ADHD and Creativity, as Explained by a Creative Director
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Kenny Friedman is a creative director with ADHD who’s driven to constantly do more and better. And yet he calls himself an underachiever. (Stay tuned to the 18-minute mark for a mini “aha” moment on that.)

Kenny has been diagnosed with ADHD twice, but his true ADHD “aha” came after his second diagnosis. He realized ADHD is actually what makes him so creative and great at his job. Yes, ADHD has its ups and downs. But for Kenny, his ability to get bored quickly allows him to always be innovating and improving his ideas. 

Kenny grew up as the class clown and still holds that title today. Join a conversation with Kenny and host Laura Key on ADHD and creativity. Also in this episode: Is there a connection between punk rock and ADHD?

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Episode transcript

Kenny: I realize that my superpower is ADHD. It's a good thing for me, and it's the thing that helps me create and get bored and then come up with something new and see things at that speed that I need to to do what I do. And I realize for me, I need ADHD to be the person and the creative that I am.

Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood. And as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

I'm here today with Kenny Friedman. Kenny is a creative director who lives in the Chicago area. So let's get started, Kenny. Tell me about your diagnosis. When were you diagnosed? How old were you? What was going on at that time?

Kenny: I actually had two different diagnoses — two different points in my life. The first one was when I was about 11 or 12. It was right around when people started realizing that ADHD was a thing, and I was that classic underachiever in school. And I got diagnosed. It was weird. I don't really remember it because it was so long ago. But I remember going to neurologists and things and going through all the tests, and then I was prescribed medication at that time. So I think I started that in either end of fifth grade or the beginning of sixth grade.

Laura: And around — I don't want to give away your age if you don't want to. But when was that? What year?

Kenny: That would have been like '85? It was either in fifth or sixth grade. So it was around '84, '85.

Laura: OK, great. Well, I'll do the math at home later. I'm just kidding.

Kenny: I'm like 23.

Laura: Yeah, 23-year-old Kenny. So you said you were acting out. Can you give me an example of how you were acting out?

Kenny: I mean, I've always been and still am, I guess, in a way, the class clown. And I think it came from — I was bored in school and I needed to entertain myself. So anything from cracking jokes to doing weird things to like literally getting up in class and walking around. I would often leave class. I would, you know, finish an hourlong test in like 15 minutes and then leave for 45, just because I couldn't sit there. So that was the only thing I knew how to do is to go to the bathroom or pretend to go to the bathroom for 45 minutes. And, you know, after a while, teachers didn't like that, I suppose.

Laura: Was it teachers who were noticing behavior like that who recommended an evaluation?

Kenny: Yeah, my teachers definitely noticed it. My parents probably did. I know my mom, she's older, so she's never been confirmed, but she's more ADHD than I am, I would say, just based on the way that she is and her impulse control and things like that. But it was really obvious. And then if you compare me to my sibling, we were very different. So I was definitely the one that was acting out and getting in trouble.

Laura: How did your parents react to your evaluation, getting diagnosed? Were they mad at you for acting out? Were they supportive?

Kenny: My parents were definitely mad at me for acting out because I was underachiever. Because I would test well in the tests that I was taking and honestly leaving early. But I was then not doing as good in school. So that was a constant struggle. And because all my report cards would say — literally all of them said — if Kenny spent half the time on his school that he did acting out, he would be getting straight A's.

So they were supportive. But that said, they were also going through a divorce. So I don't think I was the focus, and I think having me diagnosed was a nice thing for them to understand and it was one less thing for them to have to deal with during that. Also, my father was a pharmacist, so he got it right away, the need for medication and all that.

Laura: At that age, were you aware of what you had been diagnosed with? Did you have a name for it or not?

Kenny: When I was diagnosed, I mean, it was — so again, it was a long time ago. And I think my belief is that that's when the conversation about ADD and ADHD started. So I was given both of those titles. I had no idea what it was. There was another kid in my class who went through testing, and I remember they said, "Oh, no, he doesn't have ADHD. He just eats too much sugar." Which I don't even know if it's a thing, but you know that.

Laura: It's a mess.

Kenny: Yeah, that's what was going on at the time is he didn't have it, so it must be sugar. So I didn't really know what it was. I knew that I was different than everybody else because I was the only person that had this at the time. I didn't really understand it. I know that it spoke to the reasons why I was doing the things I was doing, but there was no understanding like there is now. You know, I literally — I don't think I met anybody else with an ADHD diagnosis until I was maybe in college, or maybe after.

Laura: How does that make you feel? You said you felt different. Did you feel like you stood out? Did you feel like you fit in? What was going on with you?

Kenny: I mean, I've always not necessarily cared about fitting in, so it didn't hurt in any way. I was always in scenes, that — I mean, I was a punk. So not fitting in was probably a good thing.

Laura: That's really interesting to me. I had a little kind of flirtation with punk scene in high school and college, and I don't know, is there any connection to like ADHD mindset and the punk scene as you see it?

Kenny: Probably. I bet you a lot of the people in the punk scene skew towards ADD or something, right? Because in that scene, there's a huge DIY movement. And I do think for me, one of the things that I see is I got bored, so I would need to do things myself. So it wasn't necessarily DIY, but I think a lot of people I know that are musical are, you know, ADD, ADHD, and there is that whole movement of doing things yourself. And I think when you have that brain that's always going, you need to find something to do yourself so you can put that energy into something good and kind of stop the madness of the brain.

Laura: That's really interesting. I never thought about it that way. And when you said that, the first thing that came to my mind is like how short punk songs often are.

Kenny: Yeah, they are short. I say that I like to go see a band whose songs are like two and a half minutes long, but then like they're like under 2 minutes. And again, I don't know if it's just the music that I like, but one of the worst musical experiences of my life was going to a Dead show, because then you go, and there's this song that's 5 minutes long, and it just goes on forever — for like 30 minutes. And it's like, I get it. And it's technically a great solo, but that could have been seven songs.

Laura: Yeah, move on.

Kenny: Yeah, I'm done. And that gets to that — like, again, I don't know if it's connected. I only know my brain as my brain. But yeah, I get bored. Like the world that I'm in right now, you know, I'm in the creative field and that ability to get bored quickly helps me. Probably helps musicians. It probably helps other people with ADHD that are in the creative field, because they get bored quickly and they do their thing and then they move on to the next thing and they keep growing.

Laura: I went to a Sonic Youth show in my teens and there was like 10 minutes of plucking the same guitar note. And then I was just like, I about lost my mind.

Kenny: It's funny you say that because you'd think I'd like Sonic Youth because it was in the whole thing, but it was — their songs are too long.

Laura: They're so long. They're great. They're so long. Yeah. Well, I mean, we're obviously like making a lot of bleeps here about ADHD in music, but it's still interesting to talk about it and like it pertains to your life and to a smaller degree, probably my life.

When we first started chatting, you mentioned you had two diagnoses. And so we talked about the fifth or sixth grade one. What's the other one?

Kenny: When I was in sixth grade, I was diagnosed and they prescribed Ritalin for me, and it didn't really work for me. I probably only took it for six months. From 12 to about 27, 28, I was unmedicated, and I just learned how to be me off of medication. But then I got a job at a brand and it was — the life there was very corporate. And that was a time where I realized, OK, having ADHD is a hurdle to me. Like all throughout my life, it wasn't necessarily a hurdle, but in this case it wasn't a good thing. It was very obvious that I was very different.

So I went and I got diagnosed again because I wanted to get medicated for it so I can work through like these long meetings and the expectations that the people at this company had for me. I was prescribed medication and it helped me in that environment, helped me in that corporate environment. And I think most people are in environments where it does help them. But for me, in this creative environment where I had to keep coming up with ideas, I felt like that part of my brain just wasn't firing on all cylinders. So I stopped taking it again. Switched jobs for many reasons, but I haven't felt that same sense of "You're not the same" since I left that job.

And I think it's because in my industry, in the creative industry, in the ad industry, the marketing and all that kind of industry, my gut is — and again, this is stereotyping — but my gut is that a lot of people from generations before and generations before in that industry, the creatives, probably a large amount of them had ADHD. I know quite a few now that do, so there are built-in checks and balances that help them. And what I mean by that is we have producers and project managers to make sure that we get things done. I mean, that's not all they're doing. They're doing a lot more. But like one of the things is I have a producer who used to send me meetings to look at certain emails because they knew that I wouldn't look at my emails because I'd forget. And that's what they do is they help drive the project along. And I think they're that part of the brain that I just don't have access to, which is organization and, you know, some of that executive functioning that we talk about.

Laura: Yeah. Shout-out to all the producers and project managers. Jessamine, I think you may be listening since you produced the show. Shout-out!

Kenny: I literally can't do my job if I don't have a good producer, project manager, because it's something that I can't do. Or I can do but it would take so much time and energy out of it because it's just not native to me, because it's not the way that I think. And so I always look for that strength of somebody. And anytime I have a great one, I sell more because it's just not the way that I'm wired.

Laura: Between those two diagnoses — getting diagnosed with ADHD as a child and then again as an adult — setting aside that ADHD medication works really well for some folks, not for others. It wasn't a fit for you, it sounds like. But like through all of — through that journey, I mean, where was your "aha" moment in all of that?

Kenny: I think my "aha" moment — my true "aha" moment — was after my second diagnosis. And I think I realized that my personal superpower is having ADHD. I think it helps me in my career. The moment came when I realized that ADHD is an advantage for me, because I think it helps me ideate better, faster, come up with more ideas. I think a lot of it has to do with I get bored really quickly. So, not that I necessarily need to throw something away, but I want to make it better because it's already boring me. So if it's boring me, is it going to bore the person that's looking at this? I can come to conclusions quicker. I don't need all the information. So I think for me, having ADHD and self-medicating with a lot of coffee works really good and has helped me get to be who I am.

Laura: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I do — I want to talk more about being a creative director. What you're saying makes a lot of sense about the creativity that's needed. Like it's a good thing almost to be bored and to want to try new things and to try new and artful ways to develop things. Is there a fine line there? Does it ever lead to a obsessiveness about like, OK, I'm done, I want to try something new or I want this to be perfect, I need this to be perfect. Does that ever come up for you yet?

Kenny: Yeah. You can never get perfection in this industry. And what I mean by that is everything can always be a little bit better. And you have a timeline because something has to go out and you know it's going to go out Friday end of day. So there's this compulsive to get it better and you always want to get it better, and then you have to be fine with it at Friday at 4:59 because you know that it needs to get out. Like we always want to get stuff better. Then at some point we have to be like, OK, this is good enough. It has to get out or it's not going to air. So up until there, we're spending all our time to make everything perfect and great and awesome. And at some point the color isn't going to go to absolute perfection, but nobody is going to know because it's absolutely beautiful already.

Laura: So you sound pretty levelheaded about it.

Kenny: Yeah. I mean, it's part of the process and you have to — you know, I've been doing this for a long time and you have to learn what battles to fight.

Laura: Maybe I like obsessiveness and like that fine line. I guess it's more of a curiosity that I have, and pardon my bluntness because I think I do this too. But do you ever think you maybe drive people nuts? Like, if you want it to be perfect, then you get so hyperfocused on something that other folks may not be paying attention to?

Kenny: Yes, I absolutely drive people nuts. My creative partner would probably describe me as completely exhausting, but also super creative and collaborative. But I wake up going 100 miles an hour and I drink a lot of coffee. I think it settles me down. He thinks it doesn't, and he's on the West Coast. So by the time he wakes up, he's got a hundred slacks and he gets hit with all this stuff. I'm either like off or on, and I'm usually not off. And when I'm on, I'm going like a hundred miles an hour.

That said, I think I'm super empathetic to people and pretty open, pretty collaborative, and I'm still that class clown and goofball. I try to pare it back, but that's never going away. And I speak over people a lot. How are those things? Yeah, yeah. I always speak over people and I'm like, it's not because I'm not interested. It's not because I'm trying to shut you up. It's just I can't not do that.

Laura: Kind of like what I just did to you. Yes. My bad. How are you the class clown today at work? Give me an example.

Kenny: I will constantly, on calls, take screengrabs of my creative partner and Photoshop him into weird situations and then send them to him. I do it because it's me goofing off and trying to make him laugh. But it's also — I can pay attention to this meeting that we're having and not do anything. You won't get my full attention, but if I'm doing something that I don't have to think about — and for me, Photoshop is something I really don't have to think about, so I can absolutely screengrab him, go find an image of Pirates of Caribbean, put him on the Pirates of Caribbean ride and create a little gif. And to me that's just such a natural thing and doesn't really take a lot of thought. I'm able to focus better on the meeting when I'm doing that than if I was just like focusing on the meeting. Because right now I'm playing with a Lego. I have all these Legos here and I need to be doing something if I'm going to actually focus.

Laura: I want to hear more from you about ADHD and creativity, because we've been bouncing around it and I know it's related to your "aha" moment. So I just want to hear more from you. How does ADHD and creativity intersect for you? What does it feel like?

Kenny: It's hard for me to take ADHD and creativity and disconnect them. Ever since I was a kid, I was into drawing and then I got into photography and then I got into art direction. But I've always been doing something creative. And I think it was a way to have my brain work. As a kid, I was always able to concentrate if I was drawing. Or in college, when I was going to school for photography, I would literally spend all day in the darkroom and working on the tiniest thing. I could do that all day and just work on one image for 10, 12, 14 hours. So for me, it's probably something that helps rein in my ADHD. Like I've been doing what I've been doing for over 20 years now, creative direction, art direction. And that is big for me, because it keeps my brain interested.

And like I said, the checks and balances that we have — the people like producers and project managers that make it so I can stay in this business because they help me create by giving me that structure. That's pretty amazing to me, because I think a lot of times people with ADHD, you know, we're underachievers. We're not seen in school as somebody who's going to become something, going to make it. We're seen as the problem. I know, you know, I switched schools in 10th grade and I went to a school that was more — I'd say like any school in "Pretty in Pink." And I was like Duckie. And then they actually called me Duckie.

But, you know, it was that kind of, you know, everybody was put together. And every — like my graduating class, they had to send letters to every school saying, like, even though this person's in the bottom 20% of the class, they still have an A, you know, a 4.0. But most people have a five or, you know, because they took all these extra credit classes or whatever it was. And so that's what I was living with. So I was seen as somebody who like "Kenny is not going to make it." And I think that's what people saw in me. But through what I do and the magic of this industry and the kind of people that it brings, I've been doing this for 20 years and I love it. I'm still going and I'm probably creating better stuff now than I was 20 years ago.

Laura: Yeah, you say that and it makes me want to ask: Do you really think you're an underachiever?

Kenny: Yeah, I do think I'm an underachiever.

Laura: You do?

Kenny: Yeah, I still do. I always think I can do better. I have these projects, too, that I take on that I want to do. I made these shirts that were like using letterpress type and printing with it, kind of a different way to print shirts. And I wanted to create something from that, like a company from that. And I got bored. So I sat. Like sold like 100 and I was like, yeah, did it. Bored.

And I've done that several times where I create something. My wife laughs at me. I have a new one that I'm doing and she's like, OK. It involves working with fire hose. So I just bought like a bunch of fire hose coming to my house on Friday and I'm going to cut that up and work with it. But she knows there's a good chance that that fire hose is going to be one project and then lay, you know, somewhere. So, yeah, I still have that underachiever, underdog mentality. And maybe that's what keeps pushing me, but I absolutely feel that I underachieve.

Laura: Yeah, we don't really know each other. But listening to you, I don't hear underachiever. I hear someone — the things I wrote down you were saying were "I always want to do better." That's not what an underachiever would say in my mind. What you described was somebody who has trouble completing tasks, which is an ADHD-related behavior, but not a willful lack of like trying.

Kenny: Yeah, no, it's interesting because it's kind of making me tear up, honestly, because, like, oh, you know, and I'm thinking about it. And I think to be told that you're underachiever of the things that kids, especially at my age, were told, is probably like not the worst thing that people are being told. But I was told that my whole life.

Teachers that had my sibling in class is like, why can't you be like them in math? And I think I was technically better at math, but math bored me. So like, that's why I can't be better. And I took drums for a while and I was never as good. So I like quit drums after eight lessons because I knew I'd never get to be as good as them. So I've always kept that. And so maybe it is true that the things that you were told as a kid, like never get out of your brain. But yeah, I still carry that.

Laura: I see that. I think that's really common to carry the things that we're told as kids. That made me emotional as well, honestly, Kenny. Because that's just — I don't know. If you're on my side of it, I'm just — all I'm hearing is like desire to achieve. Desire to achieve, but not for like grandiose things, but because that's just who you are. You're a creator, you want to do things. So to me, it's like the opposite of laziness and underachieving, you know?

Kenny: And then honestly, part of it is while I know that we've created something awesome, you know, we concept and it's like awesome. And we're now shooting and it's awesome and now we're producing it and editing and it's awesome. But there comes this point where I'm still into it, obviously, but I'm also interested in what's coming next. What are we doing next?

So while this being completed, I care more about what's coming next. So again, my brain doesn't stop. I want to know what we're going to do because I'm already bored of this. So like, let's get on to this and let's make this next thing that we do even better than the thing that we're working on now.

Laura: Except for this interview, though, I'm sure you're never thinking about the next thing in the midst of.

Kenny: No, I'm not thinking about the next interview. I'm actually thinking about my son who's about to make a lot of noise on his drums.

Laura: I was just going to ask you about your son, actually. Do you think that your experiences growing up, like, has it molded how you parent today? Won't you be more gentle with him than perhaps others were with you?

Kenny: That's a complicated question, to be honest. So like I said earlier, my parents got divorced, I guess officially when I was 12, and I didn't want to see my father. I had to technically on and off for a bit. So kind of talk about how like the years that mattered, I didn't have a dad. He is that age now. He's 12. So this experience is in a way new to me, but I'm seeing it from the flip side. And he is a mini me. He is into music more than art, but he does like art and he's got some executive function problems. He's a little bit of a class clown. He was not diagnosed with ADHD, but he was on the border. And you look at him and he is exactly like I am. And so it's really interesting. But I also try to not throw my views onto him. I try to let him just be him and not put him in the world of what I am, even though we're very similar.

Laura: Sounds like he's really creative, like you.

Kenny: Yeah, he definitely. He's very creative, but more in a musical sense. I mean, he was playing drums and he just added bass and hopefully he'll be in a huge band and make billions of dollars.

Laura: Yeah. Make sure his songs aren't too long so that we can focus on them.

Kenny: That's a great thing is he also likes the music I like and so they are shorter songs, and we talk about that. And my wife likes pop music and she liked the Dead back in the day. So he definitely doesn't have that, which is nice.

Laura: Kenny, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you today. I really enjoyed it.

Kenny: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for your time. It's really good talking to you, and thanks for having me on.

Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine.

Jessamine: Hi, everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

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