I gave this talk at the end of EAGxSingapore, which I helped organize. It has been modified for clarity. 

Before I start the talk proper, I wanted to get a show of hands – if someone in this conference needs help, who would be willing to lend a helping hand, whether it's sending a message, reviewing a draft or hopping onto a call?


(The majority, if not all, people raised their hands)

For everyone new to EA conferences, take a look around! If there's someone that you wanted to reach out to but didn't send that message, check if they have their hands up. If they do, you should ask them for a call! 

...

I'll get back to why I asked you guys to raise your hands later.

When preparing for this talk, the best advice I got was that I should be authentic, speak from my own experiences and not try to be someone I'm not. So I'm sharing a little about my first conference, what I took away from it, and what I hope you will take away from EAGxSingapore.

My first EA conference was EAG London 2022. Like many of you, I watched Amy Labenz, Will MacAskill, and Benjamin Todd and I was so inspired. I wanted to be an effective altruist and improve the world. So, I applied for the conference and got accepted.

A wave of fear hit me a few days before I was scheduled to fly. I have made an insane decision to meet a bunch of online strangers halfway across the world. It was something that I struggled to explain to my parents, and many of my non-EA friends had doubts about what I was doing. It all seemed like a terrible idea.

It didn't stop there; scheduling 1-1s for someone introverted and new to the community was horrifyingly scary. All the people on Swapcard seemed so amazing and out of my league- researchers, specialists, and directors working on incredible projects. And scheduling 1-1s is only the first step because once you have a successful 1-1, you need to follow up. This means starting something, applying for a job, looking for collaborators or hiring someone. It also means that you'll constantly be stepping out of your comfort zone to grow, but it can also be challenging and nerve-wracking.

 

So when people tell me that a common criticism of EA is that we are an emotionless bunch that only cares about data and numbers, I disagree because I associate EA with this fear and anxiety. However, beyond this fear and anxiety, there are two more things that I strongly feel when I'm around EAs.

 

The first one is hope. Don't you think it is ridiculously and wondrously hopeful how so many of us think we can stop an existential risk? That something that can wipe out the whole of humanity can be mitigated by us all coming together and working on the world's most pressing issues. I think that that's the magical part of coming to conferences - that somehow so many of you have come together because we all believe we can do some good in the world. This makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.

The second thing that I feel is warmth. The 1-1s were scary. However, it was also heartwarming how so many of these fantastic people made time for me, especially when many would not have gained value from it. People were willing to be mentors, guide me along my journey, and, even more importantly, I met lifelong friends. People who were there to check in on my mental health, gossip with me, and people who I hope will stay in my life far beyond my EA commitments[1]. And this is something that I hope you guys will find as well.

 

What I'm trying to say is that EA can be hard. It can be very demanding of you and your worldviews. And I feel kind of bad because I know it's difficult, but I'm asking you to take a leap of faith. Here are my three reasons why.

The first reason is that I think you are worth it. EAGxSingapore was not planned because the organizers wanted to stay up until 3 AM to work on venue concerns or programming. It's because we genuinely believe that every person here deserves an event like this. You deserve the opportunity to meet amazing people, make connections, and build bonds. And many experienced EAs around the world, from the US, Germany, Austria, and the UK, have flown in because they also think you deserve this support.

And I felt that it is especially important to mention this because the team and I read through every word of your applications. We read your path to impact, significant actions, and hopes and dreams for a better world. From the bottom of my heart, I genuinely believe that you can do some good - whether it is direct work, sharing about EA, donating 1% or 90% of your income, or saving one chicken or a thousand chickens. 

We also got messages where many of you felt like 'I don't think I'm EA enough' or 'I don't think I deserve the travel support' or 'I'm really new and inexperienced.' I wanted to make it a point to tell you that - hey, you deserve to be here, and this conference is for you.

 

The second reason is that you're not the only person to take a leap of faith. When you feel small or alone in your pursuit of creating good, remember that many groups were once in your shoes. EA Singapore, EA India, EA Malaysia, EA Philippines, EA Israel, and even the global EA community once started as a bunch of people in a room trying to figure out what it means to do good. At one point, they could have also felt lonely or that they were going against the world. 

This also means that if they can do it, you can too! And more importantly, these people are willing to help you. Because I've asked them, and they were more than happy to.

 

The third reason I am mentioning a leap of faith is that when I left my first conference, I felt really empty and alone. EAG London felt like a magical space where I met people who were like me! I could speak to anyone, and everyone has this same ambitious dream to make the world a better place, even if we come from different backgrounds. There was a feeling of emptiness on the flight back to the real world where no one knew or cared about x-risks or longtermism. The jarring difference felt very destabilizing. Many of you here don't live in EA hubs like me, and this might hit you in the same way it did to me.

We emphasize taking the next steps when leaving a conference, but there will be many frustrations when you leave this room. You might want to apply for a high-impact job, but there's nothing on the job board you can apply to in your country. You might want to socialize or network with EAs, but there's no event in your time zone. You might even get offered a job or get accepted into another conference but can't go because of visa issues. Many factors might keep you from being as effective as you want to be, and these might be circumstances beyond your control.

And when you're alone and trying to figure it out, I hope you'll remember the sea of hands at the start of this talk. Once upon a time, these people all raised their hands, offering to lend a helping hand. After the conference, Swapcard will stay open. The EA Forum and LinkedIn are accessible. Reach out to these people, and ask them, "hey, can we have a call? Can I talk to you about my next steps?" I'm confident that you will find someone who will help because I've experienced it.

 

Almost one-third of you signed up to help in this conference, and some even helped without registering as a volunteer. This is so amazing. So many of you have checked in on the other organizers and me, supporting us and helping this go well. This is how I know that many of you will experience that same kindness for yourself because this group of people sitting here are so authentically kind and supportive.

So have faith in yourself. You've already taken your first step by coming to the conference, and I am so excited to see what you guys will do next. With this, we end EAGxSingapore 2022.


 

  1. ^

    Thank you to Ollie Base, Vaidehi Agarwalla, Kaleem Ahmid, Yi-Yang Chua, Elmerei Cuevas, Irena Kotikova, Catherine Low, and David Nash for being some of those wonderful people who made time for me when I was new and for giving me courage when I didn't have any during the organizing of the conference and the making of this forum post.

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I really loved this speech, a lot. I had a lot of guesses on what the speech was going to be, but it ended up surprising & moving me. It takes a lot of courage to talk about your fears in front of 350 people, and more so to then post it on the internet. 

For context, I am from / grew up in Singapore, and want to add some more context for those reading this who didn't attend EAGxSingapore and would like to know more. 

(The majority, if not all, people raised their hands)

Someone who'd previously attended EAG's and EAGx's previously told me that EAGxSingapore was the most welcoming and warm conferences they had attended, and many other conference attendees had told them the same thing. 

EAGxSingapore had about 70% first-time attendees, many of whom could not attend EAG's due to visa issues. So you have this group of super engaged EAs, who are going to their first proper EA conference and are just super excited and grateful to be there. 

Something Dion didn't mention in the speech (or needed to) was that this was  (I believe) the most diverse EA conference ever. It was pretty cool to sit in the auditorium during her talk, and see a sea of black hair and people from cultures I grew up with. 

Two things stem from this: One, I think this might have made people more open to being open and learning from each other, because you can't assume shared context. Two, conversely, you get a bunch of people from Asian / African / LMIC backgrounds who get that your parents may be confused, suspicious or skeptical, the illegibility of trying to explain a movement doing 300 different things, the weirdness of becoming close friends with a bunch of internet strangers. 

What I'm trying to say is that EA can be hard. It can be very demanding of you and your worldviews. ... We emphasize taking the next steps when leaving a conference, but there will be many frustrations when you leave this room. You might want to apply for a high-impact job, but there's nothing on the job board you can apply to in your country. You might want to socialize or network with EAs, but there's no event in your time zone. You might even get offered a job or accepted into another conference but can't go because of visa issues. Many factors might keep you from being as effective as you want to be, and these might be circumstances beyond your control.

(Nothing to add, other than a very very strong +1)

There was a feeling of emptiness on the flight back to the real world where no one knew or cared about x-risks or longtermism. The jarring difference felt very destabilizing. Many of you here who don't live in EA hubs like me, and this might hit you the same way it did to me.

My past self resonated with this a lot. I'm sure many people have felt the pressure of being the "most EA" person in their city or country, and not feeling like others care as much about it. It can feel pretty lonely and hard, feeling like the most meaningful parts of your life are things you can't fully share with your friends and family because they don't "get" it.    

Ironically, this conference actually helped me to bridge that gap, to make EA feel more part of my "real" life. Being able to spend time with EAs in my home- eating local food and making new memories in old haunts, giving them tourist tips, meeting each others' parents and home friends - those moments were so wonderful and important. 

I think my favorite moment is that Dion, after meeting my mother, proceeded to tell everyone "I love Vaidehi's mother, I've never seen anyone insult someone so gracefully" (that someone was me, the insult was my mother calling me a "dum dum"). 

There's a lot more I could say, but I think I'll end there for now. 

Thank you for this heart-felt closing remarks during EAGxSG. I really felt the sincerity, the vulnerability, but most of all- the hope. You are an inspiration Dion!  

Congrats for organising EAGx -- that's huge! :)

Sorry for being a downer, but I want to push back on the subtext that it's (always) good for people to be willing to "lend a helping hand, whether it's sending a message, reviewing a draft or hopping onto a call?"

My rough thoughts:

  • Some people say yes to too many things and don't value their time highly enough. 
  • Sometimes, it's the right call for someone to say no to helping others in their immediate environment.
  • It's often hard to say no, even when it's the right call.
  • I'm worried about a culture where {saying yes to peoples' requests} --> {you're a nice and helpful person} --> {it's good that you're an EA because you're warm and welcoming}.
  • I'm worried about the message "EA is warm and welcoming because people are willing to give you their time" making it harder for people to say no.

This might not be super relevant -- especially if most of the audience would err on the side of not asking for help. 

But just wanted to comment because it came to mind. 

The overall message of "people are kind and not scary and probably willing to help" is a nice one though!

Thanks for pointing this out, it is an important consideration, and this might not be a good exercise depending on the audience present.

For EAGxSG, it was definitely being more afraid that the audience would err on the side of not asking for help. I also checked with some experienced EAs at the conference on whether or not this was something I should mention. Context: The attendees of EAGxSG were mainly from areas without large established EA communities (Africa, Asia, Middle East), and many of them would likely not be able to go to other conferences due to visa issues or other factors. This meant they would have to reach out directly to other EAs solely based on their (scarier) internet profiles without opportunities to build rapport or meet people in more casual social settings. 

Part of it was also because this is a talk, and asking a longer question with caveats might mean that I lose the audience's attention. The initial thought was probably more of 'If you had the emotional bandwidth, time, work capacity and ability to help an EA, putting aside any imposter syndrome, would you?' 

Ah nice, I was missing that context. Yup, the angle of confidence building seems good for this audience.

Yes, I would be hesitant about putting my hand up (I'd help with some things, but not others, what exactly is being asked?) but I'd be really embarrassed if everyone else was putting their hands up and I didn't.

Thanks so much for sharing this! 

I wish everyone reading could have been there to see it - you delivered this so excellently, and it was really moving to witness ~everyone put their hands up.

Thank you Dion!! I really really loved the speech. Thanks for posting it online. I think this should be something many EAs, especially older community members read so it helps them refresh to how scary it is to be a new EA and know it might change your life, but not know exactly how. 

 

I'm definitely going to send this out to EAGxBerkeley attendees :)

Oh. Personal take here, but I think this is just exceptionally excellent. Something to learn from. Thanks! ^^

Well done Dion! 

This is powerful and moving just reading it, I bet it would have been even better sitting in the room listening to it and seeing the people raise their hands. 

Glad EAGxSingapore went well.

The speech truly was moving for me, and the way you presented being yourself was all the more amazing. The response from the audience really showed that as well. You really have motivated me to take such endeavors because I’m certain that I’ll get help and support from the community. Thanks Dion.