The Centre for Applied Rationality: a year later from a (somewhat) outside perspective
I recently had the privilege of being a CFAR alumni volunteering at a later workshop, which is a fascinating thing to do, and put me in a position both to evaluate how much of a difference the first workshop actually made in my life, and to see how the workshops themselves have evolved.
Exactly a year ago, I attended one of the first workshops, back when they were still inexplicably called “minicamps”. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I especially wasn't sure why I had been accepted. But I bravely bullied the nursing faculty staff until they reluctantly let me switch a day of clinical around, and later stumbled off my plane into the San Francisco airport in a haze of exhaustion. The workshop spat me out three days later, twice as exhausted, with teetering piles of ideas and very little time or energy to apply them. I left with a list of annual goals, which I had never bothered to have before, and a feeling that more was possible–this included the feeling that more would have been possible if the workshop had been longer and less chaotic, if I had slept more the week before, if I hadn't had to rush out on Sunday evening to catch a plane and miss the social.
Like I frequently do on Less Wrong the website, I left the minicamp feeling a bit like an outsider, but also a bit like I had come home. As well as my written goals, I made an unwritten pre-commitment to come back to San Francisco later, for longer, and see whether I could make the "more is possible" in my head more specific. Of my thirteen written goals on my list, I fully accomplished only four and partially accomplished five, but I did make it back to San Francisco, at the opportunity cost of four weeks of sacrificed hospital shifts.
A week or so into my stay, while I shifted around between different rationalist shared houses and attempted to max out interesting-conversations-for-day, I found out that CFAR was holding another May workshop. I offered to volunteer, proved my sincerity by spending 6 hours printing and sticking nametags, and lived on site for another 4-day weekend of delightful information overload and limited sleep.
Before the May 2012 workshop, I had a low prior that any four-day workshop could be life-changing in a major way. A four-year nursing degree, okay–I've successfully retrained my social skills and my ability to react under pressure by putting myself in particular situations over and over and over and over again. Four days? Nah. Brains don't work that way.
In my experience, it's exceedingly hard for the human brain to do anything deliberately. In Kahneman-speak, habits are System 1, effortless and automatic. Doing things on purpose involves System 2, effortful and a bit aversive. I could have had a much better experience in my final intensive care clinical if I'd though to open up my workshop notes and tried to address the causes of aversions, or use offline time to train habits, or, y'know, do anything on purpose instead of floundering around trying things at random until they worked.
(The again, I didn't apply concepts like System 1 and System 2 to myself a year ago. I read 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Kahneman and 'Rationality and the Reflective Mind' by Stanovich as part of my minicamp goal 'read 12 hard nonfiction books this year', most of which came from the CFAR recommended reading list. If my preceptor had had any idea what I was saying when I explained to her that she was running particular nursing skills on System 1, because they were engrained on the level of habit, and I was running the same tasks on System 2 in working memory because they were new and confusing to me, and that was why I appeared to have poor time management, because System 2 takes forever to do anything, this terminology might have helped. Oh, for the world where everyone knows all jargon!)
...And here I am, setting aside a month of my life to think only about rationality. I can't imagine that my counterfactual self-who-didn't-attend-in-May-2012 would be here. I can't imagine that being here now will have zero effect on what I'm doing in a year, or ten years. Bingo. I did one thing deliberately!
So what was the May 2013 workshop actually like?
The curriculum has shifted around a lot in the past year, and I think with 95% probability that it's now more concretely useful. (Speaking of probabilities, the prediction markets during the workshop seemed to flow better and be more fun and interesting this time, although this may just show that I was more averse to games in general and betting in particular. In that case, yay for partly-cured aversions!)
The classes are grouped in an order that allows them to build on each other usefully, and they've been honed by practice into forms that successfully teach skills, instead of just putting words in the air and on flipcharts. For example, having a personal productivity system like GTD came across as a culturally prestigious thing at the last workshop, but there wasn't a lot of useful curriculum on it. Of course, I left on this trip wanting to spend my offline month creating with a GTD system better than paper to-do lists taped to walls, so I have both motivation and a low threshold for improvement.
There are also some completely new classes, including "Againstness training" by Valentine, which seem to relate to some of the 'reacting under pressure' stuff in interesting ways, and gave me vocabulary and techniques for something I've been doing inefficiently by trial and error for a good part of my life.
In general, there are more classes about emotions, both how to deal with them when they're in the way and how to use them when they're the best tool available. Given that none of us are Spock, I think this is useful.
Rejection therapy has morphed into a less terrifying and more helpful form with the awesome name of CoZE (Comfort Zone Expansion). I didn't personally find the original rejection therapy all that awful, but some people did, and that problem is largely solved.
The workshops are vastly more orderly and organized. (I like to think I contributed to this slightly with my volunteer skills of keeping the fridge stocked with water bottles and calling restaurants to confirm orders and make sure food arrived on time.) Classes began and ended on time. The venue stayed tidy. The food was excellent. It was easier to get enough sleep. Etc. The May 2012 venue had a pool, and this one didn't, which made exercise harder for addicts like me. CFAR staff are talking about solving this.
The workshops still aren't an easy environment for introverts. The negative parts of my experience in May 2012 were mostly because of this. It was easier this time, because as a volunteer I could skip classes if I started to feel socially overloaded, but periods of quiet alone time had to be effortfully carved out of the day, and at an opportunity cost of missing interesting conversations. I'm not sure if this problem is solvable without either making the workshops longer, in order to space the material out, and thus less accessible for people with jobs, or by cutting out curriculum. Either would impose a cost on the extroverts who don't want an hour at lunch to meditate or go running alone or read a sci-fi book, etc.
In general, I found the May 2012 workshop too short and intense–we had material thrown at us at a rate far exceeding the usual human idea-digestion rate. Keeping in touch via Skype chats with other participants helped. CFAR now does official followups with participants for six weeks following the workshop.
Meeting the other participants was, as usual, the best part of the weekend. The group was quite diverse, although I was still the only health care professional there. (Whyyy???? The health care system needs more rationality so badly!) The conversations were engaging. Many of the participants seem eager to stay in touch. The May 2012 workshop has a total of six people still on the Skype chats list, which is a 75% attrition rate. CFAR is now working on strategies to help people who want to stay in touch do it successfully.
I thought the May 2012 workshop was awesome. I thought the May 2013 workshop was about an order of magnitude more awesome. I would say that now is a great time to attend a CFAR workshop...except that the organization is financially stable and likely to still be around in a year and producing even better workshops. So I'm not sure. Then again, rationality skills have compound interest–the value of learning some new skills now, even if they amount more to vocab words and mental labels than superpowers, compounds over the year that you spend seeing all the books you read and all the opportunities you have in that framework. I'm glad I went a year ago instead of this May. I'm even more glad I had the opportunity to see the new classes and meet the new participants a year later.