Relationship Panarchy

“Relationship Panarchy” is a term that I coined to talk about a model of relationships, that can function both as a lens through which any relationship dynamic can be viewed (including retrospectively) or can function as an explicit intentional way-of-operating. Actually operating in accordance with this view is something that no humans I know are yet masters of, but there are an increasing number of us trying. So to some extent, at this phase it can function as a kind of placeholder, similar to how “Game B” is a placeholder for “whatever transcends and outcompetes the Game A cultural operating system that has been running the show for 10,000 years”. And, like Game B, we can say a few things about it even while it’s in the process of coming into view.

The one-sentence summary is “Relationship Panarchy is a model of relationships that’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them.”


So: there’s this concept “polyamory”. For some people, it tends to come with a bunch of structure implied, such as “primary partners” and terms like “metamour”. For others, it’s basically a synonym for “non-monogamy”.

“Non-monogamy” is able, by being a negation, to imply less structure, but it isn’t sufficiently general because:

  1. it doesn’t allow for Game B operating-system relationship configurations that read as monogamy on the old map because they involve two people being sexually exclusive
  2. it still over-emphasizes romantic relationships as primary, by negating them

One model that seems to be more open-ended is known as “Relationship Anarchy”. From Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it might be considered as a form of non-monogamy, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic, platonic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, or ‘in an open relationship’.

I really liked this idea for awhile, but eventually I realized that the imagery of anarchy as such evokes a rather individualist orientation to relationships, to a degree that from my perspective is not only undesirable but technically not even possible. Autonomy is important, and so is connectedness, and the two are not at odds but fundamentally made of each other. Each limit creates new freedoms and each freedom creates new limits.

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“Systems vs Goals” is silly. Have both!

I don’t often pick fights, but when I do, I pick them on Twitter, apparently.

The Law of Viral Inaccuracy says that the most popular version of a meme is likely to be optimized for shareability, not accuracy to reality nor the intent of the original person saying it. On Twitter, this takes the form of people parroting short phrases as if everybody knows what words mean. One of the phrases I felt a need to critique is Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ “systems, not goals”.

This blog post is adapted from a tweetstorm I wrote.

The term “pre-success failure” from Scott Adams’ book is a gem. His related idea that you should have systems and not have goals is absurd. (have both!) Scott cites Olympic athletes as examples. 🤨

Take 3 guesses what goal an Olympic athlete has… 🥇🥈🥉

Systems don’t work without goals.

You need a goal in mind in order to choose or design what system to follow, and it’s literally impossible to evaluate whether a system is effective without something to compare it with. Implicitly, that’s a goal. (Scott Adams uses a somewhat narrower definition, but of course people just seeing his tiny quote don’t know that!)

We know certain Olympic athletes had good systems because they got the medals. They designed those systems to optimize for their athletic performance.

Lots of other Olympic athletes also had training systems, but their systems didn’t work as well—as measured by their goals.

I’m part of a team that runs a goal-setting workshop each year called the Goal-Crafting Intensive (where part of the craft is setting up systems) and the definition of goal that we use in that context is:

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Nothing is Behind

This article was adapted from a late-night Captain’s Log entry of mine from last April. I did most of the edits at that time and thought I was about to publish it then, and… here we are. That delay is particularly amusing given the subject-matter of the post, and… that feels compatible somehow, not contradictory!

I’ve done a bit of writing since then, getting back in touch with my intrinsic motivation to blog without any external systems. We shall see when any of that ends up getting published going forward. I am publishing this now because:

  1. I shared it with a participant at the goal-crafting intensive workshop last weekend and they found it valuable
  2. because I came across this tweet:

The writing begins:

@ 12:30am – okay, I need to account for something
I woke up knowing today was a blog beemergency. I went back to sleep for 1.5h.
I got up, knowing today was a blog beemergency. I did Complice stuff, almost-all of it non-urgent.
I reflected late afternoon (above) knowing today was a blog beemergency. I did other stuff.
…and I had the gall to consider, around 10pm, that I might weasel.

(If you’re not familiar with Beeminder, “blog beemergency” means that I owe Beeminder $ if I don’t publish a blog post that day. Weaseling in this case would refer to telling it I had when I hadn’t, then (in theory, and usually in practice for me) publishing something a day or two later to catch up)

I don’t want to get into self-judgment here, but just… no. Weaseling undermines everything. At that point you might as well just turn it off or something. Except, bizarrely… part of me also knows that this Beeminder blog system does continue to work relatively well, despite my having weaseled on it somewhat and my having derailed on it regularly.

…in many ways, the Beeminder part of it is actually totally broken, except inasmuch as its ragged skeleton provides a scaffold to hang my self-referential motivation on—ie the main role that it provides is a default day on which to publish a blog post (and by extension, a default day on which to write) and it acts as a more acute reminder of my desire to be actively blogging. But… it’s not in touch with any sense of deep purpose.

…I don’t have that much deep purpose that generates a need to blog regularly. And it’s nebulous the extent to which my sense of deep purpose is connected with needing to blog at all, at the moment.

I do have the sense of having relevant things to say, but I’m—hm. Part of it is like, the strategic landscape is so up-in-the-air. Like who is Upstart? What’s this Iteration Why thing, and where am I in relation to that? And how all of that relates to my other projects!

So then, I could be publishing other things that are more instrumentally convergent, independent of whatever exactly emerges there. When I look at my Semantic Development airtable though… a lot of this stuff actually feels like it would be pretty publishable, and I feel quite attracted to working on it… so what’s the issue? Why have I been doing so much Complice stuff, the last week, for instance?

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Dispel your justification-monkey with a “HWA!”

Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.

The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.

We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”

With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:

  • unhelpful for actually understanding what happened (since it’s a form of motivated cognition)
  • an obstacle to feeling safe with each other
  • a costly waste of time & attention

And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?

There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one. » read the rest of this entry »

Understanding understanding

How do you know that you’ve been understood?

This question is one I think about a fair bit, and part of what motivated me to write the jamming/honing blog post.

If I’m saying something something really simple and hard to misunderstand, all I basically need to know is that the message was received and the listener isn’t confused. for example “Hey Carla, I left the envelope outside your room.” If Carla says “OK” then I can be pretty sure she’s understood. (Unless of course she misheard me saying something else reasonable.) A slight modification of this would be a situation where the information is straightforward but detailed—and the details matter. In these situations, often the entire message is recited verbatim. A classic example would be when a number is spoken over the phone, and the listener echoes each set of 3-4 digits.

Gauging understanding via re-generating

But when communicating something more complicated or nuanced, it’s usually not enough for the speaker to just get a “K” in response. If I’m trying to convey a model to you, one common way for us to verify that you’ve understood the model is for you to say something that you would be unlikely to be able to say if you hadn’t. This could take the form of explaining the model in a new way: “ahh, so it’s kind of like Xing except you Y instead of Z” or it could involve generating an example of something the model applies to.

I think we do this intuitively. Responding to an explanation with “K” potentially implies a lack of having engaged with the details. More like “You’ve said some things and I’m not arguing with them.”

On the International Space Station, the American astronauts would speak to the Russian cosmonauts in Russian, and the Russians would reply back in English (source). The principle is that it’s much easier to tell if someone has your language confused than it is to tell if you’ve correctly interpreted something in a foreign language.

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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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Selling to friends (and telling crushes you like them)

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, who remarked:

I’ve got a question for you… I’m working at this company where I get a referral bonus for new hires or new customers, and when I told some of my coworkers that I was friends with the CEO of [Company], they said that I should try to get them to sign up.

…and I was like “whoa, that feels really aversive”. So I was wondering if you have any tips on selling to your friends.

Turned out this is a question I had pondered before, myself. Specifically, last October I found myself puzzling over the question:

“Why was it easy to ask friends for money when I was starting Complice, but not now?”

Fortunately, most of the conversations in which that had happened were recorded in the form of chat logs, so I was relatively easily able to investigate the question framed as such. First, I made a list of relevant factors that were different at the nascent stages of my company versus several years in:

  • in 2013 in was kind of an exclusive offer: you couldn’t just decide to sign up without me contacting you… and I was only looking for ~10 people to start. Not only that, but if I hadn’t messaged them, they probably wouldn’t have even known that it was happening… so there was a sense in which I was giving them valuable information. Whereas now, many of my friends have heard of Complice already.
  • » read the rest of this entry »

Over-empathizing with non-existent suffering

I finally managed to put words to a thing that has been subtly bugging me for awhile: why certain reactions to me being in pain bother me. This post is short!

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, I

I was moving behind a car to get in the passenger side door. I hit my shin on the car’s tow-hitch and exclaimed some sort of sharp sound of pain.

My mom, who had also been getting in the car, started going “Ohh, buddy! That hurts, oh wow, that really hurts…” etc.

…but I wasn’t actually in that much pain, and was mostly wishing her reaction would go away. The pain is already fading. The sympathy is escalating.

This has happened with other people too; this is just the most salient example. I find these encounters pretty disconnecting, because the person is trying to empathize with me but then after the initial moment they’re paying more attention to their own imagination than they actually are to my experience.

In general, pain that doesn’t indicate something is ongoingly wrong will attenuate—it will gradually decrease. This is true for most stubbings of toes, small cuts and scrapes, and so on. But some responses to pain (eg tensing up a bunch) can make things more painful.

A story in which Malcolm is in pain, II

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Expectations: Entitlements & Anticipations

Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.

Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…

A gif from Rocky Horror Picture Show: "I see you shiver with antici..."

1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.

Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.

2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)

There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!

…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.

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“The sparkly pink purple ball thing”

Alternate title: “Use unique, non-obvious terms for nuanced concepts”

Naming things! Naming things is hard. It’s been claimed that it’s one of the hardest parts of computer science. Now, this might sound surprising, but one of my favoritely named concepts is Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2.

I want you to pause for a few seconds and consider what comes to mind when you read just the bolded phrase above.

Got it?

If you’re familiar with the concepts of S1 and S2, then you probably have a pretty rich sense of what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you have a partial notion: “I think it was about…” or something. If you’ve never been exposed to the concept, then you probably have no idea.

Now, Kahneman could have reasonably named these systems lots of other things, like “emotional cognition” & “rational cognition”… or “fast, automatic thinking” & “slow, deliberate thinking”. But now imagine that it had been “emotional and rational cognition” that Kahneman had written about, and the effect on the earlier paragraph.

It would be about the same for those who had studied it in depth, but now those who had heard about it briefly (or maybe at one point knew about the concepts) would be reminded of that one particular contrast between S1 and S2 (emotion/reason) and be primed to think that was the main one, forgetting about all of the other parameters that that distinction seeks to describe. Those who had never heard of Kahneman’s research might assume that they basically knew what the terms were about, because they already have a sense of what emotion and reason are.

Update: I have revised my opinion on S1/S2 in particular. There may or may not be meaningful clusters being pointed at by Kahneman and others, but in this case the terms S1 & S2 were vague enough that a bunch of other things got projected onto them instead. See this LW post and my comment on it for more on this.

The more general point I’m trying to make in this point still stands though.

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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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