ADHD Hyperfocus Brings This Journalist’s Research to the Next Level
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ADHD hyperfocus brings this journalist’s research to the next level

Omar Mouallem is a journalist and filmmaker with ADHD. Omar has worn many hats — journalist, documentary filmmaker, “fake dean” of his self-made school Pandemic University School of Writing, and real professor — all without a college degree. When he began writing Praying to the West, he struggled to focus on one topic for an entire book. That led Omar to his ADHD diagnosis.

A freelance writer for many years, Omar flourished as his busy mind moved from project to project. He’s won awards for his investigative journalism, where hyperfocusing down research rabbit holes is a strength. When the pandemic hit, and work dried up overnight, he had a lot to reconsider. Listen to this week’s episode of How’d You Get THAT Job?! to hear how he got his start from a Craigslist ad — and how impulsivity can actually work in your favor. 

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Episode transcript

Omar: If I feel like there's this one little detail in a story, it's kind of tangential, but I want it. I feel like I need it. I'll put an hour into it just so that I can complete that sentence. That's just kind of the way my mind works. And I guess I try to play to my mind's strengths.

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.

My next guest is Omar Mouallem. He's a Canadian journalist who digs deep into topics from food to religion. He's written award-winning books and worked on documentary films. He even started an online school for writing. It's called Pandemic University or "PanU," where he's now the dean. Even though he never received a college degree.

He was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. That information helped him understand some of the challenges he's faced in his career, and it also helped him harness his strengths. Welcome to the show, Omar.

Omar: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be on the show.

Eleni: While I was preparing for this interview, I googled you, of course, and I noticed you have two books. The most recent is "Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas." It's won a bunch of awards, sounds super interesting. It's now on my reading list, and…

Omar: I know where this is going.

Eleni: …the other one might also be on my reading list, but it's from 13 years ago, and it's a very different genre.

Omar: A little bit.

Eleni: It's called "Amazing Cats."

Omar: Yes. You want to know how that happened?

Eleni: Yeah. Like, how did you go from cats to examining Islam?

Omar: The, honestly, the cat stories, I think probably a lot easier to tell than the book that examines Islam. The cat story is very simple. In 2007 — I would have been maybe 21 or 22 — I'd just dropped out of college, and this is my third college in three years because I thought that I didn't need a degree to become a writer or a journalist, and I could just find the work myself. And I did what I thought you do when you're looking for writing jobs, which is you go on Craigslist, and let me tell you what a terrible place to try to become a writer.

Eleni: Is that what people think that we do?

Omar: This is what stupid people think they do. And I am very comfortable admitting to being a stupid person. And so, yeah, most of the listings there were obviously pretty scammy, but there was one but from a local publisher that said something along the lines of looking for an author/writer to write true stories about cats, specifically true stories about cats. And I don't know, I thought it was like an anthology or something, a collection of essays about cats. I had a cat. I've had cats all my life. I really love cats. And so, I applied.

And then months later, I got invited for an interview. And that's where I found out that it was an entire book about cats by one person they were looking to publish. And I got that book deal. The fact that it was on Craigslist gives you an idea of how little it paid. But at that time, $5,000 was the most that I could actually maybe imagine a writer being paid for a job. So, I said yes.

Eleni: Wow. So, perhaps not so stupid after all.

Omar: Well, you know, it's, I love the fact that my first book was and will always be "Amazing Cats." It is probably the best, like, cocktail party story I could ever tell. Does it sometimes get in the way of, like, trying to present myself as a serious person? Sometimes. But I also don't mind being underestimated. I also do some hard investigative journalism as well, and sometimes I'll go into those interviews that are going to be tough. I’m gonna ask a lot of tough questions. It's going to get uncomfortable and you know, the subject or their handler or their companies PR person will try to grease me up and they'll bring up "Amazing Cats." They'll say, "Hey, I googled you and this came up, " and I know what's going on, right? So, I love being underestimated in those situations because then they don't really see it coming.

Eleni: How did you end up doing investigating work?

Omar: I mean, it's just part of being a freelancer. I have a reputation, I guess, for being a pretty thorough researcher going down rabbit holes. And so, that reputation, I think, just kind of, it just kind of snowballed into, "Well, if you can do this about a story, you know, if you can do this for a story about, say, like the cannabis industry or for a story about the HPV vaccine, then you could probably do this for a investigative piece about a sexual predator." And I hope that's true. I am specifically working on a story about that right now. I like a great story. And it doesn't matter if it makes you laugh, and it doesn't matter if it makes you cry. If it's a great story, it's a great story. And I don't really feel like I need to be a one-note writer.

Eleni: Totally. You mentioned going down rabbit holes. We have spoken to other writers on this show that talk about getting into really deep, hyperfocus when they're working.

Omar: Oh yes.

Eleni: Yeah. I wondered if, you know, that's come up for you and if you feel like it relates to ADHD in any way?

Omar: I think it does. Yeah. It's like a really, low-key euphoria or mania when it hits you.

Eleni: Low-key mania. I like that.

Omar: Kind of, right? I'll just lose sense of time and I will certainly lose sense of priority. I mean, there's a couple of ways to look at it. It's not really something I can control very well because I, you know, I'm not great at prioritizing what maybe should be prioritized sometimes. So, if I feel like there's this one little detail in a story, it's kind of tangential, but I want it. I feel like I need it. I'll put an hour into it just so that I can complete that sentence. That's just kind of the way my mind works. And I guess I try to play to my mind's strengths.

Eleni: I know that, you know, you got your ADHD diagnosis in the last five years, which is recent, you know, based on the limited knowledge I have of your book. It sounds like you were able to address, you know, some of your Muslim identity, and how that made you feel othered. Like, have you ever felt the same way in terms of like how your brain works and your neurodiversity in terms of feeling othered?

Omar: That's a really good question that no one's ever asked me that I've never asked myself. Thankfully, everyone around me growing up and throughout my adolescence and young adulthood has kind of supported me in just my, I guess, my random pursuits or in my neurodiversity, I guess. I'm the black sheep in my family. But my parents were really supportive in encouraging me to pursue my creative pursuits. It's definitely a revelatory experience to have the language to describe your neurodiversity at this late in your life. Yeah, late mid-thirties, mid-thirties, whatever euphemism you'd like to. I'm OK with saying I'm pretty close to middle age.

And so, to suddenly have a descriptor for the way that you act or think very differently, for why I can be so impulsive, or why I have a hard time prioritizing the right things, why I get hyperfocused on things that don't matter to anyone else? I guess there's something kind of liberating about that. Maybe it relates to reconnecting with the Muslim heritage that I grew up with and kind of having a better understanding for some of the ethics values, culture, that I grew up with. But I don't know. I don't know. That one was, that's much more challenging for me. I was sort of in opposition to it for, you know, most of my life, almost all of my life, whereas this one was just kind of humming in the background, and I wasn't really aware of it until a few years ago.

The thing that made me aware of it was shifting from being a freelance journalist, working on multiple and many articles every week and every month to being an author. You know, cat book notwithstanding, that's, you know, that's a book about a hundred different little cat stories. Whereas writing a single narrative over the course of 300 pages is a very different skill set, and it requires a different kind of focus.

In the case of "Praying to the West," that was over four years. And that challenge for me is when I realized that "OK, I am mentally having a very difficult time with this." I had a sense that I was probably ADHD for a few years, but at the same time, I didn't want to tamper with the strengths of being a bit of an unfocused freelancer who is multitasking and has one novelty project that I can sort of chase down, be a little tiny master of this one topic, package it up, sent it, send it along, and then go become a tiny master of something else, and then something else. And so, I kind of thrived in that environment. Where I'm at now, I only have a few projects that I'm working on at once. And so, it's a different skill set and requires a different temperament, I think, as well.

Eleni: Earlier you mentioned, I think you said dropping out of three degrees or not completing three degrees. Is that what you said?

Omar: Kind of. Three colleges in three years.

Eleni: Three colleges. OK, three colleges in three years.

Omar: Yeah, the first two were, I did complete them. They were just like, you know, I got the certificate.

Eleni: OK.

Omar: I got the piece of paper.

Eleni: So, two certificates and one degree dropout.

Omar: One abandoned degree. Yes.

Eleni: One abandoned degree. I like that better. OK. Despite that, I know that you've launched a university,

Omar: Yes.

Eleni: and you've taught some classes.

Omar: Yes.

Eleni: Do you want to talk a little bit about, I guess, perhaps, why that form of education wasn't right for you and how, I guess, that experience led to this origin story of founding your own...

Omar: I would love to.

Eleni: ...own university.

Omar: So, yeah, I don't have a degree. I don't have a journalism degree. I don't have an English degree. I have, I have a certificate that says I completed two programs, one in screenwriting and the other one in film production. And I didn't make use of those until just a few years ago.

Eleni: Mm hmm. I want to come back to that.

Omar: Sure.

Omar: So, in the early days of the pandemic, I very quickly saw my work as my freelance work dry up. I was also at the tail end of writing Praying to the West, so I had this master plan that after four years of writing this thing, I was going to start pitching stories again and lining up some articles. And I was kind of itching for it, honestly, like after holding this giant idea, this one idea in my head for so long, I mean, I felt like I was going to ball over for most of those years. I was excited to kind of slay deadlines, you know, chop, chop, chop. Like week after week again. And the pandemic was bubbling in the background, and I didn't really think anything of it because I'm an idiot.

And then the pandemic touched down in Canada and Alberta. Everything went into lockdown. And then all these magazines and newspapers and venues just canceled the contracts. And just like that, I think it was about $6,000 of work, just kind of evaporated pretty much overnight. And I had no idea what I was going to do next because that was my plan. And so, I had actually applied for some jobs in communications, which is something I did not think I was going to do until my forties, at least. Nothing against that, but, you know, I was not really, I'm not someone who really desires an office job, as you can imagine. But I thought, "OK, well, this is a good safety net."

And I didn't even get an invitation for a job interview. And I'm pretty sure the reason was that I didn't have a degree. You know, I had no formal education. So, whoever is at the end, the other side of that, and is filtering out candidates just filtered me out because I didn't meet that very basic threshold. So, I was speaking to my wife and I said, you know, and she knows that I've always been a little bit kind of insecure about not having a degree and that I've mulled the idea of going back to school. And so, I asked her if she would support me in going back to school, and she thought it was a decent idea. And that was my plan.

And then the next day I was out for a run, and I had a better idea, which is what if I started my own school online? Because we've all moved our lives online. We're all using Zoom. I saw a lot of people who were taking workshops and seminars online. I have workshops and seminars. I've taught a couple of webinars. I can do that. I know a lot of writer friends who can do that. What if we all just packaged these together, gave it a funny name like Pandemic University School of Writing, and ran it as an experiment until, you know, basically until we can meet in person again and we can all those assignments magically reappear, which I genuinely thought would take about two months.

And so, I, you know, I came back from my jog all sweaty and panting, and I was, you know, I was like, "Honey, how would you feel if I started an online school for writers? I think I can make us some money. It's going to cost about $2,000." I'd already calculated it in my head.

Eleni: Wow, wow, wow .Then to math while running.

Omar: Yeah, and so she was like, "OK," because she's always very supportive, you know, skeptical but supportive. But, you know, generally, like I do execute on my ideas, and you know, they're not colossal failures. So, yeah. And so, by the end of that day, I had a web designer, a pending registered company, I had a bunch of writers who were like, "Yes, I'll do it," a spreadsheet.

Eleni: That is amazing.

Omar: I had a spreadsheet ready. And then in ten days, it launched. And two and a half years later, Pandemic University is still a company. We are going into our, I think 85th class or course, over close to 4,000 people have taken our classes across the world from over 60 countries. I have two employees, so I like to call myself...

Eleni: Super cool.

Omar: ...the fake dean of Pandemic University. Here's the really funny thing.

Eleni: No degree but now a dean.

Omar: Well, here's the really funny thing. Since then, because I've gained a reputation as like, an online educator for journalism and creative writing, I've had multiple opportunities to, you know, invitations to apply for professor positions at actual universities. But some of them I had to just say, no, it's in another part of the country. I'm not interested. Some of them I was like, you know, I don't have a degree and I think I'm ineligible. And they're like, yes, you're right. But some of them actually did hire me. And so, now I teach at two real universities. I teach at the University of British Columbia and at the University of King's College in Dalhousie.

Eleni: I love that.

Omar: There you go.

Eleni: What do you teach?

Omar: I teach creative nonfiction at both of them.

Eleni: Yeah.

Eleni: Very cool. I love that it went from, like…

Omar: Let's go back to school.

Eleni: …zero to, like, you know, I have a spreadsheet and, like, ten writers lined up in, like, 12 hours, so. Back to that conversation we were going to have about the documentaries, I know that you did study film that you didn't necessarily love it in practice when you first started out. So, I'm wondering, like, how you kind of ended up circling back to it and like, you know, whether it felt different the second time around.

Omar: Very different.

Eleni: Yeah. And I'm like, OK, I would love to hear, too, like, did it feel different because you had since had that ADHD diagnosis, or would it be different for different reason?

Omar: Different reasons. Reasons, reasons of lived experience, confidence and some expertise, I guess. So, the backstory to that is that I wanted to be a screenwriter and auteur. I mean, you know, however, how many kids also have that dream?

But, you know, I grew up in a small town in northern Alberta. I really maybe was the only like, you know, movie cinephile that I knew and that I ever met. I got a job at a video store at like 15, I was managing it at like 17, and I just wanted to make movies. That was my dream. But, you know, I want to make scripted movies. I had no interest in documentaries. So, I went off to school and in Vancouver and very, very, very quickly learned that like, "Oh, there are innumerable people just like me and most of them are older than 17 years old and have much more interesting things to say about the human experience. And also, if I want to do this, I have to like really start at the bottom rung."

So, I kind of, I very quickly felt like I'm not sure I want to start as like a production assistant and do this for five years. And I had, you know, I did have some film work. I was, just maybe this relates to "Amazing Cats," I worked as a camera trainee on "Air Bud 5." Do you know the movie "Air Bud"? About the super athlete dog, plays basketball, and then I think...

Eleni: Oh, I think, yeah.

Omar: …he plays volleyball maybe or baseball. I was a camera trainee on that. I got fired after three days. Like I was really bad at the job, really bad at it. And that was the moment where I was like, yeah, no, I need to find something else to do here. At that time, I had started freelancing some articles, music reviews and interviews, maybe some film reviews at that time for free, basically, for a local Vancouver magazine and doing it for clout, doing it for CDs and concert tickets at first.

And then I realized, "Oh, I really actually enjoy this. I enjoy writing these stories, I enjoy the interview process," and maybe a lot of it has to do with like the quick returns on that. A film can take years and years and possibly have no returns, whereas an article you can work on it for a week, a month. And so, the, you know, the satisfaction of having a job well done, I guess, comes a lot faster.

So, maybe this comes back to this seeking of novelty. But then, about four years ago or so, after having been a journalist at that point for 13 years and establish a pretty good reputation specifically as a narrative journalist, I had written an article about men's mental health and suicides in the oilsands and work camps here in northern Alberta. A lot of it actually based on research in Australia about suicides that are happening in relation to the isolated mining camps in Western Australia. And so, I'd written...

Eleni: You call them FIFO workers.

Omar: Yes, we call them that too. FIFO workers. Fly in, fly out, right? It's a really great way to make money and a terrible way to live. So, I'd written the story for BuzzFeed and my friend Dylan Rhys Howard, who's a filmmaker, unbeknownst to me, was working on a scripted short about a very similar theme, almost an identical theme. But, you know, it was a dramatic, scripted, short film that sort of imagined what that life was like for a man struggling to keep his marriage and himself together. And after reading my BuzzFeed feature, he reached out to me and was like, I think we should make a documentary about this subject. And we put together a proposal. I certainly didn't know anything about making a documentary, but I figured that it's pretty close to the same as writing a narrative feature only with a camera and more planning. It kind of was. And so that was my first documentary, "Digging in the Dirt." And then a couple of years later, Dylan came to me and said, I'd like you to make your own documentary now. So, I had a story, a personal story that I've wanted to turn into a film for quite some years. And that became "The Last Baron," which is also being repackaged as a feature film called "The Lebanese Burger Mafia."

Eleni: That's so cool.

Omar: Yeah.

Eleni: I think it'd be interesting to hear if you have any advice, particularly for ADHD folks, about, you know, pursuing writing or filmmaking. Any big life lessons you want to share?

Omar: Sure. I think the tendency to procrastinate, which is, you know, 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. If it's a collaborative project, send off those invitations and emails as quickly as they come to you. I think about the longer you put off an idea, the less likely it is to ever be realized. Sometimes planning and preparedness is just low-key procrastination. It's just an excuse to not actually do something.

Eleni: Well, thank you for sharing that. And thank you for being here.

Omar: Thanks so much for having me.

Eleni: You've been listening to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at thatjob@understood.org with your thoughts about the show or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got that job. I'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today check out our show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Also, one of our goals at Understood is to help change the workplace so everyone can thrive. Check out what we're up to at U.org/workplace. That's the letter U dot O-R-G slash workplace.

Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is a production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. Margie DeSantis provides editorial support. 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. Thanks again for listening.

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