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Defining Success When You Have ADHD

Zoë summits the mountain with ADHD! ( Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada)
Zoë summits the mountain with ADHD! ( Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada)

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

– Maya Angelou

Before I knew about ADHD, I often felt like a failure. Instead of summiting the mountain, I was more likely to fly into it (flying without an air traffic controller will do that to you).

After my diagnosis, I understood that I was working with a different brain and a highly sensitive nervous system. I also realized that the popularized notions of success were set by the dominant culture, in other words, by non-ADHD brains.

I needed to find my own definition of success and ways to achieve it; otherwise, I’d be doomed to perpetually slam into mountains.

By standard definitions, for example, it seems counterintuitive that someone (like me) with a university education would count as a success being able to keep a low-paying menial job for four years without getting fired.

But let’s look at it in the context of late-diagnosed ADHD. In that case, the victory lies in achieving: mastery over impulsive blurting; new-found time management skills and punctuality; overcoming debilitating levels of anxiety, and much more. Dealing well with the public and enjoying working with them adds to the sense of accomplishment.

Success in this case lies not in the eye of the beholder, but in the person who’s overcome invisible obstacles to achieve what might seem quite ordinary.

If you’ve got ADHD and you let someone else define success for you, you’ve already failed.

If you’ve got ADHD and you let someone else define success for you, you’ve already failed.

Angelou’s definition

So what about the quote from Angelou: is it a way of looking at success that you’d like to adopt or adapt? Let’s consider each component in turn, especially as it might apply to those of us with ADHD.

Success is:

Liking yourself

In my view, liking yourself is the first step to success. Not liking yourself encompasses not believing in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, or like yourself enough to feel you deserve rewards, how can you succeed?

Liking yourself isn’t always easy with ADHD. Many of us are told since we were kids that we’re lazy, dumb, inconsiderate, selfish, spacey, or any of a number of pejoratives that damage self-esteem and self-confidence. Just learning to replace a negative self-image with a more positive one is a huge success in itself, and often hard-won. Yet it’s the first step and foundation for future successes.

Liking what you do

After achieving step one, liking yourself, it’s time to reassess what you’re capable of, what you really want, and how to achieve it. With newfound confidence, a clearer vision of your values and goals, and having learned how to work with your strengths and manage ADHD challenges, success in your chosen career suddenly becomes possible. It may be the first time that even choosing a career is possible, as you now know what success is for you.

Liking how you do it

This one has a special relevance for those of us with different brains.

How we do it is inherently different than how others do it. The foundation of liking how we do things is also step one: learning to like ourselves. Liking ourselves embodies the idea of accepting who we are, as we are, including how we do things.

With special challenges, it’s especially important to re-define success on our own terms. This allows us to recognize and savor our less obvious but none the less hard-won successes, while continually moving forward. Again, I’ll use my own work as an example.

I like how I do my work at least in so far as I’ve found my voice, which is an important first step in writing.

On the other hand, there are things I don’t like about how I do it: I get distracted while doing research; I have to write many drafts because I’m not as mentally organized as others; I have a poor memory; I’m a slow reader so it takes longer to do research and read over drafts of my work.

This means that success entails less productivity than I’d like, but it doesn’t mean I can’t see myself as successful. My definition of success includes keeping an eye out for new and better ways of doing it so I like the how part even more. Barring that, I still choose writing because of step two: I like what I do.

How do you define success? Is it different than the definitions of others? What makes you feel successful? Let us know!


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Defining Success When You Have ADHD

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2014). Defining Success When You Have ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Apr 2014
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