I spent my weekend at EAG London 2022, my fourth EA conference so far. Like always, it was an intense ride, but unlike always, I ran out of road at the end of it. I burnt out.
My plan was to start EAG on the Friday, spend my time with lots of 1-1s, and then on Monday morning, head off on a retreat. Up until Sunday, everything was pretty good - I had a fun and productive time, and generally everything was panning out like the other conferences I'd been to.
My first major mistake was on Saturday evening. I was massively tired when I got home, quite late after a bit of an afterparty, and because of this, forgot to set my alarm.
I woke up really late on Sunday and realised that I'd missed some stuff already, and hadn't even left the house. But instead of getting up, I laid in bed and thought about quitting EA, saying to my boyfriend I wasn't going to go to any more of the conference, and generally panicking. I was pretty much over this by the time I got on the tube, but the first big red flag missed.
However, the rest of Sunday was pretty good as well. The first 1-1 I actually turned up to was amazing - like emotional CPR - which is good, because otherwise I might well have just gone home, unable to do the rest of the conference.
In fact, by the end of the day, I felt pretty great. I'd had a couple of really amazing 1-1s, been convinced on a very important issue that previously I'd been deliberately not confronting (getting an ADHD assessment), and those Beyond Burgers!
I even ended up going to an afterparty (the Repugnant Conclusion, in case you're wondering), in pretty good spirits. When I got there, it wasn't obvious at all that there was a party going on inside, and I didn't want to ring the wrong bell at 1030. Normally, I'd have gone home awkwardly at this point (I spent about five minutes considering this), but eventually just rang the guy throwing the party and he let me in - not something I'd have done if I didn't feel really excited to do; and the party was spectacular.
Just before I left the party I realised three things: I hadn't even packed for the retreat, I'd have to wake up at 8, and it was already 1am. That's when I decided to go home, and my feelings started going downhill. That meant going outside before the Uber actually got there was a big mistake, and to cut a long story short, I ended up waiting around half an hour for the bus home.
The wait was not at all good, and my feelings really started running away with me. By the time the bus actually got there, the thought of going on the retreat the next morning was literally filling me with dread - it was too much effort, there would be too many people, and it would just be so hard. I rang one of my friends, also going on the retreat, distraught.
There were two basic choices - go on the retreat, or not go. The trouble was, neither of them worked in my head -unstoppable force meets immovable object. Even though I had no words for how much I did not want to go, not going was, in my mind, a total failure, to be avoided at all costs. This became the crux of my burnout.
Almost as soon as I got home, I finally broke down completely, and had a really bad night. It took till the next morning to send the "pulling out of the retreat" message , and it was genuinely one of the most difficult things I've ever done (I woke up at 8, didn't send the message till past 930, wrote in a separate app, and turned notifications off for Messenger before sending, so I didn't have to even see the reply). At some point in the morning I locked myself in the spare room, and didn't come out until the next day.
I hope I don't regret putting this on the internet.
This appears to be a symptom of ADHD, by the way. It's called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, and the thought of deliberately doing something that might bring someone's opinion of me down (pulling out of the retreat) was literally unbearably painful. Really awful.
I'm fine now.
I want to say two things with this post. One, I had not expected to burn out, and certainly didn't expect it to be like this. Everyone knows all the advice already - self-care is important, EAG has quiet rooms, it's ok to not do stuff you can't - and yet, none of this really made a blind bit of difference.
I did all this stuff, and still burnt out. It came down to doing lots of the wrong thing (I am strongly considering whether I'm cut out for community-building), and avoiding what, in retrospect, were clear red flags.
Two, to other young EAs in particular, it's fine. One of the things I thought on Sunday morning, feeling like I wasn't going to be able to come into EAG, was that, fundamentally, I'm just a kid, and the idea that I do what I do is crazy. People my age tend not to have as much responsibility as young EAs very frequently take on. Somebody said this exact same thing back to me in the conference - he literally said "you're a child, and it's ok to cancel commitments", which was maybe the single most helpful thing anyone said that day. They were totally right. If you're a young EA reading this post, chances are you're under a lot more pressure than you realise.
I never thought I would burn out, and I certainly didn't expect to burn out working at the rate I was working at, but I did, and it was bad.
But in the end, it was also fine.. I'm better now, it turns out I'm not in trouble for not going to the retreat, and I feel good again. Most of the pressure was, in retrospect, artificial, and it's now basically all gone.
Maybe you're not actually under the amount of pressure you think you are. Maybe it's pressure you're applying to yourself. If you think this might be true, think about it more, and realise that this might well be a bad idea in the long run, and take this as permission to let some of it go.
Oh, and - try not to burn out.
My heartfelt thanks to Nathan Young, Jacob Trefethen, and Alex Lawsen, who made this post possible
Thank you for writing up the messy reality!
This isn't just a problem for young EAs - the combination of Sunday night afterparty and a retreat starting the next day usually results in Monday morning tears on my part.
Really brave of you to write all this, sounds like a really hard situation you're dealing with well. I want to say that to the extent this feels like a crux for "being cut out for community building", I wouldn't take what I've read here as particularly strong evidence at all, and also that I'd suggest this isn't a good time to make any big judgments about what kind of person you are.
In particular, I'd highlight the advice of having an email pre-written that pulls you out of a commitment, so that it's easier to send it if you ever find yourself in a situation like that again. (Similar advice is to have prewritten emails to friends who can support you if a downward spiral is starting).
I've attended a few EA conferences already, and I also experienced a sort of burnout this time around! On Sunday night, I had a bad bout of hyperventilation/anxiety and called myself a cab to the ER*. By the time I was there I couldn't move a muscle in my body. But while actually at the conference, I had a terrific time meeting everyone. I think I just didn't notice how beat up my body was from the lack of sleep in the previous week because I felt an especially big pressure to make the most use of my time.
For me, there was a lot of added pressure this time because of nervousness around AI timelines shrinking, doing a lot of recent reevaluation on the best way to spend my time and work efforts, and feeling guilty about the possible counterfactual impacts of missing even one meeting. After all, experienced safety researchers were giving me their very valuable time, and to miss one connection could lead to big down-the-line differences. I'm also from a relatively disadvantaged financial background and EA was fully funding my travel. If I didn't get a lot out of it, I'd be "wasting their money", or so it felt.
Each time I attended a conference, I was putting more and more effort into meeting more people and getting more out of it. Attending the conference in Prague, I'm going to let myself take it easy, cancel meetings if I feel exhausted, manage my energy levels, etc.
*This part is not related to burn-out, but slightly related to the recent discourse on EA spending, and in particular EA spending on students. When I checked out of the ER the next day in a better state of health, I reflected on the things I was thinking and feeling during the experience. Note and context: I didn't know that NHS/UK has free health care.
One peculiar thing I realized, was that it took an (post-hoc) unreasonably long time before I decided to call the ambulance/cab to get to a hospital. In the ~10 minute escalating lead-up to my decision to go to the hospital, I sat in the restaurant I was in, googling things like:
-What does a heart attack feel like?
-Can you have a minor heart attack?
-Do you have to go to a hospital if you have a minor heart attack?
-What does a stroke feel like?
-How expensive is the ER in London for Americans?
I spent many minutes during the escalation of the tightness in my chest and tingly weirdness in my body wondering if I should even go to the ER, because I wasn't sure how expensive it would've been. I was already in a panicked state of mind, but I remember thinking (or maybe justifying to myself), that if it ran me thousands of dollars, maybe EA would help cover some of the costs for the hospital expenses. And that was the point at which I called a cab. 3 minutes into the ride, I was hyperventilating, and I couldn't move a muscle in my body. The people at the ER carried me inside when I got to the hospital.
Something about the fact that I believed my life was potentially at immediate risk, wondering if I could afford the medical help, and then thinking EA could help me if it was too much for me to financially handle, so I should just go to the hospital, was remarkably weird. I was not in the right state of mind, but thinking back, it feels SO SO bizarre that I had these thoughts.
I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. I think the recent discourse about money in EA makes me feel kind of compelled to share what I think is a perspective that is in the minority among EAs. Something something coming from an underprivileged background, EA and knowing that I have a support structure in the form of not just funding but a well-meaning and altruistic community, allows me to pursue things that I believe will create a big positive impact, bla bla...
Something something I felt out of place stepping onto Yale's campus my freshman year, enough so that my mental health went to shit and I had to take a year off to think about life (which was when I also discovered 80k and EA), and somehow when I first learned about the EA community it felt even more disproportionately privileged, bla bla...
Something something when you're not from a financially stable background it's ESPECIALLY hard to pursue things that you think are highest in positive impact EV because there's a nagging responsibility you feel to make money a non-issue for yourself and your family first, and knowing there is support EA can provide helps make this feel a little less difficult, bla bla...
Something something I wish there were a sub-group/community of EAs from underprivileged backgrounds that I could talk to and relate to, but I have no idea how to identify others who can relate to some of these things, and so I never bring these thoughts and feelings up to anyone in EA, bla bla..
Really rambly, but no energy to revise atm. Maybe I'll come back to edit and revise to make things more coherent later on. I just had some discomfort really pent up for a while, and my experience at the past EAG, along with the discourse on spending, triggered to share my (I think) relatively under(over)looked perspective on EA and EA support and EA money for university students, and wanted to put this out there for someone to see.
Hey, I'm sorry you had such a frightening experience! A couple of thoughts, in case they're useful to you or others:
panic attacks are a pretty common problem, and it's common to be unsure whether the symptoms are caused by a medical problem or by anxiety. They're common enough at conferences that when I've been the community contact person at EAG it's pretty common that the volunteers or I have helped someone through a panic attack. Historically we've included info on this in the training for our volunteers.
with either a medical or a mental health situation that comes up during the conference, the conference volunteers (and often other attendees) are happy to help! I know it can be difficult to let other people know, but my experience is that people have been very helpful when we've had these situations at past conferences.
thanks for pointing out how having financial aid can cause a feeling of obligation even when that's not intended.
we tried out a new "socioeconomic diversity" meetup at the event this time, aimed at people who grew up low-income or who were the first in their family to attend university. I haven't heard yet how it went, but I'd be interested in ideas about what spaces like that might help people connect with others who "get it" around these experiences.
Sorry to hear about your experience Joe, and thanks Julia for the heads up on procedures for everyone.
Regarding the socioeconomic background community element of EA, I feel the same. I started a blog lately and my first post was a post about my own socioeconomic challenges in EA, as well as some of the socioeconomic bottlenecks we face. It may be interesting to you to see you're not the only one: https://legal-longtermist.ghost.io/why-eas-talent-bottleneck-is-a-barrier-of-its-own-making/. If it helps, reading this let me know I wasn't the only one either. Edit: It's important to note some of this was my fault - eg. not asking for more money, and letting myself get in that situation in the first place. Don't mean for it to be a crit. of EA too much.
As Julia mentioned, there was a new socioeconomic diversity meetup at the event which is great news. I'm not sure how it went either because I, ironically, couldn't afford to be in London for both the Friday and Saturday nights. Im hoping that for my next EA conference I can attend one and it'd be great to meet others with similar experiences - perhaps even you!
The good news is that EA is actually trying to find ways to better include everyone, which is a lot more than most other places do.
Really enjoyed reading that post, thanks for sharing! I'm happy you commented on this, and I also feel better after receiving the DMs about relatable experiences. I hope the issue you bring up on inadvertent filters on socioeconomic status is evaluated carefully by some people in the EA group!
Thanks! Yes, I am sure some parts are misinterpreted or just down to my own experience, but tbh EA as an org tries super hard to be inclusive so they're probably working on it. Let me know when you next hit up an EAG and I'll come say hi. My girlfriend is a paramedic student too, so winner winner chicken dinner RE any future medical cost concerns :) She didn't charge me when I broke my ankle that one time, anyway ;)
I had a similar experience. I couldn't afford both nights in a hotel, so I slept on the Megabus on Friday night and chose to stay in a hotel for Saturday night as my most important meetings were Sunday morning and I wanted to be fresh.
Obviously didn't sleep on the bus because it keeps stopping and the chairs are designed not to be slept in - not helped by the fact the bus was apparently being driven by Colin McRae. So I had worked all day Friday, been awake all night (but safe and warm!) on the bus, and then had an entire day of conference on the Saturday. Well, I crashed at about 4pm, went to the hotel and fell asleep on the bed, and slept through my alarm the next day - missing all 3 of my important meetings :D
Needless to say I had myself a bit of a moment, before applying self-forgiveness in plentiful measure. I called my girlfriend, had a whinge and a laugh about it, felt better.
It's okay to get overwhelmed sometimes, and it happens to all of us. The community is very friendly and accommodating I've found. Try not to feel obligated to push too hard, either!
Hi Luke — sorry to hear about all of this! I work on the EA Global team and I can confirm that we definitely definitely don't want you sleeping on the bus! Please apply for more travel/accommodation funding next time if it'd be useful, it definitely won't affect your chances and we won't reject you for thinking you're taking advantage of us!
For folks who need it, funding is also available up-front (rather than having to wait to be reimbursed), with an option to return extra money should you have any leftover.
Conditional on you already receiving reimbursement of costs and approval to EAG, I'm 80% sure that some marginal increases over your limit, like an extra hotel within reasonable tube distance (even at last minute London prices) would be approved without issue.
Also, I will just flat out say that if someone has a situation like this in the future, where payment for a hotel would be this key, please contact me. There are things that will reimburse this.
By the way, note that I currently request and receive reimbursement of travel costs to conferences. Also, I intend to push my luck over the approved limit for at least one event in the future (it seems like I undershot my estimates, things have gotten pricier, and there's valuable peripheral events before/after the conference that increases stay time).
That's a really important point to know, actually. I'm glad you told me that. I was always scared if I went over the limit, it might get revoked or I might get rejected in future if I was 'taking the mick'. It's good to know it's not as strict. I tend to ask for lower amounts because if I get rejected, it's catastrophic, so I'd rather suffer more and raise my odds than risk it.
I got £500 approved to go to Oxford and London split between them (£300 and £200), but in future I might ask for more.
It's becoming clear in this thread that a lot of the problem with this is that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds just have no experience and no fallback with how reimbursement systems work so err on the side of caution rather than not, in addition to trying to keep costs low in any way they can in order to both get accepted and also show they're not taking advantage. Maybe if EA had a special hardship fund or whatever where they could talk with an EDI representative, people would feel more confident applying for specific amounts given their circumstances? Just a spitball.
trying to keep costs low in any way they can in order to both get accepted
Note that the recent docs on EAG travel (that at least covers through EAGx Prague, but may not cover beyond that) suggest that requesting cover for travel does not negatively affect your chances of acceptance.
(Note that this doesn't necessarily give a person cover in the situation of ex-post going over budget, or cover reputational effects—but you should be able to push through any issues by being good and impactful).
It's becoming clear in this thread that a lot of the problem with this is that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds just have no experience and no fallback with how reimbursement systems work
Another perspective is that for many people, like myself, we can take that 20% chance of no reimbursement (in other careers/institutions, if not EA), and by doing this, we can get comfortable and "learn the system".
On the other hand, you can't, with just five pounds in your bank account.
So you put yourself in a tough situation, and then blow past three meetings. So there's three people who might think you are less promising, because of your own hardship.
It is costly to be poor.
Not everyone knows the feeling of fear, social stigma. I am furious at this situation you had to experience.
Disclaimer: I believe the things I said in this thread, but I detest giving an impression of "virtue" or clout and I am also uncertain about the value or system effects of any action here from EA. So I add that: I don't really know the answer or fully agree with everything you wrote in your blog. From my personal perspective, there seems to be many constituencies in EA who need satisfying already. I don't want to add necessarily more noise, such as making CEA, who are already up to their eyeballs in work and other considerations, think about this issue in an unnatural way. I am very privileged.
Also, a guess is that the so called PR or other purported adverse issues related to EA spending might currently affect travel reimbursement and larger event admissions.
I have no real idea, but it's not crazy that this is related to why your emails need to bounce through a few more people before approval. (We don't actually need to know any details or need a response from CEA).
These recent issues are a bit of a turbulence. But it seems good to be against rumors, fear mongering and people spending a lot of time on posts that seem inflammatory and where the evidence/solutions/system effects haven't been considered—this sentiment can have huge indirect effects.
Thanks for sharing, appreciate it! Sounds intense, good that you canceled the retreat and glad to hear that you're fine now.
I wonder why that EA retreat had to start Monday morning after EAG. I wouldn't be surprised if other people who attended both events had similar problems. Most people cannot just keep conferencing non-stop, and a break of one or two days between conferences/retreats seems really important to me, both to recover and to process all the new input.
I've wondered about this many times, but for people traveling a long way it does mean it's practical to attend more events than if they were broken up. It does mean you have to budget your energy differently than people who are only going to one event, though, which isn't obvious when everyone around you is trying to get the most out of a weekend rather than a week-long stretch.
Thank you so much for posting this! I really appreciate it when EAs talk about their mental health and emotional wellbeing struggles. What we are doing is super intense and a lot of us go through stuff like this. I missed most of my Sunday conference plans because of my mental health, and I think this was a good decision since I organized one of the afterparties and I wouldn't have made it through that if I hadn't rested. I've been pretty tired this whole week.
I've had lots of situations where, like you, I felt bad enough that I needed to cancel my plans, but, because I felt so emotionally distressed, cancelling those plans felt like the worst thing in the world. Over the years I've become better at realising that lots of the time, missing things is either completely fine, or (at most) an inconvenience to others.
Take care of yourself and get lots of rest! I hope you feel better soon.
You had an experience that you describe as burn-out less than a week ago – it's totally ok not to be fine yet! It's good you feel better but take the time you need to recover properly.
I don't know how old you are but it is also ok to feel overwhelmed by EA later when you no longer feel like describing yourself as "just a kid". Doing your best to make the world a better place is hard for a person of any age.
The experience you had does not necessarily mean you would not be cut out for community building. You've now learned more of your boundaries and you might be more able to recognize red flags earlier in the future.
Good luck and I hope you learn something valuable about yourself from the ADHD assessment!
Thanks a lot for this post and sorry to hear you’ve burnt out. I had something similar at my first EAG and my solution for this conference was to space meetings out over 4 days and also not go to any after parties or dinners + have short days (like finishing at 3-4 if you have back to back meetings). This EAG was much better, and I think I’ll have even fewer meetings next time as my voice took a bit of a battering 🤣 I think there is a lot of pressure to have meetings as I thought: “what if they wouldn’t want to meet online later”. In hindsight, if they don’t want to meet online later, maybe you shouldn’t be meeting at all.
I definitely think that the organisers can do more to prevent attendee burnout, maybe more recommendations on how to spend your time and definitely scheduling a retreat after EAG with no break doesn’t seem very wise to me.
The org I work for is planning a 3 day break between the retreat and EAG which sounds about right to me, I shall literally do nothing those 3 days 😂
Also thanks for your last paragraph RE pressure, very relevant to all of us EAs I think!
I found completing a bunch of one-on-ones to be surprisingly tiring as well. In my last one-on-one, I literally just lay down on the floor as we chatted, I was that tired. This didn't happen at previous conferences when I spent most of my time roaming the corridors having free-wheeling conversations.
I had three on my first day and then was emotionally done. I remember thinking "to all other people, I can either cry with joy at what you say, or cry in frustration, but no other responses are available right now".
It involved (for me) gearing up a ton of context and interest in one person, finding something critical to say with them, and then they were gone and it was happening again.
I mean, maybe we were all just being dumb and should handle it better. I also wonder if there's some natural way for event organizers to be like "there are set break periods where we stop 1-1s from being booked" or something, though probably that's a bad solution and there's a better one.
I'll just say from the other side that at EAG x Oxford I had a lot of 1-1s and didn't find it stressful; I'm really extroverted and get a lot of energy from things like this. I don't never need a break or want to escape, but the burnout thing is less common for me.
Strong +1 - I accidentally ended up with a lighter Saturday which turned out to be really good, and even then ended up cancelling the final 2 meetings in the night of the Saturday and Sunday because my brain was tired.
I think what can be exhausting is wanting to bring the same energy or excitement to every 1-1, especially if it's someone I haven't met before or is newer to the community. I'm not sure how to address that.
I think despite the messages of take a break and go the chill room etc., there is still a strong (implicit?) pressure to want to maximize the number of people you meet, and the FOMO of missing out on a great connection perhaps.
I wonder if more could be done to encourage people to explicitly set some time after EAG to have calls, or encourage norms where people meet on a more drip-like basis over the year.
I'm sorry you had this experience. I'm glad you're doing better, were able to put names to some of what happened, and shared it here.
I did not have the exact same experience, but I did have a week of retreats pre-EAG. By Monday, I was too tired to maintain a conversation with my travel partner and I have spent most of the week catching up on sleep and feeling uncharacteristically antisocial.
Two actionable ideas:
Although it makes sense logistically to pair EAG(x)s with retreats and other events, spacing them out might be better. At a minimum, we should implement Manuel's idea [EA(p) · GW(p)] of a break of one or two days in between, but I worry that even with that people will want to maximize time together and still fill those days. This might be especially true if we keep having a "conference season" — there were just three large conferences back to back!
Explicitly encouraging people to use Swapcard (or another more functional app lol) year-round might take some of the pressure off for irl 1-1s. Many people delete the app once the conference is over, but it can serve as a longer-term EA networking platform and take some of the pressure off to maximize connections over the course of three days.
Thanks for writing this. I didn't attend this EAG, but I came out of the previous one completely exhausted. Every day of the conference I ended up in pain and barely able to move. Maybe it's because of not knowing my limits well enough, maybe it's because of accessibility issues.
But also maybe there's a culture that encourages us to stretch beyond our limits? I guess we can see if many people experience this and of there are, start looking for a general problem.
Not enough chairs. I wrote about this in the feedback form, so maybe something has changed since? ↩︎
One bit of advice I haven’t seen here yet:
Consider making it an extremely high priority to work out vigorously daily or every other day, even while at a conference. A short HIIT (high intensity interval training) can do wonders for stabilizing one’s energy and increasing one’s tolerance to stress.
At one conference, a group of us met up to work out together in the morning. That was lovely! It encouraged some of us to go to bed at a reasonable time the night before too, which was an added bonus.
If you invite others to workout with you, you’ll get multiple benefits — the workout itself, productive social time, helping others who might not have gotten a workout in otherwise, and additional community-building cred.
I also agree that we all need to cancel sometimes!
However, I find I also have to hold myself accountable for cancelling only very very rarely, lest I slip into a pattern of overcommitting, burning out, and then canceling on people. EAs are very kind about mental health, but that kind of pattern would still cost me opportunities. I have to try really hard to focus on prevention instead.
Hi Alastair — sorry to hear you had such a rough experience! I work on the EA Global team and posts like these are super helpful to us as well as the wider EA community (helping folks manage expectations, helping people who have burnt out feel like they aren’t alone, etc.). I think EA Globals have a lot going on (including afterparties) and many attendees definitely feel like they are under a lot of pressure, which can be a lot. Glad to hear you’re doing better now — and definitely keen to hear any feedback you or anyone else might have for the organizing team (feedback forms were sent out to all attendees)!
Hi Alastair — sorry to hear you had such a rough experience! I work on the EA Global team and posts like these are super helpful to us as well as the wider EA community (helping folks manage expectations, helping people who have burnt our feel like they aren’t alone, etc.). I think EA Globals have a lot going on (including afterparties) and many attendees definitely feel like they are under a lot of pressure, which can be a lot. Glad to hear you’re doing better now — and definitely keen to hear any feedback you or anyone else might have for the organizing team (feedback forms were sent out to all attendees)!