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Introducing Hard Steps

To do

well, you need to learn to see the rich backstory behind every one of your values-driven acts.

It's easy to see the peak experience of living by a value: the moment when you chose to be vulnerable, or stepped up and took responsibility, or experienced the kind of creativity with your colleagues that's so meaningful to you.

But this is just the tip of an iceberg. Living by our values is a collaboration between many selves, on many timeframes. Only by getting the whole iceberg in view can we see what it means to design for values.

I'll give some examples, then introduce our main practice to surface the iceberg and generate design ideas from it.

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Example #1 — Honesty with Anne

I'm sitting with my friend Anne, about to give her some honest feedback.

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The Tip

I'm nervous, but I tell her the thing. She understands me and adds some new perspective. I feel safer with her. I trust her more.

The Iceberg

  1. Relationship building. Before I could be honest with Anne, I had to build up a relationship that works for honesty. A relationship where (for instance) we have a track record of supporting each other, even after sharing difficult things.
  2. Information gleaning.
    1. Before building a relationship, I had to ascertain she was a good person with which to build such a relationship: that this stranger is the kind of person who cares about things like building relationships, and being honest.
    2. Even in the moment, before being honest, I need to know some things: for instance, is this a good moment?
  3. Reflection. I need information inside myself, like: what are the feelings I'm trying to communicate? How sure am I of what I'm about to say?
  4. Mood setting. Maybe we were at a party, and to tell her something, I had first to locate a quieter room. Maybe we were in a group and I had to get her alone, or verify that others in the group are also people I can be honest in front of. This requires social skills, and knowledge about the setting.
  5. Social Navigation. I can keep going backwards in time and find more backstory: before deciding to build a relationship with Anne, I had to meet her! I was networking, I knew about parties with honest people at them. Etc.

Example #2 — Creativity with Andy

Every few weeks I call with my friend Andy and we share where we're stuck on our projects, and give each other ideas.

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The Tip

On the call, we practice a kind of creativity we both value.

The Iceberg

  1. Relationship building.
    1. Context. Andy and I share a lot of context: we both have backgrounds in cognitive science and computer science. We share many of the same friends and values. We also know a lot about each other's projects: he's taken a version of my class; I've read a lot of his writing. So our ideas about one another's work are less likely to be naive.
    2. Safety. We've also created a lot of safety in our relationship. I'm often scared to say critical things when someone presents their ideas. I don't want to offend them. Andy and I have built up a track record of being critical with each other's ideas, but in a light hearted way. That makes it feel safe for both of us to grow our tree of ideas, and also safe to prune it, when things are going in the wrong direction.
  2. Social Navigation. Andy and I operate outside of traditional academia, but we try to be somewhat scientific. We met through para-academic communities of people like that, which are hard to find out about and to gain access to.
  3. Mood setting. At our best, Andy and I find a pace to our conversation that allows for a good mix of thinking and speaking. We had to figure out how to do this: we mostly go for walk-and-talk phone calls, rather than sitting and staring at each other on zoom. We pause a lot, so we can be thoughtful.
  4. Reflection. Both of us have spent years developing reflective skills to do this kind of thinking. We consult our intuitions, and have faith that vague misgivings will form themselves into sentences, in time to be shared and understood.

Surfacing the Iceberg

Most people see just the tip of their own actions. By doing the exercises below, you'll start to see the whole iceberg.

And two things become clear:

  • First, the iceberg is where most social designs fail. In most online social environments, most workplaces, most community structures, etc—it's impossible to get the information you'd need to be honest, to set up the context for creativity, to build the right relationships, to navigate socially as you'd need to, etc.
  • Second, our meaningful experiences owe more to social design than we think. The "tip" moments I had with Andy and Anne aren't especially designed. But the backstories are all about social designs. Carefully designed social spaces, practices, networking events, etc, led to these meaningful moments.

So, let's learn to surface that iceberg. We do it in three stages.

  • Stage 1 — An absurdly detailed story is written, about a time you were able to live by a value, including everything you needed to do in the backstory.
  • Stage 2That story is picked apart, pulling out the "Hard Steps" of the value.
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    Hard Steps

    Sub-actions, necessary to live by a value, which are hard to do in some environments.

  • Stage 3 — That analysis is used to generate design ideas, which we call "sketches", that design for the iceberg.

Let's get started!

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Stage 1️⃣ — The Hard Step Story

Let's say I'm making a "founder dating" event, where people find partners for their business or project. I've been to some, and found they suppressed a vulnerability value of mine, which felt important. Others I know feel similarly.

How will my values-based founder dating event be different? Let's say I've picked this value, which will distinguish what's possible at my founder dating event, versus the others in town.

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Value

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To find the hard steps of this value, I'll tell an obsessively detailed story. The story should be...

about a similar environment to what I'm making
about a time when I was able to live by the value
about what I did to live by the value (not how the event was set up)

I'll use a time when, at a dance workshop, I could be vulnerable with a stranger.

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Context

The dance workshop is similar to the networking event I want to make because it's among strangers, for a limited time, around a shared interest, in person.

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Story

We first made eye contact while waiting in line for dinner. A man had cut in line, just in front of us, and she made a little gesture—towards him but intended for me—as if to say "be my guest" to the interloper. I smiled big. I liked her, and decided to maybe make friends.

Later, in a dance class, she couldn't keep up with the choreography. I saw her struggling and feeling bad, and wanted to signal my compassion somehow. I was finally able to do this on the way out of class, by mentioning one of my own experiences when I couldn't keep up.

At lunch on the third day, I found a quiet spot away from the rest of the group. She saw me across the grass and pointed to ask if she could come join me. I nodded. After eating our food for a bit she sighed before proceeding. I could tell she was going to share something hard, and I put my plate down.

Stage 2️⃣ — Hard Steps Analysis

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Hard Steps

Sub-actions, necessary to live by a value, which are hard to do in some environments.

Example: Speaking honestly has, as a sub-action, reflecting on what's true for you. That makes such reflecting a "hard step" of speaking honesty. Reflecting will be harder in noisy rooms, when there's little time, etc. If you are designing for honest, don't make spaces that are bad for reflection. And honesty has other hard steps—for instance, there are steps to build up a relationship that's good for honesty, like seeing how someone reacts when you're honest.

A hard step is an action I needed to take to live by the value. It's clear from this story that vulnerability involves many hard steps. Let's see if we can categorize and name them.

I'll start with one event of the story:

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I liked her, and decided to maybe make friends.

First, I'll categorize it. Hard steps are of four basic types (which sometimes blend into one another). Here are the types:

  1. Information The Agent Must Be Available to Glean
  2. Decision-Making and Reflection
  3. Actions to Create a Mood, Transition, or Setting
  4. Actions to Advance a Relationship
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"Deciding to maybe make friends" seems to be of type 2.

Next, we give the hard step a name. The name should capture what I did (not what I experienced) in the story, but generalize it so it isn't about exactly what happened in the story, but is about a more general subtask that any agent who wants to live by the value might have to do.

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My generalization of "decided to maybe make friends" is

→ "assessing who seems worth deepening a relationship with".

Your names should satisfy four criteria.

The step should about something I did, not about the setup of the environment
The step you've named should be general enough, so that many stories of living by this value would involve this hard step
The step you've named should often be necessary to live by the value
The step should be named specifically enough, so that it shows how this step is possible in some environments and not others

My hard step name ("assessing who seems worth deepening a relationship with") seems to satisfy all four criteria.

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By following the same process with every other element of my story, I get the following (with hard step names in green):

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Information I Must Be Available to Glean

  • saw me across the grass - visibility into good spaces and times to connect
  • saw her struggling and feeling bad - visibility into hardships
  • I could tell she was going to share something hard - visibility into the others' emotional state

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Decision-Making and Reflection

  • decided to maybe make friends - assessing who seems worth deepening a relationship with

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Actions to Advance a Relationship

  • made eye contact - lightweight actions that confirm interest
  • she made a little gesture—towards him but intended for me - actions that create rapport
  • I smiled big - actions that confirm rapport; finding someone trustworthy
  • signal my compassionmentioning one of my own experiences - actions that show compassion

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Actions to Create a Mood, Transition, or Setting

  • found a quiet spot away from the rest of the group - finding a quiet, private space
  • pointed to ask if she could come join me - verifying that it's a good time to connect privately
  • I put my food down - verifying the other person will slow down to listen
  • I nodded - verifying that it's a good time to connect privately
  • she sighed before proceeding - creating a slow pace where things can be said at the rate they are felt

Stage 3️⃣ — the Sketches

Now, it's time to turn the hard steps I've found into design ideas. This is fun! In each sketch, I'll imagine what my "founder dating" event would look like, if I focused on just one of the hard steps I found. I'm imagining a design to make that one hard step much easier for participants.

A sketch...

should focus on making just one hard step you've identified
should make that hard step much easier for participants
should leave things up to the participants, so they do the hard step for themselves, so it can be part of living by the value for them (do not make it a performance, or automate it)

#1

One hard step from my breakdown above was actions that show compassion. It comes from this part of the story:

I saw her struggling and feeling bad, and wanted to signal my compassion somehow. I was finally able to do this on the way out of class, by mentioning one of my own experiences when I couldn't keep up.

How could I make this easier, at a founder dating event? Here's one sketch:

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Anonymous founder hardships are collected at the beginning and then read aloud. After each is read, there are a few minutes for people to respond verbally and publicly to what's been read. They can say something like "oh man, that shit happened to me too" or whatever.

After, some mingling.

#2

Another hard step was assessing who seems worth deepening a relationship with. From this part of the story:

I liked her, and decided to maybe make friends.

My sketch:

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Before coming, everyone has agreed to invite at most one person they meet to something after the event—something that's not business related. Maybe a shared task like gardening together or something like that. At the event they get to pick one person they'd just like to hang out with.

As the event starts, one at a time, everyone immerses their head in very cold water. Then, one at a time, everyone shares an embarrassing moment from their recent past. Then there's cookies, coffee, time to just hang out and chat.

At the end, everyone closes their eyes and points to one other person in the room. That's the person they want to be friends with. The facilitator makes pairs of people who pointed at each other.

#3

Another hard step was "creating a slow pace where things can be said at the rate they are felt". It comes from this part of the story:

After eating our food for a bit she sighed before proceeding. I could tell she was going to share something hard, and I put my food down.

My sketch:

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The room is partitioned into four sections. In the first section are a handful of 10 second timers. In the next section, 30s timers. In the third section, 1 minute timers, and in the fourth section, 5 minute timers.

Everyone starts with a buddy they pick in the 10s section. They agree there will always be 10 seconds of silence between sentences, and that after a short chat they will either proceed to the next section or recirculate.

#4

Another hard step was "finding someone trustworthy".

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To come to the event, you must come with a testimonial that someone known by the community has entrusted you with a secret, and thinks you were a good person to trust with that secret. The organizer of the event knows, for each person present, who it was that trusted them with a secret.

Also at the event are "vulnerability assessors". Attendees talk to an assessor about something that may or may not be vulnerable. The assessor gives it a number from one to five, based on how sensitive they think it is. (Assessors are sworn to secrecy.)

Then, the assessor helps you conduct interviews to find someone worthy of sharing your vulnerable story with. Only when the secret holder and the assessor are both confident do the pair break off and discuss.

Variations

Focus on one design lens

In this introduction, I showed how to write hard steps stories and sketches. But while I was doing it, I made the problem a little harder for myself, to extend my design imagination.

My first sketched, I focused on relationship building, the second and third, on ritual, the fourth on legitimation, and the fifth on incentives. I limited myself to solutions using those design techniques to practice using them.

If you want to try this for yourself, you can extend your design imagination too. Just pick a lens (relationship structures, ritual, legitimation, or incentives) that's not your natural direction in designs. Then, pick a hard step that could be made easier using a design limited to that lens, and sketch away to see if you can do it.

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Note for casual readers: At

, we teach Hard Steps after a month of learning to collect and articulate values precisely. Finding hard steps is almost impossible without an articulate value.

But—if you want to try the above, and you're not a student—you grab an articulated value that you relate to from a VBSD practitioner, or from meaning.supplies, and try to write a story from there.