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.

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Though I'm not quite sure if I'm adding anything new or useful, here's my thoughts:

I had followed your luminosity sequence with great interest when you first started it, but with the amount of work I put into reading the individual posts (moderate?), I felt I only ended up with disconnected pieces of information that I couldn't really apply to my life. I would have possibly gained more if I had put forth more effort looking for the connections and the ways in which the techniques could've been applicable to me. These stories effectively convey what I'd hoped to find, probably with much greater effect than I could've achieved on my own.

AFAICS, you basically compressed the whole sequence to this one post (given that I had read the previous posts) making each of the posts you referred to grounded to certain 'concrete' things to do, for me anyway. I feel that with this post, I am very much more likely to actually implement many of these luminosity-increasing techniques and hopefully achieve a lasting change.

Unless I'm prematurely attributing much greater impact to this post than I should given my future behaviour (i.e. whether I will continue behaving like I always have or not), I would say this has definitely been one of the (personally) most useful posts in Lesswrong that I've read so far (I've followed OB/LW since 2007 or so).

Thanks! This was the first Luminosity post that made sense to me. Then I went off to reread all the links and they suddenly made sense too. And then I went and reread Ureshiku Naritai and it made sense too. It might be self-help, but it seems to be the good variety (am I qualified to tell, though?) Saving for daily rereading over the next week or so.

It would be nice if all this new understanding of the original luminosity posts also caused new upvoting of the original luminosity posts. Some of them are quite neglected-looking.

The original karma of those posts communicated an important message to you; they're now linked from a highly visible and upvoted post; and you're not hurting for karma. Why does it bother you if the old posts have low scores?

Don't you know? Less Wrong, like Wikipedia, is in reality an elaborate MMORPG.

Voting up the old articles may mislead potential readers if the new article is a prerequisite. It is good that you linked it from the index page. It is also good that Apophenia's cross-postings show up first in the comments. I'm not entirely sure how to interpret the general reaction, but I would edit the index to put more emphasis on this article.

You mean beyond the edit I already made to the index?

Yes; I praised the first edit. If cousin_it is representative and the stories are prerequisites, then you should encourage people to read them first. If it they are merely useful, Apophenia's comments may be adequately positioned. It would be quite a stretch to guess that cousin_it is representative, but people more generally are very positive about this article so it should probably be promoted more.

I don't know how people will read this sequence in the future, even whether they will start with the index page, let alone how they will read the index page, but I suspect that they will stop reading when they get to the list of posts and not notice the link to SSS at the end.

Um... I don't begrudge the karma, but will upvote each individual post as soon as I confirm that it works :-) I'm feeling very bad right now and quite desperate for something that would work.

I like the idea of the intermittent text messages. I pay for texts, so I modified it to send me email. I'm having them sent with a random delay of 60-179 minutes and only between 8am and 10pm. I'll see how it goes for a few days (possibly tweaking the parameters) and do an open thread comment with my experiences and the setup instructions.

There's an app for that.

Disclaimer: I have no idea whether this app is any good or not, haven't tried it myself.

This is a great and very relatable summary of the luminosity sequence - thanks!

Hear hear - offering it in a narrative like this, along with the links to the original posts (tedious work on your part), vastly increased the accessibility. Thank you, Alicorn.

Excellent overview, especially since I haven't read the sequence. Try reading Made to Stick if you have time (I know it's in the SIAI library somewhere..)

I second recommendation for the book; assume you are plugging it because it emphasizes story telling style?

Thank you for posting.

Great information dense article. Not only is it a great resource for self-analysis techniques, but it brought forth new categories for introspection that I hadn't considered. I've recently been doing a lot of self-analysis and you've provided some great strategies for obtaining raw, uncensored data about myself to work with. I plan to implement some of these techniques and, now that i have a concrete example, perhaps come up with some new ones based on the general strategy.

This seems very much like an application of chasing mode, which would be my guess as to why people like it so much.

I think that starting posts with the first half of one of these examples and ending with the latter half would help people stay in "chasing mode" and appreciate the information a lot more.

(I think this is true of all posts, I don't mean to be picking on you, just connecting dots.)

I think that starting posts with the first half of one of these examples and ending with the latter half would help people stay in "chasing mode" and appreciate the information a lot more.

I should mention that this is a useful journalist's gimmick for bookending the meat of an article, but you shouldn't rely on it too heavily; once a reader notices how often it's used, it can be distractingly obvious. (I associate this trick with New Yorker profiles for some reason, even though I don't have any actual examples to hand.)

When you say "gimmick for bookending the meat" and "distractingly obvious" and call it a "trick" I feel like you have a set of negative associations with the "gimmick" that I am unfamiliar with.

If you are compiling a list of statistics, or filling a page count, I can see how this kind of thing would seem inappropriate. But as far as I know the point of these articles (and this site in general) is to make information about self-awareness (etc.) accessible to people. If having a section to help people get into chasing mode helps them with that, it seems like a substantial factor in making the information accessible and I would call it part of the "meat."

It occurs to me that you also might mean that it becomes distracting and takes people OUT of chasing mode; I think that readers could either try to resist that habit or just skip over the section if that's the case. This might not work so well in a magazine, but there isn't a print space limit on the internet.

When you say "gimmick for bookending the meat" and "distractingly obvious" and call it a "trick" I feel like you have a set of negative associations with the "gimmick" that I am unfamiliar with.

Yes. It's one of a set of writer's devices that takes me out of the flow of reading a text when I notice it; some ways of structuring a text are familiar enough to me that they make me go 'I see what you did there!' when I spot them. It's like if I'm listening to a pop song for the first time and its rhyme scheme is obvious enough that my brain starts subconsciously guessing the ending of each line of verse before it's actually sung. If I notice that happening, it's distracting.

Still, I should, in retrospect, have phrased my comment more obviously as just my opinion instead of making a generalization.

(Edit - and that all said, I didn't plan to imply by using the word 'trick' that using this device was deceptive. I meant 'trick' in the sense of a convenient, well, gimmick. A trick of the trade.)

Okay, I think those last couple of paragraphs explain a lot of what I was missing--I definitely did associate "trick" (and gimmick) with being deceptive.

I do agree that this sort of device can become a bit transparent, although I often associate that with worse writing. I'm curious if there are better ways to help bring people into chasing mode.

Thank you for high content density of this post.

Explicitly nonfictional stories would be better, though of course certain concerns apply to posting such information and it might be harder to find good examples.

disagreed. Using fiction to drive a point home works pretty well. And the examples illustrate and aehm illuminate their respective points. There is no need to take real life examples which would not be as illustrative.

I would rather have examples that better conform to reality than examples that are better characterizations of the principles in question.

I'm quite pleased with the way my essay on subduction phrases addressed some of the problems with examples head on.

I think that similar considerations apply here. Real life is terribly messy and non-fiction examples are likely to be lengthy and ambiguous to the point of obscurity. A better criticism is that the fictional examples need to be followed up by much longer real-life examples that address the practical difficulties. That however is more in the nature of "directions for future research" than an outright criticism.

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.

Outside View - can anyone imagine a satisfying ending to this story that doesn't have Billy going to Australia?

Yes; it involves Billy studying in some place other than Australia (perhaps continuing with his home institution, perhaps getting an opportunity to go study in France and picking that one instead)