Whitman Colleagues’ Research Shows ADHD Can Be Beneficial to Entrepreneurs
Many people consider a diagnosis of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) a negative. But two professors in the Whitman School’s Department of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises (EEE)—both diagnosed with ADHD themselves—are putting a different spin on ADHD as something that can be a positive in the entrepreneurial space.
Professor of Entrepreneurial Practice John Torrens G’93, deputy chair of EEE and Johan Wiklund, Al Berg chair and professor of entrepreneurship, have teamed up over the past few years to bring their respective work on the topic into real-world applications to help entrepreneurs better understand and harness what Torrens refers to as the “superpowers” of ADHD.
Wiklund, who joined the Whitman faculty in 2008, has done extensive research over the past decade into the connection between entrepreneurship and ADHD. Some of his current work focuses on how people with ADHD and other psychological disorders seem to be well suited as entrepreneurs. In fact, some of Wiklund’s findings show that those with ADHD or other disabilities are twice as likely to run their own businesses in the U.S.
“People with ADHD are often impulsive, reward-seeking and need immediate gratification. They tend to act first and evaluate later. They are often considered outliers who don’t fit into the average mold in a workplace,” he explains. “In comparison, entrepreneurs tend to be action-oriented and base their work on trial and error, evaluating what happens and then deciding whether to follow through on a particular idea based on what they’ve experienced.”
According to Wiklund, those with ADHD (the type that manifests in impulsiveness and hyperactivity) are used to working hard—and often failing—at things that come easily to others. Because of this, they learn tenacity and the discipline needed in order to succeed. They don’t give up easily, which makes them much more risk tolerant. And, those with ADHD also tend to solicit help from others and develop deeper networking skills to get by in daily life.
“You can see how there are parallels,” says Wiklund. “In many ways, this is similar to how entrepreneurs operate.”
A few years ago, Wiklund and Torrens teamed up, as Torrens wanted to translate some of his colleague’s research into practical applicationsfor entrepreneurs with ADHD. He helped Wiklund access a sample of successful entrepreneurs; the resulting study showed that approximately 62% of them had symptoms consistent with an ADHD diagnosis.
Torrens, who joined the Whitman faculty in 2009 after selling his own company, has combined some of these findings with his own research to show EEE students at the Whitman School how to capitalize on their ADHD tendencies to the benefit of their entrepreneurial goals.
“Students with ADHD are naturally attracted to entrepreneurship and like to jump on an opportunity, while others are still thinking about how to get started. They are programmed to move quickly past what doesn’t go well and go on to the next thing, but there is a downside,” he explains. “People with ADHD tendencies can tend to say things impulsively that they can’t take back; change plans at the last minute, which can be frustrating to others; and exhibit other super-productive tendencies that tend to irritate other team members.”
“When it’s functional, you have people who are willing to try new things and tend to see only the positives in what they are trying to pursue, which often leads to discovery. But when it’s dysfunctional, you can become an adrenaline junkie, prone to addictive tendencies and to burnout,” he adds. “I see students who are constantly battling both sides of traits that can be both helpful and harmful and, while I don’t diagnose them, I try to help. There’s no playbook for this, so what works tends to be unique for each individual.”
Students with ADHD are naturally attracted to entrepreneurship and like to jump on an opportunity, while others are still thinking about how to get started. They are programmed to move quickly past what doesn’t go well and go on to the next thing, but there is a downside.” - John Torrens G’93, professor of entrepreneurial practice and deputy chair of EEE
Both Torrens and Wiklund have made a real impact with their research. Among other accomplishments, Torrens published a book in 2021, “Lightning in a Bottle: How Entrepreneurs Can Harness Their ADHD to Win,” and Wiklund was recently named to the top 2% of the most impactful researchers globally, based on a PLOS Biology study published by Mendeley Data.
Both feel fortunate to have a lot of support for their research from the Whitman School. “There is evidence that the work we do here at Whitman is impactful,” says Wiklund. “We are influencing the field of entrepreneurial research. We are thought leaders, and the hope is that what we’re discovering will benefit our students and extend to other entrepreneurs everywhere.”
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