When my dad was in his 20s, he took a trip to Central America and witnessed the poverty there. Determined to do something about it, he returned to America, became a nurse, and worked on a tribal reservation that was as poor as the places he'd visited in Central America. There, he managed the clinic, and that early experience in healthcare administration led to an opportunity, years later and off the reservation, to become the executive director of a nonprofit health clinic and help it recover from a financial crisis. He spent the rest of his career managing and extending the services his clinic provided. He was widely admired by his colleagues and left the clinic in good shape when he retired.
Let's look at his career through an EA lens. He identified a cause that seemed important to him, and perhaps neglected. He found a way of working on it that was tangible and tractable. This afforded him the chance to prove his ability to wield responsibility and demonstrate leadership, leading to higher positions of authority over time where his decisions could have a higher impact. He spent his career working in American healthcare, where the cost of saving a life is high, but he also worked with low-income populations.
I've asked him about the degree to which he thinks he made a unique impact in his career. For example, what would have happened had he not taken his first job helping salvage a distressed clinic? Would the board have been able to find an alternative candidate? Would that candidate have had his level of success? To what degree would the resources of that clinic - providers, equipment, money, and relationships with patients - have been wasted, and to what degree would they have been recycled by some other healthcare system?
He's not entirely sure about the answers to these questions, of course. But one way of looking at it is that the nonprofit healthcare system he joined was bottlenecked by a lack of competent administrators willing to run failing clinics. Even if he had no reason to think that he was an above-average administrator, he was likely to be at least average. If average is good enough to turn around a failing clinic, and without him it would have failed, then by taking the job, he can take credit for preventing whatever degree of waste would have occurred had the clinic dissolved.
As I negotiate a career change inspired by this community, I think about my dad often and try to derive lessons from his life as a competent and successful altruist doing effective direct work.
One lesson I take from his life is that being average is good enough, as long as you show up to the right cause and are willing to take on the jobs that nobody else wants to do: risky, relatively poorly compensated, and demanding. If you do this, you don't need to fear that you'll do just as bad as the last person because of the "outside view:" the last person was unusually bad, and you're likely to do much better as long as you stick it out.
Another lesson is that producing a convincing plan, achieving a concrete success, convincing the unconvinced and leading people to real change, is different from an isolated exercise in intelligence. I am writing this blog post for my own sake, because I enjoy writing, and because this is the best audience I can think of for it. I don't expect it to move anybody much, change or improve any decisions, or be useful on my CV or in my future work.
The advantage of working in conventional roles, as opposed to blogging about altruism from the outside, is that you have more opportunities to show up every day and achieve tangible outcomes, signal your competence, and discover opportunities to do the undesirable but important work that makes an absolute difference in the world. You're expanding the number of average people trying to do altruistic work by one, and that matters a lot if you're also willing to do the undesirable but important jobs when they're offered to you. The work of the average but motivated person is cleaning up the messes left by the most incompetent 1% in whatever field you enter.
My new heuristic for individual EAs is this:
Find a cause that seems like a good fit and also to be altruistically important. Expect that it will take you a long time to be credible and experienced enough to know what needs doing and how to do it. Just get your foot in the door in that cause area. Show up and do a good-enough job. Look for the obvious jobs that nobody wants to do, and offer to take them over. Keep doing this until you get somewhere. If you can't get your foot in the door in your top cause area, just keep looking for something one or two or three jumps away. Be patient. Think in terms of decades about your long-term impact, but focus on doing a great job right now, even if you're not sure about the effectiveness of your work.
For myself, I decided a couple years ago to go back to school, and to pursue work as a biomedical researcher. Maybe someday I'll work on pandemic prevention, a cure for Alzheimer's or chronic severe pain, or on technology that slows the aging process.
Students willing to pursue STEM are still relatively rare compared to their expected value to society, so I feel that even though I don't know precisely how I'll make my impact, just by showing up to school and doing well, I'm moving closer to that goal. Even if I only end up displacing another student vying for a position in graduate school, hopefully I will be average and displace a far-below-average candidate, who will in turn find something else useful to do.
And once I am in graduate school, that's when it will be especially important for me to focus on doing a consistently good job, being willing to take on tasks that are undesirable but necessary, and demonstrating my competence to more experienced people. Hopefully I'll keep being a plug in the leaky holes of whatever meaningful institution I join, on and on until I retire.
I think this is an excellent vision for a life outcome, and I think it should be the default vision for just about everyone who's interested in the EA movement.