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 »

Why giving humans bug reports is easier than giving feature suggestions

I spent this past weekend at a case study competition called UW Apprentice, which was unique among events I’ve attended in two ways. One is that the cases were fresh from real startups that came in and explained the challenge they were experiencing, and who were all set to act on the best advice. The other was that you gave and received feedback with each of your teammates after each cases, and so you could review it all immediately. In theory, this could let you update your behaviour for the next case to be a more valuable team member, although I think in practice the schedule was too rushed for much reflection to occur.

Anyway, I noticed something interesting while filling out the “needs improvement” section at one point. The team member I was giving feedback to didn’t have any obvious shortcomings, and I found myself at a bit of a loss for what to say. Obviously they weren’t perfect, but they were totally generally “good” across the board. I wrote something general that was related to my sense of why we hadn’t won that round.

Today, I thought of this again when I was doing the final edits on a peer letter of recommendation for a fellowship program my friend was applying to. I had written last week in the draft: “It’s hard for me to think of a really good suggestion for an area of improvement for Tessa—” …today I added “—I’ve noticed it’s much easier to recommend bugfixes than features, for people.”

In this blog post, I figured I’d reflect a bit more on…

  • what the difference is
  • why feature suggestions are harder
  • some strategies for feature suggestions

It might be kind of rough, and I might find future!me disagreeing with current!me about this pretty soon, in which case I may edit it.

Before that: what am I not talking about?

Is it just the difference between negative and positive feedback? Nope. Negative feedback has the structure of “that thing you did—don’t do that [as often]”, while positive feedback has the structure of “that thing you did—keep doing it [and maybe do it more]”. The bug report / feature suggestion thing is more subtle.
» read the rest of this entry »

Cycles of Breath and Feedback

Context: this was a very stream-of-consciousness post, tapping into something I had just learned when I wrote it, yesterday. I don’t necessarily think that what I suggest here makes sense for everyone. But it spoke something really valuable to me, and I suspect there will be others who deeply appreciate it as well.

Today, my friend Matt and I found ourselves in a particular head-space as well as an intense and exciting conversation where we were speeding up, and were continually needing to remind ourselves to take a breath. I found each breath so powerfully pleasant that it made for a really interesting feedback loop. Note that all uses of “breath(e)” here refer to the act of consciously, mindfully, taking a breath.

I’m going to invite you to do that now, as you read this.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The “take a breath” piece of feedback is part of a much larger energy-awareness thing I’ve been working with for a long time—it’s connected with againstness and so on as well. Essentially, I’ve been working to overcome an experience I’ve sometimes had of myself where I’ve gotten slightly caught up in my own thoughts and slightly worked up, while interacting with people, in ways that have felt disconnecting and unpleasant for them. And in general, when people have given me feedback about this, I’ve had largely positive reactions in response.

What I realized today though, was that it could be even more positive. Or perhaps we might say positive “sooner”.

This is a topic for another post, but I want to briefly present a model I’ve been using for awhile to capture the process of human interaction with the world.

  • sensation: the raw sensory signals that we receive, after just the bare minimum of processing from the visual cortex or whatever. We can access this, but most of us usually don’t, instead being much more aware of our…
  • perception: the basic categories we draw experiences into. What we notice. What we don’t. What relations or causal connections we understand into things at a low level. These form the basis for our…
  • interpretation: the more conscious act of making meaning from what we’re experiencing, and understanding it. Modelling it. This interpretation will generate some…
  • » 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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