What is ADHD?
Welcome to my new newsletter "ADHD and company". In this inaugural edition, I pay the obligatory obeisance to Ganesha and set the context for the rest of the newsletter.
Every new newsletter should start with the basics (and don’t worry, there is the obligatory Ganesha reference coming in this inaugural post). To start with the very basics, what is ADHD? For the uninitiated, it stands for “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”.
Let me ask the oracle of these times, viz. ChatGPT:
Q: what is ADHD?
A: ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects both children and adults. People with ADHD typically struggle with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which can interfere with their daily life and academic or work performance.
Inattention symptoms may include difficulty staying focused, trouble organizing tasks, forgetting things, and losing items frequently. Hyperactivity symptoms may include restlessness, fidgeting, talking excessively, and difficulty sitting still. Impulsivity symptoms may include acting without thinking, interrupting others, and taking risks without considering the consequences.
ADHD is a complex disorder and can have a variety of causes, including genetics, environmental factors, and brain chemistry. It is typically diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation by a medical professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or pediatrician, and can be managed with medication, therapy, and lifestyle modifications.
Definitions and all are fine, but how does ADHD work in real life? While this is what this whole newsletter is going to be about, I’ll start with a simple personal story.
Of angels and angles
One afternoon last week, my daughter came home from school all excited to show me her “angles booklet”. Now, she goes to a Montessori school, that with the benefit of hindsight (the curriculum was designed a century ago) sort of simulates a 21st century office. There are no lectures. Instead, the day is filled with group work, presentations and report-writing.
In any case, over the last few days, my daughter and a few of her teammates have been creating this booklet on angles. It is beautiful and colourful. Every page has a neatly drawn polygon, where each angle is neatly measured and marked out. For a bunch of 6-8 year olds, this is truly impressive work.
But then, my first reaction on seeing one of the pictures was “this doesn’t add up” (the angles in a triangle didn’t add up to 180 degrees), and I said it out loud. I started lecturing my daughter on how the measurements weren’t accurate, and soon went on to point out places where the lines weren’t straight - because of which the angles of the polygon didn’t add up to what they had to.
After I had surveyed the whole booklet she said “ok, my friends told me I’m good at maths. But turns out you are better than me at maths”. To which I replied, “of course I’m better than you at maths. I’m really good at maths, so what’s the doubt there?”. I didn’t think twice before saying all of this (though I hope that a few years down the line this statement will not be true).
Now - this is my daughter, my only child. She looks like me, walks, talks and acts like me, but all I was concerned about at that point was that when it comes to maths, she is only the “next best thing, quite not me”. And without thinking I just said it to her. It was only after her face dropped that I realised my massive error in judgment. I tried to make it up with cuddles, which at least temporarily, sort of worked.
Om Ganeshaaya Namaha
Having spoken about my daughter, let me know talk about my (late) mother. Pretty much throughout my childhood, she used to say that I’m like (Lord) Ganesha. She didn’t explicitly voice this, but maybe on these occasions she thought she had named me after “the wrong son of Shiva”.
The reason she would say that I’m like Ganesha was that while I was great at starting things, I was (and still am, to an extent) terrible at finishing them. I would enthusiastically start projects, work on them for a while, and then suddenly lose interest and abandon them. Let me illustrate this with Substack itself.
This is what my substack “dashboard” looks like. This is the sixth newsletter I’m starting here. I don’t regularly write any of the other five (the third season of “art of data science” being the latest victim).
(An aside: over the years I’ve learnt that most people who read me read me because I’m me and not because of what I write about. Hence, if you’ve signed up for any of my old newsletters, I’ve decided you’ll like this one as well and added you - oh yes, extreme honesty is another “feature” of ADHD)
For example, I started writing Criconometrics just before the start of the 2019 cricket world cup. Through the tournament, I enthusiastically wrote three times a week. Once that ended, I wrote irregularly, and then duly abandoned it.
So what does this have to do with Ganesha? Well, there are two stories.
The writing of the Mahabharata
This is the more famous story. Vyasa was looking for a scribe to write down the Mahabharata as he narrated his stream of consciousness. And he encountered Ganesha who agreed to write, but on one condition - if Vyasa ever paused narrating, Ganesha would just stop writing then and there, and the rest of the epic would remain unwritten.
And so Vyasa narrated the entire epic in one continuous sitting. Then again he was a great poet. For mortals like me, projects go on really well as long as I’m doing them continuously. And then the moment I take a break, it is incredibly hard to restart. And “the rest of the epic remains unwritten”.
(The other corollary here is that if you are waiting for inputs from someone to do your work, as long as the inputs are coming regularly you (and your work) are fine. The moment the input stops coming (or gets marginally delayed), though, the entire project comes to a halt.)
Ganesha and Ravana
This is a more niche story, local to parts of South India. The story goes that Ravana had travelled to North India to get the “aatmalinga” (a special representation of Lord Shiva) and he was carrying it back to Sri Lanka. The condition here was that if he ever set it down, it would get affixed to that very spot.
Ravana was an industrious guy known for his penances so he had no difficulty focussing on holding up the linga and carrying it home. This way, he walked nonstop and reached South India (Gokarna according to most accounts, somewhere in Tamil Nadu according to some other). The gods panicked. “If he manages to carry it to Sri Lanka, he will become too powerful”, they worried. And so they sent our friend Ganesha.
Ganesha happened to encounger Ravana and remind him that it was time for his sandhyaavandane (evening daily rituals). Being a pious brahmin and having been reminded of this, Ravana had no choice but to do the ritual. However, sandhyaavandane requires both hands (in this version of the story, Ravana has the customary 10 heads but normal 2 hands), and Ravana had to hold the aatmalinga up. Contradiction!
So Ganesha offered to hold the aatmalinga for the duration of Ravana’s rituals. Ravana gave precise instructions and went to his rituals. Ganesha duly put down the linga, and it remains right there in that spot in Gokarna. The story goes that Ravana was so pissed off with Ganesha that he smacked him on the head - hence, in places in coastal Karnataka (most prominently in Idgunji) Ganesha is shown with a flattened head.
This was a case of Ganesha changing another person’s work in a way that it was now impossible to “finish”!
And so, on multiple counts, Ganesha is a “non finisher”. When he stops writing the thing stays unwritten. When he puts something down, it stays put right there. According to my mother, this was how I was growing up, and even in early adulthood.
My parents put me in multiple hobby classes in school. I didn’t persist with most of them (I only pursued my classical violin lessons due to much nagging). I started playing competitive chess, but “retired” when I was 14. I would continue with things as long as I was in “the flow”, and the moment the flow stopped the thing would stop as well (this entire edition, much like most of my blogposts, was written in one shot. I only added minor edits later).
What to expect from this newsletter
Using my mother and my daughter, I’ve shown you two sides of ADHD. It causes you to be impulsive and say things that you really shouldn’t be saying. And it causes you to take up stuff but not really finish them.
You are constantly looking to be stimulated. You are constantly distracted. You take risks you shouldn’t - because they come with that “kick” and “excitement”. You are highly prone to different kinds of addictions. And sometimes you just hyperfocus, and get into the flow on something - except that most of the time it is on things that you don’t really want to be doing at that point in time.
Sometimes you just “don’t notice” things. You don’t know where the time went. You can’t make seemingly simple decisions. You are unable to plan. You change your mind way too often. You lack attention to detail. You are frequently inexplicably late for no good reason.
As you can expect, all of these things are things that are likely to harm you in a conventional modern (post hunter-gatherer) professional context.
Of course there are benefits as well - your distractions mean you are really good at lateral thinking. You are able to adapt to change much much faster. You are better at “moving on” than most others. You are good at learning new things and do stuff for the sake of doing them - not for explicit rewards. You don’t get too attached to your work and so can make far more objective decisions. And so on and so forth.
What really to expect from this newsletter
There - I went off on yet another digression. Sorry.
So what I’ve found is that while reportedly 5% of all people have ADHD, there is very little material on it, especially outside of the US context. If you look for material of the interactions between ADHD and work, most of the stuff you find revolves around low-end or entry-level jobs (and that too usually US specific) - not corporate roles in middle or senior management.
It is this gap that I aim to try and fill. This newsletter is called “ADHD and company”. The company here refers to the workplace. The newsletter is about navigating corporate life in case you have ADHD. It is likely to be a lot of personal stories and anecdotes. Of course, I will take special care to make sure the identity of my colleagues and others I interact with remains protected (well, I’ve outsourced this bit to my editor, so don’t worry!).
Nobody has asked me to start this, I’m starting this on my own free will. Whether this will sustain depends on the response that I get. So please like, comment, share and subscribe in case you want to see more of this.
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Super like. Thanks for writing this, Karthik. I enjoy reading whatever you write.
Nice start - keep them coming!