“Reading poetry, within a few seconds, shuts my brain down.”
Ed Catmull in an interview with Tim Ferriss on Episode 22 of The Tim Ferriss Show.
Hearing Ed Catmull say that was the first time I ever heard someone else describe their brain “shutting down” that way. I say it all the time. It happens mostly when I read but very, very frequently when I’m bored. Anyone who has ever been a teacher or co-worker of mine has probably seen my brain “shut down,” or from their perspective, they’ve seen me asleep at a desk, in a meeting, in a car, or any other number of places and situations. I’ve fallen asleep behind the wheel. Once fell asleep standing up at a museum. I fell asleep taking the SAT.
[One caveat before I continue… I like to say that I read a lot but that is not entirely true because since I have this problem with my brain “shutting down” when I read, if I say I read something, I usually mean that I listened to the audiobook.]
A couple of years ago I read Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults by Thomas Brown and in it Dr. Brown discusses common traits among his ADHD clients that are not necessarily part of the criteria to meet diagnosis. Because the manual that defines ADHD is so limiting, Dr. Brown discusses what he calls ADD Syndrome throughout the book versus the DSM-5-defined ADHD. Among the symptoms he considers to be a part of ADD Syndrome was the “shutting down” and falling asleep that I’ve struggled with my entire life.
I read Dr. Brown’s book around the time I was trying to decide if I should get evaluated for ADHD. You see, at the time, part of my job was so soul-crushingly boring that I was falling asleep consistently while trying to complete documentation (and homework from grad school) and I was afraid it was going to cost me my job. I went to two different offices and received two different diagnoses but only one agreed that I had ADHD.
It felt amazing to read Dr. Brown’s and other’s books and hearing myself described in them. I felt like I wasn’t alone, that other people could relate, and most importantly that people like Dr. Brown were out there who might be able to help. It also gave me the confidence that I would be able to help others like me. So that second diagnosis of “not ADHD” really shook me up. I felt alone again and suddenly felt like all of those positive connections I had been making were no longer accurate.
After discussing the psychologist’s report with other therapists and looking at it critically as a clinician, I came the conclusion that she didn’t believe what I was saying about my symptoms. Just another example of the mental health world being a huge mess. [If you’re interested in learning more about that experience, check out this talk I had with Dr. Kirsten Milliken at PlayDHD:
So getting back to Ed Catmull… Who is this guy? He is the co-founder and current president of Pixar, the author of a book I really want to listen to titled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, and he’s done many other great things. Google him.
If Ed’s brain can shut down in such a way that he says he is “unable to read poetry” and still do everything he’s done, I feel a little better about my chances.
In fact, he followed up his poetry statement by sharing that he was able to find an audio version of the Iliad and was able to enjoy it. I made that same revelation many years ago and it changed my life. What I learned from the experience was that we don’t have to be limited by limitations and that there is likely another path to reach the same goal. (And if there isn’t another path, you can make another path.)
Reading is still difficult for me. I usually can’t even make it through a 20-page comic book in less than 3 sittings but damn do I like comic books. And I really like books so I’ve found different ways to be able to consume long-form text. Did you know there are audio versions of newspapers like The New York Times? It’s true. Even your brain shutting down doesn’t necessarily have to be an obstacle to achieving your goals.