University Groups Should Do More Retreats

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, 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. 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:

  • 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[2]. Not sure what the right ratio here is, but I’m pretty confident that less than half should be newbies (e.g. hasn’t completed an intro fellowship or done a solo deep-dive) as an upper bound.

  • It happens at a time of year/​semester where people aren’t incredibly busy — ideally first few weeks of the semester (when people’s schedules are especially in flux) or a long weekend or both. And ideally the fall semester, since people load up on responsibilities over the course of the academic year (especially first-years who are starting from scratch).

  • People spend at least one night (and preferably two nights) at the retreat.

  • The retreat includes a lot of time for one-on-ones (including walks, which typically become one-on-ones or at most groups of 3). There should also be some kind of structured vulnerable/​emotional thing[4] (like Hamming Circles after dinner and/​or a round of “gratitudes” for ways other attendees improved your experience at the closing session).

  • The retreat includes time and a central, default physical space for unstructured socializing[5] (during which people are likely to talk about EA-related things anyway, provided a critical mass are already engaged EAs).

  • It is very hard to run both the content and the operations of the retreat at the same time. For example: you can’t run a session on biorisk while you’re driving to pick up lunch. Consider deputizing or paying somebody to help run it.

  • A content theme of the retreat should be that you can make a difference on these global problems (if you’re ambitious and agentic).

  • Nature settings (especially visible horizons)[4] seem to make retreats more transformative in expectation.

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

  • The retreat involves time for explicit solo reflection, e.g. a workshop where you write or map out ideas.

  • The retreat includes “professional EAs.” In my experience, these do make the retreats more exciting and facilitate “vertical networking” where newer EAs can model EA careers, get plugged into subject-area networks, etc, but also have a higher cost, because it makes the retreat more time-consuming to plan and subjectively higher-stakes. Probably worth it to try to snag at least 1 per 10 attendees unless the organizing team is very time-constrained. Just showing up for a few hours is fine.

  • Some people will probably flake, so slightly over-book the retreat, unless it would be catastrophic for some reason if you were short a bed or two. To reduce flaking, confirm most people’s spot on the retreat at least a couple weeks in advance and send a lot of reminders in the preceding week.

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 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).