When I found out Malcolm Gladwell had a new book coming, I made sure I pre-ordered it, and it came on its release day this past week.  I’ve been working my way through the book, and it’s interesting- especially when I think about it in context of the conference I went to this week by Dr. Russell Barkley, all about the latest medical and scientific research on ADHD.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about what does it take to be extraordinary- and he links it up to concepts regarding having enough practice, being born at an opportune time, and being born into a family that helps make success possible.  He also tells a few stories about how some truly brilliant people, like Chris Langan, a gentleman with an IQ of 195, who have not been as traditionally successful as you might think for someone with an IQ that high- in fact, he’s never finished college.  I look at that, and I suspect there’s somethng else going on.  Gladwell postulates that the environment Langan grew up in didn’t give him the skills he needed to navigate the difficulties he came by on his way to getting through college.  I look at the chaotic childhood, the parents, and the totality, and wonder whether or not something like undiagnosed ADHD might be involved.

First of all, let’s be clear that ADHD does not preclude someone having a high IQ- in fact, everyone in my own family with ADHD has an IQ of 1 to 2 standard deviations above the mean.  being twice-exceptional is not all that unusual.

The long term studies Dr. Barkley has done, following up children through age 27 with ADHD as kids has shown that the effects of ADHD stay with you, even if you have allegedly outgrown it.  Over 90% of the ADHD kids had poorer school performance than the normal controls.  They had greater inattention to classwork and reduced productivity.  When there was decreased accountability to others for work, as happens when you are on your own more in high school and college, more and more of the ADHD kids began to have trouble with their performance and time management skills.    More of the kids were retained a grade; more were in special education, suspended or expelled from school; there was a higher drop out rate, lower class rank and a lower college enrollment and lower college graduation rate than the controls.  Moreover, the ADHD people also had greater workforce problems, having more jobs, using more sick days, being more likely to be fired, get lower work performance ratings, and were less productive than their peers.  As a result, the ADHD people had a general lower job status and lower social economic status than their non-ADHD peers.   There were other concerns as well, regarding driving, money management, being involved with law enforcement and more.

So when I look at Gladwell’s assessment of Chris Langan, I can’t help but wonder whether or not part of the problem might be with ADHD.  ADHD runs in families, and has a tendency to predispose people to things like major depression, which would explain a lot about Langan’s family and the inability of his mom to really help him out in terms of filling our paperwork or the like.

As a general bias, I worry when smart people underperform.  I always think we should rule out things like ADHD that can seriously impact performance and acheivement.   I do worry that all this post-hoc psychiatric diagnosis and prediction may be silly and irrelevant, but I also do think we should be concerned when we look at the difference between success and failure, we also rule out other reasons for it, like ADHD.

Because in the end, smart people failing to achieve hurts us all.  Smart people being stymied by an easily treated biochemical malformation in their brains is even more of a tragedy.  It’s like throwing hidden treasures in the garbage.

So if you have someone in your life who seems so smart and talented, but it underachieving- have them look into whether or not there’s something else going on getting in their way.  It’s not a moral failing of being unmotivated, or unable to compelte a task because of lack of example- it may just be their brain getting in it’s own way.