Cup-Stacking Skills (or, Reflexive Involuntary Mental Motions)

This essay will require you to watch three short Youtube videos, totaling less than two minutes.

Naming things is hard. Generally speaking, a thing should be named evocatively, such that people find it memorable and sticky, or precisely, such that people can reconstruct the concept just from its title.

(So, “Moloch,” or “trigger-action planning.”)

This essay is about “cup-stacking skills.” It’s a noun that I use in phrases like “I think you’re exhibiting a cup-stacking skill right now” or “I’m slowly trying to unravel this cup-stacking skill” or “I think we should consult Dave; he has the relevant cup-stacking skill.”

Unfortunately, that’s not a great name. Most people, encountering the name, will have to memorize both the concept and the label, rather than having to just memorize the concept and have the label stick, or just memorize the label (and being able to rederive the concept from it).

Sorry. I’ve made a genuine effort for the past couple of years to find a better name, and failed. Since I’ve failed, I need you to watch three Youtube videos.

Here’s the first video.

This is me, in my kitchen, cup-stacking. It’s a fun little game-slash-sport in which you stack and unstack cups in a specific pattern, to see how fast you can go. It’s extremely rewarding once you get even a tiny bit good at it; you can feel things going almost-right and the pattern loops onto itself and it’s very easy to just chase that feeling of smoothness for hours at a time. I’ve probably put between 50 and 100 hours into cup stacking over the past ten years, though at the time of filming I hadn’t pulled them out much at all in the past two.

Here’s the second video.

This is my partner Logan, cup-stacking for the very first time, after having watched me demonstrate the pattern exactly twice. They’ve got a little card for reference on the table with them, so they know each of the three end-states they’re shooting for, but otherwise I told them to not worry about process or technique and just generally do their best to imitate what they’d seen in a low-stress sort of way.

The thing about the literal skill of cup-stacking is that (approximately) “anyone can do it.” Even as total beginners, most people can follow the directions and hold the pattern in mind and get the cups to stack up in the right shapes.

There’s obviously a big difference between someone who’s practiced for 50 hours and someone who’s practiced for zero. But it feels like a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. There are little bits of the technique that I am doing that Logan doesn’t yet know about, and some basic misunderstandings (they’re using their hands symmetrically rather than complementarily), but in-the-absolutely-literal-sense-of-the-word essentially, Logan and I are both attempting, and succeeding at, the same task.

The cups go up, and the cups come down.

This is, in my mind, a pretty solid metaphor for most of what would count as “rationalist skill.” Things like checking for truth, recognizing cognitive biases, zeroing in on cruxes, doing intelligent emotional regulation, and employing formalized techniques like TAPs or goal factoring or Gendlin’s Focusing.

All of that stuff is wildly popular with a certain class of nerd (in part) because it’s accessible. You can pick up the core of the concept in the course of a five-minute lecture, and test it out in the course of a five-minute timer. You can start doing it right away, as a total novice, and see it working, in the way you hoped it would work. And with 50 hours of practice, it goes much more fluidly and reliably and is integrated much better (though still not perfectly).

This is very different from, say, gymnastics, or learning programming from scratch, where many of the learning paths involve spending a lot of time establishing a foundation of background skills and concepts before ever getting to “the good stuff.”

Here is the third video.

I have paused for emphasis.

The third video is still technically just a quantitative improvement over the first two. There are some things Chang Keng Ian is doing right that Logan and I aren’t (for instance, he’s just letting the cups fall out from under his fingers, rather than wasting time and energy reversing the momentum of his hands and putting them down), but overall it’s just the same skill, executed better.

But it’s so much better that it has become a different thing entirely. It’s a level beyond what we would feel thoroughly justified calling “mastery.” In particular, there’s a way in which “make a tower of cups” has ceased to be an action requiring a series of discrete steps, and has instead become something like a single, atomic motion.

This is what I mean by “cup-stacking skill.”

How many repetitions did Chang Keng Ian put in, to achieve that level of instantaneity? My own fastest-ever stack took about fourteen seconds, and my slowest about a minute. At 50 to 100 continuous hours of practice, ignoring mistakes and incomplete rounds, that means I’ve done somewhere in the range of 3000 to 25000 cycles, most likely leaning heavily toward the lower end.

But it gets easier, and as it gets easier it gets faster, and as it gets easier and faster it gets more rewarding and pays off more reliably. Once Chang Keng Ian was under ten seconds every time, he could easily get in a hundred and fifty cycles per hour without even trying particularly hard. With this being one of his main interests, done off and on all day and a couple of hours intensively each afternoon, he could put away a thousand-plus repetitions per week, week in and week out. It wouldn’t even have to be a special week—if he was genuinely training hard, at the six- or seven-second level for hours at a time, he might plausibly complete a thousand reps in one day. Certainly in one weekend.

By the time you have done something a hundred thousand times, it bears almost no resemblance to the fumbling, hesitant motions of a beginner.

In my household, things were—ostensibly—open to debate.

If you could make a convincing argument as to why something ought to happen, it was indeed possible to change my father’s mind. Even on questions infinitely beyond the reach of most suburban middle-class children—say, getting to stay home from school, or to skip all of your chores, or to have ice cream for dinner.

You just had to be able to lay out the case, in cool, dispassionate logic.

I think that, if asked, most people could construct a cool, dispassionate argument for just about anything they wanted. It might not pass muster with an actual logician, but you could probably cobble together some relevant facts and glue them in place with a couple of broad and reasonable-sounding principles.

You could make a tower of cups, if you tried. It might be slow work, and the tower might be a little rickety, but you could do it.

I, though—

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, I could get what I wanted, if and only if I could frame the argument such that the thing I wanted was obviously the right thing. The sensible thing, the justified thing, honestly, I swear, it’s not even that I want it so much as that it’s, like, objectively indicated by the present state of affairs—wouldn’t you agree, Dad?

Perhaps not literally a hundred thousand times, but certainly several orders of magnitude more often than the average human, I have practiced the skill of noticing precisely which perspective makes my position inarguably correct, and persuading my father to adopt that perspective.

What others can do on purpose—what the well-practiced can do quickly—I can do in less than the blink of an eye.

In fact, “do” isn’t even the right word. It’s not an act of deliberate intent. It just happens to me.

Suddenly, a tower of cups appears.

One of my colleagues is unsettled by frames. Theories, models, stories, philosophies—anything that attempt to coherently explain everything about a given thing.

She can’t help it. She’s come into contact with their falsehood, their inadequacy, too many times to count. Too many times, she’s been told that things are a certain way, and felt a note of quiet disagreement, and seen that note of quiet disagreement borne out, in the end.

She became a frame-breaker. A story-unraveler. An anti-modeler, often unwilling to endorse even the words that had just come out of her own mouth, seconds earlier. They were just an approximation, like Newtonian mechanics, and it was important not to mistake them for truth.

If I were to present to you a plausible-sounding theory, and ask you if you would perhaps be willing to try to find the flaw in it, you might sit down and start thinking through its implications, looking for contradictions with what you know of how the world works.

By the time you had settled into your chair, my colleague would have already torn the thing asunder. Identified three fatal flaws with its premises, two absurd consequences emerging from its conclusion, and an infinitely relatable anecdote that made its falsehood not only obvious, but visceral.

Hands flash, and a stack becomes a pyramid.

I had a romantic partner who was abused as a child.

If I try—if I muster my attention and put my empathy to work—I can imagine a string that goes something like:

  • Someone just said X, and their face moved just so as they said it.

  • They really mean to say Y.

  • They didn’t come right out and say Y because Z.

  • If I respond with A, they’ll be angry. If I respond with B, they’ll be furious.

  • If I say Q, though, this will deflect their attention, turn them in a different direction.

  • And if I say P, this will be almost as good as Q, but with the additional benefit of being non-obvious and plausibly deniable.

My partner had practiced loops like this so many times that she did not even notice herself moving through them. Could not stop herself from moving through them, if she tried—there was no accessible space between the start and the end, no time to even think the word “wait—”

There was just a trigger, and a response.

Cups, assembling themselves upward at terminal velocity.

These are the characteristics of a cup-stacking skill:

  • It is an adaptive response to something in your past. It served an instrumental purpose. It paid off.

  • It’s something you did over and over again, like a worker on an assembly line. Something so baked into your context that you were practicing it without even noticing, after a while.

  • It happens blindingly quickly—so quickly that, if you do in fact manage to unpack it, and describe all of the steps, people will often literally not believe that your brain could have executed all of them so quickly, and will think that you’re making it up.

  • It’s the sort of thing anyone could do, and some people are really quite visibly skilled at. But the thing you’re doing goes beyond “visibly skilled.” (Did you know that they had to film Bruce Lee at 32 frames-per-second, because the industry standard 24 fps was too slow to capture his movements?)

And lastly (and most unnervingly):

  • It’s the sort of skill you might be completely unaware that you’re executing, and might possibly not be able to stop executing—at least not by just telling yourself “stop.” It’s like looking at a fish and trying not to categorize it as a fish.

Not everyone has a cup-stacking skill.* Not everyone experienced the preconditions to develop one.

But everyone I know who has identified one in themselves experiences it as a sort of Greek curse. I’ve been working quite hard for the last four years on not reflexively wrenching the frame around to whatever is maximally convenient for my goals, so hard that it leaves others disoriented, and I’m still only successful part of the time. My colleague said words I interpreted as wishing she could at least build things out of solid blocks sometimes, when she wanted to, rather than living perpetually in mutable uncertainty. My romantic partner was extremely good at detecting stealth hostility and deflecting incoming abuse—at the cost of running everything through a filter that took ill intent for granted, and always found something it needed to dodge.

Once you do gain control of a cup-stacking skill, it can be something of a minor superpower. You can accomplish, in a flash of intuitive insight, what takes everyone else minutes or hours of deliberate effort to do.

But until that point, and especially if you’re unaware of it, you don’t really have it. It more-or-less has you.

* A reader points out “nonsense. everyone has dozens of cup-stacking skills. most of them are just close to universal. such as walking.” To which I reply “True. But not everyone has a unique and idiosyncratic cup-stacking skill that has control over them under certain circumstances.” To which they reply “yes but many of the near-universal cup-stacking skills also have control over almost everyone under certain circumstances, which is maybe what i actually wanted to point out.”