People with ADD tend to overrate the importance of solitude as an essential condition for close concentration.
by Bill Mehlman
There's a story about Bill Clinton that fits in here nicely. From all accounts, he's a devoted, perhaps compulsive, solitaire player.
There are stories of the President standing at a breakfront during a National Security briefing, with his back to the table, playing solitaire while the analysts laid out subtle and complex scenarios, the myriad possible responses and the likely fallout from each. Enormously complicated, demanding stuff, to understand which most of us — and in this case I don't restrict "us" to ADHDans, but to the public at large — would need several repetitions and extensive note-taking.
According to the story, at the end of the discussion, the President would give the cards one last riffle, turn around, and proceed to question his advisors in such depth that no one could doubt that he completely understood every nuance of the briefings.
Even the most vituperative Clinton-haters, while condemning his morals, his politics and anything else the President touched, always seemed to mention, grudgingly, his extraordinary intelligence. I know a few people who've met him at cocktail parties or dined with him, and by all reports his intellectual abilities and personal charm are dazzling. So what's with the solitaire, Bill?
I've read several psychological analyses of this behavior, none of which led me anywhere. But I believe that many of us, and I'm speaking of our particular community now, overrate the importance of solitude as an essential condition for close concentration.
Last week I wrote about noise, unwanted, extraneous signals that distract us from our tasks. Bill Clinton's solitaire playing seems to work in a contrary manner. It's as though the card playing occupies just enough of his attention that the balance of his focus cannot be devoted to more than one subject.
In other words, the solitaire playing is "noise" but it's voluntary, purposeful noise. People exhibit all kinds of tics when they're attempting to concentrate: drumming on a table with their fingers, twisting a ring or a bracelet, tapping a pencil, scratching their chins. These minor, uncomplicated, usually repetitive movements act to insulate the part of the mind that's involved with solving the larger, critical problem; processing two streams of information, one of which is requires no real thought, allows one to consider the original question in a relatively steady, unpressured frame of mind.
Perhaps President Clinton's use of the more complicated actions of playing solitaire, compared to tapping one's fingers, is merely an indication of how much smarter he is than most of us.