Why you can’t beat your shadow in a fight

“Having is evidence of wanting.”

— Carolyn Elliott (eg here)

This is true, and useful, on net, but can easily encourage an Over-reified Revealed Preferences frame, in that it doesn’t account for the emergent results of conflict! …which is what’s underneath most behavior, particularly confusing behavior. By ORP I mean, assuming that you or others want exactly what’s happening, for some specific reason, as opposed to it being the attractor basin they found themselves in given various pressures in multiple directions.

When my partner Sarah & I walk, I sometimes end up about a foot ahead. We were reading some shadow shit into this (power dynamics!? respect!?) until we realized that I just have a faster default pace, & my system would only slow down once the error of me being ahead reached about 1′; she had a similar threshold for speeding up.

Hence me being one foot ahead was a stable point, what Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) calls a “virtual reference level” formed by two control systems in a tug of war (the tug of war being about walking speed, not position). The speed we were walking was also at a virtual reference level that was a compromise between our two set-points.

Neither control system wants the current situation, but neither has unilateral access to a move that would improve things in terms of what they do want. The gap was erroneous to both of us, but in order to close it, I would have to slow down or she would have to speed up, and neither of us had decided we would do that and shifted our overall mood towards walking to be compatible with the other.

So yes, the fact that part of you wants some shit that is socially unacceptable and/or bizarre from the perspective of your conscious desires, doesn’t mean that want is any more true or real than what the other parts of you want, and the want may not even really be direct.

Your shadow stuff may be “deeper” in the sense of “more buried” but that doesn’t make it “more profound” or whatever. All the things you consciously want also matter!

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Fractal Home

I’ve just moved into a new home (just north of Victoria, BC), and it seemed like a good time to publish a piece of writing I drafted in January about the nature of Home.

In the terms of my previous blog post, it could be summarized as something like “Home is where you have non-naive meta-trust”.

Naturally, people really really want this sense of Home, although they may think it’s impossible, theoretically or just pragmatically. In general, most people don’t have environments where they have deep meta-trust, and don’t have a workable roadmap towards creating such environments. But it’s possible, given enough shared attention and an adequate toolkit, to co-create this sense of Home.

And, moreover, the process of a group consciously co-creating Home can itself produce the feeling of relief that being Home produces, [[in the meantime]], if everyone feels a sense that the group is doing its best to take into consideration the careabouts of each group member—before it has actually solved all the problems. This is a collective version of what Mark Lippmann calls the “Handledness is Already Success” principle.

When I use the word “need” or “want” or “careabout” or “desire” in this piece of writing, I’m pointing at, fundamentally, a cybernetic control system set point. What makes something a need, vs a want, might be essentially, as my friend Catherio put it: “if this goes unmet, I will make substantial changes to my life”. These careabouts include things on every level from psychological safety & self-actualization & meaning, to food & water & shelter… and probably stuff Maslow forget to mention!

I am Home to the extent that (and in the ways that)

  1. I can relax knowing that the systems around me aren’t going to subvert my needs & wants (whether malevolently or carelessly) and will in general support them.
  2. I feel, and am, empowered to make changes to the situation in order to care for my needs.

This applies to any context, not just to a house. In particular, it can also apply to a group of people or a relationship. So I’m not talking about “home” as contrasted with “work” and “third places” here.

This applies to all sorts of meta dimensions but it’s also very concrete:

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Non-Naive Trust Dance—why the name?

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too” —Rudyard Kipling

I’m intending to write a whole sequence of posts that express various elements of the Non-Naive Trust Dance framework I discovered last year, and thought that a good piece to write early on would be an introduction that talks about why it has the name it does, answering in brief these three questions:

  • What do I mean by “trust”?
  • What do I mean by “non-naive trust”?
  • Why “trust-dancing”?

I suppose it’s worth noting that I don’t remember choosing a name for this thing when I discovered it last year—this was just sort of the obvious thing to call it as I was seeing it from my perspective at the time.

a graphic of two people dancing, with those questions overlaid
drawing by Silvia Bastos at my commission

What do I mean by “trust”?

My context for thinking about trust comes from my longtime colleague Jean Robertson, who points out that all trust is fundamentally trust in one’s own experience, or “self-trust” for short. Trust also needs to be qualified as trust in something in particular. There’s no general “I trust you” (or not). As someone put it:

“I trust Alice to return a $10 loan but not a $10,000 loan, Bob to return a $10,000 loan but not to babysit an infant, Carol to babysit but not with my house key, Dave with my house key but not my intimate secrets, and Ellen with my intimate secrets but not to return a $10 loan. I trust Frank if a friend vouches for him, a taxi driver as long as he’s displaying his license, and Gail as long as she hasn’t been drinking.”

From Bruce Schneier, Liars and Outliers — via Kaj Sotala, “Don’t trust people, trust their components

Elaborating on this, what the person is saying here is “based on trusting my experience of these various folks, I have predictions of what they would do, that I’m prepared to base my decisions on.” If Alice wanted to borrow $10,000, or Bob offered to babysit, this person would then be faced with a situation where their friend would be making a bid to be trusted in a way that the person actually doesn’t trust them.

That’s a tough situation to be in, particularly if it doesn’t feel easy to talk about.

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NNTD pith instructions exploration

I keep mentioning this “Non-Naive Trust Dance” framework I’ve discovered/invented but I haven’t yet published a proper introduction to it (despite many half-finished drafts). A friend of mine recently wrote in a group chat:

Would/could you write pith instructions for NNTD? I’m curious but haven’t dived in, and would be more likely to if I could get a more concentrated sense of the flavor of it.

For those not familiar with the term “pith instructions”, it refers to condensed, direct, pithy core instructions, often for a meditation practice. Before I had the chance to reply, another friend linked my yearly review blog post 2020: Free to Dance, and the first friend replied:

Yeah that’s helpful! It definitely gets at the problem statement. I still feel like I’m missing something about what actually goes into doing NNTD.

It can be hard to give quick general instructions for various reasons, but fortunately I already had a tweet that I wrote in response to a prompt from my friend Romeo:

Challenge: make an elevator pitch for your current theory of healthy human relationships.

Hard mode: don’t reference existing popular theories or merely reword one of them.

@RomeoStevens76 on twitter

Here, with some tiny edits, is the elevator pitch I came up with for the NNTD (which is definitely a theory of healthy human relationships!)

  • respect that there are ways in which you can’t trust each other
    • and gently inquire into why that is
    • not trying to change behavior directly
  • trusting that new more workable behavior will emerge
    • when you can see why it makes sense to be doing what you’re doing
    • and see its impacts on others

I shared that in the group chat and offered to elaborate on anything listed in [[core principles of the [[NNTD]]]] and a discussion ensued between me and my friend. And so we hereby continue a trend of blog posts composed of lightly edited conversations, although this one is more theory than practice.

Friend: Ooh, this elevator pitch is really good! Interesting that there’s a meta-trust element too, in the process itself. I needed something like that, as opposed to the core principles page, which feels too big/complicated/rabbit-holey. It’s just very instantly practical.

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Internal Trust Dancing case study: scheduling & cancelling dates

A long-time reader of my blog reached out to me after reading Internal Trust Dancing case study: EA & relaxation and asked if I’d do a session, and I said sure! I’m mostly not taking new coaching clients at the moment, but I want to refine and share this technique so I have some small availability for one-off sessions on this. Let me know if you’re also interested!

This case study, shared with permission of course, is a bit longer, since it’s a transcript of an hour’s conversation. I’ve removed a couple tangents but almost all of it is important and it could be misleading to leave out almost any of the lines, so instead this is just a 6000 word post. Read it if you want! It gets juicier about halfway through, for what it’s worth. I do also have more commentary which I can share with folks who are interested.

I’ve annotated the transcript in the same style as the Therapeutic Reconsolidation Process case studies in Unlocking the Emotional Brain, with 7 steps (ABC123V), while trying to not get too shoehorn-y about it. Doing this annotation helped me get clear on what I was actually doing—the level I’m working on wasn’t actually obvious to me until I wrote it out. The steps, for reference, are:

  • accessing sequence
    • Step A: symptom identification
    • Step B: retrieval of symptom-necessitating emotional schema
    • Step C: identification of accessible contradictory knowledge
  • transformation sequence
    • Step 1: reactivation of symptom-necessitating emotional schema
    • Step 2: juxtaposed, vivid experience of contradictory knowledge
    • Step 3: repetition of the juxtaposition experience
  • Step V: verification of change by observation of critical markers

And of course M is me and C is my coaching client.


Internal differentiation—each part taking its own perspective

As discussed in the previous case study, in order to have conversations internally, it’s necessary for the parts to see that they’re parts. Here they each get the chance to speak to their perspective briefly. We don’t go too deeply or intensely into either part’s viewpoint, because we want them both in the room together, and they may not trust each other enough to go deeper. This

C: So there’s one specific problem I want to look at… I ended a relationship 6-8 months ago. And we’re still friends, that’s okay there. A couple months ago I decided to start dating again, so I’ve been scheduling dates, etc. But then, when I get to the point of meeting someone, I don’t want to. And I end up cancelling. This has happened 6 times in the last 2 months. And then I have a date coming up this Saturday but I’ll probably cancel it on Friday.

[This conversation was on Wednesday—there’s an email at the end of this post with an update. This simple articulation of an oscillation from compartmentalization is essentially Step A: symptom identification. This was a conveniently precise and concrete oscillation. However, note that we’re going to focus on the compartmentalization itself, not on the content of the conflict. So for what follows, Step B: retrieval of symptom-necessitating emotional schema, we’re not asking “why is it necessary to cancel the date?” we’re asking “why can’t these two perspectives talk to each other?” The fact that his parts are stuck in a tug of war rather than co-creatively finding a solution to this conflict is the symptom. This is, in general, the focus of internal trust-dancing.]

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Internal Trust Dancing case study: EA & relaxation

This post consists primarily of a lightly-edited text of a chat-based coaching exchange between Malcolm (M) and a participant (P) in a recent Goal-Crafting Intensive session, published with permission.

It serves several purposes I’ve been wanting to write about, which I’ll list here and describe in more detail at the end:

  • Share an initial model of Internal Trust-Dancing, which is also relevant to interpersonal non-naive trust-dancing
  • Talk about the importance & relevance of Perceptual Control Theory & conflict
  • Provide a Goal-Crafting Intensive coaching sample

Without further ado, here’s the conversation we had:


P: I’m thinking useful next steps might be planning out how to explore the above; the ML-work will come relatively naturally as part of my PhD, whereas the science communication could take some fleshing out.

I feel a little discouraged and sad at the prospect of planning it out.

M: Mm—curious if you have a sense of what’s feeling discouraging or sad about the planning process

P: My sense is that if I plan it out it’s somehow mandatory? Like it becomes an “assignment” rather than a goal, like I have to persevere through even on the days where I don’t want to.

M: Here’s a suggestion: write a plan out on a piece of paper, then burn it
(inspired by the quote: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”)

P: That was fun! I guess I’m very much a “systems” man, I have this fear that nothing will get done if it’s not in the system. But that might be detrimental motivationally for stuff like this.

M: Hm, it sounds like you have a tension between wanting to track everything in the system but then feeling burdened by the system instead of feeling like it’s helping you

P: That definitely strikes a cord (as well as your points, George, about separating “opportunities” from tasks). I guess I’m worried that I won’t get as much done if I’m not obligated to do it, or that it’s somehow “weak” to not commit strongly. But for long term growth, contribution and personal health, that’s probably not the way to go.

M: Yeah! If you want, we could do some introspection and explore where those worries come from!
(we could guide you through that a bit)

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Fractal Pomodoros

Or: how to temporarily put your head down to focus, on different timescales

(Also, lest it’s unclear: I don’t think everyone should work this way, or that anyone should work this way all the time. There’s something to be said for defragmenting your attention, but there’s also something important about improvisation and fluidity.)

There’s a very famous productivity technique called the “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for “tomato” because its inventor used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. There’s a lot of subtlety to the full technique, but here I’m going to mostly refer to the basic elements:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it for 25 minutes without distraction
    • external distraction: don’t answer calls or knocks at the door
    • internal distraction: stay focused on your original task/project even if you think of something else you might do instead
  3. when the 25 minutes ends, take a break for 5 minutes
    • (even if you don’t feel like taking a break, take one anyway! stopping randomly, rather than when stuck, can make it easier to get back into it after your break, and it can be easier to get focused if you trust that you’ll pause when the timer goes off)
  4. …repeat 2 & 3 until the task is complete or no longer top priority

There’s something profoundly relieving, for many people, when they first try the pomodoro technique, where a big question goes away: should I be doing something else?

This should I be doing something else? applies to:

  • should I interrupt what I’m doing to talk to my coworker?
  • should I be working on something else?
  • should I be taking a break?
  • should I be working? (if taking a break)

The internal conflict that comes from evaluating these questions every minute or two while trying to work or rest burns a lot of energy without really producing anything meaningful. It’s not to say that those aren’t important questions to consider, just that by default most people can’t usefully consider them every minute.

So instead: pomodoros: a license not to think of anything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand, for 25 minutes. And people regularly discover that they’re able to get more done in a few hours of this method than they usually achieve in a day.

Seriously, if you haven’t tried the pomodoro technique, and you have trouble staying focused on a challenging project… It’s a classic and my go-to #1 productivity technique recommendation. Doesn’t work for everybody or every situation, but when it does work the ROI is huge.

But then, why stop at 25 minutes?

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How I run Online Workshops

(An alternative to “online courses”.)

Context: with a small team, I’ve been running online workshops a couple times a year (30 sessions total) since 2017, called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It’s been a huge success, with many returning participants and lots of rave reviews and referrals. The GCI is about life-effectiveness (goal-setting, planning, execution, reflection) but the event format could be used for many other topics! I’m sharing this guide because I’d like to see other people make events like this for what they have to teach (and I’d like to attend sessions like this).

Summary/Table of Contents

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Dream Mashups

This article is an elaboration on this tweet:

Everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and whatever old emotional meanings are getting activated by the current situation. Like dreaming you’re at your high school but it’s also on a boat somehow.

What makes this metaphor really powerful is that, as in dreams, somehow the weirdness of this mashup goes unnoticed until you wake up (and only then if you think about it). And then even though you’ve noticed while awake how weird dreams are, you’re just as fooled by the next dream, until you wake up.

This helps explain the vivid reality of peoples’ experiences. The emotional brain is experiencing something totally real—just as your high school is real. The part of you that’s taking in reality is experiencing something totally real—just as boats are real. But, unless you had a really avant-garde education, there is no real “my high school, except on a boat”.

So people experience these mashups in relationships as well, emotionally experiencing their friends & partners as if they’re a parent, teacher, sibling, or bully from childhood, or an earlier friend or partner. Or someone is an adult but when they talk with their parents, they readily overlay their experience of their parents from childhood, who had absolute authority over them. To be clear, it can be particularly strong & weird with trauma but as far as I can tell this is how meaning-making works in general. It’s just sometimes the mapping is a good fit and other times it’s really weird.

And, as with dreams, no matter how weird it gets, we usually don’t notice when it’s happening to us.

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Work With Me – new site page

I’ve recently added a new page to my website called Work With Me. The page will evolve over time but I’m going to write a short blog post about the concept and share the initial snapshot of how it looks, for archival purposes.

Why a “Work With Me” page?

There’s a lot of stories I could tell here. I’ll tell a few slightly fictional versions before getting to the actual series of events that occurred.

One fictional version is that I was inspired by Derek Sivers’ /now page movement but I wanted something that created more affordances for people to connect with me, including regarding opportunities that I’m not actively pursuing now on my own. This is true in the sense that I was thinking about /now by the time I published the page, and in the sense that I would love to see Work With Me pages show up on others’ sites. You could be the first follower, who starts a movement!

Another fictional version is that I was thinking about my Collaborative Self-Energizing Meta-Team Vision and wondering how to make more surface area for people to get involved. I’m someone who thinks a lot about interfaces, not just between humans and products but also between humans and other humans, and it occurred to me that there wasn’t a good interface for people to find out how to plug in with me to work on self-energizing projects together. So I made this page! This was also on my mind, but it’s still not quite how it happened.

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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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