Notes from the Hufflepuff Unconference

April 28th, we ran the Hufflepuff Un­con­fer­ence in Berkeley, at the MIRI/​CFAR office com­mon space.

There’s room for im­prove­ment in how the Un­con­fer­ence could have been run, but it suc­ceeded the core things I wanted to ac­com­plish:

  • Estab­lished com­mon knowl­edge of what prob­lems peo­ple were ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in work­ing on

  • We had sev­eral ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sions of some of those prob­lems, with an eye to­wards build­ing solutions

  • Sev­eral peo­ple agreed to work to­gether to­wards con­crete plans and ex­per­i­ments to make the com­mu­nity more friendly, as well as build skills rele­vant to com­mu­nity growth. (With dead­lines and one per­son act­ing as pro­ject man­ager to make sure real progress was made)

  • We agreed to have a fol­lowup un­con­fer­ence in roughly three months, to dis­cuss how those plans and ex­per­i­ments were going

Rough notes are available here. (Thanks to Miranda, Maia and Holden for takin re­ally thor­ough notes)

This post will sum­ma­rize some of the key take­aways, some speeches that were given, and my ret­ro­spec­tive thoughts on how to ap­proach things go­ing for­ward.

But first, I’d like to cover a ques­tion that a lot of peo­ple have been ask­ing about:

What does this all mean for peo­ple out­side of the Bay?

The an­swer de­pends.

I’d per­son­ally like it if the over­all ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity got bet­ter at so­cial skills, em­pa­thy, and work­ing to­gether, stick­ing with things that need stick­ing with (and in gen­eral, bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing skills other than metacog­ni­tion). In prac­tice, in­di­vi­d­ual com­mu­ni­ties can only change in the ways the peo­ple in­volved ac­tu­ally want to change, and there are other skills worth gain­ing that may be more im­por­tant de­pend­ing on your cir­cum­stances.

Does Pro­ject Hufflepuff make sense for your com­mu­nity?

If you’re wor­ried that your com­mu­nity doesn’t have an in­ter­est in any of these things, my ac­tual hon­est an­swer is that do­ing some­thing “Pro­ject Hufflepuff-es­que” prob­a­bly does not make sense. I did not choose to do this be­cause I thought it was the sin­gle-most-im­por­tant thing in the ab­stract. I did it be­cause it seemed im­por­tant and I knew of a crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple who I ex­pected to want to work on it.

If you’re liv­ing in a sparsely pop­u­lated area or haven’t put a com­mu­nity to­gether, the first steps do not look like this, they look more like putting your­self out there, post­ing a meetup on Less Wrong and just *try­ing things*, any things, to get some­thing mov­ing.

If you have enough of a com­mu­nity to step back and take stock of what kind of com­mu­nity you want and how to strate­gi­cally get there, I think this sort of pro­ject can be worth learn­ing from. Maybe you’ll de­cide to tackle some­thing Pro­ject-Hufflepuff-like, maybe you’ll find some­thing else to fo­cus on. I think the most im­por­tant thing is have some kind of vi­sion for some­thing you com­mu­nity can do that is worth work­ing to­gether, lev­el­ing up to ac­com­plish.

Com­mu­nity Un­con­fer­ences as One Pos­si­ble Tool

Com­mu­nity un­con­fer­ences are a use­ful tool to get ev­ery­one on the same page and spur them on to start work­ing on pro­jects, and you might con­sider do­ing some­thing similar.

They may not be the right tool for you and your group—I think they’re most use­ful in places where there’s enough peo­ple in your com­mu­nity that they don’t all know each other, but do have enough ex­ist­ing trust to get to­gether and brain­storm ideas.

If you have a sense that Pro­ject Hufflepuff is worth­while for your com­mu­nity but the above dis­claimers point to­wards my cur­rent ap­proach not mak­ing sense for you, I’m in­ter­ested in talk­ing about it with you, but the con­ver­sa­tion will look less like “Ray has ideas for you to try” and more like “Ray is in­ter­ested in helping you figure out what ideas to try, and the solu­tion will prob­a­bly look very differ­ent.”

On­line Spaces

Since I’m ac­tu­ally very un­cer­tain about a lot of this and see it as an ex­per­i­ment, I don’t think it makes sense to push for any of the ideas here to di­rectly change Less Wrong it­self (at least, yet). But I do think a lot of these con­cepts trans­late to on­line spaces in some fash­ion, and I think it’d make sense to try out some con­cepts in­spired by this in var­i­ous smaller on­line sub­com­mu­ni­ties.

Table of Con­tents:

I. In­tro­duc­tion Speech

  • Why are we here?

  • The Mis­sion: Some­thing To Protect

  • The In­visi­ble Badger, or “What The Hell Is a Hufflepuff?”

  • Meta Mee­tups Usu­ally Suck. Let’s Try Not To.

II. Com­mon Knowledge

  • What Do Peo­ple Ac­tu­ally Want?

  • Light­ning Talks

III. Dis­cussing the Prob­lem (Four break­out ses­sions)

  • Wel­com­ing Newcomers

  • How to han­dle peo­ple who im­pose costs on oth­ers?

  • Styles of Lead­er­ship and Run­ning Events

  • Mak­ing Helping Fun (or at least lower bar­rier-to-en­try)

IV. Plan­ning Solu­tions and Next Actions

V. Fi­nal Words

I. In­tro­duc­tion: It Takes A Village to Save a World

(A more pol­ished ver­sion of my open­ing speech from the un­con­fer­ence)

[Epistemic Sta­tus: This is largely based on in­tu­ition, look­ing at what our com­mu­nity has done and what other com­mu­ni­ties seem to be able to do. I’m maybe 85% con­fi­dent in it, but it is my best guess]

In 2012, I got su­per into the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity in New York. I was sur­rounded by peo­ple pas­sion­ate about think­ing bet­ter and us­ing that think­ing to tackle am­bi­tious pro­jects. And in 2012 we all de­cided to take on re­ally hard pro­jects that were pretty likely to fail, be­cause the ex­pected value seemed high, and it seemed like even if we failed we’d learn a lot in the pro­cess and grow stronger.

That hap­pened—we learned and grew. We be­came adults to­gether, found­ing com­pa­nies and non­prof­its and cre­at­ing holi­days from scratch.

But two years later, our pro­jects were ei­ther ac­tively failing, or burn­ing us out. Many of us be­came de­pressed and de­mor­al­ized.

There was no­body who was okay enough to ac­tu­ally provide any­one emo­tional sup­port. Our core com­mu­nity with­ered.

I ended up mak­ing that the dom­i­nant theme of the 2014 NYC Sols­tice, with a call-to-ac­tion to get back to ba­sics and take care each other.

I also went to the Berkeley Sols­tice that year. And… I dunno. In the back of my mind I was as­sum­ing “Berkeley won’t have that prob­lem—the Bay area has so many peo­ple, I can’t even imag­ine how awe­some and thriv­ing a com­mu­nity they must have.” (Espe­cially since the Bay kept steal­ing all the movers and shak­ers of NYC).

The theme of the Bay Sols­tice turned out to be “Hey guys, so peo­ple keep com­ing to the Bay, run­ning on a dream and a promise of com­mu­nity, but that com­mu­nity is not ac­tu­ally there, there’s a tiny num­ber of well-con­nected peo­ple who ev­ery­one is try­ing to get time with, and ev­ery­one seems lonely and sad. And we don’t even know what to do about this.”

Next year, in 2015, that theme in the Berkeley Sols­tice was re­vis­ited.

So I think that was the ini­tial seed of what would be­come Pro­ject Hufflepuff—notic­ing that it’s not enough to take on cool pro­jects, that it’s not enough to just get a bunch of peo­ple to­gether and call it a com­mu­nity. Com­mu­nity is some­thing you ac­tively tend to. In­so­far as Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy is real, it’s a foun­da­tion you need be­fore am­bi­tious pro­jects can be sus­tain­able.

There are other pieces of the puz­zle—differ­ent lenses that, I be­lieve, point to­wards a Cen­tral Thing. Some ex­am­ples:

Group houses, in­di­vi­d­u­al­ism and co­or­di­na­tion.

I’ve seen sev­eral group houses where, when peo­ple de­cide it no longer makes sense to live in the house, they… just kinda leave. Even if they’ve liter­ally signed a lease. And ev­ery­one in­volved (the per­son leav­ing and those re­main), in­stinc­tively act as if it’s the re­main­ing peo­ple’s job to fill the leaver’s spot, to make rent.

And the first time, this is kind of okay. But then each sub­se­quent per­son leav­ing adds to a stress­ful un­der­tone of “OMG are we even go­ing to be able to af­ford to live here?”. It even­tu­ally be­comes de­press­ing, and snow­balls into a pit that makes new­com­ers feel like they don’t WANT to move into the house.

Nowa­days I’ve seen some peo­ple ex­plic­itly build­ing into the room­mate agree­ment a clear ex­pec­ta­tion of how long you stay and who’s re­spon­si­bil­ity it is to find new room­mates and pay rent in the mean­time. But it’s dis­ap­point­ing to me that this is some­thing we needed, that we weren’t in­stinc­tively pay­ing to at­ten­tion to how we were im­pos­ing costs on each other in the first place. That when we vi­o­lated a writ­ten con­tract, let alone a hand­shake agree­ment, that we did not take upon our­selves (or hold each other ac­countable), to en­sure we could fill our end of the bar­gain.

Friends, and Net­work­ing your way to the center

This com­mu­nity puts pres­sure on peo­ple to im­prove. It’s eas­ier to im­prove when you’re sur­rounded by am­bi­tious peo­ple who help or in­spire each other level up. There’s a sense that there’s some cluster of cool-peo­ple-who-are-am­bi­tious-and-smart who’ve been here for a while, and… it seems like ev­ery­one is try­ing to be friends with those peo­ple.

It also seems like peo­ple just don’t quite get that friend­ship is a skill, that adult friend­ships in City Cul­ture can be hard, and it can re­quire spe­cial effort to make them hap­pen.

I’m not en­tirely sure what’s go­ing on here—it doesn’t make sense to say any­one’s obli­gated to hang out with any par­tic­u­lar per­son (or obli­gated NOT to), but if 300 peo­ple aren’t get­ting the con­nec­tion they want it seems like some­where peo­ple are mak­ing a sys­tem­atic mis­take.

(Since the Un­con­fer­ence, Maia has tack­led this par­tic­u­lar is­sue in more de­tail)

The Mis­sion—Some­thing To Protect

As I see it, the Ra­tion­al­ity Com­mu­nity has three things go­ing on: Truth. Im­pact. And “Be­ing Peo­ple”.

In some sense, our core fo­cus is the prac­tice of truth­seek­ing. The thing that makes that truth­seek­ing feel im­por­tant is that it’s con­nected to broader goals of im­pact­ing the world. And the thing that makes this ac­tu­ally fun and re­ward­ing enough to stick with is a com­mu­nity that meets our needs, where can both flour­ish as in­di­vi­d­u­als and find the re­la­tion­ships we want.

I think we have made ma­jor strides in each of those ar­eas over the past seven years. But we are nowhere near done.

Differ­ent peo­ple have differ­ent in­tu­itions of which of the three are most im­por­tant. Some see some of them as in­stru­men­tal, or ter­mi­nal. There are peo­ple for whom Truth­seek­ing is *the point*, and they’d have been do­ing that even if there wasn’t a com­mu­nity to help them with it, and there are peo­ple for whom it’s just one tool of many that helps them live their life bet­ter or plan im­por­tant pro­jects.

I’ve ob­served a ten­dency to ar­gue about which of these things is most im­por­tant, or what trade­offs are worth mak­ing. In­clu­sive­ness verses high stan­dards. Truth vs ac­tion. Per­sonal hap­piness vs high acheive­ment.

I think that kind of ar­gu­ment is a mis­take.

We are fal­ling woe­fully short on all of these things.

We need some­thing like 10x our cur­rent ca­pac­ity for see­ing, and think­ing. 10x our ca­pac­ity for do­ing. 10x our ca­pac­ity for *be­ing healthy peo­ple to­gether.*

I say “10x” not be­cause all these things are in­trin­si­cally equal. The point is not to make a poli­ti­cally neu­tral push to make all the things sound nice. I have no idea ex­actly how far short we’re fal­ling on each of these be­cause the tar­gets are so far away I can’t even see the end, and we are do­ing a com­pli­cated thing that doesn’t have clear in­struc­tions and might not even be pos­si­ble.

The point is that all of these are in­cred­ibly im­por­tant, and if we can­not find a way to im­prove *all* of these, in a way that is *syn­er­gis­tic* with each other, then we will fail.

There is a thing at the cen­ter of our com­mu­nity. Not all of us share the ex­act same per­spec­tive on it. For some of us it’s not the most im­por­tant thing. But it’s been at the heart of the com­mu­nity since the be­gin­ning and I feel com­fortable as­sert­ing that it is the thing that shapes our cul­ture the most:

The pur­pose of our com­mu­nity is to make sure this place is okay:

The world isn’t okay right now, on a num­ber of lev­els. And a lot of us be­lieve there is a strong chance it could be­come dra­mat­i­cally less okay. I’ve seen peo­ple make cred­ible progress on tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for pieces of our lit­tle blue home. But when all is said and done, none of our cur­rent pro­jects re­ally give me the con­fi­dence that things are go­ing to turn out all right.

Our com­mu­nity was brought to­gether on a promise, a dream, and we have not yet ac­tu­ally proven our­selves wor­thy of that dream. And to make that dream a re­al­ity we need a lot of things.

We need to be able to crit­i­cize, be­cause with­out crit­i­cism, we can­not im­prove.

If we can­not, I be­lieve we will fail.

We need to be able to talk about ideas that are con­tro­ver­sial, or un­com­fortable—oth­er­wise our cre­ativity and in­sight will be crip­pled.

If we can­not, I be­lieve we will fail.

We need to be able to do those things with­out alienat­ing peo­ple. We need to be able to crit­i­cize with­out mak­ing peo­ple feel un­trusted and dis­cour­aged from even tak­ing ac­tion. We need to be able to dis­cuss challeng­ing things while earnestly re­spect­ing the no­tion that talk­ing about ideas gives those ideas power and has con­crete effects on so­cial re­al­ity, and some­times that can hurt peo­ple.

If we can­not figure out how to do that, I be­lieve we will fail.

We need more peo­ple who are able and will­ing to try things that have never been done be­fore. To stick with those things long enough to get good at them, to see if they can ac­tu­ally work. We need to help each other do im­pos­si­ble things. And we need to re­mem­ber to check for and do the pos­si­ble, bor­ing, ev­ery­day things that are in fact straight­for­ward and sim­ple and not very in­spiring.

If we can­not man­age to do that, I be­lieve we will fail.

We need to be able to talk con­cretely about what the high­est lev­er­age ac­tions in the world are. We need to pri­ori­tize those things, be­cause the world is huge and bro­ken and we are small. I be­lieve we need to help each other through a long jour­ney, build­ing big­ger and big­ger lev­ers, build­ing con­nec­tions with peo­ple out­side our com­mu­nity who are un­der­tak­ing the same jour­ney through differ­ent per­spec­tives.

And in the pro­cess, we need to not make it feel like if you can­not per­son­ally work on those high­est lev­er­age things, that you are not im­por­tant.

There’s the kind of im­por­tance where we rec­og­nize that some peo­ple have scarce skills and drive, and the kind of im­por­tance where we re­mem­ber that *ev­ery* per­son has in­trin­sic worth, and you owe *no­body* any spe­cial skills or pres­ti­gious sound­ing pro­jects for your life to be worth­while.

This isn’t just a philo­soph­i­cal mat­ter—I think it’s dam­ag­ing to our men­tal health and our col­lec­tive ca­pac­ity.

We need to rec­og­nize that the dis­tri­bu­tion of skills we tend to re­ward or pun­ish is NOT just about which ones are ac­tu­ally most valuable—some­times it is sim­ply founder effects and blind spots.

We can­not be a com­mu­nity for ev­ery­one—I be­lieve try­ing to in­clude any­one with a pass­ing in­ter­est in us is a fool’s er­rand. But there are many peo­ple who had valuable skills to con­tribute who have turned away, feel­ing frus­trated and un-val­ued.

If we can­not find a way to ac­com­plish all of these things at once, I be­lieve we will fail.

The the­sis of Pro­ject Hufflepuff is that it takes (at least) a village to save a world.

It takes peo­ple do­ing ex­per­i­men­tal im­pos­si­ble things. It takes care­tak­ers. It takes peo­ple helping out with un­glo­ri­ous tasks. It takes tech­ni­cal and emo­tional and phys­i­cal skills. And while it does take some peo­ple who spe­cial­ize in each of those things, I think it also needs many peo­ple who are least a lit­tle bit good at each of them, to pitch in when needed.

Pro­ject Hufflepuff is not the only things our com­mu­nity needs, or the most im­por­tant. But I be­lieve it is one of the nec­es­sary things that our com­mu­nity needs, if we’re to get to 10x our cur­rent Truth­seek­ing, Im­pact and Hu­man-ing.

If we’re to make sure that our home is okay.

The In­visi­ble Badger

“A lone hufflepuff sur­rounded by slyther­ins will surely wither as if be­ing leeched dry by vam­pires.”

- Duncan

[Epistemic Sta­tus: My ev­i­dence for this is largely based on dis­cus­sions with a few peo­ple for whom the bad­ger seems real and valuable, and who re­port things be­ing differ­ent in other com­mu­ni­ties, as well as some of my gen­eral in­tu­itions about so­ciety. I’m 75% sure the bad­ger ex­ists, 90% that’s it worth lean­ing into the idea of the bad­ger to see if it works for you, and maybe 55% sure that it’s worth try­ing to see the bad­ger if you can’t already make out it’s edges.]

If I *had* to pick a clear thing that this con­fer­ence is about with­out us­ing Harry Pot­ter jar­gon, I’d say “In­ter­per­sonal dy­nam­ics sur­round­ing trust, and how those dy­nam­ics ap­ply to each of the Im­pact/​Truth/​Hu­man fo­cuses of the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity.”

I’m not su­per thrilled with that term be­cause I think I’m grasp­ing more for some kind of gestalt. An over­all way of see­ing and be­ing that’s hard to de­scribe and that doesn’t come nat­u­rally to the sort of per­son at­tracted to this com­mu­nity.

Much like the blind folk and the elephant, who each touched a differ­ent part of the an­i­mal and came away with a differ­ent im­pres­sion (the trunk seems like a snake, the legs seem like a tree), I’ve been watch­ing sev­eral peo­ple in the com­mu­nity try to de­scribe things over the past few years. And maybe those things are sep­a­rate but I feel like they’re se­cretly a part of the same in­visi­ble bad­ger.

Hufflepuff is about hard work, and loy­alty, and ca­ma­raderie. It’s about emo­tional in­tel­li­gence. It’s about see­ing value in day to day things that don’t di­rectly tie into epic nar­ra­tives.

There’s a bunch of skills that go into Hufflepuff. And part of want I want is for peo­ple to get bet­ter at those skills. But I think it’s a mind­set, an ap­proach, that is fairly differ­ent from the typ­i­cal ra­tio­nal­ist mind­set, that makes those skills eas­ier. It’s some­thing that’s harder when you’re be­ing rigor­ously util­i­tar­ian and build­ing mod­els of the world out of game the­ory and in­cen­tives.

Mindspace is deep and wide, and I don’t ex­pect that mind­set to work for ev­ery­one. I don’t think ev­ery­one should be a Hufflepuff. But I do think it’d be valuable to the com­mu­nity if more peo­ple at least had ac­cess to this mind­set and more of these skills.

So what I’d like, for tonight, is for peo­ple to lean into this idea. Maybe in the end you’ll find that this doesn’t work for you. But I think many peo­ple’s first in­stinct is go­ing to be that this is alien and un­com­fortable and I think it’s worth try­ing to push past that.

The rea­son we’re do­ing this con­fer­ence to­gether is be­cause the Hufflepuff way doesn’t re­ally work if peo­ple are try­ing to do it alone—I think it re­quires trust and ca­ma­raderie and per­sis­tence to re­ally work. I don’t think we can have that re­quired trust all at once, but I think if there are mul­ti­ple peo­ple try­ing to make it work, who can in­cre­men­tally trust each other more, I think we can reach a place where things run more smoothly, where we have stronger emo­tional con­nec­tions, and where we trust each other enough to take on more am­bi­tious pro­jects than we could if we’re all op­ti­miz­ing as in­di­vi­d­u­als.

Meta-Mee­tups Suck. Let’s Not.

This un­con­fer­ence is pretty meta—we’re talk­ing about norms and vague com­mu­nity stuff we want to change.

Let me tell you, meta mee­tups are the worst. Typ­i­cally you end up go­ing around in cir­cles com­plain­ing and wish­ing there were more things hap­pen­ing and that peo­ple were step­ping up and maybe if you’re lucky you get a wave of en­thu­si­asm that lasts a month or so and a cou­ple things hap­pen but noth­ing re­ally *changes*.

So. Let’s not do that. Here’s what I want to ac­com­plish and which seems achiev­able:

1) Estab­lish com­mon knowl­edge of im­por­tant ideas and be­hav­ior pat­terns.

Some­times you DON’T need to de­velop a whole new skill, you just need to no­tice that your ac­tions are im­pact­ing peo­ple in a differ­ent way, and maybe that’s enough for you to de­cide to change some­things. Or maybe some­one has a con­cept that makes it a lot eas­ier for you to start gain­ing a new skill on your own.

2) Estab­lish com­mon knowl­edge of who’s in­ter­ested in try­ing which new norms, or which new skills.

We don’t ac­tu­ally *know* what the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple want here. I can sit here and tell you what *I* think you should want, but ul­ti­mately what mat­ters is what things a crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple want to talk about tonight.

Not ev­ery­one has to agree that an idea is good to try it out. But there’s a lot of skills or norms that only re­ally make sense when a crit­i­cal mass of other peo­ple are try­ing them. So, maybe of the 40 peo­ple here, 25 peo­ple are in­ter­ested in im­prov­ing their em­pa­thy, and maybe an­other 20 are in­ter­ested in ac­tively work­ing on friend­ship skills, or stick­ing to com­mit­ments. Maybe those peo­ple can help re­in­force each other.

3) Ex­plore ideas for so­cial and skil­lbuild­ing ex­per­i­ments we can try, that might help.

The failure mode of Raven­claws is to think about things a lot and then not ac­tu­ally get around to do­ing them. A failure mode of am­bi­tious Raven­claws, is to think about things a lot and then do them and then as­sume that be­cause they’re smart, that they’ve thought of ev­ery­thing, and then not listen to feed­back when they get things sub­tly or ma­jorly wrong.

I’d like us to end by think­ing of ex­per­i­ments with new norms, or habits we’d like to cul­ti­vate. I want us to frame these as ex­per­i­ments, that we try on a smaller scale and maybe pro­mote more if they seem to be work­ing, while keep­ing in mind that they may not work for ev­ery­one.

4) Com­mit to ac­tions to take.

Since the de­fault ac­tion is for them to pe­ter out and fail, I’d like us to spend time bul­let­proofing them, brain­storm­ing and com­ing up with trig­ger-ac­tion plans so that they ac­tu­ally have a chance to suc­ceed.

Ta­boo­ing “Hufflepuff”

Hav­ing said all that talk about The Hufflepuff Way...

...the fact is, much of the rea­son I’ve used those words is to paint a rough pic­ture to at­tract the sort of per­son I wanted to at­tract to this un­con­fer­ence.

It’s im­por­tant that there’s a fuzzy, hard-to-define-but-prob­a­bly-real con­cept that we’re grasp­ing to­wards, but it’s also im­por­tant not to be talk­ing past each other. Early on in this pro­ject I re­al­ized that a few peo­ple who I thought were on the same page ac­tu­ally meant fairly differ­ent things. Some cared more about em­pa­thy and friend­ship. Some cared more about do­ing things to­gether, and ex­pected deep friend­ships to arise nat­u­rally from that.

So I’d like us to es­tab­lish a trig­ger-ac­tion-plan right now—for the rest of this un­con­fer­ence, if some­one says “Hufflepuff”, y’all should say “What do you mean by that?” and then figure out what­ever con­crete thing you’re ac­tu­ally try­ing to talk about.

II. Com­mon Knowledge

The first part of the un­con­fer­ence was about shar­ing our cur­rent goals, con­cerns and back­ground knowl­edge that seemed use­ful. Most of the speci­fics are cov­ered in the notes. But I’ll talk here about why I in­cluded the things I did and what my take­aways were af­ter­wards on how it worked.

Time to Think

The first thing I did was have peo­ple sit and think about what they ac­tu­ally wanted to get out of the con­fer­ence, and what ob­sta­cles they could imag­ine get­ting in the way of that. I did this be­cause of­ten, I think our cul­ture (os­ten­si­bly about helping us think bet­ter) doesn’t give us time to think, and in­stead has peo­ple were are quick-wit­ted and con­ver­sa­tion­ally dom­i­nant end up do­ing most of the talk­ing. (I wrote a post a year ago about this, the 12 Se­cond Rule). In this case I gave ev­ery­one 5 min­utes, which is some­thing I’ve found helpful at small mee­tups in NYC.

This had mixed re­sults—some peo­ple re­ported that while they can think well by them­selves, in a group set­ting they find it in­timi­dat­ing and their mind starts wan­der­ing in­stead of get­ting any­thing done. They found it much more helpful when I even­tu­ally let peo­ple-who-preferred-to-talk-to-each-other go into an­other room to talk through their ideas out­loud.

I think there’s some benefit to both halves of this and I’m not sure how com­mon which set of prefer­ences are. It’s cer­tainly true that it’s not com­mon for con­fer­ences to give peo­ple a full 5 min­utes to think so I’d ex­pect it to be some­one un­com­fortable-feel­ing re­gard­less of whether it was use­ful.

But an over­all out­come of the un­con­fer­ence was that it was some­what lower en­ergy than I’d wanted, and open­ing with 5 min­utes of silent think­ing seemed to con­tribute to that, so for the next un­con­fer­ence I run, I’m lean­ing to­wards a shorter pe­riod of time for pri­vate think­ing (Some­where be­tween 12 and 60 sec­onds), fol­lowed by “turn to your neigh­bors and talk through the ideas you have”, fol­lowed by “each group shares their con­cepts with the room.”

“What is do you want to im­prove on? What is some­thing you could use help with?”

I wanted peo­ple to feel like ac­tive par­ti­ci­pants rather than pas­sive ob­servers, and I didn’t want peo­ple to just think “it’d be great if other peo­ple did X”, but to keep an in­ter­nal lo­cus of con­trol—what can *I* do to steer this com­mu­nity bet­ter? I also didn’t want peo­ple to be think­ing en­tirely in­di­vi­d­u­al­is­ti­cally.

I didn’t col­lect feed­back on this spe­cific part and am not sure how valuable oth­ers found it (if you were at the con­fer­ence, I’d be in­ter­ested if you left any thoughts in the com­ments). Some anonymized things peo­ple de­scribed:

  • When I make so­cial mis­takes, con­sider it failure; this is unhelpful

  • Help point out what they need help with

  • Have se­vere akra­sia, would like more “get things done” magic tools

  • Get­ting to know the bay area ra­tio­nal­ist community

  • Gen­eral bit­ter­ness/​burned out

  • Re­duce in­se­cu­rity/​fear around sharing

  • Avoid­ing spend­ing most words sig­nal­ing to have read a par­tic­u­lar thing; want to com­mu­ni­cate more clearly

  • Creat­ing sys­tems that re­in­force un­no­ticed good behaviour

  • Would like to learn how to try at things

  • Find place in ra­tio­nal­ist community

  • Stay­ing con­nected with the group

  • Pay­ing at­ten­tion to what they want in the mo­ment, in par­tic­u­lar when it’s right to not be persistent

  • Would like to know the “land­ing points” to the com­mu­nity to meet & greet new people

  • Be­come more ap­proach­able, & be more will­ing to ap­proach oth­ers for help; com­mu­nity cohesiveness

  • Have been lonely most of life; want to find a place in a re­ally good healthy community

  • Re: proso­cial­ness, be­ing too low on Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy to help others

  • Abun­dance mind­set & not stress­ing about how to pay rent

  • Cul­ti­vate stance of be­ing able to do helpful things (ac­tion stance) but also be able to no­tice differ­ence be­tween laz­i­ness and men­tal health

  • Don’t know how to re­spect le­git safety needs w/​o get­ting over­whelmed by ar­bi­trary prefer­ences; would like to model peo­ple bet­ter to give them ba­sic re­spect w/​o hav­ing to do ar­bi­trary amount of work

  • Start­ing con­ver­sa­tions with new people

  • More ra­tio­nal­ist group homes /​ baugruppe

  • Be­ing able to provide emo­tional sup­port rather than just lo­gis­tics help

  • Reach­ing out to peo­ple at all with­out putting too much pres­sure on them

  • Cul­ti­vate lifelong friend­ships that aren’t limited to par­tic­u­lar time and place

  • Have a block around ask­ing for help bc doesn’t ex­pect to re­cip­ro­cate; would like to ac­tu­ally just pay peo­ple for help w stuff

  • Want to be­come more in­volved in the community

  • Learn how to teach other peo­ple “ops skills”

  • Con­nec­tions to peo­ple they can teach and who can teach them

Light­ning Talks

Light­ning talks are a great way to give peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity to not just share ideas, but get some prac­tice at pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion (which I’ve found can be a great gate­way tool for over­all con­fi­dence and abil­ity to get things done in the com­mu­nity). Tra­di­tion­ally they are 5 min­utes long. CFAR has found that 3.5 minute light­ning talks are bet­ter than 5 minute talks, be­cause it cuts out some ram­bling and tan­gents.

It turned out we had more peo­ple than I’d origi­nally planned time for, so we ended up switch­ing to two minute talks. I ac­tu­ally think this was even bet­ter, and my plan for next time is do 1-minute times­lots but al­low peo­ple to sign up for mul­ti­ple if they think their talk re­quires it, so peo­ple de­fault to giv­ing some­thing short and sweet.

Rough sum­maries of the light­ning talks can be found in the notes.

III. Dis­cussing the Problem

The next sec­tion in­volved two “break­out ses­sion”—two 20 minute pe­ri­ods for peo­ple to split into smaller groups and talk through prob­lems in de­tail. This was done in an some­what im­promptu fash­ion, with peo­ple writ­ing down the talks they wanted to do on the white­board and then ar­rang­ing them so most peo­ple could go to a dis­cus­sion that in­ter­ested them.

The talks were:

- Wel­com­ing Newcomers

- How to han­dle peo­ple who im­pose costs on oth­ers?

- Styles of Lead­er­ship and Run­ning Events

- Mak­ing Helping Fun (or at least lower bar­rier-to-en­try)

- Cir­cling ses­sion

There was a sug­gested dis­cus­sion about out­reach, which I asked to table for a fu­ture un­con­fer­ence. My rea­son was that out­reach dis­cus­sions tend to get ex­tremely meta and seem to be an at­trac­tor (peo­ple end up fo­cus­ing on how to bring more peo­ple into the com­mu­nity with­out ac­tu­ally mak­ing sure the com­mu­nity is good, and I wanted the un­con­fer­ence to fo­cus on the lat­ter.)

I spent some time drift­ing be­tween ses­sions, and was gen­er­ally im­pressed both with the prac­ti­cal fo­cus each dis­cus­sion had, as well as the way they were or­gan­i­cally mod­er­ated.

Again, more de­tails in the notes.

IV. Plan­ning Solu­tions and Next Actions

After about an hour of dis­cus­sion and min­gling, we came back to the cen­tral com­mon space to de­scribe key high­lights from each ses­sion, and be­gin mak­ing con­crete plans. (Names are cred­it­ing peo­ple who sug­gested an idea and who vol­un­teered to make it hap­pen)

Creat­ing Norms for Your Space (Jane Joyce, Tilia Bell)

The “How to han­dle peo­ple who im­pose costs on other” con­ver­sa­tion ended up fo­cus­ing on minor but re­peated costs. One of the hard­est things to mod­er­ate as an event host is not peo­ple who are ac­tively dis­rup­tive, but peo­ple who just a lit­tle bit awk­ward or an­noy­ing—they’d of­ten be happy to change their be­hav­ior if they got feed­back, but giv­ing feed­back feels un­com­fortable and it’s hard to do in a tact­ful way. This pre­sents two prob­lems at once: par­ties/​events/​so­cial-spaces end up a more awk­ward/​an­noy­ing than they need to be, and of­ten what hap­pens is that rather than giv­ing feed­back, the hosts stop invit­ing peo­ple do­ing those minor things, which means a lot of peo­ple still work­ing on their so­cial skills end up liv­ing in fear of be­ing ex­cluded.

Solv­ing this fully re­quires a few differ­ent things at once, and I’m not sure I have a clear pic­ture of what it looks like, but one step­ping stone peo­ple came up with was cre­at­ing ex­plicit norms for a given space, and a prac­tice of re­mind­ing peo­ple of those norms in a low-key, non­judg­men­tal way.

I think this will re­quire a lot of de­liber­ate effort and prac­tice on the part of hosts to avoid al­ter­nate bad out­comes like “the norms get dis­pro­por­tionately en­forced on peo­ple the hosts like and ap­plied un­fairly to peo­ple they aren’t close with”. But I do think it’s a step in the right di­rec­tion to show­case what kind of space you’re cre­at­ing and what the ex­pec­ta­tions are.

Differ­ent spaces can be tai­lored for differ­ent types of peo­ple with differ­ent needs or goals. (I’ll have more to say about this in an up­com­ing post—do­ing this right is re­ally hard, I don’t ac­tu­ally know of any groups that have done an es­pe­cially good job of it.)

I *was* im­pressed with the de­gree to which ev­ery­one in the con­ver­sa­tion seemed to be tak­ing into ac­count a lot of differ­ent per­spec­tives at once, and look­ing for solu­tions that benefited as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble.

Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tee (Mandy Souza, Tessa Alex­a­nian)

Of­ten­times at events you’ll see peo­ple who are new, or who don’t seem com­fortable get­ting in­volved with the con­ver­sa­tion. Many suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ties do a good job of ex­plic­itly wel­com­ing those peo­ple. Some peo­ple at the un­con­fer­ence de­cided to put to­gether a for­mal group for mak­ing sure this hap­pens more.

The ex­act de­tails are still un­der de­vel­op­ment, but I think the ba­sic idea is to have a net­work of peo­ple who are interested

he idea is to have a group of peo­ple who go to differ­ent events, play­ing the role of the wel­comer. I think the idea is sort of a “Uber for wel­com­ers” net­work (i.e. it both pro­vides a place for peo­ple run­ning events to go to ask for help with wel­com­ing, and peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in wel­com­ing to find events that need wel­com­ers)

It also in­cluded some ideas for bet­ter in­fras­truc­ture, such as re­viv­ing “bayra­tional­″ to make it eas­ier for new­com­ers to figure out what events are go­ing on (pos­si­bly in­clud­ing links to the codes of con­duct for differ­ent spaces as well). In the mean­while, some sim­ple changes were the in­tro­duc­tion of a face­book group for Bay Area Ra­tion­al­ist So­cial Events.

Soft­skill-shar­ing Groups (Mike Plotz and Jonathan Wal­lis)

The lead­er­ship styles dis­cus­sion led to the con­cept that in or­der to have a flour­ish­ing com­mu­nity, and to be a suc­cess­ful leader, it’s valuable to make your­self leg­ible to oth­ers, and oth­ers more leg­ible to your­self. Even small im­prove­ments in an ac­tivity as fre­quent as com­mu­ni­ca­tion can have huge effects over time, as we make it eas­ier to see each other as we ac­tu­ally are and to clearly ex­change our ideas.

A num­ber of peo­ple wanted to im­prove in this area to­gether, and so we’re work­ing to­wards es­tab­lish­ing a se­ries of work­shops with a fo­cus on prac­tice and in­di­vi­d­ual feed­back. A longer post on why this is im­por­tant is com­ing up, and there will be in­for­ma­tion on the struc­ture of the event af­ter our first teacher’s meet­ing. If you would like to help out or par­ti­ci­pate, please fill out this poll:


Cir­cling Ex­plo­ra­tions (Qiaochu and oth­ers)

Much of the dis­cus­sion at the Un­con­fer­ence, while fo­cused on com­mu­nity, ul­ti­mately was ex­plored through an in­tel­lec­tual lens. By con­trast, “Cir­cling” is a prac­tice de­vel­oped by the Authen­tic Re­lat­ing com­mu­nity which is fo­cused ex­plic­itly on feel­ings. The ba­sic premise is (sort of) sim­ple: you sit in a cir­cle in a se­cluded space, and you talk about how you’re feel­ing in the mo­ment. Ex­actly how this plays out is a bit hard to ex­plain, but the in­tended re­sult is to be­come bet­ter both at notic­ing your own feel­ings and the peo­ple around you.

Opinions were di­vided as to whether this was some­thing that made sense for “ra­tio­nal­ists to do on their own”, or whether it made more sense to visit more ex­plic­itly Cir­cling-fo­cused com­mu­ni­ties, but sev­eral peo­ple ex­pressed in­ter­est in try­ing it again.

Mak­ing Helping Fun and More Ac­cessible (Suggested by Oliver Habryka)

Ul­ti­mately we want a lot of peo­ple who are able and ex­cited to help out with challeng­ing pro­jects—to im­prove our col­lec­tive group am­bi­tion. But to get there, it’d be re­ally helpful to have “gate­way helping”—things peo­ple can eas­ily pitch in to do that are fun, re­ward­ing, clearly use­ful but on the “warm fuzzies” side of helping. Oliver sug­gested this as a way to get peo­ple to start iden­ti­fy­ing as peo­ple-who-help.

There were two main sets of habits that worth cul­ti­vat­ing:

1) Mak­ing it clear to new­com­ers that they’re en­couraged to help out with events, and that this is ac­tu­ally a good way to make friends and get more in­volved.

2) For hosts and event plan­ners, look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to offer peo­ple things that they can help with, and make sure to pub­li­cly praise those who do help out.

Some of this might dove­tail nicely with the Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tee, both as some­thing peo­ple can eas­ily get in­volved with, and if there ends up be­ing a pub­lic fac­ing web­site to in­tro­duce peo­ple to the com­mu­nity, us­ing that to con­nect peo­ple with events that could use help).

Vol­un­teer­ing-as-Learn­ing, and Big Event Spe­cific Workshops

Some­times vol­un­teer­ing just re­quires show­ing up. But some­times it re­quires spe­cial skills, and some events might need peo­ple who are will­ing to prac­tice be­fore­hand or learn-by-do­ing with a com­mit­ment to help at mul­ti­ple events.

A vague cluster of skills that’s in high de­mand is “pre­dict lo­gis­ti­cal snafus in ad­vance to head them off, and no­tice lo­gis­ti­cal snafus hap­pen­ing in re­al­time so you can do some­thing about them.” Ear­lier this year there was an Ops Work­shop that aimed to teach this sort of skill, which went rea­son­ably but didn’t re­ally lead into a con­crete use for the skills to help them solid­ify.

One idea was to do Ops work­shops (or other spe­cial­ized train­ing) in the month be­fore a ma­jor event like Sols­tice or EA Global, giv­ing them an op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice skills and mak­ing that par­tic­u­lar event run smoother.

(This spe­cific idea is not cur­rently planned for im­ple­men­ta­tion as it was among the more am­bi­tious ones, al­though Brent Dill’s se­ries of “prac­tice set­ting up a gi­ant dome” beach par­ties in prepa­ra­tion for Burn­ing Man are point­ing in a similar di­rec­tion)

Mak­ing Sure All This Ac­tu­ally Hap­pens (Sarah Spikes, and hope­fully ev­ery­one!)

To avoid the trap of dream­ing big and not ac­tu­ally get­ting any­thing done, Sarah Spikes vol­un­teered as pro­ject man­ager, cre­at­ing an Asana page. Peo­ple who were in­ter­ested in com­mit­ting to a dead­line could opt into get­ting pestered by her to make sure things things got done.

V. Part­ing Words

To wrap up the event, I fo­cused on some fi­nal con­cepts that un­der­lie this whole en­deavor.

The thing we’re aiming for looks some­thing like this:

In a cou­ple months (hope­fully in July), there’ll be a fol­lowup un­con­fer­ence. The theme will be “In­no­va­tion and Ex­cel­lence”, ad­dress­ing the twofold ques­tion “how do we en­courage more peo­ple to start cool pro­jects”, and “how to do we get to a place where longterm pro­jects ul­ti­mately reach a high qual­ity state?

Both el­e­ments feel im­por­tant to me, and they re­quire some­what differ­ent mind­sets (both on the part of the peo­ple run­ning the pro­jects, and the part of the com­mu­nity mem­bers who re­spond to them). Start­ing new things is scary and hav­ing too high stan­dards can be re­ally in­timi­dat­ing, yet for longterm pro­jects we may want to hold our­selves to in­creas­ingly high stan­dards over time.

My cur­rent plan (sub­ject to lots of re­vi­sion) is for this to be­come a se­ries of com­mu­nity un­con­fer­ences that hap­pen roughly ev­ery 3 months. The Bay area is large enough with differ­ent over­lap­ping so­cial groups that it seems worth­while to get to­gether ev­ery few months and have an open-struc­tured event to see peo­ple you don’t nor­mally see, share ideas, and get on the same page about im­por­tant things.

Cur­rent thoughts for up­com­ing un­con­fer­ence top­ics are:

  • In­no­va­tion and Excellence

  • Per­sonal Epistemic Hygiene

  • Group Epistemology

An im­por­tant piece of each un­con­fer­ence will be re­vis­it­ing things at the pre­vi­ous one, to see if pro­jects, ideas or ex­per­i­ments we talked about were ac­tu­ally car­ried out and what we learned from them (most likely with anony­mous feed­back col­lected be­fore­hand so peo­ple who are less com­fortable speak­ing pub­li­cly have a chance to ex­press any con­cerns). I’d also like to build on top­ics from pre­vi­ous un­con­fer­ences so they have more chance to sink in and per­co­late (for ex­am­ple, have at least one talk or dis­cus­sion about “em­pa­thy and trust as re­lated to epistemic hy­giene”).

Start­ing and Finish­ing Un­con­fer­ences Together

My hope is to get other peo­ple in­volved sooner rather than later so this be­comes a “thing we are do­ing to­gether” rather than a “thing I am do­ing.” One of my goals with this is also to provide a plat­form where peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in get­ting more in­volved with com­mu­nity lead­er­ship can take a step fur­ther to­wards that, no mat­ter where they cur­rently stand (rang­ing any­where from “give a 30 sec­ond light­ning talk” to “run a dis­cus­sion, or give a keynote talk” to “be the pri­mary or­ga­nizer for the un­con­fer­ence.”)

I also hope this is able to per­co­late into on­line cul­ture, and to other in-per­son com­mu­ni­ties where a crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple think this’d be use­ful. That said, I want to cau­tion that I con­sider this all an ex­per­i­ment, mo­ti­vated by an in­tu­itive sense that we’re miss­ing cer­tain things as a cul­ture. That in­tu­itive sense has yet to be val­i­dated in any con­crete fash­ion. I think “will­ing­ness to try things” is more im­por­tant than epistemic cau­tion, but epistemic cau­tion is still re­ally im­por­tant—I recom­mend col­lect­ing lots of feed­back and be­ing will­ing to shift di­rec­tion if you’re try­ing any­thing like the stuff sug­gested here.

(I’ll have an up­com­ing post on “Ways Pro­ject Hufflepuff could go hor­ribly wrong”)

Most im­por­tantly, I hope this pro­vides a mechanism for us to col­lec­tively take ideas more se­ri­ously that we’re os­ten­si­bly sup­posed to be tak­ing se­ri­ously. I hope that this trans­lates into the sort of cul­ture that The Craft and The Com­mu­nity was try­ing to point us to­wards, and, ideally, even­tu­ally, a con­crete sense that our com­mu­nity can play a more con­sis­tently use­ful role at mak­ing sure the world turns out okay.

If you have con­cerns, crit­i­cism, or feed­back, I en­courage you to com­ment here if you feel com­fortable, or on the Un­con­fer­ence Feed­back Form. So far I’ve been erring on the side of move for­ward and set things in mo­tion, but I’ll be shift­ing for the time be­ing to­wards “get­ting feed­back and mak­ing sure this thing is steer­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”


In ad­di­tion to the peo­ple listed through­out the post, I’d like to give par­tic­u­lar thanks to Dun­can Sa­bien for gen­eral in­spira­tion and a lot of con­crete help, Lah­wran for giv­ing the most con­sis­tent and use­ful feed­back, and Robert Lec­nik for host­ing the space.