She turned ADHD into a career: ‘Talking about our challenges is very important,’ says host of ‘How to ADHD’

Founder and Host of 'How to ADHD' Jessica McCabe joins A Time For Change to discuss her story of how she turned her ADHD diagnosis into a career, advice for others living with ADHD, and the importance of choosing the right career.

Video Transcript


SIBILE MARCELLUS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Sibile Marcellus, here with Alexis Christoforous and Marquise Francis. It is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Awareness Month. And so today, we focus our attention on the millions of Americans with ADHD. It can be a tricky condition to recognize or diagnose. And for adults, it can make work and home incredibly difficult to manage. Let's take a quick look.

- ADHD is a condition that most people associate with kids, but an estimated 11 million adults in this country have it, too. It's a neurological disorder that affects thinking, mood, and behavior. To be diagnosed, people must show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or a pattern of hyperactivity or impulsivity. It can be managed with medication, therapy, and skills training. But at its most extreme and without help, ADHD can make life chaotic, and turn the regular responsibilities of adulthood into crushing burdens.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Our next guest not only has ADHD, she's actually turned it into a booming career, educating people about the condition on her YouTube channel "How to ADHD". I had a chance to speak with Jessica McCabe about her own journey, and how she's trying to help others.

JESSICA MCCABE: I have had ADHD and known I've had ADHD since I was a kid. I was diagnosed when I was 12. But I didn't really understand it. So I kept struggling with a lot of things. And I knew that I had trouble focusing, and I knew my medication helped with that, but I was still having a lot of trouble with life in other areas. And I kept failing, I kept failing. I kept putting so much effort into everything and feeling like I was falling farther and farther behind my peers.

And I kept hearing this "potential" word following me around. You have so much potential, you have so much potential. Why aren't you reaching your potential? Why aren't you just doing this? Why can't you just do this? You should be able to do this. And I was so frustrated at some point that I just stopped doing everything I was trying to do and I decided, you know what? At 31 years old, I was broke, divorced, living at home with my mom, my career was going nowhere. And I went, you know what, let me figure this out. I know I have ADHD, maybe there's more to it than that.

And so I went about learning about my ADHD and learning strategies that might be able to help me. And everything that I learned, I put somewhere where I knew I could find it again, which at the time was YouTube. I was that disorganized, that was the one thing I knew that I could find again. So I put my story on YouTube.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: So now you've turned your ADHD into a career on YouTube with Patreon. Not a lot of people can do that. What advice do you have for other people in your situation, those who've been diagnosed with ADHD or another neurodiverse condition? Should they make their diagnosis public, especially to a potential employer?

JESSICA MCCABE: Whether or not somebody decides to make their diagnosis public is a really personal decision, I think, and it depends on a lot of factors. I do think that talking about our challenges is really important, and not trying to hide the fact that we're struggling. But there are times where the people around you-- maybe you're in a job where it's not safe. There are still employers that it's not safe to talk about your ADHD at work, because you're going to get passed over for promotions. People are going to make assumptions about your capabilities. There's still a lot of stigma around it. And so sometimes it doesn't make sense.

But I think personally, if you're in a position where you can talk about your ADHD, it's a good idea to talk about your ADHD. If you're in a position where you're secure at work, it's a really good thing. Because the problem is, if people only bring up their ADHD when they're about to get fired because they're not performing well, and they haven't gotten the supports they need, that creates a lot more stigma and it creates more shame around it. Because maybe nobody speaks about their ADHD at work, and so everybody's pretending. Everybody's trying to be neurotypical, trying to be normal at work, and nobody's really getting their needs met.

And if you're in a position where you're safe and you're stable, and you know that your job is secure and your boss is happy with you, talking about your ADHD helps that boss understand ADHD, so that other employees can also speak up about theirs. It makes it safer for everybody.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Good point. How important is it for folks with ADHD to choose the right career? I mean, I think it's important for everyone, but what is sort of the unique challenges they face when they're thinking about their path forward and career choice?

JESSICA MCCABE: I think it's really critical that people with ADHD choose a career that works for them, that works for their brain. The difference between being a complete failure and getting fired from a volunteer position at a yoga studio, for me, and being the CEO of a company and a successful YouTuber has just been choosing the right career.

The things that my brain naturally does, the things I'm naturally good at, my creativity and my passion and my curiosity, the same thing that I get paid for now is what I got fired for back at that 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. I get paid for that now. I got fired for it then. That's the level of difference it makes.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, find how you can play to your strengths, for sure. I want to talk a little bit about your success with social media. Your TED talk, I know, has more than three million views. That's gone viral. You have almost a million subscribers on YouTube. Tens of millions of people have seen your videos. You've sort of become this go-to source, or the face of ADHD for so many people. Does that ever become overwhelming for you?

JESSICA MCCABE: It's a huge responsibility. I started this channel to help me and maybe a few other people that already knew they had ADHD, and maybe also needed some strategies. I had no idea the impact it would have. I had no idea how many people would watch my channel and realize that maybe there is a reason they'd been struggling their entire life, and nobody ever caught it.

And there's so much misinformation about ADHD out there that I feel an incredible amount of responsibility. And an honor, it's a privilege to be able to do this. But it is so important to me to make sure that I'm putting out good information, because I know how many people are relying on it now. I'm terrified, and I'm so grateful that I got to do this.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Jessica, how have you seen the conversation around ADHD change or shift over the past decade or so? I mean, you were talking earlier about there is still some stigma. But so many more people are now seeing it as a superpower, some people are calling it. How has that dynamic changed over the past decade?

JESSICA MCCABE: I think as we're understanding ADHD better, we are evolving our understanding to the complexities of it. I think for a long time, we thought that it was kids getting distracted, not having the ability to focus. And then yeah, maybe they take meds and then that helps them focus. But now we understand that it's not a thing that can be fixed in a brain. It's not like, oh, that brain's deficient in some way, let's correct that real quick. 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 some of the disadvantages are organizational challenges and difficulty focusing, and being really interested in something for like five seconds and then being completely disinterested in it. There are a lot of challenges that come with it. But on the flip side, creativity actually comes from distraction. So a lot of people who are really, really creative are the people who aren't going to think linearly and stay on task. They're the ones who have brains that have shower thoughts in the middle of the day. That's distracting, but it enhances our creativity. It enhances outside-the-box thinking and creative problem solving. It enhances that passion, that drive for one thing.

And losing interest in going to something else means a lot of times, we flit from job to job. And what we do is like bees, we pollinate. We take what's great about one job and we bring it to another job. We take something we learn from one career and bring it to another thing. And there's just something really, really beautiful about that.

I personally don't say that my ADHD is a superpower, but I recognize that it does give me talents that are not common. It gives me strengths as well as challenges.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: How would you speak directly to employers and to corporate America? I mean, we see sort of falling under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion and equity the idea of supporting those with neurodiverse conditions. But what would you tell them with regards to employing people with ADHD?

JESSICA MCCABE: I think that employers are starting to recognize the value of neurodiversity in the workplace, and a lot of companies are actually creating programs designed to attract neurodiverse talent. Because in today's workplace, those who are early tech adopters are really great employees to have. Those who have a lot of creativity and new ideas and drive and passion. And honestly, we work really hard.

There's a lot of really strong advantages to having ADHD employees. And a huge one is that we don't get fazed in a crisis. A lot of us, I mean, COVID happened, and we're like yeah, that tracks. Like, usually it's me doing this to myself, but now the world is doing it. Anyway, like, moving on. I feel like we're able to thrive a lot of the time in crisis, and there's so many valuable things to that.

But the biggest thing I would want employers to understand is, if you measure those employees, if you want that out-of-the-box thinker, if you want that drive, that passion, all these novel ideas, but then you're also going to expect them to get there at exactly on time and stay on task and not get distracted during meetings, like, you can't have both, right? You take the good with the bad, and recognize that there are two sides of the same coin.

And there are things that you can do as an employer to accommodate the ADHD, and to make it so that it flips onto the good side more often than not. A lot of people with ADHD also have dyslexia. If you have somebody with dyslexia and you have them reviewing paperwork for typos, it's not a great use of their talents. But if you put them in a situation where a lot of times they're more visual thinkers where you're putting them in charge of visuals, now you're using them in a way that is going to be really good for them, because they'll be happy, they'll be doing something they're good at. And good for you as an organization.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: You know, more broadly, ADHD or not, I know you've done some videos talking about remote work and how challenging. This time has been many of us feeling isolated, burnt out, feeling like we never truly leave the office because our home has now become the office. What's your advice? What can you share with people who are going through that right now as they continue to work remotely?

JESSICA MCCABE: Work-life separation is really it. We talk about work-life balance, but it's really work-life separation. And cues are huge. Whether you're an employer or an employee, you have to understand that cues, our environment, really affects how we work. And so when you're done working for the day, putting away the stuff that you use and making your space look visually different, whether that's even a different mouse pad if you have the same computer. There are a lot of things that you can do in terms of that.

But also transition time is a huge one. We need transition time, and we got that naturally when we were going to the office. The drive to work, the drive home from work, walking to a meeting, walking out of a meeting. And so one of the things that I'm seeing a lot of people do, and I'm trying to do in my organization as well, is instead of hour-long meetings, recognize there's going to be another meeting immediately after that. And so make it a 50-minute meeting, and that gives people 10 minutes to transition to the next meeting.

Because otherwise, what happens is they go right up to that hour, then they go into the next meeting, and the first 10 minutes that meeting, they're not present yet. They're still cycling through or catching the fallout from the first meeting, and then they're spending the last 50 minutes of that meeting trying to catch up on what they missed. So it's just it's better for everybody if you build in that transition time.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Jessica, before we let you go, I know you have some exciting stuff coming up. You actually just inked a book deal. Tell us about that.

JESSICA MCCABE: Yeah, I've been wanting to write a book since I was, I think, 12 years old I thought I would be published by 15. I'm a little late on that, but I'm getting it done. Random House reached out and offered me a book deal. So I'm going to be writing How to ADHD: The Book. That's going to be my story, a lot of stuff that I shared in the TED talk.

And I'm trying to give people the sense, the experience that they would have had if they had watched my channel, seen my TED talk, gotten to hang out with me in person. And the experience that I got from going from really feeling completely disempowered and not understanding how my brain works, and not having any tools and just beating myself up all the time, to completely having a full understanding of how my brain works, when it works, why it doesn't sometimes, what to do about it, what my tool box looks like, and what challenges. I'm not going to overcome, realistically.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Those are some great insights there from Jessica McCabe, founder and host of "How to ADHD" on YouTube.