Coordination Skills I Wish I Had For the Pandemic

by Raemon9 min read13th Nov 20216 comments

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Coordination / CooperationPracticalWorld Optimization
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In the previous post I noted the pandemic as a wakeup call for coordination-capabilities. There are a few different lenses to look at this through.

Today, I want to look through the lens of skills I wish I had had.

There are many pandemic-relevant skills that aren’t (especially) related to coordination. It’d have been handy to have a strong background in epidemiology, for example. But here I want to focus in skills that I think would be generally useful, and which bear on solving coordination problems in novel circumstances.

Coordination Bottlenecked On Skills

Many day-to-day coordination activities require me to have skills. 

For example, I might buy groceries. This is a coordination activity – it’s only worth a farmer’s time to grow extra food if a middleman is going to buy it and transport it. It’s only worth a middleman’s time to transport it if a grocery store will stock it. It’s only worth the grocery store’s time to stock it if people will pay for it. We don’t know exactly what things people want. Me buying groceries sends a signal to the economic system to produce more apples and milk.

Participating in this system is a lot easier if I have a collection of skills, such as reading and speaking English, navigating a grocery aisle, doing basic arithmetic so I know how much my apples and milk will cost. It includes soft skills like “the social norms involved with talking to the cashier.”

Those skills didn’t come for free. Society invested in me having them. It could have invested in me having different skills (such as martial prowess), which would enable different coordination patterns.

During the 2 months of the pandemic, I found myself wishing I had several new skills that I hadn’t previously developed. Each skill would have taken me a month or so to really wrap my head around if I were trying hard. The fact that I needed all five at once felt very overwhelming. I was struggling to be functional at all and executing on the skills I already had.

Each skill was something I think would have been beneficial in single-player mode. I have a speculative sense that if multiple people around me had them, it’d have enabled compound returns. If people reliably had them, it may have been possible to build more complex systems on top of them.

Knowing what I value 

When I go to the grocery store and don’t have enough money to buy both apples and milk, I have to decide which one I value more than the other. This usually isn’t too hard – my sense of “do I want apples or milk more?” is driven by short term feedback loops I’m pretty familiar with.

When I decide whether to accept a job at one company vs another one, I often have a much harder time knowing which I value more. Jobs are multidimensional, varying in pay, longterm skill growth, coworker rapport, etc. They are also high stakes, high investment decisions. It usually takes me several days or weeks to figure out which is preferable.

The pandemic threw me into a situation where many core pillars of my life were ripped out at the same time, while friends, roommates and coworkers were all having core pillars of their life ripped out at the same time. Values I’d normally think of as sacred, and not to be traded off, suddenly had to be traded off against each other. It also included how I value the people around me, and how I related to their values. 

I didn’t know how much I valued my life, or what tradeoffs were worth making for it. I didn’t know what sacrifices I was willing to make for the sake of how other people valuing their lives, or their social lives.

Negotiating (and Maintaining Relationships) Under Stress

In the beginning, I tried to think carefully and negotiate with roommates about everything. But within 2 months I was exhausted of that, and my roommates were exhausted of that. And then a lot of what could have been fairly simple discussions ended up too painful and annoying to contemplate.

I’m least confident about how to improve at this skill. In Takeaways from one year of lockdown, Mingyuan notes:

> It's way harder to be a good rationalist in stressful situations… Negotiating in emotionally fraught situations is a very difficult skill, and despite all the training they receive in talking about feelings and what-not, being a CFAR instructor does not make you good at this skill (source: almost everyone in my house was a CFAR instructor or mentor).

But one of the central things seem to be “Be aware that you have a negotiation exhaustion budget. Try to have a sense of which things are actually worth negotiating over. Try to refactor complex social situations into simpler ones that require less negotiation.” 

Grieving

At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t have much experience with grief. By the end of the pandemic, I had gotten a lot of practice grieving for things. I now think of grieving as a key life skill, with particular ramifications for coordination. 

It might work differently for different people. But for me, grieving is the act of wrapping my brain around the fact that something important to me doesn’t exist anymore, or can’t exist right now, or perhaps never existed.

It contains two steps – an “orientation” step, where my brain traces around the lines of the thing-that-isn’t-there, coming to understand what reality is actually shaped like now. And then a “catharsis” step, once I fully understand that the thing is gone. The first step can take hours, weeks or months. For me, the second step tends to go quickly once I’ve fully processed.

You can grieve for people who are gone. You can grieve for things you enjoyed. You can grieve for principles that were important to you but aren’t practical to apply right now. You can grieve for concepts like “all of my friends and roommates can coexist happily.”

Grieving is important in single-player mode – if I’m holding onto something that’s not there anymore, my thoughts and decision-making are distorted. I can’t make good plans if my map of reality is full of leftover wishful markings of things that aren’t there. 

I now think of this as relevant for coordination as well – if I’m hanging onto something that’s not real anymore, the distortion in my map also affects people who are trying to negotiate with me and find the least-bad-option available. My clinging becomes their problem.

Grieving is tricky because it’s often unclear when you’re supposed to grieve, and when you’re supposed to fight for something you still care about. 

Grieving healthily takes time. But I now think grieving healthily and quickly is a skill you can learn. It does, unfortunately, require you to actually experience things that-need-grieving. The biggest things to grieve are (hopefully) rare.

Calibration

There was a whole bunch I didn’t know about the world, which was necessary to make informed choices. 

Some uncertainties were about empirical facts in the external world, relating to covid, civil unrest, economic downturn. How likely am I to catch covid, or give it to my friends? How likely are we to die if we do? What exactly is civil unrest, and it is a thing I really need to worry about? Will looting increase? Will there be supply chain breakdowns?

Some uncertainties were about myself

Would I be happier if I moved to the countryside for 6 months? Would I reflectively endorse it given my various commitments to friends, coworkers, and significant other? 

Is it worth spending more time resolving conflicts between friends or coworkers about how to navigate the pandemic? If we make an agreement, will I turn out to endorse that agreement?

In all these cases, it’d be great to have perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge is pretty expensive. But I think it’s a more achievable goal to have calibrated knowledge – I at least know what I know, and how wide my confidence intervals are.

After a few failed negotiations wherein I couldn’t even tell what was worth negotiating for, I decided to boot up PredictionBook and start making predictions, so I could get a sense of my default calibration.

Numerical-Emotional Literacy (Or: “Scope Sensitivity”)

I think the first few skills might be prerequisites for a kind of deep Numerical-Emotional literacy. (I’m not sure, because I do not yet have deep Numerical-Emotional-literacy)

I know how to use a spreadsheet. What I don’t really know is how to connect a spreadsheet to my emotions and motivations.

In the first month of the pandemic, my house had been defaulting to “just do total lockdown”, largely because it was conceptually simple. At some point a housemate said “what if we actually used a spreadsheet to make an informed fermi-model of how dangerous covid could be, and reflect on our values, and use that to consider whether we actually need to be this stringent about lockdown?”

And I agreed with that in principle. But… I just couldn’t. I was so stressed out. I didn’t have a principled way of valuing my life. I didn’t trust myself to be able to do a fermi calc that I’d actually believe in. I didn’t trust other roommates to do the fermi calc for me. I didn’t have space to learn the skill in a way I would trust.

But, man, if I had had this skill, and if more of my friends had had it, it would have made a lot of things much easier. In particular because it would have meant we could…

Turning Sacred Values Into Trades

I think it often makes sense to have classes of things that you don’t trade away, and that you drop everything to fix if they’re threatened. 

One of the complaints I heard during the pandemic was “I’d be willing to pay some people, like, $100s or $1000s of dollars for them to come to in-person meetings, but everyone is stuck in this mode where they’re not willing to even consider it.”

I was one of the people stuck in the mode where I couldn’t even consider it. This was in large part due to my obligations to other housemates – everyone was burned out from negotiation and thinking about covid-risk.

At the time, I don’t think there was much opportunity to improve on the situation. I think it’s pretty harmful to pressure people into accepting deals that they don’t feel comfortable making. At least in my corner of the social graph, I know that people were earnestly trying their best and operating with zero cognitive slack for months on end. But it left me wishing for a better world, a world where I, and my friends, already had the skills of:

  • Having a concrete sense of how we valued our life – how much we’d pay for additional life-hours.
  • Having a calibrated sense of how dangerous covid might have been (this could include wide error bars while still having a grounded sense of what the distribution would be, given your current information and your track record predicting things)
  • Ability and willingness to recognize when things you previously classified as “key cornerstone of your life you don’t trade away” in fact need to get sacrificed, and the ability to do so with minimal trauma.

If I and several friends had started the pandemic with those skills, I think we’d have been in better positions to figure out where we actually disagreed with each other (as opposed to holing up by default). And then, if we actually disagreed about how much we each valued our lives vs social lives vs working-in-person-together, the additional act of “offer each other trades that are win-win” would have been less overwhelming.

Next post: Systems I Wish Were In Place For the Pandemic. AKA Could we have gotten microcovid.org sooner? Could we have had more numerical-emotional-literacy in the groundwater?


 

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In furtherance of some discussion here about transparency in upvotes:

I strong-upvoted this post because

  • I had never thought this thought before and found it so insightful that it seems impossibly obvious in retrospect: "Those skills didn’t come for free. Society invested in me having them. It could have invested in me having different skills (such as martial prowess), which would enable different coordination patterns."
  • I had shared and noticed this experience (albeit with "society" in place of "roommates") but never put it into words and certainly not so succinctly: "And I agreed with that in principle. But… I just couldn’t. I was so stressed out. I didn’t have a principled way of valuing my life. I didn’t trust myself to be able to do a fermi calc that I’d actually believe in. I didn’t trust other roommates to do the fermi calc for me. I didn’t have space to learn the skill in a way I would trust."
  • It gave me insight into how different (not better or worse) the poster's community must be from the communities I've lived in.

Aww. Thanks.

I appreciate the concept of "Numerical-Emotional Literacy". In fact, this is what I personally think/feel the "rationalist project" should be. To the extent I am a "rationalist" then precisely specifically what I mean by that is that knowing what I value, and pursuing numerical-emotional literacy around it, is important to me.

A subskill of numerical-emotional-literacy here that's maybe worth highlighting is "being comfortable with orders of magnitude." 

One of issues I saw was that even after microcovid came out, some people were hung up on getting the numbers exactly right, like they were trying to have certainty of exactly what was happening to them.  When really what was most important was having a rough sense of what order of magnitude of risk they were taking. A thing that'd have saved a lot of cognitive energy is doing a little up-front calculations to get a sense of how risky different types of activities were, and what the range of things they and their roommates did, and then only spending more cognitive cycles when particularly major things happened.

This looks cut off: "It’d have been handy to have a strong background in epidemiology,"

Alas – I think I had hoped to come up with 2-3 different examples of object-level-knowledge or skills that'd have been useful but it was harder to find succinct handles for them. Ended up just ending the sentence there.