Project Hufflepuff: Planting the Flag

“Clever kids in Raven­claw, evil kids in Slytherin, wannabe heroes in Gryffin­dor, and ev­ery­one who does the ac­tual work in Hufflepuff.”
- Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Ra­tion­al­ity, Chap­ter 9
“It is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that the best ra­tio­nal­ists are Sorted into Raven­claw, leav­ing none for other Houses. This is not so; be­ing Sorted into Raven­claw in­di­cates that your strongest virtue is cu­ri­os­ity, won­der­ing and de­siring to know the true an­swer. And this is not the only virtue a ra­tio­nal­ist needs. Some­times you have to work hard on a prob­lem, and stick to it for a while. Some­times you need a clever plan for find­ing out. And some­times what you need more than any­thing else to see an an­swer, is the courage to face it…
- Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Ra­tion­al­ity, Chap­ter 45

I’m a Raven­claw and Slytherin by na­ture. I like be­ing clever. I like pur­su­ing am­bi­tious goals. But over the past few years, I’ve been cul­ti­vat­ing the skills and at­ti­tudes of Hufflepuff, by choice.

I think those skills are woe­fully un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated in the Ra­tion­al­ity Com­mu­nity. The prob­lem cuts across many di­men­sions:

  • Many peo­ple in ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­ni­ties feel lonely (even the ge­o­graph­i­cally tight Berkeley cluster). Peo­ple want more (and deeper) con­nec­tions than they cur­rently have.

  • There are lots of small pain points in the com­mu­nity (in per­son and on­line) that could be ad­dressed fairly eas­ily, but which peo­ple don’t ded­i­cate the time to fix.

  • Peo­ple are re­warded for start­ing in­di­vi­d­ual pro­jects more than helping to make ex­ist­ing ones suc­ceed, which re­sults in pro­jects typ­i­cally de­pend­ing on a small num­ber of peo­ple work­ing un­sus­tain­ably. (i.e. a sin­gle per­son run­ning a meetup who feels like if they left, the meetup would crum­ble apart)

  • Some new­com­ers of­ten find the cul­ture im­pen­e­tra­ble and un­wel­com­ing.

  • Not enough “real-time op­er­a­tional com­pe­tence”—the abil­ity to no­tice prob­lems in the phys­i­cal world a and solve them.

  • Even at events like EA Global where enor­mous effort is put into op­er­a­tions and lo­gis­tics, we scram­ble to pull things to­gether at the last minute in a way that is very drain­ing.

  • Many peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate in a way that feels dis­dain­ful and dis­mis­sive (to many peo­ple), which makes both so­cial co­he­sion as well as in­tel­lec­tual un­der­stand­ing harder.

  • We have a strong cul­ture of “make sure your own needs are met”, that speci­fi­cally pushes back against broader so­cietal norms that pres­sure peo­ple to con­form. This is a good, but I think we’ve pushed too far in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Peo­ple of­ten make choices that are valuable to them in the im­me­di­ate term, but which have nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ities on the peo­ple around them.

In a nut­shell, the emo­tional vibe of the com­mu­nity is pre­vent­ing peo­ple from feel­ing happy and and con­nected, and a swath of skil­lsets that are es­sen­tial for group in­tel­li­gence and am­bi­tion to flour­ish are un­der­sup­plied.

If any one of these things were a prob­lem, we might trou­bleshoot it in iso­lated way. But col­lec­tively they seem to add up to a cul­tural prob­lem, that I can’t think of any way to ex­press other than “Hufflepuff skills are in­suffi­ciently un­der­stood and re­spected.”

There are two things I mean by “in­suffi­ciently re­spected”:

  • Raven­claw and Slytherin skills come more nat­u­rally to many peo­ple in the com­mu­nity, and it doesn’t even oc­cur to peo­ple that emo­tional and op­er­a­tional skills are some­thing they should cul­ti­vate. It feels like a sep­a­rate mag­is­te­ria that spe­cial­ists should do. They’re also quick to look at so­cial niceties and tra­di­tions that seem silly, make a cur­sory at­tempt to un­der­stand them, and then do away with them with­out fully un­der­stand­ing their pur­pose.

  • Peo­ple who might join the com­mu­nity who value emo­tional and op­er­a­tional skills more highly, feel that the com­mu­nity is not for them, or that they have to work harder to be ap­pre­ci­ated.

And while this is difficult to ex­plain, it feels to me that there is a cen­tral way of be­ing, that en­com­passes emo­tional/​op­er­a­tional in­tel­li­gence and deeply in­te­grates it with ra­tio­nal­ity, that we are miss­ing as a com­mu­nity.

This is the first in a se­ries of posts, at­tempt­ing to plant a flag down and say “Let’s work to­gether to try and re­solve these prob­lems, and if pos­si­ble, find that cen­tral way-of-be­ing.”

I’m de­cid­edly not say­ing “this is the New Way that ra­tio­nal­ity Should Be”. The flag is not planted at the sum­mit of a moun­tain we’re defini­tively head­ing to­wards. It’s planted on a beach where we’re build­ing ships, prepar­ing to em­bark on some so­cial ex­per­i­ments. We may not all be trav­el­ing on the same boat, or in the ex­act same di­rec­tion. But the flag is ges­tur­ing in a di­rec­tion that can only be reached by mul­ti­ple peo­ple work­ing to­gether.

A First Step: The Hufflepuff Un­con­fer­ence, and Par­allel Projects

I’ll be vis­it­ing Berkeley dur­ing April, and while I’m there, I’d like to kick­start things with a Hufflepuff Un­con­fer­ence. We’ll be shar­ing ideas, talk­ing about po­ten­tial con­cerns, and brain­storm­ing next ac­tions. (I’d like to avoid set­tling on a long term tra­jec­tory for the pro­ject—I think that’d be pre­ma­ture. But I’d also like to start build­ing some mo­men­tum to­wards some kind of ac­tion)

My hope is to have both at­ten­dees who are pos­i­tively in­clined to­wards the con­cept of “A Hufflepuff Way”, and peo­ple for whom it feels a bit alien. For this to suc­ceed as a long-term cul­tural pro­ject, it needs to have buy-in from many cor­ners of the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity. If peo­ple have nag­ging con­cerns that feel hard to ar­tic­u­late, I’d like to try to tease them out, and ad­dress them di­rectly rather than ig­nor­ing them.

At the same time, I don’t want to get bogged down in end­less de­bates, or fo­cus so much on crit­i­cism that we can’t ac­tu­ally move for­ward. I don’t ex­pect to­tal-con­sen­sus, so my goal for the un­con­fer­ence is to get mul­ti­ple pro­jects and so­cial ex­per­i­ments run­ning in par­allel.

Some of those pro­jects might be high-bar­rier-to-en­try, for peo­ple who want to hold them­selves to a par­tic­u­lar stan­dard. Others might be ex­plic­itly open to all, with rad­i­cal in­clu­sive­ness part of their ap­proach. Others might be weird ex­per­i­ments no­body had imag­ined yet.

In a few months, there’ll be a fol­lowup event to check in on how those pro­jects are go­ing, eval­u­ate, and see what more things we can try or fur­ther re­fine.

[Edit: The Un­con­fer­ence has been com­pleted. Notes from the con­fer­ence are here]

Thanks to Dun­can Sa­bien, Lau­ren Horne, Ben Hoff­man and Davis Kingsley for comments