Lessons and Impressions from T-Group Retreat on Interpersonal Dynamics

Recently, I participated in a 12-person t-group modeled after the “touchy feely” interpersonal dynamics class taught at Stanford GSB. We followed a brutally intense schedule: 9am to 10pm Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday (ending at 5:30pm on Sunday), with a one hour break in the afternoon plus meals. It cost many thousands of dollars. There were 12 participants—6 women, 6 men. 2 facilitators. 4 days. One goal: Improve our ability to express emotions, give and receive honest feedback, and interpersonally connect with others.

I learned a ton. It was one of the more intense, emotional experiences of my life. Below are reflections on which principles from the Touchy Feely workshop resonated and which did not, and what I learned about myself.

I want to say at the outset that there are many people who teach in the t-group format, many of whom are currently or were previously affiliated with Stanford, through various for-profit and non-profit enterprises. I understand there are differences in style and sometimes substance between these different approaches. These are reflections from my particular experience (which we decided, as a group, to keep completely anonymous).

In our format, each day began with a lecture on some topic related to interpersonal connection, followed by an activity to “generate data for t-group.” For example, pair up with one person and share something you’re struggling with in life. Or share something that’s been bothering you about someone else in the group (“Jake rambles on and can’t get to the point!”). Then, we convene as a group.

12 participants and 2 facilitators organized in a circle in a windowless hotel ballroom for a 2.5-3 hour session of conversation. After the initial lecture, what happens in the conversation is up to the group to decide. There’s an intentional void—the facilitators don’t offer a prompt, or jump in ask anyone questions. People can say whatever they’d like, to whomever they’d like, about whatever they’d like—so long as their comment relates to something that’s happening “in the room.”

You sit in this circle 2-3 times a day. You end up spending 8-10 hours a day, for 4 days, sitting in a circle, starting at a group of strangers, talking about your feelings and talking about your feelings with respect to the other people in the circle.

As time went on, people increasingly began to share stories of their life that were affecting their presence in the here-and-now in the room. It would be something like: “I feel anxiety being here and being part of this conversation, because my partners at work are trying to push me out of the firm, and I feel inadequate sitting next to all of you because you all seem to be thriving.” The stories were often quite vulnerable.

Often people would deliver “feedback” to others in the group. E.g.: “John Doe, when you shared the story about your mother, I felt sadness, because it reminded me of my mother…” Or “Jane Doe, my intention in sharing this feedback is to help you understand how your comment landed on me, and to better understand myself the point you were trying to make. I feel angry at the comment you made earlier. It sounded me to like a massive gender generalization…” Then the other person would reply, “I’m disappointed you feel angry, as that was not my intention…” After a couple more back and forths, one person might say: “Thank you for that. I feel closer to you as a result of this exchange. I appreciate it.” The other person would reply: “I feel closer to you, too.”

If these back-and-forth snippets sound a bit contrived, that’s because they were–by design. The facilitators framed the t-group container as a “learning laboratory”—designed with specific conditions not necessarily to maximally mimic real world conditions but to maximize the opportunity to practice very specific habits and ways of feeling and thinking. To practice being highly attentive to how you’re feeling, moment to moment. And to practice giving feedback to someone else and to experience a feeling of heightened connection after an exchange of feedback.

The overall experience was incredibly emotionally intense for me. It’s exhausting to spend hours each day sharing vulnerably, hearing others’ stories, giving tough feedback, receiving tough feedback, and trying to adapt to a group dynamic.

Here are some of the principles from the retreat that resonated with me positively:

Noticing and naming feelings. The overarching ideas of the retreat: Feelings matter, feelings are integral to how we connect with other humans, feelings can range in type and intensity, and—finally—by noticing, naming, and disclosing our feelings, we can connect more powerfully with others. 100% agree.

The facilitators gave us a laminated sheet that listed dozens of different words we could use to describe different shades of feelings: irritated, unsettled, serene, peeved, curious, etc. The world of feelings is richer than happy, sad, angry, confused. Noticing these nuances—being present with them, in the mind, heart, and body—and then naming them appropriately, feeds a deeper self-understanding.

Growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone. I was uncomfortable for a huge percentage of this retreat. For hours and hours at a time my heart beat a little more quickly than normal—talking about feelings and emotions with complete strangers. It’s rare for me to be so uncomfortable for so long. And I grew a lot because of it.

Jumping into the deep end of the pool—even if not normal reality—can teach you some things about normal reality. Nothing about this retreat resembled normal, default real life. But sometimes you learn fastest by operating in an extreme environment that prioritizes one thing above all else—in this case, the primacy of feelings. While hardly a 1:1 simulation of real life, some lessons can transfer to real life.

I analogize this to silent meditation retreats. Being silent for 10 days hardly resembles real world. But some of the lessons I learn on meditation retreat transfer helpfully to the noisy real world. I don’t need to become a monk in order to apply the lessons of mindfulness meditation.

Feedback is a gift. Hearing tough feedback can be hard. But it’s the only way to improve. Such a simple idea; so hard to truly embrace.

Vulnerability can increase connection and perceived strength. If you’re a leader of team, you will seem more multidimensional and relatable if you seem more “human.” All humans deal with struggle and weakness and insecurity and uncertainty. Acknowledging those universal challenges helps you connect with a wider range of people.

(I wondered aloud on Twitter if sharing positive experiences in your life can count as vulnerability; there were some wise responses. In short: maybe, but sharing the positive experience has to involve feeling embarrassed or vulnerable in some way. Alternatively, if there’s a chance someone who’s receiving your story would try, in reply, to steal your joy or downplay it (“That doesn’t sound too special; everyone has that experience”), then sharing positive vibes could count as a vulnerable act.)

Share your intention upfront when communicating hard news. How you intend for something to land is not always how it lands in the mind of the recipient. In other words, how you encode a piece of communication is not always how it gets decoded by the recipient. Literally saying, for example, “My intention in sharing this is to help you grow at public speaking, because I know you’ve said that’s one of your top priorities…” at the beginning of a difficult statement or piece of feedback about a person’s public speaking ability can clarify and strengthen interpersonal connection.

The same comment can land differently on different people. Most of the comments people make in t-group are directed to a specific person around the circle. But everyone else is watching, listening. This leads to a common, fascinating moment: After an exchange between two people, a third person jumps in and says: “Wow, that comment didn’t land to me in the same way that Jane said it did for her. I heard Joe’s feedback as rather compassionate, not arrogant like Jane did.” It’s a vivid reminder that the same words and intonation can land differently on different people. Humans are diverse.

 

Some ideas I’m reflecting on, prompted by my Touchy Feely experience, that I’m struggling with:

Personalizing and then sharing feelings with others can make them more permanent. Mindfulness meditation and Touchy Feely both prioritize noticing—“remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience” in words of dharma teacher Steve Armstrong—notice what’s happening in your mind and heart. Moment to moment.

But there’s a crucial difference between how I’ve been taught Buddhist meditation and how the facilitators of this Touchy Feely workshop taught feelings. In my meditation practice, I was told to eschew personally identifying myself to a feeling. You would say to yourself “There is pain” (not “I feel pain”) or “There is anger” (not “I feel angry”). I can hear the voice of S.N. Goenka ringing in my head as I write this: “No ‘me’, no ‘my’, no ‘mine’.”

The Buddha said to minimize the ego and to notice phenomena as separate from the mind that’s doing the thinking. By contrast, in Touchy Feely, “I” dominated. Every feeling you notice was supposed to be preceded by “I.” If a participant attempted to abstract a feeling into the voice of an omniscient narrator (e.g. “Some people might get angry with what you just said”) a facilitator would correct the participant and instruct him to personally identify the emotion with “I.”

Moreover, in Buddhist meditation, the truth of anicca (impermanence) runs through all teachings. If you notice a feeling, the instruction is to keep noticing it – and eventually it’ll probably fade away; after all, emotions (along with all other phenomena in life) are impermanent. By contrast, in the Touchy Feely framework, after noticing and naming, you’re supposed to share it with the person who caused the feeling in you: “Joe, I feel angry at you.” You’re now on the record with a codified feeling!

In summary, Buddhist instruction: Notice a feeling, name it impersonally, observe it. The end. Touchy Feely instruction: Notice a feeling, name it personally, and share it with the person who caused the feeling.

My worry with the Touchy Feely approach is that it accidentally promotes personalization and permanence. There were times in our retreat when I felt pressured to name and then share a feeling in a particular moment (“Ben, what are you feeling right now?”). By doing so, I think I endowed the feeling with more power than had I said nothing and let the feeling pass on by.

Group therapy sessions can create a “Vulnerability Olympics”. When people take turns sharing stories of vulnerability, there’s a natural one-upmanship dynamic where you try to one-up the person who spoke before you with an even more epic story of vulnerability.

At its best, this enables a person to build on the psychological safety established by their predecessor and thus go even deeper. If one person shares a story about contemplating suicide, it’s easier for the next person to share a story about a deeply embarrassing personal failure. At its worst, sharing in a group in this way feels performative and thus less authentic.

When authorities define rules and status markers in a group, it’s natural for group members to approval-seek even if they don’t believe what they’re saying. The facilitators modeled how we were supposed to speak. They showed what makes a good Touchy Feely participant and what makes a bad one. In other words, there were clear rules for winning the kudos of the facilitators. This can cause participants to say or do things they don’t actually believe, simply to earn their approval. (This is not unique to this retreat; I think in any system where rules are clearly defined, people will try to game it.) I sometimes wondered whether other participants—or myself—believed the things coming out of their mouth (“I feel more connected to you”) or whether they were saying that to earn the approving nods of the teacher. Of course, this may be the flip side of my earlier point about the benefit of jumping into the deep end of the pool—only by fully embracing instructions and format can you maximize the experience. If this is true, then I worsened my fellow participants’ experience by occasionally doubting the format, which I feel guilty about. It’s complicated. 🙂

Tears are perceived as an authoritative display of emotion. Crying is powerful. First, it’s an unambiguous display that you’re actually feeling emotion—don’t take my word for it, just look for the tears! Second, tears are contagious – seeing someone else cry increases the odds that I cry, and thus makes me feel more in sync with that person.

I’ve never been a big crier. And while I teared up several occasions listening to others’ stories in the retreat, I never fully cried during my own share.

I believe crying is not the only way of conveying deep feelings. The person who’s crying is not necessarily experiencing deeper feeling than the person who’s not crying. It’s true that many people who don’t cry are repressing their feelings, but not it’s the case all the time for everybody.

I wonder if I would have received a different reaction had I more outwardly cried. For example, I shared what I considered a vulnerable point–that I think of myself as rather brittle more than resilient, which may be problematic when I encounter unexpected catastrophe in my life. I didn’t receive a lot of affirmation for that exercise of vulnerability. If I had delivered the same point with tears streaming down my face, would the reaction have been different?

Vulnerability is tricky. It’s possible IMO to be too vulnerable as a leader. It’s a spectrum, of course. If your life is too much of a mess (relative to mine), I may feel sympathetic but not necessarily inclined to deepen a personal or professional connection. Vulnerability is a no-brainer among close friends or family. If you’re still getting to know someone or it’s a workplace setting, it’s murkier water. There is such a thing as over-sharing. To be clear, the retreat leaders did not suggest otherwise; this is more a general concern on the broader topic of vulnerability and business.

Sometimes, do let sleeping dogs lie. One phrase uttered in the course was “don’t let sleeping dogs lie”—if you have feedback, share it. This didn’t ring true in my experience. Lots of people are bad at receiving constructive feedback, even if they say they appreciate it. In my own life experience, sharing critical feedback with someone who told me he desired it has sometimes pulled us farther apart. I have frequently withheld constructive feedback for fear of creating more distance with someone close to me.

There’s no singular “authentic” self—especially not in a “learning laboratory.” The self that comes out in t-group is naked and vulnerable—but is it your most “authentic” self? I happen to believe it’s masks all the way down. There is no one authentic self. The self that emerges on a Touchy Feely retreat is definitely on nodding terms with my workplace self and my family self and my Saturday-night-with-old-friends self. But differences persist. Authenticity is complicated. IMO, it’s possible to be authentic even if you wear different masks in front of different audiences.

Here are some of the most interesting pieces of self-knowledge I gleaned from spending four days in the lab:

Rebel. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. In middle school, I started an underground, unauthorized school newspaper (later banned) that was taglined: “The things we think but do not say.” I’ve been starting companies since I was a teenager. And I dropped out of school before Peter Thiel made it cool. Seeking the approval of authorities has never been an aim; indeed, it’s my nature to often incline to the opposite, for better or for worse.

While currently a VC by trade, I consider myself more entrepreneur than VC, and this disposition does separate me from a lot of VCs who have strictly finance or engineering backgrounds. Rebels sometimes rebel harder the more they’re being pushed to do something.  The more you ask me to do a thing I don’t agree with, sometimes the less I might want to do X (proportional to the strength of your ask). It’s not a rational response. But it may have partly informed my response when participants in the retreat challenged me.

Principled (or Stubborn). At the end of the weekend, we all exchanged 1:1 feedback with each other. The most consistent piece of feedback I received was: “I appreciate how principled you are.” I.e., I didn’t say things I didn’t believe; I stayed true to what I thought was right, regardless of social pressure. It was true for me during the retreat. And I hope it’s true in life more generally.

The flip side to being admiringly principled, of course, is being annoyingly stubborn. I hope I’m more often on the right side of that coin; it’s a work-in-progress.

I don’t naturally connect with everyone and I prioritize “natural” rapport. Several people on the retreat told me they didn’t naturally connect with me; or worse, they felt—at times–rejected by me. I was isolated at times.

In the real world, I have an abundance of rich, intimate, emotionally deep relationships in my personal and professional life. So, insofar as I was failing to connect with certain folks on the retreat, the story I tell myself is that it must have been because of the unique conditions of the retreat more than any personal foibles of mine or the other person.

All things being equal, I’d rather connect deeply with everyone. I’d rather have more deep connections than fewer, and I’d rather be able to connect with a wider range of people than a narrower range. The question comes down to effort. I often fail to generate sufficient motivation to connect–in a personal context–deeply and emotionally with someone if there’s not early, easy rapport. (Business is different. I like to think it’s easy for me to develop basic, minimal transactional relationships with almost anyone.)

So I’m not sure how important of a problem this is. If there are a lot of people I want to connect with who do not want to connect with me, it’s a problem. If there’s in fact symmetry, it’s less of a problem. At present, it’s mostly symmetric.

When I shared this particular reflection with someone who knows me well, he shared something back with me that was interesting and amusing. He said that when I (Ben) participate in group retreats or trips with people I don’t know already, few people leave the trip thinking like they’re about to be my best friend. Expectations are set low. (Ha!) And I have, on occasion, wildly surpassed that low expectation and become really close with people I met randomly on group outings where natural rapport did not—initially—flow easily. In contrast, my friend who was telling me this–for him, he more quickly and easily connects with strangers in group settings. As a result he sometimes inadvertently amps up expectations with people he meets — they expect a close emotional friendship will blossom in the weeks and months following. He then has to “let people down.” In this regard, he envies me. “You set the expectation low, and then you can surpass it,” he told me. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?

I’m more okay than average at being disliked. I like being liked. Who doesn’t? I like praise over criticism. Who doesn’t? That said, I’d say it seems I’m more comfortable being disliked by someone than the average professional. I don’t love conflict, but if conflict results in someone not liking me, it doesn’t kill me. It causes me stress + anxiety, no doubt. But perhaps less so than it does other people, which is why I frequently find myself playing “bad cop” roles on professional teams.

“Saying no” often means being disliked by someone, at least a little bit. This is why so many people struggle to say no. I’ve always been pretty comfortable saying no. As an author, I get a lot of inbound meeting and call requests from people who’ve read my stuff. I say no—or more often, simply don’t respond—to the vast majority of these inbounds. I’m inoculated to people feeling annoyed at me for not being responsive.

I’ve been very lucky / privileged so far in my life. As I’ve written about, no one close to me has died. I haven’t experienced severe trauma in my life. I’ve got issues and problems and insecurities, but on average, I’ve been really blessed. At some point that will change.

Specific useful nuggets/frameworks/acronyms I learned during the retreat:

  • “Fist to 5” for gauging group buy-in on values/norms/a plan/a decision. You ask a group of people, “Are you in?” People display their level of commitment by showing a closed-finger fist—which means “not over my dead body”—or the number of fingers that represents their buy-in, where 5 fingers for complete buy in.
  • Be careful of sentences like “you really need to” or “people think X.” If you’re expressing a personal opinion, use the I pronoun. If I watch myself, there are tons of opinions I express where I substitute “you” or “people” for “I.”
  • “I feel that…” is not the start of a sentence that describes a feeling. The word “that” negates the feeling emotion. “I feel…” should be followed by a feeling like sadness, irritation, confusion, unsettled, etc. Otherwise, it’s a thought: “I think.”
  • “Where I am in the question is…” — this is a handy way to disclose your own biases. For example, if you ask someone, “Did you father force you to go to soccer camp as a kid?” then you might follow-on by saying, “Where I am in the question is that my father forced me to participate in such camps, so I may be projecting.”
  • Asking someone the plain question “Why?” can generate a defensive response if the topic is sensitive. For example, “Why did you say that thing to Nancy?” Softer approach would be: “What was going on for you when you said that thing to Nancy?” Another example is the difference between: “Why are you going to London next week?” (if the decision to do the trip is particularly sensitive/delicate) versus “What’s going on for you, or what feelings do you have, regarding the London trip?”
  • AFOG = Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth. An acronym to use after making a mistake or enduring a difficult/uncomfortable moment.
  • Anger is a secondary emotion. If you’re feeling anger, look for the emotion behind anger.
  • “Feedback is like clothing — you have to try it on to see if it fits.”
  • The handiness of the phrase “I feel seen and heard” after someone connects with you with empathy.
  • “Whatever is omitted, is not only unspoken but unspeakable.” – Adrienne Rich
  • Sometimes you feel emotionally “unfinished” with another person — that’s the precise feeling. It’s not that you’re conclusively angry or conclusively thrilled with the person. You’re not conclusively anything. You’re just unfinished. The story is not yet finished.
  • A 1-7 scale can be helpful in conveying the intensity of an emotion. If you feel irritated, how intensely do you feel that emotion on a scale of 1-7?

I feel grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this workshop and I want to thank the facilitators and other participants for their contributions in making it such a provocative, mind-expanding experience for me.

“That Doesn’t Surprise Me”

I’m always on the lookout for how people try to signal high status.

Here’s a subtle example I’ve discovered recently. Tell someone a fact they don’t know, and listen for the answer: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

The other day I told a guy who’s well connected in tech: “Did you know that Joe had a falling out with his cofounder, and so he has moved on to a new project?”

The other guy’s reply: “That doesn’t surprise me.”

The alternative answer would have been: “Huh, I didn’t know that.” By saying “That doesn’t surprise me,” he conveyed that he did not, in fact, know the thing that was just said to him, but rather than stop there — which would have lowered his status relative to me in that moment — he simultaneously conveyed the fact that he would have guessed the fact to be the case had he been asked. All done in one tidy sentence.

As another example, Donald Trump’s first quoted response to the Harvey Weinstein news was: “I’m not surprised.”

Signaling status in this way is not necessarily good or bad or even that important. It’s fun to notice it. And, sometimes, it can be a useful data point as you build psychological models of how the people around you operate, and in particular, as you predict how status-oriented a person might be.

Emergent Order

Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity.

Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop to consider how remarkable it is that our local supermarket always has enough bread on the shelves. Suppose an alien landed from outer space and you had to explain that there were two possible systems for ensuring that there’d be enough bread in the supermarkets to feed a local population. One system involved a “bread czar” who’d be totally focused on making sure every store got the right amount of bread from farmers; the other system would involve a bunch of chaotic, self-organized activity between and among all the farmers and market owners in the world and somewhere it’d all work out. Logically, the bread czar carefully overseeing everything should carry the day. But alas!

Here’s Russ Roberts, from his blog post on Emergent Order:

Understanding and appreciating emergent order, and understanding when it works well and when it doesn’t and it does not always work well, is for me, the essence of economics and the deepest idea that we economists can contribute to helping normal human beings understand the world around us.

Economists call the interaction between buyers and sellers of bread a “market,” but our charts of supply and demand, while often very powerful, don’t get at the richness of how we as human beings manage to cooperate without top-down coordination and do it so peacefully.

Indeed. The post is a companion to a short video titled It’s a Wonderful Loaf, which Russ produced, which tells the story of the would-be bread czar. I had the pleasure of seeing it debut in San Francisco.

Inducing awe is something I’ve written previously about. It’s a powerful habit to cultivate. I love being in the presence of real expertise or real impressiveness and marveling at what happened behind the scenes to manifest the expertise in front of me. Free markets and capitalistic mechanisms — while hardly perfect — for me induce a different but related sense of awe and wonder.

Thanks, Russ, for sharing your passion and sense of wonder with others. It’s infectious.

John Stuart Mill’s Life, In a Sentence

“Mill’s [life story] is of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.”

That’s from Adam Gopnik’s wonderful account of Mill’s life. The opening paragraph of the piece contains this: “Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill.”

Mill made it onto my icons list of 2009.

How Romeo Stevens Improved His Life

He first describes how his life has gotten better. And then attributes it to the below actions. My favorite is #6.

  1. Movement. Sure, having an exercise habit, but also just physically altering my state when I am not functioning well gets things working more often than not. Weights, cardio, yoga, but also just walking and sit stand desk ($30 from Ikea parts).
  2. Info triaging. Reading many things at a coarser level and prioritizing more ruthlessly based on what seems valuable, alive. This is a rather pithy description for something of such vast value. It is probably worth a post. (huge ht to Alex Ray for finally finally convincing me to actually do this.)
  3. Developing exobrain systems that work for me in a pleasant rather than onerous, virtue based way. eg I use workflowy, pomodoros, and konmarie like systems a lot. I find many other systems for organizing my priorities to be unpleasant, so I don’t use them. Note I said organize my priorities, I don’t use such systems in order to try to make myself work. Once I stop thinking of these as ‘productivity systems’ I started getting tons of value out of them. That frame is propaganda for an internal fight that it’s better to get a ceasefire on rather than developing ever more powerful weapons for.
  4. Noticing negative self talk and not putting up with it. Internal parts that are motivated to get something can engage respectfully with other parts/values or they can be ignored. This got more subtle as I got better at it. I went from noticing explicitly violent internal moves (yelling, shaming, etc.) to noticing that parts use things like hypnotic binding, misleading choice of words to frame issues etc. Your parts are as smart as you because they are you. (sometimes they seem smarter because systems arrived at via selection don’t have to stick to a particular abstraction level the way explicitly planned ones do)
  5. Internalizing the core framework of coherence therapy and Immunity to Change by Kegan: that your current bugs/negative emotions/etc. are trying to help you and if you don’t acknowledge the important job they are doing any fighting you do against them likely won’t work. Or in other words, akrasia is self healing unless you figure out the ways your current coping strategies are helping you get your needs met and you find alternate ways.
  6. I don’t know what to call this one that won’t induce an eye roll. To paraphrase Lama Yeshe: ‘I am not telling you to help others as some sort of virtuous commandment. I am saying that from a 100% selfish standpoint you should try out focusing on the needs of others. Try it for 3 weeks, and honestly evaluate if your life is better. If not, you never have to do it again. But it will likely be impossible not to notice how much better things go when you get in the habit of keeping a lookout for ways you can assist others in their positive goals. No one is telling you to give up your critical faculties and be taken advantage of. And you’ll find that your paranoia was unwarranted.’ I’ll note that if you are secretly keeping a tally of how people owe you you are not doing the thing. This might be semi-involuntary and take conscious effort to drop. Others might be wary as they suspect you of angling for some advantage. Let them in on the secret that you are being selfish. Those you genuinely enjoy helping and those you don’t will work itself out naturally.
  7. My attention span has improved dramatically as a result of significantly reduced use of super stimuli (news feeds, video games, pornography, super stimulating foods, hero’s journey fiction, hyper attention grabbing style music, frequency of hamster pellet checks (fb, email, messaging, etc.), video binging) and the resulting free time is shocking.
  8. Schematizing everything. This is an improvement not to normal mental tools but to the mental toolbox. Collecting schematic workflows that other tools can be plugged in to for specific tasks. There are far fewer of these and they assist in the mental availability of the correct mental tools because they have what Eugene Gendlin calls a ‘specific’ or ‘sharp’ blank. ie a blank that knows what it is looking for (what was that word? no that’s not it etc.). Ever wonder why you can remember thousands of words but not 100 mental tools? Because you have a rich associational web for your words (connotation space) but not one for mental tools. This starts fixing that. The sooner you start the better.
  9. Noting (outlined here)
  10. Rituals make your life more like Groundhog Day. Mainly used for the meta-habits of setting intentions around other habits and doing reflection. A morning and evening routine is very worth it. It will repeatedly fail, you have to keep iterating so it fits your current life.
  11. Climbing out of the valley of bad meta of believing if I just installed the correct set of mental tools and habits that things would magically fall into place at some indeterminate point in the future. Realizing that I can’t use the outputs of other people’s processes as my process (as you would be doing if you tried to instantiate this list as a set of processes rather than using it as inspiration to examine your own life more closely)
  12. Meta: carefully investigating motivation, prioritizing, meaning, the concept of ‘carefully investigating’, goals, systems, mental tools, mental states, search strategies, what counts as an explanation, tacit vs explicit, procedural vs declarative, and others.

Here are Romeo’s other posts on LessWrong. Thanks to Andy McKenzie for the pointer.

Knowledge Accumulates Over Generations

One of the central takeaways from Chuck Klosterman’s book is that throughout history many well-verified “truths” about how the world works have, in time, been proven wrong. He provocatively asks: Which assumptions about the world do we hold dear today that subsequent generations, benefitting from greater scientific discovery, will laugh at?

You can learn this lesson vividly in the arena of building engineering and home repair, as I have.

Consider a building structure that was originally built 100 years ago but has been updated over time. An engineer will inspect the building and say, “Oh, that foundation work utilized a technique that was common in 1980.” Or: “That way of supporting a second story addition was popular in the 70’s.” A specific building technique is easily timestamped based on the prevailing knowledge at that time. With the punch line being: There’s a different best practice today. “In 2017, we do it differently.” And, usually (but not always) — it’s a better technique.

It’s inspiring to see how building engineers continue to iterate their approach. And it occurred that it’d be amusing if management consultants similarly couched their advice in before-and-after timestamped language. “That way of doing performance management was popular in the 80’s, but we know better now.” “Structuring your decision making that way was popular in the 90’s, but we know better now.”

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Related, somewhat of a counterpoint: The always provocative Robin Hanson says one of the big neglected problems in the world is that each generation has to re-learn lessons during its individual lifetimes.

Neglected Big Problems

Heleo Interview Part 1

Here’s a six minute video excerpt (part 1) of a recent conversation I did with business site Heleo. We cover how adaptation is a business and life skill; how to get feedback on how you should adapt; what one might need to unlearn from school; and why there IS such a thing as a dumb question in a meeting.

“There Are No Shortcuts”

A few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard to get some attention; to generate some controversy. But to make your name mean something and to have it stand for dignity and integrity — that’s rare. It’s not something you can buy. There are no shortcuts. Video below (start at minute 13).

Product Hunt Podcast with Brad Feld

Epic wisdom from Brad Feld on life and business in this conversation with Erik Torenberg on the Product Hunt podcast. I make a cameo at minute 17.

Schedule Your Free Time

A quote from Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi of Flow fame:

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

As found in Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Cal suggests we more rigorously schedule our weekends instead of leaving Saturday wide open and figuring it out once we wake up. This doesn’t mean working all weekend, but scheduling your leisure like you schedule your work.