Meaning Making Machines (Jennifer Carlston)

Ben and Jenny discuss the absurdity of life, how to create and test learning models, and a unique approach to experience sharing known as “kything.”

Follow Jenny on Twitter (@jdcarlston):

Read Jenny on Medium:


Ben: Hello everyone. And welcome to the Hired Thought podcast. Today I’m joined by Jennifer Carlston. Thanks for joining me!

Jenny: Oh, thank you.  I appreciate it. I’m excited to do this!

Ben: Yeah. So kind of wanted to start with your Twitter profile, ’cause it had a bunch of really interesting words in it that just made me think, “Hmm. I should probably get to know this person!”

You frame yourself as searching for the Renaissance, you call yourself a creatrix and a swarchitect. And I was kind of curious about some of those words and sort of how you came to those.

Jenny: Well, I like language, I enjoy linguistics.

I’d like people to understand kind of what went into the Renaissance and like the forms of thought that people were trying to develop. And I’d like, you know, people to start thinking about what would make it possible for them to create a new Renaissance, a future Renaissance in a sense.

Creatrix means a creator. So, you know, I’ve been involved in the maker community. I’ve been involved in a lot of artistic communities. And so I just thought creative… creatrix means a female creator. Swarchitect is software architect, which I think accurately describes it a little bit better and, you know, it’s, it’s a made up word. I just made it up.

Ben: I mean, all the words are made up and that’s beautiful. So let’s, let’s add a few more to the dictionary, right.?

What keeps happening for me is I keep… when we speak, I always seem to be noticing whenever you find something that really is causing joy, um, you, you have like this kind of “eyes light up bright” kind of moment where you get really excited about something and… sort of diving into what it means and what it could mean and how that could reshape kind of the way that you approach the world.

And I think that that maybe touches back to the point about searching for the Renaissance a little bit. And I was kind of curious how you connect to the joy you find in learning and understanding these things back to creating a world where we can, we can create new renaissances, like we can actually start those movements ourselves.

What does all that mean to you?

Jenny: I think as humans, we’re meaning making machines. We tell stories, we tell stories about ourselves. We tell stories to ourselves, we lie and we tell the truth and we mix it all up.  Like the world is completely absurd in so many ways.

Right. You know, uh, on a fundamental level it’s absurd with a few patterns,

Ben: I love that characterization. Cause it, it, I guess when I think about how I grew up, it was always trying to align myself to like formal social structures, like religion or focusing on kind of. The the way that people were trying to raise me to be and sort of fit within that. And then I kind of reached this moment in life where I ha I was like, I sort of broke out of those patterns and the world did start to just look kind of like a giant ball of absurdity with a few patterns.

Jenny: Yeah. So at the same time, while everything’s absurd, we are these creatures that are trying to make meaning from absurdity. And there are our chains of events, right? So there are things that connect and everything ultimately is connected at the same time.

Right? So we have to try to connect the events that are important to us. And that’s where you get like this mapping function in your own mind. You’re saying this means this, right. This thing happened. And that means this to me. And so what I like thinking about a lot is what principles are informing those, uh, assignments and the, the things that when we’re making these assignments in our everyday world, something happens to us and we assign it, meaning we do that naturally.

We can’t help it, our biases or assumptions, they all inform how we make meaning of whatever’s happening around us. And in order to really. Take control of that. You have to align with certain principles. And I think that’s what ultimately the Renaissance was about, which I really admire. And I want to take whatever we can learn from that past history that kind of elevated human thought and higher thought and apply it to our future. And personally.

Ben: So why did you decide to pursue understanding, learning specifically?

Jenny: Um, I think that’s just something that’s fascinated me since I was a kid. My parents… my mom was a teacher. My grandparents were teachers. My, my grandpa was a coach, but his, his entire existence centered around kind of melding the body and the mind and creating these, I don’t know, experiences for people that help them do that.

Like, he ran a sports school in a ski school that helped people understand how their bodies and minds work together for an extent develop that, you know, a physical sense of space.

Ben: And so this brings us to the learning process, which is a model that you’ve started to develop and share and I’m thinking how we develop ourselves, how others develop around us.

How did a model come into being like a lot of times how things start is an interesting question because, um, some people put a bunch of things on the table and try to sort through the mess. other people kind of meander through different like experiences and try to sort through those experiences make sense of them.

How did you kind of come to create this learning process.

Jenny: Um, I saw another graphic and that was similar to what, what I created, um, that had, uh, had fewer zones and had fewer behavioral things. And I’d been going through a lot of like, really stressful situations at the time and really started looking at what, what, what I was experiencing and what, what helped bring me joy.

What helped like me helped me calm down and help me learn. And as I was trying to learn, what helped me learn faster. Um, and then I was also reading, I think, um, Algorithms to Live By. So it kind of takes computer algorithms and applies them to like your life. It’s an it’s, I don’t know, 2014 book or somewhere around there, but, um, it talked about the explore exploit algorithm and, and a few others that you can use in your life.

And I, I. Wanted to kind of create my own explore exploit algorithm. And, and so I just looked at, I combined all of these things and um, what the learners mindset was all about, what the growth mindset with what a Senator and Sanford there’s, there’s a lot of just.

Things that I just started putting in here, and this seems to fit here and this kind of, you know, if I do this, then these things connect and the questioning process that you go through when you’re trying to assign, meaning will often start with what just happened and when did it happen,  and then kind of where and what, and that helps you relate what you’ve assigned internally to external. Uh, two external, similar things, perhaps. So you’re assigning meaning, then you’re relating meaning, um, you’re exploring what’s going on. And then you’re able to build and exploit that like build, build off of that. So   there’s so many thoughts there and I’m still trying to like, Get them into a straight line so that it makes sense for other people, but it’s like this explosion of things for me that I’ve, I’ve seen all these things that, that kind of one follow the other, like, like an event sourcing pattern or something, you know, with domain-driven design.

It’s like, these are the things that happen in order to build up, uh, The added context of language and understanding, right? And it happens on an internal level for a human being. It happens when we write software, it happens as anything is trying to learn something like whether it’s a computer, an animal, a person it’s the learning process.

Ben: Yeah. So I see there are kind of, uh, it looks like five kind of spaces, um, and it all starts with an event. Um, and it seems like there’s a progression of sorts from the comfort zone to the explore zone, to the related zone. So the relate zone and the exploit zone, and then beyond that is kind of this trauma space and.

How does all this kind of work like walk is the event that starting point. And then how does this kind of all unfold?

Jenny: Yeah. It’s an event or an observation, right. Something that you observe and it starts out like if it comes in and it’s something, it’s a known event, you understand it. Then you’re, you’re hanging out in the comfort zone.

If it’s something you’re ignoring that it might be a weak signal that doesn’t fit quite into your comfort zone. So you just ignore it. Um, if those things keep on happening, they might in one, you know, like week events might circle you around into the trauma zone. If they keep happening and you keep ignoring them, if they’re super like.

If there’s such strong events, like probably what COVID has been for a lot of people, it’s such a powerful event that it just shoots them straight through to the trauma zone and two coping mechanisms and freezing and running away and fighting and angry, you know? So like all of these responses that we see in.

The world out, out there, like people protesting and people like hunkering down in their house. And all of those are trauma responses to this super strong event as high pressure event that makes it hard to learn. Right. And so if they can dial it back and start asking questions and exploring what’s going on, and they start looking at the new sources and the sources that they trust and really asking questions, is that really true?

What does this mean to me? And so that ties into those, these five questions that I’ve come up with that really help you explore in while you’re in the exploration zone to relate to your, to relate what’s going on to yourself and begin. Building and expanding your comfort zone.

Ben: And so walk us through kind of how to process or begin processing an event in terms of this framework.

I see a lot of different words that are sort of associated with each of the spaces in the model. And I was kind of wondering how, like, this might work in your brain, as you, as you, as you walk through, come up potentially traumatizing event, like a COVID-19 response. Like, how does this work?

Jenny: So let’s say we all, you know, COVID, we have something happens that scares us.

We start. Worrying about it. We start cycling on it. We start having flashbacks to like, I was sick and I don’t want my family to die. I’ve I’ve seen people die before and it’s not fun to go through or, you know, and you’re kind of thrashing around trying to figure things out. Um, that would be kind of an exploration zone.

If you stay in the idea of questioning what’s going on. And started questioning, “okay, why am I feeling this way? What does it say? You know, what does it making me think about? What, what can I learn from this? And how can I mitigate and anticipate?” You know, like, and that ties into anticipatory awareness, which is why I was so fascinated with it.

Right. So in the exploration zone, you’re questioning you have questions more than answers. And then in the relate zone, you start relating those questions to things that you’re observing and seeing and the environment outside of yourself. So you’re going to start hypothesizing. You’re going to start experimenting.

If you have psychological safety. But you might also be experiencing imposter syndrome. You might be feeling like, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve got to start making comparisons between this situation and other situations that are similar and, you know, uh, you might start critiquing what’s happening and saying, I don’t think this is right.

If you keep questioning and saying, why don’t I think this is right? Why don’t I think what’s happening is. Is a good response to the situation. You can actually do research and keep learning and build better responses. And that’s where you start looking at, you know, measurements. What, why, why is COVID different than the flu?

Well, there’s an exponential mathematical difference and you can start measuring that and seeing this is why we’re responding in this way versus why we don’t do this when we have the flu. Uh, and, and then you can. Start seeing, how can I get better at understanding these responses? Well, I can go learn a little bit more about the math that really goes into understanding what, what, uh, how viruses spread, you know, that’s, that’s just one example.

Uh, and then you could, you know, build something that allows you to build a mental model that allows you to respond in a better way as you’re moving through this, this experience, this event.

Ben: And is there like kind of a feedback loop that occurs where you’re trying not to escape the exploit zone. You’re trying to stay in different forms of the explore, relate and exploit.

How, how does the progression unfold beyond the initial cycle? Does it loop back?

Jenny: Oh yeah. I mean, you could. Depending on what’s going on. It, depending on the questions you’re answering, you could end up in any one of these places at any point in time, but it does loop back in the sense that you’re feeling comfortable.

Once you get comfortable, like there’s a certain level of comfort. And I think I’ve got a quote on the screen that says, if you’re too comfortable, you’re not productive. And if you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not productive. And. Productive is one thing. I mean, you can take it for what you will, but you can, you can understand it from the sense of growth, I would say more than anything and learning.

So if you’re too comfortable, you’re not learning. If you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not learning. And I think that’s a better, better way of looking at it

Ben: One of the interesting kind of problems with model development is how do you test it? How do you get feedback on it? How do you actually put it into the world to see how it holds up and like models are. Like, why, why are models useful? Right? Like, w we’re we’re trying to understand a space and try to act more meaningfully within it.

How have you been trying to get feedback on the learning process? And as you do get that feedback, what, what is, how, how is that actually changing your view on the world through the lens of a model?

Jenny: So I’ve been trying to float it with other people I’ve been trying to test. Test. It’s just an observational model.

It’s not like fully vetted by any organization at this point. But I’ve been trained to send it to people and see what they think and see if it actually describes their experiences and get feedback in that way. So that I posted it on Twitter. I posted it to my friends and, and they’ve given me critiques and they’ve told me what they’ve thought and that’s where I’m at with it.

Um, I’ve definitely added. And I keep adding more things. Like if you look at what I posted on Twitter versus the link, like it’s grown, I call it the build zone now, because I thought exploit is a little bit of a manipulate, you know, like for a lot of people explore, it can have a ton of manipulation. And I D I don’t want that.

I think, you know, manipulation is not generally going to help us build a better build, a better world.

Ben:  And the exploit word in particular, in theory of constraints, that’s part of the central terminology. And it’s also something that we’ve struggled with, like understanding how to, uh, if you want to make a concept accessible to a whole group of people, then you have to reckon with the fact that. This will be perceived that way people will have negative reactions to it based on just the word choice alone.

So you change the word to, from exploit to build, and that of course opens up a whole, the new set of worlds and problems.

Jenny: Um, so ultimately communication is about transfer of meaning and transfer of understanding. So for me that when you have a visual model, you can transfer, you know, a picture’s worth, worth a thousand words. You can transfer meaning more quickly and more easily.

And, uh, take, uh, I think Simon Wardley went on about this, where you can take the, the, take, the personal out of it, take the ego out of it and just. Say, here’s this thing on a map. I disagree with what you’re actually mapping here. Now let’s talk about it and break it down and pull it apart.

Ben: Yeah. A lot of times the places that we need to disagree, um, most critically are implicit or tacit and they’re kind of hidden.

And, um, the difficulty that that introduces into an organization is that we can’t actually confronted, um, Like I’ve been, uh, getting into Sidney Dekker’s work, um, particularly as a book called drift into failure. And it’s, it’s very much like focused on like how we try to rationalize a way, like, The kinds of, um, kind of ways that the things fail and we like to have causes and effects and be able to point to the thing that caused all the problems.

But the, yeah, the problem is when it is all about like collective meeting that we have together in a group and we’re trying to build stuff together, um, it’s, what’s not said is what’s not discussed and what isn’t actually, um, brought forward. To be critiqued or to be explicitly recognized that ends up shaping things in ways we can’t anticipate which can cause our failure.

So like we, we don’t get to have an event to say caused the problems that we’re all experiencing at work. We only have these like tacit things underneath the surface. And knowing that you’ve spent a lot of time trying to extract tacit, meaning from like what’s going on just in your head, um, from, from a group perspective, like having models really allows you to sort of have a container for people to go, Oh yeah, I have one of those in my head and here it is, Oh, yours looks different.

Like what’s going on there. And then you have that conversation. And suddenly th  the it’s not that everyone has the same picture in their head, but they start to have. Overlapping pictures of similar things in their head.   That’s and it’s like, it’s not the elephant. It’s like, I have my part of the elephant in my head.

And you have your part of the elephant, your head, but there’s sort of enough overlap for us to be, make sense, I guess. So when you think about how to create visual models and how to create the space for that kind of conversation, Like what kind of objections usually come up or what kind of problems do people encounter when talking through this kind of stuff?

Jenny: Um, a lot of the things that I know notice is that words have two different meanings. Yeah. You know, that’s really what it comes down to. Like the same word means different things, depending, depending on. How you’re looking at it. There’s, there’s a graphic of like someone looking at a six from one side and a nine from the other, you know, it’s like, well, this is a nine, this is a six.

It’s actually both. It just is. Depending on your perspective, um, you might see different parts of the elephant in different ways. And so. The stories that people are telling might have some conjunction. They might have some level of similarity, but they’re looking completely differently and trying to bring people together in that.

Ben: Excellent. So one of the other things that I know that you have a lot of expertise on, is this concept, um, am I saying it right? Kything?

Jenny: Mm, yeah, Kything it’s um, It’s a word  that I learned about as a kid from Madeleine L’Engle and her book wind in the door. And I went to a conference on relating with people it’s called relay con it’s an awesome conference and fun, fun people that I, that I really enjoy.

I’m going to speak there this year, but they canceled it. I was sad. I was disappointed, but, um, When I was up there, I woke up one morning and I was completely alone in the hotel room and it was just a gorgeous morning and I was so I was excited to be there. And. I started conceptualizing around. If I wanted to share how could I share this experience?

How could I share these feelings? How could I share what I’m seeing? How could I share what I’m smelling? How could I share my senses with another person? And it reminded me of this kything experience that one of the characters in that book has, and, you know, while I can’t have telepathy with someone, I can get as close as… possibly I possibly can using words and using poetries and art. I could draw a picture. I could take a picture. I can photograph it. I could record it. I can describe, describe it to someone. And for me, that’s what Kything is about trying to share the totality of an experience with another person.

And like, I think ultimately, like the word means to announce, to proclaim, to declare, tell, to make known in words, to make manifest and to make visible. So being psychologically present with another person, um, it’s like the idea of trying to see through another person’s eyes, even though you really can’t.

Ben: And like, just if you could distinguish that from the idea of empathy, right. Trying to live or understand someone else’s experiences. What’s the difference, from a fundamental standpoint,

Jenny: from a fundamental standpoint, I think empathy has an end goal in mind, oftentimes like you’re empathizing, whereas this is just more about the sense of the experience without any like value judgements, or a lot of times people, when they’re asking for empathy, they’re in, they’re in pain and they need you to put yourself in that position. Um, for me, kything is less about, you know, meeting some need beyond the, beyond the sh the sharing of. Who you are and your experience or being shared with, by someone else.

Ben: Hmm. So what does kything look like? Sound like?

Jenny: when I’ve done it with friends, for example, uh, we both, it’s almost like a co meditation. Like you can do it wherever and it’s just like put yourself in a calm state and describe something that you remember very clearly.

Describe how you felt, describe what what’s happening in your body. Describe what, what you remember of the light, used as much language as he possibly can to put that person there. Um, be open to questions, be open to, um, greater understanding using maybe different words than you might. If, if they’re saying, I don’t understand, it’s, it’s a very focused set of attention.

So it’s, we don’t often do this, I think with other people, any, any more, it’s not something it’s an intentional empathy, perhaps, but it’s an intentional empathy with no and goal. And. It could be you sharing a poem and listening intently and trying to really understand what’s going on. It could be listening to music, but it is about the intention that you’re putting into it.

Um, I think all art is a form of kything, but it’s about a, to a certain extent. It’s about the conversation with the, the observer as well as the creator.

Ben: Thank you for sharing that with me.  so I’m curious since learning has been kind of a theme of today, um, what you’ve been learning about lately.

Jenny: I’ve been, I’ve been, Oh gosh, Friday. I started looking into how, how to do like vector maps with, with vectors, because I’d like to actually take the flow model of emotions and map them on a vector graph.

And I’ve been talking to my friends about doing that and doing some research into tools that would make that easy.

Ben: That’s really cool! I kind of liked the idea of connection and people learning about the models that you’re playing with and the ideas that you’re pursuing.

So where can people find you? Should they follow you on Twitter or, uh, do you have a website? Anything else they should know?

Jenny: I just have a Twitter and I have.

I guess I have a medium page where I write a lot of poetry. I have an Instagram where I post some of the art that I paint and maybe eventually I’ll post some of the music that I write.

Ben: With time, time, energy, and motivation, and maybe less pandemic. I don’t know. Um, yeah. Well, thanks for being here with me, Jenny, and thanks so much for sharing about kything and about the learning process and just sharing your time with us.

Jenny: Thank you, Ben. I appreciate it. It’s fun. It’s been great.

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