Attention "Deficit":
Is it ALWAYS a Negative?

One of the ways Susan “compensates” for her deficits is to make them work for, rather than against, her. She does not have ADD (attention deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) and has never been diagnosed with either problem. Indeed, she focuses well, better than “normal” folks, on the things she is capable of focusing on.

But on the surface there are things about her that one might mistake for ADD: She loses things (particularly small things, like keys). Her purse is a mess. Her desk is a mess. She doesn’t notice “details” in the environment that others grasp with ease. As a consequence, she bumps into things, spills and drops objects and is forever getting lost.

Because the “details” are hard for Susan to handle, she has learned to block them out. She got through school by learning not to pay too much attention to all the “pieces,” “all the little bits of information.” She doodled a lot, talked to classmates, skipped classes, refused to do piece-work assignments and let the big picture come to her. She learns best when her mind is relaxed and she is not “forcing” herself to concentrate too hard. Forcing concentration on the pieces “hurts her head.”

She does not have attention deficit disorder, but she has trained herself not to pay attention to the stuff that will confuse and distract her. And she gets the big picture faster and better than others this way. Once the big picture is in place, she can go back and pick up all the pieces. She now has some place to put them, a framework into which they will fit and make sense, be a part of the larger whole.

She got to Yale, and got through it, because she realized that paying attention to the “inchy-binchy” way that others think and talk only creates confusion in her mind. She got to, and through, Yale by learning how to let the details float by. Maybe teaching people NOT to pay close attention is as important as teaching people to pay better attention. By characterizing ALL “poor attention” as a failing, we may be overlooking a strategy that sometimes helps people succeed.