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.

My Ancestor, Tiernan O'Rourke, The Irish King

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so it is a good time to explore the Irish king in my ancestry, Tiernan O’Rourke. Tiernan (or Tigernan Ua Ruairc) was king of Breifne, a region that no longer exists, from around 1124 until around 1172. Breifne was where the current counties Cavan and Leitrim are. At the height of its power (when Tiernan was king), it extended from County Meath to County Sligo.

They say that, in old Ireland, having a king in one’s ancestry is sort of like having an elected official in the family if you are from New Hampshire. The jurisdictions are so small that there are many such officials. That seems about right. Here are the kingdoms of Ireland around the year 900:

You can see Breifne there, in the middle of the North and the South.

Tiernan, Dervorgilla, and Dermot

Even though there were lots of kings and nobles back then, my Tiernan played a special role in history. You see, he had a neighboring king, one Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait Mac Murchada). In 1152, MacMurrough stole my forebear Tiernan’s wife, whose name was Dervorgilla (Derbforgaill). Evidently, Dervorgilla planned this thievery. According to Irish historian Geoffrey Keating:

[T]he wife of Tighearnan Caoch O Ruairc (Dearbhforgaill was her name, and she was daughter to Murchadh Mac Floinn, king of Meath, and not wife of the king of Meath as Cambrensis says) sent messengers in secret to Diarmaid Mac Murchadha asking him to come to meet her and take her with him as his wife from Tighearnan and she told the messengers to make known to Diarmaid. that Tighearnan had gone on a pilgrimage to the cave of Patrick’s Purgatory, and that, therefore, he would have an opportunity of quietly carrying her with him to Leinster. There had been indeed an illicit attachment between them for many years previously.

As to Diarmaid, when this message reached him he went quickly to meet the lady, accompanied by a detachment of mounted men, and when they reached where she was, he ordered that she be placed on horseback behind a rider, and upon this the woman wept and screamed in pretence, as if Diarmaid were carrying her off by force; and bringing her with him in this manner, he returned to Leinster. As to Tighearnan, when he returned to Breithfne and heard that it was against her consent his wife was taken from him, he made a complaint of this outrage to Ruaidhri O Conchubhair [the High King of Ireland] and to his friends in general.

Upon this Ruaidhri made a muster of the men of Connaught, Breithfne, Oirghialla and Meath, and set out with a large host to waste Leinster to avenge this evil deed Diarmaid had done.

O’Rourke mounted an expedition the next year, 1153, to steal back Dervorgilla. This “exchange” sealed the bad blood between MacMurrough and O’Rourke for good.

Dermot Travels To France With A Proposal

As the years progressed, the political landscape in Ireland shifted until, finally, MacMurrough was forced from his lands in 1166 and fled to France, where he sought out King Henry II. MacMurrough was set on regaining his lands and was looking for sponsorship.

MacMurrough found Henry, finally, in distant Aquitaine, and made his case. He knew Henry had ling been interested in Ireland. MacMurrough would help him, so long as Henry helped him return to power. According to the Old French Song of Dermot And The Earl:

Hear, noble king Henry,
Whence I was born, of what country.
Of Ireland I was born a lord,
In Ireland acknowledged king;
But wrongfully my own people
Have cast me out of my kingdom.
To you I come to make plaint, good sire,
In the presence of the barons of your empire.
Your liege-man I shall become
Henceforth all the days of my life,
On condition that you be my helper
So that I do not lose at all
You I shall acknowledge as sire and lord,
In the presence of your barons and earls.

Henry said he was too busy with other matters to invade Ireland. However, he did encourage MacMurrough to pull together his own forces and forge alliances with other Irish kings — and gave him a letter urging all of Henry’s subjects to rally to MacMurrough’s aid. MacMurrough returned to Ireland in 1167 and set about his new task with gusto.

MacMurrough’s first try was a failure. He set up residence near Ferns, but O’Rourke attacked him and he surrendered — and was forced to pay one hundred ounces of gold in compensation for his wife-stealing fifteen years earlier.

But that did not stop MacMurrough. He bided his time and amassed resources and forces. Eventually, he was ready to restart his campaign to take Ireland on behalf of King Henry II. In 1169, Norman forces loyal to Henry joined MacMurrough and the capture of Ireland began in earnest.

Eventually, this resulted in the Norman conquest of all of Ireland. (Many more were involved, it was not just MacMurrough. Indeed, his role diminished over time.) O’Rourke bitterly fought against MacMurrough throughout, including laying siege to his forces after they had captured Dublin. But, finally, MacMurrough and his allies prevailed. The Normans occupied Ireland until 1541.


Tiernan O’Rourke lived until roughly 1172. As part of the distribution of power, O’Rourkes remained in power as Kings (later Lords) of Breifne until 1605.

Even though he was a cuckold, I hold an abiding pride in my illustrious ancestor Tiernan O’Rourke. His story is dramatic and shows how very human emotions (love, jealousy, rage) can drive historic events.

Learning about Tiernan O’Rourke made me curious to know more about my family lineage. In my studies, one thing I learned that my coat of arms is two black lions on a yellow background, an image I find very attractive.

I also learned that the family motto is “Serviendo Guberno.” I learned that this means “I lead by serving.” This has stuck with me and I have come to try to live my life by this motto (as have other O’Rourkes and Rourkes) — I try to serve others as the highest form of leadership.

I don’t always succeed, but I try.

As a reminder to myself, I have gone so far as to have my family crest and motto memorialized as a tattoo.

Leadership Lessons From The Parable Of Penn State

Like much of the nation, I have been stewing about the Penn State scandal. And, like many, I have been thinking about what lessons can be drawn.

Photo courtesy pennstatelive (Flickr)

There are many raw emotions when it comes to the situation. Many are writing much more eloquently than I could about the disgusting betrayal of trust at the core of the situation, about the moral cowardice exhibited by almost all actors, and the arrogance of the powerful few in the face of the weak. All these things make my blood boil, even as my more moderate self counsels me to withhold judgment until I know more.

But, for leaders of mission-based organizations, there is a clear lesson that can be learned here. It is this: Beware the successful program.

The way the Penn State situation has unfolded has shone a light on the power of sports programs in American academe. Football, for many large colleges, is a highly successful revenue-producing program. Yet, it is just a minor part of the mission of any academic institution. The power that football wields, by dint of its success, vastly outstrips its importance to the mission of a school.

Football, and other intercollegiate sports, very easily becomes the tail that wags the dog. This is the danger that organization leaders must be aware of. In the face of a successful but non-core program, it is easy to rationalize that it must be continued. A leader need only point to all the good that it makes possible — all the good that its money makes possible, to put a finer point on it.

However, once one sets foot on this slope of reasoning, it quickly becomes slippery and an institution can find itself in the valley below. While the Penn State scandal provides a dramatic and high-stakes example, the principle applies beyond sports and beyond schools.

Many years ago, I was in charge of a major program administered by a small nonprofit organization. My program was responsible for about 35% of the organization’s budget each year. However, it was a bit off the beaten path for the organization, which was focused mainly on delivering training and developing new intellectual frameworks. My program, on the other hand, was focused on political advocacy.

Over a short span of time, because my program was so alien to the core activities of the parent organization, I was granted a great deal of autonomy. When it came time to renew the grant application with our funder, the prospect of losing the revenue source became alarming — and so we crafted proposals that would get funded, first and foremost. In some cases, I believe this was at the expense of the mission of the parent organization.

The situation was not cut-and-dried. It was possible, at every juncture, to make a good case: This program was sort of in line with our mission, and it enabled so many other important activities . . . so we ought to keep at it.

Eventually, the chief funder of the program ceased providing resources because of a shift in focus. I believe this was in the end a good thing for the parent organization, as it forced a decision that, up to that point, the leadership team had been loathe to make.

Those who lead mission-driven organizations should take heed of the parable we are offered by the Penn State scandal. It appears that, in the case of the actors involved in Happy Valley, the power of the individual program was sufficient to maintain silence. In many organizations, there is some small pocket that wields a similarly outsize force. They are allowed to continue, in many cases, out of convenience or a sense that they are necessary for survival.

Leaders need to ask themselves: What programs is my organization inappropriately addicted to? How prepared am I to cut the cord?

The answers may give one pause, but they should be heeded.

You Never Know

Last week, I took my 13 year old son and some friends to a paintball field. We had never been before. As we drove out, we shared about how some of us were a little nervous, but the overall emotion was excited anticipation. Like race horses trembling before the gate opens, we were ready to rock.

The way it works, they put everyone who happens to be there at the same time into a big group until there are about thirty people. Then they split you into teams and a referee establishes what game you are going to play and enforces rules. The games were basic — capture the flag, shoot everyone until there is no one left standing, defend the fort.

I imagine we all had similar inner fantasies on the way out. My son plays a lot of first-person shooter games on Xbox with his friends, and I am into them a bit too. So we were pretty much all imagining ourselves as awesome little soldier-dudes.

The reality slapped me in the face immediately. We got split up into teams and the game began. I snuck through the woods, my sights on this enemy fellow crouching behind a tree. I popped out from behind my tree to shoot. The moment I revealed myself, I got hit. Game over. I was the first casualty.

What’s worse, as I walked back to the staging area where the dead people wait, I realized I had no clue where the shot that did me in had come from. None.

The game finally ended, and we were briefed on the next game. We basically switched sides, with one team uphill and the other downhill. The ref called “go.” We started playing. I snuck forward toward a woodpile. This time I would be cagey, and be a bit more careful of my surroundings.

Again, I got shot quickly. Again, I had no idea where it came from.

Over the course of the day, I improved and I stopped being the first to go. But one element was constant: I never knew where the shot that took me out came from.

This morning, as I was talking to friends about life in general, I realized that my paintball excursion (which I enjoyed immensely and which I plan to repeat) taught me a very important lesson:

You never know what direction challenges will come from.

In most cases out on the paintball field, there was some threat (or target) I was focusing on, and the killer shot came from some other place. I was totally blindsided. Over and over.

Try as we might to prepare, the unexpected will present itself to us, and we will have to deal with it. On the paintball field, it means a walk back to the staging area. In life, it means a chance to respond with grace to something new.

The quality I need to cultivate in myself is not so much strength to withstand an onslaught, or even a more sensitive internal radar. Because there is always a better shot, and the paintball with my name on it will always come from where I am not looking.

No, the quality I need to cultivate is grace in response.

That is what is going to serve me best, as life continues to present surprises.

Thoughts For When Things Are Tough

In The Weeds

Like anyone, I’ve had my share of ups and downs. The downs always seem especially dire. When you’re in the weeds, it can seem like there’s no way out. Like you’re stuck there for good.

Here are two things I have learned to do during those times. I do not always practice this very well, but it’s what I aspire to do.

I try to both expand and shrink my world.

Expand My World

So often, things seem tough because I have let my world appear to shrink in around me. A colleague is acting abrasively — and I respond as if the only people in the world are me and that person. Money is tight — and I act as if there is nothing in my life to be grateful for anywhere. I lose a potential project — and behave as if there are no other prospects on this, or any, horizon.

In each case, I am artificially limiting the scope of my world to focus attention on a “problem.”

But the reality of my world is so much greater than that. I have a professional life and a personal life and more possible clients on the horizon and things to care about besides money and and and and.

If I can let myself see that the problem area — even if it is an important, big, hairy problem area — is just a limited part of my overall life, suddenly the tough time seems a little manageable. Sure, I lost a potential project — but I have others to work on, or pursue.

Here’s a small way it manifests for me. When I have a speech to give, I tend to get very nervous. My urge is to prepare. To overprepare, in fact. If I am sitting on a panel on Wednesday, for instance, I might clear the decks of everything for Monday and Tuesday. Because I want to focus in on “preparing.” The reality is that I have other things I need to be doing on Monday and Tuesday, and there is only so much preparing you can do anyway.

Shrink My Timeline

On the other side of the coin, when I am having a tough time (especially when it comes to money or my professional life), I can let my mind run ahead of itself. I start to project into the future and think about all the terrible things that are going to happen (which, in reality, or most likely things that may happen).

But, my experience tells me that I have never not been OK, when all is said and done. And, more importantly, in this moment now, I am more than likely OK. I have a place to stay. I have some food. I have enough money to make it through the day. Some people have very extreme problems and this aspect may not apply fully. But, for most people that I know, even ones who have lost everything, there is almost always some way that they were OK in the moment. The trick is not to obsess about the future’s problems, but live life today.

This is not to say I should ignore very real problems, just not let them take over.

Bottom line:

  • My world is much larger than my problems, and
  • My problems are much smaller when considered in the light of just one moment.

(I learned both of these things from other people and they only began to sink in after some difficult experiences. I can’t take any credit for them.)

Choosing "Yes"

Friends know that I have recently been bitten (more than a little) by the yoga bug. I thank my wife, Andrea Jarrell, for her years-long example — and P90X for getting me started.

After doing yoga once a week as a part of my P90X routine (which I completed in late Spring), I found that I wanted to continue. I was looking for something that was similar to the “power yoga” in P90X. I had begun doing Bikram Yoga with my wife (who is a rockstar) but I had gotten it set in my head I wanted a something else too (I still practice Bikram with Andrea at least once per week). So, in May this year, I discovered Down Dog Yoga Studio, which is rooted in the form of yoga practiced and taught by Baron Baptiste. (P90X is based on Baptiste too.)

But, this essay is not about yoga. It’s about choices.

Patty Ivey (photo borrowed from Facebook)

I read an article about Down Dog Yoga founder Patty Ivey by Austin Yoder. It’s an entrepreneurial profile of Patty, and it contains this passage:

Patty Ivey started Down Dog Yoga in the April of 2003. She started the business with a business partner who was focused and experienced with Yoga. She was a runner and didn’t practice Yoga as a form of exercise. She was asked to help because she had business experience.

At some point, Patty’s business partner decided she was not cut out for business, moved to the west coast and left her with the company. She hadn’t come up with the idea, wasn’t a Yoga teacher and found her self in a situation she didn’t know much about.

To make sure the business continued to operate and pay the employees, Patty did what was necessary. She took over the business by putting “her nose to the grindstone” and decided to start an intensive journey of her own yoga studies.

I found that fascinating. As I have been becoming a member of the Down Dog community, I’ve come to see a sort of myth surrounding Patty. Her classes are very challenging and she has what seems an encyclopedic knowledge of yoga. She has a background as a runner, so she speaks insightfully about some of the considerations yogis who also exercise in other ways ought to keep in mind.

I had assumed that Patty had, like many, discovered yoga at some point and saw the benefits — and that this discovery was voluntary. But, if the article is correct, that’s not how it happened.

She was invited to be a part of a new business venture and agreed. The founder left. Patty then had a decision to make — carry on or fold up shop? She chose to move ahead, because she knew how to run a business, not because she had always wanted to run a yoga studio.

This was a conscious choice, yes, but it is not one she necessarily wanted to make. So, on one level, she was “pushed” into yoga.

However, that’s not the real choice she made. She could have just plowed ahead, just focusing on the business aspects and finding someone else who knew the yoga-teacher stuff . . . but instead she decided to go all-in when it comes to yoga. She committed to learning it, and as she did, it infused the business itself.

I recognize that I am reading a great deal into someone’s life based just on a blog post. So the reality of how it unfolded may be different than my description. But the point I am trying to make, I believe, is valid. It’s this:

Sometimes things over which we have no control throw us a curve. We have a choice about how we respond — we can accept the reality and work with it, or we can fight to change it. The thing is, we never know what the outcome will be.

And . . . that outcome is often remarkable.

Next time I get a curve ball, I plan on trying my best to say “yes.”

Renaming An Organization

My good friend Hildy Gottlieb, author of the very important Polyanna Principles, is in the midst of choosing a new name for her organization, the Community-Driven Institute.

She has written a very interesting and transparent article about that process, and has thrown a few ideas out there for people to react to.

The Vision Words

I love this photo of Hildy Gottlieb
I love this photo of Hildy Gottlieb

So far, the advice she’s been given by a number of colleagues is for the organization to ask itself a number of vision-type questions: What change are you creating? What do you do? What does it look like?

So far, Hildy and her colleagues have settled on a general sense that the CDI is about “LEAPING from dreams to reality” and “That creating . . . dramatic social change is just taken for granted to be the expectation that guides our work.”

Having led a number of strategic planning and visioning efforts, these are important questions. However, they are not at all enough. It is a very short hop from “vision” questions to a boring, me-too kind of name that fades into the generalized social-sector obscurity that is filled with this Institute or that Center or some other Initiative.

Just think how many organizations could easily be named something like the “Community Change Institute.”

No, we’ve got to go beyond, and get underneath, all that mission-speak. When it comes to the name of the organization, it must be informed by — but does not necessarily have to include — the vision words.

The Searchability Imperative

There’s another organizational imperative: searchability. This is too often overlooked, but in the world of pervasive search it is critical. Organizations are well advised to consider a one- or two-word name that is unique. Invented, in fact. You don’t want to name your organization that is related to a generic search phrase. When someone searches on your name, you don’t want other results cluttering up the first page of hits.

I have in mind two renamings that I think hit the mark.


The first is my friend Jill Vialet’s organization. It’s now called Playworks, which I think is an awesome name. It used to be called Sports4Kids, which has the advantage of being unique but was a little dated with that number in the middle and also was not quite correct (her organization is about play, not just sports). And the tagline, “Education Energized” does a great job of following up and giving people the general direction that the organization goes in.

But . . . and this is important . . . the name does not rigidly adhere to mission-words. Here is Playworks’ mission: “To improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play.” See? It’s not the Institute for Safe, Meaningful Play, nor is it the Center For Education Through Play. “Playworks” is memorable, one word, searchable, and awesome.

(Also, don’t get me started on how incredible the curly-human logo is.)

The second good renaming happened more than a decade ago (I don’t have the exact year). The National Center for Nonprofit Boards renamed itself BoardSource. Again, a manufactured name, that does a great job of conveying the purpose of the organization (Mission: “Dedicated to advancing the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards and inspiring board service.”) At the time, the name rankled but that was because I was old-fashioned. I’ve come around, and now I think the organization was forward-thinking when it went with the one-word name.

BoardSource. Yep, that explains what it is pretty well.

The Hard Work

So that leaves us with the hard work of translating mission and vision words and phrases into a name. That takes creativity, long walks, late-night discussions, and epiphanies in the shower. But — this is important — it’s important to keep a high bar here. It can’t be rushed.

It’s also important to make sure to get out of your own echo chamber. It’s easy to think a word is working, when it is not. For instance, there is a highly respected organization that works on a number of progressive issues related to democracy. It’s called Demos. To some this is an apt name, but to my mind it is too hifalutin. If you don’t know what the Greek word “demos” means, you really don’t have a clue what the organization is about.

I don’t know what Hildy’s new name should be. That word “leap” has some potential. “CommunityLeap” is a possibility, but I am afraid it is too much of a mouthful. Plus, one of her key audiences is nonprofit consultants, and the name doesn’t convey that sense.

Hildy has been toying with the word “leapfrog” and there is some potential there, too. Although one commenter (I think rightly) said she wasn’t too thrilled by the word “frog.”

I also wonder if Hildy wants to get the word “Polyanna” activated somehow, since her Polyanna Principles are a linchpin of how she works.

As I think of things, I may chronicle them here in the comments — but if you have some ideas, or other thoughts, please add them below! Especially if you think I am all wet.

(By the way, that Amazon link to Polyanna Principles up top is an affiliate link, I could not resist.)