Crossposted from my new blog, Otherwise. Extended somewhat since yesterday; thanks for the prompt to be more specific!

Several times in the last few weeks I’ve seen someone saying EA has become really bad for them. I don’t have anything really profound to say here, but I think people who are especially miserable in EA should seriously consider leaving.

There are lots of ways to engage with EA, and sometimes if you’re burnt out on some aspects there are other aspects that still feel viable and invigorating. But maybe there aren’t. Maybe the whole thing makes you want to hide in bed. And if so, I think you should trust your gut. Not to hide in bed, I mean, but to get some space from EA.

I realize “take some space” might be easier said than done, especially if you work in the EA space or a lot of your social life is there. Maybe try out a small experiment first: a vacation from EA-related work, reading, or actions.

For a while, interviewing childcare providers caused me to feel especially doom-y. No one was doing anything wrong, but I hated the whole process. I was simultaneously afraid they wouldn’t like my family enough to want to work for us, and that I’d choose someone bad. After a difficult round of interviews, we found someone and stuck with the arrangement longer than was ideal, partly so I wouldn’t have to go through the search as soon. Two years later, I was in a different headspace and able to do the task without so much worry.


Who do I mean this for?

I don't mean that we should all leave when EA gets hard. I think a lot of us find EA hard but also find a kind of determination and energy in response.

But sometimes it's more like exhaustion and despair. And if you're in that zone for a while, that's when I think you should consider getting away.

(I'm imagining someone out there worried about whether they are unhappy enough to qualify. If you're on the fence, maybe take three months off and see whether it gets clearer.)

If other's people work depends on you, like if you're managing an organization or large project, that makes walking away a lot more costly. But if you're miserable in a role, I'd be surprised if you can stay in it long-term without slowly poisoning things around you.

A tiny minority of the people making progress on the world’s problems identify as EAs. There’s a ton of good work to be done outside this space. 

Or maybe you need to get back to more basic human stuff: eating, sleeping, moving, feeling. If you think you might need to just focus on that for a while, I encourage you to try it.

I want to tell you that taking care of yourself is what's best for impact. But is it? I don't know. I'm sure it's true in some circumstances and not in others. My guess is that if you feel like you're drowning, you need to disrupt something about your circumstances, and you'll eventually be more able to do good work (in EA or outside EA) than if you'd continue struggling in the same place.


Someone rightly pointed out that this is all kind of vague. Some more concrete things that I mean:

  • I personally won't dislike you for leaving.
  • If it would feel like a relief to have someone's permission to go, you have mine.
  • I expect the EA community to be healthier / more vigorous if people who are having a terrible time move away from it.

I want people I know to be ok, and that probably slants my judgement about whether this is overall good for the world. So if you're considering leaving, maybe you should ask someone who's more of a hard-ass than me and see what they say.


15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:12 AM
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I temporarily left the EA community in 2018 and that ended up well.

I took a time-out from EA to focus on a job search. I had a job that I wanted to leave, but needed a lot of time and energy to handle all the difficulties that come with a job search. My career path is outside of  EA organizations.

How I did it practically:
- I had  a clear starting point and wrap up existing commitments. I stopped and handed over my involvement in local community building and told my peers about the time-out. I donated my entire year's donation budget in February.
- I set myself some rules for what I would and would not do. No events, no volunteering, no interaction with the community. I deleted social media accounts that I only used for EA. I blocked a few websites, most notably I would have donated if my time-out took longer, but without any research.
- I did not set an end point. The time-out would be as long as needed. I returned soon after I signed the new contract, 8 months after my starting point. It could have been much longer.

This helped a lot to get the job search done.

I could not, and did not want to, stop aiming for a positive impact on the world.  I probably did more good overall than if I stayed involved in EA during the job search.

I can recommend this to others and my future self in a similar situation.

[Edit: this whole comment makes less sense after Julia's edits. Thanks for helping out with my questions, Julia.]

I'm not trying to be oblivious or facetious, but I don't really understand what it means when Julia and other people say "it's okay to leave EA" or "it's fine to leave if you need to" or conversely for someone else to say, perhaps to themselves "it's not okay to leave EA".  It doesn't feel... concrete enough? For me to make sense of. I want to taboo the words "fine" and "okay" to try to understand better. 

Sometimes EA is hard for me and I want to leave and I'm like "is it fine? Is it okay?" And like, damn,  that seems like a really hard question. 

I directionally agree with "My guess is that if you feel like you’re drowning, you need to disrupt something about your circumstances, and you’ll eventually be more able to do good work (in EA or outside EA) than if you’d continue struggling in the same place.", especially if people have felt like they're drowning for months instead of e.g. hours.

Some things people could interpret this post as meaning:

  • Julia thinks you shouldn't feel bad about yourself if you leave EA (because it wouldn't be healthy or productive). (Idk if this is true, I feel like the fact that I'd be disappointed in myself if I didn't do EA stuff drives me to do actually valuable EA stuff, do we know that self-punishment is always eventually counterproductive?)
  • Julia Wise won't hate you if you leave EA (probably true)
  • Julia Wise wants to send care and warm feelings towards EAs who leave and EAs who are struggling (probably true)
  • Julia Wise thinks that in general, people who want to leave EA probably feel more negative about having that desire than is healthy? Useful? Productive?
  • Julia Wise claims no one will resent you leaving EA if you want to (probably false)
  • Julia Wise thinks EA will be better off if it has a culture of not resenting people who leave EA (probably?)
  • It's guaranteed to not be true that if you leave EA, some sentient beings have a horrible time instead of a good time (probably false)
  • In expectation, more sentient beings will have a good time instead of a horrible time, if you leave EA contingent on you wanting to leave EA (?? sounds like Julia agrees it's unclear)

I think there is a chance you're overcomplicating it a bit 😅. I think she is just trying to create a culture where people don't feel socially anxious about leaving EA if it is good for their mental health. Social norms are present everywhere, including EA, and even if we are quite nerdy and prone to rule-binding, the pressure and expectation to do good can conflate against some of the members' mental health.

And then, she is also saying that everyone should feel they are entitled to choose not to sacrifice (a significant portion of) their happiness to improve the world, and not feel bad about it. People sometimes rationalize it in that it is not sustainable, but I prefer understanding just allowing people to not be maximally altruistic as opposed to maximally efficient with their altruistic budget. As in a similar spirit to

I don't know, my sense is the earlier comment correctly points to something being a little off here. Like a (not necessarily intentional) motte-and-bailey thing where the bailey (the part that gets defended) is "this community should have a norm of not shaming people for being less-than-maximally altruistic," and the motte is "it's ethically acceptable for people to not act maximally altruistically." But drawing from the latter claim (without justifying/scrutinizing it with ethical arguments) seems like severely devaluing ethical argumentation, which seems pretty questionable both philosophically and as a norm. (It also feels weirdly at odds with the community's usual norm of caring a lot about ethical reasoning/argumentation.) I think the earlier comment does well at teasing apart different versions of "it's fine," a necessary step for noticing the potential motte-and-bailey error.

(I'm still sympathetic to a community norm of letting people leave if they want to; I feel iffy about the community justifying that norm by denying the ethical value of helping others more, or by denying the claim that (if approached in a healthy way) this community has e.g., some ideas that are pretty helpful for doing more good.)

Thanks, this was a helpful prompt. I agree some of this was pretty muddled. I edited to say some more specific things.

I don’t have a lot of the answers about the “best” way to think about it, but +1 to breaking down “it’s fine” or “it’s ok” into component parts. <3 offered for when it feels hard.

"If it would feel like a relief to have someone's permission to go, you have mine."

This resonates and feels important, thanks for including this, Julia! <3

I’m excited for your new blog Julia. 🙂

My take: There's two things we mean by EA:

  1. EA the social group / movement. (EA the people)
  2. EA the project of improving the world.

It's always ok to leave 1., and it is ok most of the time, but not always, to leave 2.

If you are leaving 2., you should try to figure out why. If it's because you don't really want to improve the world (like most people), I'd prefer you don't leave - but I'm fine with it as long as you're honest about it. 

IMO though, people are more likely to leave 2. because:

  • They are burned out or otherwise having a rough time. Take some time off and get back on track :)
  • They stopped enjoying "EA the social group". Great, you don't need us to keep improving the world!
  • They have other things that are personally more important to them than improving the world (like kids, family, or ideology about open source software). This is totally fine! People need to have good lives of their own!

I did this for EA Austria, where I lived for three years. The community wasn't working for me and I found it demotivating to engage with. I kept in contact with people in EA Spain and online.

This post is great and I really admire you for posting it.

I like these concrete points. I often worry that people will dislike me for things, so if someone is worrying this I hope it frees them.

  • I personally won't dislike you for leaving.
  • If it would feel like a relief to have someone's permission to go, you have mine.
  • I expect the EA community to be healthier / more vigorous if people who are having a terrible time move away from it.

Thanks for writing this. Great to see people encouraging a sustainable approach to EA!

I want to tell you that taking care of yourself is what’s best for impact. But is it?

I claim that this is true:

  • Finding personal fulfillment is a positive result in and of itself.
  • It's important to prioritize personal needs, otherwise you will not be in a good position to help others (family, friends, charity, etc.).
  • Ensuring one's relationship with EA is sustainable can actually lead to more impact over the long run (though this shouldn't be peoples primary goal, personal wellbeing comes first).
  • Encouraging a sustainable culture can make EA more welcoming to others.

These are all true, but (as Julia alludes to) not necessarily enough to lead us to correctly conclude that the conclusion we really want to believe is the correct one.

(Of course, we don't live in the most inconvenient world, so wanting to believe in a conclusion is only some evidence against the veracity of a conclusion, not necessarily decisive evidence)

Great post! I've been thinking a lot about this lately.