The Learning Attitude Curve

I’ve been thinking lately about how our attitudes shift over time, especially when faced with new learning or practices.

Many people are familiar with the “attitude curve,” which describes people’s response to change. It’s a U shape — people have to go through a low point before they accept change. This is a familiar idea in leadership studies (see, for instance, The Art of Leadership for an example).

I have been thinking about attitude curves in a slightly different context, however. Specifically, learning new practices. This can be a new job (learning new functions and norms), a new skill (learning how to do something), or even a new place (learning a new community).

The “Learning Attitude Curve” looks a little different, in my experience:

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • At A, you’re in your normal state
  • At B, you’ve been thinking about making this change, and have just begun. You are elated.
  • At C, you’ve been learning your new skill for a little bit, and the bloom is off the rose slightly. The elation has passed.
  • At D, you’re in the doldrums. This isn’t what you wanted, you don’t like how it’s going, you question whether you even want to continue. People bail out here. But then . . .
  • At E, you’ve turned a corner. Turns out D was a bottom of sorts — here, you begin to acquire your new skill or knowledge with increasing ease. Your attitude improves and you begin to see that, even if you have a ways to go before you are an expert, you might be able to make it.
  • At F, you feel as if you are well on your way. You know the worst is behind you, and you are glad you pushed through. But then . . .
  • At G, it turns out that there are still ups and downs to be had. You continue to encounter mini-troughs. People often bail out at this point, because they worry it’s going to get as bad as it was in D. But it won’t. You’ve passed your low point. This is just a natural “down,” not a true inflection point. If you can stick through, it gets better. (Note that there are a number of “G” points, a number of ups and downs as you go forward.)
  • At H, your new skill or culture or whatever is fully integrated. It’s a part if you, and you’re basically back to your attitude back before you got on the curve.

The length of the curve is different for different people and for different circumstances. As is the depth of the low spots. Taking guitar lessons, for instance, brings less intense low spots, and they come a bit quicker than major life-change pursuits.

When I first learned about the “attitude curve,” I thought it was an incredibly negative way of looking at things. But I have come to see that it is actually quite hopeful — at least it has given me hope, on many occasions.

It also helps me in dealing with others. With a new job, for example, it is helpful to know that “D” often comes about 6 months in. If I am interacting with someone who is new on their job, I can understand more about how and why they are behaving.

In recent months, I’ve been going through a learning process and have been riding this curve. Recently, I woke up and realized I had passed through “D” and was on my upswing. I know there will be ups and downs to come, but there’s a spring in my step and a song in my heart.

Knowing that there is a curve is useful, because it reminds me that whatever I am feeling about where I am at . . . it is temporary. It will change. That gives me the motivation to push through low spots and not bail out.

Engaged, Not Engaged?

College Fair

The other evening, my wife and I accompanied our daughter to a college fair. She’s a junior, and this is an important part of the college selection process. Over one hundred colleges all came to display their wares, with many hundreds of high school students on hand to try to make their connections and winnow down their choice (or make themselves stand out in the minds of the admissions officers of their chosen schools).

It was a packed affair. My wife and I decided that our best course would be to let our daughter use the time on her own, and not try to guide, prod, or speak for her in any way. So, we each cruised the event on our own, developed our own impressions, and then the two of us reconnoitered in the bleachers to wait while our daughter finished her work. Her part took longer, because she had to interact with a number of people. We told her to take her time. We were fine.

And, in fact, we were. Many parents were sitting around us, occupied with their own activities. As were we. Both of us found the even fascinating in its own way. My wife, Andrea Jarrell, is a consultant to colleges and universities, and found it interesting to see how her work (viewbooks and branding for places such as Lafayette University, Swarthmore, and Columbia) was used and to be on the “consumer” side of the desk. As for me, I am fascinated by crowds and like to people watch, discerning patterns in their behavior.

Naturally interested in sharing our experiences, we each pulled out our smartphones and went to Facebook. Andrea had posted a photo along with a comment about how interesting she found the experience. I weighed in. Other mutual friends were commenting, and we were each enjoying refreshing our screens, updating our statuses, joking with one another, and sharing our observations.

It was an interesting feeling of being at the same time engaged with an event in real life, and sharing it on social media . . . all at the same time that we were sharing the experience of being there together. We were engrossed, living in three or four worlds simultaneously.

Then, our reveries and interactions were interrupted. The admissions officer from a school whose table happened to be right near us had been watching our behavior, and he’d sauntered over. “I have never seen a couple more . . . ”

. . . As he began his sentence, I filled in the blank for him mentally. “Engaged.” “Proud.” “Interested.” What was he about to say?

“. . . disinterested than you two,” he finished.

I was taken aback. We were, in fact, the opposite of that. If you could be “in flow” sitting on the bleachers at a college fair, we were there. Yet, I could see how it might appear that we were bored out of our skulls. I thought of it from his perspective. There we were, sitting together, staring into our phones, tapping away. We would look around blankly for a while, then back into our phones and tap away. Once in a while we might say something to one another, but we did this sporadically and briefly. Mostly, from his perspective, we were just sitting there.

We disabused our new friend of his misperception, and explained how interested we, in fact, were. We spoke for a while. Turns out the admissions officer has two children, one a senior in high school, and he has been interested in his own experience of the admissions process from the other side of the desk. We shared about this for a while, and then he went back to work.

As he walked away, I thought about our exchange, and how appearances can be quite deceiving, especially when you mix them with stereotypes. Because we looked like the prototypical bored and disinterested  parents, our new friend assumed that was what we were.

I’ll have to remember that, next time I assume someone is not paying attention because they are staring into their smartphone. Maybe, in fact, they are more engaged than ever.


Writing For The Institute For Global Ethics

Friends and colleagues know that, for a number of years, I lived in Camden, Maine and led a large election-ethics initiative for the Institute for Global Ethics. Going to IGE was a decisive moment in my career, which up to that point had consisted primarily of work in government and politics (and some lobbying) in California. My work at IGE cemented my interest in and affection for work improving American democracy, which has continued to this day.

Rushworth M. Kidder

It also introduced me to IGE founder and president, Rushworth M. Kidder.

Rush passed away in early March. His passing reminded me of the massive role he played in my development as a worker, as a writer, and as a person. As my boss, he managed me with grace. As my editor, he taught me to write. As my mentor, he guided me to a deeper understanding of what it means to live ethically in the day-to-day of the workplace. While I had not been in close touch with Rush for some time, his loss leaves a hole in my life.

In 1998, Rush and I had the idea to start an online-only publication devoted to ethics. We began publishing what was then “Business Ethics Newsline” weekly in February 1998, if I recall correctly. Each edition contained a number of recaps of ethics-related stories, a link to some recent research of note . . . and a column on ethics by Rush. I remember that, when we were discussing the idea in the first place, one of the attractive elements to Rush was that the publication would give him reason to write again, regularly, in the essay form he had come to love as a journalist at The Christian Science Monitor.

Every week, for Ethics Newsline (as we eventually renamed it), Rush would pen a column touching on some aspect of ethics as it appeared in the week’s news. Sometimes, when vacation schedules or other things made that impossible, Rush allowed me to pinch hit for him. I learned so very much from deciphering his edits to my awkward, early prose.

With Rush’s passing, the Institue for Global Ethics has determined that it is important for Ethics Newsline to live on. Its editors (the same team of Jeff Spaulding and Carl Hausman who were its earliest editors) have reached out to a handful of people to contribute commentary on an occasional basis.

I am proud to say that I’m included in that group. My first such column was published in today’s edition. Here is an excerpt:

[A]s I sauntered into my local polling place last Tuesday . . ., [t]here were eight poll workers, and two voters. The campaigns? Lackluster. The issues? Small and nonexistent. The discourse, such as it was? By turns harsh and vacuous.

Small wonder turnout was abysmal. Yet, why should this be? In a seemingly unimportant primary with low turnout, my voice as a voter is magnified. I have no real say in who gets to run for president. But I do have plenty of say when it comes to local issues and candidates. Why are there not more people taking advantage of this? Why do we, instead, bemoan “politics” as if it were a dirty word, and just stay home?

Go here to read the rest of the column. I encourage you to subscribe to Ethics Newsline, which is free. If you do, you will receive a weekly (Monday) email with a terrific overview of the week’s important news, with a special emphasis on its ethical dimensions.

And, from time to time, you will see columns by me.

Hope to see you over there.

Learning To Meditate

As a part of my yoga teacher training with Down Dog Yoga, I have been asked to start a regular meditation practice.

When I first learned of this requirement, I thought it would be relatively easy. I have for many years had a spiritual practice that involved daily contemplation. I have learned since that the kind of mindfulness that meditation requires is difficult.

Over the last few weeks, though, things have clicked for me and I’ve begun to dial in a regular practice that I now look forward to with relish.

One of the books that we were asked to purchase for training has been quite helpful. It’s Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. (Affiliate link.) It’s very simple and straightforward, and comes with a CD that has a number of meditations recorded on location at various retreats. It’s helped me get started — and from there, I’ve begun to grow.

I started out just meditating for 5-10 minutes four times per week. Now I am meditating 20 minutes every day (pretty much: some days I skip, but I don’t skip two days in a row).


A Different Practice

For many years, as a part of my spiritual practice, I have engaged in morning contemplation of spiritual principles. Sometimes this takes the form of a written letter to God, sometimes it takes the form of prayer, sometimes I read inspirational books.

But meditating is different than all that. The goal is to quiet the mind, and bring awareness to the present. Contemplation, writing, and prayer actually work against that (at least, that’s what I have found). I am not stopping all that, but they do not quiet my mind in the way I would like.

So, as I have begun to meditate, I have become increasingly aware of the differences — and how far I have to go.

What I have found different than what I had been used to is that, instead of contemplating a spiritual principle (as I had been doing previously), I am bringing attention and awareness solely to my breath. Focusing awareness on breath forces my attention into the present and away from the mish-mosh inside my head.

This, it turns out, can be difficult. The mind has a tendency to wander. I was surprised to find out just how much chatter I have in my head normally. Planning, pondering, reviewing, worrying, hoping, regretting, recriminating, figuring, budgeting . . . all these things and more occupy my mind. It does not seem to want to stop, it just goes by itself!

But, little by little, just by focusing my attention on my breath, I have found that my mind quiets. I get little stretches of respite from the chatter. Over time, these have begun to lengthen, and they come more quickly. At the end of each session, I feel refreshed and ready to face the day.

My Routine

One of my yoga teachers suggests that we meditate first thing in the morning. “RPM” — Rise, Pee, Meditate. I’ve found that is a little early for me, and I tend to snooze off a bit, even though I am seated upright.

So, I wait a while until I have been awake long enough to have a certain amount of alertness.

I sit kneeling with my sitting bones on a yoga block (turned so it is at the “medium” height, resting on a long narrow side), and set my iPhone timer for the amount of time I wish to meditate. (I have learned it is easier than I thought to set aside the time to meditate, if I know just how long it is going to be.)

I close my eyes, inhale, and exhale. I bring my attention to the physical sensations of the breath — the feeling in the back of my throat, cool as it goes in. My belly expanding slightly.

As other physical sensations arise, I bring my attention there, naming the sensation (itching, itching, or, pressure, pressure) until it subsides. I try not to move or fidget.

When I notice my mind has wandered — which it does, often — I try to gently bring it back to breath, like I’m placing a puppy back on its newspaper. I don’t get uptight about it, I just return to breath. I do this over and over.

This practice has opened a new door in my world. I feel more connected and calm as I start my day. It used to be difficult to make it through five minutes sitting still. Now I find twenty minutes has passed by in a wink.

If meditation is something you are curious about, I encourage you to give it a try. Just start with a short time, a few times per week. See where it takes you. You might be surprised! I know I was.