I Have ADHD—Here’s Why It’s My Superpower
If you think having ADHD is a hindrance, Peter Shankman is about to change your mind. Here's why the author and entrepreneur believes there are serious benefits to having ADHD—and how he harnesses his powers for productivity and success.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) occurs in four per cent of adults and five per cent of children worldwide, according to the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada. Though the condition is often considered one that mostly affects children, that is a myth that American author and entrepreneur Peter Shankman is working to dispel. More than four per cent of American adults have the condition, though less than 20 per cent get treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The hallmarks of the disorder include difficulty holding attention for long periods of time, inability to sit still without fidgeting, talking incessantly, forgetfulness, and distractedness. According to Shankman, however, there are some very real benefits to having ADHD, and those aforementioned symptoms can be turned into superpowers. He’s on a mission to show the world how.
Shankman remembers the struggles of childhood vividly. Teachers who didn’t understand. His inability to sit still and listen to lessons without calling out of turn. The way he missed the social cues of peers. None of it made sense back then, and he didn’t put the pieces together until he was given the vocabulary (and a diagnosis) in his mid-30s: ADHD. Shankman, who has authored five books and hosts Faster Than Normal, the number one podcast about ADHD, says it’s been a long journey from harnessing what used to be considered negative traits to turning them into the very things that have catapulted his success.
“Growing up, I never understood why I would shout out in class, or why I had the social acuity of a turnip,” Shankman says with a laugh. “It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I got diagnosed, and then everything I’d been doing my entire life, subconsciously, made sense. I’ve created certain ways of living my life to the best of my ability, and I can trace all of my successes and even my failures back to ADHD.”
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Understanding ADHD—and changing your perspective
“I really don’t think the term ‘disorder’ is appropriate for this—it’s more of a trait,” says Edward Hallowell, MD, a psychiatrist and ADHD expert. “Disorder conveys a negative image of who you are and what you can do. Most people with it are creatives and entrepreneurs, and there have been many successful people with it. It’s what allowed them to achieve what they did.” Poet Emily Dickinson, musician Justin Timberlake, and Olympic athlete Michael Phelps are just a few of the well-known people who were able to get a handle on their condition and harness the benefits to having ADHD. Having the right perspective is key to any difficult situation.
Still, says Dr. Hallowell, if ADHD is not understood and dealt with, it can cause serious problems. In fact, he says studies have shown that it can take 16 years off a person’s life and that those with ADHD are more likely to become addicted to substances, experience low self-esteem and depression, and even become suicidal. “They know they can be doing better and try to will themselves to do what they need to do—but this is not about willpower,” he explains. Instead, ADHD is all about neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which are lower than normal.
Turning it all around
Shankman says that once he knew what he was up against, he was able to figure out how to avoid repeating mistakes and making new ones. “Those of us with ADHD live with a much faster brain than a normal person,” he says, “and we have to find ways to use that to our benefit and work with it.”
Dr. Hallowell even highlights the benefits of ADHD to his patients. “I tell my patients with ADHD that they have a Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes,” he says. “Most of these people are unbelievably big-hearted and generous—but the dark side of [ADHD] is self-medication, negative self-talk, and lack of motivation. It’s a disease of imagination. Boredom is their kryptonite, but it can also be their biggest asset.”
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The potential benefits to having ADHD
Though there’s a clear dark side to having ADHD, Dr. Hallowell points out that the benefits of having ADHD, when harnessed, can outweigh the negatives. “With ADHD, you get this curiosity, creativity, and entrepreneurism,” he explains. “There’s a hyperfocus that allows you to create and focus on something with extremely focused energy. You don’t want to stunt that with medication or get rid of that. On the flip side of distractibility is curiosity. On the other side of hyperactivity is energy. These are wonderful gifts of ADHD that you don’t want to lose.”
For those with ADHD, once the excess energy has a productive place to go, such as into writing a novel or creating a new dance routine, a level of focus that once seemed elusive takes over. It is during this “deep work,” as Shankman calls it, that someone with ADHD can immerse themselves completely into the task at hand and ignore outside distraction. The key is to be aware of what you need in order to make this happen. Shankman, for example, once boarded a round-trip flight to Tokyo in order to write an entire book—and only got off the plane for coffee and a quick shower. He booked the flight simply to cut out distractions he knew he’d face otherwise.
Having excess energy can also prove to be your greatest asset if you can use it to improve your own health through exercise and use the remaining energy for creative projects. “It’s vital that someone with ADHD have a creative outlet,” Dr. Hallowell says. Those affected often have several ideas they want to pursue, but may avoid them simply because of the negative thoughts within. Dr. Hallowell recommends always having a new project in the works to combat the negative thoughts and boredom that comes with lack of activity. “There are these swings of motivation, and you have to capitalize on those,” he explains.
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Shankman’s four rules to live by
So, if you have ADHD, what practical steps can you take to get a handle on things and improve your life? Shankman has a few ideas, and in fact, came up with four rules to live by. “They make me a better dad and person,” he says, “and they allow me to have the same brain chemistry as someone with adequate dopamine most days.” While Shankman does have a prescription for a stimulant medication (a common treatment for ADHD), he only uses it when he has a tight deadline and needs to sit for long periods of time. Dr. Hallowell, who also has ADHD, says that coffee is his stimulant of choice when focusing for long periods of time.
Rule #1: Daily exercise is mandatory
Shankman gets on his exercise bike every morning at 4:30, and he stays there for two hours. He’s also done two Ironman triathlons. “If I get up and exercise every day, it gives me a lasting boost of dopamine that I need to focus and be present for people,” he explains. “I sleep in my bike shorts and socks, and my bike is a few inches from my bed. I take away all the excuses that I might have not to exercise. It’s why I don’t exercise at night—I would come up with a reason not to.”
Dr. Hallowell says exercise is key for the management of ADHD. “You need to do something, whether that’s walking, cycling, swimming, or meditation. Get out of bed and go for a walk, and never worry alone,” he suggests. “When your thinking goes dark, remember that it’s your imagination and not reality. The pull to the negative can be very strong.”
Rule #2: Eliminate choice
For someone with ADHD, there is no such thing as a simple decision. Given too many options, it can take hours to make a decision that would have taken mere moments for someone without ADHD. The mind of someone with an attention deficit naturally wants to travel each possible path of a choice and may wander even farther from there. That’s why Shankman has limited his daily choices as much as possible. “I’ve set up systems in life that eliminate the possibility of screwing up,” he says. “I gave up drinking, because when I would go out I wouldn’t have one drink—I’d have six. I have two modes: neutral and 100 miles an hour. I don’t have the ability to moderate.”
Another trick that works for him? He’s organized his closet by labelling specific clothing for various activities. “I have my clothes labelled for daily work, speaking events, and clothing I wear around the house. If I didn’t do this and had all of my clothes in one place, I’d spend three hours standing in front of my sweaters, thinking about who gave me each one and wondering how that person is doing. That’s just how the mind of someone with ADHD works.” Even if you don’t have ADHD, distractions can be a problem.
Rule #3: Healthy eating and sleeping habits are essential
Since ADHD has been linked to lower than normal levels of dopamine in the brain, Dr. Hallowell says that patients will often work to rebuild the dopamine through various means without even realizing it. Sugar and carbohydrates are one way the brain will receive a boost in dopamine, though the effect is short-lived. Shankman has found that exercise is his preferred method to naturally boost dopamine levels instead of diet. He turns in early each night to ensure he has the time to work out each morning to get his daily dopamine. “I make sure I get my full night of rest,” he says. “I’m in bed by 8:30, but I’m up at 3:45 to take my time exercising and having coffee. I’m at peace when I do this.”
The carbohydrate crash isn’t worth it for him; sticking with a healthy, low-carb diet works best. “Carbohydrates are dopamine triggers and they up my dopamine, but about an hour later, I’m angry and I hate everyone,” Shankman laughs. “You really have to be on top of it. If I order a pizza, I’ll eat the entire pizza. I’ve never had leftovers. Now, if my daughter wants pizza, I take her out and she gets two slices, so I don’t end up eating the other six. I eat a tossed salad with chicken and veggies every day for lunch and love it.”
Rule #4: Automate life as much as possible
Shankman says that the less you have to think and make choices, the better off you are. For him, this has meant using technology to make the little things easier. “I use smart lighting in my home. So at 3:45 a.m., the lights begin to come on, and at 3:55, my bedroom curtains open,” he says.
Technology can also help to eliminate distraction and allow people to reap the benefits of having ADHD. “If I’m doing what I call ‘deep work’ and don’t want to lose focus, I’ll ask Alexa the question I have instead of Googling it,” he explains. “[And] they say every time you get a text during work, it takes 24 minutes to get back into it, so I turn my phone off.” That’s how the infamous Tokyo trip came about—so that he could write the book he wanted, free of distractions. He wrote the first five chapters of the book on the way there and the last five on the way home.
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What to do if you or someone you know has ADHD
Shankman says his goal is to prevent others from experiencing what he did as a child. “I don’t want other kids to go through what I did,” he explains. “Parents and teachers need to know these children aren’t broken—they’re gifted.” They just need to figure out how to navigate the world a little differently, and in fact, play is one of the things that can benefit children with ADHD. Dr. Hallowell also wants those with ADHD to know that treatment is available and effective. “Stimulants and talk therapy allow people with ADHD to view life through new lenses. My oldest patient was 86, and with treatment, he was finally able to write the book he had always wanted to.”
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