• Laura Owens

Ty Pennington: ...how to be successful with ADHD

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: Joining us on this episode is Ty Pennington, who's very familiar to millions of television viewers, thanks to the hit shows Trading Spaces and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Jan: Now Ty is sharing his behind-the-scenes story in his new book, Life to the Extreme: How a Chaotic Kid Became America's Favorite Carpenter. Ty, thank you so much for joining us.

Ty: Hey, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be on.

Jan: Tell us why you decided to write your life story, it's a fascinating story. Why did you decide to share it at this point in time?

Ty: I think there's two reasons. One, I constantly meet families that, let's just say, have had some challenges, like parenting with some kids that have been, let's just say, a little active. For a while I was sort of the poster child for ADHD, I guess I sort of still am in many ways. While I show the success that anybody who has these challenges can find a way to truly focus on something and get something done. Let's face it, I've been working with power tools for years and still have all my digits and phalanges, which is impressive if you know about ADHD. I think it's half that.

Probably the second part is, I recently had to start looking after my mother and looking at life coming full circle. I think she always wanted to write a book about ADHD because, like I said, literally one of the first chapters in the book after you jump in, because, of course, I wrote a book in the way a person with ADHD would. I'd literally told the publisher that's how I wanted to. I wanted to start in the middle in some chaos and then jump around to chapter five, then chapter seven, and then eventually go back to chapter one because that's how people tell stories when you're being like, "Oh, and then this happened. Oh, but wait before I get to that."

The book is really told in that way. But I always wanted to do something teamed up with my mom who's showcasing what it's like for parents dealing with that sort of a struggle. Back in the day, nobody even knew what it was. Now everyone knows what it is and it's more understandable, I guess. But back then, it was just like, "Let's put them on Benadryl and make them drowsy." So then, I would just drool.

I think, also, there's a lot of misconceptions that if you have your kid diagnosed and they get medicated, will they become someone else? Will their personality change? I'm living proof that your personality doesn't change, you just happen to be focused long enough to actually accomplish a task instead of starting four more that never get finished. That's also why I literally tried to write a book in a week, just like building a house a week, to see if I could do it. I'm clearly one of those people who just really sets the bar high, especially on deadlines. If you guys read the book, you realize deadlines is the only way I get anything done. I guess I was doing it to inspire other people to realize that, I guess we all have certain challenges in life and mine was certainly dealing with that.

There are doors of opportunity that show up in your life. I'm a big fan of saying 'yes' to just about anything that's an opportunity, even if you're afraid that you don't know where it's going to take you. I think sometimes you'll take a journey that may be heading in a different direction, but you'll learn so much on that journey that you're going to end up using somewhere down the road in a completely different journey. That's what I look at.

That's what's so interesting about Trading Spaces. When I got the audition, I wasn't sure of it at the time because I didn't even want to go on auditions anymore. I'd given up on that industry. But I happened to be qualified in all these different areas, these three different areas, which was being comfortable in front of the camera, actually being comfortable behind the camera, and sort of producing certain things, because I was in production, but then also building things. That's exactly what I was doing and renovating warehouses. My friend at that time literally was like, "How did you get a job being you?" Here's the great thing about the book, just like me talking, I never stop and pause. Anyway, that's one long answer.


Laura: How did your parents find out that you had ADHD? Or what made them suspicious, since you didn't get officially diagnosed until college?


Ty: I think they got suspicious on several things. When I ripped the leg off the piano to make some other type of fort out of boxes, my dad was super pleased with that. Probably just the destructive nature of everything, the drawing on the walls. Also, if we are playing army, which happened a lot as a kid, by the way, my parents were into non-violence and we had to use sticks instead of toy guns. I would overcompensate and make it look like I did this amazing fall. I probably would have been a stunt man if I didn't go in any other direction. I would literally jump off our roof of the house and I would roll, and I broke my arm a couple times. I was constantly doing things like, "Dude, did you not think that through?" I'm like, "Well, it seemed like a great idea at the time."

Behavioral issues were really a problem with, not only where they dropped me off for daycare, but everywhere. But school was really prominent because I wasn't soaking in the knowledge, I wasn't learning what everybody else was. Clearly, I was sort of revolting and making sure that nobody else could understand anything either and creating so much chaos so that I evened the playing field. My mom just happened to be studying Child Psychology, went to my elementary school and asked the front office to test the worst kid. They were like, "Mrs. Pennington, do you honestly not know who that is?" She was like, "No."

Laura: I love that story from the book. I think that's so interesting.

Ty: They were like, "Go check out Classroom 12A. I think you may know him."

Laura: You may know him.

Ty: The view of that was me wearing my desk, me throwing erasers at the chalkboard, slapping Johnny in the back of the head. Just a complete, absolute destruction. I spent most of my elementary and high school either in the hallway or just in the principal's office because they were just like, "You know what, I can't. I can't do it, son. You just need to get out of the classroom." I had a reputation before I even got to high school from my elementary school, that's the tough part.

That's why kids with ADHD that are really, really bad, have to keep moving to different schools because nobody knows you. They don't know you're entertaining yet. You still stay kind of quiet and all the above. But once people find out you're fairly amusing, then all of a sudden the show has to get turned back on. No wonder I ended up in entertainment, I've been doing it since I was six. It makes sense.


Jan: Where do you think you would be if you hadn't had ADHD? It's so much a part of your personality.

Ty: Right. I don't know. I really am, everything about me is right-minded. As I say in the book, the only time I'm ever calm is when I'm drawing, creating something, sketching out a new piece of furniture, sketching out a good drawing. It started literally at the age of three or four. My mom was a child psychologist, so I took all these tests. It's interesting, funny, because she's like, she actually said this, my verbal skills weren't high, but when I talked, I talked a lot, that listening to me was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.

When it came to the art and the visual side, she would give me these puzzles, these visual puzzles where you had all these geometric shapes and they would make a certain image. You had to focus on that for a second, see what the image was, then they'd turn everything over and mix it all up. You'd have to put all those different triangles, all those different squares, all these different shapes back together to create that same image. I guess what it was, my mom was freaked out, she hit the timer and I was done in like six seconds. Visually, that's where all my strength is. Verbally, not so much.

That's why it's kind of funny that I even write a book because technically I shouldn't be able to, but that's why I write in a very special style. Even in school, even after I get medicated, I realized that, it was really even in high school, I learned that the only way I could remember the stories that we're reading about history, because paragraphs just turned into just blurs of letters. If I drew out the image of what was happening in a battle, or in a treaty or whatever, if I drew out the images, I would see the images that I drew, then I would remember who the names of the people that were in it. That's the only way I passed tests. It was visual stimulation.

It just goes to show you, some people's brains work completely on the visual aspect. I think that's why, like I said, I got really lucky when I ended up getting a job in television where I built things and literally wanted to make things look pretty. I went to art school to become a graphic designer, I was a graphic designer for many years. But design, I think it hits every phase, whether it's furniture, whether it's fabric design, whether it's textile. As you know, I had a line of home furnishings and interiors, which is completely a dream of mine I had since I was 20 years old. It's just crazy how extreme my life really has, because it's not every life that gets sort of that lucky.

But luck does swing both ways. I mean, I did flip a Jeep and almost die. Because of that, that forced me to get out of the modeling industry, which I probably would have never even. It's amazing how all these things that happen in your life lead up to a certain point. I just happen to be the right person who had come to an end of this other thing so I had to go back into construction, which is exactly what I was doing when I went on the audition. It's just sometimes, timing.

I would have never guessed in a million years that the guy who bartered comic books with all the kids in the neighborhood to borrow their dad's tools, because my dad was a musician which means we didn't have that many tools at all, maybe a wrench to fix a bike, but that was it. I bartered all these tools to build a three-story treehouse in one day when I was nine years old.

Laura and Jan: Wow.

Ty: Talk about fortuitous. Who would have guessed that I'd lead a whole community to build a house in a week. It's just kind of crazy. That's why I wanted to share the story. I think anybody who has challenges, there are ways to overcome it. Yes, you definitely have to get lucky, but when that opportunity shows up, you need to be prepared. I think it's one of my favorite quotes, 'If you want to get lucky, it pays to be prepared.'

Jan: That's so true.


Laura: You talk about how you were fired from nearly every job you had before Extreme Makeover and Trading Spaces. I feel like there are a lot of people who are listening who are really frustrated going through some rough times in their careers. What advice would you have for them?

Ty: Here's the thing, I think sometimes people have to tell me this too. No matter how you look at it, change is good. What I mean by that is, we get so used to doing certain things a certain way, we get lazy at this, we get lazy at that. Sometimes a storm has to come through to wreck everything to clean it out and make sure we start fresh and with new ideas. We really appreciate what we just lost.

I think sometimes in life, we also take things for granted. It's the same thing in relationships. Sometimes something doesn't always work out because you weren't appreciating what you had, then all of a sudden, boom, it's over. Next thing, you learn that lesson and you move on.

I think with a job, a lot of people that this happens to, in the creative industry, which I happen to be in, it happens a lot because people get stifled. Creatively, if you have a great idea, but then they tell you, "You know what, that's great. Why don't you save that idea? What we really want you to do is just do the same thing over and over and over that we had you do last week?" Chances are, you're going to do something that's going to piss somebody off or you're going to just quit because you want to be creative and you want to dive into something new. I think I've always been that way. Luckily, I would try something new.

My first job was landscaping. Okay, I was never fired from landscaping. Believe it or not, I actually wrote a letter telling them I was leaving. I was making like, $3.25 an hour? They're like, "This is the best letter we've ever had. You're apologizing because you have to leave?" I was like, "Really? $3.25 in August heat? I'm apologizing that I have to leave?"

My next job was construction. Now that guy taught me a lot. But the problem with me is I've always been sarcastic, that really gets me in trouble with the higher-ups. I don't have a big abundance of patience for authority, I never have, which is another trait that ends up in trouble. These guys were spraying me with a hose, it was freezing cold, they just weren't getting my jokes. At some point I snapped. I threw bleach at my boss, didn't go over well because we were pressure washing this house. That was it, that was the last day on that job.

But my point is, is that it leads to another one. I think you can get hung up on the fact that you've lost either a job, or a relationship, or whatever, you just have to move on and realize that everything starts anew, everything has a cycle. Like I said too, I would never have been as experienced in so many different areas if I didn't take all the different opportunities that came to me because I left one job for another one just to see where it led.

There's the farmer and then there's the hunter. I would say I'm more like the hunter who, when they run out of food, they go out and look for whatever's next. Sometimes that leads them into territory they've never been in because they've hunted themselves out of one area. The farmer goes through the same patch every day, makes sure that things are planted seasonal, and thinks ahead, thinks way ahead. I come from the other set which is, right now, what am I thinking right now and just focusing on that. I think that's the difference, I think, in a lot of humanity.


Jan: ADHD has played such a big role in your life. I'm wondering how you would describe it and how it feels to someone who doesn't have it?

Ty: I have a great explanation for it. Anybody who's ever been reading a book, and realize they've gone through an entire chapter and don't remember anything they just read, but they know that they just turned the last page, because they're thinking about something else, is a lot like ADHD. That's sort of the first indication. The other is when someone's been talking to you from across the table and you've been staring at them like you're contently listening. But the truth is, you're thinking about six different other things. Then at the very end of it they go, "You're not listening to a word I'm saying, are you?" You're like, "No, I totally am. What were we talking about?”

But here's a real good visual description. I was on this talk show on ABC for just a minute called, The Revolution. Before it left, I wanted to do an example to the audience of what ADHD looks like to somebody who doesn't have it. Here's a good example. I made my other hosts on the show get on the other side of a ping pong table and start reciting the alphabet backwards, then I served them a ping pong ball. While trying to use your mind to play ping pong and get the ball across the net, your mind is trying to recite the alphabet backwards. It's almost impossible because your mind can't do two things at once. But with ADHD, that's exactly what it's trying to do. It's trying to not only have a conversation, but it's also trying to solve a problem that is in the back of your mind, it's also listening to the conversation at table five and seven, it's also thinking about what snack it's going to have once it gets home from the dinner it's at. It's just all of that happening at once. None of those tasks get completed because they're being overrun by the other. That's the issue.


Laura: What did you find really helped when you were overwhelmed? You said that you found that working with construction really helped. How did you find what worked for you?

Ty: I think what it is, is the right side of the mind. When I would sit down and either draw things, whether it be with crayons or whatever, I stayed still, I stayed calm, I stayed focused. I literally wouldn't make a peep until that particular piece of art was done. The same with working with my hands and building something. You find this inner moment where you're focusing on that particular task until it's finished. I don't know if all brains are like that. For me, that was the one thing that I could focus on that would keep me calm and keep me focused on that one thing until it was done. That's why I think it was clearly a blessing that I would end up on TV shows that, not only do you build and do creative things and paint beautiful colors.

It's also one of the reasons for one of the other things I did, I painted houses for 15 years. You come in, you have a color, you have 8 to 10 walls, you're done in a day-and-a-half and you move on. With Trading Spaces, we were done in two-and-a-half, three days, we moved on to the next house. You have these short attention spans that you can get things done and move on to the next project. But Extreme, we built the house in seven days, which is crazy. Not only that, we're doing two at the same time, which think about that for a second. Yes, that's incredible that I could even remember, not only what I was doing in my secret room, but even remember the names of the family members. The thing is, you're doing these tasks that you're done in seven days and you move on to the next project.

I think that's what you look for in the creative industry, whether it be in advertising or in anything

else. It's a project that, you need a logo done and it needs to go out that afternoon. The deadline is immediate, you finish, and you move on to the next project. I don't think I could survive in doing law or anything. You have to go over briefs, you have to really have things stacked to the T, you have to make sure you got everything stacked for a trial that's two months or four months ahead. I just would never make it. I can't stay focused on something that I'm not immediately involved in at the moment.


Jan: I know you say that Extreme Makeover is one of those TV shows that you'll never be able to outdo or recreate. Why is that?

Ty: I think there's several reasons. One, I think it evolved into, in my opinion, the greatest television show of all time. In the words of Chris Martin from Coldplay, he said, "It's the best and the worst of television." He's like, "The worst is the fact that it's on television. It's the best, they actually end up helping somebody in the end and that's never happened on television."

The truth of it is this. The reason why I think Extreme was not only a groundbreaking show, the reason I think it was groundbreaking is because it wasn't just one person's idea, it evolved from an idea that they originally had. It really changed, it found its own identity. The cast people, they wanted us to argue and fight, well, we did some of that. The truth is, we realized it wasn't about us, the show was about the story of the family, originally it wasn't. Once you met the family who had the ugliest house in the neighborhood, you understood why they had to have this house in the neighborhood. You realize, they've got a daughter who's fighting cancer. Then we realized, "Boom, that's the story. It's not about us, it's about them."

My point is this, it essentially got to the point that we're really having communities let us know about these amazing families that are helping others. We're showing up to really give back to people who've done amazing things in their community. The show has finally found exactly what it was intended to be, which is a show that's honoring people that have given so much. They're finally getting a reward of a dream that they never thought they deserved.

Not only that, the network is getting ratings, the advertisers are showing their product in a way that they've never seen before, where people are literally crying and so excited that it's changing their lives. Of course, anybody who's making appliances, or windows, or any of the above are like, "We want to be a part of this." The advertising is working, the network is getting ratings. They're also getting huge numbers because they're associated with something that's being so positive to the community.

More than just a TV show, we're leaving and then those people have finally connected in a way, the people that were in the community hadn't even spoken to each other before, they didn't even meet. Now the same people on the block who came out to help and roll up their sleeves, are now wanting to do another project. Now the television show is gone, they were working together to put a ramp in for a veteran who lives down the street. They want to redo a park in the community because they really enjoyed the experience.

The television show literally launched a snowball effect of people wanting to do good in their community. I don't know of any other TV show that's had that kind of effect, not only on ratings, but on a community itself where kids, instead of going to a vacation in the tropics or whatever, are literally wanting to join their parents, roll up their sleeves, and volunteer on a build site for a family they don't even know. That is what I call 'very rare' in television.


Laura: What story sticks with you the most, of all of the families you helped on Extreme Makeover?

Ty: That is a hard one to say. I will also say this, I had to read my own books with the audio portion of the book because I wanted it to be my voice. Not only because I don't think anybody else can really read it and get the kind of humor that I write without being mean. More importantly, I was reading and I didn't realize how deep and how into it I went. There's a point that I couldn't even finish talking because I was talking about some of the families I met and what they meant to me and how it changed me as a person.

There's a story in the book that you'll read that talks about how we're sort of all art on canvas in our lives that is still becoming the final piece. In the beginning we get the primer, we get the first basic colors, and then we're not really sure what direction of art we're going in until we're inspired by some other artist or somebody we meet that seems to have more purpose, somebody that inspires us. Next thing you know, a painting starts to take shape. But it's not until somebody really affects you that, all of a sudden, the painting starts to have meaning, and depth, and really affects you when you look at it.

That's really what the show, and the people that I've met, and the families, how they changed the look of what I consider a painting of myself. You really met people that affected you because they went through something. We've all met people that have gone through something, but when you really get connected with them and you dig down into your heart to design something that means so much, that will not only make them smile, but it will inspire them to realize that people really care about what they've done in this world and who they are.

As an artist, it doesn't get any better than that. You can put a painting on a wall and be like, "Oh, this is beautiful. I'm so glad you guys like it." When you see the gratification on someone's face that is fighting challenges that they may not survive, but for that moment, you realize you gave them the greatest gift they've ever been given. As an artist, it doesn't compare. That's why I don't think there's another experience or another show that you can really compare to that. When you've done something and you put your heart into something, they know it when they see it, it's hard to replace that.

I can tell you this, the families and the stories on Extreme, they affect you because you really got to know them. We're talking about people that have fought cancer, people have lost loved ones in battle. You're talking about people who really have made ultimate sacrifices. Finally, a community and people show up out of nowhere to pay tribute to them.

There are moments, are you kidding me? We're bringing a soldier home, you look down the street, you get soldiers lined up on either side and they're all saluting. This soldier wants to get out of a wheelchair, stand up and actually hug his wife, you cannot not be affected by that. I would say that show and those experiences turned me into, probably, a much better person than I was before I joined it.


Jan: Ty, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, “What is your nobody told me lesson in life?” What is it that nobody told you about success, or television, or ADHD, or life in general, that you had to learn on your own and you kind of wish you hadn't had to learn on your own?

Ty: There's a couple of things. My stepdad gave me some advice. He's like, "Son, if you keep saying, "I know, I know, I know," over and over and over, one day those looks are going to run out, and no one's going to find you cute anymore. All you're going to know is your friends are going to be like, "Wow, you don't actually know anything." Because all you said was, "I know" instead of listening to what people are trying to tell you." It's interesting that later in life you realize, those are the important messages that a father will tell someone because somebody has to be really real to you. Most of the time these days, everyone's like, "You're doing great, you're doing great, you're doing great." I think the truth is sometimes people need to hear the truth and be like, "Look, you're doing great. But if you don't stop doing that, things are going to get really difficult. They don't tell you why.

Nobody can tell you, to be honest with you, what the right decision is. It has to come from your gut. When an opportunity comes and says, "Hey, do you want to go to Japan?" You go, "What would I do?" They say, "You take pictures." I'd be like, "Why?" They'd be like, "Because you can make money." You have to weigh it. You'd be like, 'Why would I want to do that?' I don't care about taking pictures, I care about traveling to a place I've never seen or never heard of. The minute I landed there, I was like, "Oh my God, this is like the future!" It changed the way I looked at, I guess, just the world. I think nobody told me that you could say yes to every opportunity because you don't know where it's going to lead you.

For years, I didn't know what to do because I kept going off in so many different directions. I would have never landed the job that I got if I hadn't done that. I guess the answer to what you asked me is, what nobody told me was to use your own guide as a compass, to trust your instincts. To be honest with you, the most people who were afraid of me failing were the people closest to me. My parents used to think I was going to cut my foot off when I mowed the lawn, that's not a confidence builder.

We have to trust what your insides are telling you. Did I know I could build a treehouse in one day by bribing kids in the neighborhood with comic books? No, but I did. I proved to them that, "Yes, I may have destroyed your piano, but I built a treehouse in one day. What have you done in one day? My point is like that. No one's going to tell you to believe in yourself until you do. The other thing is this, because I was asked to leave my house as a teenager, there's good reason for that, but it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time, I had to survive on my own.

I think a lot of times, today, everyone is a little too comfortable with being taken care of by other people. It's really good to realize you can survive on your own, but you have to learn it that you have to. Once you survive some of the hardest times you've ever had, some of the struggles aren't as bad because you realize you can do it. I think that's the thing, no one told you how hard it's going to be. I've got news for you, because I've been taking care of my mother, it doesn't ever get any easier, it just gets harder. Life is not ever really easy. Unless when you're 8 to 10, it's a breeze, enjoy that.


Laura: Because as you get older, it's like the challenges just keep changing.

Ty: Oh my God, they just keep adding up. If you like, "Well, that's unfortunate."

Laura: How can people connect with you and learn more about the new book, which both of us just found an absolutely fascinating and an interesting read. You kept us on our toes.

Ty: Thank you. I'm on Instagram, I'm thetypennington. I have a website, typennington.com. There's a bunch of cool projects I've been involved in. I just got back from doing a documentary shining light on this guy and his family, a scientist down in the Keys. His goal is to plant a million coral. He's found a way to actually start rejuvenating the coral reef down in Florida. He's going to try and take it internationally. If we can save the coral reef, we can save the fish, who knows he might even be able to save the planet. They're called, Plant a Million Corals.

What else? Let's see, I've got a show on Hulu called Small Town Business Revolution, which is amazing because we're helping out six small businesses in small towns. It's such an amazing experience because you really get that same feeling you get from Extreme. It's not just saving one family's home, it's literally saving six families businesses, which in many ways turns into saving small town Main Street, which I think is the best part of America. There's that. Of course, they've brought Trading Spaces. There's an episode that's on every Saturday. There's some really funny ones coming up. It's great. Of course, that's on TLC. I'm still juggling a bunch of different things.

Jan: Wow. Ty, thank you so much for joining us, this has been a real kick.

Ty: Thank you guys, appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Jan: Our thanks to Ty Pennington. Again, his book is called, Life to the Extreme: How a Chaotic Kid Became America's Favorite Carpenter. Again, his website is typennington.com. I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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