ADHD in Adults

Confessions of a Learning-Disabled Success

Today’s education system covers kids in labels—whether they’re “gifted and talented” or tagged with LDs. Here, how one man found success despite an ADHD stigma and dyslexia diagnosis.

A man at a podium experiencing public speaking anxiety
Image of a man experiencing public speaking anxiety

Last summer I was in Philadelphia, delivering a talk to an international audience of financial planners, asset managers, and insurance executives. A standing-room-only crowd packed one of the smaller venues in the Philadelphia convention center to hear me talk about building a $100 million financial planning practice. As I stood at the podium looking out at the audience, I was struck by this thought: If they knew they were getting expensive financial advice from the dumbest kid in the class, this talk could be given in a phone booth, not in a room with a one-thousand-plus seating capacity.

The program went well. The audience listened attentively and seemed to hang on every word. At the conclusion, many stuck around to ask questions before filing out of the auditorium. Then, as I was packing up my computer and PowerPoint presentation, a young man, maybe 30, approached and said, “Mr. Ruth, can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I said. “What’s on your mind?” He said, “What’s the secret of your success?”

“Secrets” of Success

I paused for a moment before answering. How could I explain ADHD to him? And even if I could, how would I make him understand that my ADHD baggage became an advantage, once I figured out how to deal with it? Until he asked that question, I didn’t realize how much I needed to unload. The young man was going to hear the whole story, like it or not.

I told him I couldn’t teach him my secret because it was something I was born with, but I could tell him about it and maybe he could learn from my experience. I told him that whatever success I’ve enjoyed in the business world over the last 40 years was due to this: “I have ADHD and mild dyslexia.”

The bewildered look on his face broadcast in high definition everything that is wrong with educational labels pasted onto kids from his and other generations. He must have thought to himself: “ADHD and LD? Those kids are supposed to be lazy troublemakers with impaired learning abilities. What’s going on here?” Who could blame him? He’d grown up in a Gifted and Talented (GT) world that clouded his perceptions of others. The smart kids, the GT kids, are the ones who are supposed to succeed, right? No wonder he was confused.

Oh, Those Labels!

Had my inquisitive new friend known I had ADHD and dyslexia, he probably wouldn’t have attended my talk. He was an Ivy League grad, and people like me are supposed to be damaged goods. He ate dummies like me for lunch, and he wants to know the secret of my success? His problem was, he drank the Kool-Aid that the educational establishment served him every day, and he expected the world to be his oyster. He assumed success would be delivered to his front door, like calling up Domino’s for a pepperoni pizza. He grew up in a cocoon of academic window-dressing that doesn’t deliver in adulthood—when it counts. He didn’t realize he was being set up for possible failure in the world by a system rife with labels.

When I was growing up, the labels were different from today’s, but they were just as damaging to the development of children and young adults. In my day, you were either one of the smart kids or one of the dumb kids; lost somewhere between these bookends were the average kids, the normal kids. Today it seems it’s the Gifted and Talented scholars versus the Learning Disabled also-rans. The problem is that most kids accept the labels they’re tagged with, and some never leave that luggage in their rear-view mirror.

Back in those early days, I snatched the crumbs that were left on the floor for kids like me. I ended up receiving a pretty good education, because I stole it from under their noses, not because they taught me how to learn. I had to grab it in bite-sized pieces and stitch it together like a patchwork quilt: a slice of reading here and a sliver of arithmetic there. Writing skills took longer and developed slowly over time. Every summer, from third grade through high school, while the smart kids were splashing at the neighborhood pool, I was in summer school, struggling with subjects that were not packaged in a way that made sense to me.

I was nearly 20 before I figured out that I was just as smart as most people and a whole lot smarter than others. That liberating revelation was a game-changer for me—like an airplane soaring through clouds before punching through to blue sky.

I had discovered that most people are captivated by what I call “quick study” smart—the ability to ace a test. But life taught me that “judgment smart”—the ability to make wise decisions by factoring in numerous alternatives – was the key to success and achievement.

I am still upset with the educational establishment. They were missing in action for me. I fear the same is true for many students of today’s generation. There is more help available for ADHD/LD kids today, but the labeling continues. We’ve gone from one set of destructive labels to another set of equally debilitating labels. Left unsaid is the fact that alternative learning abilities can be a gift, leading to success and achievement when it counts. Acing a test is not all that counts. The educational system is silent on this fact: Labeling is as damaging for the GT kids as it is for those tagged with LDs.

Gifted and Talented?

Every time I hear parents or grandparents boasting about their GT child or grandchild, it makes my blood boil. It shows me that they have bought into a politically correct deception as well. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud of your child’s educational achievements. Like any parent, I revel in my children’s accomplishments. But when are we going to stop scarring and scaring kids with labels?

My young friend at the convention center had grown up in an educational culture where Gifted and Talented ruled, because GTs are smarter than everyone else, right? Testing smart has never equated wisdom and judgment – or developing the people skills necessary to get along in the real world. Smart kids get their butts kicked every day by those with wisdom or judgment – and many of the kickers, I’ve discovered, have “learning disabilities.” I smile when I see a bumper sticker boast, “My child is an Honor Student.” My version of that bumper sticker would say, “I’m ADHD and your Honor Student will work for me!”

Real life isn’t about gaining acceptance into the National Honor Society or receiving accolades from educators. Real life is about results, not labels. It’s about delivering the goods, not an SAT score. It’s about rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty sometimes, and making something good happen—on time and on budget. We live in a results-oriented world, and they don’t hand you a trophy or a paycheck just for showing up and participating.

There are winners and losers, and no one cares if you were GT (or LD). So what if your abilities don’t include awesome math or reading skills, and you often flit from one project to the next? In the real world, you hire out what you don’t possess or have time to do, as you hire a CPA to do your taxes or an attorney to draft your will. The alternative learning skills often acquired by ADHD/LD children can set them up for a life of success.

The GALA Advantage

If you still feel like you need to hang labels on kids, tag them with this one: GALA—Gifted with Alternative Learning Abilities. The by-products of being GALA for me were resilience, humor, organization, creativity, and a solid work ethic. These traits have given me a wonderful life. Even if I could turn the clock back and change things, I wouldn’t. Those who can manage the gifts of GALA, whether self-taught or learned through educational channels, can be successful beyond their dreams.

Fortunately, success and achievement in the real world are not derived from childhood labels. They are achieved despite them. I am sure that my new friend left Philadelphia that afternoon with a lot more than he bargained for. While he was dumbfounded to learn the secret of my success, he also carried away a new set of perceptions—that being tagged GT early in life didn’t guarantee him a bigger slice of the good life any more than it doomed the ADHD/LD kids to failure.

For some, the shortest distance between two points won’t always be a straight line. But we all have within us equal opportunity to be successful. Some have to work harder to get it. The victories for those with alternative learning abilities are all the sweeter.

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