Six Takeaways from EA Global and EA Retreats

post by Akash · 2021-12-16T21:14:34.739Z · EA · GW · 4 comments

Contents

  Takeaway #1: Think bigger
  Takeaway #2: Take more (calculated) risks
    Consider Upsides
    Don’t be too afraid of [specific types of] failure
  Takeaway #3: Be more entrepreneurial and agentic (do things!)
  Takeaway #4: Apply for Funding
  Takeaway #5: Value your time
  Takeaway #6: Reach out to EAs
  Caveats
  What are your takeaways?
None
4 comments

I attended EAG London, as well as four retreats for student group organizers (these were focused mostly on community building & how to make strong university groups). 

In this post, I summarize some of my takeaways and lessons learned. I also offer a few suggestions, heuristics, and action items for those who want to put some of these ideas into practice.

Here are my takeaways:

  1. Think Bigger
  2. Take More [Calculated] Risks
  3. Be More Entrepreneurial and Agentic (Do Things)
  4. Apply for Funding
  5. Value Your Time
  6. Reach out to EAs

Takeaway #1: Think bigger

In the early 2010s, EA was an extremely young movement with some idealistic thinkers. In 2021, it is still a very young movement, and it still has idealistic thinkers, but it also has a lot more energy and funding [EA · GW]. 

We can think bigger, grander, and more ambitiously about how to improve the present 

and the future. There is a particular interest in megaprojects [EA · GW]— highly impactful projects that could scale widely, even if they require large amounts of funding.

Okay, thinking bigger and grander sounds good in theory, but how do we actually do it? Here are some heuristics that I’ve been using & that others have recommended:

Example: Sydney V founded Uncommon Sense, a summer program in which high school students learn about rationality and longtermism. The program reached about 20 students in its first year. Sydney’s first reaction was to think “ah, great, next year, we can do a modified version of Uncommon Sense and expand to about 30 students.”

Then, after being prompted by other EAs, she began to think more ambitiously about her plan to scale, and she asked herself how the project could be much more impactful. She realized that she could work with other EAs to turn Uncommon Sense into a large program that could potentially receive thousands of applications and hundreds of attendees. She’s now working on this (highly ambitious) high school outreach project.

Takeaway #2: Take more (calculated) risks

TLDR: Consider upsides and don’t be overly afraid of [specific types of] failure. (see also this 80k post about ambition & risks). Note: Many points in this section come from, or are inspired by, a talk by Jonas Vollmer.

Consider Upsides

Here’s a conversation that I have heard in my head, and I’ve also heard from other EAs:

The problem is that there’s a crucial step that’s missing. Many people find it more

natural to think of downsides (how could this go wrong?) than upsides (how could this go right?). But when estimating the expected value of a project, it’s important to weigh the upsides against the downsides.

This idea is deceptively simple and seems obvious when spelled out in writing. And yet, in conversations with myself and others, I routinely find it takes more effort and intentionality to dive into the upsides. Here’s how the conversation could go:

Don’t be too afraid of [specific types of] failure

There are at least three ways a project could fail:

The takeaway here is that most people place too much weight on neutral failures and

reversible net negative failures. If a project has a 10% chance of generating a massive amount of impact, and a 90% chance of failing in a “neutral failure” mode, the expected value of the project is still massive. The expected value falls by an order of magnitude if there’s a 10% chance of generating massive impact but a 9% chance of causing an (equally massive) irreversible negative impact. 

In short: breaking risks down into the different types of failure can be useful. We should generally be deterred less by neutral failures and reversible net negative failures and pay careful attention to irreversible net negative failures. (Though we should also be willing to accept some risk of irreversible net negative failures, especially when the possible upside is high. Conversely, if the upside is relatively low, even neutral failures or reversible failures should be enough to deter us). 

Takeaway #3: Be more entrepreneurial and agentic (do things!)

Imagine a world in which there are lots of EA organizations with lots of open jobs. The movement has a surplus of managers and mentors, and it’s looking for conscientious people who can perform well under structured and supervised environments.

Now, imagine a world in which there are a small handful of EA organizations with limited capacity to train and manage new hires. The movement is people-constrained, especially manager-constrained, and it’s looking for self-driven people who can initiate impactful projects with limited supervision and oversight.

One takeaway is that EA is currently much closer to world #2. Effective altruism is in an interesting position: there is a relatively large amount of funding available for people to start impactful projects (particularly relating to longtermism) and a relatively limited number of people who can work independently to take on these opportunities.

This relates to a topic that has been on the EA forum: Why is it so hard to get jobs at EA orgs (see here [EA · GW] and here [EA · GW]; also see here [EA · GW] for a recent discussion)? It seems strange, especially given the funding situation & the importance of giving people opportunities to do highly impactful work. 

The situation becomes clearer when recognizing that one major bottleneck for EA orgs is the # of managers/mentors. It takes a lot of time (and a particular skillset/disposition) to supervise new people.

Given that we are in world #2, what should we do? How can we prepare ourselves to be most impactful given the current climate of effective altruism? 

Takeaway #4: Apply for Funding

Many EAs at the retreats and EAG argued that EAs should generally be more willing to apply for funding. Some people feel nervous taking “EA money,” especially when they’re not confident that they’ll succeed, or they’re reluctant to secure money to fund their time. Here are a few things I learned about funding (see also this post [EA · GW] which raises points about EA funds). Note that many of the details depend on the particular project and the particular funder—but I’ve tried to list some fairly generalizable principles:

The biggest takeaway is that you should probably be more willing to apply for funding

See a list of funding opportunities here [EA · GW]. Also including a quote from the post:

I strongly encourage people to consider applying for one or more of these things. Given how quick applying often is and how impactful funded projects often are, applying is often worthwhile in expectation even if your odds of getting funding aren’t very high. (I think the same basic logic applies to job applications.)

Takeaway #5: Value your time

How much money would you trade to free up an hour of your time? (see this post [LW · GW] and this ClearerThinking module for some advice on how to answer this question).

A related question: how much money should the EA community be willing to pay to free up an hour of time for a highly engaged EA? In a 2018 survey by 80,000 Hours, EA org leaders were asked to estimate the amount of money they would trade to give up a recent junior/senior hire for three years (see exact wording here). The median response was $450,000/3 years for a junior hire (about $75/hour) and $3,000,000/3 years (about $500/hour) for a senior hire. Note that the figures are higher when using averages instead of medians ($175/hour for a junior hire and $1,233/hour for a senior hire).

My best guess is that these numbers have increased from 2018, in large part due to the increased availability of money and the fact that many areas seem skill-constrained/people-constrained (see this post [EA · GW])

Okay, so valuing my time is important, and there are some heuristics that I can use to estimate an hour of my time. What do I do next?

Find ways to spend money to save time. This post [LW · GW] offers several suggestions, such as paying for laundry services, taking Ubers, and eating takeout. You may also create your own list of ways you could spend money to save time.

Takeaway #6: Reach out to EAs

My experiences at EAG and the retreats reinforced a realization that I had at the EA student summit: Many EAs want to talk to you (yes, that means you), and you should have a rather low bar for reaching out to them

I have even more confidence in my reflection from last year’s student summit [EA · GW]:

I thought that [EAs] would have far better things to do with their time than talk to me. I need to wait until I have a really impressive idea before I request the time of other EAs—I could distract them from discovering the next highly effective charity or the solution to AI safety! 

Nearly all of my experiences at the summit went against this idea. People wanted to talk to me, and others, about raw, unpolished ideas. Almost every EA I spoke to—including the “big names”—seemed authentically and intrinsically motivated to talk to students about their interests and ideas. I honestly think this was my biggest surprise of the conference—there are so many EAs who would genuinely like to talk to you. 

Caveats

One of the challenges of writing these takeaways is that I have no idea who you are. The advice in this post is directed at the “median EA” (and some of it is directed at the “median EA attending EAG/retreats.”)

As a result, some of these takeaways might be more relevant to you than others. If you are highly more willing to take risks than the median EA, then “taking more risks” might not be useful advice. If you are relatively more reluctant to reach out to others than the median EA, then “reach out to EAs” may be especially useful advice. 

Other caveats:

What are your takeaways?

EAG and the student group retreats were energizing, inspiring, and informative. I would love to hear from others who attended EAG or retreats. Some prompts to get you thinking (see also this post [EA · GW] for additional prompts & a $500 bounty):

I'm grateful to Chana Messinger, Olivia Jimenez, Ashley Lin, Liam Alexander, Jack Goldberg, Richard Ngo, Lizka, and Jonas Vollmer for providing feedback on this post. I'm also grateful to everyone involved in organizing EAG and EA retreats.

4 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by MichaelA · 2021-12-31T11:54:34.945Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here are some additional links or points that may be of use to some readers. Some of these things are EA Wiki pages; in those cases, I'm sharing them primarily for their bibliographies and the collection of tagged posts.

comment by Miranda_Zhang (starmz12345@gmail.com) · 2022-01-03T01:14:25.185Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I found this very on-point and representative of the current mindset of HEAs within the meta-EA space. Will be sharing with my group!

I was so impressed by how well you captured it, in fact, that I don't think the title does it justice. I don't think you have to change it - and I'm not sure what would make more sense - but just commenting that I wouldn't have inferred the takeaways I got from this post from its current title, which makes me think that this post is going to be about maximizing your time at retreats/conferences.

comment by MichaelA · 2021-12-31T11:47:04.120Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this post! I agree with all 6 takeaways, and also with the idea that these are important points that deserve further signal-boosting. (Though of course there are also some cases where they won't apply, some people who have fully or perhaps overly internalised them, etc. Also it sounds like takeaway 4 was informed partly by two posts of mine, so me then agreeing with it again doesn't add much new evidence.) 

I also think that this style of post - just concisely listing relatively high-level takeaways on a topic - seems useful, tractable, and worth more people doing. (Another example that I'd see as fitting a similar category which comes to mind is https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/wGqSqWLTwDrytxeER/update-on-civilizational-collapse-research [EA · GW] )

comment by BrianTan · 2021-12-20T12:33:24.458Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like this post and find it valuable - thanks Akash!