Considering ADD and Systems Administration

Posted on August 21, 2007

I’m a weird fellow, always have been. I chop this up to personality. But, I’ve got some strange issues that I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out, such as:

  • I spend way to much time thinking about things I need to do and not enough time doing them. I’m not talking a couple minutes, I’m talking weeks. I’ve put off tasks for months because of FUD, when the task itself would only take a handful of hours to complete… worst of all, I was aware of that fact all along, and most of the thinking was about why I’m not doing it, not how to accomplish it.
  • I can’t finish books. My minds drifts, badly. I’ll go half a page, drift on one idea or another and then 5 pages later realize I don’t know what I just read. This is why I can’t read non-tech, despite the fact that I love sci-fi and philosophy.
  • I have a huge aversion to doing what I’m supposed to. If I have a list of tasks to complete ranked A, B, C in terms of importance, I will do C with great gusto and interest all the while loathing A and B tasks.
  • I can’t complete tasks; this is hard to admit publically, but any reader of this blog shouldn’t be surprised, I want do just about everything, I think about it, but get started and drop it, pick it up weeks later, drop it, so on and so forth.
  • I have trouble listening. I’m always composing my response while the other party is speaking. This becomes somewhat obvious when I listen to the Joyent Podcast… I’ve started to train myself, thanks to this new awareness of listening to myself in a conversation, to just repeat what the other person is saying back to myself in my head to stay focused.
  • I constantly second guess myself. I love to argue and debate, but its not terribly hard to corner me because even something that I’ve done dozens of times can be uncertain… maybe the other guy really does know what they are talking about and I’m an idiot… I thus keep having to re-learn things I’ve already learned. This is why I write so much, quite honestly, its not for you that I write, its for me.
  • I can’t seem to remember anything… this adds to the pain of the previous item, my memory is total crap. Again, hence I write.
  • I transpose words in speech and writing. Again, readers of this blog probably have noticed this. Some of my typos aren’t really typos at all, I just write faster than I think, which is why I hate proofreading and tend to just scream chars onto the screen and submit it away.

An example of all these together is my Oracle book. I wrote the entire book, examples and all, in 4 days… the bulk of it in 2. It then took over a year to edit and it was an unbearably painful task, several times I wanted to send the check I was paid for it back to USENIX and call the whole thing off. Suddenly something I wanted to do became something I had to do, I can’t bear to even read my own writing, and I spent more time thinking about how much I hated editing the stupid book than actually doing it.

Now, before I continue let me say that I have always personally felt that ADD was a pile of crap.. its just the way some people are, they think differently, have different needs, different styles, etc. Most of that sentiment comes from a childhood of watching kids go from energetic and excited kids into Ritalin zombies. I saw plenty of kids who’s parents preferred their kid suicidal rather than give them some love and attention and just drugged the kids into a soulless kid with suddenly improved table manners. Give the kid a shovel and point ’em toward a nice deep place to dig up some adventure, let ’em chop some wood and build a fort, stop with the zombie drugs.

But, that said, there isn’t harm in at least have classifications for people and behavior. Better to know thyself and have a term to boot than be in the dark.. but that doesn’t mean the Rx pad has to obligatorily appear.

Tam started looking into ADD and ADHD just to better educate herself should similar symptoms ever come up with our kids. In discussing it I begrudgingly noted that what little I knew about the symptoms pissed me off because they matched me pretty well. Frankly, I think they fit a lot of people pretty well. The world is a place that we’re allowing to get faster and faster all the time without really much solid reason, but we keep stretching ourselves thinner and thinner. I tend to chop this up to American culture of harder, faster, more.

But, I do have issues, I know this. I just assume they are normal. Thus, my problem isn’t some hooty-tooty disorder, I’m just lazy and have screwed up priorities, etc. I noted before in my blog entry about Sysadmin Mentoring, that I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my own behaviors, beliefs, and ideas. I’ve spent time reading a pile of great books that all fit into the dreaded “personal growth” category, most of which sent me back to reading more definative and foundational texts, namely Thoreau and Emerson. But, alas, I’ve sort of hit that ‘self help gulch’ in which you walk away with lots of questions, some answers, a couple new tips and tricks, but ultimately end up close to where you started, although perhaps a little wiser for the journey. Many of my issues listed above aren’t answered by any of the books regarding management, leadership, integrity and character that I’ve read. Perhaps the most useful was David Cloud’s Integrity, which emphasizes a firm handle on reality, that which is rather than that which may have, could have, would have been… this addressed the wandering mind issue to some extent and has been helpful to some degree.

Then the thought occurred to me that the symptoms of ADD not only fit me well, but many sysadmins. Lack of focus, desire to do large numbers of tasks at once and hopping constantly between them all the while unable to get any large tasks complete. That sounds like a lot of sysadmins out there. Is it possible that this job is a magnet to those who fit the ADD profile because it suits the symptoms so well? Can you sweep these symptoms away as “information overload” or is there something deeper?

And so, this is why I post this… I’m curious to hear what other sysadmins think. We know that some of the most gifted coders in the world have “disorders” which give them superior mental, mathematical, and focus abilities. Is it possible that sysadmins are, potentially, the converse? Are our abilities to juggle large numbers of tasks simultaneously, ability to not get too bogged down in any one thing, and ability to deal with disorder come from “disorders” themselves, may of which our ego driven minds stamp out as “bullshit excuses for losers” rather than accept that it might be something with an unfriendly stamp like ADD?

I’m still just researching, I’m not diagnosed, and frankly have no interest in ever being. If I were going to look into anything it’d probably be sleep apnea (I fit the profile and would explain my sucky memory), but I’m too lazy to get tested for that either… too much to do. But I will say that in my research thus far one book caught my attention: You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!: The Classic Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder.

But, seriously, how many of you, my fellow sysadmins, feel the same? Anyone actually gone down this road before? And, if there is any validity to it, wtf do you do with this new found knowledge?