Progress on brokenness

[This post is about me.]

Relating to a brief interaction between Mark, Andrew, and Eli, yesterday.

Over the past few months, my sense of myself and my oddities has gone through some significant changes and sophistication.

I’ve long known that my internal processes differed in many respects from those of most people, and while there are clear drawbacks to my cognitive style, there are also clear advantages. It wasn’t necessarily clear that the advantages outweighed the drawbacks in the abstract, but I happened to like my cognitive style, and it seemed useful for reasons of variety is nothing else. In any case there was a sense of “that’s just the way Eli is.”

In my interactions with the cooler people of rationalist community, my oddities started to “come into focus” more. Instead of being black boxes of “the ways Eli is weird” I began developing much deeper causal models of what I was doing differently and why. It wasn’t an either-or-proposition: I could figure out how to refine the things that I was doing to avoid the drawbacks without blunting the advantages.

Then more recently, largely as a result of my interactions with this group, I’ve gotten a fuller sense of what my mind is doing, moment-to-moment, on a phenomenological level, and I’m excited because I think I have (or am close to having) the tools, the phenomenology, and the community to flatly resolve issues that have plagued me for my whole life, and which pretty much everyone assumed were un-fixable and would just need to be accommodated.

An anecdote: When I was in second grade, in the winter, I would wear long-sleeved shirts. I would also wash my hands a lot (due to OCD-like tendencies). However, I wouldn’t roll up my sleeves, so I would walk around with damp sleeves and even if I dried my hands, it was as if they were  constantly being submerged in water. This was in Arizona, a desert. My hands would get so dry, that they had the texture of sandpaper and they were constantly cracked to the point of bleeding. This was uncomfortable, to say the least.

My mom asked me, with exasperation, “why don’t you just roll up your sleeves?” and I responded, “because no one told me too.”

I said that a lot growing up. It was (and is) a common pattern for me. There have been many things that most kids just pick up, that most people find obvious, that I had to be told or taught explicitly.

There are a lot of things going wrong in the story above. There’s the thing that I felt like I needed to keep washing my hands. There’s clearly some sort of loop missing that does error-correction or automatic hypothesis generation or something.

If I needed to be told to roll up my sleeves, how much more am I missing subtle and implicit processes that most people don’t even have the words to describe. If that wasn’t wasn’t clear to me, how much worse am I at all the other things that people do automatically without even realizing that they are doing it?

But, this anecdote makes me optimistic. Because when someone finally told me to roll up my sleeves before washing my hands, I did. The hard part was the figuring out what to do, not the doing it. There may be (there likely are) simple things that I could be taught to do, explicitly, that are not actually much harder for me to do than for everyone else (but which I just don’t come to do automatically), which would close-to solve the cognitive bottlenecks. I suspect that there is enormously low-hanging fruit, if someone can just figure out how to point it out to me in a way I can understand.

I’m tinkering a lot, moving towards fuller abstract models and finding phenomenological levers. I’m figuring out what the pieces are. I’m trying stuff. And you guys are the best people in the world to help me figure out what those processes are.

Now, I shouldn’t be too excited. There may be thousands of implicit micro-protocols that I’m missing. I’m not sure that there are, but it seems possible. But even if that’s the case, if I can fill the most important holes that I’m missing, maybe I can bootstrap. If I can learn the process that others use to learn implicitly, explicitly, I can solve the rest myself and go FOOM.

This is super interesting to me, because 1) It would help me a bunch practically, 2) because I’m super curious about what my mind does and why, and this is an abstractly interesting project, and 3) because if many of these things are in fact hard for me to learn, but easy for me to do, then I could fill some long-standing holes very rapidly, which means that I could approximately know how to be a “normal human”, while still having access to all the exceptional competencies that I’ve been forced to develop as workarounds over the course of my 22 years missing parts of my brain. I mean, I’m a little crippled, and I’m still largely functional. What does the non-crippled version look like?
Optimism bias and stuff. Everything is harder than it seems. But I am actually making progress and I’m excited about what comes next.

My hamming problem: Making dealing with overwhelm automatic?

[I posted this to a neurophenomenology mailing list, here, on February 11, 2016]
Most of my wasted time (and most of my wasted potential value), is lost in “procrastination.” But “procrastination” isn’t reductionistic enough: the phenomenon has parts.

In particular, this is due to a particular kind of aversion to a particular kind of sensation of overwellm. This overwhelm has certain characteristics. For instance, I have never (I think) experienced it as resulting from some task that didn’t have a deadline.

I think this overwhelm is the result of system 1 not believing that it can accomplish a task or several tasks. That fear is anxiety provoking. It causes my mind to glance away or to become absorbed in something that I consider to be much less important (or even just not important at all).

There’s more though. I can notice this sensation and then use some process (Aversion factoring, or Focusing) to pay attention to the anxiety. In this self-dialog I am “forced” to come to terms with the fact, that I, on reflection, want to accomplish the task (or at least want the task accomplished). [Because of the deadline] simply not doing the thing in question is not a live option, once I have stared it in the face. I’ll then, typically, negotiate between the parts of myself. “What would it take for me to want to do the thing?” I might do just one bite-sized unit as a CoZE. Usually this dialog ends with some sort of “just start”, which I then proceed to do, unless I have an available affordence which I can bullshit myself into believing takes priority over doing the aversive thing.

But, when I do, “just start”, most of the time it goes well. In one of two ways.

Sometimes, I start, and I make progress and it isn’t as bad as I thought, or as overwhelming as I thought, and I relax.

Sometimes, I start, and I make progress, and I’m feeling confused, and it still feels overwhelming, but now the next steps are clear, and the fear propels me instead of paralyzes me. I’m still aroused, but now my arousal has an outlet, and this also feels damn good, and even though I’m feeling pressured, I’m no longer aversive to looking at, thinking about, the task to be accomplished.

First of all, this phenomenon seems to indicate that my anxiety and overwhelm is the result of not knowing how to do a thing. Once the path forward is clear, I feel pressured to take it, but not knowing what the path is, I’m anxious and will take any opportunity to be distracted from my fearful thought.

(I think this is a special case of the more general “my system 1 doesn’t believe that it/I can accomplish a given task, and so doesn’t want to think about it.” But with the exception of brute physical skills, if I don’t believe I can do a thing, it’s because I don’t know how.)

I can force myself to stare a scary thing in the face, and come to grips with it, but this is really will-power-y, and hence unreliable. I want to figure out how to make this process perfectly automatic.

This is my hamming problem, and I think it is the key bottleneck on the productivity of most people. If I had a technique that would reliably and efficiently cause me to flinch towards the things I don’t know how to do, and consequently scare me, this would be an God-damn superpower. This is the main difference between my most productive days, when I typically work ten hours at clip, and then rest (because I need it and not because I’m avoiding something), and then go back for more, and most of my days, which are flowing and efficient until I hit something aversive and grind to a halt.

There are a bunch of ideas in this space, but this is MY HAMMING PROBLEM. I’m not looking for some idea that helps a little. I want this problem solved. I want to be at the point where I never have this problem again and I just churn through would-be aversions of this type, effortlessly, everyday. I want the bottleneck on my productivity to be my time and my physical needs, not my micro-hedonic fears.

I think this is possible, and I’m determined to figure out how.

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