Another year, another yearly review blog post.
I was kind of nervous when I thought about writing this one: some of my numbers or more objective measures of life-quality or performance have gone down this year (e.g. pushups, books read). Did my life get worse? Or did I implicitly switch to measuring my life by different means?
I had a fantastic year, with several notable milestones, so I think it’s more-so the latter. But one must be careful of moving the goal-posts after the ball is in motion!
(Edit: Great Scott, the Object-level section is looooong. I won’t blame you if you want to jump to the Process-level section, which contains more reflection and less “here’s what I did”)
Okay, the first exciting thing to announce is I graduated from university. Bachelor of Applied Science, Systems Design Engineering. I went to school at UWaterloo, so like the rest of Engineering grads across Canada I got an iron ring with an interesting story in addition to my diploma.
I am so, so, so stoked to be done. I deemphasized school in 2nd year, got frustrated with it in 3rd year, and by the time I got to my 4th and final year, I had made a mental shift to “I’m already done school, I just need to file a bunch of paperwork before I can graduate” (aka my assignments). I learned a lot of things from my engineering degree—ways of thinking, mental models, and all of the technical and social skills I picked up in my coop terms—but it also forced me to memorize stuff I would never use, and it taught me shoddy thinking habits.
Anyway, as I said, I wasn’t really paying much attention to school. So what was I focused on for the first few months of 2015?
Complice marketing, primarily. I realized last Christmas that I’d gotten overmuch focused on product development, and while I’d made a lot of progress there… it wasn’t paying the bills. I needed more users.
I started blogging on the Complice blog a bit more (roughly 20 posts total in 2015, but it’s hard to count because it’s on tumblr and I had a few reblogs and other microposts).
Here on my main/personal blog, malcolmocean.com, I published 35 posts this year, which is definitely an all-time record. Last year was 24, and before that 22. Almost 1/3 of the posts on this blog were published in 2015. I think that’s actually a pretty decent rate; once per 10 days on average, though it dipped in August and steepened in November.
I added a few pages this year too. Archives and Best Posts list posts chronologically and by topic. Lighting for Humans is a post with my recommendations on how to illuminate your spaces in ways that will energize or calm you. That’s another thing that happened this year ish: I got into lighting a bit, as a thing.
While I’m talking about blogging, The Mind’s UI had a bumpy year. It began 2015 as a joint project with myself, Brienne Yudkowsky, and Nate Soares. Their interest waned for various good reasons, and I managed to get a few other guest bloggers and my own posts up this summer, before it lapsed again into the fall. My ineffable friend Evan Gaensbauer proposed reviving it with 10 guest bloggers and calling it Ocean’s Eleven. The name change didn’t happen, but the revival seems to be a go!
Oh man, more to say about blogging. My email newsletter quadrupled in size this year (33 subscribers to 138), probably mostly due to the SumoMe plugin that is better at prompting people to subscribe than my footer ever was. But also I’m sure that posting more helped, because it means more activity on the blog (and more facebook share events) hence more chances for people to subscribe. Also I had twice as much traffic (~27,000 hits vs ~14,000 in 2014) which would have contributed as well.
I had similar growth in my RSS subscriptions (just based on feedly’s count = 143) and in my facebook followers (now 165). I posted to Facebook a lot more this year, and had many people tell me that they really appreciated the quality of my posts (these two points were mutually reinforcing). If you’re not already following me on facebook, well, I have 5 stars on Yelp… or whatever. Go here to check out my timeline.
Now, back to roughly chronological. In March, I launched the Complice-hosted Less Wrong Study Hall, by embedding the chatroom that people were already using as a pomodoro coworking space into a page on Complice with a synchronized timer and a list of what everyone is working on. This was appreciated by the members of the hall and also brought a ton of new users to Complice. Later in the year, the hall transcended the terrible tinychat system and rather than being an embedded chatroom it’s now fully integrated.
Also in March, I hosted my birthday party, which was my most epic one yet, featuring not just a cuddle puddle but also a dance floor with my friend James Jesso DJing, and some blacklights with highlighters for drawing on people. I’ve since upgraded to Sharpie Neons for my blacklight drawing… they’re better than highlighters.
In April, shortly after my classes had ended, I hosted my own rationality mini-workshop in Waterloo, based on CFAR‘s content. I wrote a long report on how it went, which I sent to the CFAR alumni mailing list. It was cool to gain some experience running a semi-official event, and teaching rationality techniques to people. Also it was a lot of fun. I was in flow pretty much the whole day. In June, I ran another, which was unremarkable in that it was very much like the first. Still worth it because of the practice and the chance to get more of my friends exposed.
I had hoped that these two workshops would give me a bit of a sense of there being a Waterloo Rationality group (and I made a facebook group for this) but that fell totally flat. I don’t have a good sense of why this failed, but my best guess is that unlike the main CFAR workshops, mine didn’t produce a ton of “Now I shall go optimize literally everything!!“. So people weren’t super motivated to stay engaged. I may reach out to the participants though and ask them a little about this. This did have the bonus of “now I know that these friends of mine understand these dozen concepts that I really like,” which was helpful.
The week after I ran the April mini-workshop, my girlfriend and I flew to Boston for an actual CFAR workshop (she was attending; I was volunteering). This was a blast—I used to volunteer a lot, but hadn’t since fall of 2013. It was also cool to watch my Complice revenue grow, and come in, while I was travelling and doing other stuff.
After this workshop, I hung out with some friends in Boston for a few days, and got hooked on the game Dominion. It’s a deck-building card game. I enjoyed it a lot and got decently good at it, but it also kind of ate a lot of my time and attention for the following two months, particularly when I found a version I could play online.
Still in Boston, just a week after the main CFAR workshop, CFAR hosted a Hamming Workshop for alumni. “Hamming” refers to Richard Hamming, who would ask people:
“What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! [source]
Read what other participants wrote about this workshop: Alex Altair and Vika Krakovna. Alex’s, in particular, captures something I really enjoyed about that workshop: the social environment, which was both enjoyable and fruitful. For the first time, I had a sense of being on a team with other people who were working on humanity’s collective Hamming Problem: how to not wipe ourselves out in the next century.
So we did a bunch of reflecting on what our main bottlenecks were as individuals: what were the big problems keeping us from achieving more… that were in the way of keeping humanity safe? I found this questioning to be helpful in general, and well-timed, since I had just finished school and was in a good place to be reflecting on my path going forward. Interestingly, though, it didn’t seem to really affect my plans much. Perhaps this is because it seemed that becoming ramen-profitable with Complice was still a good next step. But still. If an extensive process designed to shift beliefs towards truth results in roughly the same mind, there are very good odds that the process failed (due to status quo bias or sunk cost fallacy or whatever) rather than that the mind already had very accurate beliefs.
After this workshop, I travelled to Nova Scotia to visit my family. While in the tiny (1200 people) town I grew up in, I had intended to hideaway at our cottage for a day and do a bunch more reflection on my life. In the end, I managed something even better. I grew up in a big old house on a hill overlooking the town, which had since been sold. I happened to go by and say hi to the new owners (who know me) and they mentioned that they’d renovated the turret in the attic so that it was a little writing room. “Don’t suppose I’d be able to go up there and do some journalling myself?” I asked. “Oh, absolutely! Come over anytime.”
So I spent hours there reflecting on more Hamming stuff. (The photo depicts my view of the town as I reflected.) This seems to have changed my habits somewhat: I was focusing on how to get myself to Actually Try and I started having more interrupt moments when I considered if my day was going according to plan. Doing a reflection on my life in the attic of the house I grew up in was delightfully surreal.
This seems like a good place to mention the Effectivity Habits project. At the start of the previous year (2014) I embarked on a project to install one new habit each week. For 2015, I decided to do a little more quality than quality, and also to focus specifically on habits that would make me more effective. I defined “effectivity” as including both productivity (output++) and being-productive-on-worthwhile-things (strategy++). On the object level, this involved doubling down on things like The Pomodoro Technique (1650 total this year = 4.5/day) and duration tracking (about 800 tasks timed this year), focus blocks, and single-tasked writing, four habits that I already had somewhat. I then tried to add a few more, with limited success. Will talk about how this failed in the process-level section below.
One interesting thing that happened habits-wise is that I stopped tracking my health/fitness in Complice. This represented not a failure, nor a completion, but merely a sense that these were mostly taking care of themselves automatically and didn’t need more executive attention. I ended up doing…
I had aimed to hit 10k pushups this year, but fell short because (a) I didn’t make my beeminder road steep enough to cover flat spots, and (b) my body did a thing in December that made me mostly stop doing pushups. (I’ll be okay though!)
I continue using my Bookantt chart this year, with my daily minimum 1 page each of fiction & non-fiction, although it also got a bit disrupted by all of the travelling and so on that I did. Still, I hit 9,879 minutes of reading, about evenly split between fiction and non-fiction again. This is substantial, though quite a bit less than my 13,114 minutes of 2014. I also finished only 17 books this year, compared to 29 in 2014. One reason for that is that I spent a lot of this year (1154 minutes) reading Rationality: AI to Zombies, which is a very very long book. I’m just a few hours away from finishing it now. EDIT: DONE. Also the novel Red Mars, which took 2-4× as long as most other novels I’ve read, and several works-in-progress that are impossible to finish at present.
After a week in Nova Scotia, I spent another month or so back in Waterloo with the intentional learning community I’m part of there. I finally published an article about Reveal Culture that I’d originally drafted almost a year prior. Oh and I graduated, but that wasn’t particularly exciting. #OverIt
In late June, I flew to the Bay Area where I planned to spend the entire summer. I’m really enjoying how having Complice lets me travel in the way it does. Anyway, I volunteered at another two CFAR workshops, then mostly tried to get back into productivity mode, although that was a bit challenging without my normal set-up at home. I was able to be decently productive though. Alex Altair and I hosted a Hamming Party where we got a bunch of people together to think more about their important problems. I was hoping that the event would involve a bit more working on problems, not just brainstorming them and talking about them a bit, but that’ll have to wait for a future event. I deepened and created several relationships (platonic and intimate) while in the Bay Area as well, which felt really fulfilling.
I attended Effective Altruism Global, which this year was hosted at the Googleplex (Google’s HQ). It was cool, although I found that the mix of totally-new-to-EA people there was frustrating, because it made most of the talks be kind of EA 101 or “What even is this charity?” rather than the speakers getting a chance to talk about what was most on the forefront of their thinking. I think I would have had a better time if I had mostly ignored the panels etc and just talked with people 1-on-1 and in small groups.
A few weeks later was the CFAR Alumni Reunion. I only ran one class, which was about my mindfulness field training thing. It probably would have benefited from a double-slot, as I didn’t have a chance to get people to practice. The reunion was really fun, seeing people I hadn’t seen a year and others that I’d never met in person. Already stoked for next year’s.
Then… Burning Man! I was with a different camp this year, and the vibe really suited me. We had a lot more hanging out happen at our camp (thanks in large part to the 24h tea house) and so it felt a bit more like a home. I’ve already written two blog posts inspired by burning man (“What’s it like to be you?” and The patterns that we’re made of) but I’ll add here that I also learned a bit more about how cool it is to create experiences for other people at burning man. My first year, I was still getting oriented. This year I did a bit of experience creation, but was still relatively preoccupied on my own experience. Next year… I’m not sure exactly! But something.
Shortly after burning man, I came back to Waterloo.
One thing I tried doing in fall 2015 was working on a contract project for a friend, building them an app for personal use. This seemed like a reasonable decision at the time, but it ended up being quite distracting, both time-wise and attention-wise. Still, it taught me some useful things about myself and my motivation… and also about parallelization. Like working on multiple projects at the same time seems dangerous. This contract project meant less time for…
…growing Complice, which I doubled down on after I got back to Waterloo. I decided to focus on all of the low-hanging fruit related to improving the onboarding, because I was seeing lots of totally high-quality candidate users drop off without giving the app a serious shot, and this seemed more tractable than trying to throw more people in the top of the funnel. I built a couple of little how-to pages that guide the user through setting their first goal and setting their daily intentions. I still need to make another one (or something similar) for submitting end-of-day outcomes. This was a huge success, and took the conversion rate (signup→paid) from 7-10% to 15-25% (it’s hard to figure out exactly what the rates are because my numbers are small so there’s a lot of noise). Click here to check it out.
I also did a couple of big promotions for Complice, one of which was the launch of the Effective Altruism Workspace, another coworking room on Complice, which launched at the same time as I replaced the janky flash tinychat client with integrated WebRTC video. The other was a guest post on the Beeminder blog, which brought over a bunch of great users from Beeminder. I’ve built a bunch of Beeminder integrations into Complice, so users can track pomodoros, must-do tasks, and so on. This, again, brought me a bunch more users.
The effect of all of this is that my business is now making enough money for me to live on. This is the second reason why I’m calling 2015 “A Year of Freedom” (the first being that I’m now free of school). This was a hugely exciting moment. It’s a weird feeling to realize that I can now kind of do whatever I want to do with my time and attention.
Okay, that’s it for object-level stuff. That… was a lot of words. I mean, only about 7.5 words per day-of-2015, which is still relatively concise. But yeah, wow.
About a year ago, I started reading The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which is a fantastic book about setting and achieving goals. I would particularly recommend it to anyone who is either relatively self-directed or who works in management, coordinating a team of people. Anyway, it has the concept of having Wildly Important Goals (WIGs), towards which you set lead and lag measures, create a compelling scoreboard, then work to achieve. I tried setting one of these for growing Complice at the start of the year, and to some extent it worked, but I think I also fell out of the habit a bit. My “scoreboard” is still helpful to me though, and I’ve made several improvements to it over the course of the year. I did hit the target set by my WIG, but several months late.
I think this is a pattern I’ve seen several places: that I’ve often figured out an approach that has worked well for me, but has been hard to maintain. Or that I’ve simply forgotten to maintain, due to some lack of a meta-system to ensure that my current system stays working. Maybe a solution would be that if I ever try a new system, send a reminder to two-weeks-from-now me asking if I’m still doing it and if not if I think it would make sense to. I think that having a good meta-system is worth spending a fair bit of time/effort to establish and maintain.
I think with the Effectivity Habits project, a large part of why it stagnated was that I was approaching it as more of a blogging project than as a personal project. Like not explicitly. But I failed to Just Do A Thing with this one and ended up getting bogged down by feeling like I couldn’t pick a new habit until I had written up the previous one, but writing up the previous one didn’t actually feel important. When it’s all laid out like this of course, it seems obvious, but at the time it was much more implicit.
This suggests a more general principle of trying to articulate what one is doing (and not doing) and why. Perhaps there would be a good question to prompt Complice users with: “You didn’t do this thing 3 days in a row. Does it feel like maybe it’s not that important?” or something like that.
So there are two processes that didn’t work very well. What did? Well, I did some new stuff with my daily routines. I like to periodically redesign my morning routine, when I change contexts (e.g. moving) or when my existing routine seems borked. At the start of 2015, I noted that since I’d managed to squeeze all of my school classes onto Tuesdays and Thursdays, that meant I had 5 days per week that were almost totally unstructured. To make the most of them, I settled on a morning routine (for those 5 days only) where I would get up and start working on the most important thing immediately. Like, no breakfast, no getting dressed, no [whatever]. Just get up (okay fine, go to the bathroom) and get to work. This worked epically well. Details & advice here.
On a more macro-scale, it was really valuable to have my classes crammed onto two days a week. I started trying to also put most of my skype calls and so on onto those days as well. Even once I stopped having classes, I still kept up this hybrid maker/manager schedule so that I could do lots of skyping with people from out of town, without it costing a ton of attention / loss of technical-work-time. I surveyed a bunch of friends to decide which days to do, and concluded that I needed one weekend day and at least two of T, W, Th. Monday and Friday are terrible days for calls, apparently! I also had several “maniac wednesdays”, which were like my maniac weekends of last year except only one day long. I beat my one-day pomodoro record twice: 27, then 28.
I started hosting events more, in conjunction with the blog post Deciding to Make Things Happen. In addition to the ones I mentioned in the object-level section, I also caused:
I got lots of kudos for making these happen. Conclusion: beeminding hosting events was a great idea.
Beeminding “trying new things” ended up being very mediocre. I set this up during the June CFAR workshop, where we were trying to solve a problem in 5 minutes. I was trying to figure out how to cause future Malcolms to try new things more, and I set up a Beeminder that was fed by Twitter and had a little page on my site. Unfortunately, this didn’t really change my behaviour very much, aside from the fact that I started logging two new things every week. But I wasn’t doing any more new things. Maybe I need to make the road steeper? But I think the problem is also that I was only trying new things when they were on the menu (often literally) rather than being proactive about it. Part of me thinks it would be great to keep a list of things to try somewhere, and then every week have a time where I try 1 or more of the things. But the other part of me thinks that’s dumb.
(At one point someone asked me how successful these tryings-of-things had been, which yielded, out of 17 total: 7 wins, 5 fails, 4 mixed, and one abandoned (like maybe it would have worked but I changed strategies so I don’t know))
Speaking of Beeminder sometimes not working for me… I had an issue occur where I started logging fractional datapoints for things that aren’t supposed to be fractional. I’ve done this with my blogging goal for a long time, and it works great: my rate is 0.1 posts/day, and I can go from 20.5 to 20.6 without doing any work at all, but in order to go from 20.9 to 21, I need to have published something. This lets me keep the pressure up when I know I’ll need to have a post out within the next week or so. But I started doing this for a bunch of other things—things that aren’t so clearly important to me as blogging, and where I don’t have a very clear sense that Beeminder is important there. Also it can be hard to keep track of where a bunch of different values are at. So the result was that sometimes I’d go over the integer value without actually doing the thing. This, combined with a few other factors, broke a bunch of my Beeminder goals; they were no longer causing me to do the things. I’ve mostly gotten things back under control, but it took a long time of me being kind of in denial, and I made some bad habits in the meantime.
Another thing I got into this year was doing more explicit modelling: deliberate attempts to increase my understanding of something by thinking (as opposed to primarily by researching. I wrote this blog post about how I figured out why I usually don’t like teasing. A few workshops I went to in SF organized by folks from Leverage Research helped me with this. I’ve tried modelling on my own and with friends, and learned that I enjoy and value both.
In November I set out to do a BloPoWriMo aka Blog Post Writing Month, writing 50k words of blog posts in a month. I successfully kept up 1500-2000 words daily for three weeks, but then various things conspired such that I lost the momentum. So I failed at actually hitting 50k, which isn’t good from a hitting-targets-one-sets perspective. I did, however, learn that I can write several blog post drafts in the span of a few hours if motivated by words.
Another interesting process of mine that worked but had drawbacks is that I set up my postonly page that let me post things to facebook without checking it. This has had the very awesome effect of letting me keep an impressive (quality & quantity) feed of posts, without constantly getting distracted. However, since I use StayFocusd to limit my time on the rest of facebook, I acquired a very full set of notifications, meaning that I stopped engaging in as many conversations because I didn’t see responses to comments I’d made. One plan I have to fix this is unblocking decent threads from StayFocusd, which seems a bit dangerous but will be aided by the fact that my userstyle makes it so I’m less likely to distract myself from that thread to the rest of facebook.
A brief update on a thing I said in last year’s meta section:
I’m done with school
Technically, I still have a few months left. But I had a moment this year where I realized that there was a lot of me that was thinking of myself as “still in school” as a kind of crutch for “not ready yet” or “not playing for real” or “not responsible yet”. I recalled hearing several people remark that they had expected that when they graduated that [a feeling something like this] would finally go away and they would feel adult. But that it didn’t. Using these outside views, I assumed I’d be no different, and that therefore I might as well start thinking of myself as being done school already.
To a large extent this worked. Graduation day itself was kind of exciting just because of all of the hubbub, but it definitely felt like I’d already moved on from school. That said, if I envision “what would Malcolm′ look like, who is totally ready, responsible, and playing for real?” …I fall short. Especially on the stage of making an impact on the future of humanity, which is the yardstick on which I am measuring myself.
I made progress this year, but I have a long way to go. I might try acting as if I’m the Malcolm′ envisioned above—I did something similar once and it worked surprisingly well.
This, I think, may also help with becoming responsible and playing for real. Inspired and prompted by CFAR folks at the Hamming workshop and later at the alumni reunion, I started paying more attention to a facet of rationality that Val sometimes calls “the yin of rationality.” Where the yang of rationality is the drive towards truth and achievement of one’s goals and values, the yin is something more like… letting in truths deeply and fully.
One set of the biggest truths that many people don’t let in deeply and fully is the set of truths about loss and suffering: 1.8 people die each second. Many more are suffering various kinds of physical and psychological pain. Other, more personal sad things this post isn’t going to dwell on. I started opening myself up to feel these truths—not to ruminate on them, just to acknowledge them and hold them and not resist their realness.
I cry more now.
This fall, I was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack while programming, and then there was a particularly sad moment in the soundtrack, and I just started crying.
That never used to happen before.
Or if it did, it was a sign that I was feeling stressed or on-edge, or something, in which case the sadness had an undercurrent of deep fear to it. This new experience feels really deeply healthy.
I have a lot more to say about this topic, hopefully in future blog posts. The basic jist is a thing that I picked up from Burning Man, where people need to make sense of their experiences there in the larger context of their lives. So I’ve been trying to pay more attention to when different parts of me feel like they’re not relating super well to other parts. I’ve also been experimenting with different ways of relating to myself across time, including sending messages to specific future!Malcolms.
Another piece of integration has been integrating different parts of me: urges and desires, emotions and intuitions, narratives and identities… trying to get them all to communicate and coordinate and collaborate inside this chaotic medium that is my mind. I’m paying more attention to how my mood, phenomology and general what-it’s-like-to-be-me varies depending on my state of mind, what I’ve eaten, how tired I am, and so on. Consciousness is weird.
There’s a model of psychological development that I’ve been super keen on for the past year and a half, which describes how as people age they gain the ability to look at the lens they were previously looking through (lens being a metaphor for one’s paradigm or way-of-making-meaning). It captures a series of shifts that alternate between being overincluded (~other-oriented) and overdifferentiated (~self-oriented). (Learn more: an overview and a more reflective explanation)
Anyway, I had in the past thought that I was already well on my way to stage 5, which was to some extent hubris and to another extent an oversimplification of what stage 5 was. Part of 5 is how you relate to your beliefs and opinions: people at stage 5 will tend to have a richer sense of how their conclusions are provisional and their ideologies limited. I mostly had that, thanks mostly to my rationality training/practice and to my involvement with the Living Room Context. But another part is how you relate to other people and groups of people, and on this level, I was still kind of fighting for my independence, which is the kind of thing that someone would do at stage 4/3 or 4(3).
Over the course of the last 8 months or so, I’ve gained a better perspective on how I’ve been afraid to get too connected to people out of a fear of losing my autonomy. I’ve also been afraid to trust other’s decision-making in various contexts, assuming that I can make all of the decisions if other people give me enough information. It sounds kind of silly, written out, but that seems like an accurate statement of roughly what my brain was doing.
I had already read Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads, which was mostly about the 3→4 shift, but this fall I picked up The Evolving Self, which talks more about the underlying developmental model and about all of the stages. That book helped me clarify my thinking a lot about myself and my level of development.
In conjunction with this shift, I’ve also found myself wanting to cultivate deeper relationships, in general but particularly my primary romantic partner. I’ve become closer to her than I’ve been to… anyone? It’s a hard thing to measure. In some ways I was more attached to my partner at age 16, but that wasn’t a very healthy attachment. But yeah, this is a substantial difference from all of my other relationships in the last few years, which were in various ways more casual.
This post got a bit out-of-hand, lengthwise. Next year’s post will be shorter.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.