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Thom Hartmann's ADD/ADHD Newsletter

April, 2001

Over the past three centuries since the invention of modern psychology, two models of how people change have been promoted. While these two models have been presented in hundreds of different ways over the years, with different brandings and labels, they can be organized into basically two categories: the Failure Model and the Feedback Model.

The Failure Model starts with a problem a person is facing. The focus is on the failure - the problem - and this model of therapy suggests we first give the problem or failure a name (such as "inattention" or "anxiety" or "lack of motivation," for example). This naming process is a very powerful one in our culture, because we behave as if once we've named something, it's a real thing. The fact is, however, that the failure or problem isn't a "thing": you can't put it in a wheelbarrow, for example, like you could a truly real thing such as a bale of hay or a lamp. (This process of creating an apparent physical reality for something that is only an idea is called "nominalization.") But by naming a problem or failure, we give it life and an apparent reality.

Next in the Failure Model, we ask the question "Why did this failure happen?" Is it because of neurology, poor parenting, trauma, abuse, too much television, bad teachers, or something else? The problem with this approach is that we're now totally focusing on the person's limitation. Often, those children and adults treated with the Failure Model become so identified with their limitation that they adopt it as part of who they are. "I'm a child of an abusive parent," or, "I'm an ADDer."

Because the focus of Failure Model therapies and interventions are the limitation and the problem, people often find that their limitations and problems tend to become more and more anchored and rigidified over time. This leads to years of "therapy" to "cure" the problem…and study after study has shown that this type of therapy is less effective than no therapy at all.

Nonetheless, the Failure Model is the primary one embraced by our culture. The reason is simple: we're enamored of "science," and science always asks the question, "Why?" One of the tenants implicit in science is that to understand things is to control them. While this is absolutely true in chemistry and electronics, it's unfortunately been proven not to be the case in psychology.

But we stick with it, and it earns a good living for a lot of therapists who are honestly and with best intentions trying to solve people's problems by asking, "Why?"

The second model offered by psychology is the Feedback Model. This system leaps ahead of the problem and looks first to the goal the person is trying to achieve. For example, this person wants to be more successful in chemistry class, or better at maintaining friendships, or to have a life filled with relaxation and enthusiasm (yes, the two can coexist).

In the Feedback Model, the problems or limitations a person experiences are not considered "things" but, instead, are thought of as one type of feedback. They're information, and because they've been identified as negatives, they're most likely feedback about how something the person is doing to achieve their goal is not working out the way they'd hoped.
In this worldview, all behavior is assumed to be both adaptive and well intentioned. Everything we know how to do, even those things that seem the most dysfunctional, started out as attempts to accomplish some particular goal. Whining or pouting or tantrum-throwing or being inattentive or whatever - they all were useful at least once. The challenge is when people hang on to these behaviors and try to generalize them or apply them to things they don't work particularly well for. Then they appear as problems or failures. But in this model, they're feedback - evidence or information about what's not working.

In the Feedback Model, we also look at what is working, and what might work. It's a model that allows for great latitude and creativity in the transformational process. It assumes that people have within them all the resources they need to change, and all they need do is look at or listen to the feedback to recalibrate or change their behaviors in new and different ways. The question of why the behavior is around is considered a curiosity but not relevant to the process: the why is part of the past, and the past is over and behind us. The Feedback Model is focused instead on the goal in the future, and the processes of the present. Instead of asking "Why?" the Feedback model asks "How?" How can this person best achieve this goal?

In order to ask that question, of course, you must first have a goal! 

Back around 1910, the world's richest man, steel baron Andrew Carnegie, presented a challenge to a young man he knew. The challenge: to model the behavior of over a hundred of the world's most successful men and women and find out what it was that they all did in common. What makes them successful, when others fail?

That young man, Napoleon Hill, took on the challenge. It took him twenty years to complete his project, funded by Carnegie, and when he was done he had the answer. He wrote about it in several books he later produced, the most famous being "Think And Grow Rich" which was first published in the depths of the Great Depression.

Similarly, the famous psychiatrist Milton Erickson asked, in the 1940s and 1950s, what it was that successful people had in common. He found a result that was startlingly similar to that found by Hill. Richard Bandler and John Grinder codified his understanding of this into what is now known as NLP, although you'll also find it in many of the more solution-oriented schools of psychology and psychotherapy. It's also at the core of virtually every self-help book that's been written in the past seventy years, and even in the advice that Ben Franklin wrote about before the American Revolution. You'll find elements of it in the writings of the Greek and Roman philosophers, and in the Bible, both Old Testament and New. All offer variations on the Feedback Model.

The Feedback Model has six components or criteria. They are:

1. State the goal or outcome desired in positive terms. Saying "I don't want to be afraid" is a negative statement: instead choose something like, "I want to feel confident in social situations."

2. The goal and processes to reach it are something that must be attainable and maintainable by the person. People are most motivated by goals they know are achievable - even if they know the goals will require enormous amounts of hard work or difficulty to reach.

3. The goals and steps to reach them must be stated in specific terms, using sensory terms. No nominalizations! Describe what the outcome and goals will look like, feel like, and sound like.

4. The goals and steps to reach them must be stated in a clear time frame. Set dates for your goals. What do you want, and when do you want it?

5. The goals must be healthy or helpful for everybody involved, and then stated out loud. Goals that have winners and losers, or injure others, are not healthy. And for a goal to be reached, it must first be expressed. This out-loud statement is commonly referred to as an affirmation, and may be a sentence or statement that is read aloud every morning and evening, or is written down and taped to a mirror where it's seen several times daily. As Goethe pointed out, "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way."

6. You must begin the process toward reaching the goal today. What is the first step? Do it now!
By reframing "deficits" and "weaknesses" and "problems" and "failures" as feedback, we remove ourselves from them. They don't define the self, the way they do in the Failure Model. We learn from them and move on, and are not wounded by them. The classic statement by Richard Bandler is, "There is no failure: only feedback."

Applying this to the label of ADHD (a weak nominalization deeply rooted in the Failure Model), we find that the world is full of "ADDers" who have achieved high goals. How?

I've interviewed many famous and successful Hunter-types, and the one common characteristic I find over and over in their lives is that they live in the Feedback Model instead of the Failure Model. The former publisher of Inc. Magazine, Wilson Harrell (who also founded the Formula 409 company), even told me that he felt that in order for a person to be a successful entrepreneur, he must have a touch of ADD. When I challenged him on this, he wrote: "Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs because, down through the eons of time, we have inherited the Hunter genes of our ancestors. What an incredible discovery! The implications are enormous, particularly for those of us who have children. Since entrepreneurs tend to breed entrepreneurs, we are also breeding children with what the schools call Attention Deficit Disorder-and many of those children are now being drugged, at school, every day of their lives. It's a fact. Over five million school children are being drugged so that, while in school, they will stop the Hunter behaviors that might one day make them successful entrepreneurs. Instead they will act like good, compliant Farmer students."

The Feedback Model offers us a way to recalibrate our response to ADHD. Children and adults can redefine themselves using the Hunter/Farmer metaphor, and then set aside the ideas of failure and replace them with the ideas of feedback. Set goals and begin to work toward them, rather than wallowing in self-doubt and blame. Reach your and your child's potential!

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