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This is the first in a series of posts about improving group dynamics within the rationality community. (The previous "checking for interest post" is here).
Project Hufflepuff: Planting the Flag
"Clever kids in Ravenclaw, evil kids in Slytherin, wannabe heroes in Gryffindor, and everyone who does the actual work in Hufflepuff.”
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 9
“It is a common misconception that the best rationalists are Sorted into Ravenclaw, leaving none for other Houses. This is not so; being Sorted into Ravenclaw indicates that your strongest virtue is curiosity, wondering and desiring to know the true answer. And this is not the only virtue a rationalist needs. Sometimes you have to work hard on a problem, and stick to it for a while. Sometimes you need a clever plan for finding out. And sometimes what you need more than anything else to see an answer, is the courage to face it…
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 45
I’m a Ravenclaw and Slytherin by nature. I like being clever. I like pursuing ambitious goals. But over the past few years, I’ve been cultivating the skills and attitudes of Hufflepuff, by choice.
I think those skills are woefully under-appreciated in the Rationality Community. The problem cuts across many dimensions
part 1 of yak shaving. It wan necessary to write part two because part 1 was not clear enough about what the problem is. I don't disagree with the comments, and I apologise for not presenting it better in the first round. (part 1 on lesswrong)
Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/yak-shaving-2/
You decide today is a day for getting things done, it is after all your day off. You do what any person concerned with work does. You sit down at your desk. When you do you notice two empty tea cups and a one-sip-left in a can of soft drink. Not liking a messy environment you figure you will quickly tidy up. You take the teacups and put them on the kitchen bench. You take the can to the recycling bin when you realise it's full and needs to be taken out to the garbage bin.
You take the rubbish to the garage and realise tonight is bin night anyway so you put the recycling bin. While you are at it you put all the bins to the curb. You get back to the kitchen and find the teacup is actually sitting on a pile of unopened mail. You open what looks like the bills in the pile and mentally note to deal with them when you get back to your desk. so you leave them on the kitchen table to take back with you.
You get to the teacups and realise you are out of dishwashing detergent. You will have to go buy some. You go to get the car keys and notice the washing basket is full. You decide to quickly put the washing on before you go. That will save time. You get in the car and discover it's nearly out of petrol. And the supermarket is it the other direction from the petrol station.
While you are out you grab a coffee and lunch before getting back. Then you hit traffic and get home quite late. You bring in the mail but notice the mailbox post is rotting. you have some spare wood in the garage but your work bench has the remnants of when you tried to fix the shelf for your bathroom. You could just fix the mailbox post with cable ties but how long would that last?
With a stubborn determination to get SOMETHING done today you take the mailbox into your work bench, and start working on top of the other project because you basically have no choice any more. When you go to measure and mark the wood it seems like every pencil needs sharpening, as does the saw. The drill has a flat battery, the last drill bit of the right size is broken, you have only three screws that are galvanised and one that is not. you drill the guide hole too small, bend a screw in the process of getting it into the wood, slip and wound the bathroom shelf project, and eventually re-assemble a mailbox.
You get the mailbox on the fence but it's getting dark and you need dinner. You can't help but wonder where the day went. It feels like you worked hard all day but you barely have anything to show for it.
Tomorrow you are back at work but maybe you need to take another day off, a tantalising prospect... You have a deal with your boss that you can take the day off only if you could explain why you need another day off. Of course that might require writing a note, which might require a working pen from the stationary cupboard, or sending an email, which you swore to not do before reading all the unread ones that are waiting for you... And it would be nice to pay those bills.
In part 1 I said:
The problem here is that you spent all day shaving yaks (see also “there’s a hole in my bucket“). In a startup that translates to not doing the tasks that get customers – the tasks which get money and actually make an impact, say “playing with the UI”. It’s easy to see why such anti-yak shaving sentiment would exist (see also: bikeshedding, rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, hamming questions). You can spend a whole day doing a whole lot of nothings; getting to bed and wonder what you actually accomplished that day (hint: a whole lot of running in circles).
It’s not just one problem, but a series of problems that come to your attention in a sequence.
this sort of behaviour is not like bikeshedding at all. Nor is it doing insignificant things under the guise of “real work”. Instead this is about tackling what stands in the way of your problem. In problem solving in the real world, Don’t yak shave” is not what I have found to be the solution.
I propose that yak shaving presents a very important sign that things are broken.
The scenario above is my version of hell incarnate. Real life is probably not that bad but things like that come up all the time. They act as open loops, tax your mind (kind of like the debatable ego depletion concept) and don't really represent you being in a good place.
If something is broken, and you are living with it, that’s not acceptable. You need a system in your life to regularly get around to fixing it. Notepads, reviews, list keeping, set time aside for doing it and plan to fix things.
So I say, Yak Shave, as much, as long, and as many times as it takes till there are no more yaks to shave.
Accruing or resolving problems?
A question worth asking is whether you are in your life at present causing a build up of problems, a decrease of problems, or roughly keeping them about the same level.
If you are a person who keeps quantified tracking of yourself - this might be easier to answer. than if you do less tracking. maybe you have to do lists, maybe some notepads, any way to know if you are getting better or worse at this.
The answer is probably something like, "up and down". You do both, over time. Things build up and then things resolve. If you see things as having always built up, or gradually gotten worse... Maybe it's time to stop. Think. Ask yourself...
What's going on?
Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write.
Part 1: In support of yak shaving. I would recommend a quick read over it. I don't honestly want to quote the entire thing here but it's so so so so so relevant.
Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/yak-shaving-2/
Up next: Working with multiple problems at once