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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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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.)

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.