Criticize with Empathy

I love these rules from Anatol Rapoport on how to criticize:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Imagine if Twitter (a well-known argument machine) dedicated space in replies for each of these. Changing form fields can change minds.

These rules jumped to mind when I was reading Search Inside Yourself, which is about Google’s mindfulness program. One of the prescribed activities is mindful conversation, which has a pretty similar component:

Let’s say there are two people involved in this conversation—Allen and Becky—and it is Allen’s turn to speak. Allen speaks for a while, and after he is done speaking, Becky (the listener) loops back by saying what she thought she heard Allen say. After that, Allen gives feedback on what he thought was missing or misrepresented in Becky’s characterization of his original monologue. And they go back and forth until Allen (the original speaker) feels satisfied that he is correctly understood by Becky (the original listener). Looping is a collaborative project in which both people work together to help Becky (the listener) fully understand Allen (the speaker).

I think the thing linking these is empathy. If you build your empathy muscles you probably don’t need these rules, but they are still a good reminder.

Deep Work

I recently finished Deep Work by Cal Newport.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

Deep Work feels like a continuation of Newport’s previous book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. That book argues that your mastery of your craft is a larger factor in your fulfillment than the choice of work. It then goes on to prescribe mastery through “deliberate practice” to improve. Once you have leveled up, Deep Work offers a next step: a path to productivity.

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

Newport spends a good amount of pages making the case that blocks of focus and solitude are vital for a knowledge worker to produce the best output. His strategies should not be surprising. “Don’t goof off on the internet” seems like “eat right and exercise” for productivity – advice that’s easy to say but hard to live. Hopefully, by arguing the value of deep work and the need to train your brain, readers will have success with his methods.
When I get the urge to check Twitter during a build/deploy, it’s helpful to have a reminder that small choices matter. Reducing my time on social media – the internet’s Skinner box – has helped me focus. It’s also been helpful to also consider the schedules he describes. Blocking off time to be unreachable has been a boon. So much so, that I’m revisiting RescueTime to try creating focus blocks.

The book offers working templates for different personalities. While I am productive in the solitude of my office, I feel that I am most productive when I am pairing with someone (this may be some selection bias – only certain work lends itself to pairing). In his section on work styles, I’m glad that he steps back from the isolation he describes elsewhere and offers support for working in partnership.

I enjoyed this book and am glad to have found it. The most valuable piece for me has been the reminder that my minute-by-minute decisions become powerful habits. I recommend this to any knowledge worker. I’d also be extremely interested to find out if it benefits other professions.

See also: There’s a good hacker news discussion

The Handmaid’s Tale

I love a good dystopia. 1984 painted a vivid picture of a surveillance state, but also showed us people controlled with a common enemy and fake news. Neuromancer and Snow Crash mixed the computer revolution with the 1980’s “Greed is Good.”

I recently finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood and I’m surprised it took me this long to find it. I picked it up when it went on sale shortly after the election (I can imagine the thinking behind that pricing decision). Wikipedia summarizes the plot:

The story is told in the first person by a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred). The character is one of a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and known as “handmaids” by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. Offred describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as “The Commander”). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Offred describes the structure of Gilead’s society, including the several different classes of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.

There were some things that stuck with me. Women being reduced from people to simple hosts for unborn children. As Offred recalled a time when she had rights, like the right to work or own property, I kept remembering a picture I saw online:

Iran in the 1970s before the Islamic Revolution

That’s a group of women at a university in Iran, pre-revolution. I imagine many of these women are still alive. I wonder if they knew how quickly things could change? Do they feel more free in an Islamic state than they did in a Western one? Do they envy our freedom or pity it?

“Freedom.” That’s always been a word that caught my eye. When it shows up, it’s usually lacking specifics and trying to appeal to emotions. I think about this quote from the book a lot:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

I guess that’s the idea. In America, authoritarianism would have to come wrapped in the word “freedom.” Readers of history can probably point to examples where that’s exactly what happened.

The book is beautifully written and I highly recommend it as a story, a message, and a work of literature. I also just found out that Hulu is adapting it into a show with Elizabeth Moss, if you aren’t the reading type.

Good thing this is just fiction, right?