We've given up hope, but not the fight. -- Nate Soares, probably
Many people I know are working on projects that they believe have a low (or very low) probability of being helpful. Even when they think diving into their work is the “right move” or “best option”, they find it hard to stay motivated or avoid burnout.
It may be hard to feel motivated about continuing to fight, since doubling our chances of survival will only take them from 0% to 0%. (from Death with Dignity)
I’ve been finding it helpful to distinguish between three concepts:
- Epistemic hope: Thinking your plan is likely to work and likely to have a meaningful impact.
- Emotional hope: Feeling good about your plan (regardless of your underlying forecasts or probability distributions)
- Effort: The amount of time, energy, and resources you devote to your plan.
The three of these tend to go together. Alice thinks her plan is 80% likely to work, so she feels good when she thinks about her plan, and she puts in a lot of effort.
But they don’t have to be.
Consider Bob: he thinks his plan is <10% likely to work. But he still feels good when he thinks about his plan. He knows he’s taking on extremely hard problems, and he’s proud of himself and his colleagues for working on the plan despite its grim forecast. He also puts in a lot of effort.
I know people like Bob, and sometimes I feel like Bob. I might feel excited about a plan (despite its low probability of success), or grateful toward others for persevering and fighting (even if I have grim forecasts about the value of their work).
But not always. Sometimes I feel more like Carol.
Carol thinks her plan is <10% likely to work. She feels badly about this. She feels frustrated and disappointed with herself, perhaps even her colleagues, perhaps even her entire community or civilization. She feels hopeless. She also puts in a lot of effort.
Carol doesn’t put in effort because she has epistemic hope (she doesn’t think her efforts are likely to lead to success) or emotional hope (she doesn’t feel some sense of energy or gratitude or “fighting against the odds” spirit).
Carol tries because… well, she just does. Maybe she tries because she thinks fighting is dignified. Maybe she thinks fighting makes sense under epistemic uncertainty, or she tries out of habit, or to impress her friends, or because she identifies as a person-who-just-tries, or because she has nothing better to do, or because she has something to protect.
When I wonder why some people think MIRI gave up (despite the fact that they’re still working on a variety of research, writing, outreach, and mentorship projects), I think it’s because people associate “giving up” with “losing hope.” If you declare that you think earth’s odds of survival are 0%, you have lost epistemic hope. If you write it in a way that somewhat somber and brooding and disappointed, you signal that you have lost emotional hope. And this pattern-matches onto someone who has stopped fighting. But it doesn’t have to.
You don’t have to fight. If you feel like you’re fighting just because you should, Nate Soares has written some posts that I recommend. You also don't have to fight all the time. Remember that "we cannot fight at maximum all the time, and some times are more important than others".
But you don’t have to stop fighting either. You can lose epistemic and emotional faith in your plan and still keep going.
It’s easier to fight when you have something you (epistemically or emotionally) believe in. But it’s not a requirement. Some people are fighting anyways, even when knowing that any given alignment plan has a small chance of working, even when feeling frustrated, disappointed, unheard, or unprepared.
Hopefully, you already have a plan that you think has a reasonable shot at helping, or you feel good about your plans despite the grim forecasts.
But if you don’t, and you still want to fight, you can. Hope does not have to be a prerequisite for fighting energy.
You can give up hope but stay in the fight.
How do people actually find motivation without hope?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. I hope you offer some ideas in the comments.
For now, here are a few things that I’ve found helpful during moments where I’ve been feeling low in hope:
- Real people: Surrounding myself with people who have qualities I admire (work ethic, strong epistemics, honesty, integrity, fighting spirit, etc.)
- Fictional people: Surrounding myself with fictional characters who face difficult challenges with resolve dignity
- MIRI: Remembering that MIRI has tried for over a decade, and they’re still fighting, despite (what appears to be) low epistemic and emotional hope.
- Scope insensitivity: Remembering that scope insensitivity makes it hard to feel the size of large numbers, and a career with a small probability of reducing existential risks might still have a large amount of expected value (so long as it doesn’t also have an equally small probability of increasing existential risks, but a meaningful discussion of that is beyond the scope of this post).
- Awe & Curiosity: Remembering (or reactivating) the feelings of childlike wonder and curiosity I had when I first learned about existential risk. (After reading The Precipice, I remember a feeling of “wow, could this really be such an important moment in human history?” and “huh, how neat that some people care so much that they’re devoting their lives toward these unimaginably big topics.”)
- Dignified work: Recalling concrete examples of work that I find dignified (and remembering work that even those who are low-in-hope find dignified)
- Fog of war: Staying in touch with the feeling of discovering new ideas, unlocking a new spot on the map, or seeing more clearly by removing fog of war.
- Basics: Basic things like talking to friends, writing, making sure I’m not neglecting my values, reflecting on the kinds of tasks and environments that generally increase my motivation, etc.
- Noticing: Noticing what it feels like to be in low motivation states, paying attention to what it feels like, and examining if it’s telling me something about my current plan.
- Irena Sendler: Remembering Irena Sendler, the difference between false shoulds and moral commitments, and the difference between duties and honors.
Note: In the comments, I'd prefer avoiding discussions about how whether or not low hope is "justified." Instead, I'm curious to hear stories about how people summon fighting energy or respond in other ways during moments of low hope.