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A Foundation for the Principles

Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” novels brought complicated mathematic concepts like chaos and complexity theory into the conventional awareness.  His character, Ian Malcolm, clarified intricate ideas like “sensitivity to initial conditions,” also known as the “butterfly effect,” via metaphor: “A butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world has the potential to change the weather on the other side.”  Under ideal conditions, the slight disturbance caused by the butterfly can precipitate a weather event. It would have little effect, though, on a storm already underway.  Earlier influences have greater impact on the course of an event.

Just as the “initial conditions” of a good foundation provide a stable base for a house, the following set of assumptions provides a solid beginning point for you to understand, personalize, and make optimal use of the Principles of Success that follow. In a corresponding fashion, these assumptions enjoy a strong foundation in the fields of mathematics, physics, psychology, communications, and philosophy.

Assumption 1. We function best near the “Edge of Criticality.”

According to complexity theory, systems tend to organize toward greater complexity, approaching a point between order and chaos known as the “edge of chaos or criticality.” (See Figure 1:  The Edge of Criticality).  Ironically, it is at this point, where a system is on the verge of collapse, that it tends to operate most efficiently.  When the system remains on the order side of this Edge, it is effective as well as efficient.  Failure results when it crosses over to into chaos.

As we think about it, we can bring to mind many systems that function similarly. Automobiles engines are a great example.  Pushed to the extremes of their mechanical limits, and operating much like a “controlled explosion,” automobile engines are at their best.

Much like a warmed-up and finely tuned car, humans in general — and humans with ADHD in particular — tend to function better near the Edge of Criticality.  Here we perform optimally, responding rapidly and fluidly to changing demands in our environment - we get things done better and faster.  In fact, people with ADHD represent a human subset uniquely predisposed to effective functioning near this Edge.  Why? Because we not only thrive in this environment of increased stimulation, we may actually require it for the sustained attention, arousal to action, and prolonged performance that success requires.

Your own personal experience may support this assertion.  Have you noticed how you seem to get more done when you have a lot to do in a little time and seem less efficient when you have a little to do in lots of time?  Remember the old saying, “If you want to get something done, find a busy person and give the task to them?”  People live longer and stay healthier when they remain active. These are examples of how humans function best near the Edge of Criticality.

Though they operate more efficiently, complex systems face increased risk of failure as they approach the Edge of Criticality.  Using the automobile example, if only one of many components ceases to function correctly, the entire system fails and the car stops running. And the likelihood of engine failure increases as the car approaches and maintains top speed.

Complexity theory tells us failure is inevitable when operating near the Edge of Criticality.  We can forecast failure here, but we can’t predict the specific nature and timing of failure with any degree of accuracy because we can’t know exactly how the system will fail or when.  The best we can do is to operate within manufacturers’ guidelines and perform scheduled maintenance to reduce the probability or frequency of failure.

So, while persons who have ADHD function better near the Edge of Criticality, we also  face increased risk of failure by crossing the line between order (successful academic functioning) into chaos (overload, failure, and shutdown.)  Operating near the Edge also requires greater amounts of energy and other resources, just like gas consumption increases when we operate a car at higher speeds.

Humans differ from the human-constructed systems referenced in complexity theory in very important ways.   Our ability to forecast and prevent shutdown is most significant among these distinctions.  We can find creative methods of preventative maintenance to keep ourselves in good running condition. And with foresight and intention, we can build in a safety zone that buffers us from some of the risks of operating near the Edge.  Think of this safety zone as your “success zone”.  (See Figure 2: The Success Zone) From the vantage point of the Success Zone, it is possible to reduce the risk of failure through self-monitoring.

Operating too closely to the Edge of Criticality shows up as heightened anxiety, stress, life imbalance, dysfunctional emotions, and poor daily functioning long before we spot it in grades and rated performance.  Monitoring these early warning signs is the first step to managing life on the Edge of Criticality.  In fact, we evidence our maturity during young adulthood through our increased self-awareness in the Success Zone, our ability to push our own limits reasonably, and our capacity to recover effectively when we inevitably cross the Edge of Criticality into Chaos. 

Despite the presence of many variables and obstacles, we can find our personal Success Zone and take charge of our success.  We can learn how to bring ourselves into this Zone by discovering our most effective methods of arousal and motivation.  We can learn how to empower these methods and remove barriers to our motivation.  We can develop our abilities to monitor ourselves and to recover when we exceed the Edge of Criticality.

The Guiding Principles you will read about in the chapters that follow are the tools that will help you to enter your own Success Zone and maintain yourself there effectively.

Assumption 2.  We solve complex problems of human behavior more effectively when we view them from many perspectives.

In which direction do the hands of a clock turn?

If you said clockwise, you are right — partially.  From the perspective of the clock, the hands turn counterclockwise. Standing over the clock looking downward, the hands appear to move up and down.  Putting all of these perspectives together, you begin to appreciate multiple points of view.  How is this useful?

Viewing a problem from a limited perspective yields limited solutions. When different points of view are considered, varied contexts provided, multiple disciplines consulted, and additional frameworks applied, we obtain a broader view of the problem.  This broader view offers more solutions, especially when addressing complex systems like human behavior

 However, we are culturally oriented toward the scientific method of linear logic and cause-and-effect problem-solving.  Why?  Thanks to great natural philosophers like Francis Bacon and John Locke, this scientific method has helped us to solve problems, make great discoveries, and innovate our way into the future. It brought us from the Middle Age darkness of ignorance and superstition.

So what’s the downside of linear logic? Linear logic explains why something happens, often to the point of reducing it to its component parts - known as reductionism. As a result, this approach does a poor job of describing the “what and how” of such complexities as human behavior.  The nature of our thoughts, feelings, actions, dreams, desires, and beliefs remain an elusive mystery when restricted to linear logic examination.

We obtain useful information when we view what is, and what is not, working in our lives from a broader perspective.  When we consider that solutions to life problems may require action on many fronts, we begin to see ourselves as a larger system of interacting variables. Eventually, we realize these variables form patterns.  At this point, we can tweak those patterns to solve problems more effectively and create outcomes that are more desirable.

By now, you might be thinking, “But this is more complex; I like the sound-bite answers and quick fixes.”  If so, then be sure to ask yourself, “How well has that been working?  How well might it work in the future?” 

The Guiding Principles in the following chapters will teach you to address your goals and any obstacles from many perspectives.

Assumption 3.   We can manage our spontaneous and random self talk into an effective tool for moving us into our Success Zone.

It’s not only my crazy aunt who talks to herself.  All of us, all of the time, are talking to ourselves.  So why not use this to our advantage?  Unless we are in a state of deep meditation, humans have the strange habit of carrying on a running dialogue at some level of consciousness.  Internal images or pictures often accompany this dialogue. 

We also tend to filter what we hear very carefully.  As you are reading and decoding this print, you are simultaneously considering whether it fits within your model of the world, your beliefs, and maybe even the mood you are in today.  We are very careful to guard what we let into our consciousness — except when those words come from ourselves. 

Whatever we say to ourselves slips immediately through these filters. As we are “talking to ourselves,” we are passing volumes of unfiltered data into our subconsciousness.  The effects vary depending upon the content of our message to ourselves.

Ever catch yourself saying something like, “Well, I haven’t failed anything yet” or “If I pass this course …?”  The words “yet” and “if” carry powerful presuppositions, suggesting you will eventually fail or that you might not pass.  Used in this way, these words form a post-hypnotic suggestion that travels non-stop into your unconscious thought, giving yourself permission to fail.  Unfortunately, we install negative post-hypnotic suggestions all the time and in a variety of ways.

Fortunately, we can consciously exploit our internal dialogue.  We can use it to guide us into states of highly effective motivation, to moderate anxiety levels, shape our self-concept and beliefs, and — guess what? — move us into our Success Zone.  And these are but a few applications.

The Guiding Principles in the following chapters will provide you the tools to access these and additional applications.

Assumption 4.  Visual representations provide increased perspective on problems and solutions.

One of my grade school teachers was fond of saying, “You can solve any word problem by drawing it.”  When I got over my concerns about my lack of artistic ability, I discovered she was right.  Throughout my life, I have found this to be a useful means of conceptualizing, getting outside myself and into a different perspective, or attaining distance from a problem that might be fraught with an excessive emotional charge. 

Many approaches to improving test-taking skills, organization, and focus encourage problem-solving via picture making.  Externalizing our inner processes in this way creates greater meaning, makes elements more easily manipulated for predicting outcome, and generally aids our creativity.

The Guiding Principles you will read about in the chapters that follow will contain my crappy pictures to facilitate your understanding and utilization of these concepts.

Assumption 5.  Heuristics help students manage college life more successfully than algorithms.

By adulthood, we have most of the algorithms we need to be successful.  It is virtually impossible for students to move through formal education without developing numerous algorithms — those methodologies and detailed, “how-to-do-its” (like how to study, be organized, prepare for a test, write a resume, etc.). So what is an algorithm?

By its very definition, an algorithm has limitations as well as strengths:  “… a specific set of instructions which regularly returns a successful specific outcome.”  In other words, an algorithm is a program that does a repetitious task successfully.  That is its strength.  However, algorithms perform a very narrowly focused, logic-based task.  That is their limitation.

For example, an algorithmic computer program can keep score during a baseball game, pull up player statistics, and even order pizza.  However, there is no algorithm that could program a machine to catch a high fly ball to outfield as successfully as a human outfielder.  This task requires a trained baseball player who has worked to incorporate a “heuristic” skill set since childhood.

“Heuristics” then are algorithmic rules of thumb.  Like, “Keep your eye on the ball, move toward it as it hits the apex of its arc, use two hands to catch a ball.”  These heuristics provide enormous adaptability to changing circumstances, like light level, wind speed, temperature, direction.  Occasionally, however, even the best outfielder drops or misses the ball.  With the enormity of variables, there are no guarantees of success.

This is the limitation of heuristics; they are not 100% reliable. Their strength lies in their adaptability to a vast array of constantly changing circumstances.  The same heuristic skills that empower an outfielder to catch a ball also enable him to catch other thrown objects, calibrate the closing rate of an automobile, the distance to a moving target, etc.

Life is the ultimate moving target.  We are in the process of constant change in a constantly changing environment.  Heuristics are what best equip us to navigate this changing landscape.  Young adults hunger for heuristics to guide them through the uncertain times of college.  Without them, they struggle to create a vision for their life, move toward it, and overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise.

The Guiding Principles that follow contain no algorithms; the principles are all heuristics.

Assumption 6.  Students are more successful when they respond consciously.

All of us live a lot of our life unconsciously, and often badly, all of the time; so why not make life a conscious and more successful venture?  By first becoming aware of what we are doing unconsciously, and then adjusting our thoughts and actions to what we learn to be optimal for us, we can take charge of these processes and use them to our benefit.

While normally considered dysfunctional behaviors, procrastination, multi-tasking, chronic lateness, and overloading our schedules can actually be unconscious attempts to bring ourselves near the Edge of Criticality.  We might even find ourselves drawn to the types of people who move us toward or help us balance in this zone.  It’s as if at some deep level, we know what works, but we lack the clarity to do it in a more precise and effective way.

The Guiding Principles that follow provide tools to take conscious control of old unconscious failed attempts at success.

Assumption 7.  Students bear total responsibility for their success or failure.

Increasingly, education trends point to learners fitting themselves educationally into an “assembly-line” college scheme.  Life beyond college can be much the same.  Graduates face early choices that guide them into a glide path of career development. Whether you are “assembled” into a job or “fitted” into a fulfilling career, and whether ADHD poses challenges, possibilities, or both is totally up to you.  The world beyond college requires graduates to choose how they will adapt to a system that will do little to change itself.

Assumption 8.  Earlier actions influence problems and solutions more profoundly.

What do these have in common?

            The U.S. Constitution,

             A stone defining the path at the headwaters of a stream,

            The old saying “first impressions are lasting.”

Answer:  All three illustrate the complexity theory principle of “sensitivity to initial conditions.”  Much like the aforementioned “butterfly effect,” they describe the power that beginnings exert on the future.  They exemplify the importance of what occurs from the start.

Applied to college, this metaphor highlights the tremendous effect of early events.  For example, a student’s initial performance bears strongly on the remainder of her college experience, including whether she even finishes college. Students who do poorly during the first semester or two tend to leave college and not return. 

College students become painfully aware that a rotten GPA in the first year can be difficult to raise. Even when students have seen the light and learned the error of their ways, they remain statistically, emotionally, and motivationally at a disadvantage.

Conversely, the better students perform initially, the greater the momentum they build toward success.  Thus, it is vital to begin to develop and implement a plan for success early in the college experience.  And to move with equal speed to repair any damage early on as well. 

The Guiding Principles you will read about in the chapters that follow won’t do one thing to change the system you are entering, but will provide you the tools to assist you in your journey through and beyond it.


Together, these basic assumptions set the stage for the development of the Principles of Success.  You function best in a Success Zone near the Edge of Criticality.  You can learn how to get to the Success Zone, maintain ourselves there effectively, and recover when we exceed the Edge into Chaos.  You can learn to approach problems from many perspectives and use our self-talk, heuristic programs, and visualization to take conscious control of our lives during the formative stages of our college experience.  Throughout the following chapters, we translate these assumptions into tools for problem-solving, life-planning, and self-monitoring.

These tools are the Principles of Success. 


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