Time for another update on some of the things we’re most excited about from our recent sprints. Last month the headquarters of Life Itself moved from La Cheraille to our beautiful new farmhouse in Bergerac. Rufus, Sylvie, Will and Bethany managed the mammoth task of packing and moving everything from La Cheraille in just two days.
Will, one of our newer team members, was visiting the hub to co-work with Rufus and Sylvie. You might have noticed the excellent updates Will has made to our offerings pages; if you haven’t attended one of our online calls yet, visit our calls page to become part of a wonderful community supporting each other to grow, get s*** done, have transformative insights and develop or deepen creative practices.
We’ve also been busy organising the building festival at Bergerac, which will run from Monday 3rd – Sunday 30th August. We’ll be transforming the farmhouse into a vibrant community space by revitalising the living areas, event spaces and gardens. If you haven’t already booked a ticket, there’s still time! The festival is free to attend and includes free meals and a camping ground with shower facilities.
Volunteers at the festival will spend four hours each day building and bringing the hub to life. The rest of the time might include swimming in the Dordogne river (just a short drive from the farmhouse), participating in workshops, taking part in communal cooking and exploring the surrounding countryside. You can come for any amount of time to build, relax, make meaningful connections and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
During the pandemic it’s been more important than ever for teams to have a supportive structure and sense of community. Petro and Sylvie have been continuing and expanding our organisation consulting this month, supporting the cultural development of organisations to increase teams’ connectedness, focus and clarity.
We’re also delighted to be curating and hosting the Untitled Imaginary Society forum, which will welcoming the multidisciplinary artist duo VestandPage on the 3rd September.
VestandPage will lead an evening called ‘Changing the Gaze: Moving beyond anthropocentric imaginaries’ during which they will share their artistic and poetic practices. There will also be breakout discussions in the group to explore the possibilities their work inspires for how we can listen, see and imagine differently to move beyond an anthropocentric view.
This month Liam has been working on setting up events around his work on ‘The Equality Complex.’ The highlight for him has been running an event inquiring into the role of equality in morality and culture, whether moralistic judgement of others has become a replacement for love in pursuing a better world, and whether this is truly the way to justice. If you missed it, you can still watch a recording of the event. Liam is running a followup event on skillful communication and ‘cancel culture,’ so keep an eye on our site to book a place in the near future!
Having spent 10 years working in financial markets for different investment banks, he has has now taken a complete 180 to become a (Maths) teacher. His vision is to use that as a stepping stone to open an innovative new school in the UK. He has traded working with UK Pension Schemes and Asset managers, for a 90% pay cut and working with teenagers. Indeed, his ex-colleagues think he may have gone mad.
Over the past year he has been immersed in the world of Education, absorbing the latest cognitive science of learning [which is coming Straight Outta’ Stanford], developments in edTech and fast moving tectonic plates in education policy. He would like to share with us the things he has learnt over the past year and his views on how education is on the cusp of a major revolution.
Join us for a conversation covering how schools are only at the beginning of their journey in preparing pupils with the skills they need to thrive in 21st century.
When you book, you shall be sent a Zoom link to access the Salon.
On Sunday 19th July at 3pm BST, we are thrilled to welcome Dr Liam Kavanagh, our Director of the Life Itself Institute. On the back of his ground-breaking paper on Collective Wisdom, this Sunday he will take one extract from it: The Equality Complex and discuss with you, our community. This is a Salon not to be missed. Here, Liam introduces this topic.
Equality is not a source of suffering but the equality complex is
Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh
We all say we want to be equals, but nobody wants to be average; in fact we want to distinguish ourselves in all ways, including morally. This involves treating others more equally than the next person does. This is an obvious contradiction woven into Western moral life. Being less egotistical is one helpful way of relieving the resulting tension, but in this talk I suggest a complementary, though taboo, route.
We can recognise that ideals of equality offer an amazingly effective moral ‘rule of thumb’ often pointing the way to desirable outcomes, but have, unhealthily, become enshrined as the truth, taboo to even question. They have also become a very unsatisfactory substitute for compassion and love, which in more ‘spiritual’ times were the center of moral life.
However much ideals of equality have done for us, they are still only an ideal, an intellectualisation. No ideal can guide us cleanly through all moral decisions (can smokers and non-smokers have equal rights on a train car?) No ideal gives us the ability to actually live up to those actions they do guide us towards (such as sharing our wealth). Ideals are also a basis for psychological violence. Relationship psychologists have long said tell us that non-verbal contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship dysfunction, perhaps the turbulence in our social compact could have been anticipated long ago from this basis. I will invite discussion of the equality complex’s role in this dynamic.
This August, help us transform an underloved farmhouse into a bustling community hub in the beautiful south of France. Moments from the acclaimed Buddhist monastery Plum Village, our Bergerac hub will become a home for the community, complete with accomodation, event space, and garden. But we need your help!
WHEN: Monday 3rd – Sunday 30th August 2020. Come anytime, and stay for as little or as long as you want!
WHERE: Life Itself Bergerac Hub, Thenac, France 24240 (Map)
At Life Itself we organise our time into fortnightly sprints. This means we make plans together of what we’ll achieve every fortnight, and we update each other as a group on what we’ve been up to after each sprint. We decided that we’d like to involve you — our wonderful readers, members and supporters — and share some highlights of what we got up to during the last sprint.
It’s been a particularly exciting two weeks, because as you may have noticed we’ve had a rebrand, and are now Life Itself! Sylvie has done an amazing job with the new logo — it takes serious creativity and dedication to design something a whole team agrees is awesome — and we think it really captures the commitment to freedom and growth which characterise the Life Itself vision.
One of the major projects happening at Life Itself at the moment is the renovation of our new hub in Bergerac, France.
The highlight of the fortnight for Sylvie has been collecting the keys for the hub and starting the renovation.
You can see the Bergerac hub from the air here 🙂
This week Liam has been busy setting up and recording dialogues between Plum Village Monastics and neuroscientists as part of an upcoming online retreat hosted by Plum Village.
The highlight was an online tea with the monastics and neuroscientists involved in the retreat. Liam said:
We discussed the creation of a balance between contemplative and neuroscientific approaches to understanding the mind so that neither felt it could eliminate the other. Both sides were eager to speak more
Petronella and Sylvie have continued to hold Getting S*** Done calls, and places have been in high demand.
The new Write your Autobiography class has also launched. Every Wednesday, participants come together to share stories from their past, explore how these stories affect their present day decisions and write their own stories for the future.
Petronella shared her enjoyment at seeing people she has known in the past getting involved in Life Itself calls and community hubs:
Looking at the spaces that had the fertile soil that transformed my life is unsurprisingly where people who are excited by Life Itself are coming from.
Petronella, Expert in Getting S*** Done and Making Dreams Reality
The changes to normal working patterns and locations caused by lockdown have meant we’ve been working with organisations more, sharing our cultural practices to offer support and accountability for staff who are remote, especially those working from home for the first time.
The Berlin hub also hosted its first workshop, ‘How Do Systems Die Well and with Grace?’ organised by our wonderful Berlin hub member Jacques with the support of the hub manager Patrick, who we’re thrilled to have as a new member of the team — we know he’s going to help make the Berlin hub a huge success along with its amazing residents.
Here’s a summary of the focus of the workshop:
We are living in a time of transition. The fact that the systems we build are no longer serving humanity and the larger web of life on this planet is clear and plain to see. That means on the one hand that we have to build alternative systems that are serving life better and that help to sustain and regenerate the resources that are needed to let life flourish on this planet. That also means that we have to let the institutions, organisations and habits that are no longer serving us die. In natural systems, dying involves the disintegration, the unraveling of a system into its components, so that these can nourish and be integrated in a new system to arise.
We’re looking forward to multiple other events being hosted in the hub’s shared space in the near future, from movie nights and lectures to contemplative workshops and activism meetings. If you want to find out about future events you can follow the Berlin hub instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/lifeitselfberlin/
Sit beside me: I am in a circle in the back room of a small pub in North Oxford, under the shelter of a giant copper beech. Spring is unfurling its leaves. A man is talking. His name is Edward and he is the oldest person in the room, the unofficial guardian of the ancient common ground of Port Meadow. Edward is describing how at ‘rainbow gatherings’ people sit in council to come to a unified conclusion about how to proceed, how it differs from our combative democratic process.
‘What happens if they don’t all agree?’ I ask, rather defensively. There was a pause. ‘They wait until they do,’ he smiled. ‘Sometimes it takes days.’
I am not in my usual territory. Yesterday I found a notice on a lamppost that invited people to meet and discuss ways to prevent the building of hundreds of new houses alongside the leafy canal and its wastelands. Join in! declared the notice and my curiosity got the better of me. I don’t know this yet but I am about to shift position, from being an individual seeker on the road to being a community activist, rooted in place, a move that will define my life for the next fifteen years.
Sitting with the trouble and waiting for a solution to emerge however is something I do know. I know it from being a writer, and from working with medicine plants and dreams. I have been sitting with this essay, this subject, since the goat willows went into bloom and now the hawthorn hedges are at their height. I wanted to write something useful in these times of lockdown and uncertainty, to share practices from those years that might help others navigate this unknown territory. I’ve been sitting with this title, staring at the blank screen, or the pages of a blue notebook, as the cherry blossom drifts around this garden. I used to be able to write as soon as my fingers touched a keyboard. Sentences would tumble beautifully out of nowhere. Now they don’t. Sometimes in my life, when words stopped coming, it signalled a move of position. So, even though I don’t like to admit it, I know something inside me is trying to shift. I can only wait and watch the spring.
There is a scene in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Kean where the famous 19th century actor faces an existential crisis but he cannot find the right way to deal with it. As he stomps around the stage, he strikes different poses and each time finds himself in another Shakespearen character: Hamlet, Lear, Richard III. All of them from plays in which he starred. He can’t get to the man because the actor is in the way.
When things shift you throw off the costumes, nervous that perhaps there is nothing beside the roles you have identified with all your life. You start new paragraphs but they all sound dead and disjointed. You wince at the sound of your own voice. In the absence of the script you know by heart, questions come in you don’t want to face: who are you, what is your value, what are you doing here? Do people care what you think? Are you even a writer at all?
The dreaming practice
Before I joined that circle in Oxford and began to campaign for the neighbourhood’s wild and feral spaces, I worked with dreams, exploring them using a method called the five levels. The practice is simple. You tell the dream to your dreaming partner, asking the questions: what does this say about my daily life, my biographical life, my self on the social level, on the mythological level and from the perspective of the Earth? You tell the dream out loud. The visitor to the dream listens and can ask questions but only to prompt the dreamer to go deeper into the dream. Not as an inquirer, but as a fellow explorer. As you do the territory opens out between you; you discover its language, its topography, its mood. Something catches your eye, you both look at it and it opens up like a flower. It could be an object, a detail, or a feeling. Mostly though it is a position. Mostly it is a position where you are stuck or held against your will.
The visitor keeps asking: why are you stuck in the jaws of that alligator? I can’t move, you reply. Except that now you can, now you are outside the dream, as well as in it. You are no longer six years old. You can open your mouth, where in the dream you could not. Dreams, you have learned, flee from analysis. Given time however, as you weather their difficulty and speak what you feel out loud, they reveal everything. Agency is returned.
Even though we were stuck in the ‘nightmare of history’, we realised if you placed attention on the underlying darkness of our collective lives, we could learn to free ourselves and the world. Each dream is carefully shaped to fit everyone’s personal legacies, and yet all of them at some point reveal a small child, the heart, stuck in the jaws of an alligator, needing your liberating gaze. Our lives are pivoted around these events and replayed over time. You want to know why you are trapped, what the alligator means, but you learn to quieten the mind’s inquiry. You’re waiting for another kind of intelligence to kick in. What matters is making the move from a stuck place into a fluid open one. Sitting within the dream means waiting until that move is clear, and then making it. The feeling is what invites the dream to reveal itself.
There was a point in dreaming practice with others where the dialogue often became stuck: the moment when your perception needed to shift from the biographical level to the collective level. People could explore the mythological and the Earth level, but when they were invited to see themselves as a social being, as one of the collective, they closed down. When I became a community activist, I realised that even though people were talking about community, they were talking from an individual position, from a small me, rather than a collective we. The circles we held were not about coming to a conclusion in a group but about listening to a series of individuals being paid attention to by others, sometimes for the first time. Invisibly, we were surrounded by alligators and terrified children. We were set on changing the world, the food systems, the energy systems, our governance, but no one was dealing with those snapping jaws. They were not even seen.
To come to a conclusion means you need time and commitment. If there is intention that you are doing something together, you can weather the storm that comes when people who sit in a circle in council decide to do something that is contrary to the status quo. This is not difficult in the sense of organisation, of making actions, even of getting on with several prickly strangers who think they have a better idea than you. What is difficult is negotiating with the invisible forces our culture has no ways of naming. Even though these threats of violence are felt palpably in the room, even though we know in our minds about the nightmare – our long history of servitude, the rulers who hold our hearts in their claws – we find it difficult to admit their influence on our human lives. We lack the language and the techne to deal with their dragonish behaviors, especially when they come out of our mouths in argument. When terror stalks the room and the children who might tell us what is happening fall silent.
Even when we sought advice on how to deal with the fall outs and ‘storming’ that befall all grassroots groups when the start-up honeymoon period ends, we were told to go to psychologists or conflict resolution experts, as if these divisions were a personal defect, rather than an encounter with the shadow forces of civilisation. But from the practice I knew that to withstand the push back from the conventional world, the feudal hierarchies that still rule the world within and without us, another kind of contract was needed.
Then one day I stumbled upon two books I had loved as a child: one of English fairy tales and another of Greek and Roman myths. In these old familiar texts, I found the lexicon I was looking for. And, as if my life were a dreaming practice itself, I found myself moving from the social to the mythological level.
The boy with the strange haircut
The boy is not a god but a daemon. But when he enters the room, the winds of heaven blow through your house, throwing your desk papers into the air. Startled, you look outside the window and feel the enclosing walls around you. You find yourself in time’s prison. He crosses your path at strategic points, a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, interrupting a line made by the old timelord Chronos with his relentless ticking clock and calendars. You stop, and time opens up, revealing past, present and future all at once. Suddenly you realise you can take a different direction.
Like all daemons, embodiments of the human condition, Kairos, the force of destiny arrives in a moment of crisis, unexpected. His moment of appearance is quick and you have to seize him by the forelock. If you hesitate, the time for that split-second all-moments-now encounter will be gone. You will lunge to grab him from behind, but your hands will slide down the back of his smooth shaven neck. You will fall back into linear time.
Afterwards you have to make time to realise what has happened and integrate that all-at-once time into everyday life. When the pandemic interrupted our Chronos-ruled civilisation, the official story of progress, by which we have measured our worth, was revealed to bear false promise, and although the forces of empire rally to continue to broadcast its all-powerful narrative, although these mortgaged walls still hold us, we now know there is a place outside this house of history and a road that leads to nowhere we have gone before, yet feels like home.
When the merry-go-round stops
Last summer behind the pier in Southwold one rainy afternoon, I heard a familiar tune and found myself following it. It was the sound of a merry-go-round, the old fashioned kind with gaily-painted horses and curly Victorian lettering. Two children in anoraks were riding the coloured wooden creatures, as they went up and down, as their parents called out to them and waved. The fairground hand scowled bitterly at the rain and his lack of customers.
I watched entranced for a moment, pretending it was merrier than it was. The song had pulled me somewhere wistful. A sadness washed over me. It sounded like an old Nina Rota film score, or the kind of plangent accordion music you used to hear in Paris, and maybe still can. Loss. Times I had and wouldn’t find again. A tear fell down my cheek.
Why are you crying, for no reason? I asked myself sharply. As if a force pushed me away, I turned and headed swiftly home. Something inside me had shuddered. The song was taking me into a dead end, into a timeless realm where everything keeps going round in a circle.
When Childe Roland goes widdershins into Elfland to rescue his sister, Burd Helen, he is given his father’s sword and instructions not to eat or drink anything there. If you speak to anyone you need to cut off their heads. When the boy asks the way to the Dark Tower from two herdsmen and a henwife, he cuts their head off – and in some versions, Burd Helen’s as well – and breaks the elven spell. In the old Scottish tales if you were lured by music under the fairyhill you were warned not to tarry, for you would never return to Earth. You had to leave a nail in the door of the hillside, so you might break out of the dancing ring and find your way back again.
The lockdown was that nail in the door, it was the quick boy at the crossroads, the sword that can cut us away from the enchantments we are trapped in: the nostalgias of nations, of lost times of Blitz spirit and suburban post-war paradises, when victory was assured, when our status as superior human beings shone with an Olympian light. You could dismiss the merry-go-round as a mere glamour or entertainment, but that would be to ignore the power of the music’s spell, the desire to be somewhere apart from this present moment, away from the tedium and threats of an industrialised life. It would be to forget the manufacturers of fairground rides and their scowling mechanics. Those who warp time and take it out of the realm of the heart.
In this pause, alongside the death and suffering the pandemic brought, there was also the possibility that Kairos awakens. For months the borders to our neverlands of celebrities and stars, of parties and festivals, theatres and concerts, of cruises and holidays in the sun, were closed. Instead, partners and families spent time together and had to make their own amusement, while the pressure to be somewhere else at all times disappeared. The time of the heart, where all things can be considered, replaced the rush of 24/7 culture where nothing can be. Our fellow workers became the people we cared about, we heard birdsong as if for the first time. Goats and deer and sheep roamed through the empty streets. On laptops and phones, we realised we were all ordinary people in ordinary rooms, sharing the same crisis. As politicians still strove to divide and conquer us, to push their nation’s illustrious story ahead of everyone else’s, we still felt for the people we did not know on the other side of the world. We still longed for mountains when we could not climb them, enjoyed the quietness of a spring without traffic, and the blue untrammelled sky.
As everything is rushed to return to ‘normal’, you feel pushed to get back on schedule again but something in you hesitates. Something in you has stopped. Once where there had been a great noise now there is a kind of silence.
In my community activism years, I was part of a small theatre group in Norwich. One day, rehearsing for an Earth Day performance, we picked different futures out of a hat and improvised who we were and what had happened between 2010 and 2110. Some of the futures were already mapped — the dystopian, the techno-fixed – but some were not. Mine was Unknown Quantity. When I took the stage I found myself saying: one day people just stopped and started to do something completely different.
For thousands of years the merry-go-round of civilisation has whirled ceaselessly – the wheel of fortune, the wheel of karma, the wheels of commerce and capitalism. It whirls generations round in a frenzy of speed, music and colour. It seems like everything happens at that funfair: everything fashionable, interesting, important. Relinquish the wheel, advises the Buddha. Don’t linger in fairyland, warn the ancestors. It’s all an illusion. But no one takes any notice. The pace of our lives is tempered by that glittering speed. We are compelled to go faster, bigger, buy more houses, more clothes, more holidays, more movies, more machines, more cake. If we step off the ledge for one moment we can’t wait for our next turn on that great production line.
The world is made of that speed and that drive. The drive of the will to succeed, to overcome, to conquer. The force runs rampage over the globe, through all our lives like Alexander. We drink to keep up with it, always late, on a perpetual deadline. 24/7. We cut corners, skip facts, betray our friends, forget the green world outside the window. We are restless, never satisfied, never sure what we want, looking over our shoulder for the powerful people, to be invited to the right party, to wear the perfect suit, to walk with the gods. We fight time and nature with that drive, with our passionate intensity, our desire to escape into all the fun and fantasy of the fair.
We are holding that drive, that inhuman artificial energy, in our bodies and sometimes those bodies, those minds, break down.
Sometimes Kairos crosses our path and we real human beings break through. A moment when we align ourselves with everything else on Earth and powerdown. The drive stops suddenly, the way going to night-clubs once stopped when you were young. You wake up and you can’t do it anymore. It’s not that you decided to. It just happened: it happens because something else has begun to go on in your house, in the neighbourhood, something our unkind minds and ruthless wills had not considered. A harmonious way of doing things, of engaging in the world, that affects our inner and outer lives in ways we never imagined. Focusing on the small things of daily life and the kindness that can exist between people. Remembering what really matters about being alive on the planet.
The uneasy chair
There is a writing class I teach called The Uneasy Chair. The Uneasy Chair is not about becoming a professional writer, but about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, involving collaboration and time and imagination. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, in this chair, which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to find their true material. You don’t want to sit there of course, but you don’t get the story if you don’t. This is the dual position where you sit in the chair and experience everything going down in the room, and also stand behind the chair, directing and making sense of what you-in-the-chair are experiencing. All chair, and you lose the plot, all observer, and you lose the reader.
The lockdown interrupted our lives like a koan and discombobulated time. We still hold its hermetic effects within us, even as the doors open, as children run out to play around the deserted fountains and broad walks of European cities. It has begun a process past seekers might recognise as alchemy, not of the individual soul, but of the collective. We live in small spaces, like battery hens, but feel more connected to the people and planet outside than ever before, to the birds and the mountains showing their snowy faces for the first time in decades. The more we are held tight in our crucibles, the more our imagination reaches out, the more we remember, the more we reach out to touch others in our longing. The paradox of the hermitage and monk’s cell. Of not moving and yet moving.
The old gods and governments of course, do not want us to sit with the trouble, to consider this paradox, to reach out to our fellows in what Jeremy Rifkin calls the shift towards an empathic civilisation, where we become biospheric, in tune with the planet and all its denizens. When the individualist ‘psychological’ dynamic of the 20th century cedes to the ‘dramaturgical’ age of the 21st, and we are able to step into another’s shoes and feel their joy and suffering because we have not denied our own.
Even if these controllers of our destinies, push us back towards the factory lines and depots and the merry-go-round cranks up for its summer season, we have stepped into those pivotal roles already, seeing ourselves as players within a global plague tragedy, whose small scenes are enacted each day on screen in our kitchen-sink theatres. The chorus and spear carriers, all who have been standing in the wings, have taken the stage. We cheered them from the balconies.
Once you have seen, you cannot unsee. Once you have sat with the trouble and withstood the drive that forces you out of your heart, out of that uneasy chair, you do not rush to ride the carousel again. You can see what lies outside the door. You remember how it feels not to be alone, even when you were alone.
One fine day
I have sat with this essay since the lockdown began, as if trapped in its very title. It wouldn’t move, the door would not open and the sentences did not tie up. Then I remembered how it is when you visit a plant or a place and try to discern its dreaming, You can’t do that until the visit is over, when you look back with what the writer about history and myth, Robert Calasso calls, the douceur of time. I was still in the chair, experiencing what it felt like to undergo the uncertainty I had been writing about from behind it for a decade. Then today a scene came back to me and I realised that the door was already ajar. Because there is a third position in the uneasy chair teaching that can make writing protean, which is to say, connected to life beyond your self. I call it the eagle’s position, where you fly up and perceive those small moves you make in your practice and see how they affect the fabric of the world.
Follow me: I am cycling one early May morning across the harbour bridge, over the river flowing seawards, towards the sleeping village of Walberswick. Along the ridge path towards the marshes, barley fields either side of me, and the sea dark blue in the distance, listening out for nightingales in their thorny gorse fastness, singing up the dawn. I am walking towards the sea, through the wavy reeds, toward the sun rising and the light glancing off the water like a mirror. I am running into the bone-cold salty waves, into the light. There is space all around and singing, immense blue sky, horizon. I open my arms and breathe deep.
I am imagining the people I know in lockdown in London, dreaming of the wide spaces of Montana, of swimming places they cannot go, the lidos and lakes, of the artist who stood in the crematorium alone with her dead husband, without mourners or celebration, of the sick women who struggle to recover, of all the people I don’t know in places where I once loved to go – in Venice, in New York, in the city of Guayaquil by the Pacific ocean. I am remembering how it has been down at the harbour for the past months without visitors, with only the local people walking along the river, towards the bluebell woods in the evenings, the fishermen and boatmen working in a landscape you have only seen in an 18th century painting, standing in the deserted town streets, like a 1970’s sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. How everyone has been greeting each other and waving in the lanes, how a part of us doesn’t want this present moment to end.
I wish I had learned when I was in those gnarly grassroots meetings that what really matters is not how we deal with power or find reparation (which we never could) but how to be able bring this space of light and air into those constricted spaces. Because exposed to this sunlight and fresh air, in this sense of expanded time and connection, the invisible forms that have governed our every move for aeons have no power over us. We thought for years our enthusiasm, our well-meaning natures, would be able to bring a different future into play but we forgot the will that drives the ancient machinery forward, that fuels the whirligig culture: our unconscious snarling dragonish selves. Our hearts were not strong enough on their own. We needed our free wills to make that move.
There is a deal you make with life. We made it a long time ago with the beasts and the plants, only our civilisations buried it in sand to further their own interests. For a long time I was not sure how we could remember this deal together. I was waiting for the perfect group, the right time, the right place. And then I realised it didn’t matter. Because I was already in contact with the people. They were just not on the beach standing beside me.
What I wanted to say in those classes and councils and never could, was that we endure the uneasy chair, the exigencies of the crucible, to remember this deal. How this remembering can cohere the fragmentation of the collective we see and feel all around us – its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. We do it to remember what was embedded in those ancient stories, once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. We do it to liberate our fellows, trapped in the small places. We do it for the luminous planet that hosts us. So we can finally all find our way home.
Rabbit holes, rabbit holes everywhere. Which one to go down?
“Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waist-coat-pocket or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
Some questions that I have: What is Denial? How to explore the relational aspects of it (Denial seems to only exist in relation to something, Truth? Our image of ourselves, or others)? What is denial at different levels of scale? -What am I in denial of? -What is collective denial?
Living with a philosopher is a stretch at times. But to explore something as sprawling and intricate denial, it can be useful. But it might be a rabbit hole. A long diversion that leads nowhere, or just takes you back to where you started.
I am going down some rabbit holes – please follow!
“ Well !” thought Alice to herself, “ after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs!
What is Denial? Denial might be a spectrum of responses ranging from outright mendacity (which arguably might not be denial as its volitional) to a deeply unconscious inability to see what is true, what other people are seeing, to engage with denial. At one end we choose to lie, and at the other we adopt a stance or attitude as a result of a nexus of thoughts and feelings outside of our conscious awareness. One we can control one end of that spectrum but the other end not. Mendacity requires will and the freedom to lie, the other end is an inability, or maybe unwillingness to be conscious. And we become victims to our unexamined selves; Oedipalian tragic figures.
All of this requires that we accept that we have some kind of control over ourselves and our lives, either personally or collectively. Free will exists in other words. Which may or may not be true.
There are many problems with all of these concepts. Like that we individually are free, we have free will, we can choose to be in denial or not, and that we have a self, and that self can choose. Is there such a thing as a self? Or are we a relational web of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in a relational web to other points of consciousness? The self, at least in the absolute, non duality sense, does not exist. And I see myself as a blend of duality and non duality. With a range and spectrum of thoughts and feelings some of which originate in my experience of oneness, and the other in duality or the relative as opposed to the absolute. My experience of ‘I’ is almost certainly an intersection of and continuous flow of experiences of duality and non duality.
However I am mostly in denial that there is no self that I am. I mostly assume that I am not of the Oneness which always is in any case. I ma curious how other feel about this part of themselves?
“The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence : at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. “Who are you ?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
Why would I be ‘in denial’? Why would anyone be ‘in denial’? Either we have not examined a part of ourselves which remains outside of our conscious awareness, or because we have a need to belong. Or maybe we have an idealised view of ourselves which we want to maintain, and being racist or sexist, for instance, doesn’t fit with that image. Maybe belonging to our tribe demands that we are racist, or that we deny that climate change is real. Maybe our lives are comfortable. It is usually those in power, or a most benefiting, who are in denial of the problems our system is causing. Denial caused by privilege, one might call it. Denial allows us to develop identity, or to create and maintain our belonging to our tribe. Otherwise what would be the point?
What am I in denial of? Personally, me Naresh, am in denial of my racism, sexism for sure. I treat women and black people differently to white people or men, have different sets of relationships to them. I am also in denial of my death, I don’t want to see any vulnerability in myself. I am in denial of my age. I think I have control over many things I do not such as my choices in life, what I do, how I eat and my relationships. I think I am an individual, when I am not. And I think of myself as real, a thing, when I am not. I think I am in control or that control is possible.
There are probably many ways I am in denial, many things about denial that I do not understand, can’t articulate, or are unaware of. There are many things that I cannot see without someone else’s help. That is one reason why a sangha is important. I do not sit well and mindfully with my pain and suffering. In other words I distract myself from it much of the time. I am unaware of thoughts and feelings that go on in me, just beyond the edge of consciousness. I know this because I sometimes catch them either in the moment of later, in the quiet moments of contemplative reflection. The only way I can live the life I do is to remain in various states of denial. If I want to change how I live, my denial pattern has to change.
“ Come back !” the Caterpillar called after her. “I’ve something important to say !” This sounded promising, certainly : Alice turned and came back again. “Keep your temper,” said the Caterpillar. “ Is that all ?” said Alice, swallowing down her anger as well as she could. “No,” said the Caterpillar. Alice thought she might as well wait, as she had nothing else to do, and perhaps after all it might tell her something worth hearing. For some minutes it puffed away without speaking, but at last it unfolded its arms, took the hookah out of its mouth again, and said, “So you think you’re changed, do you ?”
Ah well. Change, denial, self, non duality, consciousness… all of these concepts are swimming around in my awareness. And to what end, to what purpose? Rabbit holes that get me no where, or useful signposts on my journey- and maybe your’s? Denial appears to be one of the blocks to knowing ourselves; a state of consciousness that holds us but doesn’t permit movement. It is a point of stasis, like a coma that can facilitate healing, or maybe a long slow death.
We are proposing that contemplative awareness, skills and practices can inform our responses to our collective cultural process of deep and lasting change.
We set out some of our initial ideas in our first paper. Here we are exploring in more depth that some of the proposals might mean.
There are some ways in which contemplatives have engaged with the world that can inform our ability to live in difficult times, to frame and shift how we hold and engage with our collective processes. For instance, the ability to be with suffering, and embracing our suffering as a part of life rather something that we feel we must avoid or prevent. Realising that it is often our resistance to our suffering that is so painful, and that sufferings embrace is the first step toward transforming that suffering into something else. This is a key insight from contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, that provides a real reason for that suffering, a pathway out of that suffering, and makes the possibility of a transcendent realignment of the self as a result of sitting with and allowing that suffering to be. Imagine a society where this was a common and accepted practice. Imagine collective rituals of embracing suffering. Imagine the possibility for collective action springing out of that ritual space.
It is also clear that there are many individual ways to hold and be with ourselves that the contemplative life enables. One such way is nothing more that being with ‘what is’, rather than seeking to find ways to avoid or hide from ‘what is’. This being with rather than hiding from or avoiding is almost certainly the first step in any contemplative life. It is probably the fundamental way as from this first step, a whole life’s worth of insights and competencies arise. It is the gateway to the mystery which we are both afraid of and so attracted to.
What does it mean: ‘Holding our current situation within contemplative awareness so as to accept where we are with enough depth and solidity to see how to respond?’
What is contemplative awareness?
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the opening lines of Being Peace, “Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby… life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.”
It is being able to hold without having to resolve contradictions and paradoxes. It is being able to look at sets of beliefs for instance and find ways through them using for instance Byron Katie’s 4 questions:
Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?
Contemplatives and spiritual teachers have come to the conclusion that it is not our objective situation that makes it hard to know where to go or how to act, but our beliefs around that situation or our thoughts and beliefs that limit our ability to respond.
In The Will to Meaning, Victor Frankl notes that “logotherapy aims to unlock the will to meaning in life.” That the lack of meaning in life often leads people to respond by adopting hedonistic pursuits, consumerism, power, hatred, boredom, compulsions or obsessions. And that meaning was found through deeds, the experience of values through some kind of medium (beauty through art, love through a relationship, etc.) or suffering.
Dr. Susanne C. Moser concludes, “..the leaders of the future will face not just new, more difficult, and more pervasive environmental challenges than past and present leaders do, but will need to be adept in a range of psychological, social, and political skills to navigate the inevitable human crises that will precede, trigger, and follow environmental ones. Future leaders will need to be not just experts in climate change, or a particular environmental field, but be capable of holding that which is happening to and in our world. They will need to mentor, guide, and assist people in processing enormous losses, human distress, constant crises, and the seemingly endless need to remain engaged in the task of maintaining, restoring, and rebuilding—despite all setbacks—a viable planet, the only place the human species can call its home.”
This type of leadership which involves mentoring and holding people in their emotional turmoil is one which will come to the fore as it will be the most viable way to create the transformational civilisation that can allow for large scale collective intelligence to emerge from a ground of being firmly rooted in our social, political, and most importantly our ecological reality.
Preparing for the death of our way of life.
How to do this at a social scale?
The first part is to come to terms with the loss we personally feel, our personal experiences. If we can’t put our oxygen mask on first, we can’t help others with theirs.
In our Deep Dive into Deep Adaptation, it became clear that one of the first steps was to accept and acknowledge our privilege. For myself, I have lived in an enormously privileged position in life and in the society I have lived in.
The main message of the Transition movement was that deep changes were needed, almost unthinkable changes, like a completely different economic system, and big, big personal lifestyle changes. And then, if we created an orderly energy descent (in ‘Western lifestyles’) we just might be able to retain some of our Western lifestyle. What was said, but unspoken, was that those of us living Western middle class lifestyles might if we were lucky retain at least some of the privileges we enjoy. This will be a controversial assessment to many, please forgive me. But, many have wondered why Transition was a middle class movement… At any rate this invitation was refused.
Now XR have come along with a much more unappealing proposition; completely change everything about our lives, very rapidly and unless we do that we face not just the end of our civilisation, but possible extinction. XR are saying this because the science demands it. It may be politically difficult if not impossible, but physics trumps politics. Science is all we have to rely on; it is the closest thing we have to collective truth.
We are not able to imagine a voluntary end to the present systems, or capitalism. “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek.
We in the Western world cannot come to terms with or see that giving up our privilege and power is necessary. We cannot image that at a mass scale. I am imagining that others not so privileged folks find imagining the end of the current system a lot easier, and the less privilege the easier it gets, The closer to the extractive ‘coal face’ the easier it is.
But imagine it we must and at a mass scale. Our civilisation is dead. There are those who don’t agree of course. But if we take this view, then there is much work to be done that contemplatives can help us with. As we said in our paper, Stephen Bachelor in Alone With Others describes this very clearly, “What is life? How are the potentials of life to be actualised? What is the purpose and meaning of life? These are all questions that gradually formulate themselves in this unstructured region (the region of being as opposed to having and doing) which is slowly disclosing itself to us[as we live our lives]…. In any case we are impelled to find a concrete framework which a set of satisfying answers is provided. The various religions of the world are in fact systematic formulations of the answers to these questions.”
So the first step it seems is to come to terms with death; our own and that of our civilisation. It is to practice radical non attachment. The giving up and letting go. The release of everything we can possibly let go of. Typically that relinquishment was a preparation or a step in a phase of a journey to enlightenment. The giving up of everything that is not the true self or the self. All that which masquerades as the self but is not might be termed the personality structures. These are pieces of ‘false self’ or ego structures which are nothing more that beliefs and thought constructions which are not us. The gaze of the self reveals them to be in fact non existent or not real (although in the paradox of humanness, in so far as we act as if they are real, they are. When in fact they are not). So in the process of relinquishment of the false self or our personality structures which when identified with become the apparent self, we lose nothing and gain everything.
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.
If we take this as one aspect of a personal practice in a journey towards self realisation or attainment of oneness, how can we frame relinquishment in societal wide terms?
There has been narrative that what we can make if we put our minds to it could be infinitely better than what we have now for most people (except perhaps the 1%). If we create an economic system for instance that is aligned around providing fulfilment, or happiness, or wellbeing rather that profit maximisation, then we can do lots better. The framework of Manford Max Neef is a compelling proposition that might go some way to towards meeting this kind of society. There is also Kate Raworth’s Donut economics, and the solidarity economy. There are many possibilities for change and reform which do not demand relinquishment, except for the clearly dysfunctional current system.
But what if we are going to have to relinquish our way of life, which unless we radically and swiftly change our way of life, which in itself will be relinquishment, we will lose. We will lose it one way or another. The only difference is that by voluntarily relinquishing our way of life we have the possibility of holding onto some vestige of civilisation of some sort. If we do not there is no hope that our social, economic, and political systems can cope with the scalar of change and even the most technologically optimistic cannot begin to image the invention and rapid deployment of what we would need to continue on as life gets harder and harder for more and more, and with an steadily decreasing resource base to meet those needs.
What can contemplatives tell us at a civilisational scale of living about relinquishment? There are the many stories of Native Americans who successfully enabled their culture to die and to be reborn in a new form. The process of cultural death and resurrection could hold many important insights for todays changes, and process of loss and rebirth.
Loss of everything then begs the question “what to keep from this civilisation if anything?” And how to keep it?
The earlier discussion on loss of personality and embrace of the true self or the self contains some important insights at a spiritual level. There is of course the material level which contemplatives might have much less to say. But on a spiritual level if we take the way of contemplatives as that we can only give away the personality and what remains cannot be taken from us. This is one of the understandings of Vitor Frankl, as of course many others. We cannot lose our true self. An apparent loss is not loss. We lose what our personality structures, or the apparent reality that we construct from those structures.
When looked at from this way there almost certainly will be loss of technology and many other outer structures or social and technological structures and abilities, but what is essentially human cannot be lost. This seems to get us into the reals of absolute and relative truth. Or in Buddhist terms Satya , a genuine truth or reality and a provisional or conventional truth which describes (most of) our everyday reality. Or in Christian terms the revelation of truth which prophets are privy to.
There is a long debate amongst collapsologists over this question of what if anything we want to keep from our technology. There is of course a range of opinions from Richard Heinberg’s ‘lifeboat’ scenario where lifeboats encompassing the greatest amount of knowledge ranging from our understanding of what it means to be human, ontology and various epistemologies, to the technical knowledge embedded in our devises like computers and mobile phones which if lost could take decades if not millennia to recover. And then at the other end is a view often expressed by people like Derrick Jensen that our civilisation incorporates so much violence that it casts doubt that anything is of use at all. While I have some sympathy forJensen’s views, if faced with a collapsing technosphere I can’t help but think a few solar panels and small scale grid might make life immeasurably better that not in my community.
What has been missing is the input of mystics into this space. What is the relationship of relative to absolute truth? What can we learn from this exploration? Or are they so far apart in terms of the areas of life they are describing that they don’t touch? It is reminiscent (or maybe it is the exact same debate?) of the debates about in the face of scientific knowledge whether God is dead.
A brief exploration of contemplative practices and their relevance to Activism
Meditation, mindfulness, and other forms of authentically being with yourself.
This hardly goes without saying. The demands of being an activist make authentic being with yourself essential. This is because: Being an activist is demanding particularly emotionally. Being able to be with rather than avoid or fix uncomfortable emotions makes activism much more powerful. What we try to avoid or fix within ourselves, will also be our approach to outward problems or situations. Authentic action is more likely by being with rather than avoiding or fixing. Burnout is often a problem. Under resourced and facing overwhelming problems day after day is not easy to be with. Mindfulness makes this easier or more possible. Meditators are much more able to be in difficult group situations and develop the internal distance that is necessary to find ways to act with others.
And there are the Buddhist practices based on non attachment that allow us to find the cracks in our ego structures, enabling creativity and the ability to just ‘be with’ without substituting story and shallow and frail human ideas for actuality. Releasing attachment can create subtlety and sensitivity, enable creativity and create the space for adaptation.
What has become clear to me as an activist is that letting go of all attachment to a specific outcome is essential to our current predicament. Letting go of what ultimately does not serve us is as important as letting go of specific outcomes once we have gone through the gateway of loss and change. We cannot know the pathways of change, how they will play out, the time sales and variations of ‘two steps forward and one back.’ We may need to take what appear to be detours. It is also clear to me that what ever comes next out of the metamorphosis will almost certainly be nothing we can have envisioned. We have taught visioning processes as part of the Transition model and process, and I wonder sometimes of whether this is actually useful. We can vision a world of more silence, without cars or at least internal combustion engines, and more in tune with nature. However beyond this, what that looks like, what regenerative practices look like are only now being explored, and we have no idea of the scale of destruction we might have to be repairing, only that it will likely be high and nearly insurmountable.
One of the key aspects of giving up or relinquishing, in the Deep Adaptation frame proposed by Jim Bendell, will be relinquishing deeply held beliefs and thoughts about who we are personally and as a culture. This inner letting go will enable outer relinquishment. This is because we are letting go of desires, beliefs and ideas about ourselves and our work that are simply not useful, and not important
We do not know all that lies beyond these movements but have faith that it will be truer that what we experience now.
Being with what is without turning to ‘stories’ makes it possible to meet our reality and take our next steps in awareness and as consciously as possible. Contemplation involves becoming unattached from our expectations and also our stories — authentically being with life itself. In fact it is essential.
It seems that all human societies rely on stories, fables, religious texts, myths, hero’s, and legends to tell themselves who they are what they stand for; the whys and hows of life. What’s life about?, What is the path of happiness or well being?, What is real wealth?, or How we can live in harmony with all of the ecosystems we are interdependent on? These are some of the questions that demand answers or at least stories that enable us to develop some beliefs that pass for answers.
Some think hat human life becomes untenable without a story that explains pain and suffering, and brith (where do we come from) and death (where do we go to?), and what are the non material aspects of humanness like consciousness emotions and thoughts?
We can certainly ‘clean up’ the story and tell ourselves that we are one with earth and all living and non living entities. The reinterpretation of Genesis’s often translated notion of dominion into stewardship and working with is more helpful than an understanding based on a Cartesian notion of linearity and control.
However living without a story might be even more powerful. “It’s not life that causes suffering, it’s our story about life—our interpretation—that causes so much distress. When we practice interrupting the story we’re telling ourselves, we can find a new freedom and flexibility in the face of uncertainty and change.” Pema Chödrön
This is true on an individual level, but how might this work on a society scale level? Can we collectively free ourselves of the stories we tell ourselves? The stories we tell ourselves individually are generated by trauma, past experience, and the conclusions we have drawn from living. Many of these stories are based on childhood and other incomplete or outdated life history, and are embedded in our feelings of anxiety and fears.
However the stories of our culture are something different. They interact with our personal stories but perform a different function. They are there to align us in collective action. Without these beliefs generated by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are we cannot act collectively. For instance unless we al agree that something printed on paper, or plastic will all sorts of magical symbols and holograms can be exchanged for a cup of tea and bun our money system doesn’t work. Nd it goes far far beyond that into the reals of the myth of progress and makes it possible for us to operate the technosphere because those working in it have a story to make it possible to go to work in the morning because they are provided with a why along with the need to make money to live.
Exploring what it means to live with out collective stories might well be an interesting and important way to create a group of people able to engage with and be with deep change of a kind we are unfamiliar with and beyond current imagining.
Buddhist practices based on gratitude, meditations on the interconnectivity and flow of life, loving kindness, healing pain of self and other, healing shenpa, letting go of self concern, and taking on board the concern of the welfare of others to name a few.
Contemplative leaders would hold this almost unholdable awareness of the nature of reality, life without stories, and the nature and scope of the climate and ecological emergency, along with the other aspects of non-duality and guide others to at least establish themselves in this awareness even if they do not always live in it. This is of course the sort of leadership contemplatives have always provided, but it can only work in a community in which the power of contemplation acknowledged. But for this we need not just contemplatives willing to lead but technical and political experts willing to be led.
Shift in consciousness
“Nowhere to go, nothing to do” This simple sentence crops up every once in a while in Plum village. It encapsulates the awareness that there is a doing culture that demands action and a sense of there always being somewhere to go and something to do. It calls us into our essential self, and makes the awareness that this is actually the most important relationship we have with ourselves.
Notes on Tetlock and Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.
Good book. A bit too journalisty for me at points but overall a very good balance of academic and popular. As is often the case, you could probably distill the majority of it down to ten pages (plus appendix on psychology). At the same time, the authors walk through complex ideas, skilfully illustrate the ideas with anecdotes and stories and retain the nuance of the underlying subject matter.
The most valuable part of the book for me and Life Itself is its concrete analytical insights into open-mindedness and good judgment, especially on the psychology/being side (as opposed to, say, numeracy—though even numeracy is interpreted into its probabilistic and then psychological aspects—see below re. “fate questionnaire”).
There are people who are (very) good forecasters regarding political and world events. These are the “superforecasters” of the book’s title. But they aren’t the political “experts” you see on TV or in the newspapers.
These “superforecasters” are statistically well above average. If an ordinary predictor has 20/20 vision, then some superforecasters have 100/20 vision.
These superforecasters don’t have immediately-distinctive traits: they are ordinary people, though often pretty smart and curious. Most of the book is dedicated to examining what makes them good and to what extent training makes a difference.
This book follows up, complements and contrasts with Tetlock’s previous and more academic book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (2005), which found that most political experts did not perform that much better than chance – “monkeys throwing darts” (though, to be fair, quite sophisticated monkeys).
The book is based on a recent, large-scale research study by Tetlock that was sponsored by IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency – like DARPA but for CIA). They recruited large numbers of ordinary people and then tried them out on lots of predictions. They also looked at whether training or organising participants into teams helped or not.
The rest of the book looks into what makes these superforecasters good. Rough answers:
Reasonably smart, with decent basic statistical skills: understand and apply base rates, doing rough Bayesian updating.
Do lots of updating: people who were good updated a lot (but not too much).
Good psych profile: open-minded, curious, etc.
An Optimistic Skeptic: sets out original skeptic background from reception of Expert Political Judgment (2005) and explains how Tetlock always had a more nuanced view (there were some exceptional people even in the original sample). Foxes vs hedgehogs.
Illusions of Knowledge: why we think we are better than we are and the flaws of System 1.
Keeping Score: how do you track predictive accuracy and what does it mean to be good at forecasting? Introduction to calibration vs discrimination plus the “Brier Score”, which is quadratic error. Brier score = Sum of square error between prediction probability and actual outcome (e.g. if predict rain with probability 60% and it rains then score is 0.16 (1-0.6 squared) and if it does not my score is 0.36 (0-0.4 squared).
Superforecasters (SFs): defining who they are. They are people who are exceptionally good at forecasting – with ‘exceptionally good’ being statistically definable.
Supersmart: are they super intelligent? No, but they are generally reasonably smart.
Superquants: are the SFs just math geniuses? No, but they are all numerate and they have a good understanding of basic probability, including base rates etc. (something most of us don’t have).
Supernewsjunkies: are SFs just good because they consume lots of information? Yes and no. It’s the quality and variety of what they consume; many of the good forecasters did not spend that much time reading material.
Perpetual Beta: good forecasters keep updating (with new info) and questioning their forecasts.
Superteams: does putting people in teams help and how do they function? Does averaging scores help (or “extremising”)? Answer: yes, teams help, especially in the case of certain superforecasters. Team dynamics matter, as does having someone who coordinates and manages well. Extremising helps a lot and is most valuable for teams that are less aligned.
The Leader’s Dilemma: the qualities of good forecasters–“foxy”, not too confident, open to other options, etc.–which contrasts with the supposed desirable qualities of leaders who should be decisive, bold, confident etc. Plus, you need to allow the teams to self-organize. You can combine the strong pursuit of what you currently think with constant open-mindedness to being wrong (though this can’t be easy!). Moreover, decentralized, delegated leadership, flattish management etc. work. They use the nice example of the German military pre-WWII as a great example of an organization where leadership was delegated down the hierarchy and initiative expected: “The command principle of…Auftragstaktik blended strategic coherence and decentralized decision making with a simple principle: commanders were to tell subordinates what their goal is but not how to achieve it”
Are They Really So Super?
The chapters that stood out as most useful are discussed in more detail below.
Chapter 3 – Expert Political Judgment
In the mid-1980s Tetlock began a research programme to learn what sets the best forecasters apart. He recruited experts whose livelihoods involved analyzing political and economic trends and events. The experts made a total of roughly twenty-eight thousand predictions between them. The final results appeared in 2005.
If you didn’t know the punch line of EPJ before you read this book, you do now: the average expert was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee. But as students are warned in introductory statistics classes, averages can obscure.
In the EPJ results, there were two statistically distinguishable groups of experts. The first failed to do better than random guessing, and in their longer-range forecasts even managed to lose to the chimp. The second group beat the chimp, though not by a wide margin, and they still had plenty of reason to be humble. Indeed, they only barely beat simple algorithms like “always predict no change” or “predict the recent rate of change.” Still, however modest their foresight was, they had some.
So why did one group do better than the other? It wasn’t whether they had PhDs or access to classified information. Nor was it what they thought—whether they were liberals or conservatives, optimists or pessimists. The critical factor was how they thought.
One group tended to organize their thinking around Big Ideas, although they didn’t agree on which Big Ideas were true or false. Some were environmental doomsters (“We’re running out of everything”); others were cornucopian boomsters (“We can find cost-effective substitutes for everything”). Some were socialists (who favored state control of the commanding heights of the economy); others were free-market fundamentalists (who wanted to minimize regulation). As ideologically diverse as they were, they were united by the fact that their thinking was so ideological. They sought to squeeze complex problems into the preferred cause-effect templates and treated what did not fit as irrelevant distractions. Allergic to wishy-washy answers, they kept pushing their analyses to the limit (and then some), using terms like “furthermore” and “moreover” while piling up reasons why they were right and others wrong. As a result, they were unusually confident and likelier to declare things “impossible” or “certain.” Committed to their conclusions, they were reluctant to change their minds even when their predictions clearly failed. They would tell us, “Just wait.”
The other group consisted of more pragmatic experts who drew on many analytical tools, with the choice of tool hinging on the particular problem they faced. These experts gathered as much information from as many sources as they could. When thinking, they often shifted mental gears, sprinkling their speech with transition markers such as “however,” “but,” “although,” and “on the other hand.” They talked about possibilities and probabilities, not certainties. And while no one likes to say “I was wrong,” these experts more readily admitted it and changed their minds.
I dubbed the Big Idea experts “hedgehogs” and the more eclectic experts “foxes.”
Foxes beat hedgehogs. And the foxes didn’t just win by acting like chickens, playing it safe with 60% and 70% forecasts where hedgehogs boldly went with 90% and 100%. Foxes beat hedgehogs on both calibration and resolution. Foxes had real foresight. Hedgehogs didn’t.
Now look at how foxes approach forecasting. They deploy not one analytical idea but many and seek out information not from one source but many. Then they synthesize it all into a single conclusion. In a word, they aggregate. They may be individuals working alone, but what they do is, in principle, no different from what Galton’s crowd did. They integrate perspectives and the information contained within them. The only real difference is that the process occurs within one skull.
Chapter 5 – Supersmart?
Superforecasters seek diverse ideas and challenges to their beliefs.
But ultimately, as with intelligence, this has less to do with traits someone possesses and more to do with behavior. A brilliant puzzle solver may have the raw material for forecasting, but if he doesn’t also have an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally-charged beliefs, he will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking. It’s not your raw crunching power that matters most. It’s what you do with it.
Look at Doug Lorch. His natural inclination is obvious. But he doesn’t assume it will see him through. He cultivates it. Doug knows that when people read for pleasure they naturally gravitate to the like-minded. So he created a database containing hundreds of information sources—from the New York Times to obscure blogs—that are tagged by their ideological orientation, subject matter, and geographical origin, then wrote a program that selects what he should read next using criteria that emphasize diversity. Thanks to Doug’s simple invention, he is sure to constantly encounter different perspectives. Doug is not merely open-minded. He is actively open-minded. Active open-mindedness (AOM) is a concept coined by the psychologist Jonathan Baron, who has an office next to mine at the University of Pennsylvania. Baron’s test for AOM asks whether you agree or disagree with statements like:
– People should take into consideration evidence that goes against their beliefs.
– It is more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with you than to pay attention to those who agree.
– Changing your mind is a sign of weakness.
– Intuition is the best guide in making decisions.
– It is important to persevere in your beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them.
Quite predictably, superforecasters score highly on Baron’s test. But more importantly, superforecasters illustrate the concept. They walk the talk.
Chapter 6 – Superquants?
Superforecasters think probabilistically, not fatalistically.
A probabilistic thinker will be less distracted by “why” questions and focus on “how.” This is no semantic quibble. “Why?” directs us to metaphysics; “How?” sticks with physics. The probabilistic thinker would say, “Yes, it was extremely improbable that I would meet my partner that night, but I had to be somewhere and she had to be somewhere and happily for us our somewheres coincided.” The economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller tells the story of how Henry Ford decided to hire workers at the then-astonishingly high rate of $5 a day, which convinced both his grandfathers to move to Detroit to work for Ford. If someone had made one of his grandfathers a better job offer, if one of his grandfathers had been kicked in the head by a horse, if someone had convinced Ford he was crazy to pay $5 a day…if an almost infinite number of events had turned out differently, Robert Shiller would not have been born. But rather than see fate in his improbable existence, Shiller repeats the story as an illustration of how radically indeterminate the future is. “You tend to believe that history played out in a logical sort of sense, that people ought to have foreseen, but it’s not like that,” he told me. “It’s an illusion of hindsight.”
Even in the face of tragedy, the probabilistic thinker will say, “Yes, there was an almost infinite number of paths that events could have taken, and it was incredibly unlikely that events would take the path that ended in my child’s death. But they had to take a path and that’s the one they took. That’s all there is to it.” In Kahneman’s terms, probabilistic thinkers take the outside view toward even profoundly identity-defining events, seeing them as quasi-random draws from distributions of once-possible worlds.
Or, in Kurt Vonnegut’s terms, “Why me? Why not me?”
If it’s true that probabilistic thinking is essential to accurate forecasting, and it-was-meant-to-happen thinking undermines probabilistic thinking, we should expect superforecasters to be much less inclined to see things as fated. To test this, we probed their reactions to pro-fate statements like these:
– Events unfold according to God’s plan.
– Everything happens for a reason.
– There are no accidents or coincidences.
We also asked them about pro-probability statements like these:
– Nothing is inevitable
– Even major events like World War II or 9/11 could have turned out very differently.
– Randomness is often a factor in our personal lives.
We put the same questions to regular volunteer forecasters, undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, and a broad cross section of adult Americans. On a 9-point “fate score,” where 1 is total rejection of it-was-meant-to-happen thinking and 9 is a complete embrace of it, the mean score of adult Americans fell in the middle of the scale. The Penn undergrads were a little lower. The regular forecasters were a little lower still. And the superforecasters got the lowest score of all, firmly on the rejection-of-fate side.
For both the superforecasters and the regulars, we also compared individual fate scores with Brier scores and found a significant correlation—meaning the more a forecaster inclined toward it-was-meant-to-happen thinking, the less accurate her forecasts were. Or, put more positively, the more a forecaster embraced probabilistic thinking, the more accurate she was.
So finding meaning in events is positively correlated with well-being but negatively correlated with foresight. That sets up a depressing possibility: Is misery the price of accuracy?
I don’t know. But this book is not about how to be happy. It’s about how to be accurate, and the superforecasters show that probabilistic thinking is essential for that. I’ll leave the existential issues to others.
Chapter 7 – Supernewsjunkies?
The beliefs which are connected to our egos and identities are the most difficult to change in light of contradictory evidence.
But not all disturbances are equal. Remember that Keynes quotation about changing your mind in light of changed facts? It’s cited in countless books, including one written by me and another by my coauthor. Google it and you will find it’s all over the Internet. Of the many famous things Keynes said it’s probably the most famous. But while researching this book, I tried to track it to its source and failed. Instead, I found a post by a Wall Street Journal blogger, which said that no one has ever discovered its provenance and the two leading experts on Keynes think it is apocryphal. In light of these facts, and in the spirit of what Keynes apparently never said, I concluded that I was wrong. And I have now confessed to the world. Was that hard? Not really. Many smart people made the same mistake, so it’s not embarrassing to own up to it. The quotation wasn’t central to my work and being right about it wasn’t part of my identity.
But if I had staked my career on that quotation, my reaction might have been less casual. Social psychologists have long known that getting people to publicly commit to a belief is a great way to freeze it in place, making it resistant to change. The stronger the commitment, the greater the resistance.
Jean-Pierre Beugoms is a superforecaster who prides himself on his willingness “to change my opinions a lot faster than my other teammates,” but he also noted “it is a challenge, I’ll admit that, especially if it’s a question that I have a certain investment in.” For Beugoms, that means military questions. He is a graduate of West Point who is writing his PhD dissertation on American military history. “I feel like I should be doing better than most [on military questions]. So if I realize that I’m wrong, I might spend a few days in denial about it before I critique myself.”
Commitment can come in many forms, but a useful way to think of it is to visualize the children’s game Jenga, which starts with building blocks stacked one on top of another to form a little tower. Players take turns removing building blocks until someone removes the block that topples the tower. Our beliefs about ourselves and the world are built on each other in a Jenga-like fashion. My belief that Keynes said “When the facts change, I change my mind” was a block sitting at the apex. It supported nothing else, so I could easily pick it up and toss it without disturbing other blocks. But when Jean-Pierre makes a forecast in his specialty, that block is lower in the structure, sitting next to a block of self-perception, near the tower’s core. So it’s a lot harder to pull that block out without upsetting other blocks— which makes Jean-Pierre reluctant to tamper with it.
The Yale professor Dan Kahan has done much research showing that our judgments about risks—Does gun control make us safer or put us in danger?—are driven less by a careful weighing of evidence than by our identities, which is why people’s views on gun control often correlate with their views on climate change, even though the two issues have no logical connection to each other. Psycho-logic trumps logic. And when Kahan asks people who feel strongly that gun control increases risk, or diminishes it, to imagine conclusive evidence that shows they are wrong, and then asks if they would change their position if that evidence were handed to them, they typically say no. That belief block is holding up a lot of others. Take it out and you risk chaos, so many people refuse to even imagine it.
When a block is at the very base of the tower, there’s no way to remove it without bringing everything crashing down. This extreme commitment leads to extreme reluctance to admit error, which explains why the men responsible for imprisoning 112,000 innocent people could be so dogged in their belief that the threat of sabotage was severe. Their commitment was massive. Warren was, deep down, a civil libertarian. Admitting to himself that he had unjustly imprisoned 112,000 people would have taken a sledgehammer to his mental tower.
This suggests that superforecasters may have a surprising advantage: they’re not experts or professionals, so they have little ego invested in each forecast. Except in rare circumstances—when Jean-Pierre Beugoms answers military questions, for example—they aren’t deeply committed to their judgments, which makes it easier to admit when a forecast is offtrack and adjust. This isn’t to say that superforecasters have zero ego investment. They care about their reputations among their teammates. And if “superforecaster” becomes part of their self-concept, their commitment will grow fast. But still, the self-esteem stakes are far less than those for career CIA analysts or acclaimed pundits with their reputations on the line. And that helps them avoid underreaction when new evidence calls for updating beliefs.
Chapter 8 – Perpetual Beta
We have learned a lot about superforecasters, from their lives to their test scores to their work habits. Taking stock, we can now sketch a rough composite portrait of the modal superforecaster.
In philosophic outlook, they tend to be:
CAUTIOUS: Nothing is certain
HUMBLE: Reality is infinitely complex
NONDETERMINISTIC: What happens is not meant to be and does not have to happen
In their abilities and thinking styles, they tend to be:
ACTIVELY OPEN-MINDED: Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected
INTELLIGENT AND KNOWLEDGEABLE, WITH A “NEED FOR COGNITION”: Intellectually curious, enjoy puzzles and mental challenges
REFLECTIVE: Introspective and self-critical
NUMERATE: Comfortable with numbers
In their methods of forecasting they tend to be:
PRAGMATIC: Not wedded to any idea or agenda
ANALYTICAL: Capable of stepping back from the tip-of-your-nose perspective and considering other views
DRAGONFLY-EYED: Value diverse views and synthesize them into their own
PROBABILISTIC: Judge using many grades of maybe
THOUGHTFUL UPDATERS: When facts change, they change their minds
GOOD INTUITIVE PSYCHOLOGISTS: Aware of the value of checking thinking for cognitive and emotional biases
In their work ethic, they tend to have:
A GROWTH MINDSET: Believe it’s possible to get better
GRIT: Determined to keep at it however long it takes
I paint with a broad brush here. Not every attribute is equally important. The strongest predictor of rising into the ranks of superforecasters is perpetual beta, the degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement. It is roughly three times as powerful a predictor as its closest rival, intelligence. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, superforecasting appears to be roughly 75% perspiration, 25% inspiration.
And not every superforecaster has every attribute. There are many paths to success and many ways to compensate for a deficit in one area with strength in another. The predictive power of perpetual beta does suggest, though, that no matter how high one’s IQ it is difficult to compensate for lack of dedication to the personal project of “growing one’s synapses.”
All that said, there is another element that is missing entirely from the sketch: other people. In our private lives and our workplaces, we seldom make judgments about the future entirely in isolation. We are a social species. We decide together. This raises an important question.
What happens when superforecasters work in groups?
Chapter 9 – Superteams
At the end of the year, the results were unequivocal: on average, teams were 23% more accurate than individuals.
Teams created a culture of constructive criticism.
“There was a lot of what I’ll call dancing around,” recalled Marty Rosenthal of his first year on a team. People would disagree with someone’s assessment, and want to test it, but they were too afraid of giving offense to just come out and say what they were thinking. So they would “couch it in all these careful words,” circling around, hoping the point would be made without their having to make it.
Experience helped. Seeing this “dancing around,” people realized that excessive politeness was hindering the critical examination of views, so they made special efforts to assure others that criticism was welcome. “Everybody has said, ‘I want push-back from you if you see something I don’t,’” said Rosenthal. That made a difference. So did offering thanks for constructive criticism. Gradually, the dancing around diminished.
The teams were each comprised of 12 superforecasters, with a nucleus of members who did most of the work.
Most teams have a nucleus of five or six members who do most of the work. Within that core, we might expect to see a division of labor that reduces the amount of effort any one person needs to invest in the task, at least if he or she approached forecasting as work, not play. But we saw the opposite on the best teams: workloads were divided, but as commitment grew, so did the amount of effort forecasters put into it. Being on the team was “tons more work,” Elaine said. But she didn’t mind. She found it far more stimulating than working by herself. “You could be supporting each other, or helping each other, or building on ideas,” she said. “It was a rush.”
Superteams outperformed prediction markets under experimental conditions.
We put that proposition to the test by randomly assigning regular forecasters to one of three experimental conditions. Some worked alone. Others worked in teams. And some were traders in prediction markets run by companies such as Inkling and Lumenogic. Of course, after year 1—when the value of teams was resoundingly demonstrated—nobody expected forecasters working alone to compete at the level of teams or prediction markets, so we combined all their forecasts and calculated the unweighted average to get the “wisdom of the crowd.” And of course we had one more competitor: superteams.
The results were clear-cut each year. Teams of ordinary forecasters beat the wisdom of the crowd by about 10%. Prediction markets beat ordinary teams by about 20%. And superteams beat prediction markets by 15% to 30%.
I can already hear the protests from my colleagues in finance that the only reason the superteams beat the prediction markets was that our markets lacked liquidity: real money wasn’t at stake and we didn’t have a critical mass of traders. They may be right. It is a testable idea, and one worth testing. It’s also important to recognize that while superteams beat prediction markets, prediction markets did a pretty good job of forecasting complex global events.
How did superteams do so well? By avoiding the extremes of groupthink and Internet flame wars. And by fostering minicultures that encouraged people to challenge each other respectfully, admit ignorance, and request help. In key ways, superteams resembled the best surgical teams identified by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson, in which the nurse doesn’t hesitate to tell the surgeon he left a sponge behind the pancreas because she knows it is “psychologically safe” to correct higher-ups. Edmondson’s best teams had a shared purpose. So did our superteams. One sign of that was linguistic: they said “our” more than “my.”
A team like that should promote the sort of actively open-minded thinking that is so critical to accurate forecasting, as we saw in chapter 5. So just as we surveyed individuals to test their active open-mindedness (AOM), we surveyed teams to probe their attitudes toward the group and patterns of interaction within the group—that is, we tested the team’s AOM. As expected, we found a correlation between a team’s AOM and its accuracy. Little surprise there. But what makes a team more or less actively open-minded? You might think it’s the individuals on the team. Put high AOM people in a team and you’ll get a high-AOM team; put lower-AOM people in a team and you’ll get a lower-AOM team. Not so, as it turns out. Teams were not merely the sum of their parts. How the group thinks collectively is an emergent property of the group itself, a property of communication patterns among group members, not just the thought processes inside each member. A group of open-minded people who don’t care about one another will be less than the sum of its open-minded parts. A group of opinionated people who engage one another in pursuit of the truth will be more than the sum of its opinionated parts [emphasis added].
Winning teams fostered a culture of sharing.
All this brings us to the final feature of winning teams: the fostering of a culture of sharing. My Wharton colleague Adam Grant categorizes people as “givers,” “matchers,” and “takers.” Givers are those who contribute more to others than they receive in return; matchers give as much as they get; takers give less than they take. Cynics might say that giver is a polite word for chump. After all, anyone inclined to freeload will happily take what they give and return nothing, leaving the giver worse off than if he weren’t so generous. But Grant’s research shows that the prosocial example of the giver can improve the behavior of others, which helps everyone, including the giver—which explains why Grant has found that givers tend to come out on top.
Marty Rosenthal is a giver. He wasn’t indiscriminately generous with his time and effort. He was generous in a deliberate effort to change the behavior of others for the benefit of all. Although Marty didn’t know Grant’s work, when I described it to him, he said, “You got it.” There are lots more givers on the superteams. Doug Lorch distributed programming tools, which got others thinking about creating and sharing their own.
Hold the excitement.
But let’s not take this too far. A busy executive might think “I want some of those” and imagine the recipe is straightforward: shop for top performers, marinate them in collaborative teams, strain out the groupthink, sprinkle in some givers, and wait for the smart decisions and money to start flowing. Sadly, it isn’t that simple. Replicating this in an existing organization with real employees would be a challenge. Singling out people for “super” status may be divisive and transferring people into cross-functional teams can be disruptive. And there’s no guarantee of results. There were eccentric exceptions to the tendencies outlined above, such as the few teams who were not mutually supportive but who nonetheless did well. One of the best superforecasters even refused to leave comments for his teammates, saying he didn’t want to risk groupthink.
This is the messy world of psychological research. Solid conclusions take time and this work, particularly on superteams, is in its infancy. There are many questions we have only begun to explore
Chapter 12 – What’s Next?
Collaboration and depolarization of debate are the way forward.
Whether superforecasters can outpredict Friedman is both unknown and, for present purposes, beside the point. Superforecasters and superquestioners need to acknowledge each other’s complementary strengths, not dwell on each other’s alleged weaknesses. Friedman poses provocative questions that superforecasters should use to sharpen their foresight; superforecasters generate well-calibrated answers that superquestioners should use to fine-tune and occasionally overhaul their mental models of reality. The “Tom versus Bill” frame with which we started the book is our final false dichotomy. We need a Tom-Bill symbiosis. That’s a tall order. But there’s a much bigger collaboration I’d like to see. It would be the Holy Grail of my research program: using forecasting tournaments to depolarize unnecessarily polarized policy debates and make us collectively smarter.
There were attempts to extract lessons from events during those years, but they mostly involved brute force. Hammering opponents both for their forecasting failures and for not acknowledging them was a standard theme in the columns of Paul Krugman, whose Nobel Prize in economics and New York Times bully pulpit made him the most prominent Keynesian. Krugman’s opponents hammered back. Niall Ferguson wrote a three-part catalog of Krugman’s alleged failures. Back and forth it went, with each side poring over the other’s forecasts, looking for failures, deflecting attacks, and leveling accusations. For fans of one side or the other, it may have been thrilling. For those who hope that we can become collectively wiser, it was a bewildering fracas that looked less like a debate between great minds and more like a food fight between rival fraternities. These are accomplished people debating pressing issues, but nobody seems to have learned anything beyond how to defend their original position.
We can do better. Remember the “adversarial collaboration” between Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein? These two psychologists won acclaim by developing apparently contradictory schools of thought, making each man a threat to the legacy of the other. But they were committed to playing by scientific ground rules, so they got together to discuss why they had such different views and how they could be reconciled. Something similar could, in principle, be done in forecasting.
Extremizing basically means scaling probability estimates up to 1 and down to 0, because individual forecasts bias down/up at those points but the mean need not…
That’s the thinking behind the extremizing algorithm I mentioned in chapter 4. It works superbly, but its effectiveness depends on diversity. A team with zero diversity—its members are clones and everyone knows everything that everyone else knows—should not be extremized at all. Of course no team matches that description. But some teams are good at sharing information and that reduces diversity somewhat. Superforecaster teams were like that, which is why extremizing didn’t help them much. But regular forecasting teams weren’t as good at sharing information. As a result, we got major gains when we extremized them. Indeed, extremizing gave regular forecaster teams a big enough boost to pass some superteams, and extremizing a large pool of regular forecasters produced, as we saw earlier, tournament-winning results.
Tetlock et al. published a paper on this shortly before the publication of Superforecasting.
When aggregating the probability estimates of many individuals to form a consensus probability estimate of an uncertain future event, it is common to combine them using a simple weighted average. Such aggregated probabilities correspond more closely to the real world if they are transformed by pushing them closer to 0 or 1. We explain the need for such transformations in terms of two distorting factors: The first factor is the compression of the probability scale at the two ends, so that random error tends to push the average probability toward 0.5. This effect does not occur for the median forecast, or, arguably, for the mean of the log odds of individual forecasts. The second factor—which affects mean, median, and mean of log odds—is the result of forecasters taking into account their individual ignorance of the total body of information available. Individual confidence in the direction of a probability judgment (high/low) thus fails to take into account the wisdom of crowds that results from combining different evidence available to different judges. We show that the same transformation function can approximately eliminate both distorting effects with different parameters for the mean and the median. And we show how, in principle, use of the median can help distinguish the two effects.
Appendix – Ten Commandments for Aspiring Superforecasters
Focus on questions where your hard work is likely to pay off. Don’t waste time either on easy “clocklike” questions (where simple rules of thumb can get you close to the right answer) or on impenetrable “cloud-like” questions (where even fancy statistical models can’t beat the dart-throwing chimp). Concentrate on questions in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty, where effort pays off the most.
For instance, “Who will win the presidential election, twelve years out, in 2028?” is impossible to forecast now. Don’t even try. Could you have predicted in 1940 the winner of the election, twelve years out, in 1952? If you think you could have known it would be a then-unknown colonel in the United States Army, Dwight Eisenhower, you may be afflicted by one of the worst cases of hindsight bias ever documented by psychologists.
Of course, triage judgment calls get harder as we come closer to home. How much justifiable confidence can we place in March 2015 on who will win the 2016 election? The short answer is not a lot but still a lot more than we can for the election in 2028. We can at least narrow the 2016 field to a small set of plausible contenders, which is a lot better than the vast set of unknown (Eisenhower-ish) possibilities lurking in 2028.
Certain classes of outcomes have well-deserved reputations for being radically unpredictable (e.g., oil prices, currency markets). But we usually don’t discover how unpredictable outcomes are until we have spun our wheels for a while trying to gain analytical traction. Bear in mind the two basic errors it is possible to make here. We could fail to try to predict the potentially predictable or we could waste our time trying to predict the unpredictable. Which error would be worse in the situation you face?
(2) Break seemingly intractable problems into tractable sub-problems.
Channel the playful but disciplined spirit of Enrico Fermi who—when he wasn’t designing the world’s first atomic reactor—loved ballparking answers to headscratchers such as “How many extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the universe?” Decompose the problem into its knowable and unknowable parts. Flush ignorance into the open. Expose and examine your assumptions. Dare to be wrong by making your best guesses. Better to discover errors quickly than to hide them behind vague verbiage.
Superforecasters see Fermi-izing as part of the job. How else could they generate quantitative answers to seemingly impossible-to-quantify questions about Arafat’s autopsy, bird-flu epidemics, oil prices, Boko Haram, the Battle of Aleppo, and bond-yield spreads.
We find this Fermi-izing spirit at work even in the quest for love, the ultimate unquantifiable. Consider Peter Backus, a lonely guy in London, who guesstimated the number of potential female partners in his vicinity by starting with the population of London (approximately six million) and winnowing that number down by the proportion of women in the population (about 50%), by the proportion of singles (about 50%), by the proportion in the right age range (about 20%), by the proportion of university graduates (about 26%), by the proportion he finds attractive (only 5%), by the proportion likely to find him attractive (only 5%), and by the proportion likely to be compatible with him (about 10%). Conclusion: roughly twenty-six women in the pool, a daunting but not impossible search task.
There are no objectively correct answers to true-love questions, but we can score the accuracy of the Fermi estimates that superforecasters generate in the IARPA tournament. The surprise is how often remarkably good probability estimates arise from a remarkably crude series of assumptions and guesstimates.
(3) Strike the right balance between inside and outside views.
Superforecasters know that there is nothing new under the sun. Nothing is 100% “unique.” Linguists be damned: uniqueness is a matter of degree. So superforecasters conduct creative searches for comparison classes even for seemingly unique events, such as the outcome of a hunt for a high-profile terrorist (Joseph Kony) or the standoff between a new socialist government in Athens and Greece’s creditors. Superforecasters are in the habit of posing the outside-view question: How often do things of this sort happen in situations of this sort?
So too apparently is Larry Summers, a Harvard professor and former Treasury secretary. He knows about the planning fallacy: when bosses ask employees how long it will take to finish a project, employees tend to underestimate the time they need, often by factors of two or three. Summers suspects his own employees are no different. One former employee, Greg Mankiw, himself now a famous economist, recalls Summers’s strategy: he doubled the employee’s estimate, then moved to the next higher time unit. “So, if the research assistant says the task will take an hour, it will take two days. If he says two days, it will take four weeks.” It’s a nerd joke: Summers corrected for employees’ failure to take the outside view in making estimates by taking the outside view toward employees’ estimates, and then inventing a funny correction factor.
Of course Summers would adjust his correction factor if an employee astonished him and delivered on time. He would balance his outside-view expectation of tardiness against the new inside-view evidence that a particular employee is an exception to the rule. Because each of us is, to some degree, unique.
(4) Strike the right balance between under- and overreacting to evidence.
Belief updating is to good forecasting as brushing and flossing are to good dental hygiene. It can be boring, occasionally uncomfortable, but it pays off in the long term. That said, don’t suppose that belief updating is always easy because it sometimes is. Skillful updating requires teasing subtle signals from noisy news flows—all the while resisting the lure of wishful thinking.
Savvy forecasters learn to ferret out telltale clues before the rest of us. They snoop for nonobvious lead indicators, about what would have to happen before X could, where X might be anything from an expansion of Arctic sea ice to a nuclear war in the Korean peninsula. Note the fine line here between picking up subtle clues before everyone else and getting suckered by misleading clues. Does the appearance of an article critical of North Korea in the official Chinese press signal that China is about to squeeze Pyongyang hard—or was it just a quirky error in editorial judgment? The best forecasters tend to be incremental belief updaters, often moving from probabilities of, say, 0.4 to 0.35 or from 0.6 to 0.65, distinctions too subtle to capture with vague verbiage, like “might” or “maybe,” but distinctions that, in the long run, define the difference between good and great forecasters.
Yet superforecasters also know how to jump, to move their probability estimates fast in response to diagnostic signals. Superforecasters are not perfect Bayesian updaters but they are better than most of us. And that is largely because they value this skill and work hard at cultivating it.
(5) Look for the clashing causal forces at work in each problem.
For every good policy argument, there is typically a counterargument that is at least worth acknowledging. For instance, if you are a devout dove who believes that threatening military action never brings peace, be open to the possibility that you might be wrong about Iran. And the same advice applies if you are a devout hawk who believes that soft “appeasement” policies never pay off. Each side should list, in advance, the signs that would nudge them toward the other.
Now here comes the really hard part. In classical dialectics, thesis meets antithesis, producing synthesis. In dragonfly eye, one view meets another and another and another—all of which must be synthesized into a single image. There are no paint-by-number rules here. Synthesis is an art that requires reconciling irreducibly subjective judgments. If you do it well, engaging in this process of synthesizing should transform you from a cookie-cutter dove or hawk into an odd hybrid creature, a dove-hawk, with a nuanced view of when tougher or softer policies are likelier to work.
(6) Strive to distinguish as many degrees of doubt as the problem permits but no more.
Few things are either certain or impossible. And “maybe” isn’t all that informative. So your uncertainty dial needs more than three settings. Nuance matters. The more degrees of uncertainty you can distinguish, the better a forecaster you are likely to be. As in poker, you have an advantage if you are better than your competitors at separating 60/40 bets from 40/60—or 55/45 from 45/55. Translating vagueverbiage hunches into numeric probabilities feels unnatural at first but it can be done. It just requires patience and practice. The superforecasters have shown what is possible.
Most of us could learn, quite quickly, to think in more granular ways about uncertainty. Recall the episode in which President Obama was trying to figure out whether Osama bin Laden was the mystery occupant of the walled-in compound in Abbottabad. And recall the probability estimates of his intelligence officers and the president’s reaction to their estimates: “This is fifty-fifty … a flip of the coin.” Now suppose that President Obama had been shooting the breeze with basketball buddies and each one offered probability estimates on the outcome of a college game—and those estimates corresponded exactly to those offered by intelligence officers on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would the president still have shrugged and said, “This is fifty-fifty,” or would he have said, “Sounds like the odds fall between three to one and four to one”? I bet on the latter. The president is accustomed to granular thinking in the domain of sports. Every year, he enjoys trying to predict the winners of the March Madness basketball tournament, a probability puzzle that draws the attention of serious statisticians. But, like his Democratic and Republican predecessors, he does not apply the same rigor to national security decisions. Why? Because different norms govern different thought processes. Reducing complex hunches to scorable probabilities is de rigueur in sports but not in national security.
So, don’t reserve rigorous reasoning for trivial pursuits. George Tenet would not have dared utter “slam dunk” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq if the Bush 43 White House had enforced standards of evidence and proof that are second nature to seasoned gamblers on sporting events. Slam dunk implies one is willing to offer infinite odds—and to lose everything if one is wrong.
(7) Strike the right balance between under- and overconfidence, between prudence and decisiveness.
Superforecasters understand the risks both of rushing to judgment and of dawdling too long near “maybe.” They routinely manage the trade-off between the need to take decisive stands (who wants to listen to a waffler?) and the need to qualify their stands (who wants to listen to a blowhard?). They realize that long-term accuracy requires getting good scores on both calibration and resolution—which requires moving beyond blame-game ping-pong. It is not enough just to avoid the most recent mistake. They have to find creative ways to tamp down both types of forecasting errors—misses and false alarms—to the degree a fickle world permits such uncontroversial improvements in accuracy.
(8) Look for the errors behind your mistakes but beware of rearview-mirror hindsight biases.
Don’t try to justify or excuse your failures. Own them! Conduct unflinching postmortems: Where exactly did I go wrong? And remember that although the more common error is to learn too little from failure and to overlook flaws in your basic assumptions, it is also possible to learn too much (you may have been basically on the right track but made a minor technical mistake that had big ramifications). Also don’t forget to do postmortems on your successes too. Not all successes imply that your reasoning was right. You may have just lucked out by making offsetting errors. And if you keep confidently reasoning along the same lines, you are setting yourself up for a nasty surprise.
(9) Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in you.
Master the fine arts of team management, especially perspective taking (understanding the arguments of the other side so well that you can reproduce them to the other’s satisfaction), precision questioning (helping others to clarify their arguments so they are not misunderstood), and constructive confrontation (learning to disagree without being disagreeable). Wise leaders know how fine the line can be between a helpful suggestion and micromanagerial meddling or between a rigid group and a decisive one or between a scatterbrained group and an open-minded one. Tommy Lasorda, the former coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers, got it roughly right: “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”
(10) Master the error-balancing bicycle.
Implementing each commandment requires balancing opposing errors. Just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a physics textbook, you can’t become a superforecaster by reading training manuals. Learning requires doing, with good feedback that leaves no ambiguity about whether you are succeeding—“I’m rolling along smoothly!”—or whether you are failing—“crash!” Also remember that practice is not just going through the motions of making forecasts, or casually reading the news and tossing out probabilities. Like all other known forms of expertise, superforecasting is the product of deep, deliberative practice.
(11) Don’t treat commandments as commandments.
“It is impossible to lay down binding rules,” Helmuth von Moltke warned, “because two cases will never be exactly the same.” As in war, so in all things. Guidelines are the best we can do in a world where nothing is certain or exactly repeatable. Superforecasting requires constant mindfulness, even when—perhaps especially when—you are dutifully trying to follow these commandments.
LONG INTERVIEW / ROUNDTABLE WITH TETLOCK ON EDGE.ORG
For tournaments to have a positive effect on society, we need to make a very concerted effort to improve the quality of the question generation process and to engage people in public debates to participate in that. The problem here is, and this is where I tend to come a little closer to Danny’s pessimism on this, it’s hard to convince someone who’s a high status incumbent to play in a game in which the best plausible outcome is you’re going to break even. Your fans already expect you to win, so if you win you’re basically breaking even. The more likely outcome is you’re not going to do all that well because there is a somewhat loose coupling and many pundits’ forecasting expertise probably is overrated.
The reason there’s not a big market for foxy case studies in business schools is because MBAs would probably recoil from them and business schools are pretty customer-friendly.
Note: GJP refers to the Good Judgment Project, the research study on forecasting that Tetlock discusses through the book. The slides below summarise the findings from GJP and the participants’ success in IARPA’s forecasting tournaments.
We do not do any thing revolutionary or ground breaking. We just sit and listen to each other on zoom. And we feel together and sense together and think together. There is something magic about sitting together contemplating mystery- the unknown and unknowable. The mystery of each of our lives. The mystery of how we navigate our lives, the everyday decisions we make often about ordinary things. The mystery of how we sit with ourselves and explain to others what it means to be me.
There is no attempt to take a ‘contemplative stance’ or be contemplative, but rather a very ordinary willingness to see and be seen. We silently acknowledge our uniqueness, our similarities, and our differences. The temptation (for me) is to want to see a pattern running though our sharing- there isn’t one. Even our responses to the corona crisis and how we are each being with this time, our hopes and fears, and the wondering, unknowns, and pleasure and pain of it meander through our collective musings in a random walk.
The mystery of what comes and where we go is always present- because the calls are mostly non structured and even if they are we often disregard the invitations to ‘topic’ ourselves, bizarrely. For instance this week we were going to talk about having difficult conversations that arise in activist spaces. We did get to it in the end. And had a lively discussion. As the facilitator, I felt not to stop and honour our 90 minute boundary, but rather to let the conversation run. We will go back to it this next week…. maybe.
Even then the discussion was unstructured and free to roam though many different lens and perspectives. For instance, the possibility of taking a conflict into a different paradigm. The possibility that by taking a different perspective we can reduce conflict and put the difference into a wider or longer perspective which can help shape a new way of being together. The chance to go beyond what we thought only a minute ago can change so much, so quickly. I hesitate to describe about what or how we talked this week. I am sure my reflections privilege my perspective and ideas to the neglect of others.
So- What is Contemplative Activism? Is this it? Are we being contemplative activists? Are our calls a form of secular contemplative practice? Certainly the elements of contemplative live are effortlessly enacted and witnessed every week. The silence and all that flows from that, holding all that we express as a form of contemplation, deep listening to ourselves and others, sitting with the humility of not knowing and stubbornly refusing to name what is not and never will be known. It is in the community of being and listening, and willingness to sit with mystery, and maybe in all of that finding hope, the will to go on, the wish to create something that makes life better for all. And acknowledging that this may or may not be an outcome we will ever know.
Our weekly calls are honest, gentle, and kind. They are simple and contactful. There is little pretence, well maybe a little, but we are, mostly**, too old for putting on airs, and see no contradiction in sharing our experiments with plant medicine alongside our favourite recipe for wild food fritters. And that maybe is what holds us in this space? It is what I call the pragmatism of ‘spiritual enquiry’. It works because it works. Collaboration and kindness is more sustainable than hyper competitiveness and brutality.
I am feeling a bit self conscious trying to describe what feels like a very natural way of being together. Like in the act of describing the garden of Eden we are cast out of that garden- the garden of just being together. And the silence.
“Silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.” ― Rumi