Hey everyone :).
Wow. There have been a lot of experiences this week. My mindspace feels like it’s almost completely full—like there’s no room for stray thoughts, and no time to focus on anything that’s happened, because the experiences just keep coming.
Happily, I finally get to blog today, and if I’m lucky it’ll overflow into a Friday-night post as well. Today was the day I’ve been building up to: I had a 15-minute presentation for the first-years in the neuroscience program, and another 20-minute presentation for people in lab and two representatives of DARPA (the research branch of the US Dept. of Defense, which is funding one of the lab’s projects). Since those have been completed (and they went well!) I feel like I can finally catch up on the backlog that has been the weeks since Rationality Camp.
(Attempt to catch up, that is—my work is in a state of disorganization that I’m not entirely comfortable with :). I don’t have lists of what I’m supposed to do on all of my projects, I still haven’t sorted out all of the social follow-ups that I’d like to do after Rationality Camp, I’ve made very little progress on the questions that were spawned by Rationality Camp, I haven’t finished watching the videos of the classes I’ve missed, I’m a tad bit behind on my homework, and things aren’t in my calendar correctly, with times and dates planned. I’m tolerating it, but I do find it very satisfying to put to-do items in sorted lists, rather than just do whatever immediately needs to be done. I don’t think it’s necessarily necessary—I always seem to do fine in busy weeks—but it makes me feel so much better about what I’m doing with my life, and confidence that I’m not missing things. I feel sort of similarly about the blog—think about all of the issues, write them down, now they’re sorted and I can move on. I recently met someone who hates putting thoughts on paper. I boggled at him. I guess I can understand it—writing something down constrains your thoughts, really limits their scope—but it’s such a necessity for me, to get things out of my head so that I have the space to think.)
I anticipate these posts are going to be extremely disorganized for the foreseeable future. It’s ON THE LIST to write some posts that have themes– I always say this, but I will actually execute it someday. I notice in writing this that I’m stating the former for accountability purposes, but that I apparently still refuse to put an actual timepoint on the blog :). Much of my thoughts have gone this route recently: people suggest something, and I think: that’s something I believe would be useful, I should execute that, and then I totally don’t make a plan for it.
Interestingly, the reason that I don’t make a plan for it does not seem to be the reason that most people don’t make a plan for it. At Rationality Camp, I had the opportunity to explore what other people struggle with, compared to my own hiccup points. A lot of other people seem to struggle with the connection between “intention” and “execution”, and we learned a many techniques focused on how to effectively link these two. I now am grateful for the fact that I don’t have this problem: if I decide that I want to do something—that I really want to do something—then I’ll set up systems to make it happen.
What I’m doing now feels like protecting myself. There are a LOT of inputs to my system in this moment, and I want to make changes, but I’m refusing to set up long-term, higher-investment plans because I’m doing so many small-scale edits on a day-to-day scale. I feel like I don’t have room or willpower to execute large-scale projects. This limitation of attention ties in with why I’m feeling not-so-happy about my lack of lists, because I want to put all of the ideas I’m NOT executing on a to-do list to work on later; I feel like I’m losing them into the void right now.
I’m frustrated, a bit, because I feel like there’s an immense amount that one can learn from every interaction, and I’m only capturing some of the insights because there are too many of them to process. On the other hand, being in experiential mode is actually a lot of fun, especially for the sheer amount of learning that comes out of it. I was looking out the window the other day—I’d isolated myself to drink tea and stare at San Francisco—and I noticed that I was really aesthetically valuing how the tea cup looked, raising steam against the window. It was just so aesthetically appealing, so present, the satisfaction so indescribable, and for a second I wasn’t thinking about what it meant that I was thinking about it this way, or what that said about my internal state, or what that said about the teacup, or how to replicate it, or why I was thinking it—I wasn’t thinking at all, I was just looking at this teacup, and really valuing the experience my brain was producing for me around this teacup.
Of course, I had a thought pretty much immediately after that, and it was: waaaaaittt, is this what people are talking about when they say I’m supposed to experience the moment, or natural beauty, or be in the present, or whatever else people say regarding squatting in the weirdness of sensations that our bodies produce for us? Because, readers, I suspect it is. It was a really weird sensation, purposefully not thinking about my experience and why it came to be and what it meant. I mean, I didn’t really try that hard to suppress my thoughts—I like thinking—but I did pause for a few more seconds just to sit in that sensation. I’d had a longer experience the other day in which I was laying for whole minutes in just sensory perception, deliberately not thinking about anything and enjoying where I was, and this felt a miniature version of that suddenly appearing in my daily life.
It’s kind of unbelievably weird. It’s really strange to me to allow myself to just sit in a situation and not being planning or trying to optimize it in any way, and trust that that’s an all right thing to do. That I don’t need to be thinking about something else, or making progress on work, or try to figure out how to lead the conversation, or worry about analyzing an interaction I just had, but that it’s all right to just sit there and feel whatever I’m feeling. This feeling of all-rightness, or safety, is weird for me to experience on my own, and it’s even weirder for me to feel like it’s okay to do it with people around. But there have recently been situations where I’ve let myself to this sort of dwelling.
For people who know me, and have been trying to get me to do this sort of thing for ages—thanks for working on me :). I think the fact that I am constantly thinking and analyzing situations is a pretty obvious character trait, and people have been telling me for a long, long time that chilling in a moment is actually fine. The reason why I think I now have at least of taste of what they’re talking about it partly because of this continuous encouragement. I also feel like the change comes from a mind-shift. I’m seeing life a little differently now—that there’s time in life, that I don’t need to rush towards anything, work is for life and for forever, what I’m living now is what I’m here for. People have also been being incredibly kind to me, and given me reassurance and new insights that there are aspects of who I am that people are going to like without me having to explicitly optimize them—I guess I have an increased confidence that performing well isn’t absolutely necessary 100% of the time. This increased confidence gives me the space to watch what I’m feeling—experience things—in the moment, in the presence of someone else, rather than feel the emotions by myself later, when I have the time to sit by myself and think about how the situation occurred. I’ve also been seeing a lot of demonstrations of people really sitting with their feelings and experiencing them, which is a trait you don’t often see in people but is very prevalent in alumni of Rationality Camp.
Interestingly, I don’t know that this shift into a more experiential mode would be especially teachable. I certainly didn’t budge much on my confusion on this topic for many, many years. One thing that immensely helped, and continues to help me, is to see examples of people doing it. But the other shifts—the idea that I’m liked, people don’t need me at full focus all of the time, that it’s safe to experience things around others, and also that I don’t need to full-tilt at work all of the time—aren’t something that you can diagnose in someone and inform them of. I can just imagine one of my friends trying to tell me: “So I want you to have the experience of just feeling the sensations. In order to do this, I’m going to both demonstrate what that looks like, and also you need to fix your perspective on the idea that you constantly need to be working, and also you really don’t need to perform in front of people all of the time because people are going to like you anyway.”
…Hahaha, actually, I’m changing my mind, because I know someone who has pretty much explicitly laid out each of these points, though not combined in that way. I’ve definitely heard versions of each of these points from many people, though not necessarily combined. Perhaps this sort of thing is teachable—perhaps, if one were to take all of the commentary that one gives them, and address them one by one, some of them would later turn out to be solved by addressing previous ones, though the link may not be visible beforehand.
Ah man, this is fascinating. The process of “updating” oneself is an increasingly important area of interest to me. (I mean “updating” in the sense of Bayesian updating, where you have some prior beliefs on the world, and you learn new evidence, and your subsequent beliefs are a combination of your prior beliefs and your new evidence.) Specifically, I’ve always been told that I take instructions well: that I’m “teachable”. This was especially evident in sports, but the point is that I know I can be out of the normal range with regards to how well I listen to feedback. Now I have new terminology for this phenomenon of changing myself after receiving feedback: I do Bayesian updates quickly. Other words that people have used include: “Ah, such good self-modification”, “fast learner”, and “One thing about you is that when other people point out things, you don’t become resentful, or even upset—you kind of break for a little bit, make incoherent broken-computer sounds, and then you have this process of getting yourself back out of it, and if possible you’re even more enthusiastic than before.”
Ahhhhhhhhh people are so nice. This brand of compliment has pretty singlehandly become my favorite praise in the course of like a month. One thing I’m proud of today is that I gave a presentation that was much better than last week. I did this by hearing comments from other people about my overuse of the word “like”, and then watching a video of myself, and seeing that the problem was that I’d been thinking about the audience too informally. As soon as I was able to put myself in the mindset of watching what came out of my mouth because this was a FORMAL context, I think I only used “like” twice in the entire presentation today. That was very cool.
I also want to acknowledge that I’m terrible at updating in a lot of circumstances. I can react very badly to feedback, and be resentful, and this happens quite a lot. There are also ideas that you can tell me to update on—like “enjoy the moment, Monica”—and I’ll get angry at you because that doesn’t feel like something I can do, and I’ll remain low-key resentful at anyone who brings this topic up because I feel like you’re asking me to change something that I’m not capable of. I think we all have our blocks. If we were flexible in all things, we wouldn’t have any sort of fixed sense of who we are, of personhood, and I feel like there aren’t many people who successfully achieve that level of chameleon-like updating.
This is actually something people bring up when they realize that I’m able to be influenced. They worry that changing themselves to fit others’ expectations would make them less authentic, less who-they-are. I don’t know who I am, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I’m losing myself by making updates. Then again, part of my identity is, I think, the fact that I make small updates. (At this point, I want to bring up the argument that I learned Rationality Camp which is: “keep your identity small”. It means that you don’t want to say “I’m not good at __” or “I’m good at __” because it means you train yourself to think of yourself as a “certain type of person” instead of not assigning your current behavior to fixed trait. I think the purpose of this is to make sure that the values you use to define yourself are the values you most care about, and you don’t define yourself by anything that’s actually less important. Luckily, I consider the fact that I like changing myself an important value, so I think I’m safe here.)
However, I also have very little concept of the idea of “authenticity”. It feels a lot like the writing concept of “voice”, which people can improve on, and I think “authenticity” is probably improvable on in the same sort of way. However, I’m told I have both of these things, so I’ve never had to think about what they means or try to improve them. So I don’t know if people become less authentic by changing their behavior to match the expectations of people around them. The fact that it’s brought up so much, by so many different people, indicates to me that it probably has some backing for a substantial portion of the population. That idea makes the think of the fact that most people don’t share personal vulnerabilities freely, because they’re worried they’re going to get hurt, which also is an argument which is frequently brought up and thus also probably has backing for a substantial portion of the population. Who knows, though? Are the things that people say and fear true, in the sense that the consequences they anticipate actually happen and that’s why they fear it, or is there something else going on such that people commonly worry about specific things but they aren’t necessarily relevant? I DON’T KNOW. (There are probably many other situations that fit this paradigm, of people voicing a common fear that seems reasonable but may or may not be true. Hm. I shall have to think about this more.)
Brief tangent, tracking back to the question of “who are you”. I recently asked myself this question on a bike ride to campus a few mornings ago. The dialogue went something like this:
“Who are you?”
“Well, you’re pretty cool.”
“All right. But there are people who are smarter than you.”
“Yes? That’s it? How do you feel about that?”
“…Yes, there are people who are smarter than me? I still think I’m cool?”
“How can you think you’re cool if you’re not accomplishing stuff?”
“…I don’t know? Maybe it’s a fixed trait?”
“It is most definitely not a fixed trait.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know. I still feel like I’m mostly cool.”
“Well, feeling that way is good for not annoying people and taking feedback well and generally being a better person to others, we established this last week with the insecurity stuff.”
“…Yes. That feels like not great logic for thinking that I’m cool though. That seems like good logic for convincing myself that I should think of myself as cool, but doesn’t quite feel like that motivates the base feeling. Am I cool or not?”
“Well, there are people who are better than you.”
“That is still bothering me far less than I think it should.”
“And you’re doing this thing where you’re entertaining the thought that it might be a fixed quality rather than a function of what you’ve done in the past few weeks.”
(I feel like this internal conversation reveals a lot about where my mental blocks are :))
Cool :). I feel like I’ve exhausted that line of thinking. In the spirit of “complete disorganization”, I’d like to bring up a few other things I’ve been contemplating recently.
I’ve recently been interacting with people in many delicate situations. Situations in which people can be hurt by what I say, and I can be hurt by what they say. And I have a greatly renewed appreciation for implicit communication, and communication by what is not said.
Why would one want to have communication in which one does not say something? It seems pretty antithetical to my preference for blunt and open discussion of feelings. (I’m still working on that—I’m not great at giving compliments, for example. I’ve tried to set up a new rule for myself in which whenever I think of a compliment, I say it. Mixed results so far. I’m not actually nailing the rule, but I have given more compliments that I would have if I wasn’t at least occasionally getting the rule.) (I’m also not super great at doing higher-order personality analyses. I learned that I actually demand these from others pretty frequently—I’ll ask people to give people a run-down of what they think of me or how they think I think about something. I really wasn’t quite aware that I’m such a demanding person in that way, but I ask this sort of thing of people all the time. I find the process of giving people higher-level feedback very difficult, but people have been really good at it with me, and kind about it, so far. I kind of want to continue asking people to do it until it backfires on me and they all get tired of doing difficult mental simulation.)
But it turns out that when someone wants to say: “I’m not going to make time for you”, you really don’t want them to actually come out and say it.
It’s interesting, because you’d think that if you manage to understand that implicitly, you’re also aware of the explicit sentiment on some level. Sometimes if I’m feeling a lot implicitly, I’ll come out and say the explicit idea to myself: “they don’t want to spend time with you”. I don’t know if that actually feels any worse, if I’m feeling that bad in the first place.
BUT, if you’re in a situation where you can kind of slip it past yourself, with the emotions never reaching the conscious level, then there’s all sorts of advantage to not saying the explicit statement. You end up feeling much less bad than you would have if someone came out and delivered the sad sentiment.
Moreover, you can sometimes confound the sentiment, which greatly helps in the “slipping it past yourself” process. I’ve seen situations where the “I’m busy” is couched so masterfully that there is no other option than to accept their response as completely logical and understandable, with even some sympathy. I also see situations in which one can make it seem like a favor that the other person is being so understanding of the “I’m busy” that the power dynamic shifts a little bit. I’m observing these situations, and trying some of them out myself. I’m mostly making a complete hash of a lot of things and making novice mistakes :P. There’s definitely an art to it, especially since to make these things work effectively you either need to be feeling what you’re telling the other person or be a really good manipulator (probably best to be both). But I’m figuring it out, and I think I’ve done all right so far, considering.
One very interesting situation occurred this weekend when I actually got mad at someone. They said something mean at the end, and I was like: wow, not acceptable. But then I thought: but this person is actually reasonable and nice; I know that about them from previous interactions. Why would they suddenly call me a name that I consider not acceptable?
Turns out, if one backtracks through the conversation, it’d been a quite mutual escalation of aggressiveness. They’d been mildly pushy, in a way that made me be more pushy back. They then pulled a trick that I didn’t like, so I compared them to someone else and said that they’d executed something in a less clever way than that other person. They then began the name-calling.
I still can’t really believe I did that. I didn’t even think I was being rude at the time; it was only in retrospect that I went back and thought: I said WHAT? The situation remains confusing to me on multiple fronts: I so rarely get that annoyed with people, I generally tend to fold in aggressive situation, and I was being unconsciously-deliberately mean, AND I wasn’t aware that I was doing it.
The first surprise was that I got annoyed at this person. It’s definitely a function of who I hang out with, but people just don’t tend to be very annoying these days. People can generally read social situations and take the appropriate actions. It turns out that one of my triggers is when people don’t take what I consider to be the normative and correct action in commonplace situations, which this person didn’t by being pushy. It was a situation in which I KNEW what the correct answer was, and they weren’t doing it, so I felt justified in being pushy back. This leads into the next point…
I generally tend to fold in aggressive situations. The reason why I tend to fold is because I’m usually quite uncertain about my own position. This was a clear-cut case in which I KNEW the right action they should have taken, I am very used to people taking this action, I myself take this action and have put a lot of thought into why one should do it, and they weren’t taking the action. I think this is why I was standing my ground here, and getting annoyed rather than sad: I knew what the correct answer was, and why weren’t they executing it? Was it to challenge me? It must have been to challenge me. (Answer: it was not to challenge me. I don’t know why my mind went there in the heat of the moment, but it definitely did. I think the actual reason was something about wanting something really badly, and then fighting back when I did not want that something really badly. My mind is usually so responsible though in thinking about why people might be having strongly emotional reactions and giving them the benefit of the doubt. That part of me was NOT ONLINE during this interaction.)
Third surprise: I was being unconsciously-deliberately mean. Okay, first lesson to myself: even if you’re thinking it, do not make explicit comparisons to other people. It seems that I must know this, because I feel like this is not a problem that I’ve had before. Apparently I really do not know it as well as I thought I did, because I’ve made this mistake several times recently, and it should not be my go-to default response when I feel like people are being unjustifiably pushy with me. I think the problem here is that when I have interesting interactions with people, and then I’m having an interacting interaction with another person which has parallels with the earlier situation, I want to draw that comparison. I think the key bit is to do this comparison in my head, rather than out loud. There are several disadvantages to not doing it out loud. First, I have a hard time thinking thoughts silently to myself when I could work through the implications out loud. Second, they’re usually interesting thoughts, and I like saying interesting thoughts to other people. But what I’m sacrificing here is making people feel bad via comparisons, and that seems like a bad thing, conditioned on how bad people actually feel. But I think that in emotionally-charged situations, or whenever I’m feeling annoyed, really, I should just decide that that tradeoff is weighted towards hurting people, and mostly shut up.
I actually like my default response to arguments, which is to shut up and back down. I think it’s a safe way not to hurt people, and there’s pretty much always valid emotions happening on both sides. The weird part is that I was standing up for myself here, pushing back just as hard as what was being given to me. And that felt like the right response. I don’t want people to walk all over me, when they’re executing what I consider to be bad behavior (usually the type of behavior that I’ve thought a lot about, and consider really the entirely right thing to do in that situation). But I also don’t want to stop listening to what people are actually trying to tell me. I don’t think I’m particularly good at doing this online, but having sympathy towards the other person almost always brings down the tone of the conversation, because people feel they’re being listened to. Actually, that was the thought I had during that conversation: that I wasn’t being listened to. OOOhh, interesting. I hardly ever feel that way. Usually I feel like if someone isn’t understanding me, it’s because I’ve explained it badly or picked the wrong examples. In the case, I felt like I was being very clear—extremely clear, even—about what I wanted and what I expected, and that I wasn’t getting the appropriate response; that what I was saying was being ignored.
I wonder if the best response in that situation was to get annoyed and aggressive back? It sends a clear signal that I won’t tolerate specific types of behavior, which I think was what I was implicitly going for. I know that getting angry in a situation, and lashing out against the other person, isn’t what I want to happen. On the other hand, in knowing myself, I feel like I just have a such a high bar for lashing out at people (rather than folding) that the fact that I did it indicates something important about how I saw the situation playing out. Aw, man. I think the conclusion here is that I still shouldn’t do explicit comparisons to other people, but I think that my bar is high enough that if I feel the need to step up and be aggressive for a while, then I should let myself be aggressive. But I should try to be very aware, in the types of situations in which I find myself getting annoyed, of when would be a good time to stop being aggressive and listen. This seems so hard, though. In that situation, my default response to getting annoyed was two things: to become very, very clear about what I was thinking and what I wanted, and harden my tone by a LOT. I feel like this is not the right response: in these situations, the person does not need to learn more about what I feel, they need to be listened more and acknowledged in what they feel. Okay, I like that solution better. Don’t let situations escalate in the first place—if someone’s getting upset, just try to let them know that you’re listening and understand their point of view, rather than yelling my own point of view louder.
Fourth surprise, just to finish up: I wasn’t aware that I was being mean. This is such a strange one. You’d think I’d know that I was getting annoyed and being aggressive and that’d be a signal to myself to back down. I do think that I’d more easily recognize it next time. It was just such a rare situation—I just so very, very rarely get to the point where I’m that annoyed with someone, because usually both participants in a conversation are reading each other pretty well and adapting. This whole situation is just so odd to me on so many levels, because it amazes me in the first place that I could have reached that level of frustration. I’m not used to operating at that level, and moreover when I do get annoyed people recognize it and back down, but instead the response from this person was to get even more aggressive, which DOES NOT HAPPEN. This is probably why I also scaled in aggressiveness, and we got into this whole cycle. My conclusion from this section: hang out with people who respond to annoyance, especially increased annoyance. If one happens to be hanging out with people who can’t respond to annoyance this one time, maybe because of some emotional distress or distraction they’re feeling, note my level of frustration and BACK DOWN BEFORE YOU HURT SOMEONE.
Hahahaha… I find it so funny that I need to talk to myself about being aggressive in conflict situations. There were a few unique interactions this weekend, but that was certainly one that stuck.
And I think that’s all I have time for tonight :). I’m going to my first counseling session tomorrow, with Berkeley’s Tang Center! When I have emotional difficulties, I go to friends and try to figure out what they think, and I’ve been relying increasingly heavily on one of my friends. She’s been suggesting for a while that I go talk about these things with an actual licensed professional, and the first five sessions of counseling are free for all Berkeley graduate students, regardless of your health insurance coverage, so I’m deciding to give it a go. I imagine it’ll be interesting regardless—they’ll probably be able to provide some good insight, and if not, then it’ll be fun to figure out what kind of questions they ask. I was worried for a while, because I don’t actually feel incapacitated by any of the ideas I think about, and I was worried that I’d be taking up the time of someone who could better use these sessions, but a lot of people I know go to therapy and find it useful and tell me that I should just try it out, so here I go :).
Different style than usual tonight—much more “figure out what I’m thinking while writing, rather than having part of a thesis beforehand”. You all are champs for making it through, and I’d love to hear about how you reason through these sorts of things!