I read Eliezer’s Sequences back when he was posting them to Overcoming Bias, and both enjoyed them and thought they were full of lots of good rules about how to think. Just as with communication advice, the hardest time for me to remember rationality advice has been when I most needed it. So far I’ve made Anki decks of the first two of Eliezer’s core Sequences, and that does seem to have helped the material sink in.
Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions
One piece of wisdom I’ve gotten from the self-help literature is that by default, the function of a belief in the human mind is to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We tend to look for confirming evidence, reject (or fail to notice) counter-evidence, and take actions which confirm our world view. There are also truth-tracking beliefs. These are beliefs that we’d bet on, and that we update as new information comes in. The posts in Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions helped classify and categorize a bunch of important rules for filling my mind with the latter types of belief, not the former. My best one-sentence summary of the sequence is: “Don’t ask what to believe, ask what to anticipate.”
Here’s the deck:
A Human’s Guide to Words
I used to spend a lot of time nitpicking and arguing about words. I didn’t realize that I was doing so at the time–I would have said I was arguing about ideas–and that’s why I kept doing it. Having learned tons of Anki cards about the ways humans slip into doing this without noticing, I’m aware of at least many of the failure modes. I often find myself saying, “wait–it seems like we’re arguing about words” and changing course, which I take to be a good sign.
The deck I made for myself probably goes into more detail than most people would want, so I recommend suspending any cards that don’t seem interesting or relevant.
I like the idea of being prepared for whatever difficult situations might come up in my life. That’s why I made the deck about how to talk to the police. Given that I do stuff like, say, attend Burning Man, I figured I’d throw some knowledge about how to deal with people having psychedelic crises into the mental preparedness backpack too. I made this deck from the resources I found on the MAPS website:
And even though I haven’t had occasion to use the advice in its intended context, I think it is much more broadly useful. For example, “Talk through, not down”, and “Difficult is not necessarily bad” are useful principles to remember when talking to anyone who’s upset.
I’ve noticed a pattern: the selection pressures on specialized communication advice seem to be especially good. Some of my favorite tips on how to talk to people came from advice about how to talk to kids, abusers, crazy people, and people having psychedelic crises.
I’ve been interested in lucid dreaming ever since I was a kid, and Stephen LaBerge‘s book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming is the strongest text on the subject. The deck I made from this book mostly covers two things: how we sleep and how our minds perceive reality.
I wanted to internalize information about how sleep works in order to help my brain better model that it was sleeping while it was sleeping. Not sure whether it really had much effect.
I’d LaBerge’s book years ago, at a time in my life before I had a good model of what people meant when they talked about the ego, so it was cool to revisit it and see that what once sounded mystical and confusing now made sense to me. Some sentences from the book that I think do a good job explaining what the ego is:
1. “Seeing that the ego cannot be who you really are makes it easier to stop identifying with it.”
2. “Once you no longer identify with your ego, you are freer to change it.”
3. “Simply recognizing that the ego is a simplified model of the self gives you a more accurate model of the self, and makes it more difficult for you to mistake the map for the territory.”
4. “If you can see your ego objectively in its proper role as the representation and servant of the self, you won’t need to struggle with your ego.”
5. “You cannot get rid of it in any case, nor would it be desirable to do so—the ego is necessary for effective functioning in the world.”
When I was actively keeping a dream journal and working on lucid dreaming, I was having them a few times a week, but these days I’ve let that slide so I only have them every once in a while. The intent behind making the deck was to help me have them more often, so it mostly failed there, but I do think having a more complete model of how to be more conscious of the craziness that goes on in dreams has helped me be more conscious of the craziness that goes on in waking life. The deck:
The third deck of communication cards I made was from Crucial Conversations. Recommended to me by Anna Salamon, this book gave me a lot of insight into the inner workings of the stories we tell ourselves that create our emotions.
The basic model is that the purpose of dialogue is to get all the relevant information into the shared “pool of meaning”, and then to decide what to do with it. When people don’t feel safe, they become either silent, withholding meaning from the pool, or violent, trying to force meaning into the pool. The entrance condition of dialogue is Mutual Purpose–having a shared reason to talk about the thing in the first place. The continuation condition of dialogue is Mutual Respect.
The book also describes what it calls our “Path to Action”, where we first see or hear facts about the world, then tell ourselves stories about them, then feel emotions based on the stories, then act based on the emotions. We want our emotions to both be based on true stories and to lead us in useful directions. If any of our emotions lacks one or both of these qualities, we can change it by figuring out the facts that generated the relevant story and choosing to tell a different story.
One of the key lessons for me was learning to recognize three types of stories the book calls “clever stories”: the Victim Story (“it’s not my fault”, the Villain Story (“it’s all your fault”), and the Helpless Story (“there’s nothing else I can do”). We make up these stories because they conveniently excuse us from responsibility and help us justify continuing to act in the same way that created the problem instead of modifying our behavior. We tell the stories when we’ve done something we feel bad about and don’t want to admit it–and they’re almost never true. I started tagging both my own and others’ stories with these labels when they applied, and I’ve found it quite valuable.
A lot of the rest of the advice in the book is so simple it’s embarrassing how much mileage I’ve gotten from using it. For example, if someone misunderstands something you said, Contrasting (“I didn’t mean X, I did mean Y”) can be very useful. Don’t let yourself get away with saying stuff like “Someone has to tell her how she’s acting, even if it means being cruel”. Instead, present your brain with a more complex question: “How can I tell her how she’s acting AND be kind?”. If you find that you’re becoming either silent or violent in conversation, return to your motive. Ask yourself, “What do I really want to get out of this conversation?” and “How would someone who really wanted those results behave?”.
Here’s the deck:
Getting clear about what why legal rights are in police encounters had been in the back as something I wanted to do someday for years. I finally did it! I used the information from Flex Your Rights to make this deck. They do a good job of explaining what the official rules are, which is most of what I wanted to know. Barry Cooper, who has actual experience being a cop has some conflicting advice: he recommends minimizing suspicion by consenting to searches during traffic stops if you have items you don’t want the police to see that you’ve hidden well.
With that caveat, here’s the deck:
The only police encounter I’ve had since learning the deck was a cop who saw me walking (barefoot :-)) along the side of a highway in a place that wasn’t for pedestrians. Didn’t need to use any of this–he was friendly and he gave me a ride home. It still makes me feel safer to have the information internalized though.
I’ve been living with Tovar, my favorite five-year-old, for a little over a year now. I’ve always liked kids a lot, so when I moved in I knew my plan was to interact with him a bunch, and I wanted it to go as well as possible. I didn’t have much experience handling situations where kids didn’t want to do what I wanted them to, and I wanted to be better at connecting with them overall, so I read the book on this subject that my friends recommended the most highly: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. I loved it, and as with NVC, the hardest time to remember all the advice was during an actual conflict with Tovar. The book came with helpful cheat sheets with the most important strategies for different categories of communication.
The cards really helped even more than I thought they would. Sometimes the strategies improved the situation a lot right away, and sometimes they didn’t, but having a mental list of things to try helped me feel a lot more in control, and THAT always helped quite a bit. The real secret about this book is that it’s definitely not just for communicating with kids. I use this stuff all the time on adults and kids both. And to be clear, I love it when people use the techniques on me! In particular, when I’m upset an easy and fun one to use is #3 from helping children deal with their feelings, give the child his wishes in fantasy (e.g. “I wish I could make that banana ripe for you right now!”). It cracks me up that this works as well as it does.
Here’s the deck:
Nonviolent Communication has a lot of ridiculously useful communication advice. Of course, the hardest time to remember communication advice is in the middle of a conflict. Eventually, after getting frustrated with myself for not being able to remember how to do what the book said in the moment, I got an idea! If the problem was about forgetting, perhaps SRS was the solution…
So I extracted all the material that seemed important and made an Anki deck. Reviewing the deck made me realize that successfully practicing Nonviolent Communication relied on understanding more of the subtleties than I had realized, so I ended up including a fair amount of detail. I also put all the exercises from the book in there, and the NVC half of all the sample conversations. I found that doing so made it easier for me to automatically mentally classify and translate statements. Evidence that memorizing these things was actually have an effect is that for a while I was having crazy NVC Tetris effect dreams.
My best NVC story is that I was on Caltrain once and there were some drunk guys fighting loudly about some sports thing, and I noticed that my visceral reaction to the situation had changed: in the past my impulse was to move away from angry drunk potentially violent people, but instead I felt drawn to them, and I intuited that the safest thing would be to go empathize with them and defuse the situation. My brain pattern matched the situation to the sample conversations in the book. Sure enough, it worked! I cornered one guy, calmed him down, and then when I was done with that the other guy came over to talk to me because he wanted to be heard too. I like to brag about this one, so feel free to ask for details if you see me in person and haven’t already heard my story :-).
Please email me with any questions that come up when you use it, and I’ll post my answers here.