Developing Self-Efficacy with Minimum Viable Habits

We often experience knowing what we “need to do” yet feeling unable to actually do it. We often feel like we won’t succeed at the action or that it’s “something that only others can do”. This is the feeling of insufficient self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is one’s belief in ability to succeed at carrying out some set of actions.


To succeed at a particular challenge, we need two things. First, knowledge of the action which is likely to lead to success — knowing what to do. Second, before we bother trying, we need to believe that we can actually succeed at taking the action. Self-efficacy is this second part. It has powerful effects on our ability to actually do the thing. Even better, we can change our self-efficacy!


The theory of self-efficacy was introduced by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. His main finding was that self-efficacy significantly impacts the actions a person takes. Higher self-efficacy causes people to put in greater effort when faced with challenges. It also encourages taking on more challenging tasks in the first place. One begins to view obstacles to success as stimulating rather than discouraging. Finally, greater self-efficacy allows taking a wider view on challenges. One is more able to zoom out to see the big picture and be more creative when problem-solving.


Unfortunately, higher self-efficacy is not a panacea. It can lead to overconfidence. This can show up through failing to sufficiently prepare for tasks. This is also visible as reduced curiosity. Feelings of mastery in a domain can discourage further learning! Also, the tendency towards putting in more effort can cause one to put in too much effort. This takes the form of not quitting when it becomes clear to others that more effort is futile.


Even so, it seems many people would be better off with higher self-efficacy. The ideal amount seems to be slightly above one’s objective level of competence or skill. This encourages taking on challenges and enables growth. Bandura identified four general factors affecting self-efficacy, in decreasing order of impact: personal experience, modeling (vicarious experience), persuasion (verbal feedback), and physiological or emotive states. The most powerful influence on self-efficacy is experience obtained through enactive attainment. In other words, the process of mastery and achievement — trying to do things and succeeding. This is hard to fake. Easy wins don’t continue to build self-efficacy. Rather, one must experience consistent recognition of difficult accomplishment that has cultural relevance. The accomplishment has to feel important within the context of one’s social world. Bandura also found that building self-efficacy through experience helped develop general capacity. Overcoming challenge in one domain enabled individuals to take on unrelated challenges.


Given what we know, how can we best embark on a project of enhancing our own self-efficacy?


I’ve identified four factors that help:


1. Do something daily

2. Start small

3. Incrementally increase difficulty

4. Optimize for greater energy levels


I find daily diet and exercise habits to be an excellent training ground. Developing a feeling of mastery requires repetitive success at increasingly difficult challenges. Daily habits are especially fruitful because of their high frequency. You get to grapple with them at least once a day. This quick repetition exposes yourself to success over and over. As you succeed you can ratchet up the difficulty to keep it meaningful. The other major benefit is seeing social or cultural value in the skill. We live in a world that idolizes looking good and feeling good. Finally, improving diet and exercise habits comes with physiological benefits. We get an immediate boost to our energy levels. Over time, this helps build capacity in endurance and willpower.


I’ve found two guidelines which have helped me to a felt sense of mastery in these domains. The first is incrementalism — start small and slowly increase the challenge. When I first started, I didn’t think of myself as a “person who exercises daily”. Nor did I know the “best way” to do it. After a few false starts, I settled on a small win: doing a handful of jumping jacks after waking up. This was so easy that I felt I could succeed every day. All that remained was getting used to doing it first thing in the morning, every day. Once established, I began slowly pushing myself to do more: extra jumping jacks, some pushups, etc. Similarly, I began not knowing the “best way” to eat. I had a vague sense that too much sugar was bad, so I started by eating a bit less every day.


You start by constructing Minimum Viable Habits and then iterating from there.


The second guideline is to optimize for energy levels. Scott Adams is big on this in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. After any action, check back over the next few minutes or hours to see how your energy has changed. The goal is to maximize your energy levels. Simple as that. I’ve found this to be far more effective than trying to keep up with the latest in nutritional advice. Listen to your body and you can find out what works for you.


I built a foundation of diet and exercise habits that once felt “not me”. As a result, I noticed my ability to succeed was not constrained to domains where I already felt skilled. I am now more aware that I can perform any pattern of action that I see someone else doing. I no longer feel constrained to “who I am” but feel empowered to build the skills I see as valuable. With increased self-efficacy, I am more equipped to take on any challenges along the way.

Thinking Toys #5 — Focusing

One of the most powerful and easy to learn introspection techniques is Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing. The basic structure can be broken down into six steps, although he encourages experimentation and breaking the rules once you learn the basics. You can perform these steps slowly, over 30 minutes to an hour, or quickly, often in just a few seconds once you’ve learned the moves. You can perform these on your own or with a partner. Here is a short form of the instructions from his website:



1. Clear a space

How are you? What’s between you and feeling fine?

Don’t answer; let what comes in your body do the answering.

Don’t go into anything.

Greet each concern that comes. Put each aside for a while, next to you.

Except for that, are you fine?


2. Felt Sense

Pick one problem to focus on.

Don’t go into the problem.

What do you sense in your body when you sense the whole of that problem?

Sense all of that, the sense of the whole thing, the murky discomfort or the unclear body-sense of it.


3. Get a handle

What is the quality of the felt sense?

What one word, phrase, or image comes out of this felt sense?

What quality-word would fit it best?


4. Resonate

Go back and forth between word (or image) and the felt sense.

Is that right?

If they match, have the sensation of matching several times.

If the felt sense changes, follow it with your attention.

When you get a perfect match, the words (images) being just right for this feeling, let yourself feel that for a minute.


5. Ask

“What is it, about the whole problem, that makes me so _________?

When stuck, ask questions:

What is the worst of this feeling?

What’s really so bad about this?

What does it need?

What should happen?

Don’t answer; wait for the feeling to stir and give you an answer.

What would it feel like if it was all OK?

Let the body answer

What is in the way of that?


6. Receive

Welcome what came. Be glad it spoke.

It is only one step on this problem, not the last.

Now that you know where it is, you can leave it and come back to it later.

Protect it from critical voices that interrupt.

Does your body want another round of focusing, or is this a good stopping place?



An example of what this process looks like may be helpful. Every morning after meditation I spend about 5-20 minutes practicing Focusing. Today I explored my feelings around my relationship with one of my Grandmothers. I find our interactions aversive and stressful — one of the rare instances in my life when I regularly have this experience. To start, I called to mind the act of interacting with her, and memories of previous interactions. I tried to sit in that for 15-30 seconds. This is longer than it seems, try timing yourself! After a few seconds, a distinct felt sense started developing. You can also think of this as a gut feel. The important thing is to focus on the lower level sensations and emotions. I then began generating a list of words or phrases and checking to see how well they resonated with the felt sense. Hot, weak, small, heavy, tired, pity, muted. Some of these caused more of a jolt of recognition than others. After a moment, I converged on the handle of “heavy muting, unseen unrecognized”. I checked back with the felt sense to confirm a correspondence. Then I started asking it questions: “What is in this feeling? What is the worst part? What does it need?” Right away, I noticed an overwhelming sense of being taunted. It’s not that I have a strong urge to be heard and seen here, but rather that I was being invited to be heard and seen but then being denied the experience! Instead, I was having something else imposed upon me — the something else being her fantasy of what she wants me to be. This was an especially interesting realization for me because I pride myself on my ability to create my identity and experience. And here was an example, staring me in the face, of how I was allowing someone else to get in the way of this! If I was as good as I thought at constructing my experience, I surely would not be sensitive to the “silly” projections of my Grandmother! Having this insight provided some relief but the work is not done yet. The next step would be to explore how to help resolve the situation through action — a job for next time.



What happens when we introspect? We are often trying to better understand something about ourselves or our experience. Ideally, this understanding can correspond to the implicit beliefs causing our emotional reactions. This helps identify the sorts of interventions which can transform our emotional state. These are not always logical nor do they always make rational sense! 

Focusing is one framework for connecting with this implicit belief structure. By breaking complex feelings into parts and finding language that fits, we can understand them bit by bit. With understanding, some of the more unpleasant feelings seem to begin to dissolve. Alternatively, the understanding can help point to actions that you can take to resolve them.

For a more comprehensive introduction to focusing, I highly recommend the short audio book narrated by Eugene Gendlin.

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Thinking Toys #4 — Falsifiability

What’s something that you’re worried about or that is giving you anxiety? It may be a specific event that you fear may come to pass — losing your job! Alternatively, it can be a general sense of discontent or fear about some state of the world — Trump is President! This feeling is uncomfortable but it may also be useful. Some part of you is trying to raise a concern — something is wrong here and we need to pay attention!


But what? how do we figure it out, and how do we resolve it rather than just suppress it? One way is to seek falsifiability — what would it take to prove yourself wrong? Try to construct an easily testable claim related to the worry or anxiety that feels predictive of the thing you’re worried about. Construct different statements and ask your gut: if I see evidence X, Y, and Z, will that persuade? The mere discovery of such a falsifiable claim can cause anxiety to dissolve. Failing that, now you have something testable for which you can seek evidence. Of course, constructing these statements will often leave some part of your anxiety still there. We can’t always quite capture the whole thing with a statement or two. This is likely unavoidable but often a trade off worth making, anyway.


I had some anxiety over starting this newsletter. How would I know if it was good or useful? It’s a vague, hard thing to measure and I expect mixed signals. With some effort, I was able to construct a falsifiable claim that my gut was comfortable with. If I could organically get at least 100 subscribers within a month, then it would feel “good enough”. By finding that statement, I was able to dissolve most of the related anxiety.


I find two other good uses for seeking falsifiability: exposing crony beliefs and improving our models of ourselves.


Kevin Simler wrote a great essay on the concept of “crony beliefs”. We hold these for their social value — sustaining relationships and giving us status. This is in contrast to “merit beliefs” which seek correspondence with events in shared reality — “objective” predictive power. Canonical examples of crony beliefs are eternalistic in nature: religion, politics, and ideas like the limitless power of science. Crony beliefs are not “bad” — they are often useful — but it can be handy to know where ours are hiding. One of the most glaring signs is a resistance to seek falsifiability in some domain. If you are defensive about making claims that could disprove something, it may be a crony belief. Consider: how high is your bar for changing your mind about your current political stances?


Improving our models of ourselves is another way seeking falsifiability can help us. This improves our ability to calibrate expectations. In Building a Second BrainTiago suggests defining projects by a set of associated SMART goals — even (especially!) for open-ended creative work. We often don’t have a clear idea of where an interest is heading and especially fear to constrain it. However, by making testable predictions about where you may end up, you give yourself way points to orient by. These way points can help you calibrate your ability to predict yourself! You get concrete feedback on your ability to know what you’re capable of. Consider a newfound love for oil painting. If you predicted that you would paint 3 canvases within 3 months and end up with only 1, you learn a little something about yourself free of charge.


Our minds are so drawn to falsifiability — seeing whether something is true or false — because it works. We survive by projecting and reifying boundaries onto a nebulous world. With repeated prediction and feedback, we are able to improve our models of how our actions relate to our ability to survive and thrive. A gnawing sense of anxiety is often a sign that we have failed to make something falsifiable enough for our lizard brain.


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Thinking Toys #3 — Construal Levels

Have you been feeling a lack of direction, purpose, or a sense of progress? Try asking yourself “Why?”. Why are you doing what you are doing, what does it accomplish? And then ask “Why?” again about that, and another time or two if you can.

Why am I working as a dog walker? Dogs need to be walked but their owners are busy.

Why? They have other demands on their time but still love their dog.

Why? Their dog brings joy to their lives.

By walking the dog, I am bringing joy to the lives of the owners and the dogs.

Similarly, you can try extracting abstractions or patterns. Every day you come into work and do a little bit of meaningless labor. Large accomplishments require time and coordination among many people. Sometimes the outcomes are things everyone can point to, like a skyscraper. Other times they may be more subtle, like saving a few extra lives per year with a new automobile safety feature. The pattern in these undertakings is the cooperation of many specialized humans working on little bits at a time.

Alternatively, you may be experiencing a sense of disconnection from the world. You may feel stuck, disembodied, lacking flow, or overwhelmed by repetitive mental chatter. Try asking yourself “How?”. Go deeper into the details of implementation and feasibility.

I want to save the world. How?

I need to find the threats and stop them. How?

Research potential threats and interventions. How?

I can Google “existential risks”


The mindset we bring to perceiving and interpreting the world is our construal level. High construal corresponds with more abstract thinking. Low construal is more about concrete thinking. Asking “Why?” recursively, or seeking abstraction and pattern, raises our construal level. Asking “How?” recursively, or seeking detail and difference, lowers our construal level. Being aware of our ability to manipulate construal level is huge. Learning to play with going up and down in construal helps us engage with the world more skillfully.


Higher construal reduces our susceptibility to impulse while reducing engagement with environmental cues and the present moment. Going up gives us more top-down control — rational regulation. But it also risks leaving us disengaged from experience and external feedback. When you think about the future, you are in high construal “far-mode” thinking. Notice how everything feels more abstract and conceptual. Far-mode enables greater risk taking and makes big challenges feel more surmountable. But it can obscure details that may be important to know in advance. Engaging near-mode (low construal) can reveal these.

There’s no objectively optimal or correct level. The world is an inseparable mix of pattern and nebulosity. The easier we can switch between these perspectives, the more fluidly we engage with the world. The worst feelings seem to come when we are stuck seeing the world as only one of these. Below is a table of some triggering feelings and which way to shift construal to better engage with them.

This whole analysis is pretty high construal! What would be a low construal approach?

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Thinking Toys #2 — Opportunity Pointers

Thinking Toys are mental moves that help us solve problems. They can help us get unstuck. We’d like our minds to have effortless subconscious access to these tools. However, this requires regular practice until they’re installed. Learning to drive takes a lot of time and attention up front but eventually becomes automatic. That’s the goal with thinking toys. With practice, the process of “thinking” can automatically run through explicit moves that get us better solutions.

Of course, to practice a thinking toy requires having a problem at hand. Sometimes it’s hard to think of a problem but luckily there are some tricks to help. Thinking Toy #2 is Opportunity Pointers: prompts that help us find things to work on. There are at least three categories of Opportunity Pointers.


Satisfaction checks

Asking your gut about where something is lacking or not-quite-right can be revealing. Say to yourself: “Everything is going perfectly with my ___” and fill in the blank. Some places to look include health, relationships, and career. Then, check your gut for a feeling of dissonance or an “except for…” and see if you can put it into words.


Ask yourself what could have gone better, and how, in the past day, week, or year. Where did you come up short? How might this happen again in the future?

Comparing yourself to others

Look for people that have skills or capabilities that impress you. “What’s something that others can do that I wish I could?” It’s quite likely that this is merely a weakness that can be overcome. They have had better practice developing a skill than you have.


A few months ago I found myself in a state where, at first glance, it seemed like everything was perfect with my life. However, after trying some of these exercises I was able to find directions to grow. This resulted in even greater satisfaction a few months later. I looked back on my previous year and noticed one major shortcoming: I lacked a strong sense of progress and accomplishment. In the past, I achieved this by working on concrete tasks that had an immediate tangible impact on myself and my coworkers. Noticing that I was missing this, my mind quickly jumped to some potential ways to remedy it. Spending more time blogging, and creating this newsletter, are just a few of the things I’m trying. It’s working, so far.

Not being able to find one’s problems and weaknesses seems pretty common. I think this is a better problem to have than the reverse. Paying too much attention to our shortcomings, failures, and weaknesses is not productive. It causes feelings of frustration and inadequacy. However, not being at all aware of our weaknesses can also hurt us. If we don’t know where we can improve, it can be hard to grow. Next time you are feeling this way, especially when seeking to practice a new thinking toy, try using an Opportunity Pointer.

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Thinking Toys #1 — Inversion

This will take about 2 minutes and may magically solve a problem for you.

Pick a problem from your life. It can be big or small, but keep it salient — what was on your mind before reading this?

Take 15 seconds and load it up into your head.

You’ve probably thought about it already. You’ve been trying to fix something, or make something different, or achieve some goal. You may have some sense of what you want, what success would feel like.

Let’s call that X — the goal. And let’s try something else. Instead of trying to achieve X, think of the different ways that you could achieve the opposite: Not-X.

What can you do to achieve what you don’t want? How can you predictably fail?

Now, check if you are doing these things. Also, given that these are things you probably don’t want to be doing, what options remain?

Pay attention to what it feels like for your mind to flip the problem like this. There is no right way to do it. Paying attention to how it feels for you will help this move be accessible in the future.

When it’s not obvious how to succeed, or even what success looks like, define failure and avoid the actions that will lead to that.

This is inversion. The first, and arguably most powerful, thinking toy I’m going to write about. Rather than saying a bunch of neat things about the strategy, it seems much more useful to try to get people to practice it. Try to feel what it’s like from the inside and install it as a tool that you can actually use. So, if you skimmed the above, I urge you to actually try it!

Bonus: Try it on someone else. Load up a problem that you know a friend or loved one is struggling with and try to invert it for them. Even better, introduce them to the idea and try it together with them. Teaching someone else is one of the best ways to learn something, plus you get to help someone solve a problem!

Reply and let me know what worked above. What was confusing or aversive or where did you get stuck?

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Talking past each other

“Free speech, liberty, freedom, human rights — we need more! Also, let’s eat more bologna sandwiches!”

We can probably agree on the first part but perhaps the bologna sandwich draws some protest. In fact, we don’t actually agree on the first part — we are nodding our heads thinking about very different things. Or not thinking about things at all.  Either the word triggers substantially different concepts for each person, or, even less usefully, a vague emotion. We are speaking English but our utterings are not equally reliable. For us to agree, we need our minds to be thinking of the same things. Instead, we are mostly talking past each other while we nod our heads in agreement.

We hear the same words, it seems we agree and understand, and yet our minds are dwelling on different objects. This is the underlying mechanism by which communication fails except by accident. Often, we can switch out our words for gibberish and our ability to act or coordinate in the world would not change. The scary part is the language doesn’t feel alien — it seems intelligible at all times.

How can we feel equally sure of our understanding but have different things “in mind”? It seems our mind draws itself towards confirming existing beliefs. “Yes, this is just confirmation bias.” Just. It sounds trite but grasping the magnitude of this overwhelms me. We are constantly interpreting the world, including words coming in, taking actions with our bodies, and making words come out. What is guiding this process? It feels like we are relying on a sense of fit — aesthetics — to bounce between a context-dependent consonance and dissonance. Hearing words, our mind activates relevant belief structures and emotions — a function of past experiences. We then find a way to make everything fit as neatly as possible, quickly resolving dissonance when it rears its head.

“All of us are seeing a different world, interpreting things differently, noticing different things, and are filled with different desires, longings, worries, anxieties, loves, hatreds, and all the rest.  We seem to occupy the same world, but really it’s a pluraverse, not a world.” from Larval Subjects

How to make sense of a word like “freedom”? To one person it may trigger memories of fascist tyranny while for another the image of immigrants coming to America. It’s not that either person can’t understand each other’s concepts. And yet, the specific word resonates with quite different ideas for each person’s mind. Similar ones, perhaps, but I propose that the details diverge and become important if one seeks to act upon their beliefs.

“I’m just saying that the two of us can inhabit the same world and nonetheless “see” entirely different things.  We can even be talking to each other about these things, thinking that we’re talking about the same things, while we’re nonetheless talking about divergent things.  There we were, having this discussion for years, only to wake up one day and realize that we were never talking about the same things and that the sense that we understood each other was all a fantasy or an illusion.” Ibid

To better experience someone else’s view of the pluraverse — to interpret things as they do — one must practice wearing their way of seeing. This is hard, scary, and sometimes painful.

“We think we’re listening, but 99% of the time what we’re really doing is filtering the words of the other through our “interpretive scheme”.  “Understanding”, Lacan said, is always filtered through the lens of the imaginary, of that sense that we’re alike and that we’re the same and that we mean the same things. But it’s not like that.  The most difficult thing is to hear, to really hear.  Nothing is harder, I think, than really hearing the otherness of others…  Their universes.” Ibid

Communication doesn’t always completely fail, obviously, because we do manage to coordinate successfully. We can increase our awareness of when we’re talking past each other and deploy strategies to avoid it. Contra “freedom”, we are more likely to approach agreement when discussing “getting lunch”. We promptly converge on what kind of food, where, and at what time. Differences in opinion may or may not be contentious, but they will quickly become salient. The main difference here is operationalization and an intent to act in a coordinated way. As soon as you notice yourself fumbling into abstraction land, seek object-level synchronization. Try to be concrete about how your beliefs are going to result in different actions in the future, how those actions will cause specific outcomes in the world, and how the outcomes will affect your life in a way that you care about. Pay attention to the interactions between parts of the whole: how pieces of a system will connect, or how people will synchronize in time and on actions in the service of common goals. It’s not that speaking about “freedom” is totally hopeless, but by default be prepared to come to a false sense of agreement — to talk past each other.

My introspection practice

Lately, I’ve had a handful of people ask me about my meditation and introspection practices. This has served as a nice jumping off point to think back on my progress and results, as well.

The core of my efforts has been meditation — starting with concentration/samadhi practices and now mostly focusing on insight/vipassana practices. I started messing around with it about 7 years ago as a 10-minute daily practice following a New Year’s Resolution (wow, sometimes they do work!). It was a sufficiently low hurdle that I was able to keep that up very consistently but about 2 years ago I reflected and noticed not much was changing — this made me curious. I started digging into the literature — everything from esoteric Buddhist texts introducing annapanna to Ingram introducing noting — which led me to the conclusion that 1) I would need to put in more effort if I wanted to see more interesting results and 2) sitting around with my eyes closed and my mind wandering half the time doesn’t do much good. I started ramping up to 30 minutes a day and then eventually 60 minutes a day, and gradually things began to feel very different. I would experience weird stuff. I started noticing changes in my day-to-day experience of reality as I walked around and did things.

Eventually, through the recommendation of a friend who was quite a bit more experienced than me, I explored further in technique-space. Shinzen Young’s See Hear Feel had better “handles” for me to grab onto than Ingram’s noting practice and this led to some nice immediate progress. I was also tipped off to Culadasa’s book before it was released and dove into it immediately. This was the best text I have encountered in terms of step-by-step help to go from 0 to enlightenment, without fluff or esotericism or the overwhelming intensity of Ingram. I also did a 10 day Goenka retreat which, while giving off a bit of a culty vibe, was an overall awesome experience and led to huge progress in my practice — I also went from practically no knowledge to being quite proficient in his body scanning practice.

I’ve continued a daily practice which is currently at around 30-90 minutes a day in a single morning sit and occasionally has peaked around 2 hours a day. Since the Goenka retreat I’ve also put a lot more emphasis into trying to maintain mindfulness constantly while going through my day — mostly doing See Hear Feel. Currently, I rotate through a mix of Culadasa breathing, Young’s See Hear Feel, Goenka body scanning, and then I usually finish my sits with compassion Metta and/or Tonglen.

After meditating, I will spend 5-10 minutes journaling. This practice has changed a lot over time, including anything from writing a summary of my previous day to answering various sets of journaling questions/prompts. Over time, this began to feel aversive and “like work”, so recently I have switched to something more unstructured: focusing on strong feelings that bubble up in the moment or upon reflecting on the last and upcoming day, looking for what feels alive/exciting and what feels dead/aversive. I’ve also started spending about 10-20 minutes right after journaling to practice using Gendlin’s Focusing technique (get the audio book, it’s 60 minutes and all you need!) to decompose some problem or anxiety that I am able to identify and thereby gain incremental insight. I’ve been using some variation of Focusing sporadically for years, but starting to deliberately practice it daily has gotten me to naturally turn to it far more often throughout the day.

In terms of actual changes to my experience from all this stuff, well, it’s kind of hard to explain. I think the meditation has had large phenomenological effects. The world feels brighter, my body is constantly buzzing with energy, I can quickly and precisely identify feelings, emotions, moods and dissect them into parts. I can experience a lot of pain without it really bothering me all that much. My feelings and emotions are objects that arise, that I can interact with and use if I want them to, and that disappear when I don’t need them anymore (for the most part). This is starting to happen more consistently with my thoughts, as well. When navigating through the world, I’m able to see in finer grain detail the frame-by-frame patterns of stimulus and response that I’m carrying out, and more and more I am able to intervene and change patterns in precise spots. I am certainly not perfect, as you know, although these powers are growing over time and feel a bit magical.

My introspection practice has also gone a long way in helping me transition from Robert Kegan’s adult development framework stage 4 to being most of the way to stage 5. Starting/running a business and managing people was huge for this, as well as studying morality and ethics in the abstract as well as for concrete issues, but I don’t think it would have happened very easily without the concentration and clarity that have developed for me from meditation, or the personal gaps/oversights that journaling and general introspection practices can identify. I feel like my identity has mostly dissolved and this has left me feeling airy, fast, and powerful. I see the potential for growth everywhere. I see the tremendous value that comes from adopting many ways of seeing and can flit between them more fluidly.

Ways of Seeing

Tough problems often feel insurmountable without more information and better models — more data and thinking. An alternative approach is to be able to see the problem, and the whole world, in a new way. By looking through different eyes, different aspects of the world get highlighted and new actions become visible. An entrepreneur sees the world differently. They notice opportunities for improvement and innovation where someone else only sees stress and pain. Similarly, while a typical person enters a living room and sees the couches and artwork on the walls, a parent of a young child perceives a menagerie of death traps. We are doing this in our own ways all of the time and this defines our experience — our reality.

Several ways of seeing come pre-installed for us — drives to obtain food, sex, safety, and socialization — as a result of our mind rewarding itself for continued survival and gene propagation. These powerful recurring waves of hallucination affect us to the core: how we see and how we experience. The world takes on a different character when we are hungry in contrast to when we are cold and wet. We develop new ways of seeing as we are exposed to more complex patterns: being unemployed or playing a game of chess. At times, we glimpse perspectives of overwhelming curiosity and open-mindedness — fertile soil for our capacity for reason. Unfortunately, we often overestimate this capacity, causing us to fool ourselves and others, and get stuck in the same old ways of thinking and perceiving.

The way we experience and how we look are two sides of the same coin. A way of seeing guides our attention in the service of some purpose, which highlights some parts of experience at the expense of others. The purpose is perhaps not a cause but rather a justification: a way that we understand, or talk about, the behaviors we undertake. One can imagine that if the earth was a conscious thing, it may understand one of its purposes — one of its ways of seeing — as life creation. The way we see also seems to define which actions appear available to us — which levers are pullable. When we feel stuck, it is useful to explore alternative ways of seeing. The way you perceive the world may be limiting your ability to find a solution, so try other ways of looking. Certain questions can act as attentional portals into ways of seeing which immediately reveal insight and new potential actions. Similarly, approaching the particular and peculiar with curiosity has a tendency of generating new thoughts.

Do we really have multiple ways of seeing and in what sense can we more fully inhabit ones beyond the primordial set? Which interesting ways of seeing have we forgotten?

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Certain Questions

About a year ago I was sitting around trying to grok the concept of Evil — where does it come from and how does it work? After a few hours of spinning in circles, I experienced a sudden shift. My mind conjured up the question: “Is this a thing out in the world or just a projection?” (Map vs Territory). Immediately, a part of my mind replied with “Well, this may not be anything other than a story we tell about the behavior of people we dislike”. Let’s ignore the truth value for today and notice the process. I’m interested in this mechanism of how a simple query — checking if I’m looking at a confusion of map with the territory — was able to instantly reframe a problem in a way that allowed me to effortlessly make a mental leap. What’s fascinating is that you don’t even need someone else’s brain to come up with these questions (although that often helps) — you can try to explain your problem to a rubber duck which creates a conversation with yourself and generates queries, or just go through a list of things to ask yourself when stuck.

There are a few different categories of these types of queries and many examples of each. For instance, when thinking about plans we can ask ourselves to perform prehindsight/inner simulator or reference class forecasting/outside view. When introspecting on our own behavior, we can perform sentence completion to check for limiting beliefs, ask questions like “Why aren’t I done yet?” or “What can I do to 10x my results?”. When thinking about problems or situations, we can ask ourselves to invert, reframe into something falsifiable, and taboo your words or perform paradjitsu. Or consider the miracle question: Imagine you wake up and the problem is entirely solved — what do you see, as concretely as possible, such that you know this is true?

So “we know more than we can tell” — somewhere in our head often lies the answer, if only we could get to it. In some sense, parts of our brain are not speaking to each other (do they even share the same ontologies?) except through our language processor, and only then if the sentences are constructed in specific ways. This may make you feel relieved if you think you can rely on your subconscious processing — which may have access to this knowledge — to guide you to effective action, or terrified if you need to use conscious reasoning to think through a chain of consequences.

My thoughts on Evil have continued to evolve since that initial revelation, partially driven by trying new queries on the concept (and partially from finally reading Nietzsche). Once you have a set of tools to throw at problems, the bottleneck to clearer thinking becomes remembering to apply them and actually having the time to do so. This makes me wonder about people that have formed habits to automatically apply a litany of these mental moves whenever approaching a problem — how much of their effectiveness and intelligence can this explain?