The Inner Workings of Resourcefulness

by Nora_Ammann8 min read25th Feb 20213 comments

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AgencySelf ImprovementRationality
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Cross-posted to my personal blog.

Meta: If not for its clumsiness, I would have titled this piece “[some of] the inner workings of resourcefulness”. In other words, I do not want to pretend this piece offers a comprehensive account, but merely partially insights.  

About this time a year ago - when for a lot of people, the world came crashing in on them - I started obsessing over an idea. Maybe, I thought to myself, one of the most valuable things I could be focusing on at the moment is becoming more resourceful

In this time of crises, starting early 2020, what was, in a sense, most needed were people capable of dealing with flexibly new, difficult situations and of finding and enacting creative solutions despite constraint and uncertainty. People capable of staying oriented, in the face of unfolding chaos, while also being relentlessly effective in their action. People who can give, plentifully, when others are in need of help. Resourceful people

For much of March, I wasn't resourceful. I had shit on my own to figure out, and a lot of my energy flew (sunk!) into that, and into handling the wave of uncertainty that, for a couple of days, took away my breath. 

With opportunities for meaningful mitigative action at my fingertips yet much of my resources gobbled up, I couldn't stop ruminating the question of what I could have done to be a more valuable actor now.

For some time now, I have been deliberately working on making myself more valuable to this world. Never before in my lifetime was the world so much in need of me. And yet I felt so utterly unprepared. 

This is when it came to me that resourcefulness was an important concept in this quest of mine

Turns out, I didn’t know - not really - what being resourceful means. Or rather, while I could give a description of what resourcefulness might look like, I wasn’t able to “pull back the curtains” and look at the “inner workings” of resourcefulness. I needed to remedy this situation, and I have been pondering the nature of resourcefulness ever since then.

This morning, a day in early 2021, like a bird flying up to my window bench in joyful chatter, the thought came to me: What have I learnt about resourcefulness over the last year? Let’s take stock.

I am confident I haven’t finished my quest to understand the inner workings of resourcefulness. In fact, the rest of this post will adopt only two of many possible angles on the subject. But I have learnt some things about resourcefulness over the past year - since that wave of raw uncertainty had stolen my breath for some time. It is, arguably, the most important axis of progress I've gone through in 2020. 

Importantly, my reflections aren’t meant to only apply to “proper times of crisis”, such as an unravelling pandemic. The world needs resourceful people at any time, and you won’t build resourcefulness any other time than now. Our society is structured such that we see people “on their big days”, such as an athlete on the day of the game. However, every good athlete will tell you that their victory (or failure) hadn’t been determined on the court (or whatever the relevant equivalent), but on all the days leading up to it. 

Every day is when you build form. Every day is when it matters. 

Intrapersonal freedom, roles and Slack

In the rationality community, Slack is a semi-artistic concept referring to the absence of binding constraints on behaviour.

From the post originally introducing the term: 

Slack means margin for error. You can relax.

Slack allows pursuing opportunities. You can explore. You can trade.

Slack prevents desperation. You can avoid bad trades and wait for better spots. You can be efficient.

Slack permits planning for the long term. You can invest.

Slack enables doing things for your own amusement. You can play games. You can have fun.

Slack enables doing the right thing. Stand by your friends. Reward the worthy. Punish the wicked. You can have a code.

Slack presents things as they are without concern for how things look or what others think. You can be honest.

You can do some of these things, and choose not to do others. Because you don’t have to.

Only with slack can one be a righteous dude.

Of particular relevance to my then-situation: Slack allows adjusting your priorities according to what is most needed. This isn't to say that you should never commit part of your resources to longer-term projects. Investing for larger longer-term gains is great. And so is having Slack.

We often start by looking for the source of Slack (or the causes for the lack thereof) in the external world. Someone who has a lot of savings, say, has more Slack than someone who cannot afford to lose their salary, even just for some time. 

Interestingly, the thing that was consuming Slack in the case of Nora-from-early-2020 hardly wasn't object-level constraints at all. Instead, a lot came down to me not being psychologically ready to adjust her priorities as fast and as effectively as would have been adequate. 

In April 2020, I started to contribute to a covid-relevant project. But although my then-employer explicitly allowed me to direct my working hours towards that project, I didn't do so to the extent I should have. 

Instead, I started working what was much more like two jobs, logging more work hours that I' had ever done before. I was conscious of and tried hard to make the situation as sustainable as possible. But the urgency at that time was overwhelming, so I succeeded at this goal only so much. 

Retrospectively, I now think that a significant portion of my "trying hard" was directed at the wrong thing. I focused most of my attention on freeing up times "at the margins" (e.g. streamlining daily routines such as food preparation and consumption, household chores, etc; making sure my sleep was as good as it could be, including using melatonin to minimize the amount of time I laid in bed not yet asleep but also unproductive; doing shorter but more intense workouts; ...). And sure, these were mostly good and worthwhile interventions. But they weren't where I could have gotten "most bang for the buck".  

What I should instead have done was to "sweep clear" my metaphorical work desk; I should have gone through my list of commitments at the time and marked each one that wasn't critical and urgent ("something breaks if I don't do this now"); I should have explicitly put an "on pause" sign on each of the non-critical ones, and I should have treated this as an administrative as well as a psychological process. 

In particular, I should have talked to my then-employer to clarify that, instead of reducing my workload by a third, I needed to reduce it to 0-10% for the next three weeks, and then upon reevaluation, potentially for longer. 

Of course, this isn't always possible. But in my case, it was. And I knew it was. My then-employer would have approved and supported this decision. The problem was with me. I felt a misguided sense of duty to my "role". My psychology was what was consuming my Slack.

The resource that I was most in need of wasn't just number of hours. Of course, these mattered. But the more scarce resource was actually my attention. 

Freeing up something like a third of my time allowed me to get a bunch of valuable tasks done for the covid-related project. But it didn't allow me to become a reliable and agentic contributor, able to take on responsibility and show initiative. Something that the project was in dire need of at the time. 

The best example of this is when I at some point half-heartedly tried to take on the task of getting a policy report ready to be shipped. There were indeed a lot of things that made this undertaking hard, and maybe I wouldn't have succeeded at it either way. But fact is, I didn't give it my all. I hid behind the excuse that I was only doing this to "help out", and didn't have a sufficient overview of what was going on in all corners of the project and that I lacked some skills that would have made me a more abt person to lead this project. 

I would like to believe that, had I had more attention by letting go of other temporarily-dispensable responsibilities, I would have not taken more ownership. I don't know that this is what would have happened - I think I still would have struggled -, but I do know it would have been much more likely.

(To be clear, this is not meant as uncontextualized advice to, at any instance of apparent or real urgency, let go of all commitments you have made up to that point.)

What I mean to say here, really, is that what took away my Slack was my own mind in, what turns out to be, an illusionary and misguided search for safety.

The human mind is susceptible to the illusion of safety. Ultimate safety is an illusion, and so is the emotional response to the absence of it. In transcending the excessive striving for safety one finds another dimension of freedom: intrapersonal freedom.

The human mind is particularly susceptible to place its sense of safety into other people, or objects, or - like in my case - things like roles and duty. 

By working on transcending this illusion, I have since gained Slack and become more resourceful. 

Personal resilience

A low-resolution summary of this next section might suggest I’m talking about “self-care” - the idea that before you can help others, you need to help yourself. While such a summary wouldn’t exactly be incorrect, it would have me conclude that I didn’t manage to get my point across faithfully. In fact, I feel reluctant towards generic advice of that sort. Not because I think it's wrong, but because it's a too low-bandwidth way of communicating what I consider is a real thing. I hope that I’ll manage to do better than that.

The second angle on the inner workings of resourcefulness I want to adopt is captured in the idea of resilience. I take resilience to be the capacity to recover quickly from disruptive events and subsequently adapt (“bounce back and become stronger”).

I have found it useful to model my personal resilience as follows: 

Increasing resilience equates to widening and steepening the slopes of my attraction basin of wellbeing - the area where I am well and highly functional. 

The wider my attraction basin, the larger are the turbulences I can withstand without causing the entire system to tip over. The steeper the slopes of my attraction basin, the faster I can recover from turbulences, the sooner I'm back in the driver's seat. 

Here is a bad hand-drawing. If it confuses you more, ignore it. The idea is that attraction basin A is wider than B, and has steeper slopes than C. A is thus preferable over both B and C.

[Here is a bad hand-drawing. If it confuses you more, ignore it.]

The dimensions that define the basin of attraction are physical, physiological, mental and emotional. For example: 

  • Certain features of my physical space make it easier for me to be functional (e.g. I need my laptop, I work better with additional large screens, places with good weather and accessible nature spaces to support my wellbeing, ...).
  • My physiological wellbeing is the largest determinant for my overall energy levels and is influenced by my sleeping, eating and workout habits.
  • My mental energy permits me to think clearly, sustain high levels of concentration for longer and direct my attention to those things/details that matter most. The main factors reducing my mental energy are unsustainable work habits and a lack of mental hygiene (clarity on priorities, personal planning and admin, etc) which primarily manifests in my case as "overwhelm" and "mental restlessness".
  • Finally, high-flaring emotions can absorb large amounts of resources, which is particularly costly if highly unpredictable; but also be a force for good as a critical source of information, inspiration and, if channelled correctly, Clear Seeing.

“Tipping over” in this framework means that, for example, I’ve worked so much that I need a recovery day (or more than one), because a rest day doesn’t do the job. Or I get sick because I haven’t taken care of my body. Or I temporarily lose my motivation (in contrast to maintaining my motivation while deciding to take a break). That sort of thing.

So, according to this framework, how can you strengthen your resilience? 

For one, you can also work on making the slopes of the basin of attraction steeper. This amounts to increasing your “generative capacity” - how quickly are you able to recover and restore full-functionality after turbulences. 

I suspect that the details of this are fairly person dependent. Some things that have been helpful for me included having a go-to (physical or mental) list of things that are reliably restorative. If you’re not yet happy with that list of yours, experimentation is key. Even before that though, I benefited a lot from getting better at noticing and understanding my body, my feelings and my needs. Which, straightforwardly, makes it easier to respond to these needs and thus refind your functional equilibrium faster. The skill of being in touch with your needs, yet also not absorbed by them deserve its own post - and I’m not writing that post right now. (I guess it’s easy enough to link to Gendlin’s Focusing as something that has helped me and others I know in making progress on this front. However, this really covers just one aspect of the bigger theme.)

For two, you can work on widening your attraction basin. My preferred method for this is increasing self-alignment. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate a second in stipulating that the key pillar of my productivity is self-alignment.  

Whenever you require self-control or self-coercion to do something, there is at least one part of you that is at odds with some other part of you. You're pulling in different directions. This is an unproductive use of your energy. Fostering self-alignment seeks to get rid of internal conflict. The goal is for all of you to be able to pull in the same direction. A direction which, having incorporated the data and considerations of all your different parts, you have come to consider most promising. 

However, self-alignment is not being built overnight, and - just like with inter-personal friendships - it’s not true that you that, once gained, you will have it forever after without regularly checking-in. It is a slow but worthwhile process of building internal trust and strengthening communication bandwidth between different parts within yourself and across time.

Lastly, if self-alignment makes you less agentic, because you’re unwilling to push yourself to do things that are uncomfortable, I posit that you are doing self-alignment wrong. Self-alignment isn’t about optimizing away discomfort or conflict (although a reduction of internal conflict does often occur as a downstream effect). It’s about aligning your actions with your goals and your goals with your values, and doing so in a way that actually works in the long run. 

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jan Pieter Snoeij and Neel Nanda for useful comments on earlier drafts. 

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:10 AM
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Self-alignment only works sustainably when your environment and you want Good. Often, people seem to want things that aren't Good. I think this is important to notice because you differ from many other people here: what you want is also what's Good and your environment incentivizes or at least tolerates this.

Aligning your wants with what the world needs is not self-alignment and seems like another important step to figure out. 

From my limited view, it looks like getting what you want will eventually lead most people to want Good things? But it doesn't seem obvious at all.

The question you're pointing at is definitely interstinterestinging. A Freudian, slightly pointed way of phrasing it is something like: are human's deepest desires, in essence, good and altruistic, or violent and selifsh? 

My guess is that this question is wrong-headed. For example, I think this is making a mistake of drawing a dichotomy and rivalry between my "oldest and deepest drives" and "reflective reasoning", and depending on your conception of which of these two wins, your answer to the above questions ends up being positive or negative. I don't really think those people would endorse that, but I do have a sense that something like this influences their background model of the world, and informs their intuitions about the "essence of human nature" or whatever. 

This dichotomy/rivalry seems wrong to me. In my experience, my intuition/drives and my explicit reasoning can very much "talk to each other". For example, I can actually integrate the knowledge that our minds have evolved such that we are scope insensitive into the whole of my overall reasoning/worldview. Or I can integrate the knowledge that, given I know that I can suffer or be happy, it's very likely other people can also suffer or feel pleasure, and that does translate into my S1-type drivers. Self-alignment, as I understand it, is very much about having my reflective beliefs and my intuitions inform one another, and I don' need o through either one overboard to become more self-aligned. 

That said, my belief that self-alignment is worth pursuing is definitely based on the belief that this leads people to be more in touch with the Good and more effective in pursuing it. In that belief in turn is mostly informed by my own experience and reports from other people. I acknowledge that that likely doesn't sound very convincing to someone whose experience points in the exact opposite direction. 

Thanks for the (very relatable) post!
I find slack extremely valuable. I agree with the observation that "real-world" slack likely isn't the main blocker of resourcefulness (as you use the term) for many people, including me. I am not sure I would call the bag of self-imposed limitations, licenses and roles also (a lack of) slack, though - at least for me "slack within identity/role" does not map to the meat of the problem of agency in ownership/role/something. I would be excited to read more on cultivating intrapersonal freedom!


I am unsure about the self-alignment you point to in the last part, especially in context of resulting decrease in agency (I assume you point more to activity/initiative than any pursuing of your goals, which may be e.g. more passive). I often see at least two interpretations of "self-alignment" (with many intermediate variants):

* Finding out what my values are (in particular values of different parts/subagents of myself) and how they interact, and then trying to find a good way to first reconcile and then satisfy most (if not all) of them. I think this may easily make one less productive even when done "right" - especially if one repressed some desires/values before, or it turns out you have some deeper uncertainty about what you want or what some values/desires are after (and then it may be optimal to first figure some of it out, with the risk of this taking a lot of time).
(I still endorse this self-alignment to a degree and I think it often is a net improvement, possibly after some investment, but I just can't really tell when it would not be beneficial or just take long years in therapy. There is so much more to the whole topic and process!)

* Try to make all my goals (and of my parts/subagents) more aligned with each other by modifying them. In small doses, this may be e.g. just habit building but undertaken seriously, I would consider it outright dangerous (with similar dangers of repressing values e.g. as a misused IDC, but also amplifying possibly local or extreme values).

How do you align your actions&goals with your values if it turns out your values are a) partially hidden (c.f. Elephant in the Brain) and b) contradicting each other?
(Side note: The second property of values is perhaps a cheap, nasty trick of evolution: Implementing complex multi-criterial optimization as bag of independent, contradictory "values" with convex (=diminishing) penalty functions, pushing the poor animal "somewhere in the middle" of the state space while at least somewhat frustrated even in the optimum).