05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hitting the ADD/ADHD Wall - Over and Over Again

Here's a simple question: how do I get all the way to being an adult without knowing that I have ADHD? I've been asking myself that since being diagnosed three years at the tender age of 39. Some of the answer has to do with a popular misconception: people with ADHD don't do well in school. I believed that, so I never considered that undiagnosed ADHD might be the source of my professional problems.

I should clarify. I wasn't a consistently good student. I failed second grade. I very nearly failed freshman year of high school. But after each flirtation with academic oblivion, I adapted. I scrupulously avoided areas in which I struggled and worked the system for everything else. I also used brute force to overcome those areas in which I was least capable. This basic formula of grit, avoidance and manipulation (to the extent possible) got me through University of Chicago and Harvard Business School. And with those successes tucked under my belt, I felt as if nothing could stand in my way professionally. I was wrong.

My early career was a colorful disaster. For over a decade, I spent more time finding, securing and losing the best professional positions than actually working in them. That's because my ability to manage authority and boredom was sub par, by which I mean virtually non-existant. Instead of learning to overcome these barriers, I repeated the same mistakes, time and time again. Eventually, the only path left to me was entrepreneurship, which is a necessity for people who can't get hired anywhere else.

Unfortunately, my experience of slamming into immovable barriers is common to untreated ADHD. Last week, I attended a meeting of the Manhattan Area ADD Support Group (MAADDSG) and listened to individuals in their thirties, forties and fifties relate how success in school had left them blind to the possibility of ADHD at work. Most had gone on to suffer pretty vicious and often repeated professional reversals. Similarly, I recently ran a focus group for AbilTo in which we spoke to medical students with ADHD. Two of them had been perfectly proficient students throughout college but hit the wall at some point when the work became unexpected difficult during their medical training. Both had to leave their studies as a result; one has never returned.

While the individual circumstances differ, all of these people were considered great students for most of their academic careers. It's only when their compensatory skills were outmatched by a particular and unavoidable challenge that they fell apart. Some never recover, but many eventually regain their footing - eventually. It's possible to do this on your own, but if you have ADHD, it's usually faster and more effective to get help from others.

With undiagnosed ADHD, you can get pretty far in life before ever hitting the wall. Unfortunately, that simply leaves you less prepared to deal with fallout. Even if this rings a bell, your problem may have nothing to do with ADHD, but it's worth finding out. Just remember, getting diagnosed with ADHD is a good thing. You've always had it; you can't make it go away; but now you can fight back.