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People can take cached actions or pursue tasks without keeping the vision in mind, with half-hearted motion and lack of creativity as a result.

Imagine the following three dichotomies:

By now, you should have a set of concepts that help you describe the common threads between these three stories. You can point at goal factoring and turbocharging, and recognize ways in which the first person in each example is sort of missing the point. Those first three people, as described, are following the rules sort of just because—they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, because they’re supposed to do it, without ever pausing to ask who’s doing the supposing, and why. The latter three, on the other hand, are moved by the essence of the thing, and to the extent that they’re following a script, it’s because they see it as a useful tool, not that they feel constrained by it.

How does this apply to a rationality workshop?

Imagine you’re tutoring someone in one of the techniques—say, TAPs—and they interrupt to ask “Wait, what was step three? I can’t remember what came next,” and you realize that you don’t remember step three, either. What do you do?

You could give up, and just leave them with an incomplete version of the technique.

You could look back through the workbook, and attempt to piece together something that makes sense from bullet points that don’t really resonate with your memory of the class.

Or you could just take a broader perspective on the situation, and try to do the sensible thing. What seems like a potentially useful next question to ask? Which potential pathways look fruitful? What step three would you invent, if you were coming up with TAPs on your own, for the first time?

The basic CFAR algorithms—like the steps of a dance or the particulars of the quadratic formula—are often helpful. But they can become a crutch or a hindrance if you stick to them too closely, or follow them blindly even where they don’t seem quite right. The goal is to develop a general ability to solve problems and think strategically—ideally, you’ll use the specific, outlined steps less and less as you gain fluency and expertise. It can be valuable to start training that mindset now, even though you may not feel confident in the techniques yet.

You can think of this process as keeping Polaris in sight. There should be some sort of guiding light, some sort of known overall objective that serves as a check for whether or not you’re still pointed in the right direction. In the case of applied rationality, Polaris is not rigid, algorithmic proficiency, but a fluid and flexible awareness of all sorts of tools and techniques that mix and match and combine in whatever way you need them to.

Or, in other words: you're here to solve your problems and achieve your goals. Everything else in this sequence is useful only insofar as it helps with that.


Have a polaris for the actions you take, and keep it in mind when designing them.