Beyond “Giving Feedback”: Co-Attending & Attunement

The process “giving feedback” is outdated. Or limited, at least.

Let’s do a post-mortem on a post-mortem, to find out why…

My friend Benjamin (who works with me on both Complice and the Upstart Collaboratory culture project) and I had an experience where we were making some nachos together, and… long story short: most of them burnt. We then spent a bit of time debriefing what had happened. What was the chain of events that led to the nachos burning? What had we each experienced? What did we notice?

This yielded a bunch of interesting and valuable observations. One thing that it did not yield was any plans or commitments for how we would do it differently in the future. Anything like “So when [this] happens next time, I’ll do [that], and that will act as a kind of preventative measure.”

Given that lack of future plans or commitments, one might ask: was it a waste of time? Did we not really learn anything? Will things just happen the same way again? » read the rest of this entry »

Taking myself seriously

I realized recently that while I’m pretty consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, there’s another mindset shift that I’m often missing.

I was reading an insightful book called Influencer. One of the sections of the book describes a man with a love of chocolate, who wants to lose weight and tries to replace his chocolate-snacking habit with a carrot-snacking habit. I know the feel—chocolate is very compelling to me. From that book:

“Initially, failure signals the need for greater effort or persistence. Sometimes failure signals the need to change strategies or tactics. But failure should rarely signal that we’ll never be able to succeed and drive us to pray for serenity. For instance, you find yourself staring at a half-eaten ice cream cone in your hand. Should you conclude that you’re unable to stick with your eating plan so you might as well give up? Or should you conclude that since it’s hard to resist when you walk past the ice cream parlor on your way home from work, you should change your route? The first conclusion serves as discouraging brake on performance, whereas the second provides a corrective guide that helps refine your strategy.

The book describes the first response—concluding you can’t do it and giving up—as Fixed Mindset, and the second as Growth Mindset. They depict an overdramatic Fixed Mindset internal monologue:

“Henry wonders if he can overcome the genetic hand that he’s been dealt… has [no] self-discipline… surely he’s doomed… believes he hadn’t been born with ‘the right stuff.'” …etc.

I basically never have thoughts like that.

Which led me into the puzzle of why, if I’m consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, do I not consistently respond in that second way? That is, using each failure as a corrective guide, tweaking my path so I don’t encounter future temptations. » read the rest of this entry »

The Process Lens

A lot of things that we usually model as events or states can be thought of as processes. Depending on the context, this process lens can

  • boggle the mind
  • improve goal-orientation
  • bring clarity to communicating and relating

I’m going to go through them in that order because it’s also perhaps in increasing levels of complexity.

Some brief bogglement

When was the last time you looked at the stars at night?

I was hanging out with my friend a few weeks ago, staring at the stars while we talked about the nature of the universe.

It occurred to me that in some ways it’s less accurate to say that the stars “are bright”, and more accurate to say that they’re continually emitting light. I mean, obviously, but really stop and think about it: say you’re looking at the “North Star” (Polaris). It’s about 400 light years away, which means that the fact that you’re seeing light from that direction right now is because of a bunch of nuclear reactions in the star, like 400 years ago. A few seconds later, you’re seeing new light, made from some more nuclear reactions. And on and on.

And that light is being continually sent out in all directions. There’s a giant sphere radiating out from Polaris of light-from-400-years-ago. There’s another sphere of light-from-500-years-ago, which is a thousand light-years across (Earth is inside this sphere) and still expanding. The sphere of light-from-300-years-ago is also gigantic, but won’t reach Earth until the 22nd century. (If you’re reading this in the 22nd century or later, then OMG HI. Please forgive this claim which is now false.)

So the light you’re seeing isn’t just the state of things. It’s a process that is continuously happening.

» read the rest of this entry »

Common-knowledge self-commitments for changing patterns of thought

So we’re trying to upgrade our mindsets.

Here’s my formulation of what we’ve been doing at my learning community, which has been working well and shows a lot of potential to be even more powerful:

With deep knowledge of why you want to change, make a clear commitment, to yourself. Then, share that commitment with people who support you, and make it common knowledge.

I’ve written before about a hard vs soft distinction: with hard accountability, there is a direct, specific negative outcome as a result of failing to meet your commitment. This is the domain of commitment contracts (“if I don’t write this paper by tuesday 8pm, I’ll pay you $50”) and systems like Beeminder. With soft accountability, you’re making a commitment to paying attention to your behaviour in the relevant area and shaping it to be more in line with your long-term vision.

Read that post to find out more about the distinction. Here I just want to note that hard accountability has some disadvantages in fuzzy domains, for instance in changing habits of thought. One is that if there’s a grey area, it’s then very unclear if you’ve succeeded or failed at the committed behaviour, and you need to know. Furthermore, it’s likely to be the case that the behaviour change you want to make isn’t exactly the same as the one you can measure, which means that your commitment is now somewhat at odds with your goal, in that you’re optimizing for the wrong thing.

» read the rest of this entry »

Introducing the Cast (of Malcolm Ocean)

Hi! I’m Interface. You may remember me from A ritual to upgrade my Face. I’m the part of Malcolm that navigates most social situations, and represents the bulk of his personality. I also like self-expression in the form of blog posts. You’ll meet the rest of the cast on the Malcolm show in a bit. Although most of the characters aren’t that visible from the outside, usually.

The rest of this intro will just be in first person as Malcolm.

Brief context—feel free to skip ahead—as a result of the sci-fi novel Crystal Society (it’s fantastic, go read it) the CFAR alumni list got talking about modeling one’s society of mind. One alum linked to a blog by someone named Mory Buxner, in which he plays a game where he has 8 different parts, each of whom gets a particular kind of score for the kind of thing that they do, and they take turns being in charge of what Mory is up to.

I shared this post on Facebook, which prompted Brienne Yudkowsky to try breaking down her different Drives to Action in this way. She did so by having a dialogue between the different parts, in which they try to map out who all of the parts are, by figuring out which parts were attracted towards different activities. Activities that she’d done while spending a week doing whatever she felt like doing. Her blog post.

And yesterday/today, what I felt like doing was following her lead and doing this myself. I didn’t spend a week doing whatever I felt like—this seems to not actually work very well for me. But I made a list, from intuition. Then I clustered it into groups (some of these will end up merged). Then I talked to myself a bunch and managed to create a decent list of motivations—including a part that had been kind of hidden until now!

Without further ado…

A list of activities I’ve felt drawn towards recently, organized into clusters.

Cluster A: read fiction, watch movies (and occasionally TV shows), look at art / illusions / trippy videos.

Cluster B: play Dominion, MtG, and other games… cuddle, make out, scroll my facebook newsfeed, watch music videos, wikipedia adventures, random research.

» read the rest of this entry »

Delegating to future-you can be a suggestion, not a command

Imagine that you often forget to put the trash out on thursday night before the garbage truck comes on friday morning. Taking the trash out isn’t super fun, but you know, neither is never taking the trash out (eww) and it’s probably better to take it out thursday night than friday at noon.

So then imagine that it’s thursday night, and you’re on the phone with your friend from out of town, and they remind you that “hey, last time we talked, weren’t you lamenting that you always forget to take the trash out on Thursday?”

That would be a pretty helpful reminder, right? And you probably wouldn’t be mad at your friend. I deliberately made it be your out-of-town friend reminding you, not your housemate, because I wanted to have it be a person who obviously wasn’t responsible for doing it themselves.

Now.

Imagine that instead of your friend reminding you, the reminder comes from past-you. You had set up a little calendar event or something that goes “ping!” on thursday evenings. I think that the way a lot of people feel about these reminders from past-selves is that they’re commands: “HEY YOU. TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE, NOW.” » read the rest of this entry »

Causal Explanations vs Normative Explanations

If somebody asks you why, there are often two markedly different kinds of explanations you could give.

Their differences are psychological & social in addition to being semantic.

Two kinds of Why

“everything is the way it is because it got that way”
— D’Arcy Thompson

I run a software company, and sometimes users will email me asking, “Why is feature X like this? It should be like that.”

My response, which I don’t necessarily write out: if you want to know “why feature X is like this”, well… I could tell you the long history of how Complice mutated its way to being what it is today, which would contain a causal explanation for why the feature is the way it is.

…however, if you’re looking for not a causal explanation, but rather a normative explanation, or justification of “why it makes sense for feature X to be like this”, then I don’t really have one. I basically agree with you. All I have to offer is that it would be work to change it. And that I probably will at some point but it hasn’t been a priority yet.

We might say that causal explanations explain “why [proposition] is true” whereas normative explanations explain “why [[proposition] is true] is ‘reasonable,’ or ‘acceptable.'”

I think we want to be a little wary of the second kind of explanatory process. » read the rest of this entry »

The Two-Channels Model for Mindset Change

It can be tempting, when engaging in mindset-shifting, to dream of the day when your old mindset goes away forever. I think that that’s not the best target to aim for. It may happen eventually, but there’s often a long phase where both streams of thought coexist. Sometimes it’s even helpful to still have access to that old mindset, but in a kind of isolated way, where you can query it for its opinion but it doesn’t actually run your decisions. Knowing this is important, because otherwise you can think of old-mindset thoughts as failures.

What does this feel like on the inside? One model that my intentional community developed is the idea of there being multiple channels to your thought. So if you have a model of human experience that has steps something like this…

Stimulus → Perception → Interpretation → Feeling / Thought → Intention → Action

…then the channels model suggests that your brain generates multiple interpretations of a given perception in parallel, each of which can in turn generate distinct thoughts and feelings, which might tend you towards different kinds of action. Unless you’ve trained in this particular kind of mindfulness or phenomenological awareness, any particular experience will usually be primarily interpreted through one channel, yielding a dominant thought/feeling/intention/action that comes out of how that channel makes sense of things. I think the skill of pulling these apart is valuable.

» read the rest of this entry »

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.

Creating contexts for desire cultivation

1

Nate Soares just published the first article to The Mind’s UI, a group blog that I’ve set up with him and Brienne Yudkowsky. It’s called Enjoying the feeling of agency, and in it Nate said that one thing that helps with that enjoyment is

Context and framing: it’s much easier to draw satisfaction from a clean room if your mother didn’t make you clean it.

I wanted to elaborate on that, drawing on very recent (even ongoing) experiences of being home for the holidays.

I’ve spent the last year living in an intentional learning community (let’s call it LRC) that has a number of interesting features. One of these, as I’ve described before, is that nobody ever has to do the dishes. We have some agreements about how we want to keep the kitchen space and the cooking utensils available for use; even here, nobody ever yells or guilt trips people for not following them. At our best, we approach the act of giving that kind of feedback with openness and curiosity. Sometimes it produces experiences of frustration which are processed in a different way.

But the point is, for the most part, we all get to navigate the kitchen based on our own desires and needs, and our abilities to discern what makes sense. This is really relaxing. But that’s not the only reason we do it.

2

When I got back to Nova Scotia to see my family a couple weeks ago, I was amused to experience surprise when I saw a bunch of dirty dishes in the sink. I had become very accustomed to the fact that part of our dishing system in the LRC house where I live is that we stack dirty dishes next to the sink rather than in them, which makes for much better flow in various ways. I looked at the pile of dishes in the sink and figured that it would look a lot nicer if they were washed or put in the dishwasher. So I did that.

» 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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