Expertise & mastery

First draft of an article I’m planning to post on my company’s blog:

When reflecting upon and critiquing performance in situations where key variables are unknown, it is important to analyze it from two perspectives: hindsight and improvisation.

  1. Analysis from the perspective of hindsight asks “Had the unknowns that came to light in the course of events been known ahead of time, what would we have done differently?” The value of hindsight analysis is primarily in developing new forms of expertise — learning to quickly recognize known problems and to respond with established methods.
  2. Analysis from the perspective of improvisation asks “When I find myself in situations with unknown variables in the future, what will I do differently?” The value of improvisational analysis is developing mastery — learning how to respond to novel problems with untried methods, intuitively trying new approaches and adjusting on the fly until favorable results are produced.

In doing these kinds of analysis, it is crucial to stay alert to the fact that unknowns are a permanent feature of practical life, and that no amount of expertise can replace mastery. Internalizing this truth is itself part of mastery.

Expertise and mastery should not be confused or conflated: they are related but distinctly different.

Expertise is about techniques — matters of training in how to do something, following a logical flow. We sharpen technique through repetitive practice. Mastery is improved through the opposite, through exposure to uncomfortable and unfamiliar variety.

Elements of mastery are largely tacit, and involve such fuzzy categories as intuitive depth of understanding of one’s problem space, receptivity to hearing and seeing what people are saying verbally and non-verbally, ability and willingness to shift framings and see things from multiple angles, empathic sensitivity to the interplay of emotion and intellect in individuals and groups, focus on root problems which can change as understanding deepens, emotional self-discipline to stay steady and focused in the face of intense anxiety and chaos, and finally a sense of elevated freedom: knowing and feeling in our bones that we are authorized to do what it takes to solve this problem and liberating ourselves to solve it. It also involves knowing yourself — knowing your own strengths and weaknesses — and knowing others — knowing when other people’s strengths can come to the rescue or where you might be able to come to theirs. If it didn’t have such a ludicrous ring, I’d call these elements “professional wisdom”.

Thought fads

Reading books from the 20th Century, especially from the 60s and 70s, a reader gets the chance to witness how dominated by (and dependent upon) Freudianism many mid-grade intellectuals were. It feels almost desperately reductionistic and and makes writing from that time feel dated. Freudianism is the avocado green and harvest gold of writing. Same with post-structuralist lingo in the 80s and 90s. Pomoisms are the jewel-tone palette of writing.

The writing from now, though, with its comically assclenched identitarian puritanism — that is going to be the laughingstock of the future.

Topics and subjects

I wish I could send Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces back in time to my 33-year-old self. Based on one comment (which I still despise), I’ve had Campbell totally wrong, but this is unsurprising if you remember how etic reading-about/knowing-about is never the same as emic reading/knowing. The former is knowing about a topic, the latter is knowing a subject. Subject here is meant in every sense of the word. Objects are known. Subjects are known-from.

First-person identity

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, and how identity relates to language, specifically to pronouns.

I think I might have a different perspective on identity than some others. It is fascinating to me that so many people naturally think of themselves as a “he”, or as a “she”, or as something between or outside the culturally-defined gender gamut.

This excessive focus on gender seems to me to be distracting us from a much more problematic issue.

When I reflect on my own thinking about myself, it is clear that I have never thought of myself in gendered terms — nor, for that matter, in third-person terms.

Whenever I think of myself, it is always in the first-person. This fact is consistently reflected in my speech: Whenever I refer to myself, I invariably choose the pronouns “I” or “me” or “my”.

However, people invariably ignore these obvious language cues and without asking, presume they can refer to me with second-person and third-person pronouns.

When they do this the implications are impossible to miss. 1) They are assigning me the status of an object of experience in their world, not the experiencing subject of my own world. 2) They are relegating me to the periphery of their awareness — and possibly other people’s awareness as well! — and denying my centrality within my own awareness. 3) Worst of all they render me interchangeable with any number of he-/she-/ze-/they-objects, and in doing so deny the uniqueness of my own self-same identity and perspective.

Not only are these implicit impositions entirely contrary to my self-understanding, they are profoundly disorienting, alienating and threatening.

For all these reasons I am respectfully asking everyone to honor my pronoun preferences, and in the future to address me as I/me/mine.

I am aware that this language change might feel unfamiliar at first, but I assure you that this discomfort is minor compared to the anguish of constantly being made to live among people who refuse to recognize that I am not just some thing or person, but I.

Thank you in advance for your compliance with my choice.

Joseph Campbell (and some weird rambling)

Joseph Campbell’s most famous quote, “follow your bliss”, might really have been a careless remark of an old man well past his prime. For years I refused to take Campbell seriously, and even posed him against an antithetical motto, “follow your angst.” But reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I do not see any hint of facile hedonism, and substantial evidence of tragic insight. He’s another of those thinkers whose Nietzschean inspiration shows through in every sentence he wrote.

If I’d read this book back in 2004, at the height of my mandala obsession, he would have been one of my heroes, because his theme of the hero’s journey is just looping and relooping the path from West to North to East to South and back again to West (or, alternatively, as discussed in the chapter I’m on currently, “refusing the call” and trying to loop back from West to South and paying the steep price for exalting base things over higher destinies. “One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own disoriented psyche. The ways to the gates have all been lost: there is no exit. One can only cling, like Satan, furiously, to one­ self and be in hell; or else break, and be annihilated at last, in God.”)

I don’t think it is any accident that my thoughts are returning to the themes of the early-aughts, because events in my life are feeling like they are rounding a circle and bringing me back to where I was. For one thing, my company has relocated to the same neighborhood where I worked from 2003-2007, and I have returned to cycling the same path to work. Seeing the same scenes has recalled vivid images and I’m accessing memories of thoughts and feelings from that time. Another thing: A generous gift of tea a friend brought home from her travels to the East has inspired me to replace a broken teapot I’d purchased in one of the Chinatowns North of Toronto on a very dark, dry-frozen winter day at the tail-end of 2002. I remember the drive, looking out at myriad identical gray brutalist apartments standing in gray slush under a gray sky against gray air. The gloomy glory of this memory was condensed for me into a yellow, speckled teapot we bought in the tiny tea shop we’d set out that day to find. When the pot was smashed exactly three years later on the way out the door to visit family on Christmas, it had acquired a ruddy glaze from the accumulated layers of tea that had been poured over it in the course of gongfu tea service. The taste of Alishan oolong, and thinking about this legendary lost teapot places me in 2002 and 2003, which was the pivot-point of my life. There are other things, too. Susan has had an awakening of her own, and I am finally having the kind of conversation I’ve desperately needed (begged for, on occasion) for the last sixteen years. Finally — and maybe most crucially — I feel a work-induced crisis nearing. The same weight, the same claustrophobia, the same profound boredom mixed with intense anxiety of the least productive kind, impending soul-balk… I can feel it: there is going to be a summons.

Reading Campbell and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, I’m gaining some still inchoate insight into what is common and what differs between my understanding of religion and other attempts at viewing religion from a non-superstitious angle. Campbell is typical of his times in that he wants to explain the force of religious insight in psychological terms. Hick is less obvious at this point, but I’m detecting an opportunity to “replatform” his comparisons and contrasts of varying religious traditions on a material-turn-informed metaphysics, which I find incredibly difficult to doubt, and only slightly challenging as more nourishing ground for religious faith and practice. I’m sure when I’m done I’ll discover that I’ve only rethought Whitehead and reinstaurated Process Theology, but that’s just how the humiliating method of philosophy works.

I’ve said this a zillion times, and they might even be my own words: Philosophy is an exercise in humiliation.

Philosophical insights can only be known firsthand. Whatever symbols are used in an attempt to convey an insight, they remain incomprehensible until the epiphany comes and insight breathes life into the forms. But when epiphany comes — and it comes only when it decides to, perhaps long after words are heard — you are always the original discoverer of the insight, the first to really understand. If you like that feeling, to the degree you are impervious to loneliness, you are perfectly free to bask in singular, solitary genius forever.

That’s what’s on my mind today.

Hyperanemoic realms

Wikipedia: “Distinct from these cardinal points, the ancient Greeks had four winds (Anemoi). The peoples of early Greece reportedly conceived of only two winds – the winds from the north, known as Boreas, and the winds from the south, known as Notos. But two more winds – Eurus from the east and Zephyrus from the west – were added soon enough.”

I’m digging around the internet looking for names of mythical regions anomalogous to Hyperborea. Why shouldn’t there also be a Hypernotos, Hyperzephyrus — and especially a Hypereurus? )O+


In May 2006 when I wrote the verses below I worked downtown and bike commuted along Edgewood every day. Since my company moved to the same neighborhood, I’ve returned to my old bike route, and pass the location where I witnessed this scene:

The helmeted surgeons
Transplanting the heart of the street
Did not need to return my greeting;
Because I could not see their eyes.
They had the hearts laid out
beside the hole they’d opened
in the sun-softened asphalt;
The old one, chipped and orange,
and the new one, burnished and gray:
Cast-iron conches a man could pick up
and hold in his hands.


Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)


Inducing collective self-actualization

Design Thinking workshops are innovative in the way Multi-Level Marketing conventions are entrepreneurial. These are experiences designed to induce some enticing  collective feeling of self-actualization along some culturally desirable axis.

It is a well-known fact among people who actually create: the larger the group the less anything truly new or good is likely to happen.


Infinite uniquity

Westernized “eastern religion” appears to assume that the divinity within each human soul is identical with that of every other human soul, that what is idiosyncratically personal ought to be dissolved and replaced with blissful universality

But what if the opposite is true? — What is a liberated soul is released from universality and is freed for uniqueness as one of an infinitude of unique organs of divine existence, each with its own position and purpose within an incomprehensibly diverse whole, alike only in the fact of its belonging-in-God and its containment of a universe within its own experience.

It is each of us, each divine spark looking out on creation, that makes any one thing the same as another. Each divine spark creates a world-within-world of likeness and sameness which is unlike any other world.

“Freed for uniqueness” means not only to present or express a unique self but to experience uniquely — to exist in uniquity. Among other implications, this means coloring outside the lines of language: experiencing nameless experiences and respecting them despite (or even more!) for their language-defiance. If we are moved to speech we speak poetically, because this is why poetry happens.

But also “freed for uniqueness” means freedom to relate to other unique being where one asks for relationship. If you have ears to hear it, this happens all the time. Each unique being wants its uniqueness known. But this simple desire asks the world of the would-be knower.

Being freed for uniquity enables us to give the world (our present world) when asked, for the sake of a unique being who asks to be known as unique. This is love.

I am not sure I can say I fully believe this vision, and I’m aware of its self-contadictions, but the beauty of the vision cannot be denied and it has the virtue of presenting an alternative to the intuitions of conventional wiseness. Plus, it would be the most liberal metaphysics possible.

(All this may be nothing more than a rehashing Leibniz’s monadology.)

Deleuze and Guattari on the philosophical trinity

I am trying to understand at least four (possibly) kindred philosophies before I finish and release my own: 1) Deleuze/Guattari, 2) Whitehead, 3) Jaspers and 4) Spinoza.

Deleuze and Guattari’s late collaboration What Is Philosophy? outlines the components of philosophy and the relationships among them as philosophies are brought into existence. There is a lot of useful material here that I suspect might sharpen my own understanding the subjective “objects” of my diagrams and how those subjects relate and interact in the process of intentionally designing philosophies.

The passage below is a relatively clear encapsulation of what I hoped to take from the book, or at least it is clear-ish compared to the rest of the book.

Philosophy presents three elements, each of which its with the other two but must be considered for itself: the prephilosophical plane it must lay out (immanence), the persona or personae it must invent and bring to life (insistence), and the philosophical concepts it must create (consistency). Laying out, inventing, and creating constitute the philosophical trinity — diagrammatic, personalistic, and intensive features.

…Since none of these elements are deduced from the others, there must be coadaptation of the three. The philosophical faculty of coa­daptation, which also regulates the creation of concepts, is called taste. If the laying-out of the plane is called Reason, the invention of personae Imagination, and the creation of concepts Understanding, then taste appears as the triple faculty of the still-undetermined con­cept, of the persona still in limbo, and of the still-transparent plane. That is why it is necessary to create, invent, and lay out, while taste is like the rule of correspondence of the three instances that are diferent in kind.

For a moment I wondered why they didn’t just start with this and develop the ideas on that foundation, but I suppose it would have been opaque if I hadn’t already struggled to make sense of each of the components earlier. It’s one of those necessary difficulties of philosophical writing — in the best philosophy the predicate precedes the subject, often dissolving existing subjects and suspending them prior to resolving them. The protests “what are you even talking about?” or “the words you are using, and way you are talking about that subject is fundamentally off!” or “what is the antecedent to all these damn pronouns you’re flinging about…!?”

Philosophers tend to redefine common words in painfully different ways (and are accused of torturing language), invent new words (and are accused of using technical jargon), or resort to poetic indications of new meanings (and are accused of obscurity and vagueness) — but in all three cases, the objections are in fact to philosophy itself — of being asked to leave an established way of thinking and the language that supports, and reinforces it, in order to inhabit another after a long and painful stretch of trying to get the free-floating, bits and wisps of predicate to coalesce around a cast of subjects!

And I’ll be damned if I’m not finding myself making these protests myself to D&G! Agonizing process, in the most precise meaning of the word.


The closer I get to my own philosophy in the philosophical works I read, the harder the reading becomes.

It might be because these philosophies are pushing far beyond the familiar common experiences that mold the socially-accepted meanings of words, and saying truly new things is intrinsically difficult. But part of me wonders if it is like all proximal differences — between siblings’ ages, differences in social standing, cost differences, balances of pros and cons in a difficult choice, minuscule flaws in the near-perfect — the smaller the difference, the greater the rancor! The smallest discrepancy rankles most!

Maybe this principle helps explain the devastation of the minuscule loss described in these lyrics:

Nothing’s changed 
I still love you, oh, I still love you 
Only slightly, only slightly less than I used to, my love 

Facets of empathy

Working in design research, empathy is one of our primary tools. Reflective practitioners quickly learn where they and their teammates have strengths and weaknesses using empathy to produce understanding.

Continuing this week’s trend of identifying distinctions and creating categories, here’s a list of skills associated with what is commonly called “empathy” and what I prefer to call synesis, which is a form of interpersonal understanding that emphasizes worldviews as much as feelings and which sees understanding, not so much as a receptive act, but as an collaborative instauration (discovering-making) between persons (researcher and informant) within a situation.

  • Reception – detecting signals from an informant that something requires understanding that is not yet understood
  • Reaction – controlling one’s behaviors to permit or encourage signals to emerge
  • Perception – interpreting the signals and sensing what they signify from the perspective of the informant — feeling-with or seeing-with, using whatever immediate signals are available to the researcher
  • Constraint – suspending one’s own perspective in order to make space for the informant’s understanding
  • Response – interacting with the informant to spiral in on understanding whatever truth the informant is trying to convey
  • Immersion – developing a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview and “entertaining” it, or “trying it on” through detecting the validity in the informant’s truths
  • Application – using a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview to participate in understanding with the informant — to attempt understanding of the situation at hand and explaining it in the informant’s terms
  • Approval – iteratively testing applications of understanding with the informant, and continuing to test applications of the informant’s worldview until the explanations are accepted and confirmed by the informant
  • Conception – clarifying, articulating and internalizing the informant’s perspective in terms of other perspectives
  • Collaboration – dialogically working with researchers and informants to craft new concepts capable of earning approval from all persons involved


From this, you can see why the emphasis on emotions — pathos — in the word “empathy” strikes me as impoverished. Synesis (together-being) is a far better word, especially when you take it in the two-fold sense I prefer:

  1. It is putting together the experiences of a situation so they make sense (understanding a situation)
  2. It is using the pursuit of understanding a situation to develop understanding between persons.

So, yes, sensing and feeling the emotions of other’s or intuitively grokking their mindset are crucial skills required for understanding, but empathy must not be confused with understanding. It is only a necessary starting point. Further effort and deeper insights are required to develop empathy into genuine understanding.

Glossary of unattainable ideals

Sunday morning I was talking with Zoe about different varieties of unattainable ideals, and further developing a distinction I made last week, when I criticized altruism for belonging to a misconception of being and relationship that produces ineffective practices and bad results, contrasting it with “impossible” ideals which can never be fully actualized but which are valuable, nonetheless.

Here’s the start of a glossary of unattainable ideals:

Sacred mirage: an impossible end is justified by intrinsically valuable means — so even though the goal is unattainable on principle (that is, progress even toward it is absurd) the effect of pursuing the ideal is intrinsically good.

Asymptotic ideal: an end can never be fully attained, but steady progress toward that end is possible — so the act of pursuing the ideal can be expected to produce value even if perfection is never reached. Rorty’s concept of progress as measured by movement away from a negative ideal is helpful in cases of asymptotic ideal.

Futile ideal: an unattainable end fails to justify means whose value is purely utilitarian — because the value of the means is contingent on attainment of an unattainable goal the act of pursuing the goal is a waste of time and effort.

Corrupt ideal: a misconceived end produces intrinsically harmful means — so, not only is the end impossible, the means employed to obtain it are damaging. A corrupt ideal is an inversion of a sacred mirage, a “desecrating mirage”.


I regard altruism in its myriad forms as a corrupt ideal. It does not produce relationship with real others, but intense feelings toward categories of person who exist primarily in the imagination of the altruist.

I see the illiberal fringes of progressivism as rejecting liberal democracy as a futile ideal, when, in fact, it is an asymptotic ideal, and desiring to replace it with a corrupt ideal, which ultimately undermines their leftism and enthrones them as the elite arbiters of justice according to their own corrupt ideal. The “illiberal left” is not leftist at all, but rather an alt-alt-right who wants to abandon the principles of both liberalism and democracy in order to administer its own moral vision on a majority who does not share their vision (even if they prefer it as a lesser evil to right-illiberalism).

The illiberal fringes of the right also subscribe to a corrupt ideal, antithetical to the left, but antagonistically cooperative with it. I call these antithetical pairings “Ares’s hand-puppets” because they are animated by the same kind of collective hubris that justifies the indignation and retaliation of the other. The illiberal right also pursues an ideal entirely incompatible with liberal democracy, based on scientistic convictions that have nothing to do with science, and which are unacceptable to the majority (even if they prefer it to progressivist-illiberalism).

Liberal democracy, as I said, is an asymptotic ideal, but it also has virtues of a sacred mirage, that is, liberal-democratic practice has life-enhancing virtues apart from the progress it effects, and the more I contemplate it, the more the intrinsic value of the ideal appears to surpass its contingent value. The intrinsic value might even serve as the source of the continent value, in that progress toward the liberal democratic ideal means that increasing numbers of people benefit from the intrinsic value of pursuing the liberal-democratic ideal.


Now that I’ve applied these concepts (informally prototype tested them), I’m seeing opportunities for refinement by categorizing unattainable ideals as having three dimensions:

  1. Practicability (practicable / impracticable): is it possible to progress toward the ideal’s goal?
  2. Intrinsicality (intrinsic / contingent): How much intrinsic value do the means have?
  3. Morality (positive / negative): What is the intrinsic value of the means?