2020: Free to Dance

In my 2019 yearly review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing, I experimented for the first time in a while with setting a theme for the upcoming year: Free to Dance. And lo, while I didn’t think about it that often, it’s proved remarkably relevant, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

The original concept of the phrase came in part from having just picked up Bruce Tift’s book Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, which by early January I could tell would be a major book of my year. Another related dimension of it was something I realized in doing some of the emotional processing work last year, which was that parts of me sometimes still kind of think I’m trapped at school where I’m supposed to sit still at my desk, among other indignities.

The other main piece was observing at a couple of points that I sometimes seem to move through the world as if I’m dancing, and other times much more heavily. During an exercise at the Bio-Emotive retreat midsummer, we were asked to reflect on a question something like “how would I be if I were showing up most brilliantly/beautifully?” And what arose for me is something like “I think I’d always be dancing.”

So all of these layers mean that the social isolation of the pandemic didn’t put much of a specific damper on this life theme, even though I was hardly free to go to dance events (except some lovely outdoor bring-your-own-partner contact improv events that a friend hosted). I had been intending to travel the world a bit, to San Francisco, perhaps Austin, perhaps the UK, and none of those visits happened.

What did happen?

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Complice: Beyond Getting Things Done

Some years ago, I invented a new productivity system, called Complice. Complice is a productivity app, and it’s also a productivity philosophy, or even an entire paradigm.

What is Complice?

Complice is a new approach to goal achievement, in the form of both a philosophy and a software system. Its aim is to create consistent, coherent, processes, for people to realize their goals, in two senses:

  • realize what their goals are
  • make their goals a reality

Virtually all to-do list software on the internet, whether it knows it or not, is based on the workflow and philosophy called GTD (David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”). Complice is different. It wasn’t created as a critique of GTD, but it’s easiest to describe it by contrasting it with this implicit default so many people are used to.

First, a one-sentence primer on the basic workflow in Complice:

  1. Clarify your goals: what matters to you on the timescale of months/years?
  2. Set intentions for today: how can your day be in service of your big-picture vision?
  3. Take action: work on what feels meaningful, whether the intentions you set or other emergent opportunities or challenges.
  4. Review, reflect, reorient: did you do what you set out to do? Is it actually moving the needle? Go to 2.

There’s a lot more to it, but this is the basic structure. Perhaps less obvious is what’s not part of the workflow. We’ll talk about some of that below, but that’s still all on the level of behavior though—the focus of this post is the paradigmatic differences of Complice, compared to GTD-based systems. These are:

  • choosing & doing, over organizing
  • goals as fundamental, rather than tasks
  • aliveness, instead of exhaustiveness
  • proactive, rather than reactive

Keep reading and we’ll explore each of them…

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A Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision

Originally written October 19th, 2020 as a few tweetstorms—slight edits here. My vision has evolved since then, but this remains a beautiful piece of it and I’ve been linking lots of people to it in google doc form so I figured I might as well post it to my blog.

Wanting to write about the larger meta-vision I have that inspired me to make this move (to Sam—first green section below). Initially wrote this in response to Andy Matuschak’s response “Y’all, this attitude is rad”, but wanted it to be a top-level thread because it’s important and stands on its own.

Hey @SamHBarton, I’m checking out lifewrite.today and it’s reminding me of my app complice.co (eg “Today Page”) and I had a brief moment of “oh no” before “wait, there’s so much space for other explorations!” and anyway what I want to say is:

How can I help?

screenshot of LifeWrite landing page

Because I realized that the default scenario with something like this is that it doesn’t even really get off the ground, and that would be sad 😕

So like I’ve done with various other entrepreneurs (including Conor White-Sullivan!) would love to explore & help you realize your vision here 🚀

Also shoutout to Beeminder / Daniel Reeves for helping encourage this cooperative philosophy with eg the post Startups Not Eating Each Other Like Cannibalistic Dogs. They helped mentor me+Complice from the very outset, which evolved into mutual advising & mutually profitable app integrations.

Making this move, of saying “how can I help?” to a would-be competitor, is inspired for me in part by tapping into what for me is the answer to “what can I do that releases energy rather than requiring energy?” and finding the answer being something on the design/vision/strategy level that every company needs.

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Relationship Panarchy

“Relationship Panarchy” is a term that I coined to talk about a model of relationships, that can function both as a lens through which any relationship dynamic can be viewed (including retrospectively) or can function as an explicit intentional way-of-operating. Actually operating in accordance with this view is something that no humans I know are yet masters of, but there are an increasing number of us trying. So to some extent, at this phase it can function as a kind of placeholder, similar to how “Game B” is a placeholder for “whatever transcends and outcompetes the Game A cultural operating system that has been running the show for 10,000 years”. And, like Game B, we can say a few things about it even while it’s in the process of coming into view.

The one-sentence summary is “Relationship Panarchy is a model of relationships that’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them.”


So: there’s this concept “polyamory”. For some people, it tends to come with a bunch of structure implied, such as “primary partners” and terms like “metamour”. For others, it’s basically a synonym for “non-monogamy”.

“Non-monogamy” is able, by being a negation, to imply less structure, but it isn’t sufficiently general because:

  1. it doesn’t allow for Game B operating-system relationship configurations that read as monogamy on the old map because they involve two people being sexually exclusive
  2. it still over-emphasizes romantic relationships as primary, by negating them

One model that seems to be more open-ended is known as “Relationship Anarchy”. From Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it might be considered as a form of non-monogamy, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic, platonic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, or ‘in an open relationship’.

I really liked this idea for awhile, but eventually I realized that the imagery of anarchy as such evokes a rather individualist orientation to relationships, to a degree that from my perspective is not only undesirable but technically not even possible. Autonomy is important, and so is connectedness, and the two are not at odds but fundamentally made of each other. Each limit creates new freedoms and each freedom creates new limits.

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Wtf is a deadline? Showtime, missing the bus, time walls, check-ins, &+

If this blog post contains only this paragraph and bullet list, it’s because it was showtime and this was all I’d written. The post is about distinguishing different kinds of things that are often all called “deadlines”. I really like showtime, and I liked the idea of writing being like a kind of showtime, although in practice this is quite hard to do for anything except an exam. I may schedule a time to write this post in full, but for now (Oct 4th) I’m simply writing this and scheduling a time when it’ll be published: noon on Wednesday, October 8th. If you’re reading this text (and only this text) before then, there was a bug with my schedule publish feature 😂

  • showtime – “however prepared we are, the audience is waiting”
  • deadline time wall – go/no-go – “I miss the bus” is the extreme case
  • check-in / estimate – may not be finished by this date, but I want to reorient
  • experiment end – try a thing for a bit, and then reflect on it

(Written the following day, in my personal journal, and added, at the time: Man, I’m excited for the blogging showtime! Fascinating that it took me this long. This is just making it true that something of mine will get published every so often, but not with any sense of commitment or whatever. The consequences are just the quality of whatever’s published. And I guess in that sense it really is a showtime. Hm… yeah, feeling that.)

Okay, here I am, 3h 11mins before the publish date. This is my performance over the next 3h. I’m not going to do this every time, but in this case I think there’s a beauty to simply leaving the above paragraphs there and continuing from them, as they function as a kind of teaser for the topic of the post.

This is a model that has been percolating in my system for years, and it was animated by 2 main questions, that didn’t obviously have any thing to do with each other:

  1. why, as a student, did I usually vastly prefer tests & exams over homework & projects?
  2. what does it mean (in the context of designing the Complice goal-tracking system) to put a date on something you intend to do?

The model, like posts I’ve written about habits, expectations, commitments & accountability, distractions, and explanations, is a model that takes a word and says “you thought this was one thing? this is actually 2 things, and it’s worth knowing the difference.” In this case, there are at least 4, maybe more things. But let’s start with the difference between tests & homework.

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2019 Yearly Review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing

My recent yearly reviews have gotten very long & complex. For 2019, I’m just going to reflect on a few major learning arcs I went through.

The post is structured as an expansion of the six-word story in the tweet above (“divided brain reconciled by meaningful sobbing”) which I’m first going to do in paragraph form before elaborating one layer deeper:

Essentially, I came to understand that the major oscillation I’ve had in my mindset learning process over the past few years can be characterized as being due to my right hemisphere understanding things that my left hemisphere doesn’t, and not knowing how to relate the two perspectives coherently. That produced major changes but there were still some core fears that kept driving me back into the old perspective. I then did some intense work illuminating & transforming those emotional schemas, using techniques from the Bio-Emotive Framework and other systems, and I feel a lot more spacious now.

Iain McGilchrist’s Brain Hemisphere Model

Back in February, I watched an interview of Iain McGilchrist talking about a new model of what’s going on with brain hemispheres. This is a topic that’s gone out of fashion since the misguided oversimplified models of the 1950s, so it took a psychiatrist being fascinated in his spare time for 2 decades, for someone to come up with an actually useful overall model (as opposed to just “well, these modules are in the left hemisphere, those modules are in the right.”).

The basic jist is a shift from asking “what do the hemispheres do?” to instead asking “how do they see the world? what kind of world is it, and what kind of relation do they have to that world?” This, not incidentally, is more of the sort of question a right hemisphere would tend to ask, as it orients in a naturally relational way vs the detached stance of the left hemisphere.

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“Systems vs Goals” is silly. Have both!

I don’t often pick fights, but when I do, I pick them on Twitter, apparently.

The Law of Viral Inaccuracy says that the most popular version of a meme is likely to be optimized for shareability, not accuracy to reality nor the intent of the original person saying it. On Twitter, this takes the form of people parroting short phrases as if everybody knows what words mean. One of the phrases I felt a need to critique is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ “systems, not goals”.

This blog post is adapted from a tweetstorm I wrote.

The term “pre-success failure” from Scott Adams’ book is a gem. His related idea that you should have systems and not have goals is absurd. (have both!) Scott cites Olympic athletes as examples. 🤨

Take 3 guesses what goal an Olympic athlete has… 🥇🥈🥉

Systems don’t work without goals.

You need a goal in mind in order to choose or design what system to follow, and it’s literally impossible to evaluate whether a system is effective without something to compare it with. Implicitly, that’s a goal. (Scott Adams uses a somewhat narrower definition, but of course people just seeing his tiny quote don’t know that!)

We know certain Olympic athletes had good systems because they got the medals. They designed those systems to optimize for their athletic performance.

Lots of other Olympic athletes also had training systems, but their systems didn’t work as well—as measured by their goals.

I’m part of a team that runs a goal-setting workshop each year called the Goal-Crafting Intensive (where part of the craft is setting up systems) and the definition of goal that we use in that context is:

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The Challenge of Partial Control

When I was 16, I accepted I would die.

It wasn’t hard to do—I was about to die! What point would there be in not accepting it?

Spoiler: I didn’t die. But at that moment, I thought I was about to die. I was jumping off a cliff into some water, with friends, on a volunteer trip in Kenya, and on this particular jump I did some sort of flip and thought I hadn’t cleared the part of the cliff below my jump spot that stuck out, and I saw the rock coming towards me and thought

“This is it. I’m going to smash my face into this rock, and then die of that impact, blood loss, or drowning.”

We were hours’ bumpy drive from anything remotely resembling a hospital.

Moments later, a splash—

—oh.

an photo of me floating in muddy water, on the day of this story

I spent a few minutes, shaken, sitting on the bank and appreciating my life.

Years later, I noticed that that acceptance of death wasn’t persistent. It was a kind of short-issue visa, and because it was issued last-minute it also expired pretty quickly.

And over the last few years I’ve noticed I have many layers of complexities in my relationship to death.

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Reviewing the choices I made in 2018

I’ve been experimenting with something new for my new year’s reflection: typing in the dark with my screen off, answering the question “What choices did I make last year?”

I’ve got over a hundred lines, each starting with “I chose”.

I think it’s worth reflecting on the impact of the choices as well, but I’ve started just by listing them. Maybe I’ll go back and try to think about the impact of some of these choices, but of course it’s very hard to actually run the counterfactuals, including what would have already needed to be different such that I would have made the other choice?

So far it’s been a very rich process. This article has two parts: first I’ll remark briefly on my experience doing this private reflection, and then I’ll share five choices that I made last year. The latter section represents my 2018 Yearly Review blog post, and also has some in-depth reflections on relationships and productivity.

Things I’ve noticed from reviewing these choices

Some periods of weeks have no notable choices in my memory, even though everyone is always making choices continuously. Other times, I’m very aware of a dozen choices I made on just one very intense day or weekend.

Some choices need to be made continuously & ongoingly, such as the choice to maintain a habit or to achieve something that takes a lot of planning or preparation

Some choices didn’t feel like choices at the time! This has a few variants:

  • I reacted to something before I even thought about it
  • I didn’t imagine any other alternatives
  • I vaguely imagined other alternatives but didn’t really feel into what I wanted
  • Other alternatives were explicit but I couldn’t really fathom taking them. (like how if offered chocolate vs praline ice cream, I would always choose chocolate and it wouldn’t occur to me to prefer praline.)

Some choices were very historic/monumental: they really felt like they could have gone either way and my life is forever changed because of what I chose.

Other choices felt inevitable but there was still a moment of the choice becoming real. (eg when someone says “I do” at a wedding altar… by the time they’re there they’ve already chosen, and yet it’s still meaningful to enact it with that speech act)

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Nothing is Behind

This article was adapted from a late-night Captain’s Log entry of mine from last April. I did most of the edits at that time and thought I was about to publish it then, and… here we are. That delay is particularly amusing given the subject-matter of the post, and… that feels compatible somehow, not contradictory!

I’ve done a bit of writing since then, getting back in touch with my intrinsic motivation to blog without any external systems. We shall see when any of that ends up getting published going forward. I am publishing this now because:

  1. I shared it with a participant at the goal-crafting intensive workshop last weekend and they found it valuable
  2. because I came across this tweet:

The writing begins:

@ 12:30am – okay, I need to account for something
I woke up knowing today was a blog beemergency. I went back to sleep for 1.5h.
I got up, knowing today was a blog beemergency. I did Complice stuff, almost-all of it non-urgent.
I reflected late afternoon (above) knowing today was a blog beemergency. I did other stuff.
…and I had the gall to consider, around 10pm, that I might weasel.

(If you’re not familiar with Beeminder, “blog beemergency” means that I owe Beeminder $ if I don’t publish a blog post that day. Weaseling in this case would refer to telling it I had when I hadn’t, then (in theory, and usually in practice for me) publishing something a day or two later to catch up)

I don’t want to get into self-judgment here, but just… no. Weaseling undermines everything. At that point you might as well just turn it off or something. Except, bizarrely… part of me also knows that this Beeminder blog system does continue to work relatively well, despite my having weaseled on it somewhat and my having derailed on it regularly.

…in many ways, the Beeminder part of it is actually totally broken, except inasmuch as its ragged skeleton provides a scaffold to hang my self-referential motivation on—ie the main role that it provides is a default day on which to publish a blog post (and by extension, a default day on which to write) and it acts as a more acute reminder of my desire to be actively blogging. But… it’s not in touch with any sense of deep purpose.

…I don’t have that much deep purpose that generates a need to blog regularly. And it’s nebulous the extent to which my sense of deep purpose is connected with needing to blog at all, at the moment.

I do have the sense of having relevant things to say, but I’m—hm. Part of it is like, the strategic landscape is so up-in-the-air. Like who is Upstart? What’s this Iteration Why thing, and where am I in relation to that? And how all of that relates to my other projects!

So then, I could be publishing other things that are more instrumentally convergent, independent of whatever exactly emerges there. When I look at my Semantic Development airtable though… a lot of this stuff actually feels like it would be pretty publishable, and I feel quite attracted to working on it… so what’s the issue? Why have I been doing so much Complice stuff, the last week, for instance?

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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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