“There is a vast world of possibility for people out there with the ADHD trait.” With this, Dale Archer has us rethinking what hinders and what helps us. In his new book, The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength, Archer gets past the idea of ADHD as a problem to cope with and recasts it as one of our most overlooked assets — an asset that has evolutionary and entrepreneurial advantages.
Archer, a psychiatrist, begins with the story of Ty Pennington, the star of Extreme Home Makeover, who learned to channel what was once labeled as “challenging” behavior into traits that have contributed to his enormous success: creativity, non-linear thinking, multitasking, willingness to take calculated risks, capacity for hyper-focus, and resilience. Archer then introduces many other extreme success stories, such as Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine; David Neeleman, founder of Jet Blue; John Chambers, CEO of Cisco; business mogul Sir Richard Branson; and many others — all of whom have ADHD.
ADHD has, for many years, been over-diagnosed. As Archer writes, we suffer from a lack of real experts on the subject, a tendency to label normal developmental behavior as hyperactive and inattentive, and the effects of Big Pharma’s direct targeting of consumers. Archer writes about Allen Frances, chair of the DSM-IV task force (and writer of the book’s foreword). In reference to the epidemic of ADHD cases, he quotes Frances as saying: “We made mistakes that had terrible consequences.” Archer then hits us with some sobering facts:
Approximately 1.1 million children have received an inappropriate diagnosis and over 800,00 received stimulant medication due to relative maturity.
Three boys to every one girl are diagnosed with ADHD.
Ten thousand two-to-three-year-olds on Medicaid are on ADHD medication.
The number one predictor of an ADHD diagnoses is the teacher and not the medical professional.
And this: The FDA has cited every major producer of ADHD medication for false or misleading information, some more than once.
It’s a problem, Archer argues, that has serious consequences. Among those consequences: the rapid rise in abuse of stimulant medication. And then, another question arises. What if the hyperactive and inattentive behavior we are medicating is actually an advantage?
In answering this question, Archer writes that the variant of the D4 receptor gene called 7R, commonly referred to as the explorer gene, is also closely linked to ADHD. This gene, which is associated with novelty-seeking, hyperactivity, curiosity, and risk-taking, has, Archer writes, “contributed to the survival of the species.” Meaning, ADHD has a whole lot of benefits, perhaps for all of us.
Still, Archer acknowledges, some aspects of ADHD can be difficult, such as the trouble with sitting still and with learning. For these issues, Archer offers numerous tips, including using associations to enhance memory, individualizing learning plans, adding variety to the classroom, and incorporating exercise. But the benefits, Archer writes, might just outweigh the challenges.
In a section called “Discovering Your Strengths,” Archer suggests that his own reaction to disappointment, which is to pick himself up, dust himself off, learn from the experience, and try again, stems from his ADHD. It is this resilient nature of ADHDers, he writes, that “makes many of them grateful for the challenges that ADHD has thrown in [their] path.”
Other factors related to ADHD resilience are grit, innovation, an innate capacity to rebound from setbacks, hyper-focus, and, interestingly, an uncanny ability to stay calm in a crisis. Much of the reason for this, Archer posits, is due to the fact that people with ADHD have had to deal with a wandering mind, a proclivity toward procrastination, impulsivity, and the low self-esteem that can result from challenges. But while they may “look through a different lens,” those with ADHD can learn to leverage their unique traits.
For this, Archer concludes each chapter with a toolkit where he offers tips for those with ADHD, such as giving your brain time to roam, being conscious that others may not be able to follow your train of thought, setting “juicy” goals, leveraging your procrastination, realizing that what makes you calm drives other people crazy, staying on a physical routine, and exercising.
Archer also draws on the research of Johan Wiklund, an entrepreneurship professor at Syracuse University. People with ADHD, Archer writes, “are three times more likely to own their own business.”
And when it comes to top athletes, the ADHD hallmarks of having “relentless resilience” and “poise under pressure” stand out, too. Take Michael Phelps. Though Phelps was told as a child by a wrongheaded teacher that he’d never be able to focus on anything, he later went on to win an unprecedented twenty-two Olympic medals.
Overall, Archer packs his book with research. And he successfully encourages us to stop trying to squeeze ADHD traits into our idea of normal, and to instead recognize them for what they are: tremendously adaptive and exceptional gifts.
The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength
Avery, July 2015
Hardcover, 304 pages