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Common knowledge about Leverage Research 1.0

Hi all, former Leverage 1.0 employee here. 

The original post and some of the comments seem epistemically low quality to me compared to the typical LessWrong standard. In particular, on top of a lot of insinuations, there are some false facts. This seems especially problematic given that the post is billed as common knowledge. 

There’s a lot of dispute and hate directed towards Leverage, which frankly, has made me hesitant to defend it online. However, a friend of mine in the community recently said something to the effect of, “Well, no former Leverage employee has ever defended it on the attack posts, which I take as an indication of silent agreement.” 

That rattled me and so I’ve decided to weigh in. I typically stay quiet about Leverage online because I don’t know how to say nuanced or positive things without fear of that blowing back on me personally. For now, I’d ask to remain anonymous, but if it ever seems like people are willing to approach the Leverage topic differently, I intend to put my name on this post. I don’t expect my opinion alone (especially anonymously) to substantially change anything, but I hope it will be considered and incorporated into a coherent and more complete picture. 

At a macro level, I had a really positive experience at Leverage. I didn’t feel pressured to do self-improvement or use experimental psychology techniques, and I appreciated the freedom to do independent research. I felt I could (and did on several occasions) opt out of the group-dynamics experiments and training, and was largely free to do my own thing. I learned a lot, became much more curious about the world and willing to form and defend my own views, and met some really amazing people. If I ever have kids and tell them about my bold younger years, I fully expect wholesome Leverage stories to be on the list (with no cult-undertones). I found the people to be kind and thoughtful, and the organization as a whole to be broadly supportive and respectful of my wishes and boundaries. The intellectual environment was incredible and the best of my life. The worst part of my Leverage experience was the negativity I experienced from the EA and rationality communities (for example, receipt of hate mail), and the distance that put between me and people I respect.

Overall, I think my experience really mismatched the picture of Leverage described by OP. 

That said, I want to second Freyja’s comment that Leverage was large and pretty decentralized and people’s experiences really differed. I know of at least two former employees who I believe had importantly negative experiences, and that speaks to mistakes made by the organization and its participants. Nonetheless, I think claiming that the OP’s picture above represents common knowledge is importantly wrong and a real disservice to future efforts of rationalists to try to understand Leverage. 

On the object level, here are some comments on aspects of the original bullets that didn’t match my experience: 

• I didn’t feel encouraged or pressured to live at the office as a new hire. I lived there initially because it made it easier to relocate from the East Coast. I moved out shortly after and no one seemed bothered. 

• I didn’t find the information policy I signed overly stringent. I’ve signed confidentiality agreements with multiple normal for-profit companies (that aren’t affiliated with Leverage, EA, or rationality), and this policy was less restrictive than those. It allowed for personal blogs as well as sharing Leverage training techniques and research piecemeal (without approval required). It required permission before publishing the organization’s research online or starting an extended training / coaching relationship with anyone. It also prohibited sharing personal information about hires or information a trainer learned about a client during training / coaching. These rules seemed sensible to me. I had two different outside-of-Leverage romantic partners while I worked at Leverage, and I saw an external counselor. I discussed my experiences at Leverage (and Leverage’s research) with both and didn’t feel I was in violation of the information policy. 

• Charting was not the only self-improvement or psychology technique that Leverage researched or used in training. Focusing, IFS, coherence therapy, CBT tools, deliberate practice, TAPs, meditation, and more were also used and incorporated. Individual researchers and trainers also developed and used a number of their own techniques that were not based on charting. The charting technique Geoff initially developed also underwent a number of changes over the years primarily driven by researchers other than Geoff. Leverage’s training and psychology research was not primarily driven by Geoff or predominantly composed of charting. 

• I had a good experience with all the training I did and did not experience any form of mental fragmentation. I had one very positive experience in particular, where my social anxiety was significantly and stably lessened afterward. Otherwise I found the training beneficial and better than various other self-improvement tools I’ve tried, but unflashy. I was initially hopeful about larger or faster training successes, but I mostly didn’t experience these; good tools for thinking about how to solve my problems, improving my models, and relating to my feelings reliably helped me, but there was no magic self-improvement sauce. 

• It is not true that people were expected to undergo training by their manager. My understanding and experience of the policy and norms were that (1) training / debugging / coaching wasn’t required, (2) if you chose to do training you could choose your trainer (or choose to avoid a particular trainer or set of trainers), (3) “trainer” was a particular job role that did not include being a manager (did not include evaluating performance or determining payroll status), and (4) not all members of the org were trainers or expected to train anyone. Over several years, I switched between trainers several times with no problem and chose to avoid working with certain trainers entirely. (Hedge: there were two smaller training groups where I believe it was a norm for members of the group to train each other. I wasn’t part of those groups and can’t speak to them.)

• 6 types of bodywork were researched (that I know of): a bodywork style from NYU’s acting school, energy work done by Luminous Awareness, body work styles used by two different independent body work practitioners that people recommended, embodiment and movement techniques (for example, the alexander technique, feldenkrais), body-focused introspection (Focusing), and massage (one researcher looked into and pursued massage certification). Touching in all forms I encountered or heard about was minimal and consensual (like a hand on the back), and not all body work involved touch. Several researchers thought body work was ineffective and overblown, and several thought it was effective and useful (among those, some thought the change was obvious and legible and some felt the impacts were confusing or hard to pin down). This was a big source of internal disagreement. While I tend to prefer interventions that are on my priors more credible than body work and energy healing, there are a lot of anecdotal reports of large positive effects from body work and energy healing (like curing chronic pain) and I was glad that some people chose to look into it.

• I did not join Leverage to be a guinea pig for psychological experimentation. I joined because I wanted to research self-improvement techniques and I liked the vision of starting a university for people who wanted to run high impact projects. I was disappointed with how little I learned in college, and I was (and still am) excited about research into different versions of higher education. I thought the training techniques Leverage had were interesting and helpful, but “being experimented on” was not my primary purpose in joining nor would I now describe it as a main focus of my time at Leverage. 

• I did not find the group to be overly focused on “its own sociology.” Most people I interacted with were mostly doing research (including research in the field of history and sociology), ops (accounting, facility maintenance), or training (see tools above), rather than focusing on the group itself. Near the end, there was lots of internal conflict between different teams / subgroups of the organization, which did feel self-indulgent and unhealthy to me. My understanding is that this contributed to the organization being shut down. 

• The stated purpose of Leverage 1.0 was not to literally take over the US and/or global governance or “take over the world,” nor did I believe or feel pressured to believe that the organization would do so. I’ve been told that the original mission was fairly classic EA (improve the world via the most effective interventions), but Leverage took a more abstract reasoning oriented and less data driven approach. I am glad they did this, largely for diversification (though I can see why people object to Leverage taking talent that might otherwise have gone to other EA orgs) and because it led to them running the initial EA Summits. By the time I joined, the stated mission was to improve the world through social science, specifically via research and delivery of useful training and effectiveness techniques, and research into history / sociology, and coordination. This matched my experience of what the org did day-to-day. For most of the years I was there, there was a training team, a sociology team, etc. Within that broad umbrella there was a lot of diversity in what people worked on and what impact they believed their research and Leverage overall would have; I can’t speak to what other individuals privately believed, but OPs claim is false.

• I did not believe or feel pressured to believe that Leverage was “the only organization with a plan that could possibly work.” I continued to be involved in and supportive of EA while working at Leverage, including donating to SENS (pre-recent disputes), GFI, and other orgs. I respected Eliezer, loved HPMOR, was optimistic about MIRI, and thought the raising-the-sanity-waterline goal of the rationality community was great. I also think many hospitals, animal shelters, advocacy groups, and other extremely common interventions and institutions succeed at their missions and contribute to improving the world in many straightforward ways. 

• I didn’t believe or feel like I was supposed to believe that Geoff “was among the best and most powerful ‘theorists’ in the world.” 

• I did not find “Geoff’s power and prowess as a leader [to be] a central theme.” For most of my years at Leverage 1.0, I interacted primarily with my research, my team, and my team leader; Geoff / Geoff’s leadership was not a major focus for us. In the year before Geoff shut Leverage 1.0 down, Geoff’s leadership was a central theme insofar as he came under criticism internally for not resolving conflict in the group. I think this was hard for all parties involved, and is not best characterized as “his power being a central theme.” 

• The comment on Geoff’s dating life (even after OPs edits) still strikes me as misleading. For example, one of the women mentioned was in a long-term relationship with Geoff prior to her joining Leverage. She subsequently applied to work at Leverage and was accepted by a hiring committee in accordance with the recruitment policy at the time; the hiring committee knew she was in a relationship with Geoff which she expected to continue, and considered that in the hiring process. (I communicated with her to make sure she was okay with me posting this bullet, and she also added that she did not consider herself to be a subordinate to Geoff while they were dating.) I believe there’s similar clarifying context in the other cases, though I’m not willing to discuss the details without permission from the others involved. I also want to go on record and apologize for participating in the discussion of someone’s romantic life online, and I’m sorry it’s come to this. 

Three final comments: 

- I believe that Leverage was great in many ways and I personally benefited a lot from working there, but I also believe it had real problems and made mistakes. I think the discussion in the comments speaks for itself re: that there were negatives associated with Leverage. I view experimenting with self-improvement tools and non-standard organizational structures to generally be risky (but worth having at least some organizations do) and Leverage didn’t handle it delicately in all cases; when I hear of former Leveragers reporting harms, I tend to believe them and find fault with the organization. However, I also think there are generally fewer reports (in the grapevine or formally reported) of harms than are widely believed to exist and less of a picture of the positives. 

- Sometimes I have heard members of the rationalist community hear positive reports about Leverage from ex-Leveragers, insinuate that the ex-Leveragers are basically “still brainwashed,” and then ignore the information. This seems epistemically problematic, because it is very hard to respond to. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do about that here, other than try to convey some nuance, and caution that if all Leveragers’ positive experiences are dismissed as brainwashing or cult-member-positivity, it will be very hard to find out any time Leverage-centered gossip is wrong. I’d desperately like the in-person Bay area community to form a more coherent view on Leverage that unifies the positives and negatives, and extracts lessons about self-experimentation, psychology and training research, non-standard company structures, and weird ambitious organizations in general. I don’t see how that will happen if the current discourse around Leverage doesn’t improve substantially, including making the environment more palatable for Leveragers to talk about the positives and negatives of their experience. 

- Finally, I expect to respond to comments that seem to me like they’re posted in the spirit of genuine inquiry – please avoid vitriol and insinuations. Sorry for the length of this comment, thanks for bearing with me.