuate wildly throughout the day, a self-employment model works for better for those with ADHD than traditional nine to fives, allowing them to set their own hours of work.
“ADHD was a key factor in their decision to go into business for themselves and decisively impacted important entrepreneurial traits: risk taking, passion, persistence and time commitment,” Patzelt concludes.
“Impulsiveness has a special role to play. For People with ADHD it is okay to make intuitive decisions even if the results are bad. With their passion and persistence, and the expertise they acquire as a result, entrepreneurs can gain a substantial competitive advantage.”
Roughly one-third of those surveyed either had little success in their business ventures or had them fail completely. Still, Patzelt believes his findings warrant a reassessment of our assumptions about entrepreneurship.
“The way we evaluate entrepreneurial decisions is largely based on rationality and good outcomes. In view of the multitude of uncertainties, however, can such decisions always be rational? People with ADHD show us a different logic that is perhaps better suited to entrepreneurship.”
The full paper “Entrepreneurship and psychological disorders: How ADHD can be productively harnessed” has been published in the Journal of Business Venturing Insights.