The neurodivergent freelancer: coming into my power

anthropomorphized light bulb plugs in its own cord

If you’ve read my last few blogs, you know that I’ve been in a deep process of rethinking, well, just about everything: how I work, how I communicate, how I approach different things.

Layoffs are among those earth-shattering life events that tend to expose a lot of the illusions we live under. It can trigger impostor syndrome, as LinkedIn marketing evangelist Amber Naslund writes so brilliantly:

It was hard to not feel like the elimination of my roles was secretly a reflection of my work caliber; I asked myself over and over again if I could have or should have done more, if being more valuable would have saved me, if playing politics better would have preserved my job….in short, all of my questions centered on what I could have done differently.

So much of my second layoff reflected my first that I felt I could no longer assume anything about my career trajectory. Did I belong in marketing? In the DF/IR world? In corporate? Not having the answers to these questions drove my decision to go back out on my own — take a contract job with Forensic Focus, pick up other freelance work where I could, and devote more time to fiction.

Even when you’re self-employed, though, your self-image takes a hit after a layoff — possibly even more so in a small, tightly knit community. How do others view you, anyway? How can you convince people (again, as Amber mirrors) that you aren’t damaged goods; you just approach things a little differently from conventional corporate values?

Enter neurodivergence: a different way of thinking

I’ve always been a little… different from my peers. If you’ve met me, you might not realize it because I’ve learned to mask it pretty well. At a conference or a party, the overall energy propels me into conversations I might otherwise struggle with. I come off as gregarious, and even if I’m a little awkward, there’s usually a good, relatable joke about it somewhere.

Sooner or later, though, the energy and the noise level and stimulation in general gets to be too much. That’s when I take a solid break: I might go outside or to the bathroom, even up to my hotel room, to decompress. Maybe even more than once.

This is reflected in my broader approach to life: bursts of creativity, followed by the need to retreat — to walk away. Being laid off is a part of this, too; it’s rooted in a business’ need for value I can’t deliver at a given point, and much as I’d like to believe a business would find room for me, work with me, that’s not how business works nowadays.

In any case, I didn’t see the pattern until very recently. I assumed, in fact, that I was just incompetent at life, or human-ing, or whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t until very recently, through a combination of conversations with people who are close to me plus some very resonant Twitter threads, I’ve come to realize that my brain is, simply put, neurodivergent.

How I drew this conclusion and why it doesn’t involve a diagnosis

For years, not knowing this about myself, I had the sense that I was getting things terribly wrong. Yet, I had no idea how, or why, or in many cases, even what. This pervasive sense of failure has followed me throughout my career, as I met (in some cases was hired by) people who had read my article or story and thought they were getting someone well polished and put together in all aspects of life.

Instead they got “me”: my confusing modes of verbal communication and my quietness in meetings and my struggles to understand things on the same level at the same time as the rest of the team. They got my difficulties in switching gears and keeping the same pace and remembering conversations from weeks or even days ago. They got frustrated.

Those outcomes created impostor syndrome, which kept me from everything from blogging here more consistently, to approaching people because I didn’t know what I could possibly offer them. It’s affected the way I counsel marketing clients and the degree to which I try to find new ones.

Well-meaning friends tried to point out where I was self-sabotaging, but I had no idea how to fix it. At the same time, though, I couldn’t continue to accept others’ negative opinions about me: lazy, stubborn, self-centered, lacking empathy and influence, or other criticisms I’d received.

When someone close to me was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD – Inattentive), I did research to find out what, exactly, that meant. I realized that many of that person’s struggles reflected ones I had experienced — at work, at school, even at home.

My results in multiple online assessments reveals all the signs that my brain is structured differently. And yet, at least for now, I’m not seeking a formal diagnosis. I’ve gotten this far, and the masks I’ve learned to wear can conveniently conceal key factors that can influence a diagnosis. In turn, that can influence a prescription.

Besides lacking the patience to deal with side effects and dosages and other variables, I feel my issues aren’t necessarily impairments. I’ve so far been successful enough just with the right diet and schedule that I want to continue to experiment (something that I do, apparently, have the patience for. Did I say stubborn? Okay, that one I’m willing to own).

(“But Christa,” you might ask. “Won’t this disclosure hurt your career?” In fact, I thought a lot about this. As this article pointed out:

“If we admit to being autistic upfront, that means a reason not to hire us. If we don’t and we get the job somehow, we risk being fired because of the whole ‘there’s something a little odd about that person; I don’t like them’ crap.”

Chris Gallagher

The thing is, not talking about neurodivergence hurts, too. My entire work history is fraught with missed opportunities, shortfalls in expectation — my own and other people’s — abandoned projects, disappointments, and — yes — burnout. My path across both freelance and fiction sectors is marked by the charred remains of bridges I’ve burned, and while I adopted the mantra, “May the bridges I burn light the way,” the fact is, I work in a very small industry. As I go forward with this new self-acceptance, I have also to accept the possibility that I may have created something of a “reputation” for myself that may or may not be fixable.)

And so, for me, accepting my neurodivergence means learning to turn neurotypical flaws into neurodivergent superpowers.

Signs my brain works differently (career version)

Neurodivergence — in my case, at least ADHD, possibly also some degree of autism — is great for creativity:

  • I notice things, ask questions, and approach things in ways that a lot of other people don’t.
  • I have few filters, and often many things seem equally important. This allows me to draw new connections and see patterns and relationships.
  • In turn, I can build pieces of writing that help readers see things in new ways.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? My challenges come when it’s time to actually construct or support a functioning business around these pieces of writing; in other words, to replicate my successes (and actually make money doing it).

Conversation (depending on the other person) can be more stressful than I ever let on. I don’t read between the lines very well, and I tend to take what I hear literally or at face value. I might not “get” what someone was trying to tell me until hours or even days later, and by then it’s often too late to ask what they meant.

The noticing / asking / approaching things in ways other people don’t? Great for articles, not so great for business. Working with teams, I often feel as if I notice / ask / approach things in all the wrong ways. Neurotypical people and I communicate on two different planes, and trying to find ways to bridge that communication gap is exhausting. I don’t know what I don’t know, and so I can’t help others understand how to coach me.

I also tend to go quiet — whether in small group meetings or on social media — when I’m unsure of something or don’t feel I have all the information I need to speak intelligently. It’s listening mode, but it isn’t perceived that way. I struggle to communicate why I think some things are important — especially if I have to put them in business terms.

Related: I lack filters. I struggle to prioritize projects, and I’m often distracted by “shiny objects” (in my case, new projects) that might be amazing in themselves, but make no sense to neurotypical businesspeople.

In marketing, when others don’t think that amazing story with its fascinating relationships will drive any leads — even if it helps the company differentiate, thereby building awareness and trust among customers and prospects  — it can be hard to garner support for the shiny projects, or to communicate my own value to the broader organization.

That worsens when sticking to a schedule or a prescribed set of actions is a struggle, when you lose track of when you last spoke to a particular person, or when you’re not good at building relationships outside specific projects (largely because you’re not sure what you have to offer outside that context, or why it would matter when the projects are your job).

It can take me a little extra time to understand something, or to get started on something. I work more deeply, and at less than the typical speed of tech. Even small things, like responding to emails, can be challenging. I tend to put them off until I can mentally process the new information or the disruption to routine or whatever I think is going to throw me off. And don’t get me started on phone calls!

Add to this mix: neurodivergence tends to affect girls and women differently, in part because of the way we’re socialized relative to boys and men. Part of our socialization involves nurturing: knowing how to do the things that make people comfortable, like offering drinks or breaking the conversational ice. When none of this ever occurs to you… well, you can get a reputation as being rude, or weird, or even stupid.

Writing (and running a business) while neurodivergent

Although I miss some aspects of full-time employment, self-employment gives me more freedom to figure things out than I would have had otherwise .

First: the right diet keeps my symptoms at bay. I learned this completely by accident when I first tried the paleo diet and all my worst ADHD symptoms — the brain fog, the forgetfulness, the executive dysfunction — cleared away practically overnight. I was focused, productive, clear-headed.

The executive dysfunction and distractibility are still there, of course; they’re just easier to manage. (For more on executive dysfunction, please read this excellent Twitter thread.) That reflective practice journal I started wouldn’t be here at all without the right diet, which by now has evolved from “paleo” to “paleo autoimmune” because of some other issues I started to experience (and, well, my stubbornness regarding medications).

Creative conversations go both ways. I’m learning to recognize “safe” people who will honor my goals and style, who won’t try to use or manipulate me for their own agendas or try to remake me in their own image of whatever a writer or marketer is supposed to be.

I’m also working on building strong relationships with those “safe” people. In my case, not keeping in touch isn’t about my disinterest in them or their work or their lives; it’s my appreciation of their lives and busyness and need to manage their own time (perhaps a projection of my own executive dysfunction)

In addition, outside the structure of a project, I lose track of how much time has passed. I implemented a new extension, Streak for Gmail, that’s a customer relationship management extension that helps me track projects and communications and people — and more importantly, lets me set reminders in my calendar to follow up.

I’m learning to observe why I feel a particular way about something I notice or the way I approach it. More importantly, I know I need to learn how to communicate it. I’m seeking clients with the patience to let me figure out why I intuitively think something is important, but who can also ask the important probing questions that will help me fit my visions into business frameworks.

Each week, reflective practice is a function in figuring out how to hack my standard to-do list and calendar to schedule everything I want to accomplish, both for clients and myself. I know I need unstructured time to account for “shiny objects,” but I also need a workback plan with milestones for things like my children’s series and Forensic Focus articles.

Of course, even knowing what my problems are and working on ways to fix them isn’t without its own anxiety. What if I can’t pull it off? What if I’m still tasking myself with too much? What if my ratio of structured to unstructured time is off, and I end up either falling behind, or feeling guilty that I’m not doing enough?

Those are questions I won’t be able to answer until I try. So I’ll still avoid the phone, joke about my natural awkwardness, and escape the noise and activity at large parties and conferences. But I’ll also keep showing up in the ways that feel most natural to me, and I’ll continue to talk about neurodivergence on this blog as it informs my freelance career.

Putting it all together

I’m doing this for two reasons. One is to connect with others in the writing, marketing, nonprofit, and DFIR communities who are also neurodivergent. It can be isolating, and one of my principle values as a person is not to allow others to feel as isolated as I’ve felt.

The other reason is to be more transparent with current and prospective clients about what you’re getting when you hire me. My methods may not be the right fit for your business, and vice versa — but they might also be the perfect fit, especially if you’re neurodivergent, too.

As I state on my homepage: I write to connect. Whether helping businesses to connect with customers, or publishing fiction to connect new readers with new ideas, I use words to inform, inspire, enlighten, and encourage.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, in the way that I do it, without my neurodivergence (a sentiment echoed by autistic writer Kim Crawley in her recent guest podcast appearance). It’s what allows me to go deep with words and ideas and the way I put them all together. Long-form content is my wheelhouse — a good example is the article I wrote for Forensic Focus about Facebook’s privacy manifesto — but I’ve written and edited in just about every format.

If that appeals to you, and/or you’re likewise a neurodivergent business owner who’d like to have a conversation, or even just if you have any questions about anything you’ve read here, please drop me a comment or send me a message!

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

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