Many of the paths EAs take towards impact are difficult, confusing, and very heavy-tailed: the most effective people on that path can achieve far more impact than the median. Under those circumstances, it is especially useful to have role models: examples of people achieving very high impact doing roughly the thing you are trying to do.

Finding role models, however, can be easier said than done. It's not enough for very inspiring people to exist: you need to learn about them, identify them as people you could benefit from emulating, and access key information about the things you might want to emulate (traits, habits, decisions, et cetera). The usual way to do this is via media (podcasts, biographies, et cetera) – but if your ideal role model isn't famous, or doesn't appear in media you consume, they are likely to pass you by. The main alternative to media is gossip – but gossip is quite low-bandwidth and is often least accessible to those who are in greatest need of role models.

EAs seeking role models have two broad places they can look: within the EA community, or outside it. Role models within the community are ideal in that they (i) are likely to more closely match the kind of thing you are trying to do, (ii) align with your values in a way that helps you emulate them more whole-heartedly, and (iii) are more likely to appear in media you already consume (especially the 80,000 Hours podcast). 

However, the EA community is relatively small, and high-status public figures within the community are highly enriched for certain groups at the expense of others. If you want to do AI safety research, or global priorities research, or grantmaking, there are a decent number of well-known and super-impressive people in the community for you to emulate; if instead you want to do operations, or community building, or a host of other important paths, you will often need to identify role models on your own.

Role models outside the community are far more numerous and diverse, but also far less discoverable: one person on a given path might identify and benefit greatly from a particular role model, but another person on the same path might completely miss them, simply because they listen to different podcasts or read different books. Under these circumstances, it's valuable to create a place where people can share information on their favourite role models, so that other people with similar goals can discover them more easily.


So, with all that said, who are your role models? Whose example inspires you, and why do you find them inspiring? What resources (books, podcasts, articles, et cetera) can other people use to learn about those role models, and hopefully be similarly inspired?

I'm particularly interested in collating information on lesser-known role-models: either inspirational people from outside the EA community, or role models from within the community whose example should be better known. Role models for career paths that tend to be under-represented among public figures (e.g. operations roles, community builders, event organisers, civil servants...) are especially welcome.

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This list is certainly profoundly not-exhaustive for me but I'd rather post this version than spend ages thinking of a better answer and ultimately not posting anything. So, here goes:

  • Cassidy Nelson and Gregory Lewis. When I was considering applying for my current role at the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), the fact that they were leading the biorisk team was a pretty big consideration in favour of applying. I had some reservations about (my perceived-from-afar version of) the culture at FHI, and these two people just made me really excited about working there. Cassidy had been an incredibly smart and empathetic mentor during a fellowship I did and I really liked Gregory's post on epistemic modesty.
     
  • Mushfiq Mobarak, of No Lean Season and Covid-19-mask-RCT fame. Based on a few in-person interactions (through my undergrad EA group), he seems to me to be what all economists should aspire for; exceptionally clear-minded and thoughtful, yet compassionate.
     
  • Paul Farmer. Mountains Beyond Mountains is a fantastic book. His approach to making the world better is pretty profoundly different from that of effective altruism, and I suspect that most readers of this Forum (myself included) would disagree pretty strongly with many or most of his principles. But I find it hard not to be inspired by his sheer level of commitment to making the world better and his unwavering insistence that every human being deserves the same rights and standards of living.
     
  • The people with whom I co-organised our undergrad student group -- especially (but not limited to) Xuan, Frankie Andersen-Wood, Mojmír Stehlík, and Jessica McCurdy -- who helped create an awesome, inclusive, and impactful EA community where there easily could've been none.

Peter Singer

I find EAs who live on a fixed income and give the rest away inspiring to parts of me. People who live out their beliefs as fully as they can. Not sure Singer literally does this, but it sounds like the sort of thing he'd do. In that sense he's inspiring - I have an imagined form which encourages parts of me.

I also note that some other parts of me find this exhausting rather than inspiring. I've not found a good answer to that contradiction.

Personally, I found this article to be full of inspiring people for me - https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/27/magazine/global-life-span.html 

Here are my notes I took on the article at the time: 

  • Pattern is that science discovers something important, a long time passes, then a crusader spreads it to the masses.
  • Variolation (an early form of vaccination): Invented in 1000s, 700 years later, popularized by Mary Montagu, an aristocrat in 1716. IMPACT! 
  • In 1858, a JOURNALIST published an expose denouncing MILK as a liquid poison. Pasteur invented pasteurization by 1865. 30 years later. Nathan Straus in 1892 took up the cause, ran an experiment, published it, started an extended advocacy campaign. IMPACT! 
  • John Leal, a sanitary adviser, quietly added chlorine to the city water. It was a success. It spread from city to city! Triumph of applied chemistry. GLORIOUS! 
  • Peniccillin: Fleming invented it very early, but 2 Oxford scientists 10 years later did experiments and spread it. GO OXFORD! 
  • Oral Rehydration Therapy: A johns-hopkins educated physician & researcher pioneered the use case, went against standard of care at the time, and crushed it! Started an education campaign (advocacy) letting amateurs into the act. IMPACT! 

PS. If you want to read the article but can't, try this extension https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/disable-javascript/jfpdlihdedhlmhlbgooailmfhahieoem?hl=en-US 

Jocko Willink, whose philosophy of extreme ownership was a healthy antidote against blame-avoidance and blame-distribution processes in my brain. Instead he tries to exclusively focus on how he could’ve acted differently to achieve his or the group’s goal. Also big on discipline, being ambitious, prioritizing your problems, and other stuff.

Sam Harris by not being scared about voicing controversial opinions and trying to contribute to what we have of a free market place of ideas. Also mindfulness, careful reasoning about consciousness, and trying to have the big picture in view.

Many EAs who maybe would prefer not being named, but who inspired me to think for myself, eg to start writing book reviews, to be more vulnerable with others, to be more ambitious, and so much more.

Tyler Cowen for motivating me to read more, and more widely.

Robin Hanson for publicly wondering about the big questions without being inhibited by what other people think about his ideas.

Daniel Schmachtenberger. Look up some of his youtube interviews. I like especially the one with Lex Fridman (https://youtu.be/hGRNUw559SE). He's a very thoughtful, yet humble person. His approach is very multi-disciplinary, systems-level, holistic. For me he is a role model for how he combines the world-knowledge and self-knowledge, and how clearly he is able to articulate his ideas, which I think are very EA-compatible (he mentions EA from time to time, but I haven't heard any endorsement from him). Yet he goes further than what is discussed within EA eg. on the topics of personal development and meaning making.

Daniel's website: https://civilizationemerging.com/

A project he is a part of: https://consilienceproject.org/

Also very relevant to EA: Psychological Pitfalls of Engaging With X-Risks & Civilization Redesign w/ Daniel Schmachtenberger: https://youtu.be/SkItTnRJ_1M

Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute. Before GFI even existed he impressed me with his savvy and commitment in effective advocacy for farm animals while he was at PETA. I don't know anyone else who has been so good at long term planning to reduce suffering and then executing on that plan. Except maybe Dustin Moskowitz or Bill Gates, but I am more impressed with Friedrich since he did not start out from a place of wealth.