Open letter: Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

I wrote this addressed to a learning community of a few dozen people, based in Ontario, that evolved from the scene I used to be part of there before I left in late 2020. I’m about to visit for the first time in nearly 2 years, and I wanted to articulate how I’m understanding the purpose & nature of my visit. It’s also aimed to be a more general articulation of the kind of work I’m aiming to do over the coming years.

This writing is probably the densest, most complete distillation of my understandings that I’ve produced—so far! Each paragraph could easily be its own blog post, and some already are. My editing process also pruned 1700 words worth of tangents that were juicy but non-central to the point I’m seeking to make here, and there are many other tangents I didn’t even start down this week while writing this. Every answer births many new questions.


Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

To “jam” is to improvise without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements.
“Convening” means coming together, and Ontario is of course that region near the Great Lakes.
As for the “meta-protocol”…

It seems to me…

It seems to me that: consistent domain-general group flow is possible and achievable in our lifetimes. Such flow is ecstatic and also brilliant & wise. Getting to domain-general group flow momentarily is surprisingly straightforward given the right context-setting, but it seems to me that it usually involves a bit of compartmentalization and is thus unsustainable. It can be a beautiful and inspiring taste though. (By “domain-general” I mean group flow that isn’t just oriented towards a single goal (such as what a sports team has) but rather an experience of flow amongst the group members no matter what aspects of their lives or the world they turn their attention to.)

It seems to me that: profound non-naive trust is required for consistent domain-general group flow. This is partially self-trust and partially interpersonal trust.

It seems to me that: in order to achieve profound non-naive trust, people need to reconcile all relevant experiences of betrayal or interpersonal fuckery they’ve had in their life. This is a kind of relational due diligence, and it’s not optional. It’s literally the thing that non-naive trust is made out of. That is, in order for a group to trust each other deeply, they need to know that the members of that group aren’t going to betray each other in ways they’ve seen people betray each other before (or been betrayed before). Much of this is just on the level of trusting that we can interact with people without losing touch with what we know. So we either need to find a way to trust that the person in front of us won’t do something that has disturbed us before, or that we ourselves aren’t vulnerable to it like we were before, which involves building self-trust. It takes more than just time & experience to build trust—people need to feel on an embodied level why things go the way they’ve gone, and see a viable way for them to go differently.

It seems to me that: people attempt to do this naturally, whenever they’re relating, but understanding what’s going on and how to make it go smoothly can dramatically increase the chances of building trust rather than recapitulating dysfunctional dynamics by trying to escape them.

» read the rest of this entry »

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?

» read the rest of this entry »

The Unreserved YES

(This post is much more stream-of-consciousness than many of my other posts. I’m working stuff out live.)

I was doing Focusing earlier today, and reflecting on a complex, challenging decision I’m starting to feel into. I found myself remembering a video I’d watched last night. I want to share it with you, so I’ve pulled out the snippet that’s really good. It’s literally 14 seconds, and you only really need the first 5. Click to watch:

Michael Franti and this girl Jocelin have just sung a song together, and he then asks her if she’d like to sing with him onstage. As she comprehends the proposal, her face lights up.

YES!” she says.

Not “yes.”

Not “yes?”

Not “…yes…”

YEAH! I LOVE STAGE!”

When I saw that video last night, I shared it and wrote:

Interview at start, and the song… eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ , kinda cute.

Her utter unreserved enthusiasm at the end, both on her face and in her voice, when he’s like “Do you want to come and sing on stage with us?”…

…glorious. I’m not exaggerating.

I’ve forgotten how to say YES like that. Or maybe it’s that my desires have become complex and conflicted and so it’s never totally clear what I want. Or maybe I’m not putting myself into situations where the right question will even get asked. Or maybe I’m afraid.

I want to say YES like that. » read the rest of this entry »

5 Things I’ve Learned from Extensive Couchsurfing

Over the past few years, I’ve spent about 7 months staying with friends while traveling. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experience.

1. Offers can come from surprising places

One of the main ways that I’ve found people is just by posting to Facebook that I’m going to be in town and I’m looking for a place to stay. (I suspect this works better for me than other people, since I have a fairly engaged feed.) This is a nice approach, because it lets me cast a wide net without anyone really feeling like I’m putting pressure on them.

At any rate, apparently I still feel a bit weird about posting this or something. I’ve known for quite awhile I’d be traveling to the Bay Area again this August, and yet I still didn’t manage to get around to making a simple post until yesterday. I think it’s that issue again where not getting what you want feels immensely worse if you can’t pretend you didn’t want it.

Anyway, offers to stay, both on facebook and from people I’ve talked to in person, have often come from people I didn’t actually know very well at the time, which I wouldn’t have expected. Although of course I got to know them better via staying over, so we’re closer now 🙂

» read the rest of this entry »

Shoals: what do you know you don’t want?

Shoal, n. an area of shallow water, especially as a navigational hazard.

a photo of waves crashing on rocks near a cliff face

There are lots of questions that it’s helpful to know the answer to. One of these is “What do I want?” But this is a hard question to answer… which means despite its theoretical value, it’s not particularly practical. A question being worth answering doesn’t make it a good question. If it’s a hard question to answer, then asking it might be fruitless and frustrating. So one generally effective tip is to consider what other questions you could ask that will be more tractable than a hard question but yield similar insights.

In the case of “what do I want?” which is often a scary question, one great alternative is “what do I know I don’t want?” In particular, in a given domain.

My friend Shane Stranahan calls the answers to the second question “shoals”. The idea is that if you’re on a ship, and trying to land it ashore, then the shore is the goal… but the water may be treacherous, containing a bunch of shallow water that you can run aground on. These are the shoals: they’re close to the goal, they’re made out of the same stuff as the goal (land) but they’re not the goal, and they represent a risk to you reaching the goal.

And, if you have a good map of where they are, you’re much more likely to sail safely to shore. » read the rest of this entry »

“What’s it like to be you?”

At burning man this year, I spent a day exploring that question, from the inside and from the outside.

“What’s it like to be you?” I asked someone sitting at the Tea House at my camp. They said something like, “It’s awesome. My life is really great. I have all of these really good friends…” and I said “Sure, sure, but what’s it like?”

I was trying to understand, I guess, what the texture of his qualia was like. (Qualia = “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”(wikipedia)) I was having this feeling that other people were just figures in my dream, or just characters in my story, and I think this was in part an attempt to break out of that.

I spent a few hours at the Tea House, talking with friends and strangers, trying to get glimpses into what the plots of their stories looked like, and sampling my own experiences as well. I ran into Brayden, one of my campmates, around the start of this, who told me that he was heading out. I ran into him again, hours later, just before I was heading out, and he said he was going to go sleep.

I spent a moment being present to the reality that he had had his own story happen in the space between those two tiny interactions, and that our plots had just intersected momentarily.

After I left camp, I found myself reflecting that the “What is it like to be you?” question, while pointed and interesting, wasn’t the only way to get clues about the texture of others’ experience. “How are you doing?” when asked with the right kind of tone, could actually generate some windows into the other person as well. Also, of course, off-hand remarks that people make, if you’re paying attention.

Part of my mission for that day was » read the rest of this entry »

Four easy ways to create value for your friends

People in entrepreneurship circles talk a lot about creating (and capturing) value. It’s a pretty decent model for business: make something valuable, or perform a valuable service, and then “capture” enough of that value to be profitable. Value is created, on net, when the outputs of a system or process are more valuable than the inputs. Magic! Extropy! But this is a real thing, and it applies much more broadly than business.

So this post is basically a list of easy ways (aka ‘low-hanging fruit’) to create value in the lives of people around you. I’ve also considered reasons why people don’t do this more, and offered suggestions as to why those reasons don’t matter, and ways around them.

Massage

Me massaging a friend of mine.

Let’s bring grooming back.

I have an affordance for massaging shoulders. It’s also something I enjoy doing, at least for a few minutes. Also, most people I’ve met really like having their shoulders massaged. So I’ve started just casually massaging my friends’ shoulders (making sure they’re into it first of course) and I was struck by just how much value gets created in a few seconds of massage. The cost of me giving a massage is very low, and the benefit is massive.

So why doesn’t it happen more?

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The Iron Ring and Heroic Responsibility

Content note: scrupulosity triggers

The iron ring, on my finger, with a deep purple background.

I conceived of the following piece last saturday, on my way into the Iron Ring Ceremony, a.k.a. the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.

The iron ring is to remind engineers to care more about human welfare than following orders or doing what’s convenient.

I’m intending to frame it personally as being about heroic responsibility. Which is, I think, the natural extension of the ritual.

The concept of heroic responsibility comes from the brilliant fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s from chapter 75, but the spoilers are vague enough that unless you’re at chapter 70 or something then I wouldn’t worry about it:

The boy didn’t blink. “You could call it heroic responsibility, maybe,” Harry Potter said. “Not like the usual sort. It means that whatever happens, no matter what, it’s always your fault. Even if you tell Professor McGonagall, she’s not responsible for what happens, you are. Following the school rules isn’t an excuse, someone else being in charge isn’t an excuse, even trying your best isn’t an excuse. There just aren’t any excuses, you’ve got to get the job done no matter what.” Harry’s face tightened. “That’s why I say you’re not thinking responsibly, Hermione. Thinking that your job is done when you tell Professor McGonagall – that isn’t heroine thinking. Like Hannah being beat up is okay then, because it isn’t your fault anymore. Being a heroine means your job isn’t finished until you’ve done whatever it takes to protect the other girls, permanently.” In Harry’s voice was a touch of the steel he had acquired since the day Fawkes had been on his shoulder. “You can’t think as if just following the rules means you’ve done your duty.”

The myths say that the original iron rings were made of materials from the twice-collapsed Quebec Bridge of the early 1900s (which took 88 lives during its construction). There’s no evidence that the rings were forged from its ruins, although the disasters definitely helped forge the ceremony itself. It was designed by Rudyard Kipling, who wrote its oath and also this relevant poem. The ceremony is understood to be private, so I will not be discussing anything that was not available to me prior to attending. Which makes this excerpt of the oath fair game, since it’s public on the internet:

I […] bind myself upon my Honour and Cold Iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an engineer, or in my dealings with my own Soul before my Maker.

Let’s ignore the soul part for the purpose of this post, and look closer at this one:

“in aught that concerns my works”

But what does concern my works? What works do I concern myself with? Through the broad lens of heroic responsibility, it’s not just about the deaths I might be responsible for by designing a faulty bridge that collapses. I can still hold myself responsible for the deaths that occur as a result of the technology I fail to develop or even fail to conceive of. In order for this to be at all sane, I need to keep in mind that I have finite resources and that each action therefore has opportunity costs. There’s also a risk of this just feeling overwhelming, because of all of the deaths I would understand myself to be responsible for.

Two keys to this:

1. Framing effects: remember the thing where people choose [a certain chance of saving 200/600 people] over [a 1/3 chance of saving all 600 people], but choose [a 2/3 chance of all 600 people dying] over [400 people certainly die], even though those are exactly opposite decisions?

So I’ll frame it as “lives I’m responsible for saving” rather than “deaths I’m responsible for”. Obviously it’s a bit more complex than this, but this points at the thing.

2. Avoiding self-judgment: I want to honestly appraise my own impact on the world, but I don’t want to kick myself unnecessarily when I fail. I just want to do better. This is especially important in a context where so many outcomes are probabilistic anyway—i.e. even if something turns out poorly, it may still have been the best decision. The oath includes:

For my assured failures and derelictions I ask pardon beforehand of my betters and my equals in my Calling here assembled…

One important aspect related to this is where to go on the risk-reward spectrum. It’s easy to have guaranteed small positive impact, by e.g. volunteering at a homeless shelter. But since we’re facing risks to the survival of the entire human race, and I am responsible for lives not yet created as well, I will be aiming at whatever I deem to be the most likely leverage point towards averting these and colonizing the stars.

The remainder of the post will be a brief reflection on my thinking around oaths and behaviour change, focusing on this one in particular.

Oaths that lose their original purposes

I learned this lesson early. At age 15, I found myself in a kind of long-distance relationship. As we parted ways for what we knew would be months, she left her hair elastic around my wrist. I decided to keep wearing it, and wrote her an email describing some personal change that she’d inspired me to undertake:

i’ve been wearing your hair elastic on my wrist since you gave it to me, and i’m going to leave it there as a kind of reminder that i want to change

6 months later, she stumbled across that old email, and sent it back to me, suggesting “i think you should rate yourself of how well you held up to all that stuff this far into the year!” In my response I remarked that I had done pretty well, but that I was “completely ashamed of forgetting that the elastic is for change, and not just for you… because I had completely forgotten until I saw this email again”.

In other words, it had become a kind of wedding band, and I had completely forgotten my vows.

But, at the time, FollowUpThen didn’t exist, so I couldn’t tell that email to return to my inbox every few weeks to remind me of my original purpose. FUT will likely form part of how I keep this in my consciousness long-term, though I may also incorporate some daily rituals.

Oaths that only change thought, not behaviour

Topher Hallquist writes:

The problem is that once you’ve committed to “do the right thing all day, every day,” you’ve given yourself a powerful incentive to rationalize whatever you do do as being the right thing.

It’s generally hard to change behaviour suddenly, even when that change is relatively concrete. But it’s even harder to accurately assess something like whether you’ve been “doing the right thing”, meaning that you’re likely to mess it up a lot of the time and it’ll be hard to notice when you do. And that’s without a firm commitment to doing the right thing. With a firm commitment, depending on how it’s framed, you may become actively averse to noticing evidence that you might be failing. To some extent this makes sense: if you think you’re failing, then whatever you swore that commitment on must clearly not matter that much to you. So it’s a bind.

I have lots of thoughts on this particular subject, but for now suffice it to say that this is definitely a context within which you want to commit to trying, rather than to succeeding. As long as you don’t forget, of course, that the goal is to succeed, and that that’s the ultimate metric that matters.

What my hero ring commitment looks like

So given everything above, how am I actually framing this for myself?

I’m going to regularly (daily to begin with) take some time to reflect on the following statement, periodically revising the words so they point more directly at the meaning I have in mind:

I commit myself to focusing the lens of heroic responsibility and using it in as much of my decision-making as feels reasonably possible. I am not merely responsible for following my object-level role in a context, nor the meta-level role of one-who-does-the-ethical-thing. I am responsible for doing whatever it takes to protect the world, permanently. I am not holding myself to be forced to perform any particular actions, simply that I do not accept any limit to my responsibility: no point when I can pass matters off and say “I did my job; it’s out of my hands now.” I may delegate, but I remain responsible for the outcomes.

Sometimes it might make sense to me to take a breather; I’m responsible for what happens in my absence.

Hang on, that last bit is not quite right—if the thing I need most in order to be effective for the world is rest, then there is no absence. So let me try to rephrase that:

Sometimes I might observe that I have, senselessly, distracted myself from my responsibility towards the world. I remain, in the other sense of the word, responsible for what happens as a result.

I am responsible for acting, at all levels, as best I can towards the continued survival and thrival of humanity.

This ring and I are new to each other. I feel like I’m still developing a relationship with it. But it’s going to stay on my finger, and my responsibility is going to stay in my consciousness.

Self-Authorship: writing your own story

Growing up, you make decisions, but it’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.

Finally, you reach grade 12. It’s time to choose which university to attend after high school!

  • To check out the prestigious university where your dad went, turn to page 15.
  • To visit the small campus nearby that would be close enough to live at home, turn to page 82
  • To take a road trip with friends to the party college they want to go to, turn to page 40.

That’s a decent set of choices. And you know, there exist hypothetical future lives of yours that are really awesome, along all pathways. But there are so many more possibilities!

The Paradox of Choice

Both personal experience and principles like Analysis Paralysis agree that when you have tons of choices, it becomes harder to choose. Sure. But, to the extent that life is like the hypothetical Choose Your Own Adventure Book (hereafter CYOAB) above, I don’t think the issue is that there aren’t enough options. The issue lies in the second sentence, which contains a huge assumption: that in grade 12, it’s time to choose a university to attend. Sure, maybe later in the book is a page that says something about “deferring your offer” to take a “gap year”, but even that is presented as just an option among several others. And so it goes, beyond high school and post-secondary education and into adulthood.

What you don’t get to do, in a CYOAB, is strategize about what you want and how to get it. » read the rest of this entry »

Looking for Beggars: A Perspective Shift

In January, while doing an internship in San Francisco, I found myself in the hospital. Fortunately, I needed to have insurance to even step foot in the states, so the hospital stay passed without a hitch. After my first night there, someone came by from the company I was working for and brought me food. However, the hospital was already feeding me, and they’d brought me, among other things, a whole fruit basket! I can’t eat so many apples and oranges by myself even when healthy.

I therefore decided, when I was discharged, that instead of just throwing out the remaining food, I would try to give it to the people on the street near Union Square who were begging. What followed was a remarkable experience.

The first observation I made was that the street people weren’t nearly as omnipresent as I’d thought—I lived near Union Square and I had the sense that I’d be able to give away the food in about 15 minutes easily. The first bit, indeed, went quickly, but then I had to spread out.

More significantly, I found it to be a profoundly unique feeling to be looking for beggars. So often the impulse is to try to avoid eye contact or to look away, in an attempt at denial or at least an attempt to avoid feeling obliged to help. This was a 180° shift for me, and was quite a surprise.

A similar experience showed up for me this week, when I was at a friend’s house and he had a device that looked like a squash racket with metal strings, that would literally zap fruit flies out of the air. I grabbed it and obliterated a few, and then found myself looking for fruit flies… opening cupboard doors in hopes of finding some. What?! If you’d told me last week that I’d spend some of this week excitedly looking for fruit flies (and disappointed not to find any) I would have been quite skeptical.

But it was fun! And so was interacting with the people on the street, once I was feeling truly and deeply generous. I also learned that many homeless people will refuse apples—because they don’t have sufficient teeth with which to eat them. That was totally something I took for granted.

I think there’s a broader lesson here, which is that a tiny shift in intention can transform situations from being unpleasant or tiring into being exciting and enjoyable. This can be applied to one’s life (making a game out of a chore) or could be used to create a product like that bug zapper. Any product that takes a necessary part of life and makes it fun instead of unpleasant offers a clear value to the users.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to coordination between parts of people as well as between people. More about me.

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