Well…

Right now, being ‘a rationalist’ could be said to be a massive part of my identity, at least judging by the absurd amount of time I’ve spent reading posts here, or SSC/ACX, and in a few other places. Yet, I’m still a mere lurker unfamiliar with most of the local customs.

But it’s not what matters. What does is that I’m a terrible rationalist. 
You see, rationality takes practice. And reading stuff on LW isn’t practice at all. If anything, it’s just a great way of filling my brain with a lot of useful concepts, and then either blame myself for not using them, or use them for something entirely unrelated to their normal purpose. Often, to make myself feel worse, and think worse.

As the saying goes, rationality is a martial art. Learning it by reading the rules, or by watching other people apply the rules, is about as effective as developing one’s muscles by watching sports on TV.

I know of the CFAR, and of various related groups, meetups for ACX readers or for other people, etc. But, apart from ACX meetups, which aren’t about being better rationalists per se, I don’t have easy access to any of those, or certainly to a general environment which welcomes this. You know, not being in the Bay Area and all. 

And yet, I want to be more rational as much as anyone who’s been lurking here for five years wants it, and given how depressed I was until very recently, I probably badly need it, too.

I’m not sure what kind of answers I expect, but, like, how can I push myself to learn more, and especially to practice more, and ideally to actually use rationality to improve my life?

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Adam Zerner

123

This is an awesome and heart-warming question. Tsuyoku naritai!

In Julia Galef's book The Scout Mindset, she talks about how attitude is usually more important than knowledge.

Knowing that you should test your assumptions doesn't automatically improve your judgement, any more than knowing you should exercise automatically improves your health. Being able to rattle off a list of biases and fallacies doesn't help you unless you're willing to acknowledge those biases and fallacies in your own thinking. The biggest lesson I learned is something that's since been corroborated by researchers, as we'll see in this book: our judgment isn't limited by knowledge nearly as much as it's limited by attitude.

It sounds like you have a great attitude. I suspect that you're a much better rationalist than you claim to be.

Some thoughts on your original question:

  • Where do you live? There's actually tons of meetups outside of the Bay Area. Check out the community page.
  • If there isn't a meetup near you, hey, maybe you can start one!
  • There's also various online groups that you can join. Slack, Discord, etc.
  • I hear that The Guild of the Rose is pretty cool and leans more towards pragmatic, real-life improvement types of things. I haven't done it myself but I get the sense that you'd like it a lot.
  • You might like Beeminder. You also might enjoy discussing self improvement on their forum.
  • The CFAR handbook is probably a great resource.
  • Be careful about stumbling into a Valley of Bad Rationality by accident. When in doubt, I think it'd be good to default to common sense.

Well, if you want the complicated answer: four or five years ago, about when I started lurking here, I came with a good mindset, and intent on learning skills rather than rules, for precisely the reason you mention. That was right before I entered university, and I think I screwed up that bit. Got depressed, and have remained too out of it to actually use rationality to improve my life much since then. But that’s changing, and the first step is to pick up my rationality practice where I left it four years ago, when I started focusing only on reading blog p... (read more)

2Adam Zerner
Gotcha. I'm sorry to hear about the setback, but I'm glad that things have been getting better recently. So there aren't any meetups near you?

Sable

116

Broadly speaking, I'm in favor of defining Rationality as systematized winning.

To become a better rationalist, you have to have something to win (or something to protect).

So you need a goal that isn't directly "become a better rationalist". This goal could be to learn a new skill, accomplish some simple task, or literally anything else.

Some suggestions:

  • Learn a Skill (Chess, Math, Foreign Language, Juggling)
  • Dealing with Uncertainty (start using a prediction market, play poker for real money)
  • Study the World (Pick a topic (Housing, Nutrition, anything), exhaustively research it, write up your results and post them)
  • Optimize your Life (Research sleep habits, diet/exercise, etc., then apply results to your own life to improve it)

Attempt to complete the goal, using what you've learned. Take notes. Reflect. Get better. Iterate.

Remember, the goal is to cut the enemy; the Art is not to be studied solely in isolation.

I think this is incorrect. From Levels of Action:

One of the most useful concepts I have learned recently is the distinction between actions which directly improve the world, and actions which indirectly improve the world.

Suppose that you go onto Mechanical Turk, open an account, and spend a hundred hours transcribing audio. At current market rates, you'd get paid around $100 for your labor. By taking this action, you have made yourself $100 wealthier. This is an example of what I'd call a Level 1 or object-level action: something that directly moves the wo

... (read more)

How did I not notice ‘systematized winning’ meant that? I think I actually had no clue what it meant :/ Still, sounds great! And it’s actually a big part of what I’m trying to do, but I’ve been depressed for a long while and it’s only getting better now, so I’m a bit late at that game :-)

So, I’ll have to find a goal. Even then, that sounds way easier to do in the Bay, where one supposedly has other LWers around to talk to, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem

Garrett Baker

105

I’ve heard good things about the Guild of the ROSE, a virtual community made by rationalists to help each other level up in practical success in everyday life. You may want to look into joining them.

What good things have you heard, could you be more specific?

They run interesting seeming workshops on a variety of subjects, most salient to me are using decision theory practically via cost-benefit analyses, teaching people how to develop their own clothing style, team community projects like making a street cleaning robot (likely misremembering specifics here, this may have been an aspirational goal of theirs) for participants’ local community, and using LLMs to automate tasks. Much of my knowledge comes from this podcast episode.

Edit: Re-listening to some parts of the podcast episode, it seems like they start talking about the guild at about 00:26:47.

2Said Achmiz
Could you say more about this? (Or, link to some written commentary on the matter?) Ditto? Is there a transcript for the podcast episode?

To my knowledge there’s no such transcript. The podcast is small and this one was made before Whisper so at the time a transcript would be super expensive (even if you did use whisper, you’d need to pay someone to label who’s talking, which likely isn’t cheap). You can find info about their workshops on their workshops page. Probably more informative than hearing me describe a podcast I last heard over a year ago.

-2moridinamael
Here's are a couple of examples of our decision theory workshops: https://guildoftherose.org/workshops/decision-making https://guildoftherose.org/workshops/applied-decision-theory-1 There are about 10 of them so far covering a variety of topics related to decision theory and probability theory.

Seems really interesting! Like, really interesting! Thanks

Stephen James

40

If your head is full of concepts but you haven't applied them, there are a few things you can start practicing - easily, right now - to begin living rationaly.

  1. Open the CFAR handbook, turn to page 135 (in the 2019 edition) and do the Resolve Cycle Technique, top to bottom. Review the background if you need a refresher.
  2. (Same book) Read about OODA loops and consciously do them for the rest of the day; if a problem comes up, apply Frame-by-Frame Debugging.
  3. Read "Thinking Better On Purpose" and take every call to action literally.

Let me know how it goes. All of these can be done on the order of minutes.

Will do this evening, thanks for the advice!

Viliam

32

Late to the debate, so just a few notes:

Some things are way more important than others. If you are currently doing something really stupid in your life, fixing it is more important than learning a list of 1000 cognitive biases and rationality techniques.

It is much better to have 5 techniques that work for you and use them regularly, than to memorize a list of 1000 techniques and actually never use them.

Make logs. (And make them simple.) For example, if your goal is to exercise regularly, put a circle in your calendar whenever you exercise, or something like that. This gives you quick feedback whether you are actually doing things, or just lying to yourself.

Think about how you reward or punish yourself. (Read the book Don't Shoot the Dog.) Punishment, including self-punishment, is almost always the wrong approach. Why? Because you indirectly punish yourself for noticing the problem, and for trying to overcome it, which is the opposite of what you would want to do. Partial successes are a reason to celebrate! (Ancient wisdom says: "All you need is love positive reinforcement.")

Your body has a huge impact on your mind. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, getting enough sunlight, seeing your friends... are powerful (indirect) rationality techniques.

Interesting comment. You know, the weird thing is that I knew all of that long before I started implementing it (that is, quite recently). And it’s not even surprising that for the longest time I knew that avoiding bad situations, making logs, making a deliberate effort to stay healthy, and avoiding self-punishment were important, but that I hardly ever did any of it. I don’t think I quite grok fully why our brains work like that.
 

And now, I’m actually a little concerned that I may have taken up negative reinforcement and other such bad habits in a way where it’ll be hard to uproot them. I guess if there is good advice on that, I could probably use it.

2Viliam
It's as if our brains are made of rubber -- you can flex your brain a little, but it soon reverts to its original shape. The question is how to make a change permanent. 1. Create habits -- but this is a "chicken and egg" problem. 2. Make changes in your environment -- add/remove/move objects, add reminders. 3. Set up external reminders -- friends, calendar, alarm clock. For logging, I made a simple calendar in Excel (one paper - six months, a small rectangle for each day), printed it and put on a magnetic board. On the top I write the topic, e.g. "exercise", and every day I exercise, I circle that number using a pen. The point is, I can make such calendar in 5 minutes... otherwise I would procrastinate with making the calendar. Furthermore, I keep my weights under my working desk, so whenever I look at them, it is a reminder that I want to use them. I also made a playlist for exercising. So when I am at my computer (with the calendar in my peripheral vision) and the thought crosses my mind "actually, I should exercise", I just need to start the playlist and pick up the weights; it only takes a few seconds. Being nice to yourself can be surprisingly hard for many people. Myself included. A part of that is various bullshit beliefs that we have accumulated. Such as "but if you stop being hard on yourself, you will never achieve anything". It may sound so obviously correct, even when the reality is the exact opposite -- you are not doing anything useful, because instead of dreaming and planning and doing you spend your time unproductively beating up yourself. Uhm, it's difficult to put it in words. There is a right place for everything; even for being angry at yourself. Sometimes you need to stop doing stupid shit immediately, and a blast of anger could be a way to achieve exactly that. But if you do it more than once in a week, you should use some other mental tool instead. Observe. Never be angry while observing; that ruins the data. Similarly, I am tempted

trevor

30
  1. Sequences highlights, then read all the ones from Rationality from AI to Zombies, at whatever pace you feel like (e.g. one or ten per morning), you can read them in order or in random order
  2. Many recommend the CFAR handbook (that one in particular seems like a good fit for you), Scott Alexander's Codex, and the book Inadequate Equilibria.
    1. Unlike the sequences, with the CFAR handbook you have to consciously practice, not just read and know it. Once each habit is built it's automatic, but the muscle memory requires repetition.
  3. If you find a topic you like e.g. security mindset (which you totally can and should devote your life to), you can look for tons of top-upvoted articles on the tag for the topic.
  4. I have also been recommended the books Super Thinking, Superforecasting, and the post on Functional Decision Theory. They're all great but they aren't standard texts (yet). I personally recommend Tuning your Cognitive Strategies, but if that one causes you harm somehow then please stop and write a Lesswrong post about the details, or for anything you discover, it's a neglected area so it's big deal whenever someone makes a big discovery there. 
  5. Go outside more for more brainpower and less depression.