Sue the Poet

Imagine some person (let’s call her Sue) who loves to write fiction and poetry. Sue reads and writes prolifically, and she’s really good at it – almost every creative writing teacher she’s ever had has made a note of her ability. Moreover, nothing brings her as much satisfaction as writing fiction and poetry. She finds that writing fills her with a sense of purpose and meaning nothing else can quite match.

Currently, Sue is a college student trying to figure out what to do with her life. She has decided that, given her unique situation (a mix of interest and talent), she should try to write fiction and/or poetry professionally.

However, at some point, she learns broadly about effective altruism and comes to find it attractive/plausible (it’s not important how this happens, whether through a student group, philosophy course, the internet, etc.). One of the things she’s now convinced of is that one important consideration (out of many) when selecting a career is how much good she could do in that career. Her previous conviction to become a novelist or poet or whatever becomes somewhat diminished by the realization that it’s very unlikely (whatever her talent) to do very much good.

The only problem is that she’s just not interested in much else. It’s not that she’s bad at philosophy, or political science, or economics, but that none of them draw her attention quite like fiction and poetry. It’d be great if they did! If she could just wave a magic wand and make her develop a fascination with developmental economics, she’d do that. But she doesn’t have that magic wand. So she concedes that her only option if she wants to be happy is to become that novelist or poet or whatever, and maybe donate some amount of money to keep with her new “effective altruist” sympathies.

Does someone like “Sue the Poet” really exist?

Does Sue’s case seem fishy to any of you? There’s something a bit fishy about it to me, and I’m going to do my best to explain why.

Many people believe that a person is drawn to certain academic subjects over others for seemingly arbitrary reasons. There might be some clear-cut reasons why that person likes some subjects over others – for example, maybe that person doesn’t like chemistry because they’ve had a bad experience with a chemistry teacher, or maybe they don’t like math because they think they’re bad at it. When a person says “I’m interested in X”, they might be communicating, in part, that X has the right amount of difficulty for them, or that X seems important, or that doing X involves socializing with people which makes them happy, or something else entirely. But there’s also something “extra” in them that makes them like X more than the alternatives. Something nonspecific and somewhat mysterious.

Why is that philosopher over there more interested in philosophy of language than metaphysics? It’s not because that philosopher believes philosophy of language is more difficult/valuable/whatever than metaphysics, it’s because of this nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing. When I asked one of my very bright computer science-studying friends (who could have excelled in physics classes) why he wasn’t into physics, the answer wasn’t because computer science was more lucrative than physics, it was something like “I don’t know, I just like it more!”

When I hear people say “find your passion!”, I usually assume they mean that you should look deep down for this nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing. That’s the thing Sue has found that made her realize creative writing was for her, and that economics was not.

My (maybe not so) hot take here is that the “nonspecific and somewhat mysterious” thing probably isn’t really in any of us. That’s what makes the case of someone like Sue seem so fishy. I think “passions” and “interests” are comprised of identifiable pieces, like “difficult-but-doable” and “seems valuable” and a bunch of other stuff. And it’s important that we demystify “passions” and “interests” and the like, because I think many people are suffering under the illusion that “X is their ultimate and only passion”, where, in reality, Y could be something they’re just as passionate about, and they would do a lot more good for the world if they spent more time on Y.

(Note: I’m going to assume that people sort of know what I mean by “interests” and “passions” and the like, and intentionally avoid discussing the slightly different ways in which these words might be used.)

Interests are sort of fungible

Of course, it may still be really hard to explain why you like certain subjects over others. Why you’re really interested in philosophy of language and only kind of interested in metaphysics. But there are some concrete upshots in believing that there’s no “nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing” in you. These upshots may seem obvious to some, but, in my experience, they’re underemphasized.

First, interests are much more fungible/interchangeable than most people take them to be. I don’t think everyone is just equally interested in all subjects, but I do think most people should update downwards on how important they think it is that they find the subject to study (or that the one even exists). If interests are not determined by a nonspecific and somewhat mysterious thing, but just by a series of “boxes you have to check”, then it’s much more reasonable to think that multiple interests could check all those boxes.

Second, I’ve found that trying to identify some of the reasons why I’m interested in something actually helps me better predict what I’m likely to be interested in. The clearest example of this (for me) is that thinking “X is valuable and knowing more about it can help people” is extremely self-motivating.

Third and finally, I’m under the impression that some people think they haven’t found their “passion” yet, or that they might not have one. I don’t buy this. My best advice here is to pick something which seems reasonably valuable for the world and like you might be good at it, and go deep. Passions, in my experience, are more “developed” than “found.”

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This is very well written! It's clear that a lot of thought and effort went into this, and I like your upshots. I think that for this to be more useful to the community, you should have more engagement with current literature and writing in the community. Here, I feel almost obliged to add a link to an 80K article on this matter.

Meta

I just listened to the last episodes of Global Optimum and it makes me think that maybe what I was actually saying is that in order to get more status in the EA community, one should display an understanding of the "EA Cannon". (and of course, writing that comment supposedly signals higher status..)

I still think that it is important to engage with previous discussions whenever explaining something new, but also I want to clarify that it can absolutely be a valuable and reasonable choice to do something completely new.

I wouldn't phrase it as "status". If someone's goal is to write a post that will be especially valuable to many people who read it here, that could entail trying to save readers' time by skimming past concepts they likely know well. 

I don't care how much EA material an author has read; I care how helpful I find their post in accomplishing or understanding something. It just happens to be the case that an understanding of prior material seems to make posts more helpful, on average.

Oh, now I see that what I wrote is a bit off what I intended, sorry. I was mainly explaining that this was my way of showing conformity to (how I interpret) The Way Things Work Here, not that one should do that to achieve higher status or that I think that status in EA is very important to achieve.

As you say, and for the same reasons, I agree that it is very helpful for people to read up on similar EA content. However, I am not sure how much is it important for people to also link to relevant sources and explain the connections, which is more what I was going for.

Makes sense -- "The Way Things Work" still feels a little too "official", but I agree that doing background reading is helpful and recommended (I like the list of recommendations here)

Linking is important when you cite someone's work and can be a useful way to avoid having to write a lot of stuff yourself, but if it flows better to write up your own explanation of some common concept, I don't see a problem with that.

hmm I was using "The Way Things Work Here" sarcastically (I think in a similar tone to how I was addressing status in the previous comment). So I'm taking away that in the internet no one know that you are a troll, or something like that 😊

I appreciate the clarifications.

I took your meaning to be somewhat sarcastic, but wanted to clarify for anyone else who might stumble across the conversation. I try to keep my meaning fairly literal on the Forum, in part for the large number of readers for whom English isn't their first language.

The view you put forward is tempting, but I think it also misses important aspects of why what you consider "fishy" about the Sue to poet scenario is not.

You suggest it is possible to develop other passions, and I agree that this is possible, but this fails to account for the human aspect of doing this. Most people are not psychological safe enough to simply switch passions to something that it would be beneficial to be passionate about given the massive amount of experience necessary to make something new feel good enough to be passionate about given the difficulty of making that change while embedded in the conditions of life as they are for an individual. It can be done, but it takes longer and is harder to succeed at than simply thinking it's possible implies, such that Sue the poet's reason is hardly fishy, but instead a recognition that she may not be situated to be able to make the change that she would need to to be a more effective altruist.

This is not to say that she couldn't and that she might use this as an excuse to avoid doing what she thinks is necessary to excuse doing what is convenient, but to say that we should have compassion for those who may find they agree with EA but find they cannot immediately make the changes they would like to due to life conditions, and we should not judge them as less good EAs even if they are less able to contribute to EA missions than if they were a different person in a different world that doesn't exist.

This is not to say that she couldn't and that she might use this as an excuse to avoid doing what she thinks is necessary to excuse doing what is convenient, but to say that we should have compassion for those who may find they agree with EA but find they cannot immediately make the changes they would like to due to life conditions, and we should not judge them as less good EAs even if they are less able to contribute to EA missions than if they were a different person in a different world that doesn't exist.

This is great, and I'd like to add some follow-up comments in light of it.

My main point was really that passion is a contingent, rather than an intrinsic, thing. If you’re into X instead of Y, that could be because you invested more time in X, not because you “fundamentally” don’t find Y interesting. This may seem uplifting to some EAs: it means that many people have vastly more potential to do good than they might have originally thought!

But I agree that there’s something about the “human experience” that my explanation is missing. This is because “contingent” doesn’t directly imply “fungible” or “interchangeable” – people (usually) can’t fluidly change what they’re interested in or passionate about, even if those interests or passions stem from “contingent” factors. I think, as a result, I described Sue’s case in a slightly unfair and judgmental way (in a way that’s probably not totally healthy, individually or as a community). Real people are subject to all sorts of cognitive and emotional constraints that the original post does not properly recognize.

On a personal note – this post was (on some level) an attempt to rationalize a decision I’m currently going through in my own life. I’m a recent college graduate trying to decide whether to apply to graduate programs in philosophy, or to do something else. I kind of feel like Sue – maybe I could do something in philosophy, but maybe I could do something even more significant elsewhere, if only I invested as much time elsewhere as I have in philosophy. I know my interest in philosophy is contingent, in a sense, but I wonder how fungible it is.

I add this personal note in part to say that I can empathize with the kind of EAs you describe.

I think something else to consider is that familiarity can also build a passionate interest that is hard to let go of.

In the case of Sue the Poet, it's not that she's was unskilled and looking for something interesting, she's already found writing and, as described, practiced this a lot and found she is a skilled and (potentially) successful writer. Likewise, I assume that your friend the computer scientist has already studied computer science for a while and has become quite skilled at it, so its less appealing to start from scratch with physics (there would be some skills in common between CS and physics, but it will probably still feel like a big step-back on the learning curve).

While there is an element of sunk-cost fallacy here, I think that people who've done training and found that they are skilled at something are probably less likely to want to change their interest than somebody who has experience and found that they are un-skilled, or otherwise unsuccessful at their first interest. This seems like it could create a perverse incentive as generally-talented people who are highly successful in their first field could be disincentivized from trying to move into a more important field where they could have a larger impact. In academia there are often programs to encourage interdisciplinary research, but I wonder if the people these draw in may tend to be those that aren't particularly successful in their original field? (I consider myself a interdisciplinary scientist and can admit there is a bit of truth in that)

In line with this, I think it's good that EA/80k posts often emphasize the value of testing out a variety of promising career paths, not just picking the subject you are either most interested in or judge as most important when entering college. Maybe it could also be good to pre-commit to testing some number of options for a certain time (say 4 fields x 6 months) before comparing your interest and ability between them to avoid the temptation to commit to the first one grabs your attention. I know a lot of graduate courses do something similar with lab rotations, although I don't know how common this is elsewhere in career planning/education.