Review of _Square Peg_ by L. Todd Rose

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

L. Todd Rose

with Katherine Ellison

Hyperion

http://www.amazon.com/Square-Peg-Visionaries-Out-Box/dp/1401324274/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

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: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/directory/faculty/faculty-detail/?fc=81464&flt=r&sub=all.  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.

hunter

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

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Review of “Pills Are Not for Preschoolers” by Marilyn Wedge

My point of view on disorder is eclectic.  I am not a professional, but I am an academic (I teach writing), trained in evaluation of claims and evidence.  After more than a decade of reading about my different diagnoses and trying different strategies, I think that a person’s state of mind results from biology (genetics/physiology/“wiring”), conditioning (past experiences, relationships, internalized ideas), and context (current relationships, environment, and habits of thought).

For me, this all implies that when there is a disorder, there are a lot of levers to pull in many different possible combinations to make things better.  In my own case (ADHD/depression/anxiety) the successful mix seems to be drugs, supplements, exercise, meditation, diet, creative output, more face time, visual organizing, working memory aids, and undoing rigid thinking. (Phew!)

So when it comes to the question of drugs, I’ve had some success. I took Wellbutrin for many years which kept me out of the deeper pits of depression and I currently take Concerta, which helps manage my symptoms.  But I took them cautiously with close supervision and consultation with doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists.  My view is that they are one tool in a comprehensive strategy to deal with my overall funk. I’ve found no magic bullet, and every day is a step in the process, and medication is one part of that.  And I am wary of putting my own children on these same kind of drugs.

The category of “drugs” is not a neat division either. I get therapeutic benefits from supplements, but for various reasons, they are not given much credence in the medial community.  The result is a lot of wild claims from vitamin hucksters, and stigma in the medical community. In fact, when it comes to my own doctor, he is not very knowledgable about ADHD drugs and took the “let’s see if this works” approach.  Although I had the same experience with my psychiatrist when I took anti depressants.  He took my tendency toward hyperfocus as a possible indicator of bipolar disorder.  His approach: “we’ll try Wellbutrin and if you turn manic and go running through the streets saying that you’re Jesus, we’ll know you’re bipolar.”  I put caffeine in the same category as my Concerta: a stimulant that helps me focus. Here’s an article on caffeine from PubMed, for example: “The most widely used psychoactive substance in the world affects same parts of the brain as cocaine” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9889511.  There’s not an entirely clear answer why methylphenidate, the drug in Ritalin and Concerta, is a controlled substance and why caffeine is not, other than force of history.

Furthermore, when it comes the question of kids and drugs, the situation grows even more complex.  My background in critical pedagogy tells me that sometimes schools are more interested in maintaing control, order, and standards, and less in the individual experiences of children. Government bureaucracy also comes into play.

My overall experience with my own children (my 11-year old is clearly autistic, my 6 year old has some mix of autism and ADHD symptoms) in the schools has been very positive.  We’ve worked closely with a team of educators and professionals, we’ve had long-term relationships with capable educators and professionals, but we’ve also had bumps in the road; a highly incompetent special ed teacher, who happened to be the wife of the superintendent, created a preschool classroom with such rigid structure that I suspect most preschoolers—not just the special ed students she had—would have foundered.  Imagine art time being that all kids had to draw the same picture at the same time in the same order; that’s what we observed first hand.  We’ve experienced the pressure to establish a diagnosis in order to meet government guidelines for eligibility of accommodations.  We’ve experienced pressure to medicate.

As I’ve said, we’ve been fortunate with competent, caring professionals across the board. The “pressure” was light, and we’ve been able to cooperatively address our kids’ challenges. But it is not difficult to imagine things going much, much worse. In a large school system, or a system experiencing drastic budget changes, I can imagine a revolving door of professionals.  I can imagine what damage even a few incompetent people can do.

Marilyn Wedge’s book, Pills are not for Preschoolers addresses this milieu.

 

[Enter a drawing for a free copy here.]

The problem with much “anti-” literature is that the topic argued against becomes what rhetorician Kenneth Burke described as an “ultimate” term. Borrowing from Christianity, Burke described the use of “god” and “devil” terms.  A “god” term becomes a stand-in for all that is good, and a “devil” term, all that is evil.  This is an oft-used method for books written by politicians and pundits; think of how often “socialism” is used in the public discourse as a devil term, and how often it is used in a historically wrong way. Regardless of one’s point of view on capitalism for example, increasing taxes rich people is not “socialism”; nationalizing their businesses would be.  The problem is that these ultimate terms become unhooked from concrete definition and rationality.  Ultimate terms are heavy on connotation, but light on denotation. The god terms in much of the anti- genre usually turn out to be something that benefits the writer directly, even if it is just book sales.

Fortunately, that is not the case here.  Wedge is careful to state that family therapy is “no magic bullet,” and in fact one of her first anecdotes was how she was duped by a school diagnosis of ADHD when it turned out the boy just needed glasses.  (Her borderline devil term, however, is Big Pharma.)

What she’s arguing against is the disturbing trend of teachers making diagnoses resulting in children taking psychiatric drugs. The difficulty with ADHD is that there is no simple diagnostic test to definitively make the diagnosis.  The symptoms of childhood ADHD are also the symptoms of being a child, and disorder is a matter of degree. That is not to say that ADHD does not exist; there is brain research to show that ADHD brains function differently.  Instead, the point is that the symptoms are so broad that it is easy to diagnose any resistant kid with it. If a school is particularly rigid and controlling, then there will be a lot of resistant kids. The same is true for Oppositional Defiant Disorder; another psychologist told me she didn’t believe ODD exists, and that it was just a matter of the right context; however, I have a friend with a child who would change her mind!

The problem is that when disorders are trendy and are over-diagnosed and are casually diagnosed without ruling out other problems, children wind up with inappropriate treatments and in the public discourse the idea that these disorders aren’t real gains traction.  It’s that age-old problem of “a little learning is a dangerous thing” or in more recent leadership research, the issue of solutions walking around looking for problems to fix. (How many times have I read “magic bullet” articles on teaching, for example?)

Wedge’s book is filled with anecdotal evidence from her own practice, which may be helpful to parents and educators, and she tends to be anti-meds and anti-diagnosis.  She writes

Narrative therapists view psychiatric diagnoses as “trends”—such as assigning psychiatric labels to children—that take on a life of their own. These trends become the prevalent ways that people in a particular society ascribe meaning to behaviors, feelings, and events.  Narrative therapists encourage therapists to keep an open mind and look beyond the dominant narratives.  They suggest that therapists try to discover alternative stories so that therapy can produce “unique outcomes”

I am sometimes put off by her putting the words autism and ADHD in quotes as if to say they doesn’t exist, but I think she intends to create distance between the conventional (over)diagnosis and the people involved in her stories.

In her work with families, she tries to see the whole picture, which is refreshing; few people directly involved in children’s health and well being do so.  The medical community (which includes psychiatry) tends toward a treat-the-symptoms approach, which bleeds over into schools in the case of children. Her approach is from the therapist/psychologist perspective, so that informs her choice of levers to pull (the relationships/context sort). Still, she is careful to maintain perspective, which is refreshing in a book whose cover and selling points lean more toward “anti-“ literature.  Her view can be summarized by the statement above on narrative therapy; be careful accepting god and devil terms about children’s lives, especially when those terms lead down the path of medication.

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

http://amzn.com/161649204X

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.