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.
Amber - thanks for sharing these candid reactions to EAG. I suspect they're fairly common reactions among many attendees.
I would just contextualize your reactions by pointing out that these reactions are very common in many young people attending conferences in any scientific field! I don't think most of them are unique to EA. Most are generic to almost any kind of intellectually focused conference.
When I was in grad school and in my early academic career, I attended a wide variety of conferences in cognitive science, machine learning, genetics, decision theory, evolutionary psychology, primatology, etc. Across all these fields, many young researchers had similar reactions to the conferences, concerning the reactions you mentioned -- high career stakes, imposter syndrome, confronting one's limitations, everything being busy and frantic, having some bad interactions, etc. The social challenges of conferences are especially acute for people (like me) with Aspergers, introversion, and/or social awkwardness.
So I think EAs need to be careful about a couple of things.
First, it's important for EAs to attend a variety of non-EA conferences, so we realize that a lot of the challenges of EA conferences aren't unique to EA, but are just generic to what happens when you put hundreds of smart, motivated, ambitious young adults together in the same space and time, jostling for status, opportunities, recognition, and connections.
Second, it's important for EAs not to over-correct our conference structures in reaction to these fairly common 'conference blues'. If there were easy ways to make conferences less demanding, stressful, and exhausting, other sciences would probably have already discovered and implemented them. EAs aren't likely to solve conference-planning problems that have eluded the best other sciences for decades. (Maybe we can, but I'm being Bayesian here.)
Having said that, EA conference do have one unusual challenge, as you mentioned: 'you spend a lot of time talking about depressing things'. That really is a unique part of EA. Many behavioral sciences conferences do spend a lot of time talking about 'social problems' that loom large within current political narratives, such as prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, inequality, etc. But none of these are existential risks, so it's easy to act like they're Very Important Problems Indeed during the conference talks (e.g. at a typical social psychology conference), but to set them aside during evening socializing (since everybody knows they're not actually massive risks to our entire species and civilization.) By contrast, EA deliberately seek out large-scale, neglected, tractable problems, and this can impose unique emotional challenges during conferences.
I think if EAs are concerned about making EA conferences more pleasant and rewarding, we should focus a fair amount of attention on this last issue - how to stay positive, social, and motivated even when the intellectual and emotional content of EA talks and discussion is uniquely alarming, and/or uniquely likely to induce 'empathy fatique'.
The thing that is quite unique about EAG compared to other conferences is the strong reliance on one-on-ones planned through the app. I think this comes with some advantages, but also downsides.
In 'normal' scientific conferences, one would approach people in a less planned, more organic way. Discussions would usually involve more than two people. The recent EAG London conference felt like it was so dominated by pre-planned one-on-ones that these other ways of interaction suffered.
Yeah, I think you're right that this might be a general 'conferences' phenomenon (mostly), rather than an EA-specific one.
I would add that micro-aggressions and sexual advances are also unique to EA. This is not because they do not happen in other places, but because there is probably, and justifiably an expectation that a community of altruists would behave better in this regard, especially when there is a screening process to attend this conference. To illustrate: I would expect less micro-aggressions if I was attending a UN conference than a paintballing (random example) conference in the US south.
If they are happening elsewhere too, why is it unique to EA?
Hi Felix, I think from the perspective of those suffering from micro-aggressions they expect (perhaps naively, the Catholic church is also supposedly very moral) that a space dedicated to altruism and the removal of bias (rationality) would be generally safer than e.g. a tech conference (I have been to many wind energy conferences with "booth babes"). I agree, maybe I am stretching the definition of "unique" somewhat, but I think there is something to it. But I am by no means an expert on this, and being white and male I am very open especially to feedback from those suffering from microaggressions that I am mistaken. If you clarify your question further, I might be able to provide more details. That said, I am uncertain about whether I am striking the balance right between taking up space in D&I conversation vs trying to take a tiny bit of the burden of working on D&I off those suffering from micro-aggressions etc. Let me know if you would be up for setting up a reading group on gender and/or race for EA purposes - I am keen to have a wide range of perspectives in such a group.
Hi Ulrik, if you're anyplace else than Germany, try to reach out to (ideally) your National organizing team if you have one. I've talked to a lot of them in the last weeks, and the question of how to make EA spaces more inclusive and welcoming for people is on most people's mind. Sometimes they don't have the time to start a project on that, but maybe you can kickstart something like it in your region, or even internationally :)
I think I understand what you mean. :)
In Germany, we have a diversity group with meetings every two weeks, but I think it is limited to folks living in the region. If you are interested in joining, I'll ask them.
Do you mean to say they're "unique to" EA, or that they "feel uniquely bad in" EA?
Good point, as stated in my other comments, I probably stretched the definition of "unique" while being a bit vague as to what exactly I meant. I think the difference between expectations from minorities vs reality is unique to EA. This is both due to very high expectations of a community of altruistic and bias-eliminating people as well as the current state of EA which I think demonstrably has room for improvement. So I guess neither of the two suggestions you make is exactly what I mean. I think I might want to rephrase as "I would add that the difference in expectations vs reality regarding micro-aggressions and sexual advances is uniquely large in EA." This was hastily worded - I am sure there is a better way to put this.
Weak agree vote! I definitely expect more ethical behaviour irl from EAs than I expect from other people. But I also get the good behaviour that I expect from almost every EA that I've interacted with in Vancouver and briefly in SF.
It's more distressing for me to hear reports of micro-aggressions and inappropriate sexual behaviour from people in EA than to hear similar reports in my other communities, because it's more unpleasantly surprising and comes apart more from my expectations.
'Micro-aggressions' aren't a thing. Psychology research debunked this strange, unempirical, activist concept years ago, e.g. this paper. The fact that the DEI industry continues to promote the concept of 'microaggressions' shows that they can profit from it, not that it is empirically grounded.
As for sexual advances being 'unique to EA', that would be news to any biologist who studies courtship in any of the 60,000 species of sexually reproducing vertebrates.
"People saying things that are mildly offensive but not worth risking an argument by calling out, and get tiring after repeated exposure" is just obviously a type of comment that exists, and is what most people mean when they say microaggression. Your paper debunking it alternates between much stricter definitions and claiming an absence of evidence for something that very clearly is going to be extremely hard to measure rigorously.
I should point out that I unfortunately misquoted the sexual advances part, it should be "inappropriate sexual advances". I agree that we cannot expect no romantic relationships to take place in one form or another during conferences. But hopefully we can agree that such activities should not be significantly upsetting to attendees, and perhaps even have an ambition that everyone should feel safe from inappropriate behaviour.
Thanks, I really relate to this. It's helpful to hear about other people feeling similarly as I try to do a retrospective on the weekend and how to make things go better next time.
I think another thing that can make it hard is guilt about the very fact that it feels hard. 'Surely this should be a good experience? Why can't I make it an unequivocally good experience?' is helpful for motivating me to be proactive about how to spend the weekend well. But they also bring guilt, and a feeling of being somehow broken.
As a data point, I'm an extrovert / neurotypical person who has experienced almost everything you mentioned in this post (and also "conferences hard").
Most people I know have as well. I think we just don't talk about it as much publicly, but I've had many conversations where people are like "I wish EAG was one week instead of 2 days".
Strongly upvoted. People massively underestimate how many EAs struggle emotionally and the consequences it has on their impact. It goes all the way up to the most senior people. They're willing to admit it privately, but few are brave enough to post about it publicly. We need more posts like this!
Chiming in with an elaboration/downstream to points you make and are perhaps specific for people who are first-timers to an EAG/new to EA. I came into the conference 'knowing' a few people but not having friends that I could just hang out with, or as another EA attendee put it, be comfortable asking to sit in silence for 20mins. The high stakes busy frantic vibes + not having chill hangs = always being on and getting super tired. Thankfully, my non-EAG partner was with me and we hung out together in the evenings and this really helped me, but I know other people didn't have the same affordance.
(and even if you know many people, you can still feel that way!)
Thanks for writing this Amber! 2 quick points on the "comparing oneself negatively/being star-struck" theme:
It is so easy to forget that sometimes we are the people that other people look up to in that way ("Ohhhh, it's Amber Dawn, I see her comments so much on the Forum, she must really know a lot and be quite courageous, too"). It's also worth remembering that as long as we only look upwards, there is always someone smarter/more experienced/more powerful, all the way up to that one person that gets to actually enjoy the conference without these nagging thoughts. Except, wait! Plot twist: They probably think that way about someone else at the conference.
Somewhat ironically, if you are someone who suffers from this, going to conferences can actually help! You'll see Nobel prize winners lose their train of thought in a public speech. You'll see billionaires tripping over their own feet. You'll see CEOs ask students for directions to their speaker's lounge. You'll see if only briefly that they are also human, after all.
(or, in the slightly less elegant but undeniably more succinct words of a former colleague of mine: "These people sht and pss just like we do")
I think there's not much room between feeling "these people are more established / more put together / more employed than me" and feeling "oh no, people have so many expectations of me, don't screw up!" from the people who are more established/funded etc. I'm sure there are people who are in some happy medium position, but I'm having trouble thinking of any off the top of my head!
I think this kind of post is so important and should get highlighted on the front page every time shortly before an EAG. Just so people get reminded that this is a thing.
For a more personal addition:
I found EAG and now the days afterwards really difficult to navigate. It was my first (I've been to one EAGx before). I knew I was supposed to schedule 1:1s, but didn't, because I didn't really have a goal for EAG. I have a job that I like and want to keep doing for a bit. There was no particular question I had for anyone. I just wanted to be there, see a few talks, see some friends again, that's about it.
At the same time, I felt so much pressure to "make the most of it". There's so much talk about what "the perfect amount of 1:1s" is, that "EAG is an incredible opportunity", almost like it's a "once-in-a-lifetime"-thing. I even got mocked by a few people for not scheduling more 1:1s. And it's just... really anxiety-inducing.
Really liked the idea of having a space where people are explicitly invited to sit with a stranger (and think this should be improved upon in the future), because it's a nice addition if you don't have a talk to attend but also didn't schedule something else in.
So my takeaway is: It's okay that people have wildly different experiences at EAG. It's okay to not know what exactly you want to get out of the conference. And it's okay to just have a chill time there.
I do think the focus on 1:1s is a bit over-intense. Obviously they can be really helpful or interesting with the right people, but it feels a bit like (some) EAs were like 'moderate amounts of this thing is obviously good - maybe EXTREME amounts would be EVEN BETTER'. More dakka is definitely an appropriate attitude sometimes, but sometimes it's better to have a balance of mutually-enhancing different things (in this case, a balance of 1:1s, unstructured hanging-out-with-strangers, talks, catching up with friends, and rest, perhaps?)
Incidentally, I really enjoyed being a Logistics volunteer at EAGx Cambridge, because it gave me a break from all the intense people-ing, and I brought more energy to the interactions I did have.
It's also kinda funny that the organisers put all this effort into producing talks, and then kinda dissuade people from going to them! (even though some of them are really good).
Hey Jana, thanks for sharing.
I'm very sorry to hear people mocked you - that is not acceptable behavior and I'm sorry you experienced it.
I agree with the talk to a stranger thing! I think I've noted it as far back as 2018 in my feedback forms to have more spaces like this - especially having dining tables with signs to join people at meal times. I also think I noticed people huddling more along org lines this conference than at previous ones, which makes sense but is a bit sad (since those folks already know each other).
I can't agree more. I've been to 5 in-person EAG(x) events in total and none of them without problems.
During the conference, I am usually fine. The emotional stuff hits me afterwards, on my way home or the day after.
What to do about it? My plan for the next EAGx is to take at least two days off afterwards, probably even three. Last time I went back to work too quickly, I was very distractable for more than a week. I don't want to repeat this mistake - I have responsibilities outside of EA.
so sad that you find yourself struggling after attending a conference, and at the same time very relatable. It reminds me a little with how people struggle in the days after attending a festival.
Not that you need this, but I think your plan to take some days off and decompress is great. Something that helped me was to have some other EAs around in the days after the conference to talk to. I find that it helps me evaluate and integrate what I've learned.
I'm so glad you make this post. Most EAs are well-intentioned people, often unusually kind, but sometimes I think we need some community training on not making non-rationalist-geniuses feel uncomfortable. There's often an implicit view that if you aren't an ask-culture extremist, then you just need to "get with it". Instead, I'd love for our community to get better at understanding and adapting to others' viewpoints, such as those who aren't comfortable with talking about their sex lives in professional environments but are also not comfortable with TELLING their peers that they're uncomfortable.
Firstly, Amber, thank you so much for sharing such an honest and introspective piece. I believe your courage in addressing these issues is a step towards making the community more welcoming, understanding, and supportive for everyone.
As someone dedicated to improving the well-being of animals and motivated by the present-day unfathomable horrors of factory farming, I find solace in the fact that the heavy emotional toll we experience mirrors our compassion and drive to make a difference. However, I've been in the animal advocacy and EA spaces for long enough to know that having these negative and overwhelming emotions are really toxic to our mental health and makes our work more unsustainable in the long term. I actively choose to focus on solutions, actions, and people that energize me now, not projects/people that I feel I should engage with for the greater good. Boundaries are something you must impose on yourself, not upon others. It's been an amazing cognitive/emotional switch and I'm happy to discuss it more with you if you are interested. :)
Once again, thank you for this reminder that it's okay to experience the spectrum of emotions associated with these important gatherings, and it's crucial to have these dialogues for the health of our community.