Hopefully interesting for anyone running something like "thematic weekend retreat", even if the topic isn't effective altruism. Also it was an attempt to "blend" instrumental rationality techniques seamlessly into an event not focused directly on rationality.
In March the members and friends of the Czech Association of Effective Altruism (CZEA) met for a weekend long intense retreat (you can read more about CZEA in this post). We would like to share our experience in case any EA/rationalist/... group was interested in doing something similar.
Table of contents
Logistics, costs and tips and tricks
Our goals for the retreat were, in order of importance
- Community building and networking. Local EAs should leave knowing each other better
- Introducing CZEA activities and engaging more people in our projects
- Analyzing the weekend impact and sharing our tips and insight
- Education in more advanced EA topics
Based on extensive questionnaires (EA people are willing to fill them up even if they are long), the event seems to have had impact on the goals.
- The average number of EAs participants know well grew from 3.7 to 9.6 (operationalized as “being able to describe in three sentences”)
- Average self-reported knowledge of CZEA grew from 4.6 to 6.9 on a scale 1 to 10 (perfect).
Expected number of hours participants plan to spend on EA activities grew from 11.8 to 13.8 per week. If part of the effect persists, it means the event had some leverage.
- Average self-reported knowledge of effective altruism grew from 5.1 to 6.5 on a scale 1 to 10.
- We will consider the goal “Analyzing the weekend impact and sharing our tips and insight” fulfilled if someone in EA community running a weekend retreat reads this and actually utilizes some of the info shared, so if you do, please let us know! It is really important for our internal prioritization.
The event ran from Friday evening to Sunday noon.
There were 25 participants in total (and 8 more cancelled applications), half of them already active in CZEA. Others were already familiar with EA basics.
Establish epistemic standards. It helps to establish epistemic standard early. By epistemic standard we mean rational reasoning, cooperative solving of disagreements, asking about unclear things, and independent evaluation of evidence and arguments.
Mixing. The natural order of things in social groups tends to be assortative matching. In the case of an EA retreat, it may mean the more senior members talking more among themselves, and the new members also. This should be prevented. As a lot of things are best learned by osmosis and implicitly, it makes a lot of sense to arrange the activities in such a way that there are opportunities for this to happen.
Dramatic arc. People enjoy an event more if it fits human-compatible narrative structure. For example, if you imagine the intellectual intensity or the emotional intensity as the function of time, it can build up, have some climax, fall down, have some much small peak just before the end.
Rhythm. Hard to describe formally, but if activities are structured in a good way, people get closer to the state of flow, are less tired, learn better. Think about the state of mind you want the participants to be after an activity, and if the next activity fits.
Establish common topics and knowledge. Unstructured talk in coffee breaks is often the best part of scientific conferences, but the talks are indispensable for establishing common topics and knowledge about topics.
Do not be afraid of intensity.
Avoid classroom look&feel Classrooms tend to induce some unfortunate mind-states. (At least since 14th-century)
Guided by the goals, we brainstormed an overabundance of activities. Guided by the design principles, we created a program. We re-checked if the program seemed to be aligned with the goals. (About ½ of the initial ideas did not get into the final program)
Here we list all the activities, our reasoning for their inclusion, their rating by the participants on 4 scales - total utility, fun, learning new ideas, and networking (U,F,L,N). Sometimes we comment on experience gained after the event from feedback form or our impressions. The graphs adjacent to the topics show rating on a scale from 1 (bad) to 5 (good), to emphasize the difference the scale of the plots is from 1.5 to 4.8.
We hope it will be inspirational, but definitely should be changed based on goals of your event, the audience, and unique opportunities arising from the people present. We hope the feedback scores could work as a rough guide how an activity may help a specific goal.
We paid for a high quality all vegan food. Also snacks and tea were available during the whole event. Investing in good quality catering seemed worth it. Good light food and constant availability of drinks allow people to keep concentrated. Snack & tea bar is a natural Schelling point for meeting people.
Opening Talk (19:30-19:50)
Operations info. Also useful to introduce rules like “Pacman” (a.k.a. “Open your circles”), “To be continued”, “This is not a classroom”
Double CruxDouble Crux(19:50-20:50)
Reasons for inclusion: Establish epistemic standards early. Technique useful for internal CZEA communication.
Reflection: We believe that knowledge of this technique improved the quality of conversation during the whole weekend.
Organizational Structure of the Czech Association for EA (20:50-21:20)
Reasons for inclusion: Directly helps the goal of people understanding CZEA structure.
Reflection: Part of the info was unnecessarily duplicated in other talks.
Exercise in Giving Feedback (21:30-22:20)
Giving feedback was mainly interactive discussion moderated by two CZEA members who are HR professionals.
Reasons for inclusion: Establish epistemic standards. Induce people to give feedback. Making the program more interactive.
Tea Time (22:20-)
Explaining Concepts (9:30-10:40)
Reasons for inclusion: Networking, mixing, raising the level of common knowledge.
The participants were asked to pick from a list of interesting concepts (e.g. tragedy of commons, toxoplasma of rage, full list here) which ones they would like to have explained to them or explain to others. We matched small groups and had three runs of fifteen minutes long peer to peer explaining.
Experience: From the feedback this was the most popular activity, scoring very high in all the criteria, contributing to all goals.
Talk on Development of the EA Movement in the Last Five Years (10:40-11:40)
Reasons for inclusion: Contributing toward the goal of raising knowledge about more advanced EA topics.
Experience: In practice, it was a useful opportunity to clear some misconceptions spread in early years of effective altruism, like “it’s about earning to give”, “it’s mostly about pledges”, “it’s mostly about fundraising to GiveWell charities”
How to Use Slack, Trello, Gdrive etc. (11:45-12:15)
Reasons for inclusion: Rhythm, something not so demanding. Also at CZEA we use a whole stack of collaborative tools and we wanted everyone to be able to use them effectively.
Experience: For power users it was boring.
Trio Walks (13:30-14:50)
Practicing Double Crux and Mutual Debugging in Trios. Inspired by CFAR.
Reasons for inclusion: Networking, mixing, improving rationality. Make people walk. May be socially more demanding.
Experience: The feedback scores have bimodal distribution - for some trios it was one of the highlights of the weekend, for some it did not work at all.
Presentation of Czech and Slovak EA Projects (15:00-16:00)
Reasons for inclusion: Networking, getting everybody updated, explaining what we do for new members.
Experience: Would be better to join this with “Job fair” which we had on Sunday.
Group Photo (16:00-16:20)
Annual General Assembly of the Czech Association for EA (16:20-18:00)
Reasons for inclusion: Legal. We have to do it once a year.
Experience: Boring as expected.
EA Themed Pub Quiz (19:30-20:30)
Reasons for inclusion: Fun. Have something not-so-serious. Networking.
Common Mistakes of EA Students (20:30-21:00)
Talk by Jiří and Anna on topics such as “How to not become a depressive altruist”. Topics covered seems important for the wellbeing of many EAs (like “how not to become completely obsessed with x-risk”)
Reasons for inclusion: Learning from mistakes. The reason why to do it later in the course of the weekend rather than earlier: it costs fewer weirdness points.
Experience: It was quite funny, people love to learn from mistakes of others.
Split evening block of Career Planning or EA Future Plans Brainstorming or CFAR Techniques Training (21:00-)
In this bloc, we split the group to three parts, based on different topics resonating in the group - career planning, brainstorming future plans for Czech effective altruism, and training of CFAR style applied rationality. Detailed descriptions would be too long, but generally, all the options were attractive.
On Heuristics (9:40-10:00)
Talk by Aleš. Explaining some more advanced EA topics.
Reasons for inclusion: Directly aimed at one of the goals.
Interactive Theatre: How to Explain and Talk About EA (10:05-10:45)
Reasons for inclusion: Networking, mixing, fun. Development of social skills and ability to explain EA concepts.
Activity based on Forum theatre form. One person acts the role of someone having some serious misconception about EA, the other as an effective altruist trying to explain EA ideas. Members of the audience can suggest different actions for the actors, or come to “stage” and perform their actions.
Job Fair (10:50-11:50)
“Job fair” for volunteering in projects of CZEA
Reasons for inclusion: This seemed the right point where people should make actionable plans for the future.
Experience: This would have been better joined with project introductions.
It makes sense to make this lunch break longer, as a space for informal discussion.
Lightning Talks by participants
Reasons for inclusion: Energizing activity, small peak before the end. Allows remembering people. Allows adding what was unintentionally omitted.
Experience: Some people travelled from far locations and were leaving during Sunday and didn’t stay for the retreat closing.
Filling forms online, bring your own laptop. Super-important for analyzing the weekend impact and improving the next run.
Reasons for inclusion: It is hard to make people fill a >30min form at home.
Promotion: How people learned about the event
Almost all participants learned about the event through one of these “via Facebook event”, “via CZEA”, “through friends”.
Decisive reasons for actually going, as reported by participants, were:
- Wanted to get to know the Czech EAs better (9x)
- Participation on the program of the event (4x)
- Good format, program (4x)
- Veg food, location (2x)
- Reasonable price
Logistics, costs and various tips and ideas
Total expenses were around €75 per person.
Estimated time spent on planning, activity development and feedback analysis was about 200h, or about 1.5 months FTE.
Vegan food and good tea were appreciated (both rated 9/10).
A gong is a useful tool for organizers.
A ‘networking spreadsheet’ where people could write something about themselves before the retreat was a good thing to have.
Participants liked “the pacman rule”: When you are standing in a group, try to leave a place for one more person so other people can join in more easily. (rated 4.4/5) “To be continued”, “This is not a classroom” , “Interesting discussion > talk” were somewhat positive (around 3.2/5)
It helped us to have clearly defined goals.
Our mistakes and things to do better
We didn’t prepare an icebreaking activity.
We had only one lecture room with no place to go for people who preferred discussion instead of listening to a lecture.
The level of talks and discussion was sometimes chosen to fit the least informed person. We could include more advanced topics. (The plot show answers to question Was the program easy or difficult? 1.. very easy 10… very difficult)
We didn't account for the "fun peak" at Saturday evening, leading to somewhat unexpected mood.
People were leaving during Sunday and didn’t stay for the retreat closing.
We didn’t prepare how to immediately involve some of the newly motivated participants after the retreat ended. Some may have lost interest (we will investigate it further).
Impact evaluation and feedback
The responses were generally positive. At the end of the retreat, participants reported a better understanding of the local organization and its projects and were determined to spend more time on EA-related activities. Some of them already joined our ongoing projects (e.g. planning of a Prague AI Safety conference) and we see more engagement in our community. Also, communities in Brno and Bratislava have become more active after their members attended the retreat.
We will try to track medium-term impact by a follow-up survey after 6 months.
To give voice to participants directly, these were some of the answers from feedback forms :)
What is the most important thing about which I have changed my mind?
- the nature of effective altruists
- EA Bratislava
- I believe in my knowledge even less
- I will explore more
- I think about people, and I think a lot
- Career planning
- I appreciate the usefulness of self-development and CFAR techniques
- I thought I was just an observer, and in the end I was determined to get involved quite a lot.
- I'm wondering if EA charity contributions are the best I can do for EA.
- Earning to give
- Content - I found it important to discuss the priorities for a long time and actively seek to find facts that would help me change my mind - eg via double-crux.
- How to advise others with your career
- Perhaps exploration / exploitation.
- The area of AI safety is actually worth attention
What surprised me the most?
- The number of actively involved people
- How great was the food
- Environment, food
- Unexpectedly non-autistic
- That I felt good among unknown people.
- EA Theater
- Intensity of the program
Which parts of the program were least useful...?
Most common answers included “organizational info! and talk about Trello etc.
The main organizers of the retreat were Jiří Nádvorník and Anna Gajdová, with help from Kristýna Němcová and Jan Kulveit. Talks and activities also by Aleš Flídr, Naďa Bednárová, Přemek Paška, Marika Řežábková, Veronika Portešová and Lenka Raymanová. The event took place at Ekocentrum Louti, catering was by Momos and Amitaya Tea.
We took a lot of inspiration and some content from CFAR.
We plan to do a weekend retreat at least once a year for CZEA.
If you would like to organize something similar we would be happy to help you, describe any of the activities in more detail, share materials, etc.
We also have a few activities we really wanted to try but were not able to fit in the schedule
- Play cooperative board games about saving the world (e.g. Mansions of Madness)
- An AI Safety themed LARP
(Note: Feedback data analysis was done and this post was written cooperatively by Anna Gajdová, Jiří Nádvorník and J.K.)