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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
It doesn’t matter what ideas are conveyed on Less Wrong, or in LW meetings -- the subset that matters is what group members resolved to do. Discussion of these 'resolves', and people's experience doing them, is useful in creating an expectation that people level up their skills.
Intelligent discussion of ideas is always refreshing. But translating that into action is more difficult.
Our learned reflexes are deep. They need to be overridden. How? Practice.
One woman I taught in India, we’ll call her Girija, was 35 years old, extremely intelligent and really wanted to change her life but had incredibly low levels of self-confidence. Every time we met Girija, we’d have a really sharp discussion, followed by her pouring her heart out to us. It was the same every time, and though we enjoyed the visits, and the food she would feed us, she never seemed to be getting anywhere.
If she really wanted to fundamentally change her life, our weekly meetings weren’t enough. (Similarly, weekly meetups are a good start, but if you really want to be learning rationality you should be practicing every day.)
We felt that if Girija spent some time every day with her 9 year old daughter and live-in boyfriend, reading the scriptures together, they would be happier. We explained this to her frequently, and she said she would start -- but she never did it.
One week, through cleverly calling Girija and chatting for 10 minutes every day, we got her to do it. After the week was over, we asked her how it went.
“You know, it was really good,” she said. “Sandeep and I have been getting along a lot better this week because we did that.”
It was like a light had turned on in her head. Because we followed up, she did it, and was far more motivated to do more things afterwards.
Let me give two simple examples of goal, project, and follow-up.
- GOAL: To become better at noticing logical fallacies as they are being uttered
- PROJECT: A certain Less Wrong group could watch a designated hour of C-SPAN -- or a soap opera, or a TV show -- and try to note down all the fallacies.
- FOLLOW-UP: Discuss this on a designated thread. Afterwards, compile the arguments and link to the file, so that anyone in the LW community can repeat this on their own and check against your conclusions. Reflect communally at your next LW meeting.
- GOAL: To get into less arguments about definitions.
- PROJECT: “Ask, "Can you give me a specific example of that?" or "Can you be more concrete?" in everyday conversations.” Make a challenging goal about how much you will do this – this is pretty low-hanging fruit.
- FOLLOW-UP: Write instances in your journal. Share examples communally at your next LW meeting.
I came up with these in about five minutes. Having spent more time in the community than me, you will all be able to generate more and better possibilities.
Some points about Projects:
- Here are some ideas that can easily be made into Projects. Thanks commenters on the last post.
- Projects don't have to be group-based, but groups motivate doing stuff.
- Projects should be more short than the above linked posts. The above Goal/Project/Follow-Up kernels are 85 and 57 words, respectively. Brevity is key to implementation.
- There is currently no central database of Rationality Projects or people's experiences trying to implement them. (Correct me if I'm wrong here.)
- Feedback on implementation is essential for improving practices.
Finally, a really 'low-cost' way to make a project and follow up. Right before the conclusion of a Less Wrong group, give everyone a slip of paper and ask them to write down one thing they are going to do differently next week as a result of the discussion. For two minutes (total) at the beginning of the next meeting, let people tell what they did.
Some notes and warnings:
Doing this in a fraternalistic manner, not a paternalistic manner, will be a key to success. Community agreement that We Should Do This is important before launching a Project.
Beware of the following tradeoff:
- implementing Projects will alienate some people. Even if projects are determined by consensus, there will be some people who don’t want to do any Project, and they will feel marginalized and excluded.
- not implementing Projects, people will improve their Rationality skills at a far slower pace.  You will thus run afoul of Bhagwat’s Law of Commitment: “The degree to which people identify with your group is directly proportional to the amount of stuff you tell them to do that works." But ultimately, commitment drives growth. More leadership to organize stuff, more people bringing friends, and so on.
I will discuss this more later, along with possible solutions. Latter-day Saints, with a large emphasis on doing things, have high levels of commitment; however, there are definitely people who would come to church more if they were expected to do less.
Please post any ideas you have for Projects in the comments.
 Even subtracting the religious element, common goals reduce conflict.
 Here are some keys to following up that I learned. In two years, I probably applied this on about 600 people:
- Following up is mere nagging (and equally ineffective) unless the person/group actually wanted to do the task in the first place.
- Congratulating people when they did do something was far more important than expressing disappointment when they didn’t do it – the 80/20 rule applies.
- I often felt afraid to ask someone if they had done what they promised to do, because they probably hadn’t, and I didn’t know what I should say then.
- But awkwardness is contagious; if you act awkward when talking to someone, the other person will feel awkward too. Be genuinely excited, and they will also reflect this.
- It’s all about how you ask the question. “How did you like reading X?” is far better than “Did you read X?”. Use humor and make the task seem easy to do.
- Don’t be self-righteous; actively deprecate yourself if necessary.
- Each person has different ways they like – and don’t like – being followed-up with.
 Coming from my experience as a Latter-day Saint missionary, my personal examples are all fairly paternalistic. With tweaks, they can all be made fraternalistic. The sentiment has been expressed that “I don’t like people telling me what to do”; this will avoid that pitfall.
 I say 'far slower' based on my missionary experience. When people were dedicated to specific projects, they seemed to improve a lot faster.
I've hated group projects since about Grade 3. I grew up assuming that at some point, working in groups would stop being a series of trials and tribulations, and turn into normal, sane people working just like they would normally, except on a shared problem. Either they would change, or I would change, because I am incredibly bad at teamwork, at least the kind of it that gets doled out in the classroom. I don’t have the requisite people skills to lead a group, but I’m too much of a control freak to meekly follow along when the group wants to do a B+ project and I would like an A+. Drama inevitably ensues.
I would like to not have this problem. An inability to work in teams seems like a serious handicap. There are very few jobs that don’t involve teamwork, and my choice of future career, nursing, involves a lot.
My first experiences in the workplace, as a lifeguard, made me feel a little better about this. There was a lot less drama and a lot more just getting the work done. I think it has a lot to do with a) the fact that we’re paid to do a job that’s generally pretty easy, and b) the requirements of that job are pretty simple, if not easy. There is drama, but it rarely involves guard rotations or who’s going to hose the deck, and I can safely ignore it. Rescues do involve teamwork, but it’s a specific sort of teamwork where the roles are all laid out in advance, and that’s what we spent most of our training learning. Example: in a three-guard scenario, the guard to notice an unconscious swimmer in the water becomes guard #1: they make a whistle signal to the others and jump in, while guard #2 calls 911 and guard #3 clears the pool and does crowd control. There isn’t a lot of room for drama, and there isn’t much point because there is one right way to do things, everyone knows the right way to do things, and there isn’t time to fight about it anyway.
I’m hoping that working as a nurse in a hospital will be more this and less like the school-project variety of group work. The roles are defined and laid out; they’re what we’re learning right now in our theory classes. There’s less of a time crunch, but there’s still, usually, an obviously right way to do things. Maybe it gets more complicated when you have to approach a colleague for, say, not following the hand-hygiene rules, or when the rules the hospital management enforces are obviously not the best way to do things, but those are add-ons to the job, not its backbone.
But that’s for bedside nursing. Research is a different matter, and unfortunately, it’s a lot more like school. I’m taking a class about research right now, and something like 30% or 40% of our mark is on a group project. We have to design a study from beginning to end: problem, hypothesis, type of research, research proposal, population and sample, methods of measurement, methods of analysis, etc. My excuse that “I dislike this because it has absolutely no real-world relevance” is downright wrong, because we’re doing exactly what real researchers would do, only with much less resources and time, and I do like research and would like to work in that milieu someday.
Conflict with my group-members usually comes because I’m more invested in the outcome than the others. I have more motivation to spend time on it, and a higher standard for "good enough". Even if I think the assignment is stupid, I want to do it properly, partly for grades and partly because I hate not doing things properly. I don’t want to lead the group, because I know I’m terrible at it, but no one else wants to either because they don’t care either way. I end up feeling like a slave driver who isn’t very good at her job.
This time I had a new sort of problem. A group asked me to join them because they thought I was smart and would be a good worker. They set a personal deadline to have the project finished nearly a month before it was due. They had a group meeting, which I couldn’t go to because I was at work, and assigned sections, and sent out an email with an outline. I skimmed the email and put it aside for later, since it seemed less than urgent to me. ...And all of a sudden, at our next meeting, the project was nearly finished. No one had hounded me; they had just gone ahead and done it. Maybe they had a schema in their heads that hounding the non-productive members of the team would lead to drama, but I was offended, because I felt that in my case it wouldn’t have. I would have overridden my policy of doing my work at the last minute, and just gotten it done. It’s not like I didn’t care about our final grade.
My pride was hurt (the way my classmate told me was by looking at my computer screen in the library, where I’d started to do the part assigned to me in the outline, and saying “you might as well not save that, I already did it.”) I didn’t feel like fighting about it, so I emailed the prof and asked if I could do the project on my own instead of with a team. She seemed confused that I wanted to do extra work, but assented.
I didn’t want to do extra work. I wanted to avoid the work of team meetings, team discussions, team drama... But that’s not how real-world research works. Refusing to play their game means I lose an opportunity to improve my teamwork skills, and I’m going to need those someday, and not just the skills acquired through lifeguarding. Either I need to turn off my control-freak need to have things my way, or I need to become charismatic and good at leading groups, and to do either of those things, I need a venue to practice.
Does anyone else here have the same problem I do? Has anyone solved it? Does anyone have tips for ways to improve?
Edit: reply to comment by jwendy, concerning my 'other' kind of problem.
"I probably didn't say enough about it in the article, if you thought it seemed glossed over, but I thought a lot about why this happened at the time, and I was pretty upset (more than I should have been, really, over a school project) and that's why I left the group...because unlike type#2 team members, I actually cared a lotabout making a fair contribution and felt like shit when I hadn't. I never consciously decided to procrastinate, either...I just had a lot of other things on my plate, which is pretty much inevitable during the school year, and all of a sudden, foom!, my part of the project is done because one of the girls was bored on the weekend and had nothing better to do. (Huh? When does this ever happen?)
So I guess I'm like a team #2 member in that I procrastinate when I can get away with it, but like a team#1 member in that I do want to turn in quality work and get an A+. And I want it to my my quality work, not someone else's with my name on it."
I think it was justified to be surprised when the new kind of problem happened to me. If I'm more involved/engaged than all the students I've worked with in the past, that doesn't mean I'm the most engaged, but it does mean I have a schema in my brain for 'no one has their work finished until a week after they say they will'.
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