Get In The Van

Thanks to Jessica McCurdy, Buck Shlegeris, Sofya Lebedeva, Matt Burtell, Julia Wise, Aris Richardson, and Eui Young Kim for feedback on this post.

People commonly ask me how I got involved with EA. My answer is somewhat unusual.

I got in a van.[1]

It was fall 2019, relatively early in my first year of undergrad at Yale. I was subscribed to the Yale EA newsletter (as I was for dozens of extracurriculars), but I wasn’t involved in the group. One day something on the newsletter piqued my interest: “People with backgrounds from several effective altruism organizations, such as MIRI and Open Phil, are coming to Yale!” They promised to offer “career advice” among other things.

What was this “MIRI”? What was “Open Phil”? Who were “Buck Shlegeris” and “Asya Bergal”? I had no idea. But I did know that I wanted to make an impact with my career, and EA was associated with that in my head. I did know I was interested in AI, and this “MIRI” thing seemed related. And I did know I wanted a summer internship.

For whatever reason, I ended up talking to Buck, who apparently worked for MIRI. Here is how I described my conversation to a friend, memorialized in my text messages (do not take this as an accurate portrayal of Buck’s beliefs):

This was weird. Here was a guy telling me about how we were going to be turned into paperclips if we weren’t careful. That he worked for a whole organization devoted to preventing us from being turned into paperclips (this is not an accurate portrayal of MIRI’s goals).

But then, they said they had to leave. They were sorry to have been so late, but they had to go on the next part of their road trip.

“Does anyone want to come with us to New York City?”

Two students volunteered themselves pretty quickly. They were both graduate students and already somewhat involved with Yale EA. I didn’t know either of them. In fairness, I had no idea who any of these people were.

I thought for a few minutes, and I decided: I’m going to get in their van. And so I did.

At one point in the van, I asked Buck: “so, where are we going?” He laughed and seemed to think it was very funny that I had gotten in a van without even knowing where it was going.

“A Slate Star Codex meetup.”

I was puzzled at the strange name. “What’s that?”

We arrived as the sun was setting. The meetup was in a park, and there were many people milling around. Apparently, “Scott Alexander himself” was at the meetup. I think somebody pointed him out to me. It’s not like I remember though, because I had no idea who Scott Alexander was.

I could describe in more detail the conversations I had at the meetup, but that isn’t the point of this piece. It is important to note, though, that I didn’t think that everyone there was great, and I even came away with slightly negative impressions of some of them. I never became a regular Slate Star Codex reader.

On the train back, I talked to the two Yale students who came with me. One of them later became a very good friend of mine. I remember finding him just interesting, and wanting to spend more time talking to him. He was eager to talk to me, and share his knowledge and thoughts, and he made me feel included. If he hadn’t gone, I’m not sure the trip would have translated into me getting more involved with Yale EA, because I wouldn’t have felt as connected to anyone in it. But he clearly made an effort to get to know me, and that made all the difference in my involvement with EA.

All because I got in the van.

Why did I get in the van?

You may be wondering why I got in a van with strangers to go to an event, when I didn’t even know what the event was. If any one of the reasons below hadn’t been true, I wouldn’t have gotten in the van:

  • I had attended one Yale EA event before, and it was mildly interesting.

  • My then girlfriend had just had a tense conversation with me that boiled down to “you need to try more things and meet more people.”

  • I didn’t have any homework that felt very pressing that day, which was somewhat rare.

  • I felt comfortable getting into a car with random Yale students and employees of “EA organizations” (more on this later).

  • I wanted a summer internship.

The bottom line is that it was kind of surprising that I got in the van, even to myself. Me getting in the van hinged on five mostly unrelated causes, without which the trajectory of my life could conceivably be quite different (I think I probably still would have been involved with EA though).

What does this mean for you?

It means that you should get in the van.

Obviously, this doesn’t always mean that you should get in a literal van. The following, in some circumstances, might be examples of “get in the van moments” (GITV moments):

  • Going on a trip with a new friend outside of your social circle

  • Doing a completely new kind of activity for a day

  • Maybe even taking certain jobs

Most GITV moments are relatively long in duration: they require you to make a commitment that you can’t easily reverse (though that commitment doesn’t need to be very long or involved). When an unusual choice is before you, you should consider whether it is a GITV moment. Though GITV moments are all very different, they tend to share some characteristics:

A GITV moment is unusual. Almost by definition, you will not have another chance. There might be another GITV moment someday, but it won’t be the same as the last, and will probably be important for a completely different reason.

A GITV moment is hard. You probably have some reservations about getting in the van. It might be the kind of thing where your emotional self needs to be in exactly the right place. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get in the van. It’s difficult.

A GITV moment is pivotal. Sometimes you don’t know what the pivotal events in your life will be. With a GITV moment, you can be pretty sure. It is usually quite obvious that getting in the van will lead to some major change in your life, even if you don’t know what it is yet.

A GITV moment is uncertain. You probably have no idea where you’re going, other than it’s somewhere far away from where you’ve gone before. You won’t know until you’re there.

If you can, get in the van.

What can group organizers do?

You should get your members to get in vans. This means three things.

First, you need to find vans for them to get in. Organize retreats, crazy trips, and get your members to go to EA conferences. Invite guest speakers who have literal vans. Regular EA programming is nothing compared to getting in vans.

Second, you need to show them the value of getting in vans. Tell them about vans you’ve gotten in, and how important that was for you. Heck, show them this post.

Third, you need to help them feel comfortable getting in the van, if comfort is warranted. More on this later.

Here are some examples of trips that I helped to plan and hoped might be GITV moments for some people:

  • The YEA retreat.

  • A trip to the EA NYC picnic.

  • A trip to EAG Boston Picnic. We took a literal minivan, and on our way back from Boston, I looked on Atlas Obscura to find something particularly weird and memorable to make a stop at. We ended up going to see Turtle Boy, which I think worked really well.

  • A trip to Charles Island, which is an island connected to the mainland by a tombolo that is accessible only during low tide. We had 10 people go, and people loved it (though I am not sure if it created any new revelations for anyone).

Anecdotally, it seems like many newer group members got more involved after going to these events. They were all very memorable: a shared experience that you can bond over later (like I still do, to some extent, with Buck). Note that many events intended to be GITV moments are useful for group cohesion even if they are not, in fact, GITV moments for anyone, so the cost to them may be low. Also note that GITV moments do not need to be spontaneous: you may want to aim for a mixture of spontaneous and planned events.

When your group members get in vans, people will one day get in their vans. A few weeks ago, I was driving my car in Berkeley, shuttling people back from an event I had attended. A load of people got into my car. Buck was one of them. Vans come full circle.

Yes. Yes it was.

Why people don’t (and sometimes shouldn’t) get in the van

People often don’t embrace GITV moments, and I think that the biggest reason for this is discomfort.

Discomfort can be healthy. People often have discomfort with novel experiences, and sometimes this is a very useful signal. In some cases, a sense of unease can prevent people from getting swindled or harmed, and it can be important not to ignore that.

Some people also don’t want to seek out unfamiliar ideas, and I think that this likely means that it is not the right time for a GITV moment. That’s fine. Part of the aims of the EA movement is to make people more comfortable with these ideas, but it doesn’t have to be done as part of a GITV moment.

There are some sources of discomfort which group organizers can help alleviate. Many people naturally feel comfortable with people who seem like them, especially when asked to do things like getting into a van. I was (and am) a white techy man from Silicon Valley, which made the situation seem more familiar to me. For most others, many of whom might become just as engaged as I am some day, such a group of people would not have seemed familiar in the slightest. In some cases, this could prevent people from engaging at all.

GITV moments are one of the reasons why I think it’s extremely important to make people in your group feel comfortable in the group at large. Part of this means being welcoming. Part of this means making an effort to make genuine friendships with new group members, and build their trust. And part of this is having group members who new people can relate to, not just in the way they think, but also in the way that they are perceived by strangers, which is often heavily related to external characteristics. In practice, this often means that it can be positive to have people of varying racial, economic, and gender backgrounds. This is especially important for GITV moments, because people of certain identity groups might be wary of engaging or traveling alone with strangers of other identity groups (particularly homogeneous groups of strangers).

Lastly, as mentioned above, there are sources of discomfort which should prevent people from getting in the van. If people feel unsafe or are worried about being emotionally or physically harmed, this might well be for a very good reason. Even if you don’t understand why somebody is hesitant to embark on this kind of new experience, you should think twice before trying to persuade them that their fears are unfounded. Their intuitions could turn out to be correct, or they could have information you don’t have.

GITV moments aren’t everything

GITV moments are exciting, and can be extremely important for people. They are also great stories. But they are not everything. In my view, the vast majority of value in the lives of most people won’t come from GITV moments. Many things are slower, more methodical, and build into something important (I did not have any GITV moments when joining the Yale EA board, for instance). Not everyone in every group is going to have one, and most people won’t get involved through one. I think it’s extremely important to offer GITV moments, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of other, more careful programming.

Getting in the plane

I emailed Buck later that week, thanking him for the trip and also asking him for a summer internship (did I mention I wanted a summer internship?). He didn’t offer me one, but he did ask me to come to a workshop he was running the next week. He said he would pay for me to get on a plane. But my parents were coming for parents weekend, and I had a midterm scheduled.

So I didn’t get on the plane.

What would have happened if I had?

  1. ^

    Technically, it was a minivan. But people have called it a van enough that I’ve kept it.