Perverse Excited Failure & Justified General Frustration

by Josh Jacobson, Aaron Gertler6 min read13th Aug 2021No comments

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Context behind the post: Josh sent a draft to Aaron, who left some comments. Josh was excited to incorporate the comments and invited Aaron to co-author the post. Because of the timing, parts of the post are by Josh with Aaron’s review, others by Aaron with Josh’s review; we’ve tried to clarify which is which.

Aaron works for CEA, but these are his off-the-cuff thoughts as an individual.

Summary

This post looks at two different reasonable, non-mutually-exclusive reactions to not getting an EA-related job:

  1. Josh: Perverse Excited Failure (PEF) — Excitement over the notion that someone even better than you will be doing important work to improve the world.
  2. Aaron: General frustration over the notion that you can’t find a way to get paid for EA-related work, despite the scale of the problems we deal with and your own considerable skill and competence. (I don't have a catchy acronym for this.)

Preface

We’ve both applied to many jobs at EA-aligned organizations, and been rejected from many of those jobs. Josh’s first rejection came in 2014; the most recent came in June of 2021. Aaron was rejected by GiveWell in 2014 and again in 2016; in both cases, it took him another two years to apply for something EA-related because he didn’t think he’d be a good fit for anything. Between us, we’ve stacked up ~20 rejections.

However, we’ve also each worked on/for multiple projects/organizations in this space, and found the work personally rewarding. Our perspectives might be different without that experience.

Reaction 1: Perverse excited failure

Josh: I remember the first time I was rejected from a position it was very tough. For those roles for which my application has been rejected more recently, I haven’t felt something negative. One of the reasons why is a reaction that has developed over time that I’m terming perverse excited failure.

Positions at EA organizations can be highly impactful. Those that I choose to apply to are most often the ones that I think are particularly likely to have a highly positive impact (and for which I may be a fit). So I find it really important that these organizations find great talent for these roles.

Given the importance of these positions, these days when I get rejected after applying for a job at an EA organization, I tend to have a strong feeling of excitement! I get excited because of the implied talent-level[1] of the candidate that organization is hiring. If they are selecting someone other than me, it implies that they have hired someone who, in expectation, will fulfill the role at least as well as I could.

While some roles I apply to may be a stretch, I generally apply to positions in which I think I’d excel. So given that I think I’m unlikely to be a bad hire by an EA org, it’s really exciting that they found someone who is, in expectation, even better than me. It makes me happy that they are bringing in someone who will help them to have a greater impact than I would.[2] I get happier about the state of the world, with this evidence that there are highly skilled people who are passionate and ready to do good at EA organizations. It makes me hopeful for a world where the talent level for EA is so high that I won’t get consideration at all for the roles that seem most critical to me.[3]

Aaron: My take on this is that it's a good sign when people are working on things they're really good at. I'm good at writing but only "fine" at ops — so it's actually not a great sign if I'm the best ops person available for an important role, and I'd really like to see someone else get that job. Whenever a new talented person shows up, I can think "cool, time to move even closer to whatever specific niche I'm best-suited to fill, away from things that should be someone else's niche."

Josh: In many ways, PEF is a privileged mindset. If I didn’t have my current level of experience in EA-related work, I’d probably be thirsting for every job I felt qualified for. And while I don’t have a lot of financial runway, I’m still fortunate to not have to feel too worried by my financial status when I am rejected from a position.

That said, as this mindset has become more and more ingrained in my psyche, I think I’ve become a happier, healthier person. Finding joy in rejection is probably an opportunity unique to altruistic pursuits. And I hope pointing out the existence and rationale for PEF will help others feel the same way, even if the EA job market can be frustrating at times.[4]

Reaction 2: Justified frustration

Aaron: While I’m conceptually on board with PEF, I think that much of the frustration I’ve seen people express about the EA job market isn’t about any particular job.

This does happen:

“I was such a good candidate! I don’t understand what happened. Did I miss a chance to have an incredible impact because I flubbed one interview, or went to a lower-ranked college? I really thought I was going to get hired.”

But more often, I hear something like:

“Why do all these jobs seem so competitive? I’m happy to see that so many people are invested in finding impactful work, but it seems crazy that I can’t find something given how many huge problems exist in the world, and how much money the movement is now spending to solve them. Am I just not qualified to do important things? Is the movement making a mistake by not finding more things for people to do?”

I expect personal frustration about not finding a position to overshadow PEF-related happiness in many cases. And I expect that most people who feel like they should be qualified for EA-related work are qualified, because those same people often have strong educational backgrounds, go on to be hired by successful companies, etc.

Some of the “jobs are so competitive!” feeling comes from the Friendship Paradox: most jobs people apply to will be jobs with lots of applicants, which makes the average number of applicants seem unnaturally high. (Meanwhile, other jobs get single-digit numbers of applicants, and some hiring rounds close for lack of anyone who clears the bar — but most people didn’t apply for those jobs.)

And some of the feeling comes from totally reasonable frustration at a situation that is, in fact, frustrating! There are more talented people who want to help than there are obvious, well-structured things for them to do. The world’s biggest problems could occupy millions of people, if we could find more and better ways to translate their work into impact. That we haven’t yet is understandable, but I see why some people feel left out as a result.

Conclusion

We think each of these reactions is reasonable and informative. Embracing perverse excited failure can help you feel warranted optimism for an organization’s impact, and may provide comfort in an otherwise disappointing situation. But if you feel general frustration about how hard it is to apply your talent to the causes you most care about, that also seems wholly justified — and hopefully, it pushes you to think about ways to improve the situation.


  1. I’m using talent as a bit of a shorthand throughout this for something like “overall candidate quality”. Talent isn’t an optimal term, as e.g. cultural fit may influence candidate selection but not be ‘talent’. ↩︎

  2. Aaron: I’ll add that in some cases, I see someone else start doing the job I wanted and then realize I’d have been pretty unhappy in the role. Most jobs look more exciting when you apply vs. when you actually have to start working. ↩︎

  3. I think this mindset can be applicable to people who aren’t as confident in their talent, too. Whatever your presumed fit for a role you didn’t get, isn’t it nice to know that an EA org is finding someone at least as talented as you (in expectation)? ↩︎

  4. I imagine a similar mindset could sometimes apply to competitive applications in other arenas, such as for attendance at an EA conference or for a grant from an EA organization. ↩︎

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