T he August 2009 blog post – You Have A.D.D./A.D.H.D. and You Will NOT Be Rich and Famous – has been one of the more contentious posts on this blog. As measured by the number of comments to that post, it seems it hit a raw nerve. [note 1] I believe that the firestorm was based, not only on my provocative title for the blog post (Linda had written, “…if I took the [...] post at face value I wouldn’t just want to “give up,” I’d feel like cutting my throat!”) but also from this quote from Barkley’s, et al., ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says. Quoting the book, I wrote:
[...] there are those who “claim that adults with ADHD are more intelligent, more creative, more ‘lateral’ in their thinking, more optimistic, more entrepreneurial, and better able to handle crises than those without the disorder. Similar advocates of adult ADHD have gone so far as to assert that the disorder conveys some positive benefit. [...] none of these claims have any scientific support at this time.” They go on to note that research looking at adults with ADHD and at longitudinal studies that follow children into adulthood “provid[e] no support for the view that ADHD produces positive benefits in adults with the disorder.” (pg. 2)
I disagree on the NO positive benefits of having ADD/ADHD. I also think that many people with ADHD are more creative than those with out ADHD. No, I don’t think it’s gift from up above…It’s because many of us with ADHD have been forced to be creative to cure boredom, find a different way to do things, fix our messes, etc.
On February 17, 2010 there was a lengthy comment to that post that has prompted this lengthy response. The particular comment, from Paradigm of Thought, appears on the fourth page of comments. In my response below, I’ve selected a number of points from Paradigm’s comment and provided my counterpoints.
I want to establish two facts that serve as the basis of my response.
Fact Number One: The effects of gravity were with us long before Newton and then Einstein defined and redefined our understanding of gravity. We did not live in a gravity-less world with everything floating around prior to our understanding of gravity. Gravity exerted its effect whether we had an explanation for it or not.
Fact Number Two: Those of us who are reading this blog (and other blogs, of course), writing responses and posts, and so forth, are NOT your typical ADDer. Assuming a normal distribution of intelligence with no significant skewing (I know, big assumption), those of us who are reading and writing these posts are probably two or more standard deviations above the midpoint. The evidence for fact number two is, admittedly, based on anecdotal data but I would say it is safe to assume that anyone who is an ADDer and is successful in life (for now we can dispense with defining “success” ) would be in the upper range of the bell curve. [note 3]
So…where am I going with these “facts”?
Fact Number One Revisited: Gravity exerts its effects whether we are aware of it or not. The same should apply to ADHD. The “advantages” conferred by ADHD should be discernible and measurable prior to any individual’s awareness of the ADHD. Let me reemphasize this point because it shreds the “ADHD as an Advantage” argument. IF like gravity, ADHD performed its magic regardless of our awareness of its existence, then we should see a nearly one-to-one correspondence between those who are wildly successful and those who have ADHD. [note 4] Instead, what we see is NOT a near one-to-one correspondence but, instead, a handful of anecdotes about those who are wildly successful and who happen to have ADHD. [note 5]
If ADHD were truly the causal factor we like to think it is then the number of successful people who do NOT have ADHD should be quite small. Instead, we see the exact opposite. We see no statistical evidence to show that ADHD confers any life benefits. [note 6] In fact, it shows that everyone with ADHD, to varying degrees, has been negatively impacted by it. [note 7] HOWEVER, once we are aware of our ADHD, there is the potential for us to mitigate its effects.
Fact Number Two Revisited: ADHDers who are reading, writing and responding to blog posts are not your typical ADHDer. Admittedly this “fact” is based on a bit of deduction and assumption on my part. But again, if we assume a normal distribution of intelligence among ADHDers (much like the general population), it is likely that those of us who are participating in these discussions, those of us with ADHD who have been successful, are atypical ADHDers.
The Points Raised by Paradigm of Thought
I’ve taken the liberty of editing the points raised by Paradigm of Thought. I believe that, even in edited form, I have kept true to the spirit of the point that was raised.
Point Number 1:
“…National Commission on Entrepreneurship seems to be under the impression that there is high percentage of successful Entrepreneurs who have ADD and ADHD. …historically successful figures who are believed to have had ADHD (Like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford). …the distinct advantages of ADHD (such as Hyperfocusing, the ability to switch tasks, and higher IQ ratings).”
Counterpoint Number 1:
1. I was not able to find any studies by the commission that shows the high percentage of entrepreneurs with ADHD. I am sure they exist so please provide references. [note 8]
2. We cannot read history backwards and assume that Franklin, Edison and Ford were ADHDers. The characteristics of high intelligence and ADHD have a number of similarities that can cause someone to confuse one for the other. [note 9]
3. Hyperfocusing can be an advantage IF you can turn it on or off at will. If you cannot do that – and for many ADHDers that’s a difficult thing to do – then there is no advantage to it. It is like being a marathon runner but not being able to use your running skills when you need it most. It’s a wonderful skill – hyperfocus and running – but useless if you cannot turn it on when needed.
4. There is no data showing a causal relationship between ADHD and IQ. It is nice to believe there is because we, the readers of this blog, may be more intelligent than other ADHDers. However, ADHD does not confer intelligence.
Point Number 2:
“The reason people with ADD and ADHD may not succeed is because, simply, our attitudes have been adjusted for us. Society says we have a learning disorder, so we never try because “We Can’t.” We go through this self destructive cycle, and instead of taking responsibility, we blame the disorder. People with ADD and ADHD don’t succeed for the same reason that people WITHOUT it don’t. Because in the end they don’t want to.”
Counterpoint Number 2: I’m going to address this in reverse order.
1. You end this paragraph with the point that people don’t succeed “[B]ecause in the end they don’t want to.” This is the power of positive thinking argument. If we think it…it will be so. Unfortunately, while this type of thinking may make us feel better (and I admit I employ it myself in a number of circumstances), there are many more Willy Lomans out there than we like to admit. However, because they ARE Willy Loman, we never hear their stories. We only hear the success stories. [note 10]
2. You note that society inculcates us with the idea that we have a learning disorder. My argument against this is based, in part, on an anecdote. Though it does not constitute scientific data I think it illustrates a possible shortcoming in the “magical properties” theory of ADHD.
In 1998 I had gone into the technology business with a good friend who also had the entrepreneurial wanderlust. At that time we were on the bleeding edge of new technologies. Voice Over IP (VOIP) was a brand new technology and 3Com was one of the first to provide VOIP equipment. We jumped on that bandwagon. Website hosting was growing at an enormous rate and there was still room for more players. We jumped on that bandwagon. We purchased Palm Pilots at the then outrageous price of $500 each! And yes, we jumped on that bandwagon. After a few years the business collapsed. We were at each others throats having some nasty arguments. Years later when I was self-diagnosed as ADD and discussed this with my former business partner, we realized that he was also ADD. Our only regret is that we wish we knew THEN that we had ADD because we would have been able to work around it (with it? through it?) and build a successful business. INSTEAD, the business collapsed in part BECAUSE of the ADD. There were NO particular benefits as a result of the ADD. The supposed Latent Entrepreneurial characteristics of ADD seemed to be absent. (See: http://www.windeaters.co.nz/publications/innovation_entrepreneurship/Adhd2_web.pdf on ADD as Latent Entrepreneurial Personality Type (LEPT) ) In fact, the ADD was detrimental to both our business and personal/social well-being. Shouldn’t the effects of LEPT have made its presence known? We were both entrepreneurial. We were both risk-takers to varying degrees. Shouldn’t it have worked its magic the same way gravity works its magic whether we are aware of its existence or not?
You may be thinking that the counter argument to the above is that we did not think positively (or not positively enough). However, shouldn’t the magical properties of ADHD be evident, not only in the case described above, but in the majority of Adult ADHDers? Instead, what we find is that lives with UNdiagnosed ADHD are often in ruins and improvement comes with knowledge, specifically, the knowledge of their ADHD. It as at that point that they know what the multi-headed hydra looks like and how to handle it.
Let’s shift our focus to something that we quite often refer to as a gift, namely IQ. Imagine you have a daughter that is extraordinarily bright. Does this high IQ child need to know that she has a high IQ in order to be intelligent? Or is she intelligent even if she is unaware of her IQ? The answer would seem to be the latter. Others may “discover” that she has a gift of a high IQ but she does not need to know that in order to exhibit the characteristics of someone who has a high IQ. Shouldn’t the positive qualities of ADHD be evident in the very same way? If ADHD conferred positive qualities wouldn’t those qualities be evident even BEFORE a diagnosis of ADHD?
Point Number Three: “Taking away all hope because of a disorder is far too convenient for me. So instead, I’ve learned to set workable tasks and realistic goals. I’ve learned the power of discipline and work. For that, I am a successful member of society, I am the next in line to take over my company, I am working diligently and training for the business aspects of said company. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a diagnosis ruin me for life. I have ADHD, and I’m determined to succeed.”
Counterpoint Number Three:
1. My only response is, quite sincerely, BRAVO!! You know what your challenges are and you’ve set “workable tasks and realistic goals” and you have succeeded in life. However, statistically you are the outlier. Longitudinal data shows an abundance of horror stories and NOT success stories.
Point Number Four: “The fact is ADD or ADHD is no more disenfranchising than being “normal.” And if the world stopped using it as a crutch maybe people would realize that. Most of the problem is that we’re told we can’t succeed, so we don’t try. In the end, the only way we are damned to not succeed, is to never attempt to.”
Counterpoint Number Four:
1. You wrote: ‘The fact is ADD or ADHD is no more disenfranchising than being “normal.”‘ If only this were true then this would be borne out by the numerous studies that have been done. Sorry to say, there is no data to support this assertion. There is too much data showing how undiagnosed ADHDers have believed whole heartedly that they could succeed and yet, despite all their efforts, they have still failed. The magic just didn’t work. Further, since they were undiagnosed they didn’t yet know that they should use ADHD as a crutch.
Too often we assume that our “positive” life circumstances are the result of some magical ingredient that we possess. Sometimes we call that magical ingredient “entrepreneurship” or “positive thinking” or ADHD. If they are magical ingredients with magical properties they should make their presence known even if we do not know we have it. (Again, think about someone with a high IQ. That gift makes its presence known to others even if the person with the gift does not know that she has it. ) Further, we have a tendency to explain our success by using post hoc reasoning even though there is no logical causal mechanism tying X to Y. If success occurs after positive thinking, we assume that success occurs BECAUSE of positive thinking. Substitute the terms ADHD or any other suitable term. The reasoning seems logical but if one cannot explain how X causes Y then there is no basis for the assertion.
In the specific case of ADHD we find, based on all of the current evidence (again, see Barkley, et al.), that there are NO magical properties associated with it. Success in life for an ADHDer, if such success is found, occurs often IN SPITE OF and NOT BECAUSE OF ADHD.
Bottom line: I am much happier thinking that ADHD confers some special gift [note 11] but I never, ever, let myself think that my successes in life were a result of some ADHD pixie dust. I ALWAYS know that EVERY success was a struggle, that EVERY success was IN SPITE OF ADHD. The amount of effort required for success has been diminishing over time because I have come to know how my enemy thinks. But I know that my enemy will never be vanquished. It will be haunting me till my very last breath. No amount of positive thinking will change that reality. It may make that reality easier to deal with but it is not a true picture of the ADHD world that we inhabit.
- Admittedly, a small number of the comments examined the issues surrounding different styles of pulled pork. However, even that discussion became a tiny bit contentious.↩
- See, for example, the very successful blog ADDER World and in the associated social networking community.↩
- Yes…this argument is a bit circular but…bear with me.↩
- I’m defining “wildly successful” as that part of society that is in the upper 5% of the socioeconomic range and which should map very precisely with the Adult ADHD population since that population also comprises approximately 5% of the adult population.↩
- Dr. Handelman, not my favorite character in the ADHD world, trots out Jay Mandarino as “proof” that ADHD is some sort of gift and is the source of Mandarino’s wildly successful entrepreneurship. That’s a sample size of one. Could you imagine ANY scientist making ANY claim based on a sample size of one?↩
- I must emphasize that we are looking at aggregated data and not the life trajectories of this or that individual. You, or a Dr. Hallowell, for example, would be a statistical blip in comparison to the majority of ADHDers in terms of life success.↩
- This is examined in greater detail in Barkley, et al., ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says. I will shortly be completing my review of this book and will go into greater detail concerning this subject.↩
- In one of my snarkier moments I wrote, “Look little Johnny. Look at what’s in the box from Aunt Pandora. It’s A.D.D. You’re gonna be an entrepreneur!” From: Unwrapping the Sales Manure↩
- Dr. Handelman noted that “Sometimes children who are very intelligent (referred to as gifted) can be diagnosed incorrectly with ADD or ADHD.”↩
- There has been some writing on the subject of business failures though these books never become big sellers even though they can teach us much more than the “success” stories. See: Examining the Costly Lessons from Business Failures. I would also recommend taking a look at this brief interview with Barbara Ehrenreich who sees positive thinking as a type of delusion. Our inability to hear the Willy Lomans is because it is extraordinarily rare that we hear “negative evidence.” (That’s Nassim Taleb’s term.) We shouldn’t forget that it is always the victor, not the vanquished, who writes history. ↩
- See this post where I attribute this type of thinking to the flat earth concept↩