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The Whippet #89: Radical adequacy

McKinley Valentine — 9 min read

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Good morning!

This tweet is a joke but I've become really fixated on taking it seriously:

All advice is good for some people and directly counterproductive for others. Some people need to be more assertive while others need to stop talking and listen a whole lot more. In this newsletter, I tend to imagine I'm addressing people who fall on the same side of the advice as me, but who knows if that's true.

Anyway, radical adequacy is for people with perfectionist tendencies, not [insert person involved in recent political debacle of your choice, who is clearly phoning it in to the point of contempt]. The term just has a really good feel to it.

Also by 'perfectionist' I don't mean the twee humblebrag "I have a colour-coded dayplanner" version, I mean the genuine flaws like "doesn't have time for important things because they spent too long optimising trivial things" and "doesn't do important things at all in case they fuck it up" and "has perpetual anxiety that they might somehow be In Trouble" and unhelpful shit like that.

ALSO, some things just don't need to be done perfectly. Do an adequate job then go get an icecream. It's fine. But you have to decide in advance which tasks you're only going to do adequately, I think, or you'll be pursued by guilt. (If you don't decide in advance, it'll be whatever task you were doing when you ran out of energy, which is not very strategic.)

This article - My son has learned to walk – like a maniac - is about a kid reaching basic adequacy at a skill, and then continuing to do it badly with confidence. "He walks, let’s not mince words here, like a maniac. He totters from foot to foot with his hands up by his chest, legs moving outward like inflexible drainpipes. He looks like a meerkat wearing two full-length leg casts."


"In truth, I admire it. He had never taken four steps in a row a fortnight ago. Now he strolls around as if he invented walking. I have the opposite problem. I’m seized by a constant sense of incompetence, even for things I’ve done many times. I routinely make an L with my left hand to clarify which is left and which is right. I’ve watched the same YouTube tutorial each of the eight times I’ve changed the filter on his bottle machine."

Whole article is delightful

'Stretching' cruise ships by cutting them in half and adding in a new slice

The Silver Spirit, cut in half

"Once all the guts of a ship are removed, including pipes and cabling, engineers pull the front half of the ship forward on giant blocks, then use self-propelled platforms on wheels to maneuver a prefabricated middle section into place before welding it all back together."

In place

Ship with new middle

Morally I would probably have some complex feelings about this if I examined them, but aesthetically it is extremely cool. Photos via Cruise Industry News.

Fun fact, cruise ships have their own morgue on them. It's obvious when you think about it - sometimes people will die, and these days saying "we buried your mother at sea" won't cut it, people want the body returned to their familyand in reasonable shape, and not in a slapdash "we put her in a spare barrel of gin" way. So: cruise ship morgues. Perfectly logical but still a bit creepy. [Source]

'Sleepy office syndrome' - meeting rooms quickly fill up with CO2

Most modern offices are sealed off - you can't open the windows and the only doors to the outside world are six floors down and a hundred metres away.

Fill them with people, and over the course of the day, oxygen levels drop and carbon dioxide levels rise - not dangerously, but enough to make you feel lethargic and have trouble concentrating. It's worst in small meeting rooms. Lecture halls can be the same, even though they're big, because there's so many people in them.

"Outdoors the CO2 levels are around 350 ppm - in office meeting rooms levels can rise to thousands of parts per million. "

[Source, although there's others]

'Godzilla' iguana footage

This marine iguana is 6 feet long and moves like Godzilla. That is, with a kind of unrealistic animatronic rhythm. Watch it chomp algae like it's a man in a rubber suit!

I'm linking specifically to this Independent version of the footage 'cause they've set it to Godzilla music.

'Gulag' is an acronym

It is a huge shock to find out an ordinary-sounding word I've been using all my life (well... since I learned about gulags, Soviet prison / forced-labour camps) is an acronym. This is Pakistan all over again.

Gulag is short for Glavnoye upravlyaniya lagyleryey or G.U. Lag. and meant 'Main Administration of Corrective Labour Camps' - it was the government agency that oversaw the camps. [Wiktionary]

Note people are always giving acronyms as etymologies/origins for words, and they are almost all myths. That's part of why I was so surprised. But this exception is actually a good demonstration: it's a bureaucratic thing, and bureaucracies do love acronyms. You really don't get acronym nicknames before widespread literacy, because people aren't making the connection between the words they speak and the letters they begin with. There might have been acronyms, but they wouldn't have caught on because not enough people would have been familiar with them. Be extremely sceptical of people saying the origin of any word is an acronym.

Unsolicited Advice

The catharsis model of anger is a myth. 'Letting off steam' makes you feel more angry, more frequently.

Pop culture in the West tells us that if we don't let our anger out, it will build up and explode. And that releasing it by yelling, punching a pillow, breaking crockery, 'getting it out of your system' will help stop you taking it out on some poor unsuspecting pedestrian or loved one.

The basic problem with this idea is that it's been disproven in a tonne of studies. I'll link them, but you can also pretty intuitively get why: screaming and punching stuff when you're angry feels good (not for everyone, but for people who have the urge to in the first place). It's a reward. It's like eating a piece of chocolate every time you get really furious - it trains you to become really furious more often. And it trains you to respond to feeling angry with yelling and punching. It becomes a habitual response to anger. And it is not necessarily that easy to suddenly switch responses when you're angry at someone you care about.

Important note 1: When I talk about yelling and punching pillows and stuff, I am talking about doing this alone, or in a sanctioned venue (like a punching bag at a gym). If you're yelling at a loved one or punching walls or breaking stuff near them - even if you're not breaking their stuff or throwing stuff at them - this is a really scary thing to do and you need to get help so you can stop doing this immediately - treat this is an emergency. Similarly, if a loved one is yelling at you or breaking stuff in anger when you're present, this isn't a normal or acceptable way to vent - please tell someone close to you and get support.

I know, because I've talked about this in real life, that some people will feel really defensive on hearing this, and say that it helps them. But that 'it helps me' feeling is it feeling good, and reinforcing the anger-reward cycle. I'm not particularly skilled at talking in a way that makes people who are feeling defensive be more open to hearing stuff, unfortunately. But feeling defensive doesn't make me (and psychologists) wrong about this - it just means that you don't like the idea that something that feels good might not be good in the long-term. No one likes hearing that, did you see the international uproar when the World Health Organisation said bacon is carcinogenic? Everyone who is addicted to anything will tell you that it feels like it's helping them. Your brain uses pretty much the same set of chemicals for "feels good" and "feels like it's helping" so you can't trust your brain to know the difference.

Important note 2: Anger is a completely appropriate emotion in many circumstances and I'm not suggesting anyone should be attempting to not feel anger anymore. It's just about what you do when you're angry. And I mean, we all know that while sadness can't be avoided, you can absolutely extend it by wallowing in it and imagining extra sad scenarios that didn't even happen.

We're not bottles, the metaphor has been taken a bit far.
This whole idea of 'bottling it up' is built on an image of ourselves as vessels that get filled up with more and more anger until we explode, which is a really specific physical idea of our emotions. But it's just a metaphor. Humans are complicated systems processing all kinds of cues from our past, our internal states and external environment, which we synthesise into emotions. For sure, if your boundaries are continually violated, you will feel increasingly angry, but that's not a simplistic filling of a vessel until there's no more room in it. I mean, this is like how old-timey doctors would bleed people because they had an imbalance of humours, this is such an outdated model of how people work. Also, this is not how we talk about positive emotions - like, "never hug your wife, because expressing love will 'get it out of your system' and you won't feel loving anymore".

Also, I mean... you know the type of person who seems to get into fights a lot? Do they seem like the fights are getting their anger out of their system such that they will get into fewer fights in the future? Or more like the possibility of getting into a fight starts to be one of the reasons they go out on the weekend?

Important note 3: There's a lot of middle ground between 'pretending you're not angry' and 'throwing a plate at the wall'. This whole bit is about aggressive/violent expression of anger. Please absolutely continue to express your anger via the medium of telling people how you're feeling and why and what needs to change.

"Venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire"
"In this study, angered participants hit a punching bag and thought about the person who had angered them (rumination group) or thought about becoming physically fit (distraction group). After hitting the punching bag, they reported how angry they felt. Next, they were given the chance to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered them. There also was a no punching bag control group. People in the rumination group felt angrier than did people in the distraction or control groups. People in the rumination group were also most aggressive, followed respectively by people in the distraction and control groups. Rumination increased rather than decreased anger and aggression. Doing nothing at all was more effective than venting anger." (Source is a PDF with a good overview of the history of this.)

Breaking stuff can be fun, and I wouldn't dream of taking that away from you, but do it for fun - not to express anger. Do it when you're in a good mood already.

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email. (People I haven't replied to yet: I will! I've read your email and thought about it but just not responded yet.)

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