CFAR Retrospective| 1434 words
I recently read CFAR Workshop in Hindsight, which had the following tl;dr:
I believe it changed me in subtle ways and improved several skills (mostly “meta skills”) marginally. This differs quite a bit from the somewhat overblown expectations I had before the workshop, but I’m still quite certain the workshop was a good investment.
I went to a CFAR workshop in January of 2020. My experience with CFAR is that I’m now maybe 1.2x-2.5x better at achieving my goals, with a point estimate of about 1.8x. I have no idea how much of this is causally downstream of CFAR, but a reasonable guess seems to be about half. This result was much better than I expected, which was around 1.05x. Note that even a 5% productivity increase is likely tens of thousands of dollars, so I considered CFAR a great deal. It seems plausible that most of the expected benefit from going to a CFAR workshop comes from the possibility of being in the right tail of possible outcomes.
I will not bother describing the structure of the workshop, as you can find that information elsewhere. If you want to know more about the content that CFAR teaches, I have written about that extensively here.
It isn’t easy to describe most of the benefits that I think I got, but I will try. Many of them are cognitive habits that I think I picked up that are extremely useful but difficult to describe concretely. I will describe the most concrete benefits and then move on to the vaguer ones, although most of the value comes from the vague benefits.
Most concretely, going to CFAR gave me two new close friends. It seems pretty unlikely that I would have met these people otherwise. This was also a strict increase in the number of friends I have, so it seems doubtful that the replaceability is very high. To meet many high-quality people in a high-quality atmosphere might be worth the cost of a CFAR workshop in terms of the value generated, although I doubt that CFAR would be the most efficient way of accomplishing this goal.
I also learned some rationality techniques. I have systematized a lot of my life. I have also installed a lot of very useful trigger-action patterns. I occasionally explicitly goal factor an action or apply the entire murphyjitsu algorithm to a plan. I have gotten much better at noticing various things happening in my brain. All of these techniques have maybe made me 5% more productive. Despite learning instrumental rationality techniques potentially being the express purpose of going to a CFAR workshop, the techniques less than 10% of the value I got.
This is the part where I get less concrete.
The techniques are not the point. Before all of rationality, there is a virtue that is nameless.
Miyamoto Musashi wrote, in The Book of Five Rings:
The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.
Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement. More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.
If you fail to achieve a correct answer, it is futile to protest that you acted with propriety.
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.
Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it. You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory.” But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.
If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”
The true point of CFAR is to convey the nameless virtue, the rhythm at the heart of everything, the true form of rationality. It might be that the best way to do this is by trying to teach you rationality techniques, but knowing rationality techniques isn’t the point.
CFAR gave me the experience of spending time with people that took rationality very seriously. The most concrete benefit of this is that it made me take rationality much more seriously. This experience didn’t make me more rational per se, but it did make me much more willing to actually use the amount of rationality I currently had. One observable consequence of this was my reaction to COVID-19, which involved dropping out of school, betting my entire net worth that the stock market would crash, and helping found a charity for which I now serve as a board member.
My brain used to ask me lots of questions like “who are you to believe this?” or “are you sure you’re qualified to do this?”. This asking hasn’t entirely stopped, but it has stopped feeling important. In particular, it no longer feels like a useful thing for my brain to be doing, so it only ever comes up when I’m not trying to do something. The relation CFAR has to this change is difficult to describe. One perspective is that going to CFAR gave me permission to stop worrying about things like whether I’m qualified, but that doesn’t feel quite right. It’s more like going to CFAR made me realize that it’s necessary to stop worrying about these sorts of things; stop worrying whether you’re allowed to do it and just do it.
CFAR might represent humanity’s best efforts in trying to improve individual rationality. It didn’t instantly make me supremely rational. I guess this meant I had no choice but to do it myself. Someone has to and no one else will.
I could almost hear Jeffreyssai speaking on the final day:
You can only arrive at mastery by practicing the techniques you have learned, facing challenges and apprehending them, using to the fullest the tools you have been taught, until they shatter in your hands and you are left in the midst of wreckage absolute… I cannot create masters. I have never known how to create masters. Go, then, and fail… You have been shaped into something that may emerge from the wreckage, determined to remake your Art. I cannot create masters, but if you had not been taught, your chances would be less. The higher road begins after the Art seems to fail you; though the reality will be that it was you who failed your Art.
I now routinely accomplish tasks that would have seemed dauntingly difficult to my previous self, like writing blog posts. I can achieve a large range of goals as primitive actions. Nearly all of my time is spent on things that I reflectively endorse spending it on. The number of meaningful relationships in my life has significantly improved. The work I do is considerably more meaningful. I am substantially richer. From the perspective of my past self, I am now a magician. And it’s only been about a year.