How Far We’ve Come

If you work on a project every day for 40 years, pouring your heart and soul into it, your time and treasure, every drop of hope and optimism you can call up in the face of rank ignorance, prejudice and wrong-headedness, you sometimes lose track of how far you’ve come. Squeezing out of yourself as many bright ideas and persuasive words as you can come up with while borrowing what else you need from others, biting your tongue when people take potshots at you, misrepresenting what you said or not bothering to represent it at all, you can feel worn out and forget the good that’s come of all the work.  Calling for help—when you don’t know where else to turn—from whatever spirit presides over lost children and misunderstood adults can help. When you’ve done all this for many decades in efforts to enlighten people and provide them with the good and liberating news about how people learn, you should take a moment to stop and look around. Like climbing a mountain, you don’t often look down to see how far you’ve come.

When I chatted with Bob Broudo, retiring head of the Landmark School in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, I got a chance to do just that. Bob has spent even more years than I have plowing in the fields of learning differences, doing his best to cultivate understanding and success for the millions of us whose brains work a little differently.  

We’ve come a long way since 1971, when Bob started, and 1981, when I started. We’ve come even further if you go back to when we were kids. In those days there were basically two words to describe a child’s—or adult’s—brain: smart and stupid. For stupid, there was but one treatment, try harder. To motivate you to try harder you’d get humiliated, punished, or ultimately set aside if the trying harder didn’t produce the desired results.

How difficult it was to persuade people how much more there is to intelligence and creativity than smart and stupid. How hard it was for people to believe that some of the greatest contributors to human civilization, some of our greatest geniuses, were actually deemed stupid as children. And how many of our most productive, innovative adults never went to college or didn’t even graduate from high school because they either couldn’t do the work or got bored with what was offered, or both.

Having both ADHD and dyslexia myself, I knew firsthand that these conditions, if managed properly, could actually propel a person make unique and lasting contributions. I also knew how often the gifts these people possessed got destroyed growing up by the shame and humiliation they were subjected to.

But now, after decades of climbing, we’re nearing the top of the mountain. Now, as Bob Broudo is retiring and I’m heading into my 73rd year, we’re finally seeing the truth nip at the heels and overtake ignorance, bias, and the cruel practices they beget. 

After I interviewed Bob, I took a deep breath, and said to myself words I rarely let myself say. “Good job, Ned”. I also want to say those words to the multitude who’ve helped, from the early scientists to all of you reading this piece today. You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t also part of this great and momentous effort, part of the ongoing mission to free millions from the shackles of misunderstanding, mistreatment, and subsequent underachievement if not failure, incarceration, addiction, depression, marginalization, and early death caused by ignorance about how the brain works.

Take a moment to give three cheers and a hip-hip-hooray for all of us, today and before. Pause and pat yourselves on the back. If ever there were an invisible minority, we’re it. If ever there were a misunderstood group, we’re it. And if ever a group had more to give, more potential to tap, and more white-fire passion to deliver the goods once we’re freed up and our talent unleashed, we’re it.

Bless you, all of you different ones. Bless all of you who’ve worked and continue to work to free these people to add their special destinies to benefit our world.

Having a person through whose eyes you enjoy seeing the world, the part of the world that person chooses to show you, that’s a special person for you. And having a person who’s been able to do that reliably, consistently, with flair and spice for some 40 years, well, that’s Dan Shaughnessy for me. I’m so pleased and honored for him to appear on my podcast!

Growing up, I was an average athlete at best, but I was a whacked-out-crazy, pedal-to-the-metal, preoccupied, fervent, never-say-die, wait-til-next year fan of all the teams Boston boasted, which, in the 1950’s, the first decade of my life, included the Celtics, the Bruins, and the Red Sox. We didn’t have a football team back then, so, by default, I became a New York Football Giants fan, as that was the team that broadcast its games on TV into my little town at the elbow of Cape Cod.

I fell in love with watching, listening to, reading about, talking about, rooting for and in every other way imaginable (imagination being where sports fans live) involving myself in the lives of my teams. They were no more mine than the moon, but in my imagination they were every bit as much mine as my family, and I probably cared about them more.

I lived through their victories and defeats every week. In the case of the Bruins and Red Sox it was mostly defeats. In the case of the Celtics it was an embarrassment of riches. In the 13 seasons between 1957 and 1969, the C’s, as they were and are called, won 11 world championships, including one stretch of an unthinkable (but, yes, imaginable!) 8 in a row.

The ups and downs of these teams defined and determined my own ups and downs. School was a after-thought. My guides and teachers through all of these dramas, over which I lived and died every day, were the scribes, the writers who covered the teams. We had more newspapers back then, of course. I grabbed all 4 local papers every day, and devoured each sports section (and only the sports section) as if it were my daily bread. Back then the writing was of the “just the facts” school of journalism. Then, new writers transformed sports writing into writing period. They made their stories interesting in their own right. Increasingly, most of the readers already knew “the facts” and so needed some more compelling reason to read than to get information.

Dan Shaughnessy is of that tradition. He is a fine writer in his own right. I’d put his prose up against most of the novels I read these days. Not just for his style but for his bite. He doesn’t do boring. Shaughnessy possesses what may be a writer’s most valuable skill: he can get under a reader’s skin. He can inflame a reader, delight a reader, make a reader laugh, even educate a reader without the reader realizing he or she is learning something new. He’s the writer readers buy the paper to read. I’ve been reading him since the early 1980’s and I still look forward to his columns each time they appear.

The Magical Power of Connection

My favorite topic to give talks on is the magical power of connection—of all kinds—to bring to pass pretty much every good thing in life.
So many high school students are under enormous pressure to get into the “right” school. I experienced it myself along with classmates that were all told that getting into top schools was all that mattered. That it was a rather shallow and materialistic goal didn’t seem to bother anyone. Being #1 was all that counted. In the years since I graduated, many studies have dug into joy and fulfillment in life and uncovered the facts—the actual golden truths—as to which factors do predict a happy, long, and fulfilling life, and which factors do not. Guess what. Going to a so-called top school is not one of them. Sure, if you do go to one of those schools, that’s fine, but it’s what you do at those places that tells the tale, not the prestige diploma you walk away with.
So if the point of high school, and college for that matter, isn’t to put up top grades, athletic captainships, starring roles in plays, and club presidencies, then what is?
The truth we needed to hear back then, and the truth that I deliver in my talks, is simple enough, but it makes all the difference.
The truth is this: the purpose of your years spent growing up is is to fall in love. Fall in love with a person, sure, but even more important, fall in love with a subject, an activity, a time in history, a Great Woman or a Great Man, indeed develop and fall in love with your own vision of what greatness truly is, fall in love with a dog, or with a shooting star or constellation, with a movie or a play, with creating music, fall in love with cooking a perfect dish, fall in love with solving equations —your imagination carries you away.
Just think about it. Doesn’t the degree to which you find your life meaningful and close-to-all-you’d-hoped-for, directly correlate with the depth and number of your loves? And didn’t many if not most of those loves originate in school or college?
How much time is wasted these days by our most creative and brilliant students silently, if not desperately, feeling they have to get into the “best” college with the “best” results? How many of the seeds of cynicism and disappointment get sown by that pursuit, doggedly doing the right deed for the wrong reason, all while watching your most savvy classmates sacrifice their ideals and their loves in the same mad, misguided pursuit? How many deadening life-long habits of dishonesty and kissing-up begin in that frenzy of test-prep, interview coaching, grade-grubbing, and clandestine stabbing the competition in the back?
Years later, we may wonder when and why our innocence went poof! But it didn’t go poof! It slowly gave up, buckling under the weight of The Forbidding Realities. We find ourselves asking, “Whither has it fled, the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” while the answer, the liberating and restorative answer, is still all there to be had even now, begging to be seen, if we will but take it in.
The answer is: return to your loves. Give it a shot. Better yet, when they’re new, when you first find your loves, from that moment on feed them, tend to them, cherish them as if your life depended on it, work hard in their service while they’re fresh and new and you don’t know what you’re doing.
The studies—so many of them now—put the truth up for all to see, if only people will look, if only they will believe their eyes, what incontrovertible evidence proves.
I’ve learned that for some of the grown-ups, this can be too much to take. They’ve worked so long and so hard worshipping the material gold of being # 1 that to tell them that being # 1 is not in fact what makes the difference in life simply can’t penetrate their protective shield. But no matter, I owe them the truth, if not an understanding. An understanding they have to generate on their own. So I gird my loins and I tell them it’s love that makes the difference. I can almost see their silent smirk and feel their concealed derision when I deliver this truth. The adults, experienced in the Ways of the World, dismiss me as a peddler of fairy dust, a naïve and misty-eyed dreamer, an impractical sort whom they hope their children will ignore.
But then there are the kids. When I speak to students and tell them what they need to do while they are at school or college is to fall in love, when I go on to explain the much wider, explosive, disruptive and wide open terrain of love, they sit up. I can almost hear their combined sigh of relief and cheers of great joy, as if to say, At last! Because they know I am right. They haven’t yet learned to demean enthusiasm altogether or mistrust love out of hand. They are just looking for some validation, some encouragement, some hope. They are cheering love, the lasting, unmatched, radical power of love.

Meet Rebecca Shafir

This month for our meet our Staff, we are featuring Rebecca. Rebecca Shafir M.A.CCC is a speech/language pathologist with a specific interest in cognitive health and executive function coaching for college students, adult professionals and entrepreneurs with ADHD or ADT (Attention Deficit Traits).  

With over 30 years of experience, Rebecca also provides communication and leadership coaching to businesses and organizations. She coaches clients and teams worldwide online. 

Rebecca has served as Chief of the Communications Disorders Department at Choate-Symmes Health Services, Chief of Speech/Language Pathology at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center, and as an executive function coach at the Hallowell Center since 2003.

Her award-winning book The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction has been translated into several languages and is now available as an audio book. Her book sparked articles about her in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Readers Digest, Real Simple, Family Circle and many other popular publications. She has appeared on multiple radio/TV and podcast interviews.

Meet Tracy Otsuka

Tracy Otsuka is a dynamic, witty, and generous person, who I first met as a guest on her podcast “ADHD for Smart Ass Women”.
It’s that last quality I’d like to highlight here. Over my 72 years I’ve been lucky enough to meet scores, if not hundreds of hugely talented, successful, and famous people. As I reflect upon them all, one quality stands out as differentiating them into two quite separate groups. While they all share the various demographics of what’s conventionally called success, one group has achieved the heights by relentless, calculating, sometimes ruthless climbing up the ladder of life. They are single-minded in the devotion to their goal—personal success, peak performance, super-stardom—and quickly discard people or projects that do not contribute to reaching their goal.
The other group, which includes Tracy, works ultra-hard to gain success for sure, but do so in such a way that other people get helped in the process. Put simply, they care about people other than themselves. They don’t just achieve, they also give, often without notice or recompense. Some single-minded high achievers scorn such generosity as a form of weakness, of taking one’s eye off the ball, of losing focus.
But I regard it as grace. These are the people I love to see succeed. The others I might tip my hat to, but I can’t say I’m rooting for them in the game of life. They don’t need my support anyway. They will triumph by hook or by crook, never stopping for someone who might need their help. They know what they want, and they learn how to take it. But the people like Tracy, who do care about who might ask for help, who take joy in helping others achieve success, these are the people who I’m praying for, rooting for, and thanking every day.
When you hear Tracy on my podcast, notice how much of what she says relates to her delight in helping women who have ADHD see their lives dramatically change once they get the diagnosis, and how much Tracy exults in these women’s new found triumphs. That’s why I so love and admire Tracy Otsuka, because she loves, admires and lives to help other people.

Note from Ned

Happy Thanksgiving to all my listeners,
I have a fascinating guest on this week’s episode of Dr. Hallowell’s Wonderful World of Different.
I have a conversation with Kristin Seymour, a hugely talented ADHD expert as well as a nurse practitioner and cardiac specialist at the world famous Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
She wrote a book about her life with ADHD entitled The Fog Lifted: A Clinician’s Victorious Journey with ADHD”. It’s a poignant, funny, and inspiring account about one woman’s early struggles and despair and how she turned all those difficulties into the very strengths she now uses to help others. We talk about the talents and unique interests she finds in her coaching clients and the creative methods she uses to bring out and develop the upside of ADHD.  It’s a free-wheeling compelling conversation I know you will enjoy. Please join us .
I also have a great offer for my email subscribers! Last week’s guests, Gillie Richards and Rosemary Thomson have provided a free link to their new documentary short film:  Shiny Objects – The Conductor With ADHD!
Recently diagnosed with ADHD, an exceptional symphony conductor uses the career shutdown of the 2020 pandemic to dive into her mental health. She looks for ways to face the challenges and advocate for the gifts of being neurodiverse.  Available for free for Dr. Hallowell’s listeners only from Nov.17-30th
Password: SHINY1121
I hope you’ll enjoy watching as much as I did!

Become our Higher Selves

I think we’d all agree that life would be pretty bland and boring if there were no differences between people. And yet most of us recoil from differences, at least at first. A famous song says “You have to be carefully taught,” the message being that children are born tolerant and must be taught prejudice in order to develop it. But a quick look at reality shows this not to be true. Children naturally tease, taunt, bully, and torment the peer who is awkward in groups, looks funny, is clumsy, wears coke-bottle glasses, or is in any other way different. It seems that an intolerance, even sadistic behavior toward people who do not fit our definition of “normal” is bred in the human bone.

It’s dangerous not to acknowledge this and pretend otherwise. That’s the root of hypocrisy. We all have it in us to be bigots. To overrule our primitive feelings we have to start by recognizing them in the first place, and then remind ourselves how much we in fact benefit from differences between people.

Am I saying it’s good to struggle with social skills, or be uncoordinated or argumentative? Is it desirable to be undesirable? Of course not. But I am saying that the greater good lies in looking past the supposedly undesirable trait and finding the value in every person, as well as the value of cultivating, not attacking differences.

It is afterall the differences that animate the human scene, giving it its color, verve, and energy.

My cry to the sky is let’s unite around what binds us not in hatred but in love. If not love, then tolerance at least, and going one better, a love of difference. Rising above our primitive selves, we can become our higher selves.

A Shot in the Arm

Have you had yours yet? I got mine on Saturday, March 6 at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Covid Vaccine Clinic in Boston. 11:30 a.m. I’ve never had a shot before and remembered the date I got it. I do recall getting vaccinated for smallpox when I was 6 years old, but I do not recall the date, just the funny way the doctor scratched around on my arm to give it to me.

But we remember when we got this vaccination, those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to get it, don’t we? Maybe not the exact date, but the rough date and the time of day and the location and which of the three vaccines we received. I got what I call the “ADHD” version of the vaccine because it’s a one-time deal, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I left the clinic with a hop, skip, and a jump. I’ve never been actually overjoyed to get a shot, but I sure was this time.

How about you? I hope you’ve been able to get it. If you don’t want to get it, I respect your decision, but to tell you the truth I don’t understand it. It seems to me—and to all the medical experts I’ve talked with or read—that getting this vaccine is our best way to beat this pandemic, this plague that has turned our world upside down. If we want to get the world back right side up, one of the best steps we can take is to get vaccinated, the more of us the better.

Not only does getting the vaccine move us closer to herd immunity, but it gets us away from isolation. Not that staying inside, not going to restaurants, movies, large gatherings, and everything else we’ve had to give up has been complete isolation, but it’s been its own form of incarceration. It’s been bad for us. Most people don’t know this, but social isolation is as dangerous for your health as cigarette smoking, obesity, or not wearing a seat belt. 

The medical fact is that we need each other. We need each other’s presence, in what I call “the human moment”. The electronic moment just doesn’t do it. The human moment packs a power a megawatts more than the electronic. We sense and feel each other’s presence, and benefit from it, in ways science has not learned how to measure. But a tone of scientific evidence proven how dangerous the absence of one another can be. This pandemic has driven home that fact like nothing before.

Now it’s time to open up your arms and celebrate! Don’t throw caution entirely to the wind, but do rejoice, give thanks, and sing. Praise the people who developed the vaccine, manufactured it, delivered it, and shot it into your arms. Go back outside and run around, or, if you’re older like me, walk your dog with a hop, skip, and a jump, and be glad to be back in nature, with each other and with the renewed kingdom of connection.

It’ll be a long time before we take stock of all the damage this virus has wreaked. But what we know right now for sure is a truth we’ve always known but too often forgot or ignored: the simple truth of how much we need each other. 

A New Normal

I wonder if we can ever feel ok again after the trauma of the pandemic, let alone “normal,” whatever that murky word means. People often talk about “when life gets back to normal,” or “when things go back to the way they used to be”. After 500,000 deaths in the US and counting, it’s hard to imagine a return to life as we knew it before COVID 19. But then again, Heraclitus, millennia ago, was wise to the impossibility of turning back clocks when he wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Well, it sure ain’t the same river, and none of us is the same woman or man any more. How has the virus changed the river, how has the virus changed each and all of us, how will we come to terms with it and when? It’s safe to say no one knows. It’s also safe to say the changes in the river and in us are neither entirely bad nor entirely good. How do half a million deaths, in the United States alone, weigh on the psyche of a nation?
As we look for positives, some of the new ways of being that were forced upon us have silver linings. I think many of us have a new appreciation of the term “essential worker”, as we have depended not only on the vital healthcare professionals but also those who have kept our lives going, delivering our packages and our food and continuing working in stores and services so that we have stayed supplied with our needs.
For so many of us working via zoom, we’ve had a little more insight into each others’ lives. The children and pets that have popped up into the background of a call, reminding us that we all have busier lives and responsibilities beyond work alone. The pressures of being home most the time with the same family members for some, the loneliness of living alone and trying to stay connected for others.
Maybe we have also gained a little more understanding through this time of how our differing brains have different strengths, and also need different types of support.
And yes, I am referring to those of us standing tall who have the invisible differences like ADHD. Many have found the pressures of the pandemic have led to an introspection and realization that maybe they have one of these differences, and have sought out official diagnosis. My practice alone is busier than ever, and more and more people of all ages are getting diagnosed, especially the largest overlooked group, adult women (and within that, women of color).
I always see this knowledge as liberating, the chance to understand oneself better and to seek support where it is needed and to build on the strengths that are always there, even if they can feel buried away. Most importantly, it’s the chance to take away shame and moral judgment of the difficulties one might have faced, and to understand instead that some brains are just wired differently. And that is ok.
As we grieve the people who’ve died from the virus; as we help our children make up for what they’ve lost in school; as we try to build back up the many businesses that faltered or failed in the past year, I hope and pray that when we are able to remove our masks and come closer together physically, we will learn maybe the most important lesson COVID could teach us: to judge less and love more.
Shakespeare urged that we love that well which we must leave ere long. For those of us who’ve survived the pandemic, who’ve been lucky enough not leave this world as yet, let’s go at life with renewed purpose not just to stay safe and virus-free, but to extend beyond our safe zone and into the zone of making peace with those we disagree with, suspending judgment in favor of forbearance, reconstructing bridges that we’ve burned, and learning once again how to laugh, especially at ourselves.
The normal I yearn for is I hope one we all want. A normal where understanding and empathy come before judgment and disdain. Where difference is celebrated more than conforming. Where strengths are seen instead of weakness, and where love and connection replace hate and division.

Meet Rebecca Shafir

This month for our meet our staff, we are featuring Rebecca. Rebecca Shafir M.A.CCC is a speech/language pathologist with a specific interest in cognitive health and executive function coaching for college students, adult professionals and entrepreneurs with ADHD or ADT (Attention Deficit Traits).

With over 30 years of experience, Rebecca also provides communication and leadership coaching to businesses and organizations. She coaches clients and teams worldwide online.

Rebecca has served as Chief of the Communications Disorders Department at Choate-Symmes Health Services, Chief of Speech/Language Pathology at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center, and as an executive function coach at the Hallowell Center since 2003.