The Landmark Forum — a rationalist's first impression
Last week I attended an introductory seminar to the Landmark Forum. Landmark is the modern form of est, a seminar series started by Werner Erhard in the 1970s. Like the Less Wrong community, this is an organization which claims to empower people and enable them to achieve their goals. I heard people recount how Landmark had enabled them to become a responsible adult, to build a relationship with their estranged son, to repair their relationship with their wife, to decide to quit their job and become funded as a grad student.
It's quite successful in attracting members (more than 1 million participants), so you may be interested to know how it works. Note that I only attended one session; this is a first impression. If you have more experience with Landmark, please tell us about it in the comments.
Also, a word of warning: Landmark Education is a for-profit employee-owned company. If you go to one of these things, beware the Dark Arts. The purpose of the free introductory session is to persuade you to sign up for the weekend-long Forum retreat, which costs around $500. And after that retreat, there are more advanced seminars to sign up for. Forum graduates, who are universally enthusiastic about the positive change Landmark has effected in their lives, are encouraged to recruit their friends. (By the way, this is a really good way to recruit people.) I had precommitted to not make any purchasing decisions while at the seminar.
An optimistic worldview
The seminar was mostly a lecture conveying an empowering, optimistic worldview. The message was that you can achieve anything, basically. Or, put more charitably, the message is that you can construct a personal narrative in which your actions are guided by goals and possibilities, rather than being limited by constraints. The speaker evoked laughter in some of the veterans — not humorous laughter, but the kind of giggle that comes from feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. The speaker was pretty good, admittedly. But her words and ideas were fuzzy, blunt, imprecise. Aspiring rationalists could do much better.
Religions are also good at conveying a comforting worldview in lectures. But unlike in the religions I'm familiar with, every participant in the Landmark Forum is promised personal growth or rebirth. To be sure, the realization of this promise is facilitated by a placebo effect — everyone who signs up and pays for the Landmark seminars expects to get a lot out of it. But at least as important are the instrumental rationality exercises. These exercises are meant to internalize one's locus of control, manage one's dispositions, manage one's personal narratives, communicate effectively, and become more effective in general.
In accordance with Bhagwat's Law of Commitment, they led my fellow participants in an exercise in taskifying goals. I won't describe the exercise exactly; but if you spend five minutes thinking of a first exercise in taskifying goals, you'll come up with it yourself.1 Anyways, the exercise is very basic, but surprisingly effective if you don't already have the skill of turning goals into tasks. We were told beforehand that a common reaction to the exercise is "Wow, my goal is so easy to achieve now! I am relieved." Of course, this expectation made the exercise seem super effective (and probably made it more effective in fact).
1Landmark has intellectual property rights to its curricula. And they also have money. If you start using Landmark intellectual property at your Less Wrong meetup, they might sue you. I won't publish Landmark exercises on Less Wrong unless I'm sure it won't hurt Less Wrong or the Singularity Institute. I'm happy to talk about this stuff privately.