Attitude Can Save Your Life:
Towards a Metaphorical Definition of Attitude for Teachers

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

We need a definition of attitude in order to teach it.

There is an informal consensus that, "Attitude can be your best friend or your worst enemy."

Attitude is the one factor that is universally acknowledged to be capable of overcoming every possible disadvantage.

Attitude is also the one factor the can destroy the benefits of every possible advantage.

But, why is that?

In the 1990's I met Al Seibert, author of several books, who did a study about what distinguishes folks who survive tragedies and serious accidents of all kinds from those who don'’t.

What he found was that regardless of schooling, net worth, role in society, or any other demographic feature, those who survive have access to particular states of mind even under the most trying of circumstances.

It was their approach to the world or their way of thinking about the world or the ways that they manage their thoughts and feelings when the world presents them with unexpected situations, that distinguished survivors from those who died under similar circumstances.

This finding was long preceded, and perhaps the study itself was inspired by, the observation of concentration camp survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl that attitude is the ultimate human freedom.

No one can ever take away from anyone else the ability to choose their state of mind in the face of any circumstance that befalls them.

In other words, no one can take away your ability to choose your attitude.

Of course, there are a variety of dispositional factors (genetic and otherwise) that influence your ability to control your attitude and there are also a variety of social factors that influence the opportunities to develop the skills for conscious control of your own attitude, but there is nothing in either the realms within you or the realms outside of you that can ever make your choice of attitude totally predictable.

In short, what distinguishes those who handle crisis well is what we call, in common everyday parlance, their attitude.

According to the definition of attitude in it is a noun meaning:

  1. A position of the body or manner of carrying oneself.
  2. A state of mind or a feeling, a disposition.
  3. The orientation of an aircrafts axes relative to a reference line or plane such as the horizon.
  4. The orientation of a spacecraft relative to the direction of motion.
  5. A position similar to an arabesque in which a ballet dancer stands on one leg with the other raised either in front or in back and bent at the knee.

Literal Definition of Attitude

But we do not mean the literal aspects of the definition of attitude, that is, the position of something in space.

There are five definitions for the word and three and a half of those definitions were talking literally about the position of objects in space; a ballet dancer, a spacecraft, an aircraft, or your body.

I said three and a half because the first definition of attitude mentions "a position of the body," which is literal but also mentions the "manner of carrying oneself" which is ambiguous.

The "self" can refer to the "body-as-self" or the "psychological self" and if it is referring to the psychological self then in this definition of attitude the term is being used metaphorically.

Metaphorical Definition of Attitude

It is the metaphorical use in the second definition of attitude, in particular, where the idea is that attitude is "a state of mind" that is crucial.

This idea is central to understanding how important attitude is.

There is no such thing as a literal state of mind.

As philosopher Mark Johnson and Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff point out in their book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999), "The mind is what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills. But as soon as we try to go beyond this [literal,] skeletal understanding of mind, as soon as we try to spell out what constitutes thinking, perceiving, and so on, metaphor enters. …[M]etaphors are necessary for any detailed reasoning about mental acts."

Since most people are used to thinking of metaphors as fluffy literary flourishes rather than a very deep structural element of human understanding, as cognitive scientists have only recently discovered, do not be surprised if you have a hard time getting a handle on the idea.

So, the phrase "state of mind" is a metaphorical construction that suggests that the entity that thinks, perceives, believes, etc. is like a literal object that has distinct states, such as doors that can be open or closed, or switches that can be turned on or off.

Attitude refers to the way in which your mind, that part of you that thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills, is oriented relative to the circumstances both within you, as genetic and habitual dispositions, and outside of you, such as the organizational, cultural, social, and ecological roles that you play.

The states referred to in the definition of attitude are different orientations of the thinker, perceiver, believer, etc. in relation to it’s circumstances.

So let me break that down a little more so that it’s clearer.

Mind as Space Shuttle

First of all, there is you, or at least the part of you that thinks, perceives, believes, etc.

Let’s use the space shuttle as a literal object to represent you.

Second there are several kinds of things within you that you relate to.

There are the things inside of you, like your genetic disposition, which are similar to the mechanical sub-systems that comprise what we know as the shuttle.

There are also some things inside you that change as you grow and do things, your habits and other things you have learned, which we will pretend are the astronauts that fly the shuttle.

Third there are things outside of you that you relate to.

Such as the organization you work in, the society you belong to, and the ecologies that are affected by all those things.

For our illustration here we will imagine that NASA is the organization and the United States is the society while the whole earth will represent the ecologies.

So, believe it or not we now have a common sense way of understanding why some people will survive serious accidents and tragic events and others die.

There are two especially risky times in the course of a Space Shuttle flight, launch and re-entry, and both shuttles that have been tragically lost were lost in one or the other of those times.

So now I will show how the shuttle as mind metaphor is apt and how it helps us better understand the concept of attitude.

First of all, remember what attitude is literally; the orientation of an object, normally the body, in space, often relative to some frame of reference such as the horizon, the direction of motion or to standard ballet poses.

Under the extreme conditions of accidents or when tragedy strikes, what happens to the mind?

According to studies on states of mind the most common result is cognitive chaos and the simplification of thought processes.

Experientially they occur as negative states of mind such as confusion, panic, anger, depression, etc.

What distinguishes those who survive accidents and tragedies is the ability to transition themselves from the negative states of mind that naturally occur into states that are less negative and more functional for meeting the direct needs of immediate survival.

The survivor is able to create order in their consciousness and effectively prioritize what aspects of the situation need immediate attention.

So, returning to the analogy of the space shuttle, when extreme conditions occur there are three predictions that we can make about the shuttle and by extension about the significance of attitude.

Making Predictions

The first prediction is based on the basic design of the space shuttle.

The prediction we can make is that all space shuttles that do not have the right attitude during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere will be destroyed.

During the re-entry phase of the shuttle flight we know that extreme heat is generated by the friction of the atmosphere on whatever surfaces of the shuttle faces in the direction of the shuttles motion.

Therefore, every single shuttle that does not take a "Tiles First" attitude by facing the black ceramic insulating tiles into the direction of motion during re-entry will be destroyed.


The second prediction is based on the facts of the second shuttle disaster in which the black ceramic insulating tiles that protect the shuttle during re-entry were irreparably damaged during the launch phase.

The second prediction is that every shuttle that suffers substantial irreparable damage to their insulating tiles will also be destroyed.

The "Tiles First" attitude is not enough to guarantee the safe re-entry of every single shuttle flight, but it is the only attitude under those circumstances in which survival is even possible.

Now let’s think about the application of these first two predictions to minds. The first prediction would be that during times of extreme duress all minds that do not have the right attitude will be destroyed.

The data confirms this.

People who panic, or otherwise cannot escape a negative state of mind, die when extreme life threatening circumstances occur.

Second, every mind that has suffered damage that makes the attainment of positive states of mind impossible will also die under extreme life threatening conditions.

This is basically obvious.

The first two predictions we made about the shuttle and then by metaphoric extension about the mind are not difficult to understand and they are supported by either data or common sense.

The third one is a little more challenging and I don’t know if there is data to substantiate it, though I do believe it is true.

It is having a sense of this prediction that motivates me to work towards changing what we consider to be elementary in elementary education.

The third prediction is based on the first shuttle accident, so, in case you do not recall, the first shuttle accident was discovered to be the fault of a defective o-ring in one of the booster rockets.

This defect was detected during the manufacturing process, but the culture of the organization, the organizational attitude, if you will, was such that the defect went unremedied and the shuttle along with it’s crew were tragically destroyed as a result.

(The book, What Do You Care What Other People Think? includes the story of the shuttle disaster from the perspective of Richard Feynman who helped with the congressional investigation.)

The resulting prediction is that if external conditions that influenced the current physical manifestation of the shuttle were unable to support the robust on-going correction of flaws, then the destruction of the shuttle is more likely.

The third prediction applied to mind is, if the external conditions that influence minds during their development are unable to support the robust on-going correction of flaws then destruction is more likely during extreme events.

This raises three important questions, what constitutes a flaw in the mind, what constitutes a correction of a mind flaw, and what are the most influential external conditions during human development.

The Only Flaw That Matters

My work is based on promoting the idea that the only flaw that matters is not having access to optimal states of mind.

Correcting that flaw is achieved by practicing a variety of ways to achieve optimal states of mind under normal conditions, so that if extreme conditions occur then the individual will be more likely to be able to access them.

In other words, I put attitude first, before academics, before grades, before test scores, before everything else.

Because when the snot hits the fan, it is my student’s attitude that is going to matter, not their obedience, not their attendance, not their grades, none of the stuff that is given undue importance in elementary education.

Teaching, parenting and peer culture are the primary external conditions that influence the development of human minds, at least in the first fifteen years or more.

Since I do not envy the person who ignored or dismissed the flaw in the shuttle o-ring, I am not interested in being the teacher or parent who loses a child in some tragic turn of events only to realize that I valued that child’s obedience, attendance, or grades more than the cultivation of their ability to access the optimal states of mind that might have helped them survive.

Thus I have made very deliberate choices about the kinds of teaching that I provide.

I avoid situations that would have me herd kids like goats and manage their behavior without adequate opportunities to develop the kind of open-ended leadership practice that I honed during my years as a private teacher home schooling other people’s kids.

Thus the mainstream choices of teaching in classrooms or in situations that occur around classroom schedules, like after school programs, are problematic for me.

Other people are comfortable with more focus on specific instruction, so they can be good teachers within the classroom, or in out-of-school programs, but my personal disposition and style are not often well supported in typical mainstream classrooms.

My goal now is to develop ways to teach teachers, rather than kids.

I want to help teachers learn the value of putting attitude first, so they will know that they have provided their students with learning opportunities that make a real difference and also that they are providing themselves, personally, with the best possible quality of life.

As John Dewey wrote in 1938, "We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything."

The strategy of putting attitude first has the benefit of preparing a young mind for not only the worst that can happen, but also prepares them to take full advantage of the very next moment.

To revise Dewey’s statement, I suggest that if we can achieve a good attitude in the present moment, then that is the best preparation for achieving good attitudes in every subsequent moment.

Discovering how to achieve a good attitude is the only preparation that amounts to anything in the long run.