12017 Yearly Review

It’s January 31st, 12018, as I type this. I told myself last night that I would either write a yearly review today, or not at all. It feels hard to figure out what to say about my past year. My life is rich and complex and wonderful and challenging and… hard to summarize.

Yet I feel like I don’t want to break my chain of yearly review blog posts quite yet. So here I am, writing… something. If I were to ask myself, “Aside from breaking the chain, why does this yearly review post feel important?” …the main answer is that there are things about my life that my blog readers don’t know, that might be valuable context for anyone who is following the story of my life.

This itself is a sort of strange experience. I know who some of the readers of my blog are—some friends, my housemates & other Upstart collaborators, and of course my parents—but I don’t know most of you. And yet even the people I know most closely still learn a lot about me from reading my blog, which suggests that if you’ve been reading most of my blog posts the past year or two, you also know a lot about me.

And if you haven’t? This is a challenge I face in all of my blog posts: to what extent can I assume that people will have read the previous ones? Or to what extent will they have remembered it anyway?

For instance, I didn’t remember until I re-read it just now that during last year’s review I said:

I’ll tell you if/how [using the Holocene calendar] affects my thinking during next year’s yearly review, after I’ve been using it for awhile.

So I guess I’ll do that. (For context, the Holocene calendar is like the one you’re used to, but starts 10,000 years earlier, making this my 12017 review instead of my 2017 review.) The short answer is that I don’t think it’s affected my thinking very much, and I found it to be not at all something worth creating extra confusion publicly, so it’s mostly a thing I’ve been using in my personal notes. I continue to enjoy it aesthetically though. I do think that when I first started using it it gave me a dramatically increased awareness of something like [where I am in history]. And now using “2017” to indicate the year feels like one of those graphs with the scale lopped off in a confusing way. “12017” of course also lops off most of the past, but it at least doesn’t lop off much history.

One thing I have often written about in my yearly review is what I learned that year. One of my biggest learnings of 12017 has already been thoroughly covered though, in Transcending Regrets, Problems, and Mistakes. That article tells the story of how I spent the year learning a very core skill: not imagining that the past should have gone differently, or even in some meaningful sense could have gone differently. Similarly, I could point you at Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself to indicate a milestone partway through another major learning arc in the past year (disarming my internal conflicts) but I want to write about that in more detail in its own focused posts, so it doesn’t make sense to focus on it here. Nearly all of my blog posts in the past year have some sort of learning like that.

I notice, as I’m writing this, that I almost feel kind of defensive. As if I’m writing this post in an attempt to prove that it’s impossible for me to write an adequate yearly review.

Maybe I’m overcomplicating things, and a simple chronological approach would allow me to say whatever needs or wants to be said, on a month-by-month basis. I’m sure lots of things will yet be missed from this, but it seems better than nothing, and I don’t feel so defensive about it! 😀

January

The first major project that Benjamin and I did after he joined Complice was we ran two Goal-Crafting Intensives, which went awesomely. It was a great proof-of-concept for running events like these, and we’ve since planned and executed three more a year later, and are planning some other workshops in the future.

We then participated in Sebastian Marshall’s Ultraworking Pentathlon, which was a really well-run event that resonates at lot with my own philosophy for structured collective productivity. One of the core 5 habits they focus on is doing 100 minutes of work towards your most important project, each day. The project Benjamin and I chose was called COMB: Complice Ontology Model-Building. Basically we were trying to develop a generalized model of how productivity systems work, and based on that, why Complice seemed to work so well and how it could more optimally fill its niche. We made some cool progress on this…

February

…but the COMB project ended up getting set aside, however, when we realized that Complice’s growth had totally plateau’d, and the churn rate was really high. We shifted gears to focusing on low-hanging fruit for reducing inactivity/churn and increasing conversion rates. I had done something similar during a previous plateau, which seemed to work quite well. This year was harder, but as of now it does seem that Complice is growing again!

Around this time I also picked up a copy of Behavior: The Control of Perception, Bill T Powers’ seminal book on Perceptual Control Theory. It blew my mind on several levels, and influenced a lot of my understanding of my own behavior and my desire to stop fighting myself internally. It also influenced a song I was working on, that is almost done!

Another thing that happened was that what had been a team of 6 people at the core of the Upstart Collboatory honed itself into being just four of us: myself and Benjamin, Jean (who founded Upstart years ago) and Julia. Julia has been involved in the project for nearly as long as I have, and we have an interesting history of relationship which includes me having been her mindset coach when she first joined the system in 12013. This coaching had been really effective, and it created a challenge for us to figure out how to relate more as peers and learning partners, which was a major aspect of both of our development over the course of this year.

Also during February, I started doing morning pages. This was really good timing, because I was in a challenging period of my life with respect to the learning I was doing with the Upstart Collaboratory. It turns out that learning how to consistently operate out of a post-judgmental mindset is hard. I think that I actually sort of made things harder than they needed to be, but despite that the morning pages were a really helpful tool for processing what was happening for me.

March

What happened in March? The main noteworthy thing coming to mind was my birthday. Unlike past years, I didn’t try to have a huge party, but I spent the day with Julia and the rest of the system here, and reflected on my life and my relationships.

I also experimented with posting on facebook asking people on my birthday to share something with me they wanted to say that they’d felt unable to say to me (or someone like me) in the past, with an intention to be really open to listening to people. This was a cool experiment, and I found out some interesting things about my friends that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

One person who messaged me said something like “Well, we don’t really know each other, but you seem interesting and I would enjoy skyping sometime!” We scheduled a call for a few days later, and when we talked there was a surprising amount of resonance—similarities and complementarities.

April

That person I just mentioned? Well, we fell in love pretty immediately. Her name is Sarah McManus, and she’s got her own site called Prickles and Goo after an Alan Watts quote about the dialectic between nebulosity and pattern. We spent hours on the phone talking about all sorts of things we were thinking about, and intertwingling our consciousnesses.

I picked up a book called 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back by Esther Gokhale, and set a new goal on complice: “Spinal Grace”. I have an increased sense of the importance of… not posture, exactly, but putting my spine in positions that don’t strain it unduly. And it turns out that part of sitting and standing and walking comfortably is a matter of technique, and learnable! I made decent progress with this.

May

In May, after a bunch of further reading of other books on Perceptual Control Theory, I decided to try explicitly focusing on spreading it among my circles. I ended up getting bogged down in trying to write the perfect introduction though, and that combined with other priorities meant that this didn’t end up amounting to much aside from doing a brief presentation at the CFAR reunion in August.

Also… I’m sure other things happened in may, but they’re hard to summarize. Lots of conversations with Sarah, lots of conversations with Upstart, lots more personal work, Complice work, etc.

June

In June, I did a lot of working with personal internal conflict and responding differently to discomfort. I wrote this up here so I’ll let you read that.

I also joined the second edition of Ribbonfarm’s Longform Blogging Course, and wrote a piece on things you can do with questions other than ask them. The course was quite good, and it had been an aspiration of mine for awhile to be published on Ribbonfarm, so that was a cool achievement.

a graphic from the complice homepage, depicting three steps: clarify your goals, take meaningful actions, see your progress

Also Benjamin and I shipped a total overhaul of the Complice landing page, which was influenced somewhat by the Complice Ontology Model-Building project we’d done in January. I wrote a bit about that experience here.

July

Sarah came to visit the Upstart Collaboratory here in Waterloo, and that was a pretty profound experience both in terms of our two-person relationship (and meeting in bodyspace after so much conversation by skype & phone & chat) and also of her getting to see me here in my ecosystem/context. (Speaking of ecosystems, Sarah studied systems ecology, which pairs nicely with my systems design engineering background.)

Towards the end of July, there were a series of stressful conversations here between me, Jean, and Julia that were the culmination of various tensions that had been stewing for awhile. It’s hard to talk about what those were without giving a ton more context, but it feels important that they get mentioned. This gave my trip to the bay in August a bit of a different tone than previous times. I was on one level more isolated, and at the same time there was a sense of really valuing the spaciousness that was created by the distance, which enabled some of that tension to relax.

August

I travelled to the SF Bay Area, as I do every August since that’s when the CFAR Reunion and EA Global happen. (EA Global is a conference of Effective Altruists, ie people who are trying to not just improve the world but to do whatever will improve the world most.)

I was in touch with the EA Global organizers about giving a presentation at the event on setting goals, and I learned that the theme for that year’s event was to be Doing Better Together. This inspired me to build a new feature for Complice called Shared Purposes. Essentially the idea is that some goals one might have are personal—they just affect one’s own life—but other goals are attempting to cause things to happen that other people are also trying to cause!

The simplest example of this might be two people who are part of one business together. They could each point any business-related goals towards a shared purpose called Bizname or perhaps Bizname success. But in the context of EA Global, there are a lot of people who share much more ambitious goals, such as reducing existential risks to humanity or eliminating global poverty. The shared purposes feature on Complice would allow these people to see each other working towards these goals. This provides a unique form of social organization, where it’s not possible to simply be a member of the club by clicking a Join button; you need to actively be doing something about it.

Unfortunately, the timing on this was a bit of a mess. We gave a 6 month Complice subscription to EA Global attendees for free, thinking that would generate enough presence of people using the system to get the shared purposes feature off the ground. But I was totally swamped with preparations for Burning Man and then actually being there, and we didn’t properly promote this. I still think it’s a powerful idea and one worth making happen. If you want to check it out it’s at complice.co/purposes.

Burning Man itself was (inevitably) quite an experience. It was my second date with Sarah, as well as being my first time being part of a theme camp, Black Lotus, that I was playing a serious role in making happen. This was stressful, but it was also really cool to be part of literally building the city, by constructing a 24’ diameter geodesic sphere (not just a dome!). It was also a serious bonding experience with the other people who were part of making it happen. On a personal level, I had read Stealing Fire earlier in the year and it talked about Burning Man being a place for flow states, and I did a bit more seeking those on purpose this year. This was cool on one level but it also ended up distracting me a bit from being opportunistic with whatever was there in the moment. “Seeking” can be its own distraction.

September

Shortly after getting back from Burning Man, I was integrating some of the conversations I’d had with people, and was struck with a new level of clarity around the importance—and particularly, the urgency—of figuring out how to translate the mindset insights we’ve had at Upstart into forms that work with the rationality community in the Bay, and more crucially, forms that work for the Effective Altruists who are seriously trying to make the world safe from all sorts of disasters. I started putting some plans in motion to make that happen.

Also in September, I went to a tantra/yoga workshop called the Fire & Nectar retreat. I learned a lot from that, which helped me untangle some confusion and conflicts I’d been carrying. The biggest part of that learning was the final piece in the whole year’s learning of how to not get stuck in a feeling of regret or that things should have somehow gone differently. I wrote this up extensively here.

Both of these experiences were helpful in reorienting myself to go back to Waterloo and reconnect with Upstart, particularly given the level of challenge that had been there shortly before I left in July.

October

In October, I returned to the ecosystem in Waterloo, and on the foundation of insights like the post-regret one linked to above, I was able to avoid falling into most of the old judgments of the past. I still wasn’t totally able to show up as open and collaborative as we’re aiming for here. But it was enough to start rebuilding things and making sense of where to go next.

Mid-October, Jean and Julia took Upstart on the road, heading to Calgary to run a workshop there. I decided to spend the week finishing a Complice project that I’d slightly started earlier in the year: making Complice work offline, using browser storage to keep the data safe even if the tab was closed. I worked literally nonstop (except sleeping) and got 90% of the way finished it during that week, which meant of course I still had the other 90% of the work left to do. Finishing that ended up taking until last week (ie early 12018) because I had a lot of other things on my plate and I was having trouble carving out the space to get things off my plate.

November

In addition to working on that Complice project, November was a really good writing month for me. This is when I wrote up the post on transcending regret, as well as a piece on a few techniques that I’d been using for greater self-alignment: Self-Referential Motivation and the Captain’s Log
In the second half of a month, my friend Laura started spending a bunch more time here at the house, and then Sarah came up to spend more time here as well. A lot of really powerful conversations and learning happened in that time. That was also when I did a bunch of reading of The Guru Papers, which in addition to the books on Perceptual Control Theory was the main mind-blower that I read last year. (You can see all of the books I’ve been reading in this epic chart.)

December

In December I set up a new system for writing that I’m quite excited about, which is basically a userstyle/userscript modified version of AirTable, which lets me effectively organize my writing and do my writing in the same place. It’s still too soon to tell how that’s going to play out, but I’m feeling pretty excited about it.

Sarah and I also practiced singing together, and got better at that, then just after the winter solstice, she and I drove down south to do xmas at her family’s place—quite a different experience than I was used to, and pretty valuable context for me on her history—and then to spend a couple weeks at her place in Athens, Georgia. During that time, we ran more Goal-Crafting Intensives and I finished coding the offline sync for Complice! Sarah was working on taking care of some maintenance her house needed, and we had some great conversations about how to do that work in a way that was satisfying.

(Btw: we’re doing some more Goal-Crafting Intensives Feb 24-25, so if you’re thinking that your year could use a bit more focus, check it out)

Thoughts on the year as a whole, after having written all of this:

I had a lot of unfinished projects. In the summary above, I found myself saying many times “well, at this point in the year, I started a thing, and I did work on it but it ended up not getting completed”. There are several that didn’t get mentioned, too. I think that this represents a few things. One thing is simply taking on slightly more projects than I could do comfortably. Another related thing is that I was having trouble saying no to not just projects but even conversations that weren’t making sense for me, which not only took up time but then left me feeling tense about not being in touch with my sense of clarity & purpose, which led to compulsive internet use and so on.

Perhaps the most major thing is that I was having a bit of a Neurath’s boat experience with respect to my motivation systems: taking them apart to find a new way of doing things… but this whole process happening while I was still attempting to use these systems to do things! I could be mistaken, but as far as I can tell this is going to yield enormous payoff within this year. I guess that’ll be a thing to check on in next year’s review!

The above point stands in contrast but not contradiction to the other most salient thought I’m having:

I had a really satisfying year. In general, finishing projects is very satisfying, and not finishing them can produce a sense of dissatisfaction. So it feels pretty noteworthy that despite the above point, I feel a sense of having made a huge amount of progress last year and also having enjoyed myself immensely. And also having pushed myself to many limits:

  • I did a lot of really intense personal work on shifting my mindset to get rid of blame and my behavior patterns to be more collaborative
  • I wrote some of my longest and most powerful writing this year
  • Sarah and I gave our relationship a serious stress-test at Burning Man (it passed with flying colors—despite lots of stress and challenges we were able to stay out of blame & judgment)
  • oh and that the week October in which I literally spent 120 hours coding (technically it was like 120 out of 180 hours), and more generally that being the largest discrete programming project I’ve done

a graphic depicting 12017

You may notice that unlike previous years I didn’t give this year a name. I don’t have an explicit explanation for that… it just didn’t seem that there was one good way to capture it, and it made more sense to just let it stand on its own.

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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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7 Comments

Joe » 2 Feb 2018 » Reply

I really like the idea of shared purposes! For me personally, it would be great, if you didn’t have to assign an entire goal to a purpose. For instance, I have an Altruism goal, which includes things I do for the local EA group, but also personal research. So some of the tasks would fit with X-Risk, some with Doing Good Together, but also many with none of them.

    Malcolm » 2 Feb 2018 » Reply

    Hi Joe, I appreciate the feedback! I think that it’s totally okay to point a goal towards a purpose even if it’s only partially related, as long as it’s more than tangentially relevant.

    Note also that you can point a single goal towards multiple purposes, so this kind of facilitates that sense of multiplicity.

      Joe » 2 Feb 2018 » Reply

      Hm, to me it would feel kind of like cheating. Right now, the most prominent things you see in the purposes is number of pomodoros, number of actions and number of people working towards the purpose. “Artificially” inflating these numbers makes them a very noisy measure and virtually meaningless. It evokes similar connotations to when an online game advertises “millions of registered users”, but the number of active users is almost zero.

        Malcolm » 2 Feb 2018 » Reply

        Ahh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah, that’s a good point!

        It would be cool to be able to tag specific tasks (& their pomodoros) as going towards a given purpose, and have only those be included in the count. I think that will be hard, but might be necessary for this feature to be robust.

      Malcolm » 3 Feb 2018 » Reply

      A further thing I wanted to note about this is that it kind of lines up with the concept of leading by creating a rallying flag for people: if you don’t like the framing of one person’s purpose, you can make a different one, and people can join that instead.

      More on this general concept in Duncan’s article on Voluntary Effort

Matt » 7 Feb 2018 » Reply

Tangential Question: Are your memories ordered chronologically like this, and stamped by month? Or did you have to go back through journals to write this. I could not even begin to figure out what happened in different months in 2017.

    Malcolm » 16 Feb 2018 » Reply

    Are your memories ordered chronologically like this, and stamped by month?

    Yes! I have a very distinctly-chronological memory, and store things both in general locations in time, as well as often with specific local referents that sometimes allow me to infer the specific day of the month that something happened (eg “it was the tuesday after my birthday and my birthday was a sunday, so…”)

    I used to think this was very uncommon, but there was a whole facebook thread about a bunch of other people who do a really similar time-spatialization thing, so apparently it’s not just me! (See my comment, which is a reply to Thomas Eliot’s comment.)

    That being said, I did go and review my Complice history for some of the details of what happened when. But I would say about 5% of things came from that.

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