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 face problems without immediately giving up. The changes are somewhat nebulous (i.e. it's not like I had some very tangible change like going to the gym every day), but they're very clear to anyone who interacted with me three years ago vs today. I definitely don't think most of this would happened if I weren't around the Berkeley rationalists. I wasn't exactly doing deliberate practice, but I also didn't just sit around hoping for osmosis to make me cooler - like Ray, I think I really benefited from the 'try things' mindset. I was constantly throwing myself out of my comfort zone, and while it often went quite poorly, I'm happy with the end result.

Most credit goes to Habryka for meeting me where I was at while simultaneously always encouraging me to push my boundaries, but the fact that literally everyone I live with has gone through CFAR instructor training certainly also helps, as did working at a few rationalist/EA orgs and having casual interactions with people who I know are a lot smarter and better at rationality than me. 

[ Question ]

How to learn from a stronger rationalist in daily life?

by Thomas Kwa 1 min read20th May 202010 comments


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.