Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: a long and winding book review that ends up being mostly about me.

Also see my interview with Kevin and enter a drawing for a free copy.

Short Version:

I like it.  Book is fun.

Long Version:

I was contacted by a promoter about doing a review of this book and I agreed.  I like reading and writing, so why not?  When I got the book, though, I remembered that book recommendations from other people are a complicated business.  You see, being a writer and writing teacher, having degrees in creative writing, I’ve developed a sensitive aesthetic when it comes to books.  Sort of the way my wife, a musician with a highly trained hear cannot stand the blues because of all the note bending, so do I have a sensitive ear for language—the other night at the poetry workshop I go to, for instance, I had to explain at length why I loved a poem except for the word “imaginary” that stuck out like a wrong note and ruined the whole effect for me. Yep.  I’m that guy.

So this business of “oh, here’s a book you might like” is a precarious situation.  I read many many books, but I cannot read every book I start.  If something in the writing puts me off, then I’m done.  It’s like being set up on a date by your parents.  Or when my wife’s uncle and I first met; we’re both English professors, so people assumed we would hit it off (we did, eventually; I can almost get past his specialty in 18th century British literature, when everyone knows the 19th century is where it’s at).

So I received Kevin Roberts’ book Movers, Dreamers, and Risk-Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD with this trepidation.  Roberts is a writer and stand-up comedian and ADHD coach, and I automatically think hmm, too many job titles, a jack of all trades and master of none.  Even though I fancy myself an English professor, blues guitarist, poet, blogger, publisher, woodworker, yoga-meditation-contemplative educator, and, well, okay, maybe three isn’t so many.

I was also wary of the cover.  It seems like the other 1,001 self-help books out there, promising hope that only if you read this book, you will fix everything in our lives.  My Buddha self bristles at that; the only real problem (that voice says) is our own desires, created by the same media-advertising complex that created the self-help industry in the first place, and that little (or great) feeling of unease that we all have is called suffering and the Buddha says through meditation and mindfulness we take on the desire directly, rather than the impediments to fulfilment. Were he alive today, his book would be The Buddha:  How to Eliminate the Self and Achieve Nirvana in Eight Easy Steps.

Anyway, I start reading, and my English professor/literary self starts to get a bit critical.  Too many linking verbs; cut the word count by 5%.   I read a lot of memoir as well and am a humor addict, so I have a high standard there (like, David Sedaris).  So some of the humor’s not working for me at first.

But then I read the most apt description of my own experience with ADHD I’ve ever read:

Procrastination, although an often annoying and self-sabotaging behavior, can serve to increase cerebral arousal. ADHDers often talk about needing intensity in order to get motivated to work.  While it may always seem like an unproductive behavior, leaving things until the last minute creates a crisis, which then creates the level of neurotransmitters and cerebral arousal needed to stimulate the brain enough to focus on the task.  This is why many ADHDers function well in jobs that require crisis and intensity.

This quote puts together what I’ve read about ADHD neurospychlogy with my experience.  If I had this explanation ten years ago then maybe . . . . It also explains that although I started this review a month ago, I only really got going last night.  Okay, early this morning.  Okay, like 10:00 this morning.

This book is, like most ADHDers, a combination of many things: memoir, humor, psychology, and self help.  There are bits of science intertwined with stories of therapies gone well (and wrong) as well as the adventures of growing up with undiagnosed ADHD in a house full of similar minds: “my family made me seem normal, despite a stream of negative messages from the outside world.”

For instance, here’s my favorite joke from the book:

If, when you ask your kid, “How many times do I have to tell you,” she answers, “Forty-five,” she might be ADHD . . . and a smart aleck.  And, by the way, she is actually correct.

I am reminded of the number of times my wife has told me not to leave the freezer lid open downstairs . . . I better go check it now.

I am also frequtenlty reminded of myself reading this book.  For instance, he writes that ADHDers are attracted by get-rich-quick schemes “because we value our independence and bristle at authority . . . . We prefer to be on our own, but often lack the skills that we need to be independently successful.”   This week I am on my own with the kids because my wife is visiting her mom on the East Coast, and I encouraged her to go and looked forward to the opportunity to get some solitude (after the kids go to bed).  I imagined all the things I would get done!

Instead I am reminded how difficult it is to stay on schedule without another grownup around (I just get done with the dishes with the last meal—after stretching out the task taking too many Law and Order breaks—and these kids want to eat again!) and I have wasted my “alone” time playing Bioshock.  Another quote: “I, like many ADHD adults, used to hide in front of my computer screen, playing games, not answering my phone for hours on end, and disengaging from the world.”  HAVE YOU BEEN SECRETLY FOLLOWING ME AROUND, KEVIN ROBERTS???  No, that’s first-person-shooter paranoia.  (Have you seen Bioshock, though?  It’s Art-Deco meets The Fountainhead meets Night of the Living Dead.  Three of my favorite things: aesthetics, overconfident philosophers getting their comeuppance, and zombies.)

So I realize that my initial reaction of, eh, too many things going on in this book was actually rooted in jealousy, in that I wanted more of it to be about me.  He offers advice to parents, spouses, and teachers of children and adults with ADHD.   Some of it seems radically simple, but good.  For instance, he has a chapter titled “Do The Opposite” which begins thusly:

Trying to help an ADHDer create lasting change can be a thankless task, if not an exercise in futility. . . . The first mistake most people make is thinking ADHD folks are just like them.  If ADHDers could conform to accepted behavioral standards, armchair wisdom holds, their troubles would be over.  Many of the choices we ADHDers make seem counter to logic and reason . . . . Often, the more [people] try to help the ADHDer, the more they succeed in pushing that person away.

The result of a long conversation I had last week with my wife—rather, a long argument—was a brilliant solution she came up with.  When she wants me to get something done, rather than ask me to do it, and then reminding me later that I agreed to do it, and then getting fed up with my excuses and further promises, she decided instead that she will “hire” me for jobs, just say “can you work for me from one to three on Saturday,” and she will tell me what to do then.  I actually get a lot done when I can focus on something, such as pulling weeds from the side bed.  I need to get started.  When I go outside I see the weeds, and the brush pile that needs to go to recycling, and the old television antenna that needs to come down, and paint that needs to be repaired, and the driveway that needs to be replaced, and the stump that needs to be pulled, and the garage that needs to be cleaned out, and, and, and.  So although I seem to resist being told what to do, I instead resist piling a job on the could-you-get-this-done-soon stack.  Just having time set aside to focus on a task (with another grownup around) is relief.

I’ve also tried the “do the opposite” strategy with my kindergarten son who shows signs of ADHD.   I realized, after reading this chapter, that no matter how hard I try, I cannot make him hurry, unless I physically move him or get him dressed or whatever.  And, he resists changing activities most of the time; every night, he resists going to bath time, even though he loves to have a bath.  So, this opposite strategy means that in order to make him move, I have to make things a game, a joke, silly fun time.  For the attention-typical world, that would be a delaying strategy, but it makes things go faster and smoother with him.

Furthermore, one of his pieces of advice is to create the sort of intensity ADHDers need to get going.  There are many strategies for this, but they are less crazymaking than the usual procrastination/crisis strategies ADHDers seek.  In order to finish this review, for example, I created all sorts of bad mojo in my life, but here I am cranking it out, getting juiced by the creative energy, the sparking assoications (I have a friend named Mojo and he’s a nice guy), feeling energized and a sort of calm even though I felt raving and stuck last night.  He has strategies for creating that creative intensity without all the self-flagellation and constant disappointment.

So, in order not to risk giving away the whole movie in the preview, I’ll stop there. And I’ll go re-read this book.  In fact, even though I got the free copy, I’m buying it for my Kindle, so I can re-read and re-highlight it.  And stop spying on me, Kevin Roberts!

Come now, Mr. Bubbles. Time to go answer your e-mail.

The Power of One: Coming to terms with my inner T-Paw

Here I am on semester break, the week between the regular school year and my summer teaching.  (Due to my ineptitude at managing money, I always have to reach summers to get by).

It’s, of course, a time of reflection, having decompressed from a semester put to rest and gearing up for a new one starting next week. It’s my first full semester on the ADHD medication, so that’s a further reason to reflect.

One thing that stands out for me is a particularly difficult student I had that thwarted my confidence in my recent teaching innovations. (Some of which, I discovered recently, were not so new after all.)  My biggest breakthrough was the grading conference, where I grade student papers together with the student.  With online students, I do this via web conferencing software.

Using this method, I’ve been able to reach more students than I have otherwise and teaching had become far less of an adversarial endeavor.  But there’s always one.

I had a student I couldn’t reach.  He actually was an exceptional writer.  The difficult students in the online class conference are the ones who don’t give me much effort toward interaction when we talk.  We start the conference, and I say “How are you doing today?”  and the answer is fine.  I ask them how the paper or the class is going, and they say good.  I ask them if there are any questions, and the answer is no.

Usually, I can attribute this to nervousness or personality, but I can usually draw them out.

This student was a hard nut to crack.  His work was very good, but he never wanted to take any of my advice to make them better.  I did not think this was arrogance, but I could never get through to him.

Half way through the semester, he informed me that he no longer was going to do any rough drafts because he could do well without them, and by my syllabus, they weren’t technically mandatory.  He would just take the point reduction.  I tried different strategies to figure out what was going on, first being curious, and then trying to provoke him a bit by saying that it seemed arrogant and unprofessional.  He didn’t return calls and only replied with polite, cursory emails, but never changed his mind.

Of course this made me angry.  I take the approach of giving students a lot of flexibility, and nearly all of them are appreciative and professional.  Some of them are not able to finish the course, but probably would not otherwise.

On rare occasion, a student tries to “game” the syllabus by trying to get maximum points with minimal effort.  I don’t think this student was trying to do that, but it seemed he was deliberately self destructing.  Most students understand that grading writing is subjective and try to remain on good terms with me.  Not only did this student try not to do that, he didn’t see the point of working the whole process to earn the A he could easily obtain.  The assignments for which he did all the steps earned her A’s, and the ones that he did without the steps earned her B’s, and with the penalties for not doing the steps, the overall average slipped into B- or C+ territory.

I looked at her transcript, and saw that despite being the most talented writer I had that semester, he earned a C in her previous writing classes, despite being otherwise an A student.  The most frustrating thing was that I didn’t know what was going on and this student would never tell me.

Some of my colleagues attributed this to that off-campus site, saying, all those students in ——– are jerks. I had other students from there who were fine.  But I never knew what was the case with this student. He was actually not a jerk, which was confusing and enraging by turns.

Now, through the years, teaching thousands of students, I’ve had a hundred kinds of crazy. Usually crazy student behavior is perfectly understandable once I find out what’s going on. For instance, I overheard a colleague talking to a student who was going to file a formal complaint for being marked off three points for printing her final paper on used paper that had other thing printed on the back. Her defense was that it wasn’t in the syllabus and she was a poor student who couldn’t afford six sheets of paper. My colleague told me that she had all sorts of problems in the class and had just fixated on that.

The point of all this is not to bash students.  Usually, as I said, there’s something else going on.  The point is that in past years I would really let one or two badly behaving students get me down.  It would make me want to give up teaching, or redesign my whole course, or something, despite ten times the number of students telling me they like the course and are grateful for my help.

Furthermore, with distance, I can remember that I have subjected my students to my own ten kinds of crazy through the years: my inconsistency, my excuses, my under-performance, my withdrawing. These two things would often feed on one another.  When I would think of difficult students, I would get a sinking/anxious feeling, hot around the ears and neck, but weary at the same time.

This student was one out of eighty that I had.  Letting him get to me is emblematic of my larger problem with perfectionism and taking criticism. I am the polar opposite from someone like Scott Walker or Rod Blagojevich, who, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, believe they are both right and popular.  I’m more of the Tim Pawlenty presidential primary candidate: oh, one state doesn’t like me?  I’ll just quit, then.

However, I am not ready to quit, now armed with pharmaceuticals and strategies.  I dare say I have elevated my attitude to mildly confident.  This whole past six months has been about learning and finally accepting what I am good at and what I am not.  I am slowly remaking my life to play to my strengths.

On the positive side, I had three students this semester self-identify as ADHD, and all three successfully completed the course, in one manner or another.  Interestingly, all of them sought out extra help, and none of them asked for special consideration or accommodation.  Each required patience, though.  Two students had trouble remembering appointments.  One student’s strategy was to take the first available appointment and often show up on the wrong day—a day or two early.   In fact, he knew he had trouble remembering to turn in assignments and so he would turn them in early and often.  I would often get three copies of each assignment: one on the course web page, and one to each of my two email addresses!  All three of them finished the course through extraordinary effort, just not always at the right time.

Official photo of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN).

Official photo of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)