Getting Started With Naturalism
How Does a Naturalist Study Begin?
There are many different ways to start. Whichever way(s) you choose, what’s important is that 1) you cultivate a lot of original seeing, and 2) you develop a clear sense of your own curiosity. Any starting point that sets you on that track is a correct starting point for naturalism.
What do I mean by “a clear sense of your own curiosity”?
When dealing with challenges, questions, and observations, there are many ways to regard the world that are useful for different purposes: As something you can control, as a community of which you are a part, as raw material for building things, even as an adversary to overcome. The naturalist stance deemphasizes most ways relating to the world, and regards the world instead as something that may reveal itself to you as you open up to it.
The type of curiosity I’m talking about is a yearning for contact with the territory (or with some part of the territory). When I am curious in this way, and maintain that curiosity, it is not burdensome to engage in patient and direct observation. Rather, I find the practice of naturalism inevitable.
What I have to offer as you start off is not so much a specific recommendation as an incomplete menu of options, all of which attempt to cultivate curiosity and original seeing. In my experience, some people can skip this introductory part altogether, while others need to spend a week or more learning how to deliberately pay attention to anything at all before they even begin to consider their chosen object of study. Even I start my studies in different places at different times. There are many good ways to begin, and I hope you will take the time to find (or make) your own.
Starting Place 1: Skip this whole essay. Go straight to “Locating Fulcrum Experiences”.
I don’t often run into situations where this is really the right move, but it does happen. I’m talking first about the “skip ahead” option here because I hope it’ll make the goal of the other options clearer.
I once talked to a person who had found the idea of “comparative advantage” really useful, and wanted to figure out how it might generalize beyond the domain of economics. “I want to be able to use the concept as a lens,” they told me, “and I want to learn to recognize instances where it applies, more-or-less reflexively.” I could tell that they should probably skip straight to “Locating Fulcrum Experiences” for these reasons:
They already knew quite specifically what it was they wanted to study. They came in with, “I want to generalize comparative advantage,” and not with, “I have a vague sense that something somehow important might be going on with whatever thing people are pointing toward when they say ‘comparative advantage’.”
They seemed primarily curious, primarily driven to learn and to understand; they did not seem desperate to make a problem go away immediately. Problem solving is good, of course, but the naturalist approach usually requires a curiosity-dominant orientation to work.
There was no obvious-to-me sign that they might be deeply confused about comparative advantage, or about cross-domain application, such that they might need a complete overhaul of their conceptualization.
If you know quite precisely what you want to study, you feel more immediately driven by curiosity than by problem-solving, and you’re pretty sure you are not fundamentally confused, then I think there’s a good chance you should skip all of this and go straight to Locating Fulcrum Experiences.
If that’s not you, here are some other possible starting places.
Starting Place 2: Try Catching the Spark (All Of It, Or Just Part Of It)
Catching the Spark is an orientation procedure for beginning a naturalist study. It is a thorough step-by-step process for bringing both original seeing and curiosity to bear on whatever topic interests you. (Since I’ve already published an essay discussing the procedure in detail, I’ll just summarize it here.)
Catching the Spark begins with “Articulating Stories”, which gets you grounded in your in your intuitions about a topic.
It is difficult to distinguish between the pitches A and B♭ when you are deaf, or wearing earplugs, or using a primitive hearing aid that’s only capable of detecting the presence or absence of music.
The strategy of naturalism is primarily to grow better ears (or to unplug the ones you already have), rather than to try to improve your models by whatever means are already at your disposal. Therefore, it’s important to tune into your hunches, gut feelings, and emotions from the very beginning. If you instead try to orient solely from a place of abstract reasoning, then your intuitions may be overshadowed by your explicit models, and you most likely will fail to grow new ears; you won’t be as well prepared to shift perspectives in ways that allow for direct and novel observations (which is the whole point).
The middle section of the procedure, “Squinting at Stories”, helps you examine your intuitions piece by piece. The idea is not to critically evaluate your intuitions in an attempt to judge their accuracy; it’s more about finding many new ways to rearrange their component parts, so you can think about your topic from perspectives that hadn’t occurred to you before, thereby uncovering new opportunities for curiosity. This section tends to be especially useful for people who have been thinking about a certain topic in basically the same way for a very long time.
The final section of the procedure, “Choosing Your Quest”, leads you to reconnect with your intuitions from the beginning, then to choose a “quest”, a related question that will guide your investigations going forward. Going through this part of the process tends to be especially important for people who started out desperate to solve a problem (provided naturalism is in fact a good approach for them); it requires that you re-frame whatever you hope to solve as something that might be understood, something whose workings may be discovered through careful investigation.
In a sense, this orientation procedure is intended for everyone; it tries to head off many common problems at once, and to set almost anyone who completes it on solid footing for naturalist study.
But I’ll be real with you: It can be quite a slog, especially if you’re doing it on your own without somebody else holding space for you and cheering you on.
I often benefit from time-boxing each section, so that I get at least a taste of each part without spending more than a few minutes on any one section. But some people prefer to go through all of this very thoroughly, spreading it out into multiple sessions over the course of days or even weeks.
I generally recommend that almost everyone try at least part of the orientation procedure (though I reiterate that it’s probably best to read through this sequence before you try to put any of it into practice); but if no version of it appeals to you, or if you just can’t figure out how to make it work despite trying, I do have more suggestions.
Starting Place 3: Keep a Log Of Relevant Experiences
Choose some way of making notes in real time (or as close to real time as you can get), such as by keeping a notebook in your pocket, sending yourself emails, or taking voice memos on your phone.
(If that sounds impossible, you might get away with making notes for five minutes each evening.)
Whenever you notice something as you go about your day that seems related to your topic—a fleeting thought or feeling, a social situation you found yourself in, an article title, whatever—make a short note in your log. For example, if I’m interested in something to do with how to be a good parent, I might end up with a note like, “Kid crying on tram, mom said stop. Should she?”
At the end of one week, look back through your notes. Notice what stands out to you as particularly important, confusing, or exciting, whether it’s individual events or larger patterns. Continue logging until you think you have a sense of what’s really catching your interest. At that point, you can move on to the first official stage of naturalism, “Locating Fulcrum Experiences”.
My favorite advantage of this method is that it can get you started even when you have almost no idea what you want to study. It’s great for people who come in with, “I think maybe there’s something somehow important going on with X??? But I barely know what X even is, and I have no idea why I think it might matter.” For this reason, it’s usually where I start, myself. I like to get going right away, well before I have any idea where I might be headed.
It also involves very little up-front cost. There’s no homework to do before you begin, no tedious procedural slog; you just dive in and work things out on the fly.
However, this kind of real-time noticing can take some practice. Even if you know exactly what “seems related to my topic” feels like, you might not manage to take any notes at all, just because you’re not in the habit of noticing things and writing them down. If that describes you, you might find your way from Starting Place 4.
Starting Place 4: Just Practice Noticing
If you want to make novel observations that lead to crucial insights, it will help to know how your mind behaves when you try to pay attention to something, and how to direct your attention on purpose over time. So nevermind the topic you hope to study. You’ll get to that later.
Instead, develop a noticing habit by choosing one unrelated, innocuous stimulus to notice throughout one week (or just one day, for the extra quick version).
Unless you’re completely anosmic, I think “smell” is an especially good thing to try noticing. As you go about your day, just do your best to notice any time you perceive a smell: your food, someone’s perfume, the trash bin you pass on your commute. Scent detection is something it’s possible to improve at, so you may find that you pick up more and more subtle scents over time.
(If you do choose to notice smells, check out my primer on How To Smell.)
You might discover that it can be hard to notice that you’ve noticed. To make the act of noticing especially clear, I recommend marking the noticing event with a gesture (such as tapping your leg) or with a specific pre-chosen thought (such as the words, “I noticed a smell!”). You can also do an evening check-in, to see if you remember experiencing any scents that you failed to fully attend to in the moment.
Other simple concrete things you could try to notice include: Bright red objects, dogs, bird calls, people wearing hats, interesting textures, yellow cars. It’s probably best to pick just one to focus on at a time.
It doesn’t matter much what you pick, as long as it’s something non-triggering that you’ll actually encounter in your environment multiple times a day. It’s also best to start with something fairly concrete: more like a texture, less like an emotion. You might find, once you’ve started, that the object is too prevalent, in which case you’ll need to choose a narrower category (just “people in ball caps”, perhaps, rather than “people wearing hats”).
The goal here is merely to become familiar with the activity of deciding to notice something and then actually doing so. Once you think you have the hang of that, come back to this essay and choose another starting place.
Starting Place 5: Practice Noticing (Extended Edition)
If you like the idea of learning the ins and outs of direct observation before you get to work on a topic of vital importance, then I have an entire month-long course for you to work through, which is called “Original Seeing With a Focus On Life”. (It does not cost money.)
The course is sort of a multimedia version of this sequence; but it’s focused on building form, rather than on understanding something in particular from the outset, using various things in nature as objects of study.
To be honest, I wish I could convince everyone to start here.
If you’ve ever spent time learning to lift weights, you probably heard that it helps to start with much lighter weights than your muscles can technically handle, because this gives you a chance to perfect your form—to learn to direct your muscles in ways that allow safe and efficient movement. I think that patient and direct observation is rarely as dangerous as trying to deadlift your one-rep max without practicing first, but the efficiency principle definitely applies.
People who learn the basics of naturalism in a low-stakes context tend to avoid most of the common pitfalls when they apply what they’ve learned to big questions that really matter to them. At the end of the course, one student reported, “I feel like I have skills I didn’t before, affordances I didn’t have before. I have the sense that I could construct my own exercises, and I just generally know more what ‘get in touch with the world’ looks like.”
I understand that a month of nature study before you even begin to think about whatever’s eating at you might be way too much. Still, if you do want to give it a try—or if you already know that you want to thoroughly master naturalism—I can almost guarantee that the rest of this sequence will be way easier and will make more sense in light of the nature study course, once you finally come back.
Starting Places 6, 7, 8, etc.
When I worked with The Center for Applied Rationality, our workshops often featured a pair of concepts that I think are extremely important here, and for all the rest of this sequence. (...And for all the rest of your life, in nearly everything you do, according to my personal philosophy.) The first is “Polaris”.
Imagine the following three dichotomies:
A high school student mechanically following the quadratic formula, step by step, versus a mathematician who has a deep and nuanced understanding of what the quadratic formula is doing, and uses it because it’s what obviously makes sense
A novice dancer working on memorizing the specific steps of a particular dance, versus a novice who lets the music flow through them and tries to capture the spirit
A language student working on memorizing the rules of grammar and conjugation, versus one who gesticulates abundantly and patches together lots of little idioms and bits of vocabulary to get their points across
I’ll add to these examples one more that clarifies the metaphor:
A hiker lost in the wilderness who keeps their nose buried in a map and follows the Official Directions, even when they suspect the map is wrong and their compass is broken, versus a lost hiker who reasons about their location using large landmarks and the sun and stars.
It is often better to take a step back and do the obviously sensible thing than to do dumb things mindlessly because you think you’re Supposed To.
In the early stages of naturalism, the north star is something like, “finding curiosity and using it to see familiar things in new ways”.
What does it feel like to follow your curiosity? How can you tell when you’re really looking at what’s in front of you, rather than rehearsing the same old thoughts you’ve had a hundred times before? Your answers to these kinds of questions will be many times more valuable in your studies than anything I have to say.
I’m just some guy. I may have some experience and a lot of ideas to toss around, but I definitely do not have this all figured out. If you can use Polaris to find an entirely new approach that just makes more sense than the options I’ve presented, then please throw my suggestions right out the window and do the sensible thing instead!
The second CFAR concept that seems important here is “Adjust Your Seat”. Since Duncan says it so well in the handbook, and all of it directly applies to this sequence, I’ll just let him explain it to you:
In the late 1940s, the U.S. Air Force had a serious problem. Planes were crashing left and right—not because they’d been shot down, but because the pilots were simply losing control at an astonishing rate. On the worst day, there were seventeen crashes.
It turned out that the reason for this had to do with a decision that had been made back in 1926, when the military first set out to design the cockpit. At the time, they’d taken a few hundred pilots and used their measurements to standardize things like the size of the seat, and the distance to the pedals. The modern-day pilots weren’t comfortable in these cockpits, and in the fast-paced, high-stakes environment of early airflight, a slight inability to reach the pedals or see out of your windshield could mean the difference between a successful mission and a lethal crash.
At first, the hypothesis was that pilots had changed in size. To investigate, the Air Force launched another study, measuring roughly four thousand pilots on over a hundred different dimensions, all the way down to thumb length and the distance from a pilot’s eye to his ear. But when they calculated the averages, they found that nothing had meaningfully changed.
Enter Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels. He approached the problem with a new question: How many of those pilots are actually average?
The answer? Zero. Not a single pilot was within fifteen percentage points of the average on all ten of the most relevant measurements—which meant that the cockpits were designed to fit people who didn’t exist.
This revelation led to all of the technology that you’ll find in modern cars today. Adjustable seats, mirrors, and steering wheels—all of that and more was developed so that pilots would stop dying in preventable accidents.
Which leads us to our advice for the workshop [and to mine for this sequence]—adjust your seat. The techniques that we’re going to present to you are central, average versions—they’re the least wrong for the most people. But that also means that none of them will work exactly right for anybody. Use them as a starting point, but before you try to take off and fly, tinker with the settings—change the lean, and the height, and how far forward or back they are; adjust the headrest and maybe fiddle with the mirrors, too. Our version is good, but there’s a much better version that only you will be able to find.
At the very beginning of a naturalist study, what’s important is that 1) you cultivate a lot of original seeing, and 2) you develop a clear sense of your own curiosity toward something in particular. Any starting point that sets you on that track is a correct starting point for naturalism, even if you choose a point that I have not mentioned here.
Once you have both original seeing and a clear sense of your own curiosity, however you came by those things, you are ready for the first main phase of study: Locating Fulcrum Experiences.
This example, like many to follow, is somewhat fictionalized.
I find examples to be tricky creatures, in the context of writing. They’re essential, yet they tend to pose a tradeoff between fidelity and practicality. Though I always endeavor to present examples that do not mislead the reader about anything important, I have chosen, in this sequence, to err somewhat more heavily on the side of brevity than I sometimes do. My next sequence will be full of sprawling detailed examples that preserve far more of the messiness of real life.