Entrepreneurial Hyperfocus’s Mirror Image

Silicon Valley seems to have a bizarre love/hate relationship with ADHD. On the one hand, it celebrates many of the ADHD quirks. I’ve been to more meetings inspired by Ted Talks, Malcolm Gladwell or some other Silicon Valley golden child in my own organization in the past two years than I can count. Seeing pipe cleaner art, crayons, and even fidget toys at team meetings has become commonplace. I love that aspect of MBA-speak. I also shrug my shoulders and wonder what Silicon Valley thinks ADHD is, exactly. Open offices, for example, are not something I, as one of those “creative geniuses” with ADHD, can understand. I’m guessing the person who invented open offices does not have ADHD. If I ever find the person who invented open offices, I will force them to endure a death metal concert held on an airline tarmac. That is the only way I can think of to describe what an open office feels like to someone with actual ADHD, and its associated sensory overstimulation.

Silicon Valley’s love of the idea of ADHD seems to be inspired largely by the so-called ADHD superpower: hyperfocus. Before I got the idea to start this blog, I wrote a very long, frenetic email about why hyperfocus can actually suck that I almost sent to a friend when she showed me an article about how entrepreneurs have ADHD-like traits.

She was jealous of hyperfocus, and of my having ADHD. I sort of get it. The article does make it sound kind of nice:

When people with ADHD have a strong interest in a task, they display an unusual level of concentration known as hyperfocus. One entrepreneur reported that he often becomes completely absorbed in crafting customer solutions. Another constantly keeps up with the new technologies in his industry to the point that he is now much in demand as an expert…With their passion and persistence, and the expertise they acquire as a result, entrepreneurs can gain a substantial competitive advantage…Many of the entrepreneurs in the study work day and night without taking time off. That is due to the their hyperfocus, but also to the physical restlessness associated with ADHD. The entrepreneurs use this to fuel their workload.

Yes, the hyperfocus triggered by interest described in the article is kind of super. It’s reading a thousand-page book in a day, or finding tickets to London from LA for $450 because you literally searched every travel site in existence. If I could have only this type of hyperfocus, under my conscious control, it really would be a superpower. No one would care that I’m socially awkward or ramble, because my sheer productivity would make up for it. Unfortunately, the article missed something in its characterization of the hyperfocus trigger, and that detail matters. There is a reason that almost every sci fi show will at some point make the hero fight their mirror image. Your own superpowers are the best way to hurt you.

Hyperfocus is not fundamentally triggered by interest. It is fundamentally triggered by stimulus intensity. Something you are intensely passionate about self-generates that state, but it can also be externally imposed by stress. Self-generated hyperfocus is fun and feels like a hidden creative superpower. Stress is intense, but not in the good way. When stress activates the hyperfocus – not you – it isn’t fun. For most people with ADHD, not blessed enough to own their own business, set their own working hours, or even have a quiet personal office, hyperfocus is as likely to be triggered by pain as by passion.

For example, imagine a big project at work is assigned to you. It’s challenging, but you have done similar things before. You might dream of long blocks of uninterrupted time to work on the big project – and only the big project – but, you know it won’t happen and you have learned to compensate for the fact ADHD requires more time to do the same work. Imagine further that you work in an open office and/or are being constantly bombarded by group messages on Slack. You’ve probably already learned to do the most critical work well after your coworkers have gone home because your office is too distracting to function. You’ve probably already so prioritized work your home life is suffering, because the extra time devoted is how you catch mistakes. You are ambitious, however, so that’s how it goes. You’ve probably succeeded-ish through these strategies despite your ADHD, and probably despite the terrible things you call yourself inside your head. Your success, however, has led not to happiness and self-confidence, but to a life forever feeling insecure. You live your life feeling so tenuously in control that just one more thing feels like it could cause the careful facade of your competence to crumble.

Now imagine a week into that big month-long project, everyone is told revenue is down, and layoffs are coming. Suddenly your project is make or break. You thought you had a month to finish, but that no longer matters. Everybody is working long hours, so you can’t rely on that crux. You can’t even work the long hours at home; you are stuck in that stupid open office because you need to both work long hours and be seen working them. For three weeks, you try to work on the project, but your thoughts keep scattering. Too many distractions, too much stimulation, too much overwhelm. You work many hours, but make no real progress. You start to fall back into negative thinking patterns about how a person who deserved their job would at least be able to focus on it! This adds another layer of distraction, and you doubt even the progress you had made. It’s not good enough, but you can’t think of better. You start to wonder how you’ll explain that you lost your job because you procrastinated a project you had a month to do – when you knew layoffs were looming – so long you missed the deadline. The internal and external noise has left you too distracted to think. The last week before the project looms. You stand on a dangerous fear-induced cliff. Will you ever get it together?

You vaguely remember that your attention is all-or-none, and that you have this superpower that will save you. It’s saved you before; it will again, right? You hope, but you forget you aren’t in control. You try to unleash your superpower, but stress wields it instead of you. You flirt with deadlines and hope it’s enough. You never really know each time you wait until the last minute if it’ll work, but it’s a shot. You now deliberately let the deadline inch closer.

Four days before deadline, you shift into hyperfocus just in time to avoid disaster. You switch to hyperfocus, but it is not the good kind. You didn’t trigger it, and you don’t get to define it. Fear-based hyperfocus is not enjoyable or interesting. It’s terrifying. Fearing the consequences of failure can be enough to flip a neural switch to action if the deadline is close enough. Starting earlier would have been better, but you tried the things you were supposed to and couldn’t focus. Your superpowers failed to materialize when called by the light. So, you gave the reins over to stress, and it wields its power indiscriminately!

You subconsciously must feed your fears to keep the intensity burning. Fear is driving this hyperfocus, not joy, and if you stop being afraid you risk returning to none on the all-or-none attention scale. You remember to eat only when your stomach growls loudly enough for someone else to remind you. You fall asleep, and you continue to dream about the project. However, your thoughts make sense and are more ordered than at any other point that month. In your dark, self-loathing-as-motivation state you complete the entire multi-stage project in four days, but you have the same mental fixation on the negative emotions as on the project. Interest-based hyperfocus makes you zone out like this too, but at least your internal world is fun! Fear-based hyperfocus is, well, your superpower wielded against you.

You get the project done in a panic while everything else in your life drifts away. Worst of all? People like your project! (Though not enough to promote you, somehow…) You have no idea why, knowing what you know about how it was created, but they like it enough to keep you on. You delude yourself that fear-based hyperfocus is a strength, and you aren’t wrong. It’s strong, dark, and it works often enough to be tempted to ignore the damage it does to you.

Fixating for abnormally long periods of time on your own failures with hyperfocus-driven stamina isn’t worth its flip side. Even if hyperfocus can sometimes be a good overwhelm, it hasn’t really helped me overall in my own career. Bizarro Lavender tends to show up more often when the stakes are highest than Super Lavender.

Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.


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