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[Let's speak in third person here. Nobody likes to be called mediocre and I'm asking for people's experiences so let's make it (a bit) easier to speak freely. If you give an answer, you can be explaining your situation or that of someone you know.]


We all know that EA organizations search for and are full of brilliant (and mostly young) people. But what do EAs that are not brilliant do? Even many brilliant EAs are not able to work in EA organizations (see this post for example), but their prospects to having high impact careers and truly contribute to EA are good. However, most people are mediocre, many are not even able to get 1-1 in 80.000h or other similar help. This is frustrating and may make it difficult to engage for longer with EA. 

These people have their "normal" jobs, get older, start creating families, time is scarce... and the priority of EA in their life inevitably falls. Regularly meeting is probably far out of reach. Even writing occasional posts in the forum probably demands way too much time --more so knowing that not-super-well-researched-and-properly-written-posts-by-unknown-users usually get down-voted early on making them invisible and so, mostly useless to write.


So I'd like to know what is the relationship with "the community" of mediocre EAs, particularly of a bit older ones. How do they exercise their EA muscle?

It'd be also cool to have a very short description of their career paths as well.

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I think there's a ton of obvious things that people neglect because they're not glamorous enough:

1. Unofficially beta-test new EA stuff e.g. if someone announces something new, use it and give helpful feedback regularly
2. Volunteer to do boring stuff for impactful organisations e.g. admin
3. Deeply fact-check popular EA forum posts
4. Be a good friend to people doing things you think are awesome
5. Investigate EA aligned charities on the ground, check that they are being honest in their reporting
6. Openly criticise grifters who people fear to speak out against for fear of reprisal 
7.  Stay up-to-date on the needs of different people and orgs, and connect people who need connecting

In generally, looking for the most anxiety provoking, boring, and lowest social status work is a good way of finding impactful opportunities. 

I'm so glad someone wrote this. EA has real gaps caused by selecting a narrow group of people and demanding they only work on the most important things. Tasks that are unglamorous or just don't make sense as a job duty accumulate like housekeeping when you're sick. People who have the slack to do these without displacing a higher priority task have some highly leveraged actions available to them.

Indeed, 3, 5, and 6 may be easier / more effective if you're not in a "professional EA" job or expecting to get one.

some of them (3, 5, 6, 7) already need quite a bit of knowledge. I am not saying they are not worth doing!

John Salter
I don't think acquiring knowledge requires brilliance, although I accept some of it is hard. I just think that at least two or three of these things would be doable for the median "mediocre" EA. 

My quick take: I think most people should think of EA as little more than a hobby. 

For example, I like bouldering, so I often:

  • Practice
  • Do it with friends 
  • Consume content to learn more about it
  • Talk about it with friends (if they like it, I talk about it in detail; if they aren't really interested, I might just respond to a 'How are you?' with 'Good thanks! Got a new PB at the bouldering gym yesterday so spirits are high!')

So it's important to me and I get a lot from it, but it'll only ever be a small part of my life. 

I don't care if I'll never be a professional athlete, or even if I never win a local competition. I'm happy to simply do it, to hang out with others who like doing it, and to share the highlights with people who are interested in what I'm up to.

I think EA should be the same for most people. If they like the idea of helping others as effectively as possible, they could consider:

  • Practicing (e.g., donate some money and apply to the odd job if it looks like it'll be a good fit)
  • Doing it with friends (e.g., volunteer together, run a group together, start a side project together)
  • Consuming content to learn more (e.g., browse the forum occasionally, listen to the odd podcast, read the odd report)
  • Talking about it with friends (e.g., 'Hey I was reading about this cool charity LEEP and I think you'd really like em! They...' etc etc)

But that's it. It's not a big deal if you don't end up 'getting an EA job' or donating €€€€€€€€.

I have mixed feelings about this answer.

On the one hand, I think there's a lot of wisdom in it. The idea that people should be either all-in on EA or out isn't helpful, and isn't effective either. If you think about other social movements that have made a difference (for good and/or ill) on the world, they generally offer opportunities at a number of different commitment and ability points. Take most religions for example -- they do not encourage everyone to become a member of the clergy, to pursue advanced theological studies, and so on.

On the other hand, the reference to a "hobby" and some of the specific suggestions trend a little more toward EA-as-spectator-sport than I'd like. I certainly approve of your bouldering hobby, but it sounds like you (and maybe your friend group) are internalizing most of the benefits thereof. I think we can (and should) aim a little higher than that with EA, even EA for the masses.

To use a loose religion metaphor, we might have something vaguely like:

  • For the relatively few -- do a EA job / make EA your main professional focus
  • For a larger minority -- make EA a significant part of your life, take the GWWC pledge, be active on the Forum, go to conferences if that adds value
  • For the majority -- donate 1%, consume at least a few hours of content a year, fast on one day a year and give the money you would have spent on food to the global poor
James Herbert
Yeah I think I agree with you, and I think considering those three levels to be appropriate is consistent with the statement 'I think most people should think of EA as little more than a hobby'.  I feel like pushing the 'treat it like a hobby' thing is good at the mo because I see a lot of people in the EA community feeling they ought to do more, and then they feel bad when it doesn't work out, and that sucks. I worry they begin to tie their self-worth to whether they are a 'good EA' or not. I want to be like, hey, take it easy, you're doing a good job - y'know?[1]  I'm reminded of when I spoke to a therapist at my uni because I was struggling with anxiety and perfectionism. I wanted to get the best grades and do great things, but in pursuing that goal so relentlessly it was a) undermining my ability to study well and b) making me unhappy. He reminded me that being a student was only a small part of my life. I was also a friend, a partner, a citizen, a son, etc., and these parts of my life were all equally valuable (if not more so).    I might take a different approach if I was talking with a member of the general population. Rutger Bregman's School of Moral Ambition does that. He's very much, 'Yo, you've got all this potential, you should be more morally ambitious'. But then again, maybe I wouldn't because the most thorough definition of EA I know of is non-normative, and I'm glad this is the case.  1. ^ I thought 80k's episode on altruistic perfectionism was great and we could do with more of it.

I think this is a lovely framing and one I'm going to apply more widely, both to myself and other people. I think the EA community, given our obvious difficulty productively deploying large numbers of talented people, ought to hold it in higher esteem also. Thanks, James.

James Herbert
Thanks for the kind words! Glad you found my framing helpful :)

Mostly agreed, but I do think that donating some money, if you are able, is a big part of being in EA. And again this doesn’t mean reorienting your entire career to become a quant and maximize your donation potential.

James Herbert
Oh but I did put 'donate some money' in my 'hobby' list - or am I misunderstanding you?
Yes, I just would have emphasized it more. I sort of read it as “yeah this is something you might do if you’re really interested”, while I would more say “this is something you should really probably do”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. It’s not that I see myself as a “mediocre” EA, and in fact I work with EAs, so I am engaging with the community through my work. But I feel like a lot of the attitudes around career planning in EA sort of assume that you are formidable within a particular, rather narrow mould. You talk about mediocre EAs, but I’d also extend this to people who have strong skills and expertise that’s not obviously convertable into ‘working in the main EA cause areas’.

And the thing is, this kind of makes sense: like, if you’re a hardcore EA, it makes sense to give lots of attention and resources to people who can be super successful in the main EA cause areas, and comparatively neglect people who can’t. Inasmuch as the community’s primary aim is to do more good according to a specific set of assumptions and values, and not to be a fuzzy warm inclusive space, it makes sense that there aren’t a lot of resources for people who are less able to have an impact. But it's kind of annoying if you're one of those people! 

Or like: most EA jobs are crazy competitive nowadays. And from the point of view of "EA" (as an ideology), that's fine; impactful jobs should have large hiring pools of talented committed people. But from the point of view of people in the hiring pool, who are constantly applying to and getting rejected from EA jobs - or competitive non-EA jobs - because they've been persuaded these are the only jobs worth having, it kinda sucks.

There’s this well-known post ‘don’t be bycatch’; I currently suspect that EA structurally generates bycatch. By ‘structurally’ I mean ‘the behaviour of powerful actors in EA is kinda reasonable, but also it predictably creates situations where lots of altruistic, committed people get drawn into the community but can’t succeed within the paradigms the community has defined as success’. 

a lot of the attitudes around career planning in EA sort of assume that you are formidable within a particular, rather narrow mould

This idea is something I've contemplated previously, but I really like that you put it into words.

If you will indulge me in rambling/ranting a little, I remember looking at 80k's guidance on careers in the area of Improving China-Western coordination a few years ago. China is an area that I know a bit about and wanted to make a core of my career.[1] I was disappointed that most of their recommendations were not realistic for someone who wasn't an 'elite.'[2]  I came away with the general impression that the authors didn't really grasp the realities and challenges involved in a non-Chinese person building a career in China, but in retrospect it could have simply been written with Ivy League grads in mind in which case I was not the target audience. Many of the options listed that struck me as unavailable/unrealistic would be much more feasible if I had an undergraduate degree from Princeton or Yale or Stanford. So as a person who already had a decent amount of China-relevant knowledge and experience, I basically came away understanding that "th... (read more)

I’d also extend this to people who have strong skills and expertise that’s not obviously convertable into ‘working in the main EA cause areas’.

I think this is a key part. "Main EA cause areas" does centre a lot on a small minority of people with very specific technical skills and the academic track record to participate in (especially if you're taking 80k Hours for guidance on that front) 

But people can have a lot of impact in areas like fundraising with a completely different skillset (one that is less likely to benefit from a quantitative degree fro... (read more)

There's people who are good at EA-related thinking and people who are less good at that.

There's people who are good at accumulating resume padding, and people who are less good at that.

Although these are correlated, there will still be plenty of people who are good at EA thinking, but bad at accumulating resume padding. You can think of these people as having fallen through the cracks of the system.

Advances in LLMs give me the impression that we're around ~2-5 years out from most EA orgs becoming much better at correctly identifying/drawing talent from thi... (read more)

I am an older "mediocre EA".

I learnt about EA in 2013. I never felt that 80k was talking to me, simply because my talent set is ... well, mediocre (plus some cultural things). Also, at 23, my CV was already unimpressive enough that it would be hard to catch up. The best thing I can do for the world, is to be born with a different brain.

I have a normal job as software tester and I call it "earning to give". I have been in normal jobs for 10 years. I never interned or worked at an organization aiming for direct impact, and barely even volunteered. I am very satisfied with my involvement in the community and the way I try to do good in the world.

Some other things I do:

  • being very excited about effective giving. I love to consume content about charities, charity evaluations, etc.
  • keep working fulltime so I have a decent donation budget. I live in an area where working part time is common even among some healthy non-parents. Working fulltime is already a challenge because I get distracted and overwhelmed easily. My job requires me to reliably get things done. I can be very reliable as long as I am not stressed out.
  • attend EAGx (no EAG please) and local retreats, chat with others about effective giving and earning to give. Sometimes these are people earlier in their career, or newer in the community, or have reasons to not dedicate themselves too much. I can make time for anyone. One might call it "mentoring". (data point: I never got rejected for any event)
  • aim for small, very small, steps towards career progress. Aiming for big steps has failed.
  • be frugal. Keep track of my budget. Frugality matters. I don't overdo it.
  • engage with the local community at in person events. People are much less intimidating in real life than on the internet. I rarely have the feeling that I am the least smart person in the room (partially, because I don't care).

I agree with the examples, but for the record I think it's very misleading to claim Imma is a "mediocre EA".

If I understand correctly, she moved to a different country so she could donate more, which enables her to donate a lot with her "normal" tech job (much more than the median EA). Before that, she helped kickstart the now booming Dutch EA community, and helped with "Doing Good Better" (she's in the credits)

My understanding is that she's not giving millions every year or founding charities, but she still did much more than a "median EA" would be able to

James Herbert
Big +1, thanks for bigging up Imma (and the Dutch EA community!)
Your comment makes me smile :) FWIW: I moved back for reasons fully in line with my (mixture of altruistic and non-altruistic) values and for kickstarting the Dutch EA community I would really really assign the credits to other people. Big thanks to them. I agree with Jason though, in general terms.
I don't know Imma and so can't evaluate her identification as "mediocre" in some way, but what you're describing shows that being "mediocre" in some characteristics can be overcome with strength in others, like heart and commitment.
I think the only thing Imma might be "median" in is weekly work hours, which I don't think is what the poster meant. Most people couldn't do these things

I'm really sad to hear you feel that 80k isn't talking to you. Fwiw, I work at 80k now and think of myself as talking to you. 

It seems like an understatement to say 'I call it earning to give'. What you've done over the last decade seems like solidly, clearly earning to give to me.  

I wish it were easier to get away from comparative style labels, and what can feel like an incessant pressure to always be doing more for the world. To me, the ways I'm falling short compared to others are particularly salient, compared to things I'm doing that are he... (read more)

Hm, maybe I exaggerated a bit, the reality is a more complicated, I should have phrased it differently. Oh yes!

It's been lost a bit in all the noise, but I think people should still be very excited and satisfied about "earning to give" and donating.

Anyone who can donate $5000 via GiveWell can save a life.

Possibly you can do even better than that per dollar if you're okay accepting some premises around nonhuman animal welfare / sentience or risks from emerging technologies.

I think this is all very cool.

Moreover, while a $5000 donation is a big commitment, it is also achievable by a rather wide array of people. Many people are wealthy enough to do this donation, but do not do it, or donate far less effectively. You could have the same philanthropic power as a multi-millionaire philanthropist by allocating better.

If you earn a median income of ~$40K USD/yr[1] and spend $32,400[2], that gives you $7600 left over to donate each year, which could potentially save three lives every two years.

  1. As a single American. ↩︎

  2. Spend $6K/yr on taxes. Then spend $1K/mo on rent and $100/mo on utilities which is doable in most metropolitan areas in a small apartment or if you have roommates. Then maybe spend $300/mo on groceries and $300/mo on other things. Then save 15% of your income ($6K/yr), which is pretty standard financial advice. ↩︎

This seems like a common group misperception to me, that (other) EAs have turned against earning to give. Take this comment for instance - zero disagrees. 

But maybe there's a vague unease as opposed to explicit beliefs? Like student clubs just not broaching the subject as much as they had before? Self-censoring? If so, it's not obviously represented in any forum activity I've seen, neither is it obvious on the EA survey, which finds "further de-emphasize ETG" in only 5% of responses. Maybe that's enough to be worried anyways?

Peter Wildeford
To be clear, I don't think people have turned against earning to give as a concept, as in they think it's no longer good or something. But I do think people have turned against "donating $5K a year to GiveWell[1] is sufficient to feel like I'm an EA in good standing, that I'm impactful, and that I can feel good about myself and what I'm doing for the world" as a concept. And this seems pretty sad to me. Moreover, there's been a lot of pressure over the past five more recent years of EA to push people onto concrete "direct good" career paths, especially at the (elite) university level, and this is likely a good thing, but I think the next step is that people feel like failures if they don't succeed along this path, when that wouldn't be the emotions I would recommend. ---------------------------------------- 1. Feel free to substitute in Animal Charity Evaluators, non-profits working on existential risk, Rethink Priorities, etc. as "GiveWell" specifically is not the important part of my point. ↩︎

I currently do direct work - my organization CEARCH researches cost-effective ideas in GHD/longtermism/meta, and works to direct resources in support of particular promising ideas (e.g. via grantmaking, donor advisory, working with Charity Entreneurship and other talent orgs).

However, for most of my career, I was doing a non-EA job (policy work in government and as a consultant), and I engaged with EA simply by giving money to GiveWell. I've been a GWWC pledger since 2014, and that to me is classic EA, and the furthest thing from being less engaged or less EA (than someone who does direct work but doesn't donate).

Edit: And beyond having impact via your donations, you can always attend events (particularly EAGxs) - I think it's super valuable for younger EAs to get advice from older folks who primarily live and work in non-EA environments, since younger EAs can get stuck in a social and professional environment that is unadulterated EA, the end result of which is adopting a bunch of norms and behaviours that may leave them less effective at achieving impact (e.g. unprofessional workplace or organizational norms, since they literally haven't worked in a non-EA organization before; or not being used to persuading and engaging non-EA folks, including in government or in corporate environments etc).

Thanks for posting this! I’m one of the 80,000 Hours advisors, but the following opinions are my own.  

I had a few thoughts while reading your post and some of the answers: 

  • I think one assumption to avoid is that you can only have an impactful career if you work for an “EA organization”.  
    • I don’t think this is true. There are so many problems that need to be resolved, and EA organizations only work on a select number. More importantly, EA organizations are usually not the only organizations tackling the “most pressing problems”. There are so many different careers you can pursue to do good and if you approach your career strategically/in a scope-sensitive way, I think it is likely that you’ll be able to have a bigger impact than you would with your default career path. 
    • I’d go so far as to say that the vast majority of impactful jobs in the world are at organizations unconnected to the effective altruism community. 
  • If you get rejected now, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get a job at a high-impact organization. 
    • If you apply for competitive high-impact jobs, the chances of getting rejected are very high. Getting rejected doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not qualified for the job. Or maybe it means that you are not qualified yet, but would be with another year or two of relevant work experience. 
    • Also, people may apply for positions they don’t really have much relevant experience for. 
      • I think a good example is the post you linked to: the person clearly has a stellar CV and would easily get jobs in medicine and academia. I’m not very surprised that they weren’t hired for operations positions – maybe the organization just preferred to hire someone with operations experience? 
  • “Many are not even able to get 1-1 in 80.000h”
    • I understand your frustration, and I have heard from several people who have felt this way, too. However, it is important to keep in mind that a rejection doesn’t mean that we think the person doesn’t have the potential to have an impactful career. Our capacity is limited, so we unfortunately don’t get to speak with everyone! 
  • Furthermore, I think it is important to be aware that not everyone has the same opportunities:
    • Most of the “EA jobs” are in the UK or US, and if you’re a citizen of these countries, you have a significant advantage.
    • There’s often less job security in high-impact positions, and not everyone is able to take the same risks (e.g. if they have families or a lack of financial runway). 
    • I don’t think starting from a disadvantaged position makes people “mediocre”. 

Our capacity is limited, so we unfortunately don’t get to speak with everyone!


Sure, that was not meant as a reproach!

I did not read this as a reproach at all! I just wanted to emphasize that a 1-on-1 advising rejection doesn’t mean we think the person doesn’t have the potential to have an impactful career.  

I first got interested in Effective Altruism in 2011, before CEA or Anthropic existed. Over the past 13 years, I've been rejected from jobs at Open Philanthropy, GiveWell, DeepMind, and the Forethought Foundation. I work at a core EA org now, so I don't know if my perspective is what you're looking for. But it still might be useful to think about the EA community from a historical perspective.

Back in ye olden days, EA was a philosophy more than a career plan; you could agree with the core concepts--we should care about how efficiently we can convert resources to helping people; we should care about all people equally, even people we will never meet--but there were very few EA orgs/jobs. So many of the super hardcore EAs were just doing normal things in their daily lives, then thinking hard about where to donate relatively small amounts of money. 

This seems great. People got to meet their personal obligations/follow their passions, and then make a difference via donations. Some people took EA principles extremely seriously by deciding to go vegan, massively cutting back on personal consumption to donate more, or totally changing their career to optimize for earning to give. But none of this was necessary to remain a member of good standing in the community. I myself didn't really change my career trajectory until about 10 years after I first heard about EA. None of my EA friends seemed to judge me for this. 

If you also care about people across the world (not just those in your tribe), consider the effectiveness of different charitable programs, and take weird ideas seriously if they're logically sound, then I think you too qualify as a valued member of the EA community, if you want that affiliation. 

To be honest, I am actually excited about people who share these values to be active participants in the normal/real world, instead of all sequestered away in insular EA orgs. Your career path could be: "I do normal things at my normal job, but I vote and donate in ways guided by my principles, and I talk to my social network about problems that I think are really important in the world. I raise the sanity level of my company and social network, and make it easier for the world to coordinate around important issues by signaling that citizens care about this stuff and will support policies that protect the future. I save a life in expectation every year via my donations." That seems pretty great! People who do stuff like that are welcome in the community. 

I think maybe this sort of “normal” trajectory seems disappointing because there are more EA opportunities available now than there used to be. But I think the “normal” route is still the right path for many (most?) people who agree with EA principles. 


The people who initially set up Givewell, did the research and conivnced Dustin to donate his money did a truly amazing jop.  AFAICT the people who currently run Givewell are doing a good job. A large fraction of the good EA has done, in total, is largely do to their work.

But I don't think its a good idea to frame things as their a bunch of elite EAs and the quality of their work is superb. The EA leadership has fucked up a bunch of stuff. Many 'elite EAs' were not part of the parts of EA that went well. Many were involved in the parts of Ea that went quite poorly. 

If you are a true altruist you should really reconsider whether you even want to trust the leadership and work under their direction. Maybe you should work at a different sort of charity or get funding from 'someone who doesn't ultimately get their money from Givewell'. Unless you really fit in well with the 'elite Eas' doing that is likely to be more fun.

'Think for yourself about how to make the world better and then do it (assuming its not insane)' is probably both going to be better for you and better for the world.

I agree with some of this comment and disagree with other parts:

"people who initially set up Givewell, did the research and conivnced Dustin to donate his money did a truly amazing jop"

AFAIK Dustin would have donated a roughly similar amount anyway, at least after Gates levels of cost-effectiveness, so I don't think EA gets any credit for that (unless you include Dustin in EA, which you don't seem to do)

"The EA leadership has fucked up a bunch of stuff. Many 'elite EAs' were not part of the parts of EA that went well." I agree, but I think we're probably t... (read more)

There are a lot of possible answers to where thoughts come from and which thoughts are useful. One charitable thought is some Elite EAs tried to do things which were all of: hard, extremely costly if you fuck them up, they weren't able to achieve given the difficulty. I have definitely updated a lot toward trying things that are very crazy but at least obviously only hurt me (or people who follow my example, but those people made their own choice). Fail gracefullly. If you dont know how competent you are make sure not to mess things up for other people. There is a lot of 'theater' around this but most people don't internalize what it really means.

One possible path is to find a good leader that can scalably use labour and follow him?

Yeah, a lot of interventions/causes/worldviews that have power in EA will have more than adequate resources to do what they are trying to do. This is why, to some extent, "getting a job at an EA org" may not be a particularly high EV move because it is not clear that the counterfactual employee would be worse than you (although, this reasoning is somewhat weakened by the fact that you could ostensibly free an aligned person to do other work, and so on).

Lending your abilities and resources to promising causes/etc. that do not have power behind them is proba... (read more)

This is particularly true to the extent that EA organizations overvalue alignment for certain roles. 

I seem to be having some impact simply emailing politicians and having meetings with them to discuss the potentially catastrophic risks from AI.

I consider myself pretty mediocre (based on school/uni results).

This is something anyone with enough context (i.e. in a particular cause area) could do. It just takes initiative.

Yeah, this is a good point: you can go a long way with just commitment/agency/creativity/confidence/?

I mean, maybe people who are strong in those traits aren't really "mediocre", ?

But yeah, this is a good reminder that excellence isn't just one axis.

Augustin Portier
A lack of initiative seems to be what makes a lot of people more mediocre than they otherwise would be? When you have a sense of agency, you start or join early projects, make small (or large) contributions to other people’s work, etc., and either you grow less mediocre from the experience, or you’re at least a mediocre EA making sure to try all the promising things to maximise their impact! (but then again, maybe I’m only saying that because it’s the area where I most feel my own limitations)
yanni kyriacos
Just another example of "lean into your strength"
yanni kyriacos
Yeah I'm in the top 1% for extraversion, I don't really feel shame or embarrassment and I have lots of initiative. Makes up for the mediocre IQ ;)

Keeping Absolutes in Mind - I think donating money is still somewhat underrated in discussions like this, though I was happy to see it brought up in several comments.

Consider taking the GWWC pledge or TLYCS pledge (easier / more flexible) or some other pledge if you feel like that would help with keeping motivation up. 

You could also organize or contribute to a local group. Regular local group attendance could also keep motivation up (and would be a lot less costly for your budget).


Even a small donor can make a real impact for individuals directly, or help get small or new projects off the ground.


I think there's 2 different questions at play here:

1. Whether you're competitive for EA roles - As others have mentioned, EA roles are competitive. To be honest, it really is just a matter of why you want an EA role.

If it's purely a matter of impact allocation, I think it's good to just ... try hard as you want and let hirers decide? Whenever I'm in an EA hiring round, I genuinely just want the most suitable person to get the job, and the EA hirers I've come across have been pretty good at figuring out what candidate they want. I have declined several role on this basis (it wasn't unilateral, I explained, had a conversation with the hirers and recommended someone I thought was better-suited). The EA community is small and nice, so I'm really rooting for people to find the best role for them.

If it's a sense of community, for me I've been lucky to find friends in EA who will still stick around even if I Don't Have An EA Job. I think you can definitely find close friends in EA without getting a fulltime role, and our national chapter only has like a dozen regulars.

For me, I just try my best, have low expectations and vaguely tell myself it'll work out. I also argue more people should look to start orgs, but that's a separate issue.

2.  Whether you feel imposter syndrome because EAs are generally high-achieving - Objectively, EAs are on average, abnormally high-achieving. IIRC, like 20% of EAs have attended to Top 25 university and 40% have attended a Top 100 university. Which is an absolutely bonkers percentage. I do think this kind of comparison is inherent in any social setting.

For me, I just talk to a lot of EAs, and realise they're just nice nerds who like talking about ideas. The power distance feels a lot lower the more I work with them. If someone works at A Big Well-funded AI Lab and went to A Top 5 PhD Program, then yeah you're gonna feel intimidated. But like, after a year I just started doing more research which involves pinging people dumb practical questions like "what settings on AWS do I use for a training run" or funny what-ifs like "do you think we can make Deep Learning into Deep Unlearning" (an actual thing btw). Then they're always really nice and helpful, and I just kinda forget about the imposter syndrome.

There's also the stoic approach, which is to accept imposter syndrome as motivation to do better without letting it demotivate you. Which is prolly good if you want to improve, but easier said than done.

I came across this from the forum digest email and was going to comment but after reading everyone else’s comments now feel too mediocre to admit how mediocre I am! Anyway, looks like I’m commenting nonetheless.

Yes, since starting a family my engagement with EA has reduced as I feel having a young family is such an important part of my life I want to dedicate as much time to it as I feel necessary.

In terms of answering your last question I work in arable crop research which is flexible and easy and suits me at the moment. After my maternity leave I plan to search for something in the same area but more impactful (I have been searching for years but not found anything yet…)

mikbp: good question. 

Finding meaningful roles for ordinary folks ('mediocrities') is a big challenge for almost every human organization, movement, and subculture. It's not unique to EA -- although EA does tend to be quite elitist (which is reasonable, given that many of its core insights and values require a very high level of intelligence and openness to understand.) 

The usual strategy for finding roles for ordinary people in organizations is to create hierarchical structures in which the ordinary people are bossed around/influenced/deployed by more capable leaders. This requires a willingness to accept hierarchies as ethically and pragmatically legitimate -- which tends to be more of a politically conservative thing, and might conflict with EA's tendency to attract anti-hierarchical liberals.

Of course, such hierarchies don't need to involve full-time paid employment. Every social club, parent-teacher association, neighborhood association, amateur sports team, activist group, etc involves hierarchies of part-time volunteers.  They don't expect full-time commitments. So they're often pretty good at including people who are average both in terms of their traits and abilities, and in terms of the time they have available for doing stuff, beyond their paid jobs, child care, and other duties.

Would be bold to assume the leaders are "more capable" in hierarchical structures! Maybe it's more true in the private sector than in (say) government, though.

It's not unique to EA -- although EA does tend to be quite elitist (which is reasonable, given that many of its core insights and values require a very high level of intelligence and openness to understand.)

Which parts of EA would you say require "a very high level of intelligence...to understand"? :)

John Salter
I suspect this thread would be more productive if "very high" was defined more precisely before he answers. I suspect top 30%, top 10% and top 1% might have very different answers. 

This is a brilliant and necessary post - as is the link you share to the 2019 post. Thank you! 

When I first because interested in EA, the message I saw everywhere was "pivot! devote your career to being impactful!"

The implication was that EA is massively talent-limited. I now know that this was not the case. 


There are a lot of people who would like to do impactful work

But it's not just typical EA work. The same holds true for wanting to work on climate-change - an area which includes many people who have never heard of EA. Or animal-welfare. Or whatever. I am on a Slack containing 29,000 people, many highly qualified and motivated, who want to work on climate. 

I suppose we should not be surprised - indeed we should be encouraged - to find that impactful careers are much in demand. It's a sign that there are many people out in this world who are not as cynical and self-centred as some politicians would have us believe. 

An economist might look at it in this way: the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing good is a form of payment, which makes the job more appealing and/or enables the job to be filled at lower salary and/or with tougher requirements. If you have a very impactful position for a role that would normally command $100K / year on the normal job-market, you can probably offer $60K and get lots of great candidates, and you could even insist that they come to the office every day by 8.00 a.m. (please don't!)


Impactful roles are resource-limited, not talent-limited

Looked at from a broader perspective, we can all see that impactful roles are resource limited. If we compare the number of people working on climate-change, or alternative protein, or AI governance, to the number of people who should be working in these areas in a world in which resources were distributed according to the value of the work being done, there might be 100x as many EA roles as there are today. 

If there were a carbon-market which reflected the true cost of carbon, then work to reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions, or to capture carbon, would be highly lucrative, and many more roles would be funded. If governments truly understood the dangers of AI (or if public-opinion forced them to understand it), it's likely that much more funding would be put into work in this field. And so on. 

But it's not happening right now. And so the majority of EA's who would like to work in impactful roles just don't have that opportunity. So what should we do? 


What should we do? 

One option is to give up. Very few EA's will do that. Because EA comes from caring about the world's problems, you can't just decide to stop caring. 

Two very practical options are earning-to-give and/or volunteering. Both of these involve "separating" your career-path from your EA role, but still using your career to enable you to help EA by freeing up your time or your money. [A good analogy here is how many people who dream of being writers, actors, musicians, etc. find much more happiness and freedom when they decide that this need not be their primary source of income. They sometimes end up writing better books and making better music too.] 

But, in parallel with this, there are areas where commitment and grit are far more critical than brilliance, and maybe (perhaps while earning in a normal job), these are areas where we all could focus. 


Policy / Political Agitation / Grassroots work

Maybe the most promising area (IMHO) for us mediocre EA's to focus is in policy and even politics. This can be done in parallel to a "real" job. It can be about joining local groups (EA or not) and pushing for policy changes. It can be about writing to our local politicians and attending their meetings. It can be about getting involved at grass-roots level. None of these things require not being mediocre. 

For example, any sensible analysis tells me that we should be investing huge resources into artificial protein. For so many reasons. But not only is this not happening, but there are places where the agriculture lobby is pushing for alternative protein-based foods to be banned, or to be forced to have off-putting labels. And they are winning. It's absurd. Maybe 1000 mediocre EA's, even without tractors, could protest in Brussels or London or Washington to fight this short-sighted type of policy-making. But maybe one or two passionate mediocre EA's could start a movement, or join a political party and start something within that party. If 5 mediocre EA's who are struggling to find roles within EA were to decide to form a group in their local country, to get some advice from groups like GFI who work in the area, and to just agitate for policy change with more support and fewer misguided restrictions for alternative protein, it could be hugely impactful. 

I'm sure there are plenty of other examples. But my point is: success in this area is probably much more related to commitment and grit than it is to brilliance.



Before concluding that anything that isn't a direct EA-job is somehow less impactful, it's important to consider counterfactual value add. 

Maybe in the current situation, with so many brilliant people wanting to work in EA, the counterfactual value I might add by working in an "EA job" could even be negative, if the person who might have taken that job instead might have been better than me in that role. 

On the other hand, the counterfactual value of taking the GWWC pledge and earning to give while doing valuable work (even if not super-impactful by EA standards) is definitely very positive. And the counterfactual value of doing the unglamourous work of pushing your local politicians towards voting for better policies on vital issues like alternative protein might be huge - even if nobody (not even you) will ever realise or recognise how much value you've added. 

Add to this that in many roles (teaching, health-care, public-service, ...) there is a great capacity for doing good, for being impactful. And even in roles which are seen as the most mundane (think a "middle-manager" in a soap-company), there can be huge potential to help individuals, to improve sustainability, to coach young employees to be better members of society, to promote more inclusive policies, or whatever. There is so much potential to do good and have an impact if we choose to.



  1. I've been thinking about this a lot, so the above is a rather incoherent attempt to put together some thoughts after midnight, and it's ended up longer than I intended. 
  2. I've used the word "mediocre" as it was used in the title. I think both the post-author and I fully realise that nobody is mediocre. I appreciated the use of a provocative term to make us think more deeply about it! So at least in my usage, I was being intentionally ironic (in case that wasn't obvious). And even among people who are not mediocre, because none of us are, people who choose to devote their careers to EA are even less mediocre than others, in a sense that is illogical but still kind of says what I mean to say. Whether they have the specific, narrow skill-set for a specific role, whether they happen to be in the right place at the right time to get that role, etc., are just details. 

An obvious answer that I rarely see is to seek roles in public service (civil service).

Basically anyone who is wasting away in private industry can 2x their positive impact by going into public service and fighting for efficiency and effectiveness. Although most government roles don't relate to a specific "EA cause area", the budgets that Governments deal with are mind boggling; as a graduate working in public service, I developed the investment framework for an education infrastructure program with $200 million in recurring funding. That is more money than any grantmaker will touch in the course of their career. $10 million in Government is a rounding error.

EA is hard, and so most want to take the easy path by applying for cool/fun jobs that have direct impact and then calling it a day. But the reality is that there are already many public institutions doing work that benefits the broader good, and that those institutions are filled with bureaucrats who couldn't give a stuff about impact. You can make the world a better place purely through the fact that you give a shit.

However, public service is a grind; it requires fortitude, pragmatism and social skills, so it isn't for everyone (and certainly not for me).

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This kind of thing gets asked every now and then, eg EA for dumb people?

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