Seven Shiny Stories

It has come to my attention that the contents of the luminosity sequence were too abstract, to the point where explicitly fictional stories illustrating the use of the concepts would be helpful. Accordingly, there follow some such stories.

1. Words (an idea from Let There Be Light, in which I advise harvesting priors about yourself from outside feedback)

Maria likes compliments. She loves compliments. And when she doesn’t get enough of them to suit her, she starts fishing, asking plaintive questions, making doe eyes to draw them out. It’s starting to annoy people. Lately, instead of compliments, she’s getting barbs and criticism and snappish remarks. It hurts—and it seems to hurt her more than it hurts others when they hear similar things. Maria wants to know what it is about her that would explain all of this. So she starts taking personality tests and looking for different styles of maintaining and thinking about relationships, looking for something that describes her. Eventually, she runs into a concept called “love languages” and realizes at once that she’s a “words” person. Her friends aren’t trying to hurt her—they don’t realize how much she thrives on compliments, or how deeply insults can cut when they’re dealing with someone who transmits affection verbally. Armed with this concept, she has a lens through which to interpret patterns of her own behavior; she also has a way to explain herself to her loved ones and get the wordy boosts she needs.

2. Widgets (an idea from The ABC’s of Luminosity, in which I explain the value of correlating affect, behavior, and circumstance)

Tony’s performance at work is suffering. Not every day, but most days, he’s too drained and distracted to perform the tasks that go into making widgets. He’s in serious danger of falling behind his widget quota and needs to figure out why. Having just read a fascinating and brilliantly written post on Less Wrong about luminosity, he decides to keep track of where he is and what he’s doing when he does and doesn’t feel the drainedness. After a week, he’s got a fairly robust correlation: he feels worst on days when he doesn’t eat breakfast, which reliably occurs when he’s stayed up too late, hit the snooze button four times, and had to dash out the door. Awkwardly enough, having been distracted all day tends to make him work more slowly at making widgets, which makes him less physically exhausted by the time he gets home and enables him to stay up later. To deal with that, he starts going for long runs on days when his work hasn’t been very tiring, and pops melatonin; he easily drops off to sleep when his head hits the pillow at a reasonable hour, gets sounder sleep, scarfs down a bowl of Cheerios, and arrives at the widget factory energized and focused.

3. Text (an idea from Lights, Camera, Action!, in which I advocate aggressive and frequent introspection to collect as much data as possible)

Dot reads about an experiment in which the subjects receive phone calls at random times and must tell researchers how happy they feel. Apparently the experiment turned up some really suboptimal patterns of behavior, and Dot’s curious about what she’d learn that she could use to improve her life. She gets a friend to arrange delayed text messages to be sent to her phone at intervals supplied by a random number generator, and promises herself that she’ll note what she’s doing, thinking, and feeling at the moment she receives the text. She soon finds that she doesn’t enjoy watching TV as much as she thinks she does; that it’s probably worth the time to cook dinner rather than heating up something in the microwave because it’s considerably tastier; that she can’t really stand her cubicle neighbor; and that she thinks about her ex more than she’d have ever admitted. These thoughts were usually too fleeting to turn into actions; if she tried to remember them hours later, they’d be folded into some large story in which these momentary emotions were secondary. But treating them as notable data points to be taken into account gives them staying power. Dot starts keeping the TV remote under the book she’s reading to remind herself what entertainment is more fulfilling. She buys fewer frozen meals and makes sure she’s stocked up on staple ingredients. She agrees to swap cubicles with a co-worker down the hall. There’s not all that much she can do about the ex, but at least when her friends ask her if everything’s okay between them, she can answer more accurately.

4. Typing (an idea from The Spotlight, in which I encourage extracting thoughts into a visible or audible form so as to allow their inspection without introspection)

George is trying to figure out who he is. He’s trying really hard. But when he tries to explain his behaviors and thoughts in terms of larger patterns that could answer the question, they inevitably sound suspiciously revisionist and self-serving, like he’s conveniently forgetting some parts and artificially inflating others. He thinks he’s generous, fun at parties, a great family man, loyal, easygoing. George decides that what he needs to do is catch what he’s thinking at the moment he’s thinking it, honestly and irrevocably, so he’ll have an uncorrupted data set to work with. He fires up a word processor and starts typing, stream of consciousness. For a few paragraphs, it’s mostly “here I am, writing what I think” and “this is kind of dumb, I wonder if anything will come of it”, but eventually that gets old, and content starts to come out. Soon George has a few minutes of inner monologue written down. He writes the congratulatory things he thinks about himself, but also notes in parentheses the times he’s acted contrary to these nice patterns (he took three helpings of cake that one time when there were fewer slices than guests, he spent half of the office celebration on his cellphone instead of participating, he missed his daughter’s last birthday, he dropped a friend over a sports rivalry, he blew up when a co-worker reminded him one too many times to finish that spreadsheet). George writes the bad habits and vices he demonstrates, too. Most importantly, he resists the urge to hit backspace, although he freely contradicts himself if there’s something he wants to correct. Then he saves the document, squirrels it away in a folder, and waits a week. The following Tuesday, he goes over it like a stranger had written it and notes what he’d think of this stranger, and what he’d advise him to do.

5. Contradiction (an idea from Highlights and Shadows, in which I explain endorsement and repudiation of one’s thoughts and dispositions)

Penny knows she’s not perfect. In fact, some of her traits and projects seem to outright contradict one another, so she really knows it. She wants to eat better, but she just loves pizza; she’s trying to learn anger management, but sometimes people do things that really are wrong and it seems only suitable that she be upset with them; she’s working on her tendency to nag her boyfriend because she knows it annoys him, but if he can’t learn to put the toilet seat down, maybe he deserves to be annoyed. Penny decides to take a serious look at the contradictions and make decisions about which “side” she’s on. Eventually, she concludes that if she’s honest with herself, a life without pizza seems bleak and unrewarding; she’ll make that her official exception to the rule, and work harder to eat better in every other way without the drag on motivation caused by withholding her one favorite food. On reflection, being angry—even at people who really do wrong things—isn’t helping her or them, and so she throws herself into anger management classes with renewed vigor, looking for other, more productive channels to turn her moral evaluation towards. And—clearly—the nagging isn’t helping its ostensible cause either. She doesn’t endorse that, but she’s not going to let her boyfriend’s uncivilized behavior slide either. She’ll agree to stop nagging when he slips up and hope this inspires him to remember more often.

6. Community (an idea from City of Lights, in which I propose dividing yourself into subagents to tackle complex situations)

Billy has the chance to study abroad in Australia for a year, and he’s so mixed up about it, he can barely think straight. He can’t decide if he wants to go, or why, or how he feels about the idea of missing it. Eventually, he decides this would be far easier if all the different nagging voices and clusters of desire were given names and allowed to talk to each other. He identifies the major relevant sub-agents as “Clingyness”, which wants to stay in known surroundings; “Adventurer”, which wants to seek new experiences and learn about the world; “Obedience to Advisor”, which wants to do what Prof. So-and-So recommends; “Academic”, who wants to do whatever will make Billy’s résumé more impressive to future readers; and “Fear of Spiders”, which would happily go nearly anywhere but the home of the Sydney funnelweb and is probably responsible for Billy’s spooky dreams. When these voices have a chance to compete with each other, they expose questionable motivations: for instance, Academic determines that Prof. So-and-So only recommends staying at Billy’s home institution because Billy is her research assistant, not because it would further Billy’s intellectual growth, which reduces the comparative power of Obedience to Advisor. Adventurer renders Fear of Spiders irrelevant by pointing out that the black widow is native to the United States. Eventually, Academic and Adventurer, in coalition, beat out Clingyness (whom Billy is not strongly inclined to identify with), and Billy buys the ticket to Down Under.

7. Experiment (an idea from Lampshading, where I describe how to make changes in oneself by setting oneself up to succeed at operating in accordance with the change, and determining what underlies the disliked behavior)

Eva bursts into tears whenever she has a hard problem to deal with, like a stressful project at work or above-average levels of social drama amongst her friends. This is, of course, completely unproductive—in fact, in the case of drama, it worsens things—and Eva wants to stop it. First, she has to figure out why it happens. Are the tears caused by sadness? It turns out not—she can be brought to tears even by things that don’t make her sad. The latest project from work was exciting and a great opportunity and it still made her cry. After a little work sorting through lists of things that make her cry, Eva concludes that it’s linked to how much pressure she feels to solve the problem: for instance, if she’s part of a team that’s assigned a project, she’s less likely to react this way than if she’s operating solo, and if her friends embroiled in drama turn to her for help, she’ll wind up tearful more often than if she’s just a spectator with no special responsibility. Now she needs to set herself up not to cry. She decides to do this by making sure she has social support in her endeavors: if the boss gives her an assignment, she says to the next employee over, “I should be able to handle this, but if I need help, can I count on you?” That way, she can think of the task as something that isn’t entirely on her. When next social drama rears its head, Eva reconceptualizes her part in the solution as finding and voicing the group’s existing consensus, rather than personally creating a novel way to make everything better. While this new approach reduces the incidence of stress tears, it doesn’t disassemble the underlying architecture that causes the tendency in the first place. That’s more complicated to address: Eva spends some time thinking about why responsibility is such an emotional thing for her, and looks for ways to duplicate the sense of support she feels when she has help in situations where she doesn’t. Eventually, it is not much of a risk that Eva will cry if presented with a problem to solve.