This question seems to be distinct from some of the others in that it requires insight to answer, not just insight to ask.

When you ask something like "what skill am I actually training", the answer is usually fairly obvious; the insight (that we often teach people based on some heuristic like "what would a teacher do" rather than the obviously correct "how can I get this person to reliably perform this skill") is encapsulated in the question.

That said, I don't typically ask myself this question. Is this a question you routinel... (read more)

This question seems to be distinct from some of the others in that it requires insight to answer, not just insight to ask.

"Noticing" is at the interface between conscious and non-conscious processes. You can't deliberately bring something to your attention, unless it was already in your attention. Most of the rationality advice here is about how to do the right thing with what has come to your attention. But how does one learn to notice the right things? One way is deliberately directing your attention where there is likely to be something to notice -- hence all these "useful questions". Another is practicing habits of thought, by routinely asking these questions.

1RichardKennaway7yNoticing is one of the basic skills of rationality, though not much mentioned here, other than the mantra, "I notice that I am confused." Noticing things both outside you, and inside you. You cannot update on evidence you have not noticed, search for evidence you have not noticed you need, think about what you have not noticed you need to think about, examine beliefs you have not noticed you are holding, or resolve a confusion you have not noticed you are in. It is a useful question to ask from time to time, and especially when experiencing any perplexity.

Useful Questions Repository

by Qiaochu_Yuan 1 min read25th Jul 201367 comments


See also: Boring Advice Repository, Solved Problems Repository, Grad Student Advice Repository, Useful Concepts Repository, Bad Concepts Repository

I just got back from the July CFAR workshop, where I was a guest instructor. One useful piece of rationality I started paying more attention to as a result of the workshop is the idea of useful questions to ask in various situations, particularly because I had been introduced to a new one:

"What skill am I actually training?"

This is a question that can be asked whenever you're practicing something, but more generally it can also be asked whenever you're doing something you do frequently, and it can help you notice when you're practicing a skill you weren't intending to train. Some examples of when to use this question:

  • You practice a piece of music so quickly that you consistently make mistakes. What skill are you actually training? How to play with mistakes.
  • You teach students math by putting them in a classroom and having them take notes while a lecturer talks about math. What skill are you actually training? How to take notes. 
  • A personal example: at the workshop, I noticed that I was more apprehensive about the idea of singing in public than I had previously thought I was. After walking outside and actually singing in public for a little, I had a hypothesis about why: for the past several years, I've been singing in public when I don't think anyone is around but stopping when I saw people because I didn't want to bother them. What skill was I actually training by doing that? How to not sing around people. 

Many of the lessons of the sequences can also be packaged as useful questions, like "what do I believe and why do I believe it?" and "what would I expect to see if this were true?" 

I'd like to invite people to post other examples of useful questions in the comments, hopefully together with an explanation of why they're useful and some examples of when to use them. As usual, one useful question per comment for voting purposes.