Apr 20, 2015
This a post co-written by Brenton Mayer and Peter McIntyre.
Peter Hurford’s recent post challenges us to find ways to engage new EAs. In this post we explore travelling to an EA hub as a means to achieve this goal, and consider whether we would advise others to undertake the same trip we did.
As an effective altruist in Australia it can feel isolating being so far away from the action. Over the December 2013 holidays, Brenton Mayer spent a month at Giving What We Can. In the Christmas period just gone, Peter McIntyre visited Oxford and the San Francisco Bay Area for a month each and interned at CFAR in the latter.
In San Francisco, every morning Peter would leave his sharehouse for EAs and rationalists, ‘Event Horizon’, and head to the CFAR office, where he would sit down to do some writing for their blog.
In Oxford, some of us worked if our visa allowed it, but otherwise we would rock up to the office and work on our own projects. We’d have a shared lunch with the rest of the office, during which we’d discuss other people’s research, listen to a talk on a topic someone had studied or work on solving the big issues, like figuring out what the next SMBC comic strip should be. Outside of ‘office time’, we both stayed in houses with other EAs, going to gorgeously English pubs and having lots of interesting conversations.
Most importantly, visiting an EA hub can lead to a significant change in your career or life. We asked the 14 Australians who have visited an EA hub about their experiences.
Acquiring contacts within the EA community can lead to:
Collaborative projects you hadn't envisioned before
The ability to ask people with skills in a particular area for help
Having a better feel for the scale and characteristics of the community
It will increase your understanding current EA best practices, rather than reinventing the wheel.
It’s great fun to talk about what you've been reading with people in real life, rather than just through a computer.
The enjoyment of travelling.
A speaker saying “I volunteered for an organisation researching and running workshops on working out the bugs in our cognition” conjures up more faith than “So, I read this blog right…”
It might reduce value drift because you meet friends with similar goals and because the travel is a significant investment in EA.
It's a good environment for getting your own projects done:
Highly motivating (observing others' productivity + feeling them approve of your EA work)
Access to an office
Away from normal duties at home
General personal growth:
You might learn productivity techniques.
Nice environment for goal setting/career planning
When you come back and tell your friends about your experiences, you get to discuss EA in your life in a less preachy manner.
You’re part of a work environment, so while there’s never any shortage of EAs to have big chats to, you need to be respectful of people’s time and space. (To get around this, you could consider going to an EA Global.)
The monetary cost - Pete spent around $5000 more than he would have at home over the same period, Brenton $4000 more. This includes travel, sightseeing etc.
You’ll miss out on things you would have done at home (eg. Christmas, holidays at home).
The EAs who we have data on are those who have been to an EA hub, so they’re highly selected for their enthusiasm and their confidence that they’ll get a something out of a trip to a hub. The average EA might get less out of it.
We struggled with this idea for a long time. Wouldn’t we have had a greater impact by donating our money rather than travelling? The mindset of modelling everything in quantifiable terms is common but is likely often harmful. Nonetheless, we’ll indulge your desires and have a very brief look into whether it would be worth the cash from three angles:
Of the 14 surveyed Australian EAs that went on such a trip, 12 thought that it would increase their overall impact. Only 2 didn’t think it was worth their resources as a charitable act. 9 are currently in Oxford, London or San Francisco. It’s best to skim through Footnote 1 to get an idea of how the group found the experience.
An Australian giving at 10% while earning an average wage (this is probably a conservative example for EAs) will give around $280 000 over their career. This implies that an EA earning and giving at that level would need to see a greater than 1.8% influence on their total giving in order to draw even in good done through their donations, in expectation. We could easily imagine a much larger likely increase in donations, from consideration of different careers as well as reduction in value drift. In addition to this are all the other positives discussed above, like doing collaborative projects or starting an EA group.
80000 hours and the Global Priorities Project, in a collaborative report, suggest that in our early careers, investing in personal capital is a better use of resources than donation. This seems like a pretty good way of building career capital more broadly, as well as domain-specific EA-capital.
We acknowledge that it seems a bit dubious to point to small changes on things like career trajectory as evidence of impact, as we have done above. However, as we’ve seen, the chance of travelling to EA hubs significantly affecting the individuals actually seems quite large. We’re also skeptical of our ability to have insight into this and reason counterfactually; the question serves instead as a proxy for ‘do you think your trip was valuable?’
Contrary to Betteridge’s law of headlines (any question asked in title can be answered with 'no'), we think that visiting a hub does increase your likelihood and ability to do a lot of good. We also think this outweighs the costs. There are some thoughts in Footnote 3 regarding how to get the largest benefit from a trip.
Giving What We Can are currently looking for volunteers, for their 2015 summer internship programme, as is the Global Priorities Project. If you’d like to do an internship, or just have some questions you’d like to ask, you can contact Tara Mac Aulay in Oxford, or visit bayrationality.com and contact someone on there. And of course, we are always happy to answer any questions you may have: via Peter’s or Brenton’s email.
Thanks to everyone who helped out, especially those in Footnote 1 for answering the questions that made this post possible.
 “Would [you] describe a change in your trajectory as a result of your (first) visit or did you find it a worthwhile experience? Was it a better use of your resources than your relevant counterfactual?” ⤴
Peter McIntyre: “I’d estimate a 50% change in my career from visiting Oxford and San Francisco. I’m around 70% sure that the trip was a better use of my resources than the relevant counterfactual.”
Brenton Mayer: “There’s a 10% chance my visit will change some step in my career. The experience and the friends I now have will significantly reduce my value drift, which is possibly the most significant positive. I’m also 90% sure that the trip was a better use of my resources than the relevant counterfactual. ”
Tara Mac Aulay: “Change is hard, maybe 30%? I imagine I would still be working in the non-profit sector if I never visited an EA hub, so it's not that different to working at CEA, most of the changes are probably network related though.”
Brayden McLean: “It’s a Significant Plan change for me, for sure. 50%, probably.”
Ryan Carey: “If I hadn't travelled to Oxford or SF ever, there's like <50% chance I'd have ever done a msc here [in London] and <20% chance I'd volunteer for CSER.”
Buck Shlegeris: “I moved to SF for App Academy in part because of the EA community here, but I didn’t actually visit here. However, moving here was an unambiguously good decision. I have gotten an enormous amount of value from the EA community here (and my income is about doubled here compared to what it would have been in Australia). If you’re a software engineer, the salary difference is such that you’d be crazy not to move here if you possibly can.”
Tonja Wright: “Very sure - 90%. I was able to create personal relationships with highly active EAs and it led to a full-time paid EA job! My trajectory was completely changed. I spent nearly 2 months at Leverage in The Bay Area and then did a 3-4 month internship at CEA. If I didn't get hired by one of them, I was going to work at a think tank or go into politics I had many conversations with different members of the EA movement - ones I couldn't have had over the internet from Australia... they gave me lots of advice about what my next career step should be and that helped me make my final decisions on what was fast becoming a very overwhelming process. On a personal note, the chance to meet so many amazing people in the flesh and make friends with them was priceless!”
Chris Barnett: "I am highly (90%) confident that I made the right choice moving to the bay area. The opportunities to have a high impact are much higher here because there are more people here with both the capability and the will to impact the world for the better. I have already experienced a faster than ever growth trajectory since I moved here, which I attribute to collaborating with, learning from and being inspired by the myriad of impressive people I've met here.”
Rob Wiblin: Rob is now living in Oxford and is the Executive Director of the Centre for Effective Altruism.
Thomas Hendrey: "Pretty undecided on my trajectory both before and after going, so I won’t put figures on trajectory change. I am confident it was a better use of resources than the relevant counterfactual for me (in the sense that it was better that I went than that noone went). My relevant counterfactual wasn’t very good, but I do think it is the best way of getting an understanding of the internal workings of CEA and I met lots of great people, and had lots of interesting and potentially fruitful conversations."
Frazer Kirkman: Currently my trajectory is unchanged, but I do plan to visit the Bay again. While there I met inspiring, resourceful, and interesting people. There is so much positivity being produced, I loved the lifestyle, and the mindset of so many people.
The focus of this trip was to get a tech job as that seemed to be a confident way to earn to give. While I worked in tech when I was younger, the majority of my life has been as a personal well being coach, focussing on empowering people to change habits, lifestyle and life direction. While I have created a lot of altruists, it has not been financially lucrative for me. I wanted to work in a more financially stable tech role to fund future projects, and have funds to donate, or whichever method will be most effective. This was change in careers was perhaps too big of a swing from my current trajectory. I didn't find a job. I also intended to have a greater positive impact on the EA community in the Bay. If I was to go again, I would focus on my strengths, go on a business visa, put on seminars and workshops, as well as offer coaching.
Emily Cutts Worthington: [her boyfriend Buck answering on her behalf] “Emily enjoyed meeting EAs, but did not find it useful per se. Emily is unmotivated by communities, so didn’t get as much out of it as most do.”
Ruby Bloom: “Visiting an EA Hub had an enormous impact on me.
“1) Motivation and inspiration.
Being among dozens of others who share your values and are putting forth impressive efforts to pursue unambiguously increased my own drive for personal growth and do-gooding.
“2) Practical advice and connections.
Discussions with people I met changed my opinions and plans significantly, and I'd say for the better. Their insight in general helped me achieve more, internally and externally.
“3) Connections and opportunities. You find people to work with (this happened to me) and discover other ways to do good that you just wouldn't elsewhere.”
Ruby says he’s 90% sure that visiting an EA hub was a better use of resources than his relevant counterfactual and that without visiting he’s 99% sure he wouldn't have gotten married six months later!
Helen Toner: “I visited the US twice in 2014 to help me think about next steps after finishing my degree. I think you can get the most out of a trip if you are considering living overseas, have specific questions you're trying to answer, and have friends-of-friends living there who you can be introduced to personally.” Interviewer: “How sure are you that it was a better use of resources than your relevant counterfactual?” Helen: “I’d say >50%, because I think counterfactuals are hard but I think personal development is basically is the best use of my resources of the next few years.”
 (Written by Helen Toner)
-Having at least a few people to visit who are friends-of-friends, that is, you can be introduced to them by someone who knows you well
-Living overseas being at least something you're considering
-Having a few questions (even if they're vague) that you want to find out more about on the trip (classic example is questions about careers). This makes it much easier to meet people, since you can link up with those who can most likely help you, and makes it more likely you'll come out of the trip with something concrete
The EA retreat might be an exception to the above - it was an amazing way to meet people, discuss all kinds of things, and have a great time, so I'd almost recommend it without even considering effectiveness
 This calculation comes from an income of $62 000 over 45 years, with Pete’s cost of $5000 being the cost of the trip. It’s very simplistic. A better estimate would consider factors such as:
A discount rate. Using a discount rate of 3% gives a present value of $152 000 on that $280 000.
A counterfactual which includes the EA earning if they’re not travelling
The contribution the EA makes to the group the visit
A donation percentage closer to the individual’s intents rather than just 10%
A lifetime earnings figure closer to the individual’s expectations rather than just the average wage