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Going To College With ADHD

Rick Green with his Order of Canada award

Recently I was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Renison College University, part of the University of Waterloo. 

It was a wonderful ceremony and a tremendous acknowledgement, especially of what we’ve done with TotallyADD.com

(I say we, because it’s a team of dedicated people.)

The U of Waterloo was the birthplace of the company Research in Motion, best known as the makers of the Blackberry.

The U of W was also where I earned my Bachelor of Science way back in the mid 70’s.  When I was but a wee buck of a lad. Or a half-buck.

Ah, the 70’s.   It was a tumultuous era.   Terrorists in Europe.  The big 3 car companies were struggling.  The President of the United States was under siege.  Keith Richards looked like he was on death’s door.

Hard to imagine what it was like living in those days.

For me, university was a mix of highs and lows.  More lows than highs.

Earning a Degree Despite my ADHD

When I graduated (by the skin of my teeth) I was still 25 years away from a proper diagnosis of ADHD.

If I’d known, and had even a fraction of the wisdom the experts share in our Earning A Degree With ADHD video, it would have been a very different experience.

Instead, unaware, I struggled with Depression, and like so many adults with undiagnosed ADHD I struggled.

I love Science.  But I was falling behind and convinced I was not very bright, barely passing some of the basic courses like Electricity & Magnetism and Optics.  

I found my final report card a few years back and was shocked at how close I came to not graduating.

No wonder I was so mulish and dismissive of the graduation ceremony. 

My parents wanted lots of pictures of me, but I felt unworthy, having settled for a lesser degree, 3 years instead of 4 years, when it became obvious in my second year that I was not another Einstein.

A Spectrum of Grades

But that report card also had clues in it.  Yes, they are marks in the 50’s in some subjects, but I was earning 70’s and 80’s in Relativity & Quantum Mechnanics, Advanced Differential Equations, and Astronomy. With way less work!

What? I was doing better in the hard courses?  That didn’t make sense.  (Not back then.)

Years later, after I was diagnosed I realized that like most adults with ADHD, when I’m challenged, or interested, I can be fully engaged.  (Astronomy? It’s like Star Trek!)

Soaring In The “Bird Courses”

Even more telling? I scored my highest marks in the Fine Arts & Humanities courses that all Science and Engineering students were required to take.  (The goal was make the Scientists and Engineers of the future well-rounded humans.)

Most of my fellow Science students felt these ‘Bird Courses’ were a distraction.  But I scored 90’s in my Film Studies course and in Fine Art Drawing.

The art prof would ask us to do a drawing for the next week, I’d bring in an acrylic painting of the end of the world that spilled over 5 canvases!

And there’s another aspect of my time at university that only made sense once I was diagnosed.  It isn’t in my Report Card… 

While I was there my roommate Michael and I hosted a comedy show on the campus radio station.  When I should have been working on my Electricity & Magnetism assignment I was writing comedy bits.

Even better, I made my first sale as a comedy writer, earning 10¢ a joke for every gag I sent to the local AM radio D.J..  Spending the next hour studying for an Organic Chemistry exam?  Ugh.  Writing 50 jokes? Awesome!

It never occurred to me that the things that I loved doing could become a career. 

All I knew was that I was that I was in danger of “wasting” all that college money and years of my life, by failing.  Or, what I believed in my heart, was that I was in danger of being exposed as a failure.

The real waste would have been if I’d kept going and tried to make a career as a physicist. 

Instead, my first job was running laser and cryogenic demonstrations at a Science museum.   Information and humor… I was on my way.

“What’s Wrong With Me?” Nothing.

The clues to my future were there. Years later, after I was diagnosed, I was able to see that what I loved doing was obvious and that’s what I should have focused on.

Or at least not felt guilty about. “I have an Organic Chemistry Midterm tomorrow, and I’m writing jokes? What’s wrong with me.”

By time I was old enough to see that the things I loved doing could become a career I was already writing and performing comedy full time.

Do I regret studying Science? Not a bit. I loved Physics. It was, for me, a spiritual quest to understand the world.   It just wasn’t my future.

So as you or someone you love goes off to university, or back to college to finish a degree or earn a new degree for a new career, notice what you love doing, what comes easily, what you stay up all night doing at the expense of everything else.

And do more of that.



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  1. mcfarlane August 29, 2017 at 11:54 am

    You have always been a great example of some one who is very bright but because of ADHD you struggled in school and did not receive high marks. Are you bright? You created and wrote History Bites and Prisoners of Gravity.
    We are in an age of education where High Marks are everything. Where some bright students do not get the encouragement because their marks are not high and the education system may not understand the students that have ADHD.
    Wayne ( C student) McFarlane

  2. Rick August 29, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    You’re right, McFarlane, I’m bright. But it’s a bit like having a jet fighter with a powerful engine but wonky wings. It goes surprisingly fast, but tends to follow a very wonky path.
    Sometimes that’s interesting and leads to some great breakthroughs… Or in my case some hilarious jokes.
    But sometimes, it’s frustrating. Or exhausting. Or dangerous. (I read about a study that found young drivers with untreated ADHD are at 7 times the risk of multiple car accidents where they are at fault.)

  3. james9 September 7, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    Congrats on the award.
    I took a year off after highschool. Tried a bunch of things at different companies. My dad said, “Ask questions. Find out what they do? Ask people what they like about the place.”
    Awesome advice. Learned a ton. Figured out what I didn’t want to do, and by eliminating what I didn’t like, I was able tos ee what I liked and was also good at doing.

  4. james9 September 8, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Then there are students like I was who changed our majors three times before we found the right course, but I told my parents that every time I siwtched courses it wasn’t a mistake or a waste it was a step forward, like when Edison kept failing to find the right material for the filament for his light bulbs, he didn’t view them as failures, but as one more step towards finding the right material. Except my dad pointed out that Edison tested like about ten thousand things before he found the right one. So three changes wasn’t so bad.

  5. ladygogo September 14, 2017 at 10:56 am

    where were you 12 years ago?
    okay, ya, i’m glad they’re making all this progress but damn, can I have a do over?

  6. raph009 October 31, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    It really makes sense. I struggle in most of the easy courses because it’s not challenging enough but get A+ without much effort in those where people usually struggle the most. It’s interesting, challenging, plus they’re in a field that I love.
    I spent a lot of time trying to fit in what people had decided was a “normal” life but “normal” doesn’t cut it for me. I’m a quirky scientific artist. Being able to connect a lot of different fields together is an asset that most people with ADHD have naturally. I’m working with it instead of fighting against it now and it feels so much better! That’s mainly thanks to you! :)

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