How To Do Life

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When Attention "Deficit Disorder" Can Be an Asset

ADD’s distractibility, impulsivity, and disorganization sometimes are pluses.

A client, I’ll call him Joe, wasn’t sure he had a problem but a friend suggested he get evaluated for attention deficit disorder (ADD.) And indeed, a specialist issued that ADD diagnosis.

Joe’s net worth is well into the millions. He consulted with me on whether he should start another business or accept a fine offer to work for a nonprofit.

During the session, I indeed noticed Joe getting distracted, interrupting me, changing the topic, etc. His distractibility might not have made him economically unsuccessful but what about his relationships? Joe has a good marriage and a good relationship with his son. It seems his relationships are no more limited than the typical successful businessperson’s.

But people can succeed despite impediments. Is Joe’s distractibility an impediment or an asset, a facilitator of his success and happiness? So I asked Joe if the following describes his flavor of attention "deficit disorder:"

Some intelligent people unconsciously turn their attention elsewhere when, for example, they’re being talked to and understand what’s being said before the person finishes a sentence or are bored by the conversation. They may, for example, listen in on another’s conversation or simply appear to space out, thinking about something more stimulating. While that may be disconcerting to some not-distractible people and may result in thinking the person suffers from ADD, such distractibility can, in some cases, not be a disorder but rather, an efficient use of time, a way to get through the massive data smog that bombards us all. So rather than dub that a symptom of a disorder, it sometimes more accurately should be deemed “wise refocusing.” In your case, Joe, do you believe your distractibility is dysfunctional, a liability, or an asset?

Joe said something like, “Asset. That’s me. And it usually works, although there are downsides. For example, my wife, trying to be loving, wants to get interested in what I’m interested in but by the time she gets into it, I’m bored and onto the next thing.”

He then said that his flavor of "ADD" includes impulsivity. Indeed that’s another sina qua non of ADD. I pointed out that usually causes problems, but not necessarily. I explained that some intelligent people are able to assimilate sufficient information to make a decision very quickly and are smart enough to recognize the point of diminishing returns: when the probable benefit of acting exceeds the probable benefit of gathering more information before acting. Yes, even a very intelligent person may occasionally get burned from quick decision-making but, net, over his or her lifetime, has accomplished more of significance than if deliberative.

Even if Joe’s initial decision isn’t quite right, having started on implementation gives him information to do mid-course corrections he wouldn't have been able to make without having gotten started. We all know people who suffer from analysis paralysis—No decision is a decision and sitting too long on the sidelines can take a big toll on one’s life.

Joe indeed agreed that in his case, his impulsive style has been a net plus. He did point out that his impulsivity sometimes imposes a price. For example, he laments that he impulsively promised his son he'd build a basketball court in the backyard but later changed his mind, to his son’s great disappointment.

A third sine qua non of ADD, which I haven’t yet discussed with Joe, is disorganization. It’s easy to consider that a liability. Yet some people unconsciously calculate that as long as they usually can find what they need, the time that would have been spent on organization is better spent elsewhere.

Indeed, attention deficit disorder’s core characteristics: distractibility, impulsivity, and disorganization usually are net negatives, requiring intervention. But not always. In deciding whether intervention is necessary, assess whether that case of attention-deficit “disorder” really is a disorder.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.

 

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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