Things I Learned at the EA Student Summit
This weekend, I attended the EA Student Summit. Below, I’m summarizing some of my “key takeaways”—ideas that I found interesting, helpful, or thought-provoking. I’m dividing them into a few key themes and questions:
How to Learn About EA
How can we effectively learn about EA? Will Payne had some helpful suggestions, summarized below:
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel—there are already a lot of resources (and curated libraries of resources) out there. Oxford’s EA Introductory Fellowship reading list seems like a great place to start.
We should be explicit about updating our beliefs. If we change our mind about something, it’s useful for us to document it and share it with others.
We should strive to learn more effortfully. Will pointed out that it’s usually not enough to passively read an article or listen to a podcast—we’re more likely to remember information and benefit from it if we learn in more effortful ways. Some examples include summarizing an article in your own words, asking yourself reflection questions (and then answering them), or explaining an idea to others. This forum post is another example :)
Will’s talk also had one of my favorite suggestions from the summit. Instead of saying “I found this article interesting because it was about X”, Will suggests that we say “I found this article interesting because it suggests that we should do Y.” I think this is extremely clever, for at least two reasons.
First, I think it makes the person that we’re talking to more motivated and energized about the topic. There are thousands of interesting articles about interesting topics, but there are very few that directly try to make me think or act differently.
Second, I think it helps us recognize when things aren’t actually helpful. It’s easy to get lost thinking about interesting ideas that don’t actually have any impact on the choices we make. By asking “does this suggest that I should do something different or think about something differently?”, we might save ourselves a lot of time.
EA Resources that I Didn’t Know About
I learned about a few useful EA resources:
The Center for Effective Altruism has a media specialist and a licensed social worker who serves as the EA community liaison. Anyone can contact them. Yes, that means you. Or me. Part of their job is literally to help us think, feel, and communicate better.
Aaron Gertler, who runs the EA forum, is willing to read/edit any potential forum posts.
Giving What We Can has a list of content ideas for blog posts.
These are just a few that I’ve learned about recently— I’m sure there are many more. This post from a few weeks ago has a more thorough list of EA-related organizations.
How often should you reach out to EAs and EA-related organizations?
I have an immense amount of respect for other EAs. These are literally people who are devoting their lives toward solving the world’s biggest problems and finding the most effective ways to spend their time and money.
So naturally, I thought that these people—especially the “big name” people—would have far better things to do with their time than talk to me. I need to wait until I have a really impressive idea before I request the time of other EAs—I could distract them from discovering the next highly effective charity or the solution to AI safety!
Nearly all of my experiences at the summit went against this idea. People wanted to talk to me, and others, about raw, unpolished ideas. Almost every EA I spoke to—including the “big names”—seemed authentically and intrinsically motivated to talk to students about their interests and ideas. I honestly think this was my biggest surprise of the conference—there are so many EAs who would genuinely like to talk to you.
Now, there’s almost definitely some selection bias going on. You’re not going to sign up to come to the Student Summit if you think that talking to students about EAs is a waste of time. But even if non-summit attendees are half as likely to talk to you as summit attendees, I think it would still be worth it to reach out.
Moving forward, I think I’m going to have a lower bar for reaching out to EAs. I think the only caveat is that I should be very transparent about what stage my ideas are at (e.g., “this is something I’ve only been thinking about for a few weeks, so I’m looking for high-level feedback) and maybe even give people an easy way to opt-out (e.g., “I know that you must be very busy these days, so I understand if you don’t have time to X.”) But after doing those things, I really can’t see much harm in reaching out. Besides, if someone does think that their time is more valuable than [helping you refine a project idea//talking to you about their career//helping you organize an EA event//writing a Broadway musical about EA starring Idina Menzel], then they just won’t respond.
Taking my own advice, I shared a draft of this forum post with Aaron Gertler before posting it. He got back to me within a day—thank you, Aaron!
“Please email me. Please.” – Aaron Gertler, EA Student Summit
Communicating about EA
I’ve been interested in how EA and EA-related ideas can be presented to members of the public. Several people had some great advice relating to EA journalism, blogging, and presenting EA ideas to the public:
Ask readers for questions. If you’re considering writing a blog, but you’re not quite sure where to start, Kelsey Piper recommends asking friends/readers for questions. Answering questions can be a great way to start writing, and there will be at least one person out there who is interested in what you write!
Start writing. Aaron Gertler mentioned that people are often hesitant to put their thoughts into writing—and that this is a big mistake. To paraphrase him, the only thing worse than writing something poorly is not writing something at all. Blogging can be a great way to learn about topics, spark dialogue, reduce perfectionism, and identify gaps in your reasoning. It can also be fun, energizing, and provide a sense of accomplishment (for more about the benefits of blogging, see this post by Neel Nanda).
Acknowledge what your readers already believe. Readers have short attention spans, and it’s likely that they’ve already heard about your topic. As a result, Kelsey Piper recommends referencing the ideas and sources that your readers are already familiar with—and make it clear that your piece adds something new. For instance, if you’re writing about effective giving, you might want to acknowledge that some people think foreign aid doesn’t work, and then quickly establish that you’re taking a different angle.
What is effective altruism?
If you had a minute to explain EA to someone, what would you say? I’ve been thinking about this lately, and the conference helped me consolidate my views. Here’s what I would say (largely inspired by this 80,000 Hours podcast with Ben Todd and Arden Koehler):
EA is about asking questions—how can we do good in the most effective ways? What is “good” and how do we measure it? What are the most important and most neglected issues in the world? Which ways of doing good are most suited to our skills/interests?
EA is about doing things—EAs don’t just sit around philosophizing all day. Many EAs have founded or worked for organizations to reduce poverty, improve the criminal justice system, combat climate change, and promote animal welfare. EAs invest their time and money into some of the world’s most challenging problems.
EA is about meeting people— EAs form a community to motivate, inspire, and challenge each other. Many EAs have become friends through conferences (and student summits! :D). These friendships and relationships are often highly influential—EAs encourage each other to do good better, and to take care of themselves.
The student summit was more ethnically and geographically diverse than I expected it to be. Before the conference, nearly all of the EAs I knew were white men/women from England and the US. I was grateful to meet EA organizers in Kenya, Nepal, India—and these are just the ones that I happened to connect with. I wonder how EA ideas will resonate with people around the world, and I’m excited to find out.
Anecdotally, a lot of student EAs felt like they don’t really know what to do, and they’re not fully satisfied with the career options that are out there. People who aren’t interested in the “hot” EA topics (e.g., AI safety, longtermism) seemed especially unsure about what to do, or even if they “could” pursue a career within EA. Even though the overall vibe of the conference was welcoming/inclusive, and people emphasize that EA isn’t merely about a list of cause areas, I think it’s hard for people to internalize that. Especially when it can be really hard to get a job, especially at EA organizations.
A fair number of people are interested in psychology, mental health, and EA promotion work. Good news for me! :D (shameless plug: if you’re one of these people, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
There’s some debate around how much we should invest into promoting EA & trying to attract new EAs. On one hand, a lot of people believe that highly involved EAs are considerably more impactful than mildly involved EAs. As a result, it might be more important to focus our limited time/resources on retaining EAs & getting existing EAs to dive deeper. On the other hand, the vast majority of people haven’t heard about EA. If more people heard about EA, some of those people would end up becoming highly involved. However, there’s also a risk in branding EA— hasty efforts to brand EA could actually cause harm to the movement. For instance, a lot of people cite how media organizations conflated EA with Earning to Give. Then again, is that really so bad? At what point has EA been so misrepresented that we would consider it “net negative” to have more people hear about it? In short, I think it’s complicated. On balance, though, the conference made me more inclined to think that EA could benefit from thoughtful attempts to build EA.
Virtual conferences can actually be fun! This was my first virtual conference, and I thought it was extremely well-run. There were plenty of opportunities to connect one-on-one with other EAs, and the Swapcard/Icebreaker systems were fantastic.
Overall, the EA summit was a great experience. I tried to highlight some of the points that I was most excited about and that I’m most hoping to remember in a year.
For others who attended, what were some of your takeaways? Were there any parts of the summit that stood out for you? And, perhaps most importantly, did the summit get you to think or act differently?
For those who didn’t attend, what do you think of the points I raised? Do you disagree with anything? Do you think I should have explained anything more clearly?
Finally, this is my first forum post, but it won’t be my last! If you have any feedback on my writing, please don’t hold back.
To help organize the discussion, I’ll also include these questions in the comments (protip from Aaron!).