Review: CFAR Workshop

Note: This brief report reflects the way I felt shortly after the CFAR workshop. My feelings haven’t changed much since then, but if you’d like an update — or have questions this post doesn’t answer — please let me know! I’m always happy to talk about applied rationality.


In April 2014, I spent four days working to improve my life with the help of the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). It was a good experience, and I’d recommend it highly for most of the people reading this post.

If you’d rather skip the summary, or have questions afterwards, send me an email and tell me what you want to know.

Quick Summary

CFAR teaches participants to better understand their minds, plan their actions, and achieve their goals. It does so through a series of small, hands-on seminars, run by some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen at work. It also introduces you to a community of other self-improvement-minded people, many of whom will become your friends.

The workshop is a lot like your best semester of college, but it happens in four days, costs a lot less, and is more likely to give you knowledge that will help you ten years down the road.

Some representative moments of my CFAR experience:

  • I listen to a teacher tell the story of how he taught himself to enjoy climbing trees, then use the same set of mental tools to design an anti-procrastination checklist for myself. Later, I find that the checklist works very, very well.
  • One participant lectures the rest of us about a few items that, if carried in one’s backpack, will prepare one to act helpfully in the majority of life-threatening situations one will ever encounter.
  • I make a series of Bayesian estimates of how likely it is that a randomly chosen participant will be able to catch a yogurt-covered raisin in their mouth. I compete with other participants to be the Most Accurate Bayesian. And this becomes a legitimate bonding experience.
  • I ride home from the conference with someone I met the day before and have an hour-long conversation about one of the most important relationships in my life, leading me to a collection of important new insights.

I find that introducing randomness into my life tends to have a net positive impact—the more activities I try and people I talk to, the more likely it is that I’ll hear an idea that chances my life for the better. CFAR is a dose of concentrated randomness with extremely high expected value.


What is the Center for Applied Rationality?

CFAR describes their mission in very scientific language here. If you’re the sort of person who can read that page and think “oh, yes, of course, how useful!”… you should attend a CFAR workshop.

If you’re not convinced, here’s how I’d explain CFAR’s vision:

We all want to accomplish our goals. Sometimes, we succeed. Sometimes, we fail. Sometimes, we spend a long time pursuing something, only to realize that we’ve been wasting our time.

CFAR seeks to help people improve their lives by crushing the obstacles that stand between them and “success”. That success has two components: Choosing goals that make sense, and taking action to reach those goals.

When issues arise (stress, procrastination, the planning fallacy), CFAR has answers, based in solid scientific research and years of applied practice with hundreds of other people. They also teach proactive techniques (“habits that work wherever you are”) and produce handy guides to rational behavior.


What happens at the workshop?


Nearly 20 sessions over the course of the workshop, most of which were better than any single lecture or seminar I’ve seen at Yale. Some instructors were more skilled than others, but they’ve all honed their presentation skills to the point where no session contained more than three minutes of wasted time per hour.

Before I applied, CFAR instructor Anna Salamon told me that the workshop cost less per class-hour than a semester of college. This is true, and that’s before accounting for the fact that there were zero sessions where I walked out thinking “How on earth am I going to use this?” or “I learned nothing in that session”. (At least half the class-hours I spend in college evoke those thoughts.)

It is astonishing to me that no college or high-school course has been developed to teach most of this material. Some of the most useful lessons, all of which I plan to summarize in later posts:

  • Goal Factoring (productivity): What are some things you’re doing, but suspect might not be worth doing? What do you get out of those activities now? What other activities could give you the same benefits, with less time and trouble?
  • Inner Simulator (planning): What do you predict will happen if you take some course of action? What could go wrong? How can you change your plans to prevent that thing from going wrong? (Rinse. Repeat.)
  • Urge Propagation (habits): What does your System Two want you to do? How can you make your System One want to do the same thing? I’ve read a lot of material on habit-building, but this went beyond quick tips to establish a complete system—like Ramit Sethi squared, with a dash of Charles Duhigg.

Most of the classes are oriented towards either habit-building or long-range planning, but there’s also good material on logical thinking, overcoming fear, and manipulating mental processes. To give you a soundbite: “It’s like one of those hacker bootcamps, but the thing you’re hacking is yourself.”


Downtime: Meeting Excellent People

The New York workshop included 24 other participants, plus roughly 15 instructors and experienced volunteers. I had long, content-heavy conversations with at least half of those people, and I am far from outgoing.

You know those dinners in college where you wind up sitting there for two hours and regret having to leave the table? Every meal at CFAR was like that. My fellow participants taught me about massage therapy, Brazilian expatriate culture, reputation systems, quantum computing, and how to craft the ultimate backpack

And now I get to be Facebook friends with those people! And connect with them on LinkedIn! And potentially stay at their houses when I travel! CFAR marks the biggest expansion to my network since my first semester of college, and it took four days, not four months. If you’ve heard of brain trusts—this workshop gives you a good one.

These connections aren’t coincidental. CFAR carefully prepared a central common room that was fun to hang out in, ran a prediction tournament with awesome prizes to encourage spirited debate, taught us how to remember names in an early workshop, and did lots of other small things to practically guarantee broad-spectrum socializing. The organizers were like ninjas; not one movement or moment was wasted.


After the Workshop

I’ve joined the CFAR Alumni Google Group, which generates interesting content on a daily basis, much of it written by people I now know personally.

I’ve also taken the post-workshop survey, which was extremely emphatic in asking me what parts of CFAR I didn’t like, and what I wish had happened instead. From what I’ve heard, each successive workshop is better than the last. (One of the people who told me this was on his second workshop, having attended his first six months before.)

And as a direct result of techniques learned at the workshop, I have now:

  • Written a terrible (but existent!) draft of the first chapter of Our Lives in the Shadows.
  • Implemented a much better reading system, where I return the book if I don’t like it by page 50 (saving perhaps five hours thus far).
  • Produced “free time” lists that give easy-to-follow suggestions for what I can do with certain amounts of downtime, warding off several major procrastination sessions.
  • Renewed work on the Hapless Undergraduate’s Guide to Research, after I realized it had much higher potential upside than the other things I was doing with my time.

I realize that none of this sounds groundbreaking, but I’ve built enough “CFAR time” into my schedule that I’m confident I’ll be able to substantially improve some aspect of my life at least once per week for a great many weeks to come.

What’s more, I’ve been able to take basic elements from the courses and explain them to other people, something I plan to do often for as long as the techniques fail to become common knowledge. You know how, once in a while, you’ll read a book or watch a lecture and think everyone should know these things? CFAR gave me that feeling at least half a dozen times.


Should you attend a CFAR workshop?

My default answer is “yes”. Still, there are some personal characteristics I think might change the expected value of the workshop for an average participant.

You’ll probably get more value if you:

  • Have a specific long-term project that you aren’t close to finishing. Long-term planning is one of the most common topics of CFAR classes. Examples: Starting a business, writing a book, coding an app, building a relationship, raising a child.
  • Have specific fears/weaknesses that are holding you back. You’ll spend a lot of CFAR time thinking about how to solve your problems, and knowing what problems to tackle ahead of time will help. Examples:  Poor social skills, poor health habits, lack of a certain key skill, lack of motivation, overly strong risk aversion.
  • Are on the cusp of a major life choice. You’ll get more value from CFAR’s techniques if you apply them to big decisions. Examples: Going into grad school vs. business, staying in college vs. dropping out, having a child vs. not having a child, moving to a new city vs. staying put.
  • Haven’t read many cognitive-science/Less Wrong articles. This isn’t even close to a deal-breaker; I’d read 80% of the Sequences, and I’m a cognitive-science major, but I still learned many new things each day. However, some of the material will be familiar to you if you’re the sort of person who gave a copy of Thinking Fast and Slow to all your friends for Christmas.

You may get less value if you:

  • Don’t have much money. CFAR gives financial aid, but still costs a fair amount of money, especially if you have to fly across the country to get there. That said, several people at the workshop were fairly low on funds, and one person was on the verge of missing rent, but none of them regretted having gone when I spoke to them afterwards.
  • Are over 45 years old. That’s an arbitrary number between 40 and 50, and not an ironclad rule. But the average age of attendees was something like 25, the instructors aren’t much older, and there’s a lot of focus on career choice and relationship building and other things that may not be as relevant to a 50-year-old with two children, a mortgage, and a steady, dependable job+pension.

Finally, here’s a quick demographic rundown: The workshop I attended was roughly 75% male (though most instructors were female) and 80% white.

These numbers are similar to the demographics of the “rationality community” from which CFAR draws many of its participants. I don’t think they reflect any intrinsic bias in the material, but I don’t expect the numbers to be much different at workshops soon after this one. (The NY workshop was, however, quite diverse in terms of national origin, wealth level, and career choice.)


Other Reviews

You can see a collection of testimonials here. Most are glowingly positive, but I still think they reflect the average participant’s experience. The “rationality community” is very honest, and people who don’t like things tend to speak up. I don’t recall seeing any overall negative reviews. Some reviews I found useful:

You could also try this Hacker News thread, or just talk to the folks at CFAR. They are good people. (Or, again, email me with questions.)


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