EA in the Moment: Addressing Burnout with Identity

by kendallzhu7 min read26th Dec 2020No comments

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Effective altruism lifestyleMotivationalValue drift
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Effective Altruism is often framed in terms of maximizing individual impact - "doing the most good you can." As a result, EA discussions often focus on what exactly constitutes "the most good" - calculating which fields, policies, or programs yield the best results. However, the idea of doing everything "you can" gives rise to questions that feel subjective rather than calculating: What's reasonable to expect from oneself? Is it OK to give in to selfish desires once in a while? What if we feel incapacitated by our own altruistic standards?

These tensions relate to the concept of burnout - a problem whose prevalence in the EA community points to a sense of confusion about how to understand the limits of personal ability. Burnout often involves a mismatch between our perception of control (what we should be able to do), and reality. When a person believes they control something that they do not, they may invest unsustainable levels of time and energy trying to prevent an unacceptable outcome. Unsurprisingly, burnout is a common outcome for altruistic people (e.g. nurses and social workers) because relinquishing control becomes a moral issue. When an altruist isn't sure if they control the outcome, giving up doesn't feel like a safe choice - it feels like a cruel one. While burnout has received some quality attention in the EA community, I’d like to describe why some of the proposed solutions might feel unsatisfying, and how it could help to address the issue using the language of personal identity, in addition to the usual notion of work-life balance.

In a presentation entitled "Sustainable Motivation," Helen Toner describes her own experience of burnout in EA. She argues for using diverse motivations and a long-term perspective when approaching a lifetime of altruism. Toner asks us to be aware of when we are sprinting rather than living sustainably: "if the rest of your life continued as it is now, could you do it?" She compares working on the edge of burnout to drunk driving - risky, rather than glorious. Finally, she concludes that EAs would be better off acknowledging the diversity of their motivations: "You may even wish that impact were the only thing you cared about. But the truth is that you're human. You are bound to care about and value many things." 

Toner's suggestions are compelling, but they pose a challenge for young people in particular. To start, I'd wager that most college students feel precisely like they are engaged in a series of unsustainable sprints. There are real reasons for this. In the midst of rapid growth and change, it's hard to imagine what the rest of our lives could look like, or know what we can really handle. Setting limits may prevent burnout, but especially for youth, arbitrary limits are a tragedy in their own right. How can we balance our lives around diverse motivations, when we don't even know what we value yet? Is it too dangerous to take the leap of putting altruism first? I don't have easy answers. But I think that part of the solution, especially for young people, lies in embracing a flexible conception of personal identity. 

By identity, I don't mean character traits or values. I'm referring to the sense of self to which we ascribe impact. Crucially, this sense of responsibility is deeply connected to our perception of control. For instance, you might think of your personal impact as belonging to all the years in your biological lifespan, and nobody else's. Why? Because you control your own life, so you're responsible for what happens during it. But what if our biological lifetime doesn’t always reflect our level of control? Then we should adjust our sense of self-responsibility accordingly. This post argues for the usefulness of a short-term, momentary identity. But this idea rests upon the overarching conception of identity as a spectrum. So, I will try to make the case by starting with why a bigger, grander identity can also make sense, and then explain why we might want to narrow the scope, one step at a time.

Imagine you have a curse: by looking at a person, you instantly install your entire mind into them (including the curse!). They inherit all your memories, and begin acting out your intentions, albeit in their own biological body. If the installation process was thorough enough, the results would be uncanny - you could predict their actions perfectly, and it would feel like you basically controlled everyone around you. In this scenario, it would make perfect sense to identify as a hive mind. If you were evaluating your impact, you would feel directly responsible for the long-term achievements of your cursed population, including the effects of any emergent social dynamics, traditions, or culture (while paying less attention to the role of any individual person). We could ponder further, but the relevant point is this: if everything is under your control, then your sense of identity naturally increases, and everything becomes your impact. 

In fact, we think about policies, movements, and norms in a similar frame of mind - we reason about ideals and consequences by imagining that we have control over broader culture. But this doesn’t reflect our real level of control, and confusion here can lead to burnout. For a deeply involved activist, navigating this boundary of burnout is tricky. (Or if you’re President Obama, in which case your hair rapidly turns gray). However, most of us are closer to dinner conversation enthusiasts, and are comfortable returning to our personal lifetimes as our baseline measure of impact whenever our feelings of larger control get challenged. For example, when I proposed to HCEA's Stephen Casper the idea of personally identifying with the whole future of life, he responded: “I think that looking at effects in the future as just being consequences of actions within our lifetimes is perfectly valid and that it's not necessary to think of future impacts as extensions of ourselves.” From the perspective of preventing burnout, Casper's viewpoint is healthy and adaptive - it shows a willingness to exclude from our identities areas that we have less control of, focusing our attention and increasing our tolerance for uncertainty.

Here’s the catch - because most people (and EAs in particular) already dwell in their "lifespan impact," I think the biggest gains for burnout prevention are in the next transition. That is, our ability to further narrow the scope of our identity, from "lifetime" to "moment". Consider applying Casper's logic, but a level down: "looking at the effects in our lifetime as the uncertain consequences of our actions within the current day." Is this valid? I'd say yes. In a sense, our own future selves are like new people waiting to inherit our long chain of thoughts, dispositions, memories and intentions. In a sense, identifying as an entire lifetime is also a hive-mind mentality - it is often justified by deep and robust connections between our selves across time, but sometimes those connections aren’t perfect. Imagine how exhausting it would be to identify as a hive-mind, if your worker bees routinely became unpredictable and went rogue; this is the burnout-inducing situation we sometimes find ourselves in when we try taking responsibility for our entire lifetime. Stepping down to a smaller identity reflects an important aspect of ourselves that the lifespan identity does not: the changing nature of our minds. It better accounts for the fluctuation of our emotions, motivations, and goals, and the resulting fact that we do not control our actions tomorrow as well as we control them today. 

Taking on the perspective of "me today," has powerful effects. It can fully make sense to consider mundane actions like eating a meal, going to sleep, or finishing a conversation pleasantly as having higher impact than pondering a big issue. As long as we aren't chronically avoiding certain thoughts, a momentary self is OK with leaving important questions to later, particularly when there isn't enough time or attention to act immediately. By seeing future selves as beyond our control, we are encouraged to place our trust in them while being less rigid in our demands and expectations. 

Furthermore, in moments when we remember our altruistic intentions, it no longer makes sense to despair if we realize we are in the middle of something that would not optimize impact over our lifetimes (e.g. spending money, binge eating, procrastinating). Regarding the moment of realization as the starting point for our agency, we can instead view the situation as an opportunity to make a positive impact, which happens to begin in a state of debilitating entanglement. We don't have to view ourselves as responsible for creating past habits, but rather caught up in their consequences with limited capacity to respond. Can we muster the courage to change our actions in the moment? Sometimes. But when we can’t, we can still give ourselves credit for adopting a more reflective and vulnerable frame of mind. For a lifetime identity that is not in touch with the emotions of the moment, this compromise may feel outrageous - we know we are "capable of better." But for a momentary self, this is an act of net positive impact - it allows future selves inheriting the memory to be less in denial and most able to learn from its consequences. Guilt, shame, or disgust may arise, but we can more easily accept these feelings when we see them as coming from somewhere beyond our control, instead of burning ourselves out in the desperation to push them away.

While rationality is a strength of the EA framework, it also biases us against relinquishing control of the shorter time spans over which rational thoughts operate. Moreover, in our love of counterfactuals, we find it easy to overlook our momentary selves in favor of large goals with lifelong trajectories with quantifiable alternatives. But it's worth noting that counterfactual thinking is a key part of rumination which fuels mental disorders. For patients suffering from depression, thinking about "what ifs" as though we have full control of past and future scenarios (which we don't) can become a draining exercise with no resolution. The response of a behavioral therapist would be to ask "what can I do today?" to focus the patient's mind on present actionable items. I suggest that we as EAs can do the same for ourselves.

In summary, our sense of identity is intimately connected with our sense of control. Thus, who we are limits the impact we can have. By consciously choosing to identity in a way that reflects our level of control in a situation, we can reframe what maximizing impact means for us in the moment. While Toner and other EAs have taken a long-term perspective to addressing burnout, a short-term mentality could also be an adaptive way to avoid burnout without giving up a sense of boldness or commitment to altruistic ideals.

You may be wondering why this discussion needs to involve the idea of "identity" at all - why not just budget more uncertainty for changing values and lack of control? The reason is that burnout primarily involves emotions. Thus, relinquishing control over the future needs to be an emotional shift, not just a rational one. Because it's so deep rooted, our sense of personal identity (how we ascribe responsibility to ourselves) seems to be what actually determines the emotions we accumulate over time. When it comes to avoiding burnout, the limitations imposed by our sense of identity feel less arbitrary, and more real than external advice. Rather than blindly following social norms, or ascribing oneself negative character traits to balance our ambitions (i.e. "tomorrow I'll probably feel lazy so I'll plan my life around that"), one can take a short-term view: "I'll go to bed early today, and that maximizes my impact, even if the me who wakes up tomorrow ends up being unproductive. I'm responsible to give my future self the option to be their best, but what they choose is not up to me."

The goal is to offer a supplement, not a replacement, for our ideal of lifetime impact. When planning for careers, it makes sense to think about what we want to do with our 80,000 hours. We can still consider beliefs, skills, and personal fit. The hope is that being flexible with our identities will help us handle setbacks and doubt along the way, so that despite our own questionable decisions, we will not be forced to view ourselves as fundamentally valuing selfish motives over helping others. In moments where we have big decisions to make, then we really do have far-reaching control. We can look back at our varied lineage of momentary identities, craft an overarching narrative if it helps, take stock of our current aspirations and privileges, and plan accordingly.

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