Computer Science and Psychology? How does that work?

I have Masters’ Degrees in both Computer Science and Psychology. Weaving that fact casually into conversations is an excellent filter for finding other polymaths out there; the poor interdisciplinary souls that can’t help but wonder if exploring another topic will satisfy their endless curiosity. Another perk – and arguably more valuable – is the early priming to the value of the seams of disciplines.

It all started with my dissatisfaction with the Computer Science curriculum. After the second year, I started wondering:

“Do I really feel all that excited about the Dijkstra algorithm and balancing binary trees”?

I felt disappointed with the narrow understanding of what’s involved with producing software. Humans are running it; why aren’t we talking about them? Facebook was in its infancy; why aren’t we exploring where this is going? I decided to add the “human side” to my understanding (here are some tactical notes on how I managed to pull off 2 degrees at the same time). What did I find out?

Psychology and Computer Science really are quite similar

Psychology strives to dissect and understand the underlying principles of human thought and behavior. Computer Science aims to create the principles and algorithms for easier operation of the “thinking machines.” The only difference is that one deals with people – the other one with computers.

Am I suggesting that correlation between disciplines boils down to the similarity between humans and computers? To be honest, I haven’t seen an argument to the contrary.

  1. Behavioral Psychology assumes that when presented with a particular input, we can predict the outcome. In Computer Science, we call that a function.
  2. Sigmund Freud himself was heavily influenced by the dominant technology of the day: the steam engine. He concluded that the pressure and drive buildup could create issues in the “pipelines,” causing malfunctions. I’m sure he would be talking about algorithms were he born today.
  3. Cognitive Psychology is a newer branch, so it is already liberally borrowing concepts from Computer Science: Kahneman’s “Cognitive Resources” theory suggests that when certain cognitive resources (like memory or willpower) are taxed with too many demands, issues follow. Just the same way your Macbook freezes when you are trying to do too many things at once.
  4. Your brain evolved from a long line of less brilliant creatures. Many problematic behaviors (emotional reactions, self-sabotage, and craving sugar) can be traced to a conflict between the “lizard brain” and your conscious goals from the prefrontal cortex. In computer science, we would call this working with a legacy codebase.

The list goes on. Psychology can be better understood with a Computer Science lens and vice versa. For example, the concept of Intelligence was developed by the US Army to assess the “general aptitude” of their candidates. Psychologists to this day are not convinced the “General Intelligence” exists (It is defined as a result in the “Intelligence Test”). Extrapolating that into Computer Science, I don’t believe General Artificial Intelligence is possible because I don’t think Regular Intelligence™️ exists. 

The world wants you in a box.

Once I finished my studies, I expected to be highly valued in the job market due to my unique perspective (even more than all 20-year olds do). But employers didn’t really know what to do with me – there are no positions advertised in the overlap of computer science and psychology. On the one hand – the tech companies are searching for CS graduates, and on the other – a psychology degree can get you hired recruiting engineers for tech companies (like 30% of my classmates do).

It’s a shame because the overlap of computer science and psychology is uniquely positioned to solve a variety of connected worlds’ issues:

  • How do we ensure Social Media is helping mental health instead of hampering it?
  • How do we help people navigate the world of disproportionate leverage provided by technology?
  • How do we help find meaning, purpose, and psychological safety when the stable jobs are gone, and entire industries disappear every year?

These challenges are falling between the cracks of traditional disciplines – they are too “technical” for academic psychologists proud of their “Humanist” mindsets and too “Human” for average programmers, steeped in the precise world predictable world of math and physics.

Our most pressing problems started small but have been allowed to grow unhindered due to their transdisciplinary nature. They didn’t land in the purview of any single discipline, so we all ignored them as long as possible.

The challenges of the future are in the seams of things.

Studying computer science and psychology has primed me to understand the unique challenges of humans interacting with technology. We also need transdisciplinary experts in combinations of climate science + really anything, or technology + education. You probably don’t need formal degrees. Just start exploring.

Book: The Scientist in The Crib

But what makes a science really advance isn’t just the astonishing geniuses, it’s the methods that allow us ordinary idiots to do the same thing as the astonishing geniuses.

“The Scientist in the Crib” by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl explores how children explore the world using scientific methods or – the scientific method is built on the framework that children use to explore the world.

Children build theories on the world, test them methodically, and will try out just about anything with unwavering enthusiasm.

It’s not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children.

Children and good scientists use the same methods, and they are equally baffled and amazed by the world. They conduct real experiments and note their effects with astounding diligence.

The “Theory Theory” states that children have theories of the world

Babies learn about the world by interacting with it. Only after having an experience they can name it. They have a “language explosion” at the same time they learn to solve new problems – like object permanence, manipulation, etc.

  • Babies who are figuring out the sounds of language babble
  • Babies who are figuring out how we see objects play hide&seek
  • Babies who are learning how people think, play imitation games

Experiments show that babies are born with the ability to recognize every syllable of every language. After 1 year, they are limited only to the language they hear at home, so they’ll lose vowels they don’t hear their parents speak. After another 14 years, they’ll pay big money for language classes to recognize those sounds again.

I was dismissive of Baby Talk, but it turns out its really valuable and tailored precisely for language learning:

  • Elongated vowels
  • Clear sounds
  • Slight variations of the same sentence “What a nice toy you have, such a nice toy, who has a nice toy?”

Funny how we’re such great teachers instinctively. Put down your Mozart tapes.

There are no adults

The longer I live, the more convinced I am that in fact there are no adults, and we’re all big babies in oversized suits trying to figure this all out as we go along (I even wrote something to that effect in my wedding vows).

But if even children themselves aren’t “childlike,” the whole picture collapses. There are no savages, noble or otherwise, and there are no “children of nature,” not even among children. There are only human beings, children and grown-ups, women and men, hunter-gatherers and scientists, trying to figure out what’s going on.

As with hard distinction between people and animals, or mind and body, Aristotle is yet again proven wrong. Hilariously, the book shares Plato’s student’s work on Men and Women having different numbers of teeth, a view he probably didn’t consult with his wife. Men have a long history of theorizing without confronting their ideas with facts.

like Aristotle with the teeth, neither Freud nor Skinner took the step of doing systematic experiments with children or babies. Freud largely relied on inferences from the behavior of neurotic adults, and Skinner on inferences from the behavior of only slightly less neurotic rats. And like the philosophers, Freud and Skinner got the developmental story wrong, too.

The more we learn about babies, animals, and the universe, the more we are confronted with our own unremarkableness. It was a nice myth to treat ourselves as the final achievement of evolution, but we’re just lucky animals.

Due to frequent child deaths (as described in Factfulness), children were treated as less than adults for the majority of history. It was an easy way out of both the gruesome reality of child death and the preservation of the special status of the full-grown humans. But we have to get real now.

Parenting

Maybe this book’s biggest benefit is preparing me for the challenges ahead. My baby girl is 6 months old now, and already testing her parents’ patience a little bit more every day. So-called “Terrible Twos” sound particularly scary, and the book helps me to mentally prepare and understand her antics later. She is not out to make me angry, she’s just trying to learn the world. Repeat that again and breathe.

The terrible twos seem to involve a systematic exploration of that idea, almost a kind of experimental research program. Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict.

It will also help to prevent me from strolling up and down the block like a proud peacock whenever she does something impressive:

Parents egocentrically tend to think that they are the deciding factors in their children’s lives. But for a two-year-old, an older brother or sister may actually be a more enthralling exemplar of human nature.

I’m already struggling as my little girl tests the object permanence where she drops toys on purpose to see if that picks them up. He does.

The traditional environment where the children grew up was very different from the modern family. Remote work brings us back, with children being closer to their parents during the day instead of being locked away in daycare

“Perhaps the telecommuting home office with the crib next to the fax machine will turn out to be the contemporary equivalent of the baby on the sling on its mother’s back or the father plowing next to his children”

Read more in “Farmers always worked from home”

Related Books

My Kindle highlights

  • We decided to become developmental psychologists and study children because there aren’t any Martians.
  • worst of all when we turn to the sounds that
  • Our job as developmental psychologists is to discover what program babies run and, someday, how that program is coded in their brains and how it evolved.
  • Finally, the babies have the universe’s best system of tech support: mothers.
  • For human beings, nurture is our nature. The capacity for culture is part of our biology, and the drive to learn is our most important and central instinct.
  • It’s not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children.
  • But if even children themselves aren’t “childlike,” the whole picture collapses. There are no savages, noble or otherwise, and there are no “children of nature,” not even among children. There are only human beings, children and grown-ups, women and men, hunter-gatherers and scientists, trying to figure out what’s going on.
  • Luria, wildly excited by his results, couldn’t wait for the Trans-Siberian Railroad journey back and telegraphed Vygotsky, “Tatars have no illusions.” He was immediately arrested; there was only one subject about which Tatars could have no illusions. Luria decided to leave developmental psychology and became a military brain surgeon at the front—it was safer. Vygotsky himself avoided the purges only by dying young, at thirty-eight.
  • like Aristotle with the teeth, neither Freud nor Skinner took the step of doing systematic experiments with children or babies. Freud largely relied on inferences from the behavior of neurotic adults, and Skinner on inferences from the behavior of only slightly less neurotic rats. And like the philosophers, Freud and Skinner got the developmental story wrong, too.
  • But what makes a science really advance isn’t just the astonishing geniuses, it’s the methods that allow us ordinary idiots to do the same thing as the astonishing geniuses.
  • One-month-old babies imitate facial expressions. If you stick your tongue out at a baby, the baby will stick his tongue out at you; open your mouth, and the baby will open hers.
  • The newborns imitated, too.
  • When babies are around a year old, they begin to point to things and they begin to look at things that other people point to.
  • The terrible twos seem to involve a systematic exploration of that idea, almost a kind of experimental research program. Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict.
  • Systematic studies indicate that two-year-olds begin to show genuine empathy toward other people for the first time.
  • (3 y/o) always thought there were pencils in the box. It’s as if the children think that since there is only one world out there, a single reality, everyone will understand it the same way. People will never have different beliefs about the same thing, and they themselves will never change their minds about anything.
  • The children, though, make just the same mistakes whether they are reporting their own mental state or predicting the mental states of other people.
  • A relatively brief experience of a friend or an aunt or a teacher can provide children with an alternative picture of how love can work.
  • Three-year-olds do act like lovers toward their parents. In fact, they act like lovers out of Italian opera, with passionate and sensual embraces and equally passionate despair at separation and jealousy of rivals.
  • We can show systematically that “real” lies only begin to appear at about four, at the same time that children start to understand “false-belief” problems like the deceptive candy box. Similarly, children only begin to understand that they can be deceived at about that age.
  • Children with autism don’t seem to have the fundamental presupposition that they are like other people and other people are like them.
  • They are likely to understand the trick box problem at a younger age than older siblings. And the more brothers and sisters children have, the better they do.
  • Parents egocentrically tend to think that they are the deciding factors in their children’s lives. But for a two-year-old, an older brother or sister may actually be a more enthralling exemplar of human nature.

Technically Correct is Wrong

Even though something can be technically correct, it’s quite often an unhelpful or even a wrong thing to say. Not because of social norms, but because reality is more complicated than the one-dimensional model representing adolescent morality.

At any point, there are multiple ‘true’ statements.

Over 2400 years ago, Platon introduced a notion of duality. He drew a rigid distinction between mind and body, good and evil, or truth and lies.

This notion is very appealing because it makes the world easy to understand, less confusing, and less scary.

If only I follow a comprehensive set of rules, I can be confident or even self-righteous in my choices. Furthermore – everybody who opposes me is wrong! What a brave new world!

This line of logic suggests that there is only one truth, and the only reasonable thing to do is to share it.

In reality, we are faced with multiple non-false statements – all of them plausible. The concept of ambiguity is a fundamental feature of physics, not only social interactions.

But scared apes that we are, we feel compelled to make sense of the world and simplify indiscriminately. When faced with inconsistent statements, we want to choose „the truest one.” We accept the one that fits our worldview the most (at this time), discard the rest, and deem them lies.

Human communication is inefficient, and things have context.

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

The correct attribution of this statement is not helpful.

Logical axioms are an artificial construct that is rarely encountered in the real world. When I say „it is warm outside” on the first day of spring, is the temperature the same as when I said it while vacationing in Dubai?

Of course not.

We refer to reality, hoping that we have a similar context, but that is never true.

If we were to converse, there would be four sides to the exchange:

  • Me
  • My perception of you and your context
  • You
  • Your perception of me and my context

This is all very confusing.

Since we have no way of perfectly synchronizing each other hidden contexts, how can we be sure that the components of our exchange are entirely similar?

During millennia this was aided by non-verbal methods. The tone of voice, gestures, and body language are meant to communicate precisely that – the context of my emotions associated with the statement.

„Technically Correct” is valid only in the first order.

Let’s say I ate three croissants. This is, of course, purely theoretical since I would never, ever do such a thing, but let’s say I did.

Croissants that I made and have not even tried them, of course.

Now, chocolate-filled croissants are good. This is a true statement (there will be NO discussion over this).

  • The first-order consequence of eating a croissant is that I feel good.
  • But the second-order consequence is that my glucose level rises, and my body produces an insulin response.
  • The third-order consequence of a croissant-full diet is that my body gains fat, and
  • the fourth-order result is that I get diabetes or cardiovascular disease, or both.

Is the statement about “croissants being good” a false one? No, it is still technically correct while neglecting higher-order consequences.

These first-order-good and higher-order-bad consequences of the same behavior land us in trouble regularly:

  • Driving a car to work may be more comfortable, but it’s leading to an ecological apocalypse,
  • Scrolling Facebook makes you feel like you are connecting with friends, but it’s eroding your ability to keep these relationships off-line.
  • Praising your kid for good grades now will make him feel better, but if he did not deserve them, he would have real trouble with self-esteem once those straight A’s are harder to come by.

Focusing on higher-order consequences of our choices may be the key to success, and being stuck in first-order thinking can lead to disastrous outcomes.

People don’t appreciate correcting.

They don’t appreciate unsolicited advice either – that is a lesson I am still trying to internalize.

People don’t always remember what you said, but they sure as hell remember how you made them feel. And how do they feel when you interrupt them to point out the dubious nature of a minor detail in the story they’re telling?

„Oh my, how good that Artur just pointed out I was wrong. Thanks to him, I will not be wrong anymore. He is so smart!

HELL NO.

They will remember that you are a prick that cannot sit still for a few minutes without stealing attention back for yourself even if you are right.

Correct is not the goal.

At the end of your life, there is no medal for the # of correct statements you have stated.

Truth matters profoundly, especially in this day and age, but mostly because of the outcome.

Let’s say you’re helping your diabetic grandpa with his groceries, and you witness him replacing cake with oranges. Both of these reactions would be correct:

  • “Grandpa, oranges have a lot of fructose and will spike your blood sugar as well. You should stay away from any fruit.”
  • “Grandpa, this is a smart choice. Keep it up.”

I would say that even though the former one is very technically correct, it is also less helpful. I can imagine my grandpa throwing a tantrum: “to hell with all that, am I only allowed to eat salad like a rabbit?”

Croissants that I made and have not even tried them, of course.

If my goal is to help him, he needs encouragement towards a healthier lifestyle more than my smartass comments. Oranges are still better than cookies and help to build a habit of consuming less processed food.

Also, sorry for my fixation with blood sugar examples.

Is postmodernism the answer?

„Ok, Artur, you made some case against technical correctness. But should we then decide for ourselves what is correct and what is false? Focus only on subjective reality, as postmodernists suggest?”

NEVER!

Instead of focusing on yourself and proving how smart you are, try focusing on being helpful to others.

When you free yourself from the burden of “the one truth,” you can acknowledge many possible interpretations of the same set of facts. Choosing the most helpful one is the only sane option.

The core of the scientific method is the predictive value of a theory. If said theory can predict the outcome of an experiment, it is true. In other words – it is helpful. Ensuring helpfulness will not let you stray away from objective reality.

If you try to be helpful, you have to get rid of your self-righteousness and do the humble work.

Above all, helpful truth will help you make the right choices. Technical correctness can only be used to judge choices. Let’s make some good choices and stop judging.

GPT-3, Artificial Intelligence, and what are they up to?

Hey!

The summer has crept up on us during the pandemic, and I hope you get a chance to disconnect and enjoy nature while socially distancing.
Yesterday, I managed to do a little Wakeboarding and I so love this sport! It’s like riding a snowboard under a lift on a lake. You get to ride and you get wet a lot ?.

In this week’s newsletter, I am going to dive deep into this thing called GPT-3.

What’s the deal with GPT-3?

In July of 2020, Open AI foundation has opened private, beta API access to their newest machine learning model: GPT-3. It’s a text prediction tool that is trained on pretty much the entirety of the Internet. You give it a sample and it suggests the text to complete that sample.

„Specifically, we train GPT-3, an autoregressive language model with 175 billion parameters, 10x more than any previous non-sparse language model.”

A quote that sounds impressive, but tells you nothing.

Since this model has an unparalleled scale, it delivers very extremely good results. My Twitter feed became full of people praising its performance and prophesizing the end of human labor. But as Forbes points out, it has its limitations.

A “Private Beta” means, that a select group of individuals got access and started playing with it:

Q: is my job in danger?

Quite possibly. If your job consists of following the same pattern in a highly specialized task, it is in danger for a while now. Legal, banking, uncreative writing (such as producing listicles for clicks), and copy-paste-coding are going to be hit pretty hard in the coming years. 

As I wrote in „How to protect your job from automation”, the more „fuzzy” your job definition is, the more it needs a human in the loop. The safest careers are going to be the ones that don’t follow a path. Those that sound unsafe when you describe them to your grandparents.

If you want to not only survive, but also thrive – think of GPT-3 (and it’s unstoppable successors) as collaborators. They can be your sounding board, they can do the tedious research and get the obvious ideas out of the way, so you can focus on that deep, human insight. That elusive spark that makes humans different.

If such a thing exists.

General Artificial Intelligence

The pop-culture take on Artificial Intelligence assumes it will take the form of what is called a „General Intelligence” – it will be conscious and good at anything.

It will be like a  (benevolent/evil) human with infinite cognitive power and do with us as it pleases.

I do not believe the General Artificial Intelligence is possible in machines because I do not believe the General Intelligence is possible in humans.

Humans are collections of algorithms interacting with each other, much like machines are. 

The „General Intelligence” concept started from Charles Spearman’s research on what he called „G Factor” in the 20s. Charles Spearman was an army captain-turned-psychologist and was searching for an inherent quality that will predict the success of the recruits. The idea was to fast-track the careers of more capable army men.

To this day, the definition of Intelligence is the result of an IQ test. General Intelligence „domain” is still restricted to a narrow set of tasks because using this raw cognitive horsepower in the real world requires specialized algorithms and mental models.

Humans are not special snowflakes, and the type of intelligence that can rival them is already here. It just needs more training. The biggest threat is the same as it is in humans – who will do that training? What agenda will the „parents” of this General Intelligence have? What scars will they impart on it? How will it cope?

Open AI

Open AI is even more interesting story than the GPT-3. Founded by Elon Musk (no introduction needed), Sam Altman (previously president of Y-Combinator, the most successful startup incubator in existence), and other experts with a mission to “ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity”. I highly recommend reading more in their charter doc.

„Our primary fiduciary duty is to humanity.”

OpenAI but no investment banker ever.

In a fascinating 2015 interview, Sam Altman pitched to the investors that he had no monetization plans. Instead, his vision was to ask the AI to give the founders investing advice once it’s capable enough. But the returns would be capped at only 100x because it could “maybe capture the light cone of all future value in the universe, and that’s for sure not okay for one group of investors to have.” 

Don’t use your work voice at home

When you introduce yourself, what do you say?

“I am Kate Maria Artur, and I am an accountant journalist engineer at  Apple SpaceX Automattic„… Most of us will use the job title as a representation of who we are.

My mom infuriates me, and it’s teaching me a lesson about work. She infuriates me with a particular voice, a type of preachy „Maybe you should think about THIS” type of tone. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

See, it took me a pandemic to figure out WHY it’s so annoying.

My wife and I are living in a summer house together with my mom and a new dog. It’s a journey of self-discovery, and one of the lessons I received is seeing my mom work. She is a high school teacher and tries to teach remotely, over Zoom.

And she uses THE VOICE when teaching. The same one I hate. My mom tries to literally lecture me when we have a disagreement!

I, on the other hand, am an engineer. My default reaction is to diagnose and solve every problem. This is what I’m good at. Surely, if we address the core issue of every discussion, we can move on, right? Don’t try this at home.

Turns out, sometimes people sometimes want you to listen to them. Shocker, right? They don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want their problem solved, they just want to get their emotions out. You may not think of this as a professional behavior to have at work, but in your personal relationships, that may be a thing.

We all play our roles.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

William Shakespeare

Mammals are hell-bent on protecting their identity and acting accordingly. The famous, (but now under reevaluation) Stanford Prison Experiment concluded, that regular people can do horrible things when assigned a new identity. Acting against our identity and assumed roles introduces Cognitive Dissonance, which causes heavy psychological stress. Every cell in our body wants to act according to what we are.

Applied behavioral science recognizes this. Master Key System, Think and Grow Rich, and The Secret all focus on addressing identity first and letting behavior follow. Tony Robbins says that “Identity is everywhere. We do what we believe we are”.

When we tie our identity to work, we continue to perform similar functions at home, which can cause issues.

Information processing choices

When faced with a new piece of information, you can do a couple of things with it. Your reaction can be:

  1. Reflexive
    fight or flight, etc
  2. Pattern matching/ problem solving
  3. Empathy / Connection
    Seek to understand the experience
  4. Mining for potential

Most professionals’ job description will fall on the spectrum of „#2 – Pattern matching/problem-solving”.

Recognizing patterns as „another one of those” (as Ray Dalio puts it) is a cornerstone of not only Engineering and Medicine but also Law, Investing.

Modern economy rewards jumping straight into problem-solving mode. “World’s biggest challenges are also the world’s biggest business opportunities”, according to Peter Diamandis. The more problems you solve, the bigger the big shot you are. And then you get back home.

Every cell in your body will ache to do what you have done all day – solve problems and bark orders.

But at home, you are not a bigshot any more. You are an accountant journalist engineer husband, mother, or a son. Leave the bigshot voice and, better yet – identity at the door. Be human, emphatise or help somebody explore the potential.

VIPs secret weapon: the Post-It note.

In the olden days before the pandemic, there were conferences and meetings. People would gather together to discuss matters in person, looking at each other, not through the screen, but face-to-face.

Meetings, naturally, are most productive when you take notes. Without action items and concrete takeaways, there are just chit-chats between friends. So people whip out their laptops and tablets to „jot down something.”

Have you ever participated in a meeting where everybody is walled off behind a screen? I did, and it was entirely unproductive. I’m sure it had great notes, though.

Last year, during our company offsite in Orlando, I had a series of meetings regarding a feature I was responsible for. There were many stakeholders, and I wanted to use the time to discuss strategy. I met with the Head of Product, President of our product line, and the CEO of the company. And I noticed something quite interesting:

The more senior the person, the more minimalist their note-taking approach.

All the people I met used Pen&Paper. But it really clicked when we invited the amazing Stephen Wolfram on stage. He would carry a stack of post-it notes, just like our CEO!

I wanted to have something that the average theoretical physicist can use

Stephen Wolfram on why he created Mathematica. He could have been talking about post-its, too.

What is it about paper notes and post-its in particular?

Note-taking is something I take seriously. I type about 500 new notes per month and I am very fond of the search function of my Evernote account. But I have to admit – the paper is superior for note-taking.

  1. Analog (pen & paper) note-taking lets you stay present. There is no wall of screens between you and the other person,
  2. Your posture is different when you take notes on paper, making it easier for you to use body language. (With hands on the keyboard, your back is rounded, just like when your ancestors were hiding from danger. This is not the body language of successful people),
  3. It’s clear and even encouraging that you are noting things down. The other person does not have to worry, that you are playing Animal Crossing,
  4. Post-it notes are easy to carry and convenient to pull out when needed. You can keep them in your pocket,
  5. You can use them while standing, which is useful during conferences,
  6. One idea, one note is a neat, self-contained information nugget. Post-it note is big enough to note the important stuff but too small to take your bloat. Just like a tweet.
  7. You can easily re-arrange, combine, and process them after the meeting. It’s like the are made for this.

Now, that you are in on the secret, you can carry a stack of post-it notes to your high-stakes meeting. Let them know you are a professional too.

Communication, and other CIA Sabotage tactics

Communication is Oxygen. If you feel bad, breathe. If a project is stuck in a rut – communicate. So if you see fire somewhere, you just pump more oxygen into it, right?

Oh, wait.

David Perell has recently shared a page from the CIA Sabotage Field Manual:

This document was created in 1944 to help incite enemy to

“make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit”

In my corporate experience, I have seen genuinely well-meaning employees act in any of these ways. The bigger the organization, the more of these behaviors become defaults. You default to committees to shift risk. You insist on proper channels to be a „Team Player.”

I will not explain why these behaviors are not conducive to innovation or, for that matter, even operating of a healthy organization. Have a look at the source document.

Open communication in a bigger organization encourages most of these behaviors and that is what I marked in red.

At Automattic, we kind of take the „Apple Opposite” approach. We are distributed in 75 countries, work without a spaceship HQ, and default to open communication whenever possible. I can snoop in on all internal projects and our VIP clients, see source code of upcoming releases and chime in on a product line strategy that has zero overlap with my responsibilities.

I found our instincts to be much closer to how Pixar operates and it makes me very proud:

A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

If there are people in your organization who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere.

„Creativity Inc.”


Unfortunately, everything in life has a downside and Open communication does as well. Every positive behavior can become a subterfuge tactic if overused:

My intentSubterfuge tactic I fall into
Async communication, by definition, can be read at any time.
I don’t know what the context of the other party is, so I will make a long-winded explanation of my reasoning, so we can skip the back-and-forth
(2) Make „speeches”. Talk as frequently as possible at great length…
When I stumble upon a thread or conversation, I try to provide additional value by looping in knowledgeable people.

Connecting people who talk to each other is great for creativity.
(3) When possible, defer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration”

This one is particularly effective as subterfuge – people I loop in will reciprocate, ensuring exponential growth of a committee.
Sometimes I try to provide additional value by sharing ideas and concerns. Did you thought about X?

Maybe they didn’t, and I just saved them a discovery in the future?
(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible

Also known as Bikeshedding. Extremely powerful combined with the above (3). Random people looped into a conversation will feel compelled to provide value, sharing shallow unrelated concerns.

Since Async communication does not really have the concept of the „meeting finished”, we can hit another tactic for bonus points if we „share our thoughts too late”:

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon the last meeting, in an attempt to re-open the question (…)

Hippocrates said, that everything to the excess is opposed to nature.

Excess communication can have detrimental effects. It introduces noise for everybody, but more importantly – piles on more work for people trying to solve a problem. I am not advocating for hiding the communication but cutting on self-serving comments.

Are you making that comment to:

  • Show that you are smart? Pass.
  • To prove that you have taken action, even it is contributing very little? Pass.
  • Because you feel concerned, that „proper channels” were not used? Pass.
  • Project shipped, but you feel compelled to share a concern that should be addressed earlier? Pass.
  • You have helpful information, that will make them achieve goals faster? Go ahead.
  • You are certain a major risk was overlooked? Go ahead.
  • You have a genuine question and answer will help you or others in future pursuits? Go ahead.

Breathe and communicate. Within reason.

“Well, we have to measure something.”, And the perils of metrics.

“What gets measured, gets managed,”

Peter Drucker famously said.

The sentiment makes sense. If we are not looking at a compass, how can we know if we are going in the right direction? How can we keep ourselves honest, and how can we course-correct?

Thanks to the culture of metrics, in 2019 Amazon has surpassed Apple as the most valuable company on the face of the planet.
Indeed, what gets measured, gets managed, but at the expense of everything else. Less famously, Drucker said

Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective. This is not capable of being measured by any of the yardsticks for manual work.

It is very human to want a put significant round number, so we can judge it’s value. We like explicit situations, and a moral gray area is always unwelcome. Your score is 73rd percentile, and eating meat on a Friday is a sin. At least that is clear.

But life is more complicated and nuanced. It is somehow tough to measure the desired outcome accurately. So we defer to measuring the closest thing that is easy to gauge. Can’t hurt, right? At least we’re in the ballpark.

Well, it can.

In 1956 V. F. Ridgway has pioneered an area called “Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Measurements.” In the first study of such kind (and the one that gave the name to the whole genre), a systematic analysis of the quantitative measurements in the governmental sector and found multiple examples of it going terribly wrong.

(Quantitative is a fancy term for something that has a number.)

“Indiscriminate use ( of quantitative measures) may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits.”

It boils down to the fact that unlike scientifical phenomena, organizations, markets, and people are really complex. By creating simplistic representations, we leave uncomfortable stuff out, ending up with a perfect model for a world that does not exist. We develop synthetic metrics to gauge “the best we can” and start to measure the progress against that number.

As phrased in “Goodhart’s law“, once you make that artificial number your target, it stops being a useful metric. Everybody in the organization will now realign their priorities in order to “bump” the number. With no regard to how that translates into the bottom line.

  • As pictured by sketchplanations above, as a nail-making company, you want to make a lot of customers happy with your nails (a noble cause indeed). But if you are sloppy with your metric-choosing, you can get the opposite effect,
  • Let’s imagine you are trying to measure the output of support employees. If you make them answer the most support tickets, they will try to hit that number at the expense of actually helping the customer, or even worse – making the customer come back a few times with the same problem.
  • If you’re a private doctor trying to avoid lawsuits (like in the USA), you will order unnecessary expensive tests to ensure legal defense. Conversely, when incentivized to curb spending (like in Poland), you will try to guess the diagnosis to avoid costly tests.

Jerry Muller, the author of “The Tyranny of Metrics,” coined the term Metrics Fixation, which is where you replace judgment with numeric indicators.

The most characteristic feature of metric fixation is the aspiration to replace judgment based on experience with standardized measurement.

Jerry Muller

In a frantic search for performance metrics, we often grab the number that is easiest to gauge, ignoring that “Not everything that matters is measurable and not everything that’s measurable matters” (Jerry Muller).

Metrics fixation not only punishes the organization by delivering unexpected outcomes and lower performance. I would argue that it is one of the most significant risks the modern world faces today.

Broad societal problems with metrics.

1. The educational system.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Public Education is, of course, a lofty goal and a massive achievement of our civilization. It is intended to teach young people a habit of life-long learning, open their minds, and realize their full potential. But the education system has a metric: grades.

The entire school experience is designed to be measurable, controlled, and spoon-fed. You cannot take a long time getting to know algebra because it would be unfair to your fellow test-takers. You cannot skip ahead because the class is not moving at your pace. And in effect, children learn one lesson the most: Learning is not fun.

When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than Students value learning.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

2. Economy and finance.

Photo by M. B. M. on Unsplash

Shockingly, economists and investors are not judged by the performance of their models in real markets! They are not eager to wait decades to validate a model, so they pick metrics easier to measure – testing the hypothesis on synthetic data, ending up with a perfect model for an ideal world.

If you are a passenger on a plane and the pilot tells you he has a faulty map, you get off the plane; you don’t stay and say “well, there is nothing better.” But in economics, particularly finance, they keep teaching these models on grounds that “there is nothing better,” causing harmful risk-taking. Why? Because the professors don’t bear the harm of the models.

Colorful Nassim Taleb, best-selling author of Incerto, on Economy.

3. Artificial intelligence

Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

Unintended consequences of metrics is the core reason why Elon Musk thinks artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to the human race.

The biggest problem with AI is not that it will become wary of us giving it orders and decides to wipe us out on a whim. This is exemplified in the canonical thought experiment called the paperclip maximizer. Nick Bostrom shows us that artificial general intelligence, presented by a single metric ( number of paper clips produced ), designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity.

OK, I GET IT! But what else can we do? Should we fly blind?

Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Of course not!

Measuring is still the best way to keep you honest and on track. If you measure against real, tangible goals like revenue – it will help you achieve them.

But it’s hard to find those goals in other areas. If your goal is to “be healthy,” should you aim for lower weight? Body Fat percentage? VO2Max (the amount of oxygen you can consume in the unit of time)? Your maximum bench press weight?

Every single one of those numbers represents an opinionated model, and those models are in odds with each other. If you go to 10 different doctors, you will probably get 11 different answers. And each one will not be focused on you but their pet model of the world.

But you know what a great model of reality is? Real-world. It is not entirely measurable, it’s not an exact number, but it’s real. If you want to feel great, then you can use what “Qualitative” measuring is – your answer to the question “do I feel great”

  • If your goal is to learn a foreign language, then ask yourself the question, “did I just have a meaningful conversation in a foreign language.”
  • If you want to hire a great employee, don’t judge them by the diploma. Give them a trial project and see how they work, interact with colleagues, and further the real goals of your organization.

People have a natural drive to do a good job and demonstrate autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It has been proven over and over again that intrinsic is the only motivation that makes sense long-term It has also been proved, that when you introduce extrinsic one (this one big metric, higher salary, more pocket money for doing house chores), the intrinsic motivation will vanish, and your employees will stop trying to further your agenda under the singular guidance of the all-important metric.

The more a quantitative metric is visible and used to make crucial decisions, the more it will be gamed—which will distort and corrupt the exact processes it was meant to monitor.

An adaption of Campbell’s Law

Instead of putting a round number on the wall, create an organization where you can trust your people to do the right thing. At least until the advent of Artificial Intelligence.

Sign up to my “Deliberate thoughts” list for more content like this 👇

To rest – move

“It was stressful, so I went to the gym.”

WHAT?!

I have seen this scene a couple of times in TV Shows or maybe movies:

Some jacked dude picks up the phone. There is a woman on the other side. She wants to meet. He says something along the lines of:

“It was a stressful day at work, so I went to a gym. I am going to take a quick shower and join you in town.”

It sounded ridiculous to me. If he was stressed – why didn’t he have a nap?! The gym is the last place I think of when I am tired!

Enter Tony Robbins

I always wanted to go to a Tony Robbins seminar. Trought his career he has coached presidents, movie stars, business tycoons and thousands (or probably millions) of regular folks. This man is a machine.

His “entry-level” seminar is called “Unleash the Power Within” and focuses on helping you raise your standards and commit to a better quality of life. If you get a chance – it may be the best investment of your life.

Apart from many takeaways, 2 things stood up for me in regards to fitness and energy:

  1. We spent a bulk of time on dialing in the health. In the western culture we view our bodies as mere vehicles for the brain (Read here how I blame Plato and Aristotle), but the physical well-being is the engine powering our mental capabilities and the source of energy. We learned that the plant-based diet is right for you, that most of us don’t hydrate enough and even that somehow, the modern folk have lost the way to breathe correctly.
  2. These four days were 16-18 hours long. There was no slowing down, almost no food or breaks, and yet, I was pumped and full of energy throughout!

The key was alternating lectures with proprietary SYA technique. The SYA technique stands for Shake Your Ass.

It was also way more joyful!

And did we shake our asses like there is no tomorrow! The movement generated energy that helped us keep focus, improved learning, and enhanced the attention.

We also had Pitbull to help us.

The stress and exhaustion we sometimes experience in the modern world are radically different than what our bodies were accustomed to. We face no real danger from our overbearing bosses, nor do we have to fight for our lives daily, even though it feels that way. Physical activity gets your blood flowing, nourishing your cells, and restocking all the supplies. It grounds you in what is real and immediate.

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz in the “Power of Full Engagement” agree with Tony Robbins. Cycling periods of physical activity with rest is the key to maintaining energy. Switching gears – mentally and physically – is the key to rest, not inactivity.

“The best way to manage your energy is to balance spending with replenishing.”

Sitting all day uses your mental energy, but let’s be honest – you are not moving much. Your exhaustion is mental, even though it feels the same way as physical. 

And, counter-intuitively, after a long, stressful day of work, the physical activity lets me gather my thoughts and rest.

According to Tony Robbins, there are

Eight gifts of pure energy

  1. Vital breathing and lymphasizing
    1. Breathe through your diaphragm, inhaling deeply
    2. Jump around, helping your lymph system to work
  2. Living water and live foods
    1. Drink water, for goodness sake
    2. Eat real food, ideally full of water – stuff that is green! (Except green cheese)
  3. Essential Oils
    1. No, not the magical aromatic ones. The ones like Olive Oil or Avocado. Monosaturated fats.
  4. Alkalinity
    1. Again, eat green stuff. It’s alkaline.
  5. Aerobic energy
    1. SHAKE. YOUR. ASS
  6. Maximum nourishment
    1. Just eat real food, mkay?
  7. Structural alignment and maximum strength
    1. Stretch.
    2. DO strength training.
  8. Directed Mind and heart
    1. Be a nice person. Don’t dwell on how people have wronged you. Think nice thoughts

Even though it all sounds a little woo-woo, it’s precisely what the doctors always said we should do. The more we keep dismissing all that as “basic”, the more critical it is to remind ourselves that we have bodies that need nourishment, water, and movement. We cannot keep punishing ourselves with Twinkies, Pizza, and beer and expect to be strong and healthy.

homer simpson eating GIF
Homer, following a Keto diet like a boss

We are somehow infected with the idea that good things have to be hard, inconvenient, and/or disgusting. It is all, of course, a matter of mindset, but physical activity can very well support mental performance. You have to get over your lazy self and shake your ass.

You’ll see you’ll feel better afterward and will have more energy to send these emails you’ve been putting off.

You’re not lazy. You may just need accountability.

This post has been previously published on Maria’s blog

There’s plenty of advice that seems to work on everyone else but me. Todo lists are a great example. Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed with having too much on my plate, someone inevitably suggests:

“Just create a todo list and start crossing things off.”

– A clueless person (sometimes known as my husband)

It works pretty well for a day or two, but then I see the backlog of all the things I hoped to do grow larger and larger, and at some point abandon the whole list in panic. There was once a todo list that I abandoned because I couldn’t stand the fact I still hadn’t bought that backpack I’d added there a few weeks before. This was over a year ago, and I’m nowhere closer to owning that backpack than I was back then.

I used to think this is because I’m extremely lazy and undisciplined. My fiancé somehow doesn’t have any problems with following up on the things he planned to do, why should I? I thought I need to shame myself more into working on things I haven’t done yet, or only let myself do cool stuff (like spending half a day out in the park) once I cross all the items off my todo list. In result I’d stay home, feeling guilty and grumpy, scrolling my Twitter feed, and wondering why I can’t make myself do all the things I am supposed to do. It certainly must be my weak character.

Four Tendencies

I’d probably still be thinking this way, if I hadn’t read The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin. It’s a very simple yet powerful framework for how different people respond to what’s expected of them. Artur explained more about how every type behaves on his blog, so you can check the details here. For me the most important discovery was that I’d much rather do something for a stranger, or even an imaginary stranger that only exists in my head, than I’d do it for myself, or even my partner, who’s too close to me to be recorded in my books as a separate person. In other words, I’m a classic Obliger who will go to such great lengths not to disappoint anyone that I’d give up on my dreams just so that they don’t conflict with someone else’s demands on my time.

When I first heard about this framework, my first reaction was to resist it. I understood it that I’m mostly driven by external expectations, but perhaps if I worked hard enough on changing my attitude, I’d be able to switch to a different type? A Questioner would be nice I think… I somehow felt that acknowledging that I’m not going to get anything done without external accountability would be admitting to my weakness. I thought that I should not require external support to accomplish my goals. I thought that’s a sign of weak character and immaturity.

I still perceived it this way on some level, until a friend on Twitter made a joke about a foam brick she occasionally sits on for the sake of a “sport”. This reminded me I too have a similar foam brick I’ve only maybe used once or twice, and I almost started feeling guilty about it. But then I realized, I’m super consistent in doing aerial yoga a few times each week. I don’t need to put it on my todo list, or to force myself to do this. I’m excited and looking forward to it. I’m no too lazy to practice, I just prefer to do it in a nice friendly studio with some nice friendly people rather than alone at home. Why should I ever feel guilty about such thing?

The same thing happened to me with my writing. I’ve been promising myself I would write more for at least two years, until I found two accountability buddies. Since then I’ve created something for this blog for 175 days in a row, no matter how much I had on my plate. I’m still writing mostly for myself, but knowing my buddies are there cheering for me is what actually keeps me going.

Knowing this, I should finally drop the idea that strong character can only be developed in solitude, and start actively seeking buddies in other areas of my life where I’m currently lacking motivation. I know the why behind the items on my todo list, but more often than not find it hard to follow through without external support. If you find yourself in the same position, stop beating yourself up and try looking for a buddy or a support group. Perhaps you’ll end up as excited about the things you want to do as I am now about blogging and aerial yoga.