Review and Thoughts on Current Version of CFAR Workshop

Out­line: I will dis­cuss my back­ground and how I pre­pared for the work­shop, and then how I would have pre­pared differ­ently if I could go back and have the chance to do it again; I will then dis­cuss my ex­pe­rience at the CFAR work­shop, and what I would have done differ­ently if I had the chance to do it again; I will then dis­cuss what my take-aways were from the work­shop, and what I am do­ing to in­te­grate CFAR strate­gies into my life; fi­nally, I will give my as­sess­ment of its benefits and what other folks might ex­pect to get who at­tend the work­shop.

Ac­knowl­edg­ments: Thanks to fel­low CFAR alumni and CFAR staff for feed­back on ear­lier ver­sions of this post

Introduction

Many as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists have heard about the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity, an or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to teach­ing ap­plied ra­tio­nal­ity skills to help peo­ple im­prove their think­ing, feel­ing, and be­hav­ior pat­terns. This non­profit does so pri­mar­ily through its in­tense work­shops, and is funded by dona­tions and rev­enue from its work­shop. It fulfills its so­cial mis­sion through con­duct­ing ra­tio­nal­ity re­search and through giv­ing dis­counted or free work­shops to those peo­ple its staff judge as likely to help make the world a bet­ter place, mainly those as­so­ci­ated with var­i­ous Effec­tive Altru­ist cause ar­eas, es­pe­cially ex­is­ten­tial risk.

To be fully trans­par­ent: even be­fore at­tend­ing the work­shop, I already had a strong be­lief that CFAR is a great or­ga­ni­za­tion and have been a monthly donor to CFAR for years. So keep that in mind as you read my de­scrip­tion of my ex­pe­rience (you can be­come a donor here).

Preparation

First, some back­ground about my­self, so you know where I’m com­ing from in at­tend­ing the work­shop. I’m a pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in the in­ter­sec­tion of his­tory, psy­chol­ogy, be­hav­ioral eco­nomics, so­ciol­ogy, and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science. I dis­cov­ered the ra­tio­nal­ity move­ment sev­eral years ago through a com­bi­na­tion of my re­search and at­tend­ing a LessWrong meetup in Colum­bus, OH, and so come from a back­ground of both aca­demic and LW-style ra­tio­nal­ity. Since dis­cov­er­ing the move­ment, I have be­come an ac­tivist in the move­ment as the Pres­i­dent of In­ten­tional In­sights, a non­profit de­voted to pop­u­lariz­ing ra­tio­nal­ity and effec­tive al­tru­ism (see here for our EA work). So I came to the work­shop with some train­ing and knowl­edge of ra­tio­nal­ity, in­clud­ing some CFAR tech­niques.

To help my­self pre­pare for the work­shop, I re­viewed ex­ist­ing posts about CFAR ma­te­ri­als, with an eye to­ward be­ing care­ful not to as­sume that the ac­tual tech­niques match their ac­tual de­scrip­tions in the posts.

I also de­layed a num­ber of tasks for af­ter the work­shop, ty­ing up loose ends. In ret­ro­spect, I wish I did not leave my­self some on­go­ing tasks to do dur­ing the work­shop. As part of my lead­er­ship of InIn, I co­or­di­nate about 50ish vol­un­teers, and I wish I had placed those re­spon­si­bil­ities on some­one else dur­ing the work­shop.

Be­fore the work­shop, I worked in­tensely on finish­ing up some pro­jects. In ret­ro­spect, it would have been bet­ter to get some rest and come to the work­shop as fresh as pos­si­ble.

There were some com­mu­ni­ca­tion snafus with lo­gis­tics de­tails be­fore the work­shop. It all worked out in the end, but I would have told my­self in ret­ro­spect to get the lo­gis­tics ham­mered out in ad­vance to not ex­pe­rience anx­iety be­fore the work­shop about how to get there.

Experience

The classes were well put to­gether, had in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ples, and pro­vided use­ful tech­niques. FYI, my ex­pe­rience in the work­shop was that read­ing these tech­niques in ad­vance was not harm­ful, but that the tech­niques in the CFAR classes were quite a bit bet­ter than the ex­ist­ing posts about them, so don’t as­sume you can get the same benefits from read­ing posts as at­tend­ing the work­shop. So while I was aware of the tech­niques, the ones in the classes definitely had op­ti­mized ver­sions of them—maybe be­cause of the “bro­ken tele­phone” effect or maybe be­cause CFAR op­ti­mized them from pre­vi­ous work­shops, not sure. I was glad to learn that CFAR con­sid­ers the work­shop they gave us in May as satis­fac­tory enough to scale up their work­shops, while still im­prov­ing their con­tent over time.

Just as use­ful as the classes were the con­ver­sa­tions held in be­tween and af­ter the offi­cial classes ended. Talk­ing about them with fel­low as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists and see­ing how they were think­ing about ap­ply­ing these to their lives was helpful for spark­ing ideas about how to ap­ply them to my life. The lat­ter half of the CFAR work­shop was es­pe­cially great, as it fo­cused on pairing off peo­ple and helping oth­ers figure out how to ap­ply CFAR tech­niques to them­selves and how to ad­dress var­i­ous prob­lems in their lives. It was es­pe­cially helpful to have con­ver­sa­tions with CFAR staff and trained vol­un­teers, of whom there were plenty—prob­a­bly about 20 vol­un­teers/​staff for the 50ish work­shop at­ten­dees.

Another su­per-helpful as­pect of the con­ver­sa­tions was net­work­ing and com­mu­nity build­ing. Now, this may have been more use­ful to some par­ti­ci­pants than oth­ers, so YMMV. As an ac­tivist in the mo­ment, I talked to many folks in the CFAR work­shop about pro­mot­ing EA and ra­tio­nal­ity to a broad au­di­ence. I was happy to in­tro­duce some peo­ple to EA, with my most pos­i­tive con­ver­sa­tion there be­ing to en­courage some­one to switch his efforts re­gard­ing x-risk from ad­dress­ing nu­clear disar­ma­ment to AI safety re­search as a means of ad­dress­ing long/​medium-term risk, and pro­mot­ing ra­tio­nal­ity as a means of ad­dress­ing short/​medium-term risk. Others who were already fa­mil­iar with EA were in­ter­ested in ways of pro­mot­ing it broadly, while some as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm over be­com­ing ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

Look­ing back at my ex­pe­rience, I wish I was more aware of the benefits of these con­ver­sa­tions. I went to sleep early the first cou­ple of nights, and I would have taken sup­ple­ments to en­able my­self to stay awake and have con­ver­sa­tions in­stead.

Take-Aways and Integration

The as­pects of the work­shop that I think will help me most were what CFAR staff called “5-sec­ond” strate­gies—brief tac­tics and tech­niques that could be ex­e­cuted in 5 sec­onds or less and ad­dress var­i­ous prob­lems. The stuff that we learned at the work­shops that I was already fa­mil­iar with re­quired some time to learn and prac­tice, such as Trig­ger Ac­tion Plans, Goal Fac­tor­ing, Mur­phyjitsu, Pre-Hind­sight, of­ten with pen and pa­per as part of the work. How­ever, with suffi­cient prac­tice, one can de­velop brief tech­niques that mimic var­i­ous as­pects of the more thor­ough tech­niques, and ap­ply them quickly to in-the-mo­ment de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the longer tech­niques are not helpful. They are very im­por­tant, but they are things I was already gen­er­ally fa­mil­iar with, and already prac­tice. The 5-sec­ond ver­sions were more of a rev­e­la­tion for me, and I an­ti­ci­pate will be more helpful for me as I did not know about them pre­vi­ously.

Now, CFAR does a very nice job of helping peo­ple in­te­grate the tech­niques into daily life, as this is a com­mon failure mode of CFAR at­ten­dees, with them go­ing home and not prac­tic­ing the tech­niques. So they have 6 Google Han­gouts with CFAR staff and all at­ten­dees who want to par­ti­ci­pate, 4 one-on-one ses­sions with CFAR trained vol­un­teers or staff, and they also pair you with one at­tendee for post-work­shop con­ver­sa­tions. I plan to take ad­van­tage of all these, al­though my pairing did not work out.

For in­te­gra­tion of CFAR tech­niques into my life, I found the CFAR strat­egy of “Over­learn­ing” es­pe­cially helpful. Over­learn­ing refers to try­ing to ap­ply a sin­gle tech­nique in­tensely for a while to all as­pect of one’s ac­tivi­ties, so that it gets in­ter­nal­ized thor­oughly. I will first fo­cus on over­learn­ing Trig­ger Ac­tion Plans, fol­low­ing the ad­vice of CFAR.

I also plan to teach CFAR tech­niques in my lo­cal ra­tio­nal­ity dojo, as teach­ing is a great way to learn, nat­u­rally.

Fi­nally, I plan to in­te­grate some CFAR tech­niques into In­ten­tional In­sights con­tent, at least the more sim­ple tech­niques that are a good fit for the broad au­di­ence with which InIn is com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

Benefits

I have a strong prob­a­bil­is­tic be­lief that hav­ing at­tended the work­shop will im­prove my ca­pac­ity to be a per­son who achieves my goals for do­ing good in the world. I an­ti­ci­pate I will be able to figure out bet­ter whether the pro­jects I am tak­ing on are the best uses of my time and en­ergy. I will be more ca­pa­ble of avoid­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion and other forms of akra­sia. I be­lieve I will be more ca­pa­ble of mak­ing bet­ter plans, and act­ing on them well. I will also be more in touch with my emo­tions and in­tu­itions, and be able to trust them more, as I will have more al­ign­ment among differ­ent com­po­nents of my mind.

Another benefit is meet­ing the many other peo­ple at CFAR who have similar mind­sets. Here in Colum­bus, we have a flour­ish­ing ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity, but it’s still rel­a­tively small. Get­ting to know 70ish peo­ple, at­ten­dees and staff/​vol­un­teers, pas­sion­ate about ra­tio­nal­ity was a blast. It was es­pe­cially great to see peo­ple who were in­volved in cre­at­ing new ra­tio­nal­ity strate­gies, some­thing that I am en­gaged in my­self in ad­di­tion to pop­u­lariz­ing ra­tio­nal­ity—it’s re­ally heart­en­ing to en­vi­sion how the ra­tio­nal­ity move­ment is grow­ing.

Th­ese benefits should res­onate strongly with those who are as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists, but they are re­ally im­por­tant for EA par­ti­ci­pants as well. I think one of the best things that EA move­ment mem­bers can do is study­ing ra­tio­nal­ity, and it’s some­thing we pro­mote to the EA move­ment as part of InIn’s work. What we offer is ar­ti­cles and videos, but com­ing to a CFAR work­shop is a much more in­tense and co­he­sive way of get­ting these benefits. Imag­ine all the good you can do for the world if you are bet­ter at plan­ning, or­ga­niz­ing, and en­act­ing EA-re­lated tasks. Ra­tion­al­ity is what has helped me and other InIn par­ti­ci­pants make the ma­jor im­pact that we have been able to make, and there are a num­ber of EA move­ment mem­bers who have ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing and who re­ported similar benefits. Re­mem­ber, as an EA par­ti­ci­pant, you can likely get a schol­ar­ship with a par­tial or full cov­er­age of the reg­u­lar $3900 price of the work­shop, as I did my­self when at­tend­ing it, and you are highly likely to be able to save more lives as a re­sult of at­tend­ing the work­shop over time, even if you have to pay some costs up­front.

Hope these thoughts prove helpful to you all, and please con­tact me at gleb@in­ten­tion­al­in­sights.org if you want to chat with me about my ex­pe­rience.