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Content warning: depression, failure.

...If you want to do as much good in expectation as possible, ideally you should be aiming for those best-case, [high risk, high return] outcomes. And probably, you’ll fail — more likely than not.¹

An Engineer's Attempt at a Sales Pitch

Do you worry that selection effects are blinding you to the reality that most ambitious EA's have mediocre careers? Worry no more as you hear the depressing story of how I did not become like Sam Bankman-Fried or the Moskovitz's.

"If you shoot for the moon..."

At some point in early childhood development, well-adjusted children realize that the phrase, "you can do anything you set your mind to," isn't meant to be taken literally. Yes, you should take "personally responsibility" for cleaning your room, but you could not have stopped -- nor are you "personally responsible" for -- the mess caused by the collapse of the Twin Towers.²

Poorly-adjusted over-achiever that I was, I decided to bear the entire world's suffering on my shoulders. Somewhere in my teens, I concluded that my path to ameliorate suffering was earning-to-give: I would become a billionaire entrepreneur and give my money away. The only way to fail was to not try hard enough -- reasonable expectations, amirite?

"...you land on your head and break your neck"

Shockingly, I didn't become a billionaire college dropout like I planned. Nor did I do well enough in undergrad to pursue my MBA, so the backup plan was shot too. However, by working harder than everyone else, I managed to make slightly more money than my engineering peers.

In 2013, a few years into my career, I discovered GiveWell. Fortunately, I could now save people's lives even before becoming a billionaire. Unfortunately, every frivolous purchase sentenced someone to death-by-malaria. The upshot was that I found it easy to live below my means, donate 10-20% of my earnings, and save up for the day when I would launch a successful start-up.

(If anyone is still reading this, you're probably thinking: this guy needs professional help. More on that later.)

I learned the hard way that most people don't want to risk their life's savings on a start-up, and I failed to find a co-founder.³ Undeterred, I struck out on my own. With 13 months of hard work, I built a thriving business had absolutely nothing to show for it. Apparently, I inherited my family's "entrepreneurial spirit," but my phenotype was 100% engineer and 0% salesman (which you guessed from my sales pitch above... or not because you're not reading this...). It took me a surprisingly long time, but eventually I learned that,

 steve_wozniak + steve_jobs != steve_wozniak.work_extra_hard()

At this point in the story, I'm on the backup plan of the backup plan of my earning-to-give strategy, but I thought maybe I could climb the ladder as a manager. I loved leading teams and always did right by them. Two years and two "Manager" titles later, I was forced to conclude that either (a) I was incapable of politics or (b) I hated politics too much to try. Regardless, my career had peaked in my 30's, and the path to billionairedom had officially dried up.

Failed Attempts at Direct Work

Meanwhile EA funds continued to grow, and 80k kept talking about talent constraints and how some donors had more money than opportunities, so I began considering direct work more seriously. However, I don't live in an EA hub like SF or London, and pre-COVID very few EA jobs were remote-friendly. I interviewed with one organization anyway, but they confirmed that I would need to move, which wasn't possible for family reasons. (Did I mention I got married and had kids? They're great!)

I tried contributing some bio-security research on my own, but I couldn't get anyone's attention, which in retrospect wasn't surprising.

Post-pandemic, there are more remote EA jobs, but not that many, especially compared to the number of applicants. I almost got my hopes up when Sam Bankman-Fried talked about the unfunded opportunities with FTX Foundation, but the website says grant applications are closed, and I don't see info about how to join existing grantees either.

If I had a nickel for every time someone says, "AI safety desperately needs more engineers," when there are <2 recent job postings, well... earning-to-give would be back on the table.

Depressing Conclusion

Wait, that's it?

Yep, trust me I'm more disappointed than you by this mundane cliff-hanger of a story. I'm on my 7th month without a job, and this week I was rejected for an EA job that should have been a slam dunk.

The good news is that a couple years ago I sought professional help. I'm now on my 3rd therapist, my 6th anti-depressant, and next-up I guess is brain magnets. (Hey, at least I'm trying.)

The -1 of you left reading this might be wondering, "did you really need to post this?" Yes. Even if no one reads it, I need to know that I tried to reach the EA's out there like me, because on some dimensions we're the silent majority. Most EA's can't go to EA Global. Most EA's can't attend local meetups. Most don't post here or on Discord.⁴ Whether they seem successful on the outside or not, most EA's have failed to meet their own unfair expectations. Finally, I can't be the only one who listens to every episode of the 80k podcast and wants to scream, "I KNOW, I'm TRYING, okay?!" (whilst thanking them for their great work, of course).

If my former boss is reading this and thinking, "Clearly you aren't being solutions-oriented," please keep it to yourself. I can't have that conversation with you again.⁵


I can't say thank you enough to Scott Alexander (and Solenoid Entity!) for making available encouraging articles like this one:

The rationalist community tends to get a lot of high-scrupulosity people, people who tend to beat themselves up for not doing more than they are. It’s why I push giving 10% to charity, not as some kind of amazing stretch goal that we need to guilt people into doing, but as a crutch, a sort of “don’t worry, you’re still okay if you only give ten percent”. It’s why there’s so much emphasis on “heroic responsibility” and how you, yes you, have to solve all the world’s problems personally. It’s why I see red when anyone accuses us of entitlement, since it goes about as well as calling an anorexic person fat... if I were a ditch-digger, I think I would dig ditches, donate a portion of the small amount I made, and trust that I had done what I could with the talents I was given.

My life goal at this point is to dig ditches and to be content giving what I can.


¹ https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/will-macaskill-ambition-longtermism-mental-health

² Unless you are, in which case you should be ashamed of yourself.

³ Technically I had two co-founders at one point. They took advantage of me and cut me out after 3 months.

⁴ IIRC, the most common reason is social anxiety.

⁵ Brandon Sanderson requires that his writing groups provide symptom-oriented feedback like, "this paragraph confused me," rather than solution-oriented feedback, like "you should add aliens." There's value in being "solution-oriented," but it often gets confused with "don't talk about problems," which is an important part of the problem-solving process. Dang it! I said I can't have this conversation again!

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Reading between the lines, you're a funny writer, are self-aware, were successful enough at work to be promoted multiple times, and have a partner and a supportive family.  This is more than what most people can hope for. At some level I think you should be proud of what you've accomplished, not just what you tried and failed to do. 

Depression really sucks, and it's unfortunate that this is entangled with trying hard to achieve ambitious EA goals and not succeeding. At the same time, I think the EA community would've done right by its members if most of our "failure stories" looked like yours, albeit I'd prefer perhaps more community support in the longer term.

Thanks for the kind words!

I think you should be proud of what you've accomplished, not just what you tried and failed to do.

I agree! At least the more rational, objective part of my brain knows that. It's the rest of my brain that still needs convincing. Depression and related maladies make rainbows into meaningless smears of gray. Like, I know it's a rainbow, but is that really as good as they get?

Maybe it's easier to see the implacable determination of a self-destructive brain when it comes to thoughts like this:

have a partner and a supportive family

My mental response distorts this in impressive way, like one of those contortionists that perform inhuman feats to cram themselves into a box. Here it's not that I expected a "better" family; to the contrary, I don't deserve such a wonderful family. I need to be better because they deserve better.

Strangely enough, "Phantoms in the Brain," a book that didn't talk much about depression, really helped me to understand the ways the brain can simultaneously see something clearly and yet be blind to it or fail to see the obvious solution.

One thing I know for sure: my kids will learn about mental health and self-compassion much, much sooner than I did. Even my contortionist-lobe agrees.

Yeah FWIW my key takeaways while reading this was something like "Wow what a ridiculously good person. If this is failure, I might need to rethink some things." :) 

Last week at the fUnconference in Berlin, we had a failure party. Your story would have fit in perfectly, and I want to cheer you on! You seem to have generated tons of expected utils ex ante, even if your bets didn't pay off.

Thanks for sharing this compilation of failures. Overall, I'm still impressed by your life story so far!

I'd like to know: Is there something the EA community could have done better to support you emotionally?

No joke, I would kind of love it if there was some kind of official recognition we could give people for "did something that was very plausibly good ex ante but it didn't work out".

The "Magnificent Failure" award.

Thank you! I'm relieved to have finally posted it. There were some failed attempts because I way overthink everything that's remotely social, even something as low-stakes as posting pseudonymously.

I didn't expect to get this many comments, and I really didn't expect so much positivity and encouragement! This community really is fantastic, and I hope someday to overcome my personal foibles with social media and engage regularly with you wonderful people.

I'd like to know: Is there something the EA community could have done better to support you emotionally?

Thanks for asking. It's a great question, and I wish I had good answers. I've thought about how people like me can be incorporated better, and I honestly don't know.

The encouragement is helpful! For people who already obsess about maximizing impact, it helps to be reminded that any impact (or expected value of impact?) is still very real and valuable. I shudder to think that someone who donates any amount to AMF would ever feel bad about it, yet I know how hard it can be to convince oneself otherwise. Related, I'm glad 80k Hours has eased off on the messaging that EA should focus on the top 1% of people who have most of the impact (ivy league, etc) because that kind of thing is alienating and discouraging to everyone who isn't in that group. Even if it's true, I don't need the reminder.

As far as getting connected, at a surface level maybe it has been tougher to live in a metro area without local meetups; however, lack of opportunity has never been the root problem for me personally. After all, remote meetups have existed forever, and I have made astonishingly little effort to participate. Broadly speaking, "mental health" is the closest I get to a root cause. Ever since I read that survey saying that social anxiety was the most common reason people didn't engage actively (I hope I'm remembering that correctly), I have wondered about solutions to that. Engagement is a hard problem generally, one that Facebook et. al. spend huge sums to solve. Engagement of those reluctant to engage anywhere... especially hard.

So yeah, more mental health resources and research (!) would be helpful. I recommended to 80k Hours that they add more mental health and self care content, and I gather they're working towards that. The episode with Howie about his mental health challenges helped me tremendously, both because of his story and the practical tips. Spencer Greenberg's podcast is helpful too.

I deeply appreciate the hard work that has gone into building the EA community. I hope my post didn't come across as critical of them in any way.

Thank you for sharing, I think your post will resonate with many people and show them they are not alone in their struggles. I've gone through similar phases of depression, guilt, feelings of rejection and not allowing myself to seek help or complain as I'm much better off than 99% of the world. This sucks.

The Celebrating Failure at the fUnconference that Ludwig mentioned felt cathartic to me as people shared professional and personal failures. In EA we're an unusual community as we try hard and constantly fail at our expectations. This goes for people applying for jobs as well as leaders of EA orgs. A coach recently told me most calls with them turn to mental health problems at some point.

I hope you will find a community that supports you. I have proposed Masterminds as a format and am in talks to see how we can make it happen. But I've heard of more similar remote formats and interventions that are planned and am hopeful we will see some soon.

As a side note: What helped me in the last months were the 80K talk where Will MacAskill talks about his depression and the one with Sam Bankman-Fried where he agrees that most people will fail trying:

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.

Also really helpful was the book by Julian Simon where he talks about overcoming depression in a very relatable way (link via Rob Wiblin).

I shudder to think that someone who donates any amount to AMF would ever feel bad about it, yet I know how hard it can be to convince oneself otherwise.

I recently read the Notes From a Pledger who I similarly far away from a hub and is ok with donating. The comment by Michelle Hutchinson touched me as it brought back the realisation that we're already doing so much more than most people in donating. It's great to aim high and try to get a job in EA but there is no shame in failing, getting a normal job and continuing with donations.

Just trying and failing is something to be celebrated as most people never try. Thank you for trying!

I hope successful rich people show up to the failure party to help provide a path forward.

When I think of my failures in life (and I've had many) what really irks me the most is that ... I failed. I wanted to improve the world, and didn't. (in my case: thousands of hours over 15 years, no impact, and a strong sense of wasted potential). The support I want most, then, is a path toward improving the world. But I guess emotional support would've helped too, in order to prevent me from losing faith that I could ever succeed (I did lose faith to some extent; I tend to act more like someone who expects to fail, now). In my case, I don't know any other EAs in my city, so virtual meetings/therapy might have been helpful. I briefly purchased discount therapy while unemployed in 2018; it was better than nothing.

I like hits-based giving, but if somebody ends up working on misses for many years in a row... we need a community that can support that person.

Just going to say that your donation to CEEALAR (EA Hotel) in late 2019 when we were facing running out of money was very much appreciated, and, I think, probably pretty high EV! (although obviously I'm biased :))

I like the way Charity Entrepreneurship is set up - in short time during their application process, they give hopeful entrepreneurs a strong indication on whether they think the candidate is likely to be a good fit for entrepreneurship. This is helpful in that if you get rejected from the process early on, you probably should not push yourself too hard trying to start something. 

I know a longtermist incubator was attempted at one point, but perhaps it would be helpful to have some sort of EA entrepreneur screening organization that would attract a large pool of applicants, have a streamlined and time-efficient process for evaluating entrepreneurial talent and letting people know if they should spend a lot of time trying to start something or whether they should make it less of a priority? It could also be tied in with something like unconditional funding for about a year to the top talent so they do not have to burn out in the process of trying to get something off the ground? I think the LTFF is somewhat like this already but it does require you to have a pretty good idea of what you want to do - the step before that is time consuming in looking across a large number of potential interventions and aligning with the wider EA community.

Thank you for sharing this! It takes a lot of courage to talk about one's "failures", because we're constantly bombarded with (often fake or incomplete) success stories. Social media tell us we're not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not rich and successful enough. As a management consultant, I learned to pursue "best practice", to learn from these success stories and apply their principles of success to my own projects. It took me a while to figure out that this is complete bogus and almost never works in real life.

Im 61 now, and my list of "failures" is far longer than yours: I founded four start-ups, none of which became successful. I wrote three novels, none of which got published. I invented more than a hundred board-games, none of which was played outside of the circle of my family and friends (who hate being my play-testers by now). I tried to become a musician, song-writer, and poet, and failed miserably at it.  I developed a computer game which I published in one of my start-ups, but despite nice reviews we sold only about 5% of the games we produced (these were the 90s, when computer games came in paper boxes with a CD in it). We got lucky, though - the storage house of our distributor burned down and their insurarnce covered a part of the production costs. I launched a YouTube channel, posting a video every week for a year, getting me to 238 followers.

To me, all those failures aren't things I wish I hadn't done. They weren't mistakes. They were tries that didn't work out. But at least I did try, and that is a good thing - far better than just doing nothing because you're afraid of failing. On our death bed, they say, we mostly regret the things we didn't do, rather than our mistakes. So you should be as proud of your so-called "failures" as I am of mine. And, if you can overcome your depression, you should continue trying. Not because you have to, but because you want to - because it's much nicer doing things you believe in than doing what some manager tells you to do.

By the way, my fourth novel got published when I was 47 and became a German bestseller. Today, I am a full-time writer with more than 50 books published (https://karl-olsberg.jimdo.com/english/). A lot of them are flops. Some are not.

Edit: Shortly after writing this, my publisher informed me that they weren't publishing the 5th book of a children's book series, which I had already finished and they had already paid me for, due to lack of success of the first four books, and because of the paper shortage. Well ... I told them that I'm sorry to hear that and that I'll try to think of a better idea for the next series, which is what I'm going to do.

I wish you all the best for recovery from your depression. Two of my sons had depressions, so I know it's a serious burden, but I also know it can be overcome.

Thanks for sharing this, semicycle! 

One thing I would also like to point out is that relativity is the enemy here. Compared to being a billionaire, making a "mere" six figures as a successful engineer and donating 10% doesn't seem like much, but let's take a step back and look at it objectively. If you donate 10% of that, that's saving 3+ lives every single year. Across a career, that could easily save a HUNDRED PEOPLE. That's like, two schoolbusses full of children! This is incredibly valuable, regardless of what anybody else is doing. 

If you save three people, then as far as I've concerned you've made a positive contribution with your life as long as you're a somewhat decent person the rest of the time, and nobody can tell you otherwise. You're in a position to do that every year you have an engineering job, even if it's not in EA! 

Everyone who signs that pledge (or donates the equivalent) is doing incredible work. The child you saved doesn't care if someone else saved ten or not, and every life is precious.

Thank you! The rational part of my brain tries to communicate that to the part that's hell-bent on anchoring my priors to inadequacy. Hearing it from others helps to drown out the demons.

Or maybe I should thank that part of my brain for trying to keep me safe or something? Therapy is confusing.

Like other commenters, I'm also glad you posted this. It is very realistic, and I suspect it is a much more representative story of attempts to contribute to EA than the "social media curated" stories and "survivorship bias perspectives" that we so easily and unconsciously develop.

I specifically enjoyed that you included this sentence: If I had a nickel for every time someone says, "AI safety desperately needs more engineers," when there are <2 recent job postings, well... earning-to-give would be back on the table. I have thought of that exact scenario, and parallel situations with other job functions, frequently. 

I also think that when you write that Most EA's can't go to EA Global. Most EA's can't attend local meetups. Most don't post here or on Discord. you are right. A lot of people are not going to leave their family and kids (and other responsibilities) for a multi-day conference hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Thanks! I feel very fortunate to have skills at least somewhat relevant to EA, because I imagine that many would-be EA's don't qualify for even a single job on the job boards. Of course my brain twists my "fortune" into "why are you wasting it then?" but some part of me knows that's the wrong way to look at it, and I'm hopeful that part will win eventually.

Hopefully over time EA can grow to become more and more accessible to people. There are some remote meetup options that I "should" (hopefully someday without guilt...) get myself to attend. I deeply appreciate the work everyone in the community is doing to accommodate people with different life/personal constraints.

Hey! I'm no mental health professional but I like helping people with their software careers. Among other things, I like optimizing for enjoying one's job way more than the typical EA advice does (a bit about that), including stuff to do with annoying bosses

If you feel like talking <3

Hey, I just wanted to say I'm glad you posted this. It made me laugh and I'm glad you've voiced something that's probably pretty common but rarely talked about - I appreciate that.

Wow. It takes a special breed of monster to laugh at someone's depression.


JK, thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad the levity came through. I'm glad I posted it. I had a couple of false starts. It will shock you to learn that I tend to overthink things like this because they're "never good enough."

Funnily enough I immediately noticed a typo but fortunately had the presence of mind to say "screw it" and go to bed. Sometimes I get lucky or tired enough to hit "Submit" before I have a chance to fix it "just one more time."

"Sometimes I get lucky or tired enough to hit "Submit" before I have a chance to fix it "just one more time.""

So relatable.

Stories of this nature are sobering to hear; thank you for posting this - each post like this gets people in the community mentally  closer  to seeing the base rate of success in the EA community for what it is. 

Your writing is enjoyable to read as well - I would read more of it. 

Controlling for overconfidence, I'm sorry that your expectations were failed with the last EA job you applied for. My brain doesn't usually like to accept such things. 

The expected value of letting go and building a mental foundation that is simple, peaceful, want-free, etc... is positive. Generally speaking, most of the time, my life is actually pretty good. The baseline is good. When negative thoughts enter, I usually just repeat in my internal monologue "your mind is producing negative thoughts, all is actually well", and this usually calms me and actually makes me more content, probably by distracting me from the negative thoughts and images and by increasing my levels of gratitude. It seems to me that your situation would benefit doing something like this. Take it 1 step at a time. 

Have a nice day.

I am humbled by your encouragement, my cowboy/cowgirl friend. That means a lot coming from a microorganism, considering the challenges you overcame in learning to operating a computer and to survive this land of giants.

"your mind is producing negative thoughts, all is actually well"

It's a battle to convince myself of that sometimes, but it's a battle worth fighting, and as you say, "1 step at a time."

Stories of this nature are sobering to hear; thank you for posting this - each post like this gets people in the community mentally  closer  to seeing the base rate of success in the EA community for what it is. 

Your writing is enjoyable to read as well - I would read more of it. 

I agree. And now I wonder whether someone already did write more about this? And if not, maybe this could be a great project?

I found the 'personal EA stories' in Doing Good Better (Greg Lewis) and Strangers Drowning (well, many of these are not quite about EA, but there are many similarities) very helpful for clarifying what my expectations should or could be.

A book where, say, each chapter follows the EA path of one person with their personal successes, struggles, uncertainties and failures could span the different experiences that people can have with EA. Similarly to how many people found semicycle's story valuable, I could imagine that such a book could be very helpful for actually internalizing that EA is very much a community project where doing the right thing often means that individuals will fail at many of their efforts.

If this book already exists, I would be very happy to know about it :)

Another frame that may be comforting is that the expected value of all of these plans seems like it was positive. I'm sure there are things you could have done differently to improve your odds, but it doesn't sound like a better you would have chosen not to pursue these angles or not tried to maximize your positive impact.  Nobody has a guarantee that their plans will succeed-- all we can do is try to maximize EV, knowing that p < 1. Kudos to you for shooting your shot. I think you should get as much credit for that part as if you had succeeded. 

Hey, I don't have anything super profound to say to you. I just wanna let you know that I read your post and think that you're doing great work. I'm  so, so sorry to hear about how hard things have been for you :) 

Heartfelt thanks, Jack! It's hard to reset expectations to appreciate what I have done, and comments like this are helpful and make it just a little easier.

You are a great human being because you are able to live through the struggles and post this meaningful post. I've lived a little longer than most here and I will tell you from experience just the fact that you are married with kids is like a major success itself. A lot of people fail to achieve that. 

Another thing is looking back at decades of life experiences is that things come in waves or era's...periods of struggle are followed by periods of free flowing success or at least some success. 

The success of the family is also an additional challenge. I know going to EA Globals is harder for you, but I wonder if that little extra edge from networking might be the thing that puts you past the hump, I would seriously consider getting a grant to go and ask to bring the fam with...or send them on a vacay with her parents...I know that might be for another season up ahead, but just to consider. 

What I love about you besides the article is all your great and funny responses to the comments. I'm sorry to say I'm not in a hiring position right now, but after reading this post and comments, I feel anybody would be ranging nearer to "highly ineffective altruism" if they didn't offer you a job...humble, real, funny people are a massive plus to any org...plus the life experience is priceless. 

As one of my mentors told me when I was young, a lot of life is just muddling through - and he was a war hero surviver of the Bataan Death March who did a lot in his meaningful life...but it does make the muddling through a bit more powerful to know he survived the Death March. 

Why do you think that "Most EA's can't attend local meetups. Most don't post here or on Discord." ... And the footnote, that this is mainly due to social anxiety?

Asking as someone who sometimes experiences social anxiety around posting here

Silent majority is probably right. There's a self selection pressure for the survivor bias. I found EA at probably the worst financial time in my life and it only worsened my perception of my financial stress, philosophical it's lead to great personal growth, but it's taken a mental health toll.

Thanks for posting this. Good luck with finding a decent medical regiment!

Hang in there bro, I gotchu!

Do you worry that selection effects are blinding you to the reality that most ambitious EA's have mediocre careers? Worry no more as you hear the depressing story of how I did not become like Sam Bankman-Fried or the Moskovitz's.

Perhaps EA culture needs to celebrate failure more? It's plausible that a significant proportion of EAs fail to achieve their goals. But I think EAs should aim to achieve extremely ambitious goals, because even if some fail, the net impact of the community will be much greater - see the 80k article "Be more ambitious: a rational case for dreaming big (if you want to do good)." If we become more accepting of people who failed despite their best efforts, then we might encourage more people to shoot for the stars.

Great post. 👍 I vibe with this.

Obvious suggestion, but have you tried looking for a Steve Jobs? Like through a founder dating thing? Or posting on this forum? Or emailing the 80k people?

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