I had a startling experience at work recently, one that shook me a bit. I’m still processing that event, which had to do with being unfairly accused of something I could not have done. But I’m not ready to tell that story. It’s still too raw.
Instead, I want to reflect on what I see as an issue that is becoming more important to me as I see people with hidden “disabilities” in the workplace. In fact, these qualities are not always “disabling.” In some cases, these issues, which I will group into the term “neurodiversity” for the sake of this reflection, can often be used as assets.
In my case, I have come to see my variable focus as an asset that has served me well in many situations. I hyper-focus on projects I find to be fascinating. I’m like a dog with a bone when I’m on the trail of something where I might find a solution. I don’t give up on it. I may even lose sleep thinking about it, though I’m trying to train my brain to wind down earlier in the evenings.
On the other hand, routine and monotonous tasks are kind of like my Kryptonite. If I cannot automate those tasks, I end up getting in trouble sometimes. Ordinary tasks like making my bed or cleaning my room were never easy for me.
Ask my poor mother, who would come to check my work, only to realize I had my nose stuck in a book, cheerfully oblivious to what she had asked me to do. I was not deliberately disobeying her. I simply uncovered a missing book during my cleaning session and had difficulty not picking it up…
When it comes down to it, those of us with hidden disabilities are so often defined by what we cannot do. What if we were defined by all of our other qualities? What if our kindness and concern for others were recognized as strengths? What if our ability to ask for help were rewarded?
If you have staff, how do you acknowledge people’s strengths? Do you help them select projects that can showcase their talents? Do you allow them room for growth instead of shutting them down when they make unconventional suggestions?
Neuro-diversity is just another form of biodiversity. And our earth thrives when both are honored and preserved.
On Thursday I met a colleague for coffee who I have not seen in a while. We have traveled together in Colombia and Chile, and she has been a trusted confidante. She was eager to hear about my next gig. I have been refining my “elevator speech” for my network in the company that are curious enough to ask about what I plan to do.
Many colleagues are surprised I am leaving my current company, as I was labeled “high potential” and typically the company pours a lot of resources into developing their “high po’s” as we call them. But that is actually one reason I am leaving. They want to invest in their top 10-15%. That is supposed to trickle down to everyone else. In an ideal work, I suppose it works. I want to invest in 100%. Or at least in 90% – maybe the bottom 10% do not belong there, that’s up for debate.
So I decided to write up a core values statement so I can explain to friends and colleagues in which area I will consult. I realized in talking with a VP who controls a lot of resources, when I mentioned what I was doing, he had about 4-5 contacts at the company that may be a source of business for me. Ding! A light bulb went on. I am networking the he** out of my contacts in the last 2 weeks while I am still here, and getting feedback on my ideas.
But since you, my faithful readers, have also given me tremendous support and helpful feedback, I thought I’d share the draft here. Below is a short values statement (~50 words) boiled down to the 3 main principles that will form the basis of my practice.
What resonates for you? In what areas would you like more information or clarification?
Give me the good, the bad and the ugly. I want you to ask questions and throw mud! Really!!
–Diversity Drives Innovation.
-Women are natural leaders. We as women must define leadership more broadly. Leadership is coach-able, and we all have the capacity to be better at it.
-Everyone (on a team) is a teacher and a learner. It is best when we have opportunities to serve in both of these roles.
I am working on mini-manifesto of sorts (less than a page, probably 400-600 words) to expand upon these values in a more concrete way. I will post that one on Monday. These will go onto my consulting website when I launch it in September/October, along with a concise mission statement, which is another piece.
Thank you in advance for any questions, feedback or eggs you can throw at it. Truly.
I am a voracious reader. My nightstand is typically piled with books, and I have about 3-4 going at any one time.
There’s at least one fiction book, which is my treat reading before bedtime, and the way I wind down before sleep. I am not so into e-books. I have a Nook, but forget to charge it. I have a love for real pages that I can turn, a visceral and physical experience of a book that I am too old-fashioned to replace.
When I write, I integrate the things I read, the practices I attempt, and the swirling thoughts I notice while meditating or navigating my days. It helps me slow things down enough to consider how it all fits together.
My philosophy teacher used to recommend that we write to remember. When studying, write out concepts and ideas we want to understand or explore.
In biology or chemistry labs, we wrote to capture our protocols, and our results. Writing is a part of science, part of study, part art-form and part formal work.
Reading and writing do not come easily to everyone, and I am grateful that I have always enjoyed both since a young age. Fifteen years ago, toward the end of graduate school I was diagnosed with adult a.d.d. Now it makes sense to me that I can either hyper-focus or be challenged to finish a page without distraction.
I do not have the “h” part of the usual diagnosis (and women often do not manifest that part, or they train themselves out of it to be quiet, compliant little girls from a young age). But clearly the difference in my ability to focus was palpable after treatment and medication.
Before the diagnosis I had suffered from 2-3 periods of depression in my life, precipitated by burnout and anxiety. I had always struggled to pay attention during my “boring” classes, and often escaped into my imagination. Teachers knew I was smart, but they often said I was not working up to my potential. I finished salutatorian of my high school class, so clearly a lot of students may not have been working up to their potential…
What I find these days is that life is more about establishing the right rhythm for my days and weeks, rather than pursuing the elusive “balance” many strive for.
Filling days with to-do lists and activities may help us feel productive and in control of our lives. But resting, pausing and re-evaluating need to be a part of our lives too. An a.d.d.-oid brain is typically in motion constantly. I describe my thought processes as cascades, and they are very fluid and dynamic.
Normal people can typically compartmentalize their thoughts, like putting them in boxes, categorizing and organizing them. The a.d.d. brain tends not to work that way, instead flowing from thought to thought, in associative “play”. We create new categories, with different boundaries. Our brains leap outside boxes like playful puppies or kittens.
For years I spent time hiding my a.d.d., at the advice of well-meaning professionals that explained to me that employers would not necessarily understand, and may penalize me for it professionally. In every job I needed to “prove myself” with consistency for quite some time before advancing, very hard for the a.d.d.-oid mind that gets bored once it knows the routine. The first time I was able to hire administrative support to help with the details while I could focus on big picture work, I finally started realizing my potential.
My current position as an operational manager for an international team requires me to be quick thinking and to balance many factors in making decisions. I get to help my employees with career development (which I love) and coach them to develop their skills, especially when it comes to influence management in a large corporation with a matrix reporting structure.
I turned a weakness into a “superpower” of sorts, at least the way I am choosing to author my life and my story. I do not see it as a disability. I see it as a way of seeing around corners, flexibly solving problems, and bringing creativity to many teams.
As long as I find the right rhythm in my days, get time for rest, play and taking very good care of myself physically, I thrive. When I neglect myself, or slack off on good self-care routines, like getting enough sleep, healthy food, affection, love, and exercise, I suffer.
What I want to say to those suffering from depression, anxiety, a.d.d. or any other type of diagnosis: it does not have to define you or your life. You will need to learn to manage it, that is true. But it will give you unique insight, skills and resilience when you learn to manage it. You will benefit from more compassion for those who struggle. And if you learn to love yourself, and the unique way that your brain and body work, you can fully use your gifts.
Find your rhythm, find what makes sense for you. Find others that support your strengths and help you cultivate them. You deserve that. And it is possible.