At the age of 30, Daniel Koh's achievements would pluck a chord of envy in professionals twice his age. The highlights of Daniel’s résumé include stints as Chief of Staff to Arianna Huffington, General Manager of HuffPost Live, and advisor to beloved former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. The press has noted his ascent; Daniel has been featured in the “30 under 30” list by Forbes Magazine, “40 under 40” list by the Boston Business Journal, and in Boston Magazine as a “next generation power player.” In his current position as Chief of Staff to the City of Boston, he advises Mayor Marty Walsh on key issues and helps him achieve his vision for the city. And somehow, in the midst of those responsibilities, Daniel managed to deliver a compelling TEDx talk: What Government Can Learn From Baseball.
So, a guy who's accomplished this much must have been born with exceptional powers of focus and tenacity, right? Wrong. While Daniel has acquired skills that have contributed to his success, until recently he also had a secret that may surprise you. Last summer, he revealed to a crowd of over 300 people a struggle he's had since childhood: he has ADHD. According to Linda Matchan’s November 3rd Boston Globe article, Daniel chose that particular moment to reveal his childhood ADHD struggles, knowing that his advice to “see those kids in the back row who are struggling to pay attention” and remembering that “it doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn,” could make a life-changing difference for a student. He knows — because he was once that kid.
We caught up with Daniel Koh recently and he generously agreed to answer a few questions by email to help our readers learn a little more about how he has overcome the challenges of ADHD and learned to succeed despite going through some tough times when he was a student.
JS: What advice would you give to a kid who has just been diagnosed with ADHD? You’ve mentioned a fear of being stigmatized by the label “hyperactive”. What do think are some effective ways to reduce that stigma?
DK: First, know that your ADHD will make you special. It will give you tools that will set you apart from your peers in a positive way. Don't think it's something that will bring you down – it has nothing to do with how much potential you have, or how successful you can be. The best way to reduce the stigma you may feel is to keep working hard and realizing where your weaknesses may be and come up with strategies to overcome them. Think of things like writing tasks down immediately when you have something new to do, setting a specific time in the day in which you will do that task (and review other tasks), and finding time to appreciate the fact that you've accomplished something when you do it.
JS: Your strategies could have come right from our coaches’ tool kits! It’s just as important to take the time to reflect on your achievements as it is to plan your next goals. Your message about urging the City Year volunteers not to make assumptions about those “kids in the back row” hit home with us. We find that just about every kid truly wants to be successful at school, and the students who appear lazy or unmotivated are often stuck in a negative loop of self-doubt. Once they have someone to show them how to be successful, they bloom. Who was that person for you in high school? How did he help your self-image as a student?
DK: It was my 7th grade teacher, Mr. Bob Hutchings. He saw my personality and drive through my struggles with discipline. He focused me, sat with me when I did work, and gave me the hope that I had potential. In essence, he went above and beyond to make sure I believed in myself. And it made all the difference.
JS: So, Mr. Hutchings actually became your academic coach! It’s a powerful role to have in a young person’s life. In our own work with students, we often step in when a kid is pretty deep into that downward spiral, which is just as you described yourself to The Globe while you were at Pike School. By then, students’ confidence is shot. What advice would you give parents when they see their kids struggling in school?
DK: Don't give up on them and more importantly, don't assume they cannot succeed. If you work with your child and help him/her reach for the highest standard possible, please remember that if that standard is not ultimately attained, your child is not a failure. Success can be found in just trying. If your standards are "now that my child has ADHD, I'm just going to hope he/she gets by with average grades in school," the child will likely have more trouble because he/she will be stuck in a trap of low expectations.
JS: As executive function coaches, we are all about the strategies. Can you share a favorite strategy or two that keep you focused and effective?
- Avoid procrastination by having a "take-off period", i.e., knowing that if you sit down and just start working, you'll get some momentum going and begin to work well before you know it.
- Make lists. Write down tasks as soon as you know it's something you need to do. Cross things off when you are done so that you get the satisfaction of doing so. And don't think that you'll have time to do something if you put it off – get things done as soon as possible, or it will be easy to get distracted and forget about it.
- Set a schedule for yourself, such as at 9PM everyday, I will review my list, see what I have left, and accomplish it. Getting into regular habits was really helpful to me.
- Remember that you are special, that ADHD presents challenges, but learning tricks to stay more disciplined and focused gives you skills that are invaluable to anyone, ADHD or not.
JS: Any apps you can’t live without?
DK: Wunderlist -- it's a list management app that is incredible.
JS: That’s a fave of ours, too. People often focus on the downside of ADHD, but we shouldn’t forget that there are some benefits, too. What are your superpowers?
DK: I feel I have the ability to multitask very well and get things done quickly — this is due to the habits I learned as a result of having ADHD. People with ADHD also tend to be able to shift their focus quickly to the task at hand, which helps them avoid dwelling on topics that might get him/her down. In the world of public service (and in life in general), that's very important.
JS: Thanks for taking time to share your story, Daniel. We’ve seen many students with similar struggles thrive once they have an ally who can guide them to strategically approach their work in the ways you describe. We wish you continued success in your work for the City of Boston. Let’s just hope we don’t break any snowfall records this year.
Do you know a student who has been diagnosed with ADHD? Click below to find out how Executive Function coaching can help your child overcome the challenges of ADHD and become a confident and effective student.
Daniel Arrigg Koh is Chief of Staff to the City of Boston. In this capacity, he advises Mayor Martin J. Walsh on key issues and helps him execute his vision for the city and its 18,000 employees. Immediately prior, Dan served as General Manager of HuffPost Live, The Huffington Post Media Group’s streaming network, where he oversaw operations. Before HuffPost Live, he served as Chief of Staff to Chair, President, and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington, aiding in the oversight of the 700-person international organization. Before his media career, he served as Advisor to former Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston. Dan holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was president of his class, Section E. In 2015, he was named one of Boston’s ten “Outstanding Young Leaders.” He grew up in Andover, Massachusetts.
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