Since I was a kid, I’ve been called names that are backhanded compliments: Pete the Geek. The Human Computer. Tangent Boy.
There are also a couple of clinical descriptors to go along with those nicknames: ADHD. Neurodivergent.
As a child, I had no idea I was different from anyone else. Didn’t every kid rush from one thing to the next? When my family got our first computer, an IBM 486DX, it was like the floodgates opened, giving me tools to spill out the contents of my ever-racing mind. In addition to ADHD, I have something called synesthesia, which means sound activates a rush of color for me, too. So, the sound of the old AOL sign-on dial-up (which I heard at least a dozen times a day — that and my parents yelling at me to log off so they could make a phone call), was like a creative call to action.
From learning how to program in basic, to using early versions of Photoshop and Flash, and playing early versions of the game DOOM, I was hooked. I understood my machine and it understood me. As I got older, it dawned on me that maybe I was a little bit different — then the ADHD diagnosis confirmed it.
Along the way, doctors have recommended I medicate. My parents and I weren’t keen on me being on medication, so I never indulged as a kid. In college, during a high-pressure semester, a friend suggested I try Adderall, which she got from someone who was selling it down the hall. I tried it, but again, it wasn’t for me. While I had a flash of feeling like a superhero with my normal dynamic, disparate circuits flowing into what felt like one potent charge, I also saw friends get hooked on Adderall, which scared me.
This is not to put down medication if you need it, and if it works for you. I consider myself lucky to be a high-functioning neurodivergent person who can rely on tools other than pharmaceuticals to help me optimize my efficiency. After nearly four decades of exploring the world in hyperdrive, I can honestly say I love my brain chemistry. And I credit it as the secret to my entrepreneurial success.
Furthermore, regardless of if you have a diagnosis, I’d posit that in our increasingly chaotic world filled with endless micro-distractions, information overload, and device addiction, we’ve all got a fair amount of attention deficits. Social media and the metaverse are causing our brains’ synapses to wire and fire differently. I bet my brain chemistry is far less unique today than it was when I discovered I was different 20+ years ago
So while I could go on a rant against ableism and the myths about neurodivergent leaders and workers (and I encourage you to read this Fast Company article on that topic), instead, I’m going to share my journey to harnessing the power of learning and thinking differently — including the tools and techniques that I use daily for results, value-driving creativity, and productivity in our age of extreme bifurcation.
The Keys to Unlock Your Beautiful Mind
Quick, check out this list of people:
Richard Branson, Erin Brockovich-Elis, Charles Schwab, Billie Eilish, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Daryl Hannah, Bill Gates, Simone Biles, Justin Timberlake, Leonardo Da Vinci, JFK, Greta Thunberg, Elon Musk, Will.i.am, Thomas Edison, Emma Watson, Picasso, Muhammad Ali, Walt Disney, John Lennon.
All brilliant thinkers, innovators, high achievers, and successful creators. And, at times, perplexing or even polarizing human beings. Also, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, neurodivergent in some way, from being on the autism spectrum to having learning differences like dyslexia or, like me, ADHD.
And I’m sure at some point, each one of those people would say that their beautiful minds were a blessing and a curse. I think that all the time — just an hour before I sat down to write this, I was staring at my computer screen, which had a dozen tabs open on my browser, a cacophony of notification pings going off every few seconds, and a list of tasks a mile long.
In other words, a nightmare of anxiety-driving, too-many-windows-open distractions.
Also, it feels like home.
All of those inputs feel necessary if I’m trying to solve a problem. And the true gift of ADHD is my brain always wants to follow a thread. It’s a non-linear path and, I’d argue, the route creative people not only can take but must take to unlock exponential outcomes and possibilities.
For me, the game-changing insight on this note goes back to 2010 and Jon Kolko’s seminal work, “Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis,” on the inherent chaos of design and the quest designers go on to create “normalcy.” In the process, innovation happens, or, as Kolko says, “the creation of new knowledge and insight.”
As a designer and a neurodivergent thinker, the key I use to unlock progress and possibility for my clients is synthesis. As Kolko succinctly describes:
“Synthesis requires a designer to forge connections between seemingly unrelated issues through a process of selective pruning and visual organization.”
To do this successfully, I use a variety of mental models to make sense out of the barrage of information and give it shape and form. For example, I rely heavily on design thinking exercises, like the five whys, which I use several times a day to help hone in on the root causes of problems. Other go-to practices include embracing mindsets (i.e., Beginner’s Mind) and systems thinking.
But ultimately, it all comes down to the same activity: making connections by identifying and illustrating relationships that resonate with the audiences you serve. As Kolko boils it down, abductive sensemaking is all about continuously reframing, concept mapping, and combining insights. My brain does this naturally, but I believe it’s a skill you can also acquire — and it’s well worth the effort.
The practice of continuously layering on the latticework of interconnections empowers entrepreneurs to follow their creative impulses and explore opportunities by fearlessly diving down a rabbit hole (or two or six, in my experience). You just have to arm yourself with the right tools to guide you on your non-linear journey and ensure you don’t languish in distraction.
My Favorite Tools
I use several tools and platforms daily to help me focus, connect, manage, organize, prune, and filter data — in other words, do the heavy lifting of sensemaking and synthesizing. Here are the tools I use daily to access the clarity and space necessary to achieve maximum creativity and productivity (in no particular order):
- When it comes to structuring my thoughts, Notion provides the essential building blocks — I pretty much manage my entire life and work with it. It’s like LEGO blocks for information; it’s the Wiki, notes, and repository where I store, share and collaborate with others (and myself). Pulling back information takes milliseconds, so it works the way my brain does. The only drawback to Notion is the mobile version is a bit clunky.
- My go-to tool for online collaboration is Miro. It’s become the #1 visual planning, ideation, and workshopping platform I use with my teams and clients.
- When it comes to capturing my thoughts (and others’), Otter.ai is my personal transcription service. It makes saving meeting notes super easy by auto transcribing Google Meet or Zoom meetings. I also use it to record my thoughts for long-form content or other projects when I take walks. (Walking is a scientifically proven method to unleash creativity and, for those of us with ADHD, it’s a great way to channel energy productively.)
- Visual recall is a key way I make vital connections, and MyMind is an incredible visual recall tool created by Tobias van Schneider. I use it quite literally like a second brain to capture and collect inspiration, notes, and images. The AI-powered search and web+mobile apps do a great job analyzing images and auto-tagging for me.
- It’s also scientifically proven that binaural beats support improved focus, so I love working with Endel’s soundscapes playing in the background. The personalized auditory experiences help me focus and lock into a flow state.
- What gets scheduled gets done, so I’m very picky about my calendar tool. Motion is intuitive and helps me schedule meetings, appointments, and tasks in a cool, dynamic way. I can’t tell you how happy I am to say goodbye to tedious calendar work and physical to-do lists.
- I rely heavily on Loom as a meeting/email replacement platform. In my opinion, email is a toneless medium, and a short Loom conveys the energy and emotions necessary to get my vibe and opinions conveyed (i.e., design work, HR stuff) without having to schedule a meeting.
- I have to stay on top of breaking news and knowledge for the industries I serve, so I use Feedly as a smarter way to organize and tame the feed and flow of media — way more effectively than, say, trolling social media feeds.
- Email is the bane of my existence, so I use SuperHuman to make it suck less and save me hours each day.
- Finally, an old-fashioned twofer for #10. To stay organized, clear, and calm, I make sketchnotes. And I meditate every day, no matter what.
Now, nearly a dozen tools might seem like a lot, but give it a whirl — the ability to visualize helps transform chaos into clarity and creativity. That’s the spark of novelty our brains need to unlock new horizons of innovation and growth, regardless of how they are wired.
What are your go-to apps to stay focused and full of creative juice? Hit me up in the comments or drop me a line over at https://www.petesena.com/.