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.



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 »

Why do you ask?

(This post starts with a technical example, but it’s not about the technical stuff so don’t worry about trying to understand the details.)

The XY Problem

A friend of mine reached out to me earlier today, with a question about trouble she was having while coding something. She’s working in NodeJS, which I’m really familiar with since it’s what my productivity app, Complice is built on. “I’m having this problem with doing GET-requests… I can’t get them showing different things based on the url…”

A few sentences later, when I still didn’t really understand her problem, I said, “Hang on. Let’s back up—what is the user trying to do here? Like what’s the point of this page?”

She said something like, “so it’s like, they’re trying to load the data, but when they bring up the page, I can’t specify exactly what data they want.”

“Nonono, back up. I still don’t know what problem you’re solving for the user of this system. What’s the user trying to do?”

When you’re stuck on (or in) a problem, it can be easy to end up with a really narrow view of what you need to do to solve it, becoming overfixated on a given intended solution and focusing all of your questions around that solution, rather than around the original problem. This can happen on the scale of a day’s debugging, or on the scale of an entire startup.

It took me several more times of asking before I finally got my friend to back up far enough to talk about the situation from the user’s perspective, and once she did, she was suddenly like WAIT! and then came back a few minutes later with the solution.

As I had predicted, the biggest hurdle to her figuring out this problem was an assumption that she was making. I actually still don’t know what that assumption was. It would have also been possible for this story to end with her stating one of these assumptions, which I would have then overturned. But she ended up realizing it all on her own.

Stack Overflow, a Q&A website for programmers, calls this whole thing the XY Problem: when the asker asks about their attempted solution, rather than about the original problem they didn’t know how to solve.

Debugging communication

And this isn’t unique to programming.

» read the rest of this entry »

Two Ways to Make Your Language More Conducive to Growth Mindset

Growth mindset is a thing. You can read lots more about it elsewhere, including Mindset by Carol Dweck, which has a 4.5 star rating with >500 reviews. I’m not here to explain in-depth what it is or why it matters. Enough people have done that. I’m here to show you how to do it—applied growth mindset. Importantly, this will include examples of fixed mindset that you can practice reframing to be more growthy.

But in case you’re unfamiliar, let’s start with one-sentence definitions, adapted from Dweck:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities are simply fixed traits, and use their performance to document those traits.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed, and improved upon, which creates a love of learning and a resilience.

But it’s one thing to know how to answer all of Test Your Mindset questions so that you get “Growth” as a result. It’s another to actually operate out of growth mindset consistently.

Spirally, self-reinforcing mindsets

First I want to note that both growth mindset and fixed mindset have the delightful property of being self-reinforcing. People who have growth mindset will tend to improve, which will reinforce the idea that ability is learnable. People who have fixed mindset will tend to stagnate, which will reinforce the idea that they’re stuck with whatever ability level they currently have.

This is exciting, because it means that to some extent, you can get out of this just by deciding to have the other mindset, in part by recognizing that all of the evidence you currently have is determined by the mindset you have and is thus untrustworthy as evidence of “how things actually, fundamentally work”. That there’s an explanation for the-experiences-that-come-with-fixed-mindset that makes sense in growth mindset too. So you can reinterpret everything and switch mindsets.

And, it takes practice to actually operate from a growth mindset, rather than just conceptually understanding that it’s a good idea to do so. In my experience, a lot of this practice can happen on the level of reframing verbal expression, where you can shift your language from fixed to growth mindset. This in turn will shift your thoughts. That’s what this post is about. The practice of thinking growthily. » read the rest of this entry »

What I Learned From 20 Weeks of Habit Hacking

Finding myself one-third of the way through my 2014 Habit-a-week challenge, I decided to look back and critically assess the success of my various habits. You might want to keep that link open in a new tab so that you can refer to the descriptions of each of them. This post mostly isn’t about the content of the habits, but it’ll probably be hard to read if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

  1. Lowering the Lid
  2. Straight Gait
  3. Intentional Tabbing
  4. Perspective-taking
  5. Filler Killer
  6. Befriending my Judger
  7. Pausing before responding
  8. Yes, and…
  9. Eye contact
  10. Transparency & Trust
  11. Hands Off Face
  12. Cutting Corners
  13. Pausing Distractions
  14. Pomoeditation
  15. About You
  16. Revealing Patterns
  17. TagTime
  18. Expressing Appreciation
  19. Learning & Using Names
  20. Curiosity & Model Exploration

Of the 19 habits I’ve tried so far, 7 were successes, 4 were partial successes, and 8 failed. My theory of why this happened is that the first few went well because of phenomena such as the Hawthorne Effect. Essentially, the new-ness of my challenge itself made it exciting. Also, these were habits that I’d been meaning to install for a long time, and which I was 100% on-board with thinking they made sense as default behaviours.

Then… Intentional Tabbing happened. » read the rest of this entry »

Trust-powered feedback loops

This is a followup to my two previous posts on what I’ve been calling mindfulness field training. Essentially, the underlying idea is to practice noticing your thoughts and not getting caught up in them. This post is also, in some ways, a followup to my post from last summer on a technique from CFAR called Propagating Urges.

When talking about behaviour change, we find ourselves asking: what kinds of feedback loops are most effective? One strong possibility is operant conditioning, which researcher B. F. Skinner developed to the extent that he could teach pigeons how to perform very complex tasks (like playing a tune on the piano) in a matter of minutes. Where Pavlovian “classical conditioning” would just associate one preexisting behaviour to a new trigger by creating an association with a natural trigger (eg dogs trained to salivate when bells ring because they’re taught the bells signify food) operant condition allows the trainer to create totally new behaviours. The way it works is that when any behaviour that at all resembles the target behaviour is exhibited, a reward is given, and that reward causes the subject to seek more reward by taking the behaviour further.

CFAR’s Propagating Urges class, last time I saw it, was based around this principle, with the additional aspect of it being a human influencing their own behaviour, which allows for the reward to be a lot more nuanced. The general approach of P.U. was to think of your long term goal and why you want to achieve it, and to connect that feeling to a kind of gesture that you can do (eg pumping your fist and saying “yesss!”) at the moment you notice a thought that’s related to your goal. Depending on how aversive the goal is, that could even include thoughts about how much you don’t want to work on it. So if your goal is filing your taxes on time, then even the thought “Gah, I still haven’t printed out the tax forms!” is still a really helpful thought because you’re at least thinking about your taxes, and you definitely aren’t going to be able to do them without thinking about them.

In my YES! I noticed! post from last summer, I tried exploring using this on myself to get rid of a number of personal habits like going to get a snack when I’m already full, or in general fleeing from aversive thoughts. It had limited effect, for a few reasons, the main two being:
1. I was trying to do a lot all at once and this lack of focus made it hard to stay motivated (I addressed that with this habit-a-week project)
2. I didn’t have very good feedback loops connecting my noticing with any reward
In theory, the focus and reward can be created, but it’s hard.

It’s especially hard because a lot of the highest leverage change comes from shifting mental patterns around fear, shame, judgment, and so on, where it’s hard to get yourself excited about them and where the long-term reward for overcoming them isn’t very tangible, making it hard to try to connect a “yes! I noticed!” with your sense of long-term goal.

A new way to get excited

So typically it’s pretty hard to get excited about noticing frustrating mental loops. What has changed that for me is continued interaction with someone who wants to hear about them (my friend/mentor/project-partner, Jean). » read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness Field Training 2: Motivation

This post is a followup to my previous one on mindfulness field training, which talked mostly about againstness and filler words. This post is also about how to intentionally shape the direction your thoughts go, but it’s more focused on the act of motivating oneself: grit, persistence, zeal, perseverance, roundtoitiveness and so on.

In mindfulness meditation, typically one does not expect to sit down for a 10 minute mindfulness practice and actually be mindful the whole time. The work is actually in (A) noticing you’re not mindful and then (B) bringing your attention back to your breath or heartbeat. Similarly, if we’re going to apply a generalized mindfulness skill to grit and perseverance, my thought is that it makes sense to model the relevant skill as (A) being able to notice when you’ve pushed away from your work and (B) being able to motivate yourself to return to it.

The fork in the motivation road

Last night I was studying and at one point I just sort of turned away from my standing desk and flopped onto my stomach on my exercise ball. I found myself thinking, “Okay, this is interesting… I definitely didn’t make a conscious decision to do this… I just found myself here.” Why, I wondered, had I spontaneously pushed away from my work? Was it unpleasant? Or just, being work, was it more challenging than felt comfortable at that moment?

At that point I had a few options of what I could do, and I thought back to an experience I had on Monday, when I was bringing back about twice as many groceries as the 15lbs I usually carry back from the grocery store. (The main reason being that I’d just learned of an interesting DIY meal-replacement shake that required me buying a ton of broccoli, frozen blueberries, and protein powder.) The grocery bags were really heavy. In the past, I had sometimes paused to rest once or twice on the way home, but this week I was pausing every hundred meters.

There was a pervading sense of “I can’t do this,” I noticed. » read the rest of this entry »

Apologizing and Forgiving

Last weekend, I had a goodbye conversation. It followed this 6-step form, created by Steve Bearman of Interchange Counseling Institute. It was a really powerful framing for this communication that needed to happen.

Steps 2 and 3 of that process are apologizing and forgiving, which was interesting for me. As part of learning to embody the new culture we’re building with the Living Room Context (LRC; learn more here and here) I’ve been trying to live by a series of commitments and assumptions. One of these is:

I commit to offering no praise, no blame, and no apologies; and to reveal, acknowledge, and appreciate instead.

My friend Sean (who was actually spending the entire rest of the weekend at an Interchange workshop) was filling a counselor role and helping to hold the context for us. He and I have talked at length about the LRC and how I’m exploring communicating without apologies, so when we got to those steps, we agreed that it would make sense to take a moment to unpack those terms and figure out (a) what value was in each step and (b) what aspect of them felt incongruous with my mindset.


An apology, we teased out, has three parts:

  1. acknowledging your actions and the negative impact that they had
  2. stating that you wish you had done things differently (and, if applicable, that you intend to do things differently in the future)
  3. asking for forgiveness

Part 1 is the heavy part, where you say “I hurt you, and I own that.” Impact is important, despite it being undervalued in many contexts: consider “It’s the thought that counts”. Even though you didn’t intend to step on someone’s toe (literally or figuratively) it still hurts, and it’ll only hurt more if you try to minimize that. Intent isn’t magic.

Part 2 is saying you care. It’s where you communicate that it matters to you that you had a negative impact, and that you therefore want to fix that aspect of your patterns or whatever caused it. This part is what makes repeat apologies for the same thing feel awkward and insincere.

Part 3… well, that’s what the next section is about.


I want to tell a brief story. It takes place at the Household as Ecology, the LRC-focused intentional community house I lived in this summer. Jean is the owner of the house and one of the key people behind starting the LRC originally. This experience was a huge learning moment for me.

I was in the kitchen, and Jean had pointed out some way in which I’d left the system of the kitchen in relative chaos. I think I left a dirty utensil on the counter or something. I became defensive and started justifying my behaviour. She listened patiently, but I found myself feeling unsatisfied with her response. Finally, I cried out, in mock-agony, “FORGIVE ME!”

“No!” she responded with equal energy.

We both burst out laughing.

I want to pause and recognize that that story might be really confusing if you don’t have an appreciation for the context we’re operating in. Taken, quite literally, out of context, I can appreciate that that exchange might sound unpleasant, and confusing that it would end in laughter. (I’m curious, actually, if this is the case, and would love to hear from you in the comments how you understood it.)

I’m going to try to help make sense of it. What happened here was that even though Jean wasn’t judging me, I felt judged, and was trying to earn her approval again. I wanted to be absolved. Exculpated. Forgiven. But she couldn’t do that. To absolve someone is “to make them free from guilt, responsibility, etc.”… but to the extent that there was guilt, it was entirely inside me. And the responsibility? That’s there whether Jean notices what I’ve done or not. I remain responsible for what I’d done, and response-able to fix the current problem and change my future behaviour.

There was also a sense in which the dynamic of “if I forgive you, you’ll just do it again” applies. When this statement is said with resent, it’s painful, but Jean communicated this (implicitly, as I recall) with care and compassion and a sense of wanting the system to become better for everyone, and of wanting me to grow. Done in this way, it felt like a firmly communicated boundary, and the refusal to “forgive” felt like a commitment to continue giving me the feedback that I need. That I crave, even when it hurts.

From my experience, it’s possible to create a collaborative culture where forgiveness is superfluous. Where you have the impact that you have, and the other person may reasonably trust you less as a result, but they aren’t judging you or harboring any resentments in the first place, so this becomes meaningless.

During the conversation last weekend, what I tried doing instead of forgiveness (although I did try on that language, just for fun) was to communicate that I wasn’t holding any resentment or grudge: that I was not going to carry anger or judgement into the future. This is my default way of operating, and it felt really good to bring up the specific instances that hurt and to offer my understanding and compassion there.

The article linked at the top, that was providing the framework for our discussion, remarks the following:

Forgiveness comes from having compassion toward them and being able to imagine how, when everything is taken into account, their behavior was somehow constrained to be what it was.

When you take a systems-oriented perspective on things (rather than being caught up in a sense of entitlement for things being a certain way) this becomes the default model for everything. And so everything is already forgiven, to the extent that that’s possible.

Contexts for powerful conversations

All in all, this form facilitated us connecting and reaching a place of mutual understanding in a way that otherwise probably would simply not have happened. We had, in fact, tried to fix things before. What allowed us to get through this time was:

  • the form
  • the facilitator
  • the fact that it was indeed goodbye

There was something about it being the end, that made it so we weren’t even trying to fix things. This helped give us the space to be honest and open, which in turn brought way more reconciliation than we thought was possible at that point.

I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to do this, and that the others—both the facilitator and the person I was saying goodbye to—are adept, open communicators. This is what enabled us to go so deep and ask questions like “what are we intending to get out of this apologizing step?” and “what does it mean to forgive someone?”

Of course, my interpretation isn’t the only one. If you understand apologies or forgiveness in some other way, I’d be grateful to hear from you in the comments.

Four valuable types of feedback

Feedback in a household system

A mentioned in previous posts, I spent this summer living at a very interesting household—one dedicated to communication. One topic that came up at several points was that of the ideal position for the toilet seat. I’m male-bodied and grew up in a house where nobody cared, so my default was naturally to not move the seat after using it. However, one of my housemates found this extremely frustrating.

I was unable to quite grasp the nature of her feelings therein until another friend who was visiting described a raised seat as “triggering”. Oh. I had been modelling it as a preference or inconvenience, not as something that was acting on that level. There were a few possibilities here, feedback-wise. Initially I had no feedback. The first bit of feedback I got was my housemate asking if I was aware that I left the seat up. I replied something to the effect of “No, I’m well-aware” and the conversation became quite tense. I felt very defensive. What I was not aware of was the impact of leaving the seat up. This is the real channel for powerful feedback.

The most valuable feedback, naturally, is that which we cannot know on our own. I knew I was leaving the seat up. I know that my vocal chords tend to produce higher amplitude vibrations in the air than most people’s. What I can’t know, without feedback, is how it affects you. I could guess, and I do guess when necessary. But that’s not nearly as powerful. Besides, I want to know how you feel.

Feedback in a relationship
(an interpersonal system!)

Feedback in relationships is essentially the opposite of bottled feelings. Bottled feelings, for the person they’re bottled inside, foments resent and frustration. But it’s not only the person who’s bottled that gets frustrated: to be interacting regularly with someone who’s not expressing themselves to you is confusing and unpleasant.

I was reading the first few chapters of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) earlier today, and was quite naturally struck by the profound transformations people undergo when they feel that they’ve spoken and been heard. This is the power of feedback.

One of my friends, Sandy, has written about how he used a form taken from software development to improve communication within his relationship.

The advantages he points out of using agile in any context:

  • Potential problems are mentioned before they turn into actual problems, and the entire team can brainstorm on ways of fixing them.
  • The entire team gets a better understanding of the project scope, not just those domains they’re directly involved with.
  • Furthermore, everyone gets an idea of what their coworkers’ day-to-day job is like.
  • Feedback becomes frequent, reliable and near-instant.

The point about feedback becoming frequent is key, as without a clear picture of when you’ll get to be heard by your partner it can be easy to become anxious trying to decide if, when, and how to speak your mind.

Sandy recommends Crocker’s Rules as a way to facilitate frankness. While that’s certainly an option, I’d encourage people to be gentle, both with themselves and their partners. There’s nothing “wrong” with you if you get offended when someone calls you an idiot. Furthermore, that particular word is unlikely to be the actual most efficient way of communicating what you’re trying to communicate (which is what Crocker’s rules are about).

On the contrary, it is mostly a judgement and is not very addressable. How does one simply reduce one’s idiocy? My understanding of communication (from LRC and NVC) is that it would be much more effective to talk about what you’re experiencing, how that’s making you feel, and what you need in order to deal with that.

It’s of paramount importance, regardless of how you say it, that people don’t feel like things have been left unsaid. This is easiest when both people are giving each other the benefit of the doubt on what they’re saying. If you need to institute Crocker’s Rules for that to happen, then do it. (EDIT: I’ve since written an article on trust and Crocker’s Rules)

Feedback in an education system

I have a tendency to avoid classes whose professors or styles of teaching I dislike, and it looked at first like my 3A Math course would be the opposite of this. Turns out that there was a substitute prof for the first week. He was entertaining, engaging, and pedagogically sound. The instructor for the rest of the term was basically reading out of the textbook and getting confused whenever we’d get confused.

The worst part, however, was that our homework assignments (which were not for marks!) had no solutions given. Following the thread on feedback, this is clearly ridiculous as the best way to learn is to to try and fail—provided that you immediately realize that you have in fact not performed in the desired manner, and you proceed to practice something slightly simpler until you’re ready for the exercise you messed up on.

The reason he avoided giving us solutions is that he wanted to assign us the exact same questions on the tests and didn’t want us to have solutions for them. I don’t really have any words to describe how I feel about that. None fit to publish, anyway.

What I would like to do is lay out a spectrum of feedback loops and show that tighter loops are better.

Option 1: Homework with no solutions given (as above).
This is not even a feedback loop. It’s not a loop at all. You’ll quite probably never find out how you did on any of the practice problems.

Option 2: Teachers assigning homework and then solutions/answers show up within a week or two.
Slightly better but not really. A two-week feedback loop is still way too long. By that time, you’ve either already done it right and didn’t need the feedback

Option 3: Do a question, check your answer.
This is great. If you can do this, you’ll probably be just fine. It’s better to have solutions than just answers, but at least answers will tell you if you (probably) got it or if you messed something up.

Option 4: The first time(s) working through a problem, check your progress at each step.
This is optimal. See if your textbook has worked examples, and try guessing at each stage what the next step will be before you read it. You might need to read through at least one of the examples first.

The shift here is essentially from wild stabbing in the dark to deliberate practice.

If you find yourself as a student with a teacher assigning question with no answers, try finding similar (often adjacent) questions in your textbook, to ensure that you’re practising the relevant skills. EDIT: or check out Wolfram Problem Generator. I purchased it and tried it out, and while I think the technology is great, unfortunately they don’t cover any of the material I’m actually learning at this point. Would be great for highschool or early university though.

Feedback in a motivational system

The day after I decided to write this post, a friend sent me a copy of some fanfiction she’d written about her favourite band. I really have nothing to do with them, so I thought I’d read the first few chapters to indulge her, because she was my friend, and also because I was curious what the story would be like, as it’s not something I normally read.

She went offline shortly after I started, and when she signed on the next day she was greeted with a deluge of feedback on various lines I’d found hilarious or bits that confused me or felt “off”. When introducing the story, she’d remarked “yeah I haven’t written in months…I need to do itttt I want to but I’ve been working so much” …after reading my feedback, she exclaimed: “Okay now I am 100freaking% writing the next chapter so you can read it haha I like your feedback… it’s going to be amazing.”

This is the power of feedback.

Have a project you’re working on? Something creative? A startup / app? I love giving feedback. Get in touch!

Flow vs Deliberate Practice

Flow and Deliberate Practice are rather popular concepts these days. This shouldn’t be surprising, as everyone wants to be fulfilled in their work and play, and many people want to become an expert in some domain. However, proponents of each approach appear to be in conflict a lot of the time. On top of that, some people think they are the same thing! I believe that they are separate but compatible: two aspects of the same consistent model.

What do we mean by “Flow”?

In an email thread among alumni of CFAR’s rationality workshops, one member commented with a few paragraphs to this effect:

What good SNS* looks like is being in a Flow state. A Flow state is a state in which you are intensely pushing yourself, to the limits of your abilities, toward a goal you are intrinsically motivated to pursue, and receiving frequent and immediate feedback on your progress.

*SNS: for a relevant discussion of the Sympathetic Nervous System, see my earlier post on Againstness Training from a few months ago.

I responded with

I do agree that good SNS looks like what’s described here. At the very least, anything that feels “intense” is almost certainly SNS, and this state you describe is clearly good.

However, I don’t believe this is flow. I think the term you’re looking for is deliberate practice. The turbocharging class/concept [taught by CFAR] is basically a framework for turning anything into deliberate practice.

A fascinating look into a very fundamental part of the psychology of happiness and life satisfaction.

What this exchange reveals, however, is the ambiguity in the word “flow”. » 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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