Interaction Efficiency

Anushka wrote,

you put energy, in the form of risk, love, et cetera, out there and hope that you get something that makes you feel good back in return

In my teen years, I used to think about this enough to assign it a term—“interaction efficiency”. A stimulating conversation had high interaction efficiency. Unrequited love had low interaction efficiency.

I grew out of thinking in terms of interaction efficiency.—Let me try to recreate why.

After some study of the Bhagavad Gita, I began to observe that we constantly generate countless expectations, especially of other people. Though they are frequently useful and correct, our expectations are imperfect because they necessarily come out of our personal experience, which is a minuscule sliver of reality.—When we expand our knowledge beyond our personal experience, we frequently realize our expectations were silly or at least unreasonable. Interaction efficiency was just my way of measuring how well or poorly another person has met (or exceeded) my personal expectations. It therefore came out of a self-centered and frequently unreasonable perspective on relationships.

As a student of artificial intelligence, I knew our ability to generate expectations is at the center of our intelligence. Our brains develop models of the world and we expect it to conform to those models. Some of those models are “hard-wired,” developed by evolution as our species adapted to the natural world. Our perceptual systems depend on such models. Humans additionally have the capacity to generate “software” models, systems of expectations that we alter over years of learning. The expectations we generate are usually subconscious and therefore impossible to verbalize. To expend physical or “emotional” energy with the unstated expectation of an uncertain return—and then to measure the return—seemed very, very foolish.

Now, it is true that some expectations can be verbalized, and the likelihood of their being met can thereby be increased. However, people frequently agree to something and then fail to deliver—not because they were acting in bad faith, but because they did not fully understand what was expected, or did not fully predict what would happen during the give-and-take. These possibilities are admitted only by a compassionate mind.

To be honest, we concern ourselves with interaction efficiency only when others have failed to meet our expectations—when we have expended some physical or emotional energy and not seen the expected return.

Therefore, to dwell on interaction efficiency seemed self-centered, unreasonable, foolish, and intolerant.

Relevant to this admission is simple advice from my grandfather that my mother passed on to me: Your generosity should not exceed your capacity.

When I first heard this advice, it seemed a truism: your generosity cannot possibly exceed your entire reserve of potential physical energy or—your entire store of emotion. However, under a true and deep understanding of this advice, capacity means something that seems much smaller: “the amount you can afford without having expectations of return”.

On the surface, this interpretation seems limiting. It seems to constrain you to giving from a smaller store and therefore giving less. However, this is one of those constraints that actually triggers creativity.

When I oriented my thinking in this way, I discovered there was a large store of things I could give away without expecting anything in return. By intentionally “limiting” my capacity for generosity, I focused on what was valuable to others. I found a source for this within myself, and retained physical and emotional energy to mine that source. There were things I could give that were simply cheap.—There were things that were “worth it” because they were good for me—generating a return, if you will—but still gave other people a chance to “generate a better return” for me.

I could smile more.—I could send more holiday cards and touch-base e-mails.—I could ask people questions about themselves.—I could forgive other people for their mistakes and forgive myself for mine. I might not be able to cancel my workout to meet a friend for lunch, but I could certainly invite a friend to join me at the gym.

When I stopped doing things that generated expectations of return, I put others more at ease.—I stopped being resentful when they didn’t meet my expectations and started being more pleasantly surprised.—I stopped focusing on “what this person is failing to do for me now” and started focusing on “what this person seems to succeed at, all the time”.

I realized this is what is behind Covey’s recollection of the parable of the goose that lays the golden egg, about Production vs. Production Capacity, behind what Brian Tracy called “achieving more by doing less,” behind “working smarter, not harder”.

When you engage in this type of thinking, you are being true to yourself.As a human being, there are a set of things that you, uniquely, must do. I believe this set is defined by your genes, your culture, and your history—the combination of your nature and your nurture. It is your calling. By focusing on the places you can be generous without expectation of return, you practice your calling and refine its definition.

"This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

---William Shakespeare, Hamlet

If this seems ridiculously obvious to you, then I’m sorry to have wasted your time. It was a long, hard lesson for me to learn, and I continue to observe people (of all ages) who have yet to learn it. On the one hand, this may be about nothing more than growing up and maturing. On the other hand, I think that may be exactly what it means to see goodness or divinity in people.  I also think this type of thinking lies at the source of great leadership and organization, in politics and business.

Tags: Philosophy

Updated at: 8 February 2013 12:02 AM

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