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  • Sharon Saline Psy.D.

How to Find a Career That Fits Your ADHD Brain

Apply your strengths to land work that you love.

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  • ADHD brains are motivated for things that interest them.

  • Certain careers keep people with ADHD more engaged and productive than others.

  • Informational interviewing, although intimidating, can help you learn about different professions.

  • Nurture resilience by recalling and focusing on previous successes.


Many older teens and emerging adults struggle with figuring out what profession to pursue. You may feel pressure to earn a certain amount of money or find a career with a particular status. But this may not be the best approach.


Of course, you need to consider your salary and your opportunities in a given field. But it’s more useful at the beginning of this process if you can zoom out and consider what you actually like to do.


Given that many people with ADHD wrestle with staying focused and engaged in activities that don’t interest them, reflecting on what captivates you before thinking about other aspects of a career points you in a direction of real possibilities. If you don’t like a subject or task, there may not be much longevity in that career for you.


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How to Identify a Good Career Fit

Start by asking yourself these questions:


  1. What grabs my attention? When do I stay focused? When am I the least overwhelmed or distractible?

  2. What brings me pleasure either in my free time, when I am studying, or when I am working? What activities or tasks make me happy when I’m doing them?

  3. What have I enjoyed or found tolerable related to work in the past?

  4. If I had three wishes for myself related to a profession, what would those be?

  5. What negative messages do I tell myself that thwart me before I even begin on this path?


Once you have some answers, it’s time to reflect on your executive functioning strengths and challenges. There are several work-related challenges for people with ADHD.


First, time management, related to the common ADHD issue of time blindness, can be a real struggle. It’s tough to arrive at meetings or events promptly, to meet deadlines, and to estimate correctly how long something will take.


Second, focus may be a stumbling block. Distractibility and being able to direct the spotlight of your attention to sustain concentration on a tedious or less-than-compelling task will affect your ability to complete things.


Last, supervisors want to see productivity and consistent performance. When you struggle with impulse control, organization, wandering attention, or prioritizing, you're more apt to become easily overwhelmed or procrastinate. It’s harder to order the tasks in front of you and decide what’s most important to accomplish.


Getting the support, you need to shore up your executive functioning challenges is a key step towards finding and sticking with a career that fits your ADHD brain. In fact, research has shown a link between job control (what you do and how you do it) and social support as key factors in creating effective work environments for people with ADHD.


Jobs can be divided into two categories: those with structure and those without it. Structured jobs include teaching, social work, working in the food service industry, nursing, emergency care (EMT, firefighter, police officer), or technology. Less structured jobs generally include journalism, therapy or coaching, the arts, or running your own small business. The main difference is that structured jobs have clear roles, defined job tasks, and built-in routines. Unstructured jobs are more flexible. It’s important that you consider which type of environment suits you best or fits well with your ADHD brain. Which type of lifestyle and responsibilities would suit you?


Now, of the jobs that interested you from the reflection exercise above, do you know anyone who works in one of those fields? Who might your friends, family members, teachers, or advisors know? Is there a career or alumni office at your school that could assist you in making these connections? Beginning to explore professional avenues means exploring a network of folks for informational interviewing. Informational interviewing—talking with people who do work that seems appealing to you for 15 to 20 minutes about their career paths—can be super helpful in getting a clearer picture of what someone does in their job and how they got to their position.


You may be thinking, “No way—I am not talking to people I don’t know.” Many people with ADHD experience social anxiety, which would make this step particularly difficult. That’s why you need to take this slowly, do your research, and engage in networking.



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When you’ve asked someone for a short, informational meeting, create your questions in advance and write them down. Under stress, it’s harder for folks with ADHD to recall information, so give yourself the support you need. Of course, it’s natural to feel nervous or uncomfortable, so practice your questions with a coach, therapist, friend, mentor, or caring family member. This practice is essential to lowering your anxiety by increasing your familiarity with such conversations.


Living with an ADHD brain means planning can be tricky. Yet, it’s essential to prepare for your meeting. Expect to feel awkward and strategize how to manage it in advance so you’re not thrown off when those feelings arise. Talking with people who practice a variety of roles in different professions will assist you in understanding what’s entailed in doing the actual work of a job and the different journeys people took to get there. Plus, once you’ve completed one of these informational interviews, you’ll be surprised how others will begin to feel less intimidating.


If, like many people with ADHD, you lack confidence in your abilities and think that you “are not good at anything at all,” zoom out and look at the bigger picture of your life. You have successes and you’ve had defeats—this is normal. While these disappointments sting, you likely have regrouped after these experiences in some way, overcome negative thinking, and forged ahead. This resilience facilitated your growth time and time again and is the kryptonite to that negative chatter running around your head.


Start a list of times when things went well, when you succeeded, and when someone praised your efforts. Write these down on Post-Its and put them on a bulletin board, the front of your refrigerator, or your bathroom mirror. This attention to positive developments in your life will create more balance and turn down the volume on the shame that you are not enough.


Everybody has their own unique strengths. You may have experienced criticisms, setbacks, or “failures” that have fed this negative, judgmental voice in your head. You are not alone. Many neurodivergent people live with a similar voice in their heads, which also holds them back. That voice is not who you are! It’s just unhelpful noise, chattering to keep you insecure and ashamed. It sounds like it’s time to shift from thinking about what you are "bad at” to what you are “inexperienced at.” You have not yet discovered how to apply your innate skills. "Yet" is the operative word here.


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Lastly, I want to remind you that there may be no better way to figure out what you want to do than by trying things. If you worked as a waiter for three months but felt overwhelmed, stressed, and had difficulty dealing with customers, then you’ve learned that restaurant work isn’t for you, not that you’ve failed at being a server. This is good information! If you worked as an emergency medical technician in an ambulance and enjoyed the fast pace of helping people in crisis and want to do more, then maybe becoming a paramedic or nurse is in your future. That is good information, too.


So take a small risk, test the waters, and try something. Small steps lead to exploration and forward motion.


Sharon Saline, Psy.D., - Website - Book -


References


ADDitude Editors Verified Medically reviewed by ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel Updated on October 23, Editors, Add., Verified, & Panel, Add. A. M. R. (2023, October 23). 16 good jobs for people with ADHD. ADDitude.


Effect Modification by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Symptoms on the Association of Psychosocial Work Environments With Psychological Distress and Work Engagement. Front Psychiatry. 2019 Mar 27;10:166. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00166. PMID: 30971966; PMCID: PMC6445946.


Halleland HB, Sørensen L, Posserud MB, Haavik J, Lundervold AJ. Occupational Status Is Compromised in Adults With ADHD and Psychometrically Defined Executive Function Deficits. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2019 Jan;23(1):76-86. doi: 10.1177/1087054714564622. Epub 2015 Jan 2. PMID: 25555629


Nagata, M., Nagata, T., Inoue, A., Mori, K., & Matsuda, S. (2019). Effect modification by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms on the association of psychosocial work environments with psychological distress and work engagement. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10.


Which jobs are the most suitable for people with ADHD?. RSS. (n.d.).

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