CFAR Handbook

Dear (potential) readers of CFAR’s Handbook,

We expect that there are a few kinds of people who might find themselves planning to read the handbook.

If you have never been to a CFAR workshop, and don’t have any near-term plans to come to one, then you may be the kind of person who would love to set their eyes on a guide to improving one’s rationality, full of straightforward instructions and exercises on how to think more clearly, act more effectively, learn more from your experiences, make better decisions, and do more with your life. This book is not that guide (nor is the workshop itself, for thatmatter). It was never intended to be that guide.

This handbook began as a collection of worksheets and notes which we handed out to people who attended our workshop sessions. That way they would be able to refer back to these notes after the workshop, rather than having to furiously scribble their own notes. With a great deal of love and attention for both the content summarized in those handouts and their intended audience, these notes have been refined into the far more readable, engaging, and coherent handbook that you see before you, primarily by former CFAR employee Duncan Sabien. But they are still, fundamentally, reference material, intended primarily to refresh the memory and bolster the understanding of people who have already been through a CFAR workshop. The Handbook is not designed to be a stand-alone guide to learning applied rationality.

What happens when someone who hasn’t been to a workshop and wants to improve their rationality looks through this handbook? We don’t know. Information from such people doesn’t make it back to us reliably. To take a guess, most of the time, not all that much happens. Reading about how to swing a tennis racket probably doesn’t have much effect on one’s tennis Game.

You might expect that tennis analogy to lead into exhortations to actually try out the techniques and practice them, but (to reiterate) we don’t really know what will happen if you actually try out the techniques and practice them guided only by this text. If someone reads the words that we’ve written about the numbered steps to a technique, and forms an interpretation about what those words mean, and tries to do the thing with their mind that matches their interpretation of those words, and practices again and again. . . we might be surprised to see what they actually wind up doing. Maybe it’ll be something useful, maybe not.

While we don’t have direct data about what to do with this handbook if you’re hoping to use it to improve your rationality without the workshop, we will offer a guess at a recommendation: remain firmly grounded in your own experiences, in your own judgment, in what you care about, in your existing ways of doing things. As you come across new concepts in this handbook, hold them up against your own experiences. If something seems like a bad idea, don’t do it. If you do try something out, pay attention to how useful it seems (according to however you already judge whether something seems useful) and whether anything about it seems “off” (according to however you already judge that). If you wind up getting something useful out of this handbook, I’d guess that it is likely to come from you tinkering around with your existing ways of doing things (while taking some inspiration from what you read here).

For example, when you read about a technique you might pause to think about when it’s supposed to be useful - what class of problems do the people at CFAR think exists such that they expect this technique to be helpful? And does that ring true to you? (This is, perhaps surprisingly, not all that different from what we recommend to people at the start of a CFAR workshop. A workshop is more about creating a space where people can reflect on how they’ve been doing things, compare notes with other people, try out different approaches, and build traction in useful direction than it is about mastering an established set of techniques.)

Some briefer notes for other kinds of readers:

If you are wondering what rationality stuff CFAR has come up with, then this book does offer glimpses into that. Although keep in mind that it is not the CFAR workshop in book form. The number of pages that a topic gets in the handbook does not necessarily reflect how important we consider it or how much time it gets at a workshop, things that happen at workshops outside of classes/concepts/techniques might not be reflected in the handbook, and reading the lyrics isn’t quite the same as hearing a song. If you know anyone who has been to a CFAR program, maybe try also asking them about it.

If someone used a phrase that you’ve never heard before and said that they got it from CFAR, then the handbook might be more helpful to you since it is a reference book.

If you are going to attend an upcoming workshop and want to get a head start, be aware that we don’t know whether reading the handbook in advance is helpful (by getting a head start on learning the concepts) or anti-helpful (like reading spoilers). Our uncertain & tentative recommendation is typically to not read the handbook in advance. If you do read parts of it in advance, we encourage you to approach the workshop in the spirit of taking a fresh look at things, and keep in mind that having some familiarity with an idea still leaves a lot of room for engaging more with it.

If you have been to a CFAR workshop and are using this handbook as a reference, then the handbook was designed just for you.