Category Archives: rationality

Negative visualization, radical acceptance and stoicism

In anxious, frustrating or aversive situations, I find it helpful to visualize the worst case that I fear might happen, and try to accept it. I call this “radical acceptance”, since the imagined worst case is usually an unrealistic scenario that would be extremely unlikely to happen, e.g. “suppose I get absolutely nothing done in the next month”. This is essentially the negative visualization component of stoicism.

There are many benefits to visualizing the worst case:

  • Feeling better about the present situation by contrast.
  • Turning attention to the good things that would still be in my life even if everything went wrong in one particular domain.
  • Weakening anxiety using humor (by imagining an exaggerated “doomsday” scenario).
  • Being more prepared for failure, and making contingency plans (pre-hindsight).
  • Helping make more accurate predictions about the future by reducing the “X isn’t allowed to happen” effect (or, as Anna Salamon once put it, “putting X into the realm of the thinkable”).
  • Reducing the effect of ugh fields / aversions, which thrive on the “X isn’t allowed to happen” flinch.
  • Weakening unhelpful identities like “person who is always productive” or “person who doesn’t make stupid mistakes”.

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2014-15 New Year review

2014 progress

If someone told me at the beginning of 2014 that I would co-found an organization to mitigate technological risks to humanity, I might not have believed them. Thanks Max, Meia, Anthony and Jaan for the great initiative!

I am almost done with my first research project on variable selection and classification using a Bayesian forest model – I simplified the variable partition in the model, came up with better tree updates, added a hyperprior, sped up the algorithm by an order of magnitude, and started testing on real data. Among the other ambitious projects of the past year are two MIRIx workshops plus writing up the results, and starting this blog.

Improvements in personal effectiveness:

  • started using a daily checklist of morning habits
  • started taking melatonin every night
  • started tagging new thoughts
  • started using FollowUpThen to schedule future tasks without overloading my todo list
  • started using Toggl to track work hours only
  • stopped using Beeminder (too stressful), and replaced it with a combination of 42goals and FollowUpThen (works well)
  • quit as President of the Toastmasters club
  • made a volunteer application form for FLI, so that instead of being inundated with 7 freeform emails per month from interested folks, I get the relevant information in an organized spreadsheet and I’m not required to respond

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Open and closed mental states

I learned a game at Burning Man this year that was about connecting to people and reading their nonverbal signals, called the “open-closed” game (h/t Minda Myers). There are two people in the game, and one is trying to approach the other and place a hand on their shoulder. No words can be exchanged, except that person who is being approached can announce their emotional state as “open” or “closed”. When they say “closed”, the approacher may not get any closer until they say “open” again. The approachee monitors themselves for any internal discomfort associated with the other person, and says “closed” if that is the case. The approacher tries to keep the other person comfortable through their body language and eye contact, to get them to remain “open”.

I have recently started playing this game with myself, with “open” representing openness to experience or being in the moment, and “closed” representing tunnel vision or discomfort with the way things are going. In a way, I imagine being “approached” by whatever situation I’m in, or whatever sequence of experiences is happening, instead of a person. I ask myself whether I am in the open or closed state, and try to shift to the open state whenever I notice being in the closed state.

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Importance motivation: a double-edged sword

Working on something important is often stressful. A hypothesis came up in conversation (h/t Michael Vassar) that labeling your work as important actually decreases the quality of the output. I have seen this effect in action quite a bit, e.g. when someone can write an essay when commenting on a blogpost, but gets nailed by writer’s block when writing an essay on purpose. Feeling responsible for something important can be an obstacle to productivity when the work requires creativity. How can we do important creative work without being held back by importance considerations?

This has come up in my thesis research project on variable selection. It’s been “almost done” for a year now, and my advisor keeps reminding me that it’s important to finish soon. This motivation results in making little tweaks to the algorithm at the expense of looking at the big picture. However, most of the improvements to the algorithm came about through exploring models that I thought were more interesting than the default one. When I came up with a more streamlined version of the model, for a while the algorithm was doing worse than the original one, and I started cursing myself for following my elegance heuristics instead of doing what needed to be done. Then I found a bug, and the new algorithm reached a similar performance level to the old one. (I do eventually want to stop playing with the model and actually publish the thing, though…)

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Citadel house sessions – a year in review

Since we moved into Citadel House in Boston a year ago, we ran self-improvement and rationality sessions every week, for the housemates and some local LessWrongers. There were around 3 sessions running at a time, and some of them caught on much more than others. I will discuss the sessions in decreasing order of success.

Meta Mondays

Meta Mondays are self-improvement meetings with a theme – most meetings involved a particular activity announced (slightly) in advance, aimed at practicing a skill. Some example activities were:

  • Feedback-a-thon. A large group of us got on Admonymous, and sent each other feedback messages simultaneously. We had a list of feedback categories on the board (social skills, hygiene, speech patterns, etc), and some people requested feedback in specific categories. We were sufficiently persistent and prolific to overwhelm the website’s email quota!
  • Table Topics Against Rationality. We combined the idea of Table Topics from Toastmasters (1-2 minute impromptu speeches) with Cards Against Rationality. Everyone took turns drawing two cards from the deck, and then giving a speech that connected the concepts on the two cards to each other. This devolved into silliness at the end, when we threw in the Cards Against Humanity deck.
  • WRAP decision framework. (“Widen your options, Reality test assumptions, Attain emotional distance, Prepare to be right/wrong.”) I taught this decision procedure, and people played around with applying it, but most of the people present didn’t have a major upcoming decision to practice on.

At times when we didn’t have a theme, we would have a general conversation about what people were optimizing in their lives these days. The themed meetings were generally better attended and more focused, but also required more preparation. In future, we should invite guest hosts for Meta Mondays, instead of coming up with all the topics ourselves.

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