ADHD Open Space
ADHD Open Space Podcast
The Least Helpful Advice I’ve Ever Been Given About ADHD

The Least Helpful Advice I’ve Ever Been Given About ADHD

Please stop telling me my brain has a “Special Superpower."

No transcript...

“I’m a fish in a forest.” I’m pretty sure at some point I’m going to make t-shirts with this statement. It’s my reaction to the oft-repeated “superpower” trope about ADHD. Here’s a bit of a rant…but I suspect it will resonate.


There are two kinds of people when it comes to ADHD.

On the one side, there are people like Dr. Russell Barkley, whose research has led him to call ADHD “the diabetes of the psychology”:

It’s a chronic disorder that must be managed every day to prevent the secondary harms it’s going to cause… ADHD is the most treatable disorder in psychiatry…”

And on the other side, people reject the idea that it’s a disorder at all. I’m not talking about the ableist idiots* who claim ADHD doesn’t exist at all. No, I’m talking about people like Thom Hartmann, a radio host and author of “ADHD: A Hunter in a Farmer’s World.”

Their premise is that a brain that doesn’t process dopamine as efficiently gives a person very valuable skills. Can’t focus on what’s in front of you or sit still? That’s because your hunter ancestors were constantly scanning their environment, ready to leap into action when a threat or prey was spotted. And once the chase began, that hyper focus was really handy in running the potential food for ground.

It’s a bias towards action, and in a hunter-gatherer society that was really useful! Not a disorder at all.

They can both be right.

I’m not enough of an academic to dispute either claim (though I do give the latter a bit of side-eye due to the evolutionary-psych aspects). I also very much appreciate the friends and readers who, when I first went public about my own experience, were quick to reassure me that there was nothing wrong with me at all. As one Medium comment put it,

“ADHD sounds like it’s your super-power, dude…Because your brain’s wired differently you have the ability to add a different perspective to our consensusWorld as well as to Life-Its-Own-Self — one that might prove exceptionally valuable for some other person who’s also “neurodivergent” or whatever the guys in the white lab coats are now calling it…am wondering why you are not celebrating.”

I appreciate that. I do! I understand the intent, and I have done it myself.

For example, did you know that people who live with depression have a more accurate worldview than people without it? That’s a definite advantage over all those optimists — so cheer up! Depression is your super power!

And it still sucks.

More to the point, I can’t buy groceries or pay rent with my different perspective, no matter how much it has added to “Life-Its-Own-Self.” And my inability to keep track of what bills need to be paid when or remember to pick up my daughter from the mall before it closes is not “exceptionally valuable” to anyone.

Personally, I do not find that particular reframe valuable. It echoes the “so much potential” and “you could be anything you want if you only apply yourself” tropes I grew up with.

I can be anything I want, sure — except be a person without ADHD. Or, for a little over half a century, even a person who knew they had ADHD.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain why I have a problem with this particular philosophy of ADHD is through the quote that is often cited in videos, articles, and discussions.

It’s a quote which was almost certainly not from Albert Einstein:

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

There’s one big problem with that metaphor.

I’m still a fish in a forest.

I’ve been watching as my peers seem to effortlessly build treehouses, visit each others branches, amass beautiful leaf collections and talk about how they can’t wait to visit the canopy…while I’ve flopped and gasped and done the best I could with a hacked-together water tank strapped to my gills and mismatched shoes on my fins.

If I sound frustrated, it’s simply because until recently, nobody told me I was a fish. Rest assured, most of the anger and resentment is self-directed; nor do I want to take away from anyone else whatever reframe helps them come to terms with their own experience of ADHD.

For me, thought, the “ADHD is a superpower” philosophy feels like the Horatio Alger of psychology. It breaks what Jaclyn Paul (author of Order From Chaos) calls Rule #1: you must make peace with reality.

We are fish in a forest where success is measured by what tree you live in. The ability to breathe underwater doesn’t mean much. It is, at best, a curiosity, a fairy tale vignette of success “against the odds.”

What’s a guppie to do?

I don’t really have the answer to that, though I appreciate that there are many, many people here and other places on the internet that are trying to figure it out. That, perhaps, is the first step. Pool our knowledge, if you will.**

For better or worse, I live in the forest. The most useful thing right now is to find and build things that make it easier for me to do so.

I do see the rare instances of pescatory glory there in the branches, and it is inspiring.

But if this was a superpower, it would be easy.

And it ain’t that.

* an entirely unbiased and scientifically backed label
** sorry not sorry.

ADHD Open Space
ADHD Open Space Podcast
The ADHD Open Space Podcast is for adult professionals living with ADHD and those who interact with them. We’ll talk about how it affects our work and those we care about.
As the “open space’ implies, there is room to explore more, so feel free to leave suggestions and comments for each episode!
The ADHD Open Space event will be January 20th, 2024 in Madison, WI. Registration opens December 1st at!