I wrote this originally as part of a discussion on my Earning to Save post, but I think it was important to be more easily linkable, in a broader context. I was motivated to turn it into a full post due to the recent post on how competitive positions at established EA orgs are.
My impression is that EA is talent constrained, management constrained, and mentorship constrained. Overall: network constrained.
My impression is also that it is generally higher impact for EAs to do things other than "earn to give", but it is a much less straightforward path that you might naively be thinking. (Because it is unstraightforward, I recommend people start by Saving 10% and Giving 1%, and then transitioning into other paths after gathering more information)
I think the issues getting into EA Direct Work has less do with how skilled you need to be, and more to do with limitations in network bandwidth.
There is some agentiness needed to get involved, but a) I think agency is a learnable skill, b) the amount required is less than you might think.
If you can successfully get yourself into the EA network, then you can be aware of early stage projects forming. Early stage projects need a variety of skills, and just being median-competent is often enough to get them off the ground. Most projects need a website and an ops person (ideally, a programmer who uses their power to automate ops). They often need board members and people to sit in boring meetings, handle taxes and bureaucracy.
I think this is quite achievable for the median EA.
Early stage orgs often have neither money, or time for an extensive hiring project – people just start working together with people they know. The bottleneck is more on people knowing each other than particular skills.
But, new projects and orgs also increase the surface area of EA, adding more places for newcomers to plug into. So if you can help a budding project grow into an institution, you're not just doing direct work, you're helping the overall community scale.
These jobs are lower pay, sure. But that's precisely why I think Earn-to-Save is important.
This is still a bit rate limited, and couldn't handle an influx of thousands of people. But I think it can handle more than it currently does. And it's definitely not because people aren't "top-half-of-oxford" talented.
Meanwhile, although "being agenty enough to found a project yourself" is fairly hard, it's learnable.
The path to learning it is a bit circuitous and doesn't necessarily fit directly into EA. But I think most EAs would benefit from taking on a complex project that forces them to grow, learning "hustle" and "networking", etc. This works best when it's a project you already are excited about (doesn't matter much if it's EA related), so it doesn't feel like you're making a sacrifice so much as just exploring something new and cool.
I don't think people know if they can be agenty until they try, and I currently think it's a better default-path for aspiring EAs to go something like:
- Start donating a bit as a credible signal
- Build up runway
- Do some projects in your spare time, practice thinking seriously about EA, and try a few things to see if some of the direct work stuff is a good fit for you.
- Depending on how the previous bit goes, do one of:
- try a low-medium risk plan that could move you into a higher impact path, but fails gracefully (i.e. move to an EA hub for a regular job you'll enjoy, but then explore the network there and see if you can transition)
- try a high risk plan if you're feeling ambitious
- or, just try to move into the most lucrative version of whatever your default career was going to be anyway, if the above 2 options don't make sense for you.
All three of which benefit from having enough runway to quit your current job.
Thanks for writing this, and your recent Earn to Save post.
I think these two, along with some comments you've authored recently, could shape up into a great sequence on the topic of something like "So you're early in your career & excited about EA, now what?"
Thanks for outlining your model!
This is very similar to what I did after joining the EA community (donating and saving and starting a group -> part-time + volunteer work -> full-time work). Financial runway was an important part of being able to take on a part-time position that was educational but not well-paid (this wasn't at an EA org, but did involve research + ops work that was connected to EA causes).
I realize I'm super late to this discussion, but I strongly agree with the "Network Constrained" aspect. I've started running some experiments with EA Networking events:
The basic idea is most people do networking wrong. They focus on themselves, talk about how amazing they are and then wonder why no one wants to hear about their cool project. My idea: let's put the Altruism back into Effective Altruism and help each other out. Questions to ask other participants:
- what can I do to help you succeed?
- who can I connect you with?
Admittedly, my idea might be total rubbish! I'd love to explore other EA Networking ideas that work to alleviate the "Network Constrained" aspect of EA.
Thanks for this - the concept of "network bandwidth" is a helpful way to conceive of bottlenecks that are similar to "mentorship bandwidth" but also include limited access to e.g. personal face-to-face conversations with people who are enmeshed in the oral tradition & community that comprises any direct work area.
Nod. BTW, the next post in this pseudo-sequence is going to be called "The Mysterious Old Wizard Bottleneck."
Has this post happened anywhere?
Alas, I started writing it and then was like "geez, I should really do any research at all before just writing up a pet armchair theory about human motivation."
I wrote this Question Post to try to get a sense of the landscape of research. It didn't really work out, and since then I... just didn't get around to it.
Why do you say it is rate limited and that it can handle more "median EAs" than it currently does? I hope you can give an example for this or perhaps quote your experience if you are up close to such events.
Currently, there's only so many people who are looking to make friends, or hire at organizations, or start small-scrappy-projects together.
I think most EA orgs started out as a small scrappy project that initially hired people they knew well. (I think early-stage Givewell, 80k, CEA, AI Impacts, MIRI, CFAR and others almost all started out that way – some of them still mostly hire people they know well within the network, some may have standardized hiring practices by now)
I personally moved to the Bay about 2 years ago and shortly thereafter joined the LessWrong team, which at the time was just two people, and is now five. I can speak more to this example. At the time, it mattered that Oliver Habryka and Ben Pace already knew me well and had a decent sense of my capabilities. I joined while it was still more like "a couple guys building something in a garage" than an official organization. By now it has some official structure.
LessWrong has hired roughly one person a year for the past 3 years.
I think "median EA" might be a bit of a misnomer. In the case of LessWrong, we're filtering a bit more on "rationalists" than on EAs (the distinction is a bit blurry in the Bay). "Median" might be selling us a bit short. LW team members might be somewhere between 60-90th percentile. (heh, I notice I feel uncomfortable pinning it down more quantitatively than that). But it's not like we're 99th or 99.9th percentile, when it comes to overall competence.
I think most of what separates LW team members (and, I predict, many other people who joined early-stage orgs when they first formed), was a) some baseline competence as working adults, and b) a lot of context about EA, rationality and how to think about the surrounding ecosystem. This involved lots of reading and discussion, but depended a lot on being able to talk to people in the network who had more experience.
Why is it rate limited?
As I said, LessWrong only hires maybe 1-2 people per year. There are only so many orgs, hiring at various rates.
There are also only so many people who are starting up new projects that seem reasonably promising. (Off the top of my head, maybe 5-30 existing EA orgs hiring 5-100 people a year).
One way to increase surface area is for newcomers to start new projects together, without relying on more experienced members. This can help them learn valuable life skills without relying on existing network-surface-area. But, a) there are only so many projects ideas that are plausibly relevant, b) newcomers with less context are likely to make mistakes because they don't understand some important background information, and eventually they'll need to get some mentorship from more experienced EAs. Experienced EAs only have so much time to offer.
Very much appreciate the detailed response. I think you have answered both my questions. Very much appreciate the clear example. If there are only 100 jobs in EA per year, it seems unlikely to support 1000s in the way you have suggested (rate limited).
How does a "median EA" look?
P.S I am trying to judge if I could be a potential "median-EA". Hence the questions.
Thank You for your post. I have placed quotes on things that I am not sure I understand you correctly. Hence I seek an example.
I was wondering if you have one example for this "median EA" who got into an "early stage project" as a result of getting into the "EA network". And can you also inform how the example-EA got into the "EA network"?