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.
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.
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!