I’m typing this on my laptop while lying on my living room floor blasting music from Spotify’s Global Top 50 playlist. I can hear the wind blowing through the trees outside and see my dog looking out the window off to my right. I’m distinctly aware of the cars that pass by on the road and hear bits and pieces of the YouTube tutorial my brother is watching.
Being ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) means, among other things, that I am hyper-aware of what is happening around me. In reality, it is less of an attention deficit than it is an inability to control said attention to a single thing–that those of us with ADHD pay attention to everything, which in effect means that we struggle to focus on any one thing. In a busy classroom, that awareness is often painful for children who want to do well and heed the teacher’s many reminders to “pay attention.” But as an adult, I find that it has made me exceptionally successful at my job(s).
First, a bit of background. I was not tested for ADHD as a child because, in the homeschooling environment, it was far less obvious. As a student all through middle and high school, I was permitted to take my books to my room, turn on some music, and complete my work at my own pace. Typically, separated from the distractions of family life happening in the rest of the house, I moved quickly through the work and accomplished tasks with ease. It was only later, when I moved from the isolation of my room into the chaos of a college classroom, that I began to notice extreme difficulty in focusing on a lecturer. At college, I often worked through documents as a typesetter during classes, flipping simultaneously between correcting minute errors on a document on my computer and the professor’s lecture, all while taking note of the student activities and conversations happening around me, as well as anything happening beyond the windows to the outdoors. Call it manic multi-tasking skills–or just ADHD.
One of the common nuances of being ADHD is that sounds–like the refrigerator popping behind me in the kitchen right now–demand attention. No matter how hard I try to focus on the person in front of me talking, I just cannot not hear the doors opening and closing around me, other conversations in the room, cars driving by, etc. I really am listening…I’m just listening to EVERYTHING. With some discipline, I can train my eyes to stay on the person I’m talking to, but that takes determined effort. Without specific attention to paying attention, my eyes will jump to whatever noise I’ve just heard–often scanning a given room a seeming thousand times in mere minutes.
So how does this crazy existence help me be successful in the workplace?
Well, as a caveat, I’ve chosen professions that are extremely people-centric and also entail a certain level of chaos. As a teacher and retail associate (and now an assistant sales manager?!) the ability to notice a multiplicity of things happening simultaneously is exceptionally valuable.
In a recent interview leading to my advancement to assistant manager, I was commended for my ability to see the big picture and notice ALL the customers on the sales floor while still attending to the needs of “my” customer. The secret? I’m ADHD, and I can’t help it. I hear the door beep as customers walk in, I see them walking around the store in my periphery, and I hear them talking amongst themselves or with other retail associates. As I do so, a thousand different thoughts are running through my mind. I might be having a conversation with “my” customer about mirrors and bottle cages for their bicycle, while simultaneously noting that the customer behind me needs help finding a good pair of cycling shorts, or that there is a line for the service department, or that someone needs to go up and ring a customer out who has finished their shopping. It only takes a glance and a smile to show someone that they are noticed–and for me, that is easy.
Teaching middle and high schoolers in P.E. or English (or even elementary-age swimming lessons!) takes advantage of my ADHD not only in my ability to see and identify things happening in every corner of the classroom, but also in my natural energy levels and ability to relate with students who struggle to “pay attention.” Sitting still for long periods of time is difficult–even as an adult–so I don’t dare ask something from my students that I myself would hate doing. I believe that a class should be active and engaged–and that may mean getting up and moving around the room, or doing a variety of different (though related) activities within the class period. The majority of students spend the majority of their time at school sitting behind a desk. Activity, in my experience, is helpful to retaining information and when learning can be active and relevant, it often “sticks” in more long-term ways. Teaching this way certainly requires me to be energetic and passionate about the lesson material–if I am bored by it, I can’t expect students not to be. I also realize that students are different and learn differently. I see the students in my classrooms whose eyes are flitting from noise to noise (the same noises I’m hearing) and realize that they may be better able to focus on the work in front of them if they use headphones to reduce some of the distractions. I see other students who hesitate to get involved in class discussions because they are processing everything that others are saying and need a bit of time to “marinate” on it before responding themselves. I notice the students who don’t think they are good at English or P.E. and don’t even want to risk failure—-and those who are naturally skilled who need a challenge to engage them to push further. Sure, being ADHD doesn’t make me a perfect teacher (is there such a thing?), but it does give me some crucial skills that do help in classroom discipline, in effective instruction, and in coaching.
Learning how to manage my ADHD has taken some time. There were points where I wondered if I could ever focus effectively. I’ve never tried medication personally, but I know others who have used various ADHD medications with some success. For me, caffeine is key. One of the other weird commonalities about people with ADHD is that caffeine tends to affect us differently than others: I can drink Red Bull and go straight to bed, coffee actually reduces my heart rate, and, most importantly, caffeine helps me focus. I notice a drastic difference in my ability to hone out some of my over-attention to erroneous noises and such when I drink caffeine and when I don’t (without it, I sometimes feel like my brain looks like a hundred cans of Silly String). Because of that, I nearly always drink some kind of caffeinated drink prior to any important sporting event (volleyball tournaments, cycling races, etc.) when my ability to focus on the task at hand is crucial to performing well. I also know that if I want to be efficient in accomplishing tasks that require extended focus, I need to be alone or isolated in some way (noise-canceling headphones). Its what works for me. I would never dare to assume it will work for everyone with ADHD, but it might work for some. I just hope that kids (and adults) struggling with the label of ADHD as a “disability” are able to recognize that it is not so much a disability as it is a unique skill set–which, in certain environments, can make us exceptionally good at what we do.
Disclaimer: This is not an evidence-based or medically-validated study of any kind. Just my own experiential tales of living my best life with ADHD.