CFAR 3 year retrospective

“Made it back from the CFAR retreat. Wow. What an amazing 5 days.”

— me in my journal, three years ago, on January 29th, 2013. Tomorrow I’m about to go be a mentor at another workshop, that’s both deeply similar to the one I attended 3 years ago, and very different.

As am I.

I’m not very sentimental, but the decision to go to that workshop had a bigger impact on my life than most other decisions I’ve made (especially ones that seemed about that size) so I wanted to take some time to do a little retrospective.

Ideally, it would be cool to look at my Jan’13 workbook and compare it with my current sense of things, but unfortunately it’s back in Canada. One thing I was able to do was to pull up my Remember The Milk. Back then, one of the things that CFAR guided its participants to do was to set up a modified Getting Things Done system, with the idea that this was practically necessary to making anything else happen consistently in the weeks following the workshop.

It seems that I actually stuck to this system for longer than I remembered doing so—about a year, including several months after creating Complice, my own productivity system. This isn’t too surprising though, given that Complice itself is geared towards “what am I doing towards my goals today?” rather than the inbox+organization aspects of GTD.

At any rate, one of the things I found when I dug up my old list of tasks was a bunch of ones from the CFAR workshop highlighting phrases I wanted to look up. Three notable examples: (all concepts from the Less Wrong Sequences)

I don’t now know if I looked those up at the time. I definitely came to understand the first two concepts over the following year or two.  The third I think I didn’t really get until finally reading the sequences over the course of the last 6 months or so.  The fact that it took me until several years after CFAR to read the sequences in their entirety speaks to why we might want to beware trivial inconveniences. What finally caused me to read them was when they got edited and re-released in official ebook form. There was already an unedited unofficial ebook, but apparently that wasn’t enough.

So one thing that’s changed about me since CFAR is that I’ve immersed myself more deeply in studying rationality. Reading the sequences was valuable. I knew many of the concepts from there, but was missing many others. It’s kind of hard to imagine what it would be like to have been an Ancient Greek, but one framing that recently worked for me was:

“Imagine what it would be like to try making sense of the world using only the concepts that the Ancient Greeks had.”

…hard. They didn’t even have the number zero.

A remarkable number of the concepts I find most useful for making sense of the world have come from CFAR or from Less Wrong. That’s pretty high praise. Scott Alexander lays out in this blog post a ton of examples of concepts that this group didn’t have in 2009.

But it’s not just abstract concepts. It’s mental structures of how concepts can relate to each other. It’s the kind of thing your mind tends to do. I may have gotten more concepts from Less Wrong, but I got more new habits of thought from CFAR. Skills.

A bunch of high level changes were captured in my 2013 yearly review:

  • when I get in a dispute, I want to make a bet on it
  • I have a new sense of how introspection is unreliable
  • I think of my past and future selves as being somewhat different people from present!me, which is really helpful for coordinating our efforts as a team
  • I’ve gained miscellaneous other new models for understanding human behaviour and decision-making processes
  • I check out my raw perceptions more. Somebody said something? That doesn’t mean that “something” is true. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that Somebody thinks “something” is true. It just means that Somebody thought, at that moment, that it made sense to say that.

Changes by Class

Goal Factoring: This one threw me for a loop. The idea is to figure out the reasons why you’re doing things and then try to find more effective ways of accomplishing those reasons. Unfortunately, I concluded that before I really did anything, I should refactor my entire life, which of course is a hard thing to actually sit down and do. I ultimately did a bunch of it, and I would say that I’m now okay at goal factoring. One thing I definitely have is the 5-second version where if I’m faced with a potential thing to do, I briefly try to see if maybe I’m overlooking some obvious simpler path.

This class has changed very little in the last 3 years, in large part because it was being taught by someone from Leverage Research most of that time, not by CFAR  proper, who probably would have iterated on it a bit more.

Curating your emotional library: The goal was to note certain emotional experiences from salient memories, and to be able to tap into them when… trying to… do something?

This class was removed from the main curriculum shortly thereafter, which probably explains why I don’t remember how it worked: I didn’t get to see it again at the other workshops I volunteered at. CFAR briefly taught another emotion-related course that taught the affective neuroscience model of the 7 affects (SEEKING, CARING, PLAY, LUST, PANIC, RAGE, FEAR) which I’ve found generally helpful in my thinking.

At any rate, CFAR has shifted from a position like “You need to be in touch with emotions. Here are example emotions! Get in touch with them” to more like “emotions are part of what it even means to think.” Err… that’s not quite right. In March, CFAR is hosting a “yin of rationality” workshop that will touch on something that’s definitely related to feeling but not about emotion per se.

Againstness: This is one of the most obvious ones: I have much more attunement with and control over my level of physiological stress: I’m much more likely now than 3 years ago to notice when I’m getting worked up and to do a half-second breathing exercise that settles things. See this video of what I was like 3 years ago. I’m still easily excitable, but I don’t get out of control in the same way. I think. I might see if I can get Val to do a similar exercise on me to measure… though it would have to be something different, since I’m now not stressed out by astrology.

Your Inner Simulator: I abstractly understood this one the first time, but it probably took a few tries before it became a skill I have. Basically… so there’s a part of your brain that can catch balls without knowing how parabolas work, by running some sort of basic physics simulation. A related part of your brain can do different kinds of simulations, and can give you access to information you “had” but might have otherwise overlooked. You just need to ask it the right way. I feel like I’m much better at simulating situations now, although I probably have lots of room for improvement too.

One of the more concrete implementations of InnerSim is called Murphyjitsu, which involves imagining ways that a plan could go wrong. I think I haven’t achieved the same relative proficiency in this as in the more abstract tapping into your internal sense of things.

Strength of Evidence (aka Building Bayes Habits): This class was about grokking Bayes’ Theorem and how it relates to reasoning in everyday life. I don’t know that the class had a huge impact on me, but I gradually picked up on more of this style of thinking from hanging out with rationalists over the following years. I also started using more of a modus tollens approach to reasoning: evaluating propositions based on “if that were true, what would I expect to see? is that different from what I do see?”

Aversion Factoring: I’m not sure if this was at my original workshop, but it showed up at one of the ones shortly thereafter that I volunteered at. This is probably another example where I’ve grokked the general principle and use it in small amounts in various places, but where I could still get more benefit from using it on a larger scale.

Turbocharging Training: This one is about deliberate practice. I haven’t really employed it explicitly or directly, but it has definitely informed the way that I approach bugs in my behaviour with respect to skills. This class has improved, but is otherwise remarkably similar to its earlier version, just better. (Like it hasn’t pivoted or even “evolved” per se).

EDIT: saw the new version of turbocharging last night. It’s still kind of similar, but no longer has the varied-intensity thing of the original, and is much more about the other component: “What am I practicing?”

Value of Information: This class prompted me to think a bit more about calculating the expected value of options that I’m considering, but I don’t think I actually use the concept of “value of information” itself very often.

Thought Experiments: I’ve found this thinking tool to be pretty powerful. If you’re trying to figure out why you care about something, you can imagine things are different about it, and see if you’d still care, or if the caring leaves with that modification.

CFAR doesn’t teach this one explicitly anymore, but it might be kind of rolled into the goal factoring class, because that’s a really common domain in which it gets used (the example above is essentially goal-factoring).

Comfort Zone Expansion: This class was originally about pushing yourself to do things you found uncomfortable, and now it’s more geared towards relaxing into that discomfort and noticing how things that go against one’s sense of identity often feel uncomfortable. It was in general not super challenging for me at the time. Having a name for it has been good though, and has probably helped me push the limits of my comfort zone more than I would have otherwise.

Propagating Urges: I didn’t get this one until about 6 months ago. Then again, it took a long time for CFAR to really get it too. They had a variety of versions, some of which were basically reinforcement learning for humans. The version that stuck for me was noting that the point is not just to try to convince your system 1 that a something’s worth doing, based on your system 2 model that it is. Instead, it’s about tapping into existing system 1 desire/urge for the goal, and propagating that urge from the goal to a specific task or subgoal that doesn’t feel juicy yet.

Offline Habit Training: The main thing I’ve used this for is getting out of bed in the morning, which I knew about well before CFAR, via this blog post by Steve Pavlina. I’ve sometimes installed a few small habits with this, but haven’t really used it much. I don’t feel like I’m missing much, and this class has since been superseded by the modified version of Propagating Urges and a new class called Trigger-Action Planning, which is based on the literature of Implementation Intentions.

Delegating to Yourself: I now write blog posts about this. And I’ve done some other interesting experiments, like designating Thursday-at-4pm to be the me that will respond to long email threads from friends. This worked somewhat but not super well. At any rate, this is a domain I feel like I own quite well now.

Closing thoughts

Me: it seems that a common thread with the classes above is that I find myself doing some amount of this implicitly, but feel like I’m not doing very much of the explicit skill as an exercise. To some extent, this is good! Rationality isn’t a collection of deliberate procedures. Or at least, that’s not the point of what CFAR’s trying to teach. They’re trying to teach a mindset. So it’s a good sign that I’ve internalized the mindset, even if I don’t sit down and say “do aversion factoring” on a regular basis.

One the other hand… I suspect that there are gains that I could be getting if I did do that, and so to that extent I’m going to try to make more time for deliberate application of these skills. And by make more time I mean get myself excited about it so I naturally am driven to find time.

I’ve changed a lot over the last few years, and it’s hard to tease apart my growth, in terms of what has come from CFAR and what has come from the work that I’ve done in my intentional community. Both can take a ton of credit for the progress I’ve made in againstness, for example. There are still a lot of issues I have now that I had back in 2013, but when I think about these, I realize that most of them were not even things I could point at clearly enough to call issues back then! So it’s not like I haven’t been making progress.

CFAR: many CFAR classes are quite similar from a few years ago. Some have the same title and premise but are very different procedurally. Still others disappeared or got turned into 2 minute remarks inside other classes, and we grew some new ones too.

The biggest change to the workshop though is where the 4 days used to be 3 days of techniques + 1 day of practice, now it’s 2 days of techniques and 2 days of… not just practicing individual techniques, but practicing explaining the techniques, and practicing helping each other solve problems using whichever approaches make sense. Not just the recently-learned “rationality techniques”, because as is written in The Twelve Virtues of Rationality:

How can you improve your conception of rationality? Not by saying to yourself, “It is my duty to be rational.” By this you only enshrine your mistaken conception. Perhaps your conception of rationality is that it is rational to believe the words of the Great Teacher, and the Great Teacher says, “The sky is green,” and you look up at the sky and see blue. If you think: “It may look like the sky is blue, but rationality is to believe the words of the Great Teacher,” you lose a chance to discover your mistake.

The goal is to solve the problem, not to “do the rationality technique”.

At any rate, CFAR has come a long way and has streamlined its workshop to the point where it’s now ready to scale by quite a lot, which is really exciting. They’ve been adding alumni at roughly the same rate for the last 3 years (about 150/yr) but they want to increase that by about 10×.

Which is why this post is going to end by pointing out that CFAR is looking to hire someone to join their team to do sales: Hiring: Inside Sales.

I’ll also add that CFAR is by far the coolest team I’ve ever worked with. Sometimes my volunteer role consisted mostly of taking out the trash and cleaning up the space, and it was still really enjoyable because… the staff is awesome. And coordinating with people who communicate like this, even about meals or flipchart markers, is a pleasure. So if the description above sounds awesome and you’ve got sales experience, totally go apply for the job.

And if the descriptions sounds awesome and you don’t have sales experience, then go apply for the workshop.

"Jan 2013", pointing to the CFAR logo, pointing to "Jan 2016"

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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