JetBlue and Kinko’s Founders: ADHD didn't stop these creative types

By SUE SHELLENBARGER, The Wall Street Journal

While many viewers get emotional watching Ty Pennington deliver remodeled homes to deserving families on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, his mom, Yvonne Pennington, cries for different reasons. After being told years ago that her unruly son was the worst kid in his school, she says, "my tears come from the joy at how far he has come."

That's because Pennington has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some 7.8 percent of children ages 4 to 17 have been told by a doctor or other health professional that they have or might have ADHD, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The behavior disorder, which often causes children to struggle mightily in school and in life, can be "impairing," says Mark Wolraich, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' clinical guidelines on diagnosing ADHD.

Many frazzled parents of hyperactive kids are looking for the silver lining.

Clearly, ADHD didn't cripple such noteworthy sufferers as JetBlue founder David Neeleman or Kinko's founder Paul Orfalea. How can you tell whether all that splintered energy will help your own child succeed? We asked a few famous ADHD sufferers and their parents for answers.

1. Look for the creativity
Neeleman's family refused to regard his hyperactivity as an impairment. "We always thought ADD was a plus," says his father, Gary.

He advises "looking at the kid as somebody who has a different way of looking at things, and maybe a more creative way." Then, he says, put your arms around them and tell them, "You're smart, and you can handle this."

Adolescence was a fog of watching Gilligan's Island reruns. But as an adult, Neeleman was able to see opportunities others missed. He is credited with inventing electronic airline ticketing, he founded two airlines and is working on a third start-up in Brazil.

He still has trouble sustaining a conversation for more than a few minutes, must delegate administrative tasks and got fired as JetBlue's CEO after service foul-ups. But he continues to focus on new ideas.

"If you're doing something you love," he says, "you'll be the best."

2. Emphasize the positive
Pennington says the negative messages from school can be overwhelming for a child with ADHD.
Asked as a small child to work at his desk, Ty would "wear it" instead, Yvonne Pennington says, separating the chair from the desk, popping the connecting assembly over his shoulders, and running around the room screaming.

Both say life improved after Yvonne started using behavior-modification techniques to reward Ty when he did something right. Also, Ty says his life turned after he started medication in his teens and gained maturity and the freedom to develop his creativity.
3. Never despair

Orfalea's mother came home in tears after he was expelled from school for the fourth time; a school official told her he'd do well to become an unskilled laborer, says the Kinko's founder, who also has dyslexia.

But she didn't allow it to shape her regard for Paul.

"My mother had a good saying: 'Look at your five fingers. All five are different for a reason. School wants to make you all the same,'" he says. Her support instilled his faith in himself. When he got the idea, while waiting in line for a copy machine in college, to start his own copying business, he trusted it in the face of criticism from others. The company he opened in a storefront, named for his kinky red hair, later grew to the 1,200-store giant that was acquired in 2004 by FedEx.