CFAR Workshop in Hindsight

by markus_over11 min read13th Dec 20204 comments

40

RationalityPersonal Development
Frontpage

Epistemic status: experience report

Tl;dr: a summary of how I believe the CFAR mainline workshop a year ago affected me and altered my behavior. 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.

You might want to read this post if

  • You’re considering to apply to a CFAR workshop
  • You’ve visited a CFAR workshop before and could benefit from a bit of reflection on the effects it has had on you
  • You don’t know much about CFAR but are open to attending a rationality workshop in the future
  • You’re generally interested in self improvement

About a year ago, in September 2019, I spent 5 days at the CFAR mainline workshop in Prague. This was the result of months of pondering and ultimately deciding that applying for the workshop was probably a good decision. The major crux for me was the financial cost involved, as this was by far the biggest single expense of my life until that point.

In this post I want to reflect on my time at the workshop, how it affected me, what remains more than a year after, and whether I think it was worth it all things considered. I hope to achieve several things this way:

  • Help people who are similarly unsure whether visiting a CFAR workshop is a good decision for them (in case such workshops still take place in the future)
  • Help future participants adjust their expectations
  • Nudge CFAR alumni to reflect on their own experiences, and ideally comment on to what degree it was/is different from or similar to mine
  • Keep that applied rationality mindset alive in myself

While this post mostly focuses on my personal experience, I’m also hinting at a few possible generalizations here and there. Naturally take them with a grain of salt as this is all merely based on my subjective impressions.

Basics about CFAR Workshops

Feel free to skip this section if you know what happens at CFAR workshops.

The CFAR mainline workshop is an intense 4-day-workshop focusing on applied rationality. Before Corona it happened several times a year (usually in the Bay Area, recently also yearly in Prague), usually with ~30 participants. There are roughly 10 CFAR instructors present, which is pretty impressive and means you get a lot of opportunity to get personal support and counselling whenever necessary.

Part of the workshop happens with all participants (and most instructors) in one large room, but most of the time participants are split into 3 groups to allow for more effective teaching. The people in your group vary throughout the workshop. With many exercises you’re encouraged to work with a partner, and if possible one you haven’t worked with before. This makes it quite easy to talk to and get to know a lot of very interesting people and solve/analyze each other’s problems together.

The classes often focus on specific methods that help you deal with “bugs” in your life, i.e. problems of any kind and size, just stuff that, well, bugs you. You thus start the first evening (which is day 0) creating a bugs list, which will be your basis for the rest of the workshop.

The 4 days that follow are intense, and while there are many breaks in between classes, you’re definitely going to need them. I’d personally describe it as “the good kind of exhausting” and one that somehow leaves you with a lot of energy and will to act.

Food is provided (with a vegan baseline plus a few non-vegan options) and very good and varied. There’s some free time in the evenings, but that more or less automatically fills with activities and conversations, as there’s always something going on and you’ll easily find others in the different social/meeting rooms.

One thing that surprised me about the workshop was the general atmosphere: I expected it to be somewhat like a small conference or a professional training course of some kind. Instead it was very warm, a lot of mattresses, cushions and blankets and sitting (or lying) in a semicircle on the floor.

To attend a workshop, you must apply first. From what I’ve heard there’s usually more demand than workshop spots available. Participation is in principle quite expensive with its $3,900 price tag, but aspiring EAs can often get significant discounts if they need them. The price includes not only the workshop itself but also transport from Prague to the venue (and back), 3 meals a day throughout the whole stay, snacks, drinks and a place to sleep for 5 nights, so there’s no need to get a hotel room.

How the Workshop Affected Me

(Note: If you visited a CFAR workshop before, I’d suggest you take a few minutes to reflect on your own view on this before being anchored by my viewpoint, and, if you like, share it in a comment.)

Attending a CFAR workshop certainly affects people in different ways, and there may be a bunch of benefits you can derive from it:

  • Learn techniques of effective personal problem solving
  • Solve many concrete problems during the workshop
  • Get to know a group of interesting people with similar values from a variety of backgrounds
  • Become more attentive towards problems and emotions
  • Become more honest with yourself
  • Get different/new perspectives on persistent problems in your life
  • Think of yourself as “somebody who went to CFAR”, which may affect your ambitions and expectations
  • Probably much more I haven’t thought of

During the application process I had an expectation of the workshop turning me into a “getting things done machine”, the kind of person who’s suddenly able to stay on top of everything, organize events, coordinate people, be productive, always work on the most relevant things, never procrastinate, control their emotions, etc. etc.

Stating these expectations explicitly now in hindsight makes it very obvious (seeming) they were rather overblown. However good a four day workshop is, these expectations would be extremely difficult to fulfill.

In the end, while I believe I did make progress in all of the areas mentioned above, reality probably differed in two important ways:

  1. The concrete effects of changing my capabilities were much smaller than I had hoped (but presumably still significant)
  2. As many of CFAR’s techniques and ideas are closer to a meta level, much of the improved capabilities seemed to have happened on the “first derivate level”, so the capability of getting better at stuff, rather than the immediate capability of doing things

While the first point sounds negative, that really says more about my initial expectations than about the workshop itself.

The second point however is arguably a positive one, as it means that the workshop has positively shaped my personal trajectory. To put these ideas into a very simplified qualitative graph:

Capability over time is, in this model, increasing even before the workshop due to the interest in self development I already had (which I assume is true for most CFAR workshop attendees).

Concrete Improvements

It’s very difficult to make counterfactual judgments about this. I merely have subjective impressions on how I as a person differ from me 15 months ago, and speculate on which of these changes counterfactually depend on having visited the workshop. I’ve added some percentage values as very rough order of magnitude quantitative estimates.

That all being said, these are the changes I believe to have identified, to the degree that I assume they’ve been caused by the workshop:

  • I feel better (~5%) at “getting things done”, in the most general way
  • ...quicker at recognizing problems and actively solving them (~20%)
  • ...like I complain less and focus more on actual options I have to improve things (~10%)
  • ...more aware of negative emotions, and can distance myself from them (~10%)
  • ...better on focusing on actually relevant questions, i.e. those that can be answered and that lead to actionable information (~5%)
  • ...better at figuring out my true motivation in unintended behavior, and identifying ways to sustainably change my behavior (~20%)
  • ...It appears my self image has improved and ambitions have grown, causing me to make bolder decisions (~25%)
  • ...I’ve become more impartial when encountering inner conflicts, “listening to each side involved” as opposed to just having a (usually System 2 based) opinion and being frustrated with some part of me disagreeing (~20%)

What this may mean is that a CFAR workshop does not move “average people” up to the 95th+ percentile of instrumental rationality (which, again, had sort of been my implicit expectation) but rather that most participants improve in many small ways, thus getting somewhat more effective at whatever they do.

This may also hint at an answer to the question of where all the successful rationalists are – while rationality can be seen as “systematic winning”, it may often just be a tool yielding marginal improvements as opposed to the single difference between excelling at things vs being more average.

Key Takeaways

  • Behavior change is more important than insights – It appears to me that information, i.e. concrete ideas, models, insights, are usually not the bottleneck of self improvement; little information is enough, and in the end it’s more about hands-on application. Which probably is why CFAR focuses a lot on directly applying everything you learn repeatedly and in many different ways, so as to make it stick. Hence it is hard to say “I had this particular insight during the workshop which made me a more effective person!”, and it’s more about “I practiced a bunch of useful things a lot, and now I’m somewhat better at solving problems in my life”
  • Agency mindset – It’s really not so much about the techniques taught at the workshop (such as goal factoring, resolve cycles, double crux, pair debugging etc.), but more about the general mindset and willingness to improve and go to uncomfortable places where necessary (I like to call it “agency mindset”, i.e. the willingness to take control of one’s actions and behavior). The techniques appear to be tools that nudge/force you into this mindset to some degree. They are neither sufficient nor necessary to get there, but they help a lot.
  • Tools are useful – Having a variety of tools at your disposal can still be very helpful. An example would be that pair debugging (in the form of socratic ducking for instance) sometimes got me much further with problems I had trouble to fix on my own. When a problem is very persistent, just throwing a lot of different techniques at it can lead to progress.
  • Taking ideas seriously is hard – It’s very difficult to get people (whether yourself or others) to take ideas seriously, or following through on things. Sustaining that “agency mindset” takes quite a bit of effort, and just slipping back into old patterns is much easier. Writing this post is one way I try to keep that mindset alive. (Going through the Hammertime sequence is another)

These were mostly insights I had during the workshop and in the weeks after. Two more followed while writing this post:

  • For several months after the workshop, I felt almost guilty when failing to get trivial seeming tasks done; I had a feeling that I really should be able to get things done, being a CFAR alumnus and everything, and not doing so felt like failure. Upon reflection, occasional “failure” makes sense though and I got rid of most of this judgementality.
  • When looking at a single small bug, it often seems very harmless, and like something that can maybe be solved within a few minutes; when having 50 suchs bugs however, while every single one is harmless, the entirety of them isn’t. Looking at one bug in isolation, the fact that I’ve known of this bug for many weeks but haven’t solved it yet seems bad. It took me a while to realize that this is basically cherry-picking and not a fair assessment of how I’m generally doing. No matter how many bugs I may have solved recently, I’ll always be able to find something minor I haven’t got around doing yet.

Is the Workshop Worth it?

This question occupied my mind a lot during the application process. It’s a serious expense of time, energy and money, so I really wanted to be sure it would be worth all the cost involved. To figure that out I spoke to a bunch of alumni back then, and read all the relevant posts I could find.

If other people are in the same boat asking themselves that question, this is my take:

  • Time and energy are almost certainly worth it, unless you have really high opportunity cost and are at a level of applied rationality where you don’t have that much to gain anyway
  • Financial cost depends on your personal value of money; I’d suggest that after reading as much as feels sufficient to get a clear picture of what to expect, pick the minimum of the following three values:
    • how much the workshop appears to be worth to you personally
    • how much you can afford without running into serious financial issues/worries or a huge risk of regret
    • the maximum price of the workshop (~$3,900)
  • …and, if necessary, ask for the corresponding financial support during the application process
    • If you have no steady income and thus maybe can’t afford more than, say, a quarter of the base price, things may still work out. Don’t feel shy about applying. The financial support option is there for a reason, and if CFAR is convinced you’re a good match for the workshop based on your application, a way will probably be found to make it work out for everybody.
    • I’m not sure about this but I would assume that, all else being equal, asking for no (or less) financial support increases your chances of being accepted. So if you don’t optimize for honesty by default, that may be reason enough to pick the honest highest value that works for you.
    • There is of course also a last resort kind of option to get your money back in case you felt the workshop wasn’t useful to you, but this should only affect your decision if you’re certain that you would actually make use of it.
  • I thought a lot about whether there are different, cheaper ways to get similar results as with a CFAR workshop. There probably are such ways, in principle. They are much more difficult to stick to however, I’d argue. Once you’re accepted into a CFAR workshop and paid for it, there’s probably a >90% chance you’ll actually attend it and thus spend something in the order of 50+ hours of high intensity + quality rationality training. If you decided however to not do that, but instead read the CFAR handbook by yourself, do all the exercises, discuss things with others and whatever else you come up with, there is a significantly lower chance you’ll stick to it, plus it might take many months to get to a similar point as compared to the week of a CFAR workshop. I wouldn’t suggest fooling oneself into not applying for a CFAR workshop merely because there are cheaper but very hypothetical ways to get similar benefits.[1]
  • Personal coaching is something I’d consider a viable alternative, without having much experience with it myself; I just wouldn’t be very surprised if spending an equal amount of time and money on high-quality coaching instead of a CFAR workshop might give you many of the same benefits such a workshop does.
  • Are there specific kinds of people who would benefit much less from a workshop than others? The following types of people come to mind:
    • Overly skeptical people who are more motivated to find the flaws in anything taught at the workshop than by finding ways to personally benefit
    • People who are pretty content with their productivity, value alignment, habits and emotional life, and don’t feel like they have much to gain
    • People with a very strong preference to do things on their own as opposed to talking them through with others, as the majority of the exercises during the workshop are done in pairs or groups (which I, as an introvert, found more helpful than I would have thought)
  • Despite my unreasonably high expectations before the workshop, the skeptical part of me was thinking “$3,900 for a 4 day workshop? Sounds a bit like CFAR getting rich on the back of gullible people”. While me being gullible would be one possible explanation, by now I’m pretty sure this suspicion was misplaced. You get a lot for your money, from spending 5 days and nights at a nice venue, great food, very high quality teaching, much opportunity to talk with instructors 1-on-1 or in very small groups, transportation from the city to the venue and back (at least in Prague), several follow-up calls with instructors (who are generally very happy to help), not to mention many new great contacts and the very well designed curriculum. They even ordered and paid for my quite expensive taxi back to the airport, despite my attempts to insist on paying for it myself. By now, that cynical part of me is very much convinced everyone involved is indeed doing what they’re doing because they believe it’s a good and impactful thing to do, and that the price tag is very much justified.

Conclusion

The CFAR workshop itself differed somewhat from my expectations, but more so did the effects it had on me, which generally speaking were smaller and more indirect than I anticipated. This was partly caused by me not being fully aware of my expectations in the first place and partly by certain biases influencing my initial judgment.

In hindsight, I still feel like I benefited from the workshop a lot, but this is not a necessity and it would have been quite easy to slip back into old patterns of behavior. I believe the workshop must be successful on two levels to be of long term use to participants: It must teach concepts and techniques on an object level, plus it must bring participants in a position where they are able and willing to take what they learned seriously for a long time after that in order to solidify the positive effects. Both things overlap to some degree, but the second one seems harder to achieve, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it fails for a non-negligible number of people.

I’d generally recommend other EAs to attend a CFAR workshop as well if they have the opportunity, given they personally think it could benefit them. Just make sure to prepare properly (I’ll put some thoughts about this into the comments), give it all your attention during the week and minimize possible distractions. Also, don’t think you’re done after the 4 days are over – consider the workshop more an intense week that kick-starts a series of positive behavior changes, rather than a self-enclosed unit after which you’re somehow a different person than before.

Special thanks to Aaron Maiwald, Kadri Muuga, Tristan Cook and Nadia Mir-Montazeri for their kind and helpful feedback.


  1. This of course doesn’t apply if you have sufficient trust in future-you to actually stick to the plans you make. In that case there may even be some value in trying an alternative cheaper approach, and then writing a post about how you got cheap, yet effective, rationality training without a workshop. ↩︎

40

4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:28 PM
New Comment

Thanks for sharing your experience! I'll share mine. I attended the workshop in July 2019 in California.

Like you, I also came in with the hope of becoming a hyper efficient rationality machine, overcoming problems like procrastination that I struggled with all my life. I was hoping to be taught how to use my System 2 to fight my lazy, uncooperative System 1 that always stood in the way of achieving my goals.

My biggest surprise was that the workshop was much more about understanding, working with, and leveraging your System 1. I was unconvinced and confused for quite a while, but more recently I finally realized that my existing way of constantly trying to force myself to do things I wasn't intrinsically excited about was not going to end well -- it was already resulting in a significant amount of unhappiness (which did not set me up for a sustainable, successful and impactful career path) until I noticed.

There were a number of major positive changed in my life in the past 1+ years and it's hard to say what role the CFAR workshop played, but I think it definitely played some role. For one thing, it made me aware for the first time of the possibility of working with, rather than against, my System 1, and even though I wasn't convinced by it for quite a while, it definitely triggered some discussions and reflections that eventually led to very productive rethinking and ultimately a different outlook. (E.g. I realized I had to constantly battling myself to get things done because I was on a career path that wasn't right for me. I'm not totally sure how my new career path would pan out but I think I'm definitely in a much better position to notice what I like and don't like, and switch gears accordingly.)

So if you are like me back then -- wanting to be super efficient and impactful but struggling with procrastinations and other barriers, and hoping to become a rational machine with no System 1 to distract oneself -- you should consider attending a CFAR workshop :) . It will not give you what you wanted but there's a good chance it will change your life in a positive way.

(I'd say overall it was a moderate positive effect, which was in line with what my friend told me the workshop did to them before I went. They also said one of the best things that came out of the workshop was that it caused them to get a therapist which turned out to be pretty useful. I also got a therapist after the workshop (prompted by factors other than the workshop) and I'd highly recommend considering therapy (and/or coaching) if you are struggling with issues in life you don't know how to solve, even if you consider yourself generally "mentally healthy".)

Hey Marcus, nice to hear from you. Made me think about where I'm 15 months later.

What changed for me after CFAR workshop (the same one as Marcus as we happened to be room mates):

  • I did read afterwards some portion of the Sequences and am committed to eventually finish them and I see that it is shaping my way of thinking and reflecting a lot - I particularly started to be the 5 year old curious again - how does this work? OK and that inside? OK and that further inside? Worship/ignore/explain... Which with the education behind makes everything rather interesting again. Plus the whole more probabilistic view of the world and how did I get to that conclusion and what is supporting my opinion on X and Y… So now I’m very acutely aware that say I think this person is pretty good but the supporting evidence I have is that one guy said some praise about them or showed them respect and so on.
  • I do use a lot of the techniques actually to a varying degree of detail and I ended up explaining them to people when appropriate and helpful and also using some of them in the work context.
  • Actually, my most favorite techniques are not about some die hard rationality and Bayesian reasoning but more about taking a notice of a phenomena and observing it, boggle, try to understand stuff with fresh eyes, try things. I'm definitely much more perceptive listener than I used to be, I plan better and am much more organized and directed (and I was quite focused before already but some things clicked in place).
  • I was also rather surprised that a lot of it was about how to make use of the System 1 and yeah, it is actually very useful thing when used well.
  • I seek impact in what I do and it became a factor when thinking about my continuation at job and what and how can I achieve where I'm already. Should I stay? Will I have big enough impact to justify staying or can I make bigger elsewhere? What impact I want to have on the world? How do I help solving the problems of this world? As a direct consequence I managed to pull through a project of a donation button that finally launched to the customers of our bank now supporting World Food Programme as part of a campaign. And I hope that is a good step towards enabling donations to EA recommended charities in as simple way as possible and educating customers on effectiveness of donations. Will I manage? Don't know but I'll for sure try :)
  • I work professionally for more than 12 yrs yet I never before felt as fulfilled by my work and the direction and the agency over what I try to effectuate when working.
  • Problems become actionable. I kinda ran out of problems at CFAR. The techniques helped me to identify at least some steps forward. Then one tries some and starts walking in the right direction and that feels really great. Now I kinda do not have problems. There are topics I'm making progress on. It is not that I do not struggle with decisions but I am much quicker to tell what information I need, what is the crux to make the decision, etc.
  • I spend often 5 minutes thinking hard about the problem at hand. Which is actually massive! Since one may spend hours and days on issues not honestly trying for five minutes.
  • My expectations were tuned down by my friend who recommended the workshop and also mentioned that you may feel silly after first two days for paying so much money but than it all adds up and it will be good. And it was exactly that :) The curriculum is very well curated and organized. And the workshop is also warm and enjoyable while being exhausting.

And I keep going. This is not the end, this is still more a start. I can subscribe to the higher rate of self-improvement post CFAR. Really happy I could take CFAR. Of course your mileage may vary :)

My thoughts on how to best prepare for the workshop (as mentioned in the post):

  • Write down your expectations, i.e. what you personally hope to take away from the workshop (and if you’re fancy, maybe even add quantifications/probability estimates to each point)
  • Make sure you can go into the workshop with a clear head and without any distractions
  • Don’t make the same mistake I made, which was booking a flight home way too early on the day after the end of the workshop. I didn’t realize beforehand how difficult it was to get from the workshop venue to the airport, and figuring out a solution stressed me quite a bit during the week (but was in the end solved for me by the super kind ops people)
  • Do your best in the week(s) before to stay healthy
  • Sleep enough the nights before
  • Maybe prepare a bug list and take it with you; this will also be one of the first sessions, but the more the better
  • Don’t panic; if you don’t manage to prepare in any significant way, the workshop is still extremely well designed and you’ll do just fine.
[+][comment deleted]2mo 1