When I was a little girl, I used to beg my mom to read “The Ugly Duckling” to me every night. By the end of the story I was sobbing my heart out, yet so strangely entranced by the tale, that I asked for it over and over again. There was just something about this poor little out-of-place duck that seemed to be a part of me…or like me.
I always felt different, like I just couldn’t fit in with everyone else. My mind’s train travelled in loops that didn’t even exist in other children’s brains, and their tracks were in lines I couldn’t fathom. I tried to find a box to fit into my whole life. I wanted a label for what I was – something to describe my oddness – so that I knew which parts of myself to scratch out and which fake parts to paste on. On that happy day I would be able to swim into the pond (with a very natural-looking feathered suit) and call myself a duck.
The easiest way to label brain differences is to clump a whole lot of symptoms together and call it a syndrome, dysfunction or disorder. Sometimes these symptoms overlap so you get sticky labels stuck over each other, like old price tag upon old price tag. I’ve been pasted with ADD, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and a “mild form” of borderline personality disorder. I guess that’s like being slightly salty. It’s still salt in the end. In other words, DIFFERENT.
In school I was too shy, worked too fast, too untidy, way too clever for my grade, way too slow socially, advanced in maths, poor in sports. Basically if there was a bell curve of average, I was in that thin crushed line on either side – either too little of something or too much of something else. I could never just fit in with 95% of the other kids in the peaceful middle. And guess where you make friends. Yeah, in the middle. Which leaves you with other oddballs to hang out with. And although your weirdness brings you together, it also sets you even further apart. Because now you’re one of “them” – the freaks. The nerd who doesn’t get invited to parties. The clumsy girl who is never chosen for a sports team. The boy with the tics or the outbursts.
Kids teased us about our differences, of course. Adults disciplined us for the areas we failed; yet, seldom praised us for our unique strengths. It’s a rather dark cupboard for a little green sprout of self-esteem to try and grow. Usually those sprouts die and turn into self-loathing and depression. Oh goodness – another tick on a DSM checklist. Another possible syndrome.
Turns out we had it all backwards.
The freaks were the fucking swans in a massive lake of ducks. We didn’t act like ducks or look like ducks because we weren’t ducks. Put us with other swans, or show us what a swan looks like, and we will be pretty damn fine examples. We had a whole lot of things we couldn’t do well, but as part of this constellation of “symptoms” we also had unique abilities, strengths and insights.
Swans aren’t better than ducks any more than ducks are better than swans. They’re just DIFFERENT.
“The Power of Different” by Dr Gail Saltz impacted me on such a profound level that I changed the wording in my About Page. I might have been given a formal diagnosis by a psychiatrist, but the truth is that my overlapping symptoms in a textbook also come with a great bunch of strengths. Yes, I may need medication to help me with some of my weaknesses, but I also have areas of genius that make that seem like a small price to pay. It all comes down to perception and how I talk about myself. Here’s the crux: I have brain differences, not a disorder.
Saltz says: “The world is full of fascinating people who didn’t achieve success despite their brain differences, but rather in large part because of their brain differences…The very things that can cause our lives to be difficult (our inability to relate easily to others, or learning differences, or mood disorders, for example) often come with unique skills and aptitudes (artistic abilities, creativity, a knack for remembering numbers or names, or an ability to visualise data in a unique way).”
The mirror facing weakness reveals bright sparks of genius. The flipside of being an oddball, is the gifted ability you have in another area.
Saltz explains it like this: “Our brains are like coral reefs in which even the most seemingly distinct species (or parts of the brain) are highly interconnected and interdependent…a deficit in one part of the brain can create an amplification in another.” Strength cannot exist without weakness. And when you navigate around the weaknesses, you create an opportunity to magnify the strengths.
Forget about labels and diagnoses and all the problems you or your child may be facing – just for a moment – and consider where the unusual and profound strengths lie. By paying more attention to this area, we will discover the reason why the evolution of the human race has allowed certain disabilities to continue in our DNA. We need these brain differences to excel as a species.
Most geniuses who have made a tremendous impact were not ducks. In fact, if you go through a list of the most profound human beings in our history – from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs – you will see a common thread. They were individuals who thought differently and had different ideas. They all needed to mitigate their weaknesses (which included symptoms that fell into ADD, bipolar disorder, depression, and autism) and amplify their strengths.
Saltz asks these questions: “What are the traits – learning differences, distractibility, anxiety, eccentric thinking, melancholy, cycling mood and lack of relatedness – associated with the most common brain differences? What are the potential gifts, talents, tendencies and particular sparks of brilliance or insight that often accompany those traits?”
“When exploring an individuals potential, the label is less important than the way the brain actually expresses itself…It is the symptoms – not the labels – that impact how we engage with the world and how the world engages with us.”
For example, the book describes a radiologist who has dyslexia, and she sees this as an ability, not a disability. “The same neurological process that makes it difficult for her to read text enables her to almost effortlessly find abnormalities on a scan. She also believes that ideas and conclusions come to her more quickly because she thinks visually.” Her unique talent is a direct result of her differently thinking brain.
Saltz explains that the key to success for people with brain differences is to develop “work-arounds.” These are ways of wiggling a square peg into a round hole when you need to. We still have to get through school, thrive in careers, and manage relationships – just like everybody else. These work-arounds could include therapy, medication, different lifestyle choices, using your different way of thinking to mitigate your weakness, choosing subjects that interest you, and so on.
Working around areas of distinct deficiency can be really difficult, however. If you have ADD, trying to stay focussed for long periods of time in a really boring class can seem impossible. But, if you search for an aspect of that subject that interests you, you can use that to explore the boring information through a prism of something that fascinates you.
This is where another trait becomes critical to success: Grit and resilience. You need to work harder and longer at things other people find effortless. But once you develop these coping strategies and are able to wiggle your way through your weaknesses, you have a massive clear road ahead where you can open that throttle to your genius. Saltz gives this example: A brain difference is “like Niagara Falls. Until you build a hydroelectric plant, it’s just a lot of noise and mist. If you build a hydroelectric plant you light the state of New York.”
In the group of freaks I belonged to as a kid, our real disabilities were not our mood disorders or learning problems. They were shame and fear. The feeling of not being good enough.
I wish I could go back and hug that little girl I once was and tell her to carry on being a math whizz and forget about catching the netball. Who cares if you feel awkward at a party? Read a book in the corner and be yourself.
And I would tell her to look in a different mirror. Not the one that was reflected by the kids that teased her or the adults that didn’t understand. The mirror that spoke the truth: You’re not a duck. You’ll never be good at trying to be one.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t float on a lake, or fly with your wings outstretched. You’ll just look a little different when you do it. Some might say, even a little better.
Title: The Power of Different: The link between disorder and genius
Author: Dr Gail Saltz
Publisher: Jonathan Ball Publishers