Acts of Speech and States of Mind

Much of this post was originally drafted a couple years ago, so the personal stories described in here took place then. I’m publishing it now in part because the novella that inspired it—Ted Chiang’s Story of your Lifehas recently been made into a feature-length movie (Arrival). In some contexts, it might make sense to say that this post may contain spoilers for SOYL; in this particular one, that would be hilariously ironic. Even after reading this post, the story will be worth reading.

This post begins, like so many of mine, with a conversation with Jean, the founder of the Upstart Collaboratory, where she and I and others are practicing the extreme sport of human relating. Jean remarked that a conversation she’d had earlier that day had been really good, then noted that she’d already told me that.

I replied, “Well, yes, and it was meaningful to me that you said it again. On the most basic level, it implies that on some level you felt you hadn’t yet conveyed just how good the conversation had been.” Then I shared with her something I’d heard from Andrew Critch, at a CFAR workshop. (Quote is from memory)

If someone says “something” to you, then that doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that that person believes that “something” is true. Incidentally, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they think that you don’t already agree with them that “something”. It really just means that, at the moment they said it, it made sense to them to say “something”. To you.

» read the rest of this entry »

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). » read the rest of this entry »

Taking myself seriously

I realized recently that while I’m pretty consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, there’s another mindset shift that I’m often missing.

I was reading an insightful book called Influencer. One of the sections of the book describes a man with a love of chocolate, who wants to lose weight and tries to replace his chocolate-snacking habit with a carrot-snacking habit. I know the feel—chocolate is very compelling to me. From that book:

“Initially, failure signals the need for greater effort or persistence. Sometimes failure signals the need to change strategies or tactics. But failure should rarely signal that we’ll never be able to succeed and drive us to pray for serenity. For instance, you find yourself staring at a half-eaten ice cream cone in your hand. Should you conclude that you’re unable to stick with your eating plan so you might as well give up? Or should you conclude that since it’s hard to resist when you walk past the ice cream parlor on your way home from work, you should change your route? The first conclusion serves as discouraging brake on performance, whereas the second provides a corrective guide that helps refine your strategy.

The book describes the first response—concluding you can’t do it and giving up—as Fixed Mindset, and the second as Growth Mindset. They depict an overdramatic Fixed Mindset internal monologue:

“Henry wonders if he can overcome the genetic hand that he’s been dealt… has [no] self-discipline… surely he’s doomed… believes he hadn’t been born with ‘the right stuff.'” …etc.

I basically never have thoughts like that.

Which led me into the puzzle of why, if I’m consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, do I not consistently respond in that second way? That is, using each failure as a corrective guide, tweaking my path so I don’t encounter future temptations. » read the rest of this entry »

New site page: Experiments

I try a lot of things. In the past I’ve forced myself to try things a certain oftenness. There was my 2014 habit-a-week project, and 2015’s #trythings beeminder.

I think I’m presently trying more interesting things, more often, but it’s coming from internal drives rather than external pressures. I reflected that I wanted a place to write about these—things in progress, things that might not work, small things… things that aren’t worth their own blog post at this phase.

So I’ve made a new page on my site! malcolmocean.com/experiments

» read the rest of this entry »

Selling to friends (and telling crushes you like them)

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, who remarked:

I’ve got a question for you… I’m working at this company where I get a referral bonus for new hires or new customers, and when I told some of my coworkers that I was friends with the CEO of [Company], they said that I should try to get them to sign up.

…and I was like “whoa, that feels really aversive”. So I was wondering if you have any tips on selling to your friends.

Turned out this is a question I had pondered before, myself. Specifically, last October I found myself puzzling over the question:

“Why was it easy to ask friends for money when I was starting Complice, but not now?”

Fortunately, most of the conversations in which that had happened were recorded in the form of chat logs, so I was relatively easily able to investigate the question framed as such. First, I made a list of relevant factors that were different at the nascent stages of my company versus several years in:

  • in 2013 in was kind of an exclusive offer: you couldn’t just decide to sign up without me contacting you… and I was only looking for ~10 people to start. Not only that, but if I hadn’t messaged them, they probably wouldn’t have even known that it was happening… so there was a sense in which I was giving them valuable information. Whereas now, many of my friends have heard of Complice already.
  • » read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Over-empathizing with non-existent suffering

I finally managed to put words to a thing that has been subtly bugging me for awhile: why certain reactions to me being in pain bother me. This post is short!

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, I

I was moving behind a car to get in the passenger side door. I hit my shin on the car’s tow-hitch and exclaimed some sort of sharp sound of pain.

My mom, who had also been getting in the car, started going “Ohh, buddy! That hurts, oh wow, that really hurts…” etc.

…but I wasn’t actually in that much pain, and was mostly wishing her reaction would go away. The pain is already fading. The sympathy is escalating.

This has happened with other people too; this is just the most salient example. I find these encounters pretty disconnecting, because the person is trying to empathize with me but then after the initial moment they’re paying more attention to their own imagination than they actually are to my experience.

In general, pain that doesn’t indicate something is ongoingly wrong will attenuate—it will gradually decrease. This is true for most stubbings of toes, small cuts and scrapes, and so on. But some responses to pain (eg tensing up a bunch) can make things more painful.

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, II

» 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 »

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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