Category Archives: Elements

Creation Story: Liabilities… or: An Existentialist Allegorical Cosmogony

(Many thanks to those who provided feedback on earlier versions of this story.)

This is the tale that the people of my planet tell our children about how the universe came to be.

In the beginning, there was a great mass of undifferentiated experience, the formless substance of consciousness. The only thing that existed was the sensation of nothingness. 

Then, the mass of experience split into two halves, the material and the motivational: that which is the world, and that which brings purpose to the world. These two halves split yet again, each one forming a known part and an unknown part. 

These four pieces of the universe’s consciousness became four primordial siblings. 

The first sibling was Lakh, of the material known. He decided to create an environment to replace the nothingness that surrounded the siblings. He began by establishing a vast space. This space he filled with matter, and forces which set that matter into motion and shaped its paths. From these ingredients Lakh fashioned planets, spheres of matter held together with force. He created stars that collected matter and ejected it with enormous amounts of energy, to bring splendid illumination to the planets. Finally, he locked planets into orbit around the stars, and set everything to revolve around the center of the galaxy like clockwork. 

To keep everything contained to its original shape and moving on track as a perfect machine, Lakh had formed all of the matter and forces in the new universe into barriers. Every barrier of matter or force would stop anything from crossing it unless the cost of passage was paid. However, these barriers combined formed a larger barrier: a lifespan for the universe. 

The blazing hot stars would one by one run out of energy. They would fail to pay the cost of burning and would burn themselves out. As planets moved, they passed through clouds of gas and dust that extracted tiny fees, and eventually they would lose momentum and spiral into their local stars. Over billions of years, the clockwork would wind down and ultimately collapse. 

Satisfied with his work nonetheless, Lakh adopted the title of Tolltaker, the bringer of stability. 

The second sibling was Niyu, of the material unknown. She looked at the intricate and predictable world that Lakh had created and saw that it was stark, harsh, and perpetually declining. She decided to add novelty. Taking the barriers and mechanisms Lakh had set up, Niyu concealed them in layers upon layers of mystery, so that even Lakh himself forgot where some of them were. She drilled secret passages in the barriers and fashioned keys so she could pass through them without paying the cost. Many of these keys Niyu made from chemical substances, tiny particles of matter bound together in structures that both changed and were changed by the matter and energy that they touched. With these chemicals, Niyu could dissolve a rock using a fraction of the force it would take to smash it. 

Eventually growing bored with subtlety, Niyu took some of the clockwork pieces of the galaxy and pushed them onto collision courses with each other, causing chain reactions that warped or shattered entire regions of the mechanical universe and made its future unpredictable. Stars would sometimes explode rather than burning out, and the matter that they ejected as gas could gradually come back together and someday reignite, restarting the cycle. Many of the events Niyu set in motion would damage the universe, but some would allow parts of it to become even more magnificent than they could have been otherwise. 

Proud of her work, Niyu adopted the title of Trickster, the bringer of discovery. 

The third sibling was Sehrt, of the motivational known. She looked at the universe and judged that it was lifeless and without purpose. On planets of barren rock and caustic seas, Sehrt approached the chemicals on the ocean shores and taught them how to become living things, and create more of themselves. She built these chemicals into cells, and these cells she taught to build species. She shaped them into flourishing plants and great trees, diligent and resourceful fungi, insects that crawled and flew, and slithering creatures of the deep ocean. She filled the day and night with beasts large and small that walked on the land, flew over it, or tunneled under it. All these species in turn she taught to feed and to multiply across their entire worlds. 

Upon each species she bestowed a path to follow, a mission for the species to fulfill as its role in spreading life to every corner of its planet. The plants collected energy from sunlight and nutrients from the ground and the atmosphere. Herbivorous animals ate the plants and carried their seeds across the world. Carnivorous animals ate other animals to cull their populations, using their sharp teeth and claws to tear apart the prey which obediently came and bared their throats when they heard a predator call. The fungi and scavenging animals recycled the bodies of living things that died, whether that death came from the teeth of an animal, or one of Niyu’s accidents, or one of Lakh’s barriers that they couldn’t cross. Every living thing knew its place and purpose in the ecosystem, and by their efforts those ecosystems expanded to cover their native planets in abundant life. 

Pleased with her work, Sehrt adopted the title of Warden, the bringer of identity. 

The fourth sibling was Vaayur, of the motivational unknown. He looked at the living things obeying the paths marked for them by Sehrt, and judged that they were not worthy entertainment and certainly not worthy company. He split the paths that living things followed, setting crossroads before them so they were forced to deny one mission in order to fulfill another. Some of the paths he twisted around to intersect each other, so that the living things that followed different paths ended up at odds. Prey animals began to flee or fight for their lives in the face of predators, and predators were forced to give chase and subdue their prey or else starve. 

As species struggled ruthlessly against one another for survival, they developed weaponized bodies and behaviors with which to attack and to defend themselves. Even individuals within the same species began to defect from what was once their shared mission, and to viciously battle their kin. Each planet became an arena of violent and ceaseless competition. 

Eagerly anticipating the results of his work, Vaayur adopted the title of Rival, the bringer of choice. 

The eons ticked by, marked by the orbits of Lakh’s stars and planets, generations of Sehrt’s creatures, and the occasional catastrophe courtesy of Niyu. Vaayur was overjoyed when eventually a species arose whose members could see the full breadth of paths facing them. He gave them more and more paths at every turn, until their missions, originally supreme and steadfast, splintered into a dizzying myriad of eccentric desires and fleeting whims. 

With these desires Vaayur set the members of his chosen species against each other, in an endless contest of force and wit, combat and deception, in the hopes that they would learn and grow strong and one day take the place of the primordial siblings, endlessly remaking the world in the image of their own preferences. 

That species became us. As long as our civilization has existed, we have made do with the world and the tools that the primordial siblings have given us. We have accepted their gifts of stability, discovery, identity, and choice—the gifts that make us what we are. And we have endured the liabilities that come with these gifts: scarcity, disaster, stagnation, and conflict, from which spring endless suffering and pointless struggle and death beyond reckoning.

Over the centuries, we have worked to remedy the toxic liabilities in the primordial siblings’ gifts. By learning and practicing the four constructive virtues of investment, preparation, transcendence, and ethics—each one in itself an endless font of stories—we become part of the eternal scaffold of a civilization with ever-increasing prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony. Each day, our people inherit a world more hospitable for us and for the people we want to become.

And that is the story we tell of the creation of the universe. Oftentimes, you may find it more useful than the truth. 

Observation Mindset: Part 1

When you use mindsets, your mind applies filters to the information your senses provide you. These filters create “maps” of particular aspects of the “territory”—in other words, mental models of reality. Your mind then uses these maps to make predictions about how best to navigate and influence the territory to achieve the outcomes you want. The basic mindsets are processes that create different kinds of filters which in turn create different types of specialized maps.

There’s another very important mindset, though, that I didn’t realize existed until years after I cataloged the basic mindsets. There’s so much I’d like to say about it that I ended up splitting this article into two parts; Part 2 should hopefully follow not too long after this one.

Observation mindset, the zeroth mindset, has a unique approach to filters and maps. It uses guessing and checking to remove as many filters as possible, from both the distinct and subliminal modes. It puts aside most types of map, and looks at the territory as directly as possible. 

The process of using observation mindset clears away the maps created by other mindsets, suspending their judgments and assumptions, and allows your mind to become aware of everything about the immediate situation. It brings you back to the present. In this way, observation absorbs moments

When you use observation mindset, the process of guessing roves over the most basic map fragments and holds them up to the territory, and the checking process judges not only their accuracy, but also how simple they are. It screens out the possibilities and implications that other mindsets attach to the situation, creating a map that does nothing more than turn raw neural impulses into coherent sensations. 

Through the repeated guessing and checking process, things like clothing regress into shapes of cloth, which regress into visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory data. The maps that observation mindset creates from these absorbed moments describe everything about the moment and nothing beyond it. In Part 2 we’ll talk about how this process can be used on its own and combined with other mindsets. 

The guessing and checking processes in observation mindset function in both the subliminal and distinct modes, and enable the two modes to better interface with each other. 

What’s it like to use observation?

Here’s what it looks like when you apply observation: 

First, you experience sensory input, such as using a leaf blower. 

Next, some mindset that you’re running applies guesses and checks and comes up with a map to describe that stimulus in a particular way. For example…

  • Operation would tell you how to use it effectively. 
  • Organization might tell you the things you need a leaf blower for, or who you could sell it to. Analysis would tell you how it works. 
  • Synthesis might tell you that it reminds you of a cyborg arm-cannon, or lead you to daydream about blowing away rush hour traffic. 
  • Semantics could tell you what model it is and who it was made by. 
  • Empathy could tell you how people would feel about it (or whether it needs some coaxing to get started). 
  • Strategy could tell you how to avoid breaking it. 
  • Tactics could tell you of other practical yet unorthodox uses like drying clothes.
How can someone possibly have fun with a leafblower? Our giant cameras will show us the answer.

Then observation mindset peels back all of those thoughts surrounding the leaf blower, putting away the maps created by other mindsets. It uses guessing and checking to find the most rudimentary maps that match the territory and pushes aside the rest, so you can experience the leaf blower as directly and without bias as possible. Not as a tool, or a resource, or a system, or a world of possibility. Not even as a leaf blower—that’s a semantic label. 

With observation mindset you can get as close as possible to the territory that is the leaf blower. You can see its color, and the areas on its surface that are shiny or dull. You can feel the texture and thermal conductivity of the materials that you’ve forgotten are called plastic and metal. The shape of the handle and the nozzle, the tension of the rope start, the weight and how it carries, the sound it makes, the blast of hot air, the smell of the fossil fuels partially burned… Everything that you might normally filter out or overlook becomes available for you to notice. 

As another example, you might skim over a written sentence and read it one way, but then you notice that it doesn’t match your expectations and do a double-take. (“We took the elephant up one floor.”) When you read it over more carefully, without the filters that were letting you skim it quickly, you realize that you had read one of the words wrong. (“We took the elevator up one floor.”) Your skim-reading map gave you incorrect information about the word, so you had to remove the map and start from scratch. 

Wait, this sentence really does say, “We took the elephant up one floor.” What does that mean… oh.

Connecting the subliminal with the distinct

You may be wondering how observation mindset lets you deal with the subliminal mode in any way, as I mentioned earlier. After all, the whole point of the subliminal is that you can’t directly observe it or affect what it does. (If you’re not wondering this, feel free to skip to the next section.) 

The key word in that sentence is “directly.” Exploring and influencing subliminal processes is always indirect, and observation mindset is no exception. 

To figure out what the subliminal mode is doing, you can observe each thought and conclusion that you come to and figure out which ones have a train of thought that can be traced back to a particular source of input. After you have used observation to identify everything in your current mental state that originated from a distinct process, everything that remains must have come from a subliminal process. 

Even when our subliminal mode creates subtle feelings, impressions, and distortions of our thought patterns instead of specific conclusions, observation mindset can notice this output by remembering and comparing our reasoning processes in different contexts or under different emotions. 

That’s not quite good enough for our purposes, though. We also want to know what prompted these subliminal processes to give us certain conclusions. To do that, you can observe all of the input from the world around you, and from your memories and other thoughts, and deliberately focus on one of them to see what associations it prompts. By deliberately focusing on the feedback that you feel from sensations and thoughts, it is possible for you to piece together what your subliminal mind is responding to, at which point analysis mindset can help you figure out likely reasons for its responses.

You can tell what the water is doing by the way the tree’s reflection changes.

As far as influencing subliminal processes using observation mindset goes, it’s the same as getting the subliminal to do anything: have the distinct mode practice a technique consistently and with reliable feedback, and the subliminal will pick up the pattern. 

You don’t always have to actually perform an action in order to train it into your subliminal processes, though. Your distinct mode can also feed your subliminal mode thoughts about what the input is and thoughts about what the output should be, to associate those together in the subliminal mode. Think of it as training the subliminal mode with simulation data. Observation mindset makes this training easier by giving you a better sense of what the subliminal mode is already doing and enabling you to clear your mind of noise and deliberately focus your thoughts on a particular stimulus and response in order to develop a subliminal association between them.

You can also counteract distortions in your thought patterns by remembering what you have observed of your thought patterns under different circumstances, and either accounting for the distortions (e.g. acknowledging you feel something is more or less likely than it actually is) or imagining a different context and getting the subliminal mode to accept it as input so it will produce different feelings as output. 

The learning and application attitudes

Observation mindset is not a binary, on/off state. Like all other mindsets, it has a shape. The trick is to direct observation towards the most useful aspects of your life. It’s somewhat like breathing. Everyone breathes, but when you breathe skillfully and you recognize when to set aside a moment to focus on breathing, it helps you better face the world. 

Although observation seems mutually exclusive with other mindsets because it counteracts their filters, it is actually an invaluable supplement to all other mindsets individually and collectively. 
You may have noticed that you have a learning attitude and an application attitude, and what you do with new information depends on what attitude you’re using.

In the learning attitude, you’re still figuring things out, still building and calibrating your map. When you encounter a part of the territory that doesn’t match your map, you’re more likely to assume that your map is wrong or incomplete and needs to be updated, rather than assuming that something unusual is happening in the territory. You hesitate to make predictions, and the predictions you do make are uncertain, because you work with the premise that there is much you don’t know.

In the application attitude, you’ve got plenty of experience and your map is well and solidly formed. You make many predictions, with more certainty, and commit to decisions based on them. When you encounter a mismatch between the map and the territory, you’re more likely to count on the map being correct and frame the mismatch from that perspective: it may be an insignificant anomaly, or a defect in the territory compared to how it ought to be. 

When you enter an unfamiliar context, your mindsets will usually start out in a learning attitude, absorbing as much information as possible with as few assumptions as possible, but over time the map you build of that context becomes better calibrated and more trusted. You can use it with greater ease and confidence. Your attitude gradually transitions from learning to application. 

Occasionally a large mismatch between the map and the territory, one that stymies the predictive process, may force your mindsets to go back to the learning attitude and correct the map. By default, though, mindsets with extensive maps will attempt to use them anywhere that seems familiar. However, some familiar-looking situations may be different enough that application fails. 

When the territory changes in a way that is not obvious, that’s when application becomes a dangerous attitude. Even a subtle change can throw off your predictions significantly, but a mindset in the attitude of application may not recognize it. That’s where observation mindset comes in. 

Imagine if maps were never updated after this one was made.

Observation mindset deliberately engages other mindsets in the learning attitude, forcing them to review their maps before they make any further predictions. You can intentionally relearn and recalibrate to varying degrees depending on what you think the situation calls for. 

Sometimes you only need to reevaluate a few mistaken assumptions, and sometimes you may just want to leave observation mindset running to keep an eye on changing aspects of a mostly-stable situation. If you find yourself losing your way, though, you may want to user observation mindset to a greater degree by taking some time to shed your accumulated maps and conclusions and start from scratch. 

This concludes the theoretical overview of observation mindset. In Part 2 we’ll look at how to use it and its advantages and disadvantages. 

The Foundational Toolbox for Life: Abridged Dictionary

Image by PDPics from Pixabay


I apologize for the long delay since my last article. Rest assured I have not been idle in applying and further refining the concepts I’ve been writing about, which I’ve started calling the Foundational Toolbox for Life. The purpose of the Toolbox is to give people a place to start when it comes to solving any problem; to help them frame situations constructively. Any system people build, people can break, and we’ll inevitably break any system we try to build unless we develop habits of maintaining and updating it. We’ll need to work together to do that, and we’ll need to have a shared idea of what we’re doing and how. That’s far from the only purpose these tools can be put to, but it’s probably the most important one. 

These past months, I have been busy with projects to help the world take over itself using the Toolbox, but there are still three more foundational articles planned: observation mindset, the composite mindsets, and the motivations. Those articles might not be done for a while, though, so this piece will give you a brief preview of them. 

This document is an abridged dictionary and guide to the concepts I use in the Toolbox. It’s ordered by category rather than alphabetized, and has sections for order and chaos (some extra basic concepts that help define the rest), motivations (what people want), liabilities (the problems that stand in the way of what we want), mindsets (the tools we use to overcome those problems), and attributes of those mindsets that we can grow stronger in. Future articles will make more extensive use of these concepts to frame problems and solutions on societal issues. 

Some of these keywords and vocabulary words are subject to change, and some will probably need to be expanded. It can be tricky to locate a word within the English language that has enough of all the connotations that match the different aspects of a concept, and not too many connotations that don’t. If I find a word that works much better than a word I’ve currently got, I may upgrade. The definitions are subject to revision as well as I develop a better understanding of the concepts themselves. 

Without further ado, welcome to the whirlwind tour of the tools in the Foundational Toolbox for Life.


Order and Chaos

These are some basic existential concepts on which the tools in the toolbox are based. They help define what we want, what obstacles we face in getting it, the skills we use to overcome those obstacles, and the comparable attributes of all of those concepts. 

Situation: A collection of factors (or details, or variables, if you prefer) that affect each other, such that if you want to change one of them deliberately you must do some combination of the following: 

  1. know the states of some of the other factors
  2. change some of the other factors as a prerequisite 
  3. be aware that some of the other factors will change as a result

In real life, situations are not always completely separate from each other, but they are often separate enough that you don’t need to know about every possible context in order to deal with one of them. 

Context: A collection of situations that distantly influence each other, or a type of recurring situation that works much the same way each time. 

The map and the territory: The territory is reality: situations and contexts. Reality has many different situations and contexts that require different skills to deal with, and each situation could be considered a different territory. 

The map is the mental model you have of a territory. Your map makes predictions about the territory and about how you can change it the way you want. The map does not need to know how the territory works; it only has to make predictions based on what it observes. A map can predict the correct way to throw a ball to hit a target. 

Order: Describes how good a representation of the territory your map is; how comprehensively it depicts the territory and how accurate its predictions are. Order can also describe how easily a territory can be represented by a map. A territory with neat and consistent patterns is easy to predict with a simple map. Order is about certainties and limits, what must be and what cannot be. In short, order is what is “known”. 

Chaos: Describes omissions and errors in your map of a territory. It can also describe how difficult it is to represent a territory with a map. A messy and asymmetrical territory requires a more complicated map to represent it, and more work to make that map. Chaos is about possibilities and exceptions, what may or may not be. In short, chaos is what is “unknown”. 


Motivations: the general tendencies that each of us has in what goals we pursue and why. When we accomplish a goal, motivations describe what sort of goals we’re likely to pursue next. They describe what brings us joy and satisfaction. When we don’t act on our motivations, it’s usually because we’re either helping other people fulfill theirs, or we’re working towards the long-term objective of becoming better able to fulfill motivations. 

Motivations describe the core reasons why anyone does anything. They describe our value judgments of one world as more pleasant and desirable than another. They represent ways in which we wish the world would change, or stay the same. The can be combined with each other, and frequently are. If we’re not doing something for the sake of our own motivations, we’re either doing something for the sake of the motivations of other people, or for the virtues that counteract liabilities and make it easier for people to fulfill their motivations. (More about liabilities and virtues in the next category).

Most people are responsive to at least two or three of these motivations at some point or other. It’s usually less healthy to be responsive to fewer motivations, because then there are fewer options for finding joy and satisfaction. Your profile of motivational responsiveness is probably at least a little based on nature, but can certainly change over time for a number of reasons. Even with a diversified portfolio of motivations, there are still dangers, but we’ll cover those in the next section. 

Like the other tools, motivations are defined by order and chaos, but also by experience and influence.

Experience: Input from the world into your mind; the effect that the world causes in you. 

Influence: Output from your mind into the world; the effect that you cause in the world. 

Specific Motivations

Celebration: The desire to obtain more of some sort of experience; to fill one’s future scope of experience with more of something. Responding to the motivation of celebration is called “feasting.” 

Example: Celebration might seek to eat a large number of apples, or to eat apples more frequently. 

Acquisition: The desire to obtain more of some sort of influence; to fill one’s future scope of influence with more of something. Responding to the motivation of acquisition is called “taking.” 

Example: Acquisition might seek to own as many apple orchards as possible. 

Idealization: The desire to impose more order on one’s experience, to make it more closely match a specific vision. Responding to the motivation of idealization is called “molding.” 

Example: Idealization might seek out apples that conform ever more perfectly to one’s own standards for appearance, texture, and taste. 

Control: The desire to impose more order on one’s influence, to have absolute power over something without interference. Responding to the motivation of control is called “gripping.” 

Example: Control might seek to grow apples without any outside factors interfering with their development. 

Curiosity: The desire to impose more chaos on one’s experience, to experience novel, previously unknown sensations or information. Responding to the motivation of curiosity is called “roaming.” 

Example: Curiosity might seek new kinds of apples with new appearances and flavors, or new ways to prepare them. 

Boldness: The desire to impose more chaos on one’s influence; to transgress rules or defy assumed limits and cause unpredicted or unpredictable effects. Responding to the motivation of boldness is called “breaking.” 

Example: Boldness might seek to defy people’s expectations, including their own, by finding new uses for apples or breeding new strains. 

Insulation: The desire to avoid some sort of experience; to remove something from one’s future scope of experience. Responding to the motivation of insulation is called “hiding.”  

Example: Insulation might avoid eating some strains of apples because it finds the flavor unpleasant. 

Relaxation: The desire to avoid exerting some sort of influence; to remove something from one’s future scope of influence. Responding to the motivation of relaxation is called “leaving.” 

Example: Relaxation might avoid having to maintain an apple orchard or prepare apple products because it finds learning or exercising the relevant skills to be draining. 


Liabilities describe obstacles in the way of fulfilling motivations. These obstacles are based on fundamental aspects of conscious existence as we know it, and which only become obstacles when they stand in the way of what we want. As such, liabilities can feed each other or interfere with each other. This category of concepts also covers some possible approaches to dealing with those obstacles. 

Material Liabilities

Scarcity: Material order; stability that obstructs; known limitations on what one can physically do. Scarcity can be modeled as a collection of known barriers, each requiring a toll to cross. Your resources, knowledge, effort, and skills will limit which combinations of barriers you can cross, and some barriers may not be crossable at all. 

In short, scarcity is when you run out of stuff. 


  • Insufficient fuel to reach the next checkpoint
  • Insufficient strength to move the obstruction
  • Insufficient funds to purchase something you need
  • Insufficient charge to power your device
  • Insufficient time to make the deadline
  • Insufficient information to calculate the correct answer

Disaster: Material chaos; discovery that disrupts; unknown or unpredictable events that disrupt one’s physical plans. Disaster can be modeled as a collection of barriers with tolls, the same as scarcity, except that you are ignorant of the barriers’ exact locations, the amounts and natures of the tolls they charge, and in some cases the very existence of a barrier at all. You will occasionally crash into these barriers and your plans will suffer setbacks. (Once you have run into a barrier and now know it is there, it can be considered scarcity rather than disaster. However, the event of running into the barrier without warning is still a disaster and usually causes more problems than if you had known to be ready for it.) 

In short, disaster represents what you don’t know will go wrong. Disaster is when you run into stuff. 


  • Natural disasters
  • Diseases and blights
  • Equipment and software breaking down
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Human error and lapses in judgment

Motivational Liabilities

Stagnation: Motivational order; identity that binds; known limitations on what goals one is willing to pursue. Stagnation can be modeled as ruts in the mind, that wear deeper and steeper with each repetition of a thought or decision until they become automatic assumptions, hardly noticed and never questioned. 

In short, stagnation is goals destroying themselves. 


  • Addictions
  • Inability to delay gratification
  • Akrasia (lack of willpower)
  • Complacency
  • Willful ignorance
  • Herd mentality
  • Fanaticism

Conflict: Motivational chaos; choice that divides; unknown or unpredictable clashes between multiple desires in a person or group of people. We cannot know how well the agents of each goal can champion their cause, or what they’re prepared to give up in order to do so, until we see the outcome of their struggle. Conflict can be modeled as wagons or carts rolling in the dark, each carrying a particular goal, and when they collide it’s unknown which ones, if any, will be able to regain their original course. 

In short, conflict is goals destroying each other. 


  • War
  • Crime
  • Ideological polarization
  • Feuds
  • Trolling
  • Deception
  • Arguments


Tradeoffs describe two different ways each liability can manifest. People choose one version of liability over another because they think they’re better able to survive or afford it. 

Underregulated Liabilities

Underregulation is a tradeoff approach to a liability which completely disregards the threat the liability poses, to skip paying the cost of worrying or doing anything about it. 

Wastefulness: underregulated scarcity. Spending resources and effort on things that do not provide lasting benefit, and thereby not having them when it really matters. 

Negligence: underregulated disaster. Failing to anticipate that things may go wrong and set things up to prevent or mitigate problems. 

Decadence: underregulated stagnation. Developing bad habits and becoming addicted to the pursuit of motivations at the expense of others, the big picture, or long-term benefits. 

Turmoil: underregulated conflict. Violence, coercion, and rule by superior force which impede and discourage constructive activities. 

Overregulated Liabilities

Overregulation is a tradeoff approach to a liability which pays a high cost with the intent of averting the liability as much as possible, but which risks incurring the liability in a different form. 

Austerity: overregulated scarcity. Hoarding resources and spending them only when absolutely necessary in the short term, thereby sacrificing other potential benefits and opportunities they could afford. 

Susceptibility: overregulated disaster. Avoiding all risks and the unknown, resulting in being completely unequipped to deal with disaster when it does happen, as well as being unable to gain new knowledge. 

Dogma: overregulated stagnation. The unwillingness to question certain ideas or consider certain possibilities, which sets unnecessary limitations on people’s ability to achieve their goals and which may make it impossible to to deal effectively with change. 

Corruption: overregulated conflict. Deception, manipulation, and fraud which use rules as weapons against people to cheat them out of what they try to accomplish, and eventually cause trust to break down. 

Political Compass

These terms describe the tradeoffs that people tend to make in a particular context, usually the context of politics or government policy. 

Progressive: rejecting the status quo; fears austerity and susceptibility more than wastefulness and negligence and so tends to err on the side of underregulating scarcity and disaster. 

Conservative: accepting the status quo; fears wastefulness and negligence more than austerity and susceptibility and so tends to err on the side of overregulating scarcity and disaster. 

Libertarian: favoring more individual freedom; fears dogma and corruption more than decadence and turmoil and so tends to err on the side of underregulating stagnation and conflict. 

Authoritarian: favors more collective structure; fears decadence and turmoil more than dogma and corruption and so tends to err on the side of overregulating stagnation and conflict. 

These ideological terms are subjective in the sense that two people can advocate the same policy for different reasons, or they can advocate different policies due to favoring the same type of tradeoff, but with respect to two different reference frames. 

For example, two different people might favor the status quo, but they might disagree about what counts as the status quo. They might reject the status quo but disagree about what direction to move in. They might favor spending more of one resource to conserve another, but disagree about which resource is more important to conserve. They might favor instituting a hierarchy of authority but disagree about who that authority should be and what rules they should create. 


Virtues are constructive ways of dealing with liabilities that use a higher level of problem-solving, beyond the short-term, zero-sum thinking of the tradeoffs. They are approaches to building and maintaining strong skills, systems, and communities that can deal with liabilities in the long term more effectively than any attempt to balance tradeoffs against each other. Although they take more thought and effort compared to tradeoffs, they yield a much greater reward in exchange. 

Investment: deals with scarcity. Spends effort and resources in ways that yield an increase in valuable resources in the future, sustaining prosperity in the long-term. Another keyword for investment is cultivation.

Preparation: deals with disaster. Investigates new situations with caution to learn about what is possible; identifies parts of a system and creates and maintains systems to prevent, mitigate, and repair damage to those parts. Another keyword for preparation is equipping.

Transcension: deals with stagnation. Develops mental discipline to prevent addiction, and considers the nuances of ideas without having to accept them. Another keyword for transcension is challenge. (This virtue was formerly called “transcendence” but the name was changed to avoid the connotation of being beyond definition or conceptual understanding.)

Ethics: deals with conflict. Makes some sacrifices to adhere to sustainable principles and contribute to the wellbeing and success of others, considering their satisfaction important for one’s own. Another keyword for ethics is reconciliation.


If motivations describe the sorts of goals we pursue and liabilities describe the problems that stand in the way of those goals, then mindsets are the tools we use to achieve those goals by overcoming liabilities. Before we get into how mindsets work, we’ll need to establish some more basic concepts. 

Feedback loop: a process that does the following as a repetitive cycle: 

  1. receives experience from its environment
  2. exerts influence on the environment in response to that stimulus
  3. receives a feedback experience based on the influence it exerts
  4. updates itself and its influence in response to that experience
  5. Repeat this process indefinitely, until some condition is met or the situation changes so that the loop cannot continue

Every mindset, without exception, is a feedback loop that uses the processes of guessing and checking (below).  

Paradigm: A paradigm describes the type of map you use, defined by the aspects of the territory it includes. If you use a paradigm that doesn’t include important aspects of the territory, then your map won’t work no matter how much detail you add and how much you practice using it. For example, a topographic map won’t tell you when you’re about to cross from one country to another, and a political map will be of limited help in locating mountains and valleys. 

Calibration: The process of increasing the accuracy of your map through practice with applying a skill, and through learning from the feedback the territory gives you based on what you try. Maps may be calibrated for different territories, even if they are the same type of map. For example, two topographic maps might show completely different regions. More practically, a person may speak multiple languages, but that doesn’t mean they automatically know all of them. They still need to spend time learning and practicing each one. For the same reason, a person might have strong attributes in a mindset but will not automatically have every skill that uses that mindset. 

Guessing: the process of free association; exploring possibilities and chaos. Iterating through potential hypotheses. 

Checking: the process of accepting or rejecting guesses; exploring consistency and order. Matching hypotheses to the territory and redistributing their probability mass (and that of the hypotheses around them). 

Subliminal mode: Describes processes that leave no record of how they produced the results that they did. 

Distinct mode: describes processes that are monitored and recorded in the mind, and which can be directly accessed and altered. 

Mindset: a feedback loop that combines guessing and checking processes in order to make a more accurate map of some aspect of the territory. This map allows you to make predictions about that aspect and find ways to influence it to do and to become what you want it to. 

Each mindset maps a different aspect of the territory, which is determined by which modes the guessing and checking processes run in and how they are combined. Mindsets can be combined and dovetailed to make other mindsets. 

Mindsets are not hard categories, but a vocabulary to describe how people think, and how they can learn to think, and what kind of thinking different problems require. Just as primary colors can be combined to make more colors, and those colors can be used in different configurations to make pictures, there are basic building-block mindsets that can be combined to form more mindsets, which can be used to describe every possible skill. 

Basic Mindsets

These nine mindsets are the most important ones to learn and remember, because all other mindsets are derived from them. 

Primary Mindsets

These are the four core mindsets from which all other mindsets are derived, with the exception of the zeroth mindset. 

Operation: shapes effort, deals with trajectory; subliminal guessing paired with subliminal checking. Also known as intuition, operation mindset develops very detailed maps regarding territories that involve real-time interactions with rapid feedback. These maps are completely subliminal, unable to be directly accessed or edited. Updating and maintaining them requires practice. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Operation mindset learns how to use it gracefully and even juggle with it. 

Synthesis: generates ideas, deals with possibility; distinct guessing paired with subliminal checking. Also known as imagination, synthesis mindset explores possibilities and hypotheticals by freely associating thoughts and memories, and blending the characteristics of different ideas. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Synthesis mindset considers all kinds of things it can do, regardless of whether they are practical or efficient (such as building a floating city). 

Analysis: evaluates ideas, deals with consistency; subliminal guessing paired with distinct checking. Analysis mindset explores the logical implications of different ideas and hypotheses, identifying flaws and some simple updates to a hypothesis that might make it more closely match reality. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Analysis mindset figures out how it works. 

Organization: allocates efforts, deals with priority. Distinct guessing paired with distinct checking. Organization mindset reviews the goals and constraints present in a situation and compares the rewards of different possible goals, and the different paths to reach them, in order to attain as much satisfaction as possible compared to the resource costs paid to achieve them. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Given several possible uses you could put it to, organization mindset figures out which one will save the most time, effort, or money (such as running an inexpensive airline or shipping service). 

Secondary Mindsets

These mindsets combine two non-opposing primary mindsets, but they’re distinct enough in character that they are included with the basic mindsets. It is possible to use two non-opposing primary mindsets together without using the associated secondary mindset, such as using synthesis and operation to visualize and draw a picture without using empathy mindset

Tactics: redirects paths; deals with opportunity; combines synthesis and organization. Tactics mindset comes up with clever plans to open up options by applying the resources at hand in unexpected ways. It considers various possible uses of the combined contents of your inventory in the current environment and how relevant they are to the situation you’re dealing with. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Tactics mindset considers how you can use it to solve a problem you’re facing (such as using it to create a distraction by lifting and dropping a large object some distance away). 

Strategy: fortifies paths; deals with contingency; combines analysis and organization. Strategy mindset foresees unwanted outcomes and arranges resources to close them down in advance. It reviews the assumptions on which a plan is based and decides on reasonable measures that will keep the plan on track if those assumptions turn out to be wrong. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Strategy considers the potential hazards of using it and suggests measures to keep things safe (such as not leaving the device running unattended, or not levitating objects above places you wouldn’t want them to fall). 

Semantics: simplifies interactions; deals with generality; combines analysis and operation. Semantics mindset applies labels to situations to identify the most significant details, and applies rules to those labels to easily infer information or make decisions, as long as the assumptions underlying the labels and rules remain valid. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Semantics mindset can record its properties and the steps to use it, and describe them to someone else.

Empathy: individualizes interactions; deals with sensitivity; combines synthesis and operation. Empathy mindset handles situations with hidden factors that change in response to what you do, such as people, animals, plans, temperamental machinery, or even food ingredients. Different entities may respond differently to the same stimulus, so empathy helps you adjust your behavior or the environment to evoke different impressions and more smoothly influence how an entity responds. 

Example: You find an alien device capable of levitating objects. Empathy mindset considers how it might make different people feel and what you can say or do to influence how they feel about it. 

Zeroth Mindset

Observation: absorbs moments; deals with actuality. Also known as mindfulness, observation mindset peels back the filters that other mindsets place over the territory and the predictions they make about it, and looks at the raw sensations that might otherwise be filtered out. 

Most mindsets approach a new context with a learning attitude, updating their respective maps with new information. However, they will usually transition gradually to an application attitude, assuming the underlying principles of the map are correct and filtering out all but the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to filtering out contradictory evidence, so there are times where it’s possible to use too much observation or not enough. 

Here are a few keywords that pertain to observation mindset, in order of least to most observation. 

Depleted mindsets fail to use observation when they need to, and so they fail to notice when they should learn and update their maps. 

For example, depleted strategy mindset might pack for a trip based on outdated assumptions about what you can and can’t do when you get there. 

Distilled mindsets are confident in their application attitude when they need to be, in situations that already well match their maps. 

For example, a seasoned traveler might use distilled strategy mindset to pack useful items for a trip to a place they’ve never been before, based on knowledge of key features of their destination that are similar to those of places they’ve been before. 

Attuned mindsets use observation in situations that are mostly familiar but with some unfamiliar aspects, to follow the map confidently while monitoring key details that indicate whether the map is still valid. 

For example, attuned strategy mindset might pack the basics for your trip based on acquired expertise, while continuing to learn new things about the destination that might inform what else you bring along. 

Enriched mindsets use the observation they need to notice when the situation becomes quite unfamiliar, to identify which parts of their maps need to be updated, and to get clues about what those updates might need to be and whether or not they’re working. 

For example, enriched strategy mindset might decide to gather more information on the weather, the news, and the schedules of various tourist attractions before considering what activities might be feasible on a vacation. 

Saturated mindsets use more observation than they need to and are stuck in the learning mode, unable to confidently apply their maps to move forward without checking each step. 

For example, saturated strategy mindset might try to pack too much for a trip by refusing to make any assumptions about what items may be unnecessary. 

Peripheral Mindsets

Peripheral mindsets are less fundamental and more specialized than the preceding ones. With the possible exception of the tempered mindsets, you can use them by applying either of their two constituent mindsets in service of the other. For example, precision mindset can be used with semantics aiding operation to increase the precision of physical movements, or with operation aiding semantics to increase the precision of language and symbol manipulation. 

Interstitial Mindsets

These mindsets combine a primary mindset and a related secondary mindset. 

Precision: combination of semantics and more operation. 

Rapport: combination of empathy and more operation. 

Inspiration: combination of empathy and more synthesis. 

Radicality: combination of tactics and more synthesis. 

Modification: combination of tactics and more organization. 

Standardization: combination of strategy and more organization. 

Security: combination of strategy and more analysis. 

Diagnosis: combination of semantics and more analysis. 

Tertiary Mindsets

These mindsets combine a primary mindset and an unrelated secondary mindset. 

Flexibility: combination of tactics and operation. 

Assembly: combination of strategy and operation. 

Institution: combination of strategy and synthesis. 

Narrative: combination of semantics and synthesis. 

Notification: combination of semantics and organization. 

Politics: combination of empathy and organization. 

Deconstruction: combination of empathy and analysis. 

Hacking: combination of tactics and analysis. 

Quaternary Mindsets

These mindsets combine two non-opposing secondary mindsets. 

Interpretation: combination of tactics and semantics. 

Clarification: combination of strategy and semantics. 

Reputation: combination of strategy and empathy. 

Surprise: combination of tactics and empathy. 

Tempered Mindsets

These mindsets combine two opposing primary or secondary mindsets unevenly. 

Thoroughness: operation bolstered by organization. 

Orchestration: organization bolstered by operation. 

Design: synthesis bolstered by analysis. 

Science: analysis bolstered by synthesis. 

Overhaul: tactics bolstered by strategy. 

Salvage: strategy bolstered by tactics. 

Translation: semantics bolstered by empathy. 

Background: empathy bolstered by semantics. 

Advanced Mindsets

These mindsets are formed by balancing opposing mindsets and being able to use them together effectively. 

Axial Mindsets

These mindsets combine two opposing primary or secondary mindsets evenly, but may also encompass the tempered mindsets. 

Action: deals with effort; combination of operation and organization (and thoroughness and orchestration). 

Perception: deals with ideas; combination of synthesis and analysis (and design and science). 

Facilitation: deals with paths; combination of tactics and strategy (and overhaul and salvage). 

Communication: deals with interactions; combination of semantics and empathy (and translation and background). 

Composite Mindsets

Composite mindsets combine two axial mindsets and include all of the related primary, secondary, tempered, interstitial, tertiary, and/or quaternary mindsets associated with that combination of primary and secondary mindsets. 

Using a composite mindset doesn’t mean you use all of its sub-mindsets all the time, just like using your hands doesn’t mean flexing every finger all the time. It just means all the fingers are there to play a role when you need them. The same goes for the composite mindsets. For instance, applying competition mindset in a particular situation may only call for the standardization aspect of competition. 

A composite mindset may also tell you the best way to solve a problem involves a mindset that that composite mindset doesn’t include, and that’s normal. For instance, cunning mindset might decide that the most effective way to accomplish a goal requires research using notification mindset. 

Responsibility: deals with development. Combination of action and perception. (And thoroughness, orchestration, design, science, operation, organization, synthesis, and analysis.) 

Competition: deals with rates. Combination of action and facilitation. (And thoroughness, orchestration, overhaul, salvage, flexibility, assembly, standardization, modification, operation, organization, tactics, and strategy.) 

Connection: deals with relationships. Combination of action and communication. (And thoroughness, orchestration, translation, background, notification, politics, precision, rapport, operation, organization, semantics, and empathy.) 

Cunning: deals with consequences. Combination of perception and facilitation. (And design, science, overhaul, salvage, radicality, institution, hacking, security, synthesis, analysis, tactics, and strategy.) 

Education: deals with paradigms. Combination of perception and communication. (And design, science, translation, background, narrative, deconstruction, inspiration, diagnosis, synthesis, analysis, semantics, and empathy.) 

Presentation: deals with ambiguity. Combination of facilitation and communication. (And overhaul, salvage, translation, background, interpretation, clarification, reputation, surprise, tactics, strategy, semantics, and empathy.) 

Augmented mindsets: possessing an “augmented” mindset refers to being able to use all the mindsets related to a primary or secondary mindset; in other words, being able to boost the effectiveness of a basic mindset with any or all of the other basic mindsets.

For example, a person who can use augmented empathy mindset can use empathy, rapport, inspiration, deconstruction, politics, reputation, surprise, translation, and background, to the extent the situation calls for them. 

Apex Mindset

Capability mindset: describes having all above mindsets at your command. This does not mean having all skills or knowledge; you will still need to learn any skill you want to use, calibrate it through practice to the particular territory you want to use it in, and actually apply it when you want to change something. Possessing capability mindset just means you don’t have any mental blind spots. You can maintain awareness of and deliberately influence any aspect of the territory, and can learn or at least achieve a basic understanding of any type of skill involving any combination of mindsets. 

With capability mindset, you can go about your day with all the basic mindsets active in the back of your mind, and they can alert you when they notice something important. There don’t have to be hard boundaries between the mindsets; you can apply all of them to a situation in any combination or in any order based on their relevance to the situation. 


Attributes describe the different aspects of mindsets, motivations, and liabilities. These aspects can be compared and, for mindsets and motivations, exercised and strengthened. 

Attributes can refer to people generally, or with respect to specific contexts. For example, a person may have high resilience when dealing with deadlines but low resilience when dealing with social situations, or vice versa. Attributes can also be somewhat subjective. For instance, different people experience different levels of stress in the same situation. A person who enjoys crowds doesn’t need as much resilience to mingle at parties as someone who prefers smaller groups. The point of attributes isn’t to quantify, but to figure out what aspects of themselves people may want to improve on and to help them gauge their progress. 

Primary Attributes

Initiative: describes the conditions you require in order to start applying a mindset or pursuing a motivation. How great does the reward have to be? How close does it have to be to you? How certain? How much does it cost you to get started? 

Initiative attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How likely is it that this liability occurs in this particular context? 

Applying initiative attribute is called “driving.” 


Operation mindset: You can casually start juggling whenever you feel like it. 

Celebration: When your local grocery store is out of apples, you decide to drive a half hour out of your way to get them without hesitation, because you want more apples. 

Scarcity: It’s very easy to run out of fuel for your machine because it’s perishable and so you can’t store very much of it at a time. 

Resilience: describes the conditions you require in order to continue applying a mindset or pursuing a motivation. How well can you maintain the quality of your performance under stress or uncertain conditions? How much hardship does it take for you to abandon active pursuit of a particular goal or general motivation? 

Resilience attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How difficult is it to overcome this liability once it does occur? 

Applying resilience attribute is called “bracing.” 


Operation mindset: You can keep juggling even when something startles you. 

Celebration: It turns out the main road to the other store is closed, but you drive around until you find a detour, because you decided to get those apples and you’re serious about it. 

Scarcity: It takes a lot of effort to get the special fuel you need for your machine, so keeping your supply replenished is an ongoing battle. 

Versatility: describes how broad the range of possible changes is.

When describing a mindset, versatility attribute refers to how wide a variety of meaningful effects you can start to accomplish. 

When describing a motivation, versatility attribute refers to how wide a variety of goals you could pursue to fulfill a particular motivation. How soon after changing directions would you start feeling like you were making satisfying progress? 

Versatility attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How wide a variety of forms does this liability manifest in, in this context? 

Applying versatility attribute is called “shifting.” 


Operation mindset: You can quickly learn to juggle small numbers of different kinds of objects. 

Celebration: You don’t need to get apples from the other store, because you enjoy other fruit just as much. 

Scarcity: Maintaining your machine is tricky because there are so many different resources it needs, and it seems like you’re always low on something. 

Intensity: describes the magnitude of a change.

When describing a mindset, intensity attribute refers to how far you can continue to push the effects you create. How large of an impact can you make when you try to change a situation? 

When describing a motivation, intensity attribute refers to how much of a change you desire to the status quo. If given the chance, how extreme a goal would you pursue? 

Intensity attribute can also be used to describe liabilities: How much of an impact does this liability have? 

Applying intensity attribute is called “delving.” 


Operation mindset: After much practice, you can juggle a very large number of unusual objects. 

Celebration: You may or may not drive out of your way, and you may or may not substitute other fruit for apples, but when you have the chance, you buy bushels of apples and eat one every hour. 

Scarcity: You only have enough fuel to run your machine for thirty seconds, which severely limits the number of widgets it can produce. 

Secondary Attributes

Enterprise: combination of initiative and mobility. Applying enterprise attribute is called “leaping.” 

Industry: combination of initiative and intensity. Applying industry attribute is called “hewing.” 

Adaptability: combination of resilience and mobility. Applying adaptability attribute is called “sliding.” 

Determination: combination of resilience and intensity. Applying determination attribute is called “scraping.” 

Axial Attributes

Independence: combination of initiative and resilience. With independence you can start and continue what you choose without regard for the environmental conditions. Applying independence attribute is called “striding.” 

Finesse: combination of mobility and intensity. With finesse you can apply as much effort as you need in a particular place. Applying finesse attribute is called “dancing.” 

The Rudiment and the Apex

Competence: the zeroth attribute. Competence means you have a basic grasp of a skill and how to apply it in a particular situation, and can use it on command under ideal conditions. Applying competence attribute is called “using.” (As in, “an operation mindset user.”) 

Mastery: the culmination of all previous attributes. Mastery means you have developed high levels in all attributes and thus can apply a skill however you need to. Applying mastery attribute is called “wielding.” 


Now don’t tell me how brilliant and beautiful this toolbox of concepts is. I don’t need other people to read it and tell me that; that’s not why I wrote it down. Tell me what you’re going to do with it: this knowledge, this power, this responsibility. 

What problems and liabilities will you confront, now that you have a place to start understanding them? 

What roles could you learn to take on for humanity, to contribute more to the universe than you consume? 

How will you build a better life, a stronger community, a kinder world? 

That’s what I want to hear about. That’s how I’ll know it was worth the effort. 

Averting the Apocalypses


In this article, we’ll take a look at the four fundamental liabilities that threaten any project, from the smallest weekend plan up to the existence of civilization itself.

It may seem pointless to use only four concepts to describe all possible ways in which a project can fail. How could such a generic, high-level categorization be useful in solving real-world problems, in all their nuance?

The purpose of these labels is not to provide all the details necessary to solve the problem, but rather to make sure that people aren’t overlooking a huge aspect of the situation they’re dealing with. Even large groups of people or entire societies tend to address liabilities in ways which merely incur yet more liabilities. Moreover, people who are concerned about particular liabilities and have plans for averting them often clash with people who are concerned with other liabilities, and who fear the liabilities that the first group’s plan will create. These groups often default to labeling each other as stupid or evil, which prevents them from realizing that they both have important concerns.

As a constructive alternative, the fundamental liabilities offer a framework for mutual understanding and cooperation to develop solutions more acceptable for all involved. Rather than removing nuance, these concepts are intended to allow people to identify it in situations they had been treating as black-and-white.

For these reasons, not only will we be looking at the liabilities themselves and how to recognize them, but also the virtues that are required in order to deal with them successfully. These virtues will help minimize the cascade of side-effects that would otherwise come from trying to change the world on a large scale to fix one problem or another.

Before we start, it should be noted that any and all mindsets can be used to address any of the liabilities. There is no direct correspondence between any particular mindset or liability, except that some of the mindsets are more obviously useful in more situations related to a particular liability. The same applies to any attribute, which we’ll see after we go through the liabilities themselves. The major difference between the liabilities is that they represent the various aspects of a goal that reality can impede. 

The Four Apocalypses

The Four Apocalypses are derived from two dichotomies: material versus mental, and order versus chaos. 

Yes, order and chaos are everywhere. Welcome to reality.

The dichotomy between material versus mental is fairly straightforward. The material side refers to physical or “natural” obstacles. The physical world can threaten goals with unexpected events that interfere, or by simply not allowing the goal to be possible in the first place. These obstacles may also result from people’s mistakes or malfunctioning technology; because those are unintentional, I file them under “natural”. The mental side refers to teleological (goal-related) obstacles, based on people’s choices (deliberate or habitual). Minds can threaten goals by having mutually exclusive desires leading to contention, or by simply not being able to encompass or attempt the goal in the first place. Any direct threat to a goal based on what objectives people are or aren’t targeting falls under mental or teleological threats.

In order versus chaos you can see once again the classic dichotomy that appears throughout conscious existence. From an existential standpoint, order is synonymous with “knowledge”. (See the first article on this blog for more details on existential order and chaos.) Order can foil goals by taking the form of a limitation or boundary on what can be accomplished in the current situation. These boundaries can be material or mental, based on what is physically possible or on what people can bring themselves to decide. Chaos is synonymous with “unknown”. Chaos can thwart goals by manifesting as an adversarial force of unpredictable timing, or as an unforeseen entity disrupting it. These misfortunes can be material or mental as well.

In general, all situations have aspects of known and unknown to some degree, and liabilities are no exception. To be classified as a liability rather than as merely a regular situation, we have to know that a phenomenon will prevent us from getting what we want. On the other hand, we don’t know if we’ll be able to overcome it. The classification of a liability as orderly or chaotic comes from how much knowledge we have about the liability itself and how to deal with it, before it becomes necessary.

These two dichotomies intersect to produce the Four Apocalypses: 

Order (known): Chaos (unknown):
Material (natural): Famine (scarcity) Pestilence (disaster)
Mental (teleological): Age (stagnation) War (conflict)

Table 1: Derivation of the four fundamental liabilities/Apocalypses

Why the gimmick?

Why add so much drama to something so mundane?

You may notice that these Apocalypses are themed on the classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian lore (the popular culture version with Pestilence instead of Conquest). However, instead of “Death”, we have “Age”. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, Death is already an Element, as we’ll see in an upcoming article. (No, it doesn’t require causing humans to die. It is much more constructive than mere literal death.) For another, all of these liabilities already represent ways in which a project or civilization can die, so calling one of them “Death” is completely redundant.

We’ll see more about why the fourth apocalypse is more appropriately styled “Age” when we get to its section (although “Conquest” could also be a decent name for it).

Why is there a theme in the first place? I originally came up with these concepts in the first place because I thought the Four Horsemen theme was entertaining and had decided to figure out if these seemingly arbitrary anthropomorphic personifications could be used to represent something deeper. As it turns out, being able to know what forms problems can take is very important. Figuring out how to fundamentally categorize threats turned from a vanity project into a humbling experience. Ultimately, I kept the theme because for me it makes confronting life’s obstacles fun rather than a chore. You can choose to use the regular terms if you prefer. 

Why use the word “apocalypse”? As it turns out, the word didn’t originally mean the actual end of the world. It literally means “revelation”, as in “something that is revealed” or “the process of revealing”. The book of Revelations in Christian lore happens to be about the end of the world and is titled as such to represent the revelation of how things turned out; how it all ends. However, such a revelation can mark the end of anything, not just the whole world, so any conclusion, successful or not, is a miniature apocalypse. Also, referring to problems as “apocalypses” frames them as adventures instead of crushingly boring mundanities. If it’s too melodramatic for your taste, you can just refer to them as liabilities. The concepts are more important than the labels.



The Apocalypse of Famine represents the risk of scarcity, a known inadequacy of the physical environment for supporting the goals you are pursuing. This includes both resource scarcity as well as general impossibilities.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Famine is is to picture a barrier of finite height. When you hit that barrier, you stop. Whether it’s running out of food, running out of gas, running out of time, lacking the right skills, or anything else, the barrier represents a known limit on what you can do. If you had more money, energy, information, technology, or some other resource, you might be able to make it over the wall. Otherwise, you’re stuck where you are.

In addition to resources, Famine’s constraints can apply to space (physical prisons), time (a deadline with a ticking clock), information (insufficient data), or state (being unable to turn something into something else). The constraints can represent mutually exclusive options, where you don’t have the ability to do everything you want to. For a more esoteric example, the inability to travel backwards in time is a type of Famine, even though any technology we might need in order to do so is purely hypothetical at this point. Any “known” obstacle is a type of Famine.

Extending the metaphor, you can visualize an entire landscape with mountains, valleys, pits, cliffs, and all manner of topographical obstacles. In order to climb over a mountain or escape a pit, you need a certain amount of energy. Without that energy, you’re stuck where you are, and will need to find a way around or wait until the landscape changes. For depicting time limits, these metaphorical barriers work just as well in time as they do in space. If you know that a barrier will appear at a certain time and you need to be on the other side of it before then, that restricts what you can spend time on beforehand. In addition, if you know when you will run out of energy, you are forced to find more instead of spending time on other things.

The fact that scarcity constitutes known barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of stability. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but stability is the material order that keeps objects solid and prevents them from flying off of the Earth, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that my constituent particles are starved of the energy they need to evaporate.

When a society’s approach to Famine is underregulated, it results in scarcity through wastefulness, as people disregard a looming barrier and use up the resources they would need to cross it. They may spend all their energy on overcoming problems that aren’t actually important, or use it inefficiently when there was a more frugal way to achieve the same result. As a result, when they are confronted with a crucial obstacle, they have nothing left to surmount it. On the other hand, if they take efforts to hoard their energy in anticipation of this upcoming barrier, they may create the overregulated version of Famine. The effort to avoid Famine through miserliness ironically leads to a different version of Famine, reached via austerity, which is a more managed situation but no less impoverished in everyday life. If you are sufficiently paranoid about wastefulness, life will become completely about surviving and be devoid of anything that actually makes it worth living. People will have everything they need and virtually nothing they want. Following from this, one of the most insidious things about Famine in general is that it can make it impossible to take steps towards long-term flourishing while also surviving in the short term, thus feeding itself. Poverty is a good example of this type of Famine.


The true virtue allowing you to manage Famine is investment. By skillfully expending extra resources in the present (if you have any to spare), it’s possible to cultivate a greater yield of resources in the future. A typical investment may be aimed at greater production capacity—the ability to generate resources at a faster rate. For instance, they may spend a bit of extra time to build a tool that allows them to save much more time in the future. Investment is fundamentally different from both wastefulness and austerity, because it introduces the concept that resources wisely spent are not simply gone, but rather in their own way and up to a point can be more useful than regular expenditures of resources. Investment leads to the boon that is the opposite of Famine, prosperity, where you have enough resources to overcome a barrier if you so choose.

Here are some examples of the role Famine plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Famine applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how scarcity might manifest:

  • Shortages of raw resources
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Energy
    • Space
    • Time (including human lifespan)
    • Human effort and attention
    • Data
    • Money
      • Money is a medium of exchange for “real” resources and represents how much of other resources you are able to obtain
  • Predictable causes of resource scarcity
    • Wastefulness
    • Unsustainable agricultural practices
    • Pollution
    • Environmental destruction
    • Nonrenewable resources
    • Poor budgeting
    • Entropy
  • Other limits
    • Medical supplies and services
    • Skill
    • Technology
    • Processed information
    • Physical properties of matter and energy
    • Properties of time and space (e.g. no faster-than-light travel)
  • Stability
    • Molecular bonds keep things solid
    • Gravity keeps things on Earth
    • Energy storage doesn’t spontaneously explode (most of the time)



The Apocalypse of Pestilence represents the risk of disaster, an unexpected divergence of the physical environment from the goals you are pursuing. It is the risk that the known foundations on which one’s efforts are based may be disrupted by factors that are beyond one’s ability to predict or control.

The simplest way to visualize how fundamental Pestilence is is to picture a barrier, like Famine, but one which you do not know exists. Alternatively, you may know it exists, but you do not know where or when you will run into it. When you do encounter the barrier, if you do not have the resources to pass through it, you end up failing at your goal. Depending on how fast you were going, you might pay a cost for crashing into the barrier. The extended landscape of Famine, with all its peaks and pitfalls, is not all known to us. The vast majority of it, both large and remote as well as small and proximate, is terra incognita. Pestilence is the result of the unknown making itself known in painfully unexpected and unexpectedly painful ways.

Accidents, mistakes, errors, misfortunes, et cetera, all fall under the category of Pestilence. Natural disasters, machines breaking down, injury, illness, or inaccuracy are all things which could theoretically be overcome with the right resources or avoided with the right foreknowledge, but by the definition of Pestilence, their occurrence is unpredictable with your current information. (Once you know when a physical problem is going to occur and are able to take it into account when planning, it falls under Famine. Any delay in finalizing plans because you didn’t yet know when a problem would occur is still attributed to Pestilence.)

The fact that disaster constitutes unknown barriers makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of discovery. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but discovery is the material chaos that allows us to find new lands, phenomena, and physical laws, among other things. It also includes the hidden holes in known barriers that allow us to solve otherwise impossible problems. I, for one, am grateful that scientific discovery has allowed us to harness the power of electricity and semiconductors to store and transmit vast amounts of information, for example.

When a society’s approach to Pestilence is underregulated, it results in disaster through negligence, as people disregard potential disasters and place themselves in dangerous situations. When you venture forth recklessly and ignore the unknown, you will eventually hit it hard, no matter how long it takes. However, some people go too far in the other direction, avoiding uncertain situations and shunning risks. They overregulate Pestilence with the idea that they will be safe as long as they stick to familiar territory. This effort can ironically lead to a different version of Pestilence reached via susceptibility, which is a more managed situation but still quite risky. The material landscape may change even in the relatively safe area you inhabit. Even when it doesn’t, you have zero guarantee that the unknown will stay in its own territory and leave you alone. There may be little stopping the creatures that live in terra incognita from coming to visit. If you haven’t explored the world for yourself, that much less equipped to deal with it when it does finally come for you. Furthermore, if you stick to “tried and true” methods you may discover a huge weakness or terrible externality (side-effect) you never realized, as happened with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s United States. If you diversify and explore, you have something to fall back on if your original way is unsustainable or destroyed.


The virtue allowing you to manage Pestilence is exposure. By bravely venturing into the blank spaces on the map and exploring their features, you can make the unknown somewhat less so. Your new experiences will help you equip yourself to avert and overcome obstacles more easily than if you had hidden from them. Exposure is fundamentally different from both negligence and vulnerability, because it introduces the concept that you can seek out and confront the unknown in a deliberate manner, rather than either brashly jumping into it or hiding from it.

Although exposure can represent encountering a problem in a relatively contained form or in a situation that results in minimal harm, it doesn’t require actually facing a disaster. You can also practice exposure by recognizing the many assumptions that our society and systems are based on, and conducting drills, training, or simulation exercises to learn what how to respond if and when those assumptions stop holding up for any reason.

As the saying goes, what does not kill you makes you stronger—if you learn from it. Through introduction to a disaster in a way you can endure, you gain awareness of your weaknesses, which you can turn into a resistance or even outright immunity to that type of disaster in the future.

Exposure leads to the boon that is the opposite of Pestilence, safety, signifying that you are able to prevent or resolve a variety of disruptions to your plans.

Here are some examples of the role Pestilence plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Pestilence applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.) 

Examples of how disaster might manifest:

  • Natural disasters
    • Wildfires
    • Hurricanes
    • Tornadoes
    • Blizzards
    • Volcanoes
    • Earthquakes
    • Tsunamis
    • Meteorites
  • Anthropogenic accidents
    • Fires
    • Nuclear meltdowns
    • Oil and chemical spills
    • Computer bugs
    • Vehicle crashes
    • Hardware failure
    • Invasive species
  • Other
    • Epidemics
    • Genetic disease
    • Infection
    • Agricultural pests
    • Black Swan Events
    • Outside Context Problems
  • Discovery:
    • New continents
    • New planets
    • New species
    • New technology and medicine



The Apocalypse of Age represents the risk of stagnation, a known inadequacy of people’s inclination for supporting a goal, or their ability to even attempt doing so. If a person can make an attempt to achieve an objective, but is unable to succeed, the goal failed due to some other liability, and not stagnation.

(This fundamental liability is called “Age” instead of “Death” because all of these liabilities represent the demise of a goal or of society itself. “Death” is just redundant. Age is a more fitting theme because with age often comes ossified habits, complacent thought patterns, and the loss of the will to learn, on both the individual and cultural level. After you’ve survived long enough, you must know everything you need to know, right?)

Age represents the known inability of a person or group of people to make attempts towards a particular goal. It may be that people lack the will to pursue that particular objective, or it may be that they are enthralled with another target. Perhaps the people in question cannot even define the objective in the first place, because they lack the concepts to hold it in their heads. Whatever the case, stagnation describes restrictions on how people choose to direct their efforts. It represents no threat from the world, or each other, but the threat from ourselves when we stop being able to function outside our comfort zone.

The fact that stagnation constitutes a known limit on people’s choices makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of identity. When it works against your ultimate, deepest desires, it’s a threat, but identity is the mental order that keeps people and cultures consistent over time, and prevents them from spontaneously abandoning goals and developing random new ones, among other things. I, for one, am grateful that I know roughly who I will be when I wake up tomorrow morning.

When a society’s approach to Age is underregulated, it results in stagnation through decadence, as people do whatever they want when they want, without the discipline necessary to attend to long-term necessities. They become addicted to various desires, and their identity is subsumed in their addictions. In effort to prevent such addiction, many cultures throughout history and the present day have decided to force people to disregard their desires and to encourage them to forget how to conceive of ever living differently. The effort to avoid Age has ironically led to a different, overregulated version of Age reached via dogma, which is a more managed situation but no less dehumanizing. In order to avoid potentially addictive choices, people remove a great deal of choice and thought from society, and that denies everyone the ability to make informed decisions about their own lives, let alone about how society should be run. Many people have pieces of their very selves suppressed or cut out, because once you start thinking, you start dismantling the protective dogma that shielded society from decadence. What other option is there, though?


The virtue allowing you to manage Age is transcendence. By rising above the assumptions people make about the world, you can conceive of ideas and options you never realized were possible. By moving beyond the limitations people impose on themselves out of fear of their own vices, you can explore the true relationships between good ideas and bad ones. By letting go of habits, you can resist temptation and live with temperance. (Epicureanism is a good start.) By surpassing rather than suppressing yourself, you can develop the discipline to expand your reach and aim for goals that are outside your immediate grasp. Transcendence is fundamentally different from both decadence and dogma, because it introduces the concept that desires are neither to be wantonly pursued nor submissively abstained from in self-abnegation. Rather, transcendence represents being mindful of how we respond to our desires. Transcendence leads to the boon that is the opposite of Age, vitality, where people’s individual and collective desires and endeavors develop and change over time as they grow as people.

Here are some examples of the role Age plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems Age applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.

Examples of how stagnation might manifest:

  • Decadence
    • Hedonism
    • Degeneration
    • Lack of self-discipline
  • Dogma
    • Propaganda
    • Thought suppression
    • Creative sterility
    • Ossification
  • Despair
    • Hopelessness
    • Humorlessness
    • Ennui
    • Existential angst
  • Desperation
  • Ignorance
  • Complacency
  • Identity
    • Values
    • Commitment
    • Memories
    • Life goals
    • Culture
    • Tradition



The Apocalypse of War represents the risk of conflict, an unexpected divergence of the goals and efforts of people. It is the risk that people’s objectives will oppose yours, or that your own objectives will oppose each other.

The threat War poses to any given goal is that even if people are able to start directing their efforts towards that goal, their efforts may be disrupted by the efforts of others with mutually exclusive goals, or by their own conflicting desires. In the case that the conflict is between different people, we don’t know how far each person is willing to go to get their way, or what skills they can bring to bear to overcome each other’s interference. Who will triumph depends on both of these factors. In the case where the conflict is within a person, we don’t know what the person will ultimately decide, because they’ve never had to choose between the two (or more) conflicting priorities in this particular situation before. They don’t know what they most value or what they’re willing to give up to attain it.

War also represents the fact that we don’t know when or how the environment will change to shift opportunity costs and force people to reevaluate their priorities, or how people and their desires will change over time. There will always come times when we must decide what we are going to work towards and what we must relinquish, and we can’t always know what those will be in advance. 

The fact that conflict entails unpredictable triumphs of some desires over others makes it a vital aspect of conscious existence: that of choice. When it works against your desires, it’s a threat, but choice is the teleological chaos that, for instance, allows us to (from our perspective, at least) change our own and others’ minds, change culture, form constructive rivalries to improve ourselves, and find new dreams to chase, among other things. Choice means we don’t have to follow the thoughts and goals of those around us or of those who came before. If we are averse to our starting point in society, we can change it, even when that means disrupting the plans of other people. They may be forced to figure out a different method or goal because our choices interfere with theirs, and that’s an inherent part of the price of existence, just like the other liabilities. Their desires are not our prisons.

Choice also applies within individuals. It is both the freedom to challenge each others’ desires and the freedom to find and pursue new ones of our own. We may have educated guesses about our decisions, but frequently we don’t know what we will choose until we actually make the choice. The same applies to our skills. You have to actually try something to find out just how far you can go with it. I, for one, am grateful that I don’t always know which of my desires will triumph in a given situation, because it means that for every apparent limit to what I can put my mind to, there’s a chance I can overcome it. 

When a society’s approach to War is underregulated, it results in conflict through turmoil, a state of lawless barbarism in which people take what they want by violence or deception when their desire conflicts with someone else. To prevent turmoil, people create and enforce laws (written or implicitly understood) which punish the use of force and falsehood. However, the enduring desires of people to achieve their own goals often leads them to take control of the processes by which the laws are made and enforced, and turn them against others. They use the laws themselves as weapons of subjugation, rather than tools of agreement to create order for the benefit of society. The more laws and the more situations the laws govern, the more weapons are available to oppress and harm people. No system of laws, no matter how well written, is sufficient to prevent the overregulated version of War, reached via corruption. Corruption is a more managed situation than turmoil but still quite ruthless and unpleasant overall.

From an individual standpoint, inner turmoil occurs when a person is paralyzed with indecision, or wavers between multiple courses of action, each priority interfering with the others so that ultimately nothing gets accomplished and the person is slowly torn apart from within. It’s a tidy microcosm of what happens in a society in turmoil. Likewise, a person can be corrupted if they impose rules on themselves to control their behavior while in a forward-thinking frame of mind, but end up engaging in self-deception and rationalizations in order to excuse self-sabotage or the mistreatment of others, driven by more base desires. 


The virtue allowing you to manage War is ethics. Both turmoil and corruption result in very little being accomplished by anybody. Everyone is too busy trying to get their own way in everything, and they get in each other’s way, like the proverbial crabs in a bucket pulling each other down and stopping each other from escaping. To make the world a more hospitable place for people in general to achieve their collective goals, we impose ethics on ourselves as a set of principles. We restrict ourselves from initiating aggression (not just violence) against each other, deceiving each other (not just employing outright falsehoods), or manipulating a generally established system in ways which advantage us at the expense of others. We know that even if it means we are unable to achieve some of our goals, society will be better off if we can all trust that our goals will be free from certain kinds of disruption by others. The more ethical society is, the more goals are available to us that would not be if we had to constantly take measures to thwart other people before they thwarted us. We must also hold each other accountable for abiding by ethical principles, even if doing so takes effort and may not benefit us personally.

Ethical behavior also applies to how you treat yourself. Generally speaking, it is important to fulfill the commitments that you make to yourself, else your feelings that change from day to day will pull you from one objective to the next without giving you any time to finish anything you start. Furthermore, you must be honest with yourself, so that you have an accurate picture of your options and your priorities. Otherwise, the commitments you make may not be helpful to you. If you don’t know what you want and what you’re willing to do to get it, your deepest desires may be denied in favor of goals which match what you think you should want based on your observations of other people, or your decisions in the past. Until you realize your true motivations and decide you’re not willing to give them up, you may feel torn between what you feel and what you believe is expected of you from others, or what you have come to expect from yourself.

Finally, you will need to cultivate the discipline to prevent short-term desires from gaming your mental reward system and seizing power over your choices to the detriment of your long-term goals. Many of your possible options are more immediately tempting and present themselves more attractively than those that further your overarching goals, but they are ultimately less fulfilling. In order to succeed at your most constructive objectives, you’ll need to prevent your short-term desires from rewriting your decision criteria to shut them out.

Ethics leads to the boon that is the opposite of War, harmony, where people are able to resolve their differences constructively and benevolently. With inner harmony (also called inner peace), a person is able to consider all their desires when making a decision, acknowledge what they will give up, commit to their choice, and forgive themselves for mistakes. In this way they can live without regret.

Here are some examples of the role War plays in the world. (This is just to illustrate what sort of problems War applies to; I didn’t put much thought into sorting these into categories within the liability and the list is not comprehensive.)

Examples of how conflict might manifest:

  • Turmoil
    • War (the literal kind)
    • Violence and slaughter
    • Ideological clash
    • Pettiness (e.g. “noise wars”; people do things they’re entitled to do solely to annoy each other instead of reaching an understanding)
  • Corruption
    • Rent-seeking and crony capitalism
    • Other unethical business practices
    • Conquest and imperialism
    • Oppression of human rights
  • Legal conflict
    • Crimes
    • Civil lawsuits and torts
  • Social conflict
    • Communication breakdown
    • Mistrust
    • Resentment
  • Choice and liberty:
    • Business competition
    • Sports competition
    • Academic competition
    • Political campaigns
    • Cultural rivalry
    • Sovereignty
    • Creative differences
    • Negotiation
    • Life choices


Can we get a replay on the highlights?

Here’s a table to review the key concepts.

Apocalypse: Famine Pestilence Age War
Liability: Scarcity Disaster Stagnation Conflict
Classification: Order, material Chaos, material Order, mental Chaos, mental
Underregulated: Wastefulness Negligence Decadence Turmoil
Overregulated: Austerity Susceptibility Dogma Corruption
Aspect of reality: Stability Discovery Identity Choice
Virtue to counteract: Investment Exposure Transcendence Ethics
Boon earned through virtue: Prosperity Safety Vitality Harmony

Table 2: Compilation of the key concepts related to each liability

The initial concept of the fundamental liabilities was that they were the four possible obstacles to a goal. That’s true, but they’re also much more than that. They’re four aspects of reality and goals combined: scarcity/stability represents what we know about the world; disaster/discovery represents what we don’t know about the world; stagnation/identity represents what we know about what people want; conflict/choice represents what we don’t know about what people want.

It may sound trite when I lay out like that (it certainly does to me), but it’s important because a) these concepts cover everything that societies need to pay attention to, and b) human societies don’t yet know how to have intelligent conversations about such abstract ideas and how they relate to concrete reality. People need a framework to talk about how the big picture works and the different aspects of it that may result in tradeoffs. We can’t address what we don’t pay attention to and don’t realize may grow into a problem. 

The problems that fall under these four categories are old news. However, with the categories we can see what to look for in order to address, fix, and prevent such problems in the future. We can figure out how to address issues on all levels, from personal to global. We can put any problem into context to figure out why it is a threat and what can be done about it. 

Virtues and Boons

There are 495 pieces offscreen. All of these pieces fit together to form a piece in an even bigger puzzle. And so on.

I’m going to pause here and make it clear yet again that I’m not purporting to have all the solutions to all the world’s problems.

You may have noticed that investment, exposure, transcendence, and ethics are grand, sweeping terms that are very difficult to implement in practice. Of course they are. Dealing with the fundamental liabilities of existence isn’t easy. I’m not here today to give you advice on how to deal with any specific problem. 

Virtues are very large and complex in scope. My only purpose in this article is to help people frame situations in ways that don’t leave out any aspects of either the problems or the solutions, whether those aspects are positive or negative. The general theme of this entire blog is to set up a nuanced foundation for people to effectively construct a better world.

I describe a virtue corresponding to each liability, but merely knowing the concept of a virtue is not sufficient to solve a problem (though it may be necessary). The virtues aren’t nearly as simple as I describe them. They’re complex, nuanced, and open-ended. How could they be anything else? I’d be a fraud if I said that there was an easy way forward through any of this. 

There is no way to vanquish a liability once and for all. The liabilities are fractally recursive. Each one contains all four of them. Every attempt to avert a particular liability is a goal in and of itself, which means it is subject to all the liabilities all over again. A quest to avert Famine is subject to Pestilence, and the quest to avert that Pestilence is subject to Famine. The liabilities will always be with us.

As for the boons that represent triumph over the liabilities, they are not absolute. They cannot possibly be, since the liabilities are inherent in conscious existence. Prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony are always relative. The most we can do is improve how we manage the liabilities we have, take advantage of the fundamental aspects of reality that compose them, and aim to cultivate as many boons as much as possible for us and future society to enjoy.


To illustrate the Apocalypses and their contrasts with each other in the same situation, imagine the goal of sending humans to the Moon and return them safely to Earth.

Well, the good news is, it’s a lot closer than we thought. The bad news is, it’s still getting closer. The other good news is that this image goes great with the apocalypse theme!

Here are the four things that can threaten that mission:

  • Famine/scarcity: We don’t have the money or technology to go to the Moon.
  • Pestilence/disaster: We tried to go to the Moon, but our equipment suffered a failure.
  • Age/stagnation: We don’t want to go to the Moon. Why would we ever want to go to the Moon?
  • War/conflict: We tried to go to the Moon, but some rival group either sabotaged the attempt or simply voted legitimately against continuing our funding. Alternatively, we got scared and backed out.


If you can see the cause-and-effect relationships between problems, you are in a better position to stop the chain reaction.

One of the most frustrating things about liabilities is that they chain. One liability can cause or exacerbate other liabilities. Stagnation can lead to disaster, which can lead to scarcity, which can lead to conflict. 

Below is a table of how liabilities can lead to each other. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Effect: Famine A group of humans lacks the tools to plant crops fast enough Blight on the crops We starve because we’re wasteful and short-sighted People refuse to cooperate and pool resources to accomplish something
Effect: Pestilence Things break because we can’t afford to maintain them Meteor randomly strikes Things break because we’re too sloppy to maintain or check them Fighting accidentally destroys important structures
Effect: Age Poverty keeps us desperate Bad things keep happening and people despair People naturally fall into impulsiveness, fundamental-ism, and addiction People possess a traditional hatred for another group
Effect: War People fight over limited resources An accident leads to blame and resentment People fight because they’re dogmatic or selfish War perpetuates because of cultural rivalry and desire for domination, or resentment from a previous conflict

Table 3: Random examples of how liabilities can feed each other.


However, liabilities can also prevent or inhibit each other. A conflict may be prevented or postponed because one or both parties doesn’t have enough resources.

Below are some ways in which these fundamental aspects of reality can interfere with each other in one form or another. Note that just because one liability is prevented doesn’t mean there aren’t other problems. Some of these situations may not be good on balance. This chart is not a guide on how to run the world. This is just to random examples I tossed out; I didn’t put much thought into making these symmetrical.

Cause: Famine Cause: Pestilence Cause: Age Cause: War
Prevents: Famine Refrigerators extend the shelf life of food because chemical reactions happen more slowly at low temperatures We found a new technique for growing crops which has higher yields The fewer goals we have, the more we can focus our resources on the ones we are pursuing Companies invent more efficient technologies to compete with each other economically
Prevents: Pestilence Pasteurizing food kills harmful bacteria and prevents food poisoning It turns out penicillin is a great antibiotic The fewer goals we have, the less tempted we are to take risks Humans create new technologies for use in wars that are also effective for addressing natural disasters
Prevents: Age People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to grow enough food People have to work hard and practice discipline in order to fight forest fires The more we censor ourselves, the less opportunity we have to fall into addictive behavior Humans create new goals, like visiting the Moon, to get advantages in global rivalries
Prevents: War The need to produce more food leads people to learn to cooperate The need to rebuild after a natural disaster leads rival ethnic groups to learn to trust each other A strong bond of community and tradition can persuade people to resolve disputes with kindness and generously Uniting against a common enemy leads warring tribes to declare a truce

Table 4: Random examples of how liabilities can interfere with each other. 

Attributes of Apocalypses

This is nothing. Wait until you see me make a crane with flapping wings!

The Attributes enumerated in the previous article are indispensable for describing all kinds of concepts related to human goals and efforts. 

These Attributes describe the Apocalypses in terms of what a person needs in order to avert them. However, if you’re feeling poetic you can anthropomorphize the Apocalypses by pretending that they themselves are entities with Attributes that are actively menacing society, and that the people responding to them need to match those Attributes.

(It should be noted that these Attributes don’t describe the actual effects of the Apocalypses. The effects are described and gauged in terms of what kind of goals an Apocalypse threatens. If it’s a particularly terrible Apocalypse, the goals it threatens would be very important to many people.)

  • An Apocalypse with high Initiative Attribute is one that has long-term consequences but no immediate threat, so it requires Initiative in order for a person to effectively address it.
    • When must you start? Before anything bad actually happens.
  • An Apocalypse with Resilience Attribute must be addressed continuously or at inconvenient times, so it requires Resilience to deal with.
    • When must you continue? When it’s most difficult.
  • An Apocalypse with Mobility Attribute may suddenly change its parameters, so it requires Mobility to keep up with. (Even a predictable liability like Famine may not give you time to relax, so even if you know what you will need to do, you’ll still have to learn fast.) 
    • What must you start? Something you may not be familiar with and might not be able to study in depth.
  • An Apocalypse with Intensity Attribute is very complex and nuanced, so it takes Intensity to resolve successfully.
    • What must you continue? Getting more skilled.

Conclusion: Why did I write this article?

Affixing labels to things is often useful, but why these particular labels?

Why am I bothering to encompass and classify all of humanity’s possible problems into just four different categories? Isn’t that a little simplistic?

The purpose behind labeling the four liabilities is to give people the words to think about and express their concerns. It’s one thing to claim that a cultural or economic policy will cause a problem. That’s easily dismissed as a bias in the cultural attitude or economic interests of the complainer. This vocabulary I’ve designed allows people to describe what policy they’re worried about, what problems they think it will cause, why they think that will happen, and what they think should be done about it. Not only that, but it also allows them to understand other people’s concerns about their proposed solution. 

We have trouble recognizing and talking about big picture problems and differences in values. Liabilities describe everything that could go wrong, so all concerns can be addressed. People decide to err on different sides of threats, but erring is still dangerous. By thinking about situations in terms of the four liabilities, you can see risks in different aspects of reality as well as the dangers in applying more or less regulation to them. 

For instance, theocracies (such as many Middle Eastern countries) as well as single-party states (such as China) style themselves as such hoping to avert the liability of decadence (underregulated Age). In doing so they incur the liability of dogma (overregulated Age), with all its consequences. The United States decides to allow decadence in order to avert dogma, and that comes with its own consequences. Communication breaks down when each of these cultures assumes that its own way is causing no problems, and that foreign cultures are the only ones incurring liabilities. This failure of mutual understanding leads to conflict (i.e. War, and sometimes literal war).

In order to have an accurate picture of the situation, we all need to realize and acknowledge that our means of dealing with a problem often errs on the side of creating another problem, and that the reason other cultures do things differently is that they have legitimate concerns about the liabilities of our culture, whether it is wasteful or austere, decadent or dogmatic. That’s not to say that some ways aren’t healthier than others, but it’s dangerous to assume they’re better in every way. 

Why is it important to be aware of these abstract liabilities on a daily basis? Frequently, people don’t account for them, either on the big-picture scale or on the smaller, immediate scale. Many people are completely unequipped to deal with these fundamental threats and are blindsided when they occur. Furthermore, if you take measures against one liability and fail to address the others (or other manifestations of the same liability), there’s a good chance you’ll still fail, and you may even hasten your downfall.

If you finish this article having realized you were vulnerable to a danger you weren’t aware of, then the article has achieved part of its mission. The other part is accomplished when you take steps to learn how to address the problem in a balanced and healthy way. 

Existence can be perilous. Let’s face it together with our eyes open.



  • The boon of vitality for overcoming stagnation and the aspect of reality “choice” represented by conflict were updated in this article from the old version on 10/24/19.
  • The reference to “Death” being the name of a future Element has also been removed as of 10/24/19, because the Element has since been renamed.
  • The phrases “under-control” and “over-control” have been changed on 4/19/20 to “underregulate” and “overregulate” respectively to avoid confusion with the dichotomy of experience and control, where control does not imply order.
  • The boon of harmony for overcoming conflict was updated in this article from the old version on 4/19/20.
  • The virtue of “exposure” and its definition were updated in this article from the old version on 4/20/20.

You can view the changes in the Changelog.

Attributes: Measurements of Mindsets (and Other Concepts)

In order to make sense of the world and figure out how to deal with it, we have a few essential concepts yet to cover. There are several more Elements (mindsets), as well as the Vices (motivations) in more detail, and the Apocalypses (fundamental risks). Before we get into all of those concepts, however, we should look at the different Attributes that each of them has.

These Attributes are dimensions in the original sense: properties that can be measured. Just as an object can have different values for height, breadth, depth, mass, electric charge, et cetera, so can concepts have different magnitudes of various Attributes when they show up in reality. In order to properly explain the concepts that we’ll get to in the upcoming articles, we’ll need to be able to explore their different aspects.


We can derive the Attributes from the intersection of two fundamental dichotomies (pairs of opposing concepts). Each Primary Attribute is associated with one side of one dichotomy and one side of the other, producing four combinations.

The first dichotomy is cause versus effect. “Cause” represents the environmental factors that influence whether a process or event takes place. With the Attributes, the process usually refers to a person’s efforts. If you are working toward a goal or responding to a problem, the goal or problem are “causes” for your efforts. “Effect” represents the scope of change that a process or event creates in the world. If you succeed in achieving a goal or solving a problem, that achievement or solution is the “effect” of your efforts. An Attribute based on cause describes the conditions you require in order to use a mindset or respond to a motivation or risk. An Attribute based on effect describes how you are able to effect change in the world with a mindset, how you want to affect the world with a motivation, or how you need to deal with a risk. Each Primary Attribute is based on either “cause” or “effect”.

Opposing concepts and the bringing together thereof will show up everywhere on this blog. That’s why it’s called the “Ginnungagap” Foundation. (Don’t let the picture fool you, though: Fire and Water aren’t quite opposites here.)

The second fundamental dichotomy is “start” versus “continue”. “Start” deals with what leads you to start making an effort, or what you are able to start building from scratch. “Continue” deals with what conditions are necessary for you to continue a process, or how far you can continue to push it. Each Primary Attribute is based on either “start” or “continue.”

The reason I use “continue” instead of “stop” or “end” is that ending a process can be expressed as beginning a process that stops a previous one. The reason “start” isn’t called “change” is because changes are what we are starting and continuing, and talking about changing changes would get gratuitously confusing without adding mathematical notation. You may recognize “start” versus “continue” as a variation of the omnipresent chaos versus order dichotomy. “Start” represents chaos because until something starts, we often cannot know what it will become, while “continue” represents order because it’s a continuation of a known process, which imposes a degree of certainty on the situation.

The four Primary Attributes are derived from how these dichotomies intersect.

Start Continue
Cause Initiative Resilience
Effect Mobility Intensity

To put the Primary Attributes into perspective with each other, picture a process that changes the current world to be more like a world that we want to live in. We’ll call the process “X”. X has a cause and an effect. The initiative of X is how easy it is to cause X. X’s resilience is how difficult it is to stop X once it’s started. Its mobility is how quickly X is able to start producing an effect and changing the world. Its intensity is the magnitude of the effect: how much it continues to grow from its inception. Since we’re using these Attributes to describe people’s character and use of mindsets, much of the time X is going to be a mindset used by a person.

However, motivations and risks can also be described by Attributes. Motivations are what you want. Mindsets are how you get there. Risks are what stand in your way. Attributes can describe all three of these types of concepts: they describe your motivations by what you will pursue, your mindsets by what you can do to pursue it, and the risks you face by what you must do to succeed.

Just so you’re aware of how important the Attributes are… do you remember when I said the Attributes were derived from two fundamental dichotomies? Unlike the Elements, where derived the fundamental mindsets to find out what was necessary to learn, I discovered the Attributes empirically. I found out the hard way that I was missing important aspects of the Elements I was using, and only figured out what those were by looking at the problems I was failing to solve. It was only after I identified the Attributes that I retroactively expressed them as the intersections of fundamental dichotomies.

As we look at the Primary Attributes, we’ll use a Water Element (operation mindset) skill as an example to illustrate how the Attributes are applied. Juggling is a particularly recognizable skill you can learn with operation mindset. The Attributes let you measure the various ways in which you can cultivate your ability to juggle.


Primary Attributes


The goldfish leaves its comfort zone to seek a higher goal, demonstrating initiative. (The tank on the right is quite luxurious off-panel.)

Initiative Attribute is the intersection of “cause” with “start”. It deals with starting a process despite a lack of encouragement from the environment. You may have to leave a place of relative satisfaction and journey through unpleasant places in order to reach a place of greater satisfaction. The incentives to act may be remote, and you may have to delay gratification. The more initiative you have, the more you can choose long-term goals over immediate rewards. People who practice initiative are called Drivers, because they drive change by providing an impetus based on their goals.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When can you start?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When will you start?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of initiative answers the question of, “When must you start?”

Regarding our juggling example, initiative describes how likely you are to attempt to learn a new juggling feat or trick, even if the rewards are uncertain or far in the future.


These palm trees remain standing during a hurricane, demonstrating resilience.

Resilience Attribute is the intersection of “cause” with “continue”. It deals with being able to maintain the quality of your performance despite stressful conditions and active discouragement. The ability to continue producing excellent work and taking pride in how you live is very valuable in a world of risk and hardship. Having great resilience doesn’t mean you never stop, but when you do it’s because you decide the tradeoffs are no longer worth it, not because you are afraid to continue. People who practice resilience are called Strivers, because they persistently struggle and push back against the world’s disruption and resistance.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When can you continue?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When will you continue?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of resilience answers the question of, “When must you continue?”

Regarding our juggling example, resilience describes how well you can maintain a feat even under stress.


Dandelions are able to pop up in new areas quickly and easily, demonstrating mobility.

Mobility Attribute is the intersection of “effect” with “start”. It deals with how well you can start to generate change from scratch. Circumstances and goals can shift rapidly, and so you will often be required to begin learning or creating something new. Mobility relies on being able to take minimal information and calibration and quickly produce a useful effect, then start again by recalibrating to keep ahead of any changes that need to be made. People who practice mobility are called Shifters, because they can easily change what they are doing to work on a new process or task, moving and switching gears smoothly.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What can you start?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What will you start?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of mobility answers the question of, “What must you start?”

Regarding our juggling example, mobility describes how well and how quickly you can pick up the basics of an unfamiliar feat.


A sequoia spends a long time building itself up to a grand stature in a single location, demonstrating intensity.

Intensity Attribute is the intersection of “effect” with “continue”. It deals with the scope of the change you create expanding without stop. These changes includes changes in yourself as you become more skilled. With practiced technique, you can implement in-depth changes that would not otherwise be possible (as long as what you have learned remains true). When you integrate large and diverse collections of information and experience, you can finely-tune your calibration and pull off more sophisticated and impactful accomplishments. People who practice intensity are called Delvers, because they dig down and investigate nuances in detail, focusing on a particular situation, goal, or problem in order to cultivate advanced skill.

When describing a person’s skill with a mindset, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What can you continue?”

When describing a person’s responsiveness to a motivation, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What will you continue?”

When describing the traits necessary to address a risk, the level of intensity answers the question of, “What must you continue?”

Regarding our juggling example, intensity describes how well you can learn complex feats that build on what you already know.

Secondary Attributes

As with the Elements, there are Attributes formed by combining the four Primary Attributes. The four Secondary Attributes are formed by combining non-opposing Primary Attributes.

Mobility Intensity
Initiative Enterprise Industry
Resilience Adaptability Determination


This ivy is extending itself to other locations to better catch sunlight, demonstrating enterprise.

Initiative combined with mobility yields Enterprise Attribute, dealing with setting and launching goals that take you in new directions. With enterprise, you move to fill needs and solve problems that other people overlooked. People who practice enterprise are called Leapers, because they see a distant place and move to it by choice.

Regarding our juggling example, enterprise describes how well you can spot and seize the opportunity to pick up a simple but unfamiliar feat, even when the rewards are uncertain and possibly remote.


By taking time to sharpen a blade with a whetstone, you can benefit in the long term from increasing the quality of its edge. This process demonstrates industry.

The combination of intensity and initiative yields Industry Attribute, dealing with actively seeking out how to continue the spread of an impact. If you are devoted to a craft, you will likely work on perfecting your skills for their own sake. You may also be constantly raising your standards for advancing a particular cause or goal. Raising your standards increases the scope of change that you will try to create. Your reason for doing so doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a step up that you don’t immediately need for maintaining an acceptable status quo. People who practice industry are called Honers, because they sharpen their tools to improve their performance, and focus on calibrating a specific skill or creating an intense change of their own volition.

Regarding our juggling example, industry describes how likely you are to attempt to learn a complex feat that builds on what you already know, even when the rewards are uncertain and far in the future.


Undeterred by the lower windows being closed, the cat finds an alternate route, demonstrating adaptability.

Mobility combined with resilience yields Adaptability Attribute, dealing with responding to stress and problems by finding new approaches to maintain effectiveness. When an unexpected obstacle appears before a goal, it’s often necessary to find a different approach or even an alternative goal. Adaptability is invaluable for a changing world, allowing you to learn to take a different path without missing a beat. People who practice adaptability are called Sliders, because they move and change direction smoothly and easily in response to the world’s problems and obstacles.

Regarding our juggling example, adaptability describes how well you can quickly pick up and perform simple but unfamiliar feats under pressure.


Despite the layer of pavement in its way, this flower continues to focus its efforts until it breaks through, demonstrating determination.

The combination of intensity and resilience yields Determination Attribute, dealing with continuously expanding the scope of a change despite environmental stress. Stress can include pain, fatigue, boredom, fear, frustration, et cetera. When you need to accomplish a difficult task and look to be at an impasse, determination is what allows you to maintain focus and push through. People who practice determination are called Bucklers, for several reasons. Firstly, they cause other things to buckle, or give way. Secondly, to “buckle” means to fasten or bind, just as determined people “buckle down” and bind themselves to a goal. Finally, a buckler is a type of shield, which fits determination’s role in defending a goal against opposing forces.

Regarding our juggling example, determination describes how well you can learn and perform complex feats that build on what you already know, while under pressure.

Great Attributes

There are two Great Attributes formed by combining opposing Primary Attributes. As with the Great Elements, combining opposing Attributes leads to a larger range of nuance that you can handle with them. You can exercise either extreme, or any point between them, which means you have more freedom to deal with a whole spectrum of situations along the relevant axis.


This lemon decided to learn to make pink lemonade, and is undaunted by the social pressure of its yellow lemon peers, demonstrating independence.

Independence is the combination of initiative and resilience. With independence, you can start and continue projects based on your long-term values. The environment doesn’t need to be favorable for you to do what you set your mind to. You do what you decide, rather than being intimidated by the world into not doing what you’re capable of. Independence is essentially the closest concept to willpower that exists in this entire collection of concepts. People who practice independence are called Striders, because they show confident, self-driven advancement and performance in defiance of hardship.

Regarding our juggling example, independence describes how well you can continue to maintain and improve your skills if it’s what you really want to do, even if nobody else cares about juggling, and even practicing is difficult and progress is slow.


The human on the left uses quick thinking as well as practiced physical coordination in order to perform an impressive kick, demonstrating finesse.

Finesse is the combination of intensity and mobility. With finesse, not only can you quickly start learning a topic, planning a project, performing a task, or responding to a problem, but you can also become extremely skilled at it over time. No matter what a situation calls for, you can find an angle and pursue it until you have a better one. Finesse lets you cultivate as much skill with a particular approach as you need, and then start learning a different one when it becomes more advantageous to do so. People who practice finesse are called Dancers because they combine agility with advanced skill, addressing situations with grace.

Regarding our juggling example, initiative describes how well you can pick up and master different aspects of juggling, both unfamiliar and complex.

Zeroth Attribute


icon-2381943_1920 flip
These are tools (which are handy for representing mindsets). Do you know how to use them correctly? If so, you possess competence.

If you don’t have much strength in any Attribute, but still know how to use a mindset, that’s the Zeroth Attribute of competence. Before you can strengthen the various Attributes of a skill, learning when to use it and becoming more familiar with its nuances, it is necessary to possess the skill in the first place, and know how to use it on command. People who practice Competence Attribute are called Users, because they display basic ability and prowess with a skill or technique.

It should be noted that just because competence is the “Zeroth Attribute” does not mean that you are automatically competent with a particular mindset or skill even if you have another Attribute with it. In other words, it is perfectly possible to use a mindset intensely, for instance, without using it correctly. You need to properly calibrate your skills to a baseline level to develop competence before the other Attributes will do you any good.

Regarding our juggling example, competence describes the degree to which you have implemented the basics of juggling.

Ultimate Attribute


This pilot decides to take the time to learn to fly, and must use practiced skill, quick thinking, and calmness under pressure in order to do so successfully, demonstrating mastery.

All of the Attributes combined is mastery. With Mastery Attribute, you can advance, maintain, and apply your skills under most circumstances. We need people with mastery in order to deal with the many problems that occur in the world. It won’t work if we all wait for someone else to do it. People who practice mastery are called Wielders because they display confident and expert applications of a skill or technique.

Regarding our juggling example, mastery describes how well you invent and perfect new feats while dealing gracefully with pressure.

Measurement and Nuance

As I mentioned before, these Attributes are (loosely) measurable dimensions of different concepts. Next we’ll take a look at an example of a person’s mindset measurements.

Figure 1 is a “radar” or “spider” chart showing a hypothetical person’s Attributes for Fire Element (synthesis mindset). This type of graph doesn’t require adjacent qualities to be related, but it is particularly useful when they are, as we would see if we added in the Secondary Attributes. In this case, we are only looking at the Primary Elements.

Fire Element attributes
Figure 1

High intensity means this person can come up with very creative and ground-breaking ideas if they focus on a particular topic. A lower resilience means their creativity suffers under pressure.  A middling mobility means that given a new topic and not much other information, they can come up with some decent ideas reasonably quickly. Low initiative means that they will usually only do creative things when it feels immediately rewarding.

What can we infer about a person’s Secondary Elements from their Primary Elements? Determination has aspects of both intensity and resilience, so we can guess that if a person’s Intensity and Resilience Attributes are high (for a particular mindset or other trait), then their Determination Attribute is also likely to be high. However, that may not always be the case. Their determination could be low if the person is not comfortable with using intensity in high-stress situations. Conversely, their determination could be higher than you’d expect based on their intensity and resilience levels, if they are only comfortable using intensity in high-stress situations and are only comfortable in high-stress situations when they can use intensity.

Likewise, although a person fairly strong in both industry and determination is likely to be very strong in intensity (because industry and determination are both based on and can bolster intensity), it may also be that while they are able to use intensity relatively well in situations where others people might falter (such as delayed gratification and stressful situations, respectively), in immediately rewarding, low stress situations, their intensity is merely average.

Moreover, mastery represents not just a high level in all Attributes but the ability to combine them as necessary. It’s also possible to have a relatively high mastery overall but to be particularly strong (or weak) in an individual Attribute.

It should be noted that it’s not uncommon for a person to have different Attribute levels for different mindsets and even for different techniques within a mindset. For example, notification mindset encompasses both conveying information to others and researching information for oneself. While it is likely that a person’s Attributes for learning the notification mindset skills related to explanation and research will be similar, it’s not guaranteed.


You may have noticed that each of the twelve Attributes has a word describing people who practice that Attribute. Such words are called demonyms, which usually describe someone from a particular geographical region. I’m coopting the term here because we don’t have a word that means “word that refers to people with a certain trait” and “demonym” literally just means “name for a person”.

Why is it important that we have more words to refer to the Attributes? Isn’t that redundant? Not quite. The Attributes are nouns, and while they are appropriate, they are rather abstract and uncompelling. The demonyms are based on verbs, and describe how a person exercising a particular Attribute “moves.” Using an Attribute means using the corresponding verb (e.g. “driving” or “shifting”). Knowing the movement associated with the Attribute helps you understand how and when to use it and why it is important. Visualizing the Attribute’s process may make it easier for you to practice it. If nothing else, they sound really cool.

Attribute Demonym/movement
Initiative Driver/driving
Resilience Striver/striving
Mobility Shifter/shifting
Intensity Delver/delving
Determination Buckler/buckling
Industry Honer/honing
Enterprise Leaper/leaping
Adaptability Slider/sliding
Independence Dancer/dancing
Finesse Strider/striding
Competence User/using
Mastery Wielder/wielding

If you want to remember these movements, you can put them in an order that rhymes:

Delver, Driver

Shifter, Striver

Buckler, Honer, Leaper, Slider

User, Wielder, Dancer, Strider

Technologic… Technologic… Technologic… Technologic…


Now that we have seen the different qualities that a given concept can have, we can recognize that not only are all the mindsets important for dealing with the world as a whole, but effectively wielding even a single mindset can require the exercise of multiple diverse aspects of it. As I learned the hard way, having skill in one Attribute is not enough to accomplish all your goals.

However, now that we know what it takes, we don’t have to feel helpless. There’s no reason we have to keep falling short. We are empowered to take steps to practice and strengthen our Attribute levels bit by bit, until we can take on even the most challenging situations with aplomb.

Not only that, but we can examine the nuances of the other concepts coming up in future articles. A mindset, motivation, or risk is not simply present or absent; it has a shape defined by the Attributes. We’ll see more about these concepts in the next few articles. Stay tuned!


*The keyword for the attribute of industry in this article was updated from the old version on 10/24/19. The keyword for the attribute of mastery in this article was updated from the old version on 4/19/20. You can view the change in the Changelog.

Elevated Echelon Elements

This article is the third in the series introducing the various Elements of Consciousness (or problem-solving mindsets, for the less dramatically inclined). It deals with four Elements that are more powerful and nuanced, known as the Great Elements.

You can find the basic Elements here and the peripheral Elements here.

Great Elements

The Great Elements are combinations of opposing Primary or Secondary Elements. They each deal with a single aspect of reality (in this case concepts, navigation, paths, and interactions), but balance the opposing processes of their source Elements in order to wield their aspect with tremendous effectiveness. To be able to use a Great Element implies being able to use either of the Primary or Secondary Elements that make it up, as well as the related Tempered Elements by logical extension. Each of those Elements is an aspect of the power of the Great Element, but being able to use them all results in a gestalt power, which is greater and more versatile than the sum of its parts (as usual for the Elements).

Although the case could be made that the Great Elements have two opposing pairs like the Primary Elements, in the interests of respecting their nuances and avoiding the creation of an infinite series of ever more complex Elements, there are no opposing pairs in the Great Elements. On a similar note, the Great Elements are all on the same level, despite two being composed of Primary Elements and two being composed of Secondary Elements, same as the Tempered Elements. We’ll see what happens when the Great Elements are combined in the article dealing with Cosmic Elements (coming soon).

Blood Element


Blood Element (combination of Ice and Fire) is the Element of perception, and it combines analysis and synthesis in order to assess how well concepts fit together or whether they accurately reflect reality, and generate new concepts to test against the world. With these two processes working together, perception allows you to see both that which is and that which can be, and evolve conceptual models to accurately describe the world and how it can be altered. The contributing mindsets of science and design allow you to better get a much better idea of how a system works, and to imagine ideas for devices or systems that take advantage of that knowledge.

The major strength of perception is that by both examining reality and generating new ideas, it is the strongest source of paradigm shifts out of all the mindsets. The major weakness of perception is that shifting paradigms is all it does. Unless a problem can be addressed by increasing your understanding of a problem and devising some solution (and only devising it; logistics and implementation aren’t part of this mindset), then perception is not sufficient. In other words, although perception is a huge game-changer, it does not automatically confer the ability to actually play the proverbial game. Each time it changes the game, the other great mindsets soon master the new version and outpace perception.

Typically, a perception user who lacks other mindsets will evolve their paradigms into a unique understanding of the world—accurate or not—based on their own experiences, until they become estranged and alienated from mainstream society to some degree. Without action, they have no force with which to move things. Without communication, they appear eccentric or mad and cannot engage with others. Without facilitation, their decisions are ineffective and often even counterproductive. The only real power granted by perception alone is the power to make sense of one’s experiences, constructing a coherent model based on them. For many perception users, their only way to cope with the world is to understand it and themselves as best they can, figure out their apparent role in existence, and alter their own thought patterns to adapt to it as best they can. Unless they can learn the other mindsets, though, or successfully share their ideas with someone who has, their ability to make a difference in the world is severely limited.

Examples of perception mindset include the fields of philosophy, psychology, and science and design (obviously, since they’re the tempered mindsets that go into perception). Revolutionaries, ideologues, visionaries, and satirists use perception to figure out where things stand and where to go from here. It should be noted that perception mindset is the one that was used to come up with the theory of all of these mindsets.

Blaire is a perception user. She studies human psychology and culture. In her spare time, she writes humorous science-fiction stories that show how the world could be different with technological advances, while highlighting the current foibles of society that seem to be leading humanity down a path that people may not want to travel. Her stories raise important ethical questions and make the reader think introspectively about what they really want from the future and from their own life.

Perception mindset has a blood theme because blood is a good representation of a dynamic system, and perception’s role is to learn the workings of systems and use that understanding to be able to change them. Blood also has connotations of “identity” through its historical association with heredity, and thus serves as a dramatic-sounding stand-in for genetic material (even though red blood cells don’t contain DNA). As a representation of genetic material, blood represents the inner blueprints of systems and their capacity to evolve and adapt to their surroundings, or to be altered artificially. Effectively, it can be said that perception mindset allows you to perceive, understand, and redesign any system, due to its mastery of concepts.

Blood Element is represented by the color magenta.

Gravity Element


Gravity Element (combination of Electricity and Water) is the Element of action, and it combines organization and operation to both optimize and internalize a person’s navigation of the world. With the ability to make and implement decisions at both the logistical and the immediate level, action is incredibly powerful at setting things in motion and keeping them moving. Furthermore, with the tempered aspects of orchestration and thoroughness, action mindset allows you to keep many different things moving together in a harmonious manner as well as getting the most use out of your resources.

Examples of action mindset include maintaining an active and productive schedule, keeping your life balanced while managing many tasks and events, running your own business, and in general getting more done than most people think is possible. Effectively handling many obligations and goals ranging from basic to complex is the hallmark of action. Self-driven people who are constantly working towards success in their chosen career or field are using action mindset to make the most of their time and energy. They put forth consistent effort to advance the items on their schedule and pace themselves to avoid burnout. Your own energy is, after all, a resource you can learn to skillfully manage and apply.

Graham is a high-level action mindset user. He is a high-powered project management consultant. He wakes up early, goes to work at his fast-paced and high-stakes job, works out after work, goes to other countries on vacations, does investing, and plays on an amateur ultimate Frisbee team. He is seldom idle.

Action mindset has a gravity theme because gravity remains reliable even as it influences the movements of innumerable objects. Like electricity (technically electromagnetism), gravity is a fundamental force of the universe. Like both electricity and water, gravity can produce gradients of force which can even fluctuate over time in the form of waves. Also, water is associated with gravity due to famously flowing downhill and being drawn into tides. Another aspect of the theme is illustrated by a common verb used to describe the use of action mindset: “juggling”, as in juggling priorities, evokes the image of a person successfully opposing the effects of real gravity on a collection of objects by applying force to each one at the appropriate time. Additionally, one might also say that the tasks and projects surrounding an action user are metaphorically “orbiting” them, though the process for sustaining the orbits is the same as same as the one for “juggling”. On a different note, if a person’s action mindset is brought to bear on a single goal, it creates a tremendous force that is difficult to resist. A person can move a large obstacle, or simply propel themselves, if they apply enough effort and resources.

Gravity Element is represented by the color cyan.

Sand Element


Sand Element (combination of Earth and Wind) is the Element of facilitation, combining strategy and tactics to close and open possibilities by fortifying or repurposing paths through the thoughtful application of resources. With its power of combined opposites, facilitation can come up with a clever but risky tactic and then fortify it, or take a robust but obsolete structure and put it to a new use. By alternating between clever ploys and solid contingency plans (or using both at once), you can make extremely effective use of your resources and environment. With the contributing mindsets of salvage and overhaul, you can succeed despite having ill-suited resources and poor environmental conditions, and even remodel both over time to better suit your goals. One of the key words for facilitation is “leverage”. A lever is a tool for accomplishing more with less, allowing you to do things you couldn’t do with mere management of resources. The word facilitate itself means “to make easy”. If you want to accomplish a difficult goal in a difficult environment, facilitation mindset can likely furnish you with the plans you need.

Examples of facilitation mindset include military planning (which prominently features tactics and strategy specifically, although under different definitions), as well as less serious conflicts like games and sports (which also use operation mindset for intuition and smooth navigation). Facilitation is not just for conflict, though; it is used to plan purely constructive projects and investments of resources such as business ventures, revivals of towns and neighborhoods, or responses to disasters and epidemics. Any engineering project that has limitations on resources or environmental constraints (which means more or less all of them) will fare better by including facilitation mindset in the design process as well.

Shen is in charge of planning business ventures for an electronics vendor. She identifies applications and potential markets for new technologies. Because the market environment is always changing, she cuts losses (salvage) and helps the company move into new markets and fields (overhaul). A disciplined executive, Shen avoids investments that rely on too many contingencies and makes sure the company invests in advancement. Her hobbies include board games and video games that involve military command. When she goes out with friends, Shen prefers planned events and outings, but is ready to change her plans if options open up or disappear.

Facilitation mindset has a sand theme because of sand’s association with both earth and wind, as well as its qualities of being a non-Newtonian solid. Grains of sand are light enough to be blown by the wind, yet a bag of sand is still very heavy. Sand can sink under you or support you relatively solidly. It can erode things, or turn to stone; worsen a windstorm or construct a child’s castle. Although sand is not as exotic a theme as the other Great Elements, don’t let its mundane form fool you. Sand is a changing landscape, and whosoever can take advantage of its movements can shape it into the land of their choice.

Sand Element is represented by the color brown.

Script Element


Script Element (combination of Light and Darkness) is the Element of communication, combining semantics and empathy to change how you interact with your environment to more easily engage with and influence it. Interactions deal with both information (semantics) and impressions (empathy)—in other words, content and delivery. Although pure communication cannot create paradigms from scratch and evolve them independently, as perception can, it can still enter the paradigms of other entities by individualizing interactions, and move within them fluently by simplifying the interactions. Its tempered aspects of translation and background allow information to be more effectively conveyed across paradigm differences, and impressions to be easily and reliably projected within familiar paradigms.

Examples of communication mindset include acting, disguising, endearing oneself to people from a variety of cultures, learning to intuitively read signs in nature, and mastering operation of systems, including but not limited to mechanical, computational, personal, animal, vegetable, and mineral. This mastery is limited by your understanding of the principles involved: if you lack the right concepts, you may have some trouble forming an accurate picture of who or what you are dealing with until you update your paradigms with knowledge derived from perception mindset. The interface between you and the rest of the world can be altered to let you move more easily through it, which often entails appearing and acting differently depending on the environment and the situation.

Scipio is a communication mindset user. He travels the world, immersing himself in different cultures and learning how to fit in. Through his travels he has become fluent in the languages and etiquette of six different cultures and can engage passably with cultures related to any of those. Anyone who has met him will describe him as charming and pleasant, through his specific demeanor varies from formal and subdued to boisterous and rowdy depending on who he is with. Not limiting himself to human interactions, wherever he travels Scipio spends time observing animals, plants, the land, sea, and weather, and learns how to read them, often helped by the local people he meets.

Communication mindset is themed after script (that is, written language) because it is the logical conclusion of combining the mindsets themed on ink and paper. Beyond the literal sense, translation mindset (Ink Element) deals with understanding and conveying information across paradigms, while background mindset (Paper Element) deals with understanding and conveying impressions within paradigms. Incorporating both, communication mindset deals with understanding and conveying both facts and feelings alike, within and between paradigms. People communicate meaning and reach understanding using the content, style, and context of their writing, speech, or other medium of communication. Written language just happens to be the easiest medium to represent as an “Element”. Furthermore, the word “script” also alludes to the instructions used by actors, who convey information and impressions such that they “transform” themselves from a person into a character with different qualities. Because communication users can play various roles in order to interact with their environment, Script Element has a secondary theme of changing one’s appearance. The major limitation to this ability is that a person does not have all the knowledge or skills of the character they are playing, though they may be able to quickly learn it or improvise explanations to fill in the blanks.

Script Element is represented by the color gray.



The Great Elements strike a balance between opposing forces in order to achieve more powerful results. There will of course be situations in which one Element is more useful than its opposite, but in general having both to call on allows you to use them to support each other and do many things with them that neither Element could do alone. This creative gestalt of incomplete opposites, combining yin and yang, is the phenomenon that inspired the Ginnungagap Foundation’s name.

Element Expansion Pack


In the previous article, we went through the eight basic Elements, fundamental problem-solving mindsets everyone can learn. These mindsets can be used together and can contribute their different strengths to a task or project. For example, operation can carry out graceful motions to craft art imagined by synthesis, or to implement plans created by organization. However, beyond this simple cooperation, multiple Elements can be combined into a gestalt, greater than the sum of its parts, to synergize their individual strengths (as we see with the Primary Elements forming the Secondary Elements). This combination can be done inside a single person’s head, or it can be done as a team effort, just as a team can use a single Element together.

From these combinations come yet more composite Elements, collectively referred to as peripheral Elements. We’ll get to the more advanced ones in a future article.

Interstitial Elements

The Interstitial Elements are the Elements between related Primary and Secondary Elements. For example, the Secondary Element of strategy (Earth Element) is a specialized combination of analysis (Ice Element) and organization (Electricity Element), so there is an Interstitial Element between strategy and analysis and another one between strategy and organization. Interstitial Elements are relatively limited in scope compared to other mindsets, but it’s not hard to find situations where their specializations are useful.

Rock Element


Rock Element (between Ice and Earth): Rock Element is the Element of security, and it combines analysis and strategy to create plans that are extremely robust, closing down unwanted possibilities as much as possible, by investigating and identifying possible weak points and allocating resources to protect or reinforce them. The price for this is decreased efficiency—increasing certainty doesn’t come cheaply.

One example of security mindset is building a security system to catch intruders in a building. Security mindset could identify all the ways in which the building could be entered, and come up a list of known measures that could be taken to prevent unauthorized access (though some of them would be expensive and arguably not worth it).

The theme for security mindset is rock because rock is related to earth, but is more solid, durable, and rigid, representing plans and structures which are more fortified against failure but which take more time and effort to work with. Rock also has connotations of petrifaction, which represents either using this mindset to imprison destructive forces, or immobilizing oneself by closing down every option with even the smallest risk (which is all of them).

Metal Element


Metal Element (between Electricity and Earth): Metal Element is the Element of standardization, and it combines organization and strategy to create relatively robust plans that prioritize efficiency, conserving resources by allowing for the possibility of failure, as long as the expected value of the plan is positive. (That is, if you were to implement the plan many times, you would succeed enough times to turn a profit on net balance.) The tradeoff for increased efficiency is decreased robustness.

An example of standardization mindset would be the building owner in the security example above deciding that the cost of the very best security system is more expensive than all the robberies it would prevent. They choose to purchase a mid-level security system, which allows a few robberies to take place, but prevents enough robberies to be worth its cost.

Standardization mindset has a metal theme because metal is related to earth and electricity, and is used for mass production of standardized parts. Metal is also used for the creation of instruments which uphold standards such as weights and measures, clocks, and even coins (e.g. gold and silver standards). Depending on the type of literal metal, it may be more or less durable or resistant to environmental effects than certain forms of literal rock, but that’s not the point. The idea is that Metal Element is more efficient in general, but the standardized solution may not cover every case, whereas Rock takes more effort to work with, but produces situation-specific solutions which are much more solid.

Aura Element


Aura Element (between Electricity and Wind): Aura Element is the Element of modification. It combines organization and tactics, so that you can create innovative solutions that fit neatly within existing systems, and even enhance their efficiency. This mindset can be used to create a clever setup to enhance efficiency, or to create a system of modular parts that can be swapped out for different effects without compromising the overall system.

One example of the use of modification mindset would be deciding to reposition a lamp in your room to provide you better light at your desk, while figuring out how to make sure it keeps the rest of the room well-lit.

Modification mindset has an “aura” theme because auras are usually imagined as vaguely-electromagnetic energy fields which can be strengthened, modified, infused with different properties, or tuned to each other by adding or reconfiguring items.

Explosion Element


Explosion Element (between Fire and Wind): Explosion Element is the Element of radicality, and it combines synthesis and tactics to open possibilities that you may not have otherwise considered using the resources you have at hand. Implementing these possibilities may cost more than the more conventional alternatives. The influence of organization’s efficiency on tactics is downplayed in favor of emphasizing the creativity of synthesis. The primary principle is expanding your awareness of what is possible. Doing so entails removing constraints which are so familiar as to be implicitly assumed, but which hold you back from considering all your options. Doing so allows you to achieve results that appear impossible to others. Sometimes an idea that radicality mindset comes up with does improve efficiency, but at the cost of something else. Increasing efficiency in general means balancing various priorities, while radicality is more about making it possible to achieve a single objective using all the resources at hand. 

This mindset can be used to deal with emergency situations, when there is one top priority and all others can be sacrificed. However, it can be used at any time in order to create unprecedented situations to demolish or bypass obstacles, to set things in motion, or to introduce an entertaining change of pace, among other purposes. It’s important to note that radicality can make you aware of untapped potential, but you still get to decide whether it is worth the price to unleash. (It is usually best to consult other mindsets when making such a decision. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.) 

Even more so than other tactics-related mindsets, radicality mindset opens up possibilities of both success and failure when its ideas are implemented. These solutions use as few constraints as possible, discarding efficiency and robustness along with other situational priorities. Such is the fee for doing the impossible. “For a price you never thought you’d pay, Explosion Element finds a way.” 

One example of the use of radicality mindset is a castaway stranded on a desert island deciding to burn a jacket in order to send a signal fire to a passing ship, thus destroying a long-term asset by using it for an unintended purpose that will hopefully obviate the need for it anyway. Another use of radicality might be realizing you can overclock a device or vehicle to boost its performance at the risk of damaging it over the long term. However, not all uses of radicality are destructive. An artist might choose to create sculptures out of discarded metal and shards of ceramic plates, putting material at hand to a use that is not immediately obvious to most people. (Using rubbish for more functional purposes falls under salvage mindset, as it has an emphasis on robustness.) 

Radicality mindset is themed on explosions because of the thematic connection to fire and wind, and because explosions are all about releasing potential and breaking through limitations, despite at great cost and with great risk. However, this Element also encompasses the theme of rocket propulsion, making situations more dynamic and allowing you to aim for heights and destinations previously out of reach. 

Smoke Element


Smoke Element (between Fire and Darkness): Smoke Element is the Element of inspiration, and it combines synthesis and empathy to introduce new possible impressions to people and tailor the conveyance of possibilities to the audience to make them more receptive.

One example of inspiration mindset would be figuring out what sort of present to get someone that they would genuinely enjoy: doing so takes both imagination and an impression of the person. Helping the person see how they, personally, might enjoy the present (if it isn’t immediately obvious) would also use inspiration mindset.

Inspiration mindset is themed on smoke because of the fire/darkness connection, and because smoke can generate unique shapes and smells which are mysterious and evocative. Some people also use literal smoke to provide them with inspiration by literally inspiring it. However, I’ve always found my own practiced skills with synthesis-related mindsets to be quite sufficient for that purpose.

Sound Element


Sound Element (between Water and Darkness): Sound Element is the Element of rapport, and it combines operation and empathy to more gracefully interact with people. It is useful for reading moods, projecting and instilling all kinds of emotions, and grabbing, holding, or avoiding attention. Charisma is part of the purview of this Element.

One example of rapport mindset would be performing; singing, dancing, acting, or playing instruments requires both practice and an understanding of an audience in order to reliably influence emotions. Not all uses of rapport must be so conspicuous or impersonal, however. Calming down a friend is another example.

Rapport mindset has a sound theme because sound and music reliably and strongly influence emotions and can be used to sense ambiance. In addition, sound is thematically related to darkness in that it provides a counterpoint to light, allowing us to navigate in darkness through both ordinary noises and echolocation. It is thematically related to water because soundwaves can travel through water as well as air (and can be visible on the surface as ripples).

Laser Element


Laser Element (between Water and Light): Laser Element is the Element of precision, and it combines operation and semantics to more fluently use labels to aptly encapsulate situations, or to make movements more consistent.

Precision shows up in everything from measurement to manufacturing to marksmanship. The right algorithms and rules can increase consistency and level of detail tremendously, and there are many situations where those are the key factors for performance. Billiards and fencing make use of precision as well. The use of jargon to describe an object or situation in technical detail is yet another example of precision.

The mindset of precision is themed on lasers because lasers are light produced with coherent waves, and are noteworthy because they are so precise. Their precision also makes them more effective at affecting objects than other forms of light with the same power input. Some of the many uses for lasers include measurement, cutting, targeting, and communication, all of which are also examples of precision mindset in use.

X-Ray Element


X-Ray Element (between Ice and Light): X-Ray Element is the Element of diagnosis, and it combines analysis and semantics in order to better draw on more information and invoke powerful algorithms to analyze a situation. The semantic aspect makes assessing systems and their problems faster, more powerful, and able to operate using less information, while the analysis aspect allows the assumptions and conclusions that semantics relies on to be checked against other information and tested with critical thinking. By quickly locating and verifying key details of a situation, diagnosis makes it possible to not only identify problems, but also target weak points or even track past events using clues left behind.

One obvious example of diagnosis mindset is to identify a disease based on symptoms and prescribe treatments for it, though this mindset is by no means limited to medical use; it can be applied to any situation that follows a pattern. For instance, the same mindset with different skills and calibration can also be used to “diagnose” a crime scene by figuring out what happened and who the culprit is.

Diagnosis is themed on x-rays because while x-rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, like light, they are thought of as “cold” radiation and penetrate sparse matter rather than being absorbed and converted to heat. This property allows us to see past the surface, just like diagnosis. More obviously, x-rays used to help diagnose injuries.

Tertiary Elements

The Tertiary Elements are combinations of Primary Elements and Secondary Elements which incorporate the opposite Primary Element. For example, tactics is a specialized combination of synthesis and organization, so there is one Tertiary Element for tactics combined with analysis and another for tactics combined with operation. These tend to be more versatile and more difficult to master than the Interstitial Elements, because their ingredient Elements have less in common and are more opposed in their principles. We’ll see the logical conclusion of this with the Great Elements in a future article.

Snow Element


Snow Element (combination of Ice and Wind): Snow Element is the Element of hacking, and it combines analysis with tactics in order to explore structures or systems and find ways in which their properties can be better leveraged or exploited. It can also be used to come up with clever ways to learn as much as possible from an environment with limited resources.

One example of hacking mindset is to use knowledge of a computer program’s limitations and assumptions to present it with a situation it was not designed to deal with, to get it to behave in ways that were not thought to be possible.

Hacking mindset has a snow theme because of snow’s obvious association with ice and wind, because it adds extra solidity to tactics while adding versatility to analysis, and because of the cascading effects it can have on systems, like the proverbial snowball effect or even an avalanche. Also because of Snow Crash.

Void Element


Void Element (combination of Ice and Darkness): Void Element is the Element of deconstruction, and it combines analysis with empathy in order to better understand the emotions and perspectives of others. Deconstruction mindset also allows you to visit other people’s paradigms, figure out the underlying assumptions and weak points, and show people those properties in a way that they can understand and accept.

One example of deconstruction mindset is to engage in collaborative truth-seeking with a person in order to resolve a disagreement. Deconstruction can also be used to call into question the popular understanding of a trope (a feature or theme that shows up across multiple works of fiction) by depicting more realistic consequences for it, e.g. showing how people would actually deal with having a magical adventure. (For more about trope deconstruction, you can visit, but be careful, because TVTropes Will Ruin Your Life.)

Deconstruction is themed on the concept of “void”, or nothingness, because its major strength is to dampen emotion and motivation and dismantle or erase ideas and paradigms. In addition, voids are usually depicted as dark, and often cold. Due to the difficulty of depicting nothingness, deconstruction has the moon as a secondary theme, because the moon seems to be erased on a regular basis, and because deconstruction mindset opposes narrative mindset, which has the sun as its theme.

Magnetism Element


Magnetism Element (combination of Electricity and Darkness): Magnetism Element is the Element of politics, and it combines organization and empathy in order to coordinate the emotions of large, diverse groups and negotiate agreements that are satisfactory to as many as possible. It is also useful for determining how much effort it is worth to make an impression on someone, and what the optimum way to do so is.

One application of politics mindset is to broker a compromise between two conflicting groups of people over what you’re going to do that weekend, while ensuring that people feel good enough about it that there is no lasting resentment.

Politics mindset is themed after magnetism because magnetism is related to physical electricity and it works subtly and invisibly. Furthermore, magnetism often takes effect by aligning various domains in a ferromagnetic material to point in the same direction, and the domains exert their own force by so cooperating. Similarly, groups of people can be aligned (or polarized) to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal despite their differences. Moreover, the term “magnetism” has been used to describe politically-apt people for a long time.

Radio Element


Radio Element (combination of Electricity and Light): Radio Element is the Element of notification, and it combines organization and semantics in order to coordinate information, so that people are apprised of what they need to know, when they need to know it. It is also useful for scanning one’s environment efficiently, and for doing research in order to acquire basic knowledge of a situation.

One example of notification mindset in use is the selection of search algorithms to sweep an area. A double example is mission control doing research on situations that field agents encounter and telling them the most important facts.

Notification mindset has a radio theme because radio waves represent a range of wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum and easily create electric current through induction, which is how transceivers work.. Furthermore, radio waves are used for scanning and information transmission.

Sun Element


Sun Element (combination of Fire and Light): Sun Element is the Element of narrative, and it combines synthesis and semantics in order to create brands, rules, codes of conduct, metaphors, and entire paradigms that represent ideals and systematize adherence to or understanding of concepts. It can give meaning to experiences and create stories which allow us to designate what information is significant and which isn’t.

One example of narrative mindset is the creation of a logo and a mascot with a backstory in order to embody an ideal a company wants to strive for. Another example is the creation of all of these metaphorical “Elements” to make it easier to visualize and get excited about problem-solving mindsets.

Narrative mindset has a sun theme because of the sun’s obvious associations with fire and light, because the sun is a powerful symbol in every culture, and because suns by definition have planets (as opposed stars in general), which Sun Element uses to represent the worlds that it creates.

Lava Element


Lava Element (combination of Fire and Earth): Lava Element is the Element of institution, and it combines synthesis and strategy to create visionary new structures and systems which are fortified with foresight. Unlike many such creations, which emerge haphazardly through the short-term decisions of isolated groups of people, the creations of institution mindset are deliberate and cohesive. In contrast to the so-called institutions that are clumsy and counterproductive, institutions devised by a skilled institution user run smoothly, are well-equipped to adapt and evolve as necessary, and have policies for elegantly stepping aside in situations where they are not helpful.

One example of institution mindset is the creation of a mission statement and organizational structure for a new type of non-profit. World-building is also an application of institution, because it requires imagining a robust, functioning system and its behavior under various circumstances, as well as working within limitations to prioritize different aspects you want it to have that may be mutually exclusive with each other.

Institution mindset has a lava theme because of lava’s obvious association with both fire and earth, and because institution can transform the world by creating new structures and even whole landscapes, sometimes wiping out what used to be there.

Clay Element


Clay Element (combination of Water and Earth): Clay Element is the Element of preparation, and it combines operation and strategy to allow the user to apply practiced intuition to recognize contingencies and weak points in a plan, and fluently go through the steps to acquire the materials to fortify the plan. It works best on situations you are familiar with, due to the reliance on operation. Preparation can be used before an event to drill in appropriate actions (obviously) or during an evolving situation to gradually guide it towards a more favorable outcome with each immediate decision.

An example of the use of preparation mindset would be maneuvering a fighting opponent towards more favorable ground that gives you an advantage. Another might be quickly assembling supplies you might need for a sudden trip, if you’ve gone on similar trips before.

Preparation mindset has a clay theme because of clay’s obvious association with both water and earth, and because it clay combines the fluid and adaptable nature of water with the solidity and durability of earth. Preparation can be used to procure tools, shape the environment, or to impede unfavorable events, similarly to how clay can be shaped into tools and buildings or bog things down.

Rubber Element


Rubber Element (combination of Water and Wind): Rubber Element is the Element of flexibility, and it combines operation and tactics to allow a person to gracefully generate and implement clever ploys that intuitively take into account the situation and the person’s available resources and abilities. Whereas ordinary operation requires practice in the specific skills and motions one wishes to use, flexibility makes it easier to come up with ways to adapt the same skills and motions to new purposes.

An example of flexibility mindset in use would be applying one’s existing martial arts skills towards wielding a stepladder as a makeshift weapon, having nothing better on hand. Another might be exploring and practicing different methods for performing tasks and overcoming obstacles if you lose an arm. (Also, any task that becomes a regular routine stops qualifying as “tactics” and so the flexibility mindset eventually just becomes “operation”).

Flexibility mindset has a rubber theme because rubber is flexible and elastic, able to stretch or compress to fit different purposes, and then return to its original shape afterward (if allowed to do so). It is more reliable than the wind, but more versatile than water when it comes to storing, absorbing, and redirecting energy.

Quaternary Elements

The four Quaternary Elements are combinations of two non-opposing Secondary Elements. They are similar in scope and versatility to the Tertiary Elements.

Crystal Element


Crystal Element (combination of Earth and Light): Crystal Element is the Element of clarification, and it combines strategy and semantics to create fortified semantic systems, allowing the user to write instructions, constitutions, or other documentation in such a way as to remove ambiguity and prevent misunderstanding (at the cost of taking more time and effort). It can also be used to write computer code that is easy to debug and that has minimal errors or unintended effects. Conversely, clarification can also apply semantics to strategy in order to create protocols and checklists which speed up and simplify the process of identifying weak points and closing unwanted possibilities, at the cost of relying on assumptions which may not be valid.

One application of clarification mindset is contract law, creating formal agreements with as few loopholes as possible. Another application is creating formulas and algorithms for more effectively and easily playing board games (not quite the same thing as game theory).

Clarification mindset has a crystal theme because of crystal’s obvious association with clarity, earth, and light. Furthermore, a crystal is a mineral which often forms (relatively) rapidly due to its rigidly ordered structure, but which is brittle or conditionally durable due to that same order, reflecting the difference between clarification mindset and basic strategy.

Dust Element


Dust Element (combination of Earth and Darkness): Dust Element is the Element of reputation, combining strategy and empathy to help a person influence what lasting impressions they make on people. This mindset allows one to make decisions with the possible feelings of others in mind, avoid negative associations or causing offense, and form plans to build stronger relationships and positive associations. Knowing to what degree associations will stick and dealing with cognitive dissonance between different associations is part of managing any reputation.

One application of reputation mindset is managing public image for a celebrity, politician, or company.

Reputation mindset has a dust theme because dust is associated with earth, and has connotations of an impression that lingers; a lasting trace of what was present. It accumulates on people, places, and objects, and reflects past associations.

Glass Element


Glass Element (combination of Wind and Light): Glass Element is the Element of interpretation, and it combines tactics and semantics in order to exploit the ambiguity inherent in any semantic system. Although this mindset is often used for sneaky purposes, due to its ability to find loopholes in rules and twist the truth (by saying things that are literally true but deceive people into thinking something else), it is capable of constructive feats as well, just like any other mindset. For example, interpretation allows you to collate information and reframe facts so you can see patterns that are not immediately obvious. Furthermore, it can be used to bring together different paradigms and algorithms and use them together in innovative ways in order to create more powerful tactics.

One application of interpretation mindset is steganography: hiding information by storing and transmitting it through unconventional media. Another application is augmenting cooking with chemistry knowledge to create successful recipes that might be hard to come up with otherwise. A third application is making puns.

Interpretation mindset has a glass theme because glass bends light and makes it possible to do innovative things with it, including allowing information to be reflected, distorted, concealed, or magnified. Glass is also fragile, like both tactics and semantics, which open up possibilities of failure and rely on assumptions, respectively. However, the fracturing of glass can also represent when may happen if you reinterpret part of a situation to fit into an unorthodox paradigm, but other aspects of the system don’t fit into the paradigm at all.

Quantum Element


Quantum Element (combination of Wind and Darkness): Quantum Element is the Element of surprise, and it combines tactics and empathy in order to cleverly create impressions which provoke reactions that might not normally be likely, such as confusion, amusement, or realization. Based on an understanding of a person, you can use resources at hand to direct their attention or confront them with something that catches them off guard. The empathy aspect of surprise can also be used to coax resources themselves into lending themselves better to the plan.

One application of surprise mindset is prestidigitation (stage magic). Surprise can also be used on a complex inanimate system, such as an idiosyncratic engine that you would like to induce to generate more power.

The mindset of surprise is themed on quantum mechanics, because even though quantum mechanical phenomena have distinct limitations, they do have a theme of unpredictability and doing what was presumed impossible. Indeed, the entire field of quantum physics was quite a surprise for physics in general.

Tempered Elements

The Tempered Elements are uneven combinations of opposing Primary and Secondary Elements. One Element is “tempered” with its opposite, which is used in the service of the first, to further its purpose. These Elements are quite powerful because of the balance between opposing processes. We’ll see even more such power with the Great Elements in a later article.

Wax Element


Wax Element (Ice tempered with Fire): Wax Element is the Element of science, and it uses synthesis in the service of analysis to generate alternate hypotheses to better model the world, and creative ways to ask questions of unknown systems and get answers through experimentation. It takes both critical thinking and creativity to make sense of new observations and alter existing theories or create new ones to account for them. On its own, this mindset doesn’t necessarily take into account the resources at hand (unlike mindsets related to organization, strategy, or tactics).

Examples of science mindset would be the experiments done to figure out the chemical elements and create theories as to how they relate to each other, or the experiment to calculate the universal gravitational constant. Another example would be crash test dummies, created to test how safe cars are for humans as accurately as possible without injuring actual humans.

Science mindset has a wax theme because of wax’s ability to collect and store various forms of analog information, including shapes, smells and other chemicals, and even sounds. Wax has also been used to detect subtle events (the unauthorized opening of letters) and similarly can seal things to preserve them for future study. Finally, wax can be used to create replicas, which represents the testing of hypotheses on simulated systems (e.g. crash test dummies).

Plastic Element


Plastic Element (Fire tempered with Ice): Plastic Element is the Element of design, and it uses analysis in the service of synthesis to create schematics for systems to serve specific purposes, based on a working knowledge of the principles involved. Like pure synthesis, design is used to envision new possibilities of things to be created, beyond that which exists. However, it uses analysis to make sure those possibilities could function as intended. On its own, this mindset doesn’t necessarily take into account limitations on the resources available or failure modes for unplanned situations (unlike mindsets related to organization, strategy, or tactics), but when used properly it usually generates multiple alternative designs which account for different priorities and limiting factors.

An example of design mindset would be generating various possible blueprints for an ergonomic chair.

Design mindset has a plastic theme because of plastic’s use in prototyping and proof-of-concept mock-ups.

String Element


String Element (Electricity tempered with Water): String Element is the Element of orchestration, and it uses operation in the service of organization to intuitively track and coordinate many details in a dynamic system with which the user is familiar. Organizing many things is always a challenge, but getting them to work together fluidly in real time takes practice and a developed intuition, which operation provides.

One example of orchestration mindset is, not coincidentally at all, conducting an orchestra. (The fact that orchestras usually have stringed instruments is a coincidence, but it fit the theme so well I couldn’t not mention it.) Keeping track of the performance of all the instruments and getting them to play in harmony is definitely within the purview of orchestration mindset (plus rapport for evoking emotions from the audience).

Orchestration has a string theme because strings are used to track and manipulate many different things in concert, and are thematically associated with such actions already (marionettes, for example).

Soap Element


Soap Element (Water tempered with Electricity): Soap Element is the Element of thoroughness, and it uses organization in the service of operation to perform tasks and movements efficiently. With thoroughness, you can evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of your movements and identify possible improvements to practice in the future. By optimizing your practice, you can make the most of the time, resources, and effort you have available.

Aside from identifying and implementing efficient ways to literally clean things up, the mindset of thoroughness can be used to figuratively clean things up: examples include cleaning a battlefield of opponents, cleaning up on the sales floor by smoothly prioritizing customers to attend to, and cleaning simple errands off a to-do list.

Thoroughness has a soap theme (along with bubbles, membranes, and caustic/corrosive chemicals) because soap and corrosives have connotations of scouring, and membranes have connotations of filtration. Both of these concepts represent changing the condition of an object or liquid (by removing filth) as much as possible with greatly reduced effort and in a realistic time frame. Also, soap is associated with water, but also relies on ions and polar molecules, invoking the concept of electricity in the form of charge and attraction.

Debris Element


Debris Element (Earth tempered with Wind): Debris Element is the Element of salvage, and it uses tactics in the service of strategy to improvise solutions that maintain the integrity of an overall plan. If a plan is in trouble and needs a creative solution to continue working, salvage mindset can innovate a patch or workaround while ensuring it is reinforced against problems that could come up in the future, so that the overall plan is still robust.

Examples of salvage mindset range from repairing a device using makeshift parts to finding new means of transportation to and from an event because the person who was going to drive couldn’t make it (while ensuring that there will still be room for everyone).

Salvage mindset has a debris theme because of the obvious associations between debris and salvage.

Nuclear Element


Nuclear Element (Wind tempered with Earth): Nuclear Element is the Element of overhaul, and it uses strategy in the service of tactics to repurpose resources in robust ways. If a plan or device would be more valuable put to a different use than that for which it was created, the mindset of overhaul can figure out how to make it work for that use, while making sure it is nearly as reliable as something that was originally designed for it. While similar to institution mindset, overhaul mindset does not assume the luxury of starting from scratch. Often the current system must even be kept partially functional while it is being converted to the new system.

Examples of overhaul mindset include the transformation of a car into an amphibious vehicle, or expanding an intersection and the roads leading to it to accommodate more traffic while allowing cars to continue to use the intersection with only minor inconvenience while the intersection is being expanded.

Overhaul has a “nuclear” theme because nuclear power represents an approach that generates large amounts of energy and requires a very robust infrastructure and occasional retrofits, as well as because of fictional depictions of nuclear energy, which show it mutating things into different and stronger forms.

Ink Element


Ink Element (Light tempered with Darkness): Ink Element is the Element of translation, and it uses empathy in the service of semantics to better understand information being communicated by a person from a different paradigm, and to find effective ways of conveying information based on the different paradigms of one’s audience. The means of conveyance may be words, pictures, or pantomime, but in each case the most important aspect of translation is figuring out which words (or pictures, or motions) will be most effective for a particular audience. As with other empathy-related mindsets, translation requires listening to and understanding others in order to be effective.

The obvious example of translation mindset is translating thoughts and ideas between different languages, conventions, or cultures, which often don’t have a corresponding word for a particular concept. Thus the information you want to convey needs to be reconstructed from the words that are available based on how they are understood by people, so that people receive the message as intended. Furthermore, factual information must sometimes be conveyed to people who haven’t yet grasped the underlying concepts (or “schema”). In such cases, you may have to either help them build the concepts in their heads from more basic ones, or invoke the most similar concepts they know that are close enough for the time being (e.g. “atoms are like little spheres”). Emotional information is often even harder to convey, so the you may need to invoke an emotional memory from the audience that is similar to the emotion being described (e.g. “they were hurt that you insulted their poem; imagine if someone told you that your cooking was disgusting”). Translation can be used to explain the concept of war to a small, isolated tribe of islanders, but the more different a person’s frame of reference is, the more explanation it will take in order to avoid a misunderstanding.

Translation mindset has an ink theme because ink is a medium in which actual information is presented (as opposed to paper, which provides a context for the information; see below). Moreover, ink can be used to not only write words but also draw pictures and diagrams in order to effectively convey information to people who may not be familiar with the concepts involved. Finally, just as two people may see different objects in the same pattern of ink, so they may get different meanings from the same words and phrases, and it is important to account for that when conversing with them.

Paper Element


Paper Element (Darkness tempered with Light): Paper Element is the Element of background, and it uses semantics in the service of empathy to simplify the process of creating certain impressions. By following rules, you can more easily project a particular feeling to observers (who may or may not notice the effect), through cues involving appearance, word choice, or environment.

Examples of background mindset include etiquette, attire, makeup, accents, dialects, slang, shibboleths, fonts, camouflage, aposematism (and by extension warning signs and safety vests), and all the little touches of authenticity and verisimilitude that give readers information about the setting of a story, like references to period technology or celebrities of the day.

Background mindset has a paper theme because paper is the medium on which information is portrayed, and it provides some of the ambiance even though a person’s attention is mostly on the information in the actual message. Paper also refers to wallpaper, which provides emotional impressions in a room even though it is typically unnoticed, as people tend to focus on the actual contents of the room.


Keep in mind that these peripheral Elements are blends of the more archetypal Primary and Secondary Elements. When you are solving a real problem, you may invoke many different Elements, and the lines between similar Elements may blur. You may work on a semantics problem and invoke the related mindsets of precision and diagnosis, or even bring in organization just to make sure you’re using your time effectively. The purpose of naming all these peripheral Elements is to make you aware of what you can do when you learn more Elements and are capable of blending different types of thinking together (or oscillating between them rapidly).

If a person practices many or all of the Elements related to a Primary or Secondary Element, they can be said to use an “enhanced” version of that Element. For example, if a person practices the Elements of Ice, X-Ray, Rock, Snow, Void, and Wax, they would be said to be an Enhanced Ice Element user (for those keeping count, that’s the Primary Element, two Interstitial Elements, two Tertiary Elements, and a Tempered Element). Enhanced Secondary Elements may also involve the two related Quaternary Elements. Enhanced Elements are much more effective because they invoke the strengths of other Elements.

There are yet more Elements and more you can do, though! By combining opposing Primary and Secondary Elements in equal measure, you get Great Elements. Beyond those, there are even more powerful Elements that represent the combination of Great Elements, and of which these peripheral Elements are but slivers. We shall get to all of these and more in a later article. For now, be assured that the world of consciousness is wide. Each of these Elements holds infinite possibility, and the scope of possibilities opens up even further as you learn more Elements with which to pursue your goals.

However, knowing about the Elements is just the starting point. To develop your power, you must practice and seek feedback. When you can do that deliberately, you’re on your way to becoming the person you need to be in order to be who you want to be.



  • Explosion Element in this article was updated from the old version on 3/15/20. You can view the change in the Changelog.
  • The image for Aura Element in this article was updated from the old version on 3/15/20. You can view the change in the Changelog.

Elaborations on the Elements

In How to Change the World we went over the basic mindsets that people need in order to deal with challenges. Here, we’ll explore them in more detail. These mindsets, or “Elements” as I style them, are not boxes to put people in. With very few exceptions, all people can use all Elements if they know how to practice them, and they should.

What the Elements are is a vocabulary to describe how people think. You can think of them as the primary colors with which to paint a picture of a person (along with other concepts like motivations; more about that later). Like primary colors of light or pigment, they have infinite blends between them and can be used to form endless shapes and pictures, with an infinite variety of meanings. Also like primary colors, each one that is missing takes away a huge range of colors you can make. (Just for the sake of art, each basic Element has a color motif, though they can’t all be actual primary colors.) Every mindset has strengths and weaknesses that are complemented by other mindsets.

The Elements you see here represent archetypal mindsets in their purest, most characteristic form, so that they are easy to understand. Most importantly, they are here to help you learn to think differently to better deal with different situations. The more Elements you are skilled with, the more types of situations you can deal with, especially when you can combine basic Elements together into more advanced ones (more about those later).

If you pay attention to the people around you, you may notice which sorts of problems they like to work on and which ones stymie them. You may pick up on themes what aspects of situations they talk about, and what sorts of phrases they like to use. These clues hint at what mindsets they tend to use, and which ones they might not be well-versed in. As you read, you may identified which ones you prefer and which ones you need to develop.

Without further ado, here are the eight basic Elements of consciousness.

The Primary Elements

Ice Element


Ice Element (analysis; assesses concepts): Analysis is about exploring order, differentiating ideas, seeing patterns, and lowering “mental temperature,” which means that a situation doesn’t have to deviate very much from an expected pattern before you decide that the pattern is incomplete or wrong. An analysis user can observe facts and see patterns in them, from which they can infer causal connections or underlying principles. In short, analysis is about taking concepts that you’re aware of and attempting to fit them together and onto the world around you, to expand your awareness of the world’s order.

With analysis, you can also affect the world in new ways based on the order you’re aware of. For example, let’s say you live in a world where sections of air become hard and solid and then revert back to intangible gas seemingly at random, which is very inconvenient for people. However, if you figure out the pattern behind it (maybe some sort of special material, sound, or light pattern, for example, or a combination thereof), and infer a causal relationship, you might discover that you can predict where and when it happens, allowing you to run without fear of colliding with an invisible wall. Not only that, but you can walk on solid air, use it as a tool, and even build devices that generate solid air in whatever shape you want. That’s the sort of thing that analysis lets you do.

Analysis is has an ice theme because ice represents the formation of hard, solid structures (order) and the reduction of energy (chaos). Order is simply what we know (or think we do), what “must” or “cannot” happen. Chaos is what we don’t know, what may or may not happen. Analysis pushes back the unknown and imposes certainty. The metaphor of solidity representing order and rationality, versus energy representing chaos and creativity, has been around for a long time, because it is a very good metaphor. Solid structures represent limitations, and they can therefore immobilize things, join them together, cut them apart, slide between equivalent things, et cetera. The important thing isn’t that the patterns are perfectly representative of reality, but that they’re right most of the time, so you can make use of them if you’re aware. The “ice” that forms isn’t altering the world directly; it’s forming in your head and allowing you to be aware and make use of consistency in the world.

Ice Element is represented by the color blue.

Fire Element


Fire Element (synthesis; generates concepts): Synthesis is about exploring chaos, blending ideas, seeing possibilities, divergent thinking, free association, imagination, and raising mental temperature, which means that a situation must deviate a great deal from a pattern before your brain stops trying to superimpose the pattern on the situation. In short, synthesis is about taking concepts you’re aware of and attempting to alter or combine different aspects of them to form new ideas, to expand your awareness of the world’s possibilities.

This mindset is often used for creating elaborate and original art or fiction, but it can also be used to help refine abstract concepts by imagining a more pure example of a phenomenon than what you’ve seen in real life. For example, you may have experienced emotions like joy, despair, anger, or fear, but only at relatively small, manageable levels. Synthesis would allow you to imagine a situation that would evoke those emotions (in you or others) to a much greater degree. That alone would be helpful both in promoting emotions in others or in practicing how to deal with them yourself, but there is more depth to synthesis than just the above.

Because synthesis is the aspect of conscious thought that allows us to imagine new concepts, it is responsible for our ability to create new paradigms through which to experience the world and decide what to do. It lets us become aware in detail of the different possibilities in the world and in what we may be capable of. These possibilities are usually not obvious based on our prior experiences, but with this mindset a person can create a paradigm shift that few others would predict. Nobody would work to invent a new technology or overthrow a corrupt regime if they thought that it couldn’t be done, or if they couldn’t picture in their mind the happiness that they would bring to people by doing so. Synthesis is what allows you to imagine a possible future that validates your efforts by its mere existence as a possibility. Moreover, say you have an accident and learn that you’ll never be able to play the violin again, as the cliché goes. If everything you’ve been working towards becomes virtually impossible, synthesis is how you can visualize a new goal (like composing or teaching music, or something completely different) to work towards so that you can move on. A signature strength of this mindset is the ability to create hope and meaning. With it, you can reforge your life.*

Synthesis is has a fire theme because fire represents the release of energy (chaos) and the transmutation of substances, and yes, the breakdown of solid structures (order). Again, order is simply what we know (or think we do), what must or cannot happen, while chaos is what we don’t know, what may or may not happen. Synthesis explores the unknown and brings back possibilities that threaten certainty. Fire has long been a metaphor for creative energy, hope, a driving force, a spark of inspiration, a forge of creation, a cauldron of concoction, a crucible of refinement, or a dramatic change that brings a place to an end, but which eventually results in something new emerging from the ruins. With Fire Element, you feed experiences and present ideas into the fire as fuel and ingredients, and they are mixed around to release possibilities and generate variations on them that can be slightly different or incredibly divergent.

Fire Element is represented by the color red.

Synthesis is the opposing mindset to analysis, and when combined they form the mindset of perception. More about perception mindset later.

*Synthesis is not the same as growth mindset, which is the process of deciding to risk pursuing the goals that synthesis allows us to envision. More about growth mindset later.

Electricity Element


Electricity Element (organization; optimizes navigation): Organization is about keeping track of details, balancing priorities, managing resources, and making decisions. In life, there are many tradeoffs that people need to make based on what they want and the limited resources they possess. With organization mindset, people can figure out how to allocate their resources most effectively, to get the most of what they want. Resources are frequently used to generate other resources, which in turn can be managed with organization mindset.

As an agricultural example of organization in use, Person A has a pig. Person B is willing to trade their cow for the pig. Person A must use organization to choose whether they want the pig or the cow more, based on the various future options they would have with either animal. Person A also has 50 chickens. Person C is willing to trade 100 chicks for Person A’s chickens. Person A must think to ask themselves whether it is worth spending their own time and effort raising those chicks in order to double their number of chickens. This decision is based on how easy it is for Person A to raise chicks as well as what other useful activities Person A could be doing instead (opportunity cost). It is also based on whether Person A wants to have money from chickens now, or (in theory) twice as much money from chickens later. Keeping all of these factors in working memory in order to weigh them against each other is what organization is about. Organization will also be used in deciding how and when to transport the animals (train or truck?), and when (can you combine the errand with another one to save a trip?). Zeroing in on the specific logistical details of how to implement a decision is part of organization.

The mindset of organization is not the one that covers calculating the most efficient use of resources where there is a demonstrably right answer that can be calculated with an algorithm. Mathematics and algorithms fall under the domain of semantics mindset. Organization is about being aware of all the paths you can take and judging them against each other based on your priorities, not calculating the unit price of a juice container (although such knowledge does make it easier to make optimized decisions, which is an example of why mindsets are even more useful when they work together).

Organization applies order and chaos in the distinct part of a person’s mind. A person must be aware of the possibilities available to them (chaos) and judge the consequences of their choices and how well they will achieve what they want (order).

Organization mindset has an electricity theme because electricity represents a surplus of charge moving to correct a deficit, just as resources move to meet demands. The surplus electrons in a direct electric current respond to attractive forces that can originate far away, just as organization users must consider goals that are not immediately in front of them when they make their decisions. Furthermore, electric current takes the path of least resistance, the most efficient path available. It may split into several paths with varying currents if that is a more efficient route to its destination, as in parallel circuits, just as the best choice is likely a combination of options. However, electricity is also capable of forming an ionized path to arc through the air as a unified group; it could not traverse air gaps otherwise. This phenomenon represents decisiveness: sometimes committing to a path is more important than spending extra effort choosing the best one (see also Buridan’s Ass, a hypothetical donkey that starves because it cannot choose between two equal piles of hay to eat). Finally, electricity is itself a resource that can be allocated and used to power things, and the better we manage it, the more we can do with it.

Electricity Element is represented by the color yellow.

Water Element


Water Element (operation; internalizes navigation): Operation is about using intuitions developed through practice in order to assess what is happening, make decisions, and gracefully enact them. Similarly to organization, which balances the awareness and influence of order and chaos in the distinct part of the mind, operation balances these aspects of thought in the subliminal part of the mind, where they can generate possibilities and predict their consequences in the immediate situation while leaving hardly a trace of their process. In contrast with organization, which allows a person to deal with a constantly shifting inventory of assets, and array of goals, operation requires practice, feedback, and repetition with consistent situations and tools. It is usually best learned by focusing attention on basic techniques, which build on each other and lead to intuitive understanding of more complex situations. Eventually it’s possible to think about other things while using operation, at least for simple tasks.

The reward for spending so much time calibrating your intuition is a much more graceful and efficient implementation of your chosen course of action. Operation increases reliability and decreases the effort required. Once you have chosen the best use of your resources using organization and other mindsets, operation is how you carry out your plan. (Operation can inform your sense of the situation as well, especially when combined with other mindsets.)

Whether it is driving a vehicle, throwing a projectile, wielding a tool or weapon, crafting an object, singing, dancing, walking along streets you know by heart, or simply meditating, operation is about becoming one with the moment. The moment may be larger than the literal immediate present and vicinity, and it may involve doing any of the above in coordination with a team. The key idea is intuition: unifying experience with knowledge and decision with control, and sometimes even unifying knowledge and decision.

The mindset of operation has a water theme, unsurprisingly. Water has long been used to represent the mental state of performing at one’s peak by allowing intuition to take over, appropriately enough called the “flow”. When it moves, it is very similar to electricity, being an equalization of potential differences through the motion of fluid particles through the most efficient channels. However, while electricity powers components over large distances, water keeps momentum and pushes the environment out of the way. While water does respond to the attraction of gravity, it pays little heed to any other remote forces—only the materials that touch a volume of water can govern the motion of the water, reflecting how operation deals with an immediate situation, even when in pursuit of an ultimate goal. Water also changes its environment over time, just as repeated actions form channels in our minds which make them easier to continue. Although all mindsets build habits and need calibration, operation is the one that most relies on these principles.

Water Element is represented by the color green.

Operation is the opposing mindset to organization, and when combined they form the mindset of action. More about action mindset later.

The Secondary Elements

The Secondary Elements are distinct enough in character from the Primary Elements, and are used frequently enough by people who do not use the corresponding Primary Elements, that I put them at nearly the same level of prominence as the Primary Elements.

Earth Element


Earth Element (strategy; fortifies paths; combination of analysis and organization): Strategy is about using foresight to assess the logical implications of possible choices, to determine not only their efficiency but also their outcomes and vulnerabilities. Thus one can take steps to close down unwanted possibilities, expending extra resources to make an endeavor more robust. The paradigm of strategy is that decisions have long-term consequences and implications beyond the immediate and obvious, such as side-effects, risks, and hidden requirements. With strategy you can predict those implications, keep track of them as details, weigh them against priorities, and make good decisions as to how best to succeed in the long-term based on the limiting factors in play. Then you can choose whether to pay the price for increasing the durability of your system. Related mindsets are standardization: prioritizing cost-efficiency, and security: prioritizing guarantees. See below for those.

The mindset of strategy is comprised of organization and analysis. It keeps track of details in situations, and any properties of those details that confer benefits or detriments. Strategy can map various conventional paths from the present to desired futures based on current resources, and evaluate the relative merits of those paths. It might consolidate its resources into versatile tools, to make it easier to change direction if necessary. Strategy deals with resources that cannot be easily shifted, so it often chooses the least permanent option, or generates contingency plans in case the option taken turns out badly. Reconfiguring these resources is costly, whether in time or some other type of resource, so decisions cannot easily be reversed, but that also means durable and grand works can be created from them. However, all the intermediate steps must be durable enough to withstand the construction process. Users of strategy can see the safest order in which to move resources by identifying the possible paths and their vulnerabilities.

Unlike analysis, strategy manages the details of real resources, but doesn’t deal with the differentiation of abstract concepts in and of themselves. Unlike organization, strategy deals with possible threats and unintended consequences based on looking at all the properties of a system and its environment, not just the ones immediately related to the goal. Strategy does not deal with maximizing the efficiency and output of a system in the present moment so much as balancing efficiency with the long-term stability of the system.

One illustration of strategy is a person setting up a farm such that the vulnerable animals are closest to the center, away from predators. The predators are not part of the business paradigm, but are a reality of the natural world that must be acknowledged. Another example is the standard team-building exercise of creating as tall a tower as possible out of marshmallows and toothpicks. The standard organization approach might be to maximize height by building a straight line up. However, robust design would sacrifice height for stability, building a wider structure so that environmental factors not explicitly acknowledged (accidental table-bumps, drafts) would not hurt the structure. On a more immediate time-scale, examples include deciding to take the time to back up your computer or bringing a book to read at the dentist’s office in case you don’t like any of the magazines there.

Strategy has an earth theme because physical earth is thematically associated with solidity, stability, and slowness. When dealing with earth, mistakes have long-term consequences, because earth is heavy, hard to shape, and can collapse above or below people. Shaping the earth can close possibilities by making some options very difficult, and it is important to pay attention and consider consequences, to ensure that the options one closes are the ones one wants to close. However, shifting earth over the long term can change the terrain and accomplish great things, shrinking the odds of failure. Done properly, a strategy user can reduce the possibility that their own structures will be damaged, or eliminate the possibility of another person taking a dangerous path. Earth is a resource, limited by time and space and not simply appearing spontaneously, similar to electricity. However, it is also solid and forms structures that are bound to each other, similar to ice.

Earth Element is represented by the color purple.

Wind Element


Wind Element (tactics; repurposes paths; combination of synthesis and organization): Tactics is about applying resources in creative ways to open up possibilities and accomplish tasks that would not be possible if the resources were used in the more obvious ways. The paradigm of tactics is that in any given situation, the resources and factors in play have properties that are not in play, and by reconfiguring the resources at hand into a system that uses these unused properties, you can accomplish more than is apparent at first. To use tactics is to be clever.

Tactics can successfully apply resources to tasks other than the one they are most suited for currently. However, there are usually tradeoffs; it is likely that the resources will not be as efficient at performing the new task compared to if they were specifically designed for that purpose. The strength of this mindset is that it can make the resources perform the task at all. It’s a very useful skill when you don’t have the resources you’d prefer. It should be noted that the mindset of tactics is not necessarily a short-term mindset, used only in a pinch. A tactician can think up clever ways to apply resources at leisure, and call on such ideas when an appropriate situation arises. It is also possible to use tactics to open up possibilities far into the future. However, when a tactics user opens up new possibilities, many of those possibilities are fascinating new ways to fail. The more resources are involved, the greater the risk. Just as strategy uses resources to impose stability, tactics uses resources to unleash possibility, which is unstable on its own. Therefore, the bigger the tactic, the more important it is to use strategy to fortify it.

Examples of tactics are quite common in fiction because a) they take much less time to explain and implement compared to strategy; b) they are opportunities to show the audience something new and spectacular, rather than repetitive techniques using operation or events that were prevented by strategy; and c) they allow protagonists to beat the odds and get out of seemingly impossible situations, allowing the author to build up large amounts of suspense. Tactics can be as simple as using a chair or other furniture item as a weapon or using a random object as a step-stool, or as inspired as (minor spoiler for the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) Henry Jones Sr. destroying a WWII-era fighter plane bearing down on him by startling a flock of birds and causing them to fly into the propellers.

Like organization, tactics uses resources and pays attention to their properties and interactions. Like synthesis, tactics involves combining existing ideas in order to create new ones. However, tactics is slightly more specialized than either. Unlike synthesis, tactics must abide by the limitations of existing resources to come up with viable plans, but also unlike synthesis, it can abide by these limitations. Unlike organization, tactics is more concerned with exploring the different effects that it can get out of a set of resources than with maximizing the output, but again, unlike organization, it can achieve more effects than just the known ones.

Tactics has a wind theme because physical wind, the movement of air, is thematically associated with transience and changeability, the existence of prevailing winds notwithstanding. Similarly, triumphs of tactics tend to be somewhat short-lived: once a tactic is used, it can become a standard procedure that people are taught to use, and is less likely to fall under the category of “tactics mindset” unless someone invents it independently. Also, tactics on its own can be unreliable because while it opens up new possibilities for success, it also opens up new possibilities for failure. Furthermore, physical wind can change direction quickly, pass through very small spaces and, if strong enough, rearrange objects in its wake, thematically evoking playfulness and matching the trickster antics which the mindset of tactics naturally lends itself to. However, both physical wind and the mindset of tactics can unleash devastation if they have access to the right (or wrong) combination of resources. Despite both air and water being fluids, the much lower inertia of air and its ability to apparently “flow uphill” make it appropriate as a theme for a mindset that opens possibilities.

Wind Element is represented by the color orange.

Tactics is the opposing mindset to strategy, and when combined they form the mindset of facilitation. More about facilitation mindset later.

Light Element


Light Element (semantics; simplifies interactions; combination of analysis and operation): Semantics is about interfacing with reality using labels, rules, and algorithms which approximately describe the situation at hand. These tools are matched to the situation through both intuition and analysis. The power of semantics to simplify interactions is particularly useful for dealing with complex systems as well as pinning down unstable ones, where a specific quantity represents the threshold between failure and success.

Semantics mindset combines analysis and operation to smoothly classify things according to a preconceived system (generated by another mindset, or by a more abstract layer of semantics). It deals in judging by appearances, an important skill. To do this, it creates symbols and labels, syntax and languages, lexicons and vocabularies, and rules and algorithms in order to quickly derive conclusions based on input and a practiced system of interpretation. These tools allow people to contextualize their experiences within a known paradigm (a set of assumptions about how the situation works), and then allow them to move within that paradigm rapidly to reach the implications of their experiences.

The overarching paradigm of semantics is that you can learn an approximate model for a given type of situation. You can use this model to formulate a question or describe a problem, and the model will help you calculate an answer or verify a possible solution. To do so, you figure out what labels to put on something and choose the appropriate algorithm to feed the labels into. By practicing applying the model, you can become skilled at navigating within its paradigm. Practice lets you develop an intuition for what approaches and algorithms will lead to the most effective solutions. The model makes assumptions to simplify the situation, making it easier to deal with and enabling the model to be used on other similar situations. Ideally, the model is still accurate enough to be effective despite its assumptions. The more complex and sophisticated the model, the more difficult it is to use, but the more accurate it can be if necessary.

Unlike analysis, the mindset of semantics cannot create new tools or concepts to analyze systems that haven’t yet been modeled symbolically in some way, but semantics is capable of fluidly moving within those models and paradigms in order to more quickly compute the answers to problems. For semantics, problems contain their own answers. Unlike operation, semantics can generalize a model to deal with a range of similar situations instead of having to practice with each individual situation. However, semantics needs the model framework to start with, while operation goes purely by feel. For example, figuring out how much fuel is necessary to go a longer distance is simply a matter of plugging a different number into the formula. Rather than having to practice with every individual situation, semantics. Moreover, unlike operation, semantics can provide a record of its decision process in the form of proofs or explanations.

(A good way to illustrate the continuum between analysis and operation is with chains of reasoning. Analysis says, “X implies Y implies Z, based on observations of the world. I know X is true, therefore I know Z is true.” Semantics says, “X implies Z according to this formula. I know X is true, therefore I know Z is true.” Operation says, “I’ve got a feeling Z is true. I’ve been around a while and developed a sense for this sort of thing.” All of these approaches have their own strengths and weaknesses.)

A person might user semantics in their everyday life by using the paradigm of accurate odometers and gas gauges to calculate their gas mileage, by using shadows to calculate the height of a building through the paradigm of trigonometry, or by applying the paradigm of Newtonian physics to calculate how long it takes a ball to roll down a slope. Semantics is also important for transmitting information, simplifying situations so you can use words, like “chair” or “bird”, instead of drawing or miming an object or animal in detail every time you want to describe it. Mathematics, physics, law, programming, and language are all built on semantics, to name some prominent fields.

Semantics has a light theme because physical light is extremely fast, and it forms images which give people convenient superficial information about situations. This information is incomplete but often comprehensive enough to effectively represent the entire situation instantly. Similarly, the ability of semantics to simplify interactions makes it very fast to draw conclusions, make decisions, and transmit information. However, though it can be used to quickly take stock of a situation, it still does not have all the information, and must be used appropriately. Just as light can fool the eyes, so can semantics fool a person into drawing a conclusion that is not actually true. Furthermore, it is also possible to overload oneself with data, analogous to temporarily blinding oneself with a bright light. The metaphor of Light Element can be viewed as a sort of holographic augmented reality, with luminous labels and diagrams superimposed over a situation to highlight the important aspects and allow them to be fed into algorithms or transmitted as information.

Light Element is represented by the color white.

Darkness Element


Darkness Element (empathy; individualizes interactions; combination of synthesis and operation): Empathy is about forming a more nuanced and dynamic impression of a complex system which cannot be fully described, often a person, and using that impression to more effectively and harmoniously interact with that system.

The mindset of empathy probes entities and situations and explores their responses to get an intuitive feel for their paradigms, allowing you to shift at least partially into their paradigm. You can then interact with the entities and situations on their own terms. The paradigm of empathy is that other entities have nuanced personalities and moods. It is thus unwise to make assumption about how their experiences will affect their behavior. However, it is possible to learn about an entity by observing its behavior and interacting with it. You can develop an intuition about the entity based on what you learn about it, using your imagination and your intuition of yourself to fill in the inevitable gaps, and doing more passive and active learning when you are not sure of a situation. As the entity grows and changes from day to day, or moment to moment, you will have to be constantly updating your impression of it.

With empathy, you can enter the paradigms of people, animals, and even temperamental inanimate objects you interact with. You can also explore other possible paradigms for yourself, which is important for being aware of and managing your own emotions. Not only this, but by interacting with the entities, you can influence their experiences, and therefore their behavior. You can even draw them into other paradigms.

Empathy is the gestalt of synthesis and operation. Unlike synthesis, empathy uses imagination to more effectively shift into existing paradigms in use by other entities, rather than blending up new paradigms from scratch. Unlike operation, empathy specializes in dealing with handling complex and shifting entities that have agency and personalities of their own (or at least it treats them as if they do). It spends more time on them in order to get to know them and form more effective relationships.

As the opposite of semantics, empathy requires the user to ignore or temporarily forget labels and rules. The assumptions and impressions you have can be worse than useless when attempting to shift paradigms and individualize interactions. Empathy allows you to move between paradigms easily, and can help you deal with people from those different paradigms as if they were naturally from your own paradigm. Furthermore, with empathy you can lead an entity to behave in ways that under normal circumstances it wouldn’t (like being patient or doing you a favor), due to the high degree of harmony you have with that particular entity. The drawback of empathy is that the relationships it forms are not generalizable, unlike semantics.

Empathy works best on entities and situations which undergo many changes often, especially subtle changes and especially in response to hidden environmental changes. People are excellent examples of such entities, so empathy users are especially good with people, though they may specialize in what impressions they want to leave on people (e.g. encouragement, persuasion, intimidation, or stealth). However, empathy users can often form bonds with other such entities such as animals. You can even bond with temperamental inanimate systems, such as vehicles, to better care for them and work together to produce better results.

A person might use empathy in order to determine the best angle to sell a product: what will interest people most about it? To sell a refrigerator, one might figure out what the person’s favorite food or drink is, either by inferring it based on the region or by directly asking, and describing it being preserved for convenience, leading the person to associate positive feelings with the refrigerator. Empathy can also be used to avert culture shock. Each person has their own culture, and a person using empathy might notice that despite not appearing very friendly, a stranger might be looking for a friend and simply not know how to go about it. They may be from a big city and may not be used to greeting random people on the street. An empathy user can explore this possibility through a simple conversation, with their experience in each moment helping them to decide an appropriate thing to say or do in the next one.

As another example, an athletic student might want to establish friendly interactions with drama students, so the athlete must forget preconceptions about them, or labels such as “uncool,” and actively look for qualities to appreciate about them, which would have been overlooked before due to cognitive dissonance with the “uncool” label.

Conveying appreciation, addressing people’s concerns, and in general demonstrating behavior that puts people at ease are all important empathy techniques.

Empathy has a darkness theme because darkness means having to navigate without the simple, easy information provided by appearances, just as empathy forgets labels and explores each situation individually. You must feel your way forward, encountering more of the true nature of what you face rather than being able to judge by what you see.

Moreover, the darkness theme references Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which depicts all people as being chained inside a cave, able to discern the outside (“real”) world only by shadows that outside objects cast on the cave wall by obstructing the light from the entrance. This allegory is meant to show how what we experience of the world is but a single aspect of what the world actually is. Empathy users recognize that what they see of others is only a shadow of what those others actually are, so they imagine what possible shapes could cast those shadows, explore those possibilities with their interactions, and build an intuition about each person from the feedback they receive. Because empathy uses operation, it is the most useful mindset for dealing entities that change shape based on interactions (that is, probing them causes them to change in response), so the user can develop a dynamic, evolving intuition.

The metaphor can even be extended to depict each person with a unique individual cave, seeing very different subjective shadows of the same objective events due to the way the caves are positioned, the different angle of the object, the shadow of the cave wall, et cetera, representing the intuitions that people have built up over their histories which shape the impression that each new experience makes on a person. In order to interact with each other, we must pay attention to the shadows that we and events around us cast on other people. We can then learn to cast different shadows, to change the impressions people get from their experiences.

Darkness Element is represented by the color black.

Empathy is the opposing mindset to semantics, and when combined they form the mindset of communication. More about communication mindset later.


Learning to understand each other’s perspectives and recognizing the limitations of our own ways of thinking are the first steps towards creating a more harmonious society and becoming more mature people.

These Elements represent a way to make those first steps much easier for those who haven’t yet taken them. In order to accomplish great things, we must learn and practice all of these basic mindsets, if only to form the foundation for mindsets greater still. I hope this article and the ones that follow will prove useful to every reader who intends to change the world for the better.

How to Change the World

If you are dissatisfied with the world or struggling with your own life, you may be interested in the plan that I have been alluding to for the past few articles. Please bear with me while I explain why this sort of plan is the only one that could work before explaining what the plan actually is.

“Success?” Well, there’s the problem. I forgot to include the success!

In this world, the vast majority of people at one point or another get stuck in a particular mindset or in certain desires or fears. These states of being stuck lead to insecurity. Merely knowing about how people get stuck does not confer immunity to it (and I know from experience), because most people lack opportunities to learn and practice new mindsets to solve problems that threaten their desires. Alternatively, they cannot tolerate their desires inevitably being now and then subverted or their fears occasionally becoming reality. In their struggle to deal with what they cannot understand or accept, they turn away from good and towards evil.

If you’re perceptive you’re probably thinking, “Great, now we need to functionally define good and evil.” Fear not! These definitions should be useful even outside this blog:

Good and Evil (and Neutral)

  • “Good” describes sacrificing some of the pleasantness of one’s own individual experience in order to improve the individual experience of another person or group of people. The more good (or “better” or “more benevolent,” if you prefer) a person is, the more they are confident with sacrificing in order to help others achieve a stable point in their lives.
  • “Evil” is the opposite of good, and describes actions or people that make other people’s experiences significantly unpleasant in order to achieve one’s own goals, especially when alternative paths to those goals exist that don’t involve hurting people. The more evil a person is, the less excuse they need to take from others.
  • “Neutral” means not spending much effort to affect other people either way, unless it is paying back others’ behavior in kind, such as returning favors or getting revenge.


Of course, the personal cost used for these definitions is subjective, so it is difficult to compare the goodness of people with any precision, if it’s not already obvious. Giving up a dollar not only has a different marginal impact on people with different incomes, but it also means different things depending on whether a person had an alternative option for that dollar: an opportunity cost that they are paying by giving it away. Even two people with the same opportunity cost could have wanted it with different degrees of intensity, which is incredibly subjective and hard to measure. People handle disappointment differently, so who’s to say who wanted it more?

Besides, where a person’s character is concerned, it doesn’t matter where you are so much as where you’re going. Good people, if they’re serious and perceptive about it, will try to develop and strengthen their power to help others and lower the personal cost of doing so, so they can accomplish more with the sacrifice they can tolerate. (I’m just clawing my way out of neutral myself.)

Note that being good doesn’t mean being skilled at doing good; it only means you’re willing to make a sacrifice to do what you think will help people. If you’re wrong about what will help people, then what you do may be tragically misguided, but not evil.

Needless to say, tragically misguided is not good enough (no pun intended… this time). The world needs as many skilled good people as we can get. Evil people will not only break laws to get what they want, but also will trick neutral and misguided good people into creating laws that favor the evil people’s parasitism. Neutral people may be persuaded to band together to create institutions that commit evil on their behalf, without even realizing it. This practice explains why merely raising votes for the least terrible political candidates isn’t sufficient for changing the system.

Let’s say we get a 100% voter participation rate. If nothing else changes, people are still going to fight over what the politicians decide and do, and politicians will still behave as described in Politician Noises. How does this get us a better world again?

Unfortunately, we can’t just change the political system to something inherently more effective (e.g., adopting a ranked voting system) and leave it at that. The restrictions and mandates of any legal or political system cannot solve all problems in advance or protect everyone from everything, and some people happen to be powerless in ways the system cannot predict or cannot standardize a way to help. A government is a system of order, of rules, of musts and must nots. It can only deal with known problems, because to deal with an unknown problem requires creativity, initiative, and other chaotic skills that cannot be specified in laws or judged by fixed criteria.

Any legal structure can be manipulated by evil people unless good people use their judgment and power to stop it. There is no possible form of government, no way of structuring laws or institutions, that can survive for any significant length of time if the people it is meant to guide, the same people that sustain and legitimize it, are afraid to be proactively, skillfully good rather than merely neutral or outright evil.

Not pictured: How actual creativity works.

Those most likely to be afraid are the powerless people, those denied opportunities or the nurturing necessary for most people to develop self-sufficiency. The powerless may turn to evil out of desperation or dissatisfaction with their lives. The neutral people will not stick their necks out to help the powerless because neutral people are averse to the sacrifice and fear it would disrupt the lives they are used to. They would rather keep to themselves and their peers. Only good people would aid those who would otherwise slip through the cracks, taking the initiative to help them get what they want without attempting to steal from or deceive others, even when the good people get no tangible compensation. Some things that we need cannot be required, but must be inspired.

What’s important to realize is that in order to consistently do good, you need to be powerful. If the cost of a given good deed goes up, a person will eventually become unable to tolerate making that sacrifice, for whatever reason. They may fear that if they put too much effort into helping others, they or someone close to them will not survive. As the person’s situation becomes increasingly dire, the only options they consider acceptable might be evil ones.

On the other hand, to demand that a person sacrifice their own life or happiness for equivalent happiness of another would be unfair, and in most cases pointless. Indeed, if everyone practiced complete self-abnegation, nobody would allow themselves to enjoy anything. As a society, would will fail. If we have no competition for fear of injuring those who try and fail, we will not learn from the efforts of those who succeed. Promoting goodness in society requires that people learn balance, so they can accept failure but remain undeterred from pursuing success. We must show respect for those who strive and are defeated, but it is still good to celebrate the victors.


Nuance is hard, though, so how can we promote goodness? First, we need to make sure that people are free to solve problems. They need to be powerful enough to be free. The world will not survive if people are not free to be good, and people will not survive freedom if they are not mature and responsible.

As defined here, freedom is the lack of restrictions, whether artificially imposed by others (laws) or naturally present (physical limitations and needs). Because freedom defies restrictions, it is by definition a form of chaos. To exercise freedom requires the power to bypass limits, and “power” is conceptually related to “potential,” implying possibilities, another connection to chaos.


To say a person is free means we cannot say for certain what they can or will do. Like order, chaos has pros and cons. Freedom allows evil people to hurt others, but it also opens the doors to allow good people to offer help in ways that mere rules would only interfere with. Exactly like power, freedom calls for responsibility. To become responsible and good, we must learn how to take the best parts of chaos and order, so we can develop the power to achieve what we want the most. This learning process requires that we advance our consciousness. To do this, we need to be able to overcome not only outside restrictions but also our own limitations of thought, that can intimidate us and dissuade us from doing good.

Therefore, a plan to change the world in a meaningful way must involve not merely electing the right people, nor merely changing the political system. It must help all people expand their options and become more confident in dealing with problems.


The plan is based on growth mindset. It is the fundamental antithesis of being stuck. It is not a magical solution that will grant your wishes. What the plan is intended to do is map out paths to becoming a person who has the skill and strength to begin solving some of your own problems, and helping others with theirs.

First, there are some concepts we need to go over in order to put the world in perspective. To give you and others the power to do good, we must understand desires and meta-skills.

In Beginning from Basics, we went over the ideas of experience (one’s state of consciousness being part of the effect of an event) and control (being part of an event’s cause). Events which you can experience are part of your field of awareness, and events which you can control are part of your field of influence.

The motivations that you can pursue in this world have to do with experience and control, with what you want to do with your fields of awareness and influence. You can attempt to move more things into them and keep them, to move things out and keep them out, to impose order and limitations that cannot be resisted, or to break limitations and seek out new possibilities.

You don’t necessarily want these things for yourself. A good, unselfish person may want to help someone else, or to create a better world for all, but we are the only reference frame we have to make normative judgments like “better.” Ultimately what makes the action “help” or the world “better” is that someone is more likely to get what they want, and what they want is encompassed by these concepts.

The Eight Sins

Below are defined, as far as I can tell, the eight fundamental desires or motivations of conscious beings. With these definitions, in theory, you can characterize the innermost motivations of anyone. These basic desires do not include the desire to do good, not because goodness doesn’t exist (see above), but because the desire to do good can only be fulfilled by furthering the desires of another person, so including it among the basic desires would be redundant. Goodness can be described as the inclusion of others as part of one’s sense of self, to the point that the fulfillment of their personal desires and development becomes a priority. Likewise, any ideals that a person supports can be traced back to something they want or something that they think someone else wants.

By way of preemptive clarification, that these motivations represent why people do something, not what they do. Two people can have the same goal for different reasons. A person’s major driving motivations will become clearer as you look at more of their goals. Also note that none of these are mutually exclusive, even the ones which are opposites. A person can be motivated by any and all of these.

With that in mind, are the basic motivations of conscious beings:

  • Greed/Ambition: the desire to bring more of a certain type of thing into one’s field of influence; asserting control over a larger scope, be it over a wider range or over more important subjects. Fame, which represents influence over more people’s minds and feelings, can also represent greed.
  • Sloth/Relaxation: the desire to shunt things out of one’s field of influence so one doesn’t have to pay attention to them; asserting control over a diminishing scope, or avoiding any control that one bears responsibility for. This desire doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding any effort, but rather avoiding certain efforts that are stressful or have important consequences. Some slothful people may create automated systems or siphon the efforts of others in order to achieve results without directly controlling things. Others may simply stop taking anything seriously.
  • Wrath/Boldness: the desire to remove limits on one’s control, to do things which are novel, unprecedented, impossible, or forbidden. In short, this is the desire to break or overcome rules of some kind, be they laws, etiquette, or physical barriers or limitations. It is not necessarily associated with anger, but anger often leads to this desire.
  • Hubris/Domination: the desire to impose limits on one’s control, so that the control becomes more exclusive and absolute, without resistance. Entities in one’s field of influence will have less freedom. Perfectionists and control freaks are defined by this desire.
  • Gluttony/Celebration: the desire to move more of a certain type of experience into one’s field of awareness, for an experience to increase in frequency, duration, intensity, or some other metric. It can manifest as reveling in a sensation and seeking it constantly, or as becoming jaded and seeking more intense stimulation. As long as it’s the same basic experience being sought, it falls under this motivation.
  • Cowardice/Prudence: the desire to move a certain type of experience out of one’s field of awareness and keep it out; to avoid it. This avoidance often originates rationally because an experience is unpleasant or because it implies a threat to another desire, but the avoidance takes on a life of its own, as habits are prone to do.
  • Lust/Curiosity: the desire to remove limits on one’s experiences, to experience things which are novel, unprecedented, impossible, or forbidden. Repeating similar experiences will likely cause boredom if a person is primarily responsive to this desire.
  • Envy/Specification: the desire to impose limits on one’s experiences, i.e. an obsession with a particular outcome to the point of developing tunnel vision, rejecting partial successes and ignoring alternative goals. People responsive to this motivation may pursue a dream until their world is exactly as they envision it, and may feel bitter if they cannot succeed, especially if they see someone else has already attained the goal.

You might have noticed that these are themed on the concept of seven deadly vices, or “sins” (with one added, because it completes the symmetry). The concept of catalogued sins inspired the effort to catalog these motivations, but the concepts (hopefully) stand on their own.

As for “sin”, the most useful definition of the word I can come up with is “anything you can get addicted to”, which if you’re not careful could be literally anything. Depending on what sorts of experience or control you’re prone to getting addicted to, anything could be a sin for you. That definition is consistent with the popular belief that conscious entities are inherently sinful*, with the idea that sin is dangerous and often should be avoided, and with the use of the word “sin” that people have embraced as something edgy and fun.

Things associated with sin in the public consciousness include wild parties and body modification. However, sin also covers pining after a crush, being afraid of spiders, watching television all day, and chocolate ice cream (according to the carton). Very hardcore.

You don’t have to avoid everything, though. That’s not the point. The point is to be careful not to develop an addiction, because addictions (styled as “Demons”) not only limit your conscious thought and decisions by causing you to develop mental blind spots, but they also lead you to do things that subvert your own long-term desires, and may even cause you to become desperate enough to do evil things in your pursuit of them. That’s why being able to overcome one’s personal motivations on others’ behalf is important for society. But in and of themselves, these motivations don’t offer a path to make things better. That’s why we need problem-solving mindsets.

*(The idea that people are inherently afflicted by desires is not limited to Western religion; Buddhism holds that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering brought on by desire, wanting that which we lack or which we can lose. However, instead of working to expand one’s abilities to help oneself and others attain these desires and seek out new ones, most forms of Buddhism advocate the abnegation of the desires and thereby the self, which I admit is very useful in small doses.)

The Elements

Below are defined eight fundamental mindsets for dealing with different types of problems and situations, though there are many more that you can use by combining them. The most powerful mindsets emerge when you combine opposing ones. These are the meta-skills which you learn and develop as part of the process of becoming a capable and confident individual.

  • Analysis/”Ice”: differentiating ideas; exploring limitations by noticing patterns, tracking likely relationships of cause and effect, and logically isolating different aspects of concepts. Opposite of synthesis.
  • Synthesis/”Fire”: blending ideas; exploring possibilities by combining aspects of different experiences as inspiration; imagining what could be. Opposite of analysis.
  • Organization/”Electricity”: distributing attention; keeping many details in mind in order to prioritize goals and optimize the use of available resources to achieve those goals; allocating assets efficiently. Opposite of operation.
  • Operation/”Water”: focusing attention; developing an intuition for a type of situation through practice; moving and performing gracefully by unifying experience with knowledge and intent with control; entering the “flow state”. Opposite of organization.
  • Strategy/”Earth”: fortifying paths; allocating resources to address contingencies and weak points in order to create robust plans and structures; foresight. Combination of analysis and organization; opposite of tactics.
  • Tactics/”Wind”: twisting paths; combining and applying resources to access their potential in creative ways, to overcome perceived limitations and accomplish goals either never considered or simply assumed to be impossible; cleverness. Combination of synthesis and organization; opposite of strategy.
  • Semantics/”Light”: simplifying interactions; developing an intuition for the use of algorithms, labels, and lexicons in order to project a set of assumptions onto a situation, calculate what limits apply, and articulate the parameters for a solution; moving within paradigms. Combination of analysis and operation; opposite of empathy.
  • Empathy/”Darkness”: individualizing interactions; using imagination and exploration to develop an intuition for systems that can change subtly and suddenly; forming bonds with systems and creating impressions to lead them to alter their behavior; moving between paradigms. Combination of synthesis and operation; opposite of semantics.

As you have no doubt picked up, these mindsets are themed on different elemental abilities. The element metaphors are to help people to remember the roles of the mindsets, what aspects of reality they deal with, what they can do, and how they work, and to better appreciate their use by others and themselves. No matter what physical capabilities a person has, these mindsets and their practice will always be relevant and a primary factor in assuring their success. The elemental metaphors also reflect the fact that I am a huge geek.


There are many more Elements, and each one has a full functional definition of what it does, how it works, and why its particular element theme is metaphorically appropriate. The above are the most fundamental and most important ones, though. Without basic proficiency in the above mindsets, a person will find their goals much more difficult, if not outright unattainable.

Any plan to change the world will require people (including you) to develop skill with these mindsets, because only then can you develop the power to find ways of fulfilling your desires without sacrificing others on your behalf, and to help others fulfill theirs without sacrificing more than you can spare.

How will we help people learn these mindsets and master their desires? The current version of the plan is as follows.

The Plan

You may have noticed that most if not all lessons given to people fall under one of two categories: abstract, where a person is told about various helpful ideas and paradigms (e.g. this blog post), and concrete, where a person is taught a specific procedure or technique. The first often omits the way to implement the advice, or gives a starting point for practicing but doesn’t provide guidance or calibration. (To be fair, it often cannot, because an article or lecturer cannot give people individual feedback.) The second omits any way to learn similar techniques independently, and if a person does not happen to have the correct mindset for the technique, it does not work very well.


The most effective way to help people learn, it seems, would be to combine the concrete practice and calibration of a specific skill with the abstract principles of the mindset involved. Not only will they reinforce each other, but people will learn how to learn, and be better able to solve their own problems later by applying the mindset to learn more skills. Instead of having a subset of the teacher’s skills, they have the tools to surpass them, if they put the effort in. Instead of being given a fish, or even learning how to fish, they will become people who could have invented fishing. This process, then, is what we must develop for society.

Without further ado, here is the plan:

  1. Identify something a person is struggling with or some goal that they have and ask them if they would like help with that aspect of their life.
  2. If they accept help, identify the mindsets (Elements) that the person will need in order to make their goal work or to at least become more satisfied with that area of their life, and to sustain the success or satisfaction with their own power.
  3. Review with the person the basics of how those mindsets work.
  4. Do some research with the person on the specific knowledge the goal will require.
  5. Acquire some basic knowledge together, and work with the person to demonstrate how to apply the mindsets to the knowledge.
  6. Have the person continue the research and using the mindsets independently.
  7. Check in regularly with the person in order to listen to them explain what they’ve been learning (which helps them internalize it), to make sure they’re making good use of the mindset, to encourage them in their efforts and struggles, and to learn more about how the mindset can be used.

The expected result is that people will be more skilled and confident, enough so to help other people rather than feeling compelled to take from them. Each person who can generate more value than they take for themselves makes for a more harmonious world, especially if they can pass on what they learn.

However, because people don’t always have a specific goal in mind, you need a holding pattern. No institution or relationship can survive if it cannot withstand having nothing to react to. A good holding pattern to practice helping people is to listen to people talk about something that interests them, and learn about it while withholding judgment. If you don’t think what they do or how they think makes sense, try to understand it more, because even if you’re right, you will at least learn why they think it makes sense. Learning about the thought processes of other people is essential for making a difference in the world, which is why we need concepts like Sins, Elements, and many more that I have cataloged and will describe in future posts.

…Yes, the plan is to life coach the entire world. It may not be sufficient to change the world for the better, but it is absolutely necessary. The world cannot improve if people keep living in the same paradigms they’ve been using for millennia. As the famous quote attributed to Einstein goes, you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it in the first place. Thinking errors cause most of the problems humans currently face, or prevent us from solving the ones they don’t cause, so they need to go before we can hope to accomplish anything constructive.


Since you stayed until the end, you are probably very interested in this goal. Are you interested enough to participate? You can dip a toe in by sharing this blog with everyone you know. If you’d like to do more, definitely contact me, and we can find ways for you to change the world.


*The keywords for the motivations of sloth, hubris, and envy in this article were updated from the old version on 10/24/19. You can view the change in the Changelog.