Skills I’d like my collaborators to have
I originally wrote this in 2021, when Lightcone was exploring a vision of building “a rationalist campus” or maybe “a rationalist society.”
Right now, neither I, nor Lightcone as a whole, are focused on this in the same way. You *might* make a guild that taught these skills on purpose, or a barrier-to-entry that filtered for them. That’s not where I’m currently focusing my plans.
But, I mostly am publishing it now because I still roughly like it as an aspirational world I’d like to be a part of some day. I like these skills, and I’d like my collaborators to have them, however that ends up being mediated. I haven’t edited the post since 2021.
At the LW Team, we’ve been tossing around the idea of founding some kind of rationalist/x-risk guild, society, or other closed barrier social/professional network.
There’s a bunch of reasons I think a guild might be good. But one key thing I’m interested in is “Have a cluster of people who reliably have a particular set of skills, and a particular orientation towards x-risk, such that one can reliably find allies.”
In the current status quo, there is a vaguely defined rationalist/EA-landscape where people are filtered for some basic level of IQ, understanding of some foundational essays (but, not any particular foundational essay), and some vague pressure to be successful on at least some dimensions. It’s amorphous and unpredictable.
I’d like to have a network of people I can reliably trust. Reasons this seems important to me:
I want to find collaborators
I want to feel safe investing in social connections.
I want people I can trust to “think out loud with”
I think changing social environment is one of the most promising ways to grow as a person. Unfortunately, most of the time the best option is “randomly re-roll your job or roommates.” A pool of people with important rationality skills and attitudes might be helpful for having some control over how to reroll your social environment.
I think having a guild would provide a framework for both making sure people meet some basic bar of “be good at thinking, and good at collaborating”, as well as training people in new, deeper skills over time. Ideally, the bar for guild members goes up over time as we figure out better skills and better ways of teaching them.
In this Very Rough Draft of a plan, I think there should be some skills that are core requirements for being part of the guild (maybe along with a bunch of required reading and background knowledge which is less skill-based). The first skills are chosen to help a person unfold into more/better skills (i.e. have the habit of gaining habits, and ability to notice and reflect on your own thought processes)
I don’t actually know which skills should make it into the core training loop, but here are two giant braindumps on:
Potential Good Thinking skills
Potential Good Collaboration skills
Professional-grade epistemology type skills (probably not required for all people, but, the sort of skills that make the difference between “I don’t have obviously wrong beliefs” and “I can predict covid excellently in advance without any help.”)
This post covers the first two things. I ran out of steam before getting to part three.
(braindump from the last time I thought about this, not standing by strongly)
Background beliefs (listed in Duncan’s original post)
Epistemic humility (“I could be the wrong person here”)
Good Faith (“I trust the other person to be believing things that make sense to them, which I’d have ended up believing if I were exposed to the same stimuli, and that they are generally trying to find the the truth”)
Confidence in the existence of objective truth
Curiosity / Desire to uncover truth
Building-Block and Meta Skills
(Necessary or at least very helpful to learn everything else)
Ability to notice things. There are many types of things worth noticing, but most-obviously-relevant are:
felt senses (see focusing).
Ability to introspect and notice your internal states (Focusing )
Ability to induce a mental state or reframe [note: alas, the original post here is gone]
Habit of gaining habits
Notice you are in a failure mode, and step out. Examples:
You are fighting to make sure an side/argument wins
You are fighting to make another side/argument lose (potentially jumping on something that seems allied to something/someone you consider bad/dangerous)
You are incentivized to believe something, or not to notice something, because of social or financial rewards,
You’re incentivized not to notice something or think it’s important because it’d be physically inconvenient/annoying
You are currently in romantic limerence and your entire decision procedure is warped around “what if I could be with this person romantically and/or sexually?”
You are offended/angered/defensive/agitated
You’re afraid you’ll lose something important if you lose a belief (possibly ‘bucket errors’)
You’re rounding a person’s statement off to the nearest stereotype instead of trying to actually understand and response to what they’re saying
You’re arguing about definitions of words instead of ideas
Notice “freudian slip” ish things that hint that you’re thinking about something in an unhelpful way. (for example, while writing this, I typed out “your opponent” to refer to the person you’re Double Cruxing with, which is a holdover from treating it like an adversarial debate)
(The “Step Out” part can be pretty hard and would be a long series of blogposts, but hopefully this at least gets across the ideas to shoot for)
Social Skills (i.e. not feeding into negative spirals, noticing what emotional state or patterns other people are in [*without* accidentaly rounding them off to a stereotype])
Ability to tactfully disagree in a way that arouses curiosity rather than defensiveness
Leaving your colleague a line of retreat (i.e. not making them lose face if they change their mind)
Socially reward people who change their mind (in general, frequently, so that your colleague trusts that you’ll do so for them)
Ability to listen (in a way that makes someone feel listened to) so they feel like they got to actually talk, which makes them inclined to listen as well
Ability to notice if someone else seems to be in one of the above failure modes (and then, ability to point it out gently)
Cultivate empathy and curiosity about other people so the other social skills come more naturally, and so that even if you don’t expect them to be right, you can see them as helpful to at least understand their reasoning (fleshing out your model of how other people might think)
Ability to communicate in (and to listen to) a variety of styles of conversation, “code switching”, learning another person’s jargon or explaining yours without getting frustrated
Habit asking clarifying questions, that help your partner find the Crux of their beliefs.
Actually Thinking About Things
Understanding when and how to apply math, statistics, etc
Practice thinking causally
Practice various creativity related things that help you brainstorm ideas, notice implications of things, etc
Operationalize vague beliefs into concrete predictions
Actually Changing Your Mind
Notice when you are confused or surprised and treat this as a red flag that something about your models is wrong (either you have the wrong model or no model)
Ability to identify what the actual Crux of your beliefs are.
Ability to track bits of small bits of evidence that are accumulating. If enough bits of evidence have accumulated that you should at least be taking an idea *seriously* (even if not changing your mind yet), go through motions of thinking through what the implications WOULD be, to help future updates happen more easily.
If enough evidence has accumulated that you should change your mind about a thing… like, actually do that. See the list of failure modes above that may prevent this. (That said, if you have a vague nagging sense that something isn’t right even if you can’t articulate it, try to focus on that and flesh it out rather than trying to steamroll over it)
Explore Implications: When you change your mind on a thing, don’t just acknowledge, actually think about what other concepts in your worldview should change. Do this…
because it *should* have other implications, and it’s useful to know what they are....
because it’ll help you actually retain the update (instead of letting it slide away when it becomes socially/politically/emotionally/physically inconvenient to believe it, or just forgetting)
If you notice your emotions are not in line with what you now believe the truth to be (in a system-2 level), figure out why that is.
Noticing Disagreement and Confusion, and then putting in the work to resolve it
If you have all the above skills, and your partner does too, and you both trust that this is the case, you can still fail to make progress if you don’t actually follow up, and schedule the time to talk through the issues thoroughly. For deep disagreement this can take years. It may or may not be worth it. But if there are longstanding disagreements that continuously cause strife, it may be worthwhile.
I’d love to live in a world where I had the luxury of only working with Good Collaborators.
This is an unrealistic wish. Being a Good Collaborators is a skill – one skill among many that I might need on my team. I might need people who are good at programming, or logistics, or aesthetics. Often I’m running a small scrappy volunteer project where not that many people want to help out in the first place.
If I were to hold out for only people who are also Good Collaborators According To Me, I might not have anyone to work with. It’s not even obvious that the people I want to work with should prioritize gaining collaboration-meta-skills instead of whatever object-level skills that they’re great at.
Still, I think Being a Good Collaborators is a pretty important, cross-domain skill. In my dreamworld, it’s a core skill that everyone in my surrounding culture is working on.
Some core concepts:
Reliability (good at making/keeping/not-making commitments)
Good epistemics about the world around you (or, at least, be calibrated about it)
Good epistemics about your internal motivations
Be good at asking for help, without overwhelming people around you.
Do disagreement productively
Do conflict healthily
Be good at commitments
Know when you aren’t able to make commitments
Lots of times, you will be tempted to say “sure I can help!” when someone asks for something. Sometimes, you will notice a nagging sense of “oh man, I don’t know if I actually can help.” Sometimes it is hard to tell how serious that nagging sense is. But, I super appreciate when people say “ah, no, sorry, I can’t actually help”, or “I would like to try to help, but, I might need to flake out.”
Be able to make/keep commitments, or update me if you can’t.
Detect when an ugh field has set in around a commitment you’ve made, and let the relevant parties know so they can plan around it.
Avoid having ugh fields happen in the first place (or have a good plan for fixing them in a timely manner)
Be calibrated about what skills or attributes you have, and thus what commitments you can make that depend on skills. When presented with a novel commitment, have good murphijitsu about what sort of questions to ask about skills you might not have thought about before.
Notice when there is ambiguity about what commitment you have made, and clarify.
Maintain enough slack that you (usually) don’t need to suddenly ask for help.
Leave enough empty space in a given week, and have enough extra income, that 3 minor crises can come up that each take up 1-2 hours of your time and attention, without having to resort to unsustainable willpower, sleep-loss, cutting corners, etc. [Disclaimer: I totally made this number up, but it’s the number I shoot for and I still occasionally find myself running out of slack. I started out with lower numbers and it wasn’t enough]
Maintain healthy sleep, food, etc.
If you aren’t maintaining this, err on the side of cultivating this rather than doing high-risk / high-reward investments that might leave you emotionally or financially screwed.
(or, if you do those things, be aware I may not help you if it fails. I am much more excited about helping people that don’t go out of their way to create crises)
Be able to ask for help without demanding help.
Communities help each other. It’s important to be able to reach out. But people need to guard their own slack and this means they may not be able to help you the way you need right now, or as often as you want. If I can trust you to accept that my help is limited, I can more comfortable giving it.
Be able to notice when someone is sharing sensitive info with you, or vice versa. I think it is good practice to pause and have a quick meta-chat about how you relate to privacy, and which privacy skills you are able to execute.
Tact. Be able to gracefully give negative feedback.
(Or, be able to give negative feedback at all. It’s better to be rude than to be paralyzed. But, if you can do it gracefully I think that will save a bunch of time with people getting annoyed and then creating more emotional work for yourself)
Thick Skin. Be able to gracefully accept negative feedback
(On the other hand, if you have thick skin, and ideally if everyone around you does, it’s easier to give feedback efficiently without making a big deal about it. You shouldn’t go around unilaterally (mis)declaring Crocker’s Rules on people, but you can unilaterally cultivate the virtue of thick skin, and brush off much criticism without feeling wounded by it.
“Do Conflict Healthily.”
I’m still sorting out what this means, but includes:
not avoiding conflict in the first place. (still better to be rude than paralyzed).
express emotions (such as anger, resentment, etc) while taking responsibility for handling them.
look for win/wins where possible, rather than making someone lose.
Notice when you are attached to a particular way of doing conflict, and getting upset that your colleague is doing conflict some other way, which is creating meta-conflict. And then… find some way to negotiate that.
Disagree Efficiently When Collaborating.
Keep your beliefs cruxy.
Notice the frames that you’re swimming in
Have some ability to articulate and update on aesthetic disagreements