This essay will require you to watch three short Youtube videos, totaling less than two minutes.

Naming things is hard.  Generally speaking, a thing should be named evocatively, such that people find it memorable and sticky, or precisely, such that people can reconstruct the concept just from its title.

(So, "Moloch," or "trigger-action planning.")

This essay is about "cup-stacking skills."  It's a noun that I use in phrases like "I think you're exhibiting a cup-stacking skill right now" or "I'm slowly trying to unravel this cup-stacking skill" or "I think we should consult Dave; he has the relevant cup-stacking skill."

Unfortunately, that's not a great name.  Most people, encountering the name, will have to memorize both the concept and the label, rather than having to just memorize the concept and have the label stick, or just memorize the label (and being able to rederive the concept from it).

Sorry.  I've made a genuine effort for the past couple of years to find a better name, and failed.  Since I've failed, I need you to watch three Youtube videos.

Here's the first video.

This is me, in my kitchen, cup-stacking.  It's a fun little game-slash-sport in which you stack and unstack cups in a specific pattern, to see how fast you can go.  It's extremely rewarding once you get even a tiny bit good at it; you can feel things going almost-right and the pattern loops onto itself and it's very easy to just chase that feeling of smoothness for hours at a time.  I've probably put between 50 and 100 hours into cup stacking over the past ten years, though at the time of filming I hadn't pulled them out much at all in the past two.

Here's the second video.

This is my partner Logan, cup-stacking for the very first time, after having watched me demonstrate the pattern exactly twice.  They've got a little card for reference on the table with them, so they know each of the three end-states they're shooting for, but otherwise I told them to not worry about process or technique and just generally do their best to imitate what they'd seen in a low-stress sort of way.

The thing about the literal skill of cup-stacking is that (approximately) "anyone can do it." Even as total beginners, most people can follow the directions and hold the pattern in mind and get the cups to stack up in the right shapes.

There's obviously a big difference between someone who's practiced for 50 hours and someone who's practiced for zero.  But it feels like a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.  There are little bits of the technique that I am doing that Logan doesn't yet know about, and some basic misunderstandings (they're using their hands symmetrically rather than complementarily), but in-the-absolutely-literal-sense-of-the-word essentially, Logan and I are both attempting, and succeeding at, the same task.

The cups go up, and the cups come down.

This is, in my mind, a pretty solid metaphor for most of what would count as "rationalist skill."  Things like checking for truth, recognizing cognitive biases, zeroing in on cruxes, doing intelligent emotional regulation, and employing formalized techniques like TAPs or goal factoring or Gendlin's Focusing.

All of that stuff is wildly popular with a certain class of nerd (in part) because it's accessible.  You can pick up the core of the concept in the course of a five-minute lecture, and test it out in the course of a five-minute timer.  You can start doing it right away, as a total novice, and see it working, in the way you hoped it would work.  And with 50 hours of practice, it goes much more fluidly and reliably and is integrated much better (though still not perfectly).

This is very different from, say, gymnastics, or learning programming from scratch, where many of the learning paths involve spending a lot of time establishing a foundation of background skills and concepts before ever getting to "the good stuff."

Here is the third video.

I have paused for emphasis.

The third video is still technically just a quantitative improvement over the first two. There are some things Chang Keng Ian is doing right that Logan and I aren't (for instance, he's just letting the cups fall out from under his fingers, rather than wasting time and energy reversing the momentum of his hands and putting them down), but overall it's just the same skill, executed better.

But it's so much better that it has become a different thing entirely.  It's a level beyond what we would feel thoroughly justified calling "mastery."  In particular, there's a way in which "make a tower of cups" has ceased to be an action requiring a series of discrete steps, and has instead become something like a single, atomic motion.

This is what I mean by "cup-stacking skill."

How many repetitions did Chang Keng Ian put in, to achieve that level of instantaneity? My own fastest-ever stack took about fourteen seconds, and my slowest about a minute. At 50 to 100 continuous hours of practice, ignoring mistakes and incomplete rounds, that means I've done somewhere in the range of 3000 to 25000 cycles, most likely leaning heavily toward the lower end.

But it gets easier, and as it gets easier it gets faster, and as it gets easier and faster it gets more rewarding and pays off more reliably.  Once Chang Keng Ian was under ten seconds every time, he could easily get in a hundred and fifty cycles per hour without even trying particularly hard.  With this being one of his main interests, done off and on all day and a couple of hours intensively each afternoon, he could put away a thousand-plus repetitions per week, week in and week out.  It wouldn't even have to be a special week—if he was genuinely training hard, at the six- or seven-second level for hours at a time, he might plausibly complete a thousand reps in one day.  Certainly in one weekend.

By the time you have done something a hundred thousand times, it bears almost no resemblance to the fumbling, hesitant motions of a beginner.

In my household, things were—ostensibly—open to debate.

If you could make a convincing argument as to why something ought to happen, it was indeed possible to change my father's mind.  Even on questions infinitely beyond the reach of most suburban middle-class children—say, getting to stay home from school, or to skip all of your chores, or to have ice cream for dinner.

You just had to be able to lay out the case, in cool, dispassionate logic.

I think that, if asked, most people could construct a cool, dispassionate argument for just about anything they wanted.  It might not pass muster with an actual logician, but you could probably cobble together some relevant facts and glue them in place with a couple of broad and reasonable-sounding principles.

You could make a tower of cups, if you tried.  It might be slow work, and the tower might be a little rickety, but you could do it.

I, though—

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, I could get what I wanted, if and only if I could frame the argument such that the thing I wanted was obviously the right thing.  The sensible thing, the justified thing, honestly, I swear, it's not even that I want it so much as that it's, like, objectively indicated by the present state of affairs—wouldn't you agree, Dad?

Perhaps not literally a hundred thousand times, but certainly several orders of magnitude more often than the average human, I have practiced the skill of noticing precisely which perspective makes my position inarguably correct, and persuading my father to adopt that perspective.

What others can do on purpose—what the well-practiced can do quickly—I can do in less than the blink of an eye.

In fact, "do" isn't even the right word.  It's not an act of deliberate intent.  It just happens to me.

Suddenly, a tower of cups appears.

One of my colleagues is unsettled by frames.  Theories, models, stories, philosophies—anything that attempt to coherently explain everything about a given thing.

She can't help it.  She's come into contact with their falsehood, their inadequacy, too many times to count.  Too many times, she's been told that things are a certain way, and felt a note of quiet disagreement, and seen that note of quiet disagreement borne out, in the end.

She became a frame-breaker.  A story-unraveler.  An anti-modeler, often unwilling to endorse even the words that had just come out of her own mouth, seconds earlier. They were just an approximation, like Newtonian mechanics, and it was important not to mistake them for truth.

If I were to present to you a plausible-sounding theory, and ask you if you would perhaps be willing to try to find the flaw in it, you might sit down and start thinking through its implications, looking for contradictions with what you know of how the world works.

By the time you had settled into your chair, my colleague would have already torn the thing asunder.  Identified three fatal flaws with its premises, two absurd consequences emerging from its conclusion, and an infinitely relatable anecdote that made its falsehood not only obvious, but visceral.

Hands flash, and a stack becomes a pyramid.

I had a romantic partner who was abused as a child.

If I try—if I muster my attention and put my empathy to work—I can imagine a string that goes something like:

  • Someone just said X, and their face moved just so as they said it.
  • They really mean to say Y.
  • They didn't come right out and say Y because Z.
  • If I respond with A, they'll be angry.  If I respond with B, they'll be furious.
  • If I say Q, though, this will deflect their attention, turn them in a different direction.
  • And if I say P, this will be almost as good as Q, but with the additional benefit of being non-obvious and plausibly deniable.

My partner had practiced loops like this so many times that she did not even notice herself moving through them.  Could not stop herself from moving through them, if she tried—there was no accessible space between the start and the end, no time to even think the word "wait—"

There was just a trigger, and a response.

Cups, assembling themselves upward at terminal velocity.

These are the characteristics of a cup-stacking skill:

  • It is an adaptive response to something in your past.  It served an instrumental purpose.  It paid off.
  • It's something you did over and over again, like a worker on an assembly line. Something so baked into your context that you were practicing it without even noticing, after a while.
  • It happens blindingly quickly—so quickly that, if you do in fact manage to unpack it, and describe all of the steps, people will often literally not believe that your brain could have executed all of them so quickly, and will think that you're making it up.
  • It's the sort of thing anyone could do, and some people are really quite visibly skilled at.  But the thing you're doing goes beyond "visibly skilled."  (Did you know that they had to film Bruce Lee at 32 frames-per-second, because the industry standard 24 fps was too slow to capture his movements?)

And lastly (and most unnervingly):

  • It's the sort of skill you might be completely unaware that you're executing, and might possibly not be able to stop executing—at least not by just telling yourself "stop."  It's like looking at a fish and trying not to categorize it as a fish.

Not everyone has a cup-stacking skill[1].  Not everyone experienced the preconditions to develop one.

But everyone I know who has identified one in themselves experiences it as a sort of Greek curse.  I've been working quite hard for the last four years on not reflexively wrenching the frame around to whatever is maximally convenient for my goals, so hard that it leaves others disoriented, and I'm still only successful part of the time.  My colleague said words I interpreted as wishing she could at least build things out of solid blocks sometimes, when she wanted to, rather than living perpetually in mutable uncertainty.  My romantic partner was extremely good at detecting stealth hostility and deflecting incoming abuse—at the cost of running everything through a filter that took ill intent for granted, and always found something it needed to dodge.

Once you do gain control of a cup-stacking skill, it can be something of a minor superpower.  You can accomplish, in a flash of intuitive insight, what takes everyone else minutes or hours of deliberate effort to do.

But until that point, and especially if you're unaware of it, you don't really have it.  It more-or-less has you.

  1. ^

    Logan notes "nonsense. everyone has dozens of cup-stacking skills. most of them are just close to universal. such as walking."  To which I reply "True.  But not everyone has a unique and idiosyncratic cup-stacking skill that has control over them under certain circumstances."  To which they reply "yes but many of the near-universal cup-stacking skills also have control over almost everyone under certain circumstances, which is maybe what i actually wanted to point out."

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My cup-stacking motion is something like "reflexively trying to see the another person's view, and finding a frame from which their words make sense and they are reasonable even when they seem obviously crazy or deluded or malicious".

For some reason it took me several days since reading this post to realize it as an instance of the thing being discussed, but then I happened to remember all the times where person A would write a thing, person B would go "that's obviously crazy and mean and not worth listening to", and I'd almost instantly be like "well yeah their point 1 is kind of exaggerated and I wouldn't personally use that kind of wording for their point 2 either, but I think it's basically saying this thing which I think makes sense, and yeah they are expressing themselves in a hurtful way but I think they're in angry and in pain and lashing out so I don't think they mean really anything bad by it..."

(And then person B might sometimes look at me incredulously.)

A comprehensive structure for seeing another person's crazy-seeming argument as reasonable, maybe not quite completely constructed in one cup-stacking position, but enough of it assembled into a felt sense of the overall structure that I can keep pulling on more thread from the felt sense until I have the whole thing presented to person B.

This has generally felt very valuable, but its downside has been that at least twice in my life, my mind has kept doing the same reflexive oh-they-are-being-kinda-unreasonable-but-they-are-really-in-a-lot-of-pain-themselves motion to keep justifying a situation where person A was actually unleashing ongoing and unending emotional abuse on me, and my lack of consistently standing up for myself served as a signal that they could do more of it. Which (among other things) suggests the motion having an origin as a type of fawn response: strive to avoid conflict with others by always reconceptualizing their motives in such a way that I avoid getting angry at them.

Does the Ferret have other wisdom you'd particularly promote to attention?  I haven't encountered their content before.

Yeah, lots, but I don't know which ones to post here. The Ferrett is an honorary rationalist as far as I'm concerned, but I don't want to go through a huge blog archive right now.

This post (unfortunately fairly badly formatted on his new website) probably won't be new to you but is another that I refer back to from time to time.

(rereading it, upon reflection I'm not actually sure if I agree with the primary thesis of the post exactly, but the framing resonates) 

I like this one:

Also, a cool feature of his posts is that they all come with notes like this at the top:

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I like this a lot, both the videos as a demonstration and the articulation & examples of unique and idiosyncratic skills like this. Have noticed this more the last few years, and my impression is they're remarkably common if you allow for very subtle ones.

I will say though that I'm a bit confused about "cup-stacking" as a metaphor (or name) only insofar as it seems like exactly the opposite of the thing you're trying to point at, with respect to both:

  • "unconsciously/accidentally developed"
  • "can't control when to use it / notice when one is using it"

Would also add that the compulsion to use the skills in certain ways may be separate from the skill! Unlocking the Emotional Brain suggests that what's going on is the person has both a skill and a compulsion to use it in a particular way (in order to feel safe) and the compulsion may be miscalibrated to their current situation, and that it's possible to recalibrate and ease off the compulsion while retaining the non-naivety that the skill (including the perceptiveness involved) grants.

Yeah, I agree the name is sort of bass-ackwards.  The reason it stuck for me personally, and has oozed into my immediate social surroundings, is because of the immediate and visceral WOW of seeing the literal actual cup-stacking happening so quickly, and being like, oh, okay, okay, yeah, someone whose skill at X is like that.  Okay.  Whoa.  Yeah.  Wow.

i.e. it's deeply evocative once you have the contextual experience.

If I get you right with "Cup-Stacking" you mean a skill that

  • everybody can learn
  • and easily observe
  • that improves by many small steps, and
  • can reach an unbelievable level.

And you want to extend this from visually observable motor skills to "Reflexive Involuntary Mental Motions" like argument construction and social out-dancing (best word in place of 'manipulation' that I came up with the help of a shoulder advisor).

Is that roughly right? 

My own contribution to this is two older links from LW that seem relevant:

That's most of it, but there's a subtext (which your comment helped me draw out; thanks) of something like unintentional or subconscious practice.  Like, at least [the skills I've identified in the wild so far, that caused me to create the mental category] were all sort of accidentally practiced to that unbelievable level.  I didn't set out to become a frame-maker, and my colleague didn't set out to become a frame-breaker; the skills emerged from the incentives in our respective contexts.

Skills of this kind that I have observed:

  • Planning and scheduling skills. It is like they have a calendar with auto-reminder in their brain.
  • Coming up with possible explanations and answers to real or hypothetical questions (an incredible Babble).
  • Finding the weak point of a person to trigger them into anger or other spontaneous and thereby not thought-thru action. 
  • The opposite of it: Finding the lever that calms down or leads to otherwise desirable action. A skill some teachers develop to manage difficult classes.

I have also observed the ones you pointed out: Immediately finding flaws in reasoning and responding to and moderating emotional reactions.

This is, in my mind, a pretty solid metaphor for most of what would count as "rationalist skill."  Things like checking for truth, recognizing cognitive biases, zeroing in on cruxes, doing intelligent emotional regulation, and employing formalized techniques like TAPs or goal factoring or Gendlin's Focusing.

All of that stuff is wildly popular with a certain class of nerd (in part) because it's accessible. You can pick up the concept in the course of a five-minute lecture, and test it out in the course of a five-minute timer.  You can start doing it right away, as a total novice, and see it working, in the way you hoped it would work.  

Hearing this feels surprising to me. In my experience there are plenty of people who can't just do Focusing and aquire the skill in five minutes.

Plenty of people whom I tried to teach focusing didn't have enough of an ability to feel what was going on in their bodies to do it. 

When doing TAPs I rememeber that we had one person in our dojo who could reliably install a tap in himself that the next time he will step into a supermarket the thought "I have to buy milk" will flash into his head in a few seconds. That didn't seemed to be something that other people could do even if they spent an hour. It seemed like the difference in what people who are good at it can do compared to others is qualitative and not just quantitative in terms of the time something takes. 

Plenty of attempts to find cruxes seem to fail and not just take more time. 

In total all those things seems to be quite different in nature to me then the cup-stacking example as demonstrated by the videos.

Not everyone has a cup-stacking skill.  Not everyone experienced the preconditions to develop one.

I'm curious what makes skills like tying your shoes or getting up from a chair that nearly everybody has not exmaples of cup-stacking skills for you. Tying shoelaces seems to me more similar to the cup-stacking then an example like focusing.

Tying shoelaces is just a less interesting example, when the goal is to point out that some people have unique or idiosyncratic cup-stacking skills.  Becoming explicitly aware of simple habits that nearly everyone has will tend to be less useful, I think.

> plenty of people who can't just do Focusing and aquire the skill in five minutes.

I think you misunderstood the claim—in five minutes, people can do a version of TAPs or Focusing or crux-mapping that's equivalent to Logan's first cup-stacking attempt.  Slow, faltering, effortful—it is actually happening, but not with anything like fluency, and it's not the complete skill (e.g. Logan moving their hands symmetrically).  I made a slight edit to the piece to (hopefully) clarify, adding the word "core."

This has been my experience over the course of teaching such skills to a couple thousand people (thirty or forty CFAR workshops, plus a dozen or so lectures at universities and conferences and so forth).  

Note that the right five minutes of instruction goes a long way, here.  My claim is not "anyone can do it after any five-minute intro."  

(I've always felt grumpy about the Mythbusters teaching people that "because we couldn't recreate this, we've proved it didn't happen in the first place.")

Let's focus here on Focusing given that's the skill of the three that's very accessible to me and that I can easily productively use.

(I've always felt grumpy about the Mythbusters teaching people that "because we couldn't recreate this, we've proved it didn't happen in the first place.")

My model has more gears then that. I think I have 4-5 workshops of teaching focusing. That's not as much as you but it's a decent amount.

To do steps 2 and 3 as Gendlin describes them you need a certain amount of body perception. If the person doesn't have the necessary body perception it seems to me like teaching a blind man to read. I have one friend who did take a CFAR workshop and whom I did try to teach Focusing a few times. Three years ago, if there wasn't a very strong emotion, there was nothing for him to perceive. Now, he has the emotional awareness that makes Focusing easy through generally opening up and thinks that he couldn't have done anything different back then to make it work.

Do you currently think you are able to teach anyone to do Focusing in a five-minute intro with the success criteria that they do feel a felt shift?

A relatively important note, if we're zeroing in on Focusing in particular, is that I don't fully buy that there's much to Focusing outside of the part listed in this essay.  That seems to me to be, not just the 80/20, but something like the 93/35.

You may have a professional disagreement with that, which would be a reasonable cause for saying "no way" to me.  The thing you're envisioning is probably genuinely more delicate and complicated than the thing I'm imagining—you might be e.g. thinking that I'm making a claim to be able to put people solidly on the path to a 540 spinning hook kick in five minutes, when in fact I'm saying I can put people solidly on the path to a hop-step roundhouse kick in five minutes.

I think if I try to teach Focusing in a five-minute session to 100 different people, I will get 80+ percent of them to catch a felt sense and notice that the felt sense is changing some.  Not a full shift in the sense of "I have found its true name and the feeling has now released or resolved, and I can move on to the next layer" but "this thing that has been tickling at me lives in a place in my body and has something to say and it's detectably responding to me as I start to learn how to actually listen."

Which I think is a solid analogue to Logan's cup stacking, especially as compared to my cup stacking (which would be the analogue of your skill at Focusing) or that of the world record holder (an AWC type).

I think this due to having basically already run this experiment, and it being about that successful.  I've also taught Focusing in a 45-60 minute session to some 200-or-so people, in batches of 10 to 20, and it worked to a level that surprised multiple half-trained Focusing coaches who were all (reasonably!) betting on failure.

I really really really really really don't know how to make this general point without sounding like I'm making a specific claim about the quality of your teaching, but: it's just a sad truth, in my experiment, that even filtering for trained and motivated teachers, most people are just shockingly bad at teaching. Like, the overall bar is set so low that you can be 95th percentile skilled, as a teacher, and in an absolute and objective sense just mostly fail at doing the thing.

I have a hard time making claims about what-is-possible-for-others-to-convey, for this reason.  I don't find your surprise surprising, and I don't find your skepticism unjustified.

But I stand by the claim, as written, which I will elaborate on to make sure I leave no misunderstanding:

People-in-general (i.e. more than 75 out of 100 and probably more than 90 out of 100) can indeed pick up the core concepts of things such as TAPs or goal factoring or Gendlin's Focusing (or, to add a few more examples, Leverage's belief reporting, or CFAR's double crux, or Circling, or NVC) with the right five-minute lecture, and make enough progress on those skills in a five-minute trying-it-out session to notice that they're working, in the way that they were promised to work, to a degree that roughly matches [Logan's cup-stacking] as compared to [Chang Keng Ian's].

I stand by this claim because it's just straightforwardly true in my experience, and any number of my colleagues or attendees at the workshops and conferences can attest to it.  I do not claim that it generalizes to non-99th-percentile attempts at generating the five-minute lecture.  I'm claiming something about the capacity of the humans to absorb the info and adopt the practice, not something about the ability of humans to present the info.

You are both right. 

Of course. 

I believe Duncan that he got incredible success rates on his courses. I believe him not because I have seen him do it - I haven't even watched any of the linked videos. I believe him because he believes it, because it fits with what I have read from him, and - crucially - because I have seen it quite often in many other domains e.g. with teachers or influencers (providing base rates for reference classes; it may also have helped to have had a thousand-year-old vampire father-in-law). But also because I recognize that the things that Duncan teaches are constructed and selected to be teachable. Just take the Shoulder Advisor: He engineered it simple, useful, engaging, and safe. And he is good at teaching. It is more than that. Something that I have learned to recognize over time: Call it a social choreography. Steering the world into desirable states. That's why things that might prevent acceptance of the great thing get diminished, and things that benefit it get strengthened from multiple sides.

I also believe Christian because I have met him and trust him. I have seen him teach complex things and judge him to be well-calibrated in this. I have tried the focusing he taught and Duncan's true names and things in between. From successfully teaching sequence-level stuff to my kids, I know what ends you have to go to and what sometimes cannot be (efficiently) taught. That inferential distance sometimes can be bridged and sometimes not. There are trade-offs that create bright places in teachability-space - but it may make reaching other parts harder. With focusing in particular, I have been at the true names place for a very long time. Happily. But I know that there is more complexity, and with patience, luck, talent, or good teachers - other types of teachers maybe - more mental tools could get unlocked. 

(Strong approval for pointing out the existence of an overlap where we're both right; I was clumsily attempting to do that by pointing out in the opener that Christian may just straightforwardly be envisioning a more mature and complex skill than the one I was claiming is quickly transmissible.)

A relatively important note, if we're zeroing in on Focusing in particular, is that I don't fully buy that there's much to Focusing outside of the part listed in this essay.  That seems to me to be, not just the 80/20, but something like the 93/35.

Okay, then we likely disagree on that. One personal example of mine was for example having a tense neck for a week. Then I did focusing on the bodily sensation, an emotion word matched and after listening to what the emotion had to say, the tense neck released. 

Separately, I got some new qualia through Focusing that are useful for both perceiving my own emotions and those of other people.

you might be e.g. thinking that I'm making a claim to be able to put people solidly on the path to a 540 spinning hook kick in five minutes, when in fact I'm saying I can put people solidly on the path to a hop-step roundhouse kick in five minutes.

If we take the hop-step roundhouse kick as a metaphor I would say that there are some people who lack the bodily flexibility to make a kick that high. For them to be able to do the skill that requires loosing a bunch of fascia and maybe letting muscles grow longer. Concretely, I think that the AcroYoga basic position is likely be able to executed by 90% of the people. My legs however don't have the flexibility and there's nothing that can be done about that in the timespan of 5 minutes. The hop-step roundhouse kick needs that kind of flexibility, so you won't be able to teach it to me in 5 minutes.

Attempts at teaching focusing that worked reasonably well at the LWCW weekend or our local dojo did not work the same way with the audience that comes to a normal open LessWrong meetup. 

It's similar for belief reporting. In the LWCW setting saying "Set the intention not to pick up the pen. Then pick up the pen" seems to be enough to get people to experience the distinction. At an open LessWrong meetup most people couldn't do that and one person who could didn't seem to be able to release the resulting uncomfort for the next ten minutes so there was also no basis for doing more for belief reporting.

Even when 90% of the general population can do that, I have the impression that the average nerd that comes to a LessWrong meetup just doesn't have the required basics in the same way I don't have the necessary flexibility to do the basic AcroYoga thing as a base. 

When it comes to doing this in the CFAR setting, I would expect that there's a lot that happens before you hold your 5-minute explanation of Focusing that does make it easier for the people to feel their bodies. 

Maybe the thing I'm missing for the belief reporting pen intention is to do a trance induction beforehand or there's some other thing that's required to teach it that I didn't get. In any case it's qualitatively different then the example of Logan doing cup-stacking. There's no exteremly strong teaching skill required to get most people to be able to move the cups if they are able to move both of their hands.

Ah, yes, existential crisis and getting called out in the morning

That's exactly what I come to this site for

This post has a lot of particular charms, but also touches on a generally under-represented subject in LessWrong: the simple power of deliberate practice and competence. The community seems saturated with the kind of thinking that goes [let's reason about this endeavor from all angles and meta-angles and find the exact cheat code to game reality] at the expense of the simple [git gud scrub]. Of course, gitting gud at reason is one very important aspect of gitting gud in general, but only one aspect.

The fixation on calibration and correctness in this community trades off heavily against general competence. Being correct is just a very special case of being good at things in general. Part of Duncan's ethos is that it's possible to learn [the pattern of gitting gud], and furthermore this is more important and consistent than learning how to be good at one particular arbitrary skill.

But it's so much better that it has become a different thing entirely.  It's a level beyond what we would feel thoroughly justified calling "mastery."  In particular, there's a way in which "make a tower of cups" has ceased to be an action requiring a series of discrete steps, and has instead become something like a single, atomic motion.

I watched Brienne at 2x speed (as I do for most Youtube videos). Then I watched Chan. I frowned. His speed—this looks strange—did I leave it at 2x?


No, I didn't leave it at 2x. Chan is just that good.

Proposing name "Detail Daemon"

-background program that does not need starting

-connotations of supernaturalness ie excellence beyond mortals

-Often comes from a dark place

-Like Maxwells demon does a very specific thing perfectly / to the limit

-It hides in the details being hard to percieve

-You don't typically believe it exists

This sounds a lot like what Kahneman calls "expert intuition" in Thinking Fast and Slow - it is picked up from prolonged practice in a regular environment with quick feedback. (Some examples in the book are playing speed chess at a high rank and firefighters that are able to tell a building is about to collapse a few seconds before it does, without being able to verbalize how they know).  A cup stacking skill is expert intuition + "anyone can do it."

I think this misses the pretty important part of it being a-skill-that-can-be-running-you.  Like, one that you do not necessarily notice, and cannot necessarily turn off even if it would be extremely advantageous to.

FWIW, this is not a post that I ended up integrating into my thinking in the past 2 years. I had a conversation with Duncan once where he brought up the metaphor and it made sense in context, but it doesn't feel like a super natural category to me.

Well, this actually placed in the top 30ish posts in the Review. I would be interested in hearing from more people for whom it was useful to get more a sense of what I might be missing (and also just modeling what's useful for other people).

I really like the artistry of post-writing here; the introduction to and transition between the three videos felt especially great.

I've been internally using the term elemental for something in this neighborhood - Frame-Breaker elemental, Incentive-Slope elemental, etc. The term feels more totalizing (having two cup-stacking skills is easy to envision; being a several-thing elemental points in the direction of you being some mix of those things, and only those things), but some other connotations feel more on-target (like the difficulty of not doing the thing). I also like the term's aesthetics, but I could well be alone in that.

I often use "_____-type Pokémon" as a shorthand in casual conversation and it usually parses immediately.

I wonder if this makes any testable predictions. It seems to be a plausible explanation for how some people are extremely good at some reflexive mental actions, but not the only one. It's also plausible that some people are "wired" that way from birth, or that a single or small number of developmental events lead to them being that way (rather than years of involuntary practice).

I suppose if the hypothesis laid out in this post is true, we'd expect people to exhibit get significantly better at some of these "cup-stacking" skills within a few years of being in an environment that builds them. Perhaps it could be tested by seeing if people get significantly better at the "soft skills" required to succeed in an office after a few years working in one.

I propose the name "Cycle Skill"

  • The skill comes from a tight feedback loop
    • The word "cycle" connotes repetition
  • Like riding a 'cycle
    • Once learned, it's intuitive and very hard to unlearn
    • Anyone can do it
  • Rolls off the tongue
  • Con: doesn't sound like its unintentionally learned

(Was this comment meant to be on Speaking of Stag Hunts?  It's currently under Cup-Stacking Skills.)

Another name proposal: essentialized skill
- sounds impressive (I think. I am not a native speaker)
- the essence-part suggests some kind of deep mastery
- the ized-part suggests that it was once just a regular skill and can in principle be acquired
- the essence-part also suggests that the skill is now part of one's nature and is thus not necessarily under conscious control/supervision

I decided to propose this name before reading the comments, I also like some properties of the other proposals though.