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She turned ADHD into a career: 'Talking about our challenges is very important'

Meet her now and you might find it hard to believe that, less than 10 years ago, 38 year-old Jessica McCabe was at the end of her rope: divorced, broke, living at home with her mother, with no viable job prospects in sight.

“My career was going nowhere,” she said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “And I went, ‘You know what, let me figure this out.’”

Her first step was to look hard at the condition she had been struggling with for as long as she could remember: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, a neurological disorder that affects thinking, mood, and behavior. People with ADHD battle patterns of inattentiveness and/or patterns of hyperactivity and/or impulsivity, and their lives can be upended.

“I went about learning about my ADHD and learning strategies that might be able to help me,” she said.

McCabe put those strategies, as she says, in the only place she couldn’t lose them: on YouTube. And that’s when a booming business — her YouTube channel called "How to ADHD" — was born.

Her videos cover just about every angle of ADHD: its history, its impact on relationships, how best to navigate it at work, the intersection of ADHD and race, the role of medication in treating it, and even how to “ADHD-proof” your finances. Her channel has nearly 1 million subscribers, with videos that have been viewed more than 44 million times. A TEDx talk she gave back in 2017 has more than 3.5 million views.

“I had no idea how many people would watch my channel and realize that maybe there was a reason they've been struggling their entire life and nobody ever caught it,” she said. “And there's so much misinformation about ADHD out there that I feel an incredible amount of responsibility. An honor, it's a privilege to be able to do this.”

Jessica McCabe is the founder of 'How to ADHD', a YouTube Channel about all things ADHD.
Jessica McCabe is the founder of 'How to ADHD', a YouTube Channel about all things ADHD. ('How to ADHD' / Jessica McCabe)

ADHD and entrepreneurship

McCabe, who was formally diagnosed at age 12, is one of an estimated 11 million American adults living with ADHD. As someone who now runs her own B Corp as a YouTuber (with a team of freelancers and consultants), she is also living proof that ADHD and entrepreneurship often go hand-in-hand — a fact that researchers are just beginning to explore.

Johan Wiklund, professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, studies the link between ADHD and entrepreneurship: “We can see that people with ADHD are more likely to actually go into entrepreneurship, and then they can use some of their characteristics to their advantage in that profession,” he told Yahoo Finance.

And just what are those characteristics?

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the 1500-page tome used to diagnose ADHD and all psychiatric conditions:

People with ADHD can be impulsive. Or put a more positive way, they are often risk-takers and quick decision-makers, says Wiklund who was diagnosed with ADHD himself in 2012. “People with ADHD are typically impatient, and they prefer acting rather than deliberating,” he said. “Entrepreneurship is all about acting and doing new things. And that's something that suits these people really well.”

Under the official DSM definition, some people with ADHD are known to be inattentive. Translation: They are dreamers who can think out-of-the-box and create something out of nothing. Think Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, who has talked publicly about having ADHD and dyslexia. “People that have ADHD can be pretty much fun to hang with, because they come up with new ideas, and new stuff that might be a little bit out of the ordinary,” said Wiklund.

People with ADHD can be hyperactive, with their bodies or minds in constant motion, according to the DSM. Anecdotally, they can also be singularly focused on whatever interests them. The upside of those traits: In the right circumstances, people with ADHD can have the passion, energy, and the drive to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals.

As Wiklund and other researchers are finding, entrepreneurship seems to go a long way in allowing people with ADHD to harness the good sides of their condition, while accepting and working around the not-so-good. “The great thing about entrepreneurship is that you can shape it to be whatever you want it to be,” said Wiklund. “And people with ADHD can have a hard time to fit in the regular market, the job market, so they are spontaneously intuitively attracted to entrepreneurship.”

An estimated 11 million adults in the United States have ADHD.
An estimated 11 million adults in the United States have ADHD. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Choose a career that works for you

After years of going from one job to another — and getting fired from lots of them — McCabe is thrilled to have finally found her calling.

“I think it's really critical that people with ADHD choose a career that works for them, that works for their brain,” said McCabe. “The same thing that I get paid for now is what I got fired for back at (a) yoga studio. I got fired from that position because I was on the internet all the time, because I was curious. In between folding laundry and doing those things, I was just like ‘Well, there's nothing to do. I'll go on the internet and look up answers to things I'm curious about,” she said. “I get paid for that now. I got fired for it then. That's the level of difference (choosing the right career) makes.”

As she continues to churn out charming informative videos, McCabe is also working on the book version of "How to ADHD," to be published by Random House. It’s a dream come true for someone who, as a child, fantasized about writing a book of her own but later dropped out of college as her ADHD spun out of control.

Like her YouTube channel, the book will be a 360-degree look at life with ADHD — with no sugarcoating.

“I think as we're understanding ADHD better, we are evolving our understanding to the complexities of it,” said McCabe. “It's not a thing that can be fixed in a brain. It's not like ‘Oh, that brain is deficient in some way. Like, let's correct that real quick.’ It's our brains are almost on an entirely different operating system; they just function differently. And so there's some advantages to that, and there's some disadvantages to that.”

And when you work for yourself, there can be room for both.

October is national ADHD Awareness Month. Jessica McCabe and Johan Wiklund were interviewed for Yahoo Finance's weekly program, "A Time for Change," which explore issues of race, diversity and inclusion in the worlds of finance, business, politics and beyond.

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