ADHD Scrabble Letters

ADHD: A New Reality

mental health, personal

I’ve known something was wrong for a long time.  I just didn’t know what it was.

There were a lot of moments where someone recognizing my ADHD were excruciatingly close, only to have it slip away.

And like a lot of people with ADHD, the first big warning signs came in elementary school.

I nearly failed fourth grade, despite scoring in the 94th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (a nation-wide standardized test).  The score was well above most of my classmates, but only a late-year parent/teacher conference saved me from repeating the year.

I actually failed 7th grade English class, and 10th grade Algebra II – and I’d go on to land a 32 on my ACT, including a nearly-perfect score on the English section.

So what was the problem?

I’ve always said that I just had a better-developed sense of work/life balance than most six year olds, and that’s followed me ever since.

But the real problem was the homework.  I went to schools that gave out homework in every subject, every day.

And that’s why my inability to do work outside of the classroom created a lot of problems.  For as long as I can remember, we always had at least an hour every night.  By the time I was a senior in High School, the load was usually around four hours of extra work every night, on top of whatever extracurricular activity I was doing.

Or it would have been an extra four hours of work, if I had done it.  I didn’t.

There were many parent/teacher conferences, from elementary school through high school.  They always centered around what were ostensibly character flaws.  From the language my parents and teachers used, it was clear that they suspected that I was either lazy, or I just didn’t care.

I developed patterns to cope with my chronic inability to do homework.  While most of my friends did just fine with basic organization, I was completely incapable of doing it.

I knew something was wrong.  I didn’t know how to put it into words.

Everyone else can do it, I’d tell myself.  What can’t you?  Don’t you know your grades today will affect the rest of your life?  You’re so much smarter than this!  What if your friends find out about how stupid you are?  What will Mom and Dad think when the hear about this again?  You’re a disappointment.  A failure.  And you’ll never be good enough.

Despite the interventions, on most day-to-day homework pieces, the work just never got done, and I’d feel like a miserable wreck at the end of the day.

Sometimes, the shame and fear would catch up with me and spur me to action.  This was particularly true on large projects with big impacts and immovable deadlines.  Unfortunately, it was never until the night before they were due.

And because I truly was a very bright person capable of doing great work, I managed to pull off incredible feats of academic output in single nights.

As a senior in high school, I wrote my final US Government paper – a 5,000 word essay justifying my approach to balancing the federal budget for the State Department, with an appendix showing income and outlays for each program – in a single night.

Receiving an A- on the paper was a welcome surprise, but ironically reinforced for me a very unfortunate lesson.  It was a lesson that had been driven into me by my years of experience in the cycle of avoidance-shame-procrastination-panic-production.

I “learned” that shame, anxiety, guilt, and procrastination were my friends, and that they were my only reliable to be produce acceptable work.

This only held true, of course, if you conveniently ignore all the times that the same cycle lead to my brain simply refusing to allow me to start any assignment that was too dull or emotionless.  I long ago had decided to not pay attention to those.

This Disorganized Child

Surprisingly, organization has never been my strong suit.

In elementary school, we had a single teacher and an assigned desk.  We kept our books in a cubby under the chair.  And we had a seatback cover for our chairs, where we kept our supplies and assignments.

Example of seatback cover.

How a seatback cover should look.

To say the organization of my desk left something to be desired is an understatement.  It was constantly disorganized.  Books were never placed neatly under my seat, but jammed into any available space, as quickly as possible.  My setback cover was full of broken pencils, old papers, and missing, half-completed homework crammed into every orifice.

It was the bane of my teacher’s existence.  In fifth grade, one teacher, a former nun, was particularly vexed.  So frustrated with my complete inability to keep my desk organized, she fipped my desk over in the middle of class.

“Why can’t you just keep your desk organized?” she yelled at me.  “It’s not a problem for anyone else!”

I wasn’t in my desk when this happened, but that didn’t make things easier. I was shocked, embarrassed, and upset, and the contents of my desk went everywhere.

I was forced to clean up the mess while the class watched and the teacher waited, refusing to teach any more until my desk and seatback cover were sorted.

Social Distortion

Events like this didn’t help me socially, but I also didn’t do myself any favors.

I was a sensitive kid, which made me an easy mark for anyone who wanted to get under my skin.  Even little things could swing my mood from content to angry very quickly.

And it never helped that I’ve never felt comfortable talking with people I don’t know well.  I often find myself focusing on the interactions rather than the conversation.

Was my greeting appropriate?  Am I making good eye contact?  Ugh, my laugh sounds ridiculous.  He doesn’t look very comfortable – am I doing something wrong?  I know he gave me his name 30 seconds ago, but now I can’t remember it.  Why does that always happen?  Maybe I can find a way to get him to mention it again. Oh shit, my mind’s been wandering.  What was he saying?  I don’t want him to think I’m not interested in the conversation, but I have no clue what we’re talking about now.  Shit. Shit shit shit.

Wash, rinse, repeat with every new person I met.

The Saga Continues

Predictably, these patterns carried over into my post-academic life.

I still forget the names of probably about 90% of people I meet within the first 30 seconds of meeting them, as I think about everything else about them and our interaction.  It’s safe to say nametags are my friend.

And although I’ve managed to climb my way up in my career and personal life, every day has been a struggle with the same shameful and anxious voices that kept me going.

Equally predictably, I developed problems with anxiety and depression as a result of the nasty tricks my brain was playing on me to push me to do just enough to keep moving forward.

It wasn’t late this past December, just before I started in online therapy for the first time, that I began to understand that my problems weren’t just a character flaw.

I’ve had issues with my working memory  – the ability to maintain/rearrange information –  for some time.  Worryingly, it seems to have gotten worse in recent years.

I knew that Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which I was diagnosed with in 2010, can cause some memory problems.  I was curious, however, if there might be something else at the core of my issues.

I began to do some research on what else might be causing the issue, to have some idea of what I might be up against.  Like any good Xennial, my first stop was Google.

Working Memory Screenshot

Never trust the first result of a Google search… but that doesn’t mean it’ll be wrong.

Out of the issues that were listed in my first result for potential issues, a few I could throw out without much extra thought.  Down syndrome and Rett Syndrome (a genetic mutation affecting brain development in young girls) were definitely out.  Developmental language disorder also seemed unlikely.

That left me with ADHD.  It was something I knew a little about.  My wife had been diagnosed with it when she was young, as had one of her sisters.  My wife was even one of the first juvenile testers of Strattera, a non-stimulant treatment for ADHD.

For some time, her ADHD has been well-managed, however.  We had talked in the past about how getting diagnosed and on medication for it had drastically affected her academic performance and thought process.  However, this revelation was so long before we met that I had no real grasp on how it impacted adults.

Was it really something that I could be struggling with?

Adult ADHD and Me

As I delved deeper into the symptoms of ADHD, I was shocked at how well they described me nearly perfectly, from the time I was a child.

Impulsiveness. We don’t talk about Bruno, or my Amazon shopping habits.

Disorganization and problems prioritizing.  I’m still cleaning up that spilled desk from 5th grade.

Poor time management skills. Why do something useful, timely, and important when you can do something fun and interesting but completely useless instead?

Problems focusing on a task.  See above.

Trouble multitasking.  Multitasking isn’t the problem. It’s too much multitasking.

Excessive activity or restlessness. The brief popularity of fidget spinners were a too-short-lived godsend for me.

Poor planning.  Seeing the big picture has never been the problem.  Planning the small steps to get me from A to Z has been.

Low frustration tolerance. One need look nor listen no further than my behavior when assembling the famously easy-to-follow IKEA instructions.  I’ve banned my wife and children from being around me while I’m doing an IKEA build.

Frequent mood swings.  It’s not uncommon for me to swing back and forth between extremes, within minutes of each other.

Problems following through and completing tasks. See my entire academic and professional career.

Trouble coping with stress. My generalized anxiety is more reliable on greeting me prominently each morning than my 4-year old son.

Take A Seat

So what did I do with this information?

I sat on it for a couple of years and let the shame of not seeking help and the anxiety that there might be even more wrong with me than simple anxiety eat away at me.

When I started a new job as a UX/UI Director in late 2021, I decided I could wait no longer.  This job came at an absolutely pivotal point in my career.  Success here has big implications, both for the company and my professional life.

Also in late 2021, I began to write The UX Design Field Book, a project that I’d thought of completing for several years.

In order to get the project done, I used a familiar strategy.  I set a deadline – January 18th, 2022 – for the book’s release and announced it to my 36,000 followers on Twitter.  I proceeded to procrastinate as long as possible before actually working on it, letting the shame and guilt of putting off a large project with a promise to literally tens of thousands of people build into a panicked frenzy of writing and revision.

Of the 23,244 words in The UX Design Field Book, I wrote and edited around 18,000 of them in the final two weeks before publication.

When I published the book, I felt no joy in what was an unequivocally huge accomplishment.  I was ashamed that the work did not reflect my full capabilities, and was sure that, despite my 12+ years of UX and design expertise, this would be the piece that finally exposed me as a fraud.

The result?  The book went to #1 on of Amazon Best-Sellers lists in the Usability, Graphic Design, and Web Design categories.  About a month and a half after release, it has a 5-star rating and has sold hundreds of copies.

And yet, like everything else I’ve ever done, I knew that wasn’t the best work I was capable of.  Once again, I relied on the same cycle of motivation.  Once again, my considerable abilities dug me out of the whole I created for myself. I created something that was objectively tremendously valuable and useful.

As the release date drew closer and my anxiety built, I felt more clearly than ever that I had a problem.  It was time to get help.

I’m So Much Cooler Online

One of the strangest things about my adult life is the incongruence between my online persona and my day-to-day experiences.

I’m so much cooler online.

I met my wife online.  I built my following and made lasting friendships online.  I’m seen as an authority by many.  I come across as confident, funny, even entertaining.  The content I create and the conversations I moderate get millions of views every year.  I’m lucky enough to get notes from many about how my work has positively impacted their careers and personal journeys.

My day-to-day life could not possibly feel more different.  Both of  people I’ve considered my good friends in the past ten years have moved away.  One I still exchange texts with a couple of times a week. The other drifted away from me, as those relationships separated by physical distance often do.  I feel unsure as a parent, a husband, and a professional, despite my apparent success.  Getting a note from anyone who knows me outside of the professional realm is exceedingly rare.

The online world, for me, is the biggest blessing I could possibly imagine.  It acts as a filter to give me time and space to think about and moderate my interactions.  I can review what’s been said in a conversation again if I’ve forgotten.  I don’t get distracted by people’s non-verbal language, or by my own awkwardness.

It’s not surprising, therefor, that when I chose to get involved with a therapist, I chose an online service.  I had been turned onto Better Help by the guys at the Crime in Sports podcast, who have had them as a sponsor for quite a while. (Note: neither Better Help or Crime in Sports are sponsors of mine.) The onboarding process was quick and easy – kudos to the Better Help UX team! – and I was quickly matched with my therapist, Kathi.

The Epiphany

Kathi has been a godsend.  Not only has she worked with patients with ADHD for decades, she herself lives with the condition.

When I signed up for therapy, I stated that I had a couple of goals.  I wanted to address my anxiety, and I wanted to understand whether or not ADHD was something that was worth investigating further as a possible source of my anxiety and other symptoms.

From our first meeting, I’ve felt exceedingly comfortable discussing my problems with her.  We spent a few sessions discussing (among other things) whether or not it ADHD could be something that was holding me back.

This part was key.  As a therapist, she couldn’t give me a formal, medical diagnosis of ADHD, but she could give me some thoughts on whether or not it was something that I should pursue with a psychiatrist or my primary care doctor.  I was determined to go into therapy with an open mind, despite my research on what my issues may be.

However, the more we talked, the more it became apparent to me that ADHD not only was something that I likely had, but that it could indeed be one of the primary drivers behind my generalized anxiety.

The Most Important Homework Assignment I Ever Had

Kathi gave me a key piece of homework early on – to read Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, MD, and John J. Ratey, MD.  Though it was released in 1994 – when understanding of adult ADHD was still in its infancy – she told me that the book holds up superbly well.  It is an intimate insight into the stories and treatment of adults with ADHD, and she was interested to hear how my experience lined up with those patients who shared their stories for the book.

My life is exceedingly packed, and finding time to read a book – any book – can be problematic.  Luckily for me, it was available as an audiobook, and I was able to listen to it as I made diner every night and drove around as part of my daily errands.

This book changed my life.

The book gave first-person accounts of what it’s like to suffer from ADHD.  The disorganization. The complete inability to start and finish projects.  The distractability The shame, anxiety, and guilt that drive many ADHD sufferers

Here I expected a roadblock.  ADHD is often treated with controlled stimulants.  Their prescription online had been banned at one point, and I expected to have to both find a psychiatrist and make a an appointment with them – a process that I found could not be done online.

Did I mention that things like finding doctors and making appointments fall into the category of “things Doug’s brain won’t let him do without a huge effort?”

If anything good has come from this pandemic, however, it’s been the impact it’s had on finding mental help online.  The rules, in the US at least, have been relaxed, and finding a psychiatrist that would be able to assess me and prescribe appropriate medication was simple.

I ended up going with a company called Cerebral.  The process was very similar to getting setup with BetterHelp.  I was able to meet with a psychiatrist within a day, and after some discussion and testing I was able to get setup with a prescription for medication.

Let it Go

It’s probably not very common for grown men to tear up while doing the dishes and listening to Frozen’s “Let it Go” while doing the dishes.

But I can verify that it has happened.

While doing the dishes after dinner the other night, the song came on my Spotify (as it tends to crop up unexpectedly when it’s your daughter’s favorite song.)  I had never really listened to the lyrics before, but as my hands were soapy I was able to listen as I scoured a pan.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

I could feel myself welling up, because words cannot describe the change that I’ve seen in myself.

“Driven to Distraction” describes ADHD medication as akin to eyeglasses – they don’t solve the underlying medical condition, but they help bring things into focus so you can do work.

My ADHD meds work the same way for me.  They’re pivotal in allowing me to focus and do the things that my brain just simply wouldn’t before.  They’ve allowed me to start doing all of the the other things that neurotypical people are capable of just sitting down and doing on a daily basis.

I can start projects that seemed impossible.  I can finish projects ahead of time, doing better work than I’ve ever been able to do.  I’m learning how to manage the tasks, the organization, and difficulties that come with ADHD.

And I can do it without relying on the nasty shame cycle that my brain has been using to drive me my whole life.

Even though I’ve tried to be as open and honest as possible with my wife about my journey, I’m glad the water was running and the music was on.

What’s Next?

My journey with ADHD has been going on all my life.  The difference is that now I know what I’m up against, and I have tools at my disposal to help me be my best self.

Like any journey in my life, there will be ups and down.  I’ll have successes and failures.  I’ll have times when I’m tremendously proud of my progress, and times where it feels like I’ll never move forward again.

There is no cure for ADHD, but I’m determined that my ADHD will never define me again.

A woman sits at a desk with a computer. The screen reads "Designers should always keep their users in-mind."

Three ways to get UX experience when you have none (and two things to avoid)

career development, professional, ui, ux

It’s the Catch 22 of the UX design field: to get a UX job, you need UX experience; to get UX experience, you need a job.

For those getting their feet wet, it can feel like being asked to swim the English Channel.

So how do you get UX experience?  Here are three things to do (and two things to avoid) to help get UX experience on your resume and in your portfolio.

Do: Create Your Own Projects to get UX experience.

A design notebook open with pencils laying on it. Use all the tools at your disposal to get UX experience.

Get out your tools. This is going to be great.

Everybody has a problem to solve.

In 2009, I took at job at Nordstrom’s (a high-end fashion retailer) credit card call center.  Credit is a very highly-regulated industry.

There were certain things you had to say in some situations.  Some were things you couldn’t say in others.  There were strict procedures to follow, lines of authorization to navigate, and an endless sea of phone extensions to find.

The way we, as call center reps, were meant to divine all of this information was by using what Nordstrom referred to as a Quickbook.

The Quickbook was a randomly-grouped, alphabetically organized collection of links and information that was more difficult to navigate than downtown Boston.

At least in downtown Boston you can get GPS – which may or may not prove helpful.  The Quickook had no search functionality.

I had some design and development experience.  I spent the 10-30 seconds in-between phone calls writing a better tool to help us do our jobs.

At first it was just a collection of commonly used links.  Then I added in some JavaScript to quickly create commonly used notes for accounts.

At this point, I started doing UX before I really even knew what UX was.

As call center employees, we always talked a lot about our biggest gripes with our systems.  Instead of just listening, I took notes and looked for ways to address the most common issues.I spent my lunch break showing my site to fellow employees to get their thoughts.

I found a way to use my computer as something of a server to so that other employees could access the page, and give them access to it on condition that they’d give me feedback about what I could improve (note: my Internet Security team was not pleased by this.)

Over the course of a few years, I added more and more functionality.  My IS team found out what I was doing, and told me to shut it down and stop working on it (I didn’t). In fact I was told in no uncertain terms a half dozen times to give up on the project.

An angry man in a suit pounds on a table

My IS team, probably.

I didn’t.

Eventually, I was able to get the ear of some of the right people in the organization. The tool that I eventually created started to get some buzz.

I was given the chance to pitch the idea to our C-level team, who liked it so much they promoted me to the role of UX Engineer and charged me with implementing it for the entire organization.

My story might seem a bit extreme.  However, many of my friends got their start in the UX world but creating technical solutions to user-centered problems at their workplace.  It was almost never their job to do so.

Everybody has a problem to solve.  You can be the one to solve them.  And it can make a great answer to your “tell me about you” interview question that you’ll inevitably face in the future.

Pros: Every company has something that could benefit from improved UX, especially if they use enterprise-level tools.  If you find the right pain point, you can fast-track yourself to the notice of people who are in a position to promote you into a technical role.

One of the big benefits of working on in-office tools is that you have a captive audience.  Want to do some user interviews?  Would some ethnographic study help?  Your entire test group is all around you.  Literally.

Cons: This can be risky.  Putting a bee in the wrong person’s bonnet can get you fired.  Your work may never get noticed or appreciated.  Your IS department may threaten to fire you if you don’t stop working on your project.

Pro Tip: This route can be tremendously rewarding, but it’s fraught with tricky technical and political landmines to navigate.  Tread carefully.

Don’t: Work for Free

A cardboard sign that reads "Will Work for Exposure." Never work for free to get UX experience.

You can’t pay your bills with exposure.

It’s so tempting to do pro-bono work in exchange for building up your resume to get UX experience.


Seriously, just don’t.  I’ve taken a few free jobs over the years, as have many of my friends in the design industry.  Whether it was for friends, family, or someone whom I owed a favor, clients who don’t pay for their services often feel the most entitled to perfection – without having much knowledge of how to explain their needs to or work with a designer.

The worst of these types – the Exposure Bro.  “I can’t pay you anything for your work, but you’ll get a ton of exposure,” is the mating call of an Exposure Bro looking to hookup with an unsuspecting designer.

Don’t fall for it.  You can’t pay your bills in exposure, and these self-centered egotists are never worth the time and effort you’ll put into managing their expectations and producing what they consider to be satisfactory work.

When we work for free we drive down the price and perceived value of our services for the industry as a whole.  You’ve worked hard to get to where you are, and so have the rest of us.  Do us all a favor and step back from that ledge, my friend.

The only exception I make to this rule is…

Do: Volunteer Your Services for Nonprofits to get UX experience.

A volunteer helps a nonprofit organizer at a computer. Working at nonprofits can be a great way to get UX experience.

A good deed is its own reward, but can also have the nice benefit of kickstarting your UX career.

When most people think of volunteering for nonprofit organizations, they think of handing out food to the homeless, building houses for low-income families, or helping to clean out cages and walk dogs at the pet shelter.

And while all those services are definitely needed, nonprofits are usually running on a tight budget and don’t always have the best technical or design capabilities.

While I’m a huge proponent of the “don’t work for free” philosophy of professional development, volunteering your time for a nonprofit you care about is an exception.  It’s a win-win for everyone, and what you lack in pay you’ll gain in experience and the knowledge that you’re helping to serve a cause you’re passionate about.

Pros: You get to help your community by working on something that’s important to you.  You also get to pump up the portfolio, get UX experience on your resume, and gain references who can speak to the quality of your work.

Cons: You’re likely not going to be paid for this work. Some nonprofits have no understanding of technology or design, and trying to convince or persuade them about the efficacy of what you’re proposing can be tough.

Pro Tip: Search for local nonprofits that you’re passionate about.  Most will have contact information and usually an “About” page that will list the head of the organization.  Spend some time to get together some talking points about what you’d like to do for them, call up the organization, and ask to speak to the person listed as the head of the organization or in-charge of volunteer coordination.

If that feels like a bridge too far for you, you may have some luck finding sites to volunteer with over at to help you get UX experience.

Don’t: Re-Design High-Profile Websites

The Apple company's logo hangs on a building of glass. Redesigning Apple's website won't help you get UX experience.

Apple doesn’t need your help… yet.

We’ve all been there.

United Airlines has hacked me (and others) off by having the answers to their security questions come in dropdown-list form.

he process I went though to verify my identity with AirBnb was mishmash of taking photos of documents, strangely long upload times, and cryptic errors.

The inability to find and apply a neck size filter when shopping for dress shirts on Amazon made it impossible for me to buy any shirt with confidence (curse my currently somewhere-between-medium-and-large body!)

But as much as this might irk us, resit the temptation to redesign an existing site.

Why? Because UX is founded on the notion of working with business stakeholders to understand business needs, and working with users to understand and solve their problems.

These type of redesigns almost never afford for the type of user research you should be doing for such a redesign.  They certainly don’t allow for any interaction with business stakeholders.

This is no way to get UX experience.  Trying to pass this off as a UX project will get you nowhere with UX hiring managers.

Another consideration: many UX bootcamps have taken to having students redesign big corporate websites as part of their portfolios.  In some areas of the country, it’s easy to pick out a bootcamp graduate – and even what bootcamp they attended – just by looking at what major corporate redesigns are in their portfolios.

These do nothing to set you apart, particularly from a UX perspective.  Save your time and energy for something more productive.

That list includes nearly anything else you can think of doing.

Do: Just Ask

Two women having a conversation about how to get UX experience.

You’ll never get a yes if you can’t risk a no.  Sometimes the best way to get UX experience is to ask.

You can’t get something you don’t ask for.  Sometimes, the best way to get your first UX job is to simply ask for it.

Option 1: Propose a Solution

If you’re in a position to find a problem in your organization, you’re in a position to propose a solution.

And if you’re in a position to propose a solution, you’re in a position to propose that you are the best person to help implement it.

If you’re going to take a run at asking your higher ups to put you in a UX role, come prepared with:

  • A specific problem that needs to be solved, along with reasoning of why it’s important to solve it.
  • A plan on how you’ll help solve it.
    • Define what steps you’d like to take, a timeline, and a budget.

Schedule some time to talk with your direct manager (no more than 45 minutes) and come prepared to give your pitch.

Option 2: Propose a Role

Sometimes you don’t have a problem in particular that you’d like to solve. Proposing the UX or design role itself can be a good first step into the UX world.  This works particularly well if the company is smaller and new to the benefits of UX design.

Schedule some time to talk with your manager (again, no more than 45 minutes.)  Come ready to talk about UX, how UX is a zero-risk investment, and why you would be the right person to start the UX team for your organization.

Pros: If you’re in good standing at your job and a manager that’s open to listening to new ideas, this might be the easiest step up into the UX world.

Cons: If you’re not in good standing, or your management team is resistant to change, this can be an uphill battle.

Picking the right people in an organization to help you on your career path can also be tricky.  Having a good relationship with your manager is helpful.  Making connections higher up the chain is difficult but also tremendously valuable.

Depending on your standing in the company, you may need to spend some time building bridges before you can cross this chasm.

Final Thought: Don’t Give Up

A man in a blue suit stand, looking pensive, in the middle of a long set of stairs on his way to get UX experience.

No matter how many stairs you have to climb to get UX experience, keep going.

It’s hard, working towards a better future and constantly feeling like you’re stuck in-place.

No, hard isn’t the right word.  Maddening.  Infuriating.  Soul-consuming.  Especially when you see your peers and mentors moving up all around you.

Don’t. Give. Up.

There is no such as an overnight success.  Everyone who’s stepped into this career has faced this challenge.  Every single person you see with a UX job title had to solve this problem.

And if they can, you can, too.

Stick with it.  Don’t give up.  And let me know when you succeed.