ADHD: Are You Defining "Success" the Right Way?
So, success isn’t about doing successful things, or even doing things that will bring us success. Instead, it’s about being success-full. And that comes from defining first what we want to be...
Some men succeed by what they know; some by what they do; and a few by what they are.
— Elbert Hubbard, The Note Book, 1927
What is the best way for people with ADHD to succeed in life and the world? The answer may surprise you.
The last time I saw Richard Stewart was in 1991, in the Klong Toey slum of Bangkok. He was sitting on the bare wood floor of a hand-made house that consisted of three rooms. A main room downstairs, about ten by ten feet was doubled as living room and kitchen, and a smaller bedroom was upstairs. The bathroom was attached to the back of the house, with a hole in the floor over the open sewer that ran along the back of the row of attached houses. Richard’s home wasn’t unique; most of the slum-dwellers lived in similar fashion, and the side walls of his rooms were the walls of the houses to his left and right.
We sat on mismatched purple and brown sofa cushions, and in the background a Duke Ellington tape played from a Sony Walkman outfitted with small speakers. Bangkok is a city of some six-million souls, and over two-million lived in the slums around us. Surrounding us were the sounds of babies crying, children playing and shrieking, the deep hum of conversation, traffic, and daily activity, and the smells of raw sewage, sandalwood incense, curry and frying meat. The damp warmth of Thailand’s tropical air was thick with sound and smell, and yellow-white light from the noontime sun penetrated the cracks between the mismatched boards that made up the front and back walls of the house, splashing the room with spangles of color.
Richard was a few years under fifty, tall and gangly with thinning red-brown hair, pale skin made leathery by years in the equatorial sun, and lively blue eyes. He wore khaki slacks and a pale blue, immaculately starched and ironed — if a bit frayed — short-sleeved shirt with epaulets on the shoulders. An out-of-place Brit in Southeast Asia.
“I came here with a BBC film crew,” he said, telling me how he’d left behind in England a job as a television documentary producer, a home in London, a summer house near Tunbridge Wells, a used but serviceable Jaguar, and a very respectable annual income. “When I met these people in this slum, when we came to poke into their lives and produce a documentary, 1 was so enchanted by them that I decided to throw it all off and stay.” After a few years in the slum he’d met and married a local woman, and she was today working at the local day-care center and school that Richard had helped organize.
Richard wasn’t living in total poverty; in addition to his volunteer work in the slum, he’d taken a part-time job at a local radio station as the DJ for a weekend jazz show, which paid enough to buy food, clothes, and the occasional movie. In fact, most of the residents of the slum worked. They were the taxi and Tut-Tut (a local type of rickshaw) drivers, the maids and bellmen in local hotels, the guides at tourist attractions, the waiters and cooks in the city’s restaurants, the laborers in local factories that made products for export.
When I commented to Richard about what a sacrifice he’d made by “giving it all up” to live among the slum dwellers, his face cracked with a huge grin. “Ah, but you have it backwards,” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m now far wealthier than I was before.”
“You have money in a bank account somewhere? You own land?”
“None of the above,” he said. “I only own what you see here. But I’m richer than I’ve ever been before in my life, because every day I wake up glad to be alive and glad to be here, and I go to my work of community organizing and education here in the slum with an enthusiasm I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. My life before was a rat-race: now it’s meaningful. That, to me, is true success.”
Success is not about doing: it’s about being
Most of us spend so much of every day worrying about and devoting our attention to the things that seem urgent, that demand our attention and drive our days, that we miss altogether the things that are truly meaningful. Few members of our society, on their death beds, will say, “I accomplished everything I knew I should in my life: I fulfilled my purpose in being here on the planet.”
Few of us have the time to even consider such issues, because we find ourselves lurching through life from one crisis to another. We’re putting out fires and dealing with externally-imposed demands, instead of deciding what success really means to us personally and then trying to achieve it.
Hunter-personality types of people are constantly confronted with the problem of doing: It seems so natural to do something. Because Hunters in this modern Farmer’s society are so often bored and understimulated by their lives, they put things off until they become crises, or react to things only when they become urgent. This leads to a life filled with steady streams of urgent things that must be done, and wipes out the time for planning, thinking, and gaining insights into the core issues of real, personal success.
Yet planning is critically important. In 1906, William James wrote to W. Lutoslawski, “Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being” And, in his 1902 lecture on The Varieties of Religious Experience, he said, “We can ... lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our mortal life.”
Performance expert Leo Tonkin says that time spent planning is usually returned tenfold in improved performance. “That’s why we hire architects before we begin construction of a building,” he points out. “We need to do the same with every project we undertake, and with the daily events and details of our lives.”
But in order to create a plan, we first must determine our priorities. To do this, we must look beyond the urgencies of the moment and examine the core nature of our purpose.
Purpose is the essence that must be behind our goals, and then, therefore, behind our plans to reach those goals.
When we think back on our lives, the highest and most pleasant memories we can recall often have little to do with what we were doing. Instead, they’re anchored in how we were being, what state of mind we were experiencing, how we were feeling. What the sun felt like on our skin, the feeling of accomplishment, of love, or connectedness with the world around us or with other people.
These moments, when we examine them, hook us back into our sense of purpose.
A teacher told me that she felt most fulfilled in front of a classroom when she hit on a topic the students were interested in, and taught it in a way that they could follow. “There’s a flow there,” she said, “that’s hard to describe. But you feel it, and you want it more and more in your life.”
Richard tied his sense of purpose into something he was doing, something that would seem to most of us as a form of service or something worthy of praise. When we deeply examine purpose, however, we discover that it exists outside those stale boundaries of doing, even outside notions of doing good in the world or having a positive impact on others.
In the winter of 1978, I spent some time at a monastery in the mountains of Vermont. In the surrounding forest were small cabins, where renunciants went to spend weeks or months in total isolation. They took no books or papers into the cabins with them, and there was no TV, radio, or telephone. Even when their meals were brought, there was no contact with another person: the trays were left outside the door, the tray-bringer knocked and left, and the person inside would wait a few minutes before opening the door to avoid accidentally having any contact with another human.
This seemed, to me, either masochistic or incredibly self-indulgent. What could a person possibly accomplish by sitting alone all day in a cabin? 1 expressed my thoughts to one of the monks while we were splitting firewood.
“How can a renunciant have any positive impact on the world?" I said. “Particularly if he doesn’t even have books or materials to learn with?”
The older man heaved his maul through a log, cleanly splitting it with one blow. “He’s having a huge impact on the world,” he said, setting up another log.
“By becoming more centered? By learning to meditate and pray?”
“Nope.” Another log split down the middle and fell to the ground in two clean, stove-sized pieces. “Although that happens.”
“Then what is it? How is turning inward, becoming self-absorbed, anything more than just a selfish act?”
The old monk, his breath white in the clear cold air, set up another log as I stood, leaning on the handle of my maul. He glanced at me sideways and said:
“Once a young man came to the Buddha and said, ‘What will I do when I attain enlightenment?’
“‘What do you do now?’ the Buddha asked.
“‘I chop wood and carry water,’ the young monk answered.
“‘Then when you achieve enlightenment,’ the Buddha said, ‘you must chop wood and carry water.’”
I watched him split another log, wondering if he wanted me to split more of the logs and lean on my maul less. When I asked him if that was what he meant, he laughed.
“Don’t you get it?” he said as he swung at another log “We’re all connected. Our actions are visible, but our being is what’s really important. And that’s invisible. The only way we can guess about another person’s being is through what we see of him, or our feelings about that person, which is their actions more often than not. But that’s not what is really influencing the world. It’s our being, not our actions. Whether you’re feeding the hungry or chopping wood, what’s really important is the place within yourself from which you do it.”
“This is really esoteric,” I said.
“It could be,” he replied, pausing to catch his breath. “But you can make it concrete. A person who is acting out of a grounded, solid, real sense of who he is will have a force and power to his actions that a person who’s just doing things to get them done won’t. He’ll have a more powerful and visible impact on the world. So, on the coarse level, you could say that it’s not esoteric at all. But I think it goes a full level deeper than even that. Simply by his living on the planet, and existing in a way that’s grounded and rooted in the core of his being, he’s influencing the world.”
“Because we’re all connected,” I said, setting up a log for him.
“Yep,” he said as he took a swing. “In my tradition, I would say that we’re all children of God. A Sufi might say that ‘We’re all part of the same cosmic soup.’ A Jew might talk about our being interpenetrated by the luminous emanations. A physicist would point to chaos theory, that a butterfly flapping his wings in Brazil could create a winter storm here in Vermont. It’s all one thing, and when we discover our own being, our own purpose, we help others discover theirs, too.”
So success isn’t about doing successful things, or even doing things that will bring us success. Instead, it’s about being success-full. And that comes from defining first what we want to be. Who we are. What’s at the center of our lives. What excites and drives and animates us.
What’s at the core of your life?
Many Hunters spend virtually all their time in a reactive mode: responding to emergencies, dealing with things in front of them so they won’t forget to handle them later. The result is that they often go years at a time without a serious, introspective life examination. Some have told me that the last time they discussed or thought about such things was in high school or college.
If you fall into that category, consider doing this simple exercise. Write down the answers on a separate sheet of paper.
■ Reality checking
• If nothing were to change in your life over the next five to ten years, and you were to continue on the same path you’re following, where will you be?
• How do you feel about that?
• How would you feel about that if you knew that at the end of those five years you were going to suddenly die? What would you do differently?
■ Purpose checking
• Name three people you personally know who you most admire.
• What do you admire about them?
• What have been the three most fulfilling times of your life?
• When you think of yourself in your idealized life fantasy, what are you doing?
• What about it is fulfilling to you?
• What gives you the greatest pleasure?
• What legacy do you want to leave behind?
If you took the time to fill in answers to those questions, or gave them serious consideration, you can probably now see the areas where your sense of center, your purpose and true goals, are consistent or inconsistent with your current life situation.
You may also have some good leads to the direction you could travel in order to align your life with your life’s purpose, and to then pursue job, relationship, and lifestyle directions that are consistent with your sense of purpose.
■ Success isn’t accidental: it’s intentional
The most important point, once the pathfinding is done and the map is drawn, is to remember that success isn’t just the result of decisions. It’s the result of decisions followed by actions that are sustained long enough, and repeated often enough, to re-wire the brain.
And true success is caused by change based on an understanding of purpose, built on the centeredness of our being. It begins with pain or dissatisfaction with the way life is now, then moves to determine goals, then to develop specific strategies to accomplish those goals. The final step is to then follow through on those strategies.
■ Why just setting goals isn’t enough
This is why simple goal-setting often doesn’t work, why motivational speeches and books rarely stick with people, and why there are so few people walking around town with a smile on their faces. Most people’s lives are driven by opportunity and external circumstances, rather than purpose. And when they do set down goals, those goals are often dictated by surface considerations, such as income level or possessions.
This is one of the traps of our modern society. We’re told constantly, both in advertising and through the themes of television programs, movies, and novels, that life is about winning, conquering, competing, or reaching external goals.
But it’s the internal states that we must reach, not the external goals. The latter follow the former, not the other way around. As Ram Dass says, “Wherever you go, you take your same head with you.”
And this is particularly important for those of us who have the Hunter personality, because we’re so easily stimulated and driven by challenge, adventure, competition. All those aspects of external goals very often simply distract us — sometimes for our entire lives — from considering or reaching our purpose.
So, reconsider where you are and where you want to be; who you are and who you want to be. Make a list and begin with one item. And then go for it!