Finding a Fashion Job With Nice Co-workers Who Get Your ADHD
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Finding a fashion job with nice co-workers who get your ADHD

Zo V says sometimes she just can’t pay attention because of her ADHD. But when she has the chance to be creative, this nice girl from Brooklyn gets hyperfocused as a seamstress in the fashion industry. Find out how Zo found work that fits how she thinks and learns.

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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.

Today, we're talking to Zo V, who works two jobs in the fashion industry and has ADHD. Zo does clothing repair and alterations in a retail store. And she also freelances as a seamstress and designer. She says sometimes she can't focus or pay attention, but when she has a chance to be creative and in control, she gets things done.

Zo: So, my name is Zo. She/her pronouns. I be chilling from Brooklyn. I am very loud, very hardheaded, very opinionated, and I do have some attention challenges. But I'm a sweet girl. 

Eleni: So, you studied fashion, and you interned and worked in the industry. So, I would love to hear where you have landed in your career today, and then just give me a quick overview of how you got there and also, like, any inspiration along the way. 

Zo: I am currently working retail, and I am a seamstress. So, a lot of my stuff that I currently do involves hands-on stuff. It allows me to like, kinda toy with things, like, problem-solve. I also work one-on-one with a lot of people, so I have to be someone that communicates a lot.

The job that I'm currently working out where I'm working one-on-one with clients who want to purchase items, and sometimes they can do customization. Sometimes they come in with repairs, and sometimes they're just coming in perusing. That is a very stimulating environment for me because I'm talking to different people from all different works of life.

They're like, "I want this," and I have to find a way to meet that. So, there's a challenge for me and I, it feels nice, feeling like, "Oh, I can, like, let's see if I can rise to the occasion." It's not necessarily fast-paced, but there's a lot going on. And there's a lot that my attention can go to. 

Eleni: It sounds like how your brain works.

Zo: Yes. I'm very excited to do customizations because even though I'm, in essence, working retail, it makes me feel like I have creative agency. I think that's the most important thing about my job. So, it's nice to have that consistently going on. And it's just, like, what I enjoy about my main source of income is I just feel like I have creative agency there.

I might not be, like, the top seller, but I think I'm a pretty damn good repair person, and it feels good. And also I think I have really nice co-workers, so, yeah. 

Eleni: That's great. I want to hear more about creative agency. Why is it important to you, and what does it look like day-to-day to have creative agency, like, in your eyes?

Zo: In my current job, there's some aspect of customization where we have people that come in and they say, "Oh, I would, like, to do this." I would talk to the customer and I'll be, like, "OK. So, like, what do you specifically want? I could give you some recommendations." If they're on board with it, that is a sale, one. Two, it allows me to fidget and do a little, like, poking around with what I am customizing on their behalf. It makes me feel good knowing that I'm doing a job that stimulates me, I think is the word. It makes me feel stimulated. 

Versus, like, past jobs that I was working in, where I don't have agency, there would be instances where I would do tasks in a particular way and they would be, like, "I don't understand why you're doing it like this. Like, that's not how it's done." And I'm like, "Well, this is an example of how it's done. This is a technique that I was taught in school. And it's a technique that has helped me." Like, if I'm being asked to do an alteration with a client, for example, like, a dress alteration, and the person that I'm working for, they're asking me, "Hey, I need you to do this alteration. I need you to get their dimensions and everything so that we can tailor it." But then they're like, "But I need you to do it this way and this way. And also it needs to be like this and like this," the idea that things have to be only in one cookie-cutter certain way. Like I struggle with that a lot because I find that alternative thinking leads for more possibilities. 

Eleni: Yeah, a hundred percent. That makes sense why you really enjoy problem-solving. And I know when we last spoke, you did talk about not wanting to be, like, a corporate cog and not necessarily wanting, like, to sit at a desk all day.

Zo: Unironically, though, the current job that I'm working is corporate, but I'm not, I'm not at a desk. So, that's times. 

Eleni: Yeah. What do you think is the biggest myth that people have about the fashion industry? 

Zo: It's funny because, like, I tell people who aren't necessarily involved in fashion, who just see the glamorous side of fashion, I tell them about how actually ugly it gets and that it's a glamorized labor job.

People don't realize how laborious it is, how much energy you're putting into it, that people who, like, don't necessarily find that stuff all that stimulating. They're like, oh my God, like, this is what you do? I feel like my job journey has not been very traditional. I worked a lot of odd jobs. Like nothing really stuck for me.

There are days that I love what I do. I'm basically obsessed with what I do. I cannot help what I do. But then there are days where I'm like, damn, I look at the folder on my hard drive of every job — I've applied to so many jobs and, like, the job that I have now, and maybe, like, two other jobs were the ones that stuck out of, like, maybe 50 that I've applied to over the last two years. I feel like my job journey would not be legitimate to some people.

Which makes me sad, if I'm being honest. And I don't like thinking about it because it does make me cry sometimes. It does not make me feel adequate. 

Eleni: But you have multiple jobs right now. And it sounds like you've found a really good balance that really works for you. 

Zo: Yeah. It feels good to have a job where I can hone in on what I think I'm good at. Like, it's a very technical job, so it feels good knowing that I can embrace the technical aspects of my own skills and personality. 

Eleni: So, you have this job that you enjoy. And at the same time, you've had some other discoveries about your own learning and thinking differences. Can you tell us a little bit about your diagnosis?

Zo: Over the last year it's just been a lot of realizations about my own mental health. So, I would say that I got formally diagnosed, but it was, like, a couple consultations with a mental health professional in trying to figure out what's going on. From there I had, like, some vocabulary to assign to my mental health struggles and challenges.

And from there, I've been able to navigate it a lot easier. I realized what I didn't know about myself before was, like, looking into how things influence what I have been struggling with. So, diet habits, daily habits, sleep patterns, also not punishing myself for not being able to handle certain situations, finding techniques to handle situations that, say, most functioning folks who don't struggle with what I struggle with, like, techniques that they don't necessarily use that work for me. 

Eleni: Was there anything that came up that was, like, specifically, like, around attention? 

Zo: Yes. I don't have the best attention span. My memory can be very spotty unless someone mentioned something and it immediately allows me to remember something else. Like, the way that I approach tasks and problems involves me when I think I have to be very interested. I have to be like, "Yes, like, I want to solve this." And from there I do get obsessive, but it allows me to, like, focus on things that I need to focus on, solve problems, and allows me to handle tasks in that specific way.

Eleni: How would you describe how your mind works? How do you approach problems and challenges? 

Zo: I'll give an example. So, say there's, like, a problem. Everyone can solve it properly, but everyone will have different ways of solving that problem. I'm an artist. I want to be able to make what I want to make. If I don't have immediate access to the tools that I need to pursue that for myself, I'm going to find a way to do that.

So, let me either find alternatives or make my own tools. What helps me improvise so that I get what I need to meet my own needs is just how I think. Everything is a puzzle. 

Eleni: It's just about being resourceful. 

Zo: Yes. That's what I'm trying to say. It's about being resourceful, I would say. I, for example, I'm a seamstress. What if my machine breaks? Well, I'm going to teach myself how to hand-stitch so that I can make what I want to make. And then eventually I'll get my machine fixed. That's kind of how I'm thinking about it, if that makes sense. But it can be exhausting, constantly have to improvise out of a situation so that your needs are met.

But I think it is an important tool to have, especially over the last year. It's just like, well, what do you do when things are literally not running your way and everything is absolutely out of your control? Like, it's good to know how to be resourceful. 

Eleni: Yeah, definitely. Could you tell me a little bit more about being a freelance seamstress and how that works for you? How does that fit into everything you're doing? 

Zo: So, besides working retail, I also do freelance. So, people do come to me for, like, fashion illustration, stuff like that still. Basically a lot of my freelance seamstress work involves, a client will come to me and they'll say, "Hey, so, like, I saw your work online. I am aware of what you do. I'm looking for a pattern maker or a sample maker." 

And some people are looking for someone to make a garment, like, "Oh, I need, like, a dress." And then I would make the pattern. A pattern is basically a two-dimensional, accurate to the measurement as possible, flat of items that we wear or use. Or think of it like our blueprint, like, a building is three-dimensional, but before we even get to that part, we need a 2-D layout of how this is going to look.

And the point of the pattern is, especially in fashion, like, people speak different languages in fashion. Your pattern has to be well illustrated so that anyone who speaks any language can read this pattern and assemble the item. So, let's look at a T-shirt: Before it lays on a three-dimensional form, the pieces need to be drawn on a pattern flat so that when things are cut out and you sew them together, it is now fitted on a three-dimensional form.

Eleni: So, you mentioned that a stimulating environment is really important to you. A place where you can move around a lot. If you're sitting at a desk, it makes you really sleepy. You want to have a lot of variety in your day. So, I'm curious, when did you start to learn that about yourself, and what worked for you in a work environment?

Zo: I think I realized this in middle school, and I remember, oh my God, my grades were not doing well, but there was a class that I really liked. I really loved my United States history class, mainly because I thought my teacher was so funny, and he was really fun. He was just a great professor. And I remember we had, like, a parent-teacher conference and he was like, "Zo isn't doing too well in this class, but I can tell she wants to learn."

I really liked that class because of that teacher. I hope he's doing OK, though, because he actually got sick and we were like, oh my God, like, I hope he's OK. He bought some Girl Scout cookies. I used to be in Girl Scouts, and the day I delivered them, he wasn't in class. And I thought, "Oh, he's just not going to come in for the day." He never came back, and I never knew why. Come find out he was sick. And I was like, "No, like, I wanted to give you the cookies," but yeah. See, this is what I mean by, like, I start talking about random stuff. 

Eleni: No worries. It's my job to get you back on track. So, let me ask you a follow-up question real quick. So, you've mentioned while you were in class, and there were a lot of classes that you weren't necessarily doing well in, and you had this realization where you were like, "Well, I'm not trying to do badly. I'm actually trying really hard." Can you, are you able to articulate what the things that you were struggling with and, like, can you maybe frame it around some, like, attention or, like, stimulation or, like, anything that you think might be related, looking back?

Zo: Because I recognized it in the moment, but I didn't, like, have the best vocabulary for it, I was just, like, "I'm hyperfocusing on one thing; therefore I'm neglecting everything else." I did not realize that I was neglecting everything else when I was focusing on one thing. Now that I'm much older, I'm like, if something is going to interest me, it's going to interest me, and I'm going to put my best foot forward.

That's not to say that I'm intentionally not caring about anything else, but in order for me to really take things seriously, it has to grab my attention. Which sucks. Like, if I don't feel like cleaning my room, I don't feel like cleaning my room. And that's not to say that I would rather be in a sloppy environment, because I cannot handle my living space not being clean. But if I'm not in the headspace to clean my room, I have to figure out why I'm not cleaning my room.

Like, I can't just clean it. A lot of the times when my room is not clean — sorry, I'm, like, connecting the dots here — but it's because I'm, like, struggling with something emotionally. So, then in order for me to clean my room, I have to address the issue mentally. And I'm, like, "Oh, I'm just feeling very sad because something happened and I never addressed it," and then I'll address it. And then I'm, like, "OK, I can clean my room." So, similarly, when it came to my grades in middle school, I wasn't investing in my other classes because I had a lot going on in life, but I didn't recognize it at the time. 

Eleni: One thing I hear a lot in my research with ADHD folks with ADHD folks is really trying to, like, harness positive emotion and it being really difficult to find motivation when they are in, like, a more negative headspace. It's really common. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Yeah. So, you mentioned hyperfocus, and, actually, I think when we spoke last, you mentioned that hyperfocus is one of your strengths. 

Zo: Yes. This is why I don't really care to call things, like, mental health struggles or mental health issues. Because whether you are, like, someone that's highly functioning or you actually don't struggle with mental health challenges, or you're someone that greatly struggles with mental health challenges, there is a pro and a con for everything. So, for me, I like to think of my, like, hyperfocusing tendencies as a positive, especially when I'm in a very stimulating environment. Because if I'm going to get something done, I'm going to get something done. Because I'm one, very hardheaded, and I'm like, if things are not running my way, I'm going to make a way so that it gets my way. That's how I see it. It's like, I'm not one to, like, give up. I like a challenge. 

Eleni: That's amazing. And now that you have a job that you really like, do you have any advice to people that might still be looking for a job or career?

Zo: My advice to people who are dealing with learning challenges, one, there's a place for everyone in this society. Do not let anyone tell you not to, because we have no choice. Everyone thinks differently. Everyone comes from different understandings. There has to be a place for everyone in this society because everyone exists.

Two, it does help to know people. You know what I'm saying? It's a bit unfortunate, but I really hate that that's how it is in certain fields and in certain jobs, but it does help to know people. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't be afraid to be, like, "Yo, I need a job. Do you know anyone that's hiring? Because this is what I can do." Because it might work in your favor.

Eleni: Now that you have these two jobs that you're working, how do you feel about that setup for you personally? And if you think that it's the right fit for you and, ultimately, as you were just talking about, what is right for you?

Zo: I think in the moment it's right for me, because there are goals that I have for myself within the next few years, and I feel like the jobs that I'm currently working are going to help me obtain that. 

What I'm doing right now is helping me obtain a bigger and brighter version of myself in the future. And then when I level up, I'll see if there's going to be a bigger opportunity for me. I find I've been the happiest doing what I wanted to do, and finding places for myself and finding space for myself in spaces that invite me. That is where I'm, like, thriving right now, literally. 

Eleni: Thanks for sharing, Zo. I think it's such a great achievement that you've been able to figure out a setup that works really well for you both in a freelance and an employed environment. So, thank you. 

Zo: Of course. It was lovely being here, actually. I'm not gonna lie. I was, like, trying not to cry when I was talking about some of my job stuff. I was, like, "Uh, sometimes I don't feel legitimate in my work, and it doesn't feel good," which is why I can be so, like, abrasive in my stances. I'm just, like, "No, this is how I feel, and this is how it's going to get done." Cause I'm just, like, I had to make myself feel legitimate in my work. So, thank you for having me.

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash that job.

Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you. As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks again for listening.

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  • 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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