The Boston CFAR alumni workshop

It’s wednesday morning at 8:57. I’ve just gotten into work. Kenzi texts me saying:

Anna in a curriculum development meeting: “My inner Alex Altair is really sad he’s not going to be here this weekend”

The next morning before the sun is up I’m on the BART to SFO. *Obviously* I should have decided to go to Boston for the alumni workshop. I hadn’t even considered it. My brain just filtered it out as not-local.

So why is it obvious? The previous morning, when deciding whether to go, I try to use outside view. I visualize how I think my weekend would go in either case. On one hand, I have a fairly large sample of spending weekends by myself working on projects. They’ve been going pretty well recently, all things considered. I’ve tended to get done the things I set out to do. On the other hand, I have three alumni workshops as my reference class. They were, each of them, exceptional weekends. I developed ideas and concepts, was taught new frameworks, made deeper connections with people and untangled connections in my mind. It’s like having twenty guaranteed excellent conversations in a row, punctuated by solo sessions of high-value introspection and planning. A naive application of Laplace’s law of succession says there’s a 4/5 chance this workshop will be the same.

When I hold up my average weekend next to a CFAR workshop, the deficit is obvious. I’m going. Carpe diem, try things, move fast and break things. This is my calling. The hero’s call to action isn’t a single moment where they decide to or not to follow the fairy into the cave. It’s the repeated choice to steer into the wind, because that’s where the treasure lies.

An alumni workshop is not like the first workshop. There are only about twelve participants (including the staff, because they are equally participatory). We work in one group. You’ll most likely have a significant conversation with each person there. The theme for this workshop was the Hamming question applied to our lives and the community. (That is, what is the most important problem in your field, and why aren’t you working on it?) But I like to call it the “actually” workshop; we tried to understand the nature of actually trying, of actually caring about succeeding. I’m fond of this.

It’s hard to directly measure my progress during the workshops. Or at all really, at least on week timescales. I rarely find that I “fix” a problem in my life, at least compared to the measurability of fixing software bugs or jiggly door handles. I haven’t come out of a workshop having founded an organization yet. But some measures are possible. I always come out with lists of things to try, notes scattered across handouts and notebooks. After the first alumni workshop (titled Epistemic Rationality for Effective Altruists), I hosted a series of group followups. This time, I came out with two major things.

1) For the first time I had strong evidence that my S1’s major wrong belief had changed.

Over the years I’ve accumulated an understanding that a major part of my worldview is a false (!) belief which I nicknamed “world is safe”. It means that to ensure my happiness I only need to take immediate actions. This causes some problems.

I’ve engaged a considerable amount of resources into aligning this belief with reality. But it’s awfully hard to tell whether I’ve made progress. …Am I more motivated now? …How about now? I’ve gotten a few bits of evidence that this belief has shifted, but nothing where I couldn’t chalk it up to small sample size or some other story. Whenever I checked in with S1, it still believed.

One technique for checking S1 beliefs I learned at Leverage. Basically, you just say a statement out loud. If it “rings true”, you believe it. It’s a bit tricky to catch the feeling of “ringing true”, but you can calibrate using statements you already know you believe. Say a statement you definitely believe like “This is my computer.”. Then say the negation, “This is not my computer.”. Actually saying it out loud seems to strongly increase the effectiveness. Feel the difference between them. One of them will feel something like a lie, and the other will feel like “well, yeah, of course”. Once you feel confident you can detect “ringing true”, you can try it with statements which you don’t know whether you believe.

So I sat alone during one of the work periods, and whispered to myself, “The world is not safe.” It rang true. It has never rung true, before.

2) It became clear that my plans were insufficient.

I sat with Oliver, describing my plan for the next phase of my life. He asks, “But how long will that take?”

“Um, I think about two years” I say.

“Two years?! Look how far MIRI, CFAR and FLI have gotten in two years!”

His response throws me two years into the future, imagining myself at 28.5 years old, and thinking All I’ve done in the past two years is [previous plan].

The correct sense of urgency isn’t one where the dementors are scarily approaching, and you have five minutes to figure out how to stop them. The correct sense of urgency is the one where the dementors have already come and gone. They’ve already taken people. There’s more behind them, and they won’t stop coming until you stop them.

God dammit responds my S1. He’s right.

But that which can be destroyed by the truth should be, and thus my plans must be destroyed.

So why do I book a next day flight to go to a CFAR workshop? It resembles the world I want to live in. I walk in the door, and people ask me my most important problem, and how I’m working on it. When I ask for help, they give it. When I ask for examples, they give me five. Conversations end because I have to be deliberate about sleep. I am deliberate about sleep because every hour of the next day is worth alertness and attention. So I go to bed. And when I wake up, I walk downstairs, and we start again. I grab the cereal, and start helping someone figure out how they can save the world. This is how life should be, and so I will get on a plane and make it that way.

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