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The January 2013 CFAR workshop: one-year retrospective

34 Post author: Qiaochu_Yuan 18 February 2014 06:41PM

About a year ago, I attended my first CFAR workshop and wrote a post about it here. I mentioned in that post that it was too soon for me to tell if the workshop would have a large positive impact on my life. In the comments to that post, I was asked to follow up on that post in a year to better evaluate that impact. So here we are!

Very short summary: overall I think the workshop had a large and persistent positive impact on my life. 

Important caveat

However, anyone using this post to evaluate the value of going to a CFAR workshop themselves should be aware that I'm local to Berkeley and have had many opportunities to stay connected to CFAR and the rationalist community. More specifically, in addition to the January workshop, I also

  • visited the March workshop (and possibly others),
  • attended various social events held by members of the community,
  • taught at the July workshop, and
  • taught at SPARC.

These experiences were all very helpful in helping me digest and reinforce the workshop material (which was also improving over time), and a typical workshop participant might not have these advantages. 

Answering a question

pewpewlasergun wanted me to answer the following question:

I'd like to know how many techniques you were taught at the meetup you still use regularly. Also which has had the largest effect on your life.

The short answer is: in some sense very few, but a lot of the value I got out of attending the workshop didn't come from specific techniques. 

In more detail: to be honest, many of the specific techniques are kind of a chore to use (at least as of January 2013). I experimented with a good number of them in the months after the workshop, and most of them haven't stuck (but that isn't so bad; the cost of trying a technique and finding that it doesn't work for you is low, while the benefit of trying a technique and finding that it does work for you can be quite high!). One that has is the idea of a next action, which I've found incredibly useful. Next actions are the things that to-do list items should be, say in the context of using Remember The Milk. Many to-do list items you might be tempted to right down are difficult to actually do because they're either too vague or too big and hence trigger ugh fields. For example, you might have an item like

  • Do my taxes

that you don't get around to until right before you have to because you have an ugh field around doing your taxes. This item is both too vague and too big: instead of writing this down, write down the next physical action you need to take to make progress on this item, which might be something more like

  • Find tax forms and put them on desk

which is both concrete and small. Thinking in terms of next actions has been a huge upgrade to my GTD system (as was Workflowy, which I also started using because of the workshop) and I do it constantly. 

But as I mentioned, a lot of the value I got out of attending the workshop was not from specific techniques. Much of the value comes from spending time with the workshop instructors and participants, which had effects that I find hard to summarize, but I'll try to describe some of them below: 

Emotional attitudes

The workshop readjusted my emotional attitudes towards several things for the better, and at several meta levels. For example, a short conversation with a workshop alum completely readjusted my emotional attitude towards both nutrition and exercise, and I started paying more attention to what I ate and going to the gym (albeit sporadically) for the first time in my life not long afterwards. I lost about 15 pounds this way (mostly from the eating part, not the gym part, I think). 

At a higher meta level, I did a fair amount of experimenting with various lifestyle changes (cold showers, not shampooing) after the workshop and overall they had the effect of readjusting my emotional attitude towards change. I find it generally easier to change my behavior than I used to because I've had a lot of practice at it lately, and am more enthusiastic about the prospect of such changes. 

(Incidentally, I think emotional attitude adjustment is an underrated component of causing people to change their behavior, at least here on LW.)

Using all of my strength

The workshop is the first place I really understood, on a gut level, that I could use my brain to think about something other than math. It sounds silly when I phrase it like that, but at some point in the past I had incorporated into my identity that I was good at math but absentminded and silly about real-world matters, and I used it as an excuse not to fully engage intellectually with anything that wasn't math, especially anything practical. One way or another the workshop helped me realize this, and I stopped thinking this way. 

The result is that I constantly apply optimization power to situations I wouldn't have even tried to apply optimization power to before. For example, today I was trying to figure out why the water in my bathroom sink was draining so slowly. At first I thought it was because the strainer had become clogged with gunk, so I cleaned the strainer, but then I found out that even with the strainer removed the water was still draining slowly. In the past I might've given up here. Instead I looked around for something that would fit farther into the sink than my fingers and saw the handle of my plunger. I pumped the handle into the sink a few times and some extra gunk I hadn't known was there came out. The sink is fine now. (This might seem small to people who are more domestically talented than me, but trust me when I say I wasn't doing stuff like this before last year.)

Reflection and repair

Thanks to the workshop, my GTD system is now robust enough to consistently enable me to reflect on and repair my life (including my GTD system). For example, I'm quicker to attempt to deal with minor medical problems I have than I used to be. I also think more often about what I'm doing and whether I could be doing something better. In this regard I pay a lot of attention in particular to what habits I'm forming, although I don't use the specific techniques in the relevant CFAR unit.

For example, at some point I had recorded in RTM that I was frustrated by the sensation of hours going by without remembering how I had spent them (usually because I was mindlessly browsing the internet). In response, I started keeping a record of what I was doing every half hour and categorizing each hour according to a combination of how productively and how intentionally I spent it (in the first iteration it was just how productively I spent it, but I found that this was making me feel too guilty about relaxing). For example:

  • a half-hour intentionally spent reading a paper is marked green.
  • a half-hour half-spent writing up solutions to a problem set and half-spent on Facebook is marked yellow. 
  • a half-hour intentionally spent playing a video game is marked with no color.
  • a half-hour mindlessly browsing the internet when I had intended to do work is marked red. 

The act of doing this every half hour itself helps make me more mindful about how I spend my time, but having a record of how I spend my time has also helped me notice interesting things, like how less of my time is under my direct control than I had thought (but instead is taken up by classes, commuting, eating, etc.). It's also easier for me to get into a success spiral when I see a lot of green. 

Stimulation

Being around workshop instructors and participants is consistently intellectually stimulating. I don't have a tactful way of saying what I'm about to say next, but: two effects of this are that I think more interesting thoughts than I used to and also that I'm funnier than I used to be. (I realize that these are both hard to quantify.) 

etc.

I worry that I haven't given a complete picture here, but hopefully anything I've left out will be brought up in the comments one way or another. (Edit: this totally happened! Please read Anna Salamon's comment below.) 

Takeaway for prospective workshop attendees

I'm not actually sure what you should take away from all this if your goal is to figure out whether you should attend a workshop yourself. My thoughts are roughly this: I think attending a workshop is potentially high-value and therefore that even talking to CFAR about any questions you might have is potentially high-value, in addition to being relatively low-cost. If you think there's even a small chance you could get a lot of value out of attending a workshop I recommend that you at least take that one step. 

Comments (19)

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 18 February 2014 09:49:51PM *  14 points [-]

A lot of your impressions seem to go something like "the workshop was useful because it made me think about X, and that's more important than specific answers/techniques it gave for X". Lately, I've been noticing more and more examples of this around me. A particular book would offer a frankly poor argument in favor of Y, but I'd still recommend it to my friends because reading it makes you think about Y and reach your own conclusion. An online community centered around boosting Z in your life may be somewhat cultish and prone to pseudo-scientific explanations about why more Z is awesome, but it's still worth reading their FAQs because you didn't even think of Z as something that might be adjusted.

This is one of my favorite hammers now, and it finds nails everywhere. So much advice turns out to be helpful indirectly, because it makes you reflect carefully on its domain. The actual direct value of the advice may be almost irrelevant, be it good or bad: the indirect contribution is much greater anyway.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 19 February 2014 10:39:26AM *  12 points [-]

The meta advice is often very useful, but human brain probably needs to be given a few specific examples first, and only then it can appreciate the meta aspect.

As a simplified example, if you tell me to think about my diet, my brain will probably not generate very good ideas, if I have never considered the problem before. If you describe me one specific diet, I can follow it blindly, or I can follow it partially, so I have a few options, but they are all in the same direction. If you describe me a few specific diets, I start seeing the whole space that I can navigate. Now I see that it's not just about "how much?" but also about "how specifically?"; I start understanding how other people generated their solutions, I see there is a model of the human metabolism and that people generate hypotheses about this model. Now I am able to construct my own diet, based on my beliefs, but also on my specific needs and preferences. -- In theory I should be able to think about this even without the specific examples (which how the first specific examples ever were generated), but it's hundred times easier this way.

The point is there is a mental jump from "no solution" to "a solution", and then another jump from "a solution" to "a solution-space". To make the second jump it is good to have more than one specific example. So it would probably be even better to give your friends three different books on the same topic, to show them it is possible to make different opinions about the subject, and they are not limited only to accept or reject one specific advice.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 18 February 2014 11:49:49PM 4 points [-]

Yes, I think that's a very concise summary of a lot of what I was trying to say; thanks!

But "think about X" may not be a strong enough phrasing; it sounds like something that's happening in System 2 but a lot of what happened because of the workshop took place in System 1.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 21 February 2014 08:44:47AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 04 March 2014 02:32:46AM 1 point [-]

Very apposite, thanks!

Comment author: Error 18 February 2014 10:48:42PM 8 points [-]

It seems like the benefit of CFAR's camp, at least for you, has less to do with the techniques they teach than with the general value of being around intelligent, intentional, like-minded people. That is not a bad thing, but is probably not exactly the sort of benefit they're aiming for.

I've been interested in the workshops since hearing of them, so thank you for the followup post.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 19 February 2014 01:54:22AM *  27 points [-]

It seems like the benefit of CFAR's camp, at least for you, has less to do with the techniques they teach than with the general value of being around intelligent, intentional, like-minded people. That is not a bad thing, but is probably not exactly the sort of benefit they're aiming for.

IMO, this misses the causes of Qiaochu's subsequent shifts: the thing he describes getting is the thing we're aiming for, and it somehow seems to happen much more when folks attend a CFAR workshop than when folks spend a similar amount of time with similarly intelligent people in other contexts.

The thing we're trying to teach at CFAR isn't the techniques, but is taught via teaching the techniques. This is perhaps best explained by analogy, as follows:

In computer science, when a person learns their first programming language, they learn it via learning to use a set of particular functions in a particular language (e.g., learning the syntax of for loops in language X) and doing related exercises. But the change that happens in the programming student in somehow a harder to name shift toward being able to "think like a computer scientist"; we know this because, when the student later learns further programming languages, it takes them fewer weeks to learn it, and they are more able to generate solutions to new problems in the new languages.

What we now say at the workshops' opening session is that the techniques folks are about to learn aren't the skills that e.g. the CFAR instructors actually use, but that they form components of a "soup" that we do actually use -- they are training exercises that help to teach something harder to phrase, that involves components of the techniques used in a more fluid way, and that also involves the general system 1 expectation that problems are soluble, that difficult or magical-looking skills are secretly made up of simple components, that you yourself are made of components that are simpler and sillier than you might think (and that it's agenty to acknowledge that and plan training exercises for yourself, instead of expecting to 'just use your freewill'), etc.

Comment author: Error 19 February 2014 05:07:47PM 2 points [-]

IMO, this misses the causes of Qiaochu's subsequent shifts: the thing he describes getting is the thing we're aiming for

I stand corrected. Thanks. The programming analogy helps; I'm in IT and I'm familiar with the phenomenon you describe.

Qiaochu Yuan noted in the post that he's a local, and had regular post-workshop meatspace contact with CFAR personnel. It would be interesting to compare his experience to those who travel in from out of town.

and that also involves the general system 1 expectation that problems are soluble, that difficult or magical-looking skills are secretly made up of simple components

This is a wonderful description of something I usually take for granted, and sometimes get incredibly confused by people who don't. It feels like a natural counterpart to the thought pjeby expressed in this post.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 February 2014 08:22:39PM 6 points [-]

I came in from out of town for the April 2013 workshop on a partial scholarship, and since then haven't been in touch with the community, apart from the six follow-up chats with an instructor. I don't know about the typical out-of-town experience -- I was a little underwhelmed leaving the workshop, largely because I felt I'd already made much of the shift that Anna and Qiaochu describe and things were already going very well for me. (Those two points are related -- I agree that making that shift is really valuable. I can also believe that the workshops effect it in some people.)

I think that in the longer term, there was still a lot of value in taking a lot of ideas and ways of thinking that were floating around unconnected in my head, and putting them all under a more accessible and salient "CFAR" umbrella. It's hard to quantify that effect relative to where I might have been without the workshop, but I still feel good about it 10 months out.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 19 February 2014 11:47:32AM *  2 points [-]

it somehow seems to happen much more when folks attend a CFAR workshop than when folks spend a similar amount of time with similarly intelligent people in other contexts

The similarly intelligent people are not necessarily rational. You could find hundreds of highly intelligent people at any university; a dozen of them would be extremely intelligent. But most of them seem like they have no desire to self-improve (generally; not just in their knowledge of the subject they specialize in); although they may profess that self-improvement is a good and noble goal. Actually, the mere fact that they already are successful in what they do, may alleviate their desire to improve.

Meeting intelligent and epistemically rational and instrumentally rational people... is still probably better in a context that makes it obvious that one is supposed to learn from them. If nothing else, the students are not ashamed to ask.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 19 February 2014 07:37:38PM *  1 point [-]

What we now say at the workshops' opening session is that the techniques folks are about to learn aren't the skills that e.g. the CFAR instructors actually use, but that they form components of a "soup" that we do actually use

Yes, this is what I was attempting to say. Thanks for phrasing it so concisely!

the general system 1 expectation that problems are soluble, that difficult or magical-looking skills are secretly made up of simple components, that you yourself are made of components that are simpler and sillier than you might think (and that it's agenty to acknowledge that and plan training exercises for yourself, instead of expecting to 'just use your freewill'), etc.

Also this!

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 18 February 2014 11:41:17PM *  5 points [-]

The techniques were helpful in that they got me thinking about the idea of having and developing techniques, in the context of a community of people doing the same. I've been around intelligent like-minded people for much of my life, but most of them weren't thinking along these lines until recently.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 19 February 2014 12:30:29PM *  3 points [-]

Maybe the most important changes, which are also difficult to describe, come from the changed model of the world in general, and humans specifically.

Anna wrote:

general system 1 expectation that problems are soluble, that difficult or magical-looking skills are secretly made up of simple components, that you yourself are made of components that are simpler and sillier than you might think (and that it's agenty to acknowledge that and plan training exercises for yourself, instead of expecting to 'just use your freewill')

But it is probably just as important to learn that these skills and meta-skills are socially acceptable. That helps to remove the ugh-fields we gradually built about them during many situations in our lives when we got in conflict with someone else because our epistemic accuracy offended their sacred belief or our instrumental success and ambition offended their egalitarian instinct. It's no longer a dilemma between "being rational" and "having friends"; suddenly you can have both at the same time.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 19 February 2014 07:53:56PM 2 points [-]

I can see how this would be important for people in different situations than mine, but this wasn't a factor for me at all. (I'm also not very happy with this framing. It seems too uncharitable. "They hate me because I'm smart and awesome" is a pretty treacherous trap to fall into.)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 19 February 2014 11:39:48PM *  1 point [-]

It's not about smartness and awesomeness, but about taboos. Other people manage to be smart and awesome while respecting the taboos. My guess is they probably do it by proper compartmentalization; they have one model they profess, and one model they actually use. I am probably missing some skills to do this properly; or maybe I'm just too lazy and asocial to keep a separate "public" model.

In the area of epistemic rationality, denying the supernatural is the taboo. But in the area of instrumental rationality, it seems to me most people dislike hearing about strategic self-improvement. The things are supposed to happen "naturally" or they were not meant to happen. (Seems to me this is a consequence of believing in the supernatural, even if people are not conscious of it.)

And it's not that anyone hates me; it's more like there are parts in my life I cannot ever speak about with anybody, because they would freeze me out socially. As long as I don't mention the taboo topics, we can be friends. But being a secret aspiring rationalist is difficult for me; I want to discuss my ideas (not always, but at least sometimes). So perhaps I'd say they don't accept me as I am, but they are happy to accept me as long as I role-play a subset of myself. But I want to grow outside of that subset.

Comment author: Creutzer 20 February 2014 12:06:24AM *  2 points [-]

The things are supposed to happen "naturally" or they were not meant to happen. (Seems to me this is a consequence of believing in the supernatural, even if people are not conscious of it.)

I'm not sure about the connection with the supernatural here. I've always thought that acknowledging a need to consciously improve is just seen as something low-status. (This is frequently coupled with a belief that it isn't possible anyway, and being faulty plus attempting something impossible is kind of extra-low-status.)

Comment author: ESRogs 20 February 2014 10:52:09PM 2 points [-]

a half-hour intentionally spent reading a paper is marked green

Where are you doing the marking -- is that in the RTM app? (I haven't used it, but might want to start.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 20 February 2014 11:52:08PM 3 points [-]

In a spreadsheet in Google Docs.

Comment author: ESRogs 21 February 2014 06:23:53AM 1 point [-]

Ah, gotcha, thanks!