CFAR ran many, many workshops.
After each workshop, there would be feedback from the participants, and debrief discussions among the staff. We would talk about what had worked and what hadn't, what we wish had been said or done, what we would try differently in the future, etc.
Often, what resulted was a new addition to the opening session. Opening session, at a CFAR workshop, was largely about expectation setting, and getting everyone on the same page—making sure everyone knew what they were getting into, and what was going to be asked of them, and why.
The "tips and advice" section of opening session was often framed as "things past participants said, at the end, that they wished they'd been told at the beginning."
(This was often but not always literally true.)
Little snippets of wisdom about how to engage with the content, what to watch out for in one's own experience, where to put one's attention, etc. Often the staff would create their own tips and advice based off of watching classes fail, or watching individual participants "bounce" off the workshop, and trying to figure out why.
There were something like two dozen distinct tips, at various points, of which four or five would be presented at a given workshop. Some were added, some were removed, others morphed or mutated, yet others got more deeply baked into the structure of the workshop and were no longer needed in opening session.
Below is a selection of some of the most important and longest-lasting opening session tips. They are presented here for two purposes:
- Despite the fact that this is an online sequence and not a workshop, the tips nevertheless contain valuable wisdom about how to engage with the content, and some specific ways that trying to do so tends to go wrong for people.
- They may be useful advice in other contexts, such as conferences or events that you yourself may run, in the future.
One key element of getting the most out of an experience is being present. This includes physically showing up, but it also includes having your mind in the room and your background thoughts focused on the content. The more you’re taking calls and answering texts and keeping up with social media and what’s going on back home, the more you’ll remain in your ordinary mental space, continuing to reinforce the same habits and patterns you’re here to change. There’s a sort of snowball effect, where even a little disengagement can make absorbing the value you’d like from a workshop rather difficult, which confirms a suspicion that there’s no value to be had, and so on.
Think about, for instance, the sorts of thoughts one can have on a long, three-day hiking trip, with no deadlines or obligations. When all of your thoughts must be purposeful, or when every thought must resolve itself before the next thing on the schedule rolls around, there are a lot of thoughts you simply can't have.
And it is precisely thoughts-unlike-those-you're-accustomed-to-having that the workshop is trying to provide! After all, if your present ways of thinking and being were sufficient to solve all your problems and achieve all your goals, you'd already be done. Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement must necessarily be a change, and one of the precursors to change is setting yourself up to be able to be in any kind of non-default state of mind at all. If it's business as usual, your brain will produce business-as-usual thoughts, and you'll find few or no life-changing insights in that drawer.
In addition to external distraction, we’ve also found that there are a few unhelpful narratives that participants occasionally find themselves repeating—narratives which make it hard to engage with the content and block opportunities for asking good questions and taking new steps. If you notice one of these narratives cropping up in the back of your mind, we encourage you to try deliberately setting it aside, as an experiment—let it go, see what happens, and judge for yourself. Our staff are happy to chat with you about any of these, if you think you might find that helpful.
- “I’m too dumb/old/lazy to learn this.” We sometimes encounter people who think that, because they don’t measure up to some standard or another, they aren’t “good enough” to benefit from the workshop material. As a counter to this, we recommend donning a growth mind- set: if it can be learned by a human, it can be learned by you.
- “I already know this part.” Some people come into our workshop with significant background knowledge and, when they start to see familiar material, slip into a mode of assuming there’s nothing for them to learn. Unfortunately, this can mean that you’re “turning off” right at the moment that we’re offering new insight. To counter this, we recommend that you try to approach every class with fresh eyes. Even if the core concepts are familiar, look for the fine detail—the places where your peers and instructors have made valuable connections you might have missed. In particular, try to be interested rather than interesting—there’s more to gain from stealing new insights than re-hashing thoughts you’ve already thought.
- “I’ve got important things to do, and this lesson can wait.” Sometimes there really are important things to attend to. But if they’re on your mind during the workshop, you’re likely to have a hard time absorbing the material in a way that will stick. We recommend that you set aside what you can, and fully address what you can’t set aside: if something really can’t wait, step out, make it your sole focus until it’s dealt with, and return with full and fresh attention.
Let your wants come alive
Imagine being a vegan, or strictly kosher, or someone with restrictive food allergies. Let’s say it’s Friday or Saturday night, and your circle of friends has invited you out to dinner, a movie, and drinks.
It’s easy to see that it might be sort of dangerous for you to look forward to the meal with genuine anticipation and optimism—the group ends up at a burger place, and you open the menu, and as you flip through you find that the only vegan option is lettuce-covered lettuce with lettuce on the side, just like the last twelve times you went out.
And so, in that situation, it’s easy to imagine a strategy of keeping your wants asleep. Sort of pre-emptively tamping down on any kind of hope or hunger, telling yourself “it’s just about hanging out with my friends. I’ll cook my own food before I go, or when I get back. I’m just going out to be social and have fun.”
This coping mechanism makes perfect sense! It's there to prevent a very real and unpleasant experience. It's protecting you from preventable sadness.
But there’s a particular way in which it leaves you sort of hollow and crippled. There’s something good and magical that can happen, if you instead let your wants come alive. If you choose to prioritize yourself and your values, if you dare to expect that good and interesting opportunities might crop up.
It is indeed a lot worse, if you let yourself build up hope and then have those hopes dashed. But there’s a certain point of view from which nothing good can even happen, if you don’t expose yourself to that risk at least sometimes.
So our recommendation for the workshop is this: let your wants come alive. Let yourself hunger for things, let yourself get excited for things, let yourself be sort of pushy and sort of selfish and sort of willing to visualize a warm and glowy future, even if there’s a risk that future won’t come to pass. If there was ever a time to take on that risk, it’s these next four and a half days.
When you’re considering adopting new habits or ideas, there’s no better way to gather data than actually trying. It’s often faster and simpler to just give things a shot and see how it goes than to spend a lot of time trying to anticipate and predict whether or not you’ll find something worthwhile.
(And it helps you avoid the failure mode of "putting things on the list" and then never getting to them! Getting that first try out of the way goes a long way toward making a second one actually happen.)
This is particularly important because when something does work out, you get to keep doing it! If your friends have recommended five different activities to you, and you’ve only liked one of them, it’s easy to think of the whole process as a pretty big waste of time:
An 80% failure rate isn’t exactly encouraging, after all. But what the above framing fails to take into account is the magnitude of even a single success. Instead of four bad experiences and one good one, what’s actually going on is more like the following:
When you look at it this way, you can see that the failed trials are more than compensated for by the sustained run of a now-successful habit. Indeed, when it comes to hobbies and activities that might last you the rest of your life, it becomes worthwhile to establish a habit of trying things that have even a one-in-ten or one-in-a-hundred chance of being enjoyable. It only takes a few paying off to make the whole thing worthwhile.
So while you’re listening and participating this weekend, be on the lookout for opportunities to turn our lessons into actions that you can actually try out, right then and there. Translating class material into practical experiments is a great way to digest material anyway, and it’ll help you decide which techniques are most worth prioritizing when you return home.
Make good quiche
Imagine that you have a friend who is creating a recipe book. You’ve agreed to help your friend beta test some of their recipes, and they’ve handed you a rough draft of instructions on how to make quiche.
As you’re reading through the recipe, you begin to notice a few ... let’s say, problematic steps. For instance, the recipe calls for six “whole eggs,” which to you seems to imply shells and all. It also says to bake for 4.5 hours at 450 degrees, and calls for 10 tablespoons of salt.
Now, one way that you might offer productive feedback to your friend is to follow the recipe exactly as written, creating a crunchy, salty, burned quiche. This is actually a pretty helpful strategy, early on—it’s a way to stress-test the recipe to see exactly how broken it is.
However, if you also happen to want some quiche, there’s another method you might employ. Instead of following steps that are obviously wrong, you could instead try to make good quiche, treating the recipe as more of an inspiration than a strict set of instructions. You could throw away the eggshells, drop the time and temperature down to (say) 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and throw in just a pinch of salt. Maybe you’ll even have some additions that your friend didn’t think of, like mixing in some chopped kale.
At the end of that process, you’ll not only have notes about flaws in the original recipe, but also constructive suggestions and—most importantly—a delicious meal you can actually eat. You’ll have something that’s useful to you, both in the moment and for the future.
Like your friend’s quiche recipe, many of the concepts and techniques within the workshop are experimental. There will be times when they seem a little off, and other times when they may seem clearly false. It helps to remember that the goal is not to improve our recipe book, but to make good quiche. That means that, instead of doing things that don’t make sense, you should feel free to tinker, experiment, and modify. Your perspective is unique—while we have a lot of insight to offer, there’s no one who better understands your own life and mind than you. If we seem to be pointing in the wrong direction, feel free to head in the right one, instead—and afterward, let us know what you discovered.
Adjust your seat
(An iteration on "make good quiche".)
In the late 1940s, the U.S. Air Force had a serious problem. Planes were crashing left and right—not because they’d been shot down, but because the pilots were simply losing control at an astonishing rate. On the worst day, there were seventeen crashes.
It turned out that the reason for this had to do with a decision that had been made back in 1926, when the military first set out to design the cockpit. At the time, they’d taken a few hundred pilots and used their measurements to standardize things like the size of the seat, and the distance to the pedals. The modern-day pilots weren’t comfortable in these cockpits, and in the fast-paced, high-stakes environment of early airflight, a slight inability to reach the pedals or see out of your windshield could mean the difference between a successful mission and a lethal crash.
At first, the hypothesis was that pilots had changed in size. To investigate, the Air Force launched another study, measuring roughly four thousand pilots on over a hundred different dimensions, all the way down to thumb length and the distance from a pilot’s eye to his ear. But when they calculated the averages, they found that nothing had meaningfully changed.
Enter Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels. He approached the problem with a new question: How many of those pilots are actually average?
The answer? Zero. Not a single pilot was within fifteen percentage points of the average on all ten of the most relevant measurements—which meant that the cockpits were designed to fit people who didn’t exist.
This revelation led to all of the technology that you’ll find in modern cars today. Adjustable seats, mirrors, and steering wheels—all of that and more was developed so that pilots would stop dying in preventable accidents.
Which leads us to our advice for the workshop—adjust your seat. The techniques that we’re going to present to you are central, average versions—they’re the least wrong for the most people. But that also means that none of them will work exactly right for anybody. Use them as a starting point, but before you try to take off and fly, tinker with the settings—change the lean, and the height, and how far forward or back they are; adjust the headrest and maybe fiddle with the mirrors, too. Our version is good, but there’s a much better version that only you will be able to find.
Eat the instructions
(An attempt to synthesize "try things" and "adjust your seat," which are contradictory.)
Much of the fun of playing with construction toys like LEGO or K’nex or erector sets is building your own unique, novel designs.
But usually LEGOs come in a box with instructions on how to build a particular spaceship or castle or train set or whatever.
It might seem like there are ”two kinds of LEGO kids”—those who build according to the instructions, and those who don’t.
But just as you’re missing something if you’re only “following your heart” or only “following your head,” there’s a better strategy that combines the benefits of both.
If you build according to the instructions first, you will often learn some tiny neat trick of engineering that the LEGO designers discovered or invented and which you would be unlikely to stumble across yourself. After all, they put thousands and thousands of hours into figuring out how to stick LEGOs together.
And then, once you’ve built the thing and learned from the experience, if you want to take it apart and make your own spaceship, you’ll be much better equipped to do so, now that you have the latest cutting edge tactics and techniques. You will be a more flexible and competent designer, better able to make the LEGO pieces come together in the way you want.
Similarly, we recommend that you engage with CFAR's techniques both by actually trying them out, as written, and by modifying them/throwing them out and inventing your own. We recommend a synthesis of “try things” and “adjust your seat” which we call eating the instructions—try, then tinker.
The tacit and the explicit
There are many useful ways to divide up and categorize human knowledge, or human thinking, or human psychology. You can think in terms of id, ego, and superego, or system 1 and system 2, or big-five personality types, or wilder and sillier things like Hogwarts houses or the Magic: the Gathering color wheel. Each of these is an oversimplification that misses some things, but that can help you draw out insight about others.
One way that CFAR likes to think about the human mind is to look at the distinction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is like the knowledge that you use to ride a bicycle—it’s complex, experiential, intuitive, hard to put into words. You could sort of try to describe what you’re doing to a bright five-year-old, but even if you successfully convey a couple of tips, it won’t be those tips themselves that help so much as the new bit of tacit knowledge that the five-year-old invents in their own head as a result of thinking about the tip.
Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, is clear and concrete and transferrable and (at least somewhat) objectively verifiable. How you ride a bicycle is tacit, but the fact that you can ride a bicycle is explicit. It’s a binary fact that can be completely and compactly transferred through words, and that is checkable through experiment.
Explicit knowledge is held in high regard, because it’s how we prove things in mathematics and how we make scientific progress on vaccines and space shuttles and microprocessors and how we transfer lore and culture to our children and so on and so forth. It’s a huge part of how the human race has made it this far.
But tacit knowledge is often forgotten, or pooh-poohed in a way that CFAR thinks is going a little too far. Just because verifiable and transferrable knowledge is powerful and valuable doesn’t mean that things which are hard to verify and hard to transfer are not powerful and valuable. Explicit scientific knowledge is the key to a lot of our progress, but we wouldn’t have been able to accrue those scientific insights if it weren’t for people’s ability to generate hypotheses—and skill at generating hypotheses is absolutely tacit.
We don’t know how to teach people to consistently produce insightful and paradigm-defining hypotheses any more than we know exactly how to transfer skill at poetry, or the ability to be an outstanding coach, or the intuition of a veteran math researcher who knows instinctively which threads are promising and worth following (and is usually right about this, though they can’t explain where the intuition comes from or what it’s made of).
A lot of what we’ll be doing this weekend is moving back and forth between the explicit and the tacit—practicing techniques to draw out some of our tacit insights into the explicit, where we can reason about them, or trying to build up the skill of switching between (or combining!) both tacit and explicit insights as we think about thinking or try to improve our lives or ourselves. This will only work if we recognize the true fact that both kinds of thinking indeed have value, and that each contains insight that the other lacks, and so our advice to you is to treat all of your thinking with some degree of respect, and not to be the sort of person who only “trusts their gut” or only “thinks things through” and doesn’t have room in their toolkit for both.
Form is the quality such that additional effort translates directly to greater results.
What we mean by that is that none of your additional effort is leaking out, or creating friction, or pushing in the wrong direction, or simply going to waste. It means that if you’re a runner, your knees don’t wobble and your arms pump correctly. If you’re designing an airplane, you don’t leave random bits sticking out, where they’ll catch the wind. If you’re a writer, you’re using as few words as possible, and if you’re a programmer, you don’t have extraneous function calls that burn up computational resources.
One of the most important things to encourage in the early stages of a new skill is the development of good form. Once you have it, trying harder works, whereas if you don’t have it, trying harder often just leads to a lot of frustration and discouragement. And of course, if you have bad habits right from the start, they’re only going to get harder and harder to fix as you ingrain them through practice.
Many of the CFAR techniques you will encounter are subtle, despite their veneer of straightforwardness. Correct form is hard to come by, especially since each individual is different, and what works for one person may not be any good for another.
For that reason, we often spend a lot of time during the workshop talking about small, mundane problems with relatively few moving parts. That isn’t because this is all the techniques are good for, but because, at the start, we want you to be able to focus on building form. It’s like a weightlifter practicing with an empty bar before adding on the pounds—we encourage you to practice on simple things first, and then ramp up.
Another way to think of this is that your problems will tend to either be adaptive or technical. Adaptive problems require experimentation, novel strategies, or new ways of thinking and being; they’re problems containing “unknown unknowns” and are often opaque in addition to being difficult. Technical problems may be equally difficult, but their difficulty lies in execution—technical problems are those where the path to the solution is known or knowable and does not need to be discovered.
It’s likely that you’re here because you have some interesting adaptive challenges in your life, and you’re itching to get some new tools to work on them. Don’t be disappointed if most of the techniques are presented with technical examples, or if your early practice is with technical problems. We’re warming you up for the big stuff, and we’ll absolutely get to it. We just want you to have the right muscle memory, and some practice under your belt, before we do.
There’s a way in which education tends to make knowledge very flat.
Let’s take the Earth and the Sun, for example. If I were to ask you about the relationship between the two, you’d probably offer me the well-worn phrase “the Earth revolves around the Sun.”
It’s automatic, reflexive, almost atomic—once you start with “the Earth,” you barely have to think anymore. The “revolves around the Sun” part just fills itself in.
But once upon a time, people didn’t know that the Earth revolved around the Sun. In fact, people didn’t even really know what the Earth and the Sun were—they thought they did, but looks can be deceiving. It took us multiple geniuses and the innovations of centuries to go from “the Earth is a flat plane and the Sun travels across the celestial sphere” to the factoid that we repeat back to our teachers in a bored monotone. Somehow, all of the confusion and excitement of discovering that the Sun is an incandescent ball of hydrogen and that the Earth is tied to it by the same fundamental force which makes pendulums swing and that both of them are round except not quite and that gravitational attraction is proportional to the square of the distance except not quite, don’t forget relativity and quantum mechanics and—
—somehow, all of that gets lost when we flatten things out into “the Earth revolves around the Sun.”
Fortunately, there’s a solution—boggling. You’re reading an essay! What’s an essay? I mean, okay, it’s just a essay. But what is it really? I mean, where did these words come from? Who wrote them? Yeah, "Duncan Sabien," but who's that? And the words in front of you right now aren't the same words that he wrote—are they? Sort of. What's up with identity when it comes to concepts, anyway? Not to mention the literal images themselves! Pixels on a screen! How'd they get there? How do they know where to go? Who built the device they're displayed on? How does it work? What's actually going on in your brain, when you look at these squiggles and find yourself thinking thoughts? What even is a thought? I hear there are neurons involved—how does that work?
When you allow yourself to embrace confusion, and turn away from the cached, easy, empty answers, you start to see a much richer, deeper world, with many more opportunities to learn and to grow. During the workshop, there will be many things that seem like stuff that you already know, just as you already know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But don’t be fooled! Surface explanations are the opposite of knowledge—they’re a curiosity-killer, preventing you from noticing that there’s stuff you still don’t get. Human cognition is one of the most complex, opaque, and difficult phenomena we’ve ever encountered. As you study it, don’t settle for flat knowledge—instead, boggle.