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.

Mastermind groups

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

Patrick's experience

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.

Lukas' Experience

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.

Resources 

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. 

Acknowledgements

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.

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:14 PM
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Short version (IMHO) is that Masterminds  are excellent when you get good people (seniority, experience, entrepreneurial spirit etc) and they are far less good with less relevant  people. 

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Take a bunch of very early stage peers. They often have more limited and similar knowledge and networks. On the other hand, take a bunch of essentially lonely and talented entrepreneurs and stick them in a room, magic will happen! 

I reckon it's some combination of neglectedness/isolatedness and relative value.

I'm a member of a Mastermind group (from a Leadership Program I was on many years ago) which includes a couple of very senior civil servants. It's just fascinating to watch how these leaders, unable to access advice and unguarded council from their own subordinates, can help each other - by virtue of their positions, experience and relevance. At the very least they respect each other and understand each other's struggles in a way that few others can. 

 So I suspect that a huge amount of the value of Mastermind groups comes down to the matchmaking. 

WANBAM (now Magnify Mentoring) seems to have had an outsized impact by connecting mentors with mentees across the community. I suspect an equivalent service of matching EAs into Circle/Masterminds could be very valuable. WANBAM's success (from where I sit at least) seems to have been largely due to the skill of the matchmaker(s). Getting the fit "just right". Likewise - getting the Circles "just right" could be amazingly powerful. 

Would you say that inexperienced people benefit less from a Mastermind than experienced people? Or would you say that they benefit so little that a Mastermind is not worth for them?

If your claim is that Masterminds are only worthwhile for experienced people, then I disagree for two reasons:

First, the way I see Masterminds, one core aspect is that a group of peers can be much more effective in thinking through problems than a single individual. This is true even if none of my peers have any experience that I don't have. It is surely not true for any imaginable group, but I would guess it is true in the case of intellectually humble and reasonably smart people with similar values, who come together explicitely to support each other. I personally have managed to solve dozens of tricky personal & professional problems with the help of Masterminds groups - problems which I was not able to solve on my own.

Second, people with little experience might need more personal support and motivation than people who already have a lot of experience. They also have less access to mentoring. Obviously, this is not always true, but it seems plausible.

I started something like this earlier this year to do the 8 weeks career planning course by 80k with two friends and I found it incredibly valuable to the extent that I'd say it would have been almost impossible to get so much clarity on career issues without my friend's support. Strongly encourage others to do the same. (Note that it makes sense to do this with people with a similar focus)

We are planning on check-ins every three months now

This is a great idea!

My feeling about the phrase "Mastermind Group" is fairly negative. I have heard people mention it from time to time and knew it was from Napoleon Hill, who was kind of the inventor of the self-help/self-improvement book. The phrase is something I associate,  I think reasonably, with the whole culture of self-improvement seminars and content that descends from Hill -- what used to be authors/speakers like Tony Robbins and is now also really big on YouTube. The kind of thing where someone is going to sell you a course on how to get rich, and the way to get rich is to learn to successfully sell a course on how to get rich.

Take this for what it's worth -- just one person's possibly skewed gut reaction to this phrase. I think the idea of peers meeting in a group to support each other remains sound.

I can see your concern and coming up with a new name could be nice. On the other hand, I suspect most EAs wouldn't be too concerned if we use a tool internally in a way that works for us while it's also being used by others for less useful purposes.

Seconded. I think that the association with scammy MLMs is pretty strong. That being said, if EA simply branded it slightly differently that would remove my concerns: learning circle, accountability club, Junto, etc.

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. 

 

I lazily skimmed the post very quickly because I know about Mastermind groups and was looking for a thing to sign up to, and it took a second read for me to notice the sign-up call-to-actions! I recommend making it very big font.

Thanks, I've made it bold at the top.

This was interesting, thanks! I haven't heard of Mastermind Groups before but in general, I'm excited about trialling more peer-support interventions. This is the approach I took with UChicago EA's career planning program,* which was in turn inspired by microsolidarity practices. I think these interventions provide a useful alternative to the more individual-focused approaches such as 1:1s, 80k career advising, and one-off events.

*It's worth nothing that this one iteration did update me towards , "selection is important," which seems similar to what Steve Thompson is saying - not because I didn't think attendees got value out of it, but because I felt I wasn't creating as much impact as I hoped.

Thanks for sharing! I'm thinking of starting something like this at my local university group next semester. I assume the virtual format mementioned

ntiond here generalizes well to in-person events here, but drop a comment if there are any considerations that you think are extra important in an in-person context.

This is a great proposal, and coincidentally I've been building a very similar initiative for the broader public, incorporating EA principles and intended for both a structured collective increase of our marginal utility and mutual support. Anyone interested can check out https://abundance.dev and subscribe to https://onhumanity.substack.com. Please feel free to provide feedback via any medium!

This sounds great. It feels like a more EA-accessible reframe of the core value proposition of Nora and my post on tribes. 

Interesting. I read your post while researching for this one and found it very interesting. To me, it seemed that you were describing something bigger and more encompassing than a Mastermind that seems restricted in size, topics and frequency of meetings. But there is definitely some overlap and it's one of the few posts on the forum around the deliberate groups and their setup.

Consider posting this idea in the 80k career planning course group: https://m.facebook.com/groups/928373221340185/