Bold Adventurers, Class Clowns and William Shakespeare
The biggest secret being kept about ADHD folks is that a good many of us are just plain fun. We make life exciting through our natural inclinations to interrupt routines and ignore expectations. We provide the world with a natural antidote to boredom since we constantly scan the horizon for novelty and excitement and are typically more than eager to share our findings with those around us. This rare skill set comprises an oft intrinsic and unalterable part of our nature and is one of the great gifts that we have offered humanity over the millennia. Many who come into regular contact with us do complain, however, that we are just too intense, too prone to pushing the limits and crossing the boundaries. Society hasn’t yet figured out a way to reliably harness our energy, so efforts center on managing and controlling us. Although medication and behavioral modification strategies can make life easier for us, the genius and giftedness of being ADHD receive incredibly short shrift. We dare, for example, to try new things, possess irrepressible courage to explore even to the point of exposing ourselves to danger, and comedic interpretation of life runs indomitably through our veins. ADHD does tend to make certain aspects of life challenging, but it also allows us to make extraordinary contributions to the world.
Fun and exciting or unruly and defiant?
We can make life difficult for teachers and coworkers because we’re just not all that interested in sitting in one place for a long time and doing monotonous tasks. The mundane and the routine engage the ADHD population to a significantly lesser extent than the general public. We naturally gravitate, therefore, toward the novel and the unusual and some of us even have something called the “novelty seeking gene.” That gene is known as DRD4 by biologists. I just call it the fun gene. It does have its drawbacks, but this genetic marker explains why ADHD-ers are found in such high numbers in the skateboard, daredevil and bungee-jumping populations, which is why we provide a pillar of stability for the nation’s emergency rooms. We almost single-handedly keep them humming along with new patients. All of us who possess this predisposition are not physical risk takers though. Many of us seek novelty and excitement in academic pursuits, entrepreneurship and even stand-up comedy.
Who, but an ADHD-er, would have thought it a good idea to cross an ocean that terrified most everyone on the European continent? Christopher Columbus proved to be a dogged and tireless explorer but once his job turned from perilous adventurer to sedentary governor, he was forced to stay in the same place all the time and perform perfunctory and repetitious duties. In exploration/discovery mode, all of Columbus’ internal resources were singularly trained on a goal, a state of being that allowed him to overcome many grave obstacles. His performance in the tasks of building a colony, however, so displeased King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he was eventually taken back to Spain in chains and stripped of his noble titles. Columbus naturally possessed the energy of the proverbial hunter and he excelled under the pressure and intensity of the chase. Columbus, like many a hunter, felt quite at home amidst crises, like mutiny and the consistently looming possibility of death. Columbus’ tragic demise when faced with a situation to which his crisis-oriented skills were not adequate parallels what happens to a good many ADHD-ers: We exhibit phenomenal performance when we find an assignment engaging and interesting, but mundane learning exercises, seemingly disconnected from any practical purpose, frequently leave us in the dust. Our natural talents often go wasted and our enormous reservoirs of energy frequently have no outlet, which is why we can be a source of disruption and disharmony in situations and environments to which we are not well-suited: classroom lectures, deskbound office environments, and long meetings that seem to repeat the same points ad infinitum. ADHD-ers embody brilliance when it comes to breaking up monotony, but conversely we suffer greatly when shackled to tedium and repetition. Most ADHD-ers experience the world as a place that does not honor our natural gifts and that labels us as defective. We often internalize a great deal of the scorn that is heaped upon us by parents, friends, work and school. Society often relegates ADHD-ers to the sidelines.
Shakespeare, by contrast, did our kind great service in his multiple portrayals of the archetypal fool, the court jester, a role toward which many an ADHD youth naturally gravitate in school. Shakespeare himself said that “a fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” In Shakespeare, to have a fool attending you is generally a mark of distinction. It suggests the possibility of redemption, of possessing enough flexibility and openness to change one’s path. To be assigned a fool in Shakespeare is often an indication that one is, potentially at least, wise. The term fool misleads because of its suggestion of stupidity, or of a lack of common sense (many ADHD-ers find themselves weighed down with such labels early in their school careers). Quite to the contrary, the court jester, or fool, played a very important role in court life. Rulers in many European courts permitted the fool to blurt out whatever came to his mind, to question commonly-held assumptions and to even ridicule excesses and inconsistencies (If only classroom teachers valued those behaviors!). The jester shadowed the king, constantly scanning the verbal exchanges of court life and, by engaging a supremely divergent mind, arrived at fresh interpretations. Whereas monarchs and their panoply of chamberlains, courtiers and advisors attempted to “stay on task” to resolve problems and forge decisions, the jester’s role was to offer balance through his unorthodox perspectives. Both King Lear’s fool and Feste in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night expose human folly; the great bard uses these two fools to show monarchs and nobility their true colors as well as unpleasant realities. In As You Like It, the fool Touchstone creates an impression simply by his name. Geologists and prospectors employ touchstones to test precious metals. Court Jesters provided rulers with a different type of touchstone, a reliable sounding board to help them discover their own internal gold and root it out from the slag. Like the German folk hero Till Eulenspiegel (Spiegel means mirror in German), jesters hold up a mirror and let us see our own ugliness and shortcomings. Jesters and fools have stood as a check to the tendency of human societies throughout history to enforce conformity. For much of recorded history, the voice of the jester has offered alternatives by questioning commonly accepted assumptions. I believe that many of us ADHD-ers are the descendants of these noble individuals. We likewise exhibit a remarkable penchant for one of the jester’s primary tools: humor!
A proficient jester possesses the ability to convey hard-to-admit truths by inciting laughter. Recent psychological research suggests that people exhibit greater openness to new data when humor accompanies the information. Court jesters have had instinctive awareness of this wisdom for millennia. It should of course come as no shock that ADHD-ers, like jesters, exhibit uncommon giftedness in the comedic arts. I believe this unequivocal reality owes itself to the divergent thinking style of ADHD-ers. Improvisational performance, for example, is essentially the skill of being able to quickly scan diverse associations and then pick one that will defeat the expectations of the audience. Incongruity, when an idea or object is out of place, is the most basic essence of humor. Well, we love to quickly scan, and seem to derive enormous satisfaction at pointing out incongruity (teachers and other sundry professionals call this distractibility). That’s why we don’t pay attention to teachers when they talk at us. That’s why we’re often the first ones to notice a bird in a tree, or a deer off in the distance when we’re walking through the woods. We don’t try, but rather this trait seems to be wired into us. Such rapid mental scanning is only one of the aptitudes needed for a comedic performer. A mind finely tuned to subtle associations is another. The ADHD mind is like being in a canoe and achieving great pleasure from paddling down all the streams that connect to the river, and taking other tributaries off those streams and delighting in the possibility of finding something new. Convergent thinking, the opposite of the above approach, would be akin to mapping out the route in advance and sticking rigidly to the plan. This style lends itself to efficiency, but not to exploration and discovery, and does not provide nearly as much fun and excitement.
As many comedic writers have pointed out, one of the essential elements of comedy is openness to new possibilities, so that an association can be found that is contrary to what might be expected. “The setup of a joke creates a 1st story…that leads us to expect something, then the punch surprises us with a 2nd story that is different from what we’re expecting.” Comedian Tom Naughton has done excellent work researching the core of humor, and the joke structures that reliably make people laugh. During my study of Naughton’s work, I had a Eureka! moment. It dawned on me why the ADHD mind was so often adept at joke creation. One of Naughton’s categories, Mix and Match will illustrate the point. Comedians employ Mix and Match by pairing together two disparate pieces of information (A skill at which ADHD-ers excel magnificently). The first bit of information, the set up, creates an expectation that the second piece of information subsequently shatters. A classic Rodney Dangerfield joke exemplifies this technique: “I get no respect. I was crossing the street…. I got hit by the Bookmobile. I’m lying there screaming; the guy looks at me and says, “Shh!” The listener’s mind immediately becomes captivated by the seriousness of getting hit by a large vehicle. Dangerfield shatters reality by having the book mobile guy more concerned about maintaining quiet than with Dangerfield’s injuries. The humor finds itself in the disparity between the expectation of how a person would generally react when hitting a pedestrian and how our book mobile guy becomes yet another individual to disrespect Rodney Dangerfield. An ADHD-er in the classroom, or even in a meeting at work, often takes more delight from shattering people’s realities than in participating in them. Most people take this sort of behavior as an insult. It is merely a function, however, of how our minds work. When an ADHD-er receives new information or finds him/herself in a new situation, the mind naturally and automatically brings a freshness that underlies the ability to glean new insights and perspectives.
Another joke will illustrate a feature of our humorous abilities that we take particular delight in: defeating expectations (By contrast, we often feel defeated by our frequent inability to live up to the expectations that others thrust upon us!). For example, if I say, “I took my father out for Thanksgiving,” you, as the reader/listener, develop an automatic, perhaps completely unconscious expectation of what that means. You probably think that I took my father out for dinner. The way the line is structured actually leads you to that conclusion, because Thanksgiving is associated with eating. Playing on that reality, an adept comedian will deliver a punch line that destroys the picture that you have created for yourself. Your own biases and beliefs determine the way that you perceive the information. One of the great jobs of the comedian is to flip that. To shatter the picture of taking my father out for dinner, for example, I could follow that line up by saying, “That old geezer deserved it.” I could also deliver the message with, “That was the best ten thousand bucks I ever spent.” Your old picture is gone now, and in its place is a new reality that sheds light on the meaning of the original statement. You now know that I had my father killed. I’ve always wanted to be on America’s Most Wanted, so here’s my chance. The bottom line here is that we are good at making people laugh because our natural style of thinking lends itself to making unexpected associations between seemingly unrelated pieces of data. This simple, yet hard to master method, contains the fundamental structure of comedy.
For a teacher in the classroom, this tendency can be difficult to bear. The night before a lecture, good teachers figure out what it is they want to communicate to students the next day, and great teachers develop methods to allow the students to fully participate in their learning. Most teachers pride themselves on being able to keep the class “on task,” which can be a challenge when one of us is around. Picture this scenario: The bell rings and the history teacher quiets down the class. He plods right into his lesson with a serious and staccato tone designed to transmit to the students the gravity of General Washington’s predicament: “It was bitterly cold that December morning in 1776, when George Washington took his troops in boats across the frozen Delaware River and….What Kevin?”
“Mr. DeLuca?” I earnestly and urgently uttered, “Why did they cross the river in boats if it was frozen? Couldn’t they just walk across, or were they worried about the ice breaking?”
“Well, I’m not sure that the river itself was frozen, Kevin, but at least it was very cold out,” Mr. DeLuca dutifully informed the curious youth.
“Were there like pieces of ice floating around?” I inquisitively followed up, “or were there like little ice bergs that they had to watch out for?”
“Uh, I’m not totally sure,” Mr. DeLuca responded, starting to get annoyed, “but maybe there were pieces of ice. Anyway…,” Mr. DeLuca said with varied intonation to signal the end of his discussion with me.
“When Washington and his ragged troops arrived on the other side….Do you have another question Kevin?” the teacher inquired with impatience discernible in his voice.
“Yeah, but since they had small boats, those pieces of ice could have smashed into them and sank them, just like what happened to the Titanic,” I plaintively insisted, undeterred by the teacher’s attempt to stay on task. “Since they didn’t have polident back then,” I asked, “were Washington’s false teeth chattering?”
“O.K. Kevin, out!” Mr. DeLuca demanded.
“What did I do?” I innocently asked.
It may seem that I was deliberately trying to derail the lecture. My mind, however, was simply doing what it does best: making associations, following areas of interest and taking a divergent path of learning. The other students were laughing at this point, but I had not asked my questions to achieve that result. I simply followed my inquisitive mind down several seemingly divergent paths; I have found that when I do that others often erupt in laughter. The incongruity of mixing American History with clattering dentures induced my fellow students to laugh. I had no clue that I was barraging Mr. DeLuca with incongruity, nor was I fully aware that what I was doing would invariably lead to disruption. I was just being me, and I had not yet learned the lesson that speaking my mind created problems I did not anticipate.
What I needed was a manual on how my brain worked and what the consequences of certain facets of my hard-wiring were likely to be. I desperately needed someone to teach me that I had certain gifts that could be honed and used in a powerful way. Instead, I found myself from an early age bombarded with criticism and what seemed to me to be frequent assaults on my character. My early adult life was consequently spent dealing with deep issues of shame and inadequacy, and trying to ascertain where those feelings came from. Whether you are an ADHD-er, a parent, a professional or just a curious soul, I want you to take away from this article that the differences that characterize the ADHD mind also hold the potential for remarkable aptitudes and achievement. If you look carefully, underneath every ADHD “symptom” you will uncover a gift. The gift of laughter stands among the most precious.