Sailboats and ADHD

sail boat


What is the connection between sailboats and ADHD? Surprisingly, they are closely related. But first we have to explain what ADHD is, and then the connection will become quite clear. Usually, people ask a different question: Is ADHD real? Yes, it is definitely real, but it is greatly misunderstood. This article will attempt to clarify this intriguing condition that has been termed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Attention Deficit
As the term indicates, one of the primary traits of ADHD is an attention deficit. This would imply that people with ADHD have a hard time paying attention. This is partially true. Actually, if they are interested in something they can focus extremely well, even to the point where they will hyperfocus and become completely absorbed. The attention deficit is in regard to activities that they find boring and not stimulating. This apparent paradox can be perplexing at first, but once we understand the nature of ADHD, it will all make sense.
ADHD minds have two unique traits. First, their minds are hyperactive. (Yes, their minds!) As someone with ADHD once said, “I have more thoughts before breakfast than most people have all day.” Secondly, their minds are stimulus driven – meaning that their minds are drawn to excitement and stimulation. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when something is not interesting and there is no stimulus to trigger their mind, they may get very fidgety and restless, since their highly active mind is in lockdown. On the other hand, when something is exciting and interesting, their stimulus-driven mind is triggered, and their hyperactive mind can focus so well that they won’t even hear their name if they are called. As someone with ADHD once said, “When I am interested in a book, I can read the entire 500 pages without lifting my eyes from the page. But when I am not interested, it is extremely hard to focus even on one paragraph.”
This can be very confusing to people who don’t understand ADHD. Rachel’s husband, Levi, has ADHD. She can’t comprehend why he has a hard time focusing on their conversation at the supper table but doesn’t lift his eyes off the page when he is reading a book he enjoys.
When children with ADHD do not pay attention in class, it is not because they are not focusing on anything, rather they are focusing on many other things that they find interesting. The child might be fascinated by the clouds in the sky, the bug crawling up the wall, the design of the ceiling tiles, the binding of his textbook, the pinstripes on his teacher’s suit, and many other points of interest for him (all at the same time!). But if he does not find the teacher’s lesson stimulating, he will have an extremely hard time paying attention.
Children with ADHD will also have an extremely difficult time performing “boring” household chores much to the bewilderment of their parents who cannot understand why their child is being so defiant.
Another hallmark of ADHD is impulsivity. People with ADHD will make impulsive decisions without thinking through the consequences. They will also say whatever comes to their mind without first contemplating if what they are about to say is socially appropriate. This is also a result of their hyperactive and uninhibited minds, which are working so fast that they just act. When an ADHD child blurts out in the middle of class, “Rebbe, that is stupid,” he might not be acting with chutzpah. He just might not have thought before he spoke.
Impulsivity can also be a double-edged sword. Some ADHD children say and do things that lead to punishments at home or in school, especially if their condition is poorly understood. But this trait can also work in their favor. They can be appreciated as being extremely honest and transparent, since they say what they think and do not hide anything. Impulsivity can also help ADHD adults be courageous, daring, curious, and creative, which can work in their benefit if they are entrepreneurs. In fact, David Neelman, the billionaire CEO of JetBlue Airways, credits his ADHD for his success. A well-known veteran principal once said that his “A” students are employed by his “D” students. Of course, the energy of the ADHD mind also might cause these people to become failed entrepreneurs, since they can make impulsive bad decisions. The trick lies in harnessing the power and energy of the ADHD mind but at the same time employing the necessary mental checks and balances. If you are driving a car that has the engine of a race car, you better have good brakes.
Unfortunately, the impulsivity and the need for stimulation can have disastrous consequences. People with ADHD have a much higher rate of substance abuse. Among adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse, the rate of ADHD is about 25 percent.
Essentially, everything about ADHD is a double-edged sword. ADHDers are distractible but curious. They have a short attention span but can act on moment’s notice. They are disorganized but spontaneous. They are hyperactive but tireless. They have difficulty following instructions but are great at being independent and creative. They are easily bored but get very excited with new ideas. They act without considering the consequences but are willing to take risks. They lack social grace, which sometimes comes in handy when something uncomfortable has to be said.
Wow, what a list! This brings to mind a couple of famous quotes from Albert Einstein. “Organized people are just too lazy to go looking for what they want.” He also said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Disorganization and passionate curiosity. That is ADHD. (By the way, many believe that Einstein’s success as a scientist is because he himself had ADHD.)
Have you figured out yet the connection between sailboats and ADHD? If you have not, keep on reading.
ADHD people are notorious for being irresponsible and not staying on task. As mentioned, unless the activity is exciting, fun, and stimulating, they will have an extremely difficult time staying focused. They will procrastinate and be easily distracted from the task at hand. This can be maddening if your spouse has ADHD. A fascinating illustration of this is the following anecdote concerning “Rabbi Bergfeld.” (To maintain confidentiality, the anecdote is a composite.)
Rabbi Bergfeld is a tremendous masmid (someone who is constantly learning Torah). Learning Torah is his passion. He is greatly respected by all for his vast Talmudic knowledge. However, his shalom bayis was a little rocky. He consistently would not carry through on promises he made to his wife. Whether it was taking out the garbage, paying the electric bill on time, picking up the dry-cleaning on the way home, or any of the myriad tasks that spouses do for each other, he would often forget to carry through. He justified himself by saying that he has such a love for Torah learning that he has a hard time devoting mental energy to anything else. His wife became extremely confused. On the one hand, she respected the fact that her husband was such an accomplished Torah scholar, but she still felt that it was not an excuse for being irresponsible.
Eventually, the Bergfelds went to a marital therapist to work on their shalom bayis. Within five minutes of their first session, the therapist said that most of the issues would resolve on their own if Rabbi Bergfeld dealt with his ADHD. The therapist’s declaration shocked Rabbi Bergfeld, but eventually he came to understand that he did indeed have ADHD, which caused him to become completely immersed in tasks that were exciting (for him, learning Torah) but would make it very hard for him to keep focus on those parts of life that were not as exciting. Basically, Rabbi Bergfeld had been harnessing the power of the ADHD mind in becoming a Torah scholar, but his ADHD was not as conducive to being successful as a responsible husband. Rabbi Bergfeld has since become much better at staying focused on his responsibilities much to the satisfaction of his wife, and indeed their shalom bayis has never been better.
Wind Power
By now, you probably all figured out how sailboats and ADHD are similar. A sailboat runs on wind power, which is a very powerful force, and harnesses the energy to propel the boat across great distances. Similarly, ADHD is a tremendous power that, if harnessed, can propel the ADHD person to great heights. If not properly harnessed, however, it can be a very destructive force.
In conclusion, if you have a child, spouse, family member, or student with ADHD, the first thing you must do is educate yourself as to the nature of this condition. If a person with ADHD is not understood, it will be very difficult to assist him. If you expect someone with ADHD to be like “everybody else,” he will be led to believe that he is a good-for-nothing. Here, another quote from Albert Einstein is appropriate: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” By understanding the unique qualities a person with ADHD has to offer, you can help him control the negative side of the condition and focus on the positives.

Rabbi Hauptman is Director of Relief of Baltimore, a mental health referral service. Contact him at or at 410-448-8356.

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