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When Learning From Your Mistakes Goes Wrong

It’s said that you can always learn something from failure. If that’s the case, those of us with ADHD have no lack of learning opportunities in our daily lives.

But is it always a good idea to learn from your mistakes? In theory, every failure is a chance to learn some sort of lesson. The problem is, there’s no guarantee that the lesson you take away is the right one.

And then some of us can fail without even trying.

Let’s say you have ADHD and you get fired from your job. Your inattention, careless mistakes, and disorganization pile up, culminating in you having to find a new place of employment.

Under most people’s definition, that probably qualifies as a failure – at any rate, getting asked to pack up your things and not come back to work isn’t a success. So, is this an opportunity to “learn something?”

The most obvious lesson to draw might be that when you find a new job, you really need to be more attentive, make fewer careless mistakes, and improve your organizational skills.

You might already see the problem with this “lesson”: These attributes are caused by your ADHD symptoms, they aren’t in your control. No matter how many times you learn the lesson that your ADHD symptoms are causing you problems, you aren’t going to be able to make your ADHD symptoms go away. The harder you try not to have ADHD, the more frustrated you’ll get.

This is “I’ll do things differently next time” syndrome, and it was a running theme in my life before I got diagnosed with ADHD. I’ll do better next time, I would always think. I’ll try harder, I’ll be more focused, I won’t procrastinate, I’ll have more self-control…

It’s an example of how drawing the wrong lesson from failure can be worse than drawing no lesson at all.

There are other misguided lessons that we ADHDers often “learn” from our mistakes. Unfortunately, one of the most common lessons we take away is that if our lives are marked by frequent failure, it must be because we’re the failure.

When you live with undiagnosed ADHD, it’s easy over time to react to your experiences by internalizing the lesson that you’re defective, incompetent, or maybe just plain lazy. Often, part of being diagnosed and making progress toward managing ADHD more effectively is about unlearning some of the self-defeating lessons we’ve taken from our failures.

With all that said, I’m a big believer that failures are opportunities to learn, if we draw the right lesson.

Let’s go back to the getting fired from your job scenario, for example. In this case, a useful lesson might be: “wow, that job really wasn’t a good fit for me because of such-and-such characteristics. I should look for a job that has such-and-such different characteristics that will be a better match for the way my brain works.”

More generally, if the “lesson” you’re learning from a failure is that you need to make your symptoms go away so you can better fit into your environment, you’re probably going in a direction that will make things worse in the end. If you flip the dynamic around, though, and find a lesson about how you can change your environment to make your symptoms less of a burden, you might be on to something.

Ultimately, I don’t doubt that it is possible to learn something from all of your mistakes. But the fine print is that just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s easy. It requires keeping a watchful eye out to make sure that when you “learn your lesson” you don’t inadvertently learn an incorrect lesson that will make your life harder in the long-run.

When Learning From Your Mistakes Goes Wrong

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). When Learning From Your Mistakes Goes Wrong. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Oct 2017
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