Life Math Podcast

#12 Flow, Process, and Theory of Motivation with Elijah Logozar

May 17, 2022 Iskren Vankov, Iliya Valchanov, Elijah Logozar Season 2 Episode 1
Life Math Podcast
#12 Flow, Process, and Theory of Motivation with Elijah Logozar
Show Notes Transcript

Recording date: 8 Oct 2021.

In this episode we discuss a number of interesting ideas around Flow, Process, Theory of Motivation and much more.

It is a great starting point for anyone who is remotely interested in Philosophy.

Useful links that came out of the conversation:

The definitive book on flow - Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Elijah’s favorite podcast, which he referenced several times: John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. 

Books to get started with philosophy that Elijah suggests: 

Books to get started with philosophy that Iskren suggests:

Elijah Logozar's contacts:

Iliya:

We will see what Gus has to say... how wrong you are.

Elijah:

Oh, he will. He will. Now that would be good motivation for Gus to go on the podcast. It's like, “Oh, come on, Elijah. How could you say that nonsense? I don't even know where to begin, but you don't make any sense right now.” Here, let me just correct all of that real quick. Just kidding.

Intro Music:

Life math. Life Math. A podcast indescribably tangled, unnecessarily complex. So bad, that it's good. Life math.

Iliya:

Can you please tell us who you are and what do you do?

Elijah:

I am a chess professional. I teach chess professionally. I coach individual classes. I also write courses on chessable.com. I've written 13 courses so far, and I plan to publish them. I have one or two dozen more in progress right now. I have lots of co-authors for that. I recently spent the last couple weeks ...I was travelling around the country with Grandmaster Timur Gareyev playing tournaments. I played in the Southern California open. I played in the Iowa open. I played in the Las Vegas open. I'm a national master for chess which is one of the lower master titles. I'm starting to become active in tournament chess more recently. I would get really deeply into chess when I was younger. I was like 13 years old. I got really into it. I got more and more into it in high school and I never really had the chance to play much lower shots until recently because I was so deeply focused on studying that it came at the expense of my grades in high school, because they were just not as relevant to me. Now, other people said they were relevant. My parents, for example, were telling me that I needed to fix my grades if I wanted to go to tournaments, but that wasn't sufficient to make it relevant because I continued doing chess on my own and I was motivated by the process. So I did, and I mean, I try to be motivated through the process of school. It's just that at some point or other, I picked up on the fact that it wasn't actually very effective for my learning and not compatible with my values. So I just kind of blew it off. School was not great for me. I mean to be perfectly honest, if I was allowed to legally, and if my parents would have given approval, I probably would have dropped out of high school at age 15. So I started playing tournament chess more recently. And of course, after I graduated, I got really interested in a lot of the academic stuff for like neurology, some of the sciences, philosophy. This is really interesting stuff, but not when I was in high school. Why the heck would I read it then? They pushed me to do it and then they teach it in the most boring way. Like they judge you based on memory and not skill. This is really important because when you're young, you have this accelerated neuro-plasticity, which allows you to acquire skills rapidly. This is your formative years for relationship also. And, they're first of all they're forcing you to do it. They're judging you according to a standard. The standard is memory-based. They're not making it interesting. They're not focusing on the process. And when they do, it's like memory is... They don't even know how memory works. They're doing such a bad job it gets on my nerves. It's like the K through 12 education system is such a passion killer, but absolutely needs to repair it that I don't think they will. I am almost certainly going to be wrong about a lot of things. And even if I'm on the right track, I will describe a lot of things imprecisely. I will use certain wrong. Or I will use them differently than you may be using them because language is loosely constructed. And, I'm trying to focus on learning these ideas, to explore these ideas. And as I'm exploring, I find out more where I was in imprecise. I find new questions. This is an ongoing process of relevance realization [for Vervaeke’s term], where I consistently do not know enough and will need to continue learning, but we'll be –hopefully– knowing enough to continue engaging.

Iliya:

Okay guys. So, I have several things since I've spoken with Elijah for an hour before this. I have three topics I have in mind. One is this idea about philosophy as a whole, so how to get started with philosophy? I think this is a very good topic for the whole podcast. However, you’re a chess guy, so if you know something about chess, you want to talk about, that could also be...

Elijah:

How about we start with theory of motivation, then we can go wherever you want. So let's start with, I was thinking about this a lot last year, and especially over the last year, based on, first of all, I'm observing my mind and going on experiments and whatnot.

And second of all, there's the book:

Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and it talks about consciousness as from the phenomenological perspective as deliberately ordered information. And it claims that we are only able to have seven units of information that we're able to assign to something at a time. This is assuming that experience is intrinsically worthwhile whenever you're present to it and that there'll be some aspect that you enjoy. So, if you can be present to something then you can appreciate it. And, whatever you're attentive to is the contents of your consciousness and that will be what will motivate you. So you are motivated to engage because of, well what? This can be many things. There is intrinsic motivation and there is extrinsic motivation. And, extrinsic motivation is when you do something other than for the reason of the task itself, which would be money for example. Or, you would do something because somebody else is telling you to do it. These are worthwhile, actually, because it can get you to engage. The most enjoyable thing to do is flow. And, flow is basically deep immersion in the present where you're doing something for its own sake. You are so immersed that all seven units of your attention are being put on some task or something that you're doing that you don't actually have room for self-consciousness or self-centeredness. I have a theory for what that may mean, but I I've been trying to approach flow as much as I can. I think this could also be related to John Vervaeke’s ideas on the “having mode” and the “being mode.” The having mode to be obtaining things, controlling; and the being mode would be about becoming. This can be about developing character, developing skills, this could be about enjoying the present. I would say that the “having mode” should support the “being mode” if you want to optimize experience and growth. That's my opinion. Motivation can be for many things. It's very complicated. Probably when your lower needs aren't met, like if you're socially isolated or if you're sick or hungry, you're not going to be able to be intrinsically motivated by experience at some degree because your needs aren't met as your attention is going to be on getting your food and getting your wellbeing from meeting your needs, being sufficiently social, to be psychologically healthy. And then once that point is met, you're going to automatically be pushed towards greater things that you could be motivated by, but there could be easy distractions on the way, of course.

Iskren:

So you mentioned the flow. It’s kind of the purest state of concentration and learning. This sounds quite close to what I've heard being described, on one side, as the zone where it was more about the kind of a physiological state, which is supported by all sorts of external factors, not just psychologically, but also literally nutrition, the state of your physical systems, like blood pressure, whatever.

Elijah:

It is. And so this talks about the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure, according to the author of Flow, is a restorative homeostatic state [i.e. your needs], and it puts you ready for enjoyment, basically. You can enjoy without pleasure, but it's a lot harder and you're going to be like, sort of fighting yourself. If your needs aren't met nutritionally or anything else, then it's going to be harder to naturally engage. Whereas flow would be effortless concentration, generally speaking, when your skills match the nature of the task precisely and your needs are met sufficiently for you to engage.

Iskren:

Speaking of enjoyment and pleasure, I searched for years how to define for myself, purely for myself: When am I enjoying something? ...Especially when I'm just wasting time, but I'm enjoying it. I was like, “Oh, is this actually enjoyable?” Then I found the best quote. It's actually probably my favorite quote now by Bertrand Russell, who said that, “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” So in the sense he defines that wasted time could be equal to enjoyed time –if you enjoyed it, which is such a trivial thought, but it's so true.

Elijah:

I think that's a really important point, but now you have to talk about the difference between enjoyment and fun.

Iskren:

How would you, how would you define that?

Elijah:

I'd say enjoyment is more purposeful. It often involves participation in something, and it also often involves something external to you in a way that it's meaningful. It often involves some opportunity for growth. Fun can involve pleasure, but it is not necessarily enjoyable. You can be fully present to something, but without it being meaningful, because there's no participation in this. Well, for example, there would be social media. It would push you to be present in a way that is non-participatory. Whereas, for example, now I hate to use this example because I actually am someone against the concept, but say: video games would push you to participate, for example, in a way that is supposedly meaningful, because I think that they get the psychology right. They get the psychology right. John Vervaeke would talk about this as the agent arena relationship. He would talk about this as the feedback loops for growth. This is connected with meaning; this is connected with a lot of things. I think video games, get the psychology right and apply it to something that doesn't, that sort of tricks you into this meaningful feeling experience without it actually being good.

Iskren:

Oh, I fully agree with this in the sense that ...so basically you're differentiating between passive enjoyment and active enjoyment and this in-between ground of, for example, video games, or I believe that social media is on the same level as video games. It's neither. If you ask my personal opinion, it's neither. It's not passive. It's not active. It's kind of simulated active in the sense that you are doing something, but that thing is quite restricted and mindless. So there's those repetitive clicker games, for example, for phone like those, um, what is it called? Candy Crush and stuff. So they're not fully passive because you are doing something, but it's just mindless enough to not really be active. It's in between.

Elijah:

You’re absolutely right. I'm also thinking about this from the perspective of even like higher-order video games. People may say that video games aren't good for you because they're not active as something else, but I'm actually thinking that in a lot of cases, they are active. And, they're active in a way that feels quite good. They're very good at finding out what makes you feel good and getting you to keep doing it. But, I still don't approve of this. I still don't approve of this because these psychological processes of deep engagement, purpose, meaning –these sort of feedback loops for growth can be applied to actual skills and is just as meaningful. But you have to sort of order your environment in a way that pushes you in that direction yourself. The video game will do it for you. And then, it sort of decides your identity in a sense that you are identifying with the process and it doesn't have purpose. It doesn't have meaning in a way that it’s going to participate in a greater whole. Whereas this sort of other things that you could do related to skills and self growth would. So if you can borrow this psychology and apply it yourself, it's more manual, but you can, then you get all of the advantages, all the enjoyment that pushes you on –that pushes you towards the good. John Vervaeke would talk about this as tempting you to the good. I think this is a really important concept because if you can sort of reprogram your internal system to direct you to the good and you'll enjoy it. It'll be more meaningful. You'd rather study and read a book or play chess, or whatever, than be passive on social media or do some, nothing. It would make sense that things that are better are also going to be better for you, but you have to get into that state of mind and know what you're doing.

Iliya:

Yeah. I want to just mention, because maybe a couple of days ago I stumbled upon this talk on flow and it was basically flow and game design. And it's quite relevant for this conversation. So to be in the state of flow, they were saying that you need to know what to do next. You need to know how to do it and a bunch of other stuff, but the most important one was that there is a very good balance between your skill and the challenge that you have in front of you. And that's why games are so great in achieving flow, because, always, your skill is very closely correlated to the challenge that you see in the game. And that's why they managed to get you in the state of flow. And that's why they're so addictive and enjoyable, as you say.

Elijah:

Yes. Yes. And also this term addiction is really interesting to me. I like John Vervaeke’s discussion of addiction as that which interferes with your agency, and your agency is your ability to approach your ideal safe. So in video games, you're sort of using this process that pushes you to growth if you identify with it, but in a lot of cases you don't. In a lot of cases, it's like I'm going because the psychological process that I didn't choose is sort of directing me –which could be great if I'm studying a skill or with optimal difficulty, with an ordered environment so that the process becomes natural. But it interferes. It is addictive. And then you aren't able to focus on the things that actually are important to your life. Now, let's imagine for a moment that this process was applied to something else and you already had an automatically ordered environment with optimal difficulty. You have just the right books in front of you. In some video games, you're sort of role-playing in an environment where your purpose is defined and you're moving along. John Vervaeke ...I think he said that we don't have an essence, but I'm thinking back to Plato. And just because we don't have an essence doesn't mean we can't have an essence. We just sort of need to define our essence. We need, or we are constantly defining our essence. When we know what we're optimizing for, we're able to do so. But if it's not clear, it's harder to act in the end up focusing more on pleasure, on whatever's easy.

Iskren:

Which is another point for why games like these are very addictive. It’s because the objective function that the one property that you're optimizing for is very clear. So for example, in life, it's not very clear –you need to be healthy. You need to have friends, you need to have fun. You need to rest, you to have a job. There are so many things to do, and it's confusing. So even if the actual doing of those things is not that complex in the end, but just the fact that you don't have a clear, single measurable goal is a bit more complex. Whereas in the game, you have one goal say some level or some number of points. And then what you're saying is very ...is basically this: that having a very clear goal helps this automation.

Elijah:

Exactly! Purposeful engagement is always meaningful, but people often don't know the distinction between engaging and thinking about doing –the “thinking about doing versus doing” distinction. Whenever you excessively think about what you're going to do, you often stress yourself out. When you're in inaction, you almost always enjoy yourself. And we have to decide our values to some extent. We don't need to know too far ahead, like Grandmaster Aagaard in his book, Thinking Inside the Box for Chess, he says, you only need to know enough to make the next decision. And that chess is all about decision making at the end of the day. So it's like in life, you don't need to have your life figured out, but if you have decided in yourself what your values are right now, then you can sort of make clear the agent arena relationship and get into purposeful action that helps with growth and engagement. And you sort of ...when I've heard it said: enjoyment is pursuit of a value. A value to whom? Well, a value to you. You decide what's important and then you act, and if you don't, someone else will decide for you and well you can, but that's the default option if you don’t.

Iskren:

Right. So let me throw this slightly more controversial question, because we're talking about computer games, social media, this type of thing, basically creating what you refer to as the agency arena situation where you as the agent gets sort of addicted going in loops within this predefined arena. And that's how addiction works for, for example, video games. Now, if we extend the same definition beyond video games and we go towards, for example, more classic games, it's kind of the same situation. For example, in chess, which is a game that you play and you have spent significant amounts of time perfecting is the same agent. The simple eight-by-eight board is the arena and the rules of the game. However, I think we would both easily agree that, we wouldn't say that this is a waste of time. No way. And where we see this differentiation?

I can start with:

my thought is, okay, where's is the differentiation? Well, if the arena is rich enough, so for example, chess is a very intellectually rich game, you can't kind of figure out what to do and then just repeat the same thing. That's why it's stimulating, it helps outside of itself, and hence it's useful in life. It's good for you. And then if it's just a simple repetition of some simple steps that you learned, then it's a bad thing. Would you agree with this assessment?

Elijah:

Sort of. So, I want to make clear when I'm saying that I think video games are bad or not, not helpful, basically as a general rule, I'm not saying that the process is bad. I think it's borrowing a very, very important and powerful process that is used for intrinsic motivation and growth. I think they get this right, and this is important, but it has a function. And I was talking about this with my mentor, David M. a couple of years ago. I was like, well, what is the difference between this chess and this video game? How do you...? They're getting this right. It's motivating you. I mean, my judgment tells me that video games are not intrinsically valuable and people who play the video game will for the most part agree with. But, how do you prove that? I mean, and David basically said, “You can't prove that.” You just have to use your judgment. And, then he would text me these updates on why ...on evidence that that chess would participate in the good in this or that way. Like you can sort of look for outcomes, but it's really hard to prove what is valuable. But, if you can agree that certain things are valuable, then you can come to certain conclusions and people with chess often develop logical thought. They often have to structure themselves in a way that's like they have to self-improve, they have to focus on this feedback. In a video game, in theory, this is still possible. It's just that if you look at outcomes with chess, it often extends beyond chess and it has these benefits. Whereas with video games, it's sort of often constricts you and you can sort of see your life falling apart at times. But, even if this isn't the case, it would depend on the individual. I can't prescribe a value on you. There might be an objective good, but I don't have access to it. And so I have to apply my judgment and if chess was supporting my values, then it wouldn't compromise my agency. And it would actually be in a way of acting on my agency. I would approach my ideal self in the game and in life because chess would be part of my values. Whereas in theory, someone could still have values that -as an individual- they chose, that could be related to video games that don't compromise their agency. I just find that a lot harder to believe, in general, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Iliya:

Elijah, I want to ask you about chess. As far as I understand, most of the benefits of chess come from preparing to be better at chess and not playing the game itself. Is that the correct statement?

Elijah:

I don't know if that's the case or not. So, I can achieve flow when I play the game. I can also achieve flow when I'm studying the game. The agent arena relationship is clear. The feedback needs for growth are clear. At least they become more and more clear to me as I study more. In a game though, you're also obtaining the [?] because you’re also participating. With a slow game, you have to, for example, concentrate for very long periods of time. And that's something I need to work on. I'm more of a speed specialist actually. Um, I think they interact a lot. The games itself help offer meaning, which makes the process of studying more meaningful, but which is better for you? I don't know how to answer that question.

Iskren:

Well, again, it's going back to what you said yourself in the previous also that it's objective. So the question of whether the playing of the game itself, or the preparation for it in the end is more valuable, really depends on your perception of value.

Elijah:

Yeah. Its value to you. It always goes back to the value to the individual. You can't just say some abstract value that isn't ever going to be experienced. Although going back to flow, there's sort of this implication that there is almost unlimited, meaning around this at all times. And just by participating in an effective way, we're going to be able to access this meaning. Now, people may not be motivated to because first of all, they may not know the meaning is there. They may be focused on something else other than the present. They might be trying to get some benefit like money. And so be preoccupied on that. Or maybe it's energy. Participation can cost energy. If you're depleted, it might be too expensive. I think they call John Vervaeke talks about this as the bio economy. So there's a lot to unpack there, but should energy not be an issue? I mean, you should, in theory, be able to deeply enjoy reading a book. You should be able to deeply enjoy playing a chess game. There's often a deepest aesthetic element to things that is based on harmony. And I think this is really important. I've I fallen into this state of flow for many hours at a time before. And it can happen when you play chess, it can happen when you study chess, it can happen when you read a book. You can have deep aesthetic experiences in the world. I would imagine that we just have to watch for our safety and our energy and all of these needs so much that we’ve lost touch with this deep meaning that is always surrounding us. It's incredible really!

Iskren:

By the way, on the topic of the kind of energy being the currency of sorts. I think it was Harari in his book, Sapiens, that spoke about this as well, that in the end, if we generalize throughout the past centuries and millennia of humanity itself, so it's quite anthropocentric

view:

Energy is the currency. So all of these wrappers around it, like money or companies, whatever, in the end is just raw energy. So you have access to calories. That's how he puts it. It doesn't even have to be a person’s energy. It could be calories in terms of food energy, potential energy, storage of food. There was his view. I didn't quite subscribe to it to be honest, but it was interesting to see written and it was kind of relevant to your view of it as energy.

Elijah:

Yeah, I think energy might have two categories that are really important. There's physical resource and there's emotional energy. I think that that isn't an actual thing. And I've been studying emotion extensively recently. It seems to be directly connected with our physiology and our action tendencies, and it directly relates to the nature of effort. So for example, positive emotions like joy or happiness are actually action oriented emotions. And a lot of our action is not based on discipline, it's based on what automatically motivates us. And so we're often going through the world doing this or that constantly without thinking about our motivations. It doesn't actually take discipline. This is sort of why flow is effortless concentration. I think this is important. And if you think about this from the physical resources perspective, almost all of us almost all the time can easily meet all of our physical needs. So why are we not boundlessly motivated all the time? I think this actually relates to emotional energy and based on what I've been reading and theorizing, I highly suspect, it’s sort of just effective relationships can massively supercharge everybody because if we're all supporting each other, then we sort of feel safe already. If you don't have to watch for our own back and physical resources is easy enough, it helps with positive emotion. David told me like a year ago that just being social helps with regulation of positive emotion. I've studied this now. It seems to be true. It's like, just by helping each other or staying connected, we are creating an abundance that is already available or just giving each other access to it for free. And I find that to be incredible.

Iskren:

That means the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Elijah:

Oh, for sure! It's ...we’re just offering each other free access to this boundless meaning and motivation. It’s just there ready to be accessed. And it's like, we're not just individuals trying to be self-sufficient. I have studied this extensively now. I think attachment theory has extensively shown we are interdependent. And if we deny our ...if we act like we're completely self-sufficient, then this is going to lead to problems because a lot of our psychological energy will be made towards both meeting our needs of not only –I’m not even talking about physical needs. We'll have to verify our own safety because no one's looking out for us and we're not looking out for anyone else. And I mean, beyond that, because it's the need for belonging and connection is so intrinsic. We’ll be constantly trying to prove ourselves, or at least be in some form of tempted in towards perfectionism. I was definitely tempted towards perfectionism when I was isolated with COVID and this is a tendency of mine where I would often be too self-sufficient and then I would just watch my mind. I would just be trying to be like, I'm trying to optimize this, but whenever I'm resisting influence or blocking connection or blocking opportunities to be with others and so forth, I'm finding that it takes me more discipline to focus. I may slip into perfectionism. I may slip into self-judgment. I may not actually be focused on this intrinsic process of self-growth that I value. And this goes back to flow. It goes back to ...flow is so deep immersion that you're both not self-conscious and you're not self-centered. This is really, really interesting. So self-conscious relates to monitoring for danger and self-centered relates to, at least from the attachment theory, it relates to the ego. But it also, from what I understand, it relates to the feelings of superiority. And according to my studies with attachment theory, feelings of superiority happened because you want to protect yourself from connection because you feel you're either unworthy or other people are unreliable, and this is really sad way to live your life. But it does make sense if connection is dangerous or people actually are unreliable.

Iliya:

Guys, I want to take a step back a bit because I have this issue and you two philosophers may have the answer for me. So quite often, while I'm in conference calls or I'm talking to someone, so I’m not doing deep work. Um, I'm in some kind of conversation. I mindlessly start playing a silly game. Now in the past, it used to be Minesweeper. You remember on Windows, there was this Minesweeper game. Then it developed into –so that was like 10 years ago– I was doing this. So a couple of years ago it was 2048 –it’s this game with the blocks. It's the powers of two and you get them together. I was extremely good at this game. I think a reached two to the power of 15, something like this, it was not meant to be reached –like two to the power of 17. It was a four hour game, or something like this four-hour session of playing. And, um, but I was so good at this that it stopped being a challenge. So I changed to this other game, which is like threes –it's very similar, but there is a catch and you can't be too good at it. There is something random happening every now and then. I find myself compelled to play a game like this in order to be able to concentrate on the conversation. So I'm trying to restrain my mind from going somewhere else to achieve flow in these less energy consuming things.

Elijah:

Oh, I've noticed this, too. This is really interesting. There are two things for this. It's reminds me of when I play chess, I listened to music to quiet my ego. Participation, whenever we're participating in the world, we are participating with our senses. We're seeing, we're also listening. People say I need to concentrate. So I won't listen to music. No. If you don't listen to music and your task is not absorbing, you will start thinking about something and this will distract you and this... So it's like, you want your senses to be engaged. And second of all, this is a little more controversial, but okay I’ll just go for it anyway. So this is like a little bit like my brother drawing really extensive art on his coffee cups during church sermons, because they just wouldn't be engaging enough. It's like it's just not deeply engaging. You can focus in to complete your sensory experience from the listening perspective, completely on the sermon, then you can engage your mind by analyzing it. And it's still not engaging enough. You've been there enough times. So you need to engage some other way. Like I would do this ...I would have my phone. I would bring the chess app to the sermon so that I would study at the same time so that I can focus in a non-defensive way. Because if I didn't, my mind would ...it's just not engaging enough. But people around me, like my dad, he'd be focused. I’m like, I am focusing, I am using my listening. And I'm also focusing on this at the same time, because it's not very engaging and this helps me engage and it's mindful practicing. And it may seem to break some social norm, but it helps me be engaged because it's just really boring –boring from the sense of flow, not boring from the sense of content. I'm interested in the content from the sense of flow, if you have something that's too easy, it's boring. You want to engage more deeply. If you have something that's too hard, it's anxiety creating. You're not prepared for the task. So a strict church sermon for me was boring because I can’t engage fully and have way more than enough to spare. So my mind would be more prone to wander. And this is also true for my brother, Gus.

Iliya:

I’ll just summarize those. So, one is listening to music. So that's one way to constrain your thoughts going wild. Another one is studying chess, which for you, is this very normal thing to do, right?

Elijah:

Yeah, some easy puzzles, some easy puzzles on my phone. Like this would happen in an English class. My 11th grade, AP English teacher would let me study chess in class because whenever she would ask me some questions, I would be able to answer it. Like when we engage in the world, we are engaging with our eyes and with our ears and all other senses, simultaneously. So why would I not be able to pay attention with my eyes on this and my ears on that? I mean, we drive a car and listen to a conversation simultaneously. I can listen to a sermon and study chess on my phone.

Iliya:

So we have these two, we have playing games I'm using during conference calls. Sorry guys. It's easy games –repetitive, easy games. That's a very important distinction.

Elijah:

Yes. Yes. This was in the flow book where something wasn't engaging enough, so they would find ways to engage yourself. And it's more like we want to engage all of ourselves; no more but all of ourselves in a situation. And so if it's not going to be enough to engage with naturally, you're going to want to find more than that. And that makes total sense. If we choose something too difficult though, we'll tune out the moment other than which is too easy. And we're like focusing on the sermon, but we're not engaged enough. It's boring. I'm sorry. You say the same thing over and over again for five years, I'm going to have already known that part. So give me some new information, please.

Iliya:

What is your thing of choice that engages you? What is the repetitive task you do?

Iskren:

I don't know. So basically I used to do many things, but there are small like fiddling with my fingers, like with things I just fiddle which is the pretty typical thing. But I had this whole discovery at some point that it's bad for me. I don't know if it's the case really, but I perceived myself: it's bad for me. I need to stop. So for the past, there's been a long running thing –maybe more than 10 years, I have very cautiously, very harshly cut myself from any access to fiddling or doing repetitive tasks while doing something else. Because I thought it's bad for me. For this conversation, I'm starting to think that maybe it’s still bad for me, but I thought, okay, that’s not acceptable. It's kind of a weakness of character. Let's say I need to stop fiddling. So, I've completely taken it out of my life now, as far as I can.

Elijah:

That seems like a good activation right there. You found something you want to improve and then you improved. Well done. A lot of the time, we're not deeply engaged because we haven't decided what we're optimizing. So if I, for example, was optimizing listening then could be that I am more engaged. Non-defensive listening. But that still, it might not be enough to absorb all of my attention, so if we focus on an optimization process, which is what mindfulness is actually about, according to Vervaeke, then we can optimize more than one thing at once. The fiddling might be because we haven't decided what to optimize. Now in us optimizing something we've already chosen a goal, or it could be arbitrary, it doesn't matter. We should be engaged with process in terms of flow, in terms of intrinsic meaning perhaps –I would say at least for me, and from what I've studied, it seems that engagement with a meaningful process is worthwhile. Actually the book I was reading the other day, Changing Emotion with Emotion, there was a recent therapeutic book written very recently that described the self as a dynamic process. This also seems compatible with both Whitehead's process philosophy. We want to be in process. Of course goals can make the process meaningful.

Iliya:

Iso, I know you saw, I know what you're doing during video conference and calls. You usually take your simple programming tasks and you do them while in a conference call.

Iskren:

So I thought of saying this, but it's a bit more specific, so it's applicable to kind of a subset of situations, but yes.

Iliya:

Yeah. But in Elijah's framework, you're optimizing for productivity, right? So, you're leaving out all of the dumb tasks, stupid tasks for conference calls.

Iskren:

Yeah, I do that. Yes. But also, to be fair, like in this conversation, because I know how it could be annoying for other people and I've been annoyed with other people doing something similar. But the point is that, as Elijah said, it actually has a positive effect because otherwise some long conference call with many people who are not too engaged, I just start –like if I'm not doing this, I start thinking of other things. And once you do that, then you lose the connection to the conversation because you go too deep into your internal dialogue, and then you just don't know what they're talking about.

Elijah:

That's exactly what it is. That's what I mean by the ego. The ego is actually a long topic. I've been thinking about the ego for so long actually. There's lots of ways we can approach the ego. So regarding internal dialogue, I think it really matters what type of dialogue we're having. There could be the self-conscious dialogue of: my needs aren't met. I am insecure about something or this or that, or this or that. There can be the whole self judgment. There can be perfectionism –all of that parasitic processing, if you will. I really, really, really like Verveake’s idea of the transjective relationship between the agent and the arena, where we are embodied in the world. This is assuming the subject-object divide is solved. Like he talks about leaving the agent you’re in a relationship with as domicide. It's psychologically dangerous potentially. And also if we are to assume we are in deep engagement with the world as the ...as sort of this, like we're embodied in the world where we're already part of process. And anytime we're disconnected from process, it's often because of some dangers we need to meet or some needs we need to solve, and so forth. And our minds are assumed to be connected with the body, of course, that's actually a problem with philosophy. But let's assume that we’re already in contact with ourselves and we're in contact with the world. Then our contact with the world would actually help our minds. And I've noticed this in myself where I'm deeply engaged with what I'm doing, my reflections are more meaningful, more relevant to tasks, and less about self-consciousness, less about worry. And actually deeper focus helps with deeper thinking, in my opinion.

Iliya:

It's quite subjective, isn't it? The whole thing, so for people who are very, very extroverted, maybe they need to get into a sensory deprivation capsule for a bit. And for people who tend to think a lot [be with their mind a lot], they need some more relationships.

Elijah:

Well, we may need a normative theory of psychology then. So regarding extrovert-introvert and how this may relate to engagement, it's not necessarily assumed that introverts are necessarily thinking more. I can... I know. I've been tested as an extreme extrovert actually, and I'm often reflecting more serious - - when I'm talking about engagement with the world. It could be engagement with others. It could also just be engagement with the skill. It could be some sort of participation –that's something that allows for flow. This can engage the mind. Other people may help with this based on, perhaps, there will be normative emotional needs, based on how we are in relationship. It could be based on our internal models of self and other. This goes back to attachment theory that relates to expectation, it relates to self-consciousness, it relates to expectation, it relates to all these things. So if we don't feel we are worthy of connection or we don't have high expectations from others, it's going to end up ...we're going to be more self-conscious and we're interacting, for example. And when that happens, it's actually not an active participation, and maybe it's easier to have this active participation on our own. These are all very complicated questions. I think we could actually potentially start having a framework to answer them, but I don't have the answers yet. I just have some other questions.

Iskren:

I mean, asking the right question is the very important first step, right?

Elijah:

Yes. It's like, what was it called? John Verveake would talk about this as the problem nexus: you find the problem and then you have an effective problem formulation, and then you have an optimization strategy. Right, right? There's this whole theory for this and philosophy has been exploring it to some degree.

Iskren:

Going back to something we said earlier about these frameworks and stuff being very addictive because they set a very, very clear objective goal, like a single measurable institute to chase after. That's the same in the sense that asking the right question is essentially equivalent to defining a single measurable result.

Elijah:

Oh, for sure! It's like I remember this with one of Jacob Aagaard’s test books. He's like all your other books, they're going to give you the answers. I'm not giving you the answers. I'm going to give you the right questions. For how to play positional chess, it all comes down to what are the weaknesses? What's the worst place piece? And what's your opponent's idea. Here are the questions, you can answer them. We're pretty good at answering questions. Are we good enough at asking them? Well, asking assumes we don't know something, right? And then it gets to curiosity, wonder and awe. And, Vervaeke has a theory for this, for how this opens us up to the world, which of course is related to engagement and the agents that are in a relationship.

Iliya:

Everything is interrelated.

Elijah:

Interdependent, for sure. And I think that this might be related to Carl Jung's concept of synchronicity, although I'm not completely sure.

Iskren:

Nope, not familiar with this.

Elijah:

I'm not either. This is just a brief discussion where I heard someone talking about it.

Iskren:

But yeah, in the agent arena, the framework that you mentioned again, like literally it's the same in the whole world, right? Our world view, we are the agent in some external defined arena. And one further thing that we cannot know whether this arena is bounded, whether it's part of some bigger arena, whether it's artificial [i.e. in some definition of the word artificial], we cannot possibly know. As far as we can ever know, we are in an agent-arena situation in our real life.

Elijah:

Yeah, I think so. At least, I mean, if we want to participate meaningfully, we are.

Iliya:

Guys, can I ask you to one of you -you choose- define the agent arena relationship for anyone who has never heard of this.

Elijah:

All right. Sure. Now I'm borrowing this term from John Vervaeke and I keep mentioning him, but I love his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis podcast. I just recently finished –I think it was Episode 47 on Heidegger– there's only three episodes left. It seems fantastic. You have so many ideas, but I think I'm going to probably badly paraphrase what the agent-arena relationship is. The agent-arena relationship is how you participate in the world in a meaningful way. The arena is where you are participating. It often provides a frame for meaning, for goals, for growth, and the agent is who you are. And it's assuming engagement.

Iskren:

Which by the way, so I had never heard of this particular definition, but the way I thought about it and turns out I saw it correctly, is that with the essentially same phrasing is the definition for reinforcement machine learning. The definition for reinforcement learning is pushing the algorithms that define and optimize the behavior of an agent in a given environment. So just substitute the words, environment and arena, and it's the same. It's literally the same definition, which is quite fascinating because the parallel between anthropocentric philosophy ideas and very much the nanopocentric ideas of learning and computers, let's say.

Elijah:

I would imagine that learning is perpetually important. I mean, we are ...what makes us distinct as mankind? I would say it has to do with our minds, I would imagine, where every other species can engage, they can learn, but they're not self-aware and they don't decide their essence. They don't decide their function. I'm thinking about this in the platonic sense. Whenever there is an ideal, there's a forum, you could say, then the optimization for that is clear or at least in theory, it's clear but we have the potential to define our own essence. We have the potential to decide our values. We are able to not only adjust to the environment, we can adjust our environment. We are the mind that can change the mind. Our process of rationality can make us more rational. We can observe our mind in this, and reflect and change on that. So this is really interesting. We have this ability to grow and to learn, which helps us adjust according to the environment –I think it relates to meaning, I think it relates to the agent-arena relationship. I would say this is probably one of the most important distinct features of being human, but this is just my opinion.

Iliya:

And it might be wrong as we said in the beginning,

Elijah:

I'm trying to focus on learning these ideas to explore these ideas. And as I'm exploring, I find out more, I find out where I was imprecise. I find new questions. This is an ongoing process of relevance realization –Vervaeke’s term– where I consistently do not know enough and will need to continue learning, but will be hopefully knowing enough to continue engaging.

Iskren:

So guys, I basically, right now have two questions that I really want to ask. So I just have to roll the dice and go with one of them before we completely close the chess topic. I want to go back there for this one side question, let's say. It's a discussion that I've had with a friend of mine, with whom we have kind of similar discussions in nature from time to time. He's also a fairly good chess player and we have these discussions about why chess is such a great game, et cetera. And kind of, we always circle around this idea of typology. It defines a very, very interesting typology because we have just these 64 squares and the number of pieces, and the relationships between them embedded in the rules create that -after just a few moves on the board- you end up in a very, very typologically different situation, which means that it's a highly chaotic –in the physical sense of chaos. So my question is, he always kind of pushes us towards this idea of: can we map this beautiful game of chess? Meaning a very, very, very compact definition set of rules that then very rapidly expands into a chaotic system with many different congregations. How can we map it onto anything else –kind of as a useful one look? Go ahead.

Elijah:

I like thinking about this as process and chess is a great example because if we think about it from the purely logical perspective, it quickly becomes co-mandatorily explosive in the sense that there's too much to calculate. But we actually have to calculate sometimes. Daniel Kahneman would talk about a system one and system two. Or as Vervaeke would talk about it as dual processing, we have to balance the sort of intuitive engagement and when to apply logic. We have the agent-arena relationship clearly defined for us. Being process-oriented allows us to engage more fully. It gives us a clear environment. For relevance realization in a way that engages the mind effectively. We have to optimize according to the things that are both related to skill acquisition, and as related to thought process optimization. And this kind of reminds me of something I'd like to say more recently. I think chess is sort of an X-ray to the soul in the sense that if you do not have certain parts of your life ordered properly, your needs aren't met, you're stressed about this or that, your mind -like chess- you will interfere with your mindset. You will ...your performance optimization will not work. And it will absolutely expose that. And because the conditions for optimization are in some sense clear, or at least able to become more clear, like mathematics is a closed system of information which allows for certainty in some contexts, at least you can have certain axioms and reason beyond that. This context is fantastic for optimization strategies. It's fantastic for process oriented optimization for growth, and you can apply this for real life. You can apply this for thought process optimization for something else. You just have to make sure that the conditions are clear. You have to know what the goal is. You have to control your emotions and all these other things related to ...Like when you're talking about, I have a methodology of test improvement and I see it as like your roadmap growth –which is sort of your pattern recognition, your thought process, and your performance optimization. If you can develop skills, intuitive stills, and order your mind and get your life together, then you've sort of done everything, right? So these categories can apply to life and other skills just as well, in my opinion.

Iliya:

Can you think of some pattern which is not chess? So some games, some exercise, which is related to pattern recognition, which is not chess –which can help you with chess?

Elijah:

Well, I guess the question of “help you with chess” is a little bit complicated. Let's talk about John’s [Vervaeke’s] the difference between rationality and expertise. Expertise is specific. It applies to a specific skill and it doesn't necessarily carry over. It can carry over, but it doesn't necessarily carry over, and quite often it doesn't. This is not a bad thing at all, but this often leads to people being overconfident outside of their field because they mistake expertise for rationality. Rationality is process-oriented and it's [how to put this], this is Vervaeke’s term but I'm going to probably butcher it somewhat, but he got it from someone else, I’m sure. So rationality is process oriented and it's more field general. It's not going to apply only to one skill. If you learn how to be a more rational person where you're able to be a better problem solver in general, and you learn how to optimize various things or approach the ideal in this or that field or whatever ...Like this sort of process of if you understand your mind, if you understand the limits of your intuition, if you understand when to apply your more manual thought process, don't particularly talk about this as active open-mindedness, where you understand what the typical bias is that you can have, and when and how you should override this. But don't override it too much because then when you go back to co-mandatorily explosive problem of just not being able to apply logic to everything. This general rationality can be very helpful. Now with chess, I think chess pushes you not only to develop an expertise, but it also pushes you to be more rational. It doesn't necessarily mean you'll be more rational, but if you want to optimize for chess, you can optimize skill-specific things only, but it pushes you in the direction of rationality, in my opinion. But because these things, like thought process optimization, understanding when you hear intuition isn't reliable, aware that emotions play a role, how you can develop skills –these are very general things that can apply overall, and you're not guaranteed to apply them or even use this framework at all. But I think this could be helpful in life, in general. I mean, I would imagine it would apply to other games, but I mean, a gane is like a closed system of information where the optimization strategy is clear according to a goal. I mean you can also make life a game by making the goal clear and by getting rid of self-consciousness, right? Games, like chess, can participate in that. And for me, it's my profession. So it's probably going to play a very large role, but you don't want to become a specific problem solver within an expertise at the expense of your general rationality. You'd rather it support your rationality because there's going to be problems outside of your field of expertise. You can narrow it down of course, and focus almost entirely on that field, but there could be more normative aspects of human psychology where certain needs might not even matter. There are greater optimization processes that are being missing, or you're failing to participate in the whole greater way. And all of these things could lead to greater meaning that you're missing out on by not being sufficiently rational.

Iskren:

That’s a great differentiation. Actually, I had not thought of it. I have not read it before –the differentiation between expertise and rationality. And it clicked for me because I've thought about this in different terms that were a bit vague. I never really concretized it in this way. It's really good. And I guess chess in this framework is really good because being such a clean –clean in the sense that there are very few rules and pieces, there's very little meat on top of each other, it’s just pure abstraction. It's a very abstract the game. That's why it's good for rational ...like it’s rationality-oriented, right, because it's an abstract game. It could apply to anything afterwards.

Iliya:

Okay. So I want to go back to one of my previous questions. I just thought of one analogy, which could be very useful to you to understand my question. Anyways, when you have ice skating, so people who ice skate and especially there are these speed rounds, I'm not sure how they call it, but it's basically a competition of who's going to be the fastest ice skater. These guys, when they're out of the skating arena, they train by cycling. So cycling is extremely beneficial for ice skating, and yeah, these two are completely different activities. However, together, they work wonders for these people, right? Is there something like this for chess?

Elijah:

Yeah, absolutely. So the funny thing is me and David were talking about this a few years ago. He's like, “Isn't it interesting, Elijah, that studying chess all the time is not the best optimization strategy for improving at chess?” Because we were reading about this from the context of John Rady's excellent book Spark, as it talked about how exercise influences the brain. It has to do with increased neuro genesis. It has to do with boosting BDNF, that is, brain derived neurotrophic factor, which seems to have temporary impact on neuro-plasticity or skill-based learning. I sort of think that there's normative aspects of human flourishing that could spill over to chess. And that only doing chess wouldn't actually allow you to optimize chess to the maximum extent. If we don't have any of our needs met, we're going to be falling asleep at the board.

Iskren:

And, so in the wild playing chess, if you just play chess, you wouldn't actually necessarily be improving. I guess, in this framework, the short version is that, well, then if you just do this at some point, you will find that you're doing it a bit kind of by nurture -for the wrong reasons- by nurture you wouldn’t be present, there won’t be proper presence in the game exactly. And so if you play chess, play chess, play chess as much as you can and then at some point you ended up not being present. Why? You could be hungry, you could be lonely. You could be missing anything, you could be missing physical exercise. It's so many things. So you're very correct that you don't play just chess, but any sort of professional sports or anything really, people assume that the more you do it, the better you get at it. But that's not true because you plateau and everybody who's tried to excel in any field knows that usually what happens is that you prove it to some point and then you plateau; and then you have to qualitatively change something to go through this plateau and improve a bit again.

Iliya:

That would make sense, guys. I have a couple of questions that I want to really ask. And, so first of all, both of you have different ways of having started with philosophy. So can you both tell me ...so, Elijah, how did you get started with philosophy? What was the process?

Elijah:

Okay, well, I always was interested in big-picture questions, but I was so obsessed with chess and so clear with my values that I never really let myself focus on them very much, except for when I was talking to my brother Gus or my mentor, David M. And at times I would restrain myself. Explicitly I remember times like one and a half years ago, or I would talk with Gus and I'd be a little bit upset after talking with him because he would say something that's so interesting, I would think about it for weeks. But I have these values for chess that were very perfectionistic-oriented and judging everything else. I'm like, “You're distracting me.” And I didn't tell him that because I actually was so fascinated by this stuff. But more recently I'm like, well, I'm noticing that when I'm doing only chess, I'm not actually improving as fast at chess. I slipped into perfectionism. I'm not noticing that I'm not valuing this relationship enough. I'm noticing that when I'm in flow, I'm learning three or four times faster. So maybe I should find out what is going to create flow and create these preconditions for flourishing more so I don’t do as much time chess that I can. And so ultimately, I started being way we're really, really open-minded about what I should do, recognizing that my passion for chess will remain, and I will find its place. And at some point it'll fit back into place with all this new information and potentially other interests. So with philosophy, I gravitated towards that fast enough because I love learning this sort of thing. I had tons of questions all the time and, of course, David and Gus and ...this makes it really easy for me to talk to people about these things, because David's getting his PhD in philosophy, and Gus is also probably going to do that later. And then I hang out with my family, basically, every week. So we get to have these talks. So I just asked to join the philosophy meeting –this weekly thing with David and Gus, and Lewis and some other things. So there were a couple of books that really made me interested, too, like I read a Robert Pirsig, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That was fascinating! And I really enjoyed the sequel Lila and Inquiry into Morals. Those blew my mind! I just immersed myself into them and it dramatically transformed how I saw the world, potentially, at least for a while. And even now, I also ...there was a Plato Saturday meeting with David where we were doing like Plato's The Republic. And we were supposed to do like one chapter a week, but at some point it sucked me in and then I spent like two or three days and just did nothing else, more or less, and just finished the whole thing. Obviously, I missed out on a lot, but when you spend 10 plus hours a day reading a book, it's going to influence you a lot.

Iliya:

Thanks, Elijah. Iso, how did you get started with philosophy?

Iskren:

So just like Elijah, it began with a dialogue with somebody else. So the background beforehand is that I had some connections with philosophy very briefly in terms of you studied it in school or something like this, I didn't quite like it as much. I didn't really understand that well, the purpose. And so I hadn't really studied it in any proper way. And so just one day, later in university, I had this beautiful discussion with a friend of mine where we touched upon those concepts of the “One” –which only later I understood what was already talked about by the Greeks, Plato’s idea of the one. And so essentially, what happened is that we had this amazing discussion that was super interesting for me. And then afterwards I went and I Googled, I wonder if anybody else has talked about this. And I just imagined, you know, somebody of the old philosophers would be, I thought somebody on a forum or Quora, would have talked about it. And then I found out that essentially, even with the same phrasing at parts we had discussed what Heraclitus had talked about, you know, 500 BC. So I was mind-blown by this fact that, “Oh, wow! We just rediscovered the wheel that has been here for like less than 3000 years.” That's absolutely mind blowing! And so then what I did is I started, not just Googling, but kind of going from Wikipedia article to Wikipedia article, just for a very, very shallow overview of, “Oh, I wonder what's out there?” It was very shallow, obviously. And then I discovered a whole bunch of other concepts that in one way or another, I thought about or discussed and they just gripped me that, “Oh, wow! All of these, I don't have to rediscover!” I can just read about it and it's going to be so much more, there’s so much better argument that crystallized, et cetera. At this point I thought, okay, I want to know more, but I don't know how to know more. I did some research on what is the best kind of book to get into philosophy, a best way to do it. And so I suppose, it’s going to be some sort of overview. And, I found this one overview book by Russell, which is called The History of Western Philosophy. And it's basically an overview book where each chapter is like a particular philosopher or a historical period. So by itself, obviously it doesn't ...it's not explanatory enough about any particular idea, but it's kind of a catalogue. It's the preface to the grander book of all philosophies. So I just use this as the basis to understand not that much the concept, but what is out there to even inquire about in terms of the history of philosophy.

Iliya:

Okay guys, to sum up for the listeners. We've got Plato’s The Republic, as a starting book, then we have Russell, and what was the book?

Iskren:

The History of Western Philosophy.

Elijah:

And The Problems of Philosophy.

Iliya:

Yes. And finally, David and Gus, they told you to start with The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas.

Iskren:

By the way that's ...just going back to the question of how to get into philosophy, these kinds of questions. Actually, I found this a bit intimidating always that talking to people who are knowledgeable on the topic and usually they're professionals. They’re PhDs or professors of philosophy. Man, I can't ...I just want to explore some interesting concepts. Just talk about it. And I'm doing this from a very pure point of view. I just want to talk about it. And then, because I liked the professional language because of all the professional philosophers, I can't even begin to speak about the actual concept because we get tangled up in the fact that I don't have the right terminology. Like, come on guys, just talk about the concept even if I’m not super precise, you understand why I'm not super precise.

Elijah:

Yes, yes. But you're more on point than they are, because language is not primary. Language is describing concepts and imprecisely at that.

Iliya:

Hey Elijah. So if our listeners want to find you somewhere, where can they find you?

Elijah:

Sure. I'm Logozar on chessable. L O G O Z A R. I also make YouTube videos. I make Twitch. I'm a blogger on chess.com and you can book private lessons at bookme.name/chessmate.

Iliya:

Great! We're going to include all of these links in the show notes. So if you want to find Elijah, that's where you should look.

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