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 Missing Pieces

I’ve noticed I keep hitting a wall when trying to finish articles (I’ve several still in the works, some nearly done).  Recently, I figured out why.  

All this time, I’ve been trying to write self-contained articles that would stand on their own.  I’ve been aiming for a clinical and detached approach, with all the context necessary for a person to see all sides of a situation or all aspects of a concept.  Each article was to be a crystal of robust information that anyone could absorb and apply without misunderstanding. 

Pictured: Visual metaphor for a robust information crystal that avoids misunderstanding.  (Clarification: This is actually an image of a rock.  Do not try to physically absorb rocks like this one into your body through any means.)

Unfortunately, while that’s a good way to write reference material, it’s not a very efficient way to reach people in order to build and maintain a community.  I don’t know how well my existing articles have succeeded at what I meant them to be, but I can’t make all my articles like that, because I can’t do it fast enough or consistently enough for it to be relevant.  

As such, going forward more the articles on this blog will have more of my own perspective in them.  I’ll trust you to recognize that although I try to see and acknowledge as many perspectives as possible, I can’t collect all the information to do them all justice, and to recognize that I recognize that.  

My articles are incomplete.  If it’s even possible to make a complete, authoritative article on anything, it’s not the best use of my time.  

Neither is getting a bunch of stopwatches in different colors and starting them all at the same time to see if the red ones really do go faster.  But I digress. 

Right now, I want to be able to write a quick perspective on an issue and trust that all my readers know there are other important perspectives out there that deserve attention as well.  I’ll aim to spell out this expectation in each article, but stating it here will allow me to proceed with confidence.  

I may write about a basic concept, but I can’t know all the manifestations of that concept, or all the ways you can apply it.  I may even be overlooking some fundamental aspects of the concept.  It’s happened before, and I still have to go back and update some articles accordingly.  

I may write about my perspective on a situation, but I’ll always be missing some experiences and values from the people involved, and some information about the factors in play.  

I may write about my approach to solving a problem, but I’ll very probably lack some of the skills and expertise involved to implement that solution, or deal with the inevitable unexpected obstacles that come up.  

I may even change my mind and retract something that I said earlier. After all, I have biases informed by the way I think and the experiences I’ve had, so I actively question things I feel certain about as much as I can.  It is fairly easy to prompt me to update my perspective on a situation, if you ever feel the need.  The kinder you are, the easier it is, though I can’t guarantee that my perspective will exactly match yours after I update it.  

But if I’m just going to change my mind, what’s the point in publishing my perspective?  If I don’t have all the answers already, why am I writing at all?  

I can see that you, dear reader, like to ask the key questions, like, “What does this key go to?”

So what’s the point of this blog, then?

If the articles on this blog aren’t going to be comprehensive takes on the concepts and situations they deal with, what makes them worth your time or mine? 

Simple: They’re insufficient, but still necessary.  Each of my articles is food for thought, but it’s only part of a complete breakfast.  

Along with—apparently—dish soap, two dimensional bananas and avocados, and a bowl that violates the laws of visual perspective.  No wonder it’s spilling!

I write because I think that my perspective and approach is a critical element that people are missing.  I don’t have the completed puzzle, but I found some pieces that fell under the table while everyone else was fighting over which of their puzzle pieces was the full picture.  All I want is for people to use the pieces I’ve got to join together the pieces they already have.  

Why do I think my approaches are missing pieces that you should read about?

It’s a bold claim to say that I have some important pieces.  What makes me so certain I’ve got anything the world needs?  

Well, for a start, I can tell there’s something missing.  Time and time again I see that people who are trying to change the world fail to express what they’re doing in terms of fundamental values that other people can understand.  Instead, they use superficial phrases or unnecessarily complex technical explanations, valid or not.  

These would-be world-changers focus on many different aspects of the world, and they usually define the scope of their goals narrowly enough that they don’t see the point in collaborating with each other.  However, if they saw the underlying problems and overarching goals that they have in common, they could pool some resources to deal with those and advance all of their causes more effectively.  They’d also have more luck with maintaining the integrity of their institutions: humans usually have trouble connecting the abstract with the concrete, so lofty ideals tend to evaporate where the rubber meets the road.  

Furthermore, the way we define our goals can make it difficult to explain to other people what the goals are and why they are important.  A tremendous source of fear and mistrust between modern humans is that a human can’t count on being able to explain their values to another human so that the other human can empathize and appreciate those values.  There’s a pervasive fatalistic sense of “either they understand or they don’t,” with the implicit dread of having to violently defend your values from belligerent parties who don’t share those values.  

Finally, the methods we use can also be hard to describe simply, which means that unless you are familiar with a particular field of expertise, it can be almost impossible to tell which methods are trustworthy and which are not.  In turn, it becomes almost impossible to hold experts from mechanics to medical specialists to the media accountable for speaking in good faith about what they see and do.  People end up trusting those who signal they’re part of the same team, which is why “fake news” exists (or doesn’t, depending on who you believe) and why people forget to distrust journalistic interpretations of experts. 

Fun bit of trivia: Recognizing that the media gets your own area of expertise wrong but forgetting about that when you read something else is called Gell-Mann amnesia, coined by Michael Crichton. 

All these unnecessary problems arise from the inability to communicate clearly about goals and methods.  Instead of working together, people fear and mistrust each other.  

That’s why I feel confident in stating that human society is missing a vocabulary necessary to define and communicate these ideas.  

As for why I think I have these missing pieces, I’ll just present some perspectives and approaches to various situations and let you be the judge of whether the pieces I offer can help us work together to build a world we can all be proud of. 

So we can turn our jumble of pieces…
…into a cohesive and integrated world. 
…And maybe eventually into a portal to wherever we want to go. Who knows?

In Defense of Understanding

I’d like to take some time here to address potential concerns about articles I will write in the future.  

My current goal is to help people understand each other on points of political conflict.  I chose this goal because I am fairly certain that we can only build a world we can all be proud of if we can compare notes with each other on what we want, what we need, and what we fear.  Only by understanding each other enough to compare notes can we combine our strengths to create a constructive and sustainable path forward for our world.  

In pursuit of this goal, I will be writing articles about specific social issues and situations that drive conflict, and how the different groups involved in these conflicts can learn to understand each other enough to resolve the conflict.  In the process, I will be taking a few risks.  

Still no using deconstruction mindset with heavy machinery, though. 


To start with, my future articles will make statements about what different groups of people value and fear in different situations.  These statements are generalizations.  They are food for thought, to get you to think about perspectives you may not have considered.  They are not going to be accurate for all people at all times.  

As such, I don’t want any of you using what I write as a substitute for listening to people and reading what they have to say about what they believe.  What I expect is that you will use what I write to open your minds so you have an easier time getting to know the people you need to work with.  

If you have any questions, I recommend you reach out to a political opponent who’s willing to go into more detail about what they value and believe, or at least point you in the right direction.  There are more of them than you think.  

If you want to add your own perspective regarding your group’s values and fears on an issue I’ve written about here, please comment or contact me.  

It’s not my intention to put anyone in a box.

Fear of understanding

The next risk I take is that my articles may scare people by introducing the idea that their political opponents are not fundamentally different from them, that they have understandable reasons for what they value, what they believe, and what they do in response.  I would like to address the fears related to this idea right now. 

Empathy: It’s not just a word in translucent letters superimposed on a rainbow Spirograph tracing.

Understanding versus agreement

Firstly, just because I describe my understanding of a group of people does not mean I agree with their beliefs, their goals, or their methods.  I will frequently empathize with the perspective of a group I disagree with, because it’s almost always necessary in order to figure out how to stop them from causing harm.  (My next step is usually to figure out how they can get what they want without causing harm, and it’s easier when I consider that they may accept something other than what they ask for, if it fulfills what they want in a way they hadn’t realized.) 

I do not advocate for moral relativism either, at least not the kind that denies our ability to recognize, condemn, and oppose unethical behavior.  I believe that there are objective principles of ethics that exist outside of subjective reference frames.  If there is any disagreement on what those principles are, I want to investigate the possibility that I may be wrong so that I can learn to be more ethical.  

In brief, I define ethical behavior as constructive for individuals and for society, and unethical behavior as destructive for the same.  Some situations entail tough choices and no obvious right answers, but the concept of ethics is still meaningful as a direction to strive for. 

Losing your way

Secondly, you may fear that people may read what I write and abandon your definitions of what is and is not ethical.  You may even fear that will happen to you.  

I don’t want to trick or confuse you into doing unethical things or failing to stand up for ethics.  If you do end up changing your mind about what you believe and value, I want you to make that decision with your whole self, and full awareness of the significance and reasoning behind your decision.  

Likewise, if you feel that what I say is leading people astray from some important value, please reach out to me and help me understand your values and fears better so that I can help others understand and work with you and your values, as I expect you to understand and work with them and theirs. 

And if you ever start seeing something like this, lie down and maybe call a doctor or something.

Becoming discouraged

Thirdly, you may fear learning that you will need to put more work and thought into having a constructive effect on the world.  I realize how demotivating it is to be shown that one’s hard work may not help people as much as it could, or may even actively harm people.  You may even decide that you no longer identify with the values of a group or community to which you currently belong.  I’m sorry for the position that this puts you in, and in every situation I will try to give you a path forward in recompense.  If there’s more I can do, please let me know.  

I know from experience that finding your own path is intimidating.

Using understanding for evil

Fourthly, you may fear that people will use their new understanding of other people’s fears to exploit or manipulate them instead of working together with them to create a mutually beneficial outcome.  

I fear this outcome as well.  However, at this point I fear the results of popular ignorance and foolishness more than I fear the results of democratized knowledge and wisdom.  If society continues approaching conflicts with anger and hostility, things will get worse rather than better.  Only with understanding do we even have the option of building solutions that satisfy everyone.  

To prevent some people from using their understanding of others for evil, I’m counting on the rest of us to understand our own fears enough not to be fooled.  The more we all understand what’s at stake for everyone, the more we can look out for each other and incentivize honorable behavior.  

Destruction is usually easier than creation.  My tools are meant to make creation less difficult, but to create a better hole we still need to work together and put our awl into it.


Understanding the people you disagree with can be frightening, but I suspect your heart of hearts will tell you that it’s vitally important.  I’m here to make the process easier and more effective. If anything I say in future articles seems to disempower you, please let me know so I can change that. 

Just be careful about ascribing overly specific messages to your heart of hearts.

Background Mindset: Using Generalized Empathy to See Color and Culture


In a disturbing turn of events, I’ve seen people who all want to do good and who all want to end racism calling each other nasty names because they can’t agree on how best to do that.  I’m here to help.  (You may prepare to call me nasty names now.)  

Ready your angriest emoji.

One group of people says they’re eliminating racial bigotry by ignoring people’s appearances.  They refer to this as “color-blindness” or “not seeing color” (referring to skin color).  Another group says that eliminating bigotry actually requires paying attention to people’s appearances (“seeing color”) and that “color-blindness” actually ends up perpetuating existing racial disparities and injustices.  This disagreement leads to much frustration and hurt feelings all around.  

If I can, I’d like to resolve this argument once and for all.  To do so, I will use the Foundational Toolbox for Life: the vocabulary of concepts I’ve developed for describing problems and solutions. 

Observation mindset

To start with, I believe there’s a misunderstanding about what people are supposed to do when they “see color.”  

Don’t worry if you can’t see the number 74 in this image; we’re not talking about you.  

When someone claims not to see color, they’re saying they treat people the same regardless of how they look, and only judge people based on their decisions and behavior.  That sounds good in theory, but what do those principles mean in practice?  

The way we treat and judge people we barely know is often based on assumptions that we have about them.  When we have narrow assumptions about what people in general are like and how they should act, that can be a problem in most situations, but it’s especially unhealthy when it comes to historically oppressed and marginalized groups.  

Groups with a history of marginalization  (whether their exclusion from mainstream spaces is deliberate or incidental) are frequently represented in popular culture in a caricatured or stereotyped fashion that omits the nuances of their cultures.  That means people outside those groups will often have assumptions about members of those groups, and interpret members’ actions through the lenses of those assumptions, which will frequently be inaccurate.  Inaccurate assumptions of what someone is thinking or doing lead to awkward interactions at best and hurtful ones at (hopefully) worst.  

Furthermore, we may be wrong about why someone thinks or acts a certain way.  We may not realize how a history of oppression has influenced a person’s or community’s outlook and decisions.  We will often need to peel back our assumptions with observation mindset (article coming soon).  If we don’t, we may end up acting on the fundamental attribution error or similar bias, attributing a decision or a mistake to a person’s character when it’s actually informed by their current situation or past experiences.  That is what people are afraid of when they say that being “color-blind” perpetuates racial bias.  Without knowledge of a person’s or group’s context, we may misjudge entirely reasonable behavior on their part.  

“You’re not allowed to touch the ball with your hands!  Wait, what do you mean you’re playing basketball?”

Background mindset

But wait…  Maybe you already recognize that your way of living isn’t the only valid one.  Perhaps you already give people credit by assuming that their mistakes are products of circumstance rather than of deep-seated personal flaws.  It may be that you “treat everyone the same” by treating everyone differently.  You might use observation mindset to avoid making assumptions and hasty judgments about them.  That’s definitely a good start.  If that’s what you mean by “not seeing color” then I think we can all agree you’re at least on the right track regardless of how you phrase it.  

Can we put away the angry emoji now?

There’s an important tool that you may be overlooking if you stop there, though.  

Background mindset is a tempered mindset on the communication axis.  It uses semantics in the service of empathy, applying labels and rules to simplify the process of making the impression that you want to make.  Even if you don’t really know a person, you can use what little you know about them to guess how to make your interaction smoother to start.  

I realize this idea may be unnerving for some people because it sounds like prejudice and bigotry.  However, it really isn’t either of those.  

Prejudice happens when we come to conclusions about someone based on our initial assumptions, without collecting all the relevant facts.  It’s especially harmful when we take actions that rely on those conclusions being true.  Bigotry happens when we refuse to update our conclusions when faced with contradicting evidence.  Background mindset requires neither of these things.  

What background mindset does is give us hints as to how to interact with someone respectfully, but these hints are not conclusions.  They’re only the opening moves to ease our way through initial interactions or unfamiliar situations.  

Background mindset encompasses etiquette and politeness, social cues and customs, signaling, slang and dialect, accents and shibboleths, coding and code-switching, fashion and dress codes, makeup and costumes, scenery and décor, and even camouflage.  

Background mindset is what helps you set the stage.  Once you understand how it works, you can calibrate it by learning what sorts of rules to follow in different contexts to generate the impressions that you want, and by getting feedback when you practice. 

By following rules of color and shading patterns, you can create the impression that you’re something else, or even blend in so well that you disappear.  For instance, closer inspection reveals this picture of frogs is actually mostly dirt in disguise. 


Here is an example of what background mindset can do using slang and dialect: 

How do you feel when someone asks you, “I pray thee, wouldst thou lend me thy guidance to the privy?” versus, “Oy, mate, where’s the loo?”  They’re the same question, but the two sentences follow two different sets of rules and may create very different impressions by doing so. 

On the other hand, many Americans might be equally bewildered by both questions. 

Clothing also lets you create different impressions on purpose.  How well you succeed depends in part on the expectations and mental associations possessed by the people you’re trying to create those impressions for. 

Fashion is one reason you can tell this is a pirate skeleton and not a Halloween skeleton or a Día de los Muertos skeleton: it follows the traditional rules that people associate with classical pirate garb.  It also greets you with, “Yarr, matey!”

Using what you learn about other cultures, you can even use background mindset to influence your own impressions of others. You might recognize when a person’s words or behavior mean something different for them than they normally would for you.  Noticing these variations makes it easier not to take it personally if someone comments on something that would normally be taboo in your culture, or if they express their anger or approval differently from how you expect.  (If you expect to interact with them on a regular basis, though, you may want to negotiate a mini-culture between the two of you so you can both make things easier on each other.)  

Okay, I’ll stop listening to your nose if you stop smelling my ear.  Deal?


How might people from different cultural contexts express the same feelings or information in different ways?  What variations in cultural context do you notice even within your own country and/or ethnic group?  Do you feel differently about a person depending on how they express themselves?  Would you feel more comfortable with people if you became familiar with their preferred means of expressing themselves?  

Flipping the perspective, how might others feel differently about you based on how you express yourself?  What rules or guidelines might you follow to better put people at ease who have different backgrounds, personalities, or life experiences?  You may already have guidelines you follow in different contexts (or with different people) for acknowledging or avoiding certain topics, phrasing things in certain ways, or expressing emotions differently.  

The more you learn about different people, communities, and cultures, and how their experiences have shaped their development, the more effectively you can use background mindset to interact with new people so you can get to know them as actual people. 

And the closer to fruition my planetary Ring Around The Rosie plot becomes.  Ashes, ashes, you all fall down.  …Um, ignore that last bit. 

Recap and disclaimers

When people ask that we see color, what they really mean is they want us to start learning about people’s different experiences and what assumptions about people we should stop making.  Over time, we can learn more different approaches for showing respect and putting people at ease, and how to recognize by looking at someone which ones are safe and appropriate to try with them first and which ones we should probably avoid.  

Showing respect and putting people at ease does not mean we are required to do everything a person requests of us.  However, it will help us more effectively work with people to help them get what they really need.  

Likewise, showing respect and putting people at ease does not mean we are required to abandon an opinion just because someone else tells us they don’t approve of it.  However, it will help us decide when, how, and to whom to present our opinions such that people feel respected rather than threatened, and are much more likely to give our concerns due consideration and treat us with respect in turn.  

Finally, showing respect and putting people at ease is not a substitute for listening to people or caring about their wellbeing.  What it does is make the listening process more effective, which in turn helps us act on that care in ways that people will recognize and benefit from, with their permission.  

Sometimes the key to open someone’s heart is all in the framing.


While writing this article, I did not succeed in finding resources that outlined the general defining values or attitudes of specific cultures.  Even if I had found any, though, I don’t believe I would have felt confident in presenting them as authoritative or representative, since I would almost certainly lack sufficient firsthand experience with the culture in question to validate or vouch for such generalization from any single source.  

As such, if you want to learn about a specific culture you may need to do the research yourself.  I do recommend finding multiple sources from within that culture that don’t all agree with each other on everything, to get a nuanced and multifaceted perspective.  However, I hope that this article and the following resource(s) give you a good starting point for doing so.  

The resource(s) below for cultural sensitivity can help you peel back your assumptions by using observation mindset, in preparation for calibrating your background mindset for specific contexts.  In particular, the Bennett model of cultural sensitivity Dabbah describes provides a vocabulary for noticing and reflecting on how you regard other cultures and relate them to your own.  (You may recognize the “minimization” stage as the problem that people who condemn “color-blindness” are actually concerned about.)  

If you know of any resources that help people understand your own culture, feel free to share them in the comments and I can update this list.  

  • Dabbah, Mariela. “What is Cultural Sensitivity?” Red Shoe Movement. https://redshoemovement.com/what-is-cultural-sensitivity/.  Publication date not visible.  Retrieved May 3rd, 2021.  
    • Outlines the Bennett model of different stages of cultural sensitivity, with examples. The stages are as follows: 
      • Denial
      • Defense
      • Minimization
      • Acceptance
      • Integration


With all that said, I hope these concepts make it easier to engage in critical conversations about noticing and counteracting the biases and communication barriers that allow racism to survive.  With any luck you will see more articles here in the future to help with similar conversations.  Thank you for reading, and please let me know in the comments if this helps.  

Bring your emoji, if you must.

The Deconstruction Method… or: Arguing on the Internet 2: The Redux

Do not use when operating heavy machinery.

Many people try to get others to change their perspectives by being as harsh as possible until they decide to listen.  On the one hand, I can definitely see the appeal.  It’s easy: all I have to do is think about all the reasons I’m right and they’re wrong, and accompany each point with mockery of varying sophistication.  

That said, have you found that the approach of castigating or condemning adult humans tends to make them put more effort into learning and becoming better people?  In my interactions with many different humans, that approach has not gotten them to change the way I wanted them to.  I find that people learn not to seek improvement if the first step is punishment.  

The following method of applying deconstruction mindset has brought me considerably more success in persuading people to update their point of view.  It builds off of the three-step collaborative truth-seeking method.  (Each of the three steps below should incorporate all previous steps.  If you hit a sticking point on any step, I recommend going back and focusing more on the previous one.)  

1. Make Them Comfortable

Have a seat. Let’s chat.

Even ifno, especially if a person seems ignorant and intellectually lazy, this step is critical.  Human brains tend to work best when they’re comfortable, and with some people you’ll want them to start out with all the brain function they can get.  It’s not about whether they “deserve” to be comfortablethey’ll be plenty uncomfortable later in this process.  They’ll only engage with the process, though, if they feel understood and respected for who they already are.  (I’m frequently surprised by whom I can learn to understand and respect when I’m looking to change their mind.)  

To make a person comfortable, you can express appreciation for one or more of their values relevant to the situation at hand.  You don’t have to agree with what they do to fulfill the value; you just have to recognize that in principle, it’s a valid value to have and one that you may share in some capacity.  

Additionally, although many people paraphrase their ideological rivals to twist their words, paraphrasing with kindness and suspended judgment is actually more effectively used to make people feel comfortable by establishing mutual understanding of where you’re both starting from.  

2. Make Them Think

Brains have a lot in them.  It takes time and comfort to sort through it all with someone. 

Once they’re comfortable, you can start asking questions.  Asking them to elaborate on reasoning you don’t follow will also make them comfortable.  People like explaining themselves, and they’ll end up reflecting more deeply on what they believe when they’re explaining it to a sympathetic yet skeptical ear.  

I also recommend you ask questions about their experiences and share your own experiences to see how they compare.  Keeping things centered on personal experiences and feelings (rather than on generalizations, predictions, or judgments) will allow them to see why you think and feel differently than they do.  The experiences you share will make them reconsider their perspective.  That’s where the discomfort begins, but at that point they will often respect you enough to continue. 

3. Make Them Choose

You may discover more possibilities for good options than either of you realized. 

Now that they have a clearer picture of the situation, you can emphasize the consequences of their behavior, and how it affects other people.  You can make it clear what you personally will and will not tolerate and how you will respond to their choice.  If you’re feeling generous, you can explain why.  Then you can make them take responsibility for those consequences you made them think about, which gives them a reason to think harder about their choice.  

That’s the finishing move of discomfort.  With deconstruction, we stole their ignorance, and therefore their bliss.  If they choose not to change, they can no longer overlook how that affects people.  We can’t force people to make one choice or another, but they’re more likely to make a constructive decision if we use this deconstruction method than if we try to simply rebuke and command them, even if their decision isn’t exactly what we had in mind.  


So it turns out that the brain is unlocked using a skeleton key.  Go figure. 
  1. Make them comfortable
  2. Make them think
  3. Make them choose

I choose to use this deconstruction method because no matter how frustrated I am, expressing my feelings without filters only makes me feel slightly better, and doesn’t fix the source of my frustration.  It takes more effort and practice to use this method, but I find it’s worth it to help someone understand how to make better choices.  For me, it means the world has that much more wisdom in it, which is my top priority.  

(I also find that steps 1 and 2 become much easier and more effective through the use of the toolbox of concepts I’ve developed for identifying and describing people’s values and fears, including our own.)  

What do you think?  Would you consider the deconstruction method worth learning to use, or at least worth bringing in someone else to use it when you get frustrated?  

(And did you notice that this whole article is a demonstration of the method?)  


A Dialogue on Corporate Folly

“Thank you for coming; we’ve brought you in to consult on some issues we’ve been having with our new plane design.”

“Great Scott, I’ve never seen such a crash! It tore the wings clean off!”

“Oh, the wings weren’t there in the first place.”


“Yeah, we had to meet our launch deadline, so we were going to add those during the flight.”

“… …How did it get into the air in the first place?”


“… … …How was it going to stay in the air?”

“We have—we had our highly-skilled technical experts working overtime in there, flapping their arms really fast. They know enough to build the flight infrastructure, so we figured they’d just keep the plane in the air manually in the meantime.”

“… … … …It doesn’t appear to have worked.”

“No, it didn’t. But when you’re working on a project as ambitious as this one, you have to expect a few unexpected setbacks. And the more mistakes we make, the faster we learn!”

“… … … … …So based on this mistake, I assume the next model will be launched with wings?”

“Oh, that might work! I was thinking it might just need to be launched at a higher altitude, to give them more time to put the wings on.”

“… … … … … …I see the seats and tray tables you took the time to install are still in the upright and locked position.”

“Yes, indeed! We know how to make ’em sturdy—after all, we’ve been in the furniture business for decades!”

Editor’s note: Some of this story has been fictionalized to make it more interesting. In real life the company would never have thought of bringing in a consultant.

The Foundational Toolbox for Life: Abridged Dictionary

Image by PDPics from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/dictionary-words-grammar-abc-390055/


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. 

Defeating Fear

(Content warning: Picture of a spider, challenges to your preconceptions.)

Just in time to be late for Halloween, I’m here to help you take on and defeat fear itself. 

You know what they say about spiders? They’re around you even when you aren’t aware of them, they’re a vital part of the ecosystem and provide helpful services, and they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. All of these things are also true about your political opponents.

Some of them also have a strong sense of responsibility. (Yes, this is a real spider. Reality is Unrealistic.) 

The reason humans have trouble solving so many basic problems is that when they become afraid, they start turning into monsters as a defense mechanism. In the interest of not living in a land filled with monsters, I’ve decided to put together a workshop to help you put people’s fears to rest by building understanding and trust.

Long ago, I wrote about the fundamental liabilities that describe the problems that we all face and the different tradeoffs that we make in our approaches to dealing with them. Then I wrote about how those tradeoffs lead us to take up various positions on the political compass

The concepts I introduced in those articles are tools for understanding not only your own values and fears, but where other people’s values and fears come from and why they are to be respected.

Now it is time to put that knowledge to use. It is one thing to know that other people live in different situations, and therefore when they deal with liabilities the tradeoffs that they can afford to make will be different from the ones you make. That might make it easier to respect people, but the tradeoffs are still there. 

We all live in the same world, and sometimes one person’s tradeoff may interfere with someone else’s. When that happens, many people attempt to force everyone else to make the same tradeoffs that they make. 

With these conflicts we can play tug-of-war, with violence or votes, luck or laws, but that won’t get us anywhere. Everyone will just be attempting to sacrifice someone else’s well-being to increase their own. Society will be torn apart by fear and mistrust, into smaller and smaller pieces that all hate and revile each other. 

We can do better than that. 

In the liabilities article, I described the virtues that we must aspire to in order to successfully deal with the fundamental liabilities. In my other articles I’ve described most of the mindsets and attributes that we must practice in order to effectively pursue those virtues. The only thing standing in our way is a widespread lack of mutual understanding and trust. Here’s how we fix that.

The cause of mistrust, summarized

When people see a problem that hurts them, they tend to latch onto one potential solution, and they push that solution at all costs.

Other people don’t like that solution because it causes other problems that hurt them, and they push back.

Neither side thinks to come up with alternative solutions that work for everyone. They get stuck pushing back and forth over a false dichotomy.

Trust breaks down between these two groups because they believe they are inherently and irreconcilably at odds.

When trust breaks down, people fail to try and understand or communicate with each other as equals, and so the situation perpetuates itself.

People come to see themselves as obviously correct and justified, and their opponents as ignorant and selfish. This workshop was created in order to dispel these assumptions, and I’m publishing it in article form with the exercises removed because I think it will be important in the next few months.

First we’ll go through a refresher of the concepts involved. If the summaries are not clear, feel free to review the liabilities and political compass articles.

Defining problems

Problems can be defined in terms of four concepts: the fundamental liabilities. These liabilities can amplify each other or interfere with each other. 

  1. Scarcity: known physical obstacles. It’s what happens when stability threatens a goal. 
  2. Disaster: unknown physical obstacles. It’s what happens when discovery threatens a goal. 
  3. Stagnation: known motivational obstacles. It’s what happens when identity threatens a goal. 
  4. Conflict: unknown motivational obstacles. It’s what happens when choice threatens a goal.

The tradeoffs people make

People tend to advocate or oppose solutions based on what kinds of tradeoffs they feel they can afford to make. These tradeoffs can be described using the following terms. Just like the liabilities, these tradeoffs can amplify each other or interfere with each other, by accident or by design. 

  1. Wastefulness: underregulated scarcity. 
  2. Austerity: overregulated scarcity. 
  3. Negligence: underregulated disaster. 
  4. Susceptibility: overregulated disaster. 
  5. Decadence: underregulated stagnation. 
  6. Dogma: overregulated stagnation. 
  7. Turmoil: underregulated conflict. 
  8. Corruption: overregulated conflict. 

The political compass

People form factions based on which tradeoffs they are willing to accept about a particular situation. These factions are often described using the following terms.

  1. Progressive (referred to in the previous article as “liberal”): rejects the status quo; fears austerity and susceptibility more than wastefulness and negligence
  2. Conservative: accepts the status quo; fears wastefulness and negligence more than austerity and susceptibility
  3. Libertarian: prioritizes individual freedom; fears dogma and corruption more than decadence and turmoil
  4. Authoritarian: prioritizes collective structure; fears decadence and turmoil more than dogma and corruption

It’s important to note that these terms are not intended to put people into categories. People can make different tradeoffs in different situations.

Furthermore, the same tradeoff can be described in multiple different ways depending on what aspect of the situation serves as the reference frame. For instance, someone can be economically conservative by attempting to conserve money at the expense of natural resources, or they can be environmentally conservative by attempting to conserve natural resources at the expense of money. It depends on what resources we’re focusing on and what we consider the “status quo”. That tells us that there are multiple resources in play that are subject to scarcity, and people disagree on which resources are more dangerous to waste and which ones are more costly to hoard.

Constructive approaches

We can move in constructive directions to find solutions which are better than any tradeoffs we can make, by getting creative and bringing in resources, skills, and values from outside the immediate context of the problem. To do that, we need to practice effectively applying the following virtues. 

  1. Investment, to deal effectively with scarcity. It brings us prosperity. 
  2. Preparation (formerly “exposure”), to deal effectively with disaster. It brings us safety. 
  3. Transcendence, to deal effectively with stagnation. It brings us vitality. 
  4. Ethics, to deal effectively with conflict. It brings us harmony. 

Applying the toolbox: 

We can apply these concepts using a three-step process (previously introduced here) to build understanding and trust. Doing so makes it easier to find solutions that work for everyone.

Step 1: Understand your values

In order to figure out effective solutions, we first need to understand our own values and fears regarding the problem. This requires peeling away the disagreement over what is to be done, and focusing on what tradeoffs we truly fear. The concepts of liabilities and tradeoffs help with that.

Step 2: Understand other people’s values

Second, we must understand what other people value and fear. The tradeoffs they are willing to make may be different from ours, based on what they feel they can afford. 

Talk with people and listen to them about what they care about and what they fear. Use the concepts listed in this article to peel back the specifics of what they say to find out what their true values and fears are. For instance, a person may claim to want lower speed limits when what they really want is fewer accidents.

Paraphrase to them your understanding of what they want and fear, so they can confirm that you understand to their satisfaction. You don’t need to use the vocabulary words from this articlethey’re just there to help you figure out the right questions to ask. Doing so builds understanding.

Next, express to them your own fears in a way that they can understand and accept, relating to examples from their life if possible. Doing so shows vulnerability and demonstrates that you have valid fears that drive your tradeoffs, same as them. It builds understanding and trust. 

Step 3: Frame the situation constructively

Now you must use the virtues to brainstorm and propose alternative solutions. These solutions should be constructive and should bring in resources, skills, and opportunities from outside the immediate context of the situation if necessary. As a show of goodwill, it’s important to take the initiative to brainstorm with serious thought. 

The first solution you come up with may not be the best one. There may not be a solution that immediately resolves the situation to the point where tradeoffs become unnecessary. However, proposing solutions that mitigate tradeoffs or simply compensate for them will help put people’s fears to rest, enabling people to cooperate for mutual benefit, and lay the groundwork for future solutions that are more effective. Doing so builds trust.

These alternatives may directly address the problem or they may fulfill their value in a completely different way, bypassing the problem or making it more tolerable. It is important that these potential solutions be win-win. They must be acceptable to all significant stakeholders.

Implementing an alternative may take effort on your part, but dealing with opponents takes effort as well and is far less efficient. Effort towards constructive alternatives is an investment in turning opponents into allies.


If we continue to fear people who make different tradeoffs from the ones we make, our fragmented quest to defeat each other in the name of a greater good will destroy civilization.

However, if we want constructive solutions that make our communities and civilization better for everyone, we must build understanding and trust.

That’s always been true. What’s new is that I’ve destroyed any excuse for behaving otherwise.

Pictured: the excuse idea light bulb immediately after burning out.

Image credits

Fear: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/vectors/enemy-fear-typography-scared-5220722/

Spider: Image by Peripitus, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Male_Missulena_occatoria_spider_-_cropped.JPG

Fractured world map: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/vectors/abstract-art-broken-cartography-2170219/

Tearing fabric: Image by CJ from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/photos/stress-stressed-frayed-torn-pulled-2061408/

Scale balance: Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/photos/scale-question-importance-balance-2635397/

Political compass: Public domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Political_Compass_yellow_LibRight.svg

Puzzle teamwork: Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/photos/teamwork-together-objectives-create-4776072/

Construction: Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/illustrations/construction-building-crane-build-4794329/

No excuses: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/vectors/bulb-business-graphic-cartoon-light-2029707/

Personal Codes of Behavior: Steady Steps Towards Changing the Course of Your Life


Do you lose willpower when you feel you haven’t been fulfilling the goals or values that are most important to you? When that happens to me, I find I’m more likely to seek entertainment as a distraction, which in turn prevents me from doing what I would be proud of. This process creates a vicious cycle of depression. 

“I see that your soul is full of pain. I can remove it for you.” “The pain?” “That, too.”

To stop this downward spiral for myself, I’ve found some very small things I can do every day to contribute to the world around me in ways that fulfill my identity. These I compiled into what I call a personal code of behavior. I’m not hidebound by these daily rituals, though. Each one is based on a grander purpose, and if I see a more ambitious goal that fulfills one of those purposes, I can put the daily habit on hold and feel even better about myself for tackling something larger. 

(Credit goes to Stephen Guise’s work on Mini-Habits for inspiring me to start small, and start now. He also has a new book out recently called Elastic Habits which deals with basing a habit on an underlying principle with multiple options for fulfilling it, in case one doesn’t work at the moment. I found out about the Elastic Habits shortly after I’d designed my habits to serve overarching values. It seems great minds do think alike, after all.) 

My unique contribution to the field of habit architecture is a toolbox of concepts that can help people identify what larger values they most want to advance with their efforts, and what habits they can work on to get them going in a useful direction. Of course, as people accumulate experience, what we most value may change over time, and that’s to be expected. We can always update our chosen roles. 

When all you have is a toolbox full of tools, everything looks like… roughly how it is.

As we get more confident in our ability to bring value to the world on our own terms, we will be less easily controlled by the entertainment we’re led to consume. When accomplishing a goal or helping someone else do so requires some sacrifice of comfort, that won’t defeat us. We will develop agency, responsibility, and skills beyond those we need to follow the instructions for earning our food. 

From there, our capabilities and self-respect will allow us to more effectively team up to launch constructive projects and maintain worthwhile living environments. To create vibrant communities based on evolving wisdom and understanding instead of ossified dogma, we will identify the roles any given group needs to stay healthy and how to equip people to fill those roles.

At least, that is my ultimate vision for this idea. For now, we can focus on empowering the individual. The first step is to start consistently spending time doing things that make you stronger. Even small activities make a surprisingly large difference versus more passive recreation. They give you something to build on. 

A snail that knows where its going moves faster than a human sitting on a couch.

I designed my own personal code to have a self level (“What do I want to do for myself?”), a community level (“What do I want to do for people I know?”), and a society-wide level (“What do I want to do for the whole world?”). The current version is below—the phrases in bold are concepts from my toolbox, so each has a functional definition to clarify how it works and when it is relevant. 

  1. Code of Authenticity (self level): For the purpose of improving my self-image by fulfilling my major strength of sharing good ideas using perception mindset, I will find on average one good idea every day from my present or past. At least once a week, I will make a post explaining at least one of these ideas that I found in the past week. 
  2. Code of Relevance (self level): For the purpose of preventing my own stagnation and reducing my mindless consumption of trivial entertainment, I will read five pages of an educational book or an educational article (or video or podcast) on every day I have off from work. 
  3. Code of Bonds (community level): For the purpose of contributing something to my relationships with people, and being someone worth knowing, I wish to bring people new ideas and perspectives using education mindset, whether they be my own or not. Therefore I will pick one topic every week and in every social context (if appropriate) I will mention that I am reading about it. I may keep a journal of topics to keep track. 
  4. Code of Legacy (society-wide level): For the purpose of contributing something to the world with my life, and for the betterment of society: I will keep fulfilling the above codes for now using responsibility mindset, which will lead to future opportunities and increase my ability to take advantage of them. I may fill in this code with something more substantial later when it becomes a limiting factor.

5. El Codo Secreto: That’s Spanish for “The Secret Elbow.” *Nudge nudge. Wink wink.*

The more I keep my code, the less anxious I feel and the more confident I am that I can take on larger goals at a steady pace. 

My personal code is just one example of how baseline habits that fulfill our values can help us keep moving forward. With the toolbox of concepts mentioned earlier, we can more easily identify the various roles we most want to play for the world, the diverse ways in which a role can manifest, and the subtle opportunities that exist for each one. Part of my role is to help you design (and redesign) your own. What do you want your life to mean? To the world, or even just to yourself? 

Who do you want to become? 

What do you want to see in your bathroom mirror? What do you want to see in your rearview mirror?

Collaborative Truth-Seeking Starter Kit… or: Arguing on the Internet: You’re Doing It Wrong!

Are you frustrated by how many people believe or support something you think is harmful and wrong? Do you run into problems when you try to engage with them and persuade them to reconsider their position? Do such attempts often lead to hostile arguments? 

Would you like to more effectively represent your ideas to the world and garner more cooperation and support? 

In this article we will explore the basics of collaborative truth-seeking and how to help people work together on a shared understanding of reality. 

What’s going on?

If you’re spending time to try to get people to rethink their opinions, it’s safe to assume that there’s some sort of negative consequence to their current incorrect position, or a positive outcome that you need them to participate in. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be all that important to change their minds. Even so, many arguments end up being pointless, or worse, because they fail to achieve their objective. 

Let’s look at an extremely controversial topic to illustrate this point: climate change. The climate change debate has two extreme opposing positions. At one extreme are the environmentalists arguing that humans are causing catastrophic environmental damage and need to take immediate and drastic action to mitigate and attempt to reverse this damage. At the other extreme, we have industrialists arguing that no such action is necessary and that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. There are plenty of people with positions well between these extremes, but those people tend to get sucked towards one end or the other when they get into discussions with people they disagree with. 

Anthropogenic climate change is not to be confused with anthropomorphic climate change.

The latter is a purely Al-le-Gore-ical depiction. …Wait, come back! I’m sorry!

At every opportunity, the extreme environmentalists and industrialists take cheap shots at each other’s ideas and reasoning. They play tug of war with the facts, triumphantly brandishing any scientific study that supports their side or refutes something on the other side, while reflexively condemning any study that does the reverse. Each side plays the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” card to intimidate people with similar beliefs into backing up anything they say. This behavior leads those who don’t fall in line to rally at the opposite end, and it goes back and forth until everyone is on a side and hates everyone on the other side for ignoring the obvious facts. Everyone becomes the punchline of somebody else’s joke. 

Climate change seems like it would be a question of pure science, though. Why does a topic that should be informed by dispassionate reason inspire such irrational hostility? Why can’t we agree on the reality of the situation and what to do about it? 

Part of the reason for the problem is that reason is only part of the problem. That is, no problem is ever defined by dispassionate reason alone. After all, a problem is defined by what “ought” to happen. Dispassionate reasoning is all about what “is,” and you can’t derive an “ought” from only what “is.” To get an “ought,” you also need to start with another “ought.” Every problem originates not just from objective reality, but also from people’s feelings about what ought to be. Our desires and fears lead us to judge some outcomes better than others, and anything that makes it difficult to get to the better outcomes becomes a problem. When people argue with each other about what ought to happen and what ought to be done to make it so, they can’t begin by tossing facts about what is at each other. They’re skipping crucial steps in defining the problem. 

Step one

Step one is to understand your own values and goals. It may sound trivial, but it’s vitally important. Without a clear picture of which goals are your end goals—what you truly care about—and which goals are just a means to those ends, you can’t engage meaningfully with other people. They won’t acknowledge your perspective of the problem if they don’t understand what’s at stake for you. Furthermore, losing sight of what you actually want will get you bogged down disputing points that you don’t really care about. You won’t have a way to tell when your adversaries are starting to agree with you and need more encouragement, or when you can safely concede a point to keep things moving. If they try to compromise and you rebuff their overture, you and your priorities will lose credibility in their eyes. 

Eventually you’ll find yourself instinctively opposing your ideological rivals as much as possible, regardless of whether it’s productive. You’ll recognize no options but total war or unconditional surrender. There won’t be any middle ground between “give me everything I want” and “take everything I have”. 

Unfortunately, many people get caught up in the conflict and forget their core objectives. If you want to succeed, you have to remember what success means to you. When you define your basic goals and values as simply as possible, you open up more opportunities for achieving them. The more accommodating you are when negotiating the methods of solving a problem, the more goodwill you can build and the more the discussion will benefit your real goals, one way or another. 

I recommend that before engaging, before the raw emotions of an argument, you perform step one by reflecting on your bare minimum criteria for an acceptable outcome. It becomes much more difficult to do that once the conversation has started. If you ever plan on discussing a divisive topic, first spend some time alone or with cool-headed allies to figure out your true feelings on it and prepare to explain why you may be passionate about it. 

Here are some key questions you can ask yourself to help identify your true goals and values: 

“What do I appreciate about the status quo? What do I wish were different? What would I consider an ideal change, ignoring the question of how we would achieve it? What would I consider an acceptable step towards that change? What is the worst case scenario that I fear? What do I think might lead us there, and why? How do the status quo and the good or bad possible changes affect my life and the lives of people I care about?” 

Step two

Step two is the mirror image of step one. It is to understand the goals and values of the person or group with whom you are arguing. If you don’t understand what they want, you won’t know how to satisfy their concerns, so what you say will not matter to them. If step one should be done before the argument, step two is the first thing you should do once it starts: listen, engage, and ask questions to understand more about the other person’s point of view, while suspending judgment. 

You don’t have to accept what they say at face value, though. If you don’t understand a person’s goals or what they consider important, by all means to continue to ask questions. You may also want to check out my previous article describing political inclinations in terms of fundamental liabilities, which lends perspective to the legitimacy of different concerns. 

If you think that someone might have lost sight of their own true goal, you can suggest what you think their true goal may be, as long as it doesn’t impugn their character or insult their intelligence. They will resist or reject a suggestion that reflects negatively on them, even if it could be partly accurate. However, there are almost always ways to present your sincere guesses in a respectful and sympathetic light. Understanding the different ways people respond to fundamental liabilities will help with that. 

Here are some key questions you can ask a person to help identify their true goals and values: 

“I suspect that the reason you’re concerned about X is that you think it would cause Y because of Z. Is that right?” “I can understand the importance of A. If there were a way to achieve A other than method B, would that be alright? Or is method B important because it also accomplishes C?” “May I ask what criteria you look at to figure out whether something is getting to be a problem? … Is criterion P a sign of problem Q? What if we used criterion R instead, to avoid false alarms?” “Am I asking the wrong question?” 

Our volunteers demonstrate how not to perform step two. …In retrospect, maybe showing nude models doing something isn’t the best way to persuade people not to do it. 

Applying steps one and two

To see the first two steps in action, we’ll expand on our climate change example. What are the values and concerns of the two major extremes involved? We’ll unpack their concerns below in order to identify their values. 

Environmentalists are concerned that human activity is altering the environment in ways that are unsustainable in the long-term. They fear that the environment will become damaged and inhospitable to existing Earth life, including humans. In liability terms, they feel that industrialists are acting with wastefulness and negligence, and will incur scarcity of resources and a greater risk of natural disasters as a result. What the environmentalists want is for society to start trying to reduce the damage that industry does to the environment, so that humans won’t have to worry about being able to survive on Earth for the long-term and so that Earth’s ecosystems will continue to thrive largely undisturbed by human civilization. 

Industrialists are concerned that environmental regulations are hurting the economy and preventing people from overcoming poverty and becoming prosperous. They fear that the economy will suffer as a result of the jobs lost by increasing the cost or decreasing the consumption of artificial goods. In liability terms, they feel that environmentalists are acting with austerity towards the use of natural resources, but with wastefulness towards the funding of alternative technologies that are currently more expensive, and with negligence towards the effects of environmental regulations on the economy. The industrialists are concerned that these policies will worsen the scarcity of wealth for lower-income people, and increase vulnerability to economic disaster. What they want is for people to enjoy plentiful jobs and inexpensive goods and services, so that they don’t have to worry about having enough money to live decent, comfortable lives and so that society will thrive largely uninhibited by bureaucratic interference. 

Steps one and two reveal the values that inform what sorts of facts are relevant to the situation. By having a solid sense of what’s relevant and what isn’t, you can prevent unnecessary conflict and limit the time you spend on tangential issues. 

Additionally, after you complete step two, you can more easily explain your own values to others. They will be more receptive to your concerns after you’ve demonstrated you appreciate theirs. Once you both understand each other’s values, you can begin looking for solutions that address all of those values simultaneously. 

Step three

Understanding everyone’s different values leads us to step three. We already established that if you’re arguing about the truth, you’re actually trying to solve a problem. That means that collaborative truth-seeking is actually collaborative problem-solving. Steps one and two give you pieces of the problem description from the perspectives of the different stakeholders (you and everyone else involved), and the stakeholders’ criteria for an acceptable solution. Step three is to frame the problem constructively

Framing the problem constructively allows you to brainstorm solutions to fulfill the criteria of all the stakeholders. “Constructively” means thinking win-win, using creativity to avoid any group having to surrender their most important values. However, it also reflects that you may need to put in the effort to build solutions that go beyond what you or your erstwhile adversaries had imagined when you were only concerned with getting your own way. 

These solutions will usually be better for the work invested, though. After all, as we saw in the liabilities article, even those you consider your adversaries may have good reasons to be concerned. More fundamentally, whenever one group “loses,” society as a whole is harmed. If we have a system that ensures someone is always suffering or treated unfairly, we would all benefit to replace it with a better one. 

Here are some key questions you can ask to help frame the problem constructively: 

What assumptions are we making about the solution that are limiting our thinking? How can we fulfill this goal even if it’s not in the way we expected? What simple thing could I do to help you get what you want, or vice versa? Is there a way we could make a larger change together to accomplish both our goals, and to provide even more benefits? What can we do to establish and maintain a relationship of trust during this collaboration? 

Applying step three

Let’s see how step three plays out with the climate change debate. We want to protect the environment but also maintain the economy. We saw that the liabilities in play here are scarcity and disaster, which are counteracted by investment and exposure, respectively. If we can invest in anti-poverty measures to boost the economy without relying on unsustainable use of natural resources, then the industrialists will be happy. If we can develop a plan for decreasing the environmental impact of the economy within a certain time frame, giving the market enough time to adjust through step-by-step exposure, then the environmentalists will be happy. 

As it happens, when we examine the relationship between poverty and the environment, we find that the goal of eliminating poverty is inextricable from environmental concerns. Not only are impoverished people globally more directly affected by environmental deterioration (being less insulated from nature), but poverty itself contributes to said deterioration. People living in destitution around the world are more likely to dispose of waste improperly and exploit natural resources in unsustainable ways (such as destroying rainforests to expand farmland), because they can’t afford the luxury of worrying about sustainable practices. Reducing harm to the environment requires the alleviation of poverty, so any solution for the latter will be win-win. (If you want to dig into the nuances of the situation, you can search for the keywords “poverty” and “environmentalism” together and bask in the wealth of information that pops up. This example is merely to illustrate the application of step three. The economy alone is its own can of worms which I opened in the article Economies are Made of People.) 

As far as decreasing environmental impact goes, it turns out that green technology can actually be more profitable than regular polluting technology, but the polarized environmentalist/industrialist debate has persuaded the public that environmentally friendly manufacturing is inherently worse for the economy. As a perverse result, companies are afraid to openly implement sustainable measures, which only perpetuates the myth. This problem just goes to show that when people try to equate their victory with an enemy’s defeat and vice versa, it’s a lot easier for everyone to lose. 


To sum up, here are the steps: 

  1. Understand your own values and goals
  2. Understand the goals and values of the other person or group
  3. Frame the problem constructively


Now that we’ve seen the benefits of these three steps, I owe you a disclaimer. It is entirely possible for some individuals and groups to have unethical or otherwise anti-social values. Their goals may be incompatible with constructive, win-win solutions. They will be reluctant to admit it, because they rely on appearing reasonable in order to garner support from people adjacent to their ideological position. However, you can recognize them and their true values by which solutions they accept. If you continue to listen to their concerns and propose solutions to address them, but they reject your suggestions for reasons you don’t quite buy, it just might be because they are hiding their true concerns. 

For example, an anti-social industrialist may value becoming rich and powerful. If you propose a solution that makes people in general more prosperous but reduces the income of the industrialist’s business, they may look for reasons to reject it. An anti-social environmentalist may value wiping out civilization and reducing humanity back to hunting and gathering. If you offer a solution that preserves the environment but leaves cities and farmland intact, they may contrive arguments against it. 

An antisocial cat may decline your party invitation with the excuse that it’s busy licking its fur.

Worse, your own bias may lead you to mistakenly conclude a person is arguing in bad faith. You may dismiss them or accuse them of selfishness or malice instead of recognizing a misunderstanding. 

Luckily, if you use the three-step process to discuss policy and ideology, you don’t have to spend much time on figuring out who is genuine. As long as you engage with enough different points of view to represent the key stakeholder perspectives for a particular situation, you can choose to speak with only the people who are most enlightening, regardless of their potential ulterior motives, and ignore the people who are difficult to communicate with, sincere or otherwise. 

That said, if you hit a wall on any step, go back to the previous step. If you keep hitting a wall, you may want to find someone easier to talk with, so you can both figure out an agreeable solution to the situation. 


With practice, you’ll be able to use the three-step process with greater ease and with more different people. Most people out there really do want win-win solutions. As you learn more about people and what they value, and get better at coming up with constructive solutions that respect their values, you will find that more and more people are willing to cooperate with your goals and reject those who argue in bad faith or who have destructive goals. 

You may not succeed in persuading everyone, but once you start you’ll immediately see a dramatic difference in the quality of your interactions. The more you try, the more constructive your world will become. 

For more about how to listen to people and look at the situation from the same side of the table, check out Difficult Conversations. For more about how to think win-win, check out The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For an organization working to help more people engage in collaborative truth-seeking, check out Intentional Insights (full disclosure: I used to be on the board of directors). For an entertaining in-depth breakdown of how collaborative truth-seeking (and the absence of it) shapes human society and affects your own life, check out the The Story of Us article series from Wait But Why. For another article about constructive disagreement, check out Educated Minds Unite. For more of my opinions on modern politics, check out Politician Noises and the Overdue Fake News Article. To leave a message with your opinion, or suggestions for other key questions, enter and post a comment. 

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Sources and links

Coburn, Cassandra. “Why industry is going green on the quiet.” The Guardian. September 8, 2019. Web. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/sep/08/producers-keep-sustainable-practices-secret

Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, Free Press, 1989. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

Dev Bharadwaj, Niranjan. “The relationship between poverty and the environment”. Voices of Youth. November 5, 2016. Web. Accessed October 12, 2019. https://www.voicesofyouth.org/blog/relationship-between-poverty-and-environment

Stone, Douglas, with Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. London, Penguin Books, 1999. https://smile.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-What-Matters/dp/0143118447/ref=smi_www_rco2_go_smi_g2609328962?_encoding=UTF8&%2AVersion%2A=1&%2Aentries%2A=0&ie=UTF8

Urban, Tim. The Story of Us: Full Series.” Wait But Why. August 2019. https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html


Collaboration image by rawpixel from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/business-business-people-3421076/

Skull Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/spirit-ghost-person-nightmare-3058631/  

Al Gore Image by johnsanderson12 from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/illustrations/celebrity-caricature-al-gore-986833/

Win-lose image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/suppression-violent-victory-winner-3048645/

Cat image by Erika Varga from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/kitten-cat-shy-harlequin-hairy-3855519/

Phone image by succo from Pixabayhttps://pixabay.com/photos/phone-communication-connection-351896/