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—
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.
But in order to talk about those, I want to talk about something else that happened in Kenya. On the last day of our trip, which happened to be my 17th birthday, we were driving back south to Nairobi from this tiny town just north of the equator—basically a whole day’s drive, and as I said—bumpy.
And I had managed to get some sort of food poisoning that morning.
We had to stop the 20-person bus every 30-60 minutes for me to get out and hurl. But in the meantime, I was singing songs with everybody else, and having a grand time. One of the leaders of the trip commented that I was the happiest sick person he’d ever seen. (I think this would have actually been a year before the time I caught myself whistling!)
There was clearly nothing to be gained by being grumpy about being sick, so I enjoyed myself!
Something granted me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.
Nobody told me what to do about the things that are a bit of both.
And when death isn’t visibly hurtling towards me like a cliff face, it seems a lot more evitable.
We live in a weird time. At any point prior to roughly now, an adult human being could be basically certain of two things: in 100 years, I will be dead, and lots of other people will be alive.
At present, both of these futures are plausible:
That I and everyone I know will be dead in 10 years.
That I and many people I know will be hanging out on Mars in 1000 years.
I’m not saying either of those scenarios is likely, but I’m also not saying either is unlikely. Any attempt to put probabilities on them immediately runs up against layers of uncertainty and model-uncertainty and meta-model-uncertainty.
Besides, probabilities are mostly good for betting, and unfortunately if you bet humanity will be destroyed and win the bet, there’s nobody to pay out. And meanwhile in the ultra post-scarcity scenario, who cares?
(These arguments mostly hold in more-probable less-extreme scenarios too—even if both me and the person I made the bet with are among the 30% that survives some global catastrophe, it may be hard to find them at that point, even if they did have resources with which to pay me. And in the only-somewhat-post-scarcity scenario, it still doesn’t seem that important)
And yet I need to make choices about how to live my life.
Many wise things have been said, historically, about death. Much of that wisdom continues to be wise, as far as I can tell, but has also long felt incomplete, because it tends to emphasize the inevitability of death.
I already know how to accept the inevitable and I have found the world remarkably lacking in inevitables.
Jem Bendell wrote a paper about how we face inevitable near-term collapse from climate change. Paradoxically, I think that’s actually wishful thinking. It would be nice to be able to relax into the comfort of knowing that something like that is inevitable. It would make accepting it easier. It’s harder to accept that we live in an era of “perhaps-inevitable collapse“, as Daniel Thorson so clearly put it in one episode of Emerge.
I wasn’t originally intending this piece of writing to talk about global stuff.
I came here to talk about how I can accept pretty readily that something is lost forever if I know what happened to it, but anxiously search for hours in absurd places if I still think there’s some chance I might find it.
I came here to talk about how while I can accept that I just need to wait until I recover from the flu, when overheated I’ve tended to get panicky and/or whiny.
Moreover, I came here to talk about how hard I sometimes find it when someone I’m interacting with is interacting with me in a way that I don’t like.
Because that’s both something I can change and something I cannot.
I want to accept the reality of what it is they’re doing, and the underlying reasons (whether I understand those reasons or not, and whether they understand them or not) …without throwing up my hands and saying “there’s nothing I can do about this”.
I want to honor my own needs & desires, without (subtly or overtly) attempting to control people.
David Chapman writes about the fantasy of control. The fantasy is of complete control. It’s seductive, and also impossible. The world is slippery and has too many fiddlybits—not to mention other systems with their own agendas. Turns out this is the case even if you’re “just” trying to control yourself.
I’ve been trying to take in that insight from Chapman for over 3 years, and recently finally something deeper has clicked, and I’ve come to understand not just more about how to relate to the world in a more fluid way, but also why it was so goddamn hard in the first place.
The something deeper was that I found a map for these two modes of thinking, that someone developed over decades of independent research into the question: why do not just humans but almost all vertebrates have two brain hemispheres?
(This topic became unfashionable after the original attempts to understand brain lateralization in humans were much-hyped and very misleading, hence there haven’t been many attempts to seriously think about it, and most people are left with a kind of implicit model of “it’s not really that important”. If you think about it for even a few seconds, obviously the brain’s structure is important to anyone who cares about high-quality reasoning, metacognition, or introspection.)
And that map has allowed me to locate myself and realize when I was trying to deploy my left hemisphere into a situation for which my right hemisphere was better suited. (In principle, the reverse could also occur, but like almost all modern westerners, I’ve developed an overemphasis on my left hemisphere.) The left hemisphere orients towards certainty, and controlling the world, so if you’re in a situation that has ambiguity, nebulosity, or lots of unknown unknowns (which includes basically any situation that involves humans) you’ll have a better time if the right hemisphere is more in charge.
There’s a separate question of how to achieve shifting the locus of self & agency from the left to right hemisphere, and I’ve tweeted about this question and speculated at some answers. It also turns out that some of my old writing can be interpreted as an exploration of this question, such as this one on proactively learning to think about what I think with.
I can and will say much more about brain hemispheres, but for now if you have more appetite to check it out I highly recommend this 44-minute podcast interview.
This has been a very meandering ride. The central takeaway of this post was intended to be essentially just this: that I have found it to be enormously more challenging to experience acceptance in situations when I have partial control, compared to ones in which I have no control (or (a workable illusion of) complete control). I’ve even recognized my experiences of regret as being primarily about being motivated towards trying to control who gets blamed (something I have partial control of) rather than actually trying to change the past.
I wrote this post partially as a way to share a bit more about my personal experience living my life and making sense of the world, and also because my guess that many other people resonate with this, and I figured that recognizing it is a helpful step towards learning a new pattern.
I don’t know what the step after that is. For some people, it might be reading McGilchrist’s work. For others, perhaps it’s reading David Chapman’s online book Meaningness! There’s a lot of resonance between the two perspectives. Or maybe you just want to pay attention to your experience over the coming days and see what you notice that feels relevant.
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.
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:
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)
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:
One interesting evolution is that ppl prefer to see things unpolished rather than perfected
Perhaps because it’s more relatable
You squint + you can see yourself doing it
What caused this change?
This trend is only increasing, + may explain why we'll (maybe) record everything
— Erik Torenberg (@eriktorenberg) January 8, 2019
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?
In addition to the 5 year mark, this is also timely because I just heard from the instructor, Val, that after lots of evolution in how it was taught, this class has finally been fully replaced, by one called Presence.
The Againstness Training was an activity designed to practice the skill of de-escalating your internal stress systems, in the face of something scary you’re attempting to do.
I had a friend record a video of my training exercise, which has proven to be a very fruitful decision, as I’ve been able to reflect on that video as part of getting more context for where I am now. Here’s the video. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching! If you have, I recommend you nonetheless watch the first 2 minutes or so as context for what I’m going to say, below:
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! 😀
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 » read the rest of this entry »
Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.
The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.
We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”
With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:
And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?
There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one. » read the rest of this entry »
This post was adapted from a comment I made responding to a facebook group post. This is what they said:
Trusting isn’t virtuous. Trusting should not be the default. Care to double crux me?
(I believe that this was itself implicitly responding to yet others claiming the opposite of it: that trust is virtuous and should be a default/norm.)
My perspective is that it’s not about virtue at all. It’s just about to what extent you can rely on a particular system (a single human, a group of humans, an animal, an ecosystem, a mechanical or software system, or whatever) to behave in a particular way. Some of these ways will make you inclined to interact with that system more; others less.
We are, of course, imperfect at making such discernments, but we can get better. However, people who are claiming it’s virtuous to trust are probably undermining the skill-building by undermining peoples’ trust in whatever level of discernment they do have: is it wrong if I don’t trust someone who is supposedly trustworthy? The Guru Papers illustrates how this happens in great detail. I would strongly recommend that book to anyone wanting to understand trust.
If I were to gesture at a default stance it would be neither “trust” nor “distrust” nor some compromise in between. It would be a stance of trust-building. » read the rest of this entry »
Most people have had the experience of being able to articulate advice that they themselves do not follow, even though it applies to their situation as well. Usually this implies that there’s some sort of internal conflict present—a competing commitment that gets in the way of doing the thing that the person might consider reasonable. I have written much on transcending and untangling internal conflict (see these posts) and I will write much more.
But transcending internal conflict can be a lengthy, complex, and non-monotonic process, and in the meantime you’re still sitting around with a bunch of great advice you’re not taking. A bunch of untapped potential.
There’s a really straightforward technique that can help with this:
make an appointment with your saner self.
Put an event on your calendar, and treat it with the respect you’d give any other appointment. Which is to say: show up. Or, if for some reason it turns out you can’t, then reschedule for the nearest appropriate time.
Then, when the time comes, take your own advice. You can do this literally—consider what advice you’d give a friend in your situation, then do that—or you can just do the obvious thing. You can do this with specific object-level situations, eg “I need to get around to submitting that application” or with more abstract things like “I really should take more time to reflect on my life.”
Or perhaps you’ve got a technique that you know really helps you, whenever you do it, but you never seem to do it. “If I actually used the CFAR techniques, my life would be way better,” said almost every CFAR alumnus ever. Well, make an appointment with your saner self (the one who does the techniques) and then show up and do them.
Make sure you’re clear on what the appointment is. It’s okay to leave it open-ended when you make the appointment, but once the appointment starts, don’t take more than 5 minutes to figure out how you’re going to spend it. Or decide “I’m going to spend it prioritizing”. The key is not to let the time slip by while you wonder what the best way to spend it would be. Which of course you probably know on some level. The point of this technique is to tap into what you already know about how you can have a better life.
If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, then make an appointment with someone else. Feel free to arrange this in the comments below. I’ve done this with strangers and also old friends I hadn’t talked to in years (which was cool!). I recommend just trying a half-hour skype call, with a minute or two of “Hi, this is what I’m going to work on,” then a 25-minute focused work period (aka “pomodoro”) then a minute or two of “Here’s how it went.” Then if both of you want, you can continue for more pomodoros, but you’re not committing up front to doing it for hours.
Even better, you can make a calendar where people can schedule such calls with you, using Calendly or youcanbook.me, share it with your friends, and then little sanity blocks will just automatically appear on your calendar. I did this for awhile and it was great. Each time a call occurred, I just asked “oh, what’s some thing I’ve been putting off?” and I would get started on it.
If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, but you can’t/won’t schedule with someone else, then you could also try making a self-trust bet on this. Make sure to set a reminder so the thing doesn’t just slip by forgotten.
If you don’t have a calendar or any other system that you can rely on at all… get one? Assuming you have a smartphone, you can get it to bug you at a time. You then just need to (a) pick a time that you’re likely to be interruptible, and (b) when the timer goes off, actually shift into doing whatever it was you set out to do.
Let’s go meta: maybe you already knew about this sort of technique. Maybe you’ve done it before, or maybe you’ve suggested it to other people. Do you use it as much as you imagine would be optimal? If not, apply it to itself! Make an appointment right now with your saner self, and use the time to try to set up a regular event, or a youcanbook.me like I described above.
If the thing feels burdensome, then… this may not be the technique for you. You want to find a way of thinking about it so that you feel excited to spend time with (i.e. as) your saner self. If you can’t find a way to feel excited or at least engaged about it, then it’s not worth yelling at yourself about it. That defeats the point. Go read my post on self-referential motivation instead, and see if that helps.
For New Year’s last year, my business partner Benjamin and I ran an event called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It was a five-hour online workshop on setting your goals for the year. Ostensibly, the main value of the workshop was the instruction: presentations I made about goal-setting & planning, a 23-page handbook, and chat-based coaching. Certainly, few people would have paid money for such an event if all three of those aspects had been absent.
And yet… I have a suspicion that the main value of the event was the fact that each participant carved out five hours from their schedule and then actually spent it focused on setting goals for the year.
Which is to say, if I imagine two people…
Who would have a more goal-directed year?
My money is on Barry.
Why? Our goal-setting content is actually quite good, but Allie would probably never actually open the handbook at all, let alone watch the videos. And even if she did, she would be likely to read it partway and then say, “Hmm yeah I really should do these exercises” …but still not actually do them.
Whereas Barry, who only has his own advice to take, is at least taking the time to do the best he knows how to do.
And that’s what counts. That’s why even though the Goal-Crafting Intensive is 5 hours long, only about 10-15 minutes of each hour is presentations. Then I mute my microphone, to give each participant the rest of the hour to focus on whatever seems most important to them—which could be the technique I just described, or it could be something totally different!
We’re running the Goal-Crafting Intensive again this year. So if you think your 2018 could be improved by taking 5 hours to set some goals and design some systems, then come join us on Dec 30, Jan 1, or Jan 7, and we’ll give you both good advice and time to take it.
Click this image to learn more about the 2018 goal-crafting intensive:
How do you know that you’ve been understood?
This question is one I think about a fair bit, and part of what motivated me to write the jamming/honing blog post.
If I’m saying something something really simple and hard to misunderstand, all I basically need to know is that the message was received and the listener isn’t confused. for example “Hey Carla, I left the envelope outside your room.” If Carla says “OK” then I can be pretty sure she’s understood. (Unless of course she misheard me saying something else reasonable.) A slight modification of this would be a situation where the information is straightforward but detailed—and the details matter. In these situations, often the entire message is recited verbatim. A classic example would be when a number is spoken over the phone, and the listener echoes each set of 3-4 digits.
But when communicating something more complicated or nuanced, it’s usually not enough for the speaker to just get a “K” in response. If I’m trying to convey a model to you, one common way for us to verify that you’ve understood the model is for you to say something that you would be unlikely to be able to say if you hadn’t. This could take the form of explaining the model in a new way: “ahh, so it’s kind of like Xing except you Y instead of Z” or it could involve generating an example of something the model applies to.
I think we do this intuitively. Responding to an explanation with “K” potentially implies a lack of having engaged with the details. More like “You’ve said some things and I’m not arguing with them.”
On the International Space Station, the American astronauts would speak to the Russian cosmonauts in Russian, and the Russians would reply back in English (source). The principle is that it’s much easier to tell if someone has your language confused than it is to tell if you’ve correctly interpreted something in a foreign language.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the past year is how to truly let go of regret.
A few months ago, in September, I went to a tantra yoga workshop called the Fire & Nectar retreat. The event involved a fair bit of yoga and meditation, but what was most powerful for me were the teachings on non-dualism. A lot of it made deep, immediate sense to me, and there were also pieces that were met with a lot of resistance.
One of the most challenging things that our teacher Hareesh said was this:
If you had a chance for a do-over, would you choose for everything to go exactly the same?
If not, you have not yet surrendered.
He clarified that this wasn’t talking about a dualistic sort of surrender, more like surrendering to reality. I seem to recall he was quoting someone, but I can’t find a source in my notes or on the internet. At any rate, this was a thing that he said, and I immediately recognized it as containing a perspective that I didn’t understand. A perspective that I feared.
I recognized it as a perspective that I’d been in a battle with for several years.