CFAR Workshop in Hindsight
Epistemic status: experience report
Tl;dr: a summary of how I believe the CFAR mainline workshop a year ago affected me and altered my behavior. I believe it changed me in subtle ways and improved several skills (mostly “meta skills”) marginally. This differs quite a bit from the somewhat overblown expectations I had before the workshop, but I’m still quite certain the workshop was a good investment.
You might want to read this post if
You’re considering to apply to a CFAR workshop
You’ve visited a CFAR workshop before and could benefit from a bit of reflection on the effects it has had on you
You don’t know much about CFAR but are open to attending a rationality workshop in the future
You’re generally interested in self improvement
About a year ago, in September 2019, I spent 5 days at the CFAR mainline workshop in Prague. This was the result of months of pondering and ultimately deciding that applying for the workshop was probably a good decision. The major crux for me was the financial cost involved, as this was by far the biggest single expense of my life until that point.
In this post I want to reflect on my time at the workshop, how it affected me, what remains more than a year after, and whether I think it was worth it all things considered. I hope to achieve several things this way:
Help people who are similarly unsure whether visiting a CFAR workshop is a good decision for them (in case such workshops still take place in the future)
Help future participants adjust their expectations
Nudge CFAR alumni to reflect on their own experiences, and ideally comment on to what degree it was/is different from or similar to mine
Keep that applied rationality mindset alive in myself
While this post mostly focuses on my personal experience, I’m also hinting at a few possible generalizations here and there. Naturally take them with a grain of salt as this is all merely based on my subjective impressions.
Basics about CFAR Workshops
Feel free to skip this section if you know what happens at CFAR workshops.
The CFAR mainline workshop is an intense 4-day-workshop focusing on applied rationality. Before Corona it happened several times a year (usually in the Bay Area, recently also yearly in Prague), usually with ~30 participants. There are roughly 10 CFAR instructors present, which is pretty impressive and means you get a lot of opportunity to get personal support and counselling whenever necessary.
Part of the workshop happens with all participants (and most instructors) in one large room, but most of the time participants are split into 3 groups to allow for more effective teaching. The people in your group vary throughout the workshop. With many exercises you’re encouraged to work with a partner, and if possible one you haven’t worked with before. This makes it quite easy to talk to and get to know a lot of very interesting people and solve/analyze each other’s problems together.
The classes often focus on specific methods that help you deal with “bugs” in your life, i.e. problems of any kind and size, just stuff that, well, bugs you. You thus start the first evening (which is day 0) creating a bugs list, which will be your basis for the rest of the workshop.
The 4 days that follow are intense, and while there are many breaks in between classes, you’re definitely going to need them. I’d personally describe it as “the good kind of exhausting” and one that somehow leaves you with a lot of energy and will to act.
Food is provided (with a vegan baseline plus a few non-vegan options) and very good and varied. There’s some free time in the evenings, but that more or less automatically fills with activities and conversations, as there’s always something going on and you’ll easily find others in the different social/meeting rooms.
One thing that surprised me about the workshop was the general atmosphere: I expected it to be somewhat like a small conference or a professional training course of some kind. Instead it was very warm, a lot of mattresses, cushions and blankets and sitting (or lying) in a semicircle on the floor.
To attend a workshop, you must apply first. From what I’ve heard there’s usually more demand than workshop spots available. Participation is in principle quite expensive with its $3,900 price tag, but aspiring EAs can often get significant discounts if they need them. The price includes not only the workshop itself but also transport from Prague to the venue (and back), 3 meals a day throughout the whole stay, snacks, drinks and a place to sleep for 5 nights, so there’s no need to get a hotel room.
How the Workshop Affected Me
(Note: If you visited a CFAR workshop before, I’d suggest you take a few minutes to reflect on your own view on this before being anchored by my viewpoint, and, if you like, share it in a comment.)
Attending a CFAR workshop certainly affects people in different ways, and there may be a bunch of benefits you can derive from it:
Learn techniques of effective personal problem solving
Solve many concrete problems during the workshop
Get to know a group of interesting people with similar values from a variety of backgrounds
Become more attentive towards problems and emotions
Become more honest with yourself
Get different/new perspectives on persistent problems in your life
Think of yourself as “somebody who went to CFAR”, which may affect your ambitions and expectations
Probably much more I haven’t thought of
During the application process I had an expectation of the workshop turning me into a “getting things done machine”, the kind of person who’s suddenly able to stay on top of everything, organize events, coordinate people, be productive, always work on the most relevant things, never procrastinate, control their emotions, etc. etc.
Stating these expectations explicitly now in hindsight makes it very obvious (seeming) they were rather overblown. However good a four day workshop is, these expectations would be extremely difficult to fulfill.
In the end, while I believe I did make progress in all of the areas mentioned above, reality probably differed in two important ways:
The concrete effects of changing my capabilities were much smaller than I had hoped (but presumably still significant)
As many of CFAR’s techniques and ideas are closer to a meta level, much of the improved capabilities seemed to have happened on the “first derivate level”, so the capability of getting better at stuff, rather than the immediate capability of doing things
While the first point sounds negative, that really says more about my initial expectations than about the workshop itself.
The second point however is arguably a positive one, as it means that the workshop has positively shaped my personal trajectory. To put these ideas into a very simplified qualitative graph:
Capability over time is, in this model, increasing even before the workshop due to the interest in self development I already had (which I assume is true for most CFAR workshop attendees).
It’s very difficult to make counterfactual judgments about this. I merely have subjective impressions on how I as a person differ from me 15 months ago, and speculate on which of these changes counterfactually depend on having visited the workshop. I’ve added some percentage values as very rough order of magnitude quantitative estimates.
That all being said, these are the changes I believe to have identified, to the degree that I assume they’ve been caused by the workshop:
I feel better (~5%) at “getting things done”, in the most general way
...quicker at recognizing problems and actively solving them (~20%)
...like I complain less and focus more on actual options I have to improve things (~10%)
...more aware of negative emotions, and can distance myself from them (~10%)
...better on focusing on actually relevant questions, i.e. those that can be answered and that lead to actionable information (~5%)
...better at figuring out my true motivation in unintended behavior, and identifying ways to sustainably change my behavior (~20%)
...It appears my self image has improved and ambitions have grown, causing me to make bolder decisions (~25%)
...I’ve become more impartial when encountering inner conflicts, “listening to each side involved” as opposed to just having a (usually System 2 based) opinion and being frustrated with some part of me disagreeing (~20%)
What this may mean is that a CFAR workshop does not move “average people” up to the 95th+ percentile of instrumental rationality (which, again, had sort of been my implicit expectation) but rather that most participants improve in many small ways, thus getting somewhat more effective at whatever they do.
This may also hint at an answer to the question of where all the successful rationalists are – while rationality can be seen as “systematic winning”, it may often just be a tool yielding marginal improvements as opposed to the single difference between excelling at things vs being more average.
Behavior change is more important than insights – It appears to me that information, i.e. concrete ideas, models, insights, are usually not the bottleneck of self improvement; little information is enough, and in the end it’s more about hands-on application. Which probably is why CFAR focuses a lot on directly applying everything you learn repeatedly and in many different ways, so as to make it stick. Hence it is hard to say “I had this particular insight during the workshop which made me a more effective person!”, and it’s more about “I practiced a bunch of useful things a lot, and now I’m somewhat better at solving problems in my life”
Agency mindset – It’s really not so much about the techniques taught at the workshop (such as goal factoring, resolve cycles, double crux, pair debugging etc.), but more about the general mindset and willingness to improve and go to uncomfortable places where necessary (I like to call it “agency mindset”, i.e. the willingness to take control of one’s actions and behavior). The techniques appear to be tools that nudge/force you into this mindset to some degree. They are neither sufficient nor necessary to get there, but they help a lot.
Tools are useful – Having a variety of tools at your disposal can still be very helpful. An example would be that pair debugging (in the form of socratic ducking for instance) sometimes got me much further with problems I had trouble to fix on my own. When a problem is very persistent, just throwing a lot of different techniques at it can lead to progress.
Taking ideas seriously is hard – It’s very difficult to get people (whether yourself or others) to take ideas seriously, or following through on things. Sustaining that “agency mindset” takes quite a bit of effort, and just slipping back into old patterns is much easier. Writing this post is one way I try to keep that mindset alive. (Going through the Hammertime sequence is another)
These were mostly insights I had during the workshop and in the weeks after. Two more followed while writing this post:
For several months after the workshop, I felt almost guilty when failing to get trivial seeming tasks done; I had a feeling that I really should be able to get things done, being a CFAR alumnus and everything, and not doing so felt like failure. Upon reflection, occasional “failure” makes sense though and I got rid of most of this judgementality.
When looking at a single small bug, it often seems very harmless, and like something that can maybe be solved within a few minutes; when having 50 suchs bugs however, while every single one is harmless, the entirety of them isn’t. Looking at one bug in isolation, the fact that I’ve known of this bug for many weeks but haven’t solved it yet seems bad. It took me a while to realize that this is basically cherry-picking and not a fair assessment of how I’m generally doing. No matter how many bugs I may have solved recently, I’ll always be able to find something minor I haven’t got around doing yet.
Is the Workshop Worth it?
This question occupied my mind a lot during the application process. It’s a serious expense of time, energy and money, so I really wanted to be sure it would be worth all the cost involved. To figure that out I spoke to a bunch of alumni back then, and read all the relevant posts I could find.
If other people are in the same boat asking themselves that question, this is my take:
Time and energy are almost certainly worth it, unless you have really high opportunity cost and are at a level of applied rationality where you don’t have that much to gain anyway
Financial cost depends on your personal value of money; I’d suggest that after reading as much as feels sufficient to get a clear picture of what to expect, pick the minimum of the following three values:
how much the workshop appears to be worth to you personally
how much you can afford without running into serious financial issues/worries or a huge risk of regret
the maximum price of the workshop (~$3,900)
…and, if necessary, ask for the corresponding financial support during the application process
If you have no steady income and thus maybe can’t afford more than, say, a quarter of the base price, things may still work out. Don’t feel shy about applying. The financial support option is there for a reason, and if CFAR is convinced you’re a good match for the workshop based on your application, a way will probably be found to make it work out for everybody.
I’m not sure about this but I would assume that, all else being equal, asking for no (or less) financial support increases your chances of being accepted. So if you don’t optimize for honesty by default, that may be reason enough to pick the honest highest value that works for you.
There is of course also a last resort kind of option to get your money back in case you felt the workshop wasn’t useful to you, but this should only affect your decision if you’re certain that you would actually make use of it.
I thought a lot about whether there are different, cheaper ways to get similar results as with a CFAR workshop. There probably are such ways, in principle. They are much more difficult to stick to however, I’d argue. Once you’re accepted into a CFAR workshop and paid for it, there’s probably a >90% chance you’ll actually attend it and thus spend something in the order of 50+ hours of high intensity + quality rationality training. If you decided however to not do that, but instead read the CFAR handbook by yourself, do all the exercises, discuss things with others and whatever else you come up with, there is a significantly lower chance you’ll stick to it, plus it might take many months to get to a similar point as compared to the week of a CFAR workshop. I wouldn’t suggest fooling oneself into not applying for a CFAR workshop merely because there are cheaper but very hypothetical ways to get similar benefits.
Personal coaching is something I’d consider a viable alternative, without having much experience with it myself; I just wouldn’t be very surprised if spending an equal amount of time and money on high-quality coaching instead of a CFAR workshop might give you many of the same benefits such a workshop does.
Are there specific kinds of people who would benefit much less from a workshop than others? The following types of people come to mind:
Overly skeptical people who are more motivated to find the flaws in anything taught at the workshop than by finding ways to personally benefit
People who are pretty content with their productivity, value alignment, habits and emotional life, and don’t feel like they have much to gain
People with a very strong preference to do things on their own as opposed to talking them through with others, as the majority of the exercises during the workshop are done in pairs or groups (which I, as an introvert, found more helpful than I would have thought)
Despite my unreasonably high expectations before the workshop, the skeptical part of me was thinking “$3,900 for a 4 day workshop? Sounds a bit like CFAR getting rich on the back of gullible people”. While me being gullible would be one possible explanation, by now I’m pretty sure this suspicion was misplaced. You get a lot for your money, from spending 5 days and nights at a nice venue, great food, very high quality teaching, much opportunity to talk with instructors 1-on-1 or in very small groups, transportation from the city to the venue and back (at least in Prague), several follow-up calls with instructors (who are generally very happy to help), not to mention many new great contacts and the very well designed curriculum. They even ordered and paid for my quite expensive taxi back to the airport, despite my attempts to insist on paying for it myself. By now, that cynical part of me is very much convinced everyone involved is indeed doing what they’re doing because they believe it’s a good and impactful thing to do, and that the price tag is very much justified.
The CFAR workshop itself differed somewhat from my expectations, but more so did the effects it had on me, which generally speaking were smaller and more indirect than I anticipated. This was partly caused by me not being fully aware of my expectations in the first place and partly by certain biases influencing my initial judgment.
In hindsight, I still feel like I benefited from the workshop a lot, but this is not a necessity and it would have been quite easy to slip back into old patterns of behavior. I believe the workshop must be successful on two levels to be of long term use to participants: It must teach concepts and techniques on an object level, plus it must bring participants in a position where they are able and willing to take what they learned seriously for a long time after that in order to solidify the positive effects. Both things overlap to some degree, but the second one seems harder to achieve, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it fails for a non-negligible number of people.
I’d generally recommend other EAs to attend a CFAR workshop as well if they have the opportunity, given they personally think it could benefit them. Just make sure to prepare properly (I’ll put some thoughts about this into the comments), give it all your attention during the week and minimize possible distractions. Also, don’t think you’re done after the 4 days are over – consider the workshop more an intense week that kick-starts a series of positive behavior changes, rather than a self-enclosed unit after which you’re somehow a different person than before.
Special thanks to Aaron Maiwald, Kadri Muuga, Tristan Cook and Nadia Mir-Montazeri for their kind and helpful feedback.
This of course doesn’t apply if you have sufficient trust in future-you to actually stick to the plans you make. In that case there may even be some value in trying an alternative cheaper approach, and then writing a post about how you got cheap, yet effective, rationality training without a workshop.