Author's note: 

The essay below centers mostly on a philosophy of parenting.  However, it's not "about" parenting—rather, parenting is a domain in which the concepts I'd like to convey can be easily represented and productively applied.  Parenting is one specific instantiation of the broader set of ideas, just as one might use an essay about football or baseball as a vehicle for the concepts of friction or acceleration or collision elasticity.

Author's note II:

Feedback on this draft ran thus:

[this essay seems to be missing something important, namely] stuff that would flip me from the primary activity of "i am trying to download Duncan's meanings into a sandbox in my mind and then make sense of them in the sandbox before i possibly do the further work of rendering them meaningful and/or useful to me if i have the tenacity for that", to the different primary activity of "i am using Duncan's guidance to recognize in my own head and from my own perspective the possibility of relating to the world in this new way, and i am personally engaged in the process of figuring out when and how and why it might matter to me" 

I'm not sure how to get readers to do the latter thing; I think it is the correct thing to do and had sort of implicitly assumed that everybody already would.  Since I don't know what changes to make to this draft to encourage the latter thing for readers like the one above, I'm just bluntly making the recommendation.  Hopefully I will get better at helping in the near future.

I. The meadow

Imagine a wide, level, grassy meadow, stretching to the horizon, empty of all obstacles.

This meadow will be our metaphor for the world/the territory/reality-as-a-whole, and the picture of it will gradually grow more complex as we step through various thought experiments.  But for the moment, it's just one big blank plane.

Now imagine a blindfolded child, running through the meadow.

This is safe, because the meadow contains nothing besides soft, springy grass.  There are no walls or other obstacles to run into.  If they trip or tumble, they'll be fine.

Running will be our metaphor for human activity.  It is good to run.  More precisely, it's good to be able to run—to have the freedom to move in whatever direction you please, at whatever speed you please, without fear or constraint.  The ideal state is one in which the blindfolded child can run as much as they want to, wherever they want to, whenever they feel like.

(The blindfold is our metaphor for the state of human knowledge—our inability to perceive and comprehend the vast majority of what goes on around us, and our uncertainties and confusions about even the tiny slice we do manage to be aware of.)

II. The post

Now imagine a parent, lounging on the grass, idly supervising the child as they run.

The parent is not blindfolded, because the parent has a wealth of experience and knowledge (relative to the child).  They can "see" the world more clearly, so in our metaphor they can straightforwardly see.

(Though they are still unable to see what's behind them, or what's very far away, or what they fail to properly attend to, or things that blend in with the grass or the sky.)

In the infinite meadow, the parent's job is extremely easy.  The child is safe; they will run and play and eventually tire and come back to the parent for food and rest and conversation.

But imagine for a moment that the meadow is not empty.  Imagine instead that it contains one single post, standing upright in the middle of everything.

Art by Logan Strohl

Running into this post would not be pleasant.  If the child does so, they could be seriously hurt, or possibly even killed.

A handful of possible responses to the inclusion of the post:

  • The parent might simply go sit by the post themselves, such that they could shout a warning to the child if they get too close.
  • The parent might accompany the child on their romp around the meadow, intervening if they threaten to get too near to the post.
  • The parent might lead the child away from the post—far, far away, until it ceases to be a salient problem.
  • The parent might encourage the child to slow down and be careful.

...there are certainly others.  The parent might attempt to dig up the post, for instance, or surround it with soft objects.  Or they might say nothing and "let the kid learn their lesson."

It seems reasonable, though, to say that the job of the parent is to somehow navigate the child-post interaction.  That what a parent is is someone who takes responsibility for figuring out a policy for dealing with this post situation.

(Or what a manager is, or a principal, or a general, or anyone who is in any sort of privileged position in which they have greater power and intel than other beings in their circle of concern.)

III. Expansiveness (and its opposite)

We will return to the parent later.  First, though, I want to talk a little bit about the internal experience of the blindfolded child.

I would like to use the word expansiveness (as in "an expansive mood") to refer to the property referenced above, of having the freedom and confidence to move at any speed, in any direction, following the whim of the moment.

In the infinite, empty meadow, it's easy to feel expansive.  To not-closely-track one's own position, to not-think-about which way one will move next, to not treat any given impulse as a weighty decision in need of careful evaluation.

But imagine that you are the blindfolded child, and that somehow you suddenly become aware of the existence of the post, without knowing its precise location.

I claim that, in that moment, you would be very likely to undergo a contraction.  To make a substantial shift away from freewheeling expansiveness toward anxiety, wariness, a sort of feeling-one's-way-gingerly-forward.  What makes sense in an infinite meadow makes less sense in a meadow known to contain a dangerous obstacle.  The fear of possibly slamming into a post has an immediate impact on one's estimation of how good of an idea "running around" is.

This is bad.  Or, more precisely, it is the claim of this theory and this philosophy that this is bad.  It is correct to contract in response to danger, but expansiveness, to the greatest degree supported by the environment, is the goal. Contraction is often necessary and justified, but it is always seen as an unfortunate cost. It's one thing to choose to walk.  It's another thing altogether to be unable to freely run, because of an expectation that doing so will result in pain or injury.

IV. Uncertainty

An interesting thing happens, if you are the blindfolded child and you are standing at the post.

If you have your hands on it, and you know with certainty that it is the only post, then suddenly you're back to expansiveness.  As long as you run away from that spot, you can carry on as you were before... first.  As you continue to meander, your uncertainty about the location of the post grows.  At first, you are quite certain that it's a dozen steps behind you—that if you turned around and took a dozen steps back and waved your arms, you'd bump into it.

But after you run for a bit, and then pause, and then get up and run a bit more, and blindly turn and turn and turn again, each time with a little more room for error about just exactly how much, it becomes harder and harder to have any confidence at all that you know where the post is, and could find it again (or avoid it) on purpose.  It doesn't take long at all before your-anticipations-about-its-location have become so diffuse that it might as well be anywhere.


In fact, the above picture is slightly misleading, because it implies that you/the child/the blue dot can confidently locate itself within the meadow.  From a dot-centric perspective, with the meadow expanding effectively infinitely in every direction, and the dot's own orientation toward or away from the post becoming increasingly uncertain as time goes on, the t=5 step looks more like:

There is (of course) a range of responses to personal risk.  Some people would experience greater contraction than others, for a given likelihood of running into the post; there are some people who aggressively insist on "still running anyway" even when they know there's a post somewhere out there, and others who creep and crawl and feel their way forward even when the odds of encountering a post are very low.

But it seems to me that the impact of maybe-there's-a-post is of the same kind in all cases, even though people have different sensitivity to it and respond in different ways.

In "The correct response to uncertainty is not half-speed," Anna Salamon notes that many humans respond to uncertainty by doing something like averaging across strategies.  That is, if they're not sure whether they've already passed their destination, or whether it's still ahead of them, they will tend to slow down, even though this is a worse strategy in each of the possible worlds.

This rhymes in my mind with the tendency of many humans to treat a 50% chance of guilt (and correspondingly a 50% chance of innocence) as if someone is 100% likely to be sort of guilty.  It's rare to find people for whom split and commit is a natural or well-practiced move; as a class, we are not particularly good at composite strategies, especially if we are not paying close and effortful attention.

And so it seems safe to me to predict that, as one's uncertainty as to the location of the post "bleeds" further and further out, tainting more and more of the meadow, most people will have a duller, slower, sadder, and more contracted experience in every square meter, and during every time step.  Even a very low risk (say, 0.1%) of encountering the post in the next ten steps tends to temper one's ability to be truly expansive and carefree—it's rare for people to respond to small risks with a correctly proportionately small behavior change.

(c.f. concepts such as risk aversion and loss aversion)

It's for this reason that meadow theory puts a premium on identifying the precise location of dangerous obstacles.  The more accurately you can pin down exactly where the post is (and continue to track it even as time passes and you move around), the more the existence of the post does not result in general contraction.

V. Parenting under meadow theory

This, then, is the primary responsibility of parents (and managers, principals, generals, etc.) under meadow theory: to help the blindfolded children locate the obstacles within the meadow.  If a child knows where the hazards are, they can still be relatively expansive—there's plenty of joy to be had running full-tilt down hallways, even if the walls mean they can't turn left or right at will.  But as their uncertainty rises, their ability to run freely sharply contracts.

In the latter, more uncertain situation, there is only a narrow band in which it is at all reasonable to run freely, even though the actual hazards are the same in both cases.

This responsibility expresses itself in two broad categories of parental action.  The first is providing specific warnings about the locations of specific, known hazards, e.g.:

  • "Look both ways before crossing the street, so you don't get hit by a car."
  • "Glass cookware doesn't look any different when it's very hot."
  • "Don't experiment with highly addictive drugs.  You can get yourself caught in a trap that is very hard to escape, and the point-of-no-return is often impossible to identify until you've already passed it."
  • "There are people who have a lot of power within their tiny fiefdoms, and sometimes those people behave really poorly, and it will be tempting to challenge them, and sometimes it's worth it to challenge them, but you should stop and think for a minute about whether you're making a powerful enemy and whether that's the right tradeoff given your goals and needs."
  • [My psych nurse mother's extremely blunt and not-at-all-trying-to-be-sympathetic-or-politically-correct heuristic] "Boys: girls with borderline personality disorder will seem extremely interesting and sexy and into you and they will draw you in and then everything will be terrible. Girls: boys with psychopathic tendencies will seem extremely charming and capable and deep and they will draw you in and then everything will be terrible. Each of you needs to learn to recognize these types early, and steer clear despite what your libido is telling you."

...this list could go on for quite literally thousands of entries; human culture has built up a large repository of informal knowledge about where many hazards lie, and each individual adult human brain contains a significant fraction of that total.

No one human, though, comes anywhere close to carrying a complete copy, and even the sum total of all human wisdom regarding posts-in-the-meadow is a woefully impoverished subset.  Known dangers present themselves anew in endlessly varied ways; there are dangers which no one has encountered yet; there are dangers which did not exist until we created them (e.g. the profoundly negative impact of Instagram on the self-esteem of many young girls); there are dangers which we don't know about because no one has yet survived an encounter and come back to warn the rest of us.

Thus, the second category of parental action is teaching children the general skill of how to recognize a hazard before you smack into it face-first.  Of knowing what sorts of signs mean that one should slow down, because one has entered a region that's less safe than usual.

(Metaphors here are less clean, but one could imagine e.g. human echolocation, which is indeed sensitive enough to allow blind humans to detect and avoid many dangerous objects.  Or one could imagine a kind of outside view aggregation—if you are moving through the meadow and suddenly all of the voices fall away behind you, this may be a sign that you are entering dangerous territory which is unpopulated for a reason.)

Some vague gestures in this direction:

  • Literal unexplored territory is often dangerous; if no one's been there before, no one knows where the posts are, and it may pay to move slowly.
  • If someone could directly and significantly benefit from deceiving you or defrauding you or otherwise imposing costs upon you, there's a higher chance that this will actually happen, and you should keep your wits about you.
  • If someone is proposing that you give up substantial power, resources, or mobility, this is often a bad sign.
  • If someone is contriving a situation in which they have substantial and open-ended power over someone else, this is often a bad sign, especially if the someone else is supposed to be dependent on or otherwise vulnerable to the more powerful person.

...etc.  Each of the items in the above list is a generator for items in the first list; they are generalized inductions from the set of historical observations of posts that help people to focus their attention in places where new posts are more likely.

It's worth reiterating that these two precepts of meadow theory are different from many other parenting philosophies.  Meadow theory says that you, as a parent, should:

  1. Convey to your child the most precise information you can about where the hazards are (and, implicitly, what kind of risks they carry).
  2. Teach your child how to recognize and locate previously unknown hazards, such that they can navigate around them with a minimal sacrifice of meadow-area-in-which-they-can-freely-run.

...and furthermore that this is the end of your responsibility, at least when it comes to the question of defending your child against the environment.  Other theories of parenting say that you should e.g. prevent the child from running into a post by any means necessary, including those which are highly costly to you, the child, or your relationship (such as by keeping them confined to a known-safe area of the meadow), or that you should dissuade your child from ever running fast enough that they would be injured by a post, if one were there, regardless of how likely there is to be one.


VI. People-as-posts

Assuming that you are reasonably on board with the claim that uncertainty about the location of the post leads to contraction, it's worth taking a brief aside to note that other people are also posts.

And indeed, as the above uncertainty principle would predict, it is when other people's boundaries and norms are clear and unambiguous that they are easiest to interact with.

With total strangers (who in America at least we largely know not to touch) and close friends (whose willingness to be touched is understood in detail), it's relatively simple to answer questions like "should I give this person a long, lingering hug?"  Ditto for contexts where roles and norms are explicit in common knowledge (e.g. a corporate office, or a martial arts dojo, or the Sunday service at a church, or a married couple interacting in the privacy of their own home).

Where it becomes difficult is with people who may want a hug, but who may instead punish you for offering one, or who may be open to hugs in one context and strongly opposed to them in another, for reasons that are not immediately apparent or legible.

In all sorts of domains—money, romance, political or religious affiliation, physical interactions, communication norms, tidiness—it's when people's true boundaries are unknown or highly variable that others must contract, cautiously feeling their way forward.

(Or barrel forward blindly and hope for the best.)

The more that each of us knows what the other likes and dislikes, wants and avers, can handle and can't handle, the more each of us can make frequent and confident motions even fairly close to the line, without having to worry about unknowingly and accidentally crossing it.

The less defined those boundaries are, the more they bleed out and pollute the space between us such that neither of us can feel expansive (if we care about not violating them).

Thus, it is useful and prosocial to make the locations of one's own boundaries and fences and wants and needs outwardly legible.  The more people have to tiptoe carefully around one another's hidden landmines, the worse things are for everyone.  Parents, according to meadow theory (and managers, principals, etc.), should help their children locate and assert their own boundaries, and should model setting and clearly communicating boundaries in a way that the children can see and learn from, not merely because this is good for one's own sake but because it causes each person to accidentally steal less of the common space via uncertain boundary leak.

Hazards that everyone can "see" are much easier to avoid, and much easier to pass by closely, at speed, without danger.

VII. Interlude: Logan Strohl on courage

(Compiled from multiple sources)

One thing that's really wrong with our subculture (by which I don't mean "rationalists" so much as "leftists", or possibly even "contemporary Western society") is that we think we're supposed to feel safe.

We notice that in contexts with a whole lot of safety, where we do not feel afraid, it is much easier to be full, vibrant people, to expand, to act freely in accordance with our values. This is an accurate observation, and working to create and maintain such contexts for ourselves and others makes a lot of sense.

But overall, no matter what we do, we are not safe. This world is a dangerous and terrifying place. Even rich white men get cancer. The other monkeys are watching and judging. Many of us are aware of the possibility that everyone and everything we care about might be re-purposed atom-by-atom if AGI takes off.

There are no safe spaces. If I prefer to believe true things, it is actually appropriate to be at least a little afraid basically all of the time.

Because we think we're supposed to feel safe, and because we've noticed ourselves expanding in safer contexts, we treat fear as an enemy holding us back. And since we're usually afraid, we're usually held back. We feel that our only options, if we want to act on the world, are either 1) to eliminate fear by creating and maintaining safety (or by simply ignoring dangers altogether), or 2) to spend most of our energy trying to shove down our fear or to fight against it.

We, as a culture, have forgotten what courage is. What it's for, and what it's like, and how to have it.


Often, I'm drawn to do something, and also I'm afraid to do it. One really fruitful action I've been taking when I notice the attracted/repelled phenomenological cluster is to ask first what I'm afraid of and what my fear is trying to protect, and then what I'm eager to do and what my eagerness is trying to protect.

Surprisingly often, my fear and eagerness are trying to protect the exact same thing, and the tension I experience comes from a disagreement about the appropriate strategy.

For example, I've at times been both repelled and attracted to hiking in the desert. My fear is of rattlesnakes, and my fear of rattlesnakes is trying to protect free and powerful movement (I want to keep the ability to run and hike and climb, which rattlesnake bites threaten). My eagerness for hiking in the desert also protects free and powerful movement (which is not so available when I stay inside all the time).

Another example, one I've run into multiple times, is the simultaneous attraction and aversion to the idea of talking to someone, especially someone I don't know very well. I'm afraid of talking to them, or of having a "real conversation", and the fear is trying to protect a fulfilling relationship that might exist in the future. The fear recognizes that a conversation-gone-wrong could cut off the possibility. My eagerness to talk to the person is also trying to protect a fulfilling relationship that might exist in the future, and it recognizes that a conversation is just about the only means by which the possibility could be instantiated.

[edit: the following is definitely not the full story, it's more like musings that contain accurate observations incorrectly interpreted]

Perhaps caution is the attempted preservation of possible value in more distant imagined futures, while bravery is the attempted instantiation of near-present value. Caution and bravery are often championing the same values while suggesting different strategies. A strategy that favors caution by default without taking bravery seriously is called "cowardice", and looks like unwillingness to act. A strategy that favors bravery by default without taking caution seriously is called "recklessness", and looks like unwillingness to think.

Which means, perhaps counter-intuitively, that courage tends to require patience. Courage is the strategy that takes caution seriously and, having done so, chooses the attempted instantiation of near-present value. It doesn't require the indefinite, endlessly deferred patience of cowardice. But it does require perseverance, the willingness to go on working at a problem despite confusion and frustration. Sometimes it even requires the tolerance of ongoing discomfort that it takes to passively allow thoughts and observations to arrange themselves by "sleeping on it". It's not always obvious what you're afraid of, what the fear is trying to protect, or what the world would look like if caution were the appropriate strategy. I think you have to load all of that somehow to be courageous.

In these situations where hesitance and eagerness champion the same value, you can't just be like, "well, which do I care about more?" because you're weighing one thing against that exact same thing. They really take a lot of patience.


Fear is not an enemy. It reminds us that what we value is in jeopardy, and it's one half of the scarab beetle. The other half is awareness of our values themselves, that spark of recognition of something excellent and beautiful in the world. When we hold both halves at the same time, fitting them one into the other, the beetle comes to life, and flies directly toward the Cave Of Wonders. We move through danger toward what we care about. And that is courage.

Courage is the capacity to act from your values in the presence of fear. It is expanding yourself when you are not safe. It is feeling fear, listening to its accurate descriptions of real risks, and fighting with your whole heart for all of what you care about.

And something I personally have been missing this whole time is that courage—real courage—feels good. Not necessarily soft or warm or pleasant, but wonderful nonetheless.

It is not at all the thing where you shove down your fear and try to power through with your hands over your eyes until you're allowed to stop. And it's nothing like the frantic nausea of pretending you're safe when you aren't. It's electrifying. It's suddenly arriving at the place where you've been standing but were too asleep to notice. It's the opposite of giving up.

We're not supposed to feel safe. We aren't safe. We are in danger, and we're supposed to feel courage.

VIII. Summary

  • Reality is well-modeled by a meadow, through which we wish to have the affordance to run freely.
  • There are hazards in the meadow, which some of us (such as parents) see more clearly than others of us (such as children).
  • Uncertainty about the location of the hazards is corrosive to the ideal condition of expansiveness.  (Actual injury from colliding with a hazard is also corrosive, both directly and in the way it changes one's future behavior.)
  • Increasing certainty about the location of the hazards restores the ideal condition of expansiveness, at least to the greatest extent allowed by the environment.
  • Among the hazards that cause people to contract in a bad way are other humans, and other humans can also have an ill-defined "location" in that it can be very unclear at what point they will "hit back," the way a post hits back when you run into it at high speeds.
  • The primary responsibility of cooperative individuals (such as parents helping their children but also colleagues and allies helping one another) is to cause one another's maps of the meadow to become more and more accurate, such that everyone knows where the hazards are.
  • A secondary responsibility of cooperative individuals is to help one another to develop the ability to perceive and map previously unknown hazards (since we do not have anything even remotely close to a complete understanding of where all the hazards lie).

I claim this is an extremely useful way to think about parenting, as well as things like difficult interpersonal conversations, or project management, or teaching/pedagogy, or directing literal troops in a literal war.

I don't think the above represents the sum total of useful actions to take within the meadow.  There are other things that people can do which are helpful, such as bulldozing hazards to make the meadow safer for everyone, or building small closed-in enclaves for meadow-runners who are unable to perceive or comprehend certain hazards.

But the first priority should be to help people precisely locate known hazards, such that they can be reasonably confident about where those known hazards aren't, and the second priority should be to translate the hazard-locating skill.  Everything else seems to me to be dependent on something unsustainable (e.g. "I'll sacrifice my own priorities entirely and devote my time and attention to the task of keeping you safe myself") or unrealistically optimistic (e.g. "we'll make the entire meadow entirely safe").

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Glad I ran into this post!

This essay had a significant influence on my growth in the past two years. I shifted from perceiving discomfort as something I am subject to, to considering my relationship with discomfort as an object that can be managed. There are many other writings and experiences that contributed to this growth, but this was the first piece I encountered that talked about managing our relationship with hazards as a thing we can manipulate and improve at. It made me wonder why all human activity may be considered running in the meadow and why contracting may be bad, it showed me how dangers can be mitigated through clearer communication of boundaries, it made me aware of how people can be hazards too.

After working through Nook Nature, I think I sort of understand now why contracting might be bad. Trying to manage my fears and do things (instead of just trying to avoid mistakes) has indeed led to a more enjoyable experience and makes me feel more alive. However, I still stand by my original comment, in that I'm not quite clear what exactly the author is trying to convey. 

Something that strikes me as I reread this piece is that I can't tell which are the assumptions, the claims, and the arguments. For example, the essay says that Meadow Theory claims contraction is bad, as in "it is the claim of this theory and this philosophy that this is bad". Yet there does not seem to be an explanation or argument for why this claim might be true. Does that mean we are supposed to take it as an assumption instead?

I don't know how I would rewrite this essay to make it clearer, but if I were to write a piece to myself that captures part of what I have learnt, it would look something like this:

Meadow Theory, remixed

Life is more rewarding when we have a larger surface area of contact with reality

Expanding our surface area of contact with reality enriches our lives. We can expand into new areas, such as traveling to new places or growing a company, or delve deeper into specific areas, like honing our skills in cooking or mastering a musical instrument. Growth makes life more enjoyable and fulfilling.

But explorations expose us to hazards

Unfortunately, life is filled with hazards, both big and small, and exploring brings us into contact with more of such hazards. For instance, when we travel to a new country, we may face unfamiliar food, language barriers, or cultural misunderstandings. Similarly, as we hone our culinary skills, we may come across complex techniques that have greater risks, such as flambéing or working with sharp knives.

Hazards hurt us, so we try to eliminate them from our experience

Hazards are unpleasant and can be dangerous, so our instinct is to eliminate them. And if we can’t, we try to eliminate them from our experiences. For example, if we can’t eradicate a disease, then maybe we use antimicrobial soap to wash our hands, or we avoid crowded areas. We think that hazards are the problem to be dealt with, but is this really the case?

Meadow & Posts

Let’s consider an analogy. Imagine you are running freely in a meadow. You're blindfolded, but that's fine, because the meadow is safe. Now, imagine someone informing you that there is a single post somewhere in the meadow. You might get hurt if you run headlong into a post! What do you do? You slow down and feel your way through, just in case the post is right in front of you.

We contract because we are afraid of getting hurt

Suppose the person had been mistaken and there isn’t actually any post in the meadow. Would anything change? No, you still move slowly because you believe there is a post out there. You contract not because there is actual danger, but because you are (sanely) afraid of getting hurt.

Being afraid is unpleasant, so we strive to eliminate posts from our explorations

Our instinctive response is to get rid of posts, or at least get rid of the possibility of encountering posts as we traverse the meadow. We avoid areas known to contain posts, like how people who are afraid of being laughed at might avoid performing on stage. We stick to known routes, like those who choose to remain in their hometowns simply because it feels comfortable, or people who only read books that get good reviews so they won’t waste their time on bad books.

We also help others to avoid encountering posts

When we have a responsibility for or are helping others, we also strive to eliminate posts from their explorations of reality. We ban children from playing outside, because it is dangerous. We tell our employees exactly what to do, so they won't do it wrongly.

However, avoiding posts leads to a more limited experience

Trying to avoid all posts is costly. There are many hazards in the world. Trying to eliminate all hazards from your experience of the world leads to an increasingly narrow life. You wake up in a city you hate, because you're afraid to move to a new place. You stay in a numbing job, because you fear rejection in your job applications. You avoid talking to people, because you’re afraid they might laugh at you. You don't really try to improve your skills, because you're afraid of discovering you’re not so talented after all. In striving to avoid all potential risks, we end up living a limited life.

What if there's a better way?

Imagine if you knew that the meadow contained only one post, and you managed to locate it. You would feel relieved, knowing that it's safe everywhere else, and you could resume running freely.

But as you venture further into the meadow, your certainty about the post's location diminishes. You start to slow down again, because the danger can be anywhere. You contract, not just because you are afraid of danger, but because you're not sure where the danger lies. If the post was on top of a small hill, then you would still be able to run freely, slowing down only once you sense the ground sloping upwards. You can’t tell if you are nearing a post, so you slow down everywhere.

Managing uncertainty for ourselves

Rather than trying to eliminate all posts, the key is to become better at discerning where hazards are more likely to be, so that we can take the appropriate amount of caution. There are several approaches to managing this uncertainty for ourselves.

One approach is to seek guidance from those who have explored the same area. For example, learning from mentors or seeking advice from experts can provide valuable insights and reduce uncertainty. Maybe we learn from our elders that "pride comes before a fall", so we know to pay attention to whether we are becoming arrogant and careless.

Another approach is to familiarize ourselves with the terrain, so we gain the knowledge and experience that allow us to better predict where posts tend to be. Maybe after cold calling hundreds of strangers, we start to figure out what leads to better results and what leads to rejections.

We can also get better at seeing, or by making our blindfolds less opaque. Rationality skills, for example, can help us improve at the general skill of seeing reality for what it is, as opposed to what we perceive.

Yet another approach is to increase our capacity to handle potential hazards. As we grow and develop, our ability to navigate challenges expands. A post that is the size of a grass stalk may be fatal to someone the size of an ant, but a mere irritation to someone as big as a human. For example, the more self-assured we are, the less impact others' opinions have on our self-esteem. Similarly, having more financial resources allows us to take greater financial risks.

Notice that all these approaches encourage you to explore reality, rather than shrink from it. Better yet, these explorations can help you get better at navigating the meadow, so you can explore parts of the meadow that contain larger, more dangerous posts. These approaches enable you to explore more of the world, not less.

Managing uncertainty for others

The principles of managing uncertainty also apply when we are helping others. Rather than trying to completely shield them from all hazards, we can set boundaries and provide guidance to help them navigate their own explorations. For instance, providing the critical guidelines for a junior team member would ensure they do not make catastrophic mistakes, while still allowing them to learn from their own errors. We can teach children to notice how hunger affects their emotions, rather than just telling them what and when to eat. Such an approach promotes growth and resilience while still providing a safety net within certain limits.

Living expansively in a world of hazards

In summary, living expansively in a world of hazards means understanding and managing risks rather than trying to eliminate all possibilities of danger. We don’t need to ensure that there are no hazards, just ensure that we approach hazards appropriately. We want to be more cautious in areas where there is greater danger to us, and to get better at dealing with hazards so we can explore more areas expansively.

What you think of as a failure to fully eliminate all hazards may in fact be a deliberate decision to hold back so as to promote a healthier, more productive approach to dealing with hazards in the world.

I am grumpy about this post. I am grumpy this week in general, so this might not mean much. But I seem to be considerably more grumpy about this post than about most specific other things I've encountered in the past few days. I have already privately grumped to you about it a little bit, but now I shall publicly grump to you about it, hopefully in useful ways. But just to be clear, grumps follow.

Usually when I am grumpy at a piece of writing, it is because I want something that the writing doesn't give me. Seems to hold in this case. I think there are two things I want from this that I'm not getting.

Thing the first: I want space to see things for myself, to arrive at my own observations and conclusions. When I read this post, I feel yanked around and stomped on, or shouted at, or trampled. It starts with "imagine a post, so that I can get you to build a particular-shaped concept in your head before I even tell you what regions of territory the concept is supposed to correspond to". (This is false, I recognize; you actually started with "this corresponds to parenting-related stuff but also lots of other things", which didn't do the trick, for me.) I don't want to start with imagining a post. I want to start with feeling the problemness of a problem, or the confusingness of a confusing, or the interestingness of an interesting, and poking around at the stuff in the place where it lives. I want to make some kind of contact with some kind of real actual thing that exists, before you go and tell me how to think about it. I've read this two or three times and I barely know what it's about because I've been uncomfortably tightly protecting myself from it the whole time instead of really letting it in, because it seems to be talking about something genuinely important, and I hate losing my ability to observe and personally relate to important things before I've even begun. Grump.

Thing the second: I want some guidance that will help me observe the important thing, which does seem important, whatever it is. I think that maybe you think that the way to guide someone toward observing something is to draw them a picture of the thing and then send them off looking for stuff that resembles the picture. But I just hate that. Don't draw me a picture of the moon and be like "there you go, now you know what the moon looks like, go find it!" because the way brains work, I'm now either going to hallucinate your drawing on top of everything round and I'll have to do a lot of work if I ever want to even notice that this is happening, or I'll just completely fail to even look for the moon in real life because I already have this handy drawing in my pocket so I therefore know what it looks like.

What is a post? How do I know if I'm near one? What's it like to recognize one? How can I tell what I do by default in the presence of posts? How can I tell if someone is or isn't attempting to manage my interactions with posts? How can I tell if I'm running or walking or crawling? When does it matter? How can I tell if it might matter in a particular moment? How can I tell if I'm trying to manage someone else's interactions with a post? What would I look for in the motions of my own mind and in my perceptions of their responses and in the features of the situation we're both inhabiting? And if you were wrong that meadows and posts is really a good way for me to think about the kinds of situations you want me to care about in this essay, how would I look where to find that out and build a better concept for myself? Grump.

In other words, please do all the work for me, but also much much less work than you have done.

You are good and your essay is probably also good and this comment is sponsored in part by a need for more chocolate.

I shared a similar experience reading this essay and wanted to figure out why, so I've tried writing out some of my observations/experiences, hopefully they'll help in some way?

Before I start, I'd just like to add that I enjoyed this essay. It raises a lot of interesting points that provide food for thought e.g. uncertainty about location of hazards is what causes contraction, people can also be posts, how fear and eagerness are trying to protect the same thing. And the illustrations are pretty and helpful!

Below are my observations from reading the essay. They are my own personal experience, which may be very different from others' experiences! Many things are obvious to others but not to me, so it might just be a me-not-understanding, rather than an issue with the writing. 

Anyway, here's the list:

Insufficient explanation

There seem to be two forms of meadow theory I can read from the essay. I understand and agree with the weak form, but the essay seems to be claiming the strong form without providing much explanation. (The strong form seems possibly true when I think about it, but it's not obvious to me from the essay.)

  • Weak form: (my interpretation of the essay, which may be different from the author's original intent...)
    • In scenarios where we want everyone to be able to explore freely despite the presence of unknown hazards, people think we should (primarily) help others by trying to remove all hazards, or following them around to stop them from getting into dangerous situations. In other words, we are trying to eliminate danger (that we perceive) from other peoples' experiences. 
    • This works in certain situations (e.g. baby-proofing a room), but tends to be unrealistic and unsustainable as a general, long-term solution. 
    • Observe that the main problem is not the fact that there are hazards, but that we become constrained by our fear of getting hurt because we are uncertain of where the dangers lie. 
    • Thus, a better approach would be to help them learn to work in an environment with unknown hazards, by helping them figure out where the hazards are, and teaching them how to identify potentially dangerous areas and communicate such information to others (hazards here includes people's boundaries, fences, wants, and needs). 
  • Strong form: (my attempt to follow the original essay, but I don't really understand it)
    • The job of a parent (in the meadow) is to navigate the child-post interaction.
    • Similarly, the job of parents, managers, generals etc. in the real world is managing how their people handle hazards as they explore? (Why? Any examples other than parenting?)
    • When you know there is a hazard but are not sure where it is, you undergo a contraction because you are afraid of getting hurt. 
    • Contraction is bad. (I think I agree, but why? Always bad or bad in certain contexts?)
    • Thus, the main responsibility of parents (and any cooperative individual) is to help their child/team etc. locate the hazards or identify potentially dangerous areas, so they can remain relatively expansive. (Main responsibility with respect to helping people stay safe or main responsibility in general?)

If the intent of the essay is to convey the weak form, then the essay seems to make unnecessary unjustified claims. This is distracting, because I keep trying to check if I agree or disagree with each claim (because it is not immediately obvious if the statement is true or false) when they aren't important for understanding the main point. This makes it harder to focus on the core idea.

However, the essay seems to be arguing for the stronger form. In that case, the essay doesn't seem to be providing enough explanations. Instead, the reader has to find justifications for the claims, so that they can understand and make use of the theory.

Example: is the claim of this theory and this philosophy that (undergoing a contraction) is bad.

It is not clear why I should agree that this is bad (especially when the essay states that running is a metaphor for human activity, which means that I don't just have to agree that contracting in this example is bad, but that contracting in all human activity is bad). 

It is immediately obvious to me that in scenarios where we want to explore as much of the meadow as possible, undergoing a contraction would be bad, because then we would be able to explore less space within the same amount of time. 

However, I don't immediately see why undergoing a contraction is bad in general. The reader seems to be expected to simply agree, or to find our own justifications for why this may be true. I would have expected the essay to at least provide the motivation behind the claim, such as providing examples of where this fear-driven contraction has led to negative consequences.

Meadow example is introduced as a metaphor

The essay presents the meadow example as a metaphor immediately, instead of first trying to explain the meadow example, then showing how real life situations are similar to the meadow example.

I think this may contribute to the feeling of being "yanked", because the reader is not given time to understand the example first, before seeing how it relates to their life. Instead, the reader is instructed to view real life (e.g. human activity) via a very specific lens (e.g. running in a meadow), so now I am trying to understand the example while trying to avoid being constrained by the lens that the author provides, all the while trying to figure out what "human activity" might refer to.

Meadow metaphor is very broad

Running in a meadow represents "human activity", but "human activity" is so general that I don't have a concrete way of understanding the metaphor. It also makes it more overwhelming because then any argument I evaluate has to apply to all possible human activity, rather than just a specific scenario. It feels a bit like we're asked to agree or disagree with an entire worldview/life philosophy (our main job when helping others in any scenario is to help them locate hazards), rather than agree or disagree with a specific claim in a specific context (when we want people to be able to freely explore a space that has unknown hazards, it is better to help them locate hazards), when the arguments only cover a specific context (parenting). 

Parenting appears in both the metaphor and the example/application

I find it confusing that the parent appears in both the metaphor (parent in the meadow) and the application (parenting in general).


...the job of the parent is to somehow navigate the child-post interaction.

Meadow-parent or real parent? The paragraphs building up to this statement show how this is true for the parent in the meadow, but don't provide support for the broader claim that this is true for parenting in general. If I want my child to explore freely in a meadow, then my job is to navigate the child-post interaction. But it is not obvious to me that the main concern of a parent is always to ensure that their child is able explore reality freely.

Using a parent in the meadow example brings in extra connotations

A parent-child relationship has a lot of connotations (which can vary based on culture and personal values and experiences). By using a parent in the meadow example, it seems to suggest that this relationship is core to the metaphor. This seems to give the metaphor more "baggage", making it harder to see how it relates to other scenarios. 

For example, when I try to see how it relates to project management, I keep getting distracted by the fact that my relationship with my project manager is very different from my relationship with my parent. My parent was responsible for me in a way that my project manager isn't. My parent knew a lot more than me, yet I can see many hazards that my project manager can't. My parent wanted me to explore, but my manager wants us to move in a specific direction.

What is a post? How do I know if I'm near one? What's it like to recognize one? How can I tell what I do by default in the presence of posts? How can I tell if someone is or isn't attempting to manage my interactions with posts? How can I tell if I'm running or walking or crawling? When does it matter? How can I tell if it might matter in a particular moment? How can I tell if I'm trying to manage someone else's interactions with a post? What would I look for in the motions of my own mind and in my perceptions of their responses and in the features of the situation we're both inhabiting? And if you were wrong that meadows and posts is really a good way for me to think about the kinds of situations you want me to care about in this essay, how would I look where to find that out and build a better concept for myself? Grump.


I didn't have the same "yanked" response as you did--if anything, I find Duncan usually takes too long to get to the point--but I concur with the quoted bit. I would read a follow-up post with some thoughts on that.

Softening comment for Duncan: I almost always agree with your eventual point to some extent, or can at least respect how you came to hold it, which is like 95% of the regard you could possibly gain from me re a particular claim.

>I didn't have the same "yanked" response as you did--if anything, I find Duncan usually takes too long to get to the point

I don't think how quickly or slowly he gets to the point has much impact on the thing I'm trying to talk about with "yanked". This is not a "slow down" feeling, it's a "get your grubby hands off my psychology" feeling. I think it's possible to move very quickly while leaving lots of the kind of "space" I'm wanting.

Based on this thread, I currently plan to add both an intro and an expansion that meets the needs listed above, probably clearly headlined as “here’s how you’d know if you could skip this part.”

Additional wants or suggestions for such sections welcome.

Also: oof

One thing that occurs reading this is asking people questions, in a context where high trust might be new, about not their object level boundaries but their relationship to boundaries. E.g. 'are you comfortable with asserting stop or slow down signals? Will you be able to ask for more or fewer check in points if that seems good? Would you like extra reinforcement for asserting a boundary? Do you have any requests for what to do if you seem to be running out of capacity?'

This also helps in understanding that people are probably confused when they think that 'being good at boundaries' is about having a consistent and legible set of them. That would just enable adversarial optimization.

Tl;dr: I agree it's important to learn how to navigate, but more to avoid wasted motion than to avoid hitting posts.

Polya's recurrence theorem sheds some light here. Running forever in the infinite meadow, the blindfolded child is guaranteed to hit the post. But if the child's moving through a higher-dimensional space, his chance of hitting the post is very small unless the post starts out nearby. A fish swimming randomly, forever, through an ocean of infinite breadth and depth, has only a 36% chance of ever returning to its starting position. Higher dimensionality helps us avoid random hazards, but also prevents us from finding random benefits.

To me, then, the biggest threat is not hitting the occasional post, but wasted motion. Moving about costs time, money, and energy, and sometimes leads to no reward and nothing learned. In the short term, (semi)-random motion can be pleasurable, and is often necessary. I'm fine with running into a few posts if I can learn or gain a lot. But I do worry about running around in the infinite meadow until I die of exhaustion.

Even "cashing in" a reward, like money, in order to realize a concrete benefit, like a delicious meal, is a complicated form of movement on its own that can go wrong in all kinds of ways. It wasn't until I met my girlfriend, who's a big foodie, that I realized how much work goes into finding good eats in the Portland food scene, even though there are lots of great restaurants. Sometimes, she'll spend an hour or two looking at options before picking where we'll go. And the payoff is absolutely worth it.


Polya's recurrence theorem sheds some light here. Running forever in the infinite meadow, the blindfolded child is guaranteed to hit the post. But if the child's moving through a higher-dimensional space, his chance of hitting the post is very small unless the post starts out nearby. A fish swimming randomly, forever, through an ocean of infinite breadth and depth, has only a 36% chance of ever returning to its starting position. Higher dimensionality helps us avoid random hazards, but also prevents us from finding random benefits.

It seems worth noting that, though humans do live in a very high-dimensional configuration space, the "hazards" we worry about also live in that same space, and as such may not be such easily avoidable objects as the points discussed by Polya's recurrence theorem. (An infinite line in three-dimensional space, for example, is analogous to a point on a two-dimensional plane, and is likewise guaranteed to be hit by a sufficiently long random walk.)

The watercolor of the post made the first part of this dramatically more readable. Humans be liking pictures.

The infographics were also useful, but the text inside was too small.

The site's default text size for image subheads may also be too small. I would prefer if it were the same size as body text.

Ah, so all I need to do to obsolete parenting is to build a Full-immersion VR simulated meadow with no posts in it (a post scarcity society! hehehe).

Now you will see that the hard part is in classifying the hypothetical post-like objects, in the vast grey area between post and non-post objects, which we might decide are worthy of inclusion in our full-immersion VR world in spite of their risks.

I observe that the optimal method of spotting hazards - not having a blindfold - corresponds to having an accurate world-model.  In other words, more rationality!

My other observation is that, in the cases where the posts are people, they are optimizing against you the same way you're trying to optimize against them, which is exactly the runaway escalation that seems to lead to our current intelligence.  (Those pictures above are a lot messier when the post tries to hit you.)

I wonder if the skill of hazard-perception (or world-modelling, or map-territory accuracy) has a general advantage or disadvantage against deception (the borderline/psychopaths/scammers), similar to how, at different points in history, fortifications had an advantage or disadvantage against artillery.

I'm curious: what definition of the terms "hazard-perception" and "deception" would give rise to a disadvantage to those who have better hazard protection? This seems to me to be certainly false for the obvious definitions.

I meant to use "disadvantage" to gesture more generally to the way certain strategies in warfare dominate others at various times, based on the technologies available at those times.

For instance, fortifications/defense tended to dominate sieges/offense until cannons became sufficiently used/widespread/accurate/powerful, at which point walls no longer conferred the same sort of advantage.

To bring the metaphor to rationality, if we think of "hazard-perception" as a skill and "deception" as a skill, which side do our current technologies favor?

The internet seems to favor hazard-perception (as in, gives it an advantage over deception), due to the availability of information (search engines, Wikipedia, etc.), but social media seems to favor deception (Facebook, TikTok, etc. create information cascades and echo chambers).