Assessing attitude

I once had a learner flatly refuse to do a major assignment in one of my classes. Her stated reason was that she hadn’t had to do anything like what I was assigning in her entire life, and she didn’t see why she should have to start now. She rebuffed my attempts to support her in doing the work. She passed my class strictly on the numbers—barely—but in response to her intransigence I added language to all my syllabi from then on indicating that another such refusal on any major assignment would earn an automatic F for the class. I hated every word; I still do. Even so, I just don’t know how to help total refuseniks learn, so I’d rather they read my syllabus and drop my class fast.

If you’re cheering me on, consider: the assignment in question was a “mini-job-talk,” a dry run on public speaking. Did your sympathies suddenly change? Did I go from hero to villain in under three seconds? (Don’t worry; I’m used to that.) Is it now obvious that the student was well out of her comfort zone, likely afraid? I don’t know that I did the right thing. I wish I had done something that enabled her to triumph over the assignment.

Attitude governs learning… for good or ill. This isn’t to say you have to be incandescently Pollyannaish before you can learn, nor does it mean that holding one or more less-than-productive attitudes makes you a bad person who will never learn anything ever again. It does mean you need to be honest with yourself about attitudes you hold that may harm your learning, so that you can deploy whatever self-talk or motivational techniques turn the ugly mental voice off. As I discuss the learning-blocking attitudes I’ve seen in myself and others, I’ll suggest self-talk that may help. Don’t stop with this book, though; family, friends, good colleagues, or mentors can be excellent attitude adjusters!

Somewhat arbitrarily, I’m dividing attitudes into emotions and beliefs. My sense is that learning-related emotions are less verbal, deeper-entrenched, and harder to root out. Beliefs are easier to verbalize, often seeming superficially more rational because of that. Beliefs can be easier to notice, easier to cut off midword—but also easier to find reinforcement for in the world around you.

Nothing about confronting our own unproductive attitudes is easy. It’s still well worth doing as preparation for reskilling.

Common learning-blocking emotions


Try to remember how your body behaved when you first started this book. Did your muscles tense? Heart or breathing speed up? Did a little sweat start? Fear manifests in my body as rubbing the fingers of one hand (typically my left) meaninglessly against each other, a tic that goes all the way back to my childhood. You may have physical fear-signs specific to you as well, aside from the fight-or-flight responses most of us already know far too well.

Fear causes learning difficulties because it distracts you, clamoring for attention you need to apply to what you’re learning. You may find that learning to recognize your own idiosyncratic physical signs of fear, then acknowledging its presence without judging either the fear or yourself for feeling it, is enough to calm you down and get you back on-task.

Some of you may be able to use your body to trick your brain into letting go of fear. Slow, controlled breathing counteracts anxiety in some people at least[1. Wells et al. 2012. “Matter Over Mind: A Randomised-Controlled Trial of Single-Session Biofeedback Training on Performance Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability in Musicians.” PLoS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0046597.]. Also try lifting your arms and opening them up wide at shoulder level from a sitting or standing position until your shoulder-blades draw in and you feel it in the back of your ribcage. Hold for a few moments, then bring your arms back down to your sides slowly. If you feel a rush of confidence, you’re not alone[2. Cuddy 2012. Your body language shapes who you are. TEDGlobal.]! I use this technique to calm speaking anxiety (and fix my posture, as my mother told me to).

Useful self-talk: I am brave. I’ve got this. Fear is natural, but I won’t let it stop me. If {someone you know} can do this, I can too.

Fear-based passivity

Fear sometimes fuels behaviors that resemble what mid-20th-century behavioral psychologists called “learned helplessness.” If you’ve had an unproductive learning experience, you may be afraid to try again. You may be convinced that you can’t learn whatever you tried to learn. In extreme cases, this fear feeds into Impostor Syndrome, which you can read about below.

Speaking as an instructor—there are a million reasons a particular learning experience doesn’t click for a given learner. Most of them have nothing to do with the learner, or any personality trait or ability intrinsic to the learner! Sometimes it’s a mismatch between instructional style and learner. Sometimes instructors guess wrong about their learners’ pre-existing knowledge. Many topics are intrinsically challenging, or take multiple attempts to surmount. Some instruction, I am sad to say, is just plain bad!

Chapter xx offers suggestions for what to do if you bounce off a particular topic or learning experience. For now, all I want is for it not to make you stop learning!

Useful self-talk: I’ll get this next time. It’s not me; it’s the instructor. It’s not me; it’s that this is truly, legitimately hard. It’s not me; it’s that I’ve never done this before. It takes everybody time to learn.

Scorn and disrespect for the new or unfamiliar

Not all disrespect is unearned, just as not everything or everyone is worthy of respect. For example, you are absolutely entitled to resent disrespect aimed at you by others, especially others supposedly trying to teach you something. I trust you to notice this happening, and I happily offer you my dispensation to employ the Law of Two Feet (note: feet not required) to escape the situation. You’ll learn better when you don’t have to struggle with someone else’s disrespect for you. Everyone does! Nor are you in any way obligated to respect someone who does not respect you.

The kind of disrespect that I’ve seen block learning is not nearly so defensible: unthinking knee-jerk disrespect for topics, concepts, or skills, often because they are new or we hear about them from people or publications we don’t like. I’m no fan of overweening hype, believe me, but that doesn’t mean I’d be right to turn up my nose at anything or everything just because its hype has gotten out of hand.

My students regularly report to me that librarians they work for as paraprofessionals or interns express scornful disrespect—curled lips, raised eyebrows, rolled eyes, put-upon sighs, cutting words—toward what students are learning from me and my colleagues. Invariably, the newer or less familiar to the librarians the skills or tasks in question, the thicker and faster scorn and insults fly toward my students. Worse yet, the more enthusiasm my students express for what they are learning and doing, the harder these librarians try to smack them down.

(Ironically, I mention this because I lose significant respect for librarians who do it. Please welcome my students to our profession better than this, librarianship. Brave and forward-thinking people that they are, they deserve that much at least.)

Variations on the theme of “I shouldn’t have to learn that! How dare you?” pop up with frustrating regularity in my continuing-education classrooms as well. I think hard about what to teach and why, and I gladly explain my decisions and sometimes alter them in response to learner requests or needs. With those who blaze up at me, though, I have yet to find principled disagreement or unmet needs, both of which are perfectly normal and often reparable. Instead, what I find myself confronting is learners’ resentment at leaving their personal comfort zone expressing itself in scorn for what I’m teaching and open disrespect for my role as instructor.

Sometimes this style of resentment masks fear, in which case addressing the fear will fix the resentment. Sometimes it’s defensive lashing-out due to Impostor Syndrome or a too-rigid internal definition of librarianship leading to declaring too many things to be Somebody Else’s Problem; see the appropriate sections below for additional discussion. If you resent learning, or people you perceive know more than you, you will do well to look inside yourself for the root of that resentment so that you can redress it.

Respecting skills and concepts and those proficient in them is almost always a choice you can make, and it’s the choice that facilitates learning. The impact of scorn and disrespect for what you are learning on your ability to learn it is simple: you’ll find it immensely harder to learn a skill you refuse to respect from people you refuse to respect. Worse still, the more openly you express your scorn and disrespect, the more your behavior poisons others’ learning. When you catch yourself resenting a topic, especially to the point of expressing scorn or disrespect for teachers or other learners, stop. Apologize to anyone you just mistreated, as well as to anyone else who witnessed your poor behavior. Lastly, apologize to yourself for closing off your mind. The effort and discomfort of apologizing should give you abundant motive to rethink your approach.

All kinds of age, class, race, and gender prejudices we absorb from the society around us without thinking can play into displays of disrespect toward certain topics and those who understand them; confront these poisonous notions and behaviors in yourself and do your best to rid yourself of them. The best person you could possibly learn from might not look, act, behave, or be anything like you. If you use that lack of resemblance as an excuse for not learning, that’s on you.

Once again, I recommend using your body as a key to your mind. Consciously straighten your posture and smooth your facial expression into neutrality. You may be surprised at how tense and unhappy your face was! Breathe deeply through a smile. Open your hands and turn them palm-upward in a gesture of acceptance.

If this kind of feeling is a particular bane of yours, I can relate! Try a physical token, meaningful only to you, to remind yourself not to give in to it. A piece of jewelry you wear into situations that have a way of stirring up old resentments may do the trick. If you go everywhere with your laptop or tablet, perhaps an apropos wallpaper could serve as an innocent reminder.

Useful self-talk: I keep an open mind. Lifelong learning is for everyone. Everyone has something to learn; everyone has something to teach. Let me listen; what I hear might be interesting! Enthusiasm is contagious.


Crab-bucketing, tall-poppy syndrome, whatever you want to call it—envy is rife in librarianship. I don’t even want to speculate why; I find thinking about it unpleasant.

Like disrespect, envy blocks learning by disinclining you to listen to others. Like fear, it distracts you from your learning tasks with irrelevant, invidious, but all-too-compelling comparison work.

If you’d like a world where everyone is celebrated as they deserve—and who wouldn’t?—envy won’t build it. There’s a parable about heaven, hell, and spoons: in hell, everyone is forced to use spoons too long to eat with, so everyone starves, whereas in heaven, everyone’s stuck with the same too-long spoons but they are all well-fed because they use the spoons to feed one another. So with recognition.

Honestly, though, the true antidote to envy isn’t recognition, it’s joy! Teach yourself to rejoice in others’ achievements, recognition, and success. Take every available chance to recognize others and their work. Ask “how did you do it?” and listen with interest to the answer. Celebrate their successes. Offer congratulations. Cheer, squee, delightedly flail your arms like Kermit the Frog. Use your long spoon to feed others the recognition they crave. Whether they feed you in return or not—and they very well might—the joy you feel as you celebrate will be worth it! Envy corrodes; joy creates.

Useful self-talk: Recognition is capricious, but it’s not a zero-sum game. Another’s success and recognition does not diminish me; rather, it enriches us all. I know what long spoons are for.

Common learning-blocking beliefs

Impostor syndrome

Feel like a fraud as a librarian? Think someone’s going to find out and denounce you for it, or drum you out of the profession?

First, that’s not true; you’re not a fraud. Second, trust me, the drumming-out business is not going to happen. Third, this constellation of worry and despair is so common that it has a name: impostor syndrome. Because of relentless societal messaging, the further you are from being a young white heterosexual cissexual male, the more likely you are to feel impostor syndrome. Technology is a likely target for these feelings of inadequacy, again because of years and years of “tech is for young white men” messages the rest of us can hardly help but internalize.

The best explication of impostor syndrome, and the best ideas for vanquishing it, that I know of are Denise Paolucci’s (full transcript available):

I won’t lie; with my history I struggle with impostor syndrome constantly. What helps me, because impostor syndrome can be death to good teaching, is keeping my eye on my goals for my students. If I’m a fraud and a failure but they still learned something… they still learned something. Perhaps diverting your attention from yourself to your goals will help you too.

Knowledge perfectionism

This is related to impostor syndrome, but it’s just different enough and specific enough to the information professions to be worth discussing separately. What I mean by “knowledge perfectionism” is the sense that you dare not do anything about something before you know everything about it. I have seen this manifest itself in library workplaces in endless circular go-rounds between “let’s do this!” and “we need training!”

Nobody knows everything. I don’t even know everything about what I teach! Nobody expects us to know everything, not even my notoriously-picky students. We don’t need to know everything to do many things. Many times, the best way to learn something is to do it, not be trained in it.

I’m not wholly set against training; how could I be? In the best case, training can vault you past an initial learning curve. In the worst case, though, it’s an utter waste of time and money that only confuses you further; you’d have learned faster diving in on your own. My sense is that some of the time, “we need training!” is a figleaf over refusing to do the work at all. Should you catch yourself at this, back away from the training question, instead constructing a principled argument about why you or your workplace actually should not do the work.

Chapter xx of this book goes into detail about when to seek training and when to learn some other way, especially by doing. My own personal rule is to give most things a try before I resort to training, and I ask the same of my students; I have never hesitated about dropping them into the deep end of various technological pools. I know they’ll swim—they always do. I have every faith that you will too, oftener than you think.

Useful self-talk: Nobody’s born knowing this stuff. If they learned it on the job, so can I.


What’s the worst that could happen? It’s shocking, how many people leap right to catastrophe as the likely result of learning and applying what we learn. What if we fail? What if we succeed too much and can’t handle the load? What if, what if, what if!

One way to get past this frame is to pursue the “what’s the worst that could happen?” question to its bitter end, which is usually a complete absurdity that everyone can laugh at, feel better about, and move on from. Another is to catastrophize in the other direction: what’s the worst that could happen if we learn and do nothing? A third, useful for catastrophes that actually appear possible, is to conduct risk assessment and mitigation: “if this happened, how would we handle it?” A fourth is to introspect about why we are catastrophizing. Is it an avoidance technique? Is it fear? Confronting the unproductive attitude that fuels the catastrophizing can eliminate both.

Somebody Else’s Problem field

Douglas Adams famously posited in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy humor series that making a mountain disappear was as simple as declaring it Somebody Else’s Problem. What do we do with things that are Somebody Else’s Problem, especially when they’re huge or scary, or seem out of place? We ignore them, of course!

If there’s one thing that has strangled change and change management in libraries, I honestly believe it’s this. I believe libraries hire single employees to implement ridiculously wide-ranging services or service changes because then they can tell themselves it’s Somebody Else’s Problem. I believe libraries and their staffs lose touch with their environment partly so that they can tell themselves that change in that environment is Somebody Else’s Problem. Fundamentally, I have seen too many librarians too often assert that vastly too many things are Somebody Else’s Problem.

I believe it’s got to stop. For an example of Somebody Else’s Problem fields causing any amount of difficulty outside the library world, read the leaked New York Times report about digital news, and see if it doesn’t feel worryingly familiar.

Remaining a vital, useful profession requires us to accept new responsibilities. The alternative is that necessary work we could do gets done without us, often done worse than if we had taken it on. (Does anyone truly want the Huffington Post to outcompete and replace the New York Times? Of course not. Yet that’s what’s happening, and the Times’s digital sessility is largely to blame.) That in turn lessens the reach and efficacy of librarianship.

When tempted to erect a Somebody Else’s Problem field, ask “why not?” instead. If it’s ethical, if it helps, if it’s defensibly information work—why should librarians not take it on?

Further reading