Doing a lot of good has been a major priority in my life for several years now. Unfortunately I made some substantial mistakes which have lowered my expected impact a lot, and I am on a less promising trajectory than I would have expected a few years ago. In the hope that other people can learn from my mistakes, I thought it made sense to write them up here! I will attempt to list the mistakes which lowered my impact most over the past several years in this post and then analyse their causes. Writing this post and previous drafts has also been very personally useful to me, and I can recommend undertaking such an analysis.
Please keep in mind that my analysis of my mistakes is likely at least a bit misguided and incomprehensive.
It would have been nice to condense the post a bit more and structure it better, but having already spent a lot of time on it and wanting to move on to other projects, I thought it would be best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
To put my mistakes into context, I will give a brief outline of what happened in my career-related life in the past several years before discussing what I consider to be my main mistakes.
I came across the EA Community in 2012, a few months before I started university. Before that point my goal had always been to become a researcher. Until early 2017, I did a mathematics degree in Germany and received a couple of scholarships. I did a lot of ‘EA volunteering’ over the years, mostly community building and large-scale grantmaking. I also did two unpaid internships at EA orgs, one during my degree and one after graduating, in summer 2017.
After completing my summer internship, I started to try to find a role at an EA org. I applied to ~7 research and grantmaking roles in 2018. I got to the last stage 4 times, but received no offers. The closest I got was receiving a 3-month-trial offer as a Research Analyst at Open Phil, but it turned out they were unable to provide visas. In 2019, I worked as a Research Assistant for a researcher at an EA aligned university institution on a grant for a few hundred hours. I stopped as there seemed to be no route to a secure position and the role did not seem like a good fit.
In late 2019 I applied for jobs suitable for STEM graduates with no experience. I also stopped doing most of my EA volunteering. In January 2020 I began to work in an entry-level data analyst role in the UK Civil Service which I have been really happy with. In November, after 6.5mon full-time equivalent worked, I received a promotion to a more senior role with management responsibility and a significant pay rise.
First I am going to discuss what I think I did wrong from a first-order practical perspective. Afterwards I will explain which errors in my decision making process I consider the likely culprits for these mistakes - the patterns of behaviour which need to be changed to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
A lot of the following seems pretty silly to me now, and I struggle to imagine how I ever fully bought into the mistakes and systematic errors in my thinking in the first place. But here we go!
What did I get wrong?
I did not build broad career capital nor kept my options open. During my degree, I mostly focused on EA community building efforts as well as making good donation decisions. I made few attempts to build skills for the type of work I was most interested in doing (research) or skills that would be particularly useful for higher earning paths (e.g. programming), especially later on. My only internships were at EA organisations in research roles. I also stopped trying to do well in my degree later on, and stopped my previously-substantial involvement in political work.
In my first year after finishing my degree and post-graduation summer internship, I only applied to ~7 roles, exclusively at EA organisations. That is way too small a number for anyone who actually wants a job!
1.5 years after graduating, I gave up hoping for any EA org role. I started to apply for ordinary jobs, but then accepted a support role for an EA researcher on a grant after a personal introduction, only working part time. This was despite the fact that there were few outside view signs that this would be a good idea except it being an EA role, and no clear plan how this would result in a real job [or impact].
These mistakes were not created equal - the first and second had a much larger negative impact than the third. The combination of the second and third mistake had the direct impact of me being unemployed or underemployed for over 2 years when I wanted to work. When I finally started a ‘real job’, it had been almost 3 years since I graduated.
Which systematic errors in my decision-making likely caused these mistakes?
While I tried to group my assessment of the underlying causes of my mistakes by theme to make them easier to read, they often tie into each other. I am uncertain in my assessments even now, so please read the below in that light.
I relied too much on the EA community.
When I thought about how I want to do the most good in my life, I prioritised being cooperative and loyal to the EA community over any other concrete goal to have an impact. I think that was wrong, or at least wrong without a very concrete plan backing it up.
I put too much weight on what other people thought I should be doing, and wish I had developed stronger internal beliefs. Because I wanted to cooperate, I considered a nebulous concept of ‘the EA community’ the relevant authority for decision-making. Around 2015-2019 I felt like the main message I got from the EA community was that my judgement was not to be trusted and I should defer, but without explicit instructions how and who to defer to. I did plenty of things just because they were ‘EA’ without actually evaluating how much impact I would be having or how much I would learn.
I thought that my contributions (outreach activities, donations & grantmaking, and general engagement) would ensure that I would get the benefits of being dedicated, like a secure role within the EA structure once it seemed like the EA community was no longer financially constrained. I did not distinguish between ‘professional career development’ and ‘volunteering’, because I viewed everything under the EA community umbrella.
There are many examples of me taking what other EAs said much too seriously, but here are some of the more impactful ones:
When I joined the community, I received plenty of extremely positive feedback. I trusted these statements too much, and wrongly had the impression that I was doing well and would by default be able to do a lot of good in the near future. I also over-weighted occurrences like being invited to more exclusive events. When an organisation leader said to me I could work at their organisation, I interpreted it literally. When other senior EAs asked me to do something specific, I thought I should do as told.
I stopped doing political work (in ~2014/2015) as I had the impression that it was EA consensus that this was not particularly valuable. I now regret this, it might have opened high impact routes later on. The network I had there was great as well, some of the people I used to work with have done very well on the political ladder.
When I received a trial offer from OpenPhil as a Research Analyst in 2018, I thought this would mostly end my job search. Even though I could not do the trial for visa reasons, I thought the offer would make it easy to find a job in the EA sphere elsewhere. This was both based on things Open Phil told me and the very high regard the community seemed to hold this application process and opportunity in. That you could succeed to get to the trial stage but still not be able to find a job in the EA sphere caught me off-guard.
I also focused far too much on working at EA organisations. In 2015, talk about how Effective Altruism was talent-constrained became popular. Up until that point, I had been prepared to aim for earning-to-give later, take on an advocacy role, or go into academia. But at that point I started to take it for granted that I would be able to work at EA orgs after my degree. I did not think enough about how messages can be distorted once they travel through the community and how this message might not have been the one 80,000 Hours had intended. I might have noticed this had I paid more intention to their writing on the topic of talent-constraints and less to the version echoed by the community. Paying more attention to their written advice, I could have noticed the conflict between the talent-constrained message as echoed by the community with the actual 80,000 Hours advice to keep your options open and having Plan A, B and Z.
Similar things can be said about the risks newly started projects could possibly entail. While I think the reasoning e.g. 80,000 Hours brought forth on the topic is sound, again I did not appreciate how messages get distorted and amplified through the community. My interpretation was that my judgement generally was not to be trusted, and if it was not good enough to start new projects myself, I should not make generic career decisions myself, even where the possible downsides were very limited.
I was too willing to take risks.
Some level of risk-taking is good and necessary, but my deference to the EA community made me blind towards the risks I was taking. I did not think carefully enough about the position I would be in if focusing on EA jobs failed: that of a long-unemployed graduate with no particular skills.
The advice to be willing to take more risks prominent within EA was geared towards ‘talented, well-credentialed graduates without responsibilities’ - whether talented or not, I am not well-credentialed and have dependents. Therefore I should have questioned more how much this advice really applied to me.
I stopped trying to do well in my degree, as good grades seemed unnecessary if I was just going to work at EA organisations later anyway. I thought the time could be much better invested on community building or better donation decisions. I also did not try to do any kind of research effort despite this still being the path I was most interested in.
I put much less effort into developing my broader capabilities and intellectual interests. I did not think about the fact that most of my EA volunteering activities would bring me little career capital. I should have paid more attention to the fact that it would be especially hard for me to enter academia given my grades or other direct work paths which usually require years of up-front investment.
Unfortunately, even once I understood that direct work is not about working at EA orgs, I am not really qualified to start on any of the most-discussed routes without substantial upskilling which in turn is not easily accessible to me.
I underestimated the cost of having too few data points.
This one sounds a bit nebulous, there are a few different aspects I am trying to get at.
Something I struggled with while trying to find a job was making sense of the little information I had. I was endlessly confused why I seemed to have done so well in some contexts, but was still failing to get anywhere. Often I wondered whether there was something seriously wrong with me, as I would guess is often the case for outwardly qualified people who are underemployed regardless. I now think there was nothing to explain here - most people who want a job as much as I did apply to more than one highly competitive job every month or two.
While I knew on some level that a lot of randomness is involved in many processes, including job applications, I still tried to find meaning in the little information I had. Instead, my goal should have been to gather much more data, especially as I got more desperate. To be fair to my past self, I would have been keen to apply to more jobs, but as I was only interested in EA org jobs, there were way too few to apply to.
It was obvious to me that I was missing out on lots of career capital including valuable skills while not working: true almost by definition. But I do not think I appreciated how valuable work is as a calibration exercise. Whenever people talked about ‘figuring out what you are good at’, I didn’t understand why this was so valuable - while there would be some information I would gain, this did not seem that important compared to just getting better at things.
Now I think I mostly misunderstood what people were trying to get at with ‘figuring out what you are good at’. What you are good at is mostly about relative not absolute performance. For me, learning ‘what I am good at’ this year has mostly not looked like discovering I am better or worse at a skill than I thought, but instead discovering how good other people are at the same skills. Particularly useful are comparisons to people who are otherwise similar and might work in a similar profession. I have gotten some positive feedback on traits I thought I was weak on, but was apparently still better than other analysts. I have also found out about some skill axes that I never realised there was any meaningful variance on.
I did not notice my ignorance around how some social structures operate.
I found it really difficult to understand how I was supposed to navigate the ‘professional’ EA community and had a poor model of what other people’s expectations were.
I had no luck applying the advice to ‘talk to other people’ when trying to find a job through informal networks. It did work for people around me, and I still don’t really know why; probably the whole conversation needs to be framed in a very specific way. The couple of times I tried to be more direct I made a botch of it.
I also had the wrong framework when it came to interactions with potential employers, and wider experience with applying to jobs (as well as running more application processes myself) has helped me see that. My understanding of what potential employers would judge is whether I was a generally smart and capable person. This was wrong, a better focus would have been whether I can help them solve their very specific problems. I probably would have approached some interactions with potential employers differently if I had internalized this earlier. I failed to model other people’s preferences in these interactions as separate from my own and did not try hard enough to understand what they are.
I thought having no strong preferences for a role within the EA community would be considered a good thing, as it proved that I was being cooperative. But most employers probably want to hear about how their role fits your particular skills and that you are really excited about it, including within the EA sphere.
I underestimated the cost to my motivation and wellbeing, and how these being harmed could curb my expected impact.
By late 2018, I had been waiting for opportunities for a year and felt pretty bad. At that point, my first priority should have been to get out of that state. When I accepted the research assistant role, I was insufficiently honest with myself about whether I would be able to do well given how burnt out I felt.
As there was no clear path from being a research assistant on a grant into something more secure and well defined, I just stayed in a burnt out state for longer. In autumn 2019 I thought it would be better for me to mentally distance myself from the EA community, which did make me feel a bit better.
I was still often profoundly miserable about my employment situation. The big shift here came after starting my data analyst job in January 2020 and my misery which had reduced me to tears each week for over 2 years was basically cured overnight. While the direction of the change is not surprising, it has been astounding to me how much more productive I have been this year compared to previous years.
Being miserable also hindered my ability to assess my prospects rationally. It took me a long time to properly give up on my EA job prospects: whenever I thought this path might not work out for me at all, the thought was too horrifying to seriously contemplate. Having to start again at zero with my investments having been in vain just seemed too awful. Perhaps this would deserve its own mention as a high level systematic error: When confronted with failure, I had left no line of retreat.
As mentioned, I have been much, much happier since I started working in the Civil Service, especially now with the promotion. It is really great for me to be in an environment in which I feel encouraged to take as much responsibility as I want and solve problems by myself.
My main goal this year has been to become more enthusiastic and excitable, especially regarding my ability to have an impact, and I am glad to report that this has been going very well! I have also felt much more in control of my future and have been able to be strategic about my goals.
For the near future my main aim in my job is still to gain more skills and get much better calibrated on what my strengths and weaknesses are relative to other people. I also want to get much better calibrated on what might be possible for me in the medium to long term, as I still want to consider options broadly.
I am still in the process of figuring out what my personal beliefs are on where I can have the most impact in addition to the personal fit considerations. This year I have spent a lot of time thinking about how large a role I want doing good to play in my life as well as moral considerations on what I consider doing good to be. Next year I hope to make more progress on my beliefs around cause prioritisation as well as practical considerations on how to do a lot of good. Ironically, mentally distancing myself from the EA sphere a bit is just what I needed to make this a plausible goal.
A critical assessment of what I have written here is very welcome! Please point it out if you think I forgot some mistakes or misanalysed them.
Special thanks to AGB, Richard Ngo, Max Daniel and Jonas Vollmer who gave feedback on drafts of this post.