I wrote this in the summer of 2015, in the week after I attended a CFAR workshop and met the in-person community for the first time. I no longer have the blog I wrote this to at the time, so I've reposted it to my new blog here for posterity.

For my first blog post, I’d like to write about my recent CFAR workshop, and what I’ve learned. But before that, an anecdote:

On the first night, I made friends with Matt O’Brien. We had a conversation which I think encapsulates the ideals of CFAR quite nicely. The situation was this: we had been speaking for about ten minutes, and I had told Matt about my place in life; about to start at university, great uncertainty about my future, not sure what to do about it. Matt asked for how long I was staying in the Bay Area after the workshop, and I said I was flying out the day after. Matt said that the Bay Area was probably the ideal place for me to answer all of the questions that I had, due to all of the awesome people I could meet, and so I should change my plans to stay longer.

Me: “But I can immediately think of two things that will get in the way of me doing that. So it’s not going to happen.”

Matt: “Have you asked yourself this question: ‘If I made it my goal to solve those two problems, could I?’ ”

Me: “Er… No. I have not asked myself that question.”

Matt: “So do that.”

Me: “…If I made it my goal to solve those two problems, could I…”


Me: “Yes!”

And then I did.

CFAR uses a concept which I think is really useful. I’ll give the name later, but I’ll say that the concept includes various minor life problems such as

  • things that aren’t working and you don’t know why (e.g. repeatedly not getting things done on time, there’s always issues with your finished product at work)
  • things that just don’t feel right (e.g. your daily schedule, personal relationships)
  • things where you want to do x, but you also don’t want to do x (e.g. exercise, doing your taxes)
  • various other internal conflicts
  • things you want to improve and don’t know how to (e.g. getting a good night’s sleep, social skills)
  • plans you think are going to fail (e.g. getting your class assignment in two months from now)
  • other dissatisfactions and inefficiencies

CFAR calls all of these ‘bugs’. I think this concept gets you a lot, actually. Let me explain like this:

I am as stupid now as I was before the workshop, except for in two important ways:

  1. I now see these problems as things that deserve to be sat down with and solved, using all of my creativity and intelligence.
  2. I now have a number of techniques with which to do this.

I think this is a real change in attitude. Most of these little problems are the sort that I would’ve mentally swept under the rug, discarded as ‘unimportant’ or ‘not real issues’. Now I think differently: there is an art to getting past the small problems in life, and it is an art that can be trained.

One criticism of the utility of getting better at solving these, is that they are all small problems. This is an important criticism, that all of this ‘rationality’ is only marginally useful. The first counter-argument that might be offered, is that little problems build. Lots of little inefficiencies, from morning to night, can really add up over the course of a lifetime, losing you years of happiness and productivity. But I don’t think this is the strongest counter-argument. The fact is, dealing head on with the biggest problems in life requires the same skills as dealing with the small ones.

The mental move by which you try not to think about your dissatisfaction with the tidiness of your house, is the same mental move in which you try not to think about your dissatisfaction with the course that your career is taking. The dissatisfaction is of greater magnitude in the latter, but it is the same unhelpful skill of ‘not thinking about dissatisfaction’ that you are practicing. If you can’t do addition and multiplication, you can’t do research in pure mathematics, and if you can’t resolve the small problems in life, you will not be able to improve on the big, important ones. Bugs aren’t defined by the size of the problem, but by the cognitive algorithms that cause them to be problems.

So the concept of ‘bugs’ is really useful: once you’ve labelled something a bug, it is now in the category of ‘problems that I can practice solving to get better at life’. The staff helpfully emphasised this in classes, with talk about “Keep your eye on the ball” and “You are not here to learn the techniques, but to solve your problems, don’t forget that.”

Main take-away: If I have a problem in life, I think “Okay! Here is an opportunity for me to get better at life. Where’s my pen and paper?”

For comments on earlier drafts of this post, my thanks to Amanda House, Joseph Gnehm, and Brienne Yudkowsky 

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