What can we learn from Rousseau’s ADHD?

I did not feel learned enough, nor did I think I was clever enough to shine.

With every word I read of Rousseau, the closer I get to understanding the inner workings of my true self. This is not just a biography, but a treasure trove of ADHD symptoms. A trove of symptoms that are as potent as if they were breathing the air of modern-day Paris.

So what is it about Rousseau’s life that inspires me?

Before discovering my own ADHD, I was convinced of my stupidity. Even after a formal diagnosis, I knew my brain was too slow to compete with the average neurotypical. That is why I’ve found reading this biography so inspiring. It’s a classic example of how to survive repeated setbacks and avoid that negative thinking cycle that consumes so many of us. His life is proof that ADHDers are capable of achieving success.

The first ADHD symptom I stumbled across was an obvious one. It occurs early on in the book, with Rousseau reflecting on his studies. He describes his inattentiveness as follows:

I am clearly not a born student; for I become so exhausted by protracted study that I find it impossible to concentrate on the same subject for even half an hour at a time.

After following for a few pages an author who must be read with attention, my mind wanders off and becomes lost in the clouds.

Then just a few pages later, he gives the perfect depiction of his muddled filing-cabinet brain:

It is with unbelievable difficulty that my ideas arrange themselves into any sort of order in my head. They circle there obscurely …and in the midst of all this emotion I see nothing clearly; I cannot write a word, I must wait.”

One of the most surprising facts about Rousseau is that he didn’t spend a day of his life at school. His education was entirely self-taught. It’s during these years of self-study that it becomes clear how much his ADHD impeded and disguised his intelligence. This is evident not just from his absent academic record, but his forgetfulness and slowness of mind. Some of you may not identify with this, especially the sharp and quick-thinking of you. However, on a personal level, I found his slow and complex mind very relatable. He states in the following two passages that…

Two almost irreconcilable opposites are united within me: on the one hand, an ardent temperament, keen and impetuous passions, and on the other, ideas that are confused, slow to take shape, and only ever occur to me afterwards. I am transported yet stupid; to be able to think, I need to be composed.

…my impromptus, given time are excellent, but I have never, on the spur of the moment, said or done anything worthwhile.

Of all his difficulties, the one I found most poignant was his poor verbal memory. This could have been a separate language disability with little or no connection to his ADHD; but for me, it’s the most frustrating part of my brain. It confirms my suspicions, that in some circumstances, no matter how much one perseveres, even the greatest minds have to eventually give up. You can see how this applied to his memory:

The study of words poses real problems for someone who has no memory, and it was precisely in order to force my memory to increase its capacity that I persisted in this study. I had to give it up in the end.

I must have learned and relearned twenty times Virgil’s Eclogues, of which I have retained not one single word.

I am totally bereft of verbal memory and have never in my life managed to learn six lines of verse by heart.

Growing up, the traits and symptoms appear consistently from his childhood through to adulthood: the anxiety, creativity, forgetfulness, hyperfocus and overthinking. One common theme is his ‘musings and movement’. The sort of stimulation needed for ADHDers to arouse their creative introspection. I loved reading this because I feel exactly the same way, especially when I’m out and about walking with my music. He admits at various times that…

There is something about walking that animates and activates my ideas. I can hardly think at all when I am still; my body must move if my mind is to do the same.”

I can meditate only when walking; as soon as I stop, I can no longer think, for my mind moves only when my feet do.”

Seated at my table, with my pen in my hand and my paper in front of me, I have never been able to achieve anything. It is when I am out walking among the rocks and the woods, it is at night, sleepless in my bed, that I write in my head.

Another common theme is found when reading of his emotional side. Throughout his life, he is always reflecting on the intensity of his passions and sensitivities. I’ve provided a few of his personal reflections below:

Feelings burst upon me like lightening and fill my soul; but instead of illuminating, they burn and dazzle me.

My passions, when roused, are intense, and, so long as I am activated by them, nothing equals my impetuosity.

Except for the object of my passion, the whole world is nothing to me.

When moved by passion, I can sometimes find the words for what I need to say; but in ordinary conversation I can find nothing.

All his ADHD struggles come to the fore in his long and tedious search for a career. So much so, that by his early thirties he had drifted through thirteen different jobs. First, as a clerk (he was dismissed for incompetence). Then, at fifteen - in typical ADHD style – he dropped out of an apprenticeship. Following this, he spent the next twenty years idling in-between several humbling and lacklustre jobs.

Despite his adversity, he continued to persevere along the path of life. Then, at the age of 38, while reading a newspaper, he finally stumbled across the essay competition that triggered his rise to fame.

The romantic part of me naturally hopes to achieve a similar fate someday. I like to walk outside (with music in my ears) and fantasise that one day my ideas will be published and read worldwide. Belief and confidence gush through my veins as I become master of my destiny.

The difficulty I have is that each time I aspire to anything, those clouds of doubt suddenly build up inside my head. I convince myself that Rousseau was in a league of his own. That I am nothing. Then, take to punishing myself for even thinking such a thing. The cycle starts again the next day…

This is so natural for ADHDers, who have such difficulty combating their constant negative view of themselves. It’s tempting to admit defeat, but it doesn’t have to be that way though.

With the right support and the right mindset, it’s just a matter of time before one’s talents are fully revealed to the world; ‘for if they are real, they will eventually be discovered’. This is why nurturing your ADHD is so important. Finding those strengths that build your unique profile in the world. If you can find someone who can help you on this journey, then you're already one step closer to making it happen!