ADHD, Ambition and Unfulfilled Potential

March 20, 2019 Noelle Matteson

People with ADHD can be ambitious but frustrated they don't rech their potential. Learn about the gap between ADHDers' ambitions and achievements at HealthyPlace.

There are many stories of people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who are ambitious but feel that they struggle to reach their potential. I regularly feel a gap between what I want or believe is possible and what I actually achieve. I’ve also heard complaints from people with ADHD that they spread themselves too thin and never get really good at one thing. Not everyone can follow their passion, and it takes a lot of energy for those with ADHD to work towards their sometimes lofty goals.

ADHDers Are Often Ambitious

Perhaps because our brains are so often firing off, many ADHDers are very ambitious.1 Dr. Russell Barkley speaks powerfully on ADHD and motivation by noting that most people with the condition are unable to attain their dreams because they struggle with sustaining action towards a future goal.2 In the video below, I elaborate a little more on ADHD and ambition.

In the above video, I note that many ADHDers have enjoyed success, but Barkley's statement very much rings true for me. I have started countless projects before losing interest and moving on to something else. I want to write more, but I struggle with organizing my thoughts and slogging through the sometimes tedious aspects of writing. The concept of working on the same project day after day bores and intimidates me.

Why ADHDers Struggle to Reach Their Potential

I often feel that I do not have the “attention span” or “self-discipline” to do what I want, which is common in ADHDers. Because of how certain neurotransmitters in our brain work, we do not have the baseline of contentment that allows us to persist at dull or overwhelming tasks. Our brain seeks excitement, sometimes in the smallest things, such as thinking or noticing something new. On top of that, plenty of us are sensitive and wrestle with perfectionism and the fear of failure.

Are There Any Solutions for Ambitious ADHDers?

I am still figuring out how to be more productive and goal-driven. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take appropriate medication for ADHD and work on certain tasks while that medication is active.
  • Meet with professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists, and coaches.
  • Join communities of people with ADHD or who are interested in achieving the same goals, online or in person.
  • Get to know yourself. Examine the big questions, such as what you want out of life, and smaller issues, like how many hours you spend on certain activities.
  • Incorporate self-care and lots of rewards into long tasks. As always, break projects into smaller pieces.
  • Write down or record what is in your brain. This can help clarify emotions, thoughts, and plans.

I am interested in hearing whether you become frustrated by thwarted ambitions or if your experience with ambition and success are very different. Feel free to add other words of advice, and thank you for reading.

  1. Reddit, "High Ambition as An ADHD Trait and How to Explain It to Non-Ambitious People?" April 2018.
  2. CorePathway, "Dr. Russell Barkley -- ADHD Motivation Deficit Disorder." YouTube, March 2013. 

APA Reference
Matteson, N. (2019, March 20). ADHD, Ambition and Unfulfilled Potential, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Noelle Matteson

Find Noelle on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

April, 7 2024 at 8:18 am

Thanks for this article Noelle. Also, for the webform that doesn’t require me to sign in with Facebook or remember my password on my phone! By the time I try to sort that out, I’ve wandered off to a new tab/task/thought.
Yep, I’ve felt this my whole life, and the subtle shame that goes with it. I think I developed a an attitude and self belief that I’m “not ambitious” as defense against the shame of consistently not following through on my ambitions.
I got diagnosed a few years ago at age 35. I’m in a better place with this emotionally now, but still looking to find ways to reach deeper with my goals. Things that are helping:
1) Amphetamine salts! Extended release!
2) ADHD coach who is specially a life coach and works with self-employed folks (like me).
3) setting goals that realistic and attainable. Specifically, not seeing too many goals for a given time period. If I set 10 goals, and get 4 done, I feel bad. If I set 3 goals and complete all of them, I feel great and get that dopamine. (2) helps with setting the correct number and scope of goals, (1) helps with getting them done.
4) wait, what was #4?

March, 24 2023 at 12:13 pm

I’m a jack of all trades master of none kinda guy so I know what you mean.

October, 30 2022 at 6:39 am

I am nearly 54 and was Dx ADHD at age 50. I am now on the journey of trying to manage with meds and therapy. All my life I have wanted to be an entrepreneur and all my life I have struggled. I've had success, but it has always been a struggle... Like climbing all of Mt Everest in an 8 hour day. It's exhausting and the loneliness is suffocating. I worry constantly that I am not enough, never going to fulfill my life vision and spend my entire life chasing the impossible. It's not that I am incapable. I've started and sold successful businesses, completed a masters and Doctoral degree, and published several books... All of this and I feel like I am treading water in a violent drain filled with hungry sharks. I still feel like I will never be enough, never be able to be who I believe I am called to be. All of this to say... I can relate.

April, 7 2024 at 8:21 am

Yeah, the climbing mt Everest in 8 hours is relatable. It’s like I can, theoretically, do any Executive Function task if absolutely necessary, but it takes 10 times as much mental energy as a *normal* person, and then I’m completely exhausted and it’s 10am.

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