Ask Dr. Saline: Finding a Career Which Fits with Your ADHD Brain

woman considering different careersDear Dr. Saline:

How can people with ADHD find the right career? I don’t think I’m good at anything, which makes it so hard. What do you suggest? Thank you for your help.


From Dr. Saline:

Dear Christian:

This is such an important question and I’m so glad that you are asking it. Many older teens and emerging adults struggle with figuring out what profession to pursue. You may feel pressure to earn a certain amount of money or find a career which has a particular status. But this is a backwards approach. Of course you need to consider your salary and your opportunities in a given field. But it’s more useful at the beginning of this process if you can zoom out and consider what you actually like to do. Given that many people with ADHD wrestle with staying focused and engaged in activities that don’t interest them, reflecting on what captivates you before thinking about other aspects of a career points you in a direction of real possibilities. If you don’t like a subject or task, there likely won’t be much longevity in that career for you. 

Start by asking yourself these five questions: 

  1. What grabs my attention? When do I stay focused? When am I the least overwhelmed or distractible?
  2. What brings me pleasure either in my free time, when I am studying or when I am working? OR, What activities or tasks make me happy enough when I’m doing them?
  3. What have I enjoyed or found tolerable related to work in the past?
  4. If I had 3 wishes for myself related to a profession, what would those be?
  5. What negative messages do I tell myself that thwart me before I even begin on this path?

Brainstorm and Research

woman's hands at desk with post-it notesOnce you have some answers, it’s time to brainstorm. Of the jobs which interest you, bring you pleasure or result in success, do you know anyone who works in one of those fields? Who might your friends, family members, teachers or advisors know? Is there a career or alumni office at your school that could assist you in making these connections? Beginning to explore professional avenues means exploring a network of folks for informational interviewing.  Informational interviewing–talking with people who do work that seems appealing to you for 15-20 minutes about their career paths–can be super helpful in getting a clearer picture about what someone does in their job and how they got to their position. 

You may be thinking, “No way, Dr. Sharon. I am not talking to people I don’t know.” I totally understand. That’s why you take this slowly, create your questions in advance, write them down and ask people for a short, informational meeting. It’s natural to feel nervous or uncomfortable so practice your questions with a coach, therapist, friend, mentor or caring family member. This practice is essential to lowering your anxiety by increasing your familiarity with such conversations.

Expect to feel awkward and strategize how to manage it in advance so you’re not thrown off when those feelings arise. Talking with people who practice a variety of roles in different professions will assist you in understanding what’s entailed in doing the actual work of a job and the different journeys people took to get there. Plus, once you’ve completed one of these informational interviews, you’ll be surprised how others will begin to feel less intimidating. 

Acknowledge Your Strengths

identify your strengthsYou mention that you don’t think you “are good at anything at all.” I cannot believe this is true. Everybody has their own unique strengths. You may have experienced defeats, criticisms, setbacks or “failures” which have fed this negative, judgmental voice in your head. Many neurodivergent people live with a similar voice in their heads which also holds them back too. That voice is not who you are! It’s just unhelpful noise, chattering to keep you insecure and ashamed. It sounds like it’s time to shift from thinking about what you are ‘bad at” to what you are “inexperienced at.” You have not yet discovered how to apply your innate skills and yet is the operative word here. 

I imagine that you have lived through previous jobs which may not have ended up the way you had hoped. While these disappointments sting, I bet that you have regrouped after these experiences in some way, overcome negative thinking, and forged ahead. This resilience facilitates your growth time and time again and is the kryptonite to that negative chatter running around your head.

To counter this, I would like you to start a list of times when things went well, when you succeeded and when someone praised your efforts and your performance. Write these down on Post-Its and put them on your new ‘board of brilliance’. This can be a bulletin board, the front of your refrigerator or your bathroom mirror that marks your successes–times when things went well, not perfect, but good enough. This attention to positive developments in your life will create more balance and turn down the volume on the shame that you are not enough. It may sound corny but research has shown that paying attention to what works more than what isn’t working builds self-esteem.

Try, Try and Try Again

man leaning on desk in officeLastly, I want to remind you that there may be no better way to figure out what you want to do than by trying things. If you worked as a waiter for three months, feel overwhelmed, stressed and have difficulty dealing with customers, then you’ve learned that restaurant work isn’t for you, not that you’ve failed at being a server. This is good information! If you worked as an emergency medical technician in an ambulance and enjoyed the fast pace of helping people in crisis and want to do more, then maybe becoming a paramedic or nurse is in your future. That is good information too. So take a small risk, test the waters and try something. Anything. Small steps lead to exploration and forward motion.