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The inception of the Purpose and Life Planning Track


Many people think that Effective Altruism university groups are incredibly valuable. “To solve pressing global problems — like existential risk, global poverty, and factory farming - we need more talented, ambitious, altruistic people to focus full-time on these issues. Hundreds of thousands of these people are clustered at the world's top universities” (CEA, n.d.).

I agree. However, I believe that most EA uni groups, and even the EA community as a whole, are missing out on the majority of their potential to make the most out of this opportunity. This is because the current paradigm for community building emphasises finding talented and ambitious people that want to tackle the world's most pressing problem, and not to create them. This strategy has potentially serious limitations which is preventing us from creating as much counterfactual impact as possible.

TL;DR - A summary of the main points

  • If EA university groups want to contribute as well as they can to empowering individuals to tackle the world's most pressing problems, we should not be cherry picking those students who are already naturally inclined to learn more about EA ideas. By only focusing on students who are already interested in EA ideas, we are missing the major opportunity to engage many more ambitious people to work on the world's most pressing problems, if approached from a different angle.
  • Most university students are very young adults. Many are ambitious and conscientious but they are simply not at a point in their life where they have deeply internalised the desire to make doing good a core part of their life; If they don’t decide to join your introduction fellowship, or even drop out, it does not mean that they are not a good fit for EA. The life of university students is changing very quickly and there are many conflicting interests.
  • Before people want to learn more about EA ideas and how to apply them to their lives they must regard this as valuable. Furthermore, before EA ideas can be properly internalised, the proper foundation must be laid.
  • I identify four root causes, particularly for younger adults, that prevent an individual from being naturally inclined to EA ideas.
    • First, people don't understand the link between being happy and doing good. Many people think that pursuing hedonic (feeling-based) happiness is the best way to live a happy life. Eudaimonic happiness (purpose-based happiness) tends to be more effective at this, however. People don’t know this. Making people aware of this difference might change their perspective on life and what they want to prioritise. 
    • Second, people often want to find a purpose in life, but it is not clear what that is and how to build one. Purpose consists to a large extent out of using your strengths to make the world a better place. 
    • Third, people have not internalised the underlying reasons about why doing good matters. Before somebody can be intrinsically motivated for something they need to understand why it is important and what the underlying reasons are. I think that we can do a lot better as a community to help people internalise these reasons.
    • Four, learning about EA can be intimidating. Many EA ideas go against our evolutionary tendencies, such as prioritising our loved ones. Unless people have built a certain level of psychological and emotional resilience it is likely that taking EA ideas seriously is going to be too demanding.  
  • If these four points are addressed effectively it is possible to make a lot more people interested in learning about EA, and applying the ideas to their life (after initially being uninterested in your EA Introduction Program or about EA in general)
  • Addressing these root causes involves assisting people in understanding things such as the following 
    • what makes people actually happy
    • what a life purpose is and how to build one 
    • helping people figure out the underlying reasons of Effective Altruism
    • what values and goals are most important in one’s life
  • I developed the Purpose and Life Planning (PLP) Track  to accomplish this. The track is designed to induce the intrinsic motivation in people to want to do good. In short, the theory of change is that people who become intrinsically motivated to do good, are a lot more likely to want to learn about how to do good better.
  • I argue that the PLP Track could be significantly more effective than the Introductory EA Program at inducing intrinsic motivation in individuals to engage with EA ideas and rigorously apply them to their lives. 
  • To see whether this initiative is worth scaling, it would be wonderful to work together with you to test this hypothesis (you don’t have to be a community builder). The way you can do this is by joining one of the interdisciplinary project teams that will cross-collaborate on important areas such as risk-management, outreach strategy, impact measurement and the improvement of the curriculum. 
  • This is potentially one of the most important projects you could be working on now because you have the opportunity to create several lifetimes of counterfactual impact. I genuinely believe that this project has the potential to radically increase the ability of EA university groups to empower individuals to tackle the world's most pressing problems. In other words, this might be a very good opportunity to drastically increase your multiplier effect.

Quick navigation - Outline 

Reader guide

In this post, I present four individual reasons that support the general conclusion I make. These reasons are very related, but they do not build on each other in a sequential way. Feel free to read through them in depth if you like, but it's not necessary to understand the general conclusion.

Thank you for reading!


I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Lotte de Lint for her support in providing feedback and participating in setting up the curriculum, for creating all of the Miro boards on which participants will record their learning experiences, and for constructively criticising my ideas. She will be a driving force in the implementation of the Purpose and Life Planning Track at our group in February 2023.

I would also like to thank Caleb, Judith, Ayham, and Per Ivar for their valuable feedback on my forum post. I am thankful to Emma Abelle for giving me the opportunity to participate at the Existential Risk Student Summit in Oxford and for the valuable experiences and friendships I have gained there that heavily influenced this post.

A special thank you goes to Amarins Veringa who supported me with her kindness and resourcefulness at the beginning of setting up EA Maastricht, and for connecting me to Lotte. I am very grateful to my parents for their unwavering support and encouragement.

Thank you all for your contributions and support.

Who is writing this?

Hi, I’m Johan. It's nice that you are here. To put things into context, here is a quick summary of my background. Two years ago I was enrolled in a physical therapy programme because I was interested in the human body and helping people manage their pain. However, I eventually decided to quit that program and instead enrolled in Global Studies. This is because I wanted to learn more about my options on how I can work on more pressing challenges, and not only sore toes. 

After hearing about EA I started the university chapter EA Maastricht in February 2022. With my co-founder Lotte and my future team I scaled our group from 8 active members in July, to now 27 active members after finishing our most recent fellowship with 47 participants. Now I am happy to have the opportunity to share my experiences as one of the new UGAP mentors at CEA. I am thankful to be part of this movement and am excited to share with you now one of my most influential changes in perspective I had recently. 


While I think that EA university groups are doing a good job of channelling students who are already ambitious and motivated to do good into impactful positions, the point that I am going to argue is that the goal should be different. If we are only targeting people who have already figured out for them that doing good is a priority in their life, then we are losing out on thousands, if not millions of students that would be just as a good fit. As I will show, this is due to many students actually being ambitious, but they have not figured out yet what is actually important for them. 

The conventional path to find talented, ambitious and altruistic people is, in simple terms, to do strong outreach at your university campus and then get interested people to join your Introductory EA Program. Here we provide participants with the opportunity to learn about the unique time that we live in, the great opportunity that we each have to make a great difference, and how we, through the adoption of an effectiveness mindset can contribute to overcoming some of the world's most pressing issues. 

The only problem? While this is a strong approach at making people that are already interested to do good, I strongly argue that the Introductory EA Program does not perform very well in inducing the intrinsic motivation in people to make them want to do good. 

Let’s see why.

A closer look at the target audience of EA university groups. Who are we actually dealing with?

According to the 2020 EA survey, the EA population is disproportionately young, with people mostly becoming involved in the community at the age of 24 (Moss, 2021). 

In research from Hanson, it becomes visible that the vast majority of people that enrol in US colleges is below the age of 24 (2022). In Germany the average age of enrollment to universities is 22, and in India 80% of the students are enrolled in an undergraduate level program (Statista, 2022); (Government of India; Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2019). To put it another way, university EA groups are mostly dealing with very young people.

Figure 1: (Education Data Initiative, 2022)

We are talking about students who have literally just left their parents' home, if at all. Students, many of whom have recently graduated from high school, often focused on getting good grades, hanging out with friends, and enjoying their free time. 

We are talking about students that have just started a new chapter in their life, often moving to a different location, with a new social circle, sometimes a new job, academic pressure, often still being financially dependent on their parents, and exposed to many new opportunities. The target audience of EA university groups, young adults, are in a time of extreme change. 

We are talking about individuals who are at the pinnacle of maximal risk taking, novelty seeking and affiliations with peers. The time in which people are the most likely to invent a new artform, transform physics, commit their life to a cause, become addicted, leave home forever or marry outside their group (Sapolsky, 2018). According to Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky, this is largely due to a frontal cortex that does not fully mature until the mid-twenties.

Now, take a guess. What proportion of these hundreds of millions of students, aged 18 to 24, have figured out who they are, what they stand for, and what is most important to them in life? Hmm. How many of these young people have made making a difference in the world one of their top priorities in life? 

I contend that many young students have this goal and are interested in learning how they can "make a difference." But how many have made it one of their highest aspirations? More important than hanging out with friends, going out to parties or engaging in leisure activities. You might be asking yourself why it matters whether it is a high priority or just another priority. Fair enough, life is not black and white. You can very well have multiple goals in life that you pursue simultaneously. There is a catch to this though, especially for younger people. 

If you don't have a clear sense of your priorities it will be difficult to organise and execute around those priorities. It's not that people don't have the time, it is that they don't make the time. Time management is life management. The word time management is in my eyes really a misnomer - the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves and to figure out what is most important to us. Either you want to invest time into an activity, or you don’t because there are things that are more important to you. The majority of students simply have not had enough time to reflect on their lives and accumulate enough experiences to know what the most important things are for them to do with their time.

As a result of this unclear sense of priorities, students – even those who aspire to do good – will be much less likely to apply for your Introductory EA Program. This is because of the often significant time investment that is required for the Introductory EA Program or joining your EA group. Time that you could spend with your loved ones, reading an exciting book, going to the gym, eating good food or just taking a mental break from hectic student life. 

I want to emphasise this. If people do not want to join your Introductory EA Program, it’s not because they are not altruistic, talented, or ambitious people. It's just that they have other conflicting priorities in the stage of life they are in. They are ambitious in other ways.

Unless you have figured out for yourself that doing good matters to you and you have connected this to your identity and personal aspirations, people won’t make EA a high priority in their life. Young adults will simply prioritise the urgent and fun things that come along their way and it will become a lot less likely that they join the Introductory EA Program or invest time into learning more about EA. It's not that you don't have the time, it's that you don't make it. 

So what do we do about this?

Before we can effectively address this bottleneck, we must first explore what I believe to be four major root causes of why people are not interested to join your Introductory EA Program.

Four reasons why people are not joining your Introductory EA Program

1. The connection between happiness and doing good is not clear

We currently live in a time where the majority of entertainment is consumed through platforms such as TikTok or Instagram, with celebrities showing off their constant indulgence in fine cuisine, the most extravagant homes, an abundance of cash, and their photoshopped bodies. Our entire perspective on what it means to live a happy and meaningful life is being distorted. 

While happiness can take on different forms, I think that the most common form of happiness that people pursue is “feeling-based”, hedonic happiness. The pursuit of sensory states, positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy, that make you feel good in the moment. While pursuing hedonic happiness is not inherently bad, speaker Emily Esfahani Smith makes the case in her Ted Talk that our societies' obsession with this kind of happiness is having unfavourable effects. Smith argues that, despite the fact that our lives are objectively improving on nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel depressed, hopeless and alone (TED, 2017). Smith continues to make the case that this development is not a lack of hedonic happiness, but a lack of meaning and purpose. This is a second form of happiness called eudaimonia which is deeper and results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification (Waterman, 1993).

In his monumental research on stress, Dr. Hans Selye supports this perspective as he found that making contributions and having meaningful projects that benefit others leads to a long, healthy, and happy life (Covey et al., 2020). Moreover, “[t]hose only are happy”, the philosopher John Stuart Mill came to believe, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way” (Times, 2005). The list goes on.

It is important to point out the distinction between eudaimonic and hedonic happiness because our society often prioritises the pursuit of pleasure and material wealth as the keys to happiness. However, studies have shown that pursuing hedonic happiness often actually has the opposite effect, with people exhibiting symptoms and being diagnosed with depression, or simply being less happy. (Mauss et al., 2011); (Ford et al., 2014). In contrast, eudaimonic happiness, which is derived from pursuing activities that align with one's values and lead to a sense of purpose and meaning, tend to be more sustainable and fulfilling for oneself (Sheldon et al., 2018); (Jachimowicz et al., 2017); (Chen & Zeng, 2021). 

Figure 2: (Street, 2017)

Understanding the benefits of eudaimonic happiness and the drawbacks of hedonic happiness will likely lead to a remarkable shift in personal priorities and a significantly higher intrinsic motivation to improve the state of the world. Many people want to be happy and they want to feel that they matter, but it is commonly misunderstood that actually focussing on something other than yourself is one of the most effective ways to accomplish that. 

If you filter your available opportunities through a hedonistic lens, things that make you feel good in the moment, will completely overshadow opportunities to contribute to the direct improvement of the world. With this mindset, why bother talking to people about expanding your moral circle of concern, pursuing a highly impactful career, becoming vegan, or later voluntarily donating a significant portion of our income? This will most likely only work if you are looking at the world through the eudaimonic lens of happiness.

2. People think that they have to find their life purpose, and not build it

Next to increasing the range of opportunities that students aim to generate for themselves by attending university, many students wish to figure out what they want to do with their lives. To find direction. This is difficult and while one approach might work for one person, it might not work for another. 

Without going into too much detail, I think a lot of the struggle that comes along with this process is actually the abundance of different, vague and often conflicting advice about how to “find” purpose. This ranges from “follow your joy” and “explore your passions” to “spend time with people who inspire you”. In fact, I would argue that most people have not even seriously learned about what a life purpose is, not to mention why you would want to have one. And why should you when you have just graduated from high school? Most people simply do not figure this out for themselves as a university student. Most people only do so when they are older, and, unfortunately, many never do.

Even if people have come to understand that they want to be part of something bigger or contribute to something important, many believe that the solution in finding purpose is an esoteric journey where you need to travel to some distant monastery, meditate or explore cave paintings. While these things might lead to some new insights, I am sceptical about their efficacy to actually provide people with something sustainable to hold on and strive toward in life. What then?

If we take some of the key insights by Victor Frankl, Adam Grant, Dr. Hans Selye and countless other philosophers, authors and researchers, we can notice an encouraging recurring pattern. 

Regardless of the exact priorities you have, or which goals you pursue, it becomes clear that a major part of your purpose in life consists of using your strengths and your unique contribution capacity to improve the state of the world in one way or the other. It is learning about yourself and the world, determining what is important to you, which causes you want to support, and then putting your talents and strengths to work to advance those causes. If we look at it from this perspective, you don't need to “discover” your purpose. You can proactively build it by learning about yourself and the world, taking action based on your insights and continously updating your belief systems. 

For many people the aspiration to do good and the wish to be part of something bigger than yourself is something that often happens naturally. The organisational psychologist Adam Grant describes in his bestselling book “Think Again”, that the progression of his students self-esteem in their careers often correlates to the following:

Phase 1: I’m not important

Phase 2: I’m important

Phase 3: I want to contribute to something important

“I’ve noticed that the sooner they get to phase 3, the more impact they have and the more happiness they experience. It’s left me thinking about happiness less as a goal and more as a by-product of mastery and meaning."

There are good reasons to believe that people have an innate desire to want to do and to make a positive impact on the world.

But most students are simply not at phase 3 yet because they did not have the necessary time to go through the process of personal development! The necessary time to realise that they have something to seriously offer to the world, to demonstrate to yourself that they can actually change things, to understand that they will soon be gone, and that all of the things they possessed, all of the memories they formed, all of their loved ones, all of the material things, everything, will be gone, forever.

I think that many people eventually come to the realisation that one of the best ways to live a worthy life is to give something back and to leave something behind you that will impact the lives of the current and future generations in a good way. This is one of the very few ways to be able to tell yourself in your last moments of your life that it was worth it.

I argue, however, that the majority of young adults, the target audience of EA university groups, are in phase 1 and 2, and that they simply did not have the opportunity yet to transition to phase 3. I think that many people who enter this phase, if not most, only do so once they have left university. Then when they have already made many of their career decisions and it's more difficult to change pathways. 

Unless you have transitioned to phase 3, why should you make doing good a core priority of your life, let alone doing good better? I think it’s rather unlikely.  But it does not have to be like that. These turning points in one's worldview don’t need to happen by coincidence, they can be actively created. Purpose is built, not found.

3. People have not internalised the underlying reasons about why doing good matters

There are thousands of things we can choose to do. There is no way that we can do everything, so we are required to choose and make trade-offs. When we have multiple options to choose from on where to invest our time in our life we compare between different options by asking ourselves, “why does this matter to me?” Then we create, consciously or subconsciously, a ranking in our head of our different options. Broadly speaking, we will mostly choose those which are the closest connected to our sense of identity and our personal aspirations. In other words, we understand why it matters and we have reasons that we personally like or believe in. 

Why does it matter to mention this? 

Because before somebody will join your Introductory EA Program or actually be significantly engaged in your EA group, they need to believe that it is valuable to them

If we don't have good reasons to do something or we don't like the reasons we have, we are less likely to prioritise that activity and will probably choose to engage in other things that are more meaningful to us. It’s not that you don’t have time, you don’t make time. This might sound ridiculously self-explaining. But it’s important to bring this up because this little piece of information provides a relevant insight into why people become motivated to learn more about EA, and others not. 

If people have not internalised the meta reasons of EA, they won’t be interested to act on them. For example, unless you believe that doing good matters to you personally and you have built a network of knowledge that supports this belief and you connected it to your identity, you will be way less likely to invest time into learning about how to do good better[1]

In one of the most viewed Ted Talks of all time, speaker Simon Sinek discusses the importance of understanding the underlying reasons for one's actions, or their "why”.

In his talk he explains how all great organisations, institutions and leaders have a deep understanding of their purpose and why they do what they do. They have a fundamental understanding of why they exist. With a clear understanding of their purpose, they are able to achieve things that defy all assumptions and that others are unable to accomplish.

Figure 3: (Hare Consulting, 2020)

Sinek argues that a deep understanding of one's purpose and underlying reasons is crucial for motivation and the desire to step into action. He even argues that this is due to the way our brains function and how we have evolved as a species. Seeking to understand the underlying meaning and purpose of what we do is (plausibly) deeply ingrained in us because it determined our evolutionary success[2]

If we do not have a good understanding of why we should do something and have not internalised these reasons, it is much less likely that we will be convinced that something is worth our attention because we will have other priorities. Why does it matter to bring this up?

Because in my eyes we can do a lot better at explaining the underlying reasons of Effective Altruism[3]. I also think we are making a big mistake if we think that people know why it's important to help others. Many agree that doing good matters, but who actually knows why? 

Surely, some people have figured this out for themselves. But we need to take a balanced look at the profile of the target audience of EA university groups, young adults. I think it is unlikely that more than 5 % of this population have understood the underlying reasons of why doing good matters, and that they have connected this to their personal aspirations (75 % confidence).

If we want to make people interested in learning about EA, to encourage them to make doing good a core part of their life, or even create highly engaged EA’s, we simply must go beyond stating that it is important to help others and showing them how they can have a big impact. To put it bluntly, learning about concepts such as scope insensitivity, the scout mindset, cognitive biases, or differences in impact, are not very useful for the large majority of university students if they have not internalised the underlying reasons for doing good.

These are unquestionably important topics, but they cannot be pursued at the expense of failing to help people internalise the underlying reasons why doing good matters and to help individuals to build an identity around them. It's like trying to equip a rocket with the best navigation systems, the best engines and the best propellants. Unless you have enough fuel, the rocket will never make it to space. 

I am talking about empowering people to learn about things such as that doing good is a fundamental part of a satisfying and meaningful life. Or that the world has been improving significantly and that we can contribute to real and vast progress. That our ancestors sacrificed so much of their lives to give us the chance to flourish and have more opportunities. That doing the most good is not as difficult as often supposed, and that you don’t need to invest your entire life to make a big impact. But it could also be more personal, such as helping people to recognise all of the things they can be grateful for, and that giving something back to the world might be one of the best ways to develop the best version of yourself; to realise the highest level of Maslow's pyramid, self-actualisation. 

If we want people to take EA ideas seriously, sign up to your Introductory EA Program, and, more importantly, act on EA ideas, they must have pre-existing core values and goals that are aligned with them, like the ones above. What is the percentage of 20-year-old students who are at this point? 

4. Learning about EA ideas can be intimidating 

In the end, EA community building is about influencing the behaviour of people. It's about making people engage with a certain set of ideas and, through the creation of the right environmental conditions, encouraging people to take those ideas seriously and implement them in their own life. In other words, facilitating personal change. 

Change is difficult, however. Especially if the change has consequences for the wellbeing of yourself and your loved ones. Change involves risk, uncertainty, and often a letting go of the familiar. It can also involve a struggle to adjust to a new way of being, thinking and doing. To be able to go through the process of personal change effectively, you need to be open to it and you need to have built a certain level of resilience and self-efficacy that will allow you to face the outward vulnerability that comes along with change with strength. Why does this matter? 

Before you can effectively improve the state of the world, you need to think that you actually can, and you need to be open to change your mind. This is not always easy for people, especially when it comes to EA ideas, because they contradict many of the pre-existing values and ideas about what is important for you. As a result, if EA ideas are not properly internalised, this will undermine intrinsic motivation to act on them.

Take the concept of impartial altruism as an example. It is a concept that challenges our natural tendency to prioritise our loved ones (Greene, 2014). It suggests that our families and friends should be of exactly the same value as some other person we do not know of living on the opposite side of the world. And while many people would agree with this statement from a rational point of view, how many actually feel that way

Our societies have changed rapidly, but the way our brains are wired and the way our physiology works are still the same as 100 000 years ago when we lived in small tribes and used to hunt mammoths and gather berries. We are aiming to make people adopt belief systems that to a large part steer against their evolutionary tendencies. The implications of the ideas of EA are huge. Taking these ideas seriously often means that we need to admit to ourselves that our understanding of what doing good means, is wrong. It often means that our current life and career plans are probably not really "effective". They imply for many people that we should spend less time with our friends and loved ones. Taking these ideas seriously often means that you are going to have to come to the understanding that all of our life we have been “wasting” a big part of our time, and that you should probably change a lot of things. I don't think that I am exaggerating here. The ideas of EA are a big deal. 

Now, what happens if a student is in a life changing phase as I described above? Academic pressure, making new friends, moving away from their parents. Young adults already do need to consistently step out of their comfort zone. It takes courage and strength to be willing to explore new and conflicting ideas and to have the belief in yourself that you actually can change. If your life is unstable and you are in a position of vulnerability, I argue that change is a lot more difficult. This is because change requires a certain level of psychological and emotional stability and resilience. When people are already facing challenges and stress in other areas of their life, they may not have the capacity or energy to also tackle significant personal change.  Taking the ideas of EA seriously means to be willing to change yourself and the priorities in your life, and for many people this is too difficult.

So what can we do about this? I believe that one of the best ways to address this issue is to help people build their belief in themselves, to build confidence and provide them with a sense of direction for their life. It's about understanding what you are good at. It's about understanding your own story, what shaped you as a person and what brought you here. It's also about understanding what is important for you and what you value, building a compass for your life. As Steven Covey writes in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change is a [clear understanding] of who you are, what you are about, and what you value”(Covey et al., 2020). With a clear understanding of your story and what your most fundamental values and priorities are you will be better able to flow with changes. This is because I believe that better understanding yourself and your life makes you more resilient and confident in your ability to persevere, no matter what happens.

If you get to know these things about yourself your sense of identity and inner-directedness will likely infuse you with both exhilaration and peace with which you can handle the more outward vulnerability with strength. This is particularly important when learning about the ideas of EA as they have huge implications for your life. If people don’t have this strength to step out of their comfort zone, people won't arrive at the point where they will naturally become “highly engaged” and take serious action on EA ideas. This is, amongst others, because coupling the internalised reasons on why doing good matters with your identity, requires you to rethink many things, and to be open for that. This requires putting yourself in a vulnerable position because the new things you learn are frequently not aligned with your other goals and values. And that is not easy.

It's one thing to have people join your Introductory EA Program, it's another thing to actually enable them to adopt the ideas of EA, and rigorously apply them to their life. To change the world, you need to believe that you can make a difference. And in order to adopt this belief, it is important to understand who you are and what you are about.

From finding to creating 

EA is still in its infant hood, and the potential of our community is enormous. EA university groups are likely the single biggest contributors to the establishment of our movement (Open Philantrophy, 2020). I think it is not an exaggeration to state that EA university groups are perhaps the most influential stakeholder group in creating  the long-term expected altruistic value of our movement. Many members of our groups are going to eventually move into very influential positions that are going to have a direct impact on how well we as a human kind are able to live up to the global problems we are facing. It is crucial to speak about how this can be achieved in the best way possible, and what should be avoided.

If EA university groups are only cherry picking those who are among the small percentage of people who have had the time and opportunity to make doing good already a core part of their identity we are likely severely limiting our potential. With this approach we ignore the fact that individual priorities and aspirations can shift dramatically in a short period of time. Young adults are living in a time of extreme change. By solely focusing on those who are already interested in learning about how to do good better, we are filtering out the huge proportion of people who could be just as good fit, if approached from the right angle. These are all people we need. These are all people that could significantly contribute to tackling the world's most pressing problems if they also become intrinsically motivated to do good. Too much is at stake to settle only for the low hanging fruit. It's like our entire ship is sinking and we need to gather food to store on our raft, but we only care about food that is ready to consume, and leave the bananas and avocados behind because they are not ripe yet. While this analogy has limitations, I think that it tells an important story.

If we want to create as much counterfactual impact as possible, it’s time to look beyond the minority of individuals who have already made doing good a core part of their identity. We need to focus more on helping people become naturally highly engaged individuals rather than simply looking for them.

The inception of the Purpose and Life Planning Track

People may intellectually agree that doing good is important and understand the concepts of Effective Altruism, but unless they have truly internalised the reasons behind why doing good matters and have had the opportunity to build an identity around this, they will very likely lack the motivation to learn more about these ideas, let alone act on them. 

In the last few weeks I have been developing an initiative that is designed to address this bottleneck. The result is the Purpose and Life Planning Track. In short, this track is aimed to induce the one thing that disproportionately increases an individual's long-term expected impact: intrinsic motivation to do good. 

Before people will devote a significant amount of time and resources toward tackling issues such as pandemic preparedness, global poverty, wild animal suffering or other pressing problems, people need to be willing to make that investment. 

Contrary to the latest version of the Introductory EA Program developed by CEA (or the In-Depth EA Program) which primarily aims to provide people with the opportunity to learn about how to do good better, the Purpose and Life Planning Track is about helping individuals figure out why it matters to do good in the first place. Contrary to increasing the intrinsic motivation to want to do good, which the Introductory EA Program primarily does, the Purpose and Life Planning Track is designed to induce the intrinsic motivation in people to want to do good. The track was created with the intention of forming a synergy with the Introductory EA Program so that we can cater to the needs of people at various stages of their lives.

It is especially intended for those who are unsure whether doing good matters to them, whether they want to make it a priority in their lives, and what steps they can take to get there. It aims to assist people in discovering fresh viewpoints and insights that will likely result in a personal desire to give something back to the world. It’s about helping individuals form and build the fundamental beliefs and values that will make people want to make a difference. This is accomplished through the attempt to address all of the root causes that I referred to in the previous sections. From learning about yourself and what happiness and social impact is, to creating an initial life plan. It’s designed to knock over the first domino

The synergy of the Introductory EA Program and the Purpose
and Life Planning Track

A call to action

Overall, there are two hypotheses that I have, and I am 70% confident that both of them are true. 

Hypothesis 1: The Purpose and Life Planning Track is 85% more effective at converting people between the ages of 18 and 24, who are not currently interested in making doing the most good a core part of their life, to being significantly interested and committed, compared to the newest version of the Introductory EA Program[4].

Hypothesis 2: Among individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 who are members of EA university groups, the Purpose and Life Planning Track is 65 % more effective as the In-Depth EA Program and the career planning guide of 80 000 hours at increasing long-term engagement, expected impact and decreasing the likelihood of value drift.

I am excited to test the first hypothesis in the coming year, and I want to collaborate with you to make this as good as possible. If these hypotheses are proven to be correct and supported by data, they could have far-reaching implications for CEA's core strategy, local university chapters, and the EA movement as a whole.

Around the beginning of February, the core team of EA Maastricht will organise a range of activities to scale this initiative, and we want to work together with you! 

Why is this worth your time? Because this could be one of the most impactful projects  you could be working on now. Consider the following: If implemented effectively, the PLP Track has the potential to inspire thousands of other people, potentially a 10x number of people, to pursue high-impact career paths that they would not have pursued even after hearing about EA. All of these individuals could eventually contribute to tackling problems such as AI alignment, factory farming, climate change and global poverty. There may be no better time to mobilise more people to address the world's most pressing issues than right now.

There are many things that still can be explored, reconsidered and improved. To make this track as good as possible we are planning to set up a variety of activities such as interdisciplinary project work, red-teaming contests and workshops. With these means we aim to tackle important areas such as risk management, outreach and running the track at your group or institution. If you are curious to learn more about this, how you can get involved and take look at the curriculum, feel free to take a look at this Notion page.

To my best understanding nobody in the EA community building domain is seriously working on this, so it is highly neglected. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of people who will become interested in EA who would not have otherwise, so the scale is potentially very large. It seems a lot more solvable to increase the inclination of people toward EA than it is commonly assumed, perhaps moderately to highly tractable. 

If you have any feedback, criticism or remarks that you want to communicate to me in person, please reach out at johandekock@ea-maastricht.org

Why could this be a very big deal?

Doing the most good is very difficult.  We are dealing with radical uncertainty and inherently complex, interwoven wicked problems that require solutions that must evolve over time. I hope that this track contributes to making people a lot more motivated to live up to this challenge. I genuinely believe that this could be a significant step toward giving many more people the confidence, ability, and motivation to tackle the world's most pressing problems head on.

Why could this be a very big deal? Because this new approach has the potential to become one of the best methods so far in EA community building to generate counterfactual impact, on an unfathomable level. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of students, if not millions, who we could nudge towards wanting to do good, and eventually doing good better. Students who would not have otherwise chosen to go down a path with a higher impact or making doing good a core priority in their life. Students who would only notice way down their career that contributing to something important is what they want to do, in a position where it is a lot less likely to change career paths.

This track, if implemented effectively, will most likely result in both a positive short-term impact and potentially large expected impact for the far future. The latter is accomplished by helping people develop an accurate understanding of what contributes to a happy and meaningful life and the former by increasing the likelihood that people will join the Introductory EA Program and pursue a career path that is aimed at tackling the world's most pressing problems[5]. In other words, it sets the foundation for developing a life filled with the sincere and voluntary use of one’s time, talent and resources to better the lives of others and one’s own life.

This track does not have a high bar as the Introductory EA Program has and it does not require to be a “do gooder”. This track is accessible to almost anyone who desires to live a happy and meaningful life, and it can be implemented in  places such as high schools, colleges, companies, and governmental institutions. This could be the beginning of a new chapter in EA community building.

I hope that this Purpose and Life Planning Track marks the beginning of a more holistic and comprehensive approach for EA university groups to help people to live up to this incredible time we live in. By helping people think carefully about what ultimately matters in their life, many people will come to the conclusion that giving something back to the world is one of the best ways to lead a meaningful life. 

We can lay the foundation for addressing the world's most pressing problems by empowering individuals to recognize their ability to make a real difference, to build themselves something to live for and to provide them with the necessary tools to do so. In my eyes this has to start with the deep aspiration to make the world a better place, and people need to be fundamentally intrinsically motivated to do so. 

By empowering people to understand the link between doing good and happiness and the great progress we can contribute to, we can truly create a community of people who cares about trying to do the most good possible. A community of people determined to be as competent as possible in tackling the world's most pressing problems with everything we have. To contribute to a world that has so much potential for being a better place.

But we are not there yet. There are many things that still need to be fixed, and we don’t have a lot of time. So we need more talented, ambitious and altruistic people to focus full-time on solving pressing global problems? Let’s not only try to find them, let’s create them. 

"To the hundred billion people before us, who fashioned our civilization; To the seven billion now alive, whose actions may determine its fate; To the trillions to come, whose existence lies in the balance." - Toby Ord, The Precipice

Please criticise my ideas 

Needless to say, I have been wrong before and am very open to having my mind changed on them and any other points contained or implied therein. So far the things that I have written here are based on my worldview, the people that I know of, the insights from the literature I have analysed and my experience of running EA Maastricht. There are things that I did not think of, and there are surely cognitive biases at play that have influenced what I have written. Having said that, I believe that the core statements that I made are true (90 %). But I’d love it to be proven wrong. So I want to encourage you to criticise my ideas and my arguments with everything you have. 

What do you think? 

People I would be especially happy to get feedback from:


CEA. (n.d.). A huge opportunity for impact: movement building at universities. EV On Notion. https://centreforeffectivealtruism.notion.site/centreforeffectivealtruism/A-huge-opportunity-for-impact-movement-building-at-universities-772f4cc1684643a7b83d962fd544924d 

Chen, H., & Zeng, Z. (2021). When Do Hedonic and Eudaimonic Orientations Lead to Happiness? Moderating Effects of Orientation Priority. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(18), 9798. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18189798 

Covey, S. R., Collins, J., & Covey, S. (2020). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: 30th Anniversary Edition (The Covey Habits Series) (Anniversary). Simon & Schuster.

Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating Internalization: The Self-Determination Theory Perspective. Journal of Personality, 62(1), 119–142. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00797.x 

Education Data Initiative. (2022). College Enrollment by Age. educationdata.org. https://educationdata.org/wp-content/uploads/74/College-Enrollment-by-Age.webp 

Ford, B. Q., Shallcross, A. J., Mauss, I. B., Floerke, V. A., & Gruber, J. (2014). Desperately Seeking Happiness: Valuing Happiness is Associated With Symptoms and Diagnosis of Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(10), 890–905. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2014.33.10.890 

Friborg, P. I. (2022, August). How to Incubate Self-Driven Individuals (for Leaders and Community Builders) - EA Forum. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/BoQZhKs26BdyQHpte/how-to-incubate-self-driven-individuals-for-leaders-and 

Government of India; Ministry of Human Resource Development. (2019). All India Survey on Higher Education. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics-new/AISHE%20Final%20Report%202018-19.pdf 

Greene, J. (2014). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (Reprint). Penguin Books. 

Hanson, M. (2022, July 26). College Enrollment & Student Demographic Statistics. Education Data Initiative. https://educationdata.org/college-enrollment-statistics 

Hare Consulting. (2020). The Golden Circle - Simon Sinek. https://hareconsulting.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/107-1071590_goldencircle-simon-sinek-golden-circle-transparent-png.png 

Jachimowicz, J., Guenoun, B., To, C., Menges, J., & Akinola, M. (2017). Pursuing Passion through Feelings or Values: How Lay Beliefs Guide the Pursuit of Passion. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/qj6y9 

Krekel, C., De Neve, J. E., Fancourt, D., & Layard, R. (2021). A local community course that raises wellbeing and pro-sociality: Evidence from a randomised controlled trial. Journal of Economic Behavior &Amp; Organization, 188, 322–336. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2021.05.021 

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022010 

Moss, D. (2021, May). EA Survey 2020: Demographics - EA Forum. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ThdR8FzcfA8wckTJi/ea-survey-2020-demographics 

Mozhvilo, E. (2021). Buds close before blooming. Unsplash.com. https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1619974612677-5e1ed30d12ff?ixlib=rb-4.0.3&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=1173&q=80 

Open Philantrophy. (2020). Open Phil EA/LT Survey 2020: Introduction & Summary of Takeaways. Google Docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1iJNFfmcmbMMx-xw19Wnlin9ZXWQz1PJtcoS1GAGN8K8/edit#heading=h.xp340vv3zyo 

Sapolsky, R. M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Reprint). Penguin Books.

Sheldon, K. M., Corcoran, M., & Prentice, M. (2018). Pursuing Eudaimonic Functioning Versus Pursuing Hedonic Well-Being: The First Goal Succeeds in Its Aim, Whereas the Second Does Not. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(3), 919–933. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9980-4 

Statista. (2022, January 24). Durchschnittsalter der Studienanfänger in Deutschland bis 2020. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/36660/umfrage/durchschnittsalter-der-studienanfaenger-seit-1995/ 

Street, J. (2017). Yosemite National Park, United States. Unsplash.com. https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1505778276668-26b3ff7af103?ixlib=rb-4.0.3&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=1461&q=80 

TED. (2017, September 26). There’s more to life than being happy | Emily Esfahani Smith [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9Trdafp83U&feature=youtu.be 

Times, T. N. Y. (2005, December 29). Opinion | In Pursuit of Unhappiness. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/29/opinion/in-pursuit-of-unhappiness.html 

Waterman, A. S. (1993). Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(4), 678–691. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.64.4.678 

  1. ^

    This is also what Self-Determination Theory suggests. People need to internalise external factors (such as having a positive impact on the world) before they will be intrinsically motivated to do something. If these external factors are not well internalized, that is, not made compatible with one's own core values and goals, it will undermine intrinsic motivation. In other words, the person will not spend time on a certain activity on their own initiative (Deci et al., 1994); (Friborg, 2022). I highly encourage you to read this great post from Per Ivar Friborg to learn more about this.

  2. ^

    I think it is very plausible that thousands of years ago it was important for humans to understand the motivations and intentions of others in order to survive. Understanding the "why" behind someone's actions allowed us to predict their behaviour and make informed decisions about how to interact with them. If you had to choose whether you are going to settle with your tribe at a mountain or take the additional risk of travelling further for potentially more resources, you’d better have good reasons to do so.

  3. ^

    On the EA website, it is assumed that everyone wants to do good. How do we know this? Even if that were true, how many students have made this one of their top priorities? Despite offering a comprehensive overview of EA ideas and practices, the revised EA handbook and the latest version of the Introductory EA Program fail to clearly articulate the underlying reasons for why one should care about EA. This lack of clarity may pose a significant barrier to individuals internalizing and fully embracing EA concepts, as it does not address how these principles align with and can enhance an individual's existing values and beliefs. To truly facilitate understanding and adoption of EA ideas, it is crucial that the "why" behind these ideas is made explicit and directly connected to personal values.

  4. ^

    Specifically, the PLP Track is able to attract a different audience and set the foundation for effective internalization of EA ideas by helping individuals actively think about their values and aspirations, while the Introductory EA Program is not able to accomplish this.

  5. ^

    The Exploring What Matters course from the UK-based charity Action for Happiness (AfH) has shown to improve subjective well-being and increase levels of self-reported pro-social behavior. In a published randomized control trial, these effects became evident (Krekel et al., 2021). This suggests that the Purpose and Life Planning track could have similar effects on individuals' well-being and on their willingness to engage in behaviors that benefit others.





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Interesting post and curriculum. I look forward to hearing about the outcomes of the first run as you evaluate them and get results. My own estimates for the likeliness of this achieving 85% better outcomes than the current method are significantly lower, but I think there's a chance this will be an improvement.

That being said, some points of disagreement.

  1. I think the framing of "creating" rather than "finding" motivated altruistic individuals does not match my own expectation of dealing with university students. When I was an undergraduate myself, I definitely conceived of myself as altruistic, and was actively looking for a cause/group to become active in, both for the social and ethical aspects of activism. Now that I teach first-year students, I think there is a large group of similar motivated altruistic individuals that seek a group to engage with, and I think there is a lot of value in identifying them and pointing them towards EA as a way to act on their altruistic motivation. Many students I meet then stay in the first group/broad direction they focused their altruism on, making it even more valuable to present them with EA as an option early-on.
  2. I am worried that this group in particular would be somewhat turned off by the flair of the syllabus you present. Young people that are already altruistically motivated may not look to "Understand Themselves", "Find Meaning" or "Try to live a happy life". Rather, they may be focused on their altruistic motivation, being angry and upset not at their own life not going well, but the injustice they have become aware of as they grew up (think: Climate Change, Poverty, Racism, Discrimination etc). A syllabus that focuses on one-self, rather than others, may not be a good fit for already altruistic young adults. I myself would likely not have enrolled in this program at an early age, having been a pretty arrogant young man that thought he "figured out" the problems and solutions facing the world, as I was mainly scouting for groups that helped me address problems I found most pressing.
  3. One reason for skepticism about your predictions is that my prior for "intervention induces altruistic motivation" is relatively low after reading about a series of philosophers experimenting with using prompts and/or courses to induce altruistic behaviour, which turned out to be pretty tough! That being said, if this program were to achieve this goal, that would be very impressive and meaningful, so I applaud the effort going into executing and evaluating the program.

I appreciate your thoughts Malte. Thank you for sharing them! I agree with your point that there are university students who are already altruistically motivated and actively seeking ways to make an impact. I also agree that this type of audience may be less interested in this track because they have already covered the related topics and themes. It will be interesting to see to what extent this is the case. I think the Introductory EA Program is very appropriate for this group.

However, I argue that there is a large group of students who have not yet reflected on their core priorities in life and the importance of doing good. These students may not be immediately inclined to explore ways to improve their impact, as they have not yet internalised the reasons of why doing good matters to them.

The PLP Track is primarily intended to provide value to this second group of students. It's goal is to help them consider what they truly value in the long-term and what kind of life they want to live. Through this process, they may come to realize that incorporating a focus on doing good aligns with their values and goals, and become more motivated to explore ways of doing good better, such as by participating in the Introductory EA Program.

It is important to note that that my first hypothesis intended to convey that the PLP Track is 85% more effective in converting this type of audience, those that are not altruistically motivated yet. I hypothesize that this type of audience will not even join the Introductory EA Program in the first place (there are of course exceptions). This is because unless people have internalised why doing good matters to them I argue that they will be a lot less likely to care about how to do good better.

I could have made that clearer in the post, and I think it is possible that my prediction is overly confident. Time will most likely reveal the validity of this hypothesis and whether my tendency to be rather optimistic distorted the accuracy of my prediction. Then I am happy to update my beliefs and learn from it for the next time. Thanks again for your thoughts!

I like the general idea of this post, and I think this idea/program is something worth experimenting with. Would love to see how it goes, if you decide to run it. That being said, I have a couple thoughts.

Weak criticism: (I expect there is probably a good rebuttal to this) We might want some selection for students who have already determined that they want to make "doing good" a large part of their life. Maybe these students are more conscientious than the average individual, and this is an early signal of them being people who self reflects on their values/thoughts/beliefs more. This could mean that they will perform better at careers that take a lot of critical thinking and/or careful moral reasoning. That's not to say these kinds of thinking skills cannot be learned, but they may be picked up faster and performed better by students who already exhibit some level of personal reflection at a younger age.

Stronger criticism: If students have not internalized that doing good matters to them, and would therefore not want to join the Intro EA Program, I strongly suspect they will also not be interested in a 5-week program about their purpose and life planning. My main concern here is that outreach will be difficult (but it's easy to prove me wrong empirically, so feel free to go out and do it!)

A final thought on framing/overstepping: If I were a student first hearing about this program, I think I would be a little bit suspicious of the underlying motives. From a surface-level impression, I would think that the goal of the program would be for me "find my purpose"... then I would look more into who is running the program and ask myself "who are these EA people, and why do they care about my purpose?", after which I would quickly find out that they want me to join their organization.

I think the main concern that I want to bring up is that I think this program could easily be turned into a sort of bait-and-switch. Finding one's purpose and life goals is a very individual process, and I wouldn't want this process to be "hijacked" by an EA program that directs people in a very specific direction. I.e. my concern is that the program will presented as if it is encouraging people to find their values and purpose, but in reality it's  just trying to incept them into following an EA career path. 

Not sure if/how this can be avoided, except for being really up-front about the motivation of the program with applicants. I also might be misunderstanding something, so feel free to correct me.

I agree with this last point on underlying motives.  EA is one direction for purpose-seeking people to go in, but not everyone will choose it.  This program could also look vaguely religious, which is generally preferable to avoid.

I would also question whether a focused program is the best way to develop people with EA motivation.  I think sometimes people go through the intro program and find purpose in it because...

  1. They see their peers struggling with the same questions about meaning and purpose
  2. Their facilitator has found meaning through EA and are acting based on EA ideas
  3. It's grounded in an empirical context ("Wow, I didn't realize that lots of people live on $2 a day, 70 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for no good reason, and AGI may pose an existential risk.")

I do, however, want to say that I appreciate the thinking you've done here.  The identifying vs. generating talent topic is one that I look forward to reading more about, including follow-ups to this post with results.

Also thank you Pete for your point here! I agree that the intro program can be a very good way for people to find purpose. However, I argue that a significant proportion of people are less interested in learning about "doing good better" simply because more basic needs are not being met (you can read more about this in my response to Harrison's comment I just posted). If people read through the curriculum before signing up to the intro fellowship and see concepts like "effectiveness mindset" or "scope insensitivity", then I think many will ask themselves "Great, that's all very nice. But how is that going to help me find a job with which I support myself and my family?"

People will prioritise their time according to what is currently most important to them. And if you are in a phase of your life where you are not as privileged to be able to make doing good a core part of your life, you will often have more urgent things to manage than joining an Introductory EA Program. So while I agree that the intro program has many potential benefits, I believe the actual challenge is getting people to sign up for it in the first place.

That's why the PLP Track might be more effective at attracting those who wouldn't normally consider the Intro Program. It provides value in a different way and addresses different priorities.

Thank you for your criticism and feedback, Harrison. I agree that if EA groups are not careful, they can come across as preachy or manipulative. Therefore, it's very important to emphasise that the PLP Track is not intended to convince students to join the Introductory EA Program or our EA group. Its aim is to help students think about their values and their life and choose what is best for them, not what is best for any particular group. In the upcoming time we will work on strategies that attempt to mitigate risks like these.

Regarding your strong criticism, I believe your argument is plausible, but there are a few reasons why I have a different opinion.  Many young adults are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives. While Maslow's hierarchy of needs has limitations, I believe we can draw some important conclusions from it. According to Maslow, people must have their basic needs more or less met before they can focus on higher level needs. Before people focus on giving something back to the world (which is in my eyes self-actualisation), people must first satisfy their own basic needs (like having intimate relationships or the perception of security and safety). I think there is a substantial amount of young adults who simply can't afford to invest a lot of time into caring about others. Before this can effectively happen people need to take care of themselves.

The PLP Track can potentially aid this process by helping people learn more about what is actually important to them and what they are good at. Once these areas are addressed individuals may be more likely to move on to caring about others and generating social impact. I think this is also one of the reasons why career-focuses messaging is a lot more effective than donation-focused messaging. It addresses the more urgent and important needs of younger adults.

As for your "weaker" criticism about the filtering effect, I agree that it can be beneficial. However, people come from a variety of backgrounds and often have different levels of support and resources available to them. External factors, such as privilege and luck, can significantly impact an individual's ability to focus on personal development and meeting their basic needs before they can consider "giving something back" to the world. To put it bluntly, I think the current paradigm for EA community building of "finding" talented and ambitious people may actually be identifying those that are the most privileged. Those that had the time to lay the groundwork for EA ideas and to figure out that they want to make "doing good" large part of their life. I think it is difficult to argue that  someone who is not interested in EA as a student won't likely be a good fit. What about those who had to spend a significant portion of their time working outside of university and dealing with a variety of other challenges? They simply did not have the time yet to figure these things out for themselves.

I think there is a high chance that we are losing out on a substantial amount of people who could be a very good fit, but are not (yet) due to external factors people often can't control. Moreover, while I think it's true that genetics and personality play a significant role in an individual's inclination towards EA ideas, there is evidence that suggests that personality traits can change throughout the 20s and even beyond. However, I believe this is a strong point you make. I am also rather skeptical about the extent to which personality changes throughout adulthood.

To conclude my response, I think it's important  to recognize that individuals are at very different stages in their development. As a result, I believe that (established) EA university groups should develop more programs that cater to a diverse range of people in order to avoid missing out on those who may be a good fit for EA, but are not yet due to external factors.

This is because the current paradigm for community building emphasises finding talented and ambitious people that want to tackle the world's most pressing problem, and not to create them.

Can you clarify this? This could mean different things:

  1. We should make EA people more talented
  2. We should make EA people more ambitious
  3. We should make people more talented
  4. We should make people more ambitious
  5. We should make people want to tackle the world's most pressing problems

and other stuff. I assume you mean (3)+(4)+(5) all at once via a new strategy targeting the "four reasons why people are not joining your Introductory EA Program." IMO current community building is already trying to do (5). And there seem to be efforts to make people more productive (e.g. some office spaces provide food and bring people together so they can share ideas).

Yes, I will give my best! Thanks for asking Jakub. Using your list, it would be points 4 and 5. 

To provide further nuance, I would like to emphasize two points. 
First, regarding point 4, I believe that many individuals possess a great deal of talent and ambition, however, they may be directed towards different pursuits. When I speak of "creating," I am primarily referring to redirecting ambition towards tackling the world's most pressing problems. 

Secondly, in regards to point 5, I believe that encouraging individuals to address the most pressing issues is not always best accomplished simply by educating them about these issues. 

People have different priorities and ambitions at various stages in their lives, which is natural. I would argue that the challenge is that many individuals have not thoroughly reflected on their most important values and goals. As a result, it becomes hard for them to tell if what they're doing aligns with their goals they might find most important in the end. In fact, determining this can be challenging. In other words, when I speak of "creating" individuals who want to tackle the world's most pressing problems, I mean that we should empower people to re-evaluate their existing priorities and to let them learn about the "fact" that making a positive impact may be one of many meaningful ways to lead a fulfilling life. Through this process, individuals may come to realize that this path will bring them (and others) more happiness. 

This ties into the second point. Before individuals can care about addressing the most pressing issues, they need to understand why it matters to them personally. Unless an individual has established that making a positive impact is a core part of their life, why should they be motivated to tackle the world's most pressing problems? The underlying reason for wanting to do so often stems from a desire to prevent large-scale suffering or improve the wellbeing of many. 

I agree with you that community building is already working towards point 5, however, the current approach is only effective for a relatively small portion of people - namely, those who have already determined that making a positive impact is important to them. For those who have not yet reached this realization, learning about how to make a bigger impact will not be particularly effective unless they are first motivated to do so. Improving their productivity or time management skills will not be particularly helpful unless they have a desire to use their time to make a positive impact. I believe that we need a more diverse range of strategies to inspire this motivation in different types of individuals. For some, learning about how to make a big impact may be sufficient, while for others, learning about why making an impact matters may be necessary as a foundation for intrinsic motivation. 

I hope this helps!

Thanks for the detailed reply. So instead of informing people who value altruism about the best ways to help, we should also try to elevate the importance of altruism within people's values. Am I understanding correctly?

Yes indeed. It is not only about providing guidance for those who already prioritize making a positive impact, but also about inspiring and fostering that desire in individuals who may not have fully considered that option. By providing people with the opportunity to think about the relevance of altruism in their own lives we might not only be able to elevate its importance within individuals' values but also create a more motivated and well-informed group of individuals who are eager to learn about the most effective ways to make a difference.

I listened to this post  through the Non-Linear Library yesterday, thanks for writing this.
I think this post misses several things - (sorry if you already addressed some of these and I missed it).  

1. Most people struggle to "think big" (related: Scope Insensitivity). It is hard and unintuitive to fathom that Charity X could be three orders of magnitude more effective than Charity Y. 

2. Most people want practical certainty. Cultivated meat could be huge for the world. But it is still very uncertain whether this could be affordable in the foreseeable future.  And no one guarantees that the industry of cultivated meat  would still exist in ten years.  

Due to these -
Many people's default image of charity is still volunteering in a soup kitchen (This is partly because many famous celebrities, including athletes, donate their money to provide warm meals in a certain community or toys for children). And many people's default image of doing good but not in a charity perspective is community oriented and very practical straightforward jobs like becoming a firefighter or  a school teacher.  
These are practical, certain to be good, could never backfire, and the smile of the recipient of the soup is guaranteed and not far away in time.

3. This point is extremely important in my eyes - many people do not believe they are capable of "doing something big". Even if someone is convinced for example that  being a cultivated meat scientist is effective, he might not believe in himself that he has the capabilities to become one. 

4. Regarding your correct point that meaning can bring more happiness than a yacht. I think that many people do in fact realize this more and more (even though many still do not) - but most students don't think about yachts and mansions, as they can't  even afford the insurance for the yacht they do not have. They just want to get a job that could enable them to afford the down payment for an apartment later down the road. Most people want some financial security and stability before wanting to save the world. It is like convincing someone to donate 10% of his income to charity - but he doesn't even have an income he could donate from. 

5. Which brings me to this point.  Many people view doing good as a sacrifice - school teachers make less money than programmers. What I think they don't necessarily  realize is that being a cultivated meat scientist or AI researcher or several other EA careers are actually not necessarily a financial sacrifice at all, and even if they are, they could still afford the down payment for the apartment they dream of. We could really emphasize this point. 

Hi Dvir, thank you for sharing your thoughts and raising some interesting points. I appreciate the insights and would like to address each of them in the context of my original post and previous responses.

  1. Your first point about scope insensitivity and the difficulty for people to "think big" is well-taken. This ties in nicely with your third point about many people not believing they are capable of "doing something big." I completely agree that these challenges exist, which is why I believe it is important to help people gain this confidence in themselves. As expressed previously, I am quite skeptical to what extent the existing introduction track actually enables people to build this. Surely, people can learn about the fact that we live in a very important time and that each of us can make a big impact, but I think that real belief in yourself and ambitiousness stems from seeing evidence of the things you have already accomplished. It also comes from a deep understanding of who you are, where you come from, and what you are about. This is what I try to address with the PLP Track partially. The point you bring up is very important in my eyes, and I think one of the most influential factors in people considering high-impact opportunities.
  2. I appreciate your point about the importance of financial security and stability in people's lives. As you rightly pointed out (I think), many people need to have their basic needs met before they can focus on higher-level goals, such as making a positive impact in the world. This highlights the importance of presenting EA as not only a path to do good but also as a means to achieve personal fulfillment and security. Emphasizing the variety of careers and opportunities within the EA community that can provide both financial stability and the chance to make a difference could be a powerful motivator for many individuals.
  3. This leads me to my last point. The perception of doing good as a sacrifice is indeed a challenge that needs to be addressed. I think that reframing EA as a fulfilling and purpose-driven pursuit that can be integrated into one's life without requiring a sacrifice of everything can make the ideas of Effective Altruism more appealing and accessible to a wider audience. I am not entirely sure, though, to what extent we want this, as I do think that the majority of impact stems from a very small fraction of people. On the other hand, you could flip the argument again and argue that due to the young age of students at university, there is not an insignificant chance that people could become highly engaged if approached from a different angle.

In light of your points, I wonder if you have any suggestions on how EA university groups could better communicate the potential personal benefits and opportunities for personal growth that come with engaging in Effective Altruism? Do you have any ideas on how we can better address the concerns and challenges you've raised to create a more inclusive and empowering community for individuals at different stages of their lives?

Thank you for sharing your insights and prompting further discussion on this topic!

I've skimmed this post - thanks so much for writing it!

Here's a quick, rushed comment.

I have several points of agreement:

  • If we could get more people on board with the goal of EA (i.e., making the biggest positive difference they can), then that would be much better than just seeking out people who already have (or nearly have) that goal.
  • So it seems worth investing effort now into figuring out how to get people motivated towards this goal.
  • I agree that the four "reasons why people aren't joining your introductory EA program" you give are true statements (although I'm less sure they're the most important things to focus on)
  • I agree that getting people intrinsically motivated to maximise good seems really valuable if it can be done

But I think I disagree about several important things:

  • I think it's true that doing good is beneficial for one's own life. But I think that the magnitude of your impact matters much less for one's own sense of purpose, self-approval, etc.
    • People can live very purposeful & fulfilling lives by picking a cause; being cause-neutral and trying to maximise your positive impact seems if anything slightly less fulfilling, because it means you'll probably end up working on something that is more neglected and so is less emotionally fulfilling.
  • I think that helping already-altruistic people to realise that they care about the magnitude of their impact seems more promising than trying to help more people to be altruistic. I think that your program is mostly targeted at the second of these.
  • I suspect that the way people can end up with the goal of actually maximising good is more like:
    • Believe that the magnitude of your impact matters, and that bigger is better
    • Feel that have a large impact is achievable
    • Feel that doing the EA project is good for my own purposes (makes me feel fulfilled, etc)
    • Identify as someone that is trying to do the EA project
    • Feel belonging to a social group that is trying to do the EA project

So I think I'm more keen on projects that focus on helping altruistic people to get on board with the EA project.  I'd be very interested in any updates on how your plans go, though!

Thanks for writing up your thoughts Isaac! You present some thought-provoking perspectives that I have not yet considered.

I particularly resonate with your first point of disagreement that individuals can derive personal benefits from being altruistic simply by choosing some cause. Your argument that striving for cause-neutrality and maximizing positive impact may be less fulfilling is a valid one. However, I am unsure why working on a less neglected cause would necessarily be less emotionally fulfilling. In fact, pursuing something "unique" may be quite exciting. Nonetheless, I agree that cause-neutrality may be less fulfilling, as we all have unconscious biases that may favor certain causes due to personal experiences or connections. This may make steering against these inclinations more difficult, perhaps even unpleasant.

I also agree that targeting "already-altruistic people" who care about the magnitude of their impact probably is very promising. Social impact is heavy tailed so it is likely that these individuals could contribute to most of the net impact generated. I just think that EA university groups should not be the stakeholder group that make this trade-off.

In my view, it is important to carefully consider how to differentiate and vary the strategies of EA university, city, and national groups.

With the target audience of university groups being very young adults, I believe it is detrimental to exclude those who may not yet be "there yet". As I have previously argued, there are many young and ambitious individuals who have not yet determined their life's direction, and they could be easily nudged towards becoming "already-altruistic". The loss of counterfactual impact would be huge.

I would agree, however, that for city or national groups, a narrower focus might be a better strategy.

What are your thoughts on having a broader focus for EA university groups, but a narrower one for city  groups?

Oh to be clear, I think that almost all altruistic people do not much care about the magnitude of their impact (in practice).

So I think the approach I'd suggest is to focus on altruistic people, and helping them realise that they probably do really care about the magnitude of their impact on reflection.

That's a much larger group than the people who are already magnitude-sensitive, and I think the intervention is probably more feasible at the moment than for people who have no existing interest in altruism.


I haven't thought much about strategy for city/national groups, but I think I agree that later in life, people are much more set on their existing path, so if any stage is to focus on people who aren't altruistic yet, it would be university or high-school groups.

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