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.
Akash - thanks for an interesting, unusual, and timely post. Many of us could benefit from some new tips, tricks, and mind-hacks to stay motivated even in the face of despair and apparently low likelihoods of success in certain cause areas (such as slowing down AI capabilities development until AI alignment catches up).
We might have to rediscover some of the more traditional heroic virtues, which often involved fighting against truly hopeless odds, and maintaining one's drive, integrity, grit, and determination even when there seems no rational reason to keep fighting.
The modern, watered-down, Hollywood version of heroism means 'getting knocked down in act 2, and then getting back up and triumphing in act 3'. Whereas the more primal, pagan, tragic version involves getting knocked down, and getting back up, and losing to an overwhelming foe, yet maintaining magnificent valor even in the face of death and failure. I'm thinking of those rare genuinely tragic movies such as '300' (2006), 'Valhalla Rising' (2009), and 'The Northman' (2022).
We EAs have to be prepared for the possibility that we might not reduce X risks enough to avoid extinction. But we should be prepared to go down fighting anyway -- even if it seems utterly irrational to keep fighting. It's a matter of maintaining an ironclad 'subjective costly commitment' to the cause, as analyzed by people like evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse (in this book) and evolutionary economist Robert Frank (in this book).
The reason for keeping this faith, even when it seems hopeless, is a matter of epistemic humility: the mind can talk itself into a state of despair through motivated reasoning based on pessimism, but a heroic, tragic commitment to keep fighting can buy some time until more information comes in, or a new strategy becomes apparent, or the cavalry arrives.
"How do people actually find motivation without hope? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I hope you offer some ideas in the comments."
Let yourself get incredibly emotionally invested in what you're fighting for.
Wait until your mounting failures explode into a full-blown existential crisis.
Remember when you used to take epistemology seriously. (I imagine "Remember that acid trip" might also do the job.)
Go full-on Daoist/Buddhist/nihilist, pick your flavour. Forget goodness, forget truth, notice beauty. Slow down. Chill out. Drift...
Remember when you felt that something actually mattered. Think "Eh. Come on, I've (like literally, tautologically) got nothing better to do."
Nudge your life back in the direction of what you were fighting for. May take many nudges. That's fine.
If ever you notice yourself getting worked up or a bit despair-y, juuuuust gently remind yourself that no one knows anything, everything's basically out of everyone's hands...but we may as well give it a jolly good go and laugh at the absurdity of it all on the way.
I'm afraid it's a little idiosyncratic (n=1) and it took a few years and I may not recommend if you're not already at 2. But that's my story.
I practise gratefulness. What are 10 things I'm grateful for this morning?
I play some race for the galaxy with my wife
But I don't really fit. I have the joys of working on the coal face of healthcare so I don't have so many of these issues. I have enormous respect (and sometimes even awe) of people like you who work hard towards distant and even low percentage goals.
Please keep working on them, so our rural communities here in Uganda will have a world which still exists in 50 years when we finally develop :).
Race for the galaxy is an excellent game.
Gratefulness can sound cheesy but it's one of the most scientifically-backed ways to make humans happy. I've found that a nice ritual to do with the people you live with is to go around the table and have each person say something they're grateful for before eating dinner together.
The core insight of Buddhism, that everything arises and passes away, is helpful here. Low hope is also something that arises and passes away if you let it. There's no need to cling to it. Just let it go and keep plugging away.
If there's anything useful to meditation, it is realizing at a deep level how everything arises and passes away, though I think you need to sit for an hour a day for some time before it really sinks in.
Thank you Akash!
I appreciate the distinction between epistemic and emotional hope. You may appreciate the vaguely defined but seemingly interesting existential hope collection.
I'd further add the following points:
1. Focus on the fundamentals (sleep, exercise, meditation, and socializing in particular).
2. Ask yourself, how can I make today a success? Sometimes focusing on the smaller things we have control of can make a big difference.
3. Consider getting a professional who can empower you to be at your best while working on very challenging things. This could be a coach - you can find an overview of coaches and therapists here. This is a strong recommendation based on my own work as a coach (which may make me biased but I'm not listed on the site) and ~ 30+ people who I think very highly of speaking highly of coaching and similar services.
My level of hope is a function of the model that I have of how the relevant parts of the world work. Within the model I might assign a < 1% chance to any kind of success, but I’m not very confident in my model at all. That doesn’t mean that the chance is higher than I think, but the variance is wider. That’s sort of hope-adjacent for me.
You could substitute "work" where you write "fight". The latter evokes violence.
I found this post insightful! Although it's a brief post, I'd recommend providing a brief heading for each section for people who are heavy skimmers.