Who am I? I was diagnosed with ADHD at the end of 2020 and realized that everything I had struggled with such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and inability to focus on one career path. However, I was shocked by the lack of support for women with ADHD and realized that something needed to be done to support more people like me. I started training as an ADHD coach and now I am exploring entrepreneurship as a way to make an impact in my community. I write a lot about neurodiversity and entrepreneurship
Using neurotypical standards to compare myself against will continue to damage my mental health
I'll be honest. I look at my neurotypical friends and I get jealous of their stability. They can seemingly hold a job down and rise the ranks. Because our society rewards specialization with higher salaries and prestige. That is what we all have been told from a young age to aim for. Figure out what you want to do and stick to it. Hone the skill and rise the ranks.
However, that just doesn't work for neurodivergents like myself. My career journey has been all over the place. I have pursued different routes, and have taken regular breaks to travel because of burnout and exhaustion. I would start every new job with enthusiasm and then, seemingly once the rules, structures, and role description felt restrictive and suffocating to my creativity. The longest I have stayed in a role is two years. Either I leave because I felt a lack of flexibility in my job to change roles or I got interested in a whole new industry (which often happens for me).
What are the neurotypical standards that I am comparing myself against? I see this a lot in myself and my clients. Neurotypical standards are things such as consistency with routines, for instance, or the belief that if I operate a certain way that the mainstream media and society have portrayed as being successful, then I too would be successful. This plays out in everything from routines to how we think about career success. A typical way of thinking about success is consistency, yet this is one thing that people with ADHD struggle with.
Because people with ADHD inherently struggle with consistency (a combination of factors including executive functioning, and dopamine activation), the difficulty with sticking to a routine will inevitably make you feel like a "failure". This is something I have told myself time and time again. What if I just stick to this routine of doing yoga every day, or if I just follow what I said I would do which is to consistently to post on social media to increase my social media presence, or if only I can just stick to this career that I had been so set on 6 months ago, maybe I too would achieve "success"?.
The damage it is doing to my mental health
To view success through the prism of neurotypical lense is very unhealthy for someone like me who is neurodivergent.
Growing up in an Asian household, I was told that there was one route to the immigrant success story. That route is to study hard, choose a respectable profession and seemingly stick to that profession. That makes sense because that is what society has priced in to be the version of success that everyone wants to aspire to.
However, living with undiagnosed ADHD I realised that my brain was always jumping from idea to idea. This meant that I constantly didn't know what profession I wanted to focus on. Even to this day, I struggle with having any real career plan because I just follow with whatever I am feeling in the moment. This can be blessing and a curse at the same time because it offers no financial stability or career planning. One minute I am really passionate about something and then the next I feel like I want to give up everything and start a food business. The constant state of fluctuations in my brain defines what my ADHD looks like.
My mental health started getting really affected when I felt like I was "a failure". I looked at my salary, my professional title, the many years I spent invested in my bachelors and master's degree now that knowledge and investment not being put to use at all in a profession that is related to my studies. I looked at my friends and my partner who was able stick to a profession, earn higher salaries, purchase houses, and at least had some satisfaction that the profession that they had chosen is one where they can dedicate themselves to the next 3+ years.
I told myself I was a failure everyday. And I started hating having ADHD and being neurodivergent (I have autism and dyslexia) and honestly struggled to get out of bed to function. I just felt like what is the point of continuing if I didn't have a clue where I was headed. I just wanted so badly to view myself as being successful.
Breaking free from neurotypical standards and comparing myself to new standards
The first thing I did was take a long holiday (a month long) just to get away and disconnect from the environment I was living in to have new perspectives. I realised a few things about myself:
Success is not defined by a set salary
Success does not equate to specialisation
Being neurodivergent means constantly having different thoughts and waves of inspiration, and that is ok
A person can have many career shifts in a lifetime as long as that makes that person happy
The neurotypical world where specialisation is rewarded is based on industrial revolution times - the creative economy now relies on creative brain like mine
What is failure exactly? I thought failure was me not being able to keep up with a upward trajectory of my salary. But if I think about the trajectory of my creative freedom and living closer to my authentic self, then I definitely am on an upward trajectory
Consistency doesn't mean success all the time. Sometimes spontaneity and creative freedom offers those moments in life where we can learn something about ourselves
I need to rethink what success means to me. Success to me no longer means having the highest salary but its about me having the largest impact on people.
Comparing myself to neurotypical peers is just like comparing apples and oranges. Totally different brain wiring and ways of operating. It just makes little sense to compare my development with neurotypical peers' trajectory.
I am not a failure. I have struggled certainly with living with diagnosed ADHD for so long but I am determined to lean into the strengths now I know what they are.
I was unhappy for years when I was doing everything I thought I had to do in order to be happy and successful. Now I am free to do whatever I want and the only thing that makes me worried is.the ability to pay rent, but apart from that I am free and making the impact that I want to make on people.
Believe that the dots will join in the end
For everyone who is struggling like me with breaking free from conventional ways of thinking about success. Every brave decision you make will lead somewhere. And at the moment, all these decisions may not make sense. But I believe that when I eventually look back, the dots will join up and I will understand why I decided to take the routes that I did. It may not be easy to see where you will end up right now and maybe that is ok.
Maybe career planning is just not a thing for creative and neurodivergent folk who want to live in the moment and do things they are passionate about. That is all ok but believe that everything will make sense in the end.