A successful entrepreneur shares her thoughts on business success and failure.

Why I Feel Like A Failure, Even Though On the Outside, I’m A Success…

Failure to Success This is one of the most difficult blog posts I’ve ever written…because I’m about to admit something that’s not easy to talk about. Even though I know some people will not be comfortable with the decisions I’ve made, I think putting all my ugliness, fear, and doubt out there may help you. And if writing about what I’ve been going through and subjecting myself to haters means that even one person gets real help, well, then, I have to write it.

Here goes: Last week, I was officially diagnosed with ADHD. This is a turning point of a personal journey that I suspect some of you may be going through as well, which is why I feel compelled to write this. If you’re beating yourself up for not being as successful as other people, and you feel like you’re unable to get things done…if you feel like a failure even though you may outwardly appear to be successful…this post may be a life-changer for you.


From the outside, it definitely appears that I have it all together. I’ve grown this blog to one of the most popular entrepreneurship blogs online. 1.4 million people will read erica.biz this year. On top of that, I’ve devoted myself to starting a software company, which is also going well–we have nearly 200 paying customers, and we’re growing nicely.

There’s a lot that you don’t see, though. A lot that only close friends of mine (and my patient-as-a-saint fiance, Brian) see. A lot that’s going on underneath the surface.

I have major problems completing projects. I have major problems completing blog posts. I flit from one thing to the next. I have trouble concentrating long enough to get anything done. (There, right in the middle of writing that sentence, I had at least three other thoughts that I had to ignore just to finish typing it.)

This isn’t a new thing for me. My teachers’ reports in school were always full of “Erica is really intelligent, but she doesn’t apply herself.” Or, as one teacher said, “I wish you would focus on school. You’d do really well if you devoted some real time to this.”

Admittedly, I was a tough student to have in class. I was inquisitive and didn’t hesitate to call teachers out–sometimes right in the middle of a lecture–if something didn’t make sense to me. Some teachers appreciated it and responded to my thought-provoking questions. Some teachers put me in detention for being a disruption. I walked a fine line of trying not to get in trouble while alternately trying to hold back my outbursts in certain classes.

I had massive trouble following directions, and was always on a teacher’s bad side for that. In college, I took issue with a teacher who forced us to use two spaces after a period. I demonstrated that it clearly wasn’t necessary with modern computers (which is true–please stop using two spaces after a period!) The teacher didn’t care. “My way or the highway,” he told me. “It’s my class and you will follow my rules.” I couldn’t deal with that. I dropped out of college shortly thereafter.

How Many Businesses Have There Been?

You know that I sold my web hosting company in 2007. What you didn’t see were the other businesses I started (both before and after the sale) that went nowhere, mostly because I didn’t follow through with launching them and promoting them. Everything from a T-shirt company years ago (bought equipment, launched, got one order, failed to produce usable T-shirts, gave them their money back, sold the equipment, and closed up shop), to an interview site called Inspiring Innovators (launched, got a couple paying customers, then stopped posting interviews as I wandered off to do other things.) I’ve launched so many other sites, projects, and classes that haven’t really gone anywhere–I had to take a step back, finally, and realize there was something consistent about all of this. That something consistent was that I wasn’t following through.

I’ve stuck with a couple things. Whoosh Traffic has gone through several iterations. We were an SEO company and a link building service. Then we built software to help our customers. Then Google changed their algorithm, so we changed our link building strategy. Now we’re not accepting new link building or “SEO services” customers, and we’re focusing on selling software to help you with your SEO. And, even though we’ve gone through a ton of changes for being just a 2-year-old company, we are now doing well and on the right path to success.

It was this success at Whoosh Traffic that made me realize I needed help. Let me explain. I was really worried that I wouldn’t follow through with Whoosh Traffic. The fears were really gnawing at me, keeping me up at night. You see, that’s where all the self-help and productivity books in the world weren’t helping. “Just stick with it,” they coach you. But that’s difficult when “ooh, shiny!” is distracting you. “Block websites that distract you!” they command. So I blocked Facebook and Hacker News. I set up a to-do list, got everything on Google Calendar…and then realized I still wasn’t getting anything done.

Just like “Stop spending money!” or “Eat less food!” doesn’t help those who are chronic shoppers, overspenders, or overeaters, all the productivity tips in the world don’t help those of us who have a brain issue called ADHD. (In fact, I noticed the productivity tips started to become a distraction in themselves, as I’d read them when I got distracted, only to feel more distracted because I still wasn’t being productive.) I started closing my email windows. I turned off all the notifications on my phone. Nope, still not getting work done.

What the Heck Was Going On?

I began to get more and more irritated with myself. What the heck was wrong with me? I couldn’t stick to a blog posting schedule for any amount of money. I started bribing myself by grabbing items off my Amazon wishlist when I’d had a productive day. That worked for about a week, and then I was right back where I was before, only with a shiny new kitchen gadget, purchased from Amazon, that distracted me again.

Finally, I spoke with a friend who had ADHD. His symptoms sounded vaguely familiar. Curious, I went on Facebook and asked my friends for advice. A friend of mine recommended a book called Driven to Distraction. I grabbed the Kindle version and that night, I started reading it at home.

The chapter in the book regarding adult ADHD has several examples of adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD. And, as I read this one, I felt a horrible sinking feeling:

“Peter’s study looks like–well, let him describe it. “I have my piles,” he says. “Everything I do goes into a pile. There are little piles and big piles, stacks of papers, stacks of magazines, stacks of books, stacks of bills. Some stacks are mixed. It’s like a field, little piles with white tops scattered everywhere like mushrooms. There’s no real organization to any of it. I’ll just think that pile looks a little small, I can add something to it, or this space needs a new pile, or these things I’ll move over to this other pile. Somehow or other, I survive. The piles and I must be in some kind of unconscious synchrony, I guess.”

Then, the punch in the gut that was the next paragraph:

“These examples reflect the stuff adult ADD is made of. Peter’s piles are particularly emblematic. So many adults with ADD have piles, little mess-piles, big mess-piles, piles everywhere. They are like a by-product of the brain’s work. What other people somehow put away, people with ADD put into piles.”

After I read that, I collapsed into Brian’s arms, sobbing. “It’s not my fault,” I said, waving my Kindle frantically around. “It’s. Not. My. Fault.”

It was at that moment I realized that I had been beating myself up for this thing that was Not Me. So many dots suddenly connected. My school issues. Dropping out of college. Not being able to stick with projects. Getting bored easily. Talking nonstop. Not being able to easily listen to people–I thought I had some sort of learning disorder because I had so much trouble picking up information when people say it to me! Turns out I just am really easily distracted and I can’t shut that voice in my head up long enough to listen to them. Not being able to sit still at parties. Not being able to complete routine chores like, oh, you know, doing my taxes.

And beating myself up for all of that, and then some. Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold panic over something irrelevant, then not being able to go back to sleep, then destroying what should have been my sleeping hours, worried that if I went back to sleep, I was just going to wake up panicking again. (Imagine how much work I get done on those days. Yeah, not much.)

Getting Diagnosed

I made an appointment with a local psychologist. I went into his office (on time for once–a miracle) and launched into a non-stop, single-sentence-that-went-on-for-20-straight-minutes-rant about how I couldn’t get anything finished. I can read faces well (something else I had to learn when I realized I hadn’t been connecting well with people), and I saw a quick look of overwhelm pass through his face as I, for once, let my full self shine through instead of restraining what I wanted to say.

Eventually, I took enough of a breath to ask: “So, do you think I have it?!”

His eyes sparkled, he laughed, and he said “Yes!”

He put me on Ritalin, 20mg, twice a day, and I have experienced a miracle transformation. But perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Certainly not in the way I expected!

I expected, from reading books and online accounts of ADHD, that I would get more work done. I was also concerned I’d lose my creativity and not be able to write blog posts–something I’d heard that others experienced. Interestingly, that was not exactly what happened.

On my second full day of taking Ritalin, I spotted one of my employees sitting in the kitchen of our office, alone, eating some food. I sat down with him and we had a 30-minute talk about everything: his wife, his new baby, his life, his plans for the future, and his interests. At one point in the middle of the conversation, he looked at me straight in the eye and said, “We’ve never talked like this before.” And it hit me hard, right in the gut. Over 6 months of working closely with him, and I’d never really connected with him on a real, human level. My ADHD wasn’t just about not being able to complete tasks. My ADHD had been preventing me from connecting on a gut emotional level with people–because I couldn’t focus on their issues long enough to sit down with them and have a real conversation.

That was the biggest breakthrough I’ve had–that, and the fact that absolutely none of this was my fault. That I am not some sort of a failure (I know, I know, but it’s important for you to know these feelings haunt people even when they’re successful.) That I’m not broken. That ADHD not only explained things like why I dropped out of college and didn’t get along well in school, but it also explained a lot of my social issues. It explained why people felt like they couldn’t connect with me, or even why some people thought I was self-centered–I just couldn’t focus on what they were saying long enough to connect with them.

Did it kill my creativity? No. I’m writing this blog post while on Ritalin, and it’s in my normal writing style. But I never would have finished this blog post if not for Ritalin. How do I know? Because I started writing it two weeks ago and only picked it up again, today, after taking Ritalin and finally steeling myself emotionally to write the rest of the post.

But ADHD Isn’t “Real”, Is It?

There are a lot of people out there who claim ADHD isn’t “real”, that it’s made up. They certainly wouldn’t believe I had it–I’m so successful! Look at all these amazing things I’ve done! And I have certainly done those amazing things…but if you dig deeper, you’ll see the signs. Like the fact that my blog posting schedule was so erratic. Or the fact that I never launched several of the products I said I would. Don’t you kind of find it strange that I wrote this incredibly popular blog and didn’t launch some really great products to go with it? Why wouldn’t I have done that? Yes, it’s because I had trouble completing projects! Not because I didn’t want to…

Some people give simplistic advice to people who think they have ADHD. “Stop drinking caffeine,” they’ll say. Here’s the thing: I kicked caffeine and alcohol years ago. I’m the weirdo who goes to the bar and orders a tall water. 🙂 Additionally, I eat low-glycemic foods, avoiding most grains, as well. My ADHD wasn’t “caused” by my diet or lifestyle any more than my gluten intolerance was. This was an issue I’ve had my whole life. That’s how I know it’s ADHD.

I’ve been on Ritalin for a little over a week now, and I’ve managed to completely empty out my email inboxes. I put over $1,000 worth of stuff we weren’t using any more on craigslist, and immediately sold a cell phone for $250 cash. My house is actually clean. And more importantly, the gnawing depression and anxiety I had are largely gone.

I was even surprised to find that the aching tiredness/exhaustion I constantly complained about–that was still there, albeit to less of a degree, when I stopped eating wheat–disappeared. I craved sugar and grains less. I worked more and got more done when I did work.

And I completed this blog post.

It’s a miracle.

So What Are the Drawbacks?

Well, it’s likely that I’ll need to be on Ritalin for the foreseeable future. It’s an expense (although it’s not too bad–about $80/month for a generic prescription without insurance). Fortunately, I did more reading and was grateful to find out that Ritalin is not physically addictive. Years ago, I gave up caffeine and dealt with several days of intense headaches, so I never want to go through something like that again.

Ritalin, for me, has some minor side effects. I feel some dry mouth when I take it, so I’m drinking a lot more water. (I would let myself get pretty dehydrated before, so I don’t think this is a bad side effect, at all.) And if you take it less than 8 hours before you go to sleep, you might end up being up later than you expect. That is all incredibly minor compared to the huge benefits.

Will Being So Open Hurt Me As a Blogger and Business Owner?

Some people ask me: “Aren’t you worried about being so open on your blog about this stuff? What if someone doesn’t want to invest in your company, or doesn’t want to buy your products, because of all these negative things you’ve expressed about yourself?”

I’ve had some thoughts similar to this, as well, I’ll admit. But then I take a step back and look at this. Most entrepreneurs have issues–but very few of us are brave enough to write a 3,000-word blog post about them. Heck, a fair amount of entrepreneurs probably have ADHD–if you don’t get along well with authority, have struggled to complete tasks, and started your own business because it just didn’t make sense to live your life by someone else’s rules…you may also have ADHD.

I’ve definitely had issues…and as I look back, I am amazed at all I managed to accomplish despite both having undiagnosed gluten intolerance that was making me physically ill as well as undiagnosed ADHD that made it difficult to follow through and complete tasks. Having gone through all that and having still built one 7-figure business and a second business that is growing even faster and will turn into a 7-figure business in a year or so…wow. I’m blown away by that. And now, watching what I’ve managed to accomplish in just the last 10 days…the next few years are going to be even more epic!

Plus, if writing about my journey helps you, that’s the most important thing. If even one reader reads my symptoms and feels her jaw drop open because she’s having the same issues and has had problems her whole life, as I have–that’s worth more than anything negative that “might” happen.

I put myself out there because if I told you everything was rosy and it was “easy” to make money online, that wouldn’t be the real me. Is making money online easy? Nope! Is it possible? Oh, heck, yeah. More money–and more fun–than you’ve ever imagined. Stay tuned–I’ll be writing a lot more about that here on erica.biz…now that I can stay focused long enough to get all these thoughts out of my head!

Recommended Reading:

  • Driven to Distraction. A great book to start out with if you think you may have ADHD–or may know someone who does. Covers common signs of ADHD, as well as what to do next if you think you have it.

Thank You!

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I'm Erica Douglass.
After selling my online business at age 26 for over $1 million, I created this blog to help you grow your own business quickly.

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