Category Archives: Skills

Fixin' my fiction addiction

The first bargain

Back in 2014, when I was living in DC, I got sick - probably a cold - and used the time I was home doing nothing to binge-read novels. The entire extant Game of Thrones series, some Valdemar books, some other stuff. I noticed I was staying up very late to keep reading - it seemed counterproductive if I was resting to get better. It turned out that this was the only time I permitted myself to read as much as I wanted, and do nothing else. So of course I wanted to use the time as best I could to read.

At the same time, I was not taking much in the way of painkillers or other symptom management medication, on the tacit hypothesis that if I didn’t experience symptoms, I wouldn’t take good care of myself while sick, and would be sick longer.

So I made my first bargain with myself: to make sure I got enough sleep while sick. In exchange I promised to manage symptoms as indulgently as I knew how, and to take some weekend afternoons when I was well to go to coffee shops and read. It no longer felt like an unmanageable compulsion - but it still felt like a chronic deficiency. Continue reading

Shape the query

Recently I was talking with Brienne face-to-face, and she noted that a question I’d asked her would be much easier for her to answer if we were talking remotely over a text channel:

Neat thing I learned from Ben Hoffman today: If I imagine that I'm typing at a computer while I'm actually talking to someone in person, I can use my brain better than I usually can in face-to-face conversation. I think the two key thoughts here were, "How would I think about this if I were at a computer with an Internet connection?" and "Imagining seeing the question I'm trying to think about written out in text form.” -Brienne

When I found out that this worked, I thought about what heuristics I was using to generate that suggestion. Here are the ones I initially came up with: Continue reading

Authenticity and instant readouts

"You don't know who someone is until you see them under pressure."

Why do people say that?

There’s this idea of authenticity: you know who someone truly is by seeing them in their unguarded moments, seeing uncensored emotions, that’s when you can have a real interaction with them, that’s when you can see their true self.

This is counterintuitive to me. When I let down my guard and am my completely unfiltered self, people often find me incomprehensible. What’s more, they think I am being less authentic. When I let my social guard down and say things as soon as I think them, people say that they find it hard to relate to me and encourage me to just be myself. When I carefully filter and reframe things, and shape my behavior to get the interaction I want, I hear people say, “I can tell that you’re really being genuine with me.”

But more importantly, even when my immediate reaction to a thing does get read as authentic, it may not use all my knowledge, may not be my endorsed judgment, and may not be the most true thing I know how to say. If I think things through and filter them, I can be more truthful than if I just react without thinking about whether what I’m saying is true.

Interactions seem to be described as authentic when information transmitted has two qualities:

  1. The information is a direct measurement of the sender's internal state, and has not passed through deliberative social filters first.
  2. The information is of a kind that the receiver can automatically and unconsciously verify as meeting the first criterion.

Continue reading

Lego my Ego

"if our brains get too smart they will become self aware and take over our bodys"

-Ken M

Ego games

At a party, some friends and I played games around modeling other people. One game we played was ranking superego, ego, and id, in order of most to least prominent, for each person present. This schema is interesting in games because because it’s not a perfectly obvious classification, so it requires original seeing to do anything with.

I’d self-labeled as ego > superego > id, but I was persuaded that I’m likely superego > ego > id. I had thought my ego was the strongest of the three because my self-regulation is fairly flexible and I don’t feel compelled by external rules, but it this is likely attributable to the fact that my superego has achieved self-awareness and taken over my brain. Or more precisely, that my superego is well developed in the sense of having expelled or disendorsed my dissonant, unhelpful, and untrue beliefs and inhibitions, and believes in behaving like an ego. And my ego, in turn, decided to identify with my superego.

I was sleepy 15 minutes ago and successfully managed to get ready for bed, when I was tempted to lie on the couch and “read” or “nap” to "gather my strength” because getting ready for bed seemed like too much work. I climbed out of this hole by asking myself whether the best action would be to go upstairs and get ready for bed. Once I acknowledged that it was the best action, it was easy to muster the willpower.Now I’m in my room, with the LEDs set to red, editing this post as one last task before going to sleep. In hindsight it’s ridiculously obvious that my superego is exceptionally strong.

I have a few friends who I’d describe as having a superego > id > ego arrangement. That’s an unstable relationship where superego and id fight each other directly for control. Superego is usually in charge, but id can seize control for a moment when it’s especially strong. Ego-on-the-bottom is volatile because ego’s special power is mediating among parts, constructing stable narratives that justify and encode trades and compromises between the other parts. If the narrative-spinning ego is weak, id and superego mostly just know how to fight - or, really, how to try to grab control directly. So you see superego, with the occasional flash of id, but no coherent narrative to hold things in place.

What drives the superego > id > ego arrangement? In the case of one of my friends, it looks like what happened was that their id and superego both separately have reasons to distrust their ego. Their superego distrusts the ego for epistemic reasons; the ego is all about spinning a plausible narrative, and that feels like believing things because they’re convenient rather than because they’re true. Their id, on the other hand, distrusts the ego because it believes that it’s dangerous to be seen, that the world is malevolent, that it’s important to hide, that if one can just not exist, one can’t be hurt by anything - and presenting a self, having a strong ego, feels like very noticeably existing. Since neither id nor superego is willing to invest any trust in the ego, this makes it difficult for the ego to smooth out conflicts. It doesn’t have credibility. Continue reading

A still small voice: a method for integrity

This is the story of how playing around with different voices let me give voice to my unconscious, and perhaps my conscience as well.

Playing with voices

A lover once told me that, during sex, I spoke with a different voice, which sounded fake. I reflected on this for a while, and realized that I sounded fake because, for once, I was speaking directly from an authentic sense of caring as I experience it.

Mostly, when I try to show caring for my friends, it’s not a direct spontaneous expression of my inner state. I don’t expect that the mode of caring I feel will be understood. Warm feelings are the kind of caring people mostly expect, but they come and go, and they don’t feel fundamental to me. The kind of caring that feels most real to me doesn’t feel like warmth. It feels hard, like there are steel cables linking my solid core to their well-being, so if they’re tugged off-center it affects me directly. It feels like my well-being is permanently tied to theirs. It feels like a sense of determination. But that’s not the emotional affect people expect from their friends, so instead I’ve learned to throw warmth at them, put on a gentle friendly mask that projects a feeling of, this is safe, I am not judging you, I want to hear how you feel and help you. It’s honest - but it’s not, in some sense, authentic. Because when I actually give people uncensored access to my internal state, they read me as fake. Continue reading

Nature and Nature's Bod: Attachment, Desire, Empathy Overload, and Embodiment

I’ve been working on increasing my sensitivity to my own desires and preferences. As part of this, I’ve been working through the exercises in a book my friend Sarah recommended, called Pleasurable Weight Loss

One recent exercise was to go somewhere with great natural beauty and connect with nature. I have never in my life felt connected with growing things - cities feel vibrant, alive, and purposeful to me, plants just feel like passive items of scenery - but I had decided to try every exercise in the book, no matter how hard it seemed, and make a genuine effort to engage with the spirit of the exercise. At worst, I’d get a better sense of what made the exercise hard. So I went out to Tilden Park and attempted to find a nature trail. I almost failed, but eventually found the botanical garden, where I wandered around, and noticed a few things. Continue reading

Soma: my best friends have bodies

I recently attended the Integral Center’s Aletheia workshop, and one of the things we did was Holotropic breathwork. Basically you breathe very deeply, very fast, over an extended period of time. We were told that at some point it would become uncomfortable, but that if we breathed through it, we’d likely have some interesting experiences. Continue reading

Model-building about desire - a worked example

A few weeks ago, I spent a few days doing little other work than sitting and thinking about my problems. In 2012, I wouldn’t have dared do that. It would have felt like spinning my wheels. It would have felt lazy and self-indulgent. I would have expected to fail - and I would have been right. But now I can do it.

The difference is that I’ve practiced structured thinking, or model-building. Rather than talk a lot about what that is, I’m going to work through an example. Continue reading

Social trade

Social mercantilism

Recently I noticed that my model of social capital is fundamentally mercantilist, and that's pretty dumb. I seem to be trying to maintain a favorable balance of trade, trying to earn social capital through meeting others' needs, and trying to minimize the extent to which I "spend down" this capital. I have a tendency to spend down my real capital to accumulate social credit. This may often be counterproductive because most social currencies depreciate rapidly, and if instead I asked for help in ways that built up personal real capital (e.g. skills growth, introductions, etc.), I'd be in a better future position to trade for what I need. The obvious next move here is to figure out where I should be investing in myself instead of piling up social credit. Continue reading

How to ride a skrode

Now that it’s been a few weeks since my posts on phoenixes and skroderiders, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some responses:

  • Doesn't skroderider virtue require an unreasonable amount of effort?
  • Aren’t crises objectively the best times to help someone?
  • I’m a phoenix. Is that bad?
  • I’m a phoenix. Can I do skroderider things?

Continue reading