This is My Mind on System 3
As I was listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast this morning (Best 10 Books of 2022 episode) I began to meditate on my life as a reader, and how, for the last several years, I have been annually setting myself the challenge of reading 100+ books.
I’ve read a few of the books on the NYT Best 10 Books of 2022 list and I’ve also been bashing through the long list of the Booker Prize (7 of 13 read , so far).
Though I mostly read fiction, I read to learn every bit as much as to be entertained. That applies not only to the non-fiction that I read, but perhaps even more especially to the fiction. Fiction often creates our most immersive reading experiences. It has long been recognized that immersion is critical to the acquisition of new languages. Immersion, I believe, is a critical element of System 3 and one of the signal experiences of its phenomenology.
Immersion, I believe, is a critical element of System 3
In my first post about System 3 thinking, I made a very explicit and deliberate connection to conversation as paradigmatic of System 3. Conversation brings individual people outside of their own “interior” experience of mind into something more communal, more shared. Conversation draws us out of the isolation of our experience of our “self” consciousness. Conversation creates connection, not just in the sense that it can make us feel closer to others, as an effect, but the kind of interaction that conversation is actually requires that we connect to others in order for System 3 to become active. Connection, then, too, is a critical part of the experience of System 3.
Connection, then, too, is a critical part of the experience of System 3.
Conversation is not the only phenomenon that offers us that kind of experience, however. Reading, listening to music, experiencing theatrical performances, even watching movies, these all call us into shared, often communal experiences. Which is to say that conversational experience does not necessarily require interacting with other people in real time. We can also experience the presence of others through interactions with the diverse “voices” we encounter in and through other media.
I think that I had my first glimpses of the power and mechanisms of System 3 when I was in Drama class in high school. It was certainly also powerfully evident, when I spent a year shortly after high school working on a feature film. In both cases, I not only witnessed but participated in immersive, collaborative teamwork. In both contexts, conversation was one of the key mechanisms for planning, executing and advancing the work. Managing and coordinating the collective and discreet activities of a heterogeneous crew benefitted from a variety of tools to “keep us on the same page.” From call sheets and budgets, to production schedules, meetings, huddles to watching dailies, and even taking our daily meals together. Being on a film set is to be part of a set of fluidly interlinked conversations that begin at the start of the film’s production and which don’t really end until the day of the premiere.
The immersion and sense of connection that develop in drama troupes and film crews are not by-products of the creative process, they are dimensions of the very engine of creativity: the shared consciousness we access through System 3.
Seventeen years after working on a feature film for a year, I found myself at a retreat with 50 people, mostly strangers, at Asilomar, the site of a former YWCA summer camp, on the Southern end of Monterey Bay. It’s a lovely and strange place that’s as often a place for Bay area tech firms to do retreats as it it for family reunions. The dining hall, which offers decidedly mediocre cafeteria food, is a strange human gumbo made up of the employees from a couple of different local tech firms, members of academic and scientific organizations and intergenerational gatherings of Jones, Smiths, Yoshihara’s or Rivera’s.
The Overlap retreat had been described as an “unconference,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconference) a style of gathering that had emerged from a diversity of affinity groups as method for self-organizing a participant-driven experience that provides a more conversational and participatory experience than traditional conferences. Early examples of unconferences, like FooCamp and the oppositionally named BarCamp (from foobar, meant to be a jab at the invite-only Friends of O’Reilly, the FOO of FooCamp) are often organized using Open Space Technology. The first and inaugural Overlap gathering I attended in 2006, was not only more fluid and freestyle, but was a single “track” experience in which attendees spent virtually all of our time together over the 72 hours of that long weekend in late May.
What I remember most strongly about the Overlap gathering was how quickly and effortlessly those 50 people became a community. I’m sure that what I experienced is far from unprecedented, especially so close to the famed Esalen Institute, a mere 47 miles further South down Highway 1. Overlap did not have nudity, free love or “men staring at goats,” but there’s no doubt, at least in retrospect that we were poking into the exploration of human potential in the honest tradition of wandering that California is such a notes terroir for. Strangers or not, I felt like I was back in Drama class, immersed, connected and with a growing sense of shared purpose.
That first Overlap (the retreats have been happening annually for the last 17 years) was intended to gather creative professionals who were interested in exploring the intersection of design and business. The burgeoning user experience design and information architecture communities were excited that their work was acquiring new importance to early Internet businesses. Those who’d come together were interested in a serious exploration of the verge we saw opening up between the different worlds of design and engineering and that of business and management. Many of us (though decidedly not all) remember that weekend as a magical experience that seemed like a fluid and unbroken 72 hours of immersed and intimate conversation to which we gave ourselves over completely. The way we felt that weekend was the way we wanted to feel all the time. We’d found the main vein for an endlessly renewable and renewing source of energy for creativity. It lived within the circle we’d been sitting in together all weekend: through the connections we were making in our conversations we were weaving community.
Tom Mulhern was one of those who thankfully documented his reflection on the weekend. Regardless of how many things have changed since 2006, his reflections still capture the sense that something out of the ordinary had happened.
“This past weekend, I found myself somewhere new and wondrous, yet familiar too. A place where tall, green ideas wave in the wind. A place where one can walk on sand lapped by an ocean blue with disruptive business models. A place where wispy clouds dot a sky that is also blue, but in the shade of limitless possibility. At night in this place, one can sip fine liqueurs by fires lit for captains of industry, while by day one lives and eats in rustic communalism. The people you meet here are inquisitive, intelligent, innovative, and sometimes indignant. And not one of them can give you a simple answer when you ask them what they do.”
A few years later, having worked to establish Overlap as an annual retreat and a growing community of wanderers and seekers, something else struck me. That this 72 hours out in the woods with strangers pursuing an open-ended conversation about work, practice and values is what people like me do for fun. We go not because we are paid or to achieve status or position, but for a reason no less selfish, in it’s way…because it feels good. There are many things which contribute to the feelings which Overlap engenders, but 17 years later I would realize that all of them are elements of a condition that Amy Edmonson describes as “psychological safety.” Edmonson’s work has established the “ability to share one’s thoughts and feelings without risk of damaging one’s reputation or standing” as critical to fostering environments in which innovation thrives. My longtime friend and colleague Robin Uchida, who was at that first Overlap with me in 2006, described the power of that weekend in much more personal terms: “I realized that I am not alone.”
The Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, developed the concept of language games as a way of explaining the particular rules and styles of “play” that differentiate certain human activities from others. I have begun to wonder whether what I call System 3 can help us see another mirror world in which we engage in thinking games. Why do we play such games you might wonder? The clue, I think, can be found in one of Wittgenstein’s most enduring observations: “the limits of my Language are the limits of my world.” We play thinking games in order to explore not only the expanse (and limits) of the worlds we find ourselves in, but also to imagine new and better ones.
Nabil Harfoush, who attended his first Overlap in 2007 along with his daughter Rahaf, caught glimpses of this:
“we are nomads thirsty for knowledge and wisdom. We discovered this magic place we didn’t know existed. Could there be others waiting to be discovered? Well, the mystery of the recipe for this magic place is starting to unravel. Perhaps many others will try their magic wands and build many other wondrous Overlaps. I can’t wait until I meet some of my fellow nomads on the next journey.”
System 3 is not merely a system for interconnected thinking, but also, I believe, a technology for worldbuilding…