A few effective altruism conferences are happening very soon: EAGxBoston 2019 on 27-28 April and EA Global: San Francisco 2019 on 21-23 June. Additionally, several other conferences are happening later this year: EAGxAustralia 2019 on 27-29 September and EA Global: London 2019 on 18-20 October. I think it is timely to think about how to get the maximum value out of events like these.
I have attended five effective altruism conferences so far: EAGxOxford 2016, EAG London 2017, Effective Altruism Summit 2018 (in San Francisco), EAG London 2018, and EAGxNordics 2019. I attended the 2017 London conference as a volunteer and I was a speaker at the 2018 London conference.
From attending these conferences I’ve been able to figure out some ways to optimize my attendance and wanted to share my learnings with you in a short forum post. Hopefully some of these ideas will be useful for people attending EA conferences and I hope that more experienced members (as well as anyone else) also adds their tips in the comments to improve this post.
In case some forum readers are not exactly aware what these conferences are about, I want to share a brief description from the website of EA Global: “EA Global is the biannual gathering of the effective altruism community. The content is aimed at existing community members who already have a solid understanding of effective altruism, but would like to gain skills, network, master more complex problems, or move into new roles.”
Here is a short summary of smaller local conferences (even though events like the Oxford conference in 2016 can be quite large): “Effective Altruism Global X (EAGx) is the locally organized international conference series of the Effective Altruism community. Events are typically open to everyone and can be 1 or 2 days in length. Content is primarily aimed at people who are aware of the core ideas of effective altruism, but who want to engage more deeply with the concepts and get more involved with the community.”
Are EA conferences worth it?
There’s a lot of value someone can gain from attending EA conferences. It depends a lot on the person themselves and whether they get enough value out of these conferences or not. It requires preparation and thinking. In general, these conferences can give lots of information, connections, inspiration, or other kinds of resources to do the most good through our donations and career.
I want to list some examples of value that Estonians who have attended EA conferences have received:
- Met a lot of people who study at top universities (Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley, Harvard, LSE, UCL, etc.) or work at very influential organizations (Future of Humanity Institute, DeepMind, Centre for Effective Altruism, Center for Applied Rationality, etc.)
- Heard about organizations, projects, ideas, etc. that they had never heard of before (for example, that there’s Forethought Foundation, which supports global priorities research with money, ideas, and mentors, and that some people in the EA community research wild animal suffering and study whether bugs have sentience that is morally relevant)
- Inspiration and support with projects and plans (for example, meeting people who study at world-class universities has inspired our members to apply for top degree programs themselves, and to apply for EA internships and also be successful with that)
- Received useful ideas directly from experts (for example, people have set up meetings with experts from DeepMind and asked lots of questions from them about AI safety and have later used those ideas to write blog posts and start new study groups)
- Found people to collaborate with (for example, people who live in the same region have found new connections to start an EA/rationality group with, and they have also found people with similar interests to do regular calls and check-ins with)
Of course, not everyone finds these conferences always useful. People say that many conversations have too much small talk, meeting random people is often not valuable, talking so much is tiresome, and paying for conference ticket, accommodation, and traveling is not worth it, and so on.
General tips for the conference
I have gathered some of these tips from emails that were sent out right before an EA conference was held, and have brainstormed and implemented some others myself.
- Write down your goals for the conference and think about how you might achieve them. Some examples might be the following: ask for feedback on your career plan, meet someone who wants to participate in a similar project like you, or learn about entirely new cause areas and interventions.
- Join Facebook groups, event apps, spreadsheets, etc. before the event to connect with people you can help or who could benefit you. Contact someone directly before the conference to schedule a time to meet with that person.
- Prioritize meetings, workshops, and meetups over talks and lectures. Lectures are often recorded and can be rewatched later. It also provides a great opportunity for organizing an EAG video and discussion event with your local group.
- Take lots of notes during the conference. Write down people you should meet, new ideas you heard, next actions to take, novel considerations for your plans, great questions someone asked you, and everything else relevant to you.
- If you need some quiet time, find a room at the conference that is meant for that. Participate in park walks, meditation and yoga sessions, or organize exercise or meditation sessions for yourself.
- Remember the guiding principles of effective altruism when interacting with other attendees. These include commitment to others, scientific mindset, openness, integrity, and collaborative spirit.
- Give thorough feedback when you are filling in the feedback form at the end of the conference. It is a great time to reflect on what you got out of the event and what next steps you should take. Furthermore, iit provides very useful input for the organizers.
- Take actions on your next steps. Reflect on what has changed for you since the conference. Have you scheduled follow-up conversations with your new contacts? Have you applied for that new program you heard of? Have you started reading that book somebody recommended?
How I prepared for the event
When I attended my first conference in 2016, I came completely unprepared. It is not to say that I did not receive value because of that, but I definitely didn’t receive as much value as I could have. I also did not enjoy my time as much as I have enjoyed it recently.
I lean toward introversion, so I found myself quite exhausted at the conference. When I walked into a room of hundreds of people, I felt very uncomfortable not knowing anyone and for not feeling confident to just go and speak with someone randomly. And when someone else approached me randomly, I quickly got tired from all the interaction.
I know myself as well as the environment of the conferences better now and therefore, can prepare to get more out of these events. I first started with preparing broad focus areas of the conference for myself. I created this list:
- Connect other EAs with valuable people
- Find valuable connections to collaborate with (likely in the areas of global priorities research, AI policy, and community building)
- Improve my plan for London School of Economics Master’s studies
- Make my existing EA connections stronger and perhaps find new ways to collaborate
- Once the program comes out, select my favorite lectures/meetups to attend
- Meet with other Estonians to talk with them about their interests and needs
- Plan for meetings so that they are focused and avoid too much small-talk or unnecessary chatter
- Minimize restlessness and anxiety with networking
Here’s a flexible schedule I made for myself for EAGxNordics 2019 (I did not follow it very strictly as new options became available during the conference and I also paid attention to my energy levels and desires):
18:00 saying hello to old acquaintances
19:00 meeting with person 1
20:00 meeting with person 2
10:00 opening session
10:15 AI governance meetup
11:30 break, coffee, and snacks
12:00 guided park walk
13:30 meeting with person 3
15:00 Stefan Schubert: social behavior and ethics
15:30 Stefan Schubert: office hour
16:00 break, coffee, and snacks
16:30 Aron Vallinder: Forethought Foundation
17:00 Meeting with person 4
18:00 Meeting with person 5
19:30+ Policy dinner
10:00 Joey Savoie: charity science
10:30 Joey Savoie: office hours
11:00 Meeting with person 6
12:30 Haydn Belfield: Centre for the Study of Existential Risks
13:00 Haydn Belfield: office hours
14:30 Meeting with person 7
16:00 fruit and snacks
16:30 meeting with person 8
17:30 closing session
Organizing things before the conference
I knew that eight people were coming to the EAGxNordics 2019 conference from Estonia in total, so I wanted to help them get more out of the conference. In order to do that, I organized a pre-event meeting, created names and faces slides on Google, and started a FB group for the attendees.
The pre-event meeting was just a meeting at a pub where we had an informal conversation about the next EA conference. First, I shared my experiences from previous conferences and asked others to share their experiences attending other kinds of conferences. We especially focused on what has been beneficial and what has been unpleasant and unuseful. Then we shared tips on how to benefit more from the event. We also took some time to brainstorm goals for ourselves and then shared those with others.
Later, I asked people to add their picture and background information on Google slides. More specifically I asked four things: who are you?, what’s your current plan for improving the world?, how can others help you?, how can you help others? I think it is a useful exercise for people to reflect on these important questions, but also open up opportunities to benefit each other. In addition, it is very useful for me as a community builder to understand what our members need.
Here’s an example slide I created about myself:
We used the FB group for many things: arranging everything necessary for the trip, sharing resources relevant for the conference, discussing what to attend during the conference, making suggestions of what people to meet at the conference (based on conversations, and names and faces Google slides), reflecting on the value of the conference, and many other things.
Effective altruism conferences can be highly valuable if enough preparation is done before attending them. They can provide information, connections, inspiration, or other kinds of resources to help us do the most good. To get a lot out of these conferences set goals, contact people, take notes, get enough rest, pay attention to effective altruism guiding principles, reflect on the conference, and take actions on next steps. Community builders may organize pre-events, facilitate communication between attendees, and recommend resources to their members.
I'd guess it is common for people to underweight the expected value (EV) of attending EA Globals, because they focus on the predictable and easy-to-measure benefits of doing so. However, the EV of attending these conferences (according to my intuitive model) is dominated by 'Black Swan'-like benefits (i.e. low-probability, hard-to-predict, disproportionately-high-impact benefits). For this reason, it may be the case that even if (suppose) most EA Global attendees got little value out of the conference, there will likely be a few individuals reaping very large benefits that justify the whole event for everyone else.
These underappreciated benefits of attending EA Globals likely include: 1) starting a causal chain that will (eventually) result in a job or internship, 2) finding co-founders for highly valuable projects, 3) making new connections (or deepening existing ones) that will (eventually) provide you with substantial support (e.g. financial, advisory, emotional) or vice versa, 4) changing your mind about an empirical or philosophical crucial consideration that radically alters your priorities (e.g. by changing which cause area to focus on, or which interventions to prioritise).
To account for these potential Black Swan-like benefits when thinking about the opportunity cost of attending events such as EA Global, I deliberately attempt to follow the heuristic of asking myself: "Is this event more likely to give rise to Black Swan-like benefits compared to the best alternative use of my time?". I prioritise events that have 'Black Swan'-generating circumstances (e.g. meeting new people and organisations working on important topics, having opportunities to reflect on major life choices and philosophical beliefs, meeting smart and well-informed people who have major disagreements with my views).
Speaking as someone who's seen the data on what people judge their most valuable EA Global experiences to have been (in post-event surveys), this seems correct. This year, we're trying to emphasize EA Global being a place to look for things that could substantially change your path/thinking.
(That said, the conference can be an intense experience, so we encourage people to hold off on big decisions until EA Global is over and they've had more time to think things through.)
Can confirm this was a good meeting.
These are great tips!
I'm biased as I was part of the Estonian delegation that attended the latest EAGxNordics event but I have to say that all of this was very useful for me. It was the second EA conference I've attended but I've attended many other conferences and I think that all of these points also hold true for them too.
I especially second the idea of creating goals before the event, finding people who you want to speak with from the attendee list, and contacting them and setting up a time to chat even before the event starts in order to make sure you are getting value even if you don't attend a single talk.
I like your list. Here is my conference advice, contradicting some of yours, based mostly on my experience with academic conferences:
1. Focus on making friends. Of course it would be good to have productive discussions and make useful connections, but it is most important to know some friendly faces and feel comfortable. For me it works best to talk about unrelated things like hobbies, not about work or EA or anything like that.
2. Listening to talks is exhausting, so don't force yourself to attend too many of them. It is fine to pick just the 2-3 most interesting talks on a day and skip everything else.
3a. Attending a talk in person is widely preferable over watching the video.
3b. Ask questions at talks. If you ask less than one question over the course of a multi-day conference, you are doing something wrong.
Can you expand on 3a and 3b? I guess 3b justifies 3a, but is that all? Watching and discussing a video with your local group appears to me to be more valuable than asking one question at a talk, but I may be missing some important benefits that you are aware. I would also add that these are not mutually exclusive. I have heard that some people struggle to set time to watch talks on their own, that is also something to consider.
3b justifies 3a, as well as that I have a much easier time paying attention to the talk. In video, there is too much temptation to play at 1.5x speed and aim for an approximate understanding. Though I guess watching the video together with other people also helps.
As for 3b, in my experience asking questions adds a lot of value, both for yourself as well as for other audience members. The fact that you have a question is a strong indication that the question is good and that other people are wondering the same thing.