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Being more ambitious has become a very popular meme within the EA community and “a culture of ambition” was the unofficial motto of the recent EAG London conference.

I understand the argument that we should strive for opportunities which have a small chance of success but huge payoff in impact if they work out. If most of us were to act this way, then the aggregate impact of the whole community will be bigger and what we care about is more overall good in the world, disregarding who brought it about. 

Most of the people taking this attitude will fail at what they are trying to achieve, because the things they are working on are very hard. That is an intrinsic property of this “high risk, high reward” style of doing good, but it feels bad to fail

Here is the idea in the words of SBF on the recent 80k podcast

“So I think there are really compelling reasons to think that the “optimal strategy” to follow is one that probably fails — but if it doesn’t fail, it’s great. But as a community, what that would imply is this weird thing where you almost celebrate cases where someone completely craps out — where things end up nowhere close to what they could have been — because that’s what the majority of well-played strategies should end with. I don’t think that we recognize that enough as a community, and I think there are lots of specific instances as well where we don’t incentivize that. ” (emphasis mine)

Supporting the argument intellectually is one thing, but coping with failure is another. How can we make it feel more rewarding for everyone who did the right thing and tried the ambitious project, but ultimately didn’t succeed?

Anecdotally, I recently found myself in a career situation where I was trying to build up skills which me and others consider valuable to have more of in the EA community. Unfortunately I started noticing that the situation wasn’t ideal for me and my mental health was getting worse. While making the decision to stop pursuing this particular path, I had thoughts like “Oh man, I really don’t enjoy doing this, but it would sure be useful for me to build up skill X so that in five years I can realize this really ambitious project Y. Therefore maybe I should continue anyways”. 

Surely others have been in a similar place. A few data points of people mentioning the bad feeling of failure to the point of burnout (!) are in this recent thread of EAs failing in high risk, high reward projects.

Some people will thrive in an environment with a high risk of failure and the thought of potentially achieving something incredible will be enough motivation for them. Many others will find such an environment difficult and I worry that they will be put off from EA. 

In short: How do we create a culture of ambition without deteriorating the community’s mental health?


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I think I read this somewhere, but can't remember who to attribute the idea to: Maybe we need something like an EA safety net, similar to an insurance. Knowing that you will have enough money to take care of your family even if you fail at your ambitious project would at least take away some of the anxiety of not succeeding. This would also be helpful in case you suffer burnout (which we should prevent in the first place!). 

This would be a good thing to link to grants for ambitious projects

Thank you so much Max for writing this! I started a draft forum post for a proposal just yesterday. My idea was to have groups of EAs that aim high and fail often and that support each other. Knowing that others are in similar situations and having a smallish group to discuss the strain and celebrate trying might make things easier. I at least would like it. I was planning to the share the draft with you anyway and would love to get your take on it.

Strongly agree, looking forward to your post :)

Perhaps normalizing and encouraging more failure discourse could help?

Something I want to start in EA Austin is a group failure spreadsheet as discussed on the forum here and in greater detail here. I think this is something that EA slack workspaces and other groups could really benefit from! I think community organizers could spearhead promoting this to their cohort!

P.S. I realize this comment is late. Just found this post while skimming the nonlinear library and felt I had something actionable to contribute.

A meta-level issue is ensuring consistency in this "high risk, high reward" approach. 

For example, some grantmakers in EA indicate they take this approach and will support relevant projects. Which is great! 

But if they then decide against funding a project merely because they think it's unlikely to succeed, this implies they actually aren't taking such an approach. Ideally they would provide feedback such as "well you think this project has a 10% chance of succeeding, but we think it's actually more like 1% because you haven't considered X, Y, Z, and this now means the expected value is below other projects we have chosen to fund instead". 

If grantmakers fail to do this, they are failing to even give people the chance to fail. This obviously doesn't have the same consequences as a project failing, but does require coping with rejection that is perceived to be unjustified and inconsistent with the purported approach, and could discourage ambition.

I think positive affirmation of people who did a positive EV thing is great! A friend of mine lost a ton of money on a positive EV investing situation and I think basically got approval for his decisions.

Anyone in EA who feels like a coach or therapist would be helpful in talking through their relationship with “failure” (however they are defining it for themselves) should absolutely schedule a session. Nearly everyone in the EA coaching/therapy space offer the first session for free to EAs. Full disclosure: I am a professional coach and listed on this page:

Really glad that you brought up this topic Dedicating one's career (or an appreciable fraction of time or happiness) to a project that will likely fail is a huge deal for someone's personal narrative, and we're hoping that swathes of people will be committed enough to do this. I don't have any answers that aren't mere applause lights, but hope this remains a prevalent discussion.

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