Variation and selection

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The power of variation in selection is at work with pretty anything you might do, so it's no surprise that it would be at work with Teddy Bear Tech Support. But, since operating in different modes and involving different people is key to Teddy Bear Tech Support, it brings a lot of sources of variation into the picture. You'll see what I'm talking about starting 4 paragraphs from this one.

Let's look at an example where your teddy bear is a recording device instead of a person. Let’s say that you need to write something up for a class assignment, and you’re wanting to get clearer on what the most important points are that you need to make.

Sometimes, with using a recording device, I have trouble really committing to pretending like I’m talking to a real person. When this happens, it can help to treat it like leaving a voicemail to someone. After I make the recording, if I find that I want to share the recording with the person, I then email the audio recording to the person. (This is very easy to do with the Voice Memo app on my iPhone.)

Notice how different it would be in the two cases, one where you don’t have any intention of sharing the recording, and the other where you do think you’re likely to share the recording. Notice how different it would be to have some different people in mind as the teddy bear where their personality or what they already know about you and the situation can come into play (instead of talking to the teddy bear as if they were just anyone). There are lots of different ways to have the space held differently with different teddy bear setups.

One reason I’m asking to you stop and notice how differently you would experience these setups is because the magic of Teddy Bear Tech Support is often the result of the power of variation and selection. What am I referring to when I say variation and selection? It is the process of doing things differently and then choosing the pieces of what happened that seem the most promising for making more progress. Often, it’s that your teddy bear setup helped you to tweak things a bit (where the tweaking is the source of variation), and voila talking to your teddy bear works its magic and you have better places you can choose to then work from. As I’ve been describing variation and selection, I’ve talked as if you’re only doing the selection afterward. But, selection is also happening while you’re talking to your teddy bear. For example, if you’re just thinking, you can think of five things at once. But, if you’re talking out loud, the process of talking out loud causes you to do the selection process of filtering out what you’re saying to just one thing at a time.

That’s one reason why it feels remarkably different for me to talk out loud with a recording device versus without a recording device. With the recording device running, I feel the pressure to avoid recording long stretches of silence. Because this keeps me talking in a steady stream, I get to find out what happens when I maintain constantly doing the selection process of filtering my thoughts down to just one thing at a time. Not only that, it can help me with committing to going down just one path with what I’m saying and continuing to build on it rather than saying, for example, “No, I don’t like that” and doing a lot of starting over. It’s just a whole different ballgame from me just trying to work on things where it’s just me thinking by myself. It’s like the difference between thinking about writing and actually writing. Sitting around thinking about writing (especially if you’re like me and want things to spring perfectly from your head) doesn’t get you to the same places (to say the least) as actually getting things out onto paper does. And sitting around thinking is what happens for me when I try to talk out loud without the recording device, I tend to trail off and shift back into just doing a lot of thinking without talking. The key is to have it feel like someone or something is paying attention. Because of that, the space has been held for me to do a different process of variation and selection than without the recording device.

Human teddy bears

Among many other advantages, human teddy bears add in their own sources of variation and selection to your process. For example, let’s look at human teddy bears that are constrained to only mirror back parts of what you’ve said at times they think it’d be helpful. One way they can add variation is by using their own words when mirroring what you said back to you. By selecting when and what to mirror back to you, they can highlight different things for different reasons. It might be that they are mirroring back a part they think is important, or a part that you seem particularly excited about, or one that you seem to be trying to talk yourself into but aren’t really that excited about. Or, it could be a mirroring back of a part they found confusing or of a part that didn’t make as much sense to them.

One source of helpful variation is one that you might find surprising. Not surprisingly, group problem solving typically yields better outcomes than having people work on solving a problem by themselves. What you might find surprising is that research has shown that one reason for this is that people often misunderstand each other when solving problems in groups. Misunderstandings are a rich source of helpful variation! Everyone’s mind is engaged in coming up with possible solutions. What’s going on in your mind is different from other people’s. Instead of hearing what someone means, you hear what you are expecting to hear. Because of what was going on in your brain, you weren’t able to take in the intended meaning, but it fits as a piece of the puzzle you needed with the solution you were working with. This often leads to a good solution, and voila a misunderstanding helps to lead to a good solution.

Let me make the connection between the previous two paragraphs clearer. Misunderstanding what you’ve said is a source of variation. That can be a way that teddy bears contribute to your process. Now that I’ve made the connection clearer, let me now add something else to that. Instead of a misunderstanding, it could be that they left out an important point and leaving it out helps to highlight it for you. This might cause you to then say it again or rephrase it for your teddy bear or flesh out more of why it’s important to you, and you might find doing one of these things to be particularly helpful.

We’ve looked at the idea of the teddy bear getting to be in the driver’s seat as to when it initiates mirroring things back to you and thus what you get to be listening to them say. Alternatively, you can have it so that the teddy bear gets to do a wider range of things than only mirroring things back, but you get to be in the driver’s seat with telling the teddy bear what you want it to do and when. For example, you might be writing something up, and you could ask the teddy bear to be the one to flesh out one of the ideas, to think of an example or to provide an explanation, or to spell something out in greater detail. You get another mind to help you explore the space of possibilities, and you get to see how that helps you to bring yourself to the ideas in a different way as you have different reactions and thoughts about what you’re listening to the teddy bear say. You might even only be half listening to what they are saying while you’re busy having your own thoughts. You get to do that. You get to have them provide that kind of environment for you with all its different sources of variation, and you get to see where that can lead you.

Playful participant vs controlling dictator

Pardon my dust: Need to paraphrase from this excerpt instead of quoting it here

From the Bringing out the Best in Ourselves chapter from the book Fostering Reasonableness: Supportive Environments for Bringing Out Our Best [1]

"imagine yourself not as a controlling dictator of [your] mental processes but instead as a playful participant."

While we can’t control what’s going on in our subconscious, we can feed it with certain inputs or at least put ourselves in the right conditions to let our brain resolve the issue subconsciously. Such inputs might come in the form of the thoughts we nurture, activities we engage in, and the places we choose to visit. For example, when tackling a difficult task, one could consciously consider some alternatives and allow time for them to gestate. When the subconscious has finished processing, the answers bubble up to our consciousness. Such a mechanism underlies Boice’s (2000) recommendation to new faculty members to start before feeling ready and quit before feeling done. Different types of inputs may also be helpful. Problem solving may be aided by a long walk to take a break in a natural setting (Ivancich, Chapter 5; Sullivan, Chapter 4). Sometimes, providing less information may be an effective approach (Johnson, 2012; R. Kaplan, Chapter 2). Since the subconscious is out of our control, it may feel risky to rely on it. A helpful framing may be to imagine yourself not as a controlling dictator of our mental processes but instead as a playful participant.