posttitle = 2021: Catching my Breath titleClass =short len =24

2021: Catching my Breath

I had a concept that my 2021 would be called Always Already Dancing, and while that has been a background theme in various ways, there’s been a much more prominent theme, which is Catching my Breath.

The most overt element of this is that I began taking weekly days off, where I begin the day with nothing scheduled, no intentions, and no open browser tabs, and then I do whatever I feel like all day. I also aim to not add anything at the start of the day as a plan for later in the day, but to remain in improvisational flow, just doing what I’m doing right now.

But the underlying thread of catching my breath is one that’s woven through much of the last year on various scales, so here’s the story of my year of catching my breath, told in some semblance of chronological order of when certain elements arose, although many were happening in parallel throughout the year.

As I wrote in last year’s review, 2020: Free to Dance, my partner Sarah and I moved out of the culture incubator I’d been living in for 7.5 years in Waterloo, ON, and out to British Columbia on the west coast, where we’re working on creating a new culture incubator in Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island.

A learning environment that’s not out of breath

The need for a new culture incubator emerged not just out of us wanting to be in BC’s climate, but from some divergence in how we saw the incubation process needing to work. We’re still, as far as I know, basically on the same page about what the new collaborative cultural platform that we’re aiming for looks like when it works, but we’ve got a different idea of how to get there and how to operate in the meantime.

You can read “Mindset choice” is a confusion for an ontological take on one core difference. The Dream Mashups metaphor predates my understanding this difference, but the essay articulates a shift in how I relate to the metaphor now. Other differences I’ve not yet explicitly written up, although it permeates all of my writing over the past year, about my Non Naive Trust Dance framework. But another core difference is something about the importance of catching one’s breath. It’s interesting, as I write this, to imagine how it would land into the ecosystem I just moved out of, since that context was famously unrushable, and lacked certain kinds of urgency that have been characteristic of other groups I’ve been part of like the rationality and effective altruism communities.

And yet… somehow I have the feeling that the ecosystem I just left was chronically in a state of minor urgency. There was usually a feeling that something really important was happening this week in particular, and anyone who left this week would have trouble catching up even though in practice them getting back in sync was mostly a matter of them having the capacity to attune and listen, and it didn’t matter how much they’d missed. There was a sense that we were just about to be right on the cusp of being finally ready for an imminent… something. And in some sense this is in fact what an exponential curve feels like from the inside: it’s always just about to take off!

I could believe that my presence and how it interacted with Jean’s approach was part of what generated the urgency, and that after I left they also found themselves catching their breath and feeling a sense of ease and less need to feel right on the cusp. I know for sure that at times (particularly 2015-2017) I was very impatient. But my sense is there’s also something deeper here.

At any rate, our initial experience of BC was breathtaking (this is a pun on the beauty of the mountains but also we were a bit emotionally out-of-breath to start) but as we’ve started creating our own learning environment we’ve been really focusing on making sure we’re not creating extra pressure. I see more clearly now that pressure yields change but the change is unstable. So we’re taking Jean’s principle of “organize by appetite” even further. Becoming more comfortable with less group flow this hour lays the groundwork for more robust group flow tomorrow. That’s the idea, anyway!

Coherence Therapy

In late 2020 I’d started doing Coherence Therapy, after realizing that my personal mindset work was still dramatically bottlenecked on not having found the deep emotional reasons why I felt threatened by people in certain situations. I’d years ago reached diminishing returns on what I could do with counteractive approaches of trying to choose the new mindset instead of the old, and I needed to create more internal dialogue.

I also knew that I needed to develop a profound capacity for coherence empathy, in order to nurture collaborative culture in my intimate relationships, whether romantic or business. Coherence empathy is the capacity to see that every aspect of everyone’s thinking makes sense from its own perspective, and to listen to it on its own terms, and it’s a vital part of transformational change. Since I wasn’t a therapist, I figured that getting therapy myself would be another way to get a better sense of coherence empathy. It did help with that, though not as much as I’d hoped. Fortunately, later in the year I talked more with my therapist and we realized we could get me training in “coherence coaching”, which uses the same framework but applied to coaching rather than therapy. Transformational change works the same in the brain regardless of the container and in some sense regardless of whether you’re working with severe PTSD or procrastination. This training has been great on so many levels and has already made me a better listener.

The therapy itself was helpful, loosening up some graspiness that I’d had around needing to be understood or feeling impatient with people. I wrote up a few reflections on my process: Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study and Letter to my younger self, who has just been sent to his room.

More spontaneity & following appetite

Sometime around February, I started aiming to have more spontaneous calls rather than scheduled calls, because I found that it was hard to predict what mood I’d actually be in and much more fun to hop on a call with someone immediately based on some resonance in chats or tweets, than to try to schedule it as something to do in the future, at which point I might be completely out of touch with the reason for scheduling.

This was one way I started trying to explore something I started laying out a year ago that I called self-energizing motivation, which is in essence finding things worth doing that once you’re aware of them it would actually take effort not to do them, and then letting yourself do them, which then releases energy! I have a vision of building a meta-team out of people who are all mostly doing things that they feel naturally energized towards, which would mean dramatically increased flow compared to anything that can be achieved without it. There are a few key pieces required for coordination of such teams, that we’re still iterating on, around feedback, growth, money, project management and so on. But it’s slowly coming together. As an early example, you may have noticed many of my blog posts this year have an illustration by my friend Silvia, who loves making drawings and with whom I have a blast developing visual concepts with.

Sometime in late February or early March, George reached out saying that after some months of digesting his experience of the Complice Fellowship, he wanted to join Complice full-time, which would make it thoroughly a team again for the first time since Benjamin left in mid-2017. And as always, Complice itself is another culture incubator and we’ve been working to approach it with an orientation towards self-energizing motivation. We’re also both carefully untangling fears we have about working with other people, using the coherence toolkit and trust-dancing processes.

Here’s the Complice team page with George on it, telling more of that story.

As part of exploring this whole thing, we invited my old friend Eric Chisholm to be present on our team meetings, not as a member of the Complice team but as a member of the larger meta-team. Eric and Sarah and I had done a retreat on the coast of BC around the New Year last year, and at one point he said “I feel like I’m supposed to be a middle manager for some new kind of organization that doesn’t exist yet.” And it turns out that yes, in fact, Eric is very excellent at managing the “middle”, ie the shared attentional space that emerges in conversation.

Moving in with Eric

When Sarah and I were wrapping up staying with my cousin on Vancouver Island for the first few months of 2021, she was going to spend some time at a farm on Salt Spring Island, and Eric suggested I come stay at his place in Vancouver.

Since reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn years ago, Eric has had an orientation towards creating learning environments for people, and one of the core elements of that is an attention towards helping people catch their breath, since most people are running chronically behind in some basic way, which makes it hard to think clearly and learn smoothly & robustly.

This experience was a whole new level of slowing down for my own learning process. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, as they say. Eric had recognized that I was overwhelmed spending every day in close quarters with Sarah given the learning we were both doing, and he figured quite accurately that would help our relationship for us to have some space for a bit.

It was a couple weeks after moving in with Eric that I came up with the idea of the day off, where I start the day with nothing planned and no open browser tabs and do whatever I feel like. The specific form was my idea, but was definitely inspired in part by Eric’s overall attitude, plus a number of other sources such as Ben Hoffman’s Sabbath hard and go home.

One element of catching my breath was playing more interesting video games. I would previously sometimes get the urge to play a game, but because another part of me didn’t want to spend time playing video games, I couldn’t actually go buy & download an interesting game I’d heard my friends talking about. So instead I would sink a bunch of hours into random little games I found online that honestly weren’t actually very satisfying. Eric and I played Hades and Factorio and a number of other games together, and in addition to being way more fun, they also made for some useful metaphors and shared context between us.

…not that we were lacking in shared context! Eric and I have known each other since we both were mentors several times at CFAR in 2013 and in the years since we’ve gone to many of the same events and couchsurfed at the same group houses in the Bay Area, been to Burning Man together multiple times, and dated some of the same people. Eric had also visited the cultural incubator in Waterloo a few times in 2018, and has a deep appreciation for that whole project.

One of the things I’ve been realizing as I step more fully into adulthood is that you can’t get new old friends. I have only my family and a couple friends as people I’m still in touch with who I’ve known before my 20s. I can’t get new ones. So it’s been really delightful to discover so much resonance between me and Eric at this phase of our lives, given that we already go way back.

We’d also had some neat experiences at the BioEmotive retreat in 2019 where we’d been able to very effectively improvise with each other in conversations there, with me sending the group’s attention to Eric and him deploying it in a way that’s harder to do if you have to get everyone’s attention yourself. We’ve since been exploring scaling that dynamic in various ways, including creating a podcast where I find the guests & hype the show, and he does the conversing.

Learning West Coast Swing

Eric, as it happens, is very good at West Coast Swing, a kind of partner dance that’s very smooth and subtle. While there are recognizable named moves, the level of control is very low-level which means that it’s possible to invent new patterns of movement on the fly based on the fundamental principles. The dance has evolved a lot over the past decades and continues evolving.

Eric has some experience in teacher training and started showing me the fundamentals of both leading and following. In addition to this helping me understand the mechanics of the whole thing, I found it nice to do both because even when I felt really bored by only knowing a few patterns as a lead, I grokked enough of how to follow that Eric could swing me into fun and exciting spaces, which then increased my motivation to get better at leading so I could do that. We also watched some videos—of pros dancing and ourselves dancing—as part of the learning process. I also just really enjoy the psychology of both roles—the playful creative surrender of following and the responsive intentional improv of leading.

One of the metaphors that Eric used as part of explaining catching one’s breath to me was of a key element in WCS. The whole dance is based around dynamic tension, so where a small change in force from a lead would in some kinds of partner dance cause an immediate movement from the follower in that direction, in WCS there’s a lot of space to stretch out before the force actually hits the point of prompting movement. And at the end of every 6-count move, there’s something called an anchor, which creates the space for this stretch.

It’s easy as a beginner to forget the anchor and start rushing through the movements. Conversely, Eric said, if you get lost, make time to anchor and start over. This is a kind of catching your breath.

Finishing Sarah’s PR paperwork

One concrete thing that happened mid last year was that with the help of some lawyers we finally submitted my partner Sarah’s application for permanent residency in Canada (moving from the USA). We’d been working on that for a long time and it was a relief to finally have it be processing rather than a looming item on our queue. It’ll be a whole different relief once it’s actually processed, probably by the end of 2022.

Whew 🙂

Working for/at/in/on/with Roam

Also last summer, my friend Conor White-Sullivan reached out and asked if I would join the Roam Research team and do some mix of product management and nurturing post-blame culture. I’m not really hireable full-time, due to temperament and having other projects, so instead me and Sarah and Eric proposed they hire all of us part-time, since we figured that it would be easier to convey elements on culture if there were more than one of us (similar to how it’s hard to demonstrate a language without someone to speak it with).

We explored this for a few months, and facilitated some useful trust-dancing conversations inside and outside the company, and worked on a few projects related to onboarding. Ultimately though Roam’s leadership realized that having three third-of-the-time employees was confusing to the sense of who was on the team in a way that wasn’t helping, and we collectively realized that we were having trouble finding the right projects for us to work on, so we wrapped that up.

We may do a bit of one-off consulting for them in the future though, and we’re also interested in the possibility of doing similar consulting projects with other companies or organizations who are interested in understanding the emerging new cultural platform. Reach out if you’re interested. One particular offering we’ve been exploring is reviewing a recording of a meeting to debrief how people talked to each other and explore ways that communication could be better, sort of like how pro sports players review game tapes with a coach.

Going into the Roam collaboration all three of us were really clear we didn’t want to get out of breath trying to coordinate with a fast-paced startup. We were able to do that, for the most part, but it was hard for us to communicate to the team how and when we were available, and meanwhile we sometimes ended up knot-working on Roam stuff rather than working or doing something else, so it was a relief to wrap up that arrangement.

One reason I love these yearly reviews is they give me a chance to publish updates on everything that I didn’t give updates on the time because there was never a right moment. I was waiting til our role at Roam was clearer, but by the time we got clarity on that front the clarity was that it didn’t make sense for us to keep working there.

Complice Now Page

One idea that I had this year was to make a Now page for my app Complice. For most of its history, Complice’s workflow has been centered around a Today page, where you make a list of what you’re doing towards your goals today and then work on the intentions on the list. The power of this approach is that your list is always fresh for today, never stale stuff from days or weeks ago.

I realized though that sometimes even my list from this morning already felt a bit stale, so I built a new page for Complice with a few slightly different assumptions. The Today page assumes that you always want to be doing the next intention on your list, so when you complete one item it shows you the next. The Now page makes no such assumption—when you finish one intention it just asks “What now?” and lets you pick from various sources. One of those sources is your list for today if you happened to set one, another is recent incomplete items, and so on.

The idea is that this increases focus and clarity by making you more aware of what you’re doing and why. It’s in some sense the biggest change to Complice in years, since nothing else has offered a completely different core workflow. It’s expanding my horizons for other potential workflows for Complice. The whole concept of the Now page is very in line with catching one’s breath, since it creates a natural moment of expanded awareness between focuses.

a screenshot of the Complice interface, showing a bit "What now?" question, underneath which is one intention to "write 2021 yearly review" and a giant Done button. there are 8 pomodoros shown towards the intention
The Complice Now page, tweaked for this post to say “Done 2021” instead of just “Done”. As the pomodoro icons indicate, it indeed took me 4h to write this.

Clearing out the Complice backlogs

It was also nice to make major headway on a few Complice projects that have been on the queue for a long time, including completely overhauling the video system in the coworking rooms to use a new framework. I worked with a friend on that who had some relevant expertise and was a Complice user years ago, which was a lot of fun. Complice paid him, but it was also clearly a self-energizing sort of thing for him, and he had a moment of amusement when he felt like he should act professional (I forget what it was specifically but something like not swearing) but then he remembered that we were friends hanging out and working on something and it was allowed to just be chill and fun.

The experience of working with my friend that day gave me an appetite for more hackathon-like-days, which I’ve started on by running some virtual barn-raising events, which is where a group gets together and helps someone get their business over a tipping point. These are another piece of this meta-team vision unfolding. The whole thing is taking place within a larger very loose scene that mostly hangs out on twitter.

New slow-growth phase of Complice

George and I did some visioning for what we actually want to do for Complice together, and we got some clarity that we want to grow the company about 10× from its current plateau where it supports me as an individual to a level where it could abundantly support both of us having families. There’s also questions about whether we’ll bring other people onto the team, and what that will look like financially and otherwise.

We’re aiming to do this growing without working on the project full-time, which is mostly going to involve getting more strategic about how to keep people from falling off the wagon and to put more attention and energy towards things that will cause more people to learn about Complice and sign up for it, like guest posts on larger sites or tweeting about the app, or writing popular writing that lives on the Complice site.

I’ve realized through some of my coherence work this year that I seem to have a few emotional blocks to growing Complice more, ranging from fears that it’ll take over my time to parts of my bodymind that seem to think it’s not possible to actually make extra money and get to keep it. I’m working to untangle these.

Finally actually blogging again, thanks to showtimes and having a lot to say

Re-reading my past yearly reviews while writing this one I came across a couple of references to some new system that I was hoping would get me to publish a lot more, but the reality is that I only published half a dozen posts between early 2018 and late 2020.

Writing is almost always an important non-urgent thing for me to do. There’s rarely any particular reason anything needs to be published this week or this month. I’m not that perfectionistic of a person by nature, but writing is almost always something where it could always be improved with a bit more time, so the combination of these two factors has made it really hard for me to publish often without some sort of external forcing function. From 2013-2018, this was a Beeminder goal, but I felt that Beeminder was making my writing feel behind in a way I really didn’t like. Nothing is behind.

In 2020 I invented a new approach I call showtimes, where I schedule a rough draft to go live in a couple days or weeks, and then if it goes live before I’ve had the chance to edit it, that’s okay! That way nothing ever gets behind, it just gets published at some level of roughness. (And I can edit it after it goes up, if I want to.) I tried this out a bunch in the past year and it worked pretty well although it got weird when I tried setting up showtimes that weren’t drafted enough that I actually would have been okay with them going live. This was prompted by trying to beemind creating these showtimes, which I started doing in September when I realized I wasn’t actually scheduling any.

This worked, but the pressure of all of these showtimes was keeping me from doing other writing I really wanted to do, particularly a piece called How We Get There which lays out my model for how trust-dancing allows developing high-coherence groups. It’s long (6500 words so far and thousands to go) and high-context enough that I’m not sure if I’m going to publish it here or just share it with friends and other Game B thinkers, so I couldn’t just make a showtime for it. So I flattened my beeminder goal so I wouldn’t have to worry about it until sometime in January, and that helped create space for this writing.

Next year I’m intending to explore having a bit more of a weekly rhythm where one day of the week I publish one post and schedule one for the next week, and spend most of the day writing on those posts or other pieces.

Because writing is important and non-urgent, the fact that I’m doing a lot more of it is a good sign that I’m not in a frantic mode. It’s also exciting! I have a lot to say about my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework. It’s also a sign of having my breath caught that I’m writing and publishing my yearly review post before the end of the year for the first time in many years. (And that I also had the chance to do my yearly review in Complice, which I haven’t done since 2016)

I also started going on people’s podcasts, which is unsurprisingly an amazing medium for developing my thinking on all of these topics. It allows me to lay out half-formed concepts or other fragments I don’t have enough examples or clarity on to write up as a blog post yet, and in a fraction of the time. So if you like listening to ideas, check out my podcasts. And if you don’t, don’t fret! I’ve got another little collaboration in the works to get them all transcribed.

Home in Victoria

After spending most of the year so far kind of nomadic, we found a place where Sarah and Eric and I could move in together just outside of Victoria, BC, on Vancouver Island. This is now our new petri dish for nurturing collaborative culture. As I wrote at the end of my 2020 review, we want it to simultaneously be a research lab and also very much Home, and so far it’s doing well on both fronts. Having more space has allowed Sarah and I to relax a lot, which has enabled more growth and connection after some stressful years.

It’s been interesting timing to have just moved to a new place, since events were just opening up after covid and so everybody is kind of in a mode of figuring out what their routines and social groups are. We’ve been to some potluck talent shows which has been a cool opportunity to show off some of the music I’ve been making. On that note, I’ve been intending to release more of my music, which mostly hasn’t happened yet because I’m still finding my way around audio tools. But I’ve been making good headway writing songs.

There’s definitely a feeling of catching my breath after having been holding it during covid, in the experience of dancing with abandon in a huge crowd at Dance Temple, or hugging people while singing after an authentic relating event.

Having a sense of a solid enough home base also made it feel more possible for Sarah and I to visit my family for xmas in Nova Scotia. Covid’s omicron variant made a mess of holiday logistics though and resulted in isolation and us being out here for another couple weeks. Having accepted that change of plans, it’s still been really nice to see my family even if at a distance. I haven’t been home for xmas or been in the same place with both my sisters at once in years, and as I said above I’ve gained an increased appreciation for the value of family.

We’re looking forward to inviting a few guests to stay in a unit near ours in February & March, to develop the sense of what our learning community is here. Having new people involved can unleash a lot of energy, but it’s a complex dance to not lose touch with the core of what it’s all about. Fortunately the main folks we have in mind already grok a lot of it.

I’m discovering that the illegible culture work I’ve been doing for years that’s been really hard to explain is starting to become familiar among an increasingly large group of people, online and in person. For instance, discussion of “self-coercion” and the value of “non-coercion” has taken off in my Twitter circles, and as more people grok coherence therapy and IFS and PCT there’s a growing sense of the importance of not fighting yourself.

All this bodes well for our nascent project of creating a scene in Victoria that’s advancing the forefront of human cultural evolution. We’re probably going to run some in-person events here next year too.

I think my theme for next year may be something like: Deepening.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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