Why Negative Life Lessons Are So Valuable

negative life lessons

When looking for ways to improve our lives, what is it we usually focus on? Don’t we tend to focus on things that will move our reality in a more positive direction? Typically, we look for ways to experience greater happiness, create more leisure time, or increase our level of success.

Regardless of the area we focus on, the intent is usually to make some degree of positive improvement, to notch things up to the next level. While this is a very important part of personal development, it is really less than fifty percent of the big picture. Why do I say that? Because in reality, the greater part of personal development comes from learning…

Negative life lessons

I know, it sounds strange and even a bit counter productive. After all, why would we want to focus on the negative side if our goal is personal development? But, what do I mean by “negative life lessons”?

Simply stated, a negative life lesson is when we learn what not to do. Maybe you are wondering: “How does learning what not to do help with my personal development?” To answer that question, let’s consider a few real life situations.

It starts when we are children

Most parents teach their young children not to play in the street. In this case, teaching them what not to do could easily mean the difference between life and death. All the positive things that child learns will be meaningless if he runs out in front of a car.

Later, when the child’s awareness has grown, he will learn not to go into the street without looking both ways. So, even though his perception has grown and changed, learning what not to do is still a vital part of his personal development.

You can’t move forward while losing ground

Essentially, negative life lessons are designed to keep us from losing ground in our personal growth and development. In the illustration above, the value is obvious. It involves life itself. In other situations, the benefits of a negative life lesson may be more subtle.

Sometimes we learn how to avoid physical or emotional pain. Or, we might learn that certain approaches waste time and resources. Successful relationships belong to those who figure out what not to do, and thus avoid needlessly hurting the feeling of the other person.

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about raising children, building a business, or nurturing a meaningful relationship. Learning what not to do is an important key to success. Making progress in any of these areas means avoiding the things that undermine our positive efforts.

Shortcut the process for quicker results

Just as we can learn valuable new techniques and skills from those with previous experience, we should also learn from the mistakes of others. Look around at the abilities of the people you know. Some of them can probably serve as perfect examples of what not to do.

By analyzing why the efforts of others fail to produce good results, you can save yourself a bunch of time and energy. Whether it’s a dysfunctional family, a failing business, or poor health, there is always something you can learn. They’ve just shown you what not to do, and that is extremely valuable.

All life lessons are positive

I used the term “negative life lessons” only because they are the opposite of those life lessons designed to produce forward momentum. In reality, all life lessons are positive if we apply what we learn. Thomas Edison discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb before he finally figured it out. What can we learn from his example?

Figuring out what works is often a process of elimination. By identifying and eliminating the thoughts, emotions, and actions that are not productive, we move ever closer to our desired outcome. You can apply this to specific goals, or your life in general. Avoiding what doesn’t work is at the foundation of all success.

A positive view of negative life lessons

Realizing the incredible value of learning what not to do should have a profound effect on our attitude. Every time we discover what doesn’t work, we move closer to solving a problem, overcoming an obstacle, or making a personal breakthrough. Every life lesson we learn, negative or positive, is a personal development treasure.

So, the next time your efforts don’t produce the exact result you were hoping for, take a moment to analyze the value of what you have just learned. Think of all the time and effort you will save because of that lesson. Consider how much more effective your future efforts will be. Now, aren’t you grateful for all those wonderful, negative life lessons?

What’s your favorite negative life lesson?
What have you learned from watching others?
The lines are open!

If you enjoyed this article consider email updates!

If you’re ready to discover your core values and passions, and make a deeper connection with your true self, then you’re ready to Find Your TRUE SELF.


  1. Frank J December 11, 2009 Reply

    Growing up in New York, I learned what not to do, more so than what to do. In fact, the learning was easy because it always involved some sort of pain on the what not to do.

    You learn by your mistakes.

    • Jonathan December 11, 2009 Reply

      Hi Frank, very often learning what not to do does involve pain. Thankfully, those painful life lessons actually teach use how to avoid pain in the future. I think one of the saddest things is when someone doesn’t learn from their mistakes and end up suffering repeatedly.

  2. John December 11, 2009 Reply

    “Everything furthers,” as the late David Carradine said in his book “The Spirit of Shaolin.”

    Do more of what works and do less of what does not. It is all good.


    • Jonathan December 11, 2009 Reply

      Nicely said John, and yes, everything furthers as long as we are paying attention along the way.

  3. Kikolani December 11, 2009 Reply

    I think some of my biggest “negative” life lessons were learned after the failure of my first marriage. I learned more about who I wanted to be, and I learned more about what I wanted to find in another person. Those lessons helped me become more of the person I wanted to be, and to know when I met my soulmate that he had the characteristics and values that aligned with mine in a way that we could spend the rest of our lives together.

    ~ Kristi

  4. Jonathan December 11, 2009 Reply

    Hi Kristi, your experience is a perfect example of the value of a negative life lesson. You learned from a difficult situation and ended up benefiting from the experience. I am so glad that you found someone so special. I love happy relationships.

  5. Lana December 11, 2009 Reply

    “all life lessons are positive if we apply what we learn” – so true Jonathan, thank you for this post, couldn’t agree with you more.

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hi Lana, isn’t it true that life is the greatest teacher. All we need to do is pay attention and apply what we learn.

  6. Dragos Roua December 11, 2009 Reply

    With all due respect, “negative” can’t be associated with “lesson”. And I know you stated this pretty clear in the article. Negativity is more than often a perception, the way we react when we’re pushed outside our comfort zone. Everything that hurts has a meaning, the same way everything that please us has a meaning.

    Whenever I hit such a “negative” lesson from life I try to remember that pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.

    Thank you Jonathan :-)

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hi Dragos, I totally agree with you regarding the relationship between negative and lesson. As you said, it’s only our perception of an experience that might be considered negative. The only negative lesson is the one we fail to learn, and there again, that’s about us, not the lesson. I love how you stated this: “pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional.”

  7. Zeenat December 11, 2009 Reply

    HI Jonathan,
    I’m with kristi on this too. I too learned from the failure of my first marriage, what I wanted for ME and what was right for me. It took me a long while to get back to thinking about marriage again..but I did..and today, I have what i wanted my soulmate and much much more.
    If you don’t learn from your past failures..you will never learn isn’t it….:)

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Thanks for sharing that Z. I love happy endings and loving relationships. Congratulations!

  8. Steven Aitchison December 12, 2009 Reply

    This reminded me of a quote by Tom Bodett: “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”

    I learn much more from the negative things that happen in life than I do from the positive experiences – however all the lessons I have learned lead to a positive outcome.

    Thanks for your wisdom Jonathan

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hi Steve, I don’t remember hearing that quote before, but I love it. Now I know why I have always preferred to be a student of life rather than go to school. Sometimes, it’s hard to consider anything as negative if the experience yields a valuable life lesson. Of course, the lesson generally follows the experience, so it’s not much comfort while we are going through something uncomfortable.

  9. Iman December 12, 2009 Reply

    It’s during those seemingly “adverse” moments in my life that I experience the greatest growth, not when things are all rosy and cheery.I truly believe that everything that happens in my life, both positive and negative, are for my betterment. I’ve learned to ask the question, what’s good about this? Trust me, that question can feel very counter-intuitive at times, but when I search for the good in a situation, I usually find it.

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hi Iman, I really appreciate your comment, and that’s a powerful question for several reasons. As soon as you ask “what’s good about this,” you are actually telling your mind that there is something good that needs to be discovered. Your mind will immediately start searching for the answer to your question. Not only will this expose the “lesson,” but is also changes your focus. Instead of dwelling on the difficulty of a situation, you are now focused on the benefits associated with that very same experience.

  10. Stephen December 12, 2009 Reply

    Hi Jonathan, this is such an important lesson. It’s more important than we are ever even aware of in fact. When our non-conscious mind alerts us to something we should pay attention to or be careful of it is often a result of a “negative” learning experience in the past – an experience we may no longer even be consciously aware of. A life full of negative lessons is what make those intuitive feelings we get so accurate. By paying attention to what doesn’t work, we are programming a magnificent supercomputer in our heads to make better decisions in the future.

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      What a great comment Stephen, I really appreciate everything you touched on. One of the subtleties that stands out for me is the use of the phrase “non-conscious mind.” Most of us (myself included), use the term subconscious, which is not exactly accurate. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and knowledge.

  11. Miche - Serenity Hacker December 12, 2009 Reply

    Hi Jonathan, what valuable advice! I think these “negative” life lessons are often the most powerful ones, even if some of them are quite difficult. Plus, they can help us be clearer on our more “positive” sort of goal-setting… when we consider what NOT to do while we’re planning what we WANT to do, we have a better chance at success.

    Miche :)

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hi Miche, I agree with you that what I termed “negative life lessons” really are the most powerful. In fact, I almost used “most powerful” in my title instead of “so valuable.” I also think that the more difficult the experience, the more attention we pay to the resulting lesson. Lot’s of insights in these comments, I love it.

  12. Gail @ A Flourishing Life December 12, 2009 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    Your post reminded me of the phrase: There is no failure only feedback. Life is so rich – there are endless opportunities for learning. It’s a matter of taking in our experiences – even the painful ones – with openness, and not letting ourselves be stuck or limited by them.

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Nice comparison Gail between feedback and failure. There is a huge difference in our internal emotional response to these two perspectives. Feedback is an emotionally neutral concept. It’s something we can learn and grow from. Failure, on the other hand is usually anchored in a negative evaluation of our own abilities. In essence, the first is potentially empowering, while the other leans strongly toward limiting.

      By the way, I started reading your second post in the series and realized I need to make time to go back and start from the beginning. I was immediately hooked.

  13. Robin Easton December 12, 2009 Reply

    Ooooh this is REALLY juicy!! Right up my alley…I have garnered my most positive riches from supposed “negative” life lessons. We humans often look for enlightenment in books, in creating mystical experiences, and following masters and all the rest…(and sometimes that can help us), but if we simply used everything happening in our lives (to grow) we would have ALL we need to become the greatness we are capable of. It’s all right under our noses., but we often want something “prettier” to learn from, so we end up throwing away all the juiciest parts (the supposed negative parts).

    Negative experiences are a bit like the manure on my garden. That manure may stink to high heaven and look disgusting, but man oh man, it produces the most glorious flowers and vegetables. I think within the “rejected” lessons lies not only “what not to do”, but sooooo much more. We learn our own inner strength, courage, wisdom, from the inside out…not JUST with our heads or minds, but with our entire BEING. We come to understand on the deepest possible level WHO we are and what Life is about for us. We BECOME Life itself.

    Most of us are kind of like how John on Zen Moments described: “Fair weather hikers”. We want only to be out and about in the sunshine and blue skies, and this normal and good, but we miss this whole other HUGE life sustaining part of who we ARE.

    When we reject negative experiences and go completely over HERE and try to find what we seek in a book, teachings, and other positive material (which again can be a useful too), BUT we have totally neglected our lives. We can’t come to understand Life without actively living a whole array of life emotions, experiences, events, and so forth. Ultimately we must experience Life to intimately know Life. Just as John says: we must experience all facets of Nature to really know and become Nature.

    GREAT article.
    Hugs, Robin

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hello Robin, you probably have no idea how much I look forward to your comments. Thank you so much for all of your meaningful contributions.

      For me, life has always been the best teacher. I feel that the more we experience, the greater our depth of knowledge and understanding. I have never claimed to be anything other than a student of life. Not that I haven’t learned from other pursuits, but life itself is certainly responsible for lions share of what I have learned.

      The school of life has always been, and will always be, my favorite source of useful life lessons and knowledge. There really is no substitute for experience.

      • Robin Easton December 12, 2009 Reply

        YES!! :))) I see this in you. It’s what gives you something “beyond” and makes your work/wisdom more expansive, compassionate and deeper. It’s what I relate to in both you and your work.

        • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

          It’s because we both have the same education. The school of real life with a major in nature. Different schools, same curriculum.

          • Robin Easton December 12, 2009 Reply

            Aaah YES!! I love this reply. It acknowledges what I call TGSL: The Great School of Life. Just as you have called it here. And yes, with that major in Nature. Thank you for reflecting this back to me. I needed to hear it.

  14. Steven Handel December 12, 2009 Reply

    This is a great topic. It is just as important to learn what not to do as it is to learn what to do. Thanks for the advice!

    • Jonathan December 12, 2009 Reply

      Hi Steven, when we start counting the “not to do” lessons, we quickly realize we have learned much more than we might have given ourselves credit for.

  15. Steven December 12, 2009 Reply

    Jonathan, great post you have put up here.

    It is certainly right. Some of the most successful people are the way they are today simply because they have experienced what you’ve pointed out.

    They have experienced the worst in life, and that taught them a huge lesson on how they must do everything in their power to avoid experience that situation ever again.

    Many people who grew up in dysfunctional families turn out to be compassionate and considerate people, because they have learned what not to do through their observant eyes during their childhood.

    Negative lessons are extremely important, because without them there wouldn’t be any positive ones. Because how would any one understand how to succeed without learning or witnessing how to fail before hand?

    Whether if it is positive or negative, they are both beneficial. If you succeed, then great repeat what you do and continue to flourish. If you failed, then you’ve just gotten a free education on how not to fail the way you did.

    Thanks for this Jonathan :)

    • Jonathan December 22, 2009 Reply

      Hi Steven, appreciate the comment. I think one of the keys to loving the whole journey is to see learning as the greatest success. When we do that, then any experience that teaches us a meaningful lesson is a good one. We my prefer the so called positive experiences, but that doesn’t lessen the value of the lessons we learn from the less pleasurable ones.

  16. Rocket Bunny February 5, 2010 Reply

    I agree with Dragos on this negative emotions are felt but positive lessons are learned from disappointments or sadness. There is always a positive side to balance out a negative, I think.

    • Jonathan February 5, 2010 Reply

      Hi Bunny, I agree that there is always a valuable lesson that can benefit us in a positive way if we are willing to accept it. Being alert to the lesson that comes with any experience (+ or -) is a vital key to personal growth. It’s great to hear from you!

  17. Nancy Shields November 19, 2010 Reply

    Great post and so very true; Dr. Wayne Dyer states it best, “Every person I meet is my greatest teacher”….thank you for teaching today….

    • Jonathan February 23, 2011 Reply

      Hi Nancy, Dyer’s statement also shows that humility makes it easier to lean valuable life lessons.

      • Nancy February 23, 2011 Reply

        I am pleased to be humble then…

  18. Kate December 4, 2010 Reply

    What valuable comments here!!! The cheapest lesson of my life are the most expensive, and the most expensive lessons are free.
    Greetings from all your readers from Poland

    • Jonathan February 23, 2011 Reply

      Hi Kate, yes, sometimes the school of life requires us to pat tuition.

  19. Sandra April 21, 2011 Reply


    I am indeed grateful for those negative life lessons. And I’m grateful to you for reminding me to be happy about them!

    • Jonathan April 22, 2011 Reply

      Thanks Sandra, some of the most valuable lessons in life come with the heaviest cost and it can be challenging to appreciate their value while they are happening. That’s often where hindsight helps us out.

  20. Jeanette November 20, 2011 Reply

    Hello, this is a great article to remind us that as Deepak Chopra says, “There are no right turns or wrong turns in life, simply new paths.” I believe that, “Life is our classroom” and that all lessons are valuable. Often times it comes down to how we perceive them. Every person that comes into our life is a teacher to us, as we are to them as well. If we are to grow in awareness, being open to learnng is key!
    Wishing you all the best,

  21. Mireille December 10, 2011 Reply

    I really like your article. it is very inspiring. Thank you

  22. Leslie March 27, 2012 Reply

    I have learned a lot from negative life lessons in the past few years. What I find that is most important is being patient with yourself after those negative experiences. You need to give yourself time and a thoughtful attitude to process the lesson you are to learn. I am giving myself patience, and hoping this time will lead to transformation and the knowledge to do better next time.

  23. Yeah, you are right. All life lessons are positive. We think in the beginning, life incidences seem negative but at hindsight they are all positive and teach us something new.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>