[added 2023-01] I recently became more skeptical of CFAR after talking to more people who have done it. CFAR was positively impactful for me, but I think it is worth holding your own worldview strongly while visiting. If you are someone for whom other people have a strong impact on shaping your worldview, then I would recommend caution: talking to others and getting several opinions before diving in. I’m not sure how much this matters because I don’t think CFAR is running many mainline workshops anymore.

Original Post

Let’s say you want to build a company worth a hundred million dollars.

I think most people agree that this is a hard thing to do. A lot of people want a hundred million dollars, and if it were easy, they would all be doing it already.

Other examples of hard things are getting Donald Trump out of office, or going to the Moon. Hard things are things that you may not succeed at if you try.

So, how do you increase your chances? There are tons of ways to work on these sorts of problems – for Trump, you could imagine donating to his opponent, or posting anti-Trump memes on social media. If these obvious ideas don’t seem like they would work or have much impact, though, then a lot of people give up, but you might still be able to be creative. One surprisingly powerful technique I’ve learned is to grab a notebook, set a timer and think for five minutes about creative ways to solve your problem. This “works” (gets you to think of plausible alternate paths) surprisingly more often than you would expect given how cheap it is to run. This is one of the many things they teach you at Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) – a four-day intensive workshop about how to be more productive, more creative or happier.

Another example (aptly enough) is the technique of being concrete – speaking in terms of examples, rather than abstractions. This is a communication technique rather than a creativity one, but once you realize how much greater understanding comes from concreteness, you level up in your ability to work effectively with others. Again, CFAR teaches this, and many other things as well. If you’re the type of person who wants to do hard things, one of the best investments you can make is self-improvement – your effectiveness at each moment can have a huge impact on your overall outcomes, so it is worth a few days and a few thousand dollars to learn non-obvious techniques which could pay back enormously in your career and life.

Why CFAR in particular? I actually don’t think there’s much reason, other than it resonated with me and I hope it does with you as well. There’s an enormous amount of self-help and self-improvement material out there, often in the form of books. CFAR is a lot more focused – there’s something especially valuable about dedicating time, even a few short days, of your life toward improving your skills in a way that books seem to have trouble replicating. There might be other formats as well, such as weekly meetups, etc.; but I still think CFAR is the most concentrated self-improvement I know for the impatient.

I do have a confession to make, though, which is that I’ve never been to a CFAR workshop proper. I did “Rationality Boot Camp” in 2011 run by the same people (which I and others blogged about here), which was a summer-long program. The content wasn’t enough for a whole summer, but it was enough for an intensive one-week program, which morphed over the following couple years into the four-day program which CFAR is today. I subsequently experienced the CFAR material as part of an Effective Altruism event, and am considered a CFAR alumnus despite never having been to a modern workshop :). That said, I know and am friends with plenty of people who are real CFAR alumni.

So, counter-recommendation time: who is CFAR not for?

  • If you’re not trying to do hard things – set ambitious goals and actually achieve them, and are willing to put a lot of time and money toward achieving your goals – I don’t know that the material will resonate.
  • If you have a lot going on in your life and can’t take four days off, or if you’re very routine-sensitive and it’s hard to imagine being able to focus outside of your normal routine for four pretty intense days, then it would probably not be a great idea.
  • If you are really self-driven and have a lot of access to the material out there that teaches self-improvement techniques, and strongly prefer to learn on your own, then you might not get a lot out of it (I think a lot of the benefit of CFAR is just being in a social atmosphere where everyone is working on the same stuff – this helps most people but not everyone!)

The base CFAR workshop costs roughly $4000, although I understand that they often allow participants to pay less if you can’t afford it. They also have an interview process where once you apply, they talk to you to help figure out if CFAR is right for you.

For some lighter-weight self-serve material along a similar axis, I recommend Sam Harris’s app – it is focused on meditation, but that may be effective as an entryway into more techniques. If you want a sample, this 7 minute podcast called “Mental Training” is one of my favorites.