Ok so I was an A student

In my new consulting job after my recent career redirecting, I have been accused of being a ”straight A student”. It is extremely offensive to me. Sucking up to an authority by aiming for artificial brownie points? Yuck! I don’t think like that, I never have. Aiming for perfection? Of course I don’t, that’s stupid and impossible. Of course I aim for only good enough. Nobody is dishing out any A’s here and even if they did I wouldn’t care. I never did. (I just got them.)

To prove my point that I never cared about high grades I recite a memory. Or I should call it a narrative in my personal life story because I’ve recited it so many times its factual validity is dubious, but I’m quite confident the sentiment was there.

I was a small school child and it was the first time we got actual grades instead of stickers or stamps they used first. I took those home as required for my parents to see. They were amazed and slightly shocked. Apparently I had gotten very high grades across the board (or maybe full marks on a single test, I have no idea because as I’m trying to say, I didn’t care). They wanted to know if I had done ”that” to please them, because they really didn’t want to give the impression that they’d require that from me. Ah yes, dear parents, I said. I see the problem. Since you don’t go to school, you don’t know how it works so let me explain. At school they first tell you things, then sometimes they ask you to tell back to them what they have told you, and so you do that. Then they give you these grades. And that’s what you’re looking at.

Another memory, from 5 to 7 years later. For reasons both unclear and forgotten I got on bad terms with one of my teachers. Once she asked me to stay after class and gave me a proper talking-to about, I don’t know, my attitude or something. It was so stressful for me that after she let me go I cried in the corridor. Some boys I didn’t know too well passed by and scoffed ”yeah she’s exactly like that, ’boo-hoo I didn’t get an A’”. ”Why on earth would I do that?” I wondered behind my tears.

I never aimed for high grades. I just got them. School was easy.

I did do my homework and I did prepare for tests, but it was never something that required much effort, it was just something you did. Small mistakes that blemished an otherwise perfect score annoyed me, yes, but only because they were by definition small mistakes that I could easily have gotten right too. If I got something flat out wrong I was disappointed but only because I cared about being right. But I never ever put in a lot of effort in order to get a high grade.

Whether the effort I did put in was a lot or a little I can’t tell at this point. But I know that I didn’t exactly push myself, or vary the effort that much. So I never learned one of the most important lessons at school, the one that says ”your input has an effect on your outcomes: if you slack you get lower grades, if you try hard you get higher grades”. Instead I learned just ”you are a person who gets high grades”.

I understood this only very recently, after reading a blog post called Half-assing it with everything you’ve got by Nate Soares. The essential point is here: “Most people are trapped in the slacker/tryer dichotomy. They either do as little as they can get away with or as much as they can manage. They’re either aiming for barely acceptable or they’re aiming to be the best. Very few people seem able to pick a target in the middle and then pursue it with everything they’ve got. Very few people seem capable of deploying their full strength to hit “mediocre” as efficiently as possible.”

It has been a real epiphany. So yes, I do not think you’re supposed to get a perfect A in anything in any sense, that doesn’t exist in real life. I can say that no, I don’t aim for perfection. But here’s the kicker: I am not aiming for anything else either. Actually choosing a quality target and the level of effort needed to get there has never crossed my mind. I have just done things.

The effort I’m willing and able to put in is pretty high in academic and work endeavours but I’ve never really chosen that. By the time I was studying math and statistics at university I had started to care about grades to a degree because ”you are a person who gets high grades” had become part of my self image. It would have made me uncomfortable to observe myself getting lower grades so I studied hard to avoid that. But I still didn’t see the grades as the target, they were a proxy. My target was learning the content, and the grades would be a measure of that. I would not differentiate between ”learning badly” or ”learning well”, my target was ”learn it”. All of it.

And it was still easy, in the sense that it was possible (for me at least) to learn “all of it” in the given time, with the given resources. You could trust that the lecture notes had all the necessary definitions and worked examples, even specifically that for this week’s exercise problems the last week’s notes had them. And that the test would be just more of the same problems so you didn’t even need to consider whether you were studying the right thing. I’m not saying it was easy in the sense that riding a bike downhill is easy. Sometimes the problems strained me to my limits. But it was easy in the sense that the correct solution always existed and it was always possible to find it with the skills and knowledge accumulatd up to that point. I could still learn it all. And consequently, I still didn’t have to learn how to aim for a lower quality target. I know that others skipped studying a part of the course content and just gambled on what would be on the test. I never considered that. I didn’t have to. I didn’t exactly “choose” the high target either, since I simply went through what ever it was that was put before me, without questioning it.

The original title for this post was “I was never an A student”. But preparing it has made me admit that yes, I have been. I am. I react strongly to the label because one of the lessons I did learn in school was that people who study really really hard and fret about getting the best grades get bullied. And I’m not like that, it’s unfair. (As if it was fair to bully for the right reasons…) I didn’t do it for external motivations, but I never settled for less than learning it all. I never chose a mediocre or low target, and that is basically the same thing.

But now I am a consultant and I literally can’t operate like that anymore. I work in a booming field, it is simply utterly impossible to have learned it “all”. There are strict time limits. The questions put before you are badly defined and potentially not at all the right ones. Attempting to deal with this situation as if it were a class that one can ace by just showing up and following the curriculum is only going to make me miserable. I will have to learn to actively choose a quality target.

It sure helps to realise a choice like that exists.


Saying the same thing again is not explaining

I need to complain about another thing I have trouble with: planning. And starting any kind of work, particularly if it involves writing. I feel I don’t know where to start because I don’t know what the start would look like because I don’t know what the whole thing looks like because, duh, I haven’t seen it yet because it isn’t done.

And when I ask for help with that, what I get is almost universally useless for me. ”Just write something thereabouts first, you can edit it later.” ”I said I don’t know how to start at all.” ”Don’t be such a perfectionist, it doesn’t have to be good at the first go.” ”I never said I could write something bad but would want to write good instead. I said I don’t know how to start writing anything.”

This annoys me to no end (plus I get stressed about the still unwritten thing). I feel like I’m not heard at all. To try and make my point (and a meta-point, actually) let me cast the feeling of repeatedly being dismissed and misunderstood in to another context.

Suppose I want to divide a cake among N people but I don’t know how. I ask for help. Then the dialogue might unfold like this.
”I suggest you divide it in to equal parts.”
”Yeah of course, but how do I do it?”
”By splitting it up in to pieces so that the resulting pieces are the same size.”
”Yeah that’s what ’equal parts’ means but seriously, how?”
”By using a knife, making cuts so that it becomes a collection of pieces. And the pieces should be the same size.”
”Ok the knife would have been relevant piece of information if my problem was the physical reality of how to separate parts of cake neatly. But that’s not my problem. I’m asking where to make the cuts.”
”…In the cake. You make the cuts in the cake, so that resulting pieces are the same size.”

It is natural for both parties to become frustrated at this game of pingpong. Either one could break the cycle by recognizing that understanding is not happening and then approach the problem from a new angle. The key in this particular dialogue would be a question that would reveal what is actually needed: an algorithm for choosing the exact cuts out of the million possible ones with the desired output. The cake cutter is perhaps at a better position to explain the need since, well, they have the need. But a good advisor can help them to explain the need better, by asking questions sort of ”around” the immediate problem.

I had a go at this the other day when I was asked for professional help. Here’s an approximate transcript.

”We have data on our people’s knowlege of technologies, on a scale of 1 to 5, and we would like to know which ones our people know best. And suppose we have six people at level 4 on one and a single 5 on another so that the second one looks stronger but isn’t really. Can we filter out outliers in some smart way?”
”’Which ones our people know best’ is a badly defined request.”
”We want to know which techs are our best known ones, based on data like that.”
”You just repeated the same thing you already said.”

Unfortunately here it turned out that the requestor was only a messenger and I couldn’t coax out a more useful definition of ”best” from them. But what I would have done is ”asking around the problem”, although directly asking ”what do you mean by ’best’?” might work too. ”What decision are you planning to make based on this ranking? Why do you need to know?” is very revealing. If that doesn’t prompt an immediate answer then ”Suppose I just gave you a list out of my black box algorithm. How would you know whether it is a good or bad answer?” could bring them to verbalize the problem. I’m sure I could think more based on the feedback on those questions.

(As a sidenote, this is where the faith in the Magical Powers of Data comes visible: all the machine learning algorithms in the world are unable to provide you answers if you don’t know what it is that you want to know.)

Back to my problem of planning. Particularly work projects. After many rounds of pingpong of the kind I described, I understood that my problem is that I don’t see how to break a big task in to smaller ones. And what do I do when I need to learn something? I google, of course.

I did a search for ”how to break down projects in to tasks” and was mightily disappointed and frustrated. None of the hits where actually about how to break down projects in to tasks but merely about what to do with the tasks after the breaking down, with some strong convincing that the breaking down is very very important and should not be ignored. Fuck. I get that, that is exactly why I’m trying to find out the how! And the advice on what to do after: prioritize, make a time estimate, figure out the dependencies, assign to team members etc. No shit Sherlock. (And of course, ”write them in this app/system of ours and oh btw this blog post was actually an ad not advice, sorry.”)

The summary in this post in particular made me throw a breathtaking mix of a giggling fit and a tantrum.

How to break down a large project or task into small tasks:

  • Figure out if a task is really a project
  • Break a large project into smaller subprojects/milestones
  • Write down all action steps you can think of for each subproject
  • If you can’t think of all steps in advance just write out the next 2-3 action steps
  • If necessary, break down any large multi-action step into smaller, more specific single-action steps
  • Turn a long single-action step into multiple time-boxed or number-limited small tasks.

So you’re saying that breaking down a project consists of breaking it down a bit and then breaking it down some more, and maybe once more, until it’s properly broken down. That’s your advice? How the fuck is that supposed to be helpful? You just said the same thing three or four times, without explaining anything.

What I’m looking for is probably suggestions for questions that would help me see the problem of breaking down a project from different angles. Like the ones I provided to go along with my ”what do you mean by best knowledge?” question. Then the lines between the subparts might become visible to me. After long and winding discussion with a colleague I got at least one such idea (”are there interfaces?”). Since the internet didn’t provide I may have to think up more myself.

P.S. And how did I manage to write this post? First of all, I had something to say. An intrinsic motivation. Actual paid work tasks don’t always come with that, even when the job on the whole does. Then, as a first thing I wrote up the cake dialogue, and the ”what do you mean by best” dialogue, because I had already thought about them. And then figured out how they go togeher afterwards. In fact, I had all three things in my mind, those dialogues and the frustration about the useless advice, before I thought of writing them up in a post. So technically, I just took notes and edited when I had already written the post. Which is… sadly, the only way of working that comes naturally to me, or what I can consciously see of my own work process.

The freak strawberry

I went to the gym yesterday. I don’t like gyms. In fact I find the whole experience seriously agonizing which is exactly why I went. I went to train my mind.

A couple of years ago I found a perfect mindfulness exercise, quite by accident. The internet brought to my attention a mildly interesting piece of science news about a strawberry that had experienced a rare but quite natural developmental hiccup: its seeds had started to sprout while still on the berry. There were tiny leaves on it, like little green feathers.

The photo made me and other trypophobic people freak out.

Trypophobia, or ”fear of holes” is a real but not very serious (and therefore not clinically recognized) miswiring of the brain occuring in some people. Trypophobic people can have a strong averse mental reaction with goosebumps and all to things that have certain patterns of holes or other uneven marks. It apparently has something to do with the evolutionarily guided avoidance of disease and rotten things on overdrive, or something like that. Do an image search, but at your own risk if you are unsure about your trypophobia status.

This horrifying freak of nature in the format of a strawberry experiencing unintended vivipary was interesting enough for me to read the article despite the goosebumps and the shivering. I loved how it showed, contrary to what some people want to believe, that nature is anything but perfect. It is downright sloppy. My favorite example is legs on snakes: the whole blueprint for how to build legs is still there in snakes, it just has a kind of ”ignore this part” post-it note on it. Sometimes the note gets ignored and hey, snakes with legs.

So there I was, painfully aware how horrified my brain was at the sight of the freak strawberry and at the same time thinking that it was the coolest thing that day. I noticed the contradiction, and how freaking cool was that? I knew I was perfectly safe but my brain wanted me to flail my hands around and run away. I could watch it happen from the inside of my mind. I had time to pay attention to it. And the best thing was that I could trigger it at will. I didn’t even have to look at the photo, just thinking about it and looking at the visual memory was enough.

So for days and weeks, every now and then I would look at that mental image to trigger the horror and ride it. I could feel the waves of goosebumps flow across my scalp and neck and downwards, the increased heartbeat, the heat on my face. The sympathetic nervous system at work, that is. The really funny part was to notice how the effect weakened after being triggered many times in a row. That was perfectly in line with how I knew messages in the body are passed: from nerve to nerve using neurotransmitters and to organs using hormones. Both get depleted and/or saturated, and the goosebump reaction wanes.

It was a powerful exercise. I could reliably and safely train to separate how I felt and what I thought about that feeling, and to do that using a strong, embodied feeling. I have unfortunately passed this class by now – the effect is still there (let me try right now… yes) but it’s very mild on the specific image, and generally weaker on other trypophobia inducing images. (That’s neuroplasticity, by the way.) But I’ve taken the lesson to heart.

I’ve used it to not get frustrated by migraines. It still hurts but I’m calmer about it. I use it nearly daily when I have to get out of the warm shower and feel the cold air on my wet skin. But by far the most amazing moment in this regard was some intentionally vague amount of time ago, when I had the opportunity to feel intense, raging, white-hot jealousy like never before in my life. It felt horrible, verging on unbearable. I was literally panting under its weight. But while I was feeling like that, in another corner of my mind I was utterly awestruck about this wonder of evolution: my genome was able to produce all of these physical symptoms on its own to protect its interests? (Not mine, which were kind of the opposite.) ”I”, the ghost in my machine, was firmly on the passenger’s seat on this carriage. In a third corner I was laughing my ass off at myself. I had gotten exactly what I had ordered, a serving of just desserts with a side dish of poetic justice. The hilarity of it was unquestionable even when the joke was on me.

And now I’ve used this technique of separating the feeling and the thought about the feeling at the gym. On an intellectual level I have wanted to go. It would be good for me and particularly it would be good for my running and that I actually enjoy doing (and would like to get better at). But the emotional experience of thinking about going there is pure aversion. I looked at that feeling and concluded it is again my fixed mindset: I just don’t want to put myself in a situation where it’s clear to see I don’t know what I’m doing and, much much worse, risk getting helped by random onlookers.

Based on my reading (The confidence gap by Russ Harris, The willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal) I knew that it’s not possible to just push yourself through something like that with sheer willpower, it just isn’t that powerful. I don’t mean just not in me. It’s not powerful enough in anyone in the long run, it’s a myth. The trick I would need to use would be some kind of reframing, to motivate me from another angle.

And ha! I found it. There it was. Going to the gym would be a well defined and safe context that would reliably bring up that feeling of ”I don’t want to because I don’t know how to and people will see that”. I can use that. It’s freak strawberry all over again.

And that got me there. And it was every bit as agonizing as I predicted. Not for the muscles, that part I could handle, had I worked hard enough to cause any pain. My pain happened in the mind. It’s still bringing tears to my eyes to think about it. But I also got another round of a triple-layered emotional experience. It was ”fucking fuck I hate this shit so much” – ”yes! there’s that feeling I came to look at, awesome” – ”wait, did I just get happy about being unhappy? how much fun is that?”

I think I’ll go again. Gym going is all about the repetition, isn’t it? It’s the same about neuroplasticity.

P.S. No, I’m not heroic enough to have done this on my own. I was asked to come for company, in other words, to do something for someone else which is far easier than doing something for myself. That motivated me to look for the reframing. I also needed an empathic and trustworthy recipient for my emo bitching both during and after. I’m deeply grateful for both.

My ethical disillusionment

One of my fundamentals is that I am not above anyone else. I’m not better and I’m not more worthy than anyone. And no one else is above me either. It’s a symmetry argument.

I suppose it’s an easy claim to make and agree to but holding on to it brings me to some uncomfortable conclusions. It forces me to respect people I can’t agree with and people I find horrifically mistaken. Flat-earthers, anti-vaccine activists, white supremacists, stock traders gambling on other people’s livelihoods, modern slave owners, petty thieves, take your pick. I’m not above them, I’m not better than them.

By which I mean that I don’t get to call them stupid or evil or a flaw in the universe. No one goes around making intentionally bad decisions. I always have to assume that whatever people choose to do, it’s the best possible choice given their circumstances and abilities. If it looks stupid or evil to me it’s because I’m not them. I don’t see those circumstances, I have a different mind.

It’s fairly easy with those I want to call stupid, say, those anti-vaxxers. Yes, yes, they’re wrong, they’re mistaken and their actions harm others. But do I really think they’re too stupid to see facts in front of them, and I can because I’m smart and therefore they should listen to me? I have no idea what their decision making process looks like! To be honest, some of these people probably know some of the facts related to vaccines better than I do. And how about the people who give no second thought to it, and just do what the authorities tell them? That is far more stupid, yet I’m not bothered. And there, I think, lies one key to understanding their thinking. Frame it like this: they are doing all they can to protect their children in a world that’s full of uninformed people just blindly following orders. That is pretty much what’s happening, isn’t it? And holy shit nope nopity nope on government regulated mandatory medical treatment. Have you seen what kind of governments there are? In dystopian TV series people opposing that kind of stuff are the heroes.

They’re still wrong, as far as I know. And I can wish as much as I like that they weren’t but I can’t place myself above them. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I or you shouldn’t try to convince them to change. All I’m saying is that both I and them are just trying our best in the world, and my best isn’t any better than someone else’s, it’s just mine. (And no, this isn’t about facts. As a fact, vaccination as a means to prevent diseases is a rock solid one. If you still feel like yelling that, I haven’t managed to get my point across. My apologies for that.)

It gets a whole lot more difficult with those I want to call evil. There are some really horrible deeds being done in the world which I really really hope didn’t get done. But why? I can’t refer to any divine order or supreme purpose. I don’t believe in those things. In the end my conviction is that the universe has absolutely no point to it and doesn’t care. So what I want to call evil is just something that I really really really do not want done, yet somebody else wants to do. And why would my want be more important? It isn’t. It’s just mine.

Rory Miller put this quite bluntly in Conflict communication, when talking about the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Note: he fully acknowledges that as a scientific theory the hierarchy is a lousy one, but finds it otherwise useful, and I agree. In any case I think the following quote is spot on:
”Lastly, according to Maslow, if all of these needs are fulfilled, an individual can self-actualize. You can live your dreams. Follow your heart. Write poetry or sculpt or do philanthropic charity work. Or you can live out your serial killer fantasies. That’s important. Not everyone shares your dreams. Not all humans draw joy from the same things. The pattern (whether of Maslow’s hierarchy or the scripts we address later) are nearly universal. Their expression, however, can run the entire spectrum of human thought and feeling. If you give a man everything he needs, he will start looking for what he wants. What he (or she; men have no monopoly on this) wants may be to dominate or to destroy. You cannot simultaneously ignore this fact and deal with it.”

I have to repeat myself: this logical stance I’ve taken does not at all mean I’d be ok with ”evil”. I’m really not. I still get infuriated and horrified, and want to do what I can to make it stop. I’m only saying that I can’t get on a moral high horse when I do that. I don’t have any kind of authority on what ought to be, only on what I want.

What I’m really getting at is that I have to totally abandon the idea of ethical utilitarianism, that thing where you try to count the amount of goodness coming out of each option and picking the one that leaves the biggest number on the global bottom line. Not only because it leads to absurdities (which it does, because you really can’t count goodness like that) but because I don’t get to choose what other people count as good.

(Apparently that makes me some kind of meta-ethical moral relativist. I made the mistake of checking out some wikipedia articles on this stuff. Philosophers and labels… Well, I suppose that’s their whole job. Fine. So be it.)

It’s kind of funny because I thought I did buy that. But for some reason I’ve become keenly aware of ingroup-outgroup motives in people’s behaviour (and I’m suspecting that, for what ever reason, my emotional response to tribal and even familial belonging is weaker than normal – it would fit my life story quite well) and that has lead me to Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality, through the themes of how to change someone’s mind discussed at lenght and on many sides in the You are not so smart podcast. (This by the way is the third time in five posts that I’ve linked to it.). And that is what I was actually trying to get to when I got lost on this philosophical detour. Maybe next time.

P.S. After writing this, I read this post. “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup” , and it both inspired and depressed me to no end. Inspired, because this is exactly what I was trying to get to, next time. Depressed, because why would I bother writing about it some more when somebody obviously way better and more prolific than me has already poured their wisdom in to a top post in the time scale of years? I’m trying to be convinced about my own convincing in my first post. I’m not.

Categories and labels and frames

I have written a blog post at work about some research where – supposedly – an AI was created that could classify people as gay or straight based on photos of their faces. You might want to read that first but if you can’t be bothered here’s a quick recap:

  1. It really wasn’t an AI but a standard statistical method that did the classification, it was only based on a neural network that is able to ”see” faces. (This tidbit was probably interesting only to me)
  2. It really doesn’t do that well in the actual classification you’re thinking of (”tell me if this single individual is gay or straight”) but
  3. it did show that gay and straight people look different in ways that are not voluntary differences in hairstyle etc, but facial features you can’t choose such as the shape of your nose and chin, and furthermore those shapes and sizes were more like they are in the other sex (more feminine in men, and vice versa)

I had to cut out a lot of stuff to keep that piece to a decent length, to stay coherent and to avoid being too confrontational. But hey, here in my own blog I don’t have to do any of those things! Ha! Long rambling ahead, about two proverbial worms from the can: cause for gayness, and are there sexes?

What originally prompted me to read the actual paper was this central question: so how do you guys tell gay and straight people apart? What feature are you actually looking at? My suspicion arose from finding out that the photos of the people were from a dating site. But like I wrote in the other piece, this wasn’t actually a condemning issue. At the end of the day the paper does say that gay and straight people look biologically different. And I found no reason to disbelief that.

But it seems that this isn’t even mildly interesting to the relevant part of the scientific community. It’s yesterday’s news, so to speak. If it was actually a breaking discovery, this paper would have come out in a ”harder” science journal than psychology, and it wouldn’t have needed to be spinned in to a fearmongering story about privacy issues and falsely marketed as ”artificial intelligence”. (Note: this is my personal, ”off-duty” understanding of it. I’d need to do a lot more reading to make the claim ex cathedra, and therefore didn’t say it so bluntly in the other piece.)

It was somewhat new to me personally though. I had heard that the hormone levels during fetal development had something to do with being gay, but I wasn’t aware that it had moved from the realm of speculation to a more solid ground. So here’s the kicker (please focus and try to catch the emotion you get from this): unusual fetal development causes people to be gay.

I have to take that apart very carefully. First of all, the word ”statistically” should be added there because the effect isn’t clear-cut and deterministic, and there could even be other factors in play too. But there are heavier words here. Consider this: is saying that unusual fetal development causes gayness equal to saying that first everything is normal and ok and as it should be but then something goes wrong and the person ends up defective, deviant and also wrong?

It shouldn’t, of course. But apparently that’s what some people hear, or fear that still other people will hear it like that and then be total douchebags and therefore you shouldn’t say that. I didn’t invent this idea myself, I’ve learned about it somewhere – obviously no idea where – but also about its flipside: that the biological cause is sort of a seal of approval, it’s a part of you that makes you you, just like the color of your eyes or the tone of your voice, and definitely not a flaw to be lamented, shamed or corrected.

I’m not sure anymore what people hear in the claim. One person I talked to found the unusual-therefore-wrong reasoning to be farfetched when I suggested it, another one went directly from hearing me talk about unusual fetal hormone levels to a horrified ”WHAT?? Really?” But there you have it: same facts, different framing, different emotional response.

Anyway. If you have a worldview like mine, totally devoid of the supernatural, you have to conclude that there is a biological process that makes some people gay while most people are made straight, right? (Yes yes I know these aren’t the only options! I’ll get to that.) It’s not like a gay or straight soul will inhabit an otherwise un-oriented body. Hell, there’s a biological process that makes a blob of cells any kind of a human being. And it is messy, to make an understatement. (If interested, try Endless forms most beautiful by Sean B. Carrol. It is probably partially outdated by now, but will still get you from a free-floating factoid of ”genome is the blueprint of an organism” that doesn’t really mean anything as it stands, to some kind of understanding of how exactly that works.)

So for me now this piece of information about hormone levels and looking and being gay makes a lot of sense. It is actually directly tied to another potential shitstorm magnet I had to tiptoe around in the blog post: the binary nature of the sexes. Here’s how I see it (and I’ve been wondering if being a statistician makes it easier to accept such ambiguity): yes there are two categories, males and females, but no, it doesn’t mean that all people fall neatly in to those categories, because no, the categories aren’t neatly defined, but yes, the categories still exist, but no you shouldn’t really feel the need to shoehorn individuals in to one or the other, but yes, a lot of the time you can and do and the one you’re filing would file themselves like that too. But not always, and that’s just how it is.

I’ve seen a lot of absolutely great explanations of how human sexes are and are not determined by X and Y chromosomes so I’m not even trying to add to that. I just want to throw in my statistics-inspired understanding of it. Which is: there’s a long list of factors that come in two different flavors, male and female, or on a male-female scale, like what shape of organs you have and how tall and strong you are and how much body hair you’ll grow where etc. Some of these are ”mental”, although remember, if you don’t believe in souls then mind is just what a brain does so the mental-physical division doesn’t make that much sense… like what sort of people you want to love and fuck. (I’m going to steer clear from nurturing instinct and competitiveness and 3-d skills and all that for now, but yeah, those.) These factors are highly correlated, because they are caused (there’s that word again!) by the same cascades of events, related to hormones and which trace back, to a degree, to those X and Y chromosomes. So, most of the time you get a set of flavored factors that makes everybody, including you yourself, to file you in to a category, and that’s why we have the categories in the first place. But like said, the process is messy, so you might also get a less common combination, which may for example manifest as transgender identity or non-straight sexual orientation.

And now you might want to say something about nature vs. nurture and for example about how toys being color-coded and labeled as girls’ or boys’ toys has nothing to do with chromosomes. As you should. The thing is, you don’t need to know whether a sex division in behaviour or motives is based on nature or nurture, or a combination. (Actually, trick question: It’s always a very elaborate combination. But you get the point.) All you need to know is whether you’re imposing restrictions or demands from outside on somebody else’s behaviour based on their apparent category, be it sex or sexual orientation. And if you are, then stop it at once.

And yes, mindfulness

Here’s what I wrote some months ago:

“I’m feeling grumpy this morning. Why? I could list reasons like ‘guilt for not having been running lately’, ‘fear that I’m not a good enough singer for this band after all’ and ‘there are problems at my workplace that I can’t solve’. But these are not actually reasons for my grumpiness. These are the manifestations, the reasons why I conclude that I am grumpy. This is how I can tell my mood is low.

So I’m not taking these thoughts too seriously. They are all true to some extent, but at the same time they are not that important. Before I worry more about them, I’m at least going to eat and drink and wait. Maybe have a meaningless chat with another human.

This doesn’t mean that I’d stop being grumpy. I still am. It comes in waves and has a constant hum.

I can’t make that feeling stop because there is a real reason for the grumpiness, I just don’t know what it is. But I can stop the second layer of worry. I don’t need to conclude that everything is going to hell in a handbasket because of me not running enough and I need to do something and if I don’t, shame on me. Because there is no reason for that.

That in turn I know because I know that there are things like low blood sugar, that my body wants something to be done about, and feeling generally bad is its way of communicating it to other parts of the body in order to get some attention and make that happen. But those different parts aren’t always very good at that communication, and then the conscious executive function (the “me” in my machine) is left guessing what the problem is. And sometimes guesses wrong. So these ideas about guilt and fear could just be false alarms.”

I already wrote earlier about this aspect of metacognition, this combination of accepting a negative feeling and then leaving it be. I count this as one of my most important skills. Note the word ‘skill’: it doesn’t just happen, you learn and train it. You train it through mindfulness meditation.

Now I’m pretty sure that just mentioning mindfulness or meditation, and the two together in particular, is going to make some people groan disapprovingly. It’s got something to do with new age hippies and Oprah Winfrey and goes together with celebrity diets, start-up culture and yoga. At the very least it’s an overhyped fad like decluttering your home with the Kon-Mari technique. Right?

Well, no. Or yes too, but no. I can of course see why a casual observer would come to that conclusion. But just because Kon-Mari is (perhaps) silly as a technique, it doesn’t mean that decluttering your home would be equally silly.

When I talk about mindfullness, I talk of something far more mundane than healing crystals and mystical energies. In my view, mindfulness is more on par with brushing your teeth every morning and evening and taking the stairs instead of the elevator in order to take care of your overall physical wellbeing. Even the meditation part doesn’t need to look like “traditional” meditation with closed eyes and lotus positions. I actually do a small mindfulness exercise quite often exactly when brushing my teeth, exactly because it’s boring.

I’m not the only one with that view of course. If you, like me, have a totally secular and material worldview and are still intrigued by the concept of mindfullness, you should listen to Michael Taft. (Note on the word material: apparently it needs to be pointed out that this does not mean being overly excited about things you can buy with money, but being of the opinion that there is nothing beyond the physical world, no souls or spirits of any sort, and that your mind is just a thing your body does.)  Here‘s a lecture that’s a great place to start. It’s almost an hour long but just the first 10 minutes are already packed full of things I’d want to repeat word to word. So I’ll try to summarise:

  • Definition:  Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience.
  • Meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular can be taught and practiced completely outside a spiritual context.
  • Emotions are not airy pink fluff to be controlled or even avoided, inferior and opposed to sense and reason. They are there for good evolutionary reasons.
  • “Understanding the background and function of emotions is clearly of supreme importance. The clearer picture you have of your emotions the clearer picture you have of your entire life.”

I am honestly overwhelmed about how much I wish people knew about all this. It has given me so much personally in several areas of my life but also when I look at the state the world is in… In particular: we would all be so much better off as individuals but particularly as a society if we understood the mechanisms of how we end up dividing people in to ingroups and outgroups . But knowing that it happens and understanding how and why it happens, is completely hollow if I as a person can’t recognise and see it, feel how it feels, when it is happening to me.

I am optimistic however. I think that all this will slowly but surely become common knowledge much in the same way that it is nowadays common knowledge that you should wash your hands regularly: that practice is only like 150 years old, and was originally rejected by the medical community. For a good reason, actually: before germ theory there was no good scientific explanation of why washing your hands would do any good. Now every good parent will teach their children to do that. Maybe one day mindfulness will be an equally boring thing that you do because that’s just what people do.

Metacognition reading list


I was reading The soul of money by Lynne Twist, and thought of making it the first book to actually write about here in this blog. (Note: I’m using Audible links here because that’s where I’ve got them and it’s easiest for me to pull them from my library there. There are surely text versions available as well.) I was going to say that for the most part I do agree with it, and wish more people would learn its central ideas, but that I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone who isn’t properly prepared. It smells too much like The Secret.

But I don’t think people know about The Secret (which of course is a good thing!) so I can’t use that as a guidepost. And thinking about this I remembered again how that particular piece of nonsense played a role in my personal learning experience about metacognition. And in fact, how I can’t start writing about the books I read, and the points I want to make, without explaining where I’m coming from.

Starting in 2007, I was depressed. I was always functional, and all in all it was pretty mild compared to many, but I still was. In my interpretation it was caused by the chronic severe stress that I put myself through by finishing my PhD, divorcing, moving to a foreign country, and starting to work in a new place that I never really accustomed to, all in one go. It’s normal to fall down under a heavy burden. It becomes depression if you can’t get back up after the burden goes away.

I understood that, and oh how grateful I am that depression was talked about openly enough already back then. I could name it. I could understand that I was not supposed to feel like that. So I did what became naturally to a research nerd such as me. I went online to search for happiness. Literally.

And I found, among other things, The Secret. To quote Wikipedia,

The Secret is a best-selling 2006 self-help book by Rhonda Byrne, based on the earlier film of the same name. It is based on the pseudo-scientific ‘law of attraction’ which claims that thoughts can change the world directly.

It’s the idea that if you just want something enough, the universe will grant it to you. The framework is tempting but I didn’t have to peruse the web page very long until my bs-meter hit critical levels. (And I never ended up reading the book.) I can’t quite remember how, but related to that search, and that finding, I also found the podcast Skeptic’s guide to the universe. And the rest is personal history.

Listening to SGU introduced me to the concepts of skepticism and critical thinking in the active, hobby-like way. That lead to reaching out for the local skeptics and hanging out with them (and I knew that meeting people is good for your mental health — it is bittersweet to remember now the anxiety I felt before the first meeting and how wonderful it turned out to be). It lead to other podcasts around the subject. Listening to that stuff weekly, and occasionally discussing such things with others, is bound to make you learn. I learned about fallacies and biases in human thinking, but the crucial point — which I think many who call them skeptics miss — is that you have to point that skepticism first and foremost to yourself. To your own thinking. You can’t take your own feelings and thoughts and conclusions about them at face value, without examining them.

That was an extremely important idea for me at the time. Some days were better, other days were desperate. In reality, when I looked at it objectively, I could see that there was nothing different in my situation or in the world on the good days and on the bad days. But I felt different. So totally different in fact that I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t reach the other emotional state from one. I tried both ways, I really tried. The moods happened close enough to each other that I could clearly remember, as a disembodied fact, that it was different the other day. But in the desperate mood, I simply couldn’t see how it would ever be possible to feel any joy or optimism. In the good mood, it was equally impossible to grasp that utter conviction of the futility of everything. I described it as a closet, with a tight, solid door. On either side of the door, you know as a matter of fact that the other side exists. But you can’t see through the door.

With time, some professional help and a tiny bit of medication I got better. But I like to think that for a significant part, I reasoned myself out of it. By questioning my own feelings and thoughts. By not believing them just because I had them.

But the podcasts stuck. I’ve since stopped listening to SGU in particular, but there are others now (Radiolab, You are not so smart and Freakonomics are the main ones at the moment), and then there are audiobooks. I’ve noticed that somehow I can’t focus on reading but when someone reads for me, I devour book after book.

So I’ll put down here a brief summary of my reading list and the themes they cover, grouped roughly by concept and in the order I have recognized them.

The first audiobook I listened to was Guns, germs and steel by Jared Diamond. By the same author, The world until yesterday and The third chimpanzee (so far I’ve skipped Collapse), as well as Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Harari consider the pre-modern, evern pre-historic, evolutionary context of the human animal, its behaviour and culture.

The second book was Predictably irrational by Dan Ariely, and it opened the now rather well-known field of behavioural economics for me. This sublist also includes: Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman (of course!), Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Misbehaving by Thaler.

Interestingly, Debt: the first 5000 years, by David Graeber kind of falls smack down in the middle of those two categories, behavioural economics and the long history of culture evolution.

Then there was Steven Pinker. Pinker is kind of a category to himself: How the mind works, The blank slate, The stuff of thought and The language instinct will have you covered about how the human mind actually works. The better angels of our nature will tie all that to the first theme of long history of species/culture evolution. Throw in some Robert Sapolsky – Why zebras don’t get ulcers and Behave – (there’s also a full lecture series on Youtube) and you’ll also have the messy “wet” biology side of it too (and some criticism on Pinker for balance). In the other direction, Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness explained will sort out why all that is troublesome for philosophers, and why it need not be.

Then there’s, hmm, let’s call it the scientific self-help category. This is where you really have to be careful because the line between a nuanced, humane, dare I say soft but still realistic understanding (that is, such that involves no angel dust or mystical energies) of the human condition, and the total bs is very very thin. Carol Dweck’s Mindset was mentioned in the previous post. Brene Brown’s I thought is was just me (but it isn’t) and The gifts of imperfection clearly go here, as well as Gretchen Rubin’s The happiness project. Then there are those that sound a lot less like self-help, but still kind of are: The paradox of choice by Barry Schwartz, Practical Wisdom by Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton and even Drive, and To sell is human, by Daniel Pink.

It may not be obvious, but to me the connection between these “self-help” books, and the books on the more technical side of the human behaviour is clear and strong. The self-help is the applied side of it: what to do when you’re stuck with a human mind. The overarching message in both is that we have next to no idea how and why we do what we do, and are in fact so clueless about it that most of the time we can’t even see that. But if we manage to acknowledge that, then there can be some progress after all.

There are also some recurring ideas. Prisoner’s dilemma is one of them. It is an amazingly clear and simple device compared to how much there is to say about it. I have even made one scary and life changing choice with courage, after I recognized it as a form of prisoner’s dilemma. This interactive presentation is an easy and entertaining introduction and well worth the time even if you are aready familiar with the concept. (And there is more like that on the same site.)

For more straightforward giggles in a similar context, I dare you to search for trolley problem memes.

P.S. There is one person who has patiently listened through absolutely all of my musings about all of these books and podcasts and everything, and actually paid attention. Please join me in showing respect and gratitude to my nom-sharing back-scratching partner in life, and our 10 years together.