Most people think of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a negative, but Professor of Entrepreneurial Practice John M. Torrens G’93 (A&S), Ph.D. has a different take, showing that many aspects of the disorder can be turned into a positive. Torrens, who is the deputy chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, recently published a book on the subject: “Lightning in a Bottle: How Entrepreneurs Can Harness Their ADHD to Win.”
Torrens has first-hand experience with ADHD. He, himself, was diagnosed with it — but not until he was an adult. As an entrepreneur, who at the time was running a startup and earning a Ph.D. part-time, Torrens says he battled between feeling that there was no stopping him to bouts of wishing he could “get out of his own way long enough to execute on all his ideas.”
“Like many entrepreneurs growing a business, you start to see qualities in yourself that are not necessarily suited for some parts of the entrepreneurial lifecycle,” he explains of his own experience. “On the one hand, I was very comfortable taking and mitigating risk. I was able to do things the competition couldn’t, and I was getting into new markets really quickly, scaling fast and hiring more people. On the other hand, I was making impulsive decisions. I would announce big ideas and then forget all about them — moving on to the next thing that interested me. I’d change my priorities quickly without a thought as to how it was impacting others in my organization. And, I was easily distracted — always looking at my phone, thinking about what was next and surrounded by too many screens in my office. I was not honoring those who worked for me with my presence, and it was becoming a problem.”
He sought the advice of a business coach, who suggested he get tested for ADHD. “At first, I was really surprised when it was determined that I did have ADHD,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I thought it was something that was over diagnosed.”
But, the more he learned about his particular type of ADHD, which manifests itself through hyperactivity and impulsive tendencies, the more he was able to not only recognize how it impacted him but also turn his ADHD into what he calls his own “super power.” It made a difference, and, soon, he was sharing what he’d learned with a few other entrepreneurs who sought him out.
In 2008, Torrens sold his company and, through an organization he was a member of, went on to organize an entrepreneurship bootcamps for teenagers. It was through this effort that he met Michael Haynie, who is now the Barnes Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) and vice chancellor of strategic initiatives and innovations at the University. Haynie helped him put together the program for teens and encouraged him to use his entrepreneurial experience to teach. Torrens joined the faculty at the Whitman School as an adjunct in 2009, eventually becoming a professor of practice, the manager of the M.S. in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises program and deputy department chair.
A few years ago, Torrens connected with colleague Johan Wiklund, professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School, about some of Wiklund’s research surrounding ADHD. Torrens was interested in translating this into real world applications for entrepreneurs with ADHD. He helped Wiklund access a sample of successful entrepreneurs for a study, which showed that 62% of the entrepreneurs sampled had symptoms consistent with an ADHD diagnosis.
Torrens was eager to pair Wiklund’s research with his own experience. He created a program on the topic for TedxSyracuseUniversity, based on the format of traditional TED conferences but self-organized by the University. To date, the video from the TEDx event has over 100,000 views on YouTube and has created a following of entrepreneurs with ADHD from all over the world who have reached out to Torrens to share their own experiences and ask for advice. Many of the contacts wanted more to read on the topic, but Torrens was quick to discover that there wasn’t much out there. So, like any good entrepreneur, he decided to write a book himself.
“I call it ‘Lightning in a Bottle’ because so many of us have all this amazing energy that can either be destructive or incredibly positive. It’s not meant to provide all the answers, but it is based on my personal experience and backed by Dr. Wiklund’s research,” he said, noting that the COVID-19 lockdown gave him the time to write the book.
Torrens continues to teach students at the Whitman School, while also keeping his hand in a number of entrepreneurial projects, as well as coaching and mentoring student entrepreneurs and working professionals. And, while he often mentions his own experiences with ADHD, he’s careful never to diagnose it in others. Still, others approach him for advice when they see the signs within themselves.
“ADHD is a double-edged sword and can be very functional in the context of entrepreneurship,” says Torrens. “There are both serious assets and real liabilities. There is no single solution, but my hope is that the information in my book will help other entrepreneurs recognize how to check themselves once in a while to avoid some of the negative consequences, identify potential pitfalls and, ultimately, make the most of their entrepreneurial abilities because of their ADHD, not in spite of it.”
Learn more about Whitman faculty members in the latest faculty profiles.