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The Dropout Who Turned It Around

In high school, I had no long-term goals. No big dreams. No motivation to strive for something beyond the weekend. And where did it get me? In a string of dead-end jobs that finally, at age 28, pushed me to re-write my destiny. Here’s how I did it.

In the fall of 2001, I went back to college after dropping out of both high school and college. I was 28 years old and had never experienced sustained academic success, but this time things would be different because I had four important tools at the ready:

  1. The Belief

Though I had never attained it, I knew academic success with ADHD was possible. My experiences in school had been largely negative, but I had parents who believed in me. They had planted in me the belief that I was capable, and they pointed repeatedly at the anecdotal successes that I needed for encouragement. It may be a cliché, but it is also true: For a person to succeed, they must believe that success is not just possible but likely.

  1. The Decision

It’s 9 PM and I have planned badly. I just finished working a 10-hour shift waiting tables and the final paper for my English composition class is due in 11 hours. I forgot to ask for the day off and, while the research for the paper is complete, there is much writing to be done. As I sit in front of my computer, the old ideas come back: I could turn in the paper late and just go to bed. That would feel good.

But then I make the decision: I am not going to give up! I start writing and I keep writing. Instead of rationalizing my impulse to give up, I continue to work. All night, I feel the urge to quit that has plagued me for years. I keep writing. The hours pass. Crickets give way to chirping birds as the night passes into dawn. I barely have time to proofread my work, but the paper is done. I save it to a floppy disk (it’s 2001) and drive to school. I’m in the computer lab when it opens and I print the thing. The paper is still slightly warm when I hand it to my teacher. It’s not my best work, but it’s on time! I get a B on the paper and B in the class.

My procrastinating impulses were still there, and this was far from the last all-nighter I would pull to finish a paper. But that night I killed the impulse to quit.

[Self-Test: Do I Have ADHD?]

  1. The Structure

The structure of college suited me much better than that of high school. I could choose my classes and I always had at least 15 minutes between classes, which gave me time to refocus. But, ultimately, it was the structure that I created for myself outside of class that propelled me to success.

The first step was deciding to keep up with schoolwork as it was assigned and to always attend class. In class, I sat in the front row and took copious notes, which helped me stay more focused. I realized that I worked well in the library. The library had fewer distractions, plus its big tables suited me well as I could spread out my materials. When studying for exams or doing research for a paper, I realized I could focus on work for 45 minutes at a time. After 45 minutes, I would take a 15-minute break to walk (or skateboard) around the library. Every other break would be 30 minutes. I timed everything on my phone. This was the structure that allowed me to become a college graduate.

  1. The Future

Like many people with ADHD, I valued short-term gratification over long-term consequences. I cut school because I enjoyed skipping class more than I enjoyed earning high grades. I rarely thought ahead and I never thought about how my actions — or inactions — in high school would affect my future.

A goal can help us focus on the tasks at hand and it can become a source of motivation. I had no goals related to my schoolwork when I was younger. Years later, I would find myself working several dead-end jobs just to get by — and it was not until I was 26 that I started to care how limited my opportunities were because of my lack of schooling. People generally do not stumble upon success; success needs a plan of action.

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