My First Insight After CFAR, or, The Art of Not Needing Permission

At the CFAR workshops, we had tutoring sessions, in which we practiced helping another person solve a bug using a particular technique. I had three short opportunities to tutor a person in a particular technique, which allowed me to get better acquainted with the structure of the technique without being worried about my own bugs. Here’s an interesting conversation that occurred in at least two of the sessions:

Them: “So I’ve got this problem.”

Me: “Have you thought of any possible solutions?”

Them: “Well, maybe doing X?”

Me: “Oh, doing X?

Them: “Thank you!”

In the above conversation, in an open and curious tone of voice, I repeated back to the person exactly what they had said to me. Yet for them, this had turned something from a bad idea to a good one – I mean, they were enthusiastic in their thank-you’s! This was fascinating to me; it seemed that the idea was getting validation from being said aloud by someone else, in a positive tone of voice (I imagine if, as I’d said “x?”, I’d raised the pitch of my voice skeptically and looked over my glasses at them as though they were being silly, they might not have taken to their idea so well). So I marked this as important.

At a later point in the workshop, Val talked about something he called ‘The Art of Not Needing Permission’. He gave an example to illustrate what he was pointing to (my thanks to Eliezer for permission to post this story):

When Eliezer began publishing HPMoR, many people gave him arguments against spending his time on it. When Eliezer gave reasons to think it would work, his reasons his reasons called on a causal model of successful fiction: he was modelling the reasons why fiction spreads, why people enjoy it and what he’d have to do to write fiction that would motivate people to change their lifestyles. The people who told him he was wrong, tended to give what felt to them like an outside view, arguments such as “It’s more than a little improbable that you’re a writer of the calibre required to do this” and “I don’t think that fan-fiction will be able to take off in this way.” I may be making the arguments look a little more respectable here, perhaps imagine them as “You really think you’re that good?” and “Did you say *Harry* *Potter* *Fan-fiction* <incredulous stare> ?”

These arguments have the quality of attempting to socially push Eliezer down, whereas Eliezer’s arguments were focused on the best knowledge he had of the actual causal requirements for his plan to work.

And what-do-you-know, Eliezer was correct, and his plan was successful.

Val points out that Eliezer ignored the socially-motivated arguments attempting to regulate his actions, and was just interested in keeping his eye on the ball. This was Val’s way of pointing at The Art of Not Needing Permission (in the 10 minutes of class he taught us this in).

So I had these two things in my mind, both socially validated, because other people had talked about them positively.

On an extra-long commute, I decided to list my current projects by order of decreasing importance, and then again by how much I felt like doing them. “Debugging” was high on the first list… yet curiously low on the second, and I pondered this. Why didn’t I feel that debugging was something I wanted to do?

Then these three things came together in my mind.

When someone tells me they have a bug, the conversation can go something like this:

Them: “Well, I think I need to have a better system for cleaning the dishes, they always seem to pile up until there’s none left, and now I have a strongly negative affect for doing the dishes because it always takes me ages and lots of effort and I’m typically hungry when doing them.”

Me: “That is a perfectly valid problem to have, let us work on this bug together. Tell me, what does it feel like to put the dirty dishes next to the sink and decide not to clean them then?”

But when the exact same situation comes up in my own mind

Me (internal): “Ugh, the dishes are a problem. I don’t even want to think about them. It’s a bit embarrassing that they’re something I can’t get done, it’s such a trivial problem. I should just do them every time I have a meal, so that I learn to associate them with a generally clean kitchen as a result of a little effort. But I can’t seem to muster the effort to do this, I must be a bad person. Let’s think about something else.”

Now, in that situation, because it’s in my own mind, it suddenly has no social validation, only imagined social disapproval. There’s a number of judgemental words like ‘embarrassing’, ’should’, and ‘bad person’. There are many things I can do about this, but the point that struck me then was that I felt as though my own problems were invalid, in the same way the people above thought their solutions were invalid. And this was preventing me from fully connecting with my desire to advancing my art of bug-patching.

I realised in that moment that this was stopping me from fully connecting me with the idea that solving these bugs was an art I wanted to get better at.

In this case, simply noticing that I didn’t want to do any debugging because I was feeling internal social disapproval, allowed me to set the social disapproval aside and actually do some debugging. I am a novice, but now in the process of improving.

Anyway, this lead me to ask how to solve this problem in general. It seemed to me that this was the value of a rationalist community: you are given the social permission to do radical things because they can improve the world, or because they make you a better rationalist. This suddenly validated the advice I’d once received under the stars from a wise-young wizard (Oliver Habryka) in San Francisco: he told me that the most important thing for me at this point in life was to surround myself with awesome people doing awesome things. It’s very hard to not be massively affected by social approval.

Later, I realised that I had just reinvented ‘conformity effects, but by noticing what it felt like on the inside. I also noticed that Eliezer had already stated his solution to the problem in HPMoR, Chapter 84.


It’s the bit, two-thirds into the chapter, where Harry mentions in passing that he had individual members of his school-army state things like “2 + 2 = 4” and other obvious truths, surrounded by their peers sneering and jeering at the individual in the centre. This taught his fellow students to not look for social approval in truth-making.


On reflection, my solution to ’surround yourself with people who will give you social approval for being rational’ is more of a patch, and Eliezer’s an actual solution.

On realising this, I resolved to do better in the future.

Nonetheless, given that I’ve not solved this problem for myself, I’ll be doing lots of skyping and debugging with CFAR alumni and other rationalists to make sure my social circle is supporting me in that regard.

I have been looking for solutions to this for a while now, and I’ll be blogging about the ideas I’ve come up with in due course.

But for now, finding a solution is left as an exercise for the reader.

(Please do send-me / comment-with your solutions.)

For comments on earlier drafts of this post, my thanks to Amanda House, Joseph Gnehm, Malcolm Ocean and Brienne Yudkowsky 😀


CFAR, or The Art of Winning at Life

For my first blog post, I’d like to write about my recent CFAR workshop, and what I’ve learned. But before that, an anecdote:

On the first night, I made friends with Matt O’Brien. We had a conversation which I think encapsulates the ideals of CFAR quite nicely. The situation was this: we had been speaking for about ten minutes, and I had told Matt about my place in life; about to start at university, great uncertainty about my future, not sure what to do about it. Matt asked for how long I was staying in the Bay Area after the workshop, and I said I was flying out the day after. Matt said that the Bay Area was probably the ideal place for me to answer all of the questions that I had, due to all of the awesome people I could meet, and so I should change my plans to stay longer.

Me: “But I can immediately think of two things that will get in the way of me doing that. So it’s not going to happen.”

Matt: “Have you asked yourself this question: ‘If I made it my goal to solve those two problems, could I?’ ”

Me: “Er… No. I have not asked myself that question.”

Matt: “So do that.”

Me: “…If I made it my goal to solve those two problems, could I…”


Me: “Yes!”


And then I did.

CFAR uses a concept which I think is really useful. I’ll give the name later, but I’ll say that the concept includes various minor life problems such as

  • things that aren’t working and you don’t know why (e.g. repeatedly not getting things done on time, there’s always issues with your finished product at work)
  • things that just don’t feel right (e.g. your daily schedule, personal relationships)
  • things where you want to do x, but you also don’t want to do x (e.g. exercise, doing your taxes)
  • various other internal conflicts
  • things you want to improve and don’t know how to (e.g. getting a good night’s sleep, social skills)
  • plans you think are going to fail (e.g. getting your class assignment in two months from now)
  • other dissatisfactions and inefficiencies

CFAR calls all of these ‘bugs’. I think this concept gets you a lot, actually. Let me explain like this:

I am as stupid now as I was before the workshop, except for in two important ways:

  1. I now see these problems as things that deserve to be sat down with and solved, using all of my creativity and intelligence.
  2. I now have a number of techniques with which to do this.

I think this is a real change in attitude. Most of these little problems are the sort that I would’ve mentally swept under the rug, discarded as ‘unimportant’ or ‘not real issues’. Now I think differently: there is an art to getting past the small problems in life, and it is an art that can be trained.

One criticism of the utility of getting better at solving these, is that they are all small problems. This is an important criticism, that all of this ‘rationality’ is only marginally useful. The first counter-argument that might be offered, is that little problems build. Lots of little inefficiencies, from morning to night, can really add up over the course of a lifetime, losing you years of happiness and productivity. But I don’t think this is the strongest counter-argument. The fact is, dealing head on with the biggest problems in life requires the same skills as dealing with the small ones.

The mental move by which you try not to think about your dissatisfaction with the tidiness of your house, is the same mental move in which you try not to think about your dissatisfaction with the course that your career is taking. The dissatisfaction is of greater magnitude in the latter, but it is the same unhelpful skill of ‘not thinking about dissatisfaction’ that you are practicing. If you can’t do addition and multiplication, you can’t do research in pure mathematics, and if you can’t resolve the small problems in life, you will not be able to improve on the big, important ones. Bugs aren’t defined by the size of the problem, but by the cognitive algorithms that cause them to be problems.

So the concept of ‘bugs’ is really useful: once you’ve labelled something a bug, it is now in the category of ‘problems that I can practice solving to get better at life’. The staff helpfully emphasised this in classes, with talk about “Keep your eye on the ball” and “You are not here to learn the techniques, but to solve your problems, don’t forget that.”

Main take-away: If I have a problem in life, I think “Okay! Here is an opportunity for me to get better at life. Where’s my pen and paper?”


For comments on earlier drafts of this post, my thanks to Amanda House, Joseph Gnehm, and Brienne Yudkowsky 😀