Every mistake is a learning opportunity. And those of us with ADHD have plenty of learning opportunities.
When you think of all the situations ADHD has put you in over the course of your life, they might seem to add up to nothing more than an endless series of frustrations. But I’d bet good money you’ve learned something from all those frustrations, even if you don’t think about it consciously.
I know I have. It’s hard to learn much when life goes according to plan, but when you have ADHD, life going according to plan tends to be low on your list of worries. ADHD can kick your ass, but it can also teach you a lot. In that way, it’s kind of like a Kung Fu master.
Three of the lessons I’ve learned from my experiences with ADHD (so far) are:
1. Give people the benefit of the doubt
Giving people the benefit of the doubt is hard work. Often we don’t even realize when we’re not giving people the benefit of the doubt. That’s why the best way to learn the importance of giving people the benefit of the doubt is to have people not give you the benefit of the doubt.
When you have ADHD, you have no shortage of opportunities to not be given the benefit of the doubt. One of the things that has been at times surprising, frustrating, confusing, disheartening and just straight-up irritating about living with ADHD has been how often people will assume ADHD symptoms are the result of either:
After you have enough people misinterpret your basic motives or abilities based on your ADHD symptoms, you start to wonder about the ways in which you’re also misinterpreting other people and not giving them the benefit of the doubt. I have to assume that if I didn’t have ADHD, there’s a good chance I’d assume people with ADHD were just stupid and/or lazy – which is a good reminder to be aware of situations where I could do a better job giving people the benefit of the doubt for other things unrelated to ADHD.
2. There’s not necessarily a good reason things work the way they do
One of the cruel ironies of having ADHD is that you spend the first part of your life in arguably the least ADHD-friendly environment there is: school. Our current educational system is set up in a way that’s going to work against you if your brain doesn’t operate in a certain way.
Why is classroom learning structured the way it is? It’s a combination of more-or-less arbitrary historical events that have created specific dogmas over time: that’s just the way we do things.
It’s mostly not because certain ways of teaching have been proven to be more effective. In fact, we often keep using traditional teaching methods even when research starts suggesting they’re ineffective. Exhibit A: lectures.
It might seem discouraging or fatalistic to say that in many cases there’s no reason things work the way they do, but it’s also liberating. Once you accept that the education system has as many problems as you do, you’re opening the way to experiment with different ways of learning. For example, I made an executive decision to more or less eliminate lectures from my college experience.
If there’s no good reason things are the way they are, there’s also no good reason you shouldn’t make them different – true for school, and true for a lot of other things once you start looking.
3. Being able to ignore advice is an important skill
Of course, listening to advice is important – that’s a good lesson too, but it’s not one I learned from ADHD.
Rather, ADHD taught me that you have to know when to ignore advice. When you have ADHD, a lot of people will give you advice you can’t follow – advice that in the end boils down to “make your brain work more like mine.”
Sometimes this advice comes with the best intentions. Sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, trying to follow it will often just make things worse and put you in a position of trying to make your brain dance with moves it doesn’t actually know and has no hope of learning.
Instead, it’s better to find the coolest, most impressive dance moves your brain does have. Even if they look weird to other people or if they’re moves other people didn’t even know existed, what matters is that they get the job done.
There’s some controversy over whether ADHD comes with any “advantages,” but personally I do find it helpful to look for the upsides of having this condition. That said, I don’t think advantages have to be hard-wired biological traits that keep ADHD in the gene pool from an evolutionary perspective.
I think the “advantages” can also be what we make out of life with ADHD and what we learn from it. I’d like to think I have more insight and perspective as a result of coping with ADHD for 20+ years, and I expect I’ll continue to learn from the disorder, whether I want to or not.
Image: FreeImages.com/Yarik Mishin