Acts of Speech and States of Mind

Much of this post was originally drafted a couple years ago, so the personal stories described in here took place then. I’m publishing it now in part because the novella that inspired it—Ted Chiang’s Story of your Lifehas recently been made into a feature-length movie (Arrival). In some contexts, it might make sense to say that this post may contain spoilers for SOYL; in this particular one, that would be hilariously ironic. Even after reading this post, the story will be worth reading.

This post begins, like so many of mine, with a conversation with Jean, the founder of the Upstart Collaboratory, where she and I and others are practicing the extreme sport of human relating. Jean remarked that a conversation she’d had earlier that day had been really good, then noted that she’d already told me that.

I replied, “Well, yes, and it was meaningful to me that you said it again. On the most basic level, it implies that on some level you felt you hadn’t yet conveyed just how good the conversation had been.” Then I shared with her something I’d heard from Andrew Critch, at a CFAR workshop. (Quote is from memory)

If someone says “something” to you, then that doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that that person believes that “something” is true. Incidentally, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they think that you don’t already agree with them that “something”. It really just means that, at the moment they said it, it made sense to them to say “something”. To you.

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12016: A Year of Co-Responsibility

I was having a lot of challenge figuring out where to start this one. For some reason, the Object/Process/Meta structure I used the past three years doesn’t feel like it makes sense this year. Maybe because this year a lot of the object-level “stuff I did” was itself process- or meta-level.

The first thing I need to get out of the way is that as of last week, I’m using the Holocene calendar, which means that instead of writing my 2016 CE review, I’m writing my 12016 HE review. It’s the same year, but I’m experimenting with living in the thirteenth millennium because (4-6 years after) the birth of Christ is a weird start time for a bunch of reasons. Better is about 12,000 years ago, around the start of human civilization. There might be a slightly more accurate year, but the nice thing about just adding 10,000 years is that it means you don’t have to do any math to convert between CE and HE: just stick a 1 on the front or take it off. This in turn means I can use it in public-facing works and while it might be a little confusing, it’s still easily-understood. Here’s a great YouTube video on the subject. I’ll tell you if/how this affects my thinking during next year’s yearly review, after I’ve been using it for awhile.

Okay, 12016. » read the rest of this entry »

Common-knowledge self-commitments for changing patterns of thought

So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.

Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.

I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.

Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

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Just Do A Thing (that nobody’s expecting you to do)

This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.

Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented.  How do we make more people like you?”

It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:

“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”

Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once.  I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.

I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour.  Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch.  I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.

These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs.  My advice to pretty much everyone:

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Ultimatums in the Territory

When you think of “ultimatums”, what comes to mind?

Manipulativeness, maybe? Ultimatums are typically considered a negotiation tactic, and not a very pleasant one.

But there’s a different thing that can happen, where an ultimatum is made, but where articulating it isn’t a speech act but rather an observation. As in, the ultimatum wasn’t created by the act of stating it, but rather, it already existed in some sense.

Some concrete examples: negotiating relationships

I had a tense relationship conversation a few years ago. We’d planned to spend the day together in the park, and I was clearly angsty, so my partner asked me what was going on. I didn’t have a good handle on it, but I tried to explain what was uncomfortable for me about the relationship, and how I was confused about what I wanted. After maybe 10 minutes of this, she said, “Look, we’ve had this conversation before. I don’t want to have it again. If we’re going to do this relationship, I need you to promise we won’t have this conversation again.”

I thought about it. I spent a few moments simulating the next months of our relationship. I realized that I totally expected this to come up again, and again. Earlier on, when we’d had the conversation the first time, I hadn’t been sure. But it was now pretty clear that I’d have to suppress important parts of myself if I was to keep from having this conversation.

“…yeah, I can’t promise that,” I said.

“I guess that’s it then.”

“I guess so.”

I think a more self-aware version of me could have recognized, without her prompting, that my discomfort represented an unreconcilable part of the relationship, and that I basically already wanted to break up.

The rest of the day was a bit weird, but it was at least nice that we had resolved this. We’d realized that it was a fact about the world that there wasn’t a serious relationship that we could have that we both wanted.

I sensed that when she posed the ultimatum, she wasn’t doing it to manipulate me. She was just » read the rest of this entry »

Project Partners: make things. with people.

General overview of concept

This post was written collaboratively with my friend Kai Rathmann. The reason for this will become apparent very shortly.

The thesis of this post is essentially: make things with people. We want to introduce a new-ish framing for how to relate to people, called “project partners”. A project partner is someone that you are doing (or have done) a project with. The project can be large, but doesn’t have to be. The key is that you have the experience of working together towards a specific, external, common goal.

Doing a small project with someone is great for a number of reasons:

  • You get to know each other’s work style.
  • You learn more about your own work style.
  • You deepen emotional rapport and bond with the other person.
  • You might be more likely to finish a project if you have someone else keeping you accountable.
  • You end up with a thing that you can point to and say, “we did this!”
  • Relatedly, it makes a great story if someone asks “so how do you and Person know each other?”

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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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