For my birthday earlier this year, I spent a fair amount of time writing an EA-themed birthday post (reproduced at the bottom of this write-up). I think that this post did fairly well - 5 messages and subsequent calls about career plan changes (!), and 170 reactions on Facebook. As such, I'd be excited for more EAs to make similar posts, especially other highly involved university organizers with experience communicating about EA. In this post I share my thought-process for making this birthday post, what I could’ve done differently, some considerations for other EAs interested in doing the same, and the post itself. I’d love to hear feedback on the post and the ideas in this writeup, and similar successful examples of leveraging birthdays and other occasions for EA purposes.
Choosing the content of the post:
I initially decided to make an EA-themed birthday fundraiser, thinking it might be a uniquely strong meta-EA opportunity. At first I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what cause area I wanted to raise awareness for. However in the end, I ended up going down a different route than typical birthday fundraisers. Rather than picking a particular charity and asking for donations, I decided to instead make a different ask - to consider high impact careers (in particular, by highlighting 80,000 Hours and its Key Ideas page). I did this for three main reasons:
- A change in career choice is far more impactful than making a donation (and will probably lead to donations later on anyway). Even one person counterfactually making a career pivot towards addressing the most pressing problems as a result of reading my post could be worth upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations - several orders of magnitude more successful than I would expect for a regular birthday fundraiser.
- Birthdays are a good opportunity to ask people to do costly things that would make me happy, like donating to a charity I care about, or in my case, reading a lengthy FB post and website).
- I wanted to counter common misconceptions about EA. Many people I meet at Stanford who have heard of it already think EA = EArning (sorry) to give, or that it only focuses on donations to evidence-backed short-term well-being focused interventions. I thought my birthday post provided a good opportunity to address these misconceptions.
Ideas I wanted to convey through the post:
- What we choose to do with our careers is likely the highest impact decision we’ll make.
- 80000hours.org is a really great resource for (especially young) people trying to figure out what problems are most pressing, and how we can use our career to tackle them.
- Addressing common misconceptions about EA: That it is not just about donations or earning to give, or solely about global health interventions, or any single cause area for that matter.
- Short descriptions of the current cause areas prioritized in EA and why they’re prioritized. I wasn’t thrilled with the wording I ended up with for each of the cause area descriptions, but it’s a start. I’d be excited to hear others’ thoughts on how to best communicate about these causes to non-EA audiences.
Impact of the post:
Most excitingly, five people so far have taken me up on my offer to talk to them about changing careers/career plans. I’ve had calls and planned follow up with each of them to discuss their thoughts on the 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page and applying the content to their careers. A few others messaged me saying they’d read the 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page and really liked it. The post has received 170 likes and 5 shares, which is my most well-received Facebook post so far by quite some margin (nearly twice as much engagement as my second most popular post), so it looks like my attempts to make the post compelling were pretty successful!
Making the post compelling:
Since the primary impact of the posts like this come from large levels of engagement, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the post compelling to my non-EA friends. Specifically, in the post I:
- Began the post with an intriguing hook
- In my post: “I know a lot of people on Facebook do birthday fundraisers, and I was planning on doing one too. But as I thought about what to write, I realized there's something you can do for me that I’d appreciate far more than a donation: five minutes of your attention.”
- Highlighted a tension many university students feel when deciding career trajectory - aiming for (often unimpactful) socially prestigious and lucrative career paths, or dedicating their career to social impact.
- Shared a personal anecdote to make myself publicly vulnerable. I hope this got readers into the mindset of being introspective and made them more likely to take the post seriously.
- Tried to present EA cause areas in a palatable and compelling way. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to emphasize the severity of factory farming without turning people off, and similarly describe the scope of existential risk and the immense potential of our future without sounding implausibly fanatical or tone-deaf about current issues.
(Some) Things I should’ve done differently:
- Salary is almost universally a very salient consideration for career choice, especially for students. Explicitly mentioning that many high-impact jobs pay quite well may have made readers more seriously consider EA career options.
- Using a bit.ly link for the 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page rather than the direct link would’ve allowed me to track the number of clicks.
- Cutting down the length of the post. It ended up being a bit long, but I didn’t feel great about cutting out any parts. I probably need to get better at editing.
- Maybe I should have mentioned EA explicitly in the post. I already post almost exclusively about EA on my FB feed to publicize Stanford EA and other events/opportunities, so I didn’t want people to see it was just another regular EA post and ignore it. But at the same time, mentioning EA explicitly may have been important for achieving my goal of addressing the misconception of EA being exclusively/primarily about donations.
Considerations for making a post like this:
This kind of birthday post is probably not something you can do every year. Sharing the same message every year for a birthday post seems weirder than doing a yearly fundraiser for the same charity. When a post is meant to convey a compelling message, repeating the same message for multiple years may significantly detract from its intended effect. If it is the case that you only want to make a post of this sort once over many years, it is important to be strategic about when to make a career consideration focused post. Since I just graduated in June, and have many friends still in or just finished with university, this year seemed better than future ones for a birthday post about career choice.
I think university and local EA group members should consider coordinating on EA birthday posts. It might not make sense for multiple EA group members with widely overlapping friend groups to make posts with an identical message. Coordinating with group members could be a cool way to highlight the many facets of EA, and the myriad ways of engaging.
As I said above, I’d love to hear feedback on the post, ideas in this write-up, and similar successful examples of leveraging birthdays and other occasions for EA purposes.
My birthday is coming up! I know a lot of people on Facebook do birthday fundraisers, and I was planning on doing one too. But as I thought about what to write, I realized there's something you can do for me that I’d appreciate far more than a donation: five minutes of your attention.
I see so many extremely hard-working, caring, brilliant people with world-saving ambition come to university with a burning passion to help and do good, only to be failed by our education system and unfortunate societal incentives (why are people paid so much to make social media and ads more appealing, ugh). This means that people who aspire to make the world better often have to make a tough decision: a) succumb to default, socially prestigious, lucrative careers that often do not tackle the world’s most pressing problems, or b) stick to their values and struggle to find socially impactful work, with no clear career guidance.
I faced this dilemma as I entered Stanford, and felt significant pressure to do what it felt like most of the students around me were doing - read “Cracking the Coding Interview”, and apply to internships which would turn into full-time offers at large tech companies. Compared to the daunting prospect of trying to address issues I cared about deeply, lack of a concrete path made the default seem pretty appealing. But a part of me wasn’t willing to let that happen, and I’m really glad I listened to it.
I got involved with activism and justice work in tenth grade, when I struggled with severe depression and anxiety coming to terms with my sexual orientation and gender identity, and the implications these would have on the rest of my life. In the process of getting through this, I realized that there were countless others out there going through situations similar to, and much worse than mine. I wanted to ensure others wouldn’t also have to go through intense suffering caused by the failings of our society. I started learning more about issues like racial injustice, misogyny, neo-colonialism, mass incarceration, climate change, and all the other ways our world does not adequately respect certain people. And I felt overwhelmed. There was so much work to do, and so little guidance about how to best do so, given our limited time, energy, money, work hours, and relationships.
One day, during my quarter-life existential crisis spurred internet browsing, I decided to Google “How to do the most good with your career”, and found this cool new site called 80000hours.org.
By default, I previously prioritized working on the issues that I'd heard people around me discussing, often ones that personally affected my communities. However, focusing on the issues that were brought to my attention most meant that I didn’t consider many issues that were much larger in scale, but not as widely known. 80,000 Hours transformed my thinking about which problems affect the most people and cause the most suffering. And most importantly, they provided concrete advice on how to best tackle them. I’ll highlight three issues in particular.
For example, I didn’t see the consequences of extreme global inequality. While the average American household earns around $69,000 per year, around 700 million people live on less than $2 per day (~$700 per year, and this is adjusted for lower living costs in poorer countries), and millions of people (often children) die each year of easily preventable diseases such as malaria and parasitic worms.
Similarly, I always knew factory farming existed, but I didn’t realize just how horrific the conditions farmed animals are raised in truly are, and the terrifying extent to which this occurs. 70 billion land animals and over 1 trillion aquatic animals were killed for food in 2019, but the issue gets next to no attention compared to other well-known causes.
And finally there’s the issue of safeguarding our future. The number of people that could exist in the future is incredibly vast. Future people are also disenfranchised; they have no say in who we elect, the policies they enact and the actions we take. Yet it is they who will suffer the price of so many of our short-sighted measures. Existential risks, which could permanently curtail humanity’s future potential (through extinction or other catastrophes) are estimated by many experts to have a likelihood greater than 10% over the coming century. To be clear, this is a 10% chance of all life on earth ending - all our friends, family and everyone we’ve ever known, and a permanently extinguished future. But if all goes well, human history is just beginning. Humanity could survive for billions of years, reaching heights of flourishing unimaginable today.
I’m currently working on building the community of people working to mitigate these risks with Stanford’s Existential Risks Initiative, and feel deeply satisfied and grateful to be able to work full-time on an extremely pressing problem. I think there are many others out there who are like me, who would love nothing more than to get to tackle the world’s biggest problems with their careers, but don’t know where to start. I hope I can help fix that.
It seems quite compelling to me that the best way to have a positive impact by far is to dedicate the approximately 80,000 hours of our careers to tackling the world’s most pressing problems. So it would mean a lot to me if you took some time to reflect on the role you want impact to play in your career. Specifically, I’d love if you read https://80000hours.org/key-ideas/ to learn more about the most pressing problems and how you might use your career to address them. 80,000 Hours also has a high-impact job board with an extensive list of jobs addressing the aforementioned issues: https://80000hours.org/job-board/. If even one person reading this post decided to pivot their career towards addressing the most pressing problems, that would be the best birthday present I could ask for. If you’d like to talk to me more about how to use your career to increase your impact, I would love to chat.