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Also posted on my blog. These are my views, and not the views of my employer, CEA.

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“Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful” ― Albert Camus

Many people in the effective altruism community are ambitious. Absurdly ambitious.

This is good. To achieve amazing things, you need to be absurdly ambitious. But, as we work towards our absurdly ambitious goals, we might end up forgetting how absurd it all is.

I think that would be a shame. We can take comfort, even joy, in the absurdity of it all. It can help us stay grounded, in a strange, roundabout way. My claim here is not that people should be less ambitious, or give up. I want to offer an absurdist frame for thinking about our efforts that you can try on. My claim is that noticing the absurdity of our projects could be a healthy way for some of us to stay absurdly ambitious over the long run.
 

I asked some AI to generate a robot chicken in the style of Salvador Dalí

All of us are weird

Here are some of the things that people in the EA community do, framed absurdly:

  • Some people might design systems on computers badly such that they do bad things so other people on other computers are trying to work out how to make the systems better but we don’t know how and we’re hoping that the other people don’t make the bad systems quicker than we can make them bad at being bad. How do I help with that? Well, I’m not building the better systems myself, I’m trying to find the people who might build the better systems and encouraging them to go and hang out with the better-systems people in the better-systems office so that they actually build the better systems. Also, I only drink chocolate milk.
  • There’s this bad chemical which everyone thought was a fine chemical but it’s not fine, it’s bad, and that’s very bad because people put that chemical in paint. I can’t take the chemical out of the paint myself so I’m flying to Africa where they use that paint to tell people to tell other people to stop putting the bad chemical in the paint so that people don’t use the bad paint and then get sick from the bad chemical.
  • The companies that kill chickens treat them really badly. I can’t stop them killing the chickens because people love eating them but we can make them treat the chickens a little less badly by letting them stay in bigger houses before they kill the chickens. We think that the chickens feel better about having bigger houses, but we don’t know how they feel about it and we don’t know how to ask them.
  • I’m trying to get all the build-better-computer-system people, the take-the-chemical-out-the-paint people and the bigger-houses-for-chickens people and lots of other people all in one building in London (but also in Mexico and India and Sweden) so that they can talk to each other and make them all better at doing all the good things they’re doing. I don’t really know how they do this but they do seem to keep coming so that’s good.

This is all absolutely nuts.

This would all be fine if it wasn’t causing us any problems. But we take ourselves and our work very seriously and that causes us to burn out while we work on these crazy things and that is definitely bad.

As a brief aside, I think it’s important to distinguish absurdity from hopelessness:

  • Hopelessness says: what you’re working on doesn’t make sense. But the rest of the world makes sense, so you need to work this out or you will fail.
  • Absurdity says: what you’re working on doesn’t make sense. But the rest of the world doesn’t make sense either, so that’s probably fine. Go have a margarita or just lie face down on the floor — that would make about as much sense but it’s a bit more relaxing.

How noticing absurdity can help

Creating distance between ourselves and our projects can be helpful, and there are several ways of doing this. We could pause and reflect, like resting on a long journey. We could seek joy to keep ourselves motivated and happy. I think recognising the plain absurdity of what we’re doing serves a similar purpose.

Here are a few ways noticing absurdity can help:

  • It might help us feel better if we fail — “my plan was to run for office with no political background, and then almost single-handedly influence the senate to change their minds about global health security. FUNNILY ENOUGH, I didn’t succeed. But it was worth a shot!
  • It can help us rest and step back a bit — noticing the absurdity of it all can make the things we work on feel strange to think about, even hilariously strange. That can help create some distance, and allow us to rest, or enjoy life when we’re not working on the absurd things. “I think that’s enough of working-out-what-the-world’s-biggest-problem-is-with-my-two-college-friends-in-college for one evening. UNSURPRISINGLY, I don’t think we’ll solve that before the end of the week”.
  • It can help us be modest, and kinder to others trying to do absurd things — “this person seems crazy. Then again, I’m doing what I do because I read an argument on the internet which I think is right so I’m going around telling everyone else that the argument is right. I guess that’s pretty crazy too.”

Nathan Young also proposed:

  • It can give us joy and energy “I am as absurd a character as those in story books. My struggles are grandiose, my errors obvious to the reader and my victories are significant. If I really manage a fraction of what I set out to do, I should celebrate with my friends. This is my character arc.”

If you think all of this could be right, consider stopping sometimes and looking around at you and your friends or colleagues. They’re undoubtedly looking at some screen or intensely debating something so they won’t be hard to spot. Notice that they, just like you, are brains trying to work out what they’re doing here, and how to help all the other brains, some of which are chicken brains who are unaware of their efforts, to your knowledge. It’s all absurd. And absurdly cool.

 

My thanks to Nathan Young and Chana Messinger for tapping their fingers on their computers while reading these words and thinking of other words I could say. And to Lizka, for encouraging me to click on the words on one website and then clicking on this website and posting the words here too.

Comments13
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I think it's completely absurd that I started out going 'how can I do the most good' and ended up going 'I'm going to buy a bunch of ads on social media platforms' .... How did we get in this situation where that's a plausible, earnest answer to the question of how to do the most good??

I'm in the same situation, having finally gotten to  One Step for Animals. 

I like this a lot, the world is an absurd place, and consciously realizing this once in a while can be very soothing, freeing, and strangely motivating!
I've found the books by Kurt Vonnegut, especially Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle supremely effective at reminding me of the glorious absurdity of civilization and the human experience and I try to re-read them semi-regularly for this reason. Big recommendation to anyone who wants to try a taste of realizing absurdity as it is described in this post but doesn't find it natural/easy to really viscerally see the world like that.

I am as absurd a character as those in story books. My struggles are grandiose, my errors obvious to the reader and my victories are significant. If I really manage a fraction of what I set out to do, I should celebrate with my friends. This is my character arc.

I want to emphasize this particular part, because I want to reduce the risk that at least one person will leave before they see it.

Reminds me of a line from my favourite movie scene:

For life is quite absurd and death's the final word - you must always face the curtain with a bow.

Sent this to a friend building a career plan immediately. Fantastic post.

Update: Friend said "Wow, awesome article. That really was comforting."

Thank you! For commenting and sharing :) 

Confronting cluelessness often reminds me of the parable of the Chinese farmer. I always imagine him breaking the fourth wall with a chuckle every time his neighbours say anything.

(Great post - first time I've bookmarked something on this forum.)

For those who are curious on the parable of the Chinese farmer (text from link)

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

— Alan Watts retelling the parable

This reminded me of this quote from Victor Frankl, "The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living."

When looking it up here, the tags made me laugh; "tags: holocaust, humor, suffering"

Happy with every effort to help  reduce burnout. We would all do well to take ourselves a little less seriously. (I wish I had understood that decades ago.)

Thank you Ollie for writing this post. It can be hard to find comfort when working on "absurd" projects, so your post helps.:)

What is more absurd is we have very little time in this world and 99.99% of us waste it.

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