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How to learn from a stronger rationalist in daily life?

by Thomas Kwa1 min read20th May 202011 comments

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PracticalRationality
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As mentioned in my previous post, I currently estimate that I am about as strong in applied rationality as the average CS undergrad. But I know Mark Xu, who has gone to CFAR, and is certainly stronger than me, enough to occasionally find interventions that can fix my problems. I don't want my friendship to become a formal mentorship, and the gains from taking advice or copying someone else's interventions into one's own life run out quickly. There's even the risk that I stop thinking for myself when my best judgment is on average more wrong than base rates + someone else's opinion.

Personal details aside, are there exercises/drills in applied rationality where one participant is much stronger than the other, but doesn't have CFAR instructor-level skills? I'm especially interested in examples that work in situations similar to mine, both for selfish reasons and because I suspect this situation is fairly common. Even more valuable would be a general framework.

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Answering a slightly broader question of "how does one level up at rationality", which a bias towards ways that include exposure to people more skilled than you:

  • For the first 3 years of exposure to the NYC rationalist community, my improvements were a mixed bag (I think I benefited from overall exposure to the memes of "try things!" and "try to solve your problems on purpose" and "it's okay to tackle big projects." I got weaker from overly relying on specific other people to do my thinking for me when I had complex problems to solve)
  • I got my most serious level-ups from working on concrete, difficult projects where I cared a lot about the outcome, and there was no one else I could defer to. (Most of the benefit from "Early Years In Person Rationality" came from the "try difficult projects" meme being prevalent)
  • I think there are ~10 people I've got specific benefits from interacting with. Most of this was in the form of them sharing specific skills with me, when I ran into problems that they either wanted to help me with, or that we were both working on. In some cases I didn't exactly gain a "skill", but gained a way of looking at the world which would later help me. Most of the value came from ~5 of them. Of those, I only interacted with 3 for a prolonged period of time.

I would expect that if casual levels on interaction with stronger rationalists could feasibly raise your own levels, that Berkeley rationalists would be significantly stronger than their pre-Berkeley selves, or than rationalists elsewhere.

I don't think that's the case, but I guess that can be an open question.

People joining one of the orgs DOES seem to level them up.

The big difference there is 40 hours a week of intensive work on accomplishing an outside goal.

But given that like: living with rationalists, in a community of rationalists, that often talk rationalist, doesn't seem to have much effect, it seems unlikely that weaker versions of the thing would.

(Single datapoint: I did most of my levelling up when I was running a rationality group that was giving frequent public facing classes. I did not level up from moving to Berkeley and immersing in the rationality community there.)

Just to add another single datapoint, I have had a very different experience of living around Berkeley rationalists. The people around me are constantly pushing me to actually think through the positions I put forward, to ground my beliefs more firmly in reality, and to think more deeply in general. Where three years ago (when I moved here) I was painfully shy and hopelessly intimidated by the intellectual conversations around me, I'm now much more self-confident and much slower to defer to others epistemically. I have learned to tackle big projects and fa

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My hope is that I can gain more than the average Berkeley rationalist by being willing to commit to deliberate practice, maybe of some technique someone will mention here.

Also, I've never been, but have heard the Berkeley community in particular had problems. Do you think the benefit to living with rationalists depends on how well someone's social needs are met?

I don't know of specific 2-person exercises, in part because I think most of the benefits are from personal practice rather than interaction. But you should certainly ask for general feedback on what they think you can improve in your life, and talk through things with others when you are feeling confused - and people who are good at thinking clearly / rationally are valuable partners for doing that.

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I find myself somewhat struggling to answer this question because I'm not sure I understand what you're looking for.

It sounds like you are generally noticing:

  • Some people are more skilled at rationality than you, and you've learned from them.
  • You want to gain skills.
  • You don't want to turn a friendship into a formal mentorship
  • You don't want to accidentally learn to defer to other people (I sympathize with this – I think I got worse at thinking during my first 3 years in the rationality community for this reason)

Those all make sense.

The title of the question here is "how to learn from a stronger rationalist in daily life" (which I do have some thoughts about). 

The more specific question you ask is "are there exercises/drills in applied rationality where one participant is much stronger than the other, but doesn't have CFAR instructor-level skills?". Here's where I'm not quite sure what you mean. Any exercise involving two people can have one person who's more skilled than the other, who can offer guidance. But that seems obvious. "What are some exercises that are worth doing together even if neither person is a certified instructor" is a reasonable, if somewhat broad question. But this feels a bit like you're asking for a more specific thing that makes sense to me.

Curious if you could unpack what you're looking for a bit more?

Here's what I think I notice. When practicing the Training Regime sequence with Mark and some other friends, I felt stronger by the day. But since then, I think talking to stronger people I know has made me weaker. This is strange because, well, whenever I know someone else with expertise in a particular area, I tend to learn about it. I suspect that I'm learning to defer, because I'm only comfortable holding a separate belief from them when I cite someone even stronger (Yudkowsky, Ord, the stock market), and often not even then. There could be other effects that make me weaker, but this is particularly scary because it's a vicious cycle.

My general plan to level up is to practice the CFAR techniques I can get immediate benefit from (TAPs, goal factoring) and the skills I need the most work with (probably Noticing, Murphyjitsu, Deflinching, getting myself to practice, and knowing when to build form on a small problem vs tackle a big one). I expect this to take a few months, possibly longer if I hit more pitfalls.

Eventually I want to make interventions roughly as successful as Brienne Yudkowsky c. 2015, and move on to difficult techniques like CoZE or mantras or something once I've taken the lower-hanging fruit. But this will probably take years.

Even though the current way I interact with strong rationalists is probably net-negative in the long run, I feel like it's an overreaction to completely neglect the resource and slog through everything on my own. Also, maintaining the friendship more or less requires talking about rationality if the friendship is mostly based on it. The admittedly weak inference I make here is that I want an exercise that does not teach me to defer, or some way of talking to people about rationality in general that avoids the temptation to defer. Or addresses other problems with the default approach that I don't notice yet.

So, I did have similar issues with "it was hard for me to hold opinions different from obviously-competent people" (especially when they projected confidence), and I learned to defer to them rather than practicing thinking on my own.

Doing various CFAR-esque exercises helped. However, what I personally found most helpful was ending up in a situation where I had to figure out the answers on my own, and mentor-figures couldn't help me (they didn't understand the situation as well as I did, or care). This forced me to actually learn to think independently. Afterwards, I found it much easier to interact with mentor-figures in a way I could learn the good parts without accidentally practicing deference.

This is a hard thing to force, unfortunately. But until my second such experience, CFAR esque exercises had very slow returns (like, 3% a year, not really noticeably changing my life for 4 years)

So you're saying that CFAR exercises suddenly became more valuable once you had the experience of thinking independently? What did the shift subjectively feel like?

Socratic Ducking fits the criteria; it's a good way to get a feel for what kinds of questions someone else asks theirself.

I recommend finding some kind of goal other goal than "becoming more rational." Going to a workshop here and there or discussing rationality techniques with someone sounds good, but if that's your primary goal for several months or longer, that IMO risks turning into a failure mode of looking at rationality as an end rather than a means. I think you learn most by trying to do things that are important to you.

I strongly agree with the advice of trying to surround yourself with some people you want to learn from.