Thanks to Emma Williamson for her helpful feedback. 

Epistemic status: I wrote this up pretty quickly so take what I say with a grain of salt. A lot of this post is based on an intuition I’ve developed after talking to lots of young EAs. I also think this post is most relevant for people working within community-building and meta-EA stuff. I wish someone would’ve given me this advice a year ago, so I hope it’s useful for other people. 

The problem

  • Lots of young EAs are uncertain about their career paths and enjoy working within the EA community, so they often default to working on hopping between independent projects that have the EA stamp of approval. (e.g. doing ops for Atlas, independent community-building projects, going to the Bay to learn about AI safety, running one-off retreats, etc.) 
  • While hopping between independent projects can allow you to quickly test your fit for something, I think many young EAs should do this less and/or think more carefully about which projects they’re working on.  
  • There are a bunch of reasons why I think this: 
    • Independent, unrelated projects often lack good mentorship and learning structures. You don’t get to work at an established org where you get lots of feedback from your boss/mentor. You also usually don’t build up expertise in a field.  
    • It encourages young people to stay within the EA bubble, instead of leaving, acquiring diverse skill-sets, and getting feedback from the real world. This also exacerbates talent bottlenecks further down the funnel once the community lacks expertise in specific fields/career paths. 
    • Young people often equate “working on an EA project” with “doing work that substantially improves the world/reduces x-risk.” 
      • While projects might seem valuable in the short term, I think it damages young people’s longer-term impact. (i.e. by delaying you from developing deep expertise and career capital.) 
      • Instead of grappling with the complexity of the problems you want to solve, hopping between projects gives you a shallow understanding of several different things. 
  • I think my claim mostly applies to a certain subset of young people in EA, particularly community-builders and people with a lack of direction/concrete career plans. 
  • There’s another related trend where I see community-builders incentivized to put out fires and solve the small-scale problems immediately in front of them. 
    • They get the reputation as someone who can “get shit done” but in practice, they’re usually solving ops bottlenecks at the cost of building harder-to-acquire skills.
    • I’m concerned that conscientious young women with high executive functioning disproportionately get trapped here. 

Caveats 

  • This post doesn’t apply to the majority of young EAs. 
  • Some independent projects are useful for figuring out if you enjoy specific kinds of work, allowing you to quickly eliminate career options. 
  • I’m not arguing that young people should spend less time working on projects, but rather that they should choose projects more carefully, prioritizing ones with (a) good mentorship/learning opportunities and (b) a narrow focus within the fields they’re interested in. 
  • I don’t think this trend is indicative across the entire community. I think when people want to work within a specific cause area—e.g. AI safety, biosecurity, animal welfare, etc.—they have a lot more direction and this phenomenon happens less.
  • This problem overlaps with community-builders spending too much time community-building, and not engaging enough with the problems they want to solve. 

Suggestions

  • Don’t work on a project just because it has the EA stamp of approval—make sure you have a clear theory of change for why you’re working on something. 
  • (Gently and kindly) tell your friends if you don’t think they should be working on a project. 
  • Prioritize opportunities with good mentorship and management structures. New organizations and self-directed projects in EA typically lack these. 
  • If you’re a community-builder, consider leaving the community-building bubble for a bit and doing more cause-specific work (or skilling up outside of EA).

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:13 AM

Thanks for writing this post ! It resonated and I feel like I've fallen into a similar mindset before. 

It reminds me of a point made here: "like, will we wish in 5 years that EAs had more outside professional experience to bring domain knowledge and legitimacy to EA projects rather than a resume full of EA things?"

 

When reading the post, this felt especially true and unfortunate: "They get the reputation as someone who can “get shit done” but in practice, they’re usually solving ops bottlenecks at the cost of building harder-to-acquire skills."

Thanks Evie :) The quote you linked also really resonates with me. 

  • It encourages young people to stay within the EA bubble, instead of leaving, acquiring diverse skill-sets, and getting feedback from the real world. This also exacerbates talent bottlenecks further down the funnel once the community lacks expertise in specific fields/career paths.

 

Young, hapless EA here: this is very, very true. Multiple times recently I've been in the process of looking for "EA jobs" or describing to someone my intention of finding one, and realized "what does 'EA job' actually mean? Do I really need my job to be something advertised on 80,000 Hours or something people talk about on LW for me to feel like I'm making a difference in ways I care about?"

I love this post.

Another suggestion would be for people hiring young people to fight fires and do other projects to be clear about what skills they'd be learning from it and the downsides. I've found it helpful in the past when someone has pointed out that although they think it would be really impactful for me to help them out with a particular project, they weren't sure if I would develop the skills from it they thought I wanted to learn compared to my alternatives. 

When I first got involved in the community-building bubble, it was very difficult for me to say no to things because everything felt impactful and the people suggesting I do things / help with particular things were friends and mentors I wanted to prove myself to. 

Strongly upvoted, and think this is a great post with advice I hope people take seriously. 

A minor critique of this part -  "but in practice, they’re usually solving ops bottlenecks at the cost of building harder-to-acquire skills"  -- I worry people will take this to mean that solving ops bottlenecks is something easily done by most young EAs without much career capital. This hasn't been my experience. I think solving ops bottlenecks effectively is really hard, and  is in fact one of the things I wish more young EAs would build skills in doing by going into work outside of EA with lots of mentorship and feedback loops.

Hi, thanks for this! Yeah, to clarify, when I say "ops bottlenecks" I was mostly referring to last-minute logistical problems that come up when people run events or programs. (Not other things that fall under the category of "operations" like creating efficient systems within an organization.) I agree that the latter ops bottlenecks are hard to solve! 

Any chance you'd like to  create a custom filter on the 80k job board for jobs that you'd recommend for this profile of people? I can help!

Thanks for offering this! Unfortunately, I think it's hard to make blanket recommendations about which roles people should apply for. A lot of career advice has to be given on an individual basis, and I'm wary of recommending that people apply to another category of jobs without having strong reasons why they're applying to those jobs. 

Okay!

(Seems very possible there'll be a "reasons" sections too, that anyone can reply to, if that would help)

Quick question I think a lot of young EA's have - what does the process of upskilling outside of EA look like? And where is the support within EA or young people to upskill?