This year looks to be another busy one for me at Microsoft Ignite with a mixture of presentations, unconference workshops, and helping out at booths.
Well, how do I start a piece like this? Most times when I write a blog piece or article, it’s effectively a thought being dumped “onto paper” and it tends to congeal itself into something that makes sense to people. I find myself to be considerably better at getting my thoughts out this way than verbally – mainly because unlike my mouth, I can go back and edit a document, restructure the content, correct some of the words.
So in theory this is a better way for me to capture my journey with ADHD. Let’s see how we go!
I was diagnosed earlier this year as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD, formerly and still commonly referred to as ADD). I’m 41, so this is a long time to wait for a diagnosis. Why did it take me this long? I don’t know. I always thought of myself as odd, different, not fitting into the common mold; but I never thought of myself as having ADHD.
Part of the reason for this is that often when you think of someone with ADD/ADHD, you think of kids who don’t pay attention in class, kids who constantly fidget, kids who get in trouble, kids who are a handful. I was never really that kid, but there was always something off about me; I struggled scholastically but wasn’t dumb, I spoke a lot – sometimes to myself, I never stuck to anything for long and would often give up easily. Realistically I wasn’t that different from a normal kid, so I doubt my parents ever thought otherwise.
Looking back over my life since leaving school I start to see a pattern. I started a Bachelor of Computing at Monash University but never finished. I didn’t actually defer or get kicked out, I just stopped turning up. I initially failed a couple of subjects because I just didn’t finish the work, and just didn’t care to. I found university too slow, the material too dated, the duration of terms too long, the assignments too big and studying for exams was mental torture.
Sure, it’s not uncommon for people to change technologies and roles throughout their career – in fact that’s quite normal. However for me, the rate at which I picked up new things would surprise my colleagues. One day I would be configuring a Cisco CallManager, router, switch and handsets, and the next I’d be building a SharePoint environment and performing a document migration complete with managed metadata. They would jokingly call witchcraft when we’d have a discussion about a potential concept, only to return the next day to having found me learnt the technology, built a lab and made it work.
I would learn how to administer a Lotus Domino server when my colleagues didn’t want to touch it, learn and deploy Live Communications Server 2005 just so I could federate and chat with colleagues at Microsoft, or find and deploy an open-source instant messaging tool as an alternative chatting system when my project to integrate the Nortel CS1000 PABX with Office Communication Server 2007 R2 got shut down.
When I sat technical exams throughout my career, my colleagues (and more recently my wife) were surprised with how I absorbed and processed vast amounts of detail quickly. Sometimes I would cram the day before, then walk out of the exam 15 minutes after starting, often with pass mark over 95%. In fact, I’d actually have to slow myself down in the exam and randomly click around the screen despite knowing the answer so that it didn’t look like I was cheating.
For a big part of my career I’ve focused on Microsoft technologies, specifically the Office services space (ie. dating back to Microsoft BackOffice Server 4.0). The last 10 in particular has been focused on Office 365 (including its predecessor BPOS).
What does my career history have to do with ADHD? Well, the fact that I got bored so easily and moved on to something else is a common trait for those with ADHD. The fact that across my career I’ve had a mixture of part time, full time, and contract positions is also common. So is the fact that several times I started up my own companies (and in some cases closed them down not long after).
Over the last 10 years I built my company Paradyne, had it acquired, and currently work as an independent consultant as well as part time Product Manager for Microsoft partner Insync Technology. I’ve stuck with Office 365 because it keeps changing. At the start not much changed (especially in the days of BPOS) and I got bored, but over the last 5 years things change weekly, almost daily. For someone who struggles with attention this actually suits me well, because I can be consistent yet continue to be challenged and have my boredom addressed.
What does my ADHD diagnosis mean to me? How does it change my life, my family, my work, my perspective of myself and the world?
Now that I know that it’s there, things in my life and my history make sense. A LOT of sense. ADHD doesn’t define me, but it does explain some things about how I move through the world, how I feel, how I react, how I work, some of my struggles, and some of the things that surprise people.
There are positives and negatives to ADHD. Equating my brain to a computer, ADHD equips me with superpowers in terms of an amazing CPU power – both speed and parallel processing. However my RAM lets me down, in that those processes sometimes can’t complete as something else comes along. Using non-IT terminology, ADHD is often summarised by medical professionals by equating it to driving a Ferrari with bicycle brakes.
Others will describe it as driving a Ferrari and not knowing how to change gears. Or being in a room with a bunch of TVs and radios playing different channels. Or being in a room with a bunch of TVs and not having the remote control to any of them. There’s a bunch of ways to describe ADHD, and it’s different for different people.
There are a number of ADHD traits that are experienced by every human being, however for us with ADHD, how we manage and react to them is different. And this is one of the challenges along my ADHD journey. One particular person in the IT industry early in my journey said to me “I have that happen to me” and “everyone gets that”. He’s right, but he didn’t see what those things did to me.
My journey came from numerous discussions my wife and I had about our eldest daughter before she started school. There were things that we thought might impede her learning, and so we sought to understand more to be able to address them, and to give her the best chance possible to enable her high intelligence to shine through. Along that journey of research, analysis and consultation, my wife was diagnosed as being high-functioning autistic (you can read her journey here). On the surface nobody would ever know, but internally and behind the scenes it wasn’t as simple for her. Through her diagnosis and my research of autism I related to some of the attributes affiliated and sought to get myself diagnosed in order to know for sure, but also to understand what I as a husband could do to support her. The evaluation came back that I was not autistic, however there was something there that needed further exploration. I chose to leave it there, but months later through a conversation it was suggested I might have ADHD. Researching this it was black and white to me. It made so much sense that I broke down several times, filled with remorse of things that had happened in my life that could have been different had I known that ADHD was a factor in how I handled some situations.
While I am already 41 years old, the journey ahead of me now is to understand myself further and to make changes where possible to work around the challenges and to harness the benefits. It is to work on how I can be a better father, better husband, better friend, better colleague and professional.
This is a daily job for me, because on one hand there are negative aspects such as people thinking I’m bored and not paying attention during online meetings. Staring at a screen for an hour and appearing engaged is difficult for anyone when they’re not an active participant – try doing it when there are dozens of thoughts flowing through your head in parallel and you can’t act on them (because I make a point of not multitasking during meetings as I find it rude to the others on the call).
However on the other hand there are positives, because I can take a loosely thought out concept from that same meeting and turn it into a product offering complete with pitch deck in a few hours.
Recently I’ve started taking medication to help with my ADHD, because through its ability to assist with impulse control I have the ability to react differently, focus better, and actually change who I am in the world.
What does this medication do for me and my impulse control? It gives me a split second that neurotypicals (“normal” people) don’t have to worry about. That split second is the difference between what food I order or how much I eat, whether I let something bother me or let it go, whether I talk over someone or not, whether I can stay on focus or get distracted, and many others that I’m still working out. The way it was described to me is that the medication gives me the keys to the door, it’s up to me to work through it.
And that is what is where my journey brings me to today. I now have the ability to open a lot more doors than I could before. The brakes on my Ferrari are a bit bigger, I have the remote controls to some of the TVs.
ADHD can’t be fixed – there’s nothing broken. It’s simply a different wiring of the brain – much like autism and other forms of neurodiversity. However these differences are largely invisible. While some people’s genes tell them to grow tall, or have thick hair, or conversely fail to develop their eyes or ears properly, ADHD is unseen.
I’m constantly searching for keys and doors that neurotypicals already walk through with ease – you just can’t see me doing it. And you can’t see whether I succeed or fail, just the outside effect.