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LessWrong Community Weekend 2015

29 Jun 2015

2191 words

[Kinda sappy and emotional in parts. Being posted sort of a long time after the event. Not totally happy with the way this post turned out, but, you know, better finished and mediocre than perfect and imaginary, or something. Epistemic state: I deleted a lot of “as far as I can tell”s. Just pretend like every sentence ends with those words, and please do tell me if I’m wrong about anything.]

I attended this year’s European LessWrong Community Weekend. The initial draft of this post began thus:

This is the event report I did not want to write and you do not want to read.

I decided I didn’t like this approach. During the Weekend, people always said, “make it your own.” So let’s do that instead.

This is a collection of things I learned while I was in Berlin.

Noticing gratitude

In the weeks leading up to the Weekend, I was really excited. This was going to be awesome. I would meet new people and have fun talking to them, and maybe even make a few friends. I thought, “I enjoy being in the Study Hall most of the time, how hard could meeting people in the real world possibly be?”

Quite hard, as it turns out. Being around so many people in the real world was completely overwhelming for me and I spent large chunks of the Weekend feeling anxious, depressed, and worthless. I wanted to talk to people, I wanted to socialize, I wanted to have a nice time, but the more I tried, the more I felt like I was failing. I thought I would quite possibly never be able to make any new friends because I was just no good at it.

That was how I felt on the way back from Berlin. But the fact was that everyone at the event had been incredibly friendly and welcoming and the only reason I felt like I hadn’t connected with anyone was because I was being all scared. I decided it would be incredibly unfair to the other participants to let sadness, self-loathing, and resignation be the bottom line I’d draw from this experience.

I needed a mindset-shift. I needed to get into a more positive reference frame. Partly inspired by Robert’s lightning talk on gratitude journaling, I began by making a list of everyone I remembered having a comfortable conversation with. It took me only a few minutes to gather about 20 names, which I thought was pretty good for an event with less than 80 people – especially considering I spent a lot of the time hiding from everyone.

As a result of this exercise, it became much easier to contemplate all the positive aspects of the Weekend and feel a lot better about having attended.

Create opportunities, not conversations

So the plan was to meet new people and form new relationships and socialize and all that business, right? Yeah. But there’s a problem: I don’t actually know how to do that. I know I try, and I know that sometimes I manage to have a good time talking to people. But – and I really should have noticed this earlier – I’m always surprised whenever I have an enjoyable social interaction. So I knew I wasn’t actually incapable of having nice conversations – because they’ve happened before – but I was clearly doing something wrong; somehow, my model of how successful social interactions work must be flawed. Ironically, I could never remember what I’d done when conversations did go well. Whenever I really made an effort and thought about what I was doing, things were awkward and uncomfortable. How would I ever make progress like that?

And it took me this long to notice it. Maybe that is not a coincidence. Maybe trying to socialize just won’t work because socializing is not an action and “trying to socialize” actually does nothing but distract me from doing the actions that lead to everyone having a nice time. Assuming this is true, what are the actions I can perform?

Whenever I find someone interesting, I tend to assume they are somehow “objectively” interesting, so talking to them must be a bad idea because everyone is probably already talking to them all the time and I’ll just be an annoyance. Lesson One: This is not true. In most cases, your interest in someone is primarily a fact about you, and not the interesting person. If you don’t know how to start a conversation, just look for a group of interesting-looking people and stand close to them. What do you do then? You wait. Wait and listen. Don’t think about what to say. Trying to think of something to say is pretty much the last thing you ever want to do when you’re trying to have an interesting conversation (unless you have something specific you want to tell the other person, that is). Thinking about what you might say next will only distract you from listening to what the other person is saying.

So you wait, and you listen, and you try to get a feel for the situation. When you’re not desperately trying to “socialize” or “talk to people”, your brain won’t tell you you’re failing when you don’t say anything for a while. This will give you the time to get comfortable which, in turn, will tell your brain it’s okay to relax. And that is the point where you start talking, because once you feel relaxed and comfortable and you’re listening, you will inevitably find relevant things to say. (If you do find something to say earlier, you don’t need to hold back, of course. This is just supposed to help you think when you can’t.)

When I’m with a group of people I don’t know well, and the group moves from one place to another, I tend to get insecure and not know whether they still want me there, so I often quietly disappear. Lesson Two: The event is called “Community Weekend” for a reason. The others are there to talk to people, too. It will probably be fine to stay with a group and take part in their conversations even when they change locations. If you’re worried about being annoying, keep in mind that it is actually quite difficult to be so annoying that people will want you to go away. And if that doesn’t help, just have some faith that people will tell you to leave if they really don’t like you.

I have some ideas for one-on-one conversations with a specific person, but it’ll take a bit more practice until I can turn them into something useful.

Cuddling

Scott Alexander writes:

I go into social encounters viewing most people as a combination of scary and boring. I can sometimes overcome that most of the way by spending months getting to know them and appreciate their unique perspective. Or I can cuddle with them for ten minutes. Either one works.

Ever since I read this, it has been part of my identity. Now I’m not so sure. I still think cuddling is awesome and it can calm me when I’m stressed out, but it did not really make me feel more comfortable around people I didn’t know and was scared of. Apparently, for me, to feel good about cuddles, I need some kind of relationship to be already present, or it will feel uncomfortable for me. Fortunately though, depending on the person, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of contact to get to point where I feel comfortable cuddling someone. (I’m referring here to the stuff that’s been going on in the Blanket Fort. Regular everyday hugs work all the time with everyone, and I got quite a few of those at the Weekend for which I am very grateful.)

Blanket forts are awesome

Seriously, it’s like a blend between engineering and cuddles.

People know I exist

I once had a conversation with a friend from university. She is the person who (I assume) knows the names of (almost) every other physics student two semesters up and down at my university. To me, she said, “until well into the second semester, I didn’t even know you existed.” And the thing is: That did not surprise me. I’m not a very conspicuous person. Being mostly quiet and if not, uncontroversial, it’s understandable if people don’t notice me much.1

In the Study Hall, as far as I could tell, I’ve mostly been quiet, too, so I figured regulars of the Study Hall who were also attendants at the Community Weekend would be vaguely aware of my existence, but nothing more. It surprised me how much I felt like the other people from the Study Hall felt like they knew me. And then later in the Weekend, a few people even told me they liked talking to me and want to do more of that! Whaaat.

After thinking about this for a while, I concluded that this realization can be generalized to “people seem to feel more connected to other people (including me) than I feel to them”. Knowing that my perception of closeness is apparently different from most other people’s is useful, because (a) now I have something more specific to work on (I can probably worry less about making people like me and spend more time building trust that they already do), and (b) I can be slightly more confident in friendly interactions because I can assume that people probably dislike me significantly less than I might intuitively feel they do.

Someone suggested that this asymmetry may be caused by the fact that I tend to be very open and sharing about my feelings and insecurities and vulnerabilities, which makes people feel more connected to me, while I’m not as good at getting people to open up to me, which makes me feel less connected to them. I have observed that I do tend to sacrifice asking people about themselves in favor of oversharing my own experiences, so this is something else I want to work on.

Purpose, authority, and confidence

As I mentioned, one of my goals for the Weekend was meeting new people and, as I mentioned, I was having a lot of difficulty with that. This made me feel out of place and really useless a lot of the time. Then I saw people who were very distinctly not useless: the organizers were running around, doing important organizing. They didn’t need to worry about fuzzily defined personal goals because they had a clear purpose to fulfill. I imagine that having a purpose like that would have made me feel better. Toward the end of the Weekend, for example, I helped a bit with the clean-up, and that was significantly more comfortable (and confident) than sitting around, not knowing what to do. I decided that, if I’m going to attend the next Community Weekend, I would like to help organize the event. (I haven’t talked about this with this year’s organizers yet, and unfortunately I currently don’t actually know whether I can attend next year.)

You can meditate lying down

During the awesome amazing fantastic incredible Games Of Entropy reading, Daniel mentioned he likes to meditate lying down. I’d been struggling with keeping up my (theoretically) daily meditation because often I was tired and just wanted to take a nap instead. If I’m lying down, I realized, it’s like the perfect blend between a nap and meditation. Afterwards I am both physically rested and emotionally more stable, and the odds that I will actually do the meditation on a given day are significantly higher now.

Conclusion

I may be overly optimistic here, but I get the impression that, with the right approach, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit for increasing my comfort levels in social settings, and I even feel motivated to talk to more people to practice. I have already had a few interesting conversations with people I met at the Weekend and it seems likely that there will be more of those in the future. So, while my happiness-value spent a sizeable portion of the event below zero, I don’t regret having attended and I’m extremely grateful to Anne for suggesting it.2

  1. This sounds so much like self-pity, but I don’t mean it that way, I promise! I’m just trying to describe a perfectly factual situation that consists of nothing but true facts. 

  2. Before, my plan had been to see how my life develops and then possibly attend the 2016 LWCW.