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Formerly known as "Aaron's Epistemic Stories", which stops working as a title when it's on the Forum and people aren't required to read it.

What is this post?

A story about how I reacted poorly to my first few EA job rejections, and what I learned from reflecting on my mistakes.

Context: When I worked at CEA, my colleague was working on EA Virtual Program curricula. She asked me to respond to this prompt:

"What made you start caring about having good epistemics? What made you start trying to improve your epistemics? Why?"

I wrote a meandering, stream-of-consciousness response and shared it. I assumed it would either be ignored or briefly summarized as part of a larger piece. Instead, it — went directly to the curriculum for the In-Depth Program?

That was a surprise.[1] It was a much bigger surprise when people started reaching out to tell me how much it had helped them: maybe a dozen times over the last two years. From the emails alone, it seems to be the most important thing I've written.[2]

So I'm sharing a lightly edited version on the Forum, in case it helps anyone else. 

Recovering from rejection

Written in a bit of a rush. But I think that captures how it felt to be me in the throes of epistemic upheaval.

After I graduated from college, I took the most profitable job I could find, at a company in a cheap city. I wanted to save money so I could be flexible later. So far, so good.

I started an EA group at the company, which kept me thinking about effective altruism on a regular basis even without my college group. It wasn’t nearly as fun to run as the college group — people who work full-time jobs don't like extra meetings, and my co-organizers kept getting other jobs and leaving. But I still felt like “part of EA”.

Eventually, I decided to move on from the company. So I applied to GiveWell, got to the very last step of the application process… and got rejected.

Well, I thought, I guess it makes sense that I’m not qualified for an EA job. My grades weren’t great, and I was never a big researcher in college. Time to do something else.

This is a story about a mistake. Do you see it?

I moved to San Diego and spent the next 18 months as a freelance tutor and writer, feeling generally dissatisfied with my life. My local group met rarely and far away; I had no car, I was busy with family stuff, and I became less and less engaged with EA.

Through an old connection, I was introduced to a couple who ran an EA-aligned foundation and lived nearby. I ended up doing part-time operations work for them — reading papers, emailing charities with questions, and other EA-flavored stuff.

This boosted my confidence and led me to think harder about my career, though I kept running into limitations. For example, GiveDirectly’s CEO wanted to hire a research assistant for his lab at UCSD, but I’d totally forgotten my old R classes and wasn’t a good candidate, despite having a great connection from my operations work. 

There goes maybe the best opportunity I’ll ever get as a washed-up 24-year-old. Sigh.

In early 2018, I got an email from someone at Open Philanthropy, inviting me to apply for a new research position. I was excited by the sudden opportunity and threw everything I had into the process. I made it to the last step… and got rejected.

Well, I thought, I guess it makes sense that I’m still not qualified for an EA job. I’m not a kid with limitless potential anymore. I haven’t learned anything important since college. I guess it’s back to finding a coding bootcamp and trying to get a “real job”.

Is the mistake standing out yet?

This was a major setback; for a while, I was barely engaged in EA. But I did happen to see an 80,000 Hours page with a survey for “people interested in operations”. It only took a few minutes to fill out, so I did — not expecting it to lead anywhere.

I got an email soon after from Open Philanthropy’s head of operations, inviting me to apply for an ops position. I did the work test, but they hired someone before I’d made it deep into the process. Still, they were kind enough to refer me for something I hadn’t known existed — a Centre for Effective Altruism workshop for people seeking EA ops positions. It was literally weeks away when I found out, but I had no plans (hooray for freelancing?) and was able to drop everything for a multi-day event in the Bay Area.

The event changed everything. I met lots of people at EA orgs, had a coaching session with an 80K advisor, and was told about a ton of jobs I hadn’t known existed. (I didn’t know about the 80,000 Hours job board at that point.)

Over the next six months, I got pulled in for contract work at multiple CFAR workshops and applied to seven or eight jobs. One of those applications led to my CEA position.

And here’s the punchline: 

It was all luck.

I delete a lot of emails and skip a lot of surveys. There are many timelines where I do one of those things for the 80K email, and end up as a mediocre developer somewhere. The fact that I responded wasn't strategy — it was luck.[3]

I had basically given up on finding a high-impact career in a field I loved because I’d been rejected from two jobs, at some of the most selective organizations in EA.[4] 

I had assumed I was meant to be earning-to-give because I didn’t have any "useful" experience, and because I’d been bumming around on Wyzant.com instead of getting a PhD or building career capital at McKinsey.

Meanwhile, here was how I could have thought of myself:

  • Literally started two EA groups.
  • Was an editor for multiple magazines in college. Learned to write reasonable prose very quickly. After college, got paid to write things (sometimes) and founded a small business (tutoring) that I built up to “paying my rent” level in the first year.

But it didn’t even occur to me that EA had writing jobs, or that EA orgs wouldn’t exactly be in a position to hire professional reporters or novelists to copyedit their websites and would instead be forced to rely on the likes of me. I assumed that there was a limitless supply of people with 3.9 GPAs and math degrees who would be infinitely more “effective” at EA roles than I would.[5]

I had to be poked and prodded through every step of my career journey because I just. Wasn’t. Being. Agenty.

If I had a time machine, I think I could convince my late-2016 self to start applying for EA jobs in roughly five minutes, with the following questions:

  1. Are there any jobs at high-impact organizations that you might be qualified to do?
  2. Are you sure?
  3. Have you checked?
  4. Have you considered that the organization 80,000 Hours, which you have heard of, might maintain a collection of job opportunities? On their website which is all about getting a job?
  5. Even if you aren’t a good candidate, do you lose anything by applying? Does the org gain anything by your not applying? Is it worth spending two minutes of a hiring manager’s time on the off chance that you might be a candidate worth interviewing? What’s that? Why am I shaking you by the shoulders?

I didn’t need to turn my life around or learn a bunch of new skills from scratch. I just needed someone to break me out of my funk with a few good suggestions.

What was the actual mistake, though?

Some combination of the following:

  • Too much humility and not enough positive self-talk (self-reframing?)
  • Focusing on the result "no job" instead of the result "final round interview"
  • Being kind of depressed and, as a result, never actually looking for the thing I kept saying I wanted
    • I spent countless hours on generic job websites from 2016-18, but never even typed “effective altruism jobs” into Google.

This probably sounds really dumb. That’s because it was really dumb. 

Thankfully, it's a harder mistake to make now — we’re better about promoting EA’s resources to anyone who enters the community.

But I still see people in EA who seem weirdly underconfident, or hampered by impostor syndrome, and I recognize myself in that. It’s easy for us to tell ourselves a story in which we’re not the best, ergo not “effective”, ergo not capable of doing something highly impactful.

Remember that epistemics also applies to you — and humility is another form of bias. Is there anything you’re better at than most people? Have you ever had a job you were really good at? What’s the optimistic story you could tell about yourself?

Also, the world is very big, EA is sort of big, and possibilities are legion:

  • Have you skimmed every job on 80K’s job board?
  • How long would that take, if you filter by the categories you care about? Maybe a few hours?
  • For that matter, have you actually read 80K’s new career guide in full? Done the exercises and everything?
  • What are some open questions in EA that you could try to answer, even amateurishly, thus developing research experience (and a sense of whether you even like EA-style research)?
  • What’s a project that might benefit from another set of hands, and help you build your network (and a sense of whether you even like operations)?

Some things aren’t in your control at this point, like the college you attend(ed). But many things are. This isn’t an original insight, but I still really needed it back in 2016 and it didn’t click until I’d wasted a lot of time — so I’m sharing it with you now.

Also: if you need someone to ask you some really obvious questions, like the ones I highlighted above, I’m around. Schedule a call or send me an email.

One more thing: Even during my “successful” application period, I got rejected from quite a few jobs without getting anywhere near the final round. I spent three years in college working 20 hours/week on journalism, then spent seven hours on a first-round writing exercise for Future Perfect, and never heard back at all.

This story isn’t meant to convey that you have to be in the top X% of GiveWell applicants or whatever to have a lot of good opportunities — if you’re reading this, there’s probably an impactful role for you somewhere, whether it’s full-time or ETG or volunteering or just learning professional skills in a regular job and applying them to an EA project later.

Reflection: Doing epistemics better

In which I respond to a few more questions.

What’s a concrete way you’ve improved your epistemics? What was the benefit of that? How did you do it?

A few examples:

  • I’m in the habit of fact-checking news I read. Is this statistic accurate? Does this excerpted quote reflect the tone of the original source? Does the journalist leave the story feeling exactly the same way they did before, without updating a single view after months of research? I think this has helped me find my way to more accurate news sources, or at least sources that confess their uncertainty.
  • When I hear about something that is meant to be “the next big thing” (e.g. an up-and-coming startup), and I feel a twinge of skepticism, I find some way of checking back later. This might be a reminder in my calendar, or a formal prediction that I’ll be prompted to check on. This helps me stay attuned to hype and optimism bias, and has ingrained in me that most ambitious projects either underperform the founders’ expectations or fail completely.
  • I also use PredictionBook to track lots of other predictions — about the news, about people I know, and about myself. It’s helped me find some areas where I tended to be too optimistic (hospital software deployment timelines) or pessimistic (getting to the next stage of job applications).
    • Looking back, I could have done more with this. I once applied to an online MBA program that sounded exclusive. I gave myself 90% odds of getting rejected, so I was thrilled to be accepted. But I could have said to myself: “This is a surprise. Did I miss something about this program?” 
      • I did, in fact, miss something: It wasn’t very exclusive, wasn’t rigorous, and was largely focused on enrolling graduates from fancy schools (like me) for marketing purposes.
  • In appropriate social settings — with close friends, or people from the EA/rationalist communities — I sometimes make small bets. Some examples:
    • Betting against someone who thought EA Giving Tuesday would take in less money in 2019 than 2018. This prompted me to reflect whether I just liked the EA Giving Tuesday team because they were nice people, or because I really thought they’d improved the quality of their work. I decided on “quality”, and won the bet. (The general lesson might be something like “make sure your belief in someone is actually well-calibrated, given our tendency to be biased based on how we feel about someone, good or bad”)
    • When a friend was worried about crime in her (objectively safe) neighborhood, I bet her something like $10 against $5,000 that her apartment wouldn't be robbed. She didn’t take the bet, but it helped her; she knew that my willingness to make the bet was evidence that I really, really thought she was safe and wasn’t just giving her empty reassurance.

How have you benefited from noticing and fixing epistemics mistakes in your life?

  • Making predictions about my own productivity has helped me improve my sense how much I should actually expect to complete in one day.
    • It took months of tracking weekly “sprints” at CEA, then doing less than I’d hoped to, before I finally felt confident enough in my self-perception to ask my manager to pick an “anti-charity” that I’d have to give $100 to if I failed to complete everything. (I did finish all the sprints that week.)
    • When I started my part-time foundation work in 2016, the person in charge would have lots of requests after every meeting, and I answered the only way I knew how: “Okay, sure, I think I can get to those.” I’d always struggle to get everything he asked for, and he’d often forget half of his questions and pivot to something else. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t actually trying to predict whether he’d get value from what he asked for — I was just assuming he had perfect self-knowledge. Because no one has perfect self-knowledge, I began to push back against requests that I thought weren’t relevant to our core goals. He was happy for the help (turns out he had enough self-knowledge to realize he was too ambitious), and we both became more focused and productive by focusing on “core” work.
  • Before I joined CEA, I spent a lot of time feeling like I wasn't really adding value to the world — I’d worked a series of jobs where I was either in a zero-sum position (helping some people at the expense of others, e.g. SAT tutoring) or not having a clear counterfactual impact (was the foundation really making better donation choices because of me?).
    • I realized that I had a tendency to overlook what other people thought and focus on my own beliefs, including about myself. So I made a concerted effort to gather information about myself from other people.
    • This didn’t mean running a survey on my friends. But I did scan through lots of old conversations on a bunch of platforms to see compliments people had given me — friends, coworkers, clients, etc. Individually, I could brush off each one as politeness, but collectively, I began to see patterns that actually seemed to reflect consistently good personal traits, and ways in which I was genuinely helpful.
    • I then collected all these examples into a Google Doc, which I’d look at when I wanted to feel a bit better. (I feel more secure in my impact these days, but that doc helped me a lot in 2017-18.)

Bonus story: Asking the right questions

In the Fellowship version of this piece, I start with this story. But this isn't the one people email me about, and it doesn't really connect to the rejection thing. I didn't want to lead with it, but I'm including it here for completeness' sake.

I read the newspaper every morning from age ~11 to age ~18. Around age 15, I added a bunch of blogs and news sites to my daily routine.

My impression: Everything was on fire. Suffering was everywhere. Systems couldn’t be trusted. Lone heroes (or small groups, at best) would douse a few flames, but the everything-is-on-fire-ness of the situation didn’t seem to change.

Meanwhile, every issue seemed to be roughly equally important. They all got stories of about the same length, headlines with the same big letters, and lots of people yelling on both sides. What was I supposed to work on?

I kept a journal for “problems I want to solve someday”, and it got longer and longer. I had realistic expectations — maybe I’d be able to make a small change, and be one of the lone heroes in the news. But it all felt so minor. When I graduated from high school, I was a very cynical person.

Then, as a college freshman, I read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It showed me a new way of thinking about the world: it could actually be changed, drastically, for the better, if you focused on the right problems. I became less cynical. But I still read the same news sites as I had before, and got a similar perspective from my college coursework, and kept recording issues in my journal…

…until, as a sophomore, I read “Privileging the Question”, and it spun my head around.

My mistake: I’d never really considered that the media’s portrayal of reality could be systematically different than the actual shape of reality. 

Sure, I knew that media could be biased — but I’d never considered that media from different “sides” could be uniformly pushing me to focus on a small set of controversial issues that would make me click, rather than the issues that actually affected the most people, or posed the greatest risk to our future.

This article drove me to start reading more LessWrong, in hopes of finding new insights (and new questions to focus on). I soon found GiveWell, and effective altruism, and realized that my “problems I want to solve someday” journal wasn’t actually going to guide my life. I was relieved to learn that other people had spent years dealing with the questions I'd been hammering my head against.

  1. ^

    This isn't meant as criticism of the EAVP team. I gave them permission to use the notes however they saw fit, and the choice they made worked out well.

  2. ^

    Not a high bar to clear, since most of my EA writing has been more like "correcting typos in email templates" than "groundbreaking philosophy".

  3. ^

    Okay, "all luck" is an exaggeration. It was also a result of the way EA orgs work to stop people from falling through the cracks — props to 80K for running the survey, and Open Phil for sharing my info with CEA, both of which gave me the chance to get lucky.

  4. ^

    There may well be some number of rejections past which it makes sense to "give up" (or at least take a step back and talk to someone about your approach). But I think that number is a lot higher than two.

  5. ^

    There are some people like this, of course. But the supply is limited, and "high GPA" doesn't mean "good ops person" (or even "good ops work test"). 

    Of the hiring processes I've seen in EA (mostly ops and content), the final decisions tend to sound less like "this person is a genius" and more like "this person works hard and asks good questions".

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Thanks so much for sharing this! 

Just want to add that, as a college senior in early 2021, I cold-emailed Aaron (after attending his workshop during the Student Summit earlier that academic year) on the off-chance that he'd want to talk to me about how I might be able to use ~art and ~writing skills for EA-driven projects (I think I talked about an EA board game and an EA-oriented graphic novel in that email[1]). 

At that point, my beliefs about my ability to contribute "in an EA way" could be roughly[2] summarized as "I'm not studying CS or econ and don't really have a particular interest in those things, and think I'd be miserable as a trader earning to give, so I will never be particularly impactful."

Aaron offered to have a call, and we talked about art, writing, and EA — I don't remember the substance of the call anymore. At that point, I'd never talked to someone who was interested in EA who wasn't in college, I think. The call didn't directly lead to concrete outcomes. 

But I can say: 

  • The call was really encouraging — if you're unsure whether to reach out to Aaron, please view this as a positive piece of evidence. 
  • I share the experience described in excerpts like: 
    • "I had assumed I was meant to be earning-to-give because I didn’t have any "useful" experience, and because I’d been bumming around on Wyzant.com instead of getting a PhD or building career capital at McKinsey."
  • I also would give myself advice that looks like: 
    1. Are there any jobs at high-impact organizations that you might be qualified to do?
    2. Are you sure?
    3. Have you checked?
    4. Have you considered that the organization 80,000 Hours, which you have heard of, might maintain a collection of job opportunities? On their website which is all about getting a job?
    5. Even if you aren’t a good candidate, do you lose anything by applying? Does the org gain anything by your not applying? Is it worth spending two minutes of a hiring manager’s time on the off chance that you might be a candidate worth interviewing?
      1. What’s that? Why am I shaking you by the shoulders?
  1. ^

    I can't access the email right now but might be able to look it up when I'm back in the US.

  2. ^

    albeit probably unfairly — I think they were actually more complex than this, although I'm not sure

Can I ask what your idea for an EA board game was? I've recently started designing board games as a hobby and I was thinking about trying to do an EA one :)

And here’s one more "thank you so much for writing this!!" comment.

I’m very underconfident, with a mental health that works fine until it doesn’t, and it’s also impacted what I got from the college I attended, from my choice of major ("no way I can actually do [other thing that seem more to my liking], so….") to my extracurriculars and side projects—or lack thereof. So, I was really feeling the "there’s literally nothing I can bring to anyone, anyway". Thankfully—for me!— it’s been getting a lot better recently, but… being agenty is still, like, super difficult, or is that just me? I’m at the stage where I can sort of say "maybe I can actually bring something to that space" but then it takes no end of poking and prodding from other people to get me to actually have a serious look at that idea, because that still seems huge and daunting—and maybe because of good ol’ executive dysfunction, too. But this post brought my underconfidence down a notch, and that seems to bring the agenty-ness also up a tiny notch. Thanks for that!

I'm glad to hear you liked the piece! Best of luck with everything.

Curated. Stories can be really helpful ways to convey information, and these are excellently-written stories.

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