Make Your Own Rules

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Thinkability

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

We humans like making up sets of rules and principles for life. The modern consumer market offerings, from Covey to Peterson, follow in the tradition of both ancient ones like the Ten Commandments of Christianity, the Five Pillars of Islam, and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. These traditional, institutional ones are the ancestors of both the modern consumer-grade genre, and the related enterprise-grade genre of manifestos and mission statements.

Organizations are not immune to anomie-inducing environments, so it’s no surprise that we’re also going through a season of more-sincere-than-usual corporate soul-searching, manifesto-crafting, and mission-adopting. It’s not just individuals who need new rules for the new normal. Apparently Facebook does too, and is at least pretending to figure out new rules for the world of Fake News and election hacking. One of Facebook’s new rules is apparently to ensure that “time spent on Facebook is time well spent”, a phrase they’ve taken from my don’t-hack-my-attention-dammit activist buddies Tristan Harris and Joe Edelman.

But I won’t get into that side of things in this post. We’ll stick to personal life rules here.

Thinking about this broad set of examples, traditional and new, institutional and individual, it struck me that though they are good as fodder for reflection, I’ve never actually been able to use any life rule set for its nominal purpose.

I’d be hard pressed to even enumerate any of the sets I’ve encountered in full.

The famous ones are more memorization challenges for trivia contests than operating systems that can be encoded in neural firmware as embodied virtues. They aren’t routinely helpful in navigating the ambiguities and uncertainties of life. Nor do they set meaningfully universal go/no-go boundaries.

They do not, in other words, constitute clean MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) coverage of the messiness of life, capable of bringing order to chaos in any sort of guaranteed way.

You could leave it that of course, and treat such sets of life rules as rhetorical devices, meant to do no more than trigger some helpful reflection, and perhaps inspire your own adaptations or original rules, but I think that’s not true. There’s more to life rule sets than meets the eye, and there’s ways to adapt or construct them so they actually compile properly into your life so to speak.

Life Rule Sets

Let’s call this genre (at the individual level) life rule sets, or LRS. An LRS is a set of between 5-25 statements (based on our sample) that apply to common life situations. The range seems to reflect an easy-to-memorize limit on the one end, and the size of a poster on the other. Less than 3 is probably too few to be generally useful in any way (though the Golden Rule is a good singleton exception, as is my own Make Your Own Rules rule), and more than 25 is really just laziness at theorizing a more compact structure.

What can we say about LRSes?

An LRS is not a manifesto. Manifestos are about beliefs rather than action. Even though an LRS may encode implicit normative or positive beliefs, that is not their primary purpose. This is because an LRS is almost always built around an idea of individual agency. Its subject matter is what you are personally responsible for and can act on.

An LRS is normative. Even if they are worded as abstract reflections, the elements of an LRS are actual rules, not random observations about the world. Some are very explicit (“thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”) and some take a lot of thought to translate into imperative form (“Right Speech” in Buddhism, gee thanks Siddhartha).

An LRS is abstract. A good example is Covey’s “Be Proactive”. When they are weirdly specific, such as Peterson’s “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” the author is generally either attempting to inject a bit of whimsy into an otherwise serious exercise, or offering a mnemonic for an anecdotal illustration of a more general principle. So the seeming specificity is some mix of synecdoche, parable, and allegory.

At least that’s the case with the modern ones. Occasionally, in older religious LRSes, you find genuinely specific and serious rules that seem arbitrary, like “don’t eat pork”, and eventually acquire taboo status or ritual significance. But you can usually find a historicist explanation for the rule. I don’t know the reasoning behind the pork taboo, but one good explanation of the beef taboo in India is that cattle at some point got too valuable as draught and dairy animals to be eaten.

An LRS may imply a script. Some clearly imply a particular larger life script. The eightfold path makes most sense understood in the context of a life of spiritual discipline and pursuit of enlightenment. Covey’s is explicitly a Christianish life script (his context-setting visualization exercise is to imagine your own funeral). Four of the five pillars of Islam are about life habits, but the fifth is a script act (the hajj).

An LRS is usually either idealistic or tragic. The one big dividing line I’ve found in my quick survey is that LRSes seem to divide cleanly into two kinds: those that assume some sort of perfectibility metaphysics (humans can grow and evolve within and across lifetimes as a species) and those that assume some sort of irredeemably fallen condition, from which only the grace of some sort of supernatural agency can lift you. Of the ones I’ve mentioned, the Buddhist eightfold path seems to be the only idealistic one. I’ll characterize this boundary more clearly later.

An LRS usually encodes a virtue ethics. Though they may encode some elements of consequentialist and deontological ethical systems, an LRS usually lacks the systematicity required to be anything other than a virtue ethics.

In the best case, the rules in an LRS serve as a reference sample of behavioral cues from the life of someone who has lived a life both exemplary in its modeling of desirable virtues, and rich enough to have actually been tested across a sufficiently large range of human life experiences.

In other words, an LRS is usually a what-would-Jesus-do type artifact, abstracted away from the specifics of an individual life to greater or lesser extent.

Theorizing Life Rule Sets

Life rule sets vary in the context-free systematicity they offer, but basically no LRS I’ve seen achieves the analytical rigor of, say, Newton’s laws.

Some sets fit together independent of context better than others, but most of them seem, by and large, entirely arbitrary. A more or less poetic selection of behavioral Schelling points from somebody’s life. The bigger sets tend to the baroque, and are impossible to even parody.

I think this is because the underlying phenomenology that life rule sets cover has never been properly characterized. We’ve never been quite clear about a few basic questions of the sort a mathematician interested in logic and foundations would ask:

  1. What are life rule sets about? Where is the phenomenological scope of life rule sets? Where does that scope end and the scopes of (say) traffic rules, peanut grades, and tax laws begin? In other words, what is the domain of the LRS?
  2. Can we expect an LRS to uniquely classify every situation within its domain, and apply a unique rule to it, and expect as output a unique helpful cue about what to do, thereby narrowing the range of options and simplifying decision-making? In other words are the rules in an LRS mutually exclusive?
  3. What is the coverage of a set of rules within its overall domain? How often does the rule set apply when you feel a need for guidance, versus having nothing to say. In other words, are the rules in an LRS collectively exhaustive?
  4. If an LRS is not MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive), can we at least expect that if more than one rule applies to a situation, they will both point in the same rough direction? In other words, is an LRS internally consistent? 
  5. If it is not internally consistent, is it at least paradoxically generative? Does it comprise a set of yin-yang oppositions that help you think generatively and dynamically about a situation, in terms of transformations and trade-offs? In other words, is an LRS a dialectic as well?
  6. Are all the rules in an LRS citizens of the same order within the LRS, or are there lesser and greater ones? In other words, does an LRS admit a cardinal or ordinal ordering?
  7. Are all the rules in an LRS independently construed, or are some the consequences of others? If so, what are the independent ones? In other words, are the rules of an LRS independent or do they have an axiomatic structure?
  8. Are the rules legible or illegible in their mode of action? Do they only work if you understand a principle behind them, or do they work irrespective of your understanding of them? In other words, are they explicit or implicit belief systems?

These are not fussy, pedantic questions. They matter. You can’t expect to make random rules about grades of peanuts and expect to see a reduction in traffic accidents. Less flippantly, there’s no particular reason to expect a rule about when to wear ties to affect whether you get depressed. There might well be such a discoverable relationship, making a tie rule a good, indirect, life rule. But it might also just be an arbitrary rule that’s just behavioral noise.

Depending on the answers to these questions, we tend to develop an aesthetic, taxonomic sense of the universe of life rule sets.

Some strike us immediately as doctrinaire and serious, others as whimsical and subversive. Some are self-evidently too silly to even try to use. Others you have to test out for a while before the gaps, overlaps, paradoxes, orderings, and axiomatics become evident (ie there is a depth of learnability to a life rule set that can be either shallow or deep). Some are meant to box you in and confine your behaviors to safe zones, while others are intended to break you out of boxes and safe zones.

Any good theory of life rule sets must provide a reasonable account of these questions. Otherwise there is no there there.

Let me take a stab.

Task-Negative Cognition

Here’s the central dogma of my theory of life rule sets: Life rule sets are about governing task-negative cognition.

The human brain has two major processing modes, task-positive and task-negative, which occur in the task-positive network (TPN) and default mode network (DMN) respectively. Brain activity in these two networks is anti-correlated. You’re in one mode or the other. The two modes relate to what I’ve previously written about as manipulative and appreciative cognition.

Task-positive cognition occurs when your brain has its attention occupied by a clearly defined and bounded external task. Generally one with very strong, and fast (ie with short time constants) closed-loop sensorimotor feedback loops connecting your behavior to the environment, via immediate consequences. Examples include driving or cooking.

If you’re a simple robot or insect, this is all you need. Task-positive cognition is insect cognition. I covered these in my post human-complete problems. Human cognition is more than the sum of insect-like task-positive domain level rules.

You don’t even really need rules because the domain itself serves as a perfect source and enforcer of correct behavior. You’re basically under the jurisdiction of strong and active laws of nature.

You drive on the wrong side of the road, you die. You don’t follow the “rules” of fire in the kitchen, you get burned. As a bug, if you don’t lay your eggs on the right kind of plant, you don’t make baby bugs.

You don’t need explicit principles of salience because they are generally obvious and self-enforcing. It is easy to stay focused on what matters and ignore what does not. The deer jumping in front of your car is highly salient. The billboard trying to sell you washing machines is highly not salient, but trying to be.

Task-negative cognition on the other hand, is what your brain does when there is nothing in particular it has to do; when the situation has no demanding urgencies to attend to. The DMN (which used to be called the task-negative network) becomes active.

The default mode network was a surprising discovery. Neuroscientists apparently thought the awake brain sort of just idled and did nothing if it had nothing externally anchored to do, like a car in park with the engine on. In other words, it was assumed that the opposite of a brain at work is a brain at rest.

Turns out, that’s not true. Our default waking mode (and also during dreaming phases of sleep) is not a brain at rest, but what is known as mind wandering. Mind wandering is the brain basically running potentially useful prospective thought processes. What computer scientists call speculative execution, the stuff behind the recently revealed Intel chip security flaws, while idly also paying non-vigilant attention to the environment in an open-ended way, without a strong salience filter.

When you are driving, your brain strongly filters for driving-related cues. When you are in mind-wandering mode, you are liable to notice anything vaguely salient to anything that concerns you, even if it isn’t currently the focus of active effort. But you aren’t vigilant the way you are in task-positive work (especially dangerous kinds).

Task-negative cognition is how you solve human-complete problems. Those open-ended, leaky kind of problems where any seemingly specific problem like “find a satisfying job” ends up being equivalent to the life-the-universe-and-everything problem of just living a good life.

Task-negative brain activity is not rest, but human-complete problem solving in the context of an entire life. Important-but-not-urgent stuff that takes every spare cycle it can find, in the gaps between task-positive processing.

It is your brain making sure it doesn’t get caught in ruts, miss important-but-not-urgent unexpected news, or obviously foreseeable contingencies. It’s your brain simultaneously figuring out the how and why of life in play mode.

In Boydian terms, the default mode network is all about reorientation; about swapping mental models around, reframing things, approaching things from new angles, considering the salience of new sensory inputs, and so forth. Task-positive work is about operating within an orientation. You know what you’re doing and what the environment is doing, and you’ve loaded up a bunch of habits at various stages of maturity and trying to be effective in a specific way: driving without killing yourself, cooking without burning yourself or the food.

Task-negative cognition is a natural and neuroscientifically meaningful definition of the scope of life rule sets. When you think about the part of human life where there are no necessary rules, no active and direct feedback mechanisms confining and correcting behaviors, you’re talking about stuff the default mode network gets up to.

So what does the DMN get up to? How does it actually run task-negative cognition to solve human-complete problems?

Where the Mind Wanders

In task-positive work, generally, if you don’t care, it doesn’t matter. Task positive work is inconsequentially under-determined.

You learn how to make tea, but you don’t have a preference for green or black. Well then, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need a rule. Do whatever. Green tea versus black tea is a distinction without a difference for you. Perhaps all you care about is a mild shot of caffeine in the form of a hot beverage.

Task-positive domains may be underdetermined, but they are not consequentially under-determined. You generally have enough information (or can discover enough) and there are enough constraining laws and dynamics, that you can compute a unique answer, solution, or decision that works. And you rarely have to change it. Insects can install the answer or solution in firmware, and humans can make it an unconscious habit.

Any leftover stuff is in the distinction-without-a-difference department where random and/or unconscious variable bindings and commitments will do.

This has a crucial effect: for task-positive work, means-ends reasoning is enough. You don’t need values, principles, rules, or ethical ruminations.

The DMN on the other hand, concerns itself with stuff that is consequentially underdetermined, but in a situationally non-urgent way. You do care, and it does matter, but you don’t have to make up your mind about what to do right now. The world isn’t conveniently narrowing down the options to one obvious right answer, but it also isn’t pushing you to bet your life on a coin toss.

More data may not help. If there are deeper physics type laws at work, you may not yet have discovered them, and might never do so.

This means task-negative cognition has a tendency to seek out ambiguous things to think about that matter in unclear ways. In task-negative cognition, the mind wanders in unbounded ways because that’s the only way to attack ill-posed human-complete problems. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll get anywhere.

Where does the mind wander?

The literature on the default mode network seems to indicate the following default inner dialogue conversation topics for the DMN:

  1. Autobiographical thinking (reflecting on your life)
  2. Thinking about relationships (other-regarding cognitions including envy, admiration etc)
  3. What-if ruminations about the future
  4. Creative-play imaginative thinking
  5. Idle day-dreaming exploring pleasing thoughts
  6. Aspects of sleep dreaming
  7. Anxious, obsessive thoughts about non-clear-and-present threats
  8. Unfocused attention (scanning the environment)

What is common to all these themes is that they involve things you care about, but lack sufficient information, agency, computational tractability, or environmental enabling conditions to act on. You can’t be task-positive about them. There’s nothing to do immediately, only stuff to think about. If you have a breakthrough insight while in task-negative mode, then perhaps there will be a way to act (or a determination of action being impossible). Task-negative regimes of thought are nightmarish hell zones for doerists, wonderland play zones for contemplative types.

Stephen Covey, incidentally, finesses the hardest part of building life rule sets by suggesting that you should simply not worry at all about things that are within your “circle of concern”, but outside your “circle of influence”. If you can’t do anything, don’t worry.

This is a cop-out of course, since it amounts to saying “don’t use your DMN”, but I mention it as evidence for the importance of the DMN/TPN divide in LRS engineering.

David Allen is more thoughtful about them, including a category of Someday/Maybe to file away your DMN raw material in his GTD system (life rule sets have a nice complementarity to productivity systems).

This list, incidentally, immediately explains why the tragic/idealist divide exists in the life rule set genre. The DMN is the source of both much of our creativity, and much of our obsessional anxiety. It is the source of both our best growth experiences, and our worst experiences of stuckness. It is the seat of both genius and depression.

The tragic approach to rules is to design them so the DMN is locked up for the future crimes it might commit. You give up both growth and danger. The idealist approach is to try and make it flourish while avoiding the dangers.

Either way, the task of a life rule set is to govern the anarchy of mind that is the DMN. What Muslims call the inner jihad.

The No Rules LRS

We are all computer scientists now, so we start our counting with zero. The simplest kind of rule set is one with zero rules. This is meditation.

Understood as DMN governance disciplines, meditative practices are about doing without rule sets. A mind like water is a mind without rules, but is still well-governed.

Understanding how the zero-rule set behaves is a helpful prelude to understanding how 5 or 25 rule sets work.

Meditative practices, naively understood, are about imposing authoritah on the DMN. This is illustrated by a key distinction made by practitioners, between half-open-eyed and close-eyed meditation practices, which clearly has to do with the task-negative/task-positive divide.

Eyes half-opened and focused on (say) a candle-flame, as is common in most Buddhist methods, allow you a minimalist task-positive foothold from which to discipline your DMN.

Closed-eyes practices, which are the norm in Hindu methods (as D. T. Suzuki notes in one of his essays, I forget which one), by cutting off sensory input more completely, are liable to send your DMN more crazy, and consequently, demand more effort to discipline.

This is easy enough to test for yourself. Your mind will wander differently with eyes half-open versus closed. Push all the way to sensory deprivation chambers for full-blown wakeful DMN fugues. Going the other way, walking meditations, flower arranging, archery, yoga, or tea ceremonies all anchor you with increasing firmness in task-positive cognition for your task-negative ruminative safety. The more active and sensorily open your DMN-mode, the safer it is because the more it is reined in. At some point of course, the task-positive anchor occupies all attention and you have no DMN activity at all. That’s what anti-correlation means.

DMN authoritah is a naive understanding though. The more sophisticated understanding of the DMN is not that its characteristic mind wandering behavior is all bad, but that obsessionally attached, non self-aware mind-wandering with no interrupt mechanisms (Ctrl-Z for you programmers), is bad.

If you’re being obsessively anxious about an upcoming interview for example, and you’ve done all you can by way of preparation, data collection, and theorizing, there is no more you can do. Yet, your DMN may obsessively circle that future with futile and stressful cognitions. The same holds for obsessing over a bad breakup (“what did I do wrong”) with Gloria Gaynor playing in a repeat loop in the background.

Both are task-negative strange attractors created by an attachment to a future that you cannot ensure. Thar be dukkha as the Buddhists like to say.

Such obsessive negative DMNing (pronounced “damning” as in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”) is not necessarily bad though. Sometimes you do need a thousand circlings of a nagging mental strange attractor that has pwned you, before you have the breakthrough insight that resolves the corresponding life conundrum gracefully. The idea that depressive cognition is better at uncovering truths seems to have fallen out of favor among professional psychologists, but I think it’s actually true.

The lighter, creative side of the DMN is more obviously valuable, and its dangers correspondingly less obvious. If your meditation practice is preventing your mind from wandering in ways that help it generate great jokes, poetry or clever math theorems, then you are doing it wrong. At the same time, if all your DMN does is make up cynical jokes about the world, you may have a different problem.

This is the nature of the DMN anarchy. The open-ended war of all thoughts against all thoughts inside your head. Meditative disciplines seek to govern the DMN anarchy with a light, laissez faire regulatory touch, gently detecting and breaking out of obsessional anxieties and addictions that don’t seem to be getting any closer to useful breakthrough insights. While letting imaginative flights of fancy, useful processing of traumas, and creative scanning of the environment, proceed unhindered.

More importantly, any kind of cognitive discipline practice also manages switching between task-positive and task-negative cognition. You need discipline in both directions:

  • Ensuring that you don’t stay obsessively focused on some task-positive rut of “work” to avoid distressing thought zones that the DMN might mind-wander into.
  • Ensuring that you don’t stay addictively trapped in pleasurable task-negative ruminations (day dreams, etc) to avoid unpleasant but necessary task-positive work.

I don’t know what neural circuitry is involved in learning such switching disciplines between task-positive/task-negative zones. Presumably some part of the prefrontal cortex. I’m going to guess such switching is a balanced ventro-medial and dorso-lateral action, based on some newly acquired neuropopscience knowledge. But clearly there is some such part since most of us are capable of developing such mental discipline under the right conditions.

Clearly, it is also possible to lack this switchgear mechanism, in which case you will generally achieve the switching through crashes and reboots into the other mode.

Even if you do have the necessary circuitry and acquired discipline to switch deliberately and consciously between DMN and TPN, you need energy to do so. Directing executive attention is among the most energy-intensive kinds of processing the brain does, so when you’re low on energy, it might in fact be easier to simply crash out of the DMN and reboot into the TPN, and vice-versa.

I generally prefer this way even when I have the energy, since it’s kinda fun to crash. I live a masochistically damned life.

Life Rule Sets in Neural Context

Once you understand what zero-rule sets are about, it becomes obvious what non-zero rule sets are about: they are about entering, leaving, or changing course within, the DMN (in Boydian terms, if those work for you, entering or leaving orientations, and reorienting).

  1. Entry rules are about when to interrupt a TPN behavior and refer the matter to the DMN
  2. Exit rules are about when to interrupt a DMN mode cognition and move to a TPN mode behavior
  3. Interrupt rules are about recognizing and interrupting runaway, non-terminating, futile DMN or TPN cognitions

Note that you mostly don’t need interrupt rules for task-positive work. That’s just failure, since there’s an external feedback loop. If you run physically amok, some outside force will eventually stop you. It’s only the DMN that can take the bit between its teeth and get out of control.

Cutting to the chase, if my theory above is correct, a life rule set is basically a sort of cognitive prosthetic, to help you govern the task-negative, or default mode network (DMN) and its switching dialectic with the task-positive network (TPN). Until you’ve meditated long enough to achieve mind-like water discipline, the rules help you LARP enlightenment using artificial circuit breakers.

With this set up, we can now get more systematic about the construction, care, and maintenance of life-rule sets. If you like adapting and deriving your life rules from others, this also works as a systematic procedure for doing so.

A Mind-Wanderer’s Map

Enough analysis. Let’s jump to synthesis, skipping lightly over a year of thinking, hundreds of pages of iPad notebook scribbling, and several years of hard training at the Shaolin Temple in my mysterious past, I give you: the mind-wanderer’s map. Or mandala to use a more technically accurate term of art.


This template is based on the goat-crow-rat (GCR) triangle that I first wrote about in Thingness and Thereness, and then refined in Been There, Done That. With the benefit of a year of hindsight, I know now what it actually is: it’s a map for tracking where your default-mode network, or DMN, might take you. 

It is an approximate visualization of the wandering range of the DMN, that I think is almost MECE and internally consistent. Read the two linked posts if you want to know something about the backend engineering behind this, but you don’t really need to understand its logic to use it.

And yes, there’s a reason there are goat, crow and rat icons on the map (the fact that the goat is a symbol of the devil is an unintended bonus), but for now, just think of them as mnemonic markers. They’re also known as the frontier, public, and home vertices respectively.

Roughly speaking, inside the triangle, the DMN is in charge, outside as your attention drifts away from the triangle, some sort of task-positive orientaton will take over, and the triangle itself, with its marked zones, is the fuzzy transition boundary between TPN and DMN cognition. What in engineering is called a switching curve.

You can use this template to make between 4 to 12 rules, by following the cues associated with each numbered location.

Here are the cues for all 12 rules. Each rule has to conform to a theme

  1. A rule about breaking relationships
  2. A rule about committing to lifelong relationships
  3. A rule about compromises in work/effort
  4. A rule about making and creating things
  5. A rule about your relationship to history
  6. A rule about your relationship to wealth and status
  7. A rule about your deepest grow-together relationships
  8. A rule about your physical body
  9. A rule about how you science
  10. A rule about what your life is a measure of*
  11. A rule about how you appear in public
  12. A rule about irreversible public action

Here’s my 30-day money-back guarantee: if you make rules by this template, you’ll always have a lighthouse rule to navigate by no matter where your mind wanders.

It’s like a 12-satellite GPS constellation for your default-mode network. No matter where you go, you’ll have a line of sight to between 1-4 of these principles, so you can triangulate your current position with greater or lesser accuracy.

You’ll never be lost in thought again, even if you can’t break out of a thought.

For the sake of completeness, the two unnumbered regions are regions where your rules will break down as you approach your own personal event horizon. The annular region labeled memes, memes, memes, is a space you’ll navigate with jokes, aphorisms and memes, with increasing stress and anxiety. The dark black hole at the center with a side-eye is my cartoon of the void.

I can’t recall where I first heard the “void giving you the side-eye” joke, but I really like it. Much funnier than Nietzsche’s abyss-staring-back imagery. To complete the understanding of the map, think of it as being on the inside of a sphere, with the void hole being a leak. The area around the triangle curves around to complete a finite sphere.

Your head is inside the sphere. Normally you’re looking at some part of it that is not the triangle. When you are in DMN gear, the triangle is in view, and your attention can enter the triangle and inch towards the void hole.

Using the Template

There are three natural levels to using the map: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Beginners should make up only the first 4 rules. Intermediates should make up 6 rules. Advanced users should make up all 12 rules. Nobody is stopping you from making rules beyond your level, but chances are they’ll be vacuous platitudes if you try to draft them before you’ve had the necessary life experiences to inspire or recognize good ones.

Beginner Use

The beginner way is suitable for younger people who, in some sense, haven’t “arrived” anywhere yet and haven’t become identified with particular accomplishments (big or small). It’s for people whose mind wandering is accompanied by world-and-life wandering.

Generally this means you’re under 30, but if you’re a prodigy who won Olympic Gold at 16, you might get to intermediate quicker. But generally, you don’t get past the beginner stage until you’re around 30.

If that description fits you, you want to use the beginner method. This involves making up only the first 4 rules. The logic of these 4 is captured in this 2×2.

The most basic distinction in how the DMN ruminates is between other-regarding cognitions (thoughts about other people) and material cognitions. What Martin Buber characterized as I-thou and I-it cognitions. Read Mike Travers’ gloss on that if you’re interested.

That’s the y-axis. This is not something you can change. The human brain is wired to think differently (and more deeply) about people, and things it thinks of in people-terms (such as car aficionados about cars) than about non-people things. So you have to work with this major watershed. So rules 1 and 2 are I-thou rules, while rules 3 and 4 are I-it rules. That should cover almost everything you might run into in private life in your springtime.

The second most basic distinction is between finite/infinite game cognitions, or equally, priceless and priced economic regimes. The difficult read for this is James Carse’s Finite and Infinite GamesAn easier read is my post The Economics of Pricelessness.

Basically, think of the inside of the triangle as the “market”, which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. To enter the triangle is to compromise priceless principles, exit finite games, and deal with the open-ended possibilities of being by testing yourself against open-ended realities.

Outside the triangle is vast patchwork landscape of task-positive domains, each of which has its own domain-determined rules, defining finite games of one sort or the other.

This is the x-axis. It too is something you cannot change. The universe contains infinities, and one way or another, you’ll be forced to deal with them. You can have priceless values, or unbounded possibilities, but not both. So rules 1 and 3 are infinite-game rules (and also rules about how noble Klingons ought to deal with markets and evil Ferengi traders) while rules 2 and 4 are finite-game rules, governing interactions with people who generally share your basic ideas about what is priceless (what I’ve called saint-saint as opposed to saint-trader interactions, see also my Principia Misanthropica).

Another way to think of the basic four. Rule 1 is your out-group-dealings rule. Rule 2 is your in-group dealings rule. Rule 3 is your sell-out rule. Rule 4 is your artisan/how-to-be-a-precious-snowflake rule.

Intermediate Use

So you’ve “arrived”, congrats. You’ve faked it and made it. You’ve done something, however minor and little-noted, and now you are somebody. Defined by a history of actions rather than a birth identity. You’ve got a unique story to tell even if only 3 people besides your Mom want to hear it. (For programmers: you’ve got a pull request going into History, big H, and you’re hoping it will get merged).

You’ve made a dent in the universe. You’ve appeared in public to hurrahs or boos, ready to be written into history, if only for a minor bug fix, and begin your Act II. Maybe you’ve earned fuck-you money. Maybe you’ve just gotten comfortable in some public persona on Twitter.

People underestimate just how enormously important and transformative this threshold is. No matter how minor your claim to being part of history, the fact of having a case at all, and exiting the life of an anonymous private citizen, is mind-altering. This is the reason humans across the ages have felt an urge to add “Frodo was here!” graffiti to famous monuments. With that act, Frodo becomes the guy who went there rather than just some hobbit of the Baggins clan.

Act II generally means you’re 30+, and have either experienced success, or defined wherever you’ve landed as “success.” If you’ve failed, you need to go back to the beginner level of this game and rethink your first 4 rules. If you don’t think you have a life story you’re ready to tell, you’re not ready for Act II.

However you define arrival, you need extra rules. Two extra rules to be precise.

The basic challenge of Act II, and the challenge of intermediate rule-making, is deciding how to relate to the concept of a legacy, in both the past and future-oriented senses of the word. A legacy presupposes arrival in some public sense of the word. You’re more than some schmoe who will have lived and died with nobody even knowing or caring you existed, with no dent in history, not even a footnote in the worst history book.

The core of this challenge is making up Rules 5 and 6. These are the priced (infinite game) and priceless (finite game) aspects of your relationship to history.

  • Use Rule 5 to define your relationship to history, and the future, and how you fit into it, including your relationship to mortality and legacy.
  • Use Rule 6 to define your basic relationship to a public life. You don’t have to be President. You might only be known within some small (but public, not insular subculture) polity as being about X. But you have to adopt a conscious attitude about being about X.

For instance, within my little pond here at ribbonfarm, I’m “that guy who wrote the Gervais Principle and has been going downhill ever since,” and I have to decide what to feel about that particular obscure footnote being my place in some history book that covers the Lesser Bloggers of the 21st Century Blogosphere in Chapter 32. Maybe I hate being in that pigeonhole. Maybe I enjoy it. Maybe I have put it behind me. Maybe I’m trapped by it. Maybe I’ll top it.

Whatever it is, I have to have a rule about how I relate to things of that sort.

Rules 5 and 6 don’t so much transcend the I-it/I-thou divide as blur it. The distinction still matters, but once there’s an “arrived” aspect to your life, they no longer have a clean separation. As an example, ribbonfarm is a blog. An I-it thing. I am a person, an I-thou thing. It’s hard to separate the two today, but they were very different things in the past. One was something I did, the other was who I was. But today, relating to myself has both aspects.

Advanced Use

Here’s a law of rule-making: you are always in an existential crisis, whether or not you know it. If you’ve read the earlier posts (not necessary), you know that the triangle is actually a Penrose triangle. An impossible triangle that has a break in it somewhere, cleverly disguised via an optical illusion. The locus of that crisis is usually one of the corners (reminder: goat = frontier, home = rat, public = crow).

Each time you fix one, it moves to another locus, and you grow a little. In my scribbling practice, I usually put a little red lightning bolt where I sense the crisis is at the moment. This is not a mandala you make once and then use for ever, you have to scribble a new one each time you want to a visual aid for DMNing.

Rules 7-12 are your advanced rules that govern navigation of existential crises. They are about rounding the corners of the triangle, switching from regime to regime.

You’ve got 3 basic regimes: I-thou (rat to crow, home to public, the be-somebody edge), I-it (rat to goat, home to frontier, the do-something edge) and public (goat to crow, frontier to public, been there, done that edge), each with a priced/priceless side to them (infinite/finite game). And you’ve got transitions between them.

Next time you’re meditating, try and notice when you round a corner. From I-it to I-thou for example. Feel a bump? You might have a ratspace crisis brewing.

Ratspace Crises

Rules 7-8 are about navigating ratspace crises. These are crises involving your most private, intimate personal life. The two most useful rules to have for such transitions are a rule about your deepest relationships (7, generally spouse and children) and a rule about relating to your body (8).

Why these two? Our intimate relationships are where our socially defined identities start to bleed into our physically defined ones. Here be sex. Here be bodily fluids. Here be farts and poop. Here be depression in your bones. Here be drunkenness. Here be exercise and euphoria. Here be body image, shame, and narcissism.

Here be where you contemplate yourself not just as a conscious being, but also as a biological machine. Here be your medical history. Here be your cholesterol medications and contact lens prescriptions.

Goatspace Crises

Rules 9-10 are about navigating goatspace crises. These involve your most extreme where-no-one-has-gone-before frontier explorations of life possibilities. Your space journeys, your ultramarathons, your trips to Antarctica. Your Nobel Winning discoveries. Your most-viral-on-Twitter blogposts. This is the extreme edge frontier of your relationship with your own limits and ignorance. And to the extent you are a pioneer of some sort, the limits and ignorance of humanity at large.

So Rule 9 is about how you science. This is a huge topic, so I’ll just leave you with my old The Scientific Sensibility post. This whole line of thought started for me with thinking about how goatspace works and how we chase horizons. I’ll actually get around to writing my goatspace post at some point.

Rule 10… well, Rule 10 is possibly the trickiest rule of the lot, which is why I’ve given it the famous-soccer-player jersey number. See, this is a subtle point you’ll only grok once you’re past your life-hacking, script optimizing, rationality-driven life phase, when you’ve realized that means-ends thinking and Science! (not science) as an operating system for life ends in nihilism because of one idea that you either get or don’t get: humans are the measure of the meaning of life, not things to be measured for meaning. 

Some of you like the postrationality and metarationality thoughtspaces. Well, Rule 10 is what separates rationality from those two things. If you have a good Rule 10, you’ve made it across.

The point of doing something and becoming somebody is that suddenly you have turned into a measure of what it means to experience meaning. What value is.

So Rule 10 is about seeing yourself as a measuring device. What do you measure in the universe? What will others use your life to measure, value, and gauge?

Steve Jobs’ life, for instance, is the measure of personal computing. To build an excellent personal computer is to have lived a life worth one SteveJobs unit. His life became the measure of exploring the frontiers of computing. It is a unit of meaning other lives can be measured against until (and if) they acquire their own character as a measure.

You’ll sound like a lot of other people before you sound like yourself, as musicians like to say.

Crowspace Crises

And finally, Rules 11 and 12 are rules governing the transition between social life (within your circle of friends, or neighborhood, the zone of everyday but not history-making life, where you can be popular but not famous) and your public life. I don’t mean grand speeches or big titles, though those might be involved.

I mean rules you apply when you realize something you’re thinking about or doing might have consequences beyond your own life. That your actions have the potential for irreversible public impact, however minor. The yearning to acquire and actualize such potential can be so strong in people who have none of it that they can go on gun rampages just to enter the history books by any means necessary.

So Rule 11 is about how you appear in public. 

Maybe you decide never to tweet violent thoughts or insult someone in public. Maybe you decide to always stand up straight rather than slouch. Maybe you decide never to back down from a fight. Maybe you decide to appear with a gun and kill 50 people before killing yourself. Maybe you pulled a whistleblowing stunt and threw an entire industry into crisis like Susan Fowler did. Maybe you leaked a bunch of documents like Edward Snowden did. Maybe your one public moment is when you save a child from being hit by a car and the child grows up to be an Einstein. Maybe you were the first human on Mars.

Rule 11 can make the difference of failing your moment or rising to it (having a good Rule 10 helps).

Your appearances in public are rare, precious, and consequential by definition. And those moments won’t necessarily involve a lot of ceremonial stage-setting. Your one chance to appear in public might come and go in an instant requiring extraordinary courage.

And finally, Rule 12 is about the boundary between public and private life, which coincides with the boundary between socially reversible and irreversible actions. That moment before you step on stage. That moment before you hit “publish” or “send.” That moment before you decide whether to say something you cannot unsay, only be forgiven for. The best reference for Rule 12 thinking is Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition.

Rule 11 and Rule 12 are two sides of the same coin. One governs the decision to go public, the other defines the nature of the act of appearing in public. On the other side of the Act II edge, Rules 9 and 10 determine what you actually bring to the party. Sometimes it is nothing, and that’s okay. You might have ended up appearing in public simply because you happened to be in a certain place at a certain time.

Whatever your manner of appearing in public, and however your rules 9, 10, 11, and 12 bracket your appearance, that’s how you will arrive on the stage of human life, and be thrown into an Act II where you’ll need your Rules 5 and 6 to survive.

Unfortunately, the very first time this happens will almost certainly be an unplanned accident, and it will take some time for you to actually bring any sort of consciousness to how you enact the experience.

Often your first version of Rules 7-12 are discovered via crashing into a crisis and coming out alive.

My 12 Rules

My current 12 rules, generated by going through the exercise, and which are likely to stay stable for at least a week, are as follows. I share these not as a set you will necessarily be able to understand or adapt for yourself, but as an illustration of the output of actually applying the process. You will notice some of them don’t add much to the basic rule-prompts (like 2, 7, 8, and 10). That’s a sign I haven’t thought too much about them. Others are clearly borrowed (like 6) suggesting I haven’t really figured it out and am sort of cargo-culting somebody else’s rule.

  1. Flip early, flip hard
  2. Choose death-do-us-part consciously
  3. Embrace the janky
  4. Don’t be too suspicious of beauty
  5. Pick your heresies
  6. Money is a problem to be solved
  7. Find your diving partners
  8. Know your body
  9. Pick your knowbel
  10. Know what you measure
  11. Pick your publics
  12. Know your forks

Memes and Void

An interesting feature of this mind-wanderer’s map is that the infinite games side is inside the (finite) area of the triangle. As you approach the center of the triangle, your rules start to break down, first into memes, aphorisms, and jokes, and eventually into staring into the void. When I draw this next, I’ll sketch some time-dilation type lines.

Task negative-cognition is not a safe game. It will not keep you bounded within safe thought spaces. It can take you to pretty dangerous places mentally, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.

Even if you take the most conservative, tragic approach possible, and your rules 1, 3 and 5 are all “Do not cross!” you cannot actually stop your mind from wandering across the boundary, into the triangle and inching towards the void. That’s the reason I like keeping the Penrose triangle version of the visualization in mind, to remind myself that the map is an illusion. If you start using this triangle diagramming technique, I recommend you never draw one without making a little red mark somewhere to indicate where you think the illusion-anchoring crisis is hiding. In my first sketch, you’ll notice it at the crow vertex.

The triangle isn’t real. It’s a map with fake lines made up to orient you. Those lines aren’t impenetrable walls designed to keep your inner Mexicans from coming at you. You can never really fence in the void, but you can be conscious of when your mind wanders close to it, and what it does when it does.

I like thinking of the void dot as a literal attention blackhole. When your attention wanders closer than you can handle, you can enter non-terminating thoughts. That’s why it’s the zone of infinite games and human-complete problem solving. If you descend towards the void and return, you may find a lot more time has passed than you experienced.

Each time you visit, thoughts that don’t kill you will make you stronger. But there’s always the chance that you’ll think that one thought that can break your mind.

Life rules won’t prevent that happening, but they’ll make sure you’re dressed in a dignified way for it. As Woody Allen said, eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.

Series Navigation<< Been There, Done ThatVastness >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. “The 10 Commandments of *Christianity*”? Really?

    • Well okay Judaism and Christianity :)

      • Exodus chapter 20 doesn’t number them 1-10, and the catholic bible reads differently there than the protestant bible.

        Separately, what is it about boiling a goat in its mother’s milk?

        • Boiling a juvenile goat or calf in its mother’s milk was one of the traditional sacrifices to the god Tammuz, a harvest deity in Chaldean and other Semitic cultures. Basically, don’t worship false gods, with the singling out of one of the more popular ones of the day.

          If it were today, they’d have used one of our more modern false gods, like “thou shalt not seek just endless money,” or “thou shalt not seek thousands of twitter followers, or “thou shalt not put thy ‘personal brand’ before the Lord, thy God.”

      • And a brilliant article, I should say.

  2. Jordan Peacock says

    1. Subtly or sharply, all relationships diverge. Hold each for its time, and not longer. (A rule about breaking relationships)
    2. A partnership requires frequent mutual course-corrections and a commitment to the present and future selves of one’s partner. (A rule about committing to lifelong relationships)
    3. Be jealous in what you attend to. Do not be afraid to shirk in order to pay dividends elsewhere. (A rule about compromises in work/effort)
    4. Build things that enrich your soul; share things that enrich the commons. (A rule about making and creating things)
    5. You will fall on the wrong side of history; do not overly venerate posterity. (A rule about your relationship to history)
    6. Exchange money for time; exchange time for experience. (A rule about your relationship to wealth and status)
    7. Bear your loved ones’ risks with grace. (A rule about your deepest grow-together relationships)
    8. You will never quite be its master; be not your body’s slave. (A rule about your physical body)
    9. Trust heterogeneous yet convergent data, not your senses or initial measure. (A rule about how you science)
    10. Will your measure. (A rule about what your life is a measure of)
    11. Own your actions. (A rule about how you appear in public)
    12. Own your consequences. (A rule about irreversible public action)

    • Ying Ying says

      Thank you for sharing your rules, Jordan! These have been easier for me to understand than the post’s original examples.

  3. Given your definition of the inside the triangle to be more DMN and outside of the triangle to be TPN, should the description (and content) of 1,3 be actually 2,4. and The 2,4 correspond tothe 1,3 space inside the triangle?


    • All the questions are actually DMN processing, since if you’re thinking of such things you’re in reflective mode. You’re not thinking “how should I hold this knife” or “how should I reply to this specific text to avoid hurting the other person”. TPN questions have a situational specificity to them. DMN rules help start/stop/steer thinking.

      The DMN side is the infinite game side, where the key question is always, “how to continue the game” rather than “how to win” so the prompts having to do with breaking out of finite game orientation are on the inside. The prompts having to do with accepting a finite game orientation in order to gett back to action are on the outside.

      To some extent it doesn’t matter because both prompts relate to the boundary crossing rather than the interior or exterior. It’s best to think of the actual interior as a thought market.

      • I see, by visualising the prompts as boundary crossing it does make it easier to comprehend the two sides of a given edge.

        So if I interpret rule 6 (wealth and status) as accepting a finite game to get back to action.While the counterpart rule 5 (relation to history) as breaking out of a finite game. Very straightforward to me.

        But rule 1 (breaking relationship) and rule 3 (work/effort) still seem more of an accepting a finite game with something to be won, while rule 2 (lifelong) and rule 4 (making and creating) feels more breaking out of a finite game, that is to be wanting continuously. I guess this part is where I can’t quite my head around.

        Am I reading the example rules wrong, or not understanding the model fully?

        • Good questions. You’re not reading the example rules wrong, but perhaps thinking of them in idealized contexts.

          It is context dependent, but I’m going by the median case throughout. In the median case, a lifelong relationship is more likely to be a codependency trap within an insular subculture (like say comic book nerds who never grow up) than one of those truly deep “infinite game” relationships which Carse talks about. Which means your infinite game move is more likely to be breaking a relationship and moving on to growth elsewhere than staying there. Kinda like jobs these days: promotion prospects are weak so you have to leave orgs and get a new job to move up. You outgrow jobs and leave them. You outgrow relationships and leave them. All in service of finding ways to continue playing the game.

          Similarly on the I-it leg, yes some kinds of maker journeys (think Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist) can be infinite quests for a sort of spiritually open growth. But most of the time they are likely to be precious snowflake artisan traps (or taste traps) where your identity is too tied to (say) making coffee perfectly or something. So in general, infinite game growth tends to come from what we usually view as market compromises. Kinda like the hipster/lifehacker divide. Though both can be in finite game traps, if I had to bet, I’d guess that the median lifehacker is more likely to be self actualizing, and the median hipster is more likely to be in a taste trap finite game. In general, entering the triangle should feel kinda messy, dirty, and sullying of some sort of purity. There’s a discomfort gradient pointing towards the void, whether you’re talking relationships, making, history, or any of the corner stuff.

          • I think I have a better understanding of the infinite/finite now. (And the traps!)

            In your model, there are almost no infinite games, but only the allure of infiniteness, which will turn it into a singular finite game, as your examples of codependency trap, and taste traps. And that the closest most will get to an infinite game is actually by continuing a series of obvious finite games. Keep trudging along is the only way to approximate an infinite game.

            Applying it to the Thou-It leg, Rule 6 wealth is the more likely trap one falls in, thus requiring acceptance of wealth’s finteness. But for Rule 5 History, a “compromise” of oneself’s place in history is more likely to be self-actualising, and therefore continuously/periodically breaking off our perception of ourself in history is required. Is this application to the Thou-It leg more along the median case you intended?

  4. Do you think the symmetry would be more intuitive if the pairs 7-8, 9-10, 11-12 would be also “inside” and “outside” of the triangle, akin the pairs 1-2, 3-4, 5-6? If I’ve read the description correctly, 7, 9, 12 would then be the inside vertices, and corresponding 8, 10, 11, the outside vertices, of rat, goat, crow respectively…

    • Those 3 pairs dont’ actually span the finite/infinite game divide. Rather, they span the lines dividing the edge regimes. Take 7/8 for example. A spouse is somebody who defines your identity in an I-thou way, but is also someone who most intimately has access to your body in an I-it way after yourself. But still, they are ultimately another person, not you. So rule 7 is on the I-thou side of that divide. You’re the only person who can relate to your body in a true I-it way as an object though, feeling its weight, balance, etc directly in a physics sense, so the “rule about your body” prompt 8 is on the other side.

      As currently stated, those prompts are kinda indifferent to the finite/infinite aspect and could be on either side. If I were to add 6 more prompts, that split would be evident. The current prompt 8 might become a new prompt 8 like “don’t look in the mirror too often” (to avoid getting trapped in the finite game of body narcissism) and rule 14 might be “take a walk everyday” (which to me tends to be an infinite game kind of bodily activity since it recenters/grounds me).

      There’s probably room for 3 more pairs, rules 13-18, on the inside.

      • Thanks, thinking it in terms of edge regimes makes complete sense to me now. Let me try to give it go..

        In a sense, could the rules 7-12 be thought as the “extreme” of the I-it, I-thou, thou-it edges?

        Rule 8 (body) to Rule 9 (Your Science), is the two extremes of I-It, where Rule 8 is as I as it gets, and Rule 9 is as It as it gets.

        Rule 7 (Partners) to Rule 12 (Public Actions), is two extremes of I-Thou edge.

        Rule 10 (measure) to Rule 11(Appearance) is then the It-Thou edge regime. Rule 10 is It-centric but based/ground on Thou, instead of grounded by I (like Rule 9). And Rule 11 is the Thou-centric but based on It (the something you have done) rather based on I (rule 12).

        In this interpretation, the (fuzzy?) vertices/space, Home, Frontier, Public are proxied only by the edges almost touching. But these vertices are not actually the same vertices, such there is a jump (the break in the triangle), or bend around the corners pairs, 7/8, 9/10, 11/12, that adjoins the edges pairs, 7/12, 8/9, 10/11. And without the edge behind the corner, one wouldn’t be able to orient their way, when one is bending around the corner.

        It’s quite interesting if the vertices were further split spanning the finite/infinite divide. If expanded to 18 rules, it is like having a “Sestet” on a given edge regime, and a trio of sestet, e.g. the Sestet for I-It would be:

        8 (body) — 3 (work) —15 (let’s say milestone?!)
        [I] [It]
        14 (mirror) — 4 (creation)—-9 (science)

        I think it’s good mental exercise to do the 18 rules as you described above. I wonder structurally would a trio of Sestet or trio of Quartet (Home, Frontier, Public) + trio of Duet (I-Thou-It) to reflect(or for people to use) your ideal model better?

        • I think you got the basic idea now. You may want to read the Carse book if you haven’t already, to get a better handle on the subtleties of infinite/finite games. They aren’t quite mutex. Infinite is best understood as an attitude with which you play within finite game regimes. It is not the activity but the disposition towards it.

          I may develop the theory further to 18 rules, but I suspect that may be too overwrought for most people, especially without a lot more supporting intuition development on how to work with the first 6. There’s a bit of a learning curve here due to the depth of the sources I’m drawing from.

          • Thanks, I will read Carse book, hopefully, will understand “The Economics of Pricelessness” more fully.

  5. Your analysis of zero-rule-sets is very interesting, but sadly short. I wish you had theorized further about them – perhaps I will do so myself at a later time. For now, I have the Single Rule Set Conjecture, also known as the Fundamentalist Theorem of LRSes: If an LRS is mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive, internally consistent, dialectic, cardinally ordered, independently construed and illegible (will work irrespective of your understanding of them), on a domain X, then X is not a comprehensive domain of everything that will ever concern me in life, or the LRS contains exactly 1 rule. The proof is left as an exercise to the reader.

  6. Ralph W Witherell says

    Venkatesh, another mind bending and valuable post. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Here’s another LRS from a certified badass:

    I have difficulty getting over the arbitrariness of LRS. I too would love to hear more of your thoughts regarding ZRS, if you have anything additional to say. Any LRS seems clunky relative to that kind of “mind like water discipline.”

    • But also, great article. The only attempt at deductively arriving at a framework for a “full” system of life rules that I’ve ever come across.

      Breaking new ground.

  8. Jeffrey Weiner says

    A test I always run on this type of lrs-generation model is what happens when I apply it to itself.

    I did this with Peterson’s conception of how to rise through dominance hierarchies – it broke down because it becomes infinitely regressive which shouldn’t be possible based on Peterson’s assertions regarding the role of the logos in driving action throughout.

    Here’s the trouble I have with this model. I’ve been thinking about it whenever my mind wanders since yesterday morning when I read it. This implies that thinking about thinking within the model falls within the triangle.

    However, I don’t see where within the triangle this style of thinking fits in. I don’t think that thinking about thinking occurs at home. I don’t see it as occurring in public either since there’s no sense of “done that [thing].”

    This leaves three options for where this thinking falls:
    1/ the frontier (but is there a there there? It doesn’t feel like there is?)

    2/ meme-space (but this is too thoughtful and serious to be a joke or aphorism)

    3/ the void? (but this thinking doesn’t fill me with the existential dread I experience when I get the side eye from the void)

    So… Where am I when I’m thinking about how thinking is delineated in the map?

    • Jeffrey Weiner says

      Also, for what it’s worth, this article is the best thing I’ve read in years.

      I have reread it about eight times since yesterday morning and sent it to about fifty friends.

      • Nice test!

        The key with abstractions is to break it down to object-level actions. With mathematics, geometric thinking often takes the form of working with object beauty. I ‘think in triangles’ both with abstract models like this and when I am drawing or rolling out triangular parathas. I notice asymmetries and try to fix them. Manipulating equations is like manipulating physical machines (and in this sort of diagram, you’re effectively doing a sort of group theory in your head, which is like rotating, flipping or twisting physical objects… think origami for instance, which is a physically embodied task-positive activity close to this sort of diagrammatic thinking). The skill element also makes it clearly an I-it maker thing. Some people are simply better at 2x2s, triangles etc than others.

        That said, you might end up grounding such thinking in weird places. There are times when my geometric thinkings are closest to the public vertex, because I associate them with the formal structures of public organizations. The public square, the decentralized network. King Arthur’s round table. The pyramidal hierarchy. Many of our intuitions about navigating geometric spatial structures come from our experience of navigating social structures.

        So for this kind of reflexive testing itself, as well as thinking-about-thinking philosophizing itself, I think the good rule of thumb is to pay attention to the embodied form the thinking takes. What sensory or cognitive modality is actually being used, regardless of the meaning of what you’re doing? If you were to use supporting artifacts, what would you use to do the metathinking? Some bindings:

        Paper and pencil: I-it edge
        Talking to a friend: I-thou edge
        Using a measuring instrument like a telescope or just observing empirical realities (“let me check how birds flock to test this model”): Frontier vertex
        Meditation or self-body observations of some sort: home vertex
        Imaginary simulations of how this might play if you gave a talk about it or how you would pitch it to an org: public vertex

        You get the idea. There is no such thing as an abstract thought-about-a-thought. It always gets compiled down to a more basic object modality.

        • A simpler answer to your question is: this diagram is clearly a tool and we’re going to end up using tool-brain to use it most of the time. Tools can be task-positive or task-negative depending on how we’re using them. A pencil used to take notes is a task-positive tool. A pencil used to doodle while bored at a lecture is a task-negative DMN expression tool. I think this tool is just outside the I-it edge, more task-positive than task-negative, since thinking about it has a doer-like focus to it.

          I follow George Lakoff’s line of reasoning for this sort of thing… how are we metaphorically translating our understanding of the activity to a more primitive kind? Here the most salient aspect of the model, despite what it says/content, is that it is a spatial visualization .

  9. Aptenodytes says

    I’m about to become 18 and am still on Act I. Which traps exist to destroy me at this age?

    • Democritus Junior says

      I assume any activities which preclude you from defining your own rules, 1 through 4. You have to engage in (and fail at) relationships, work & making/creating in order to generate your particular set.

      • Aptenodytes says

        I’ve already worked out rules for relationships because I have tried and failed at that, but nothing for work or making.
        Rule 1: End relations promptly, with no attempts to make up.
        Rule 2: Communicate on a consistent basis.

  10. I think you forgot rule #1 – try not to overthink things.

  11. Democritus Junior says

    Another superb essay. And dizzying, as usual. [thumbs up emoticon]

  12. “The human brain is wired to think differently (and more deeply) about people, and things it thinks of in people-terms (such as car aficionados about cars) than about non-people things.” I do not doubt this in any way. Rather, can someone point me to reading materials that centrally pertain to this notion?

  13. Meditator says

    Really interesting and provocative article. I’m most interested in your ideas about meditation and the DMN. Not all Buddhist meditation is done with open eyes; in my experience Theravada uses closed eyed and Zen/some Tibetan use open or half-open. It’s a very interesting question as to how this affects the DMN, and something I’d not thought about before.

    One thing I’d disagree with is “Meditative disciplines seek to govern the DMN anarchy with a light, laissez faire regulatory touch”, at least when one is seriously pursuing Buddhist vipassana meditation. I recently heard a Sri Lankan monk say that he had no inner voice, and this lines up with reports from others and my own experience, which is that meditative practice can actually be rather heavy-handed when it comes to the DMN.

    With enough meditative practice you can strongly attenuate or even fully silence the mind-wandering aspect of the DMN, at least as it appears to the conscious mind. At first this happens only during meditation, but over time it can persist throughout waking hours, becoming a new “default”. I would argue that the weakening of this voice is one aspect of loss of “identity view”, which is the first “fetter”. Later progress can further increase control over the DMN, attenuate it, and silence it for longer periods following meditation, or possibly even permanently squelch it.

    The question of what this means for creativity is really interesting. DMN-type thinking is still possible even if you’ve heavily reduced its normal operations, in my experience, but I wonder whether creativity isn’t affected as well. From your article it seems like your view is that some level of mind-wandering is useful, and I agree. My intuition is that increased control over the DMN lets you decide what is projected into consciousness, and when, while the brain remains just as busy in the subconscious, but I’d be interested to know what you or others think.