Episode 327 | July 18, 2023

ADHD as a Superpower with Dr. Ned Hallowell

A Personal Note From Orion

Welcome back to the Stellar Life podcast. In this episode, I’m thrilled to sit down with Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowell, a world-renowned authority on ADHD and a true pioneer in neurodiversity to explore the incredible, hidden power of ADHD.

For over forty years, Dr. Hallowell has dedicated his life to helping countless people with ADHD embrace their unique strengths and lead happy, productive lives. Not only is he a board-certified child and adult psychiatrist, but he also has ADHD and dyslexia, which lends to his personal understanding of  both the challenges and the positive potential of ADHD. 

This episode is a must-listen for anyone who longs to discover the hidden power of ADHD. Join us as we explore a strength-based approach to neurodiversity, learn valuable strategies to unlock the unique potential of ADHD, and gain insights to positively impact your life and relationships.

Are you ready to tap into your hidden strengths and transform your perception of ADHD? Then hit that play button and prepare to be inspired. Without further ado, let’s dive into the show!

In This Episode

  • [04:17] – Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowell recalls his childhood and how he gets into the field of neurodiversity as a board-certified child and adult psychiatrist.
  • [06:41] – Dr. Ned emphasizes the positive side of ADHD and dyslexia. He also explains the difference between ADHD and depression.
  • [12:04] – The misconceptions about ADD.
  • [15:23] – Dr. Ned discusses the importance of getting the right diagnosis and treatment.
  • [21:09] – Tips for parents with a child diagnosed with ADHD.
  • [22:13] – Dr. Ned shares two keys to success in ADHD.
  • [25:27] – Dr. Ned’s advice to his younger self.
  • [26:53] – The connection between ADD and empathy.

Jump to Links and Resources

About Today’s Show

Hi, Ned. Welcome to the Stellar Life podcast. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you for inviting me.

Yeah. I’m super happy about this podcast. When I was researching you, I was so pleased with the topic that you are talking about. I think most of us have some form of ADHD

Learning struggles are hidden superpowers. They may bring challenges, but when we harness and manage them, they can unlock incredible benefits. Click To Tweet

Yeah, unless we’re comatose. 

Yeah. I always forget my keys and my other stuff and become disorganized in a way. This is fascinating. I’m super happy that you’re here. 

Please share a little bit before we begin about your origin story. How did you become a doctor? You’re very forward-thinking when it comes to ADHD.

Well, that’s a long story. My childhood was pretty chaotic. There were many interesting people, but many were drunk or crazy or both. I had a very chaotic upbringing. I was conceived when my father was on leave from a mental hospital. He had just returned from the war, where he was a war hero fighting German submarines in World War II. My two older brothers had been born before the war. He came home and went crazy. 

ADHD 2.0 by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. & John J. Ratey, M.D.

The hospital said, “You can go home for a trial visit.” He got home, and he was still crazy. He wanted to murder my mother because he thought she was a Nazi spy. The heartful woman that she was talked him into making love instead. That’s where I came from—an interesting beginning for a psychiatrist.

Then she divorced him and married a very abusive, alcoholic man. I battled with him as a little boy until they sent me away to a boarding school at ten. I grew up in institutions. It was wonderful that they sent me away because I would have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed otherwise. 

I went to wonderful schools, a prep school called Exeter up in New Hampshire, and then Harvard College and went on to medical school, and then back to Harvard for training in psychiatry. Then I began my career as a writer. My books have sold over two million copies, and I’m still active in practice. 

The most important thing I did was marry my wife of 34 years, and then we proceeded to have three children who are now 33, 30 and 27: two boys and a girl. I have achieved my life goal: to create the happy family I didn’t have. Largely because of my wife, I’ve been able to do that. 

I help people unwrap their gifts.

Along the way, my two so-called learning disabilities got diagnosed after I’d finished all my training. I discovered that I had both dyslexia and ADHD. I also realized that there’s a positive side to them. That’s what I’ve built my career on, showing that these conditions are not only impairing but confer major benefits, and if you manage them right, they’re like superpowers.

I wouldn’t trade my ADHD or my dyslexia for all the world. If you look at highly creative people and highly successful entrepreneurs, you’ll find that many, if not most, have these traits. They are traits, not disabilities because they can be positive.

Words are so powerful. 

Absolutely. If you tell someone they have a deficit disorder, you create it. On the other hand, if you say to someone you’ve got a special gift, you create that, too. It’s a powerful reframing to say that I don’t treat disabilities. I help people unwrap their gifts. That’s what my career has been about.

Nice. What’s happening in the brain of somebody with ADHD compared to the brain of somebody who doesn’t have as much of it?

ADHD is commonly labeled as a disability, yet it's crucial to recognize that it is a precious gift waiting to be mindfully unwrapped. Click To Tweet

Let me comment that we all have some because some people dismiss the diagnosis. They say that everybody’s like that. That’s not true. A good analogy is depression. Everybody has been sad, but not everyone has been depressed. The difference is the intensity and the duration of the sadness. If you’re intensely sad for a long time, that’s depression. If it’s passing sadness, we call that sad. 

It is with the symptoms of ADD, if you’re intensely struggling with executive function, punctuality, and organizing, and if you’re intensely struggling to achieve your goals and deliver on your promise, but at the same time, you are spectacularly creative, original, visionary, that’s ADD. The other is simply a case of modern life. 

The point is that there is a difference, and some people dismiss the diagnosis. I love what Edmund Burke said years ago, “Although there’d be not a clear line that divides night from day, no one would disagree, there is a difference.”

In this day and age, we’ll get to that point where night and day are debatable.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey

I get what you’re saying. I don’t mean any disrespect to people who have it. It’s because I have it mildly. Research also showed that with our devices and the quick cuts in movies, our brain starts to be slightly over the place. 

Yeah. But that doesn’t mean that electronic devices create this condition. Because if you take the electronic devices away, do what I called the Vermont test and put someone on a farm in Vermont, the ADD disappears. On the other hand, if they had the true condition, put them on that farm in Vermont. Pretty soon, let’s turn that farm into an amusement park. The environment creates one. The other is inborn genetics.

Right. What does it look like for someone with ADD? What does life look like?

Well, the brain is just incredibly busy. It’s a Ferrari engine for the brain with bicycle brakes. You’ve got this runaway brain, this brain that is constantly coming up with new ideas, thoughts, feelings, impulses, plans, resources, hopes, and fears. The brain is way more active than the average brain, and the challenge is to control all that activity. If you can’t, then you’re not achieving your goals. You’re underachieving, which is the big problem in ADD. 

Recognize that ADHD/ADD is not limited to just boys; girls and adult women can also have it, often presenting as daydreamers with active minds.

But once you learn how to channel it, you win the Nobel Prize, like the man who invented the polymerase chain reaction, the PCR tests we use for COVID, had ADD, and he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Another analogy I use is to imagine Niagara Falls. It’s just a torrent of noise and mist until you build a hydroelectric plant. Imagine that Niagara Falls is the ADD, and the hydroelectric plant is the treatment. Once you take Niagara Falls and hook it up to a hydroelectric plant, you light up the state of New York, but without the hydroelectric plant, there’s just a lot of noise and mist. That’s similar to ADD.

And beauty.

It’s beautiful chaos in our minds until we find a way of channeling all that energy and turning it into something useful. That’s the challenge. That’s what I do for a living.

You debunked one misconception about ADD that is very different between an everyday induced ADD to something somebody was born with, and it can go away with a change in the external environment. What are other myths or ideas that people have about ADD that you would like to debunk?

Delivered from Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. & John J. Ratey, M.D.

Oh, there are so many. One, it’s just something that little boys have. Little girls have, too, they tend not to be hyperactive, so they get overlooked. They’re the quiet daydreamer, but their brain is just as active. It’s moving. It’s just as much a runaway brain. It’s just not disruptive. Little girls aren’t diagnosed; adult women are the biggest undiagnosed group. If they seek help, they’ll almost always get diagnosed with depression or anxiety. 

I’m just impressed with what you just said. 

Yeah. Well, it’s sad that women with ADD go for help. They show anxiety and depression. But what’s driving it is the untreated ADD. They’re anxious because they know they’re making mistakes, right and left. They’re on guard. “How am I going to screw up next?” They’re depressed because they know they’re underachieving. They know they could do better, and they don’t know why they’re not. 

What you see is depression and anxiety. But that’s not what needs treatment, which is the underlying cause, which is the unrecognized ADD, but 99 times out of 100, they get a diagnosis of depression and anxiety. They are given an SSRI antidepressant, which is not what they need. What they need in terms of medication is stimulant medication to help them focus. Then when they focus, they’re more in control. Their anxiety goes down. They achieve at a higher level, and their so-called depression goes away.

That’s something I’ve never known.

It’s huge, particularly for women. It’s a shame they don’t get diagnosed, so they don’t get the help they need most of the time.

Anything else that people would think about ADD?

If untreated, ADD is a really bad thing to have.

Another big one is that people with ADD are stupid, and the opposite is true. We’re creative geniuses. We may not be able to make use of our brilliance. That’s a big problem. My line of work is helping people make use of it. But the general public thinks, “Well, if you have ADD, you’re unreliable, irresponsible, and lazy.” All these what I call moral diagnoses, all these terms of opprobrium, and that’s unfair, wrong, inaccurate and damaging.

Yes. Do you think it is overdiagnosed?

No. These armchair experts have no clue what they’re talking about. Well, it’s not. There are pockets of the country where it is. But if you look at the numbers, it doesn’t bear out over the large sample. In adult women, for example, it’s vastly underdiagnosed. In adults in general, including men, it’s still underdiagnosed. Adult ADD is the biggest undiagnosed population. 

People with ADHD are creative geniuses. However, many adults with ADHD go undiagnosed.

The reason it matters is this is high stakes. If untreated, ADD is a really bad thing to have. The prison population is full of adults with untreated ADD, the addicted population, the unemployed population, the suicidal, the marginalized, and the people who just can’t do anything in their life. That way, overrepresented is ADD, and what’s particularly tragic about it is with the right help, these people could be our greatest contributors. They could go from being down and out of luck, barely getting by, to winning a Nobel Prize, so getting the right diagnosis and treatment matters. 

When used properly, the meds we use for ADD are a godsend. They allow you to focus.

Another myth is that these medications we use are so dangerous. They’re not. If you abuse them, they’re dangerous. If you abuse water, you can drown in it. Any substance of any kind can be misused. But the meds we use for ADD when they’re used properly are godsend. They’re wonderfully effective. They work like eyeglasses. They allow you to focus instead of bumping into things because you can’t see straight. In car accidents people with untreated ADD have eight times more common car accidents. Then when they get treated, the number of car accidents decreases.

What do you think about psilocybin? There are a lot of new supplements on the market, like lion’s mane and other mushrooms, that are supposed to help build a brain-building neurons and help focus. What do you think about it?

I love it, but it’s open season. We don’t have the research studies that we need. We need them, but my philosophy with my patients and myself is whatever helps, use it as long as it’s safe and legal. Psilocybin is illegal in some states and others, but it’s used properly. It’s a wonderful antidepressant.

My friend uses it to help his mom with dementia and other mushrooms. She went from being unable to talk to being able to communicate at the moment. 

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

That’s what’s so cool about this field of natural remedies of herbs and supplements—things that we used to dismiss as being so dangerous and hallucinogenic if you take away the stigma and use it.

As you said, it’s hard to use it.

Exactly. They hold tremendous promise for being able to help conditions that we thought of as unhelpful, for example dementia. But you know, you must be careful because we’re walking into uncharted territory. You want to be careful not to damage yourself or break the law.

Just the phrase “uncharted territories” excites me. 

Yes. That’s because you’re, by nature, a pioneer. Other people would get terrified. Uncharted territory. “I don’t want to go there.” You say, “Let me have it, that’s where I want to go.” You self-select as a pioneer and explorer, a brave woman as opposed to the timid soul who’s like, “Here’s uncharted territory,” and they run for cover.

Thank you. As a parent of a young child, how do parents educate? How do we treat it or approach it?

Don’t force your child to be someone they’re not. Instead, allow them to follow their curiosity.

The way you raise any child, with love, direction, and guidance. With these kids, you don’t force them to be someone they’re not. Follow their curiosity. They’ll take a more twisty, turn course. They won’t be straight, go to law school, and become lawyers. They’re going to go off on tangents. They’re going to twist and turn their way. They will do interesting things, but it won’t be a straight line. What you want to do is be there to offer support.

Ride the waves.

Yes. Exactly. Another analogy I use is riding the bucking bronco. There’ll be a lot of tumbles and spills, but in the long run, these people will change the world. Try not to force them into a conformist model. We are not conformed.

That’s good advice for any child.

Absolutely. It’s not some special way of raising an ADD. It’s what every child should get. It’s just that ADD people need it because, unfortunately, society tends to come down to them as if they should be punished for being like everybody else. These are the battered children throughout history. These are the kids who used to get beaten all the time. Have you ever heard of Captain Underpants


Okay. If you were the parent of a boy, you would have. It’s the best-selling children’s story written by Dav Pilkey. It’s sold like 100 million copies. 

The challenge of having ADHD is to recognize your mind’s beautiful chaos until you can channel that energy and make it work for your life. Click To Tweet

It’s cultural. It’s just that I wasn’t born here. 

Well, every American boy has read Captain Underpants, and then Dog Man was the successor. Anyway, when that man was in school, he attended Lutheran School in the Midwest. His great talent was making people laugh. Well, the teachers didn’t like that. He would get paddled regularly in school. He’d have to stand up, bend over and be hit with this board. 

Medication can help, but the main thing is to find something you like to do that you’re good at.

Right through school, not just as a little boy, he would get paddled regularly and physically abused in eighth, ninth, and tenth grade. I’ve become friends with him because he has ADD and dyslexia, like me. I said, “Dav, are you bitter?” But he said, “No, I’m not bitter. They thought they were doing what they were supposed to do.” He said, “But I guess I’ve had the last laugh,” because he’s become a benefactor of humankind.

Nobody knows who they are and will never know who they are. Somebody who’s experienced this Niagara Falls symptom of ADD and wants to channel it and turn it into fortune and power, how does one do it? What are the strategies?

Well, find what you like. If you’re a parent, continuously follow your child’s curiosity. Whatever they like, try to give them structure and encouragement and keep them at it. That’s what it’s about finding something you’d like to do that you’re good at and then persisting and practicing. As you do that, you’ll develop confidence and self-esteem. 

Those are factors that predict leading a wonderful life. It’s not that complicated, as long as you don’t get led astray into forcing your child to be someone they are not meant to be. If you have a girl, don’t overlook that she could also have ADD. You don’t have to be disruptive to have the condition. 

People with ADD tend to fall for train wrecks. That’s because we love high stimulation. Train wrecks are highly stimulating, and we’re born rescuers.

The basics of parenting are the same regardless. It’s love, support, protection, and some structure with authority. These kids need to be kept from doing dangerous things. They need to be told no from time to time.

But is it just by taking medications for adults who want to succeed and struggle?

Medication can help, but the main thing is to find something you like to do that you’re good at. Then do it. Two keys: marry the right person, live with the right person, sleep with the right person, and find the right job. Those are the two keys. If you do that, for example, I think you’ve done, the rest takes care of itself. Your passion gets channeled toward building a career, a family, and a support network.

Yes. I still have my struggles, though. But it was a big deal for me to hear what you said about the difference between genders because I would daydream for a day as a child. I would daydream and imagine and build worlds.

Open yourself up to life’s experiences and cultivate a caring heart. You may find that good things will come to fruition.

Yeah. That’s the female ADD. You’d get lost in your imagination. You wouldn’t be hyperactive at all. You would be the little girl sitting in the back row looking out the window.

It was a bit of both. What advice can you give somebody recently diagnosed with ADD and is freaking out right now?

Dr. Edward Hallowell’s Books

Well, reading my book is the easiest thing to do. I have written 23 books.

Where do we begin?

The most recent is ADHD 2.0. It came out last year, and it’s only 100 pages. I finally understood my audience. It’s very short. 

It’s because they have ADD. 

Everything you need in terms of bang for your buck, the book costs $10, and you’ve got everything you need in it. Then you get the right help. If you need medication, you see an MD. If you need a coach, you go online and find a coach. As far as finding the right job and marrying the right person, you’ve got to guide yourself, but don’t make the mistake of finding a mate.

People with ADD tend to fall for train wrecks. That’s because we love high stimulation. Train wrecks are highly stimulating, and we’re born rescuers. We want to save these people. You put those two together, the stimulation and the desire to save, and it’s usually not good. Try to find someone who’s exciting but not a train wreck.

Find someone you love who loves you back, and find a job you love that is challenging.

Then try to find a job where it’s the combination of it’s in your wheelhouse, you have an aptitude, but it’s also challenging. If it’s not challenging, you’ll get bored with it. You put the two together, have an aptitude, and it’s challenging. We are incredibly hard workers once we’re interested.

Find someone you love who loves you back, and find a job you love that you can do that’s challenging. You’re off to the races and will outstrip everybody else like you’re doing. You’re a great example. You’ve taken on a difficult task: cobbling together while raising a child and carrying on a relationship. You’re outside the box, you’re growing, you’re feeling your way along, but you’re pulling it off, you’re succeeding, and it’s wonderful to see.

Thank you. Can I have you every week to talk to me like that?

It’s obvious. It’s right there for the world to see.

We miss out on transformative experiences when we aren’t tuned into life.

Thank you so much. What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t worry so much. I grew up worrying, probably because of the chaos I grew up in. “Would everything collapse? Would I survive? Would anyone ever want me?” I was insecure and terrible. But I kept going and didn’t let fear hold me back. That’s another thing. I’m glad I didn’t. A lot of people let fear hold them back. I was afraid, but I didn’t let it hold me back. I just plunged right ahead anyway.

Befriend good people and try not to hook up with bad people.

Thank God, it worked out. I certainly made plenty of mistakes. I suffered plenty of consequences, but I succeeded more than I failed. Trusting the process would be advice. Trust that if you’re putting your best self forward, having goodness in your heart and trying your best, it’ll work out one way or another. Befriend good people and try not to hook up with bad people. I’ve hooked up with bad people. I didn’t see how bad they were. I’ve been betrayed. I’ve been sued. I’ve been falsely accused. All those things have happened to me, but thank goodness, there’s always a way to redeem it, turn it around, and have good stuff follow.

What’s the connection between ADD and empathy?

The parenting requirements for children with ADHD are love, support, protection, authority, and structure. Click To Tweet

We are extraordinarily sensitive, so when we’re engaged, we’re very empathic. But we can seem heartless, clueless, and unimpacted when we’re not. We can just be completely missing the boat. But it’s not because we’re not heartless. We don’t see what’s happening if we’re not queued in.

For somebody who is very empathic, because you’re very empathic, you got involved with the wrong crowd and didn’t see it. What did you do?

The positive sign of being hurt is that if it doesn’t kill you or make you bitter, it deepens you, and you become more empathic.

The positive sign of being hurt is that if it doesn’t kill you or make you bitter, it deepens you, and you become more empathic. That’s what happened to me. Instead of turning into a bitter, angry man, I became a loving, vulnerable man. By the grace of God, I could have turned into a miserable person. But instead, I feel the wellspring of love bubbling up inside of me, playfulness, mischief, and fun all the time except when I’m feeling bleak, dark and down, which happens too.

Thank you for being so kind, generous, and vulnerable. It’s just a pleasure talking to you. I wish we had more time. I know your time is very precious. I have so many more questions, but for another interview sometimes.

Invite me back again. I’d love to come.

Thank you so much. I appreciate you, and thank you, listeners. Remember to trust the process, put your best self forward, befriend good people, and have a stellar life. This is Orion. Till next time. Thank you.

Thank you. That was fun.

Your Checklist of Actions to Take

{✓}Discover which behaviors are defined as ADHD and which are not. Read Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowel’s book, Delivered from Distraction.

{✓}Seek guidance to help you learn how to organize, plan, and follow through. Gain support in your areas of struggle, and devote your energy to areas in which you excel.

{✓}Reframe ADHD as a gift, not a disability. Remember, ADHD isn’t a weakness, but an opportunity to unwrap your unique talents and unleash your superpowers.

{✓}Change your lifestyle by correcting your sleeping patterns, eating and exercise habits, and through building positive connections.

{✓}Understand how your body reacts to my ADHD medication. If your meds help you to focus, continue to take them. However, if they have detrimental side effects, discontinue them.

{✓}Utilize your creative outlets daily. This can help you thrive. For example, cooking, writing, gardening, and building can all help you focus your ADHD.

{✓}Free yourself from shame for seeking help. Help with ADHD isn’t an excuse to avoid responsibility, but a way to remind you: “It’s not your fault.”

{✓}Rid yourself of anger and resentment. Learn to forgive yourself and others. Forgiveness is the ultimate gift. 

{✓}Embrace your mind’s beautiful chaos. Your brain is incredibly active and creative. The challenge lies in channeling ADHD energy to achieve your goals.

{✓}Visit Dr. Edward “Ned” Hallowell’s website for more information about ADHD. Also, follow him on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for short clips of different aspects of ADHD.

Links and Resources

Connect with Dr. Edward Hallowell


YouTube Videos

Further Resources

About Dr. Edward Hallowell

Edward “Ned” Hallowell, M.D. is a board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and world authority on ADHD. He graduated from Harvard College and Tulane Medical School and was a faculty member of Harvard Medical School for 21 years. He is the Founder of The Hallowell ADHD Centers in Boston MetroWest, New York City, San Francisco, Palo Alto and Seattle.

He has spent the past four decades helping thousands of adults and children live happy and productive lives through his strength-based approach to neurodiversity and has ADHD and dyslexia himself.

Dr. Hallowell is a New York Times bestselling author and has written 20 books on multiple psychological topics. The groundbreaking Distraction series, which began with Driven to Distraction, co-authored with Dr John Ratey in 1994, sparked a revolution in understanding of ADHD.

Dr Hallowell has been featured on 20/20, 60 Minutes, Oprah, PBS, CNN, The Today Show, Dateline, Good Morning America, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and many more. He is a regular columnist for ADDitude Magazine.

Dr. Hallowell lives in the Boston area with his wife, Sue, and they have three children, Lucy, Jack and Tucker.

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