University Groups Should Do More Retreats

post by levin · 2022-04-06T19:20:55.894Z · EA · GW · 15 comments


  TL;DR, doing retreats should be a top priority (maybe the top priority) for university groups due to their unique effects on personal prioritization.
  Why do retreats work?
  Important characteristics for retreats to make this happen:
  Things that seem good but that I'm less confident about
  Resources for making your retreat go well:

TL;DR, doing retreats should be a top priority (maybe the top priority) for university groups due to their unique effects on personal prioritization.

In the one-on-ones I’ve had at EAGs (most recently xBoston) and elsewhere, a recurring theme in people’s personal stories is that they include something like “Yeah, I basically thought this EA cause prioritization stuff was right, but kept working on my other stuff, and then I went on a retreat and I was like ‘Oh shit, I actually should change my life about this.’” Or, at a later stage, they were planning on doing some “EA-approved” thing but the retreat significantly shifted their priorities towards working harder on more impactful work.

This, in addition to the “theoretical” reasons below, leads me to think that retreats are massively more effective than other bread-and-butter EA group programming like intro fellowships [EA · GW], speakers, etc. Personal journeys that might have taken months or years can happen in 1-2 days (a 100x speed-up in calendar time, maybe 10x in organizer-capacity time). I’ve also seen important misunderstandings about EA that have persisted through most or all of an intro fellowship be corrected at retreats.

Why do retreats work?

Retreats encourage the kind of sustained reflection, one-on-one conversations, and social network construction that actually get people to reevaluate their plans. Most other EA programming occurs in classroom-type settings where people are used to engaging with ideas intellectually but not taking them seriously as action-relevant, life-affecting things.

This is part of a broader observation that career decisions among high-achieving students are primarily identity-driven, social, and emotional.[1] Convincing people to do something different with their lives usually means opening them up to changing what feels like a core part of their identity [EA · GW]. It needed to be safe, and rewarded by social affirmation (i.e. by people who are likable and highly EA-aligned[2]), for me to stop "forward-chaining" from an identity that said “I am a public policy generalist[3]” and shift toward a mindset of “I try to do the most good, and I currently have certain ideas about the best path for me to do that.”

(Note: While most of the important cognition that happens is social/emotional, this is not the same thing as tricking or manipulating people into being EAs. You’re bringing together a bunch of people who might have been vaguely thinking “I really need to sit down and figure out some career stuff” or “I know deep down that the EA stuff is right but there’s something (like inertia, abstraction, or lack of peer support) stopping me from acting on it” and giving them a time for both internal and social deliberation that empowers them to move closer to the values they previously already wanted to live by.)

Important characteristics for retreats to make this happen:

Things that seem good but that I'm less confident about

Resources for making your retreat go well:

Thanks to Marka Ellertson, Alexander Davies, Juan Gil, Leilani Bellamy, and Nikola Jurkovic for feedback.

  1. ^

    Thanks to Kyle Scott for first putting it in these terms for me.

  2. ^

    Thanks to Alexander Davies and Juan Gil for reminding me of the importance of this.

  3. ^

    Thanks to James Lin and Monica Chang for helping me think through this. James [EA · GW] has some great takes about the epistemic advantages of avoiding identity-thinking, e.g. "I eat a vegan diet" vs. "I am a vegan" helping you evaluate criticisms of veganism with a clear head.

  4. ^

    Thanks to Leilani Bellamy of EA Retreats for adding this important point.

  5. ^

    Thanks to Marka Ellertson for this point (and for pushing back against my over-programming tendencies while planning the HEA retreat).


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2022-04-26T19:03:28.013Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EA Retreats is now a "private site". Does anyone know what's going on?

Replies from: KaseyShibayama
comment by KaseyShibayama · 2022-04-26T20:38:39.049Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EA Retreats recently rebranded as Canopy Retreats [EA · GW] (

Replies from: Charles He
comment by Charles He · 2022-04-26T21:06:17.538Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you expect to get nontrivial traffic, a URL redirect might be useful (you can do it at the domain level). A URL redirect adds some gravitas/decorum as well, which might be helpful.

It looks like your registrar is Google so it should be pretty easy?

Replies from: KaseyShibayama
comment by KaseyShibayama · 2022-04-26T21:58:09.883Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’m not affiliated with Canopy Retreats but I agree that’d be useful

comment by Miranda_Zhang ( · 2022-04-12T02:32:05.287Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for compiling all this in one compact post! Having just run a retreat, this seems like ~common knowledge among community-builders, but it'll be very useful to have a single post to point to instead of having to gather pieces of knowledge together. 

comment by lennart · 2022-04-06T19:57:13.760Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great post Trevor! I share your message. :)


The retreat features lots of people who are already “on board” with EA. At least a few should be at least moderately charismatic people for whom EA is a major consideration in how they make decisions.

That's also my experience. While "some buy-in" already helps a lot, people with more experience provide in my experience even "more value" - sharing their EA story, their connected struggles, and maybe how they managed to work on EA-adjacent stuff.
You bring something along these lines up later by saying "The retreat includes “professional EAs.”".

Therefore, I'd also encourage the more "senior people" to join retreats from time to time. You can provide an enormous value. And to all the organizers, reach out to them!

Replies from: levin
comment by levin · 2022-04-06T19:59:32.886Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Re: "I'd also encourage the more "senior people" to join retreats from time to time," absolutely; not just (or even primarily) because you can provide value, but because retreats continue to be very useful in sharpening your cause prioritization, increasing your EA context, and building high-trust relationships with other EAs well after you're "senior"!

comment by james (james_aung) · 2022-04-07T10:39:02.469Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Global Challenges Project have just released their Guide on Running a Retreat here: 

Replies from: levin
comment by levin · 2022-04-07T15:45:22.835Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, added to resources!

comment by mic (michaelchen) · 2022-04-06T22:50:01.993Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For me, the main value of retreats/conferences has been forming lots connections, but I haven't become significantly more motivated to be more productive, impactful, or ambitious. I have a couple questions which I think would be helpful for organizers to decide whether they should be running more retreats:

  • How many hours does it take to organize a retreat?
  • To what extent can the value of a retreat be 80/20'd with a series of 1-on-1s? (Perhaps while taking a walk through a scenic part of campus) Would that save organizer time?
  • Do you have estimates as to how many participants have significant plan changes after a retreat?
Replies from: levin
comment by levin · 2022-04-06T23:47:16.742Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yep, great questions -- thanks, Michael. To respond to your first thing, I definitely don't expect that they'll have those effects on everybody, just that they are much more likely to do so than pretty much any other standard EA group programming.

  • Depends on the retreat. HEA's spring retreat (50 registrations, ~32 attendees) involved booking and communicating with a retreat center (which took probably 3-4 hours), probably 5-6 hours of time communicating with attendees, and like 2 hours planning programming. I ran a policy retreat in DC that was much more time-consuming, probably like 35 hours in figuring out logistics, communicating with guests, etc. I would guess the latter would do better on CBA (unless policy turns out to be very low-value).
  • I think scenic walks are probably the closest thing you can do on campus, but you definitely don't get 80% of the value (even on a per-organizer-time basis). You get to tailor the conversation to their exact interests, but it's not really the kind of sustained interaction in a self-contained social world that retreats offer.
  • Not with much confidence. I get the sense that the median person gets slightly more into EA but I guess like 5-10% of attendees can have major priorities shifts on the level of "EA seems like a cool way of thinking about climate policy" to "holy shit, x-risk [LW · GW]." I personally have shifted in a couple ways after retreats — from "optimize my time in grad school for generic policy career provided that I make some attempt at EA community-building" to "EA community-building should be one of my top two priorities" after the group organizer retreat and from "probably will work in biosecurity" to "probably will work in AI policy or EA meta" after Icecone. 
Replies from: michaelchen
comment by mic (michaelchen) · 2022-04-07T01:24:41.332Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Got it, I'm surprised by how little time it took to organize HEA's spring retreat. What programming was involved?

Replies from: levin, levin
comment by levin · 2022-04-07T15:45:04.520Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also should note that we had a bit of a head start: I had organized the DC retreat one month earlier so had some recent experience, we had lots of excited EAs already so we didn't even try to get professional EAs and we decided casual hangouts were probably very high-value, and the organizing team basically had workshops ready to go. We also had it at a retreat center that provided food (though not snacks). If any of these were different it would have taken much longer to plan.

comment by levin · 2022-04-07T02:26:03.130Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It was very much an 80-20'd thing due to organizer capacity. The schedule was something like:

  • Friday evening arrivals + informal hangouts + board games (e.g. Pandemic)
  • Saturday morning: opening session, hikes/informal hangouts
  • Saturday afternoon: three sessions, each with multiple options:
    • 1-on-1 walks, Updating Session, AI policy workshop
    • 1-on-1 walks,  Concept Swap, forecasting workshop
    • 1-on-1 walks, AI policy workshop
  • Saturday evening: Hamming Circles, informal hangouts feat. hot tub and fire pit
  • Sunday morning: walks/hangouts
  • Sunday afternoon: career reflection, closing session, departure
comment by Miranda_Zhang ( · 2022-04-07T02:12:08.652Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Haven't read yet but quickly plugging (not affiliated but I know the founders, and they aim to increase quantity + quality of EA retreats)