Review of _Square Peg_ by L. Todd Rose

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8-198x300Square Peg

L. Todd Rose

with Katherine Ellison


Book drawing here.


ADHDer’s have trouble fitting into an executive functioning world. L. Todd Rose makes this point throughout his book Square Peg: My Story and What it Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, & Out-of-the-Box Thinkers. Readers of this blog will know my own experience in illfittedness. But, being it’s my blog and all, I shall explicate.

How about a top ten list? Too many? Five, then.

1. I grade papers well sitting down with a student. On my own: procrastination followed by panicked overwork.

2. Bills never get paid on time if I have to write a check and mail something.  Even when there’s plenty of money.

3. I am good at developing basic competence in many new endeavors.  I am terrible at actually accomplishing anything with said competence.

4. I am extremely good at finding time to work, performing maintenance, and managing money and possessions . . . in a video game. My executive function is legion in Borderlands. (Photo below)

5. Being successful in the line of work and life I’ve chosen requires steady effort over the long term.  My work habits are cyclical, intensive, and frequently abortive.

Rose’s book is framed around his story of a rise from a near-dropout to a Harvard professor. Yep, Harvard, it’s true:  I had to check, I’ve been duped before, like that one time with that job offer from Havrad Univresity (Nigerian emails are so creative).

Like many people who work in the ADHD field, Rose has lived with it himself (even his ghostwriter/cowriter Katherine Ellison has ADHD; I can only imagine the Hyperion editors pulling their hair out [it’s really hard to write a book when you have ADHD; I’ve tried at least a dozen times]).  I used to wonder about ADHD coaches who themselves live with ADHD, but then I remembered my own writing practice;  I am good at helping students with writing processes, with talking through different strategies, with coaching them, so to speak.  My own practice? See #5 above.

Rose’s research, practice, and theory stem from the idea of “complex systems.”  When applied to behavior, the theory is that “all behavior emerges from the constant interaction between a person’s biology, past experiences, and the immediate environment, or context.”  His advice (for parents and/or adults dealing with ADHD) echoes my own concept about the disorder, which goes like this:  if a person is languishing and can’t perform, there are three things that can be altered: change the person, change the task, or change the environment.  They can be altered in combination, of course. In fact, I think that a good program of therapy addresses all of them.

My own plan of attack, for example, is

  • Medication, supplements, and nutrition
  • Yoga, meditation, and exercise
  • Picking projects that increase the chances of my success (lots of face time and accountability)
  • Creative outlet (defined broadly: can be anything from poetry to gaming)

When I can get all these things going and when the creative output happens to coincide with something that I honestly feel is productive, especially in a professional sense, I perform very well and have peace of mind and fulfillment.  When some things start to slip, then my life tends to get stuck. I completely agree with Rose’s position on medication—used carefully it can be a tool to help. Ritalin has helped me in many regards, but without the other pieces of my plan, I might as well be downing Tic Tacs.  The surest sign of a downward trend is when I get preoccupied (okay, obsessed) with my “creative outlet” of the moment (which has included guitar playing, woodworking, cartooning, blogging, writing, gaming, running, bike-building, reading, photography, job hunting) and start to neglect basic responsibilities (sleeping, eating, email, being a father in any sense beyond legal).  To use Buddhist terms, I start to “take refuge” in my hobby of the moment because all the regular stuff of life is either too boring or too stressful.

Rose heavily emphasizes context.  I’ve seen it in my own work and could never understand why I could work brilliantly and with ease one day and like a drooling inebriated cowering fool the next.  But it’s easy to understand with my own “plank” example (I really should write about the book more in a book review . . . sigh).

Take a plank of wood.  Say it is twelve feet long and a foot wide.  Put it on the ground.  Walk from one end to the other, without stepping off.  Easy, right?  Now, string that plank between two adjacent buildings, say, fifty stories up.  I’ll even give you a nice, calm day.  Okay, now walk. Go ahead, just toodle across there.  What’s wrong with you?  You did the same exact task down there on the ground!  You’re just not trying hard enough.

Back to the book, another key concept from Rose is “variability,” meaning the many variations in human brains.  A prime example: the relationship between stress and learning: “A little stress can help someone learn, while too much stress prevents it. The optimal amount of stress varies from person to person.”

It’s a simple idea, but what great insight!  In my many years as a college professor (yes, I managed to hang on to this job, despite my significant deficits) I have seen this in action.  Many students respond well to the “stress” of the traditional classroom: due dates, having to show up and explain yourself if you don’t perform, the pressure of grades and such.  But by “many” I’m not even sure I mean “most.”  I’ve often taught people on the fringes.  I started by teaching “remedial” writing at a time when our institution was flagging and we had open admissions.  Most of my students were struggling, not just as writers, but as college students.  As such, they had widely varied responses to stress: ignore it, resent it, negotiate, panic.  I had bad advice from a former colleague: you’ve got to show them who’s boss and lay down the law. After two months of trying that and meeting chaos in return, I started just to listen and talk honestly.  World of difference!  Even though they all struggled, they all struggled differently.  Understanding them as individuals helped enormously.

Likewise, today I teach a literature class for students whose primary interest is definitely not literature.  After trying many things, the simple solution was to learn about them, take their concerns and points of view seriously, and help them figure out how to meet the course goals in their own way.

Through all my trials of different ways of going about teaching (mostly because I was never satisfied with my own performance) I’ve seen students respond to varying policies.  Hard and fast due dates with severe penalties makes some students successful, some resentful, and some doomed from the start.  Extremely flexible or even self-made due dates makes, well, some students successful, some resentful, and some doomed from the start, just different students in each model.  A successful learning environment strikes a balance between what students want and what they need.  It’s different for everybody, which is why I like doing as much one-on-one teaching as possible.

In the book I especially like the epilogue, where Rose explores the changing role of technology in education and advocates for using such technology in a meaningful, individualized way, and not for more standardization and cost savings.

Overall, though, I have to admit feeling lukewarm about this book.  Usually I can plow through a book in a day or two, but this one has been sitting around for awhile.  I think it’s that much of this I’ve encountered before.  Had I read it not knowing anything about my ADHD, though, I would have probably read it in a single sitting.

It’s also part of this genre of self help/memoir mashup.  Again, probably my standards are too high on the memoir side being a teacher of writing (and having read thousands of personal essays over the years).  The help part is good, and each chapter ends with a summary both of main points and action items, which seems a plus.

I guess my personal issue is with the subtitle.  I feel like a square peg in a round hole world, but I do not want to be a visionary, out-of-the-box thinker.  I have plenty of visions.  My thinking could benefit from some containment in a box or box-like container.  I just want to settle down and get my work done.


Professor Pain: master of marksmanship and falconry.
“If I had email, I’d kick its arse.”

4 thoughts on “Review of _Square Peg_ by L. Todd Rose

  1. Pingback: Book Giveaway: L. Todd Rose’s _Square Peg_ | Attention Deficit Whatever

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and review this book for the tour. After reading your review I can understand that it may have been a challenge for you to focus on this and get it posted on schedule. 🙂

    And wow, your plank example actually gave me chills – I am so petrified of heights and the image you created for me totally freaked me out.

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather. I enjoy doing the book reviews; having a deadline actually helps the big picture (but don’t tell me that the day before the deadline . . . .)

      I too have a fear of heights, but only in certain contexts. I’m totally okay on a roller coaster, even a hundred feet up, because I’m strapped in. A ferris wheel is terrifying, though, because I could imagine falling out.

  3. Reblogged this on Overexcitable and commented:
    “Take a plank of wood. Say it is twelve feet long and a foot wide. Put it on the ground. Walk from one end to the other, without stepping off. Easy, right? Now, string that plank between two adjacent buildings, say, fifty stories up. I’ll even give you a nice, calm day. Okay, now walk. Go ahead, just toodle across there. What’s wrong with you? You did the same exact task down there on the ground! You’re just not trying hard enough.”

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