When I first announced to friends and family that I was leaving New York City and my job as a public school teacher to pursue my dream of becoming a SCUBA instructor and starting an online business abroad, the responses I received tended to fall into one of two categories. The most common response I got revealed a combination of awe and perceptible anxiety for me. “Wow!” I often heard, “that’s a big deal!” Followed by, “for how long?” or “do you think you’ll come back to teaching after a while?” While generally supportive, these people cautioned me to consider all the work I had put into my career and establishing a life in New York City, and the security that life ensured me. “Are you sure you want to throw all that away?” they asked out of kind-hearted concern.
“Desperately,” I assured them.
My closest friends and family, on the other hand, those that know me best, nearly unanimously responded along the lines of, “well, yeah…of course” or even “what took you so long?” These are the folks who have stood by me as I’ve switched careers, relationships, and cities close to a half dozen times each since graduating from college.
As one good friend put it, “you’ve been teaching in New York City for four years already…that’s at least a decade in Devon time.”
For a long time I considered my unwillingness or inability to stay put in any one career, city, or relationship as evidence of my capricious, immature nature. This tendency was a source of shame and frustration for me. “When the heck will I grow up and settle down?” I often asked myself. My mind repeated cliches about staying the course, paying dues, and hard work paying off, certain that if only I could find the discipline to commit to something and someone, I would eventually find personal and professional contentment and success.
And yet over and over again I’ve found myself debilitated by an unrelenting feeling in my gut and voice in my head that all but forces me to diverge off of those paths they deem to be misguided. While ADHD-related overwhelm originating from my struggles to meet the executive functioning demands that my different career paths required has undoubtedly contributed to my life’s unconventional trajectory, I’m beginning to realize there has been more to it than that. Stress has played a significant role, but there has also been another, coequal engine behind my journey’s many twists and turns. At the end of the day, I haven’t been satisfied with the life my past careers and relationships have afforded me. In fact, I’ve often been painfully bored.
As I’ve described in a previous post, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the psychiatric designation for brains that are hard-wired for novelty seeking. Compared to neurotypical brains, we have sluggish, underfed brain reward circuits which makes much of everyday life for us feel routine and understimulating. In order to compensate, our under-stimulated brains are drawn to new and exciting experiences. Of the same token, we are notoriously impatient and restless with routine and regimented structures, such as a typical nine to five or a long term monogamous relationship.
I recently read a study led by Dan Eisenberg of Northwestern University and published in BMC Evolutionary Biology which examined the Ariaal, a tribe in Kenya. About 35 year ago the Ariaal split into two groups, with one group settling into an agricultural community while the other group remained nomadic. The researchers tested the two groups, whom share identical DNA, for DRD4-7R, a genetic variant that is linked “to greater food and drug cravings, novelty-seeking, and ADHD symptoms,” according to Eisenberg.
Eisenberg and his team found:
DRD4-7R genotypes were associated with indices of better nutritional status among nomads, particularly higher fat free mass, but worse indices in the settled individuals. This suggests that the 7R allele confers additional adaptive benefits in the nomadic compared to sedentary context.
It turns out the DRD4-7R allele gene, which is closely correlated with ADHD symptoms, provides the nomadic group with an evolutionary advantage. Why might that be? The study speculates:
Increased impulsivity, ADHD-like traits, novelty-seeking like traits, aggression, violence and/or activity levels may help nomads obtain food resources, or exhibit a degree of behavioral unpredictability that is protective against interpersonal violence or robberies. … It might be that the attention spans conferred by the DRD4/7R+ genotype allow nomadic children to more readily learn effectively in a dynamic environment (without schools), while the same attention span interferes with classroom learning in Songa, the settled community. 7R+ boys might develop into warriors (the life-stage of an Ariaal male that lies between childhood and manhood) and men who can more effectively defend against livestock raiders, perhaps through a reputation of unpredictable behavior that inspires fear. Among 7R+ men in the settled community of Songa, such tendencies might be less well suited to practicing agriculture and selling goods at market. It might also be that higher activity levels in 7R+ nomads are translated into increased food production, while such activity levels in settled men are a less efficient use of calories in food production.
From my vantage point, these results are absolutely fascinating. This is the first I’ve ever heard of ADHD potentially being linked to genes that promote fat storage. For reasons of vanity alone, I’d be interested in reading more research on this.
More significant to me, though, is the idea that given the right environment, ADHD can be an advantage rather than a defect. The very same tribesman that is bored to tears and not very effective when it comes to harvesting crops or selling them at market may make a valuable member of his tribe as a nomadic shepherd protecting his herd. Similarly, just because I couldn’t seem to figure out how to flourish as a bored law student and school teacher living a highly regimented lifestyle, it doesn’t follow that I’m innately incompetent. It may mean, though, that what I need to succeed and contribute most effectively to my tribe is a lifestyle that more closely resembles that of the nomadic shepherd rather than that of the sedentary farmer.
ADHDers, there is nothing wrong with us. We are not defective. Rather, we are exceptional nomadic shepherds bored out of our minds in a world full of sedentary farming.
Now this is not to say that ADHD “isn’t real.” We live within a culture that dictates what is neurobiologically typical, and those of us that fall outside of those proscribed parameters experience very real pain as a result. What I am saying, though, is that a society that designates certain patterns of behaviors that deviate from the norm as pathological may actually be revealing more about it’s own biased cultural values than it is about the people it labels as diseased.
To my mind, then, we ADHDers are left with three courses of action. First, we can do what we can to change those behaviors within ourselves that cause us pain within society as it’s currently configured. We can meditate and practice mindfulness. We can medicate, if we so choose. And we can set up systems to help us keep track of our keys, our wallets, and our minds.
Second, we can strive to make changes within those cultural institutions that are most unfriendly to the ADHD brain. For instance, we can advocate for outdoor education, vocational training, and arts programs in our public school so that ADHD children and teenagers, along with other neurologically atypical students, have the opportunity to develop their passions and thrive.
Thirdly, and perhaps most powerfully for those of us who suffer from frustration and shame that so often accompanies adult ADHD, we can commit ourselves to pursuing lives that truly excite us. Instead of striving for competence in environments where we’re constantly fighting an uphill battle against our own nature, we can take up the mantle of the nomadic shepherd in this sedentary farming world and engage in projects and adventures that spark our passion and unleash our ADHD superpower: the ability to hyperfocus when we are truly inspired.
For me, this means taking the next step on my journey to become a SCUBA instructor and online entrepreneur by moving to Thailand, enrolling in a dive master internship, and continuing to invest my time and energies into this blog. It means trusting that I am in fact wired to succeed so long as I listen to my intuition, follow my passion, and dare to live an extraordinarily exciting life.
What about you? What would committing to a life that truly excites you mean in your case? In what context could ADHD be your greatest strength? I’d absolutely love to hear your answers to these questions in the comments below.