I was having a lot of challenge figuring out where to start this one. For some reason, the Object/Process/Meta structure I used the past three years doesn’t feel like it makes sense this year. Maybe because this year a lot of the object-level “stuff I did” was itself process- or meta-level.
The first thing I need to get out of the way is that as of last week, I’m using the Holocene calendar, which means that instead of writing my 2016 CE review, I’m writing my 12016 HE review. It’s the same year, but I’m experimenting with living in the thirteenth millennium because (4-6 years after) the birth of Christ is a weird start time for a bunch of reasons. Better is about 12,000 years ago, around the start of human civilization. There might be a slightly more accurate year, but the nice thing about just adding 10,000 years is that it means you don’t have to do any math to convert between CE and HE: just stick a 1 on the front or take it off. This in turn means I can use it in public-facing works and while it might be a little confusing, it’s still easily-understood. Here’s a great YouTube video on the subject. I’ll tell you if/how this affects my thinking during next year’s yearly review, after I’ve been using it for awhile.
I’m starting with a brief note on books I read in 12016. I use this gantt-like chart to track the books I read each day, which has the advantage of encouraging me to dig into books even if I don’t finish them.
Here’s a chart of my book-reading habits in 12016 HE:
The stats: I read an average of 13.5 minutes of fiction and 21.3 minutes of non-fiction each day. The standard deviations were high though. Most days (308/365) I either read 0-5 minutes of fiction or more than 60. Less so for non-fiction but it still varied a lot. This is important because if you got the impression that each day I was reading 13 minutes of fiction, then that’s actually very inaccurate! (Even though it would have led to the same total.)
Related on all levels of abstraction: The End of Average, which
- is a book
- is something I read last year
- explains how trying to understand complex things in terms of averages can lead to a lot of confusions
- changed my thinking on a pretty deep level
Another related way in which these numbers can be misleading is that if you compare the years, you’ll see I read 34.8 minutes/day this past year. In 12014 I read 35.9 minutes/day. So we might find ourselves thinking “Malcolm read less in 12016 than 12014”, as if that were a property of each year as a whole. But if I had gotten into a single long novel on Dec 31st, 12016, and read for 10 hours (totally a reasonable thing to happen btw) I would have passed my 12014 figure. So clearly this can’t actually be a deep property of the year itself!
So! Having established with you, dear reader, part of the challenge I’m dealing with in attempting to say meaningful things about my past year, I perhaps can make some traction on this.
In last year’s review, I wrote nearly 3,000 words on the “object-level”. It was a whirlwind summary of a bunch of STUFF that I did. And the stuff was pretty cool! But it got so long that I found myself encouraging readers to skip it. Which…
…hm. Isn’t a problem. But I think relates to part of why it felt challenging to write the post this year, and why the object/process/meta structure didn’t seem to fit as well. One of the things that has shifted for me in the past year or so is my sense of importance, and of the importance of importance.
I’ve long been oriented towards “what’s interesting?” But “interesting” things are prone to becoming disconnected from the bigger picture/purpose/context. And I don’t want to do that. This shows up on all levels and timescales. On a smaller time-scale, I was recently telling some of my teammates about a groundbreaking conversation that had happened, and I found myself just attempting to summarize every little bit. I noticed that my attention was getting caught up in little details, rather than focusing on what would be important to talk about.
So I shifted my frame from “tell them what happened” to literally “assume that they already listened to the recording of the conversation and talk about what felt really exciting & important about the conversation”. Naturally, since they hadn’t listened to the recording, I did end up filling in some details, but now that was just the minimum necessary to talk about what was deeply worth talking about.
This recognition of the importance of importance is even more profound on the year-long timescale, however. One of the biggest arcs for me of this year is deepening my relationship with my sense of responsibility and drive towards the caring for the future of humanity (see existential risks). It’s been slightly more than two years since I came to appreciate the extent to which there’s nobody actually in charge of keeping the world going smoothly. It was on one level horrifying to realize how little sanity there is in the world, and also motivating and inspiring. A few months later, when I got my engineering iron ring, I committed not just to being responsible for ensuring my bridges don’t fall down but “responsible for acting, at all levels, as best I can towards the continued survival and thrival of humanity.”
I spent the first year of wearing that ring being quite out-of-touch with that responsibility.
Some conversations in January of last year woke me up to this, and kickstarted a process of taking those commitments much more seriously. I knew I needed to tap into a sense of fierceness around this, to generate not just horror in relation to the state of the world, but also drive to action. I had connected with a sense of grief and suffering as I accepted the reality of things-as-they-are-now. One evening, I set out to connect to a sense of passion, fire, anger, determination. This involved intense breathing, yelling and spitting on my own face in the mirror. I was trying to shock myself into waking up and taking a different approach.
I… definitely succeeded in shocking myself. But I still had a lot of work to do to change course.
I spent the next week or so in a kind of retreat: mostly not social, not doing any of my normal work, just reflecting on my relationship to existential risks. In response to calling on myself to take this all more seriously, I was able to notice what sorts of blocks were coming up for me (also known as competing commitments, in the Immunity to Change literature).
One of the main ones was my relationship to poise. In the context of posture, being “poised” means being positioned to be able to quickly and fluidly move in any given direction. Having a lot of flexibility and options. And, as a friend pointed out to me, while I didn’t seem to optimize for comfort or security in the way that many people might, over the past several years much of my attention has been dedicated to increasing my amount of (metaphorical) poise. Particularly in relation to making Complice be a profitable passive income business: now I can do whatever I want!
And it’s worth noting that since the late-12014 realization mentioned above, that the world needs people taking existential risks seriously and caring for all of humanity, I had the intention that what I would then want to do, after my Complice income stabilized, was something related to that.
But when I asked myself “what would it be like to be deeply committed to doing whatever was most necessary for the future of humanity?” …I suddenly felt very constrained.
What if that were doing something I hated?
Would that mean that if someone were able to convince me that what I was doing was less important than some other thing, I’d have to suddenly go do the other thing?
I recognized, even at the time, that there were other assumptions and framing issues inherent in these questions: obviously burning out wouldn’t be most effective, and it’s not so much that I’d “have to” do the other thing, but that I’d want to. Still, I took these fears seriously, because as long as they were part of my system, it didn’t make sense to consider myself coherently committed in the way that I thought I might want to be.
Somewhat symbolically of that, I started wearing the ring on my left hand instead of my right. I also would remove the ring each night and putting it on again in the morning, a simple ritual that acted as a way to pull my sense of the importance back into my consciousness regularly, even if I was still figuring out how to relate to it.
I spent the month of March working on two big things: seeing the world more clearly and seeing myself more clearly.
On the former: I talked with many people I respected about what they saw as being the most important/neglected/tractable thing that I could be doing. I read Bostrom’s Existential Risk as Global Priority and the Hanson-Yudkowsky AI Foom Debate and other works and tried to formulate my own working models of the situation. I was immediately thrust into the challenge I’ve heard some people talk about experiencing in grad school: when you realize that the experts all disagree about major points, and somehow you need to figure out how to manage the interplay between all of these perspectives.
Regarding my own personal integration, I went to CFAR’s “Yin Workshop”, where I was able to seriously look at some aspects of my identity that were attached to continuing on my existing trajectory, and those parts realized that that trajectory didn’t make sense given my current understanding of the world and my relationship to it. Then I did a designed and executed a ritual to re-cohere those identity parts.
As winter turned to spring, I returned from the San Francisco Bay Area to Waterloo, ON.
The spring was a period of consolidating much of what I mentioned above. I continued to work on Complice regularly, but less than before. I started training myself in forecasting and modeling skills, based on having attended a last-minute AI Safety workshop put on by CFAR in late March. I deepened my investigation of existential risks, and worked on some projects related to understanding who was doing what in the space. Then I read Nate Soares blog post Dive In, which cautions people against waiting to figure out the absolute best thing to work on, and suggests just making the best concrete plan you can make at the moment and working on it. I noticed that I was kind of doing the first thing.
When I reflected on what it would make sense to focus on, it became apparent that one of the main questions I was facing was the extent to which Upstart Collaboratory (the culture development project I’m part of in Waterloo) was making progress at addressing an important bottleneck for existential risk reduction efforts. I had the general sense that it could be, but it seemed that given the level of investment being put into it at that time (personally and collectively) it would be hard to even find out, let alone realize, that potential. So I decided to double-down on that. The system as a whole was undergoing substantial transformation at that time, so many of us were starting to take the project and purpose more seriously.
I went to the Bay again in August, to attend EA Global and the CFAR reunion. It was the first time that I was there representing Upstart more than representing Complice. I learned a lot about intimacy on this trip: what it is, how it works, its value, and so on. I reflected on Facebook in the fall:
I want to share the extent to which I’ve come to really care about the quality of the flow in my experience of relating with someone. I’ve had some really high-quality relationships in the last few months (intimate in many ways, though primarily not sexually intimate) and I’ve come to the point where I am really attracted to experiences of deep, high quality intimacy (term used as in previous parenthetical) and am questing for how to create those experiences and relationships.
And, in my quest towards intimate co-thinking and interpersonal collaborative flow, I quickly came to realize that I was doing a lot of stuff to get in the way of that. Which brings us to…
The second challenge I face in writing a yearly review is attempting to put things in order. The year passes chronologically, and most readers will read this post from start to end, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it makes sense for the post to be in perfect chronological order. As of this point in the post, we’re about 75% through the year, and I’ve skipped some substantial events and practices that would absolutely make it on lists like “what went well this year?” or “what did you try this year?”
I’ve skipped them not because they’re not important, but because I’m not just trying to give you a bunch of details about my year. I’m here to tell you a story about my year. It’s not the only story that could be told, but it’s the one I’m telling right now. And to make that story communicate clearly, I’ve let the timeline of the story actually become less accurate.
I used to have some very strong implicit assumptions that in order for something to be rigorous, it had to be thorough, or systematic. List all the things! Sort them! Communicate precisely and leave no erratum uncorrected. Note that I didn’t believe this, per se. I certainly understood various contexts in which that wasn’t a requirement for quality… but I would find myself fixated on the details.
This kind of rigour is possible and reasonable in a context where you can effectively get outside of the system and see the whole thing. A chess game, for instance, is a world that can be understood systematically in this way. Or mathematical reasoning, or some kinds of programming.
But as a complex agent embedded in complex systems, it’s unworkable to look at my own life and decision-making this way. Like the “importance of importance” shift, this is true on large scales and small. This time the smaller-scale story is the one I want to tell.
(I’ve told part of this story in the blog post previous to this one, “How I Learned to Stop Hurrying and Fall In Love (with a project)“. It’s a reflection that goes back 5 years, so might be of-interest to anyone reading this post.)
So it was September, and I was newly back in Waterloo with the Upstart Collaboratory team. It was also just around this point that our teaminess was really coalescing: those who weren’t interested in doing intense work on the project at hand had largely taken their distance, and the rest of us had redoubled our commitments.
Commitments to what? What is it exactly that we’re doing here?
It’s hard to summarize, but here’s an attempt: we’re creating not just a new culture but a whole new cultural platform, with a radically different set of assumptions, norms, memes, and practices than the vast majority of cultures presently in the world today. The specific shift we’re making is about moving from a shame/entitlement/judgment-based mindset to one built on curiosity/trust/appreciation. Shifting both the mindsets we carry individually, and what sort of interaction dynamics are generated by “the way we do things” at our community of practice.
This involves a process of continually giving ourselves and each other culture shock, as we come to realize more and more how the subtle interaction patterns we developed as part of the old cultures are getting in the way of having the experience that we want of the new culture. The kind of intimate flow I gestured at above.
And last fall, I realized that I had a some patterns that thought they were very important but that had become dysfunctional such that they were undermining the very outcome they thought they were seeking.
The core structure here was a dynamic of feeling frustrated with my sense that the group was unable to effectively make decisions or execute on priorities, and attempting to intervene so that this would actually happen. To some extent this fixation came from my internal sense of how fast I expected us to move, and some assumptions I had about that. But it had also become increasingly hard to let go of, because of the very shift that I’d had earlier in the year.
The World Is On Fire, my mind had running in the background. We need to get moving!
After a couple of particularly intense experiences exhorting the group to do something, anything, that would feel like progress, I came to realize that my rants about this were actually one of the main things at that point preventing us from having those object-level conversations. The experience (as I now understand it) went something like this (taking place midconversation, usually).
Group: Okay, so now it feels like maybe we’re ready to discuss [a thing we’ve been meaning to discuss]. It feels like given what’s happened, there’s now a new set of possibilities. And we could start working on [thing].
Malcolm: Sure, but all of the times in the past when we’ve said that, nothing’s actually happened. How do we make sure that we actually make progress this time? I would be willing to put a ton of my own energy towards this but I feel like I can’t do anything because we’re stuck in some way.
This continues, quite intensely, for many minutes. By the end, nobody is really feeling that sense of possibility that had been very present before.
It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. Maybe it’s both.
What’s going on here? Why does this pattern undermine the very thing it wants so badly? And how does it not notice?
One core part of it is that the pattern doesn’t only want the thing it claims to want. It claims to want us to make progress, but I think it’s actually coming out of a fear of not being in control. The original generator of the fear might not be about me being in control of the group, but of a sense of the group being unable to wield itself effectively, and therefore not having a certain kind of executive function or capability that yes, ultimately, it absolutely needs. But then the need for control exercises itself so as to give me a kind of coercive control over the group at that moment.
In some circumstances, that could actually work! Err, it could work in the sense of allowing me to get the group to do something, which might then satisfy my sense of us needing to have done something.
But, okay, hang on a sec, what’s the whole point of what we’re doing here? It’s not to “get stuff done”. It’s to develop a non-coercive way of relating to each other. So that small win would actually be a huge fail.
This seems really obvious when laid out like this, but it was enormously hard to grasp from the inside. And most of us carry not just one, but several blindspots like this. My teammates and I are going to be writing about those in-depth in the coming year, so we return at this point to our previously scheduled coverage of Malcolm’s year.
Once I started appreciating the structure of this pattern, I began backing up and trying to get outside of it. This subject-object shift took a remarkably long time, although the mere fact that I was consciously making progress already started to shift the sense of what was possible.
I did a bunch of reading on the subject (meaningness.com, Leadership is Half The Story, The Zen Leader), as well as explicit model-building: in workflowy, asking questions about what was going on trying to find questionable assumptions involved. Also a vast amount of talking about the pattern with my team and working to really hear and integrate their feedback.
Ultimately this kind of shift is like breaking an addiction; in my case, an addiction to a particular kind of control. So it involved a lot of cognitive restructuring, and refusing to engage with the agents attempting to exert control (in this case over my mind!).
Of course, I needed some new structure to replace the old one. A new system that I could trust to effectively work towards achieving what I care about.
Part of the nature of the disconnect I talked about above is its againstness, its not-on-the-same-side-ness. It treats other people as obstacles or perhaps tools, but forgets to appreciate that (a) they’re conscious beings with subjective experiences and values and contexts, and (b) they have perspectives that are different than mine, which can allow us to collectively understand the world much better.
In august, I had started wearing a second ring on my left pinky, next to my iron ring. I wanted it to have a meaning, but I wasn’t yet sure what, so I was just kind of incubating it there. Within a month or so, it had developed a purpose of reminding me to take other people seriously, as real experiencing beings and as people who understand things I don’t.
After a lot of reflection on the nature of responsibility and how to relax my anxious need to control things, I came to appreciate that attempting to have solo heroic responsibility—of the kind that my iron ring embodied—would tend to systematically undermine my ability to work with others. In some contexts it could have a short-term gain, but that’s sort of like a payday loan: hardly a good deal in even the medium-term.
But I’m not alone. It doesn’t make sense to naïvely trust that someone else will take care of the future, but nor does it make sense to shoulder that cosmic canoe and try to portage it all on my own. There are others working on this now, and still others who will be in the future. So my commitment became:
100% Co-responsibility for Humanity’s ongoing Survival and Thrival
I could write a whole post about the concept of co-responsibility, but for now I’ll just say that it represented the unification of what each of those rings meant. And that day, after I had that shift in understanding, I put the iron ring back on my right hand, and the new one on my left: balance.
So, in continuation of my tradition of naming each of my years retrospectively, I’m calling 12016 “A Year of Co-Responsibility”.
In addition to the deep resonance that that name has with the entire story described above it also fits nicely with a few other pieces, particularly this:
I’ve been running my business, Complice, for more than 3 years, and it’s always been a solo endeavour. I’ve had a few contractors and a few people who helped me with strategy, and of course the inter-company partnership with Beeminder. But I never let anyone near the executive control center. Then this fall, my friend Benjamin expressed interest in collaborating with me on it. He’s part of the Upstart team and the community of practice here, and moreover he and I had had some really powerful experiences of working together before in a bunch of different domains, so it seemed obviously worth investigating.
So far it’s an investment that’s paying out supremely in learning—learning between us and also learning how the two of us can best relate to the larger Upstart team—and is also paying out in dollars and impact on the world: we ran an online goal-setting workshop for the new year and it was a big success.
After years of working on my personal effectiveness, it feels like 12016 was the year I started really digging into collaborative effectiveness. Note that I expect to experience much more co-responsibility in 12017, much like I had much more freedom in 12016 than in 12015: “A Year of Freedom.”. So there’s a kind of forward-lookingness to the name as well!
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.