Kansas City Dojo Meetup 11-5-19 (names besides my own have been changed for privacy)

PART I: 6pm-6:30

There are three attendees total, including myself, and one is a newcomer and a stranger to the Rationalist community. He found us on Meetup.com. I begin by explaining the Dojo proceedings to him: we each bring a problem/project we are working on, and the others at the table proceed to ask questions and then provide advice on that problem/project, with the backdrop of Rationality (logic, science, a Bayesian framework, etc). I begin with myself as an example. I pull out my “Character Sheet” (commonly known in the Rationalist Community as a “Bug List”; a list of problems in our lives. I have reframed it in a more positive light; a list of features that the Best Version of Alex has). I pick on feature off this list: my desire to be good at synthesizing information. The regular attendee, one of our founding members (hereafter known as ‘Life Engineer’), begins by asking me to be more specific. “What do you mean by synthesis?” he asks. I say “the ability to take multiple pieces of information, and use them to make deductions about reality.”

He asks a few more probing questions to help me better articulate what I’m talking about. He mentions “SMART Goals” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound”) as a good template to follow as inspiration. In an attempt to be more specific, I use two examples of different problems at my job: one problem involves social tension between myself and a coworker. Another problem involves repairing a corrupt operating system. Two drastically different situations, but they share a few things in common:

  • You need to examine the problem.
  • You need to be able to generate a hypothesis about a possible solution.
  • You need to be able to test your hypothesis.

We taboo “synthesis” and use “problem solving” instead, to see if it serves to articulate what I’m trying to accomplish. Life Engineer did a year of professional problem solving for his job. His advice is to learn how to take better measurements. Of course, knowing what to measure requires some domain-specific knowledge, supporting my prior belief that Rationalists need to read books from many domains in order to know what to measure in any given situation. The most actionable thing I get from this is that I need to renew my efforts into tackling my reading list.

This reminds me of a larger, more meta problem I have with my list: I’m pretty sure some of them are not irreducible; some of them are multiple problems rolled into one. I use the example of my observational skills; I’m fairly certain that “observational skills” is a bunch of smaller, constituent skills, or the problems I’m seeing are a result of many smaller problems. My question, on the topic of measurement: how do we dig deeper to get specifics about a problem, in order to figure out what to measure? How do we perform introspection on our “bugs” to find the constituent problems?

We thought about this for five solid minutes, and couldn’t think of any good ideas besides our usual “Talk about it with the group, to get more heads on the matter.” During this particular conversation, I used another example from my personal life: I attempted recently to return an Amazon package. I printed out the label, and went to the Post Office, only to realize in line that this package was for UPS, not the Post Office. Not only did this result in embarrassment, it wasted some time as well. I had failed to make this observation entirely.

Life Engineer stressed, paraphrased “Notice, but don’t judge! Judging yourself will make the problem stay. Practicing noticing without judging will get you better at paying attention. It will also allow us to determine whether there is a pattern or not.”

We discuss mindfulness at this point, and how my mistake was not being in the present moment; being more concerned about what I was going to do next, instead of what I was doing in the present moment.

I take this opportunity to explain my Character Sheet to the newcomer; what it is, and why I use it; it brings our problems to conscious attention, and allows us to track our progress.

PART II: 6:30-7:15

We move on to Life Engineer’s concerns, which have to do with the loneliness crisis. We talk about the concept of “disease burden”, which is a metric for measuring the effects of a disease on society, usually measured in things like “missed work days”. Newcomer expresses skepticism about the accuracy of those metrics. Life Engineer asks whether Newcomer thinks the numbers need to be smaller or larger, and what his justification would be. Newcomer says he doesn’t know, he’s just skeptical because it is a complex problem, and would probably ignore the numbers entirely. Life Engineer says that despite it being a hard problem, ignoring what metrics we have is to prevent us from moving forward. Newcomer then says “I don’t need to move everyone else forward, just move myself forward. Someone else will take care of that. Part of the problem is that we help too many people, like vaccinating [people in other countries] and contributing to overpopulation, etc.”

It’s at this point discourse begins to break down. Life Engineer says that the particular things Newcomer is talking about are a lot more complicated than that, and that we do have responsibility for resolving problems we helped create. They both began to debate whether we have a responsibility as a country to the rest of the world, and things got heated, some snide remarks thrown back and forth.

Not being prepared for this, I stumbled through attempts to mediate, and get us back on more constructive topics. I moved on to Newcomer, who mentioned his goals were to lose weight and get into a relationship. I brought up SMART Goals again, and Life Engineer began asking probing questions, as per our norm. However, Newcomer was visibly uncomfortable with the questions, probably for a variety of reasons (not being used to such vulnerability, and also still on-edge with Life Engineer). I managed to catch on to this and stressed that he doesn’t have to partake in things right now. He asked whether this process has been constructive thus far, and I shared my personal improvements with him.

Moving forward, I think I will establish a norm of being explicit to newcomers that we ask psychologically intimate questions, and advise them to simply observe for their first meeting.

PART III: 7:15-8:00

We begin our usual meta discussion about the Dojo; what it is, what we want it to be, how to improve it, etc. We mostly discuss the origins of the Rationality community as a whole, for the benefit of Newcomer. Our closing discussion is interspersed with misc. chatter about evo psych theories, different therapy techniques (specifically Carl Roger’s person-centered approach), and depression.


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