I went to EAG London this weekend. I had some interesting chats, wrote some cryptic squiggles in my notebook (“Clockify” “the Easterlin paradox”, “functionalist eudaimonic theories”), and gave and received some hopefully-useful advice. Overall, the conference was fun and worthwhile for me. But at times, I also found the conference emotionally difficult.
I think this is pretty common. After last year’s EAG, Alastair Fraser-Urquhart wrote about how he burnt out at the conference and had to miss a retreat starting the next day. The post was popular, and many said they’d had similar experiences.
The standard euphemism for this facet of EA conferences is ‘intense’ or ‘tiring’, but I suspect these adjectives are often a more socially-acceptable way of saying ‘I feel low/anxious/exhausted and want to curl up in a foetal position in a darkened room’.
I want to write this post to:
- balance out the ‘woo EAG lfg!’ hype, and help people who found it a bad or ambivalent experience to feel less alone
- dig into to why EAGs can be difficult: this might help attendees have better experiences themselves, and also create an environment where others are more likely to have good experiences
- help people who mostly enjoy EAGs understand what their more neurotic or introverted friends are going through
Here are some reasons that EAGs might be emotionally difficult. Some of these I’ve experienced personally, others are based on comments I’ve heard, and others are plausible educated guesses.
It’s easy to compare oneself (negatively) to others
EA conferences are attended by a bunch of “impressive” people: big-name EAs like Will MacAskill and Toby Ord, entrepreneurs, organisation leaders, politicians, and “inner-circle-y” people who are Forum- or Twitter-famous. You’ve probably scheduled meetings with people because they’re impressive to you; perhaps you’re seeking mentorship and advice from people who are more senior or advanced in your field, or you want to talk to someone because they have cool ideas.
This can naturally inflame impostor syndrome, feelings of inadequacy, and negative comparisons. Everyone seems smarter, harder-working, more agentic, better informed. Everyone’s got it all figured out, while you’re still stuck at Stage 2 of 80k’s career planning process. Everyone expects you to have a plan to save the world, and you don’t even have a plan for how to start making a plan.
Most EAs, I think, know that these thought patterns are counterproductive. But even if some rational part of you knows this, it can still be hard to fight them - especially if you’re tired, scattered, or over-busy, since this makes it harder to employ therapeutic coping mechanisms.
The stakes are high
We’re trying to solve immense, scary problems. We (and CEA) pour so much time and money into these conferences because we hope that they’ll help us make progress on those problems. This can make the conferences anxiety-inducing - you really really hope that the conference pays off. This is especially true if you have some specific goal - such as finding a job, collaborators or funders - or if you think the conference has a high opportunity cost for you.
You spend a lot of time talking about depressing things
This is just part of being an EA, of course, but most of us don’t spend all our time directly confronting the magnitude of these problems. Having multiple back-to-back conversations about ‘how can we solve [massive, seemingly-intractable problem]?’ can be pretty discouraging.
Everything is busy and frantic
You’re constantly rushing from meeting to meeting, trying not to bump into others who are doing the same. You see acquaintances but only have time to wave hello, because your schedule is packed. During each meeting, you’re vaguely keeping an eye on the time, to make sure you're not late to your next meeting. Swapcard and Slack are constantly pinging you. You might also be jetlagged, or undersleeping because you’re trying to cram in more conferencing and socialising. You’re wolfing down food while discussing the alignment problem. It’s really hard to be ‘in the moment’, digest, process. This might be particularly hard for neurodivergent people, who may find the environment over-stimulating and overwhelming.
You’re confronted with your limitations
Maybe people give you advice that won’t work for you, and the reasons it won't work are sore spots, emotionally-sensitive points. This can be hard to navigate; it feels insincere to accept the advice without comment, but also you might not want to go into sensitive personal issues with someone you’ve just met. For example, maybe someone suggests that you do an intensive fellowship or ambitious project that you’re generally a good fit for, but you know you’re not mentally or physically well enough to do it. Maybe someone pitches a really tempting side project but you know you won’t have time: you’re already busy with your job and your parenting responsibilities. Maybe people are telling you to move to the Bay Area, but though you’d love to do that, family responsibilities keep you where you are.
You might have bad interactions
You might run into an abusive ex or boss. Maybe someone makes inappropriate sexual advances. Perhaps you experience micro-aggressions. Maybe someone you meet with is just an asshole. Or you meet with someone who’s not an asshole, but whose communication style you nonetheless find challenging: for example, because they are blunter and more ‘ask-culture-y’, or because they bring up things that feel more intimate and personal than you would like.
This post is a bit of a downer, so I want to emphasise: I think EA conferences are net good. I’m not asking the organisers to do things differently, and I’m grateful for what they already do to mitigate these problems (for example, providing nap rooms, chill-out rooms, and quiet working rooms for introverts to hide in). And the emotionally-difficult aspects of EA conferences are flipsides of more positive things: meeting impressive-seeming people can be intimidating, but it can also be inspiring. It’s good that people take the conferences seriously and want to make the most of them. And we shouldn’t expect a 1600-person international conference to have the vibes of a silent meditation retreat.
But hopefully this post will counterbalance some of the exuberance and help us acknowledge that these valuable events are ambivalent for many of us, and certainly not universally fun or energising.