Moods are important to learning. Clearly, if you’re upset, it will be harder to learn JavaScript, how to cook a fine pesto, or surf. If you’re curious and filled with wonder, it will be much easier. Because your mood can be either promote or hamper your learning success, learning how to navigate moods usefully is an important metaskill for skill acquisition. Knowing about the importance of moods is useful for teaching, students or colleagues, in addition to learning.

Those are the main claims of Gloria Flores’ Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods: The Meta-Skill for the Acquisition of Skills. In this post I’ll summarize the book. I’ve also created an audio for an exercise that she suggests using AWS Polly that you can access here.

What are the components of this meta-skill?

  • First, a learner knows about the varieties of different moods and whether they are useful or not.
  • Second, a learner knows which judgements give rise to their specific moods.
  • Third, a learner knows which moods tend to arise at which learning stage. They know what to watch out for and what to promote.
  • Finally, a learner knows how to interact with these judgements to nudge their mood into a different direction.

The Varieties of Moods

A quick definition, what are moods? In Flores’ words:

“Moods are like the coloring of how we encounter the world around us, what it says to us or how it appears to us” (21-22)

I think of moods as been made up of two components:

  • dispositional: dispositions to act or think in a particular way
  • experiential: a mood has an experiential quality, one is disposed to feeling a particular way in addition to acting or thinking a particular way

If someone is in a blue mood, they may skip a party they would have otherwise gone to and enjoyed. If someone is annoyed, they will be more likely to lash out at others. If someone is feeling joyous, they’ll be far less likely to lash out and more likely to play with and help others. Each of these moods have a particular experiential quality to them, there’s something it’s like to have a blue, annoyed, or joyous mood.

Flores provides a number of different moods that may productively impact our learning. Here are a list of them with associated thoughts and feelings:

  • Wonder
    • I don’t know what’s going on and that’s exciting! I want to know!
  • Perplexity
    • I am totally confused, but I’ve got to know what’s going on. I’m going to persevere until I get to the bottom of this.
  • Serenity
    • I accept the past and present and am open to the future. I’ve been right and made mistakes in the past, I will be right and make mistakes in the future.
  • Patience
    • I accept that sometimes things move slowly. I am plodding along, perhaps happily, calmly, or with resolve.
  • Ambition
    • I want to win. I will experience setbacks as challenges to master, not evidence of what is or isn’t possible.
  • Resolve
    • I see opportunities here and I’m committed to taking action right now
  • Confidence
    • I have had successful results in this area. I will have more successful results in the future.
  • Trust
    • I am learning from people who I trust. Because I have confidence in them and don’t feel judged, I feel likely to succeed. (29)

Some of these moods may hamper our learning progress. For example, we can be overconfident and over trusting or too patient. Perhaps there are some things we just shouldn’t be serene about. However, by and large, these moods are very useful for learning.

On the unproductive side of things we have these moods:

  • Confusion
    • I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t like it. This is bad. I want to escape this situation!
  • Resignation
    • I am too x to learn this. I will ever be able to do this, no matter how hard I try, so what’s the point?
  • Frustration
    • I’ve tried to do this before but failed. I should have succeeded already. I’m not moving as efficiently as I should.
  • Arrogance
    • There is nothing new for me to learn here. This is beneath me.
  • Impatience
    • There is nothing new for me to learn here. This is a waste of my time.
  • Boredom
    • There is nothing of value for me here. I am not interested in anything here.
  • Anxiety
    • I don’t know how to do this. I will make mistakes and mistakes are bad. I want to quit because that would be better than making a mistake.
  • Overwhelm
    • There is too much going on! There is so much I don’t know or can’t do.
  • Lack of confidence
    • I am not competent enough to learn this. I have always been bad at x. I’m not good enough to be here. Everyone else is so much better than I am.
  • Distrust
    • I don’t trust that the people I’m learning from will be helpful. This process may work for some people, but I don’t think it will work for me. (25)

Sometimes, these moods may be appropriate for our circumstances: for example, boredom and distrust may sometimes be useful. However, typically these moods hold us back.

These moods are likely familiar to you. I’ve experienced all of them.

The Causes of Moods

Flores has a similar model of moods as CBT types do for emotions. Moods are produced by particular judgements and events in the world (Flores calls what I call judgements “assessments”, I prefer the term “judgement”). Judgements are evaluative and reference norms, values, and our desires. Such as: I like this. This is good. This is bad. This is right/wrong. This is appropriate/inappropriate. These judgments are made automatically and habitually.

While attempting to solve a bug while working on a web application, one may feel frustrated. One may think, “I should have solved this bug already” or “why am I even having a bug like this while writing a simple program” or “If I were a 10x engineer I wouldn’t be experiencing this bug.” These judgements and events may bring about (or may reflect) a rather frustrated mood. In this way events and moods can interact and bring about a negative feedback loop.

Alternatively, after solving a bug, one may feel elated and confident. One may think, “Yes, I solved this hard bug fast, I’m great” or “I am glad I fixed that in the time I did” or “I am a 10x engineer give me more bugs.” This may bring out a general mood of confidence in addition to a success spirals.

As with CBT, one of the first steps with navigating moods while learning is observing moods. Take our programmer. How do they feel when they encounter a bug? How do they feel when they solve one? What thoughts surround these events? What judgments do these thoughts express, if any?

The causes of many unproductive moods can be tied to judgements concerning the following:

  • Competence
    • It is important to know the right answer and make sure that others know that you know.
    • If you don’t know what to do, you are incompetent. Which is, just to be clear, bad.
    • Making mistakes are bad.
  • Efficiency
    • Learning has to happen fast.
    • One must get thing right right away.
    • One must not waste time.
  • Independence
    • One mustn't depend on others.
    • If one doesn’t know something, one should figure it out on one’s own.
    • Don’t ask for help.
  • Usefulness
    • One must contribute useful work right away.
    • If one isn’t useful, one won’t be accepted.
    • If one isn’t useful, one should resign.
  • Preparation
    • One must be prepared at all times.
    • Before you try something, you must be certain that it will work.
    • If one doesn’t know what to do, it’s better to do nothing. (14-15)

These judgements and the associated thought patterns can get in the way of learning. They are behind many of the unproductive moods above.

Moods During the Learning Lifecycle

Flores discusses Staurt Dreyfus and Hubert Dreyfus’s (Yes, that Dreyfus) learning model and maps different moods to the different stages. I found this useful, since the stages are largely recognizable and the relevant moods map nicely enough to my experience and others. Nonetheless, this learning model is too low resolution for me and I’d like to see something more detailed developed.

According to the Dreyfus brothers there are six stages of learning:

  • Beginner
    • The beginner wants to learn something new. They are starting out and don’t know what to do.
    • Next level: The beginner must gain experience. They must cultivate moods that are conducive to the discomfort they will experience as they continue to practice. Confidence and trust in the learning process are important.
  • Advanced Beginner
    • The advanced beginner has been practicing for a bit and know the basic moves. They are comfortable and at risk of becoming too comfortable
    • Next level: an advanced beginner must become more involved, they must take more risks. There is a risk of becoming bored or relying on shortcuts here and not advancing.
  • Competent
    • The competent are responsible for producing results, but they don’t always know what to do or how to do it. It can be overwhelming.
    • Next level: The Dreyfus brothers state that the learner must experience both success and failure. Ambition and resolve are important moods to experience here so that the failure can be experienced as part of the process as opposed to reasons for quitting.
  • Proficient
    • The proficient generally knows what needs to get done, but I don’t always know how to do it.
    • Next level: A proficient person needs more experience before they can react automatically. They must be motivated in order to become an expert.
  • Expert
    • The expert generally knows what needs to get done and how to do it. In teamwork situations, this person is a leader.
    • Next level: An expert must be willing to override the perspective that as an expert performer they intuitively experience. They need to violate norms and risk regression in performance for the sake of trying new, less obvious approaches. Arrogance is a risk here.
  • Master
    • The master is able to perform intuitively in their domain of expertise. A master is committed to do more and sees possibilities for innovation and new contributions to their field. (52-53)

The trajectory of these categories seem right to me and though it doesn’t exactly cut reality at the joints, it’s a workable model.

Flores helpfully maps out what moods are associated with what stage here:

We can run through this life cycle with our programmer.

Beginner: Our programmer begins their journey at a bootcamp...

  • Productive: starts with wonder, confidence, and trusts the learning process (but moves on if things aren’t useful).
  • Unproductive: bugs are evidence that one will never become a programmer, insecure, won’t ask for help, confusion seems insurmountable.

Advanced beginner: Our programmer has managed to last in the bootcamp for a month or two and may or may not be having a lot of fun

  • Productive: Our programmer is happy to have made it so far. They’re committed to finishing, confident that they can finish, and believe that they’re being adequately prepared to get a job after the bootcamp.
  • Unproductive: The tests are too easy. The bootcamp staff doesn’t seem that useful though and our programmer is becoming a bit too disagreeable. They don’t know if they’re being taught the right stuff for the job. They pass the unit tests, but don’t dive deeper.

Competent: Our programmer lands their first job...

  • Productive: The responsibility feels good. There are so many new things to learn and many of them quite interesting. It’s sometimes difficult to understand what’s going on the first time something is explained, but that’s ok. The team is filled with strong engineers who could be useful resources -- at least their code will be useful to read.
  • Unproductive: The responsibility feels overwhelming. There are too many new things and many of them are completely mysterious. It’s difficult to understand what’s going on the first time and that is really disheartening -- especially after performing so well at the bootcamp. Your teammates are good, but some of them come from fancy schools and actually studied something relevant at college which makes our programmer feel out of place.

Proficient: Our programmer is plodding along at the job, squashing bugs and shipping features. Sometimes people ask them for help!

  • Productive: Our programmer is committed to continuing to improve. They’re not disheartened by the fact that there’s so much to learn. They feel comfortable not knowing the ins and outs of many libraries. They occasionally make mistakes, but that’s expected.
  • Unproductive: Our programmer is impatient. They feel like they should know more by now. They are frustrated when they encounter things they don’t know or make mistakes.

Expert: Our programmer has become a lead engineer -- they are manage others, play a crucial role in design decisions, but still manage to program!

  • Productive: Our programmer is excited and committed into becoming a master. They are able to learn from masters around them. They lead others with patience and instill trust.
  • Unproductive: Our programmer is often impatient when leading others. They alternate between arrogance and insecurity in the presence of masters, both hinder moving forward.

Master: Our programmer may or may not be the mythical beast known as a 10x engineer, either way, they’ve mastered their craft.

  • Productive: Wonder helps our programmer catch important insights. It keeps boredom at bay. The inevitable decline in skills is accepted. Perpetual ambition helps the master further their craft.
  • Unproductive: Arrogance occasionally causes our programmer to miss out on important insights. Boredom creeps in. Decline in skills causes resignation. The sense that one has made it blinds the master from moving even further.

Again, this system is hardly gospel. Many of these stages manage similar moods. Ambition and wonder are useful for nearly all of them. But there are useful and practical upshots. For example:

  • At the initial learning stages, confidence and trust in the learning process are necessary.
  • Boredom can hinder learning as soon as one becomes good enough at a given thing. This pattern appears at various stages, such as at the advanced beginner and expert stage.
  • As one becomes better, there will be periods where one is more susceptible to arrogance and frustration (“I should have solved this already!”).
  • As one becomes better, the cost of failure sometimes seems to loom larger.
  • Cultivating wonder and ambition have seriously large rewards.
  • Though ambition is nearly always useful, it can become unproductive when paired with insecurity.
  • Observing one’s moods and knowing how to move in and out of them is likely useful. A concrete way I’ve applied this insight is by adding a section to track my mood in between work cycles.

There are a plethora of techniques for navigating moods. From CBT, mindfulness, focusing, and many more. I’ll summarize a specific exercise that Flores recommends and uses during her workshops. I’ve created an audio version of this exercise with Polly that you can listen to here.

The exercise is as follows:

  1. Reflect on one’s learning objective
  2. Identify and explore the unproductive mood
  3. Identify moods that would be more conducive to reaching your learning objectives
  4. Speculate about what action you could take to shift the unproductive moods into moods that will be more conducive to your learning
  5. Take action (32-36)

We can call this REISA: reflect, explore, identify, speculate, action

First reflect, ask questions like the following:

  • What future are you committed to bringing about?
  • Why are you learning this in the first place?
  • If you follow through, what would you be able to do that you can’t now?

The key idea is to be explicit about why you are doing what you are doing.

Then explore the unproductive mood. You can do this mindfully in a nonconceptual way and/or do this in an explicit way by uncovering what judgements and events have brought about the mood. You can ask:

  • What mood am I in? Can I conceptualize it? Is it one of the above moods?
  • What judgements are you making about yourself in this situation?
  • What kind of expectations or normative claims gives rise to these judgements?
  • Are these expectations or normative claims relevant? Do they help?

For example, you may note that the judgement is: “I am incompetent.” Is this judgement true? What gave rise to it? It seems very similar to a cognitive distortion. Likely, you’ll find that the judgement is not well grounded and not helpful.

Next identify what mood may be conducive for learning. If you’re feeling insecure, confidence would be a natural pairing. If you’re feeling resigned, ambition would be useful. Consider what kind of judgements one makes in the opposing mood. Consider whether there are quick actions that one can take to move into the productive mood.

Often useful actions will reveal themselves quickly. If one is say playing world of warcraft with a team and one is feeling resigned (because you’re holding back the team) you may find, while reflecting, that you are not asking for help. You are not asking for help because you judge that you must appear competent to your teammates -- and a competent person never asks for help. This judgement is off base. The salient action is simply ask for help. More specifically, you may ask for help at the next available opportunity.

Occasionally quick actions like the above will not be available. Merely considering the judgements associated with productive moods can only do so much. What one wants to do is create a system such that one can identify as the sort of person who is confident and ambitious. There are ways to do this, not discussed here. Instead, come up with a concerted plan to move into that mood.

Finally, take action.

The rest of Flores’ book is full of case studies from workshops that she has run. In these workshops, professionals would learn how to play WoW together. There are fruitful discussions of how real participants fell into unproductive moods and how they moved out of those moods. I’d recommend leafing through them if you’d like stories to grok the above content.

TLDR: moods are important for learning. Different moods appear at different stages of the learning process. It’s important to recognize the patterns in one’s moods and be able to navigate through them well. There are a variety of ways to do this.


New Comment
13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:12 PM

I really enjoyed this, I especially liked the part about the stages and where learners are likely to get stuck. I personally really related to the description of the unproductive approach to proficiency, and think I've probably got quite a few skills stuck at proficiency due to the unproductive moods mentioned. Knowing that I can cultivate the moods of ambition, resolve, and patience to move forward with these skills feels like it could be really useful.

Thank you very much for your excellent summary. Instead of having to write everything myself, I started with yours and edited/expanded on it based on the book. You saved me a lot of time :-) One thing which struck me: in the summary you have changed the phrasing from the original "we" to "one" statements. Is this intentional? If yes, why? As I understand the author, a crucial aspect of these (automatic) assessments is that they play into the way we are, live and work together. Gloria Flores expands on the Dreyfus’ skill model to "illuminate the acquisition of essential social skills: skills for coordination of cooperative group action." When you change "we" to "one" you seem to focus on personal productivity. In my understanding doing so is blending out the crucial aspect of cooperation. The whole background of Flores' work (and her father's) seems to be how we cooperate and create new futures together and I am not sure if readers here are aware of that.

I think this varies considerably by person. Personally, I have 4 university degrees and I've never really felt the need to pay attention to my moods in anything like this way. I generally got good enough results by waiting for the last minute, which triggered the "this needs doing now" mood that was sufficient for my needs.

I agree that the return to "learning to navigate moods" varies by person.

It sounds to me, from your report, that you tend to be in moods conducive to learning. My sense is that there are many who are often in unproductive moods and many who aware that they spend too much time in unproductive moods. These people would find learning to navigate moods valuable.

Do you find that you don't have different states or moods?

I do, but I find the world often requires me to stay productively on task even when I'd rather not. We old people used to call this "self-discipline".

I think that this and your original comment seem to kind talking to a different post or something?

Like it didn't seem like the original post was at all about being able to get things done, but more about optimizing learning.

When I need to learn something, I read about it and work problems. It's not fundamentally different than getting anything else done. For me, that is. YMMV.

The key word on the above answer being "optimal". It seemed to me like the post was saying "here's one thing you can pay attention to to optimize your learning." and you were replying "But I don't pay attention to that and can still do learning." which is essentially arguing against a point that the original post never made.

My point was that it varies by person. My subtext was that one should avoid the typical "nerd" error of going to significant lengths to optimize a mostly irrelevant variable, if like me you find it mostly irrelevant.

My point was that it varies by person. My subtext was that one should avoid the typical "nerd" error of going to significant lengths to optimize a mostly irrelevant variable, if like me you find it mostly irrelevant.

Makes sense.

Personally, I have 4 university degrees

What kind of argument are you making here? Having 4 degrees sounds to me like evidence of not knowing what you want and thus wasting a lot of time in a degree that you don't use afterwards.

I got my first 3 (B.S., M.S., Ph.D.) back in the 20th century and spent about 10 years in startups. And yes, the Ph.D. turned out to be a lot less marketable than expected, although I'm hardly the only one to have that problem. Fifteen years later I got another Master's and have been gainfully employed ever since. But I definitely have plenty of experience in learning things.