The Process Lens

A lot of things that we usually model as events or states can be thought of as processes. Depending on the context, this process lens can

  • boggle the mind
  • improve goal-orientation
  • bring clarity to communicating and relating

I’m going to go through them in that order because it’s also perhaps in increasing levels of complexity.

Some brief bogglement

When was the last time you looked at the stars at night?

I was hanging out with my friend a few weeks ago, staring at the stars while we talked about the nature of the universe.

It occurred to me that in some ways it’s less accurate to say that the stars “are bright”, and more accurate to say that they’re continually emitting light. I mean, obviously, but really stop and think about it: say you’re looking at the “North Star” (Polaris). It’s about 400 light years away, which means that the fact that you’re seeing light from that direction right now is because of a bunch of nuclear reactions in the star, like 400 years ago. A few seconds later, you’re seeing new light, made from some more nuclear reactions. And on and on.

And that light is being continually sent out in all directions. There’s a giant sphere radiating out from Polaris of light-from-400-years-ago. There’s another sphere of light-from-500-years-ago, which is a thousand light-years across (Earth is inside this sphere) and still expanding. The sphere of light-from-300-years-ago is also gigantic, but won’t reach Earth until the 22nd century. (If you’re reading this in the 22nd century or later, then OMG HI. Please forgive this claim which is now false.)

So the light you’re seeing isn’t just the state of things. It’s a process that is continuously happening.

Intuitions on flow

Maybe it’s just me, but have you ever noticed that if you’re filling up your drinking glass from some sort of opaque source, then you can see this stream of liquid entering your glass, but you really can’t tell by looking at the stream how fast it’s going?

I mean, in theory you probably could, based on a few calculations relating to gravity and so on. But it’s not intuitively obvious. In fact, it sometimes barely looks like it’s moving… more like a weird tube of substance suspended in the air.

So if you were used to your glass taking 5 seconds to fill, and this time it’s coming out twice as fast, you could be watching the stream and totally not notice (until your glass is about to overflow).

This feels to me at least metaphorically something like “process blindness”. You don’t have direct access to what it means for “this much milk” to be flowing or whatever.

Subscription $ versus one-off

In the same vein as flow, think about the differences between one-time costs and ongoing costs, and the corresponding difference between one-time income/benefit/gain and ongoing gain.

I’m part of a cool online community of Product People, and when I asked them earlier this year about how much to prioritize growing my email newsletter, it was widely agreed that this was one of the most valuable things that these people had done. But as I dug deeper I realized that this was predicated around the idea of doing product launches—one-time sales events.

At that time, I actually had more paying subscribers on Complice than I had email newsletter subscribers. And no plans to launch a pay-once product any time in the next year.

So I spent a bit of time optimizing my newsletter signups, but ultimately it seemed like less of a priority when I could be optimizing for paying subscribers instead.

And I’m also just really glad in general to be in the business of providing a service in exchange for a recurring subscription fee. It means that even if I have a terrible month from a marketing perspective, I can still count on making a certain amount of money, rather than having to start over from scratch each month.

Of course, if you have a system for causing those one-off purchases to happen at a relatively predictable rate each month, then that might sort of amount to the same thing.

And, similarly, as a consumer, it’s not necessarily literal monthly subscription fees that get you, but any sort of system where you consistently spend money regularly. A daily purchase of $1-2 costs more over the course of a year than spending $100-200 on something once.

Goals as processes

James Clear writes:

“It’s not the event, it’s the process.

All too often, we think our goals are all about the result. We see success as an event that can be achieved and completed.”

Sometimes people, in rejecting the results-orientedness of goals, end up focused only on the process. I have an article in the works about that but for now suffice it to say that you can err in both directions here.

The typical way people convert a goal into a process is to say “well it’s not about losing X lbs but about developing good exercise and eating habits.” And sure, this makes sense. You’re distinguishing the result from the process.

I want to point at what I think is a more powerful shift, which is a shift from the goal being a thing that you have to a thing that you do. Nate Soares has a post called Moving towards the goal where he outlines a fundamental mindset of goals being things to be moved towards.

One piece of it is something that’s sometimes called “backwards planning”, and is related to the causation/effectuation distinction (starting from what sorts of effects you can immediately cause, versus what sorts of ultimate effects you’d like to cause). Nate writes “So you’ve found a goal. Nice work. Now solve it tomorrow.” If you can’t, then write down what obstacles are in the way, and solve those tomorrow. Work backwards until you’ve got something you can actually tackle tomorrow. This isn’t the only process one could have, but it is a process, and it’s a pretty decent one.

What I want to highlight though is that what it means for Nate to have a goal is that he’s moving towards it. The goal is the process of trying to achieve something. That might involve some sort of daily routine, as in the exercise example above, or it might involve doing a bunch of different complex things each day, if for instance you’re running a business. But the very nature of a goal is this process of trying.

People as process

This is sort of the fundamental distinction between fixed and growth mindset. But it goes deeper. It’s the distinction between guilt and shame too: if someone is feeling guilt, they feel like they did something wrong. If they’re feeling shame, they feel like they are themselves in some way wrong—that there’s something inherent about them that is problematic.

It makes sense that this would be a common phenomenon in Western society, given the Christian context of original sin.

I typically consider this sort of judgment to be a “Type Error”, similar to how you can’t add 5 meters and 20 kilograms, or in the sense that you can’t measure the fuel efficiency of an electric car (which doesn’t use fuel). There’s no such thing as a person being wrong. People don’t have inherent natures on this level. (Properties like “brown hair” aren’t type errors, nor even something like “violent disposition”.)

Now, if you want, go ahead and model people (yourself or others) as having inherent natures. It’s a reasonably workable model. I just think it’s detrimental to your growth mindset around the person.

Note that I’m not suggesting to err in the other direction. A friend of mine remarked “I’ve long made the opposite of fundamental attribution errors (excusing lots of behaviours, figuring they could be attributed to circumstance—the downside to this being that I was unwise in who I trusted).” It’s not about naïvely trusting. People don’t have inherent natures, but they do have tendencies and recurring patterns and downhillness. You want to be aware of these.

The point is to see these aspects of people as being processes, rather than fixed traits or “the way they are.” This is critical for being able to give feedback that doesn’t push the person away, because otherwise the feedback is a judgment of character (fixed) rather than behaviour (changeable).

Relationship as process

You know the process lens drill by now:

“People often think of ___ as a static thing, that one has, but it can be valuable to instead think of it as a process than one enacts.”

Fill in the blank, with “relationships”.

What does it mean for a relationship to be a process? I find myself thinking of that old quote “love is a verb.” …and… sort of? Not so much in the sense of “show me your love, don’t just tell me”, which I think is just a confusion between people with the “words” love language and people with other love languages. Or something. Whatever.

I mean this in the sense that the point isn’t just to “be in love” or “be in a relationship”. That doesn’t really mean anything. What the relationship is is its effects on the world including the people in the relationship. So we might have more clarity if we instead speak of “relating”.

And then there are questions like “what goes into [this] relating?” and “what comes out of it?”

There’s something here that I might write more about later but want to highlight briefly now: it seems that it’s easier to achieve clarity around what kind of experience I want versus what kind of outcome/state I want. (Intuitively it feels like this would be the same for other people but one friend told me they feel oppositely. I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.)

I have at times found myself feeling very frustrated and confused in my relationships, and I would say “I don’t know what I want.” This was a euphemism for “I don’t know if I want to be in this relationship or not.” or perhaps “I don’t know if I want this relationship to be long-term or not.” The first red flag here is that whether-or-not questions are generally ill-framed, because there are almost always more than two options. (This is the very first item in the WRAP Decision-making process).

But what else is going on here? What kind of either/or is this?

I seem to be choosing about some sort of state of the world: “in a relationship with this person” versus not. But of course there are relationships with that person that I could probably be very happy in, and relationships that I would most certainly not want. So a better question here would be: “what kind of relationship would I want to have with this person?” and more specifically “what sort of experience would I like to have in my relating with this person?”

This is a much easier question to answer! A little challenging to put into words, perhaps, but I have a very immediate sense of what quality of experience I’m attracted to: presence, attunement, same-side-ness, curiosity, playfulness, comfort (or at least meta-comfort), revealing, and so on.

And, what’s more, is that (in my experience) it’s likely to be a lot easier to find agreement or at least mutual appreciation on this level than on the level of the state of the relationship. In general, people want to experience flow, not frustration; connection, not conflict; appreciation, not annoyance. The details might be different for people coming from different backgrounds—and there would definitely be a difference between someone who think “there should be no conflict because I make the rules” and someone who wants a more collaborative approach.

But conditioning on having the same general paradigm, there’s probably a fair bit of common ground here. And getting on the same page about that common ground first will help a lot when it comes to resolving tensions about the state of the relationship (where to live, what to call the relationship, levels of commitment, etc). If that foundation of a shared sense of the desired moment to moment experience isn’t there, then resolving those tensions might be pointless,

Other applications

This post is long enough. I’m going to close with a few questions to ruminate on:

  • Is thinking about your thinking as a process kind of like taking it as object?
  • People sometimes talk about “adulting”. Is this the process lens applied to adulthood?
  • How does this all relate to Systems Thinking?

Oh, and a classic quote, that I didn’t include earlier because I was trying to make a subtle point that’s distinct from just “you are your habits”, and this quote is easy to confuse for that:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

I might even say “Existence, then, is not a state, but a process.”

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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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クリス » 31 Jul 2016 » Reply

I find the idea of defining “lenses” appealing. I want to call this “the lens lens” 🙂

Do you have any other lenses that you find routinely useful, and what are they?

Malcolm » 31 Jul 2016 » Reply

Haha, sort of. I mean, you could say that half of my blog posts introduce a lens, I just usually refer to them as “models” instead, because they have more structure. A lot of the other posts set up a “this type of thing can be divided into type A and type B”… but this is sort of a lens.

Ones that are particularly lens-shaped are:

Nathan Rosewarne » 17 Aug 2016 » Reply

I think looking at your life though a process lens helps you be more aware of the mental/emotional effect diffrent actions have on each other.
And that the order you do things in can have a tremendous effect on how you precieve the overall experience.
For example scheduling a date right after a long day at work can facilitate a sense of longing and excitement for me and my partner. Where spending the morning together and working in the afternoon wouldn’t.

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