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“Why Did the Penguin Want to Fly?”

I am like a penguin—I have an ADHD brain, and though I can’t “fly” the way society wants me to, I can do all kinds of cool stuff that others can’t.

I have a T-shirt with a pathetic looking penguin, flippers outstretched, beneath which it says, “I wish I could fly.” My 16-year-old self found this clever, and in honor of that version of me, I’ve kept the shirt around. I pulled it out the other day and threw it on for old times’ sake, only to discover that my 30-year-old self couldn’t help but analyze and question it. Why did the penguin want to fly? It can do all sorts of cool stuff that no other birds can do.

That’s when the lightning bolt struck. I am that penguin. Folks with ADHD are penguins. Because our brains are built a little bit differently, we can do all sorts of cool stuff, just not always the stuff society has decreed we should be good at. Penguins are amazing swimmers, and can hold their breath for long stretches of time, and they can live in Antarctica of all places! But because they’re birds, everyone expects them to be able to fly. So we end up with that penguin on my T-shirt.

Don’t think about the metaphor too hard; it doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. The point is, while the ADHD brain may struggle mightily with everyday tasks, it also is really good at other things, often things that make folks with ADHD extraordinary and interesting. Those diagnosed with ADHD, along with their friends, loved ones, and teachers, would do well to keep this in mind.

I live in fear that one day my wife will discover that my eccentricities are just me being weird and frustrating. She assures me, with what seems to be varying degrees of certainty, that my frustrating qualities are outweighed by my positive traits, many of which are linked to ADHD.

I’ve seen several lists of the positive attributes associated with ADHD, including some on this site. One of my favorite qualities relates to just how easily bored those with ADHD can get. It is a nightmare when I cannot escape tasks or situations that are boring to me. But it also means that I am constantly seeking new sources of entertainment and new sources of knowledge.

As a scholar, I am committed to the notion that one should never stop learning. But my craving to learn exceeds anything my scholarship can satisfy. I seek out and retain information on an embarrassingly wide array of topics, hopping from one to the next as soon as my curiosity is satisfied. I’m a menace in a trivia competition. I bombard my poor wife with the pointless things that I learn each day, the results of the various philosophical debates I run in my head, and with whatever I find particularly entertaining at any given point in time.

While I concede that this can be extremely annoying, I am grateful that she agrees with me that this and other related traits are not only the things that make and keep me interesting. They are admirable traits in their own right. Society has labeled the source of these traits a “disorder,” and it certainly does make for an astonishing array of daily challenges. But for those with ADHD and their loved ones, learning to manage and embrace those challenges puts you in a position to reflect on and appreciate the unique traits that make us who we are. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, not even for a brand new set of organizational skills.

I think I need a new T-shirt. This time, it will have a somewhat pathetic looking bird on it, wings outstretched, saying, “I wish I could swim.”

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