ADHD might just be your best creative asset 

Embrace diversity to support creativity, writes The Open Arms co-founder Jess Lilley.

Imagine you’re hiring for a creative. Someone shows up with excellent divergent thinking, are hyperfocused when solving creative problems, and possess an impulsiveness ideal for last-minute deadlines and deep dives into bonkers subjects no one’s ever heard of. They’re straight talking, aren’t afraid to take risks and are always able to get. shit. done.

Employing them would be a no brainer, right?

What if you had to make some accommodations? I mean, they’re not exactly organised. They have an enthusiasm for talking, a tendency to ask 6,000 questions and an ability to wander off topic. They sometimes lose track of time, lose track of things and can get their dates mixed up.

Suddenly not so into it, huh?

This is just one picture of an ADHD brain. I should know, it fairly accurately represents mine.

I was diagnosed late in life—which isn’t uncommon, particularly for women. It was enlightening in explaining why I’d leave the house to buy a bag of carrots and come back with five books (and no carrots), or spontaneously go on a date in New York (when I lived in London). It also explained why I’ve enjoyed a lasting creative career. While around 3% of Australian adults are thought to have Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, they are overrepresented in creative industries. Which is reassuring when we find ourselves turning the house upside down looking for the notebook we put down five minutes ago but can’t remember where.

ADHD has been in the news lately, courtesy of some flippant reductionism from QLD MP, Andrew Laming. This has done many a disservice. ADHD exists on a spectrum and, sure, there’s a variety of different ways it presents in people. And while I can only speak for myself, I can categorically say ADHD has never encouraged me (or anyone I know) to upskirt or harass anyone, or act like a terminal dickhead.

I’ve lasted in creative departments because my brain can go somewhere different every day. Everything is in constant flux—subjects, pace, stages of the creative process and turnover of projects and ideas. It’s both investigative and collaborative — darting from big picture to tactical in a heartbeat. And the journey from research to production involves connecting with many other creative thinkers along the way. All of this is suited to the ping and flow of my fizzy little brain.

That said, I have found rigid ad agency processes challenging. Like, having to work from your desk all the time, or be at work at 9am when you don’t need to (amazing no one is ever timekeeping at the other end of the day), or brainstorming with 20 people for hours, or 654-step expenses and timesheet systems that require a physics degree to decipher. When I’ve questioned unyielding ways of working that melt my brain I’ve often been met with, it’s always ‘sorry, it’s the network way’ or, ‘this is just how we do things.’ And that’s that.

Which is a crying shame for people with ADHD or any neurodiversity (a term used to incorporate conditions like ADHD and the autism spectrum). Because negativity around something so innate to who you are can be very discombobulating. And the thing that makes us the perfect candidates for contributing marvellously in creative industries is often the thing that makes it difficult to navigate a rigid workplace. Not to mention hyperfocus leading to burnout and an unhealthy life imbalance if not kept in check.

The answer is pretty simple: make workplaces more supportive of all people’s needs. At the heart of this is empathy. More and more, it is being recognised as the single most important skill for effective leadership. Second and third are adaptability and education. A recent study by the University of Southern Queensland calls for mandatory neurodiversity training across all workplaces, claiming prejudice is still pervasive — particularly with regards to autism.

The reality is, with flexible arrangements in place thanks to COVID, most workplaces are already some of the way there. It’s worth taking this moment to keep reinventing the wheel in a way that helps everyone in your team flourish. People who’ve already had to make behavioural adjustments for how their brain works might not be too proactive about revealing something that makes them feel vulnerable. But they’ll certainly appreciate being invited to share what works for them. I have plenty of thoughts about how workplaces can simply and effectively help ADHDers work at our best. If only I could remember where I put the notebook…


Jess Lilley is a writer, broadcaster, creative director and co-founder of The Open Arms.


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