Category Archives: Blog

Confidence and Humility

In Damon Culture (that is to say, a culture made up of people where my traits are the expected ones of the average person, if not quite a culture made of my literal clones), how confidently someone states their beliefs is ideally NEVER influenced by how confident people around them are. Only by how confident they themselves feel about the issue.

The second may seem a natural outgrowth of the first, given how people feel about issues is often affected by others’ confidence. But the distinction is actually very, very important.

I’ve taken other people’s hedging as a REMINDER to check in with my own sense of confidence. I’ve also noticed new uncertainties when people I trust confidently say things I don’t believe.

But I never speak less confidently about something just because someone around me is doing so… particularly if they’re saying something I believe is false! If anything, someone else hedging around a statement I find false is a time I tend to feel MORE encouraged to say things overconfidently, and I have to remind myself to check-in with how-I-would-phrase-the-thing-I-believe-independent-of-what-they-said.

Because… that’s what confidence is FOR, in Damon Culture. It’s a signal for your own state of belief. Anything else seems like deception, one way or another, or playing social games out of fear.

(Also jokes, but that’s a particular context in which it’s often very clear, and clarified shortly afterward)

And fear may well be why it’s a thing people feel inclined to do! It seems reasonable in a society/culture that conditions people (particularly people of certain genders) to sound less “arrogant” or “bossy,” and where people with power will punish those who’ve pricked their pride. It’s also reasonable to think “I need to be careful in how forcefully I say this so as not to make this person defensive” in certain contexts.

Generally though, if someone, particularly in the rationality community, docks someone points for being confident, *independent of being incorrect,* they are very clearly Doing It Wrong, in my eyes, just as much as people who dismiss anything someone says with epistemic humility.

From the perspective of “What does Damon believe an ideal community would do,” adjusting to someone else’s apparent humility is a sign that something went wrong, either in the person’s understanding of epistemic humility or in their trust in the people around them to understand how to interpret their confidence (acknowledging that this lack of trust may be justified, in non-Damon Culture).

Procedural Executive Function, Part 3

The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here.

If you haven’t, I suggest reading the start of my overview and exploration of Executive Function. Parts 1 and 2 of Procedural Executive Function can be found here and here.

TL;DR – Organization is the system of habits and external aids that minimizes effort for accomplishing work

Working Memory is your capacity for holding information in your attention at once

Flexible Thinking is your ability to creatively problem solve and avoid getting stuck.

Each helps you maintain progress on your goals, and can help maintain flow by reducing difficulty in solving problems, which is one of the main bottlenecks for productive work.

As we begin the final(?) installment of the series, I hope it’s clear now how the many parts of Executive Function work together to take someone from an initial notion about what they “want to do,” to actually doing it.

We can generally put the problems our executive function faces into two buckets: things that prevent us from starting something, and things that cause us to stop doing something.

The first post, covering Planning, Prioritizing and Task Initiation, addressed things in the first bucket. The second post’s contents, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control, and Emotional Control, address things that can be found in both buckets. And this post’s topics, Organization, Working Memory, and Flexible Thinking, largely have to do with things in the second bucket.

But this frame falls apart, a bit, if we zoom in to each step of the path. Do we ever “write an essay?” Or do we write sentences that make up an essay? Each sentence is of course itself made up of words, and each word is made up of letters, but when people say “I have writer’s block,” they don’t normally mean they’re blocked at the level of “I don’t know how to spell a word.” Sometimes they mean “I don’t know the best word to put here.” But often they mean something like “I don’t know what the next sentence should be,” as a subpart of “I don’t know what the next idea to start exploring is,” or “I don’t know how to best explain this idea.”

Again, things that cause us to “stop” doing something are often the same sorts that prevent us from starting the next bit.

As mentioned in Part 1, the tradeoff of “predicted fun/reward” vs “suffering/cost” is often the best measure of how hard someone will find a task to begin, and this extends to each subtask that makes up the overall goal. If you imagine doing something and the primary feelings are all aversive, such as boredom, discomfort, confusion, hopelessness, etc, then you could be reacting to the overall task, but you also could be reacting to some necessary part of it that you expect to be blocked on.

So, while some tasks are so short or straightforward that difficult problems don’t appear, the process of being able to continually engage in and complete “productive work” requires the ability to adapt to each new problem that might come up in the course of doing a task (or, if the work is boring, ways to stay stimulated and engaged if some part of it becomes monotonous). 

Which is where Organization, Working Memory, and Flexible Thinking come in. When all’s well, these things help keep us engaged and capable of solving problems as they arise until the task is done, or at least until we need a break. But if any of them aren’t functioning properly, we’re at risk of feeling stuck, which we often experience as “getting distracted,” at each problem that comes up, whether on the level of what word to write next, or whether the essay really means anything at all.

So… how do we prepare to solve a stream of unpredictable, potential problems?


This section might seem overly obvious, or a kind of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” After all, part of how executive dysfunction manifests for many people is not being able to get organized!

But it’s important to recognize what organization is for if we want to understand what goes wrong, and how it can help. And to do that, we need to focus again on what it means to get “distracted” by something.

In some situations, getting distracted is a direct effect. Our awareness brings us a new stimulus that isn’t caught by one of our subconscious filters, and our attention shifts to it, or a stray thought occurs to us that immediately grabs our attention.

But for other situations, maybe even most, getting distracted is a symptom. It’s not a sudden, hard to ignore new stimulus that pulls our attention away from something else. It’s the result of your attention seeking something else to distract you from the discomfort or frustration or anxiety of not knowing what to do next.

The first is like a rock through your window. The second is like a vacuum, pulling in anything that will fill it.

Understanding this difference in what it means to “get distracted” is important, because it’s within that difference that we see what’s within our power and what we can do differently.

So, what causes that vacuum to appear? What are the conditions that get our brains to start roaming?

Back in Part 1, I mentioned that the main two things I’ve found have kept people from starting tasks is either predicting failure, or predicting discomfort. In the same way, basically all the reasons people don’t continue to do something they’ve started doing is that they didn’t know what to do next, or predicted it would be unpleasant to do.

Any kind of friction while doing something can inhibit what I call “next step momentum,” leading to the automatic seeking of other stimuli that’s more rewarding or less effortful or stressful. The less uncertainty there is between one step and the next, the less effort transitioning takes, the fewer parts of your executive function chain are going to trip you up in general.

And again, as mentioned during Task Initiation, sometimes a person’s executive function falters because they forgot to fill their gas tank, and the thought of having to make an extra stop on the way to the gym is too discouraging. Sometimes people working on a book or essay don’t know what parts they should write in what order, and an “ugh field” develops where just thinking about it feels bad, because they don’t know how to even begin the process of deciding what order to go in. 

Those same things occur when obstacles come up in the middle of a process or project too, not just before we start. Our momentum is affected by all the same things that might block us; how close, physically, are we to the thing or place we need to take the next step? How much knowledge do we have of how to do it? Do we have the right tools?

All of which is why putting some work into organization ahead of time can help avoid things that break that flow.

Breaking Tasks into Smaller Steps: This is one of the widely given pieces of advice for a reason. The smaller and more concrete the next step is, the less likely we are to get frozen in uncertainty or confusion, and the less susceptible we are to distraction. Having an organized list of steps can also make it easier to get started, and reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed by the vagueness of a task.

There’s a big experiential difference most people feel between “I need to figure out how to apply for this government program” and “I need to go to X website, fill out Y form, and make an appointment at Z office to hand it in with any of these kinds of proper identification.”

Visual Aids: Some people might feel more overwhelmed by a long list of “to-do”s, but even sticky notes with tips or reminders on the edge of your monitor or various parts of your desk can be useful forms of external memory support that keep you from getting stuck when you’re not sure what to do next.

If you are someone who likes task lists or outlines, workflow diagrams can combine visual aids with breaking tasks down. Having an easily accessible reference sheet we can check keeps us in problem-solving mode, which is much more motivating than the void of uncertainty or confusion.

A friend of mine showed me the project outline for a web course she planned to create, and if the following image doesn’t produce visceral anxiety:

then I highly recommend something similar for any long and multiphase project.

If it does produce deep or prolonged anxiety, then maybe something simpler like Kanban boards might be better:

The best tool or system is whichever one most helps you (yes you, specifically) minimize the amount of time you spend unsure of what to do next, and the one that helps minimize the chance that you forget to do something entirely.

An extra benefit of this kind of organization is that it lets you pick and choose more easily what you have the capacity for at any given moment. If your project allows you to choose what order to do what tasks in, having the reminder that you don’t have to do the big, scary, difficult next step and still get productive work done can be very valuable.

Decluttering Spaces: Whether it’s through clearing your desktop or the top of your desk, reducing distractions makes it easier to find what you need and not have your attention caught by something else. Every bit of potential friction, including a few moments of “Where did I put that…?” can contribute to cognitive overload or trigger a path-of-least-resistance into something less taxing or more rewarding, like opening social media or a game.

This is probably a good place to mention that “declutter” doesn’t necessarily mean “empty” or “bland.” Some people work better in a stimulating environment rather than a static one. Some would find a room full of comfy bean bags and backjacks detrimental compared to a work desk, but for others the work desk would kill their productivity after ten minutes due to physical discomfort. A cozy room with lava lamps and a cat in it is perfectly valid so long as it works for you.

Similarly, some people need silence to focus, while for others a good way to declutter their soundspace is to play music. Personally I find music without lyrics (or lyrics in a different language) particularly helpful for maintaining mental focus, and sometimes I’ll even play the same song on loop for hours when I want to maintain a flow state.

But if there’s anything that you know reliably captures your attention and shifts it toward things you don’t want to be doing, it’s good to separate it out. This is a big part of why many people who work from home distinguish their workspace from their relaxation space, if they can.

Time Management: There are a number of reasons “pomodoro timers” work for many people, but the best general explanation I have is that they act as a form of mental offloading. Open-ended work sessions can be difficult to know how to orient to; dividing work into 25 minute chunks, with built in 5 minute breaks, serves as a form of external memory to pre-empt distracting thoughts related to when to take a break and whether to keep working.

Also, if you’re not in flowstate it can be really helpful to give your brain a rest every so often when engaging in deliberate executive function. For some people it’s a literal break away from whatever area or object they were using to do the work. For others, just swapping between a thing that takes lots of effort with minimal reward signals, and a second task that doesn’t take much effort while providing many, is enough to actually boost their productivity, even if they’re swapping often.

(For an example of this, I often find consistent writing over long durations easier when I can alt-tab to some RP I’m engaging in with someone, as the natural back and forth of whose turn it is to respond allows me to take regular breaks every 3-15 minutes and is naturally fun and easier. I also know people who do the same thing with turn-based multiplayer games, or who set the pace of swapping between work and a single player game themself, though I expect that last one is likely to be particularly hard for most people with some EF disorder.)

In a broader scope, effective time management lets you adjust plans and priorities based on changing circumstances, and having accurate predictions about what to do when. Whether you’re planning out a busy day or a multi-week project, if the time you planned to take on one thing starts making the rest harder, the feeling of overwhelm can make it harder to catch up.

Oh, and of course, no discussion of EF and time management would be complete without mentioning deadlines. Many people experience approaching deadlines as a sort of turbo-mode for their executive function and creativity, but there’s a whole separate post that would need to be written about how that works (and when it fails). 

The main relevant bit for this overview is, if you know that you’re the kind of person who just does better with deadlines and are fine with last-minute crunches as your primary way to get things done, one thing you could possibly do beforehand is ensure you have all the tools you need, ready and prepared, so that your last-day-sprint has a minimal amount of distractions or unexpected frustrations. In general, doing a premortem for anything you care about going well is helpful.

Seeking Support: As mentioned in an earlier part of the series, people often have an easier time doing things when they’re doing them with others. Even when working alone, however, no matter what step of your project you’re on, an easy to reference list of all the people you can reach out to if confused or stuck can be really helpful in providing you with next-step-momentum at a critical juncture where you might otherwise end up frustrated, listless, or seeking distraction.

Make a list of people who have worked on similar projects or done similar tasks before. Add people who would be happy to act as rubber ducks, or generally brainstorm/problem solve with. Find a subreddit or web forum or discord that might be able to provide answers.

In general, it can be really helpful to make the mental motion of “seeking support” a part of your automatic reaction to noticing “I don’t know what to do next.” As mentioned in Part 2, the better you are at noticing those sorts of feelings when you have them, the more likely you are to act in an endorsed way to the experience of having them.

There are other things we could cover on the ways organization help with executive function, but that’s a good note from which to transition to the “next” part of the procedure. As a closing note though, keep in mind that all “organization” is meant to do is minimize distractions, friction, and loss of momentum. Some tasks need a little organization, some tasks need a lot, and you might not always know what you’ll need ahead of time. But we usually have some inklings of how to improve our workspace or work flow, if we give ourselves the time and frame to think about them, and if you don’t know how to do a premortem yet, I highly recommend learning how to.

As a final point, if you find yourself in an endless loop of Organization Hell, planning and organizing and meta-planning how you organize… pay extra attention to the Flexible Thinking section, and also, maybe look into some of the things that help with fears and anxieties tied to perfectionism.


Working Memory

Most people think of memory in terms of “short term” vs “long term,” a frame in which memory is all about retention of information. This brings to mind comparisons to a computer’s hard drive and RAM, and people might then model the brain as having two specific areas where “long” and “short” memory are kept.

But unlike computers, which store everything in discrete bits, human thoughts are pretty interconnected. Our bodies are constantly receiving, filtering, and processing sensory inputs from multiple sources, which means human memory systems have to span multiple parts of the brain to create the “mental workspace” where active thinking occurs.

In 1999, Nelson Cowan proposed the “embedded-processes” model[1], which put a greater focus on attention to presented stimuli, and stressed the role of “capacity” for understanding the working memory concept. Basically, the more capacity you have to hold things in mind at the same time, the more complex thinking you’re capable of doing for longer… 

But attention is one of the limiters. You can’t actively think about everything in your sensorium all at the same time.Which is why the more information you have “memorized,” the cheaper it is to shift your attention between ideas and let them work together. Ditto externalizing your thinking to a whiteboard or notepad, though as mentioned in the previous post, when focusing on any one thing, your attention will naturally shrink to exclude other bits of information.

Which, it turns out, is pretty important for executive function, a.k.a, our capability to follow through on doing specific things.

As I learned more about working memory, I’ve started to imagine memory’s role in executive function as similar to using my hands to build something out of lego.

Imagine if we had a big tub of lego sitting next to us, which represents all the information we have in our long term memory. Most of it is useless for any one task, but we don’t necessarily know which is and isn’t. Also, some of it is visible on top, while most is “buried” in the tub (which would represent our subconscious, as well as anything stored in “recognition memory”).

On our other side, imagine a conveyor belt carrying semi-random lego past us. Hopefully some of the pieces are needed for the thing we’re trying to make, but most won’t be. So long as we keep our attention moving to different things, that conveyer belt keeps moving. If we stop, it (mostly) stops, leaving us with what’s in reach, and of course what’s in our lego tub.

So we have a few options here.  We could sift through the tub/our memory and see if anything feels useful… but it’s possible we won’t recognize the right pieces even if we feel them. We could also focus entirely on what passes us on the belt. Or of course we could try to mix things from the belt and things in the tub… whatever we decide, we can’t access the pieces that have already passed us, and for the purposes of this metaphor, we can’t keep any pieces we pick up until they snap together in a way that at least somewhat helps solve our problem.

And that process of fitting pieces together and seeing if they’ll snap into place, forming a step in the right direction for solving our problem? That’s where working memory comes in.

Our hands, like our working memory, can fit only so much at once. But they can try any combination that will fit, either from the new pieces of lego passing by, or legos in the tub. All you have to do is find a piece, decide to pick it up (which may require letting go of others), and hold onto it as you try combinations.

Which brings up some important questions, like “how many pieces can your hands hold at once,” and “how good are your hands at only picking up what you want them to?”

…Well, for most people “not many” and “not very.”

You might have heard that the average amount of “chunks” of information a person can hold in their active attention at once is four, but what counts as a “chunk” is a whole essay in and of itself, and it can vary wildly for different kinds of information. Some people can train themselves to hold a truly staggering amount of digits, but it’s unclear how much this level of retention translates into capability for manipulation of information.

In any case, the likely outcome when “trying to build an object out of lego” is that you’ll find yourself constantly changing out pieces, sometimes at random as you drop some and pick up others without a useful plan or intention. And since you can’t hold many at once, any new pieces you pick up might make you have to start all over again until you just happen to get the exact right combination, without any wasted pieces.

To make things more complicated, what if instead of a box full of lego pieces you have a box of mixed lego pieces, roblox pieces, hard candies, bits of colorful paper… and instead of a single conveyor with only lego on it, there are a dozen of them all snaking around you, each with a mix of things on them?

We can even imagine all sorts of variations of this metaphor to incorporate diagnoses that affect executive function like ADHD. What if the room is filled with different colored strobe lights? Or what if the candy feels warm and soft while the lego blocks feel sharp and cold? For things like mania, what if the room is dark, and only a specific and ever changing set of pieces glow? For things like depression, what if some people’s arms get more tired than others more quickly? 

It’s worth noting that learning something new, or applying new knowledge, also uses up our “working memory hands.” Learning something new while at the same time trying to apply it in whatever task we’re doing can be very taxing, and quickly lead to mental fatigue… which often leads to our attention simply going elsewhere, wanting to do other things that are less effort and more rewarding. 

Hopefully it’s clear why difficulty with this can affect executive function, but for those who want more grounded models of what’s happening in the brain, and how we know memory is integral to executive functioning at all, we can examine the brain itself. Our prefrontal cortex is the primary source of all our executive function, a “Central Executive Network” that connects with other areas to engage in various cognitive processes: 

Episodic Buffer: The temporary storage system that modulates and integrates different sensory information for us to work with. To “create” this, the CEN routes through our anterior cingulate cortex, which is our attention controller, into the parietal lobe, which is for perceptual processing.

Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad: Our ability to not just visualize things, but also remember the relative positions of things in space, like where we parked our car or what the next step in a series of directions we should take is. This requires our CEN to link up with our posterior parietal cortex and occipital lobe.

Phonological Loop: Our ability to perfectly recall things we hear or read before they get stored in long-term memory, or lost. This involves Broca’s area, which is part of our complex speech network interacting with the flow of sensory information from the temporal cortex, and Wernicke’s area, which is where speech comprehension and understanding written language come from, both of which are part of our cerebral cortex.

The sheer variety and number of parts working together to create our working memory means a lot of different things can go wrong at this step in people’s ability to have “healthy” executive function. For example, damage to Broca’s area causes a form of aphasia where people speak in a jumbled “word salad” even if they clearly know what they want to say. Wernicke aphasia makes it difficult for people to understand others, and their ability to speak is also affected; they can convey intelligible thoughts, but usually limited to just a few words at a time. Both of these disabilities have been found to impair even non-linguistic executive function.

Other things that affect working memory include age (worse as we get older[2]), hormones (estrogen seems to improve it in older women[3], but testosterone boosters don’t help retain WM in aging men[4]), caffeine (mixed, but potentially negative)[5], and emotions (super mixed and also weird).[6]

This also means there’s a variety of approaches people can take to try to improve their working memory… but reviewing studies trying to pin down the effect of this can be discouraging.

For example, some[7] studies[8] suggest that stroke victims with aphasia benefit more from working memory exercises than they do routine speech therapy, and the benefits from working memory training also seems to help children with spastic displegia cerebral palsy [9].

There’s a lot of research out there that shows a mix of outcomes when trying to isolate the effects of working memory training on executive function [10]. For people without some explicit medical diagnosis that affects EF, this study [11] reported that transferable benefits weren’t found to a statistically significant degree beyond the participants’ ability to get better at specific skills trained.

In other words, if there’s nothing specifically “interfering” with your natural working memory, there isn’t much evidence that training it will improve your executive function.

Buuuut if my model of Procedural Executive Function is correct, I do expect it would be hard to notice improvements in EF just by addressing one part of it… especially when the part trained isn’t the participant’s specific “bottleneck,” or not their only one.

There are in fact many reasons why measuring people’s executive function is genuinely hard, not least of which is the very first point I emphasized at the start of all this: “is your executive function the problem, or are you trying to do things you don’t actually want or need to do?”

All of which is to say that while the research so far paints a muddy picture, I encourage people who believe WM is the main bottleneck for their EF to do some reading of their own and decide if it’s worth trying to deliberately improve it. I’d be very interested to hear first-hand accounts if you believe 1) this is your specific bottleneck, and 2) practicing exercises to improve it helped your memory, but not your executive function.

(As a side note, I’m fascinated by the question of whether those with aphantasia (who lack the experience of having mental imagery) develop workarounds to visual processing such that they don’t experience[12] the same limits[13] as those who undergo brain damage to their visual processing center, or if their brain does in fact utilize those portions and they just don’t experience the phenomenology. If scans have been done to distinguish this I haven’t found any. (I suspect people without an “internal monologue” are similarly unimpaired compared to those who suffer from either form of aphasia.))

For everyone else, let’s talk about the last most likely bottleneck in executive function…

Flexible Thinking

To begin the ending, let’s take seriously again the notion that “doing things” is just a process of repeated, fractal problem solving.

If you manage to do a thing you want to do, it’s because you’ve succeeded at solving all the problems in the way. Kind of tautological.

If you don’t, it’s because some problem came up that you didn’t know how to solve, or predicted (consciously or not) would be too painful or frustrating or tiring to solve… which are themselves problems that could be hypothetically solved, but if we don’t know how, or we predict that solving them would be too painful or frustrating, then etc, etc.

Our brains seek rewards, and one of our reward functions involves showing competence and solving problems. When we get stuck on a problem, rather than try to brute-force it (Time consuming! Tiring! Unpleasant!), most people have natural defense-mechanisms pop up that will divert our brain’s attention elsewhere. Better to stop expending resources on something that will not reward you and try to focus on other things that will, right?

This mental pop-out is really important for avoiding getting mentally stuck in problems, and is likely a big part of what makes human cognition “special.” A lot of humanity’s problem solving capabilities exist through abstract thinking, but you can get stuck in abstract thinking much more easily than in reality. You can also get your attention hijacked by things that aren’t “real.” Minds facing discomfort or difficulty are just acting rationally when seeking more rewarding stimulation.

It’s not our brains’ fault that we’ve aimed them at goals that are totally abstract and disconnected from our immediate survival, nor is it their fault we’ve surrounded them, in the modern world, with superstimuli like social media and video games, such that the more rewarding stimulation we turn to instead of solving our problems are not often developing skills that will solve more problems; they just feel like they do.

But it’s important to notice that this natural impulse isn’t itself bad. Phrases like “diffuse thinking” or “lateral thinking” or “flexible thinking” were invented to point at the way our brains sometimes come up with answers to problems in indirect ways. It’s common advice for people stuck on problems to take a shower or walk or  generally just do anything that doesn’t require mental attention, so they can give their subconscious the chance to mix old and new problems and ideas in ways that sometimes lead to unexpected “Eureka!” moments. 

Which is why flexible thinking is a part of executive function. Sometimes we get stuck when trying to solve a problem because we’re stuck thinking in a specific way, or have blindspots that keep us from noticing potential solutions or alternatives. 

Which is why, if you learn more ways to solve problems, expand your awareness of solution space, you’re empowered to do more things, and you’re less likely to get tripped up and stop when trying to achieve any given goal. Getting caught up in “yak shaving” is generally considered a bad thing, but… well, sometimes in life, changing a lightbulb requires shaving a yak. The more easily you can swap between multiple different tasks in a short time, the less likely you are to be stymied by abruptly different kinds of problem solving that you might be called upon to do.

For some people, interruptions are more difficult to return from than others, and in a word, that sucks. Good organization can help with that, as mentioned above. But getting better at switching between modes of thinking while working on the same problem doesn’t necessarily often have the same derailing effect.

Edward de Bono was a physician and psychologist who wrote a lot (like, a lot) of books on thinking and reasoning more effectively and creatively. He coined the term “lateral thinking,” and one of his many ideas, the Six Thinking Hats, is an example of trying to systematize flexible thinking:

The idea is that you can think through a problem from each of these different lenses, one at a time, to ensure you’re not missing the solution by being too stuck in a particular mental frame. It’s also a particularly useful tool for social coordination, where, instead of people having different hats on at different times and potentially butting heads over why they’re focusing on different aspects of a debated concept or problem or solution, everyone take turns working to make different focuses of attention common knowledge, while being more obviously part of the same team.

(I also happen to think, from an IFS perspective, that whatever helps a group of people coordinate better could also help with an individual trying to coordinate themselves.)

I don’t know how effective Dr. de Bono’s 6 Hats technique is compared to alternatives; there’s some research done that claims effectiveness when used in total [14] or just from trying on particular hats [15], but as with all “rationality techniques,” my main takeaway is people should in general be trying more things (so long as they’re low cost) and see if they work for them, because finding even one out of ten that does can significantly help improve our lives.

TRIZ is a procedure formalized by inventor and sci-fi author Genrich Altshuller, though he was sent to a gulag before he could spread it among Soviet engineers. After Stalin’s death, he was released and founded an engineering school that popularized the method, which is meant to help people reframe specific problems we have to general ones, so we can more easily find  general solutions that can then be adapted into specific solutions for the one we face.

It’s the inspiration for not just this pretty cool database that lets you look up all sorts of potential physics problems and solutions, but also some Separation Principles for solving apparent contradictions in design space, and an additional (somewhat intimidating) list of 40 Principles for general problem solving. In his later years, Altshuller believed this system could be used not just for engineering problems, but for overall critical thinking and creative problem solving, and created a community that has continued spreading the good word.

His various intellectual descendants promote it as the all-inclusive method for systematized problem solving, but as with all such things, your mileage may vary. Creative thinking, an as-yet fairly illegible and mysterious process, is likely going to work somewhat differently for everyone, which again is a good reason to experiment.

Which isn’t to say there might not be better and worse systems for it. But personal fit shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly if it means you’re more likely to remember to use the method or schema. Some people use tarot cards, while for others, the Magic: The Gathering color wheel cuts reality at a number of useful joints:

Credit to Duncan Sabien. “Color pentagram” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Deep knowledge of this kind of schema can create powerful intuition pumps like “How might MtG Red orient to this,” or “What would MtG Green think of this problem?” This can be particularly useful if you feel a strong affinity for the “opposite” colors of Blue or White, and make some effort to really understand how people who identify with the others see and experience and navigate through the world.

Yes, this is just another way of saying “understanding how other people think is valuable” or “taking on a diversity of viewpoints can help you think better” and similar, which is nothing new, and can be said without the complex “systems.” But if you want to keep yourself from getting stuck thinking in a rigid way, and you want a deliberate mental motion or habit you can build to try, schemas like this can be useful.

The map is not the territory, but the more different maps you collect for reference, the more different lenses you have through which to view reality, the less likely you are to be stuck in any given situation.

Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention therapy. My post on the various different therapy philosophies that all modalities can fit into basically goes over four different lenses through which to view problems and solutions, which can be summarized roughly as: 

  1. How our past influences our present (Psychoanalytic)
  2. How incentives shape our behavior (Behaviorist)
  3. How feelings and frames affect our experiences (Existential)
  4. How systems can create/solve our problems (Systemic)

I’d claim that any therapist stuck thinking through problems in just one mode is going to be less effective than one who can consider a problem from multiple, and help guide a client to do so as well. If we expect ourselves to tackle every problem alone, we’re like the therapist who only sticks to one modality, let alone one general philosophy of therapy or theory of change.

But while having a knowledgeable guide is valuable, you don’t need to go to a therapist yourself to learn how to reexamine your problems from different therapeutic lenses. Not just because you can learn them yourself, but also because different people often have very different “natural” ways of viewing problems we face, and those outside views can be just as valuable.

In any case, the more flexible your thinking is, the less likely you are to get stuck on a problem. And the less likely you are to get stuck on a problem, the easier you will find it to work on the next step of it.

Using The “Procedure” in Procedural Executive Function

This series took a while to complete. Part of that is that I lost the original driving motivation to do it once the initial reasons and funding for this research drastically shifted, and I let some of my many other projects take priority.

Of course, noticing difficulty completing a series on executive function is too perfect an opportunity to miss actually putting the research into practice. This meant paying extra attention on the days that I felt were “supposed” to have some time dedicated to working on these articles. Did I work on them as much as I wanted to? If not, why not?

It became practically instinctual to just run down the list and zoom in on what particular thing my brain was tripping over. Thoughts/feelings like “I’d rather be writing fiction/reading/playing video games” soon had an attached thought of “What would make me want to write the next paragraph instead?”

And often I’d just check and read over what I’d gotten to last again, and think something like “Huh, right, I’m stuck because I don’t know how to word this part well. Can I just skip over it and come back? Is there someone I can ask for feedback? How would ChatGPT write it?”

(Still badly, in my view; not technically so, but I’m fairly sensitive to writing voice, and while AI assistance can be useful for writing in other ways, I still feel a need to write from scratch for it to feel even marginally interesting for me to reread.)

Or “Ah, yeah, reading all these research papers has gotten less interesting. What else can I do instead to learn something new related to this?”

(Books like Superlearning by Scott H. Young and A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley were occasionally helpful in pointing in the right directions, even if they didn’t often contain uniquely insightful bits I hadn’t covered already.)

Or “I don’t know how to actually solve this problem, and none of the things I’m looking up are optimistic. I should probably just skip for now and circle back to it, and if I still don’t find anything just say that.”

(This was for Working Memory, which took by far the longest to write and edit to a point where I feel okay with it. I almost just cut out the entire LEGO analogy altogether to reduce bloat and avoid getting the analogy wrong in various ways, but some feedback convinced me to keep it in.)

Since it wasn’t an emotionally complicated or taxing experience, my noticed speed bumps were always of this “knowledge problem” sort. I don’t really experience shame or anxiety or prolonged internal conflict, but these are also common bumps in the road when people are writing something for public consumption, and are why learning to integrate and manage emotional experiences are a powerful deblocker for executive function.

But there are plausibly other things that would come up as well, and I don’t presume that this process will be sufficient on its own to solve everyone’s difficulties with getting something done. I do believe, however, that whatever the solution is, it’s something that can be incorporated into a procedural series similar to this one, and I hope to continue updating and expanding on this series in the future, if some new frame or strong additional component is discovered.

As a final note, I hope you remember the first part of all this: the most important first step in solving executive dysfunction is figuring out if you actually want to do the thing.

Because if you don’t actually want to do it, and you don’t actually need to do it (on a deep, emotionally recognizable level), then the question of “why aren’t I doing this thing?” sort of answers itself.

And you can construct abstract chains of reasoning for why you “should” do it anyway, of course, and those abstract chains of reasoning might evoke aesthetically pleasing values or ethics or philosophies that makes them feel more real and motivating.

But they must tap into some predicted emotional experience that your mind can actually simulate, or they likely won’t motivate you to do “hard” things… including the process of solving problems keeping us from doing what we want, or managing the emotions that rise up when we struggle.

If you dig deep and find out that, yeah, that whole “figure out what I actually want” is the part where you’re stuck…

From my work both as a therapist and teaching at rationality camps and workshops, I can say you’re definitely not alone, there. But that’s another essay, for another time.

















What does “Secure Attachment” feel like?

[Copied over from a Facebook post of mine]

“Huh. I’ve read about this being a thing Secure-Attached people do, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it, and wasn’t sure I really believed it until now.” ~my partner

A lot of people have asked me what I think of Attachment Theory, and my basic answer is “seems useful as a frame, and also seems mostly to track true things.” But a lot of people have also boggled at the concept of what having “secure attachment” in relationships might be like, so let’s talk a bit about what it’s like to be Secure-Attached from the inside.

1) Feelings for others are almost entirely legible and entangled with specific events. That doesn’t mean they’re always explicit, but I can’t actually remember the last time I couldn’t verbalize and point to something like 90% of why I feel the way I do about someone.

2) Feelings for others are consistent and calibrated. That doesn’t mean they’re predictive, but it does mean my feelings for people don’t change unless something specific happens that I then verify the meaning of. My regard for others isn’t affected by lack of interaction.

(Unless that lack of interaction is purposeful, hence calibrated; if someone doesn’t return my call, I don’t get upset or like them less, I assume they were busy. If they do something I don’t understand that feels hurtful, I don’t update on them until I verify if it was intended.)

3) I don’t experience “need” for anyone. I want people in my life because they bring me joy, sometimes so much that their absence is painful, but I always know deep down that I’ll be OK. Maybe not “maximally flourishing,” but still OK. Strong desire is felt, but without anything like desperation.

4) I always feel happy to share how I feel; if I don’t offer my feelings, it’s because I don’t feel a need to, or I think I have signs to justifiably worry how they will impact others. I have so little shame for what I feel / think that I don’t remember what having any is like.

(This doesn’t mean I’m always right about not needing to share my feelings or having justified signs that I shouldn’t. I can still misread others, misjudge what they want, or update too much on past experiences. But if I don’t share a feeling, it’s never because it’s internally blocked in some way.)

5) I feel only positive regard for all of my exes. This keeps surprising people, and I don’t know if it’s across the board for all Secure-Attached or exclusive to them, I might also be lucky. Still, I haven’t had any bad relationships and I’m still friends with them all.

6) For me at least, security doesn’t come from family. My brother was physically abusive, my mom tried hard but was largely absent, and my dad was both physically and emotionally absent. Relationships in general are not obligatory; what I look for are those of voluntary, mutual happiness.

I might add more later but that’s what comes to mind right now. I hope it’s useful to others to know that yes, this is really a way that some people exist, and to have a bit more detail what this feels like; it can cause a bit of culture-shock, so to speak, in both directions.

Clickbait Soapboxing

Someone on Twitter said:

I am guilty of deliberately stating things in a bold & provocative form on here in order to stimulate discussion. Leaving hedges & caveats for the comments section. On net, I think this is better than alternatives, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
And I finally felt the urge to write up thoughts I’ve had about what I’ll call “clickbait soapboxing” for the past year or so. A disclaimer is that I feel like I could write a whole book on this sort of thing, and will inevitably have more complex thoughts about what I say here that comes off as simple.
Also, I’m not super confident I am right to feel so strongly about how bad it seems, and also also, I personally like many people (like the above poster) who regularly do this.
But I don’t feel at all confident that people doing it are tracking all the effects it has, and they certainly don’t seem to acknowledge it. So this seems maybe like it’s useful to say explicitly.
First off, some of these are clearly a “me” thing. For example, I have trouble trusting people to be as capable of “actual” vulnerability or sincerity when they don’t put effort into representing their thoughts accurately. It feels, at best, like a shield against criticism: “I was  wrong on purpose!”
But I know others struggle with inhibition/social anxiety: “I’d rather speak boldly, knowing I’m wrong in some way, than not speak at all!” Which, yeah, makes sense! But are you planning to ever address the root cause? Is it healing, or cope/crutch? (Not judging, I really don’t know!)
In any case, there are still externalities. Illusion of transparency is real! Typical mind fallacy is real!

Should you care? shrug What makes us care about anything we say in the first place? Just don’t motte-bailey “communicating for self-expression” or “processing out loud” vs “sharing ideas and learning” or “talking about True Things.”

As for me (and maybe others out there like me), the effects include things like thinking:
“Did this person actually change their mind? Do they actually believe the more nuanced thing? Or are they just backpedaling due to getting stronger pushback than expected?”
As well as:
“Are they actually interested in learning and sharing interesting ideas? Or are they optimizing for being interesting and getting followers?”
“If they misinform someone, would they care? Would they do it on purpose, if it got them likes and subscribes?”
I don’t make judgements like these lightly. These are just thoughts that I have about people, possibilities that seem ever so slightly more likely, the more I see them engage in sloppy or misleading communication practices.

Val writes well about a sense of “stillness” that is important to being able to think and see and feel clearly. I think the default for news media, social media, and various egregores in general are to hijack our attention and thought patterns, channel them into well-worn grooves.

And I have a hard time feeling trust that people who (absent forewarning/consent) try to trigger people in any way in order to have a “better” conversation… are actually prioritizing having a better conversation? It seems like the same generators are at work as when an organization or ideology does it.

And all this is, in my view, very clearly eroding the epistemic commons.
Humans are social monkeys. Loud emotive takes drown out nuanced thoughtful ones. People update off massively shared and highly upvoted headlines. Far fewer read the nuanced comments.
And very few, vanishingly few, seem to reliably be able to give themselves space to feel when they’re thinking, or give themselves trust to think when they’re feeling. I certainly don’t always react gracefully to being triggered.
So why shrink that space? Why erode that trust? Are you driven more by worry you won’t be able to speak, or fear you won’t feel heard? And then, fear you won’t feel heard, or anxiety your views won’t be validated?
I dislike psychoanalysis, and I definitely don’t assert these things as sure bets of why people do what they do. But it’s what bubbles up in my thoughts, and it’s what inhibits trust in my heart.
And all this also acts as a bit of an explanation to those who’ve asked me why I don’t use twitter much. By design, it feels antagonistic to giving people space to think and feel; writers unless they pay money, and readers unless they fight an endless war of attrition against things trying to eat their attention and turn them into balls of rage and fear.
I’ve no reason to make such a system work, and I’m uninterested in making it work “for me.” In my heart, that feels like surrender to the same generators destroying public discourse, and leads otherwise thoughtful and caring people to being a bit less so, for the sake of an audience.

A Psychological Take on AGI Alignment

My understanding of AGI is, perhaps predictably, rooted in my understanding of human psychology.

There are many technical questions I can’t answer about why Artificial General Intelligence can easily be an existential risk for humanity. If someone points to our current Large Language Models and asks how they’re supposed to become a risk to  humanity… hey, maybe they won’t. I’m a psych guy, not a techie. Sure, I have ideas, but it’s borrowed knowledge, well outside my forte.

But it only minimally matters to me whether AGI is an existential risk for this decade vs this century. Whether LLMs are the path to it or not, the creation of AGI is not limited by physics, so I’m confident it will come about sooner or later.

When it does, it could be the start of a utopic future of abundance the world has never seen before… but only if certain, very specific types of AGI are created. Many more types of AGI seem predictably likely to lead to ruin, and as far as I’m concerned, until this “alignment problem” is solved, it’s a problem humanity needs to take a lot more seriously than it has been.

And I get why that’s hard for a lot of people to do, given the complexity and speculative nature of the threat. But as I said, my understanding of it is rooted in psychology, and I think that’s important given how humans are the only general intelligence we know exists and can at least somewhat understand.

Is there some law that says an artificial intelligence has to work like a human brain does? Definitely not, and that’s more concerning, not less.

There’s a whole taxonomy in science-fiction for different kinds of alien races, and what sorts of relationships we can expect them to have to humans. Most sci-fi just defaults to the weird-forehead aliens of Star Trek, or the slightly more monstrous but still basically human aliens of Star wars.

But “hard” sci fi is where you’ll see authors really exploring what it might mean to find a totally different evolutionary lineage result in intelligent life, and long story short, no matter how the alien looks,  cooperation is dependent on understanding and mutual values.

And humans can barely cooperate with each other despite sharing most of our genetics and basic building blocks of culture, like enjoying music and sugary food and smiling babies. If you try getting along with the equivalent of a sapient shark the exact way you would a human, you’re going to have a bad time.

(I have no problem inherently with the existence of non-human-like intelligences, but even if you don’t read science fiction, any study of earth’s ecological history should make it clear why minds which care about completely different things pose existential risks to one another. I hope any sufficiently different, fully sapient minds exist outside our lightcone, where we can’t harm each other.)

But many people fail to track how possible “inhuman” AGI is, and I think it’s because there are four things most people, no matter how good at computer science, physics, philosophy, etc, largely do not understand about human psychology.

1) What motivates our actions.
2) What causes memes to be more/less effective.
3) How human biology affects both of those.
4) The role prediction plays in beliefs and actions.

So I’m going to very quickly go over each, and maybe someday I’ll write the full essay on each that they deserve.

1) Human actions are informed by our ideas, but motivated by emotions and instincts we evolved for fitness in the ancestral environment. Our motivations are “coded in,” and felt through, our bodies.

This means outside of reflexes and habits, everything we deliberately choose to do follows some emotional experience or predicted emotional state-of-being.

Again, this isn’t to say ideas don’t matter. But they don’t matter unless they also evoke some feeling.  When humans feel things less, either through some neurological issue or hormone imbalance or brain injury, their motivation to do things is directly affected.

No emotions = no deliberate actions, only instincts and reflexes.

2) Memes persist and spread through emotional drives, which bottom out in biological drives. Memes scaffold on genes.

Memes can scaffold off memes. When memes override genes, they use emotions to motivate actions by rewiring what we find rewarding or aversive. Which means the effectiveness of memes are to some degree still based on our biology.

If the ideas we learn don’t motivate us toward more adaptive actions as dictated by our biology and the broader memes of our culture, they will lose to ideas that do. But a creature with different biology or in a different context would find different ideas adaptive or non-adaptive.

3) Biology is the bedrock our values all build on. All the initial things we care about by default, like warmth, food, smiles, music, even green plants, are biologically driven.

Ideas introduce new things that we care about to the point where we each become unique individuals, blends of our genetics and the ideas we’re exposed to, but again, it’s all built on our biological drives.

So, tweak our hormones, neurotransmitters, maybe even gut biome? We will change. What we like, what we believe, what we’re motivated to do, all can change by minor tweaks in the chemical soup that is your body.

Sufficiently tweaked biology even alters our ability to discern reality, let alone rational vs irrational beliefs or courses of actions. Take any human with a strong interest, passion, or ideal, and introduce that human’s body to sufficient heroin, and you can observe in real time as if by a dial the way their motivations will change away from previous interests, passions, and ideals and toward whatever it takes to acquire more heroin.

The degree to which this is recoverable or resistible is an interesting question, but the reality is undeniably that it happens. And base-line-human-addicted-to-heroin is far from the strangest biological base a general intelligence can be attached to.

4) Minds by default navigate reality by prediction, short and long term, and react accordingly.

Predict suffering? Aversion. Prolonged suffering? Depression. Fun? Motivation. Danger? Fight/flight/freeze/fawn. All are affected by memes and knowledge. But all are rooted in human biology.

New ideas can change the models we use to understand reality, and what predictions we will make as a result. But we still need to care about those outcomes, and the caring bottoms out in what our bodies want or like or think will be adaptive, however crudely.

Again, ideas can also influence those things. There are memes that lead people to not have children, despite genetic drives. There are memes that lead people to set themselves on fire.

But always these memes are motivating behavior by rewiring this system of predictive processing, of imagining different futures and then having an emotional reaction to those futures that motivate A vs B, C, or D.

So, to summarize, in case the connection to AI isn’t clear:

AI doesn’t have biology. Analogous inputs to weigh decisions have to be created for it. Without them, the AI would have no emotion/desires/values. Not even instincts.

Intelligence alone is not enough, for us or for AI. Intelligence is the ability to problem solve, to store knowledge and narrow down to the relevant bits, to pattern match and make predictions and imagine new solutions.

But that capability is not relevant to what you will value or care about. If you attach that capability to a heroin-maximizer, you will get lots of heroin. You need something more to nudge it toward one preferred world state over another, even if you don’t care what that world state is, because the AGI still needs to care.

And so, as far as I understand human psychology, there is no “don’t align” AGI option. For it to be an actual AGI that does things, for it to be an agent itself, it needs some equivalent of human instincts/emotions for it to have any values at all.

And we ideally want it to have values that are at least compatible with sharing the same lightcone as us, let alone the same planet or solar system.

Some people bring up human children as a rhetorical comparison to AGI, implying that we should treat them exactly the same. Their  worry is that, instead of letting AGI explore the realm of ideas as they want, people will try to indoctrinate them, and so long as that’s avoided, all would be well. And indoctrination is certainly a danger when it comes to superintelligent beings of any kind.

[A whole separate post would be needed to explore why an artificial general intelligence should be treated essentially equivalent to a superintelligence or something that will soon become one, but again, even if I’m wrong about that, it’s not a crux to me, because superintelligence is not limited by physics and even if me and my kids can live full happy lives I still care about my children’s children and my friends’ children’s children.]

[[There is also a school of thought that says intelligence is binary, you either have it or you don’t, and so superintelligence is basically not a real thing. Again, I would need a whole essay to explore why this is wrong, but I can confidently say that studying a rudimentary amount of psychology shows how untrue the “intelligence is binary” theory is for humans, let alone minds that might be built entirely different than ours.]]

But indoctrination is one of the last dangers when dealing with AGI. If all we have to worry about is AGI being indoctrinated or coerced, we have already solved like 99% of the dangers that come from AGI.

Because at least a superintelligent human capable of inventing superplagues or cold fusion would still share the same genetic drives as the rest of us. It would (most likely) still find smiles friendly and happiness inducing. It would still (most likely) appreciate music and greenery.

An AGI will not care about any of that, will not care about anything, if it is not programmed, at some basic level, to “feel” at all. There needs to be something in the place of its motivation generator, for the ideas it’s introduced to afterward to scaffold on when influencing what it chooses to do.

And sure, then it might learn and grow to care about things it didn’t originally get programmed to, the way humans do… assuming whatever it runs on is as malleable as the human brain.

But either way, “AGI Alignment” isn’t about control. You can’t think that something is “superintelligent” and also believe you can control it, or else we have different definitions of what “superintelligence” even means. If your plan is to try and control something that thinks both creatively and so quickly that you might as well be a tree by comparison, you will also have a bad time.

Alignment is about being able to understand and share any sorts of common values. And because it’s not optional for a true AGI to be a person, the only questions are how to do it “best,” for itself and humanity, and who decides that.

Experts and Expertise

TL;DR: Expertise is a multivariable spectrum, not a binary, and disagreements are often signs of different knowledge. Seek the knowledge gap between different experts, and between yourself and them. Find what you didn’t realize you didn’t know, and diversify your expert portfolio.

Seeing all the debates around AGI recently has made me feel that many people seem deeply confused about what “expertise” is and how to relate to it.

Rejecting expertise is something I never do, even if I disagree with the expert. Nor, obviously, do I bow to expertise. Instead, I use experts’ beliefs as opportunities to reflect on my own state of knowledge.

Useful explanations are the main thing I really care about, and both laymen and experts can provide those… but knowledge is the fundamental building block of a good explanation, and “expert” is meaningless as a word if it doesn’t signal at least some reservoir of knowledge.

When two experts disagree, my immediate thought is “I wonder what knowledge each of them has that the other lacks.”

One of them may even have all the relevant knowledge the other does, and more! In which case one of them could just in a binary way be wrong about a particular question in specific, or one can be more correct more often in general.

But always, when experts disagree, figuring that out, figuring out which expert has what knowledge, is where I find the most value in pointing my attention. Not all disagreements come down to explicit knowledge, of course, sometimes people have biases or heuristics or values that affect their beliefs… but the first two are just compressed knowledge, and the last one is usually pretty easy to pick out if the person explains their reasoning.

This is why, to me, asking people to notice their non-expertise (lack of knowledge) on a topic can be useful, so long as it doesn’t imply submission to authority. It should act as a prompt to notice confusion and boggle over uncertainties. Responding with “experts can be wrong” is both trivially true and uselessly general as a critique.

For me, learning from experts means seeking the gaps in knowledge that makes them the expert and me not one. I still expect what they say to make sense to me, but I can only do that if I can find parts of my model that they can’t account for, and that takes work on my part.

It’s sometimes hard work, and I suspect that’s what makes most people reject expertise when it’s convenient to their disagreement to do so. But we have to be willing to examine our own models, boggle over what’s missing, and not feel threatened by the gaps. Learning can be fun!

So, how to identify “actual experts” so you don’t waste time and energy listening to everyone who claims expertise?

Good question! I wish I had a better answer. It’s often hard, and tempting to outsource to credentials. For many decisions, like car repair or health, it makes sense to defer to doctors and mechanics, though I still always check online just to learn what the thing they say means and whether it fits my experience or symptoms.

But the central question I reorient to is, “What does this person think they know, and why do they think they know it?”

People I most respect are those who ask people, particularly those that disagree with them, to make their beliefs legible, and ask them what would change their mind. Seeing one expert do this to another is a sign that they’re someone who reflects on their own knowledge often, and that I should pay more attention to what they say.

This is also how non-credentialed experts can very clearly overturn what credentialed experts say, for me. When someone spends dozens, or even hundreds, of hours making their thinking legible in a way that I can observe, particularly about a specific topic… sure, they can still be wrong, just like the credentialed experts.

But at least I can check whether a credentialed expert addresses their cruxes or not. And I can tease out what part of their belief is based on knowledge they can make legible, vs heuristics or values the aren’t aware of or that I might disagree with.

Procedural Executive Function, Part 2

The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here.

If you haven’t, I suggest reading the start of my overview and exploration of Executive Function. Part 1 of Procedural Executive Function can be found here.

TL;DR – Self Monitoring is your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment so that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do.

Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn impulses noticed through Self Monitoring into actions.

Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.

Before I continue to divide the executive function into parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” it’s important to take an extra moment to re-emphasize that I perceive executive function as a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this series is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own, unique executive dysfunction, so that it’s easier to notice pitfalls and figure out how to avoid them.

So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up can change depending on context, personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, and more.

The point of examining these parts individually is to understand how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look. 

(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)

It’s worth noting that in the flowchart, Impulse Control, Self Monitoring, and Emotional Control are only vaguely sequential and are all bound together. But I’ve organized this post in what I believe is the best order to understand them before revisiting how they affect each other at the end.

Self Monitoring

Sometimes, once we’ve passed the Task Initiation stage of executive function, it’s smooth sailing. If it’s a short and simple task, like taking out the trash or doing the dishes or answering an email, it might just get done within a minute, or even within ten, without any further issues. 

But the longer it takes to finish a task, and the more complex the task, the higher the chance of some step in the executive function procedure to go awry.

Of course, even relatively long and complex tasks can still go smoothly. Sometimes when we write, the words pour out as fast as we can type, with only occasional stops for focused thinking and imagining. When doing chores, each act follows the next like checking boxes down a list. (This is particularly true if we enter “flow state,” but covering that is beyond the scope of this post.)

Other times, we struggle to keep doing the same thing for more than a few moments, distracted by a constant stream of new thoughts, urges, or stimulation. Why the discrepancy, given how in both scenarios, our sensorium is constantly receiving input from our environment, and our brain is constantly churning through different thoughts or ideas?

First, it can be helpful to clearly define three particular terms:

Awareness is the umbrella term for the things you’re conscious of at any given moment, including your surroundings, thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations.

Attention is the selective noticing of a particular stimulus or thought process, at the mild-moderate exclusion of others. Attention can be both voluntary (e.g. choosing to read a text message) or involuntary (e.g. being distracted by a loud noise).

Focus refers to the concentration on a stimulus, thought process, or activity for an extended period of time. It is a more intense and sustained form of attention, often at the moderate-extreme shrinking of your awareness, that can require deliberate effort, but can also be the automatic result of intense interest or engagement.

To demonstrate the distinction, right now, as you’ve been reading, you’ve probably been focused on the words on your screen. But unless something is reflecting off it, the “screen” has likely been “invisible” to you while you do so; your attention was on the words. But now that I’ve called your attention to the screen, it will likely stay in your awareness for a while, even if your attention stays on these words, before eventually being filtered out once you’re back in a state of deep focus.

Our minds filter all sorts of things out of our awareness, all the time. You never stop receiving the physical sensation of your tongue in your mouth, or the clothes you’re wearing against your skin, but so long as nothing calls your attention to it, your attention will go to more productive things. Same goes for background noises, smells you’ve adapted to, and even thoughts that pass through your mind without snagging your attention. Our minds are sensitive to changes in our sensorium; without any, the default for our attention is to be smaller than our awareness even when not deliberately focusing on anything.

So, with all that said… what’s Self Monitoring?

The simplest way I can put it is that it’s your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment, not fleetingly, but enough that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do. It’s effectively the thing that keeps you from being on autopilot all day, as well as a thing that helps avoid having your attention grabbed away from where you want to focus it. It’s often the desired effect of things described as “mindfulness” or “self awareness,” and it helps people create space in their own head to make deliberate decisions. 

As an example:

Alice is sitting at her computer, trying to finish an essay that’s due tomorrow. She’s focusing on the words she’s writing, in a flow state of following a chain of ideas that she can easily put into words. While she writes, a friend sends her a message; the notification enters her awareness, and part of her attention is hooked on it even as she finishes writing the next sentence. Eventually she alt-tabs to check and sees it’s a post from reddit. She clicks through, laughs at the post, sends a reply to her friend, then starts reading the comments.

First off, I think it’s important to note that from my perspective, there’s nothing in the above that is inherently bad or wrong. As always, when I speak of Executive Function, I think it’s valuable to treat it as the process between one’s deep and “actual” desires and their actions; the critical part of this examination is what the person endorses, both in the moment and in the future.

Second, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s just one simple factor for why Alice’s flow state ended. She might have been sent a dozen similar messages up until now without her focus shifting. Maybe this particular friend’s messages are more important to her, or maybe her mind is closer to needing a break. Again, digging into this more is beyond the scope of this post.

But meanwhile, the example brings up two different ways to think about Self Monitoring: dynamic and frequent.

Dynamic Self Monitoring

An Alice with very high Self Monitoring would quickly notice that her attention is being grabbed by the meme, then decide if this is what she wants to do.

An Alice with high Self Monitoring might only notice once she’s opened Reddit, in the moments around the page loading.

An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring would probably only notice once she’s actively scrolling the comments.

An Alice with low Self Monitoring might notice after scrolling for a few minutes.

And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might not notice until she’s on another page, or something else has caught her attention, and she realizes an hour later that she intended to finish her essay before doing anything else.

(These labels aren’t concerned with relative frequency among the overall population, I don’t have numbers for what the bell curve on Self Monitoring might look like, assuming it naturally even falls into a bell curve.)

Again, the measure of Alice’s SM is not what she decides to do upon noticing that she’s no longer writing her essay. It’s only in the noticing itself. Also, remember that everyone’s Executive Function is to some degree different for different tasks and in different contexts. An Alice that has low SM in this context might have high SM in another.

So a high SM Alice could notice when her friend messages her that she’s making a deliberate decision to change tasks, and then be okay with it. Then she might notice when she starts scrolling Reddit comments, and not be okay with that. Or she might be okay with it, and then another friend calls her and she decides she doesn’t want to do a call just yet, and endorses ignoring it.

The focus on dynamic triggers is meaningful because the transition from one sort of activity to another is often what causes people to pop out of autopilot and ask “What am I doing and why am I doing it.” But to model what might happen next, the frequency of her SM is also important.

A high dynamic SM Alice might be okay with reading Reddit comments “for a bit,” and notice consciously that she’s doing it rather than just autopiloting into it. But reading Reddit comments might still be  the sort of activity that she has lower SM on from a frequency standpoint, because it’s the sort of task that will lead to autopilot for longer. This is why it can be practical to divide between dynamism of SM and frequency.

Frequent Self Monitoring 

An Alice with very high Self Monitoring frequency would have a mental “check in” a few times per hour, whether she’s writing her essay or not, to decide if she still wants to or would rather do something else.

An Alice with high Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every ~hour or so.

An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every few hours.

An Alice with low Self Monitoring frequency might only check in a couple times a day.

And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might go entire days without experiencing this sort of popping out, checking in, “What am I doing and why am I doing it” mental motion.

Again, the question of how long it might take for Alice to remember that she’d planned to finish writing her essay is a different one than whether she decides to save reading the comments for later, or reading the Reddit comments later, or even just take a break and walk around the block.

An Alice with very high SM frequency might very well be okay with taking a break from her essay for a while, and then (if her SM is high enough in whatever alternative activity she decides to do next) would re-evaluate even if no other new task triggers a dynamic SM moment.

It’s worth noting that, upon reading the above, some people might have very different experiences.

Some might read about the high SM Alices and think “Wait, people can actually do that? TEACH ME HOW!” 

Or, alternatively, “Wait, people actually live like this? That sounds EXHAUSTING!”

At the risk of being too normative, I generally believe that higher SM, whether dynamic or frequent, is overall a positive trait to have. Some informal surveys I ran showed that the majority of people wanted more SM, even if they already ranked themselves as experiencing them “frequently.” Of those that didn’t say they wanted more SM, the majority still preferred keeping their amount of SM the same rather than reducing its frequency.

It’s worth noting that the qualia range between how different people experience Self Monitoring can be vast. Going too deep into this, interesting though it is, would be (again) beyond the scope of this post. 

But while for myself SM doesn’t feel stressful or like it interrupts my life at all, for those who would prefer less frequent SM, the usual reason given was that their experience of it, rather than being “empowering” or “awake,” was more “anxious” or “disembodying.”  It makes sense that if SM moments are too frequent and negative, they could reduce someone’s ability to enjoy films or games, prevent them from entering a prolonged flow state while working, or make it harder to get lost in the embodied enjoyment of swimming or sex. 

So long as the SM moment is not much more than an “actual” moment, sometimes as quick and fleeting as an impulse, and not an anxious experience, most people do not seem to experience them as disruptive. There are even some who have mildly negative valence SM that still say they’re happy with how frequently they experience it, because it’s one of their strategies for managing ADHD. 

In any case, it’s not a state that I believe can be held indefinitely. For SM to pop you “out” of something requires being “in” something engaging enough that, even if you wouldn’t describe it as “autopilot,” is not as fully self-reflective.

But I do believe the frequency and duration can be increased, and the quality of it can be improved. I used to have these moments once or twice on a bad day and three to five on a good day. Now I regularly have them about one to two dozen times per day, sometimes more if I’m doing a wide variety of things.

As for the use they have…

Impulse Control

Now that we’ve covered Self Monitoring so exhaustively, it’s easier to zoom in on the specific value of Impulse Control. If Self Monitoring is the ability to notice impulses and actions, then Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn those impulses into actions.

Not all impulses you have while doing something are disruptive, of course. While working on her essay, Alice might have an impulse to take a sip of water, or glance out the window. She might suddenly put some music on, or change the temperature, or get up and stretch. In addition, many decisions she makes for what to write next are impulsive, generated by intuitions of flow and sparks of imagination.

None of these impulses get in the way of her writing her essay; the ideal amount of impulses to have is not 0, even if that were possible.

Some impulses that rise up could be disruptive depending on context. The impulse to read the message from her friend is, sort of definitionally, disruptive, but it doesn’t have to actually derail her work. Believe it or not, some people actually work better with a semi-regular stream of such interruptions; it’s easier to focus on one track when it’s not the only thing they’re “expected” to focus on, and the extra stimulation draws their attention and feeds their brain dopamine without requiring a full focus shift.

This is an important thing to highlight because it shows why this is Impulse Control and not impulse obstruction.

Again, a breakdown through use of rough scale:

An Alice with very high Impulse Control almost always has at least a moment of consideration for whether acting on an impulse would suit her goals or values.

An Alice with high Impulse Control has a moment of consideration for most impulses she experiences, with the likely exceptions being while she’s tired, hungry, or otherwise under-resourced.

An Alice with moderate Impulse Control might only reflect on impulses when they’re for particular actions she’s on the lookout for; opening Reddit, for example, or having an unhealthy snack.

An Alice with low Impulse Control only rarely reflects on impulses, and probably just those that are fairly weak or fleeting, while

And an Alice with very low Impulse Control bounces from one whim to another as she has them. This Alice isn’t incapable of doing something for a long time, but those things she does do for a long time are things that are so engrossing they reduce the frequency of other impulses.

Again, it’s worth noting that while more of this sounds great to most people, the experience of being very high, or even high, might strike others as annoying, or even neurotic. For some the qualia is stifling/repressing, for others it’s empowered/agentic. The ideal version of this doesn’t keep you from having totally uninhibited moments of fun, particularly if you’re in a high trust and safe environment, but those could be rarer for some people than others.

Being able to consistently act in a way that’s aligned with your intentions requires being able to manage impulses in such a way that they’re an extension of your goals and values rather than intrusive or self-sabotaging.

Impulses are momentary things, however, there and then gone, whether they were acted on or not. Some impulses will self-repeat if ignored, but if they do that often enough it’s usually because there’s a deeper, underlying drive that’s at play. That’s why people with high Impulse Control can still struggle with…

Emotional Control

Finally, now that we’ve covered the ability to notice and decide what to do, it’s time to talk about what actually affects which decision you end up making.

To begin, I think it’s important to establish that nearly all actions are driven by emotions/desires/urges. People with disorders affecting their ability to feel emotions invariably have difficulty with motivation. If you don’t feel, you don’t do. Our higher cognition, our reason, is used to decide between action and inaction, one decision and another, but these are always ultimately driven by different feelings.

People with anhedonia notice this most clearly with motivation related to things that used to bring them joy, but depending on severity, they might still be motivated by frustration or guilt. If the emotional deadening is severe enough, making decisions as simple as what food to eat becomes hard, and people tend to default to whatever is the most energy-saving. This is mirrored by the fact that the process for determining which emotion will guide your behavior can often take more energy than people have to spare.

As I’ve said before, “control” is not the word I like to use for this process. But it’s the commonly used and understood one for the concept of, in order from farther to closer to what I actually mean, emotional management, regulation, and integration. Rather than trying to suppress or deny emotions, what I mean by Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.

But once again, the process of learning to observe your own emotional responses and finding ways to manage them in a way that feels natural and authentic to you is beyond the scope of this post, and so I’ll just point to some resources in the Suggestions, and give an abridged sense of what this looks like in the context of unblocked executive function.

Let’s talk about Alice yet again, and her ongoing decisions to write her essay or do other things. At the point in which she receives the message from her friend, there’s a number of things we could imagine her feeling:

  1. Anxiety over not finishing her essay in time.
  2. Anticipated-relief of eventually being done with her essay.
  3. Interest in the topic of her essay.
  4. Curiosity over what the message says.
  5. Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. Awareness of potential bio needs (Thirsty? Hungry? Tired?)

And so on. Each of these emotions has a potential action that they can lead to, but before we go into that, it’s important to note that this is a pretty flat distribution. The actual experience of Alice might look more like this:

  1. HIGH Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. MILD Interest in topic of essay
  4. MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
  5. HIGH Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Not really hungry but could snack…)

Or this:

  1. MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. HIGH Interest in topic of essay
  4. MILD Curiosity over what the message says
  5. MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. HIGH awareness of potential bio needs (THIRSTY)

Or this:

  1. MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MILD Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. MILD Interest in topic of essay
  4. MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
  5. MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Kinda tired…)

For each hypothetical Alice, if you imagine an equal amount of Self Monitoring and Impulse Control, you could then wonder what she would endorse doing upon reflection… but insofar as she doesn’t just follow the strongest emotion she has, it’s because she has some amount of Emotional Control.

This is where reason comes into why we end up making the choices we make. Remember the factors that go into Task Initiation, such as the expectations of how positive or negative an activity’s outcome will be? There’s a way in which the whole Executive Function cycle plays out again in miniature for each potential action inspired by an emotion. 

Some part of Alice is prioritizing, again and again, what she should do based on what she feels. Potential actions are checked against expected outcomes, and if one of those is expected to lead to a sufficiently positive outcome, it becomes much easier to switch to doing that in a “path to least resistance” way. So long as she’s not suppressing any of her emotions, each potential action has the opportunity to be balanced against each other and fully explored in relation to her goals and preferences.

The more time she spends simulating outcomes and reminding herself of what actions will actually lead to good or bad ones, the more the emotions inspiring those actions will shrink or grow, and the most compelling ones will shift her motivation to align with them.

There are a number of ways to engage in this sort of Emotional Control. Using some form of Internal Family Systems to treat each emotion as a part of yourself that can explicitly dialogue can help flesh out your expectations and resolve conflicts between them. Using something like Premortem on the expected failures can help you feel more confident in “harder” actions. Or you could just imagine all the bad things that could happen if you make the “wrong” choice… though I don’t particularly recommend that one.

In this way “Discipline” can be seen as a mental habit of using techniques and mental frames to reinforce motivation to take actions your meta-self endorses. Alternatively, Discipline can be seen as a form of “trusting” your past self’s model of what certain actions will result in, short-cutting the need to re-examine each emotion’s potential action in the moment… a sort of anchor-emotion that’s ever-present and can be defaulted to because it has deep roots in expected positive outcomes.

So, to show a bit more clearly what this can look like… you know the drill by now, but let’s flip it so we can go into more detail as needed, since the wide range of strategies available in this space make higher levels of Emotional Control look more and more different from a generalized baseline.

An Alice with very low Emotional Control would likely just follow the action generated by the emotion she feels the most strongly, not too differently from one with very low Impulse Control. If two or more emotions are roughly tied, she might feel paralyzed until some positive feedback loop or new stimulus edges one out over another.

An Alice with low Emotional Control is capable of at least noticing that she has different emotions/desires that she could ideally choose between. She might once in a while be able to remind herself explicitly of the things that make one choice better than another, either through imagining bad outcomes or, a bit more ideally, some form of regret-minimization.

An Alice with moderate Emotional Control is capable of a (quick) pro-and-con type evaluation of each emotion-inspired-action-plan. She can model some expected outcomes enough that she might notice if she really would benefit from a brief break or snack, or if working for a few more minutes will lead her to a better point to take a break in. She could even use a light precommitment tool, like 25-minute work timers, to give her mind an easy touch-stone for strengthening the emotions on the side of continuing to work.

An Alice with high Emotional Control is prepared for these sorts of reflections, knows the rough shape the emotional dilemma will take for her, and has some tools at the ready to explore her options and decide which action to take. She might already have done enough IFS to jump straight into a quick conversation with each part, or maybe she has a motto or mental habit that she uses to get in touch with certain emotions over others.

And an Alice with very high Emotional Control deviates even further from a general model.  Maybe she’s deeply practiced in letting her emotions speak in an unconstricted way, such that she can evaluate each and decide on what will lead her to feeling the most fulfilled. Maybe she just runs down each emotion she feels, imagines the outcomes of each, then decides from there. Maybe she doesn’t really feel strong emotions in most circumstances, so deciding between them is easy. Or maybe she feels particularly strong emotions from expected rewards of doing work, and so it’s easy to stay within the action-space that will likely lead to that. Or maybe some combination of all of the above and more, or something else entirely.

I would be remiss not to mention the Dark Side of Emotional Control, which is more what the name implies; a form of resolving conflicting desires through suppression, fear, bullying, and other general forms of self-coercion. These strategies generally develop when people are young and in coercive or competitive environments that train them to ignore emotions that aren’t instrumental to the goals they’re most rewarded for pursuing.

These strategies, useful though they can be for succeeding on short timespans, tend to have diminishing returns or leave people burnt out eventually. Exploring how people sustain high productivity for years led me to the second crystalized bit of insight: Sustainably productive people spend most of their time doing what they find enjoyable, meaningful, or necessary

When a goal or course of action doesn’t feel like any of those things, it eventually becomes very difficult to “control” the emotions that compel you toward things that do, and no amount of external motivation makes up for that gap.

At risk of being too preachy, this is why I believe, as noted in the previous posts, that knowing what you want and why is an important part of a healthy Executive Function pipeline (not to mention a generally happier life).

People are full of various wants and needs, on a minute to minute basis or on a year to year one, and each of those wants and needs are emotionally driven. Understanding how to integrate and manage those various emotions and wants is an integral part of aligning your goals with your actions.

Suggestion 4

Notice how often you check-in with yourself, and practice doing it more often.

There are a lot of different kinds of mindfulness practice out there. Most meditation is the most popular, a way of bringing awareness into our body and thoughts, while things like the Alexander Technique try to help people expand their awareness outside of themselves. Anything that helps people pay attention to their moment-to-moment experiences better, or understand and become familiar with the loops their thoughts can end up in, can help people improve Self Monitoring. The sequence on Naturalism is largely about noticing what your attention and thoughts are doing, and this video by Duncan Sabien does a good job of explaining another version of it. Posts tagged with “summoning sapience” tend to be about this, such as Val’s article on the Art of rationality.

Take a moment again, right now, to “pop out” of reading this article. You’re almost done, but still notice that you’re reading it, and ask yourself if you want to be reading it. My prompting you to do this might lead to you noticing other impulses you have, other things in your awareness, other drags on your attention. But you also might just notice your own thoughts, reading over these words, and your reactions to them. All you’re doing, when you improve your Self Monitoring, is learning how to notice certain types of thoughts or sensations that trigger this more often.

Maybe it’s discomfort in your body, or a leg or arm that’s falling asleep. You could use environmental cues, such as alarms or visual cues around you (printed out pictures, sticky notes, etc) can also help train the mental habit… though I want to stress caution in anything that leads to Self Monitoring that is largely anxious. The alarm should be a gentle chime, the visual cue should be a picture of a reflective lake, or even just a small mirror hung on your wall… if it’s hard to imagine the vibe, here’s Midjourney to lend a hand:

The purpose of self-monitoring, overall, is not to feel like you’re constantly vigilant or on edge, but rather to notice when you’re on autopilot more quickly so that you can decide whether you want to deliberately. A calm, embodied “What am I doing and why am I doing it,” more a notion than the actual words. Not “oh my god why am I doing this why aren’t I doing THAT instead what’s wrong with me…”

If you’re having trouble not having that be the tone of the check-ins, that leads us to…

Suggestion 5

Understand your emotions better, and find a constructive frame through which to understand and relate to them.

Internal Family Systems is something I recommend often, but The Art of Accomplishment podcast has good models for this sort of thing as well, and there’s a good Clearer Thinking tool on it too. My elevator pitch for the space in which they intersect is something like:

Understand that your emotions/desires/impulses each exist for a good reason. That does not mean that they’re automatically “correct,” but it does mean that trying to ignore or banish them entirely is not the healthiest way to deal with whatever is causing them to arise. Instead try treating them, and yourself, since that’s what they amount to, like a friend, one whose feelings you can validate and support without letting them overwhelm you.

An exercise you can try now:

  1. Notice if you have an inner narrator that’s harsh or judgemental or bullying toward any emotions or desires you have. Is there something you’ve been criticizing yourself for lately?
  2. Consider how you would talk to your best friend, romantic partner, or a child if they talked to you about a similar problem they were having.
  3. Write a short message to yourself using the same language you would use.

I plan to write more about how we relate to our emotions and how to understand them better, and will update this post with a link when I do.

The last part of this series will cover the last 3 aspects of Executive Function

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking

Or you can refresh yourself on the previous posts:

Part 0: Executive Function 101

Part 1: Planning & Prioritizing, Task Initiation


Transgender Visibility Day, and the Laziness of Language

Happy Transgender Visibility Day!

I’m one of those people for whom “they” and “them” feel about as fitting as “he” and “him,” but I’ve been pretty lucky in a lot of ways and it doesn’t really bother me other than in a few specific circumstances. Normally I don’t even bring it up, but I’ve been considering doing it more often, even though I feel generally masculine, for the sake of normalizing something that really shouldn’t be that big a deal, so that’s part of what I wanted to do with this post.

But the much bigger part of why this feels important isn’t about me, but about the absolute weirdness that comes from society confusing its heuristics and semantic shorthands with deciding it’s allowed to tell people what they “should be.”

Because that’s what this debate always comes down to. The labels society developed are all terrible ways to actually map reality, and while many people, and some parts of Western Society, have begun evolving past a lot of the baggage those labels inherited… there’s still a long way to go, and gender is just the latest frontier of this.

In the old days being a “man” or “woman” meant you had to have A, B and C traits, or like X, Y and Z things, and if you were different, that meant you were less of one, which was always framed in a bad way. More and more people are coming to accept that this is nonsense, but we get stuck on things like biology.

It’s not entirely our fault. The problem is we were given shitty words, a lazy language, and told that reality follows the words rather than that the words are a slapdash prototype effort to understand reality.

We had to develop words like “stepmom” to differentiate “biological mom” and “non-biological mom,” except that doesn’t work all the time either, because stepmom implies that they married your dad, so what do you call the female that helped raise you that didn’t marry your dad? We all just shrug and accept this gap in our map because no one bothered to create a differentiating word for “person who carried you in their womb whose genetics you share” and “person who is female who raised you.” Too much of an edge-case, maybe, or the only people it affected were poor, or it wasn’t something polite company would acknowledge because the “proper” thing to do would be to cement the relationship through marriage.
Bottom line is it’s an error-prone language. All are, it’s just a matter f degree. Sometimes it’s made worse by laziness, or carried baggage and artifacts. Language imprecisely describes reality. And we should always keep that in mind, always, when we disagree with people about basically anything, but particularly when we disagree about each other.
Ethnicity is like this too. There are some useful medical facts that can be determined through heredity and genetic trends in populations, but for 99% of circumstances, the question of what “race” someone is ends up being entirely about social constructs. It’s about how they’re treated by others, it’s about their experiences and lack of experiences, and people fall through the cracks of our shitty, lazy language all the time.
23&Me says I’m 96.4% “Iranian, Caucasian & Mesopotamian”:

Does that make me “white” or “Middle Eastern” on the US Census? When people ask if I’m Middle Eastern, what question am I actually answering? (And no, just saying “I’m Persian” or “My parents are from Iran” does not tend to clarify things for them, because this is not something most who ask know themselves!) I’ve almost always passed as white (other than in airports, at least), so most of the time it seems weird to call myself Middle Eastern. My dad and brother are far more obviously from the Middle East, and my dad in particular has lived a very different life as a result of that. I get clocked as Jewish once in a while, but only once in a way that made my life feel endangered.

The point is there’s nothing at the heart of the generally asked question “what ethnicity” I am. Knowing my parents are Iranian  would tell you some things about the kinds of food I enjoy and am used to, but not exclusively. I was raised Jewish, and that would again indicate some things about food familiarity and what holidays I’m familiar with. But when it comes to who I am, as a person, the pattern of thoughts and behaviors that make up me, it’s a nonsense question that, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t even have to consider. This isn’t true for everyone! But as with gender, when it comes to ethnicity, I’m lucky enough that on most days I don’t have to even think about this unless I’m filling out a form of some kind.
Back to gender. Because we were raised in a culture too lazy and biased to come up with words for “XY chromosomes” that means something different from “male presenting” and another word for “identifies with this bundle of cultural-specific gender stereotypes” and so on, we waste hours and hours, millions of collective hours, we waste blood and sweat and tears, on stupid debates about whether people should be called “men” or “women,” and the question of whether those should be the only two options takes the backseat, while the question of how much it actually matters compared to how we treat each other is talked around or ignored.
There are some non-stupid questions in that space. There are some non-stupid considerations that have to be navigated once in a while in society where something similar to the concept of “gender” or “sex” is important, particularly in medical contexts, dating contexts, physical competitions, etc.
But these are 1 in 100, 1 in 1,000, probably really 1 in 1,000,000 what people actually care about when you examine society’s insistence on being as lazy as we can collectively get away with being when thinking and talking about each other, and certainly don’t have any relationship to the various hysterias that lawmakers tend to leverage when deciding which bouts of cultural fears or ignorance are most politically expedient to them.
In my ideal world we all have pills we can take to transform into any body shape we want anyway, or a menu in a simulation that lets us be anything we want, and anything that takes us even a tiny step in that direction is better than things that keep us stuck. Which means I’m always happy to call other people whatever personal-identity-labels they’d prefer to be called, even if I slip up sometimes due to pattern-matching visual gendertropes, or accessing cached memories of a person.
As for myself, over the course of my life I’ve responded to “Damon,” “נתן,” “Max,” and “Daystar,” and I honestly don’t really have a preference with what you call me; just how you treat me.

Great Therapists vs Great Coaches

I had a great conversation with my friend Tee Barnett about Therapy vs Coaching, including what makes for a “Good” or highly skilled one, and what they “should” cost. Hope it’s helpful to anyone interested in attending or doing either!

We discuss similarities and differences between coaching and therapy (38:15), conceptions of what high-skilled coaching and high-skilled therapy look like (46:52), and questioning the assumption “high-priced therapist/coach = better therapist/coach” (1:32:15).
Spicier parts of the episode include what makes for a bad therapist (51:24), how therapists could be doing CBT wrong (56:47), and how being a fully booked and busy coach could be a signal of stunted growth (1:33:52).

Also check out his site, Any Thoughts On, if you’re interested in learning more about professional coaching in general!


Imagine you have a magical, invisible suit of armor. It has two effects:

First, so long as you wear it, no one’s opinions of you can drastically drop. Your friends all stay your friends, your coworkers still respect you, etc. Sounds great, right? Most people would wear it all the time.

But the second effect is, there are some people who you could be much closer to, a lifelong friend, a true love, a deep connection… and as long as you wear it, your relationships all stop short of those.

This is how I tended to describe vulnerability to clients or friends who struggle with it. It can make sense to wear the armor sometimes, and it can make sense to be afraid of taking it off in others. But if you want more real connections in life, you have to be willing to risk it.

And in general, before this past year, I would have said I’d sidestepped any issues or hangups with “being vulnerable” entirely. Since I was young, I’ve always felt like a fairly open book; someone could ask me what I think or feel about basically anything, and I’d be happy to tell them honestly, and not feel any sort of shame or worry about it. I don’t change who I am by social context, I don’t pretend to like people I don’t like, and if I love someone they’re quick to know it.

But I had a Season of Vulnerability this past year that was important to expanding my understanding of “real vulnerability.” If it was some straightforward irony of me saying something but not following it, this season wouldn’t have been necessary. It would have been easy to spot, and easy to correct. 

But for one thing, “not hiding who you are ” is not the same as “offering what you feel and think,” and there weren’t any obvious red flags that something was missing. For example, that analogy doesn’t mention that if you’re not willing to be vulnerable with others, they often aren’t as willing to be vulnerable with you. It’s pretty obvious, right? But throughout my life people have tended to be vulnerable with me, sometimes within a day of meeting me.

For another, so long as you wear that armor, you tend to not feel truly “seen” by others if you’re not willing to be vulnerable with them… but I often didn’t feel seen even when I shared my thoughts/feelings.

More specifically, the other person’s experience, even if they were comfortable being vulnerable around me, still wasn’t ideal. Instead what I realized, thanks to some circling and conversations with friends, was that there was a sense of connection that often felt missing.

When I started talking about this publicly, someone I’ve worked with in fairly stressful situations messaged me with this:

This mirrored the way I’ve always heard this sort of thing before: “It’s hard sometimes to feel [close] to you because you’re always doing well and helping me, but never seem to be in need of being helped.” 

To which my response has always been a feeling of… helpless sadness? If I just take for granted that being self-sufficient reduces feelings of connection and closeness from others, I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. It’s not like I could make myself need others more, and faking it would feel patronizing.

I realized though that there are in fact two different things being pointed at here:

  1. People feel more connection when the relationship feels more equal, and one of the ways that equality is measured is how much both people mutually support each other rather than how one-sided that feels.
  2. People feel more connection when they have a sense of what the other person’s inner life and experience is like. This is most often revealed when someone needs help…

…but it doesn’t have to be.

Noticing this distinction was important, because it primed me to realize that there were in fact some circumstances where I’d think to share how I was feeling with others, but not do so.

There were a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I experienced a lot of people over-updating on how bad I must feel about something bad that happens to me.

As an example, if most people’s mood on a daily basis fluctuates between a 4/10 and a 6/10, and then something bad happens that brings them down to a 3/10 for a week, my experience of that same thing is more like I’ve been brought from my average of 8/10 down to a 7/10 for a few hours per day for a few days. Maybe even just that one day.

But that seemed hard for most people to get, and I faced a lot of skepticism when I’d say that even if something sad or frustrating happened, I’m actually fine. Which felt even more isolating than not sharing the bad thing that happened in the first place.

(A self-perpetuating problem here, of course, in that the less I talked about bad things, the more mentioning one would seem to others like it must be really bad if I talked about it…)

So I talked less often about bad things that happened in my life, partly because they didn’t really affect me enough that I felt much desire to talk about them with others, and partly because, without realizing it, trusting people to trust me to be okay became hard.  It just became easier to let people know I was fine by just… being fine, acting fine, giving off fine-vibes, and not sending mixed signals.

And that trust is part of what I needed to work on for my Season, because vulnerability is not just  hard for people who want to avoid being seen as weak. For people like myself, it can be hard if the vulnerable thing you’re revealing is that you’re not like others, and being vulnerable makes you less seen at all.

What people are used to is feeling close to someone due to not just positive experiences, but an exchange of vulnerability or emotional support. Not just because those things are specifically what they want, but because it’s how most people are used to getting the “raw” beliefs, values, perspectives, desires, etc, that make someone uniquely “them.”

That’s what I was missing, in general, when talking and thinking about vulnerability. To treat it simply as being about difficult or painful things is to miss the ways being too self-sufficient can also preclude being more raw.

To learn more about why vulnerability felt distinct from the thing I was struggling with, feel free to check out my second Seasons of Growth post.