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 ;)