Abstracting from Experience

Some things you don’t learn by being told (or telling yourself), you learn by organizing your experiences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend, Ruby, over skype. Our conversation drifted to letters one might send to one’s past self, from say 1-2 years ago. Aside from the obvious tip-off’s about stock prices or romantic inclinations or lacks thereof, what would be useful to say? Ruby proposed sending his past self a list of books to read sooner. I though that was probably better than lots of other approaches (in part because it lets you send more information than you could possibly fit into a letter) but it seemed to me like there was a non-obvious challenge to doing that effectively, related to experience. There are some books that are broadly pretty mindblowing, but I’ve found that often when books really rock my world it’s because I’m particularly ripe for them at that moment. I think that trying to send a revelation to your past self, if you weren’t ready for it, might have a bit of an Archimedes’s Chronophone effect, where everything comes out sounding kind of obvious rather than insightful.

A second story: I was talking with some friends about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory. The structure of CDT is about shifting parts of your experience from being [thoughts you are subject to] to being [thoughts you can take as object, i.e. think about]. I’ve blogged about this here. Its content is a set of five specific subject-object stages in how people view themselves, ideas, and other people. Anyway, one of the people I was talking to has a 10-year-old daughter, and he was wondering if I had advice on how to help her go through the shifts faster. After noting that that wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I mean, it could be, but it might make her feel more distanced from her peers), I remarked that the process is complex and it’s not enough to just teach her certain things or to get her to do certain other things.

Because each subsequent shift in Kegan’s system represents not just new knowledge or understanding, but an entirely new kind of order applied to the level below. » read the rest of this entry »

Deciding to make things happen

Last Thursday—after my last day of classes ever—one of my classmates, Sung Cheul Hong and I found ourselves in an interesting conversation at a local craftbeer bar. At one point I asked him, “What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree? Not necessarily from school, though it could be.”

He thought for a moment, then answered: (this is from memory, a beer and 3 days later)

I think it was… that you can just kind of decide to make things happen. I wanted to make a positive impact on campus, and I had this idea for a Product Vision Club to educate students about product management, with companies giving talks and students building and executing on their visions.

I didn’t have anyone on board, I just wrote a one pager, like what this club is about and what we are going to do this term, and made a facebook group and a public announcement… and people rolled in! An exec team, guest speakers, and of course members.

I just had an idea and a high-level plan, then I publicly announced the plan as if it were happening regardless, and… Bam!

What Sung said probably wouldn’t’ve been my answer if someone had asked me the question, but this is a thing I’ve been learning. I wrote last year in my post about self-authorship, about how I realized I had no birthday plans, and just decided that I would have a cuddle party, announced it, and it happened. This year, I one-upped my past self and » read the rest of this entry »

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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