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Shape Change

You can’t really know a thing until you’ve changed it’s shape a little. And that’s important, because the shape of all things must change.

“How can this thing change,” is a more important question than “how strong is this thing now?”

A job offer might look great – for today. But how flexible will the role, company, and leadership be in the future? If the answer is “not very,” then it really doesn’t matter how good the offer for today is. Wait a few short years (or even months!) and the role won’t be great any more.

A clay pot might be strong and beautiful, but if you plant a tree in it, the tree will eventually have to move if the pot can’t stretch. And it can’t.

Job offers, romantic partners, houses – anything important that you’re trying to evaluate – check how it changes. Don’t commit until you know. Until you’ve seen a change, seen the adaptation. That gives you the true measure of something. Like a broken clock, anything can look fantastic at the right moment in time. But for something to go the distance, it has to be able to flex a little.

The Council

There’s a type of logic puzzle called a “Knights & Knaves” puzzle, where the core concept is that some characters in the riddle always tell the truth and others always lie. You know this to be true (but don’t necessarily know which character is which), and your goal is to figure out some piece of information by talking to the characters.

Here’s the most famous one: There are two doors in front of you, guarded by two knights. One door leads to certain death, and the other door leads to escape from the labyrinth you’re in. You don’t know which one is which, but the two knights will answer questions for you. But here’s the thing – one knight always lies while the other knight only tells the truth, and you don’t know which is which. Asking only a single question, can you escape?

The answer: Ask either knight “Which door would the other knight say is the safe one?” Then escape through the other door. See, ‘Truth Knight’ would truthfully tell you that the other knight would say the death door is the safe one. ‘Liar Knight’ would lie and tell you that the other knight would say the death door is the safe one. So either Knight actually answers this question the same way, giving you the information you need.

Here’s the lesson: if you know someone’s motivations and patterns, then you can get very useful information from them, even when they would deliberately try to give false or inaccurate responses. As long as you know why and in which direction those false answers will skew, you can gleam what you need.

Here’s the deeper lesson: this applies to voices in your own head.

You have various emotional impulses, urges, and motivations that constantly vie for control over your actions, Left unchecked, the strongest of these in any given scenario will win, and your actions will be dictated by that voice alone. But that’s not good!

For instance, let’s say you see that someone has left a purse on a bus seat. Several voices might chime in: Greed tells you to grab the purse and the value within. Morality tells you to get the purse but take steps to return it to its rightful owner. Fear tells you to leave the purse alone; it could be a trap or someone could see you take it and assume (rightly or wrongly) the worst.

Which voice wins? In many cases, the voices battle quickly. The tools of this battle can be how hungry you are or how much sleep you got last night. It could be whether you recently lost money or whether someone recently gave you a compliment. Whatever happens, one of the voices wins, usually without your conscious choice, and that’s the action you take.

So Greed wins, and you snatch up the abandoned purse; someone spots you and accosts you and you end up arrested. Or Fear wins, and you leave the purse behind; for days after you feel guilty thinking of the elderly woman’s plight of lost, important things. Or Morality wins, and you pick up the purse to investigate its contents for noble reasons; but someone still spots you and (wrongly) accuses you of theft and you end up on the crime report anyway!

You see, any of these things could end badly, even the “good” ones. What’s the better process?

Let all these voices speak to you. Assemble them in a council, hear what they have to say, but understand what they actually want.

Greed tells you that you need every scrap of resource to survive. Greed’s heart is in the right place – it’s just trying to make sure you always have enough to survive and has no way of knowing that you already do. So remind Greed that the real currency of value to you isn’t a few extra dollars, but a functioning society – satisfy Greed’s desire for your material well-being. Morality wants you to do the right thing and help your fellow humans. Assure Morality that you agree and will do so, but you also don’t want to expose yourself to unnecessary risk. That’s where Fear comes in: it’s not that Fear wants you to be immoral, it’s just that Fear is looking out for you. Fear wants you safe. So let Fear know what you take its concerns seriously – so before just running up and grabbing the purse, you’ll alert the bus driver and say, “Hey, did you see who left that here? I think someone forgot their purse!” Now you’ve eliminated the risk that you’ll be misunderstood.

Each voice had something to contribute, once you understood the ways it will always miscommunicate. Morality doesn’t want you to put yourself at risk, it just wants you to act well. Greed doesn’t want you to steal, it just wants you to have enough. Fear doesn’t want you to ignore others, it just wants to keep you safe. Let every voice – and there are many beyond these three – tell you what they’re trying to tell you. Filter their messages as you need to in order to extract helpful truth from them. Let the Council advise you – but never let a single voice rule you.

Paid to Like You

In my junior year of high school, one of the other students in my trigonometry class received a bad grade on a test, and in a fit of immature frustration accused the teacher of not liking him. Years of schooling had taught me to expect a certain kind of response from the teacher, something like “Of course I like you, but I have to give you the grade you deserve, and we can work on improving, and blah blah.”

Instead, the teacher (pleasantly) surprised me with a more direct response: “I do not get paid to like you.”

That was it. No defense of pedogeological methods. A simple and truthful statement.

I often solve a particular kind of problem in a particularly inefficient way. The type of problem that I’m bad at is the type where getting someone else to change (even slightly) their behavior, actions or opinions is the most efficient solution. I tend not to take that solution – instead, I look for whatever solution only requires me to do anything.

Here’s an extreme but illustrative example: Let’s say I’m about to walk into a building, but someone is standing in the doorway. I will generally walk an extra three hundred feet to another entrance before asking that person to move.

This isn’t about social anxiety, though it bears some superficial resemblance. Unlike (seemingly) many people of my generation, I have zero problem striking up conversations with strangers. I will walk up to that person standing in the doorway all day to just chat with them. What I don’t like doing, however, is investing anyone else with control over my outcomes, if I can at all avoid it.

Walking three hundred extra feet to an unoccupied entrance is within my control. Asking someone to move – even though the ask is easy and very likely to be met – puts some control into the hands of someone else. After all, what if they’re a weirdo or a jerk and they just say “no,” stubbornly standing in the doorway? I’m not going to just push them out of my way, so I’d end up walking to the other entrance anyway.

Now look, I know this is a flaw. I know that it’s ridiculous to behave this way most of the time. But my habit of engineering situations to be entirely under my control often has big payoffs, too.

I almost never lose bets, I almost never lose negotiations, I almost never lose arguments. Why? Because I do all three of those things extremely rarely, and only in situations where I know I’m right, hold every card, and have already engineered the outcome. And I’ve done that because I so despise having any part of my outcome dependent on someone else.

I don’t want people to do right by me because they like me. To the extent that I want people to like me, I want it to be a by-product of good and moral behavior that helps my fellow humans, not a goal in itself. I want people to do right by me because of their own good and moral behavior, and also because I engineer my life so that it’s difficult to do otherwise. If people don’t do right by me, I don’t expect them to change – I change my life in such a way that this person no longer has any opportunity to harm me.

Some, even many people spend their entire lives giving away control and autonomy to others in the hope of being liked. Being a well-liked but mediocre sycophant, entirely dependent on others’ emotional opinion of me for every part of my existence, seems like a very particular kind of hell to me. I – like everyone – will always be dependent on a society of other people for my existence. That isn’t bad, in itself; or at least the benefits far outweigh the costs. But I don’t want to be subject to whim, as far as I can avoid it. If you like me, I am glad of it. But if you don’t, my only concern is that you don’t come into a position in my life where it matters.

Turn, Turn, Turn

“Taking turns” is possibly the first non-screaming negotiation tool we learn in our lives, and it remains an incredibly powerful tool for diplomacy no matter how old you get.

Humans have a strong instinctual desire for fairness – at least as it relates to themselves. My suspicion is that because humans are so bad at evaluating whether we’re actually getting a “good” deal (or even getting what we want at all), we often default to the far more easily-measured “fair deal.” If we’re getting an even split with someone, we reason, then we can’t be getting too screwed over, right?

This means that very early in life (earlier for some than for others, of course) we learn that a great way to settle an argument or negotiate an impasse is to offer to “take turns.” Like all techniques, it’s not 100% flawless. But a shocking number of adult conflicts can be resolved with some variation of the offer.

Maybe it’s because we want fairness – or maybe it’s just because we want to be treated fairly, which isn’t the same thing. If the other person offers a compromise, we feel less attacked and therefore less defensive. We’re more likely to reason our way out.

And it’s a calming influence. Have six people trying to talk over each other in a meeting? Be quick to offer: “Okay, you go ahead first, then I’ll go.” Establish a turn order and give up the first slot. 90% of the time people just want to know that other people are acknowledging their contributions. They’ll talk for less time in their allotted turn than they would have spent just shouting for attention. Then, you can get across the information you want.

Outsiders notice it, too. Our inner kindergartner sees someone else offering and respecting turns and we immediately raise our opinion of that person. The instinct for fair treatment never really goes away.

As I said above, nothing is flawless. Sometimes you need to grab the initiative and sometimes you need to break away from an orderly structure. But more than an organizational tool, the concept of “taking turns” will always remain an outstanding diplomatic tool. Just because it’s old, don’t forget how tried and true it can be.

The Great Tradition

My oldest daughter has begun to not only want to engage with my various hobbies and pursuits, but she wants to delve into the process and meaning behind them as well. She already works out with me (and is a great motivator), but that’s also evolved into discussions about health and healthy choices, bodily changes over your lifetime, and even the impact physical health has on your mental state. She hikes and camps with me, and that turns into discussions about the need for balance in our lives; when we play games together we also talk about psychology and sociology.

She often shows an interest in my writing, and has on more than one occasion contributed in some way directly to this blog. Tonight she suggested that I write about our event tonight – my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. We discussed a little, and I told her: “Sometimes I’ll just write about things that happened, but most of the time I try to draw some lessons from my experiences. To think about things I learned. What do you think we learned today?”

Her direct response: “That it’s important to spend time with your family, and it’s important to have a little fun.”

I don’t think you can do much better as a lesson. If that’s what she’s learning, then she already has her priorities in order and she’s going to do very well.

Happy 90th Birthday, Mimi!

Counter-Confidence

If you’re having trouble advocating for yourself or you’re struggling a little with self confidence, just get a jerk to say something disparaging about you, let yourself get mad about it for a minute, and then record yourself when you tell this person just exactly who they think they’re talking to.

Or, you can always do some part of that in private. But the point is that we rarely get as passionate about ourselves as we do when we’re feeling just a little bit defensive. Like all negative emotions, this isn’t something you want to give too much control to. But also like all negative emotions, I believe it can be harvested for good.

Look, you can’t please everybody. At some point in your life someone is going to insult, mock, or belittle you. Let yourself get fired up a little about it! And record it for later, or else it’ll be gone as quickly as it came. But if that fire is going to come now and then either way, you may as well turn it into a pilot light!

Filter By

It’s quite natural to want to associate with people who have particular qualities. After all, the people around you make up your River, and you want it to work with you, not against you. So let’s imagine that you want people around you who are ambitious, kind, and intelligent. You specifically don’t want people who are petty, selfish, or foolish.

Okay… now what?

People don’t walk around with labels on their foreheads saying “Ambitious” or “Petty.” (And even if they did, how accurate or truthful could they be?) So we have to use proxies. Of course, the most accurate way to determine these traits is by interacting with that person multiple times over an extended period, but by that point they’re already in your River. Plus, clearly you can’t just absorb everyone you meet into your life at full capacity – there isn’t the time nor the space, for you nor them.

So instead, proxies. But which proxies we use often says more about us than about the people we’re trying to attract or repel, and like any offloaded decision, it runs the risk of giving many false results that harm us in the long run.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that I highly prize having intelligent people in my life. But I don’t have a superpower that allows me to tell how intelligent someone is by looking. So I proxy some piece of data that’s easier to evaluate. Because it seems correlated, I choose “education level.” It’s easy to ask in even an initial conversation where someone went to school, and for how long, and for what, and it doesn’t seem wildly intrusive. So if I was comfortable proxying “education level” for “intelligence,” I have a more efficient solution.

The enormous problem, of course, is that “education level” is not a good proxy for “intelligence.” Depending on why I wanted intelligent people in my River, it may even have negative correlation! For instance, suppose that if I was more self-aware, I would have realized that I wanted “intelligent” people in my life because I think of intelligent people as more free-spirited, creative, and inventive. Well, filtering by education level is not a good way to determine how free-spirited someone is, for sure! If I’m looking for out-of-the-box brainstorm buddies, getting rid of everyone who didn’t navigate the Ivy League probably isn’t a good strategy.

So that’s the danger of using a broad, society-imposed standard proxy. Instead, what if you used a more personal one? For instance, I could pick a few books that I both very much enjoyed and felt were intellectually stimulating and evaluate people’s intelligence by whether they read, understood, and liked those books. There are two problems with this strategy. For one, your experiences are unique to you and are just one possible path out of trillions. Someone could be completely within the category of “intelligent” as you would define it, but has simply never encountered those specific books. For two, there’s a whole lot of bias in the idea that you can define positive traits by their proximity to your own experiences.

It’s easy to sort by “people like me.” But that’s a sad River indeed.

So what are you left with? You can’t use the proxies of society because they’re too broad to be able to apply to your specific needs, and you can’t use the your own proxies because they’re too narrow to apply to the rest of society. So how can you possibly figure out who possesses the traits you want in your life?

Well… you can use any of that. Society’s proxies are actually fine. So are yours. So is your neighbor Steve’s. So is throwing darts at a dart board. As long as you’re prepared to be okay with being wrong, and changing.

Your life isn’t a vault. Entering and exiting is as easy as you let it be. People can come in for a while, give you something wonderful, and then leave. That’s okay – in fact, it’s expected, good even. There really is no risk-free way to tell who’s going to be a perfect life-long companion, if such a thing even exists. Start somewhere, anywhere, and adjust as you go.

There are very, very few non-reversible decisions in life. Meeting someone isn’t like jumping off a cliff, with no easy way to “un-jump.” It’s taking one stair. If you don’t like the slightly different view, you can go back the way you came, and take a different one. If you filter too strongly, you can miss the very best ones.

It Can Be Both!

Just as you shouldn’t take positive correlation to be proof, you also shouldn’t take negative correlation to be an automatic dismissal.

Someone can be trying to take advantage of you, but using true information to do so. Lying and manipulating aren’t positively correlated with things that are advantageous to you, but that doesn’t mean that every word out of someone’s mouth is false just because some things were.

This makes the world more complicated than most people would like it to be – it would be nice if all lies came from “liars” and all liars always lied, like doors in a riddle. But they don’t.

So you can’t just outsource all of your decision-making onto external people you’ve categorized as “good” or “bad.” Doing everything that a given person tells you to do is a recipe for disaster, but so is deliberately doing the opposite every single time out of spite. In both cases, that person is controlling you and you’ve yielded all agency.

Unimportant

One of the great tragedies in life is that what’s important to you and what’s important to others will never align perfectly. As humans, we’re not great at wrapping our heads around that fact and acting accordingly, no matter how much we accept the truth of it. We think that if something is important to us, naturally it must be important to other people. And we think that if something is important to other people, naturally it must be important to us.

Neither is true. At least, not automatically.

Let’s define our terms a bit here. What does “important” even mean? This trips people up right from the start, because things can’t even be “important.” They only be more or less important than something else. It’s a relative term. Once you grok that, it becomes easier to see why the level of importance something has for you can’t possibly be universal.

For instance, you can (and should!) consider your own emotional state and level of general happiness to be important. Meaning you should prioritize that over a lot of other things! But you can’t prioritize everyone’s happiness, which means no one else can prioritize yours, which means your level of happiness will (and should!) be more important to you than it is to anyone else.

But when you don’t get your head around that, you do silly things like assume your happiness increasing is a reason for anyone else to do something, when of course it isn’t. I see it in job interviews – candidates using the fact that they’d really really love the job as a reason to hire them. Look, you might be happier if I hired you! But I’m not prioritizing your happiness with this hire; I’m prioritizing a whole lot of other things.

What’s important to you isn’t always important to other people. It’s not that they want the opposite or they want to act against it – it’s just that importance is a relative ranking of prioritization, and your happiness is a lower priority for me than a lot of other stuff.

Really, this means you should act differently in at least two ways. One, you should expect other people to act in ways that boost your personal priorities a lot less (trust me, you’ll be a lot less disappointed in life if you do this). And two, you should expect yourself to act on behalf of your priorities a lot more. No one else is going to!

Don’t internalize the priorities of others. Recognize that they have their place and might be perfectly logical from where the other person is sitting, but that doesn’t mean you should act in accordance with those priorities. You should align to them when you’re looking for win/win scenarios, sure. But for your own long term health, success, and happiness – only you know what’s important and can act accordingly.

Herding Cats

It isn’t always easy to keep a group of people focused and on-task. Even if they all want to do so, the very thing that makes it advantageous to use a group in the first place – their diversity of thought – also can make it difficult to focus that diversity into something useful. The more possibly combinations of creativity, the more possible distractions.

Time is usually more of a factor, too. Not only is it more difficult to stay focused, but you often have stronger time constraints than when working alone. So you have even less time to get to your end goal, but more potential pitfalls!

How to manage this – while still getting all the benefits that creative collaboration brings?

The Rules.

You can’t just get together and say “hey, let’s turn our creativity towards X.” You have to establish some rules of engagement up front, and get everyone bought in. The reason you need to do it up front is because a lot of these rules can seem downright mean if you enforce them by surprise, but they’re perfectly fine if you’ve created the framework for them in advance.

For instance, saying up front: “You’re all very smart people, so I know that if we just let this meeting run wild a lot of brilliant things will get said. But just because something is brilliant doesn’t mean it’s useful to our work. So I’ve got a special notebook here (or maybe a specific shared online file if this is a remote meeting) that I’m calling ‘Other Ideas.’ If you start to go down a tangent that is brilliant but not where we need to be, I’m going to sound the metaphorical buzzer and ask you to just stop that track and put the idea down into that notebook/doc (so we don’t lose it!) and then let someone else pick up the track of our main project. Everyone okay with that?”

You want to unleash creativity, but you don’t want to unleash chaos. So create some healthy outlets for those other ideas, but keep the minds steered towards where you want them.