Abstracting from Experience

Some things you don’t learn by being told (or telling yourself), you learn by organizing your experiences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend, Ruby, over skype. Our conversation drifted to letters one might send to one’s past self, from say 1-2 years ago. Aside from the obvious tip-off’s about stock prices or romantic inclinations or lacks thereof, what would be useful to say? Ruby proposed sending his past self a list of books to read sooner. I though that was probably better than lots of other approaches (in part because it lets you send more information than you could possibly fit into a letter) but it seemed to me like there was a non-obvious challenge to doing that effectively, related to experience. There are some books that are broadly pretty mindblowing, but I’ve found that often when books really rock my world it’s because I’m particularly ripe for them at that moment. I think that trying to send a revelation to your past self, if you weren’t ready for it, might have a bit of an Archimedes’s Chronophone effect, where everything comes out sounding kind of obvious rather than insightful.

A second story: I was talking with some friends about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory. The structure of CDT is about shifting parts of your experience from being [thoughts you are subject to] to being [thoughts you can take as object, i.e. think about]. I’ve blogged about this here. Its content is a set of five specific subject-object stages in how people view themselves, ideas, and other people. Anyway, one of the people I was talking to has a 10-year-old daughter, and he was wondering if I had advice on how to help her go through the shifts faster. After noting that that wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I mean, it could be, but it might make her feel more distanced from her peers), I remarked that the process is complex and it’s not enough to just teach her certain things or to get her to do certain other things.

Because each subsequent shift in Kegan’s system represents not just new knowledge or understanding, but an entirely new kind of order applied to the level below.

If that previous sentence doesn’t feel totally clear to you, then you might want to check out this post I wrote to explain what it means: Go more meta by developing an immunity to iocaine powder. If you read that one, this one will probably make more sense. If, after reading that post, the sentence above still seems unclear, please let me know! That means I’ve probably expected too short of an inferential distance, which is really helpful information.

Ordering your experiences meaningfully

So while I do think that there are a couple of specific things that my friend could do to help his daughter, uhh, “level-up”… I think the strategy I would take if I were trying to really optimize for that would be much more fundamental. It would involve having her be engaged in a lot of different experiences, related to relationships and other complex human systems, and then giving her a lot of opportunities to talk about her understanding of how those relationships work and don’t work, and then asking her questions about how they connect with each other.

In the aforementioned iocaine powder post, I used Constructive Developmental Theory as one example of the importance of being able to structure your understandings:

CDT outlines 5 stages of development, and at each stage you gain the ability to think about the stage below. But you’re not just “thinking about” it in a trivial sense like “here’s this stage, here’s a description of it”, but actually organizing it meaningfully so that rather than that stage appearing to be all-there-is or the-way-things-are, you can view it as one particular self-consistent paradigm that isn’t exhaustive.

This kind of transcension requires a bunch of experience to generalize over. If you spent years studying Constructive Developmental Theory and doing Subject-Object interviews with people, but didn’t actually go out and live, then you might be able to generalize over your conceptual knowledge of how it works, but you still probably wouldn’t be able to generalize over your own experience enough to relate to the world actually at a high stage. This is supported by several people closely involved in the CDT work reporting that they are not themselves at stage 5—even though they can easily ask the appropriate questions to detect if someone else is. It’s one thing to conceptually get something. You can even internalize that so that your conceptual understandings come naturally to mind as explanations for others behavior. But it’s another thing to have internalized a practical understanding of the limitations of certain perspectives, such that you naturally (i.e. without forcing it) make sense of the world using those higher abstractions.

Helping your past self level-up

Now we return to my conversation with Ruby. My reasoning was that just sending back-in-time the books that really transformed your life wouldn’t necessarily have much effect on your past self, because that past self might not have the right experiences to be able to grok the models or abstractions that the book is presenting. Conceptually, perhaps, but not in an embodied, practical way. To the extent that my model here is correct (and I’m pretty confident it’s got some merit, but I don’t think it’s totally right) the question becomes: how would I give my past self the kinds of experiences that would let them form that generalization sooner?

Delightfully, between me starting to write this post and me writing the sentence you’re currently reading, my friend Brienne published a TortoiseSkills report in which she gives one example of an answer to my question! Over the past two months, Brienne has essentially taught herself empathy. In this post, she shares the process in the form of a fictional dialogue with herself from a year ago. Writing the post, she recognizes that in addition to 2014!Brienne not having a conceptual understanding of what 2015!Brienne has now learned, her past self also didn’t have any experiential familiarity with it. So rather than just telling 2014!Brienne how it’s supposed to work, she gets her past self to try a few things, and to reflect on her experience of them so as to generalize the more abstract point.

2015!Brienne: Now look around the room at all of these people, and when you notice anything even vaguely like a feeling of curiosity about any of them, tap your fingers together.
2014!Brienne: Looks around. Sees someone who looks familiar. Taps fingers.
2015!Brienne: What happened right before you tapped your fingers?
2014!Brienne: I wondered whether I’d seen that girl over there in person before, or if she’d just commented on my Facebook wall at some point. But I think I only wondered it because you primed me to be curious about people.
2015!Brienne: That will often be the case: You’ll only notice the thing you’re watching for when you’re explicitly thinking about the fact that you’re watching for it.

As you can tell from the dialogue, this isn’t just a mission—”go do this, and report back”—2015!Brienne actually interrupts a conversation 2014!Brienne is having, says some things, has the conversation continue, then interrupts again. This kind of rapid feedback (see also this video of me) would be very hard to do with a letter or a book, making it a hard thing to actually communicate to your past self.

Wait, what? That whole conceit with the letter-to-past-self was a thought experiment. It’s approximately as hard to send your past self a book as it is to go interrupt one of their conversations.

Helping your past self level-up helping your present self level-up

What we actually care about is your present self. Now, with your present self, obviously you don’t have the advantage of already knowing the thing you’re trying to teach. But you do have the advantage of always being right next to yourself, meaning that (to some extent) you can interrupt your normal patterns of interaction and try to figure out what’s going on with them, and try new ones. A bunch of the specific processes that Brienne proposes: picking a habit to focus on, finding a small leverage point behaviour, becoming curious, tapping your fingers when you notice yourself being curious about something relevant… you can use these.

I want to repeat that:

You can use these.

I have inklings of a plan to run a programme where I guide a bunch of people through a process of gaining foundational mindskills or changing fundamental habits, drawing on Brienne’s TortoiseSkills experiences and on my own habit-hackery. If you’re interested in this, fill out this short form. No guarantees this will happen anytime soon, or at all.

If you have other examples of places where you’ve successfully done this, or where you’d like to, leave them in the comments.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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4 Comments

Ruby » 23 May 2015 » Reply

Great post!

For a bit of context which is indirectly related. I posed the prompt of ‘what would you tell your past self from a year ago?’ as a way of generating answers to the question of ‘what did you learn in the past year?’

I just carried out the exercise, and the answer is ‘a lot!’. It’s encouraging to take stock of your own progress.

Also, for the purpose of thinking of all things you’ve learnt, you needn’t curate the list for communicable insights: the candidate list of things to send back in time contains the things you’ve learnt since then.

    Malcolm » 23 May 2015 » Reply

    Ahh, yes! Yeah, the “how would you communicate insights” was just a small piece of that larger conversation. Thanks for reminding me 🙂

    Also, let’s conversate again. I like talking to people who cause me to write blog posts!

Matt » 3 Jun 2015 » Reply

I like the idea of a course to change foundational habits. I’ve tried my hand at creating a similar course in the past, and taken a few courses that try to do similar things (wake up productive by eben pagan, Leo Babautas sea change program, bj foggs tiny habits program).

My experience has always been that it’s incredibly hard to provide the type of deliberate feedback that’s necessary without having someone there in person… similar to your book example, it’s incredibly hard to know which foundational skills someone else won’t have.

In Briennes example, she was missing the skill of noticing curiosity- but, she could have just as easily been missing the skill of being honest with herself, of translating thoughts to actions, or a dozen other things she takes for granted, all of which she takes for granted, and all of which have their own explanations and prerequisites.

    Malcolm » 4 Jun 2015 » Reply

    Ahh, yeah. I notice that the examples you give though all focus on routine-type habits, not reflex-type habits as we’re mostly talking about here. I think routines mostly don’t require that much experience to implement. A bit of determination, perhaps. I guess some routines end up requiring certain reflexes though (e.g. not just hitting the snooze button).

    That’s a good point about things being taken for granted. It seems like there would be a kind of debugging process where the guide notices the learner getting stuck in some way, makes a guess about why, and speaks into that.

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