TL/DR: Mastermind groups consist of a small number of people (usually 4-6), meeting regularly over a long time and supporting each other with their goals. Members might provide each other with ideas, critical feedback, encouragement or accountability. The concept is widely used in the solo entrepreneur community but, to our knowledge, has not found adoption within EA yet. We believe mastermind groups could be a valuable addition to existing mentoring and coaching formats within EA. We are considering launching a Mastermind matching service for EAs - click here to indicate your interest.
Aiming high and failing can hurt
Last November, 80k published Be more ambitious: a rational case for dreaming big (if you want to do good) centring around this main theme:
In short, our advice is to do as much as you can to set up your life so that you can afford to fail, and then aim as high as you can. As a slogan: limit downsides, target upsides.
This seems like a helpful framing for thinking about how we can increase the expected impact of the Effective Altruism community. At the same time, this can be very demanding for individuals. If you're looking for a job and are ambitious in terms of impact, that can lead to many rejections, which can hurt. As one applicant to 20 EA jobs with 0 offers wrote, it can feel as if EA orgs were saying:
We are so talent constrained… (20 applications later) … Yeah, when we said that we need people, we meant capable people. Not you. You suck.
"Rejection hurts, and that hurt matters." wrote the therapist Dystar Eld about job rejections in EA, and Max Görlitz asks, "How do we create a culture of ambition without deteriorating the community's mental health?" citing Sam Bankman-Fried, who more broadly talks about rejection on the 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.
How do we take care of the majority of people who aim high and fail repeatedly? Either applying for jobs, funding, starting organisations, doing independent research, working in non-EA organisations where they try to make a difference, running for election and many other fields?
As a serial entrepreneur, I (Patrick) had to deal with high ambitions crashing down from time to time, costing money and having large emotional tolls. I saw some of my peers give up after the blows and take on regular jobs. One of the most important elements for getting through these phases was having a support group of people I could talk to in similar positions.
The concept of mastermind groups was first described almost 100 years ago in "The Law of Success" by Napoleon Hill. After interviewing many successful people of his time like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Hill observed that many were in peer-to-peer mentoring groups.
Mastermind groups today come in many shapes and sizes. Typical they
- Consist of a fixed group of 2-10 participants, although 4-6 seems more usual
- Run 1-2 hours either weekly, bi-weekly or monthly
- Are structured so that one or more participants per session can share something and ask for feedback, recommendations or just moral support. Sometimes people share their next goals.
- Can be self-organised and free, cost a one-time signup fee or between $500 and $100.000 per year for entrepreneurs
- Exist as long as participants find them helpful
Distinctions between Mastermind Groups and other formats already established in EA
- Mentoring and coaching are 1on1, and guidance flows mostly one way. Mastermind groups are peer-to-peer and usually have more than two members.
- 1on1s are usually only happening once and only between two people. Mastermind groups meet regularly, which enables members to get to know each other really well, thereby being able to offer personalised advice that might be much more useful than what a stranger can offer.
- EA Career Advice is usually given once and focussed on strategic planning. Mastermind groups discuss strategic planning too, but they also help each other with accountability, emotional support and the actual implementation of plans on a week-by-week basis.
- EA fellowships usually run for a couple of weeks only, whereas Mastermind groups typically run for many months or even years.
- Local EA groups may meet regularly, but their members might work on many different things and be at different stages in their EA journey. Mastermind groups, on the other hand, are usually constructed so that they encompass members at a similar stage, with similar goals. For example, there might be a Mastermind group of EAs working on changing their career.
- Specific Facebook groups and Slack channels (for example, "Entrepreneurs in EA") are beneficial for getting critical feedback on one's plans. However, they are not suitable for accountability or week-by-week implementation. They also cannot offer personalised advice very well because members of a large discussion group do not have as much context about each other as members of a Mastermind.
There is not much research about masterminds. A small study (N=16) found that participants in a post-doctoral mastermind program at a Swedish University described groups as:
- A place that offers conversation in confidence
- Opportunity for personal and professional development
- A quality break and time for reflection
I never participated in a formal mastermind (although my group of entrepreneurial friends was similar), but I have talked to entrepreneurs who have. Experiences varied based on the other participants and their goals. I got the impression that similar ambition and company size seemed important for people to show up regularly and reap benefits.
After starting to look for direct work in EA actively, I found that I would love to have a mastermind of people who are sharing the frustrations of waiting, rejections, and uncertainties and being able to reflect on the next steps. Other friends and entrepreneurs I know can't relate to why I would pursue this path instead of earning and donating. In our local group, people are in very different steps of their career paths so it's not easy to find people in similar positions.
At EAG London, I talked with a few mid-career people who are currently earning to give and seemed to have financial and career capital that, in my opinion, would allow them to be good co-founders or leaders of bigger new EA projects. I had the impression that these could be the people who, e.g. the Future Fund is looking for, perhaps even to become founders of megaprojects. While there was interest in these projects, they were not willing to take the next step of trying out new high-risk paths. Perhaps they, too, would be more inclined to take risks with the help of peer support.
I have been part of many different Mastermind groups over the years. Some of these groups were in the solo entrepreneurship community. Others focused on relationships and personal growth. I am also currently running a career-focused Mastermind group for EA Austria.
Here are some lessons I learned:
- Weekly or biweekly calls work well.
- Give each person an equal amount of time. The person can explain their situation, ask for feedback, or ask the group for anything else they might need to make progress.
- Re-scheduling between 5 or 6 people is very cumbersome and stressful. It's best to stick to a schedule and possibly have some members missing some of the time.
- To kick it off, it is useful to get a full 1-hour presentation from each member in turn, to really learn as much as possible about their background.
- You might split each meeting into small chunks and give each person a small amount of time. Or you might focus the entire call on just one person. Or anything in between (for example, two people get the focus at each call).
- It is generally important that group members work on similar goals and projects. However, there can be some diversity in terms of specific fields. For example, a Mastermind group with EAs working on exploring new career options might work well even if one member is looking for EA engineering jobs and the other is seeking a researcher role.
- It is important that members can equally give and receive advice and are at a similar stage. For example, an entrepreneurial group where person A is just evaluating their idea and person B is looking to raise their second round of funding might not work well. That being said, if person A has a great understanding of the field (say, from having run another business before), it might work just fine.
- Mastermind groups require a good personal fit, and people will sometimes discover a particular group is not working for them. It is important to agree in advance on clear communication if someone leaves the group.
This guide (from the solopreneur community) gives some insights into running a Mastermind group.
Masterminds in EA
As the concept of Masterminds comes from the field of entrepreneurship, some adaptation may be needed when using it for EAs that are not starting an organisation. Knowledge sharing could be less important, while moral support for rejections might be more so. The shared culture of EA could also lead to a different experience where members might aspire to higher levels of epistemics or share feelings of imposter symptom.
How Masterminds could fail
While Masterminds can help people grow, there are also failure modes that have the potential to be harmful. These include:
- Offering only encouragement but no constructive criticism. This might encourage members to keep working on low-impact paths.
- Groups where participants pull each other down having negative outlooks
- Participants giving advice that might lead to unhelpful or harmful actions
- The failure of the Mastermind group adds to the sense of failure individuals are already feeling
- Low-value interactions that cost time without high benefits for the participants
- Widely divergent goals of the participants make understanding the individual situation and advice harder
For this reason, any service to set up Masterminds should proceed carefully, implementing steps that can mitigate the risks. These could include guidance for participants around reflecting on their experience and feedback and support mechanisms.
Starting an EA Mastermind Matching service
I would love to know if anybody is working on establishing peer-support groups; please comment on this post. I'm also interested in any experiences you have with this format.
If you're interested in joining a mastermind, please enter your email address. We are considering starting an EA mastermind service or linking up with others already working on that.
We want to thank Matt Putz, Max Görlitz, Steve Thompson and Vaidehi Agarwalla for feedback on early versions of this post. All mistakes are by the authors.