the arc of accomplishment

I’ve been feeling a repeating pattern lately that bears recording, that I’m thinking about as being an arc of accomplishment. It’s, for me, that feeling of glorious excitement that comes with a great new idea, the one you want to implement immediately, that you want to investigate and explore and discuss… and then you lose interest, or you bog down, or you become disillusioned… and then after you push through the low part, you climb back up to see the thing made manifest, and you realize that your initial enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced. An upside-down bell curve of excitement, if you will.

A few examples from recent work:

SUNYLA. When I was working with Marianne as she planned all the local arrangements, we ran with Keith’s idea of a drumming circle. She found a guy, we picked out noisemakers as favors, and we were totally jazzed about what a cool idea it was, how exciting it was going to be, how much fun people would have. And then as the conference approached, we both started feeling a little concerned. Would librarians want to do a drum circle? Would it be too loud? Too crunchy hippie alternative for the SUNY crowd? Would the facilitator do a good job? All of those questions, in my mind, blended into a sort of pale acceptance that it would, in fact, suck, but that would be okay, because at least we tried to do something fun and interesting. And then the moment came. Len Mackey came in with his drums and faciliators, and librarians lined up in droves to take a drum, and spent an hour and a half enthusiastically beating on drums, rattling shaker eggs, and generally making a racket. It was awesome, just like we envisioned when we planned it, before the worrying started.

Consultants. I’ve been advocating for talking to our student users more directly than most libraries do for my entire career. (Let’s not guess what they want; let’s ask them!) And so when my director, Rebecca, suggested that she was going to convene a group of student consultants to the College Libraries, I was fantastically excited. I had ideas. I talked her ear off. As we planned, it became apparent that recruiting students would be harder than we expected, and I started to get a bit concerned. Then my coworkers started talking about menus, and I worried more. And then we were building agendas for the first meeting, and I wanted to cry inside. This, obviously (to me), was a project doomed to failure. I soldiered on, anyway, hoping to help make the best out of it. Except that the night of the first meeting came, and a half dozen engaged, thoughtful, and interesting students showed up, chatted with us, and had a dinner they were extremely appreciative of. We learned an incredible amount from them, and I left grinning, and excited, and convinced that talking to the students is the right thing to do. From that small but successful beginning we built a year of meetings and discussions that have helped focus our forward movement.

Bindery. Months ago when my director and I were parsing out expenses, we noticed that bindery costs were up this year. I investigated, and suggested to Rebecca that I’d write a proposal for reducing bindery costs next year, as my initial investigation showed that we have some unnecessary expenses going on. I put the proposal off until mid-June out of necessity, in acknowledgement that my calendar contained a conference and the end of the budget year and I wasn’t going to have free time until then. Well, mid-June is here, and now that I’m knee-deep in writing the proposal and examining each title’s binding status, I’m bored, and I’m apprehensive about how the idea will be received by the library as a whole, and I’m frustrated with my own lack of interest in continuing. Two months ago I wanted to drop everything and tackle this, and now I’m stuck in the mud.

But I suspect that, just like all the other times I’ve hit this valley, if I push through my discomfort I’ll believe it was worth it in the end. That I’ll realize the idea is sound. That I’ll find my enthusiasm just over that rise. That I’ll see some product implemented, even if not the one I propose, that takes us in a better direction and positions us more effectively for future decisions. That this is just the way I operate, full of energy, then full of doubt, and then ultimately ready to take on all comers, having thought about the highs and lows and all possible in-betweens.

And I wonder if this is just me, how I see and navigate the world, but I suspect it’s not. I suspect that lots of people and organizations travel this same upside-down bell curve of excitement and frustration and satisfaction.  And then I wonder.  I wonder if some of the failures we see in our profession — the failures to move, to innovate, or to change — are the result of getting stuck in the valley. I wonder how many more successes we’d see if we all just threw it into four-wheel drive and gunned our engines, instead of just trudging along?


  1. Jenica,

    Great thoughts and I think you’re spot on in that all orgs and individuals go through similar ups and downs. To me, the key is picking the battles that can be won and it sounds like you’re doing a good job of that. I’m still working on that hard-to-teach skill. Another aspect, perhaps, is that without strong leadership (like at Potsdam!), that encourages innovation and supports long-term planning, the chances of difficult projects being completed drops precipitously. Without that support, complacency and disaffection set in. After all, who wants to keep playing the role of Sisyphus day after day after day?


    ps: the drum circle was awesome fun!


  2. You got it right again. The flash of inspiration is always at a high, deserved or not. The hard work of all the endless, time consuming details to make the inspiration work is the low. But if the flash was a good idea, and the implementation is well done, most likely the result will be the high of a sense of accomplishment. The trick is to not lose sight of the likely result while still slogging thru the life draining implementation.


  3. I went through something similar with being on the planning committee for the LOEX of the West conference. I was initially excited because I had never done anything like help plan a conference, but the week or so before was so much craziness that I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Then the attendees arrived and I had such a thrilling experience meeting new people and helping them have a great conference. Turned out to be one of the best things I had ever done.

    Thanks for posting. I think it’s important to remind ourselves how natural it is for our enthusiasm to wax and wane.


  4. M@: Workin’ on it.

    Dana: I’m so glad you enjoyed the conference, and that you think we’re a good role model. I like it here. 🙂 But you’re right; climbing out of the valley is a lot easier with support, a leader, and a sense that you’re work that’s valued. I wish everyone had that, and try to remember to be grateful that I do have it.

    Don: I’m focusing on the result right now, really really hard. Because, man oh man is this part boring. But the end product should be great, and if I can dangle that out in front as the carrot…

    Tom: Yes! There’s that moment where it just feels like craziness, and then it all clicks, if you’re lucky. Thanks for the encouragement; I was thinking about how we all naturally write about the good stuff, and the times that Meredith and others have exhorted us to write about the bad, too. It’s all a part of what we do, good, bad, and boring, and we should consider and discuss it all. (Except maybe the boring. Because it’s boring.)


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