Just Do A Thing (that nobody’s expecting you to do)

This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.

Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented.  How do we make more people like you?”

It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:

“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”

Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once.  I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.

I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour.  Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch.  I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.

These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs.  My advice to pretty much everyone:

» 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 »

Levels of dis-identification with your thoughts

What’s the difference between these two phrases? How do you imagine you’d feel, if someone said one of them to you? Is it different?

  1. “I notice I feel angry”
  2. “I’m angry”

Personally, I would feel a lot more comfortable with the first one. I think this is true for lots of people, particularly people who like NVC-like communication.

But, I was at one point surprised to learn, it’s not true for everyone. Some people find statements like #1 above to be annoying. I don’t have a really deep model of why, but I think it triggers a sense of beating-around-the-bush or otherwise not being frank.

I want to share the value I see in using phrases more like #1 than #2, and to place them on a spectrum rather than just having them be binary. To do that, I’m going to tell a brief story here, which is based on a true story that inspired this post.

The story of the hurt one and the hurter

Friends of mine, whose names aren’t Mitch and Lia, asked me to help them have a tough conversation at a conference we were all attending. They’d been in a romantic relationship for several months, and things were kind of shaky at that point. An incident happened where, due to some ambiguous communication and differing assumptions, Mitch basically felt like Lia had totally ditched him when they’d agreed they would have lunch together that day. Lia had seen him in a conversation with someone else and thought he looked engrossed so she didn’t want to interrupt and figured they’d reconnect in the cafeteria or whatever.

» read the rest of this entry »

Lost & Found (a song I wrote)

I wrote this song over 2 years ago, shortly after I first became connected with the Center for Applied Rationality. It was an eye-opening experience, and I found myself wondering how I fit into everything… the Bay Area rationality communities, my intentional community in Waterloo (which I was also fairly new to at the time). I was also in the process of re-understanding my own identity and how to communicate Malcolmness to people. For reasons, it took me awhile to get around to recording it. But it still resonates with me a lot.

LnF-ogImage2

Lost & Found Lyrics

I got lost, and found
that I could no longer hear my favorite sounds
and so I wandered around… singing aloud

trying to capture all these thoughts
trying to master all these abilities
learning to connect all the dots
and cultivating possibilities

I got lost, and found
that all my bright colors had turned to greys and browns
as I wandered around, downtown

» read the rest of this entry »

Unselfconsciousness training (MFT III)

Raise your hand if you’ve practised mindfulness before.

Mindfulness [meditation], as probably most of you know, is the practice of focusing your attention on (usually) your breath, and when your mind wanders, bringing it back. You’re training your ability to deliberately influence your subjective experience. You’re training your ability to not be distracted, and to recover from distraction.

But how are you doing this? You’re sitting on your cushion, in your quiet room… practising not being distracted by… well, nothing. I mean, your own thoughts, sure. But you’re not really trying to use your brain for anything, so this is pretty crude: all thoughts get set aside. This is maybe level one mindfulness: a good foundation, but not that directly applicable to everyday life.

What can you do with it? What would applied mindfulness look like?

How could you train these skills in contexts more like the ones in which you’ll actually use them?

» read the rest of this entry »

Unlearning shoddy thinking

A Crumpled Paper Ball by Turinboy

School taught me to write banal garbage because people would thumbs-up it anyway. That approach has been interfering with me trying to actually express my plans in writing because my mind keeps simulating some imaginary prof who will look it over and go “ehh, good enough”.

Looking good enough isn’t actually good enough! I’m trying to build an actual model of the world and a plan that will actually work.

Granted, school isn’t necessarily all like this. In mathematics, you need to actually solve the problem. In engineering, you need to actually build something that works. But even in engineering reports, you can get away with a surprising amount of shoddy reasoning. A real example:

Since NodeJS uses the V8 JavaScript engine, it has native support for the common JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) format for data transfer, which means that interoperability between SystemQ and other CompanyX systems can still be fairly straightforward (Jelvis, 2011).

This excerpt is technically totally true, but it’s also garbage, especially as a reason to use NodeJS. Sure, JSON is native to JS, but every major web programming language supports JSON. The pressure to provide citable justifications for decisions which were made for reasons more like “I enjoy JavaScript and am skilled with it,” produces some deliberately confirmation-biased writing. This is just one pattern—there are many others. » read the rest of this entry »

Pattern-botching: when you forget you understand

It’s all too easy to let a false understanding of something replace your actual understanding. Sometimes this is an oversimplification, but it can also take the form of an overcomplication. I have an illuminating story:

Years ago, when I was young and foolish, I found myself in a particular romantic relationship that would later end for epistemic reasons, when I was slightly less young and slightly less foolish. Anyway, this particular girlfriend of mine was very into healthy eating: raw, organic, home-cooked, etc. During her visits my diet would change substantially for a few days. At one point, we got in a tiny fight about something, and in a not-actually-desperate chance to placate her, I semi-jokingly offered: “I’ll go vegetarian!”

“I don’t care,” she said with a sneer.

…and she didn’t. She wasn’t a vegetarian. Duhhh… I knew that. We’d made some ground beef together the day before.

So what was I thinking? » read the rest of this entry »

Abstracting from Experience

Some things you don’t learn by being told (or telling yourself), you learn by organizing your experiences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend, Ruby, over skype. Our conversation drifted to letters one might send to one’s past self, from say 1-2 years ago. Aside from the obvious tip-off’s about stock prices or romantic inclinations or lacks thereof, what would be useful to say? Ruby proposed sending his past self a list of books to read sooner. I though that was probably better than lots of other approaches (in part because it lets you send more information than you could possibly fit into a letter) but it seemed to me like there was a non-obvious challenge to doing that effectively, related to experience. There are some books that are broadly pretty mindblowing, but I’ve found that often when books really rock my world it’s because I’m particularly ripe for them at that moment. I think that trying to send a revelation to your past self, if you weren’t ready for it, might have a bit of an Archimedes’s Chronophone effect, where everything comes out sounding kind of obvious rather than insightful.

A second story: I was talking with some friends about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory. The structure of CDT is about shifting parts of your experience from being [thoughts you are subject to] to being [thoughts you can take as object, i.e. think about]. I’ve blogged about this here. Its content is a set of five specific subject-object stages in how people view themselves, ideas, and other people. Anyway, one of the people I was talking to has a 10-year-old daughter, and he was wondering if I had advice on how to help her go through the shifts faster. After noting that that wasn’t necessarily a good idea (I mean, it could be, but it might make her feel more distanced from her peers), I remarked that the process is complex and it’s not enough to just teach her certain things or to get her to do certain other things.

Because each subsequent shift in Kegan’s system represents not just new knowledge or understanding, but an entirely new kind of order applied to the level below. » read the rest of this entry »

Go more meta by developing an immunity to iocaine powder

You might not be as meta as you think you are.

“…so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of…”

There’ s a famous scene in The Princess Bride, in which, after winning a game of skill and a game of brawn, the Man in Black engages with Vizzini in a “battle of wits” The Man in Black prepares two cups, and places one in front of himself and the other in front of his adversary. It’s pretty hilarious. Watch here, or read the transcript below.

Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right… and who is dead.

Vizzini: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

Man in Black: You’ve made your decision then?

» read the rest of this entry »

When you can’t find the edge of the frame

I had a recent experience which is prompting this blog post, although I’ve thought a lot about the bits and pieces of it already. I’ll get to the recent experience in a bit.

Un-identifying with thoughts

Kaj Sotala started a fantastic thread on the CFAR alumni mailing list about un-identifying with desires. He described how when he experienced himself having conflicting desires in himself, he realized he could “step outside the two desires, and stop identifying with either one.” Instead of being one of the desires, he wrote,

“I was an external observer, watching two parts of me mutually figure out whose suggested course of action would be more useful for the organism’s overall well-being.”

Other highlights from the thread were some relevant questions and observations, including:

  • How does this relate to Kahneman’s System 1 & System 2? (roughly intuition vs analytic thinking) Sometimes the conflict appears to be framed as S1 vs S2, but there is actually some emotional resonance with “S2’s side” as well.
  • Mindfulness meditation seems to be about this disidentification. I totally agree with this, and will say more about it later.
  • This might be helpful for handling some experiences of anxiety
  • This seems very related to internal family systems (IFS)
  • It takes practice to do this consistently. While there can be an epiphany-like quality to realizing shifts like this, ultimately your habits are still what they were until you train new ones.
  • The act of un-identifying with our experience is kind of like waking from a dream. (The writer suggested that perhaps this was the reason for the title of Sam Harris’ recent book Waking Up)

Frames for identifying and not identifying with your experience

(This section was my contribution to the thread.)

I think that this ability to model yourself as having multiple parts and to step outside of being a particular one is really, really fundamental… to rationality and to a lot of other core skills such as relating with other people.

» 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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