About a month ago I attended a workshop held by the Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR), and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Here’s a review of the workshop and what I took away from it.
CFAR’s workshops aim
to give people more understanding and control of their own decision-making. The techniques we teach are inspired by models of reasoning from probability and decision theory, combined with cognitive science research on how human brains actually reason and how we can train ourselves to improve. We at CFAR turn those mathematical and empirical insights into everyday skills (like those described in our rationality checklist) — how to make accurate predictions, how to avoid self-deception, and how to get your motivation where your arithmetic says it should be.
When deciding whether to attend, I wasn’t very confident that these techniques would work or be helpful. This is mostly because they sound suspiciously similar to the a particular archetype, common in various Internet places, which I’ll call derpy self-improvement. Like many things, derpy self-improvement is perhaps best characterized by the relevant XKCD (panel 8):
You look like you’re going to spend your life having one epiphany after another, always thinking you’ve finally figured out what’s holding you back, and how you can finally be productive and creative and turn your life around. But nothing will ever change. That cycle of mediocrity isn’t due to some obstacle. It’s who you are. The thing standing in the way of your dreams is that the person having them is you.
Derpy self-improvement techniques are mostly useless because derpy self-improvers aren’t very good at discriminating. Self-improvement tips are used as a constant drip of stimulus to make you feel like you’re always getting better, rather than because they’re actually useful. Everything is an epiphany and nothing works.
I was worried that the CFAR workshop would fall into the same pattern. But people’s testimonials about CFAR retreats didn’t really match this pattern; the written testimonials seemed reasoned, but still impressively glowing, and the average response to “are you glad you came?” was 9.3/10. I was curious about why this was. I entertained four different hypotheses about the testimonials:
The workshop is a standard derpy self-improvement technique: really good at making people feel like they’re getting better at things, but has no actual effect.
CFAR advertises mainly on Less Wrong and by word of mouth, and the people most likely to bite on the ads are those most tied to the Less Wrong community. Therefore they’re predisposed to like the retreat.
The retreat functions as a costly self-signalling gadget that shows you care about self-improvement. Once you spend all that money, cognitive dissonance forces you to actually put effort into things instead of being lazy.
The testimonials are actually fair assessments and the workshops actually teach things that are effective.
I put a prior probability of about 50/20/10/20 for these. But on a lark I followed their advice and didn’t not-apply. I was fortunate enough to get significant financial aid, enough that I decided the expected value worked out in favor of me going. So I went.
I can’t quite rule out #1, because I haven’t been taking very much hard data on what I actually do. But I can at least estimate the more easily quantifiable things: for example, it looks like I’ve seen concrete improvements in email turnaround time, to-do backlog, time spent on low-value procrastination, and sleep cycle.
#2 I can definitely vouch is false; I personally had a mixed impression of the online rationality community coming into the event and felt predisposed to dislike it. But it turns out that the online and in-person rationality communities are actually fairly different, and the in-person community came off as thoroughly positive and much more awesome than the online one.
The self-signalling effect of #3 should be somewhat mitigated for me, since I received serious financial aid. It still cost me plane travel, some tuition and four days of my time, but the cost was much less for me than many participants, so my review will be at least somewhat less biased by that.
I’m not going to go through an explicit Bayes calculation because there’s way too much different evidence and this was supposed to be a quick post, but I’d ballpark my posterior probability at more like 5/5/5/85 in favor of Hypothesis #4, i.e., “CFAR’s workshops actually work because they teach valuable things”.
So, general overall impressions of the workshop:
Teaching quality is through the roof. Like, consistently outside the range of my previous model of how teaching worked. Many times throughout the weekend I would hear the outline of how the next session would be spent and immediately think why doesn’t every teacher do this?! For example, the opening session had a component entitled “three pillars for getting the most out of the workshop.” At the end we did a fantastic review exercise in which we recapitulated the entire weekend, complete with moving between classes in our original groups, sped up by a factor of 20. The recap really helped me make connections and get the big picture; I’d guess I got at least double the one-day-later recall coverage compared to a typical college class.
The material was almost completely new to me—speaking of college classes, volume-wise this was definitely at least a semester’s worth of material. I’ve been applying it gradually so as not to fall over myself and failing at everything, but so far all the stuff I’ve tried out has stuck. Subjectively, I’m much better at planning and staying on top of things, much better at introspection (especially noticing unconscious/emotional effects), and somewhat better at actually doing things that I want to do. Just from the better plans I’ve already made for the semester, I anticipate the workshop approximately doubling the effectiveness of Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy’s fall operations, which probably makes it worth it already.
It’s pretty clear that the CFAR staff have been applying what they teach to themselves with great effect. Throughout the weekend I kept having slow-burning realizations that the instructors were doing things in class that they were teaching us to do. For instance, a class on how to quickly train new skills was taught using exactly the techniques it described. Similarly, I realized during a class on self-reinforcement that the reason our instructor bounced around excitedly was that she was using excited body motions as a method of self-reinforcement.
I somehow kind of missed it while it happened, but by the end of the weekend the participants turned into a really awesome community. I found them much more relaxing and interesting to spend time with than most other groups I know. My best guess is that people’s respect/empathy for each other were unusually high. I really want to figure out how to replicate this (and I hope the answer doesn’t start with “find 25 smart, motivated people who are adventurous enough to spend the weekend at an ‘applied rationality’ workshop”…).
The larger CFAR community is also great. The alumni mailing list has a ton of useful discussions, and when I visited the area again for the Effective Altruism summit, a lot of folks offered to put me up afterwards since I wanted to hang around for a few days. I’m looking forward to getting more involved with them in the future, so I can spend more time hanging around such interesting people and learning so many new things!
P.S.: If this sounds awesome to you but you don’t want to travel, fear not! CFAR is holding some one-day travelling workshops, and you can invite them to come to your city!
EDIT 1:47 PM: Forgot to include my posterior beliefs about effectiveness after the workshop.
I received no financial aid and had high airfare (probably among the highest domestic travel cost) and opprutinity costs to attend. My prior for hypothesis 4 was about 30%, but I had an additional hypothesis that I would acquire superpowers such as those which win the AI-box challenge. My posterior estimates of those are 95% and negligible.
I would estimate that anyone who learned anything from The Sequences or HPMOR would have a positive ROI from attending a similar workshop; people who resisted the lessons learned from those sources I expect would not be happy attending, and people who encountered nothing new in the referenced material should contact CFAR regarding a teaching position.
I keep hearing rave reviews about these workshops, and am pretty damn hellbent on attending one. They keep occurring at utterly importune times, however. How does one go about acquiring financial aid? Does having no real income at all mark one as a likely candidate?
Lance, you should apply for the ones coming up! They’ll discuss financial aid after they accept you.
I applied for ones being held in the future. Unfortunately I now won’t be able to attend any until January 2014 onwards. I will hopefully get to one eventually though!
Hey Ben, could you highlight some ideas that you learnt? How was it better than reading productivity books (as recommended on their site)?
I haven’t read most of those books, but it seems like they cover a relatively small and theoretical component of what CFAR teaches, specifically regarding strategic decision-making in the presence of cognitive bias. Much of what the workshop taught was more tactical.
If I could explain what the actually taught at the workshop convincingly in a comment thread, they wouldn’t need to have the workshops, so I’m afraid any
summary I give will be half-assed, but here are a couple things they taught:
Their take on a Getting Things Done-esque system–not GTD exactly, because that was designed for corporate drones, but how to apply those principles to design your own system. (This was the most immediately valuable section of the workshop.)
How to deliberately train habits (e.g. exercising, avoiding time-sucking websites, etc.).
How to overcome aversions that develop when your emotional reaction against doing something isn’t correctly calibrated to how badly the thing might go. (For example, most people are strongly miscalibrated about striking up conversations with strangers.)
That’s a rather small selection and doesn’t go into much detail on how they taught it, but hopefully it’s at least somewhat helpful!