Outline: I will discuss my background and how I prepared for the workshop, and then how I would have prepared differently if I could go back and have the chance to do it again; I will then discuss my experience at the CFAR workshop, and what I would have done differently if I had the chance to do it again; I will then discuss what my take-aways were from the workshop, and what I am doing to integrate CFAR strategies into my life; finally, I will give my assessment of its benefits and what other folks might expect to get who attend the workshop.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to fellow CFAR alumni and CFAR staff for feedback on earlier versions of this post




Many aspiring rationalists have heard about the Center for Applied Rationality, an organization devoted to teaching applied rationality skills to help people improve their thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. This nonprofit does so primarily through its intense workshops, and is funded by donations and revenue from its workshop. It fulfills its social mission through conducting rationality research and through giving discounted or free workshops to those people its staff judge as likely to help make the world a better place, mainly those associated with various Effective Altruist cause areas, especially existential risk.


To be fully transparent: even before attending the workshop, I already had a strong belief that CFAR is a great organization and have been a monthly donor to CFAR for years. So keep that in mind as you read my description of my experience (you can become a donor here).



First, some background about myself, so you know where I’m coming from in attending the workshop. I’m a professor specializing in the intersection of history, psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, and cognitive neuroscience. I discovered the rationality movement several years ago through a combination of my research and attending a LessWrong meetup in Columbus, OH, and so come from a background of both academic and LW-style rationality. Since discovering the movement, I have become an activist in the movement as the President of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit devoted to popularizing rationality and effective altruism (see here for our EA work). So I came to the workshop with some training and knowledge of rationality, including some CFAR techniques.


To help myself prepare for the workshop, I reviewed existing posts about CFAR materials, with an eye toward being careful not to assume that the actual techniques match their actual descriptions in the posts.


I also delayed a number of tasks for after the workshop, tying up loose ends. In retrospect, I wish I did not leave myself some ongoing tasks to do during the workshop. As part of my leadership of InIn, I coordinate about 50ish volunteers, and I wish I had placed those responsibilities on someone else during the workshop.


Before the workshop, I worked intensely on finishing up some projects. In retrospect, it would have been better to get some rest and come to the workshop as fresh as possible.


There were some communication snafus with logistics details before the workshop. It all worked out in the end, but I would have told myself in retrospect to get the logistics hammered out in advance to not experience anxiety before the workshop about how to get there.



The classes were well put together, had interesting examples, and provided useful techniques. FYI, my experience in the workshop was that reading these techniques in advance was not harmful, but that the techniques in the CFAR classes were quite a bit better than the existing posts about them, so don’t assume you can get the same benefits from reading posts as attending the workshop. So while I was aware of the techniques, the ones in the classes definitely had optimized versions of them - maybe because of the “broken telephone” effect or maybe because CFAR optimized them from previous workshops, not sure. I was glad to learn that CFAR considers the workshop they gave us in May as satisfactory enough to scale up their workshops, while still improving their content over time.


Just as useful as the classes were the conversations held in between and after the official classes ended. Talking about them with fellow aspiring rationalists and seeing how they were thinking about applying these to their lives was helpful for sparking ideas about how to apply them to my life. The latter half of the CFAR workshop was especially great, as it focused on pairing off people and helping others figure out how to apply CFAR techniques to themselves and how to address various problems in their lives. It was especially helpful to have conversations with CFAR staff and trained volunteers, of whom there were plenty - probably about 20 volunteers/staff for the 50ish workshop attendees.


Another super-helpful aspect of the conversations was networking and community building. Now, this may have been more useful to some participants than others, so YMMV. As an activist in the moment, I talked to many folks in the CFAR workshop about promoting EA and rationality to a broad audience. I was happy to introduce some people to EA, with my most positive conversation there being to encourage someone to switch his efforts regarding x-risk from addressing nuclear disarmament to AI safety research as a means of addressing long/medium-term risk, and promoting rationality as a means of addressing short/medium-term risk. Others who were already familiar with EA were interested in ways of promoting it broadly, while some aspiring rationalists expressed enthusiasm over becoming rationality communicators.


Looking back at my experience, I wish I was more aware of the benefits of these conversations. I went to sleep early the first couple of nights, and I would have taken supplements to enable myself to stay awake and have conversations instead.

Take-Aways and Integration


The aspects of the workshop that I think will help me most were what CFAR staff called “5-second” strategies - brief tactics and techniques that could be executed in 5 seconds or less and address various problems. The stuff that we learned at the workshops that I was already familiar with required some time to learn and practice, such as Trigger Action Plans, Goal Factoring, Murphyjitsu, Pre-Hindsight, often with pen and paper as part of the work. However, with sufficient practice, one can develop brief techniques that mimic various aspects of the more thorough techniques, and apply them quickly to in-the-moment decision-making.


Now, this doesn’t mean that the longer techniques are not helpful. They are very important, but they are things I was already generally familiar with, and already practice. The 5-second versions were more of a revelation for me, and I anticipate will be more helpful for me as I did not know about them previously.


Now, CFAR does a very nice job of helping people integrate the techniques into daily life, as this is a common failure mode of CFAR attendees, with them going home and not practicing the techniques. So they have 6 Google Hangouts with CFAR staff and all attendees who want to participate, 4 one-on-one sessions with CFAR trained volunteers or staff, and they also pair you with one attendee for post-workshop conversations. I plan to take advantage of all these, although my pairing did not work out.


For integration of CFAR techniques into my life, I found the CFAR strategy of “Overlearning” especially helpful. Overlearning refers to trying to apply a single technique intensely for a while to all aspect of one’s activities, so that it gets internalized thoroughly. I will first focus on overlearning Trigger Action Plans, following the advice of CFAR.


I also plan to teach CFAR techniques in my local rationality dojo, as teaching is a great way to learn, naturally.


Finally, I plan to integrate some CFAR techniques into Intentional Insights content, at least the more simple techniques that are a good fit for the broad audience with which InIn is communicating.



I have a strong probabilistic belief that having attended the workshop will improve my capacity to be a person who achieves my goals for doing good in the world. I anticipate I will be able to figure out better whether the projects I am taking on are the best uses of my time and energy. I will be more capable of avoiding procrastination and other forms of akrasia. I believe I will be more capable of making better plans, and acting on them well. I will also be more in touch with my emotions and intuitions, and be able to trust them more, as I will have more alignment among different components of my mind.


Another benefit is meeting the many other people at CFAR who have similar mindsets. Here in Columbus, we have a flourishing rationality community, but it’s still relatively small. Getting to know 70ish people, attendees and staff/volunteers, passionate about rationality was a blast. It was especially great to see people who were involved in creating new rationality strategies, something that I am engaged in myself in addition to popularizing rationality - it’s really heartening to envision how the rationality movement is growing.


These benefits should resonate strongly with those who are aspiring rationalists, but they are really important for EA participants as well. I think one of the best things that EA movement members can do is studying rationality, and it’s something we promote to the EA movement as part of InIn’s work. What we offer is articles and videos, but coming to a CFAR workshop is a much more intense and cohesive way of getting these benefits. Imagine all the good you can do for the world if you are better at planning, organizing, and enacting EA-related tasks. Rationality is what has helped me and other InIn participants make the major impact that we have been able to make, and there are a number of EA movement members who have rationality training and who reported similar benefits. Remember, as an EA participant, you can likely get a scholarship with a partial or full coverage of the regular $3900 price of the workshop, as I did myself when attending it, and you are highly likely to be able to save more lives as a result of attending the workshop over time, even if you have to pay some costs upfront.


Hope these thoughts prove helpful to you all, and please contact me at gleb@intentionalinsights.org if you want to chat with me about my experience.


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29 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:38 AM

I was at the same workshop as Gleb, and since I probably won't write it up myself, let me comment that I broadly agree with what he says about it here (and I also greatly enjoyed meeting him and everyone else there.)

Enjoyed meeting you too!

$3900 sounds like a huge investment for me as a European. It'd be 4 times my monthly savings. (I already am saving more than 30% of my income.) Plus, I'm in Europe, so I'd likely have significant travel costs as well - I'd have to take time off work, etc etc etc... I intend to earn enough money to become financially independent and then do what I want - whether that is earn to give or work to give, or just following what suits me, I don't know yet. The force of compound interest is pretty strong, and $5500 ($3900 +travel costs, which after a quick google could very well be another $1200-$2000 depending on flights taken) is a huge chunk to savings to put towards something with such a variable payoff. It'd be a large chunk of my current savings.

Would you still recommend going to a workshop? Why (not)?

I hear that the price is not a totally fixed thing. I think you can negotiate with them. This is especially true for students.

Would you recommend going if it cost $3000 in total? As a healthy "couple-of-years-out-of-college" male I seem like the the type to not get a discount for anything - you're a member of the working force now, you have a job, you have money, it's the standard full price for you, sir! Not that I'm complaining - it makes sense that I'm in that bracket.

For me, $1000 would be a waste if I lost it, but it'd be easy to bounce back from. I lost $1000 in bad decisions before and was affected about as much as if I had publicly with friends embrassed myself - my brain likes to pull it up from time to time but I think of the lesson learned as more valuable than the money lost.

$4000 or $5500 or numbers in that range would be financially not a problem (I lose numbers, but not physical objects like cars or the roof over my head or the office I work at), but emotionally a huge setback.

CFAR workshops have a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied:

And if you conclude the benefits to your happiness and effectiveness don’t recoup the investment, we’ll refund your money up to a year after you attend the workshop.

(from their workshops page)

I read that in the FAQ as well. ... Weirdly enough, taking that option would make me just feel guilty. I would have gone there, I would have learned, and then I would have said "well this is nice and all but is not as great as I envisioned - it's kinda like counting to 10 instead of immediately screaming at people, and that's not worth all this" - whilst I did get what was offered - lessons, boarding, food, people to talk to... I don't know how to put it. It feels like I'd be hurting other people just to fix my own mistake.

I went through similar thought processes before attending and decided that it was extremely unlikely that I would ask for my money back even if I didn't think the workshop had been worth the cost. That made me decide that the offer wasn't a legitimate one for me to consider as real and I ignored it when making my final considerations of whether to go or not.

I ultimately went and thought it was fully worth it for me. I know 3+ people who follow that pattern who I spoke to shortly after the workshop and 1 who thought that it hadn't actually been worth it but did not ask for their money back.

Why would you feel guilty?

Maybe because you think they only write it but don't think it will be taken by honest people.

Maybe because you think only dishonest (or ) people would actually take that option.

ADDED: Actually that makes me thinking a bit more about attending the workshop. I think if I could define objective criteria about how to measure the effect of the workshop within one year (and that would probably a valuable exercise in itself) and I could agree with them on that measure I might take the option that way. Have you considered talking to them about the actual reasoning and meaning behind that option? Because it you don't consider it an actual option it looses it's value and they might want to improve on that.

Because after I went through what is most likely to be a pretty darn good ran workshop with lots of effort put in by actual real people that I will see in those days and to talk to them and to learn some stuff from them and then to say afterwards "sorry, but I don't think that what I learned here is THAT valuable" - to their face (and I have seen their faces, so to put it in a email is a lot like saying it to their face) - that just somehow breaks social convention for me.

There is also the possibility that I consider flying to America and spending 4 days there "scary", and that the monetary price tag is not my actual problem. To fix this, I now imagine the convention was held in Europe.


It's not helping, I'd still have to fly. So it's not America that is scary. What if it's in my home country, a long drive (3 hours) away?


I can visualize myself looking up further info to see just how long of a trip it is. I can also visualize myself talking to my parents about this. I know the money is something that will be something to talk about my parents. ...

If I think about other long trips, I know my parents will encourage me, because it makes me more independant. They'll help me pack (do you have this, do you have that?).

For the money aspect... they'd have a serious talk with me about it. The ability to refund if it a total sham would help to convince my parents. The fact that it is on a weekend helps reduce the impact as well, it's not a workweek you're taking off. Ultimately they would say it is my own money, that I am a responsible adult now, and that I am the one that should decide for myself. I'd be subject to some heavy questioning about WHY I'd want to go. Due to previous trouble with cults in the family, they'd probably ask questions in that direction - especially after looking CFAR up - a workshop to "think better"...?

I could put my foot down and say I wanted to go and they'd let me.


I get the feeling I should visit a meetup or some other rationality-themed event with lower entry requirements first. To get to know how those other people react and respond to things. How welcoming they are. Yes, unjust generalizations, but on the other hand, some parts of those people has to think alike (rational-..istic) and thus it is worth some points as evidence. And whether I can learn anything from talking to people like that, or whether it is a massive circlejerk, so to say.


Man I could get half of that by hanging around in some skype meetup. Maybe. Sounds like something that'd be worth to try, given the low effort required.

I don't think my original monetary argument is a false argument - the cost is real - but it's slightly different. $3900 is a lot of money to spend on something that you have no clue of what it'd be like. It looks the same, but basically you can say "hey, this is a car, it goes really fast" and talk to a lot of people who have driven in cars but if you want to buy a car then maybe you should try driving a car first. (This analogy fails horribly due to the fact that you tend to get a drivers license before buying a car. Which involves a lot of driving. So you'd definitely know what a car is.)

This is a great serious commentary of your though processes regarding going to CFAR or not. Maybe you might consider forwarding it to CFAR. It could help them.

I get the feeling I should visit a meetup or some other rationality-themed event with lower entry requirements first.

The European LW community weekend would likely be a good choice: http://lesswrong.com/lw/l4s/european_community_weekend_2015/ With 150€ it's cheap and it's in Berlin and the transportation cost from the Netherlands is also reasonable.

Got -1 on each post in this chain - downvoter, mind providing feedback? If I'm making some mistake here, I'd like to know.

If somebody downvotes an entire chain of content you've posted, you're probably expressing an idea they disagree with, rather than making a mistake. (Not always true, but usually.)

This highly depends on the benefits you anticipate gaining from the workshop.

There's a compounding interest to be gained in going earlier from the perspective of gaining greater rationality skills, which would positively influence whatever you do going onward. You have to weigh that off against the monetary costs of going.

An additional thing to consider is applying for a scholarship. It sounds like you are EA-oriented, and EA-oriented people are likely to get some sort of discount, as I did. So keep that in mind.

I am... not all that EA-oriented. More like "if I had enough money that I no longer had to do anything to support myself, I guess I'll go do something that I think is fun AND helps people". If it turns out that is work, then earning to give will probably be something to look at. If it turns out that that is sitting at home all day watching anime and playing games and reading fiction, then that's what I'd do. (I guess it would be a balance between the two - maybe I'd work on software projects I'd find fun to do when I felt like it - I know I get the itch to build something within a week of vacation)

But I'm not the sort of type to endure personal hardships for others. That sounds mean and it probably is - when I'd work to give I'd basically be in it not to help those people but to hear their stories or to experience a new thing.

Bad example (because westerners going to africa to work is not EA; you'd be better off working in europe and sending the money instead): If I went to Africa to help people there, I wouldn't be doing it to help those people, I would be doing it because it would be interesting to go on a trip like that and meet people like that and see a village and see that "look, I am helping these people isn't that great". And then promptly go back after wintery me has been exposed to the african sun a few times because by gods that is intolerable.

I am more EA-oriented than your average person, but I am not altruistic.

... Then again, some people set the limit of "doing enough" at donating 10% of their income, and if I did that after I became financially independent then you could say that'd be enough already. I don't know.

Perhaps this is something best for CFAR staff to determine rather than yourself - they have certain standards for scholarships.

There's a compounding interest to be gained in going earlier

Citation needed.

Sure, let me clarify. I meant that going earlier would enable one to gain rationality skills earlier, and these would then have a positive impact on everything one does later.

Alternative hypothesis: After a year or two, most participants will revert to their previous behavior. The largest impact is during the workshop and during the following month.

Yeah, one of the big failure modes is that people think that attending the workshop will magically result in internalizing all the benefits of CFAR materials. It's vital to keep working on them afterward, as I described in my post. For instance, in about an hour I will attend a weekly Google hangout with CFAR staff following up on some of the materials from the workshop. I'm not sure how many others from the workshop will be there, we'll see. Besides, as Kaj_Sotaja noted here, you can get your money back as well.

As for the benefits... That's precisely the sort of thing I'd ask people like you who have gone there.

Those 5 second techniques sound cool, but they also sound like the sort of thing you could read about. Maybe study for a week and practice. My current stance is that I shouldn't go because I have never been to any meetup before and going to one that costs me that much money is probably not so smart - look for a cheaper alternative nearby to increase the value you could get from the workshop. The other main point floating around in my head is that I can already think "well enough" and that spending that money to think better is not effective, and there is other things I should be doing instead. There's an objection to that floating about as well; "You don't know what you don't know", so how can I use my (perhaps flawed) thought process to determine that I am, in fact, thinking well enough - but that's a thought that seemingly has no end to second guessing yourself. I feel like that thought could just arm itself if given better resources - "see, you aren't all that clever - just now, you made a mistake. That's the 7th one this hour."

Those 5 second techniques sound cool, but they also sound like the sort of thing you could read about. Maybe study for a week and practice.

And what is your probability estimate that you will ever do it? Because there are many things that could be done in a week, but for most people and most things the week never happens, even when the people are in general interested about the thing.

For example, in a week you could learn basics of a foreign language using Duolingo or some similar online service. Just assume that you are serious about it, take a week of vacation, and spend every day like this: 1 hour study, 1 hour break (food or sport or taking a walk), 1 hour study, 1 hour break, etc. until the evening. If you already know programming, in a week you could learn another programming language, using similar schedule. In a week you could learn playing a new musical instrument. In a week you could significantly reorganize the place where you live. Etc.

Well, maybe this is the issue... so many things that could be learned during one week, but not enough weeks, especially not free weeks. Also, it is difficult to put away everything else during the whole week.

Okay, my point is that saying "this could be done in a week" doesn't mean anything, unless you really plan such week in your schedule... and most people won't, even for things they care about. If you can do it, great, you can save a lot of money here. But it's harder than it seems.

I have prior experience with taking weeks off to learn skills; this is what I did in order to learn for theoretical drivers test.

That said... I didn't mean to do that in this case, as this is material that needs to be tested on individual basis. Focusing on it for a week hard wouldn't be very effective for determining whether it works or not, it would be better to focus on it in order to firmly engrain it in my thinking once I've managed to get it to work sometimes.

As for the whole point "I don't need to spend cash; I can learn this from home", that's probably flawed; what I'm wondering is whether the difference between learning @ home and learning @ workshop is worth the money.

$5500 ($3900 +travel costs, which after a quick google could very well be another $1200-$2000 depending on flights taken)

In the past CFAR did one workshop in Europe I think sooner or later CFAR will do another workshop in Europe. Without having inside information I would expect another workshop in Europe by the end of next year with ~80%.

Thanks, for writing about your experience in detail.

This is the kind of post I would have wanted to read to help me think about and prepare for a CFAR workshop, so I was thinking of it as doing a version of past me a favor, knowing that there are many "past me" folks on LW who have not gone to a workshop but are considering it and would want to be prepared for it well.

Like pimgd, $3900 is a lot of money for me. Even if I'd get a discount to the CFAR workshop for being an EA, I might do just as well to continue studying materials from past CFAR workshops as I come across them, rather than attending a workshop in person.

I feel like I don't deserve a scholarship to CFAR, since I'm a fraud and a bad person (yes, I know, impostor syndrome). When people have bragged about getting scholarships to CFAR, though, I've felt sad, since I feel like I would have been honored, rather than proud, to accept such charity, if I were in their position. I guess that I'm not really as keen on donating to CFAR anymore for similar reasons--why donate to CFAR rather than spending money on myself, if I value (say) fitness gear that will help me live longer more than saving up for CFAR, and saving up for CFAR for myself more than helping someone whose personality rubs me the wrong way attend a workshop?

Um, thank you very much for entertaining my unkind rant. <3

Regarding donating to CFAR, I have never donated because of potential benefits for myself, but rather because I want CFAR to exist and do what they do - create new rationality strategies and spread them to the people who attend their workshops. I think the people who attend their workshops have the potential to do a lot of good in the world, and the nonprofit part of CFAR's mission is to give discounts to people who they think will do particularly good things.

Regarding studying past materials, from my personal experience attending a workshop, it just doesn't compare to the real thing.

Regarding whether you deserve a scholarship, that's more up to CFAR staff to determine than you or I :-)