jfalexander

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Common knowledge about Leverage Research 1.0

Given the comments that have surfaced it sounds like my annoyance at these posts was unjustified and that 1) I underestimated how long it takes for structural weaknesses to surface and have effects that are clearly visible to outsiders, and 2) underrated how valuable it was to open a space for people to share their experiences with Leverage. Glad that the original post was able to do this in a way that preserved anonymity for people that understandably needed it. 

I also want to highlight that while I still stand by my personally positive experience at the Pareto Fellowship in 2016 this is not meant to be a universal account of events [and certainly not of Leverage Research] and a proper judgement of the program itself would involve polling a representative sample of former Pareto Fellows. 

Finally, I recognize that it's especially difficult to recount experiences when someone has experienced deep trauma so thanks to Zoe Curzi for the courage involved in telling her story and to anyone else sharing their experiences, anonymously or otherwise.

Common knowledge about Leverage Research 1.0

Figured I'd chime in too—I'm Jordan Alexander and I was one of the Pareto Fellows back in 2016. I've been involved with the EA and rationality community to various degrees since then (Stanford EA, internship at CHAI, active GWWC pledge) so I thought I'd give my account of the program. I recognize that other people may have had different experiences during the program and that there may have been issues that I was not personally aware of as a participant in the program.  

As for my relationship with Leverage: I have a few friends at Leverage, though we're not in close contact. I participated in Paradigm Coaching (essentially a combination of personal and professional one-on-one coaching) for a few months at the end of 2019 and found it incredibly helpful while working on the mundane problem known as "job-hunting". Finally, one of my friends at Leverage reached out and asked me if I was interested in sharing my experience at the Pareto Fellowship after this post popped up. Frankly I'm annoyed that I have to do this but it seems unfair that these sorts of posts reappear every year. I work as a software engineer and have no professional or financial ties to Leverage. 

Here's an overall account of the program structure, going off of the archived Pareto Fellowship website:

  • The program was indeed split into training and project phases. The trainings were given by folks at Leverage or CEA, though the CEA folks had very close ties to Leverage and similar ways of thinking (some of the CEA folks also worked at Leverage following the program). This program was incubated at CEA but I'd personally judge it as accurate if one were to say that this was basically a Leverage-run and CEA-funded program.
  • The training topics were as-described on the Pareto website. I thought the training was great, though there were definitely a few fellows that were familiar with the content beforehand and if I were in their place I would've wanted it to be compressed further.
  • The project phase lacked strong mentorship and wasn't quite able to satisfy every Fellow's interests. I'd say that the Pareto Fellowship—in terms of material goods—mainly provided food, housing and a fancy title that made it easier for fellows to find their own mentors.

With all this said, then, in terms of immediate professional growth the Pareto Fellowship wasn't that great. What the Pareto Fellowship was great for, in my eyes, was personal growth. This was echoed among a few fellows, usually along the lines of "I didn't do anything incredibly useful in the near-term but I experienced the most personal growth ever during that summer." This was true for myself as well and I still consider it a good investment that I'd make again. Again, though, this is not meant to be a universal judgement of the program. 

Still, it's odd to see these posts popping up again and again because what went best for me in the Pareto Fellowship was the content that came from Leverage. In my eyes it worked incredibly well as an environment for young professionals to come together and spend a couple months deeply and rigorously examining their beliefs and what they'd focus on throughout their career. 

Now, the EA/rationalist community has produced a few other programs like this (SPARC, CFAR) that are generally subjected to far less scrutiny and name-calling than Leverage has been. As such, here's a defensive account of the program that addresses some of the concerns in the above post: 

  • The day-to-day classes of the Pareto Fellowship were hosted at the Leverage building on Lake Merritt. Most of the Fellows lived there, though there was alternative housing provided in a Berkeley apartment. I lived in the Berkeley housing for a month or so during the program but later moved to the Leverage house because there were more amenities at the Leverage House. To my knowledge, everyone that wanted to live off-site was able to do so.
  • I kept a public personal blog at the time and briefly mentioned the Pareto Fellowship in it. I mentioned it once and someone suggested I run it by the program managers, who said it was fine. This was a completely unremarkable exchange. I am aware of information-management agreements with regards to content that's originally designed by Leverage. They do not seem meaningfully different from an NDA or a confidentiality agreement that one might sign in similar contexts (trade secrets, distribution rights, etc.).
  • Leverage has indeed developed unique introspective techniques. I requested to participate in a charting session during the program and found it helpful. At no point did I feel pressured to do so. I also find Leverage's frameworks generally helpful for thinking and continue to use them occasionally. I think these introspective techniques can be compared reasonably well to therapeutic techniques, though Leverage doesn't claim to do the same work licensed therapists do. Still, I've used professional therapy services (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and psychoanalysis in particular, with two different certified mental health professionals completely disconnected from Leverage) and found them to be complementary to the techniques taught at Leverage.
  • Leverage did not try to actively recruit me nor do I recall any explicit opportunities to apply for a job at Leverage (perhaps this was unique to my situation, I was 18 and a rising college freshman with no inclinations to drop out).
  • I read "the Leverage plan" around that summer. Emphatically, the plan did not state Leverage would "literally take over US and or/global governance," but would train skilled and value-aligned individuals to occupy positions of power. Importantly: there was no explicit coordination with Leverage or top-down hierarchy. The idea was to equip individuals with skills and have them do their own thing in various important roles. This is pretty much what any skill-building or movement-building organization does, the folks at Leverage just happen to have had a very detailed plan.
  • The "vibe" within Leverage was overall pessimistic about existential risk. This was the case for most Berkeley rationalist-adjacent orgs I encountered at the time. There was not an explicit "narrative" or stated Leverage position.

Now, here's a positive account of the program that addresses the impact it had on me personally:

  • As a newcomer to the Bay Area EA community I was able to live in a house of thoughtful people and foster deep connections with other Pareto Fellows that I'm still in touch with. In purely professional terms, I made between 5 to 10 strong contacts that I'd be happy to work with on future projects (and have done so already on a few occasions). This is an insanely high hit-rate for a program of roughly 20 people and I doubt it would have been possible without the co-living setup. In non-professional terms, I made lots of friends that I still care about today.
  • As a rising college freshman I was given time for intellectual exploration with a group of smart, independent thinkers that I respected. The program was relatively unstructured, which was probably less helpful for some of the older fellows but gave me ample time to explore my own interests. By the end of summer and after an amazing fireside chat with Nate Soares I'd decided to take a stab at doing AI Safety Research. It's not what I work on these days for reasons entirely disconnected from Leverage but, again, especially in 2016 "AI Safety" was a far less established field and it would've been difficult to find a group of people that took it seriously in the way Leverage and Leverage-adjacent folks did (even while Leverage itself was focused on global coordination problems).
  • Again, as a rising college freshman I found it incredibly valuable to have a set of structured introspective practices that I could rely on during college. I'm glad that the folks at Leverage created a space where it was ok to have deep conversations about the structure of one's beliefs and their values. I never felt "directed" towards any train of thought in particular (though perhaps this was purely coincidental). Having these conversations is certainly something that's hard to do and it can be quite off-putting to have conversations about something that one has held on to for a while (e.g. at the time I was questioning my belief in Catholicism) but the Pareto/Leverage staff handled all of these conversations with me with a great deal of care. It's difficult to market for these kinds of things in advance, and frankly I also expected the Pareto Fellowship to be more directly career-oriented than it ended up being but I'd be disappointed if we threw out this kind of space entirely under the misguided idea that emotional depth and introspection equate to "cultishness" and ought to be avoided in any kind of "official" CEA-sponsored summer program.

Finally, I'm generally annoyed that one of these posts surfaces every year in what seems like an attempt to unearth some deep secret at the heart of Leverage. I genuinely think that these are well-intentioned people working on an ambitious and unique project. Building these projects is hard and I wish this community had more respect for that.