I wrote this over a year ago, but as I reread the words now, they still feel just as true as they did when I wrote them. I think an earlier version of myself could have benefited from reading this, so for anyone else that might be struggling with balancing self creation and EA, my heart goes out to you, and I hope this might help. 


“Totalized by an ought, I sought its source outside myself. I found nothing. The ought came from me, an internal whip toward a thing which, confusingly, I already wanted – to see others flourish. I dropped the whip. My want now rested, commensurate, amidst others of its kind – terminal wants for ends-in-themselves: loving, dancing, and the other spiritual requirements of my particular life. To say that these were lesser seemed to say, “It is more vital and urgent to eat well than to drink or sleep well.” No – I will eat, sleep, and drink well to feel alive; so too will I love and dance as well as help” - Tyler Alterman

As a self described communitarian, I find much of the meaning and beauty in my life lies within the relationships I've formed and the many beautiful conversations they've spawned. I might call this the grounding aspect of myself, the sort of general level lens that can bring all of what I do in life into one cohesive cinematic. And this is all well and good, that is, until you find your path diverging from that of those closest to you. 

For a long time, I've dreamed of taking a gap year to live abroad in Spain, to become fluent in Spanish. The opportunity came after college for me to take the leap and make that a reality, but I couldn’t do it, scared that I might find myself without others and with the Noonday Daemon knocking at my door again. But beyond the fear, I realized that I’d set myself up for this, failing to put the time in to developing myself, to figuring out who Tristan is in isolation. So I decided to take a year to myself, a sort of  "gap year in place", to  gradually build a base of a self that could stand the test of time, the test of painful divergences and hard decisions, with friends around to help me learn how to fly

So today's goal is to take the day to myself, to try to simulate being alone for a day and trying to enjoy it, avoiding work and focusing on things I can do alone over the course of a long time alone to sustain my happiness. The account of that day follows. 

I'm exploring, rather uncomfortably, what it is like to experience something and not following my first intuition to text someone about it, or to situate its importance to me relative to how it could be productive to some external end. I asked some people who are better experienced in this whole presence thing what they like to do when they're alone and are taking time just for themselves, and generally found the answers to be unhelpful (probably because this question was somewhat circular and doomed from the start, as what I'm trying to get advice on is how to create a self, something that probably doesn't generalize beyond its broadest strokes). But they still helped point me in the right direction, which here meant finding some music I really connected with and starting there. 

This was great for some time, but eventually I got a bit bored and also gained a bit of a headache, finding that I needed to take a minute away from stimulation to decompress. But then I was there, in the silence, and found myself confronted with another layer of depth to the question I hoped to explore, namely: what am I without external stimulus? What am I without all the articles and the books, without the videos and the music?

Now, I must take a brief detour (this whole thing is probably a detour lol) to explain why I felt called to this question. In this obscure book I'm reading, called The Search For Meaning, they pose this really basic thought experiment (read: Cast Away): you've crashed on an island, there's good reason to believe you'll never be found, but you have all the resources you need to continue sustaining life for yourself. The question they want to ask is "Is this hell?" and if not then "how do we begin to create a self for which this wouldn't be seen as unbearable?". It's another way of saying, when you are out on your own, stripped bare of the creative musings of others and modern distractions, who do you become? 

I explored this into one of multiple recursive thought loops of the day, and with my head feeling a bit better, found my way out, and perhaps my answer, in following my intuition, which at the time was to watch a certain movie (Howl's Moving Castle). But, low and behold, the universe didn't think that was quite the right choice, and chose to crash my computer to a "oh shit we might have to call the technicians" level. So I found myself back to that recursive loop, when a friend called.

Talking to her, I came to realize that I have this really strong internal justifier, that requires anything involving a decision to have a "why" attached. This internal justifier works great when I'm trying to sift through the important things I do in a day, but doesn't do so well for helping me learn to be alone. 

"Why that movie?”

Well, I dunnnno, it just seems right. 

“Yeah, that's totally got me hopping on board to dedicate the next two hours to it.”

Why not? 


I came to feel later on that this internal justifier, this greedy maximizer, was kind of the instantiation of my future self and where I want to be, the continual pull to have everything I'm doing justified down to the minutia in service of making sure I was effectively doing as much good in the world as abstractly possible. Things like taking time to myself was something before today defined as being necessary for this whole "human" thing we have going on. This human thing is sort of seen as an impediment towards greater effectiveness, a leaky machine with imbalances to fix (read: fix my x issue with y medication or simple remedy) one that people had noted was worth paying attention to because without doing so the system would crash, which would get in the way of being a good little effective altruist[1]. So this was great, self care was now something that people cared about and mentioned, but this self care was really just a salve at best to cover up the hole in the person who found they needed it. Put well by Tyler:

“Aha, I thought. My mistake was failing to embrace my human frailty. I could still rescue my motivation. I could stay single-mindedly devoted to doing good. But I needed to adapt my motivation, to make it work with the meat-machine that I inescapably inhabited. It was time to watch movies again. It was time to call my mom. To reunite with old friends. To write poems once more. Submitting to these lower cravings was necessary for endurance on The Cause. So I watched movies and wrote poems while something in the back of my head urged, “Refresh me faster!” at these activities.

But the culture behind them made my problem worse: their aim was to help people remove psychological blocks to working on the world’s biggest problems…The very use of my will felt dangerous, because I would use it to become a numb instrument, a being whose only purpose was to work. But what was the alternative? What was my life worth if I could no longer work? What use were life’s joys? Of what value were sex, dancing, or strumming a ukulele if they did not help me fulfill my purpose?”

Self care, of course, is invaluable, but not when it becomes grounded in "making sure things run smoothly for taking care of the stuff we really care about". The invaluable sort of self care is first and foremost a self: a positioning of who you are in the world that needs no justification, that celebrates the self and the act of self creation as intrinsically worthwhile. The unhelpful, self absorbed, self care people miss that there is so much more than the self out there to be helped and mended, but the (effective) (self) (care) people miss that you need to have a sense of self that is intrinsically valuable (that is valuable itself, without reference to anything other). 

And I want to stress how much this matters. Beyond serving as an impediment for my own self creation, I think viewing the other realms of our lives as only instrumentally beneficial has lead many astray in a way that could have otherwise been avoided[2], and I’d contend that it’s a significant contributing factor to the (seemingly to me higher than average[3]) prevalence of mental anguish present in the EA community. A similar post to this [4] talks of how this led them to a deep, dark, nearly three year long, battle with depression, and describes the logic well: 

“When I took the EA logic of opportunity costs seriously, my moral obligation became rather extreme: Sure, my basic survival needed to be covered. But any resources I had beyond that, I was Obligated to spend on The Most Impactful Thing, because – if I failed to do so – people would suffer and die. That would make me Bad. I didn’t want to be Bad. So I needed to spend all my time becoming Good. There was no time for other seemingly meaningful pursuits. Art, relationships, and so on – these apparent ends-in-themselves would need to be cast aside, or become means to serve my moral obligation, like coal that feeds a furnace. I could not bear the thought that someone might die because I mindlessly enjoyed a movie instead of working on the Effective Altruism movement. This subjugation of my “non-altruistic” ends to moral ends was what led to my depression.”

Multiple comments showed resonance with this, and I wanted to highlight a couple of them to give you a sense of what this means to people: 

Lakin: “Thank you for writing about what pushed me away from the EA community…the force to make all else instrumental.”

Ronja: “Yes! yesyesyes. Hey. Wow. Thank you! This is the first time that a forum article has spoken to me as a whole, not just the optimizer part of my brain”

Toby: “Thank you for writing this Tyler! I have had a similar journey recently [and] I've also heard a bunch of other examples from people in this community with similar stories.”

To those of you struggling with this, I hope the words of the Archangel of Meaning[5] and Angel of Love[6] might help guide you forward. Hold on dearly to those people and things that you care about and bring you joy, and value those moments for themselves, as part of what makes the world good. Find a way to hold on[7] to part of what led you here, without losing who you are in the process. 

And for those still figuring themselves out and trying to find their people, place value on undertaking that process, for itself, for yourself.  They're two separate things, and even in the midst of a flourishing friend group I had so much further to go to creating an independent self. 

For my part, I finished my day doing a number of things that I felt made some real progress towards this creation of self I'm working towards, far from being where I want to be but feeling that I’d at least begun to take a good first step. I'd share what they were, but the usefulness of my account to you ends here[8]: the next step is to find out what those things are for yourself, and I wish you the best of journeys. 

  1. ^

    I found this except after writing this and was struck by how similar the theme here was:

    "Recall that in my hypothetical, I’ve oriented my whole life around The Should Values for my longtermist EA strategy—and I’ve done so by fiat, in a way that does not converse much with the values that drove me before. My career, my social connections, and my daily habits and routines all aim to satisfy my Should Values, while neglecting my True Values. As a result, my engines of motivation are hardly ever receiving any fuel. 

    It seems awfully important to me that EAs put fuel into their gas tanks (or electricity into their batteries, if you prefer), rather than dumping that fuel onto the pavement where fictional cars sit in their imaginations. 

    And not just a little bit of fuel! Not just when you’re too exhausted to go on without a little hit. I think that no matter what you hope to accomplish, it is wise to act from your true values ALL of the time—to recognize instrumental principles as instrumental, and to coordinate with allies without allowing them to overwrite your self concept."

  2. ^

    I'll write more about this if there's interest, but I think that you should basically be very careful to strip normal, good things from your life without making sure you have a strong enough base that can support that, even if a rational calculus indicates its not worth the time. For me, one of those things is food, and I think the propensity of EAs to trade homecooked meals for Huel and the likes is probably net negative. 

  3. ^

    But also maybe not. There’s a link between altruism and higher rates of depression and anxiety, but also the data isn’t particularly clear (this study shows altruistic behavior helps anxiety but exacerbates depression). This is just my anecdata perception, which seems supported by (multiple) (forum) (posts) and (other) (EA work) that seems to indicate a shared experience, but only in a very loose sense and without much epistemic confidence. 

  4. ^

    Which is phenomenal and absolutely worth the read, by the way. This is also where the quote from the top came from.

  5. ^

    "Thou shalt seek for thy tombstone to say: 'she was as passionate about the people and pursuits she loved as she was about successfully making the world a significantly better place'."

  6. ^

    "Thou shalt engage with whom you love. And thou shalt engage with what you love. We are afforded precious few beautiful creatures with whom we get to form the valuable relationships that help us through life. These mutual loving relationships animate and beautify our lives; they ground us."

  7. ^

    Another excerpt from Tyler:

    Finally, I even tried giving up on my purpose. Guess what: I couldn’t! My sense of purpose wasn’t just a social identity. (This aspect I could drop, and – eventually, thankfully – I did.) It was a core part of me, as much as my love of music. Dropping my impulse to help in a big way would be as hard as dropping my love of music. Both of these things were sources of inherent meaning, ends-in-themselves – things I engaged with for their own sake. 

  8. ^

    A little nugget of personal wisdom I stumbled upon though: watching movies and asking others what they do when they're alone and creating the self they want to be are technically illegal in the "just you on an island" game, but you can't assume that as soon as you've started the path that you can have completed it. Accept that you will need help at first, and simply try to lean into what really challenging yourself to create this sort of self looks like. For me that looked like talking to a friend for a good bit, connecting with another friend through an album (it was absolutely marvelous by the way) and watching a movie that was dear to who I am, without all the effective baggage. 

  9. ^


  10. ^






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Executive summary: Developing a strong sense of self is crucial for effective altruists to avoid burnout and maintain motivation, rather than solely focusing on instrumental goals.

Key points:

  1. The author struggled with creating an independent sense of self separate from their communitarian identity and effective altruist goals.
  2. Effective altruists often view self-care and personal pursuits as merely instrumental to achieving altruistic objectives, leading to mental health issues and burnout.
  3. Valuing the self and the act of self-creation as intrinsically worthwhile is essential for long-term motivation and well-being.
  4. The effective altruism community may have a higher prevalence of mental health issues due to the extreme moral obligation and opportunity costs associated with the movement's logic.
  5. Engaging with loved ones, personal passions, and inherently meaningful activities is crucial for maintaining a healthy sense of self while pursuing effective altruism.



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