Becoming stronger together


27


I want people to go forth, but also to return.  Or maybe even to go forth and stay simultaneously, because this is the Internet and we can get away with that sort of thing; I've learned some interesting things on Less Wrong, lately, and if continuing motivation over years is any sort of problem, talking to others (or even seeing that others are also trying) does often help.

But at any rate, if I have affected you at all, then I hope you will go forth and confront challenges, and achieve somewhere beyond your armchair, and create new Art; and then, remembering whence you came, radio back to tell others what you learned.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Rationality: From AI to Zombies

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

African proverb (possibly just made up)

About a year ago, a secret rationalist group was founded. This is a report of what the group did during that year.

The Purpose

“Rationality, once seen, cannot be unseen,” are words that resonate with all of us. Having glimpsed the general shape of the thing, we feel like we no longer have a choice. I mean, of course we still have an option to think and act in stupid ways, and we probably do it a lot more than we would be okay to admit! We just no longer have an option to do it knowingly without feeling stupid about it. We can stray from the way, but we cannot pretend anymore that it does not exist. And we strongly feel that more is possible, both in our private lives, and for the society in general.

Less Wrong is the website and the community that brought us together. Rationalist meetups are a great place to find smart, interesting, and nice people; awesome people to spend your time with. But feeling good was not enough for us; we also wanted to become stronger. We wanted to live awesome lives, not just to have an awesome afternoon once in a while. But many participants seemed to be there only to enjoy the debate. Or perhaps they were too busy doing important things in their lives. We wanted to achieve something together; not just as individual aspiring rationalists, but as a rationalist group. To make peer pressure a positive force in our lives; to overcome akrasia and become more productive, to provide each other feedback and to hold each other accountable, to support each other. To win, both individually and together.

The Group

We are not super secret really; some people may recognize us by reading this article. (If you are one of them, please keep it to yourself.) We just do not want to be unnecessarily public. We know who we are and what we do, and we are doing it to win at life; trying to impress random people online could easily become a distraction, a lost purpose. (This article, of course, is an exception.) This is not supposed to be about specific individuals, but an inspiration for you.

We started as a group of about ten members, but for various reasons some people soon stopped participating; seven members remained. We feel that the current number is probably optimal for our group dynamic (see Parkinson's law), and we are not recruiting new members. We have a rule “what happens in the group, stays in the group”, which allows us to be more open to each other. We seem to fit together quite well, personality-wise. We desire to protect the status quo, because it seems to work for us.

But we would be happy to see other groups like ours, and to cooperate with them. If you want to have a similar kind of experience, we suggest starting your own group. Being in contact with other rationalists, and holding each other accountable, seems to benefit people a lot. CFAR also tries to keep their alumni in regular contact after the rationality workshops, and some have reported this as a huge added value.

To paint a bit more specific picture of us, here is some summary data:

  • Our ages are between 20 and 40, mostly in the middle of the interval.
  • Most of us, but not all, are men.
  • Most of us, but not all, are childless.
  • All of us are of majority ethnicity.
  • Most of us speak the majority language as our first language.
  • All of us are atheists; most of us come from atheist families.
  • Most of us have middle-class family background.
  • Most of us are, or were at some moment, software developers.

I guess this is more or less what you could have expected, if you are already familiar with the rationalist community.

We share many core values, but have some different perspectives, which adds value and confronts groupthink. We have entrepreneurs, employees, students, and unemployed bums; the ratio changes quite often. It is probably the combination of all of us having a good sense of epistemology, but different upbringing, education and professions, that makes supporting each other and giving advice more effective (i.e. beyond the usual benefits of the outside view); there have been plenty of situations which were trivial for one, but not for the other.

Some of us knew each other for years before starting the group, even before the local Less Wrong meetups. Some of us met the others at the meetups. And finally, some of us talked to some other members for the first time after joining the group. It is surprising how well we fit, considering that we didn’t apply any membership filter (although we were prepared to); people probably filtered themselves by their own interest, or a lack thereof, to join this kind of a group, specifically with the productivity and accountability requirements.

We live in different cities. About once in a month we meet in person; typically before or after the local Less Wrong meetup. We spend a weekend together. We walk around the city and debate random stuff in the evening. In the morning, we have a “round table” where each of us provides a summary of what they did during the previous month, and what they are planning to do during the following month; about 20 minutes per person. That takes a lot of time, and you have to be careful not to go off-topic too often.

In between meetups, we have a Slack team that we use daily. Various channels for different topics; the most important one is a “daily log”, where members can write briefly what they did during the day, and optionally what they are planning to do. In addition to providing extra visibility and accountability, it helps us feel like we are together, despite the geographical distances.

Besides mutual accountability, we are also fans of various forms of self-tracking. We share tips about tools and techniques, and show each other our data. Journaling, time tracking, exercise logging, step counting, finance tracking...

Even before starting the group, most of us were interested in various productivity systems: Getting Things Done, PJ Eby; one of us even wrote and sold their own productivity software.

We do not share a specific plan or goal, besides “winning” in general. Everyone follows their own plan. Everything is voluntary; there are no obligations nor punishments. Still, some convergent goals have emerged.

Also, good habits seem to be contagious, at least in our group. If a single person was doing some useful thing consistently, eventually the majority of the group seems to pick it up, whether it is related to productivity, exercise, diet, or finance.

Exercise

All of us exercise regularly. Now it seems like obviously the right thing to do. Exercise improves your health and stamina, including mental stamina. For example, the best chess players exercise a lot, because it helps them stay focused and keep thinking for a long time. Exercise increases your expected lifespan, which should be especially important for transhumanists, because it increases your chances to survive until the Singularity. Exercise also makes you more attractive, creating a halo effect that brings many other benefits.

If you don’t consider these benefits worth at least 2 hours of your time a week, we find it difficult to consider you a rational person who takes their ideas seriously. Yes, even if you are busy doing important things; the physical and mental stamina gained from exercising is a multiplier to whatever you are doing in the rest of your time.

Most of us lift weights (see e.g. StrongLifts 5×5, Alan Thrall); some of us even have a power rack and/or treadmill desk at home. Others exercise using their body weight (see Convict Conditioning). Exercising at home saves time, and in long term also money. Muscle mass correlates with longevity, in addition to the effect of exercise itself; and having more muscle allows you to eat more food. Speaking of which...

Diet

Most of us are, mostly or completely, vegetarian or vegan. Ignoring the ethical aspects and focusing only on health benefits, there is a lot of nutrition research summarized in a book How Not to Die and a website NutritionFacts.org. The short version is that whole-food vegan diet seems to work best, but you really should look into details. (Not all vegan food is automatically healthy; there is also vegan junk food. It is important to eat a lot of unprocessed vegetables, fruit, nuts, flax seeds, broccoli, beans. Read the book, seriously. Or download the Daily Dozen app.) We often share tasty recipes when we meet.

We also helped each other research food supplements, and actually find the best and cheapest sources. Most of us take extra B12 to supplement the vegan diet, creatine monohydrate, vitamin D3, and some of us also use Omega3, broccoli sprouts, and a couple of other things that are generally aimed at health and longevity.

Finance

We strategize and brainstorm career decisions or just debug office politics. Most of us are software developers. This year, one member spent nine months learning how to program (using Codecademy, Codewars, and freeCodeCamp at the beginning; reading tutorials and documentation later); as a result their income more than doubled, and they got a job they can do fully remotely.

Recently we started researching cryptocurrencies and investing in them. Some of us started doing P2P lending.

Personal life

Many of us are polyamorous. We openly discuss sex and body image issues in the group. We generally feel comfortable sharing this information with each other; women say they do not feel the typical chilling effects.

Summary

Different members report different benefits from their membership in the group. Some quotes:

“During the first half of the year, my life was more or less the same. I was already very productive before the group, so I kept the same habits, but benefited from sharing research. Recently, my life changed more noticeably. I started training myself to think of more high-leverage moves (inspired by a talk on self-hypnosis). This changed my asset allocation, and my short-term career plans. I realize more and more that I am very much monkey see, monkey do.”

“Before stumbling over the local Less Wrong meetup, I had been longing (and looking) for people who shared, or even just understood, my interest and enthusiasm for global, long-term, and meta thinking (what I now know to be epistemic rationality). After the initial thrill of the discovery had worn off however, I soon felt another type of dissonance creeping up on me: "Wait, didn't we agree that this was ultimately about winning? Where is the second, instrumental half of rationality, that was supposedly part of the package?" Well, it turned out that the solution to erasing this lingering dissatisfaction was to be found in yet a smaller subgroup.

So, like receiving a signal free of interference for the first time, I finally feel like I'm in a "place" where I can truly belong, i.e. a tribe, or at least a precursor to one, because I believe that things hold the potential to be way more awesome still, and that just time alone may already be enough to take us there.

On a practical level, the speed of adoption of healthy habits is truly remarkable. I've always been able to generally stick to any goals and commitments I've settled on, however the process of convergence is just so much faster and easier when you can rely on the judgment of other epistemically trustworthy people. Going at full speed is orders of magnitudes easier when multiple people illuminate the path (i.e. figure out what is truly worth it), while simultaneously sharing the burdens (of research, efficient implementation, trial-and-error, etc.)”

“Now I'm on a whole-food vegan diet and I exercise 2 times a week, and I also improved in introspection and solving my life problems. But most importantly, the group provides me companionship and emotional support; for example, starting a new career is a lot easier in the presence of a group where reinventing yourself is the norm.”

“It usually takes grit and willpower to change if you do it alone; on the other hand, I think it's fairly effortless if you're simply aligning your behavior with a preexisting strong group norm. I used to eat garbage, smoke weed, and have no direction in life. Now I lift weights, eat ~healthy, and I learned programming well enough to land a great job.

The group provides existential mooring; it is a homebase out of which I can explore life. I don't think I'm completely un-lost, but instead of being alone in the middle of a jungle, I'm at a friendly village in the middle of a jungle.”

“I was already weightlifting and eating vegan, but got motivated to get more into raw and whole foods. I get confronted more with math, programming and finance, and can broaden my horizon. Sharing daily tasks in Slack helps me to reflect about my priorities. I already could discuss many current career and personal challenges with the whole group or individuals.”

“I started exercising regularly, and despite remaining an omnivore I eat much more fresh vegetables now than before. People keep telling me that my body shape improved a lot during this year. Other habits did not stick (yet).”

“Finding a tribe of sane people in an insane world was a big deal for me, now I feel more self-assured and less alone. Our tribe has helped me to improve my habits—some more than others (for example, it has inspired me to buy a power-rack for my living room and start weightlifting daily, instead of going to the gym). The friendly bragging we do among our group is our way of celebrating success and inspires me to keep going and growing.”

Random

Despite having met each other thanks to Less Wrong, most of us do not read it anymore, because our impression is that “Less Wrong is dead”. We do read Slate Star Codex.

From other rationalist blogs, we really liked the article about Ra, and we discussed it a lot.

The proposal of a Dragon Army evoked mixed reactions. On one hand, we approve of rationalists living closer to each other, and we want to encourage fellow rationalists to try it. On the other hand, we don’t like the idea of living in a command hierarchy; we are adults, and we all have our own projects. Our preferred model would be living close to each other; optimally in the same apartment building with some shared communal space, but also with a completely self-contained unit for each of us. So far our shared living happened mostly by chance, but it always worked out very well.

Jordan Peterson and his Self-Authoring Suite is very popular with about half of the group.

What next?

Well, we are obviously going to continue doing what we are doing now, hopefully even better than before, because it works for us.

You, dear reader, if you feel serious about becoming stronger and winning at life, but are not yet a member of a productive rationalist group, are encouraged to join one or start one. Geographical distances are annoying, but Slack helps you overcome the intervals between meetups. Talking to other rationalists can be a lot of fun, but accountability can make the difference between productivity and mere talking. Remember: “If this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight!”

Even if it’s seemingly small things, such as doing an exercise or adding some fiber to your diet; these things, accumulated over time, can increase your quality of life a lot. The most important habit is the meta-habit of creating and maintaining good habits. And it is always easier when your tribe is doing the same thing.

Any questions? It may take some time for our hive mind to generate an answer, and in case of too many or too complex questions we may have to prioritize. Don’t feel shy, though. We care about helping others.

 

(This account was created for the purpose of making this post, and after a week or two it will stop being used. It may be resurrected after another year, or maybe not. Please do not send private messages; they will most likely be ignored.)