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ADD in the corner office: Five top executives discovered that an LD can be a capitalist tool

Five top executives reveal their struggles in school ? and their secrets for success!

By Lois Gilman, ADDitude Magazine

As students, they seemed to be heading nowhere — fast. A teacher hurled an eraser at one of them, and asked, "Time passes, will you?" Another graduated at the bottom of his high school class and was strongly advised by his principal to go into carpet laying. A third was labeled lazy by her teachers because she had trouble memorizing basic math facts. A fourth was a whiz with numbers but found reading a book a difficult task. The last was always falling behind in his schoolwork and concluded that he was stupid. "How am I going to be successful in anything if I can't read and write?" he wondered.

You might say that these nowhere kids turned their lives around. They are, in order, Alan Meckler, chairman and CEO of Jupitermedia; Paul Orfalea, founder of the copying empire, Kinko's; Diane Swonk, a world-renowned economist; Charles Schwab, a pioneer in the discount brokerage business; and David Neeleman, founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways.

Besides having difficulty in school, these executives share another thing in common: They all suffer from AD/HD or learning disabilities. Neeleman has AD/HD; Swonk, Meckler, and Schwab have dyslexia, and Orfalea has both. Each managed to turn his or her liabilities into assets on their respective career paths. If you have difficulty with organization, reading, or remembering math facts, these entrepreneurs prove that such limitations don't preclude a bright future.

Flying high

David Neeleman

Founder, JetBlue Airways

If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADD, I would take ADD," says Neeleman, who foregoes medication to manage the condition. "I'm afraid of taking drugs once, blowing a circuit, and then being like the rest of you."

Countless airline passengers are thankful that Neeleman skipped the medication. If he hadn't, perhaps JetBlue Airways wouldn't have gotten off the drawing board. Neeleman prided himself on thinking out of the box when creating the airline. "With the disorganization, procrastination, inability to focus, and all the other bad things that come with ADD, there also come creativity and the ability to take risks," he explains.

Neeleman boldly told the New York media, "We want to be New York's new low-fare, hometown airline." His statement could be interpreted as naïve confidence or remarkable chutzpah, coming, as it did, from a third-generation Mormon from Utah. Despite the myriad naysayers — from the venture capitalists who walked away from investing in the budding airline to the media — Neeleman changed the flying experience by introducing such innovations as live in-flight television and unparalleled customer service — on a discount airline.

"I knew I had strengths that other people didn't have, and my parents reminded me of them when my teachers didn't see them," says Neeleman. "I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions. I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, 'How can I do this better?' My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things."

Neeleman's personal life isn't the same success story. "My wife can't always figure out what the heck I'm thinking, and my kids want me to focus on just one thing with them. I find it difficult. It's hard for me to do the mundane things in life. I have an easier time planning a 20-aircraft fleet than I do paying the light bill."

Neeleman does try to rein in his wandering mind. At the office, he surrounds himself with people who are good at the details of the business. "My assistant helps me write letters and keeps my calendar," he says. "I have no idea what I'm doing one day to the next." At home, he has trained himself to put his wallet and keys in the same place so he doesn't lose them. He also wears a Casio DataBank watch, which allows him to type in reminders of appointments or ideas as they pop up.

"Life is full of trade-offs," he says, "and living with my untreated ADD is one of them."

His advice for fellow ADDers? "Look at the positives of having ADD," he says, "and don't get discouraged. Don't ever give up."

Reprinted with permission from ADDitude Magazine. All rights reserved. See www.additudemag.com for more articles like this one.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/4/2012:
"I don't get why people think it's such a blessing. What's the point in having so many thoughts and ideas shooting at you if you frequently forget them due to yet ANOTHER mental tangent or almost inevitable lack of interest to follow through? This is cliche, but, if ADHD is a gift, I want to return it :p. Nonetheless, it's great to see what these people have done with themselves regardless of their issues :), BUT, and this is just my opinion that they would only be better versions of themselves without ADHD. Also, those ideas held by someone else without ADHD (or under treatment and/or medication) would might have done even more with them. Although being positive is important when diagnosing, accepting the problem, and researching it, ADHD needs to stop being looked at as a gift. It's not. It diminishes your quality of life, and should be taken seriously. That's just my view on it, more power to ya if you're content with it :), cause I'm sure not. "
03/24/2010:
"I had to laugh when I heard David Neeleman has a certain place for his wallet and keys. I honestly think I have the same condition as he does. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I am an idea machine. I take in experiences from all different aspects of my life and boom another idea and then boom another idea. I compare my brain to a computer with parellell processing. I am constantly juggling 3-4 different threads in my brain all at the same time. It wears me out sometimes. Anyways, if you have the same thing, I wouldn't medicate for it, but just learn to harness that God given ability to your advantage. Awesome article!"
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