Learning from others' stories
A while ago, a friend and I created a site called “You Might Not Know”, which was a place for people to swap random life tips. It was good fun and I still think it was a good idea, though these days people have very much moved to video and/or reddit as a medium for doing the same, so the niche has since been thoroughly filled.
In making this site, we learned a bunch of important things. These include:
I am a flaky person to start projects with (sorry Mike).
Network effects are real and hard to overcome.
People really like sharing tips about eggs.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that over half the tips on the site were about eggs.
So, here are some tips about eggs:
Most of the “standard” ways of separating eggs are a massive faff compared to just doing the obvious thing and separating them using your hands, holding onto the yolk and letting the whites run through your fingers. Here’s a pretty good video demonstrating this.
I learned an interesting way of making fried rice from this YouTube video (via someone who in turn got it from TikTok), where you separate the yolks out from the eggs and use it to coat the rice thoroughly before frying, creating golden fried rice and then just use the whites for the normal added egg. Jury’s out because I combined it with too many strong other flavours to tell, but it seems good.
When cooking scrambled eggs, if you salt them and beat them and leave them in a bowl at room temperature for about 10 minutes, then cook on a very high heat, you get a really nice, thin, texture for them. I learned this from Adam Ragusea’s Pad Thai video.
If you’ve got any of the usual eggs (molten, frozen, or toxic), taking Pandora’s box or other sources of transform is extra good, because the cards you get will be upgraded if they’re of the right type for one of your eggs.
One of these things is not like the other, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The point is that there are lots of nice, reusable, tips about eggs, that can largely be separated from a whole complete recipe, and can often be extracted from their original context. I learned the egg separating thing from my sister when making hollandaise sauce, but it’s useful for the tiktok golden rice recipe. I mostly make scrambled eggs for breakfast rather than pad thai, but probably the salt and wait trick would have been good for the egg whites if I’d remembered.
Also people really like eggs, because eggs are good.
As I shill to you every newsletter issue, I run a Discord community associated with this newsletter. We’re great, you should join. If you don’t know what Discord is, it’s basically like Slack. If you don’t know what Slack is, it’s basically a collection of chat rooms. If you don’t know what a chat room is, imagine a WhatsApp group chat. WhatsApp is basically like text messages. If you don’t know what a text message is… honestly I’m a little confused about the fact that you’re reading my newsletter, but it’s nice to have you here.
In the discord server, we have a #games channel, a place where we can talk about playing games. As someone pointed out recently, it’s mostly a place where we talk about Slay the Spire. It’s not that we don’t talk about other games (Wordle and its ilk are popular too, and we often talk about new games we’re trying), but Slay the Spire is clearly our game.
Part of it is definitely that I, personally, am a little obsessed with Slay the Spire. I’m at over a thousand hours played of it, and have probably watched a few hundred hours of other people playing it. I am, somewhat definitionally, the one who defines topic and tone for the community, so the fact that I’m into Slay the Spire and always talking about it tends to cause other people to pick it up. I definitely know that a lot of the people who talk about Slay the Spire on discord started playing it because of me.
But also, Slay the Spire is I think a particularly good game to talk about.
An observation that hyperpape made in said #games channel is as follows:
Interesting thing about StS: most of the tactics and interactions aren’t individually that complex, there’s just a ton of them.
The result is that talking about things you’ve learned or why something is good can sound really trivial, but it’s still very hard to play well.
This is very true, and it makes Slay the Spire a very discussable game, because it means that you can extract these tactics from their larger context and discuss them.
The egg tip above was an example of this sort of discussion point. It probably won’t make much sense if you don’t play Slay the Spire, but if you do the key observation is that eggs upgrade cards of a particular type when it’s added to your deck, which applies to transformed cards (because they’re added to your deck), so the value of anything that grants you a transform goes up when you have one or more eggs, and because Pandora’s box grants you a lot of transforms, it’s value goes up quite a lot when you have eggs. If you don’t play Slay the Spire, don’t worry about this, it doesn’t matter to you.
Most of the time you don’t need to know this - it only comes up in fairly specific situations - but when it does come up it is useful to know, and marginally improves your game play.
And because it doesn’t come up that often, it might have taken you a really long time to notice this on your own. Because I’ve told you, I’ve short circuited a reasonable length of learning.
And it’s not just this, there are countless others. Tips on how to use a particular card,combinations of card to watch out for, etc. There’s a lot of genuine skill to playing Slay the Spire, and this is part of why the game works so well for me, but much of that skill is just knowing an absolute mountain of tricks and heuristics and being able to bring them to bear in the right situation.
But, importantly, very few of these tricks and heuristics are ones that require a lot of complexity to bring to bear, as hyperpape points out. You can mostly talk about them stripped of context, and you can explain how they work easily. This makes Slay the Spire a great game to talk about, because there are lots of egg tips in it (some of which involve actual eggs).
More recently, we’ve added a #cooking channel, in which people talk about cooking. It’s been reasonably popular and has some similar dynamics to us talking about games in Slay the Spire, largely I think because Slay the Spire and cooking are structurally quite similarin that cooking, too, consists of a huge number of relatively simple situation-specific tactics.
Telling each other stories
Another great thing about both Slay the Spire and cooking is that they both make for really good self-contained stories. You can tell people about a Slay the Spire run you played, or a great meal you cooked.
In the #games channel we often post run reports after we’ve completed them. For example, here’s a run I played recently:
I’m currently trying to get back up to Ascension 20 on Silent, after having neglected my plays of Silent for a while and thus no longer being used to her (Silent is one of the characters you can play in Slay the Spire, and your Ascension level is the difficulty level you’re playing on).
This was a fun example of the egg tip above - that Pandora’s Box I picked up (the little purple thing to the right of the strange elephant-rhino like statue and the left of the spinning top) was super useful because it gave me the two Burst+ cards, which were incredibly powerful in this deck. It’s also fun because this deck required some very slightly care not to trigger an integer overflow bug in Slay the Spireby overflowing the poison counter. Also, pro tip: Burst+ is just excellent with Alchemize (makes you potions) or catalyst (multiplies an enemy’s poison counter by 2 or 3 depending on whether it’s upgraded). Also, Pyramid (means you don’t discard your hand at the end of the turn) made this very easy to set up.
This whole run was incredibly easy, in a way that would make the game not fun if most runs were easy but was incredibly satisfying as an example of everything lining up just right for once.
Meals too work well as self-contained stories. For example, I was cooking a fried rice the other day, and happened to have just watched Dan Giusti talking about canned seafood, and it made me remember that I had a can of salmon in the cupboard that I haven’t been sure what to do with, so I decided to try out just adding canned salmon to my fried rice. Worked pretty well, and I’m enjoying eating the leftovers from that as I write this. It probably won’t become my default fried recipe, partly because I try not to eat too much fish and partly because it stinks up my microwave when I reheat it, but it’s tasty and I would definitely make it again.
This is also why I don’t know how well the golden fried rice works by the way - the taste of salmon is much stronger than the taste of eggs. Here’s another tip: If you want to know how well something works, experiment with it in isolation rather than in combination with other things. Nothing wrong with trying the golden fried rice with the fish, but I need to try the golden fried rice again if I’m to actually learn something from it.
Telling stories like this is fun, and if you can focus on highlighting the interesting things you’ve learned from them they’re also especially fun and useful to listen to.
Stories are then, in turn, a great source of tactics. Because play, or cooking, is the result of a series of applied tactics, when listening to a story you can keep an eye out for things you wouldn’t thought of, and ask questions about them, and as a result learn from them and improve.
Skill development as a social relationship
One of the most ironclad laws of skill development that I know about is that it’s vastly easier to get good at things you enjoy doing, and enjoy learning to be better at. It’s particularly important to have ways of enjoying the bits that you’re not already good at.
As a result of this, it’s much easier to get good at these sorts of stories-and-tactics skills once you’ve got a good community of people to talk about them with. Talking to people you share interests with is enjoyable, and if you can combine that with sharing actual useful information about those skills, it significantly improves your ability to grow and develop that skill.
Having this combination of stories and tips you can share about it with a community of interested people, is an incredibly powerful force multiplier for developing a skill.
Additionally, it grants you access to knowledge you’d never acquire on your own. Back in my piece on information overload, I talked about the social processes that underly diffusion of knowledge. This applies in spades to skill development, because you essentially have your whole community working to do distributed R&D and propagate the knowledge they learn as a result.
There’s also a strong parasocial (the sort of “social” relationship that an audience has with a performer) component to this - stories and tactics you learn from people who do the skill professionally and share their experiences of doing so. I’ve linked to a lot of cooking videos so far. Similarly, Slay the Spire has a lot of streamers who broadcast their plays of the game. I’m particularly fond of jorbs and baalorlord. They’re fun to watch and I’ve learned a lot about playing the game from them.
One of the big advantages of the parasocial component is that you can learn from people who have spent far more time on the game than you have. Slay the Spire streamers have generally spent at least ten times as long as I have on the game, put a lot more mental effort into their play than I do, and have a broad background in games that I lack. Similarly, any sort of professional cook has a much broader base of experience in cooking both the particular dish they’re making and things related to it in general. As a result, these people are vastly better at this skill than I ever will be.
Which is great! Because now I can benefit from all of their hard work. The stories-and-tactics framework makes it very easy for me to skip all of their R&D steps and steal useful tricks for them. The result won’t be that I become as good as they do, and it doesn’t let me skip actually learning to use the new tactic, but it does open up a whole world of possibilities that my friends and I would probably never figure out on our own because we don’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to the problem.
But the parasocial version isn’t enough. You need the actual people around you to talk with. Partly this is because talking to your friends is more satisfying than watching a performer, partly this is because you can interact with them more by e.g. asking questions to improve your understanding, but most importantly having people closer to your level is vital. It’s all very well to learn tactics from experts, but sometimes those tactics require skills that you currently lack in order to back them up. In contrast, having people on your level keeps you grounded in the set of tactics that actually work for you now.
Everything has stories and tactics
Cooking and Slay the Spire are particularly good examples of the stories and tactics framework, because they naturally create stories and they have so many accessible tactics, but they’re not actually unusual in this regard they just showcase the phenomenon unusually clearly.
But really you can share stories and tactics about everything you do, if you have the right audience to do it. You have to do more work to decide story boundaries, and some things people are more interested in hearing about than others, but the capability is always there.
For example, have you noticed that in this newsletter post I’ve been telling you stories about telling stories in order to teach you the tactics of telling stories and extracting tactics from them?
In many ways the stories and tactics framework underlies a lot of what I write. People regularly comment that I put a lot more of me in my writing than many others do. This is true. There are a variety of reasons I do that, but the result of me doing that is that I am often telling you stories from my life, in a way that makes them very amenable to explicitly extracting tactics.
Another example is that I have another (private) community I hang out in where we talk about, among other things, our experience of therapy and related practices. The result is that we get a lot of stories about people’s inner emotional life that we otherwise often wouldn’t get and, because it’s a community of relevant practice, what they’re doing about those things. I’ve definitely learned useful tactics from there, and many more from Twitter where I also talk to people about similar things.
How to get better at everything
“How to get better at everything” is arguably the recurring theme of my newsletter (for sufficiently narrow definitions of “everything”), and I think the stories-and-tactics framework provides a pretty good tactic for that.
So, if you have something you want to get better at:
Learn to tell stories about it. Oddly, sometimes this is enough in its own right, because it changes how you look at the thing. e.g. almost right after writing Describing imaginary experiences I had a breakthrough in visualisation.
Learn to elicit stories about it and tactics for it in others. This skill is also key to the How to give advice (because you want to be able to get a good story about the problem from them), but it’s equally important for learning from others - when you notice someone is better at something than you, draw them out on what that’s like. Often it’s easier to start with a request for tactics and elicit stories from that. Say things like “I really struggle with the Slime Boss fight, can you give me any tips?” and go from those tips to concrete examples. Or ask people to tell you about meals they cooked with an ingredient (e.g. “What would you use okra for?” or “What’s good with hollandaise sauce?” and see how they respond.
Learn to be good at spotting the bits of stories that are surprising, as those contain tactics. Every story is an opportunity to go “Oh! That’s the bit I was missing!” (see: How to do everything)
Learn to be good at “plating up” tactics from the stories you tell - highlighting anything particularly interesting that you learned, or that you think others might benefit from knowing. This is a lot of what I do in my writing, so I’d struggle to come up with a particularly good example, but How to explain anything to anyone is probably a decent starting point for learning this skill.
How do you learn to be good at these things? Well, first learn to tell stories about your experience learning to tell stories…
More seriously, hanging out in communities for the skill and practicing them there is probably sufficient for most people. Eventually you’ll hit a hurdle, but they’re fairly natural skills so you’re probably not there yet. I can also recommend writing about your experiences and highlighting what in them might be useful to others as a great way to practice this combined skillset.
This will work better for some things than others, because a lot of skills don’t necessarily translate that well to pure word based stories. e.g. you’ll struggle to do this with a martial art, because that has more of a physical component to the skill which is difficult to convey. I think even in these cases you can tell stories not about the skill itself, but about your approach to learning the skill (e.g. practicing a particular move, sparring vs classes vs one-on-one coaching). And, of course, you can “tell stories” with physical demonstration, but that works better in person or over video and that can be a little harder to arrange.
But regardless of the skill, community is an incredibly valuable tool for developing it. I’ve talked about building communities with norms of excellence before, but the stories and tactics framework demonstrates that I missed out something incredibly basic: The first norm of excellence is that you talk to each other about what being excellent is like.
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When not writing for the internet, my day job is consulting. I help software companies get better at making software. What I write about is only erratically relevant to this, but today it’s pretty relevant because I’ve noticed software teams are actually typically very bad at this kind of stories and tactics skill swapping, and as a result some skills are very non-uniformly distributed within teams. Do you have that problem? I’d love to help with it! I’m also happy to help with any other problems you want to talk about.
You can find out more on my consulting site, or just book a free intro call to chat about your company’s problems and get a bit of free consulting on them to discover if we’re a good fit.
(Seriously, book the calls. They’re free and usually extremely helpful to people, and I don’t mind at all if it doesn’t result in any ongoing consulting work, I enjoy talking to people about their work problems)
If you’d like to hang out with the sort of people who read this sort of piece, you can join us in the Overthinking Everything discord by clicking this invitation link. You can also read more about it in our community guide first if you like. We’ll talk to you about eggs, Slay the Spire, programming, or any other skill you’re currently into getting better at (though we’ll be more helpful at some than others!)
Additionally, by being part of the community you get the uh privilege of seeing these posts when they’re much worse, as I tend to post first drafts there. Thanks to everyone there for reading a first draft of this post and helping me improve it.
The cover image is by Marie-Lan Nguyen, who kindly made it available via wikicommons.
Except that these days I’m a monster and make hollandaise sauce with whole eggs.
I actually don’t know if this is true. I think the main benefit of this might be on the yolk rather than the whites.
But I do recommend playing Slay the Spire. It’s a great game.
e.g. there are some incredible cards (Wraith Form and Biased Cognition) that seem kinda scary because they have a big upside and a huge downside, and people are really reluctant to take them because the downside seems overwhelming, usually missing that you can defeat the enemy before the downside matters. One of the easiest ways to improve someone’s play dramatically is to hold their hand and tell them it will be OK and then force them to pick up the card until they’ve internalised that this is a card you should be actively looking for rather than avoiding.
Slay the Spire does involve significantly fewer dishes to wash up though.
Really there wasn’t much chance of it doing this unless I did something silly, but I was constantly aware of the possibility of doing something silly.