Models of human relationships – tools to understand people

This post will not teach you the models here.  This post is a summary of the models that I carry in my head.  I have written most of the descriptions without looking them up (See Feynman notebook method).  If you have read a book on every one of these points they will make sense, as if you were shaking hands with an old acquaintance.  If you are seeing them for the first time, they won’t make very much sense or they will feel like a surface trivial truth.

I can’t make you read all the books but maybe I can offer you that the answer to social problems is surprisingly simple.  After reading enough books you start to see the overlap and realise they often are trying to talk about the same thing.  (i.e. NVC + Gottman go together well).

In fact if you were several independent dragon hunters trying to model an invisible beast and all of various people’s homemade sensors kept going “ping” at similar events you would probably start to agree you were chasing the same monster.  Models should start to agree when they are talking about the same thing.  The variety of models should make it easier for different minds to connect to different parts of the answer.

All models are wrong, some models are useful.  Try to look at where the models converge.  That’s where I find the truth.

1. The book Crucial Confrontations – Kerry Patterson
(without explaining how) If you can navigate to a place of safety in a conversation you can say pretty much anything.  Which is not to say “here is how to be a jerk” but if you know something is going to come across negative you can first make sure to be in a positive/agreeable/supportive conversation before raising the hard thing.

In the middle of a yelling match is maybe not the best time to bring up something that has bugged you for years.  However a few sentences about growth mindset, supporting people being a better person and trying to help (and getting a feel that the person is ready to hear the thing) and you could tell anyone they are a lazy bum who needs to shape up or ship out.

The conversation needs to be safe.  For example – “I want to help you as a person and I know how hard it can be to get feedback from other people and I want to make you into a better person.  I have an idea for how you might like to improve.  Before I tell you I want to reassure you that even though this might come across abrasive I want to help you grow and be better in the future…”

(some people will be easier than others to navigate a safe conversation and that’s where there are no hard and fast rules for how to do this.  Go with your gut)

The crux of this model is “have a model of the other person” [15]

2. The partner book “Difficult conversations

There are 4 types of difficult conversations around communicating a decision:
a. Consultation (Bob asks Alice for ideas for the decision he is going to make on his own)
b. Collaboration (Bob and Alice make a decision together)
c. Declaration (Bob tells alice the decision he has made)
d. Delegation (Bob tells alice to make the decision)

As someone’s boss you may sometimes have to pass on bad news in the form of a declaration.  It’s up to you which conversation this is going to be but being clear about what conversation this is will be helpful to a person to understand their place in responding or interacting with you.  It becomes difficult where there is a misunderstanding about what is going on.

It’s also important when you are on the receiving end to be on the same page about what conversation this is.  (you don’t want to be negotiating in a collaborative manner when they are trying to give you a declaration of their decision, and the same when you are leading the conversation).

Among other details in the book.

3. Getting the 3rd story.

linking back to –
(from one of those books [1] or [2])

Bob knows what happened from his perspective and Alice knows her version of events.  Where there is a disagreement of what follows from different versions of events it is possible to construct a 3rd person story.  This may be hard to do when you are involved and an actual 3rd person can help but is not crucial in constructing the story.  If you can step outside of your own story and construct a 3rd version together this can resolve misunderstandings.
Something like; “I thought you said we should meet here, even though I said I wanted ice-cream, you thought that meant we should meet at the ice-cream place next door and we each waited 30mins for the other one to turn up to where we were.”.  By constructing a 3rd story it’s possible that no one was at fault.  It’s also possible that it can become clear what went wrong and how to learn from that or what can be done differently.

(cue business management After-Action-Review activities {what did we do well, what could we have done better, what would we do differently}, now SWOT)

4. The Gottman Institute research (and book)

The 4 horsemen of divorce (but just because that’s what the research is about doesn’t mean we can’t apply it elsewhere) (yes Gottman is limited in value because of bad use of statistics we can’t be sure the models are accurate, I still find it’s a good model at explaining things).

Don’t do these things.  When you see these things, recognise them for what they are and don’t engage with them.  If necessary acknowledge people are feeling certain angry feelings and let them get them out (not everyone can efficiently drop how they are feeling and get on with talking about it, especially not without practice).

Each one has an antidote, usually in the form of an attitude or strategy that can leave you thinking about the same thing differently and relating to it differently.

I. Criticism
I would rename to “inherent criticism”.  Comes in the form of an inherent descriptor like, “you are a lazy person”, “you always run late”.  “you are the type of person who forgets my birthday”[see 5].  Try to replace inherent criticism with *[6] concrete descriptions of actions.

To counter this – try descriptions like [6a]:  “I can see you are sitting on the couch right now and I would like you to offer help when you can see me cleaning”.  “yesterday I saw you try to do a few extra tasks and that caused us to run late”, “you forgot my birthday last year”.

The important thing about the change here is that an inherent label comes in the form of an unchangeable belief.  It’s equivalent to saying, “you are a tall person”.  It’s fixed in time, space and attitude.  You don’t want to give someone a fixed negative trait.  Not in your head and especially not out of your head either to that person or to anyone else.  You set someone up for failure if you do.  As soon as someone is “the lazy one” you give them the ticket to “always be lazy” and if they are half smart they will probably take it.  Besides – you don’t change people’s actions by using criticism.  You maybe relieve some frustration but then you have created some open frustration and the problem still exists.

II. Defensiveness
Probably easiest to understand by the description of reactive defensiveness.  It usually comes as a reaction to an accusation.  If two people are yelling, chances are neither is listening.  In response to “you are always making us run late”, a defensive reaction would be, “I make us run late because you always stress me out”.

It does two things:
1. claim to not be responsible
2. make a second accusation (can be irrelevant to the subject at hand).

First of all if you are bringing up several problems at once you are going to confuse matters.  Try to deal with one problem at a time.  It doesn’t really matter which so long as you are not yelling about being late while they are yelling about you forgetting the laundry. (and so long as you deal with all the problems)

The second part is that you can’t shift blame.  Absorbing some blame does not make you a bad person.  Nor does it make you inherently terrible.  You can have both done a wrong thing and not be a bad person.  After all you had your reasons for doing what you did.

The antidote to defensiveness is to acknowledge [6] what they have said and move forward without reacting.

III. Contempt
This is about an internal state as much as an external state.  Contempt is about the story we tell ourselves about the other person (see NVC) and is a state of negative intent.  I hold you contemptuously.  For example, “a good person would not run late”, “if you were smarter you would just…”, “I work so hard on this relationship and you just…”, Some examples of displays of contempt include when a person uses sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour [see 7 – emotional intelligence about physiological events].  This overlaps with Inherent criticism and makes more sense with [6 NVC].
Contempt has two antidotes, Teacher mindset and curiosity.  Teacher mindset can change an attitude of, “He should know what he did wrong” to, “I need to explain to him how to do it right”.  Curiosity [See NVC, also [3] the 3rd story] can take you to a place of trying to understand what is going on and take you away from the place of the stories we tell ourselves.[10]

IV. Stonewalling
This is a physiological state of going silent.  It is used when you are being lectured (for example) and you go silent, possibly start thinking about everything else while you wait for someone to finish.  It’s like holding your breath when you go underwater, waiting for it to pass.  If you are doing this what you need to do is take a break from whatever is going on and do something different, for example go for a walk and calm down.
There was a classic joke, they asked a 110 year old why he lived so long and he said, every time I got into an argument with my wife I used to go for a walk.  I went on a lot of walks in my life.
Because this is a physiological state it’s so easy to fix so long as you remember to pay attention to your internal state [see NVC what is most alive in you, and 11. what does that look like in practice]

5. How to win friends and influence people

I always recommend this book to people starting the journey because it’s a great place to start.  These days I have better models but when I didn’t know anything this was a place to begin.  Most of my models are now more complicated applications of the ideas initially presented.  You still need weak models before replacing them with more complicated ones which are more accurate.
The principles and (in brackets) what has superseded them for me:

1. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. (There are places and methods to do this.  Criticism can be done as [1] from a place of safety or in [4] from a teacher/mentor/growth mindset.  Definitely don’t do it from a place of criticism.  Condemnation is more about [10] and is an inherent trait.  Progress doesn’t usually happen when we use inherent traits, From Saul Alinsky’s rules for radicals – don’t complain unless you have the right answer – “I have a problem and you have to figure out how to fix it for me” is not a good way to get your problem solved.)
2. Give honest, sincere appreciation. (so long as you are doing this out of the goodness of your heart good.  If you are using it for manipulation you can just not bother.  NVC supersedes this.  By keeping track of what is most alive in you, you can do better than this)
3. Arouse in the other person an eager want. (Work out what people want, work out how to get both your needs met – superceded by NVC.)
4. Become genuinely interested in other people. (depends what for.  Don’t bother if you don’t want to.  That would not be genuine.  You need to find the genuine interest inside yourself first.)
5. Smile. (um.  Hard to disagree with but a default smiling state is a good one to cultivate – from [7] physiological states are linked two ways.  Smiling will make you happy just as being happy will make you smile)
6. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the most important sound in any language. (I don’t know about most important but I would say that anyone can remember names with practice.

7. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. (NVC – pay attention to what is most alive in you when you do. Make sure you know about the spectrum of )
8. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest. (Sure why not.  Sales are a lot easier when you are selling what people want. See [15] and NVC to supersede how and why this works)
9. Make the other person feel important – and do so sincerely. (I guess?  I don’t do this actively.)
10 The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. ([9] if you are in an argument something already went wrong)
11. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.” (NVC, instead of saying no, say what gets in the way.  “here is evidence that says otherwise” can be better than “durr WRONGGG” but I have seen people use “you are wrong” perfectly fine.)
12. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically. (hard to disagree with, but holding onto grudges and guity things is not useful.  [4] gottman talks about defensiveness, avoid defensiveness and acknowledge the fact that someone feels you are at fault first.  It will satisfy the psychological need arising in an offended person [14])
13. Begin in a friendly way. (as opposed to what?  Sure I guess.)
14. Get the other person saying, “Yes, yes” immediately. (Yes ladders are important and valuable.  You see bits of this creeping into Gottman [4], NVC [6], The game [13] and other practices but no one as yet explains it as well as I would like.  The game probably has the best commentary on it, short of business books that escape my memory right now)
15. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking. (not really important who talks so long as you are on the same page and in agreement.  If you want someone else to do the emotional labour [15] for you, then you can let them.  If you want to do it for them you can.  Implications of EL are not yet clear to me in full.  Some places it will be good to do EL for people, other places they need to do it for themselves to feel ownership of the problems and solutions)
16. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers. (sure I guess.  A good idea is it’s own champion.  Ideas that are obviously better will win out.  You can’t make a turd beat a diamond but you can employ tricks to polish certain diamonds over others.  This technique is battling over little bits.  can be useful but I would not rely on it alone.)
17. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. (NVC [6] and EL [15] should help do that better.  Imagining that you are that person in a way that is hard to impart in words because it’s about having the experience of being that other person (see and not “just thinking about it”. needs a longer description and is an effective technique.)
18. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires. (NVC supercedes.  Everyone has basic feelings and needs that you can understand, like the need for safety)
19. Appeal to the nobler motives. (giving people a reputation to live up to is a valuable technique that I would say only works for qualified people – but does not work so well if you put pressure on people who are less skilled.  Probably relates to the things going through our head at the time – see also book – the inner game of tennis, NVC, judgement model)
20. Dramatize your ideas. (I don’t know?  Try it.  It could work.  will not work by virtue of it being a good model of things, might work by luck/breaking people out of their habits)
21. Throw down a challenge. (can work if people are willing to rise to a challenge can work against you and create cognitive dissonance if people are not willing.  Need more information to make it work)
22. Begin with praise and honest appreciation. (Don’t give people a shit sandwich – slices of compliments surrounding shit.  That’s not respectful of them.  Instead using [1] navigate to a place of safety to talk about things)
23. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. (there are correct and incorrect ways to do this.  You can be passive agressive about it.  I don’t see a problem with being blunt – in private, in safe conversations [1] – about what is going on)
24. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person. (don’t yammer on, but it can help to connect you and them and the problem.  NVC would be better than just this)
25. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders. (socratic method, can be a drain, need more advanced skills and [15] EL to know if this is appropriate )
26. Let the other person save face. (better described in I agree with this, but [15] EL might describe it better)
27. Praise the slightest and every improvement. Be “lavish in your praise.” (NVC disagrees, praise only what is relevant, true and valid.  Be a teacher [4] but deliver praise when praise is due.)
28. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to. (This is 19/26 again.  I agree with it.  I could use it more)
29. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct. (agree, solve the “problem” for someone else, make it easy to move forward)
30. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest. (NVC gives a better model of doing what other people want, “with the joy of a small child feeding a hungry duck”)

* Giving people a positive reputation to live up to.  “I trust that you won’t forget my birthday again”.  Don’t be silly with this, “I have confidence that you will give me a million dollars” will not actually yield you a million dollars unless you have reason to believe that will work.

6. NVC – Non-Judgemental communication 

I can’t yet do justice to NVC but I am putting together the pieces.  Best to watch the youtube talk in the title link but here are some short points.  Also this helps –
a. Concrete descriptions
In agreement with Gottman, be concrete and specific –  The objective test of whether the description is concrete is whether the description can be followed by an anonymous person to produce the same experience.  “you are a lazy person” VS “you are sitting on the couch”
b. Acknowledge feelings
people have huge psychological needs to be heard and understood.  Anyone can fulfill that need
c. Connect that to a need
See the NVC video.
d.  Making a request
See NVC video.
e. Saying no by passing your goals forward
Instead of saying no, Consider what it is that gets in the way of you saying no and say that instead.  Keep in mind vulnerability [16].  This also allows people to plan around your future intentions.  If someone asks you to buy a new car and you say, “no I plan to save money towards buying a house” they can choose to be mindful of that in the future and they can act accordingly (not offering you a different car for sale next week).
f. Connect with what is most alive in you right now
See video for best description.

7. Emotional intelligence

There is a two way path between physiological states and emotional states.

Try these:
a. Hold a pencil/pen in your mouth and go back and read the joke about the old man [4]. (expect to find it funnier than you did the first time)
b. furrow your brow while reading the first paragraph of this page again (expect to either feel confused or the cognitive dissonance version if you know it very well – “I know this too well”)
The two way path means that you can feel better about emotional pain by taking a paracetamol, but more specifically, if you take a break from a situation and come back to it the emotions might have improved.  This can include getting a glass of water, going for a walk, getting some fresh air.  And for more complicated decisions – sleeping on it (among other things).

Everyone can train emotional intelligence, they need practice.  This includes holding an understanding of your own states as well as being able to notice emotional states in other people.

I had an ex who had particularly visible physiological states, it was a very valuable experience to me to see the state changes and it really trained my guessing mind to be able to notice changes.  These days I can usually see when things change but I can’t always pick the emotion that has come up.  This is where NVC and curiosity become valuable (also circling).

EI is particularly important when it is particularly deficient.  In the book it talks about anger as a state that (to an untrained person) can cause a reaction before someone knows that they were angry.  Make sure to fix that first before moving to higher levels of emotional management.

8. model of arguments

(see also NVC)

If you view disagreements or misunderstandings as a venn diagram of what you know and what the other person knows.  You have full rights to make comment on anything you know but only have limited rights to make comment on what the other person knows.  Instead you can comment on the information they have given you.  “you said ‘X’, I know Y about what you said ‘X'”.  To say X is wrong, is not going to yield progress.  Instead to acknowledge that they described ‘X’ and their description does not make sense to me, or leaves me feeling confused [6].

9. The argument started earlier

From Gavin: “If I ever find myself in a position of saying – well officer, let me explain what happened…”, Something already went wrong well and truly before now.
When you start the journey you will start getting to “Aha” moments about where arguments start.  As you get more and more experience you realise the argument started well and truly earlier than you ever first realised.  When you get really good at it, you can stop and say [6] “I am confused”  well and truly before a yelling match.

10. The stories we tell ourselves

NVC based, Judgement model, There is a lot of people who are thinking in stories.  Related –

Their entire existence is the story and narrative they tell about themselves (see also Jordan Peterson – maps of meaning).  The constant narrative about how “the world hates me” is going to give you a particular world experience compared to the constant narrative, “I am a lucky person”.  You see this in gamblers who are searching for “the prevailing wind” or “winning streaks”.

You also see this in social pressure – when people think and get fixated on, “what will people think of me?”, sometimes the social pressure does not even have to be there to cause the thoughts and the actions that would be “social pressure”.
Several models of thinking advocate removing the story telling in your head to relieve the psychological pain.  See books, “search inside yourself”, NVC, Gateless gatecrashers, some information in the Persistent Non Symbolic Experience Article.

I am not sure what is the best practice, but mindfulness seems to help as well, since these thoughts are all theoretical, grounding yourself in the concrete [6a] and observing those thoughts seems to alleviate the anxieties it can cause.  But this can explain a lot of people’s actions (they are telling themselves a particular story in their head).

11. Polling your internal states
[related to 6 NVC]. Any time you are disconnected to what is going on, try asking yourself an internal question of “what is going on?” to connect with what is most alive in you right now.  This might be a feeling of boredom.  It could be anything, but if it’s not a good and strong connection with what is presently happening you have a chance to fix it.  (See also the book “The Charisma myth”)

12. circling (The circling handbook)

[6 built on NVC] is a practice of living in the current and present experience.  You can focus on another person or focus on yourself.  Perpetually answering the question of “what is most alive in you right now?” and sharing that with other people.

Some examples include:I am feeling nervous sharing this experienceI just closed my eyes and put my head back trying to think of a good example.I am distracted by the sound of birds behind me.I can feel air going past my nostrils as I think about this question.

The creators of cicling find it a very connecting experience to either share what is going on inside you or to guess at what is going on inside someone else and ask if that’s an accurate guess.  Or to alternate experiences, each sharing one and one.  or each guessing of each other – one and one.

I find it valuable because everyone can understand present experience, and get a glimpse of your current experience in the process of sharing experience with you.  This method can also work as a form of [15] and [7].

13. The game

(From the book The Game) This concept receives equal part condemnation and praise from various parties.

The basic concept of the game is that life is a game.  Specifically social interactions are a game that you can try out.  You can iterate on and repeat until success.  In the book it follows the journey of a pick up artist as he generally disregards other people’s agency and works out how to get what he wants (regularly bed people) through some stages of practicing certain methods of interaction, and iterating until he sees a lot of success.

I see a lot of this concept at kegan stage 3[18].  Everything is about social, and the only thing that matters is social relationships.

Most of the condemnations comes from the failure of this model to treat other people as human, worthy of moral weight, thought or anything other than to be used to your own purposes.  If you don’t like dehumanising people the book can still teach you a lot about social interaction, and practicing towards incremental improvement.

If you feel uncomfortable with Pick up, you should examine that belief closely, it’s probably to do with feeling uncomfortable with people using manipulation to pursue sex.  That’s fine, there is a lot to learn about social and a lot of social systems before you turn into “literally the devil” for knowing about it.  There are also other social goals other than sex that you can pursue.

If you are cautious about turning into a jerk – you are probably not likely to ever even get close to actions that paint you as a jerk because your filters will stop you.  It’s the people who have no filter on actions that might want to be careful – herein lies dark arts and being a jerk.  And as much as no one will stop you, no one will really enjoy your presence either if you are a jerk.

The biggest problem I have with game and game methodology is that we all play a one-shot version.  With high stakes of failure.  Which means some of the iteration and having to fail while you learn how to not be terrible – will permanently damage your reputation.  There is no perfect “retry” – a reputation will follow you basically to the ends of the earth and back.  As much as game will teach you some things, the other models in this list have better information for you and are going to go further than game.

14. what an apology must do from Aaron Lazare, M.D.- on apology

1. A valid acknowledgement of the offence that makes clear who the offender is and who is the offended. The offender must clearly and completely acknowledge the offence.
2. An effective explanation, which shows an offence was neither intentional nor personal, and is unlikely to recur.
3. Expressions of remorse, shame, and humility, which show that the offender recognises the suffering of the offended.
4. A reparation of some kind, in the form of a real or symbolic compensation for the offender’s transgression.
An effective apology must also satisfy at least one of seven psychological needs of an offended person.
1. The restoration of dignity in the offended person.
2. The affirmation that both parties have shared values and agree that the harm committed was wrong.
3. Validation that the victim was not responsible for the offense.
4. The assurance that the offended party is safe from a repeat offense.
5. Reparative justice, which occurs when the offended sees the offending party suffer through some type of punishment.
6. Reparation, when the victim receives some form of compensation for his pain.
7. A dialogue that allows the offended parties to express their feelings toward the offenders and even grieve over their losses.

These are not my notes from the book but they are particularly valuable when trying to construct an understanding of apologising and making up for misdeeds.  I don’t have them in memory but I know when I need to make a serious apology I can look them up.  They fit quite well with [6], but are more specific to apology and not all interactions.

15. Emotional labour

A relatively new concept.  This is roughly the ability to:
I. Model someone else’s emotional state
II. Get it right
III. act on their emotional state

For example:
I. I notice my partners eyes are droopy and they do not appear to be concentrating very well.  Is rubbing eyes and checking their watch a lot.
II. I suspect they are sleepy
III. I make them a coffee, or I offer to make them coffee.  (as a downgraded form I mention they look tired and ask if this is the case)

From Erratio:

Emotional labour is essentially a name for a managerial role in a relationship. This takes on a few different concrete forms.

The first is management of the household, appointments, shopping, and other assorted tasks that are generally shared across couples and/or housemates. Sweeping a floor or cooking dinner is not emotional labour, but being the person who makes sure that those things are accomplished is. It doesn’t matter whether you get the floor swept by doing it yourself, asking your partner to do it, firing up a Roomba, or hiring a cleaning service; what matters is that you are taking on responsibility for making sure the task is done. This is why people who say that they would be happy to help with the housework if you would just tell them what needs doing are being a lot less helpful than they think. They’re taking the physical labour component of the task but explicitly sticking the other person with the emotional labour component.

The second is taking responsibility for the likes, dislikes, feelings, wants and needs of other people who you are in a relationship with (and to be clear, it doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship). Stereotypical scenarios that are covered by this kind of emotional labour include: the hysterical girlfriend who demands that her boyfriend drop everything he’s doing to comfort her, the husband who comes home tense and moody after a long day at the office and expects to be asked how his day went and listened to and have validating noises made at him, noticing that the other person in a conversation is uncomfortable and steering the conversation to a more pleasant topic without having to be asked, helping a confused friend talk through their feelings about a potential or former partner, reminding your spouse that it’s so-and-so’s birthday and that so-and-so would appreciate being contacted, remembering birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and contacting people and saying or doing the right things on each of those dates.

This overlaps with [7].  Commentary on this concept suggest that it’s a habit that women get into doing more than men.  Mothers are good at paying attention to their kids and their needs (as the major caregiver from early on), and stemming from this wives also take care of their husbands.  While it would not be fair to suggest that all wives do anything I would be willing to concede that these are habits that people get into and are sometimes socially directed by society.

I am not sure of the overall value of this model but it’s clear that it has some implications about how people organise themselves – for better or worse.

16. Vulnerability – Brene brown
In order to form close connections with people a certain level of vulnerability is necessary.  This means that you need to share about yourself in order to give people something to connect to.  In the other direction people need to be a certain level of vulnerable to you in order to connect.  If you make sure to be open and encouraging and not judge you will enable people to open up to you and connect with you.
Sometimes being vulnerable will get you hurt and you need to be aware of that and not shut down future experiences (continue to be open with people).  I see this particularly in people who “take time” to get over relationships.  Being vulnerable is a skill that can be practiced.  Vulnerability replaced a lot of my ideas about [13 The game].  And would have given me a lot of ideas of how to connect with people, combined with [15] and [12]. (I have not read her books but I expect them to be useful)

17. More Than Two (book)

This is commonly known as the polyamory bible.  It doesn’t have to be read as a polyamory book, but in the world of polyamory emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate is the bread and butter of every day interactions.  If you are trying to juggle two or three relationships and you don’t know how to talk about hard things then you might as well quit now.  If you don’t know how to handle difficult feelings or experiences you might as well quit polyamory now.

Reading about these skills and what you might gain from the insight that polyamorous people have learnt is probably valuable to anyone.

18. Kegan stages of development

Other people have summarised this model better than me.  I won’t do it justice but if I had to be brief about it – there are a number of levels that we pass through as we grow from very small to more mature.  They include the basic kid level where we only notice inputs and outputs.  Shortly after – when we are sad “the whole world is sad” because we are the whole world.  Eventually we grow out of that and recognise other humans and that they have agency.  At around teenager we end up caring a lot about what other people think about us.  classic teenagers are scared of social pressure and say things like, “I would die if she saw me in this outfit” (while probably being hyperbolic, there is a bit of serious concern present).  Eventually we grow out of that and into system thinking (Libertarian, Socialist, among other tribes).  And later above tribalism into more nuanced varieties of tribes.

It’s hard to describe and you are better off reading the theories to get a better idea.  I find the model limited in application but I admit I need to read more about the theories to get my head around it better.

I have a lot more books on the topic to read but I am publishing this list because I feel like I have a good handle on the whole “how people work” and, “how relationships work” thing.  It’s rare that anyone does any actions that surprise me (socially) any more.  In fact I am getting so good at it that I trust my intuition [11] more than what people will say sometimes.

When something does not make sense I know what question to ask [6] to get answers.  Often enough it happens that people won’t answer the first time, this can represent people not feeling Safe [1] enough to be vulnerable [16].  That’s okay.  That represents it’s my job to get them to a comfortable place to open up if I want to get to the answers.

I particularly like NVC, Gottman, EL, EI, Vulnerability all of them and find myself using them fortnightly.  Most of these represent a book or more of educational material.  Don’t think you know them enough to dismiss them if you have not read the books.  If you feel you know them and already employ the model then it’s probably not necessary to look into it further, but if you are ready to dismiss any of these models because they “sound bad” or “don’t work” then I would encourage you to do your homework and understand them inside and out before you reject them.

The more models I find the more I find them converging on describing reality.  I am finding less and less I can say, “this is completely new to me” and more and more, “oh that’s just like [6] and [7]

Meta: this is something around 6000 words and took a day to write ~12 hours.  I did this in one sitting because everything was already in my head.  I am surprised I could sit still for this long.  (I took breaks for food and a nap but most of today was spent at my desk)

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

Cross posted to Medium:

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How long has civilisation been going?

I didn’t realise how short human history was.  Somewhere around 130,000 years ago we were standing upright as we are today.  Somewhere around 50,000 years ago we broadly arrived at:

the fully modern capacity for Culture *

That’s roughly when we started, “routine use of bone, ivory, and shell to produce formal (standardized) artifacts”.  Agriculture and humans staying still to grow plants happened at about 10,000BCE (or 12,000 years ago).

Writing started happening around 6600BCE* (8600 or so years ago).

This year is 5777 in the Hebrew calendar.  So someone has been counting for roughly that long.

The pyramids are estimated to have been built at around 2600 BCE (4600 years ago)

Somewhere between then and zero by the christian calendar we sorted out a lot of metals and how to use them.

And somewhere between then and now we finished up all the technological advances that lead to present day.

But it’s hard to get a feel for that.  Those are just some numbers of years.  Instead I want to relate that to our lives.  And our generations.

12,000 years ago is a good enough point to start paying attention to.

If a human generation is normally between 12* and 35* years.  Considering that further back the generations would have been closer to 12 years apart and today they are shifting to being more like 30 years apart (and up to 35 years apart).  That means the bounds are:

12,000/35 = 342

342-1000 generations.  That’s all we have.  In all of humanity.  We are SO YOUNG!

(if you take the 8600 year number as a starting point you get a range of 717-242.)

Let’s make it personal

I know my grandparents which means I am a not-negligible chance to also know my grandchildren and maybe even more (depending on medical technology).  I already have a living niece so I have already experienced 4 generations.  Without being unreasonable I can expect to see 5 and dream to see 6, 7 or infinite.

(5/1000)->(7/342) = between a half a percent and two percent of human history.  I will have lived through 1/2% – 2% of human generations (ignoring longevity escape for a moment) to date.

Compared to other life numbers:

Days in a year * 100 year = 36,500 days in a 100 year lifespan.

52 weeks *100 = 5200.  Or one week of a 100 year lifespan is equivalent to one generation of humans.

12,000 years / 365 days = 32.8 years.  Or when you are 32 years old you have lived more days than humans have been collecting artefacts of worth.

8600 years/365 = 23.5 years.  Or when you are 24 years old you have lived one day for every year humans have had written records.

Discrete human lives

If you put an olden day discrete human life at 25 years – maybe more, and a modern day discrete life at 90 years and compare those to the numbers above

12,000/25 = 480 discrete human lifetimes

12,000/90=133 discrete human lifetimes

8600/25=344 discrete human lifetimes

8600/90=95 discrete human lifetimes

That’s to say the entire of recorded history is only about 350 independent human lives stacked end on end.

Everything we know in history has been done on somewhere less than 480 discrete lifetime runthroughs.

Humanity is so young.  And we forget so easily that 500 lifetimes ago we were nothing.

Meta:  Thanks billy for hanging out and thinking about the numbers with me.  This idea came up on a whim and took a day of thinking about and about an hour to write up

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Feelings in the map.

Following on from: Concrete instructions

One of the underlying concepts of NVC (Non Judgemental communication) is to speak from your own perspective.  There is a very powerful instance of being able to ask for clarifications.  “I am confused” instead of “you said something confusing”.  (I previously wrote about locating the disagreement in an argument in: a model of arguments which aligns very well to this part of NVC).

While it may be true from a personal subjective experience that to me it seems like you said something confusing and in my subjective experience the world suddenly became confusing.  In fact – it would be unreasonable to propose that the external world (territory) is where the confusion lies. This is because the external world is valid and real independent on your own observer state of the world. If you ceased to exist, the defined “confusing” nature of the world would also cease to exist. That confusion rests in your own subjective map, not in the real objective existence of the world.

Identifying the confusion is a very early step.  A step independent of resolving the confusion.  Just for starters – identify, “I am confused”.  Then think about the very nature of being confused and what it is to be confused.

This also applies to other feelings.  Some examples include:

  • apprehensive
  • suspicious
  • frustrated
  • irritated
  • repulsed
  • torn
  • numb
  • lonely
  • exhausted

Acknowledging the feelings and giving them the respect they deserve is a step in the right direction.

Sometimes we need to transmit a feeling in order to impart the experience that we are having.  Not just the concrete instruction, but also the feelings that arose.  Independent of what comes next, and independent of the implications (and holding off from weaponising this particular attempt to communicate).  We want to be able to transmit:

  1. Concretely what happened
  2. How we are feeling in this instance

This goes for welcome and unwelcome experiences and feelings.  Some examples include:

(in the sneaky and not concrete form without being clear of the feeling) Whenever you do things for me I feel like the greatest person in the world!

(and in the concrete and specific form that speaks only of yourself) When I got this cookie I felt appreciative.


These two concepts could have been inspired by the same prior experience but for the second one I transmit exactly how to evoke the same feeling in the future (short of extra context that I will explain in another post).

When I show up at a meeting late I feel disappointed in myself.

When I get to a meeting and have to wait for it to start I feel disappointed.

Notice how that is a terrible place to stop?  How it leaves so much unsaid.  How it bleeds feelings all over the place but does nothing about them.  If you know people like this you might have one of three reactions:

  1. Why are you telling me this?  Is it my problem?  I don’t know what to do about this.
  2. I want to avoid this person because apparently their feelings are my responsibility and I don’t know that I agreed to make that my problem
  3. Oh let me help you with those feelings!

The trouble with 3 is that there is a certain type of person who leaks feelings often and can become a naturally draining person.  It’s not their fault!  But there is a solution!  See next post.

Generic human Needs

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Concrete Instructions

The Concrete Instruction Model

This post underpins other posts but may be particularly raw on it’s own.  It’s potentially really dumb and obvious but leads to other important skills later.

What I want you to do is to describe an experience concretely.  The objective test of whether the description is concrete is whether the description can be followed by an anonymous person to produce the same experience.

A few types of bad descriptions:

  • “make breakfast”
  • “I got angry at him”
  • “people should use good manners in the work environment”
  • “learn to play tennis”
  • “get out of the car”

But first – an exercise in knowing what it feels like to have or not have this skill.

The paper folding game

Each participant gets an equivalent white piece of paper.One person stands at the front of the room, facing away from all the other participants so they cannot see what the leader is doing and instructs a few example folds or tear instructions.

“fold the paper in half, then in half again.  Now fold the paper in half a third time, but unfold it.  Now tear off the corner.  Then half tear down the line of the third fold”

No questions should be asked and no one can ask for clarification until the instructions are over.

The participants are to unfold their pages and compare the results.  (bonus points for participants who tried to break the instructions)

If an instruction is concrete and specific enough, the pages will be the same, if not they will be different.

Now imagine the paper is instead instructions for heart surgery.  Or for baking a cake.  The concrete instruction model is telling you to describe your experience so that it can be repeated.

Round 2 is to play again after having explained the process and try to give clear verbal instructions this time.

Make Breakfast

Yea I can do that (as long as it’s an instruction to myself) but can you do what I would do?  Not with this instruction.  Not unless you have watched me make breakfast the same way several times before and expect to repeat that again.

In the case where it does not matter how to make breakfast, it may not be necessary to say anything more other than to give the idea of what happened without being specific.  However if you are teaching someone how to make breakfast it’s important to say more.  (the milk, the cereal, the bowl…)

I got angry at him.

Does this imply an internal state of anger?  An external state of loud voice, speaking fast, storming out of the room. Which external factor does this imply?  Can someone replicate your “angry at” experience by this instruction.  What are you trying to impart and is this description concrete and specific enough to impart what you want to impart?

People should use good manners in the work environment 

Or does it mean the general sentiment and tautological “good manners are good”.

Learn to play tennis (see the book: the inner game of tennis)

It’s funny because I can’t impart you the idea of how to learn, in a short sentence space.  I can only point to other things, like “go get a teacher and listen to what they say and do that”.  Or otherwise use some words to put off the “explanation” to later.  See also: Fake explanations, Applause lights, Occam’s razor.

Get out of the car
Well um.

Or if we were talking about the normal getting out of a car – your average person would be fine to follow that instruction for all relevant purposes.

All I want to impart is “be concrete and specific”.  Have the skill to be able to describe exactly what happened stepwise without advanced evaluations of experience.

Have a short simpson clip that emphasises the concrete experience over the evaluation (Bart saying, “how could this happen” as an evaluation, Millhouse describing what happened)

The ability to provide stepwise experience is a process of breaking down your experience for the communication to a system 2.

Concrete recount is a step on the way.

Next up:

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ideas on a spectrum

In applicable advice, I talk about taking advice carefully, and only when you know why it works, to apply it in purposefully.  There is a specific type of behaviour that can be changed, adapted, challenged and improved.  Some examples include:

  • speaking lots –> speaking little
  • spending lots –> spending little
  • putting your needs first –> putting other’s needs first
  • fully indulging yourself –> fully restraining yourself
  • being forgiving of everyone –> holding a grudge forever
  • never having fun –> only ever having fun

I could make more examples but what’s more important is they all kinda look like this:

Somewhere along the spectrum is where you are right now, somewhere along the spectrum is the ideal spot, balanced between never having fun and only having fun.

When someone says, “I think you should stand up for yourself more”. They are likely saying that your current behaviour on the spectrum of possibility would be best if shifted to somewhere more towards the other end of the spectrum.  It can be hard to know where you are, and what they mean when they say stand up for yourself more.  But that’s the whole point of the problem of ideas on a spectrum.

I think we should try it.

Take a spectrum.  For example how often you eat food.  On one end we have, “I am eating all the time, a real grazer, lots of nibbling, it’s not even distracting” on the other end we have, “I sometimes forget to eat, food just isn’t salient.  I eat whenever other people eat but it’s no big deal and I can skip several meals in a row without noticing”.  Before you say these things are not on a spectrum, don’t bother arguing with me and just make your own spectrum for something that you do care about.

on a scale of 1-10 (or 1-100).  Where do you fall on your spectrum?

Now pick 5 people you know.  Try to place them on the spectrum too.  Think about who does the thing similar to you, and think about who does it better.  (beware that what works for someone else might work for reasons that don’t apply to you, but it’s still a good piece of the puzzle to have).

What if the spectrum was; maximum time spent exercising -> minimum time spent exercising.  Where up one end is, would take an uber to travel a block and up the other end is, stops exercising to eat and sleep and not much else.


Maybe not all spectrums are useful.  And a broad enough spectrum is unhelpful for working with.  So how about for exercise – on a spectrum of “exercises twice a day for 30mins” to “exercises once a fortnight for 30mins”.  Now plot yourself on that spectrum.  Then plot which way you want to move.  Plot 5 of your friends.

I want to emphasise that we are here analysing the current status independent of solutions to the problem.  Let’s face it, if it were easy to exercise more you would already have done it, chances are that (from the immunity to change process) you are experiencing some competing commitments.  Life wants you to both exercise AND sleep in.  Which is hard when you also want to get to work on time.

Independent of what has gotten in the way before, don’t look at strategies for solving the problem right now, only consider where do you want to be on the spectrum and where you are moving from.

So a guy is telling you to be more selfish.  If your map looks like this you might freak out and not listen:

And the reality should hold that if your map of where you think you are is correct you should indeed be less selfish, not more!  Right.  So if his map looks something like this:

It’s not really a disagreement about the virtues of selfishness and selflessness any more.  It can be reasonably true that if you were too selfless in fact you waht to be moving in the direction of being selfish (or giving your own desires higher priority). At the same time as being true that if you were too selfish you want to try to be less selfish.

The question is then – Where are you really on that spectrum, where do other people think you are?  And where do you want to be?  There might be a subjective better place to be on that spectrum but it starts with recognising that there is a spectrum.  Where you stand, Where you want to go, How exactly you do that…  Those are all independent questions.

Each question can be answered with evidence.  Each piece of evidence can be interpreted.  Each bayesian update can be made on each contributing piece of evidence.  We can usefully consider the positions from a place of balance, and maybe greater objectivity for our own situation.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write.  I suck at concentrating and it feels good to write out something I have intended to write out for a long time.

Posted in communication, models of thinking, self-improvement | 2 Comments

Zen Koans

The following is my notes.  From a dojo with Lesswrong Sydney about zen koans.  The recording is how it went down, some things might be hard to understand because there is no visual recording.  I would encourage you to try out the actions when you hear them, specifically one hand clapping.

You can listen along as you read the notes and try to get a better picture of the dojo.  I was reading over my notes as I talked and you can probably understand better if you listen as you read.

Download link: zen koans dojo small


Zen koans are these little riddles that come from Buddhism, they are meant to unlock the state of understanding that comes with enlightenment.  Or they are meant to guide you along the way to getting there.  But before we get into them it’s important to understand the history of zen, Taoism, Buddhism, and a few other things.

There is a system in mind that you are supposed to use when talking about and interacting with Zen koans and what is important to understand is that these are the sorts of things that people were instructed to spend years meditating on one or two line statements where you had to try to grasp what the hell is meant by this one statement.   So over like an hour right now we should be great to crack the secret? Right?  great.

Focused and diffused thinking from the book – a mind for numbers

The book a mind for numbers is written about being the type of brain that’s good at mathematics and one of the things it describes it is the difference between Focused thinking and diffuse thinking. – p37

“Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander.”You often first funnel a problem into your brain by focusing your attention on words—reading the book or looking at your notes from a lecture. Your thoughts rattle easily through the previously ingrained patterns and quickly settle on a solution.

Einstellung effect (pronounced EYE-nshtellung). In this phenomenon, an idea you already have in mind, or your simple initial thought, prevents a better idea or solution from being found.   You bumble about—your thoughts far from the actual solution—because the crowded known thoughts of the focused mode prevent you from springing to a new place where the solution might be found.

(sound familiar?)

System 1 and system 2 (From Daniel kahneman) – system 2 is very good at being specific and focusing and being particular and following instructions that are one by one and a list of something that you may have to concentrate very carefully on to get correct.

In contrast to that system 1 is a more broad understanding of things and includes a general sense of thinking.  (imagine an apple, imagine an ordinary page in a book, catch this ball)

Zen koans are trying to teach you something.  Unfortunately the monks of the time settled on a really annoying method for trying to teach each other and passing on their enlightenment.  For some context they were tricksters, they were comedians and they were pranksters as much as they were serious.  The koans as much as it’s a verbal instruction to think about this thing they want you to think about.  They want you to think about it as a riddle.  Think of it in the diffuse way as in don’t look too hard at it or else you cannot use system 1 that is good at that broad understanding of things, or the feeling of things.

Koans come in the context of monasteries. Monks doing menial tasks, living a simple existence so that they can concentrate on their meditation.

Taoism briefly – translates as, “the way” and there is not much more to know.  Taoism likes to make fun of itself and remain unclear.  Any writing about the tao is said to be “not the real tao”.  Even “Tao” is not Tao.  Nevertheless even though we cannot name it and we cannot describe it, I find the phrase, “the way” to be oddly fitting to me.  Without being specific and without being concrete, that is THE WAY.  to be curious about the way and to ponder is the way.  But not too hard because if you try too hard that would be trying and therefore not actually travelling the way.  It’s cute, it’s self referential, it’s intentionally confusing, but it’s the way.

The 4 line poems.  The first line tells about something, the second line expands on it, the third suggests something new and the fourth line ties it all together.  

(7.   Announcement

Tanzan wrote sixty postal cards on the last day of his life, and asked an attendent to mail them. Then he passed away.

The cards read:

I am departing from this world.

This is my last announcement.


July 27, 1892)

(last poem of hoshin)


Koans are about the subject and object relationship.  

there is a “way of the rules”.

  • First rule to solve Zen koans: Look for THINGS, mentioned in the riddle.
  • Second rule: Look for ACTION mentioned in the riddle.
  • Third rule: Look for the uttering of HOLY actors.

Produce a combination of the first and second rules.

A Koan question sounds a bit challenging perhaps. But they are not designed for the “I” (me) self person to solve.  Zen Koan answers can only be found by the non-thinking, naive and childlike “Person”. For question-answer koans, the answer shouldn’t be explained but expressed by a sign, an action, a little charade.

Koans sound difficult, because they are based on three strange assumptions

  1. The world is simple and nothing else but everyday activities.
  2. Theory or concept are of no use.
  3. You, the actor is identical with everything.

Here’s an example.

The question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a rather well-known Zen Koan and often used as an initiation for Zen students.

It sounds difficult because it’s impossible to clap just one hand, isn’t it?

The answer is quite simple.

How do you clap both your hands? You lift both arms and clash the hands together, don’t you?

Try this movement again, but with one arm and hand only.

That’s it, the “sound” of one hand clapping.

they are also deceptively simple to rest on the surface understanding is to get them.

>What is the symbol of enlightenment? In Zen it is a black circle that surrounds the invisible whiteness of the empty universe.

<there are abstract koans and more understandable koans, I am being picky about the ones I share because I find them easy enough to understand>

  1.   A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

I assume you get the point?

>”you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

that’s one level, obviously – if you never shut up and listen you will never learn

zen cares about that event

the experience of the understanding of the idea of, “shut up and listen”

and the experience of doing so.

there is more to the story…  If you imagine the nature of the event of emptying yourself and think about it.  That is what they are trying to impart the experience of emptying one’s self.

One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.

So what happened in this riddle?

Try this one too:

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?”

Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”

What’s going on?

Taoism has some kind of vague belief that everything is already enlightened.  In the first one Chao Chou was reminded that he does not need help because no one can force you to reach enlightenment.  You need to help yourself.  By lying down the other monk reminded him (sneakily) that he didn’t need help.

“Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

Enlightenment looks the same from the outside.  The existence of life is the same but it happens with a sense of enlightenment

CASE 36. GOSO’S NO WORDS, NO SILENCE Goso said, “When you meet a Man of the Way on the road, greet him not with words, nor with silence. Tell me, how will you greet him?”


As the roof was leaking, a zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.


A monk asked Master Haryo, “What is the way?”

Haryo said, “An open-eyed man falling into the well.”


A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui’s monastery and asked the teacher, “All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin.

Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?” Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.


Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.

One said, “The flag moves.”

The other said, “The wind moves.”

They argued back and forth but could not agree.

Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”

The two monks were struck with awe.


A monk Hoen said: “The past and future Buddhas, both are his servants. Who is he?”

Mumon’s comment: If you realize clearly who he is, it is as if you met your own father on a busy street. There is no need to ask anyone whether or not your recognition is true.


Do not fight with another’s bow and arrow.
Do not ride another’s horse.
Do not discuss another’s faults.
Do not interfere with another’s work.  

asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?”

Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

  1. Just Go To Sleep

Gasan was sitting at the bedside of Tekisui three days before his teacher’s passing. Tekisui had already chosen him as his successor.

A temple recently had burned and Gasan was busy rebuilding the structure. Tekisui asked him: “What are you going to do when you get the temple rebuilt?”

“When your sickness is over we want you to speak there,” said Gasan.

“Suppose I do not live until then?”

“Then we will get someone else,” replied Gasan.

“Suppose you cannot find anyone?” continued Tekisui.

Gasan answered loudly: “Don’t ask such foolish questions. Just go to sleep.”


What is your original face before you were born?

>37.   Publishing the Sutras

>Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

>Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

>It happened that at that time the Uji Rive overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

>Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

>The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.


Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

  1.   The Most Valuable Thing in the World

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: “What is the most valuable thing in the world?”

The master replied: “The head of a dead cat.”

“Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?” inquired the student.

Sozan replied: “Because no one can name its price.”


When you can do nothing, what can you do?

  1.   The Dead Man’s Answer

When Mamiya, who later became a well-known preacher, went to a teacher for personal guidance, he was asked to explain the sound of one hand.

Mamiya concentrated upon what the sound of one hand might be. “You are not working hard enough,” his teacher told him. “You are too attached to food, wealth, things, and that sound. It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.”

The next time Mamiya appeared before his teacher he was again asked what he had to show regarding the sound of one hand. Mamiya at once fell over as if he were dead.

“You are dead all right,” observed the teacher, “But how about that sound?”

“I haven’t solved that yet,” replied Mamiya, looking up.

“Dead men do not speak,” said the teacher. “Get out!”


What is the sound of one hand clapping?


Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”


Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,

“Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”

Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.

Ting was stunned and stood motionless.

A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”

At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.


When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?


One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, “Give me the best piece of meat you have.”

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words, Banzan was enlightened.


After taking the high seat to preach to the assembly, Fa-yen raised his hand and pointed to the bamboo blinds. Two monks went over and rolled them up in the same way. Fa-yen said, “One gains, one loses.”


Once Ma-tsu and Pai-chang were walking along and they saw some wild ducks fly by.

“What is that?” the Master asked.

“Wild ducks,” Pai-chang replied.

“Where have they gone?”

“They’ve flown away,” Pai-chang said.

The Master then twisted Pai-chang’s nose, and when Pai-chang cried out in pain, Ma-tsu said, “When have they ever flown away?”


One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.


Te-shan was sitting outside doing zazen. Lung-t’an asked him why he didn’t go back home. Te-shan answered, “Because it’s dark.”

Lung-t’an then lit a candle and handed it to him. As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out. Te-shan had a sudden realisation, and bowed.


What is the colour of wind?


A monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him.

Zhao Zhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”

The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”

“Then go wash your bowl,” said Zhao Zhou.

At that moment, the monk was enlightened.


If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.


A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, “What is Buddha?”

Tozan said: “This flax weighs three pounds.”


  1.   Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”


  1.   What Are You Doing! What Are You Saying!

In modern times a great deal of nonsense is talked about masters and disciples, and about the inheritance of a master’s teaching by favorite pupils, entitling them to pass the truth on to their adherents. Of course Zen should be imparted in this way, from heart to heart, and in the past it was really accomplished. Silence and humility reigned rather than profession and assertion. The one who received such a teaching kept the matter hidden even after twenty years. Not until another discovered through his own need that a real master was at hand was it learned hat the teaching had been imparted, and even then the occasion arose quite naturally and the teaching made its way in its own right. Under no circumstances did the teacher even claim “I am the successor of So-and-so.” Such a claim would prove quite the contrary.

The Zen master Mu-nan had only one successor. His name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Mu-nan called him into his room. “I am getting old,” he said, “and as far as I know, Shoju, you are the only one who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations. I also have added many points according to my understanding. The book is very valuable, and I am giving it to you to represent your successorship.”

“If the book is such an important thing, you had better keep it,” Shoju replied. “I received your Zen without writing and am satisfied with it as it is.”

“I know that,” said Mu-nan. “Even so, this work has been carried from master to master for seven generations, so you may keep it as a symbol of having received the teaching. Here.”

The two happened to be talking before a brazier. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the flaming coals. He had no lust for possessions.

Mu-nan, who never had been angry before, yelled: “What are you doing!”

Shoju shouted back: “What are you saying!”


  1.   Open Your Own Treasure House

Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”

“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.

“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.

Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”

Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”

Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: “Open your own tresure house and use those treasures.”


  1.   The Taste of Banzo’s Sword

Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son’s work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him.

So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father’s judgment. “You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?” asked Banzo. “You cannot fulfill the requirements.”

“But if I work hard, how many years will it take me to become a master?” persisted the youth.

“The rest of your life,” replied Banzo.

“I cannot wait that long,” explained Matajuro. “I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?”

“Oh, maybe ten years,” Banzo relented.

“My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him,” continued Matajuro. “If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?”

“Oh, maybe thirty years,” said Banzo.

“Why is that?” asked Matajuro. “First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!”

“Well,” said Banzo, “in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly.”

“Very well,” declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, “I agree.”

Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordsmanship.

Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his future, he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to which he had devoted his life.

But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific blow with a wooden sword.

The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo again sprang upon him unexpectedly.

After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to think of the taste of Banzo’s sword.

He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master. Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.


  1.   The Last Poem of Hoshin

The Zen Master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:

One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you fellows should treat me well this year.”

The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.

On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”

The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on.

Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”

“Can you?” someone asked.

“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”

None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin called them together.

“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither a poet or a calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”

His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.

“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.

“Yes sir,” replied the writer.

Then Hoshin dictated:

I came from brillancy

And return to brillancy.

What is this?

This poem was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”

Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

Thanks for reading!  I hope you liked the dojo.

Meta: this probably took 4+ hours to write, not including the time it took to become enlightened and then decide to try to share it.

To become enlightened you must first invent the universe.

Posted in exercise, Hobbies, models of thinking | 1 Comment

Call to action

Core knowledge: List of common human goals
Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation
Part 1a: The application of the secretary problem to real life dating
Part 1b: adding and removing complexity from models
Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.
Part 2a.1: A strategy against the call of the void.
Part 2a.2: The call of the void
Part 2b.1: Empirical time management
Part 2b.2: Memory and notepads
Part 3: The time that you have
Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 3b: Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1: In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2: Yak shaving 2
Part 4c: Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1: Scientific method
Part 4d.2: Quantified self
Part 5: Skin in the game
Part 6
Call to action

A note about the contents list; you can find the list in the main parts, the a,b,c parts are linked to from the main posts.  If you understand them in the context they are mentioned you can probably skip them, but if you need the explanation, click through.

If you understand exploration and exploitation, you realise that sometimes you need to stop exploring and take advantage of what you know based on the value of the information that you have. At other times you will find your exploitations are giving you diminishing returns, you are stagnating and you need to dive into the currents again, take some risks.  If you are accurately calibrated, you will know what to do, whether to sharpen the saw, educate yourself more or cut down the tree right now.

If you are not calibrated yet and you want to start, you might want to empirically assess your time.  You might like to ask yourself in light of the information of your time use all on one page – Am I exploring and exploiting enough?  Remembering you probably make the most measurable and ongoing returns in the Exploitation phase, however the exploration might be seem more fun (to find exciting and new knowledge), and the place where you grow, but are you sure that’s what you want to be doing in regard to the value return by exploiting?

Why were you not already exploring and exploiting in the right ratio?  Brains are tricky things.  You might need to bargain trade-offs to your own brain.  You might be dealing with a System2!understanding of what you want to do and trying to carry out a System1!motivated_action.  The best thing to do is to ask the internal disagreeing parts, “How could I resolve this disagreement in my head?”, “How will I resolve my indecision at this time?“, “How do I go about gathering evidence for better making this decision?”.  This all starts with noticing.  Noticing that disagreement, noticing the chance to resolve the stress in your head…

Sometimes we do things for bad, dumb, silly, irrational, frustrating, self-defeating, or irrelevant reasons.  All you really have is the time you have.  People take actions based on their desires and goals.  That’s fine.  You have 168 hours a week. As long as you are happy with how you spend it.  If you are not content, that’s when you have the choice to do something else.

Look at all the things that you are doing or not doing that does not contribute to a specific goal (a process called the immunity to change).  This fundamentally hits on a universal; Namely what you are doing with your time is everything you are choosing not to do with your time.  There is an equal and opposite opportunity cost to each thing that you do.  And that’s where we come to revealed preferences.

Revealed preferences are different to preferences, they are in fact distinctly different.  I would argue that revealed preferences are much more real and the only real preference, because it’s made up of what actually happens, not just what you say you want to happen.  It’s firmly grounded in reality.  The reality of what you choose to do with your time (what you chose to do with your time yesterday).

On the one hand you can introspect, consider your existing revealed preferences and let that inform your future judgements and future actions.  As a person who has always watched every season of your favourite TV show, you might decide to be the type of person for which TV shows matter more than <exercise|relationships|learning> or any number of things.  Good!  Make that decision with pride!  What you cared about can be what you want to care about in the future, but it also might not be.  That’s why you might want to take stock of what you are doing and align what you are doing with your desired goals.  Change what you reveal with your ongoing actions so that they reflect who you want to be as a person.

Do you have skin in the game?  Who do you want to be as a person?  It’s a hard problem.  You want to figure out your desired goals.  I don’t know how exactly to do that but I have some ideas.  You can look around you at how other people do it, you can consider common human goals.  Without explaining why, “knowing what your goals are” is important, even if it takes a while to work that out.

If you know what your goals are you can compare your goals and the list of your empirical time use.  Realise that everything that you do will take time.  If these were your revealed preferences, what do you reveal that you care about?  But wait, don’t stop there, consider your potential:

Potential To:

  • Discover/Define/Declare what you really care about.
  • Define what results you think you can aim for within what you really care about.
  • Define what actions you can take to yield a trajectory towards those results.
  • Stick to it because it’s what you really want to do.  What you care about.

That’s what’s important right?  Doing the work you value because it leads towards your goals (which are the things you care about).  If you are not doing that, then maybe your revealed preferences are showing that you are not a very strategic human.  There is a solution to that.  Keeping yourself on track looks pretty easy when you think about it.

And If you find parts of your brain doing what they want at the detriment of other parts of your goals, you need to reason with them.  This whole; define what you really care about and then head towards it, you should know that it needs doing ASAP, or you are already making bad trade offs with your time.

Consider this post a call to action as a chance to be the you that you really want to be!  Get to it! With passion and joy!

Core knowledge: List of common human goals
Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation
Part 1a: The application of the secretary problem to real life dating
Part 1b: adding and removing complexity from models
Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.
Part 2a.1: A strategy against the call of the void.
Part 2a.2: The call of the void
Part 2b.1: Empirical time management
Part 2b.2: Memory and notepads
Part 3: The time that you have
Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 3b: Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1: In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2: Yak shaving 2
Part 4c: Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1: Scientific method
Part 4d.2: Quantified self
Part 5: Skin in the game
Part 6
Call to action

A note about the contents list; you can find the list in the main parts, the a,b,c parts are linked to from the main posts.  If you understand them in the context they are mentioned you can probably skip them, but if you need the explanation, click through.

Meta: This took about 3 hours to write, and was held up by many distractions in my life.

I am not done.  Not by any means.  I feel like I left some unanswered questions along the way.  Things like:

  • “I don’t know what is good, am I somehow bound by a duty to go seeking out what is good or truly important to go do that?”
  • “So maybe I know what’s good, but I keep wondering if it is the best thing to do.  How can I be sure?”
  • “I am sure it is the best thing but I don’t seem to be doing it.  What’s up?”
  • “I am doing the things I thing are right but other people keep trying to tell me I am not.  What now?”
  • “I have a track record of getting it wrong a lot.  How do I even trust myself this time?”
  • “I am doing the thing but I feel wrong, what should I do about that?”

And many more.  But I see other problems worth writing about first.

Posted in models of thinking | 1 Comment

Skin in the Game

Core knowledge: List of common human goals
Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation
Part 1a: The application of the secretary problem to real life dating
Part 1b: adding and removing complexity from models
Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.
Part 2a.1: A strategy against the call of the void.
Part 2a.2: The call of the void
Part 2b.1: Empirical time management
Part 2b.2: Memory and notepads
Part 3: The time that you have
Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 3b: Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1: In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2: Yak shaving 2
Part 4c: Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1: Scientific method
Part 4d.2: Quantified self
Part 5: Skin in the game
Part 6
Call to action

A note about the contents list; you can find the list in the main parts, the a,b,c parts are linked to from the main posts.  If you understand them in the context they are mentioned you can probably skip them, but if you need the explanation, click through.

We describe armchair philosophers, the likes of classical philosophers who really didn’t have access to science the way we do today.  All they could do is sit in their chairs and ponder.  It gives images of Freud in his study full of books.  The thinker, great people sitting back and thinking.

But then there’s the dark side of the armchair philosopher.  The likes of the junk-food only dieting,  children-in-adult bodies.  People not in control of their environments.  Some sort of gratification haven setup.  People who talk the talk more than they walk the walk.  Spending more time theorising about evolutionary psychology and what it suggests about social interaction than actually going out and practicing social interaction.  I mean…  Do they even walk?  Do they even run?  Do they even lift?  Could they answer if asked why we even lift?  Yes.  I am talking about your average chat-room, forum, tweeting, Click-tivist, anti-social, keeps to themselves and brooding against the world.

This post is about a very specific failure mode – not having skin in the game, as it aligns with myself and Lesswrong.  This post is mostly to help me look at myself and send a message that I am not working hard enough (remembering that advice comes on a spectrum and you should sometimes reverse the advice that you hear).  And for that I say, I am sorry and I am going to try and work harder.

I get a lot of joy from climbing the abstraction ladder, and being able to comment on a phenomena without actually being concrete.  Then I get a lot of joy out of being concrete and specifying how ideas relate to the real world.  I often share with people that I am a collector of models of thinking (one day I will write a list) – the lenses through which one can see the world and understand what they see.

We know from mental contrasting that when we imagine a goal and only achieving the goal we don’t necessarily get motivated to further achieve the goal.  instead it’s a matter of imagining the contrast between the goal and the barriers or also the goal and what it might feel like to not succeed.  Just visualising the positive doesn’t encourage you to reach the goal.  Looking at whether you should share your goals through this lens starts to make more sense now.

I bring up mental contrasting to warn about the hazard of too much armchair activity.  Really embodied in the click-tivist trolley problem –

There is more to this problem than meets the eye, it’s not just that armchair activism is laaame and doesn’t actually “do” things, it’s also that you have a trade-off, there is an opportunity cost between your choices of what you do with your time.  You trade off maybe saving a life with maybe alerting more people to save a life.  If you can alert 11 people with a 10% chance each of actually saving a life, instead of saving the life yourself, by doing some math, you can statistically save 110% of each life when you do that.  Unfortunately in some branches of the multiverse that means that 0 people are saved, however in other branches – 11 lives or more are saved.

Everything you are doing with your time is also conversely everything you are choosing not to do with your time.  Your revealed preferences already show you previously didn’t want to do plenty of things with your time.

If you are just sharpening the saw you are only doing half of the puzzle.  If you are only cutting a tree down with a blunt saw you are also only doing half of the puzzle.  Both are failure modes.

If you only ever sit in your click-tivist chair and you have never done any exercises in rationality, you don’t have your skin in the game.

I bring this up with an apology, I am more at fault than most.  I have this crazy habit of writing out a to-do list and then (assuming I finish writing the list), putting the list down and doing something different.  Insanity would be to do the same thing again and expecting a different result.

I call this problem a problem of not having skin in the game.  The ability to talk very seriously about everything that is broken and then go on to do nothing.  Among many in the list:

  • Converting people to donate to EA
  • Sticking to your diet even on bad days
  • Actually doing exercises you find in rationality posts
  • Voting for the political party that you think will actually change things.
  • Noticing when things surprise you and then changing the way you think, updating your models of understanding so that you are less surprised in the future.

In this sense having a system (having a strategy), writing a to-do list is a good move, but not actually being connected to it is a broken system.

Skin in the game classically applies to betting on the stock market.  How many people today are saying, “I wish I bought bitcoin early on, I wish I bought some Microsoft shares…”.  As a guy sitting on the sidelines of a football match you don’t get tackled by other people playing the game, but you also never score a goal, never take home points for your team.  On the one hand it’s very safe to be on the sidelines.  You don’t get tackled.  But it also means you can never win.  No touchdown to your name.

Football not your game.  That’s okay.  We can’t all be winning football players.  But I guarantee there is something out there for which you do want to be in the game.  It might not be the same game as other people.  And that’s okay.  Life is an endless trade off between what we have time to do and what we don’t have time to do.  And for a lot of life you can get away with not playing the same game.  I want to encourage you to do that.  For all of the bits that you can avoid wasting time on, avoid wasting time on them.  But you don’t want to be the knife thrower who shows up to play Russian roulette.

Which is to say that there are probably some metrics by which you need to measure yourself whether you like it or not.  And this is not about comparing yourself to your neighbour, (which if done from a place of safety – can be very valuable) but in fact this is about comparing yourself to yourself.

Here are some:

  • Am I as healthy as I could be?  As I want to be?
  • Am I as secure as I could be?  As I want to be?
  • Am I as wealthy as I could be?  As I want to be?
  • Am I as happy as I could be? As I want to be?
  • Am I as fulfilled as I could be?  As I want to be?
  • Am I as productive as I could be?  As I want to be?
  • Am I reaching the goals that I could be?  That I want to be?
  • Am I learning everything I could be learning?  That I want to be?
  • (as efficiently as I could be?  As I want to be?)

Having skin in the game is about taking that look at yourself in the mirror.  Look at yourself and see if you are where you want to be.  If you are actually as connected in your intentions as you want to be.  Are you doing what you want to be doing?  Are you really using your time the way you want to be using your time?

Exercise: Take 5 minutes, make two lists:

  • a list of the things that matter
  • a list of things that don’t matter

Come up with your own ideas before looking at this list but – here are some examples of things that might matter or might not matter:

  • Maintaining a spiritual connection
  • Spending an hour a day learning
  • Spending an hour a day with good company
  • Practising a musical instrument
  • Being in control of your emotions, not being angry or upset too often
  • Being healthy
  • Having an hour a day dedicated to writing or drawing or knitting or some other craft or creativity
  • Spending an hour a day exercising
  • Eating good food
  • Doing exciting things, having exciting experiences
  • Not being stuck in too many commitments
  • Being committed to lots of things
  • Feeling romantically fulfilled
  • Obtaining fame or a following
  • Seeking political success
  • Having a family or community
  • The world is a fair place
  • I am happy
  •  I have friends
  • I see reality for what it is
  • The world is a better place in the future
  • I see things that are worth seeing
  • I have lots of money
  • I have lots of time to do what I want.

I can’t really say what’s important for you, but maybe with these ideas and your own in mind, you can set out and ask yourself about the things that matter.

Am I doing enough about this? Am I properly invested into the things I care about?  Is my skin in the game on all the things that matter to me?

Meta: I have developed some bad habits around not liking my writing enough and getting stuck making many revisions.  I also have some bad habits around having high impulsivity and being disconnected from my expectancy of the value that these things will yield.  I really think that writing is important but I seem to forget that I care about it.  This took a cumulative 7+ hours to write but due to said problems above I feel like it’s not higher quality but took longer than usual to write.

Core knowledge: List of common human goals
Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation
Part 1a: The application of the secretary problem to real life dating
Part 1b: adding and removing complexity from models
Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.
Part 2a.1: A strategy against the call of the void.
Part 2a.2: The call of the void
Part 2b.1: Empirical time management
Part 2b.2: Memory and notepads
Part 3: The time that you have
Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 3b: Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1: In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2: Yak shaving 2
Part 4c: Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1: Scientific method
Part 4d.2: Quantified self
Part 5: Skin in the game
Part 6
Call to action

A note about the contents list; you can find the list in the main parts, the a,b,c parts are linked to from the main posts.  If you understand them in the context they are mentioned you can probably skip them, but if you need the explanation, click through.

Next: Part 6Call to action

Posted in self-improvement | 1 Comment

Working with multiple problems at once

I have a friend who works in a charity which deals with people who are on the streets.  She was telling me about the struggles they face and the difficulties they are working with.  It seems like every person out there has not just a mental health problem (sometimes without diagnosis), but also a finance problem, a relationship problem and often also a substance problem.

How does this happen?  Do all people facing ill health suddenly also have relationship problems?  Do all people with credit card debt also start having issues of mental stability?

Yes.  But also no.

Keeping in mind the problem of joint over and under diagnosis, taking examples of people in this situation is looking at rock bottom.  Enough of the time their troubles only started with one or the other problem.  And we are talking a bit of credit card debt, or a few bad days every now and again, having some arguments with their partner.  But that’s where it begins.

One problem represents a bit of trouble.  Imagine.  A small unresolved credit debt causes half an hour of angst a day.  That’s maybe okay.  There are what? 24 of them a day.  plenty time to handle the problems.

Then work piles on.  So you got a 9-5.  that’s (168-3.5-40=124.5hrs) out of 168 hours left to hold your shit together.

Everything is going fine.  You go drinking with friends on Friday nights, lose a bit of sleep but hold your life together.  maybe you get hungover and lose 14 hours from Saturday.  juggling 110.5hrs of time.  Alcohol is a merely legal substance right?

Getting enough sleep?  8 hours a night.  that’s (8*7=56hrs) 54.5hrs left.

Managing your home life.  Exercising half an hour a day, showering ritual half an hour a day…  Cooking breakfast and dinner half an hour each.  (39.5hrs)

When do you go shopping?  Buy food…  Buy clothes, the rest of #life… A few hours a week?

Seasons change?  Need more sleep…

Injure yourself? add in a break up…

Negative time is not actually possible.  That’s when you try to cut sleep.  or anything that can get cut just to stay above water.

It’s not a pretty picture.  But maybe just maybe that’s how it happens.  Problems stack up, life doesn’t cut you a break or give you a chance to catch up.  Question is – how do you get out of it?  Or how do you help someone get out of it?

Realise you are dealing with a lot of different problems.  This is unsurprising.

Do you have a root cause or not?

You can try spend a bit of time chasing a root cause.  Maybe solving the mental health is the key to solving all the problems that involve talking to other people which includes the finance, the substances and can get you on your way.  Maybe learning a skill and becoming employable is enough to solve the finance problems which will enable the rest of the problems to resolve.  But beyond the early hacks its time to reduce the wishful thinking to something more realistic.

If you don’t have a root cause.  Several problems are independent enough that you need a different tack.

Dealing with several problems is a lot like dealing with several fires.  Your life is metaphorically burning down right now.  On the one hand – you might be able to put out one fire, but by the time you are done with that it’s not like the whole house hasn’t burnt down, making all your efforts on the wrong fire pointless*.

On the other hand if you spend the whole time not extinguishing any fires and only keeping them manageable, chances are you will never get on top of things.

So what can you do?

*Some problems may only feel like they are burning things down, if you have any ability to discern that they are not actually burning down, or maybe at least not getting worse, this can maybe help you prioritise the dangerous problems.

Some ways to think about this might include checking in on the consequences of you doing nothing about the problem for a while.  For example the problem of feeling lonely.  By not doing something about the problem you probably won’t get more lonely than already “too lonely for my liking”.  Feeling suicidal because you feel lonely might make this a problem worth dealing with right away.

So which is it?  Make a list of the problems, consider which ones are higher priorities and then…

Some things will get worse

Pick one thing to work on.  The ideal thing is neither to solve each problem until it’s perfect (remember perfect is the enemy of the good), nor to deal an insignificant blow to it that it’s just managing the flames.

If you do this, I guarantee the other problems on the list will get worse.  It is an unfortunate conclusion that things will go from bad to worse before getting better.  Let’s say you work on your finance.  Mental health might flare up in the meantime.  You can probably spend a little extra effort fixing finance before stopping to calm the mental health problem.  It’s going to also need your attention soon.

No one but you can really say what you should be working on most.  If they all seem equally like the biggest problem, they probably are.  Don’t spend forever picking which one to work on.  Being equally important means that they are equally valuable to solve.  It doesn’t matter which one you solve or which one you work on first.  Working on one is far better than working on none.

Pick one problem.  Take a good stab at it.  Try to define what, “a few steps forward” would look like.  Accept the fact that other problems will get worse or go bad.  And you are not working on them.  So be it.

Pick one problem.  Get somewhere.  Pick the next problem.  Get somewhere.

There is probably not an easy way to solve all your problems.  That’s why this post is called working with, and not “gotta fix em all”.  This can’t be done over night.  but maybe you can do it the hard way…

Social progress

No one is going to understand if you say, “I know I am broke but I want to work on dieting first”.  No one is going to stop you either.  s’your life, it’s already got problems..  Using social support is one of the best things you can do for yourself.  Tell people what you are working on, ask for a little help and try to learn from what happens.

Track details

If you take this medication does it actually help?  Are you getting enough sleep?  On a scale of 1-10 how did you find today?  Ask yourself these questions and more.  Then write down the answers.  Asking the question helps, answering helps more, looking back at the data helps even more.


At some point you will lament that, “everything is terrible”.  That may be true, and that’s okay for now.  Lament for all the lamenting that you need, stare into the void, hitting rock bottom and feeling like it.  Admitting you have fallen and need to get up.  That is a step on the journey to recovery.  But the worst part about thinking and concluding that everything is terrible is that the idea that everything is terrible doesn’t mean anything.  “everything is terrible” is an applause light, and applause lights only exist in the map.  You want to solve it?  Summaries have their place, but no one solves a problem by thinking about the summaries.

Break things down

At some point you will be asking something as mundane as, “why can’t I go to work”.  Well… Going to work is a larger problem that entails parts of:

  • getting out of bed problems
  • getting presentable problems
  • getting out of the house problems
  • talking to other humans problems
  • convincing yourself that you are not an imposter problems
  • working out how to transport yourself problems
  • managing time problems so you are not late
  • doing your job problems (which are their own category of problems, but there are probably domain experts for that one)
  • eating lunch while at work problems
  • going home problems
  • managing money problems
  • managing medication and substances problems.

Just to name a few.  If someone said to me, “I have an odd problem.  It appears that I am unable to go to work” and were unable to break that down any further (save for the inability to explain themselves) I would be surprised and maybe very very confused.

Is it time to switch to another problem?

I can’t answer that for you, but I can suggest thinking about Value of information, knowing what you know after working on the problem for the period of time that you have already spent on it – is it time to switch?  Or is this still the most urgent or deadly problem?

It is worth asking – how would you know it was time to try the next problem?  Some indication of having this one, under control.

Make a list

Write out your problems.  Ideally consider formatting them as SMART goals. Break them down.  Do the obvious next steps, then re-evaluate.

Next up: making lists

Meta: it’s easier to write things out when your brain is functioning.  This probably took 3 hours or more over 2 days to pull together.  I feel like it’s missing extra insights, advice and development but they will have to come in another post because sitting on this post is bothering me.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

Posted in life maintenance, models of thinking, self-improvement | Leave a comment

What does that look like in practice?

Core knowledge: List of common human goals
Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation
Part 1a: The application of the secretary problem to real life dating
Part 1b: adding and removing complexity from models
Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.
Part 2a.1: A strategy against the call of the void.
Part 2a.2: The call of the void
Part 2b.1: Empirical time management
Part 2b.2: Memory and notepads
Part 3: The time that you have
Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 3b: Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1: In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2: Yak shaving 2
Part 4c: Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1: Scientific method
Part 4d.2: Quantified self
Part 5: Skin in the game
Part 6
Call to action

A note about the contents list; you can find the list in the main parts, the a,b,c parts are linked to from the main posts.  If you understand them in the context they are mentioned you can probably skip them, but if you need the explanation, click through.

It’s all good and well to know that you should be doing good work, deep work, hard work, and work that you really value.  That time is really really running out, and that sometimes you have to wrangle your brain to get it to consider the world-problem space in the right terms.  That is that you have to be making actions that are the right trade-offs between actions you want to do and the other actions you want to do.  But how do you do that?  How do you keep at it?

I suggest by first doing them – making a start at it, then constantly check that you are still doing the highly valuable actions.  How do you do that?

I suggest critical questions.  In your running consciousness you want to install critical questions.

Is this task the most important task right now?

If you have ever heard of an eisenhower matrix, this is a very powerful organisation tool that got a mention in both Getting Things done and The seven habits of highly effective people.  An eisenhower matrix is a punnet square that straddles the question of importance and urgency.

Urgent Not urgent
Important Do now Schedule
Not Important Delegate Don’t do

Knowing this table, and the suggested responses to each type of task is interesting but it doesn’t teach us to feel it in System 1.

Is this conversation valuable?

If you are in a conversation, you should check if it’s giving anyone anything good.  You don’t need to check in any other way other than thinking about it briefly.  But this can save you from many kinds of failure modes. (Future post – what happens if your check in returns, “no good is coming from this conversation”)

Do I know how to do that?

When I used to look at my to-do lists, there would from time to time be tasks that were not actions, “python” doesn’t really explain the task of how to learn to code in python.  This question is about fighting the applause lights.  The tasks that you can rest easy knowing it’s done when actually you still don’t know how to do it even if it is written on your to do list.

If I started again, would I do it like this again?

So you’re yak shaving.  This question can help you. So you reached a point where the Value of information has changed.  You are already so far into the exploration process that you know it’s time to turn the horse around and ride in the other direction.  Do you delay?  Do you keep riding to the end of the day then turn back? or do you hella high tail out of there and bolt in the right direction?  (counter: it’s okay to reach milestones along the way – like the next river – then turn around.  But I tend to suggest while keeping that in mind – what am I waiting for?)

What’s the obvious next step to write down on my list?

Not my advice, but strong advice.

What am I feeling and needing right now?

Taking a page out of NVC (watch the video in double speed).  Getting in touch with yourself and showing yourself the much needed compassion for your actions will make a big difference to how you feel along the way.  I know a great number of people who WILL themselves from action to action.  Taking mammoth amounts of energy to control every step.  But what if there was another way?  What if instead of forcing yourself to take the next step you waited until you wanted to take it?

The universe does not care how you feel on the inside as you take the next step.  There is no great reward for being a martyr to your cause, suffering and forcing yourself to move forward through the hardship.  The universe does not care about your goals.

It is possible to die alone and unfulfilled.

Morbid as it is, I come from a school of thought where I have to remind myself this or else I forget. (If this idea is uncomfortable for you then you should read about applicable advice, and consider reversing the advice to something like, “I can win, there is hope for me yet“).  For my part – I forget that I can bury myself in Facebook, in gossip, in revealed preferences that do not line up to my goals.  I forget that I could die alone having accomplished nothing, that the universe does not care.

The universe does not care in Both ways.  The universe does not care that you suffer in each step when you force yourself to do the task to force reveal your preferences to be your goals.  The universe also does not care if you don’t do that.  If you pause to compose yourself before walking into battle.  If you are actually prepared.

How can I connect with this person?

In the social context of why I want to be in the presence of others.  I have in the past found myself trapped in a superficial world of, “how are you?  I’m good thanks”, this doesn’t really line up to what I care about.  So why don’t I just skip that and get into what I want to share?

What does this person want with what they have said to me?

People are not always excellent at saying what they mean.  That’s why we make use of concepts like steelman.  That’s why we need to consider the filters and often echo back what someone is saying in order to confirm what we have heard.

Does this contribute to my goals?

I find this a hard question to grasp.  The concept of goals in my mind is such an applause light that I can’t ask that question and expect my brain to give me a mindful answer.  (I am still working on this)

If you are not doing the high value tasks for yourself – who will?

Take these questions or your own introspection questions.  Questions that get to the root of asking yourself what is going on?  What am I doing and why?  Ask them regularly.  Make it your internal operating system to ask the critical questions.  Calibrate/train your System 1 to seek out the feeling:

  • Passion that comes from doing what you care about.
  • Curiosity that comes when you notice yourself doing something not strategic, not goal aligned.
  • Excitement that comes from discovery that you need to turn the horse around.
  • Pride that comes from doing what you care about
  • Calm that comes from knowing you are on the right path
  • Sadness for what you leave behind on the journey to better things

Tune into the other feelings, take them as the cue to start riding in the other direction:

  • Dread that you are about to waste another hour of your life
  • Alarm that things are all wrong
  • Despair about being stuck where you are
  • Fluster when things surprise you
  • Distracted because you are not doing the most important thing right now

But don’t take my word for it.  Look at the feelings yourself.

The scientific method

By ArchonMagnus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By ArchonMagnus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

How can I be scientific about this process?

What actually works?  What makes true progress on the goals?

Do the high value things first, and now, and forever. Constantly check if you are doing the high value things.  Ask critical questions, then answer them when they come up!  Check in between your system 1 and system 2.  Use those s1 feelings to trigger your s2 into asking a critical question.  Make predictions, use the scientific method.

Meta: this post has been a long time coming.  I had to reread my past posts in order to get my mind to continue the train of thought that I was aiming for.  This post is missing some of the “call to action” that I was hoping to impart in it.  There will need to be another post in order to complete the series.  This post probably took me 5 hours spread over several weeks.

Core knowledge: List of common human goals
Part 1: Exploration-Exploitation
Part 1a: The application of the secretary problem to real life dating
Part 1b: adding and removing complexity from models
Part 2: Bargaining Trade-offs to your brain.
Part 2a.1: A strategy against the call of the void.
Part 2a.2: The call of the void
Part 2b.1: Empirical time management
Part 2b.2: Memory and notepads
Part 3: The time that you have
Part 3a: A purpose finding exercise
Part 3b: Schelling points, trajectories and iteration cycles
Part 4: What does that look like in practice?
Part 4a: Lost purposes – Doing what’s easy or what’s important
Part 4b.1: In support of yak shaving
Part 4b.2: Yak shaving 2
Part 4c: Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…
Part 4d.1: Scientific method
Part 4d.2: Quantified self
Part 5: Skin in the game
Part 6
Call to action

A note about the contents list; you can find the list in the main parts, the a,b,c parts are linked to from the main posts.  If you understand them in the context they are mentioned you can probably skip them, but if you need the explanation, click through.

Next: Part 5: Skin in the game

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