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If you are short of time, this is the main idea of the post: In their journey to achieve a high impact career, the main bottleneck EAs are usually faced with is personal uncertainty*. To reduce this problem I suggest EAs help each other speed up career exploration by triggering each other to take opportunities when these are open to them.

*I define personal uncertainty as “uncertainties regarding personal fit and current and future risks which may affect motivation and confidence to follow an impactful career” (see LCAN career factors).

Thanks to Vaidehi Agarwalla, Zoë Gumm and Angela María Aristizábal for kicking my butt to post this and to Jonathan Leighton for valuable feedback.

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While I conducted research about career bottlenecks within the EA community as part of the Local Career Advice Network with my collaborator Vaidehi Agarwalla, I became aware of a particular problem for members of the community: personal uncertainty. Personal uncertainty happens as a result of several factors, e.g. impostor syndrome, several options to choose from, uncertainty about how to have impact, knowing what one is good at/can become good at, etc.

Now let me paint a picture about personal uncertainty for you by sharing my own experience. After 1 year of being active within the EA community, I had gotten as far as narrowing down the type of work I was interested in (management and operations). I was already getting career mentorship via WANBAM and talking with several people doing the kind of work I was interested in within my preferred cause area. Despite this, there were still several opportunities (e.g. through other career paths or cause areas) that I was overlooking. I knew about these opportunities, and yet it was as if I was letting them pass before my eyes. I could have tried pursuing them, but I wasn’t taking action.

What triggered me to act was having someone I met through EAG (now a very good friend) kicking my butt (For the record: This person was newer to EA than I). They asked me several questions about my interests, my experiences and my plans for the future, and I told them I had heard about a particular opportunity they suggested during conversation. They asked me: “Why haven’t you tried that?” and I replied: “I’m not sure. Maybe I’m not a good fit.” And what actually got me to take action is that they told me: “Do it. Apply!”. They didn’t ask me, they didn’t suggest it. They were bold enough to tell me what to do even though that was the first time we had met.

I learned that I was motivated, just very uncertain, and they were the trigger that put me into action and broke the cycle. I learned that what was holding me back was not the fear of failing but rather the psychological stress it would cause me to consider and compare other opportunities within my career path: How much of my time would they consume? What does this mean for my personal finances? Will I be happy if I pursue them? How would this fit with the rest of my life and my current career plans? Would I have what it takes to pursue them? What if I realize I’m missing key skills or knowledge?

My brain did an excellent job at keeping me away from the hard work of figuring out the answers to these questions by almost making me blind to certain opportunities which I didn’t see as such but as a psychological burden among many of my other responsibilities. I have now learned to treat applications as learning opportunities and personal career research. This helped relieve a lot of the psychological pressure coming from them.

Having learned this I’d like to encourage:

(1) more people to take the next step in their EA journey. This could be as small as reading an article or as big as applying to a job or graduate school

(2) for EAs to strongly encourage others more often

(3) asking people more often whether they have a strong opinion about what you should do, hence welcoming strong encouragement

(4) look for ways in which you can find peer accountability for your projects and career plans and do it for others as well

I’m aware butt-kicking isn’t always the best idea. I’m listing some things to consider to help others decide when it might be appropriate. Help me expand/correct this list through the comments.

When do I think butt-kicking is called for:

  • The person doing the butt-kicking has a better understanding of the opportunities to be considered
  • The “target” is someone that seems unable to make a decision because of fears, or is trapped in a loop, and (almost) any decision would be better than none
  • The “target” just seems to need an external show of confidence

When I think butt-kicking is not helpful, annoying and potentially harmful:

  • The person has demonstrated that they have weighed different options and have made calculated career decisions so far
  • The chances of the thing you are triggering the person to do of being net-negative is high e.g. giving a presentation on EA to 1000 people when you don’t know much about EA
  • (Depending on what you are encouraging the person to do): The main bottleneck of the person is clearly not just “personal uncertainty” but other things such as financial and psychological issues

Some concrete ideas on how you can personally speed up someone’s career exploration:

  • Pointing out opportunities to people and following up
  • Offer to check their applications and to hold them accountable for sending them out in a timely manner
  • Looking for accountability buddies for specific projects

While trying to advance your career:

  • Has someone triggered you to do something in the past? e.g. apply for a job, internship, start a project, etc.
  • Have you triggered anyone to act?
  • How can we embed this type of action into the interactions community members have with each other?


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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:14 AM

Nice post! I definitely agree that being willing to call friends on their BS can be a super valuable service.

I think the right way to pull it off depends on the person you're talking to though - it's easy to get somebody else feeling defensive, or overwhelmed, and this detracts from the actual goal of getting them to do something. I have two approaches that seem pretty widely effective here:

1. "Socratic butt-kicking" - when I think somebody is obviously procrastinating, rather than outright telling them, I come up with an argument in my head for why I think this, and then ask a series of leading questions to lead them through that thought process. Eg, if someone is procrastinating on applying for something, I might ask "How long has it been since you decided you wanted to apply for this?", and "Would you be surprised if it's 2 weeks from now and you still haven't gotten round to it?". Or, if somebody is being insecure/imposter syndrome-y, asking "what's the worst thing that could happen if you apply?" and "do you think you'd learn anything valuable from applying?"

I think this works really well for avoiding defensiveness, because you're leading them through the thought process, which is generally a lot more motivating than it being externally imposed on them. And, if I am wrong in my thought process, this fails pretty gracefully, because they'll give an unexpected answer to a question.

It can also be a good way to get them to take the Outside View - thinking about whether a typical candidate might feel the way they do, or whether they'll ever get round to it. And to appreciate the value of cheap tests - that you should obviously do low-effort things with no real downside, even if they're stressful. Which are both pretty obvious insights that take a lot of willpower and attention to ensure you do yourself.

2. Ensuring they leave the conversation with a concrete next action. I think a lot of stress/procrastination comes from something feeling fuzzy, stressful and overwhelming. And that there's a lot of cognitive work in processing an overwhelming task and figuring out what to actually do about it. So I think a really valuable thing to do is to ask "what's a concrete thing you could do to make progress towards ___?" And then once they give a vague idea, poke at it until it becomes specific and concrete.

It's also great to ensure they have a specific time and plan - especially if you can get them to explicitly put time in their calendar for it. Long-term admin like applications sucks because it never feels urgent compared to short-term stuff in your life, so the default state of the world is that they put it off indefinitely. I often offer to message them after that block to check on them, and set myself a reminder afterwards to follow-up.

Thank you Neel! These are great points. It is very helpful that you wrote some concrete questions people might ask others to get them to take action.

Regarding 1: I would say the butt-kicking I got was pretty similar to what you referred as "socratic butt-kicking". The person I talked to did ask several questions and poked around before they decided to be more direct. So one could start in more of a coach role before acting like a parent. I think what helped not to get defensive when they became direct was that they genuinely conveyed having my best interest at heart, which fostered trust between us very quickly.

Regarding 2: This has worked similarly for a specific independent project I started. I had all these fuzzy ideas of something I wanted to do and the person made a bunch of notes while I talked (in a very unstructured way), asked several questions and set accountability systems for me. This made the next steps to take as well as the specific motivation behind the project very clear.

Great post! We all know encouragement is often great, but I hadn't considered that it might be necessary or more effective in those specific situations.
One of the things that caught my attention in your personal experience is that the person was a recent acquaintance. I wonder how friendship might insert other nuances into the process of butt-kicking; I mean, that's what friends are for, but they may end up being more protective (like "Hey, you're a great ukulule player, but maybe you should get your Master's first"), and maybe butt-kicked may end up discounting their feedback because of that ("Of course, you think I can do anything, look at your Christmas Card).

Thank you Ramiro! Excellent point. I think it really depends on the person (how open they are and have been to criticism, if they have a growth-mindset, etc.). I think that overall, my friends have learned that I'm very open to get a little push as long as I'm in the right state of mind.

Regarding "discounting the feedback": This can be a risk indeed. It happens to me rarely though, because the type of friends kicking my butt are usually very honest giving feedback and I allow them to be honest. The protective kind of friends tend not to do much butt-kicking anyways.

Thanks for the post! I agree with the importance of peer accountability and I have been trying to apply it myself. Some comments about helpful and unhelpful butt-kicking:

  • You say the butt-kicking is called for when the person has a better understanding of the opportunities to be considered, but I don't think this is necessarily the case. I think hardly someone else will have a better idea of how opportunities fit within our own plans but the value can come precisely from the butt kicker´s ignorance about all of the uncertainties involved (the factors paralyzing our own decisions). The butt kicker is able to "zoom out" of the actual situation and "remove the noise" from the decision...maybe? That's how I feel it sometimes haha.
  • You also mentioned that butt-kicking is not ideal when the bottleneck is related to financial or psychological issues. I think this one could go both ways; I can imagine a situation in which the person is stuck with a harmful decision (such as a terrible boss, burnout, etc) but justifies not taking the next step due to psychological issues that come as a result of those harmful environments. In that case an external person kicking your butt can be particularly useful, perhaps even more than in other situations. I think this butt kicking thing can be a way of acknowledging and avoiding your own biases and motivated reasoning to stay in harmful situations that stall your career.

So in general thanks for the post and for sharing your ideas. Hope to see more butt-kicking tools inside EA community.

In that case an external person kicking your butt can be particularly useful, perhaps even more than in other situations. I think this butt kicking thing can be a way of acknowledging and avoiding your own biases and motivated reasoning to stay in harmful situations that stall your career.

This is true, but perhaps it'd not extrapolate so well for everyone - I can imagine the risk of making the butt-kicked person just feel even more pressured. But if you really master the Art of Butt-Kicking (I'd say "softly butt-kicking," but it sounds creepy), I see how this can go well ;)

I was thinking some more about how I approach butt-kicking, and generally helping debug others and helping them to be agenty, and wrote up a blog post on my thoughts