Why Mood, or Attitude, Is Critical to Our Learning Experience

Media Contact:
Nate Luce
Director of Business News and Communications
615.322.3469 | nate.luce@owen.vanderbilt.edu

Jun 29, 2017

There are so many theories and books out there about learning – individual learning styles, leadership development, creating learning environments, and so on. I could add to this list, but I’d rather ask you to look at learning from a (perhaps) new perspective – an ontological one.

 LDP Coach Mark RobertsonThe ontological approach posits that the way humans habitually see, think, feel, and act moment to moment depends on the interconnection of three primary domains – our language, emotional state, and body. We are never “outside” of any of these.

Specifically, I’d like you to consider one of three key aspects to the ontological approach: the impact of our emotional state on how quickly, how well, and how much we learn or don’t learn.

So what can I offer that might be a new or different way for you to look at learning from these three domains?

Language – basically the opening to learning for any person begins with a declaration. It is a declaration of your incompetence, and it often scares us: the simple words “I don’t know!” If you can’t make this declaration, you can’t open yourself to a learning process.

Body – learning happens “in the body,” which we call embodied learning – our ability to demonstrate action because it’s embodied. Pay attention to what you practice repeatedly because that repetition gets “installed” in our body as habits -- not just physical actions, but our repetitive thinking and emotional state as well.

Emotional state – there is a difference between our emotions and our moods. I’m only going to address moods here, as it relates to our ability to open up to a learning process. Our “mood” is our pervasive, default emotional state. This might also be called your “attitude,” or a team’s “morale.” Example moods are optimism (the glass half-full view) or pessimism (half-empty view).

Given that quick primer on moods, let me introduce the Moods of Learning (which support learning) and Moods of Non-Learning (which hinder our ability to learn) and the internal thinking that often coincides:

Moods of Non-Learning

Boredom – I think we all recognize this one at one time or another, particularly with teenagers: I’m bored! The internal thinking of boredom is “There’s nothing new here for me to learn!” Some of my leadership clients have found themselves bored after doing the same thing, with the same organization, for a long period of time. New learning might be the key to engage and excite them, but they won’t take that step until their mood shifts from boredom.

Confusion – We’ve all also probably been here a time or two in our lives, almost fighting a learning possibility without even knowing it. The internal thinking of confusion is “I don’t know what’s going on here, and I don’t like it!” The key declaration that opens learning -- “I don’t know” -- is now coupled with the powerful declaration of “I don’t like it,” and we don’t learn much from this mood either.

Moods of Learning

Perplexity – whereas confusion often comes with squinting eyes, perplexity opens our eyes and opens us up to learning. The internal thinking of perplexity is “I don’t know what’s going on here, and that’s ok!” The shift from the non-leaning mood of confusion into the learning mood of perplexity is often subtle but quite powerful – an acceptance that incompetence is ok and propels us into learning.

Wonder – wonder is an even better place for learning. The internal thinking of wonder is “I don’t know what’s going on here, but isn’t that great!” It’s a full embrace of not knowing and the opportunity to learn a great deal. Think about times when you were a kid and “in wonder” of something you were experiencing. What a great place to be! What’s happened to our wonder?

Awe –awe puts us in a space of great reverence, respect, and openness for our capacity to learn at any moment as human beings. The internal thinking of awe is “I don’t know what’s going on here, but isn’t that amazing!”

Many kids live in moods of wonder and awe at an early age. Doesn’t that explain why they are more fascinated with the box of an expensive toy than the toy itself? What is it that we do to kids as they grow up that shift them from their natural moods of wonder and awe?

As leaders, I think one of our main responsibilities is to be good observers of our own and others moods and, perhaps more importantly, good designers of our own and others moods. Our ability to do this is critical to achieving positive results in the workplace, and also creating workplace cultures that encourage and are conducive to learning.

I’ll leave you with these questions to ponder:

  • What’s the predominant mood you bring to your work life and your personal life? Does it open or close learning for you?
  • Is it time for a mood shift that will open you up to more learning in your professional and personal life?

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