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Workplace self-advocacy, experimentation, and taking chances: What we’ve learned from this series

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout this show, it’s that people can thrive at work not in spite of their differences, but because of them. People with learning and thinking differences like ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia all have strengths. But sometimes it takes finding the right job — and the right tools — to allow them to shine.

In this final episode of How’d You Get THAT Job?!, host Eleni Matheou looks back at themes we’ve seen from guests in the series. Tune in to learn how taking a chance, experimenting with strategies, and asking for support can help you on your career path. 

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Episode transcript

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences.

My name is Eleni Matheou and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is coming to an end. But we've talked to a lot of people, and it's clear now more than ever that people thrive not in spite of their differences, but because of them. There is not one particular job or industry that is best suited to people with learning and thinking differences. It's really about aligning your work to your unique interests and skills, which means you could do anything.

As we're ending the show, I wanted to share some highlights from talking to some of our fantastic guests. In this final episode, I will be sharing four key takeaways that we've learned, and I will be going through some examples of where we've heard these from recent guests.

Firstly, many of the guests on the show are freelancers or entrepreneurs — we've seen a lot of people either create flexibility within their existing positions or create new opportunities from the ground up.

Secondly, we've learned that choosing the right work environment can allow you to be yourself, get things done, and improve your mood and job satisfaction.

Thirdly, experimenting and finding the right tools and supports that work for you is crucial. Almost everyone I spoke to went through a lot of trial and error to create their own unique toolkits.

And finally, asking for support does wonders. There's nothing wrong with asking for help, and by doing so, you advocate for yourself and break the stigma for those around you.

First up, let's talk about this idea of taking the leap. Gil Gershoni took his first leap towards his own branding firm by saying yes to something he didn't quite know how to do, but he was confident his dyslexic brain could figure it out. He's now the creative director of the branding firm Gershoni Creative. He advocates that dyslexia is a hyper ability, that is a strength, not a deficit. Gil took a risk, and it paid off as his first client.

Gil: Yeah, I think that's something that I've heard from a lot of dyslexics that we sort of march on drumbeat, we found our own paths, you know, and if I went to a proper interview and had to write something to do it, I probably would never get the job. But the fact that it just sort of I was open to it, I was at the right place at the right time, and I just kind of took the leap, you know, kind of changed outcome, and it happens every time. I mean, everything we do it sort of starts somewhere around that place.

Eleni: Delia Gallegos put time into a hobby of fandom. This side passion helped her balance her work life with her ADHD. She became very involved with Black Nerds Create, a collective for marginalized creators to make fandom content. When she saw they needed help in their business operations, she offered her skills. One thing led to another, and they eventually expanded, and she became the chief financial officer. Now she works in an area that she loves.

When you really think about this story, Delia wasn't taking a huge leap, but she did see an opportunity where her skillset was needed.

Delia: I was just like, "Hey, you guys seem to need help in these specific areas, specifically like with business operations." That's kind of, in my, at the time, in my day job, was kind of like my bread and butter was I've worked in pretty much most facets of like business operations except HR. And I was like, "I can help, you know, shore that up. Like, why don't we just build this thing out?" And so, that's kind of how it happened. And so, here we are years later, and I am fully the CFO.

Eleni: Alex Gilbert is a career coach with dyslexia and ADHD. By taking the lead to start her own business after being laid off from her job, she leaned into her strengths, which just happened to be encouraging other people to lean into this.

Alex: And so, when I was laid off, I said, "You know what? It's time." I really wanted to find new ways to support people who are in this space, who could use that extra boost of confidence to know that they had value, to know that they had amazing skills and strengths, that if we just leaned into them and they had a little extra support, that they could do that.

Eleni: My next point is about creating the space for yourself. You don't have to create something completely new. You can revamp your existing work and make it feel new. Also, the right environment can make all the difference. It's not always about the work itself. Culture can change everything. If you're able to find a space that fits you better, run with it. Rachel Basoco splits her time between a full-time job at Fidelity, and a part-time role at 11:11 media. She's built this system with flexible hours that work with her ADHD brain.

Rachel: I will work later in the afternoons or evenings during the week. And so, I think having a work from home or a more flexible work schedule has been helpful for me in that because it allows me to tap into my most productive, creative, focused times. Like honestly, like between hours of 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., I'm probably the most focused I am all day. I could just like sit and like hammer out a lot, like super focused.

But between the hours of probably 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., I'm always like, "I'm useless right now." There's not much I can do to like jump-start that, unless it's something that's new and exciting and I have to create a, again that faux excitement around it. The tools and resources are really just like a) learning how to structure my day so that it works for me, and I can be productive, but b) also being able to communicate with my team and managers and people I work with and having some firm boundaries, which I think took me a while to figure out.

Eleni: Michael Upshall Jr. worked at a desk job and would watch the hours go by. The office setting wasn't working with his ADHD and keeping him engaged. It also hurt his work ethic. At his family carpentry business, he's found the right setting for his brain.

Michael: Being on-site and having all of the noises and the banging and the, like, just everything, so many different moving components going on. It's crazy how much more energetic and how alive I feel at work rather than almost kind of just feeling like a carcass sitting at a desk all day. And that doesn't mean anything bad towards anybody that does work a desk job. It's certainly not bad at all. It's just, it's really not meant for me.

Eleni: Dina Ragab is a lawyer who has determined that the office is not for her. Needing to mask ADHD in the office can be exhausting. Dina's figured out what is important to her in a workplace setting.

Dina: I don't know if this is my ADHD or if it's just who I am as a person, I never want to work in an office again. It is immensely important to me to be able to decompress alone. It is immensely important to me to be able to express myself off camera and where my body and my face are not being policed by other people because it is more difficult for me as someone with ADHD. Or maybe it's just who I am. It is more difficult for me to create a neutral body positioning just for someone else's comfort.

Eleni: If you're running into the same problem over and over in different environments, you may want to experiment with different tools or strategies. Different things work for different people. Alex Gilbert talks about how a job should be challenging, not hard. This distinction is important as it can help you determine if you're in the right place or if you need more support.

Alex: Job should be challenging and not hard. And when you are doing a job where every aspect of your job is hard, it leads you to feel burnt out, frustrated, maybe you even get fired from your job because it's really just not in your wheelhouse of things that you should be doing and you're not really leaning into those strengths. Challenging means you can take something that's really interesting.

Like right now, what I'm doing every day is I'm being challenged by new clients who have new situations, and every day is something exciting to me of how can we problem-solve together? I don't find it hard. I'm not sitting here doing, you know, math problems in Excel every moment of my day. Do I do that as a small business owner? Of course I do. But that's not the forefront of what I do.

Eleni: Let's talk about Dan Reis. Since being diagnosed with ADHD, he's made it his mission to learn about all the tools that might help him. Dan works as a product designer and has experimented a lot to find what helps him work best.

Dan: One of the apps that I've used for a while now Focus@Will, and that's music for focusing app. It's got music that's geared towards keeping you focused, but you can set it up as like a timer and you can choose different tracks. Another one that I found that is really helpful — this was actually a really big game changer for me — so I combined the Pomodoro method of doing 25 minutes on and like 5 minutes off. So, 25 minutes of focused work and then take a break for 5 minutes and then I do a little workout.

And that transition I found is really helpful because it is a, it's like I keep up some of that momentum of like I was working and excited and going, and then doing a little bit of a workout gets the heart rate up and it helps me to transition from the work to taking that little bit of a break.

Experimentation, testing and learning, and self-compassion combined so that when you struggle and fail or something doesn't work, you are there for yourself and you don't just abandon yourself. You keep trying new things. And I think that week, one- or two-week trials of changing your routines, learning about habits, and learning about how the mind works in terms of like habit building. And then trying things out has been instrumental for me. And it's a constant process.

Eleni: Let's go back to career coach Alex Gilbert. She helps people find the setting that they work best in. With that, comes a lot of great tool recommendations.

Alex: I love Grammarly and Speechify, and I wish that I had known about that when I was actually in the workplace because that would have saved me a lot of grief. I had adaptive technology when I was in college, so when I had to read really long paragraphs, my books, my textbooks were read to me.

Speechify does the same thing with your emails, with your Internet browser. If you've got something in person and you wanted to take a picture of it, and it would still read it to you. I think that's a really great tool that I think should be available to everybody. Grammarly, I think is similarly really important to have because people who have dyslexia or have ADHD, maybe you send emails impulsively. Is that the tone that you wanted to send? Did you miss like several words? Did you miss attaching something when you said you were going to attack something?

Eleni: Tools and strategies are not always obvious. Omar says to seize the hyperfocus when it hits. This gets into the world of mindset and strategy. If you're compassionate with yourself and lean into your strengths, you'll find what might derail others, might actually help you accomplish your work.

Omar: I think the tendency to procrastinate, which is very, you know, very real for people with ADHD, I think it often comes from procrastinating work that isn't very meaningful to us. My advice is to forgive yourself for that and to try to find some aspect of that same work or new work that does challenge you or more importantly, is meaningful to you. And that kind of sparks that hyperfocus. And then when that focus strikes, don't waste that opportunity. Set aside the time you need. Make space for yourself. Whether that's asking your roommate or your partners to maybe vacate the house for an afternoon or to vacate it yourself, go down to a library or café or wherever you need to go and just start writing it or drawing it or planning it.

Eleni: Omar told us about mindset. But what about actions you can take? Let's get a little more specific on routines that you can put in place. For Scottie Donovan and many others, a consistent routine is what helps keep everything on track. Scottie is a wastewater engineer with ADHD, and having a set schedule helps her keep her momentum and on track with her work.

Scottie: I also kind of made routines during the day, like during my 9 to 5. You know, I got there at 8:45, I would give myself 15 minutes to have coffee and just, you know, get all settled up until 9:30, you can answer emails and then, you know, go get more coffee or something if you need it. So, it's like organizing my day a little bit differently was definitely something that helped. And then planning out my day as well. I gave myself 15 minutes every morning to, you know, make a list of what I felt I could accomplish that day, you know, versus what needed to be done.

Just breaking it apart a little bit and putting in that time to organize yourself every morning, really, definitely was helpful. I'm a big list person now as well. I have a calendar, but then I also have an agenda. I have to have both because I know I need to be able to see both. And I think it maybe just took also a level of maturity and me growing up, to be honest with myself and with other people about how I work and working with people that understood that was nice.

Eleni: Scottie mentioned another great thing we've heard from a lot of guests on the show. It's important when working with others to set clear expectations and ask for help when you need it. Dina advocates for herself while also taking into account the working styles of her coworkers and how they mesh with her own. It's about opening up a conversation to truly work best together.

Dina: Advocating for yourself in a way where you are honest about what you need, but without putting your issues as front and center. So, what do I mean by that? I have ADHD, right? And that means that I need to do things a little bit differently. But if I spend all my time explaining to everybody else, I have ADHD and these are all the reasons why I need to do this stuff. I'm actually neglecting the part of the conversation where someone else who may be neurotypical or who may be neuro spicy to just simply explain to me what they need to make their lives easier.

Eleni: Clare Otter, a disability advocate with ADHD, shares that accommodations are not special privileges, they're legal entitlements. Ask for help. It's not a bad thing.

Clare: You are entitled to reasonable accommodation. You're entitled to supports in the workplace to accommodate your disability or your learning and thinking difference. Having that confidence, knowing that that's true, believing that that's true. I'm not asking for special treatment. I'm asking for what I'm owed, what I'm due. And then I think the other thing is really preparing, doing some research.

A resource that I use all the time is askjan.org, which is a government-run website that is a pretty exhaustive resource of supports and accommodations that are broken down by kind of area of need. So OK, I struggle with executive function. What are the types of things that have been helpful for that. Understood.org too has lots of great resources that can help you sort of think about things that might work for you.

Eleni: Though I'm really sad the show is ending, I'm so grateful that we've learned so much together. It's been amazing hearing all of the diverse voices that have been on the show. I really appreciate how everyone has been so open with me and vulnerable enough to share their stories. As a user researcher in my day job, I interview a lot of people and it's very rare that we're given the opportunity to share these interviews in a more public setting. I'm so glad I was given this platform to present other stories and that all of you, our listeners, were able to join in.

We set out to discover whether people were truly thriving, not in spite of their difference, but because of it. And this was definitely true for a lot of our guests. For many who came on the show, it was the first time they thought about the questions I asked. My favorite part was seeing our guests take the time to self-reflect and think about how some of their choices, their differences, and their strengths led them to the careers that they're in today. This show has truly been a blast, and I'm so glad that you all came along for the ride. Thank you so much for listening.

Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learned and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Margie DeSantis and edited by Mary Mathis. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thank you for listening.

Host

  • Eleni Matheou

    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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