Butterfly Ideas

Or “How I got my hyperanalytical friends to chill out and vibe on ideas for 5 minutes before testing them to destruction”

Sometimes talking with my friends is like intellectual combat, which is great. I am glad I have such strong cognitive warriors on my side. But not all ideas are ready for intellectual combat. If I don’t get my friend on board with this, some of them will crush an idea before it gets a chance to develop, which feels awful and can kill off promising avenues of investigation. It’s like showing a beautiful, fragile butterfly to your friend to demonstrate the power of flight, only to have them grab it and crush it in their hands, then point to the mangled corpse as proof butterflies not only don’t fly, but can’t fly, look how busted their wings are.

You know who you are

When I’m stuck in a conversation like that, it has been really helpful to explicitly label things as butterfly ideas. This has two purposes. First, it’s a shorthand for labeling what I want (nurturance and encouragement). Second, it explicitly labels the idea as not ready for prime time in ways that make it less threatening to my friends. They can support the exploration of my idea without worrying that support of exploration conveys agreement, or agreement conveys a commitment to act.

This is important because very few ideas start out ready for the rigors of combat. If they’re not given a sheltered period, they will die before they become useful. This cuts us off from a lot of goodness in the world. Examples:

  • A start-up I used to work for had a keyword that meant “I have a vague worried feeling I want to discuss without justifying”. This let people bring up concerns before they had an ironclad case for them and made statements that could otherwise have felt like intense criticism feel more like information sharing (they’re not asserting this will definitely fail, they’re asserting they have a feeling that might lead to some questions). This in turn meant that problems got brought up and addressed earlier, including problems in the classes “this is definitely gonna fail and we need to make major changes” and  “this excellent idea but Bob is missing the information that would help him understand why”.
    • This keyword was “FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt)”. It is used in exactly the opposite way in cryptocurrency circles, where it means “you are trying to increase our anxiety with unfounded concerns, and that’s bad”. Words are tricky.
  • Power Buys You Distance From The Crime started out as a much less defensible seed of an idea with a much worse explanation. I know that had I talked about it in public it would have caused a bunch of unproductive yelling that made it harder to think because I did and it did (but later, when it was ready, intellectual combat with John Wentworth improved the idea further).
  • The entire genre of “Here’s a cool new emotional tool I’m exploring”
  • The entire genre of “I’m having a feeling about a thing and I don’t know why yet”

I’ve been on the butterfly crushing end of this myself- I’m thinking of a particular case last year where my friend brought up an idea that, if true, would require costly action on my part. I started arguing with the idea, they snapped at me to stop ruining their dreams. I chilled out, we had a long discussion about their goals, how they interpreted some evidence, and why they thought a particular action might further said goals, etc. 

A week later all of my objections to the specific idea were substantiated and we agreed not to do the thing- but thanks to the conversation we had in the meantime, I have a better understanding of them and what kinds of things would be appealing to them in the future. That was really valuable to me and I wouldn’t have learned all that if I’d crushed the butterfly in the beginning.

Notably, checking out that idea was fairly expensive, and only worth it because this was an extremely close friend (which both made the knowledge of them more valuable, and increased the payoff to helping them if they’d been right). If they had been any less close, I would have said “good luck with that” and gone about my day, and that would have been a perfectly virtuous reaction. 

I almost never discuss butterfly ideas on the public internet, or even 1:many channels. Even when people don’t actively antagonize them, the environment of Facebook or even large group chats means that people often read with half their brain and respond to a simplified version of what I said. For a class of ideas that live and die by context and nuance and pre-verbal intuitions, this is crushing. So what I write in public ends up being on the very defensible end of the things I think. This is a little bit of a shame, because the returns to finding new friends to study your particular butterflies with is so high, but ce la vie. 

This can play out a few ways in practice. Sometimes someone will say “this is a butterfly idea” before they start talking. Sometimes when someone is being inappropriately aggressive towards an idea the other person will snap “will you please stop crushing my butterflies!” and the other will get it. Sometimes someone will overstep, read the other’s facial expression, and say “oh, that was a butterfly, wasn’t it?”. All of these are marked improvements over what came before, and have led to more productive discussions with less emotional pain on both sides.

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