12016: A Year of Co-Responsibility

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.

Okay, 12016. » read the rest of this entry »

How I Learned to Stop Hurrying and Fall In Love (with a project)

I’m flexing my blogging muscle again, for the first time in nearly 2 months. It feels a bit weird, and kinda nice. The break I took also feels both weird and nice.

There’s a trope or something about blogs where half of their posts are just the author apologizing for not posting more often. This isn’t going to be one of those—instead, my absence from this space is something that I want to reflect on, in a similar manner to my normal blog posts. How does it relate to my own growth? How does it relate to motivation? To metacognition?

This reflection ends up spanning 5 years and touching on a lot of what’s core to me (and what was core in the past).

Taking myself seriously

My last post was about taking myself seriously, and I remarked:

“This blog post is going to be the first in a series of several posts on the subject.”

This is part of why I haven’t actually posted anything recently. Turns out writing a sequence is hard. I have spent at least a dozen hours (maybe two) refining the ideas in those posts, but it’s been hard to figure out what order to put everything in. I have no idea how people write books. Okay, some idea: slowly.

But since I felt like I had to publish the rest of the sequence before publishing other things, I found myself not writing other things, even though I had things to write. (To some extent I may have also experienced something like a vicious rock paper scissors dynamic, where I had some energy to write about some new thing but felt like I had to work on the sequence instead, but didn’t really feel as motivated towards that, so I didn’t write anything.)

But I’m feeling okay about all of this! And that’s what’s really changed.

Relaxing my need to push forward

Back in September, I was noticing a bunch of tension emerging between some of my motivational structures and the way we’re doing things here at the Upstart Collaboratory, the intentional learning community / culture accelerator I’m a part of. I was navigating a kind of obsessive get-it-done pattern that can very easily get fixated on doing some particular task, to the exclusion of paying attention to what really makes sense in the moment. This kind of focus is powerful, but needs to be used strategically or it produces a lot of motion in a direction that doesn’t matter.

(My sense is that this is similar to the phenomenon where someone takes a stimulant to do work, but ends up, say, very intently organizing the folders on their external hard drive instead, because that caught their attention before the work did).

I was experiencing a lot of internal pressure to make progress. This pressure has been really powerful for me, driving me to do tons of writing and coding and other work—I owe a lot of my success to it. And, it’s limited on its own. I began to realize I really needed to develop the skills of taking a step back, taking in what’s really going on, and taking a followership role, not just a leadership role.

So I stopped working on Complice pretty much altogether for a week, and just focused on reading (primarily the aforementioned followership book, David Chapman’s Meaningness, and The Zen Leader) and really paying attention to my own thoughts and what was going on around me.

I started noticing more opportunities to practice proactive withness, something I wrote about a year ago and have thought about more since. Learning how to do more structured improvisation based on a general sense of purpose, rather than needing to plan my day in detail in advance (which was hard to interface with everyone else here).

This, in itself, was hugely valuable in terms of shifting how I could show up in the context of the Upstart Collaboratory—the culture accelerator project I’ve been involved with over the past few years. The culture that we’re working on building requires everyone to be attuned to each other and to what’s going on in a way that’s basically impossible if someone is caught up in some fixed sense of what needs to happen next (or a fixed need to get seen, or a fixation on everyone in a situation being comfortable.)

The project has been moving forward slowly for the past decade or two in one form or another. It’s only really been in the last few months that we’ve started to take ourselves more seriously as not just a community or a nebulous group of people, but an actual team, working together. So there’s still a huge sense of using my time valuably… but now it’s coming more from a sense of attraction (being pulled towards what’s exciting) than from a sense of pressure (being pushed away from inaction).

My relationship with projects

Following this general relaxation of pressure, some other things shifted. The one in particular that ties back into this blog post about blog-posting is a realization I had about my relationship to my projects.

Early morning in early October, I set out on a walk with Jean, head of Upstart. She was going to work at a café and I said I’d accompany her partway on the walk, but then would go back and do some solo work. This was after that week of doing almost no solo work on projects like Complice or blogging. Partway turned into most-of-the-way, which turned into the parking lot of the café. The conversation as we walked had been really exciting—one frame we explored was of a sort of stand-up meeting between the CEO and CTO of the startup that is Upstart (these aren’).

So there I was, at the café. I was feeling this pressure to turn around and go do some of my own work, but it also really felt like it made sense to stay and continue collaborating with Jean. As we took our first sips of our drinks, it suddenly dawned on me that all of the pressure I was experiencing was self-created and something that I could simply choose to let go of.

It was a weird feeling, because I’d been subject to it for so long and so intensely. But there I was, able to look at it clearly and recognize the stress it was causing me and the real possibility of letting go.

I developed this internal project-pressure, I imagine, in response to feeling the external demands of university and knowing I needed some internal locus of drive that would help me resist the temptation to feel like I should be doing homework all the time when I really didn’t need to. This was enormously powerful: I created this blog, started doing more self-experimentation and making commitments to personal challenges, built several apps on the side, and recorded an album of original music, while staying on top of my studies. This was back in 2011-2012.

Then in fall 2013, I began channeling this intensity into building Complice—in two ways. The straightforward one is that Complice became one of the projects I was focusing on instead of school. But also, the very structure of Complice itself was predicated around the kind of motivation I’d been using—a bunch of different goals/projects, making sure to make a bit of progress every day. Without recognizing this, it might surprise some people to learn that (except for a few weeks) my work on Complice has mostly been “part-time”—20-30 hours in a given week. But in this context, it makes total sense.

Falling in love and getting obsessed

In writing about my Ritual to Upgrade my Face last March, I noted:

“One last [motivation for doing this] was realizing that part of me seemed to be holding back from caring passionately about anyone or anything. I had seemingly misplaced my ability to fall in love.”

Let’s return to the scene at the café. At that moment, I’ve just had a really transformative week being mostly focused on the Upstart Collaboratory work. Yet I’m feeling like I need to do all of these other things. Then I have this realization: it’s okay to fall in love with one project and get really obsessed about it. Even if that means that other projects get put a bit to the side.

It now sounds obvious, written here, but it required a serious cognitive restructuring for me.

(I suspect that it’s in general true that lots of things that feel like they would be NOT OKAY are either actually fine upon further inspection or are not okay only because of some circumstantial factor that could in fact change.)

I really can’t say how much I’ll end up blogging in the next few months. It could be substantially more than my historic 1 post per 10 days, or could be much less. But it currently looks like things have stabilized a bit, and having given myself that space, I’ll find myself getting excited about writing even if I’m not pushing myself to do it.

Deconstruction of “Criticism”

Earlier this week, Julia Galef posted a brief piece to facebook on unsolicited criticism. I started to reply, and then semi-accidentally wrote something blog-post length and somewhat tangential to the original discussion. Note that I didn’t start out with a specific point to make, so my post doesn’t exactly have a coherent structure or direction to it.

“Criticism” seems like a complex term, which might be worth deconstructing.

Wikipedia says “Criticism is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something.” This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, and also seems to imply that criticism is inherently ~essentialist. If A is criticizing B’s behaviour, that basically implies there’s something wrong with B (and that A has the right to judge B).

This is naturally going to put people on the defensive.

Broadly speaking, criticism is part of a larger set of things we might call “feedback”. In a really abstract sense, what “feedback” is is information flow between parts of a system. Even if we assume that all criticism is negative (which seems roughly but not strictly true of the usage of the english word “criticism”, outside of artistic contexts) it’s still not the case that all negative feedback is criticism: for instance, if your house gets too warm in the winter, a negative feedback loop from the thermostat to the furnace will cause the furnace to stop.

To take a human example, sometimes I’ve been talking excitedly and then someone has told me (with words or gestures) to be more quiet. This is clearly negative feedback: it responds to increased voice volume on my part with something intended to decrease voice volume. Often this volume feedback feels like a helpful and connective signal, but at other times it feels like criticism—like they think I’m incompetent for not already speaking more quietly. Especially if they’ve told me in the past.

What makes the difference?

» read the rest of this entry »

Use Reference Incidents to Clarify Communication of Experience

A common source of confusion in conversation is when the participants aren’t talking about the same thing. If the thing in question is a concept, it can be helpful to taboo your words so that you have to unpack the concept. Does a tree falling in an empty forest make a sound? Well, depends on what you mean by “sound”.

In other situations, where the conversation is about communicating our experiences of each other (aka “feedback”) there’s another habit that I find useful, that I call using reference incidents. The idea is to find or create a shared example of a particular behaviour or experience in question, with features known to both parties, so that you can compare notes on the incident and reveal your perspective to the other person in a way that they’re able to integrate it. This is related to the virtue of narrowness: “What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world.”

A short example from my life of how this sort of confusion shows up. I was talking with a housemate, and she said to me, “This experience right now reminds me of this time with Jean,” and went on to describe that incident. Then, some minutes later she mused, “…yeah, when I spoke I think I was feeling discomfort.” At this point it would be easy to assume that she meant that she was feeling discomfort in talking with me just then, but she also could be still thinking of the conversation with Jean. (Or I could have made the opposite assumption).

Of course, in this case it may simply be both. But I asked about it, because in making sense of her talking about her discomfort, I’m bringing a lot of background context based on my own understanding of the conversation in question, and so if she and I are thinking of different conversations, then it’s going to be hard for me to make accurate inferences about what she’s saying. This makes communication hard.

Here’s a more extensive, made-up example: » read the rest of this entry »

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.

» read the rest of this entry »

Common-knowledge self-commitments for changing patterns of thought

So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.

Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.

I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.

Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

» read the rest of this entry »

Honing mode vs Jamming mode (in conversation)

…when to correct and when to riff…

Say you’re having a conversation with someone, and you’re trying to talk about a concept or make sense of an experience or something. And you say “so it’s sort of, you know, ABC…” and they nod and they say “ahh yeah, like XYZ”

…but XYZ isn’t quite what you had in mind.

There can be a tendency, in such a situation, to correct the person, and say “no, not XYZ”. Sometimes this makes sense, othertimes it’s better to have a different response. Let’s explore!

The short answer is that this sort of correction is important if it matters specifically what you meant. Otherwise (or if this is ambiguous) it can frustrate the conversation.

An example exchange

The most extreme example of where it feels like it matters is if you have a particular thing in mind that you’re trying to explain to the other person—like maybe someone is asking me to tell them about my app, Complice:

Me: “It’s a system where each day you put in what you’re doing towards your long-term goals, and track what you accomplish.”
Them: “Ohh, so like, you use it to plan out projects and keep track of all of the stuff you need to do… deadlines and so on…”
Me: “Ahh, no, it’s much more… agile than that. The idea is that long-term plans and long task lists end up becoming stale, so Complice is designed to not accrue stuff over time, and instead it’s just focused on making progress today and reflecting periodically.”

Where the shared goal is to hone in on exactly how Complice works, it makes sense for me to correct what they put out.

We might contrast that with a hypothetical continuation of that conversation, in which we’re trying to brainstorm, or flesh out an idea: » read the rest of this entry »

Expectations: Entitlements & Anticipations

Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.

Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…

A gif from Rocky Horror Picture Show: "I see you shiver with antici..."

1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.

Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.

2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)

There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!

…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.

» read the rest of this entry »

A ritual to upgrade my Face

One of the easiest times to change your personality (to become less shy, for instance) is when you move somewhere new. Personalities are interfaces, so those who are familiar with you will have expectations of how to interface with you—some of which they may cherish; others may be frustrating.

But at any rate, the ways that they’ll interact with you will be designed to interface with the personality they know. Which means that it’ll tend to reinforce the older patterns in you, since those will be easiest and most comfortable. (There’s an additional element related to the logic of appropriateness, too)

I recently found myself wanting to upgrade my personality, without an obvious context change like moving.

And, since I had been talking with my friend Brent about chaos magick, ritual-work and my behaviour change desires, he suggested creating a ritual for myself.

I liked the idea: a ritual would…

  • help the less-verbal parts of my brain (hint: this is a large fraction) understand what I was trying to do,
  • give me space to practice the new mental motions
  • demonstrate to myself and others that I was serious about making this change.

As I said above, if you want to have dramatic change, there usually has to be a moment when it happens. Otherwise you’re going to tend to assume that » read the rest of this entry »

Needles you can’t move with your hand

What do you want? Great, go get it. Tomorrow, maybe.

This is better advice for some things than others. To use a trivial example, say you’re part of a business that involves selling directly to clients. And your goal is to grow sales by X% this year. Well, you can’t reach out and directly move the dial on how much product the company has sold. What you can do is make more sales calls. Just remember: what ultimately matters isn’t the number of calls but the annual sales.

Lead & Lag measures

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (great pdf summary here) calls this distinction “lead measures” vs “lag measures”. Lead measures are the ones that you can influence directly, in the short term. They tend to be relatively “instrumental“—not things you want intrinsically, so much as things you want because they help you get things you do want intrinstically. The lead measures that you choose for a given situation represent a belief you have about the best way to influence the lag measure. For the most part, you’d happily choose a different lead measure if you thought that’s what could get you closer to the goal.

Briefly, some examples that follow this pattern:

  • # of pushups done is a lead measure… max # of pushups you can do is a lag measure
  • caloric intake or other dietary numbers are lead measures… your weight / health is usually relatively laggy
  • hours studied is a lead measure… grades are a lag measure
  • number of people messaged on okcupid is a lead measure… actually getting dates or a relationship is a lag measure
  • » read the rest of this entry »

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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