My sister used to always tell me that I was the dumbest smart person she knew. The observation stemmed from my high grades, strong intellect, coupled with an inability to remember seemingly simple things along with a consistently "spacy", wandering mind. I was never diagnosed with a disorder because I did very well in school, though I could see that in some classes I was a top student, while other classes I skipped, didn't try, and used my talents to still manage a B.
In college I pulled a 2.something GPA until my junior year, where the combination of taking classes in an area that I found stimulating (became a philosophy major) along with the death of a close friend which I turned into a carpe diem life attitude (and tattoo) propelled me into the sort of academic and intellectual performance that professors took note of.
I'm in a teacher training and certification program that had me taking classes in special education. One day I was speaking with the instructor of the class, who holds a PhD in special education, and she casually mentioned that she doesn't reprimand me for the way I build towers of markers, doodle, and check my phone during class because she understands that some folks with ADHD need to stimulate themselves in situations where they're seated for long periods of time. I stopped her and said wait, are you saying that I have ADHD? She looked at me like I was an idiot and basically said, umm, obviously! I asked my girlfriend, and my colleagues in the class if they suspected the same thing and they responded with a unanimous, "of course!" like I was crazy for even asking. Upon reflection the theory had strong explanatory power, I began to understand myself better than before and to think analytically about how I'd been successful despite this seeming disadvantage.
A few conclusions and thoughts:
-Human beings, and their star organ the brain, are extremely complicated. Obviously we have some genetic variability that results in differing bio-chemical makeups form person to person, however, it's also extremely important to note that those genetic factors are influenced by the environment we grow up in and the decisions that we make on a daily basis. It's not a binary nature vs. nurture debate, it's nature through nurture system, in a dynamic and habitual interplay. Understanding the biological underpinnings of how we work should not lead to a deterministic point of view.
-Motivation matters, and it's context-dependent. People aren't uniformly motivated across time, place and activity. You ask the same person who's scolded for lack of motivation in math class if she wants to play laser tag and she will exhibit high levels of motivation. Motivation is dependent on an individual's interests, goals, and physical and emotional state.
I just couldn't concentrate in my college Brain and Behavior class, put in 0 effort, and nearly failed it in college, yet I also thrived in a Harvard masters program in Mind, Brain, and Education that had a similar focus. Why? Well, my most highly held goals in college involved partying and girls, and my performance in the brain and behavior class did not contribute to those goals. On the other hand, by the time I got to Harvard I had created a possibility for my life that was inspiring (creating a progressive and joyful educational experience for kids in Baltimore City's public school system), and connected my work in those classes to the fulfillment of that most highly held goal.
Plainly stated, when doing things we don't want or didn't choose to do, we can look like we have a mental disability, and in the opposite situation we can remain highly focused despite working with the same cognitive equipment.
-Like Barnaby, I'm skeptical of taking pills to alter that biochemical system for a few reasons. First, as he already illustrated, our brain and body habituates. Just like alcoholics require more drinks to get drunk, and coffee drinkers require more coffee to achieve the same desired effect, we adjust to an infusion of new chemicals, resulting in a default state which can actually be inferior to the old default state at achieving certain tasks, and thus creating a dependency.
Second, the consistent usage of these regularly prescribed drugs has yet to be studied on a longitudinal basis. A short term benefit could lead to a long term health detriment that outweighs the initial boost in performance.
Third, there are other methods to alter your biochemical makeup in more natural ways. If you get more sleep, if you consume less poison, if you put healthier foods into your body, if you're more physically active, your brain and body will respond.
I'm not arguing that nobody should ever take any pill (though I haven't taken even a tylenol for multiple years now), but I would strongly suggest that you first attempt to exhaust other natural strategies prior to relying on manufactured dopamine supplements.
-Not everyone has found their life's purpose, or a line of work that they find fulfilling and worthwhile. In my opinion, there is no greater antidote for lack of motivation and focus than answering this most essential question. What do I want to do with my life, what would light me up on a daily basis? Figure it out, then do it! Cheesy? Banal? Yes, but how many folks actually do that?
-Follow your interests from moment to moment. I can be all over the place, and rather than fight that tendency, arduously forcing myself back to a task of more timely importance, I've been productive in what captures me in the moment, happy to put that aside shortly after to work on the next thing that grabs me. I've gotten more work done jumping around from task to task than I have by sticking to what's on the top of my to-do list (which often results in long periods of staring at a computer screen counter-productively).
-Sometimes doing a relatively mindless activity can actually help you concentrate on something different at the same time. I actually can listen to folks better if I'm doodling while they're speaking. People on the autism spectrum have found that listening to dull, white noise can result in greater focus on a task at hand.
-Limit the scope of your sensory intake. I sometimes let people know that I'm looking away from them not to be rude, but because I get distracted by facial expressions and other physical forms of expression that take away from my ability to really listen to what they're saying. Sometimes I close my eyes as I'm speaking if it is something that I'm working out in my head as I'm verbalizing it. We have finite mental resources, and once you exceed a particular cognitive load you won't be able to dedicate the necessary energy to what you really intend.
Holy ****, I could literally write forever about this, but I'll spare yall for now. Happy to keep the conversation going, and I appreciate the very personal stories folks have shared in the thread.
P.S. Folks on this thread should check out the book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and other Brain Differences. It reframes the cognitive disability narrative into a more scientifically accurate and balanced view that accounts for the advantages and disadvantages associated with brain differences. It also challenges the entire idea of normal in a provocative way.