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I don't know if it should be considered important as it's only a single data point, but I want to share the story of how my EA career choice and mental health went terribly wrong.

My career choice

In college I was strongly motivated to follow the most utilitarian career path. In my junior year I decided to pursue investment banking for earning to give. As someone who had a merely good GPA and did not attend a top university, this would have been difficult, but I pushed hard for networking and recruiting, and one professional told me I had a 50-50 chance of becoming an investment banking analyst right out of college (privately I thought he was a bit too optimistic). Otherwise, I would have to get some lower-paying job in finance, and hopefully move into banking at a later date.

However I increasingly turned against the idea of earning to give, for two major reasons. First, 80,000 Hours and other people in the community said that EA was more talent- rather than funding-constrained, and that earning to give was overrated. Second, more specifically, people in the EA community informed me that program managers in government and philanthropy controlled much higher budgets than I could reasonably expect to earn. Basically, it appeared easier to become in charge of effectively allocating $5 million of other people's money, compared to earning a $500,000 salary for oneself. Earning to give meant freer control of funding, but program management meant a greater budget. While I read 80k Hours' article on program management, I was most persuaded by advice I got from Jason Gaverick Matheny and Carl Shulman, and also a few non-EA people I met from the OSTP and other government agencies, who had more specific knowledge and advice. It seemed that program management in science and technology (especially AI, biotechnology, etc) was the best career path. And the best way to achieve it seemed to be starting with graduate education in science and technology, ideally a PhD (I decided on computer science, partly because it gave the most flexibility to work on a wide variety of cause areas). Finally, the nail in the coffin for my finance ambitions was an EA Global conference where Will MacAskill said to think less about finding a career that was individually impactful, and think more about leveraging your unique strengths to bring something new to the table for the EA community. While computer science wasn't rare in EA, I thought I could be special by leveraging my military background and pursuing a more cybersecurity- or defense-related career, which was neglected in EA.

Still, I had two problems to overcome for this career path. The first problem was that I was an econ major and had a lot of catching up to do in order to pursue advanced computer science. The second problem was that it wasn't as good of a personal fit for me compared to finance. I've always found programming and advanced mathematics to be somewhat painful and difficult to learn, whereas investment banking seemed more readily engaging. And 80k Hours as well as the rest of the community gave me ample warnings about how personal fit was very, very important. I disregarded these warnings about personal fit for several reasons:

  • I'd always been more resilient and scrupulous compared to other people and other members of the EA community. Things like living on a poverty budget and serving in the military, which many other members of the EA community have considered intolerable or unsustainable for mental health, were fine for me. As one of the more "hardcore" EAs, I generally regarded warnings of burnout as being overblown or at least less applicable to someone like me, and I suspected that a lot of people in the EA community were subconsciously exaggerating stuff like this in order to justify selfish behavior. 
  • I knew that the vast majority of human beings throughout history did not pick a job that maximized their personal fit, often they had hardly any options at all. A powerful anecdote to me was the fact that my grandfather grew up in a communist country where engineering school was his only option besides military service, so he became an engineer, then had a solid career lasting about six decades. Such limited career options have been common for humanity, and by and large people have coped. Given this history, the idea that people need to choose a career with high personal fit or else they will crash and burn seemed ridiculous.
  • I had coped with math and computer science courses so far, albeit with mediocre grades. I believed I was smart enough but suffered from procrastination and distractions. I decided that being even a mediocre PhD computer scientist was still better than being an investment banker, especially in the context of US defense agencies and military services which seemed to suffer from a lack of computer science talent. And I figured that in the future I would only get better as I took advantage of the wealth of productivity tips and tricks developed by the EA community, never suspecting that I might get worse

At the same time, I also disregarded the warnings from the EA community that investment banking was a bad career because of its stress, hours and culture. The very negative things I read on 80k Hours and elsewhere in the EA community seemed like exaggerations compared to what I learned from my own conversations and reading. 

Still, to achieve a greater impact I decided to attend a master's program in computer science at a middling-rank university, with the option of later going on to a PhD.

The troubles

Being thoroughly dedicated to my computer science education and knowing that I was too much of a procrastinator and video game addict to do self-study, I spent the summer between undergrad and graduate school at a data science boot camp. It was a very small school called Signal Data Science in Berkeley with connections to the EA community. 

I did quite well for about 3/4 of my time there, but at the end I hit a wall where I simply could not focus on programming. I would stare at the screen and do nothing. My brain just didn't want to interpret abstract symbols on a screen anymore. 

When university started in the fall I had more of the same problem. A severe inability to focus on homework and studies. Advanced math was hard, but probably the worst barrier was when I encountered errors in my attempts to install various programming applications. I would download an IDE/plugin/package/etc, see a failure, and then bang my head on the desk and give up because the troubleshooting process for this software was so mentally exhausting. I also had problems coming to class on time, as I was often distracted or not motivated to leave my room promptly. There was never a direct penalty for lateness, and I became later and later, until I started giving up and not showing up to class at all. Graduate school was too unstructured - I didn't have enough authority figures or direct accountability for my behavior, so I slipped into distraction with video games.

I also developed a kind of anxiety about my workload. I didn't want to deal with my pile of pending and missed assignments, so the act of logging into the class management website or checking my emails became difficult, until I stopped altogether. The same thing even happened with my phone messages and social media accounts - as notifications piled up, I started avoiding them altogether. I especially hated that I was now getting a large volume of messages from family members who were deeply worried about my whereabouts, and the emotional heaviness of such messages was something that I instinctively hated and wanted to avoid. I guess I would compare it to hikkikomori except that rather than being averse to in-person contact, I was averse to opening up electronic messages. I was still perfectly comfortable meeting people in real life (for example, if they showed up at my door) even though I often didn't have proactive motivation to go out and do something like attend class.

Throughout this time I was acutely aware that I was suffering from a serious problem. All my attention was placed on fixing it myself, using things like Beeminder, replacing my smart phone with a flip phone so as not to be distracted, visiting a psychologist (who diagnosed me with ADHD and prescribed medication, which I took), trying classes in other subjects besides computer science, and quitting the military reserves so that I could dedicate absolutely all my focus to academics. I was always optimistic about my prospects to improve myself, judging that I could probably pull through; in reality some things helped a little, but I ended up in complete failure all the same. After trying everything, I decided to call it quits and drop out of school, but did not have the motivation to inform the school of this, until later they officially kicked me out. 

I didn't think of this as "burnout" and still am reluctant to use that word because burnout is what happens when you work too hard; I had never worked hard in the first place. I didn't spend too many hours on schoolwork before getting overwhelmed and stressed out. I had a very easy lifestyle, with long hours of leisure, and simply a lack of drive to do the things I knew I ought to do. For this reason I never seriously considered the option of taking a vacation.

Comfortably numb

For several following years I was in the shameful situation of NEET, i.e. unemployed and hardly doing anything productive while staying in my parents' house. Just as in graduate school, I was never depressed, anxious, suicidal, or fearful of real-life social contact, but my aversion to things like checking email remained. On rare good days I would clean out my inbox, only to sink back into a pattern of avoidance. In this context it seemed impossible to have a real career. My belief was that I had to properly fix my mental health issues first, and then I would be ready to get back to business. And my strategy for fixing myself was to complete a long list of tasks (finish this or that individual project, clean out my email inbox, respond to all my Facebook messages, etc) so that I would feel ready to move on. But that task list didn't get shorter. 

Being very forgiving and conflict-avoidant as well as paranoid of what horrible things might happen if I were "on the streets," my parents never took serious steps to fix my behavior, like giving me an ultimatum that I had to get a job or I would be kicked out of the house. I should have explicitly told them to do so, a failure to communicate on my part, although I don't know if they would have actually done it. In general I did a poor job of communicating my issues to my parents and that made it difficult for them to help. This was partly because I had a confidence and hope that I would solve things soon enough on my own. Of course I rationally knew at the time that it was silly to prefer fixing things on my own as opposed to asking for help, but that feeling still existed at a gut level and had an impact on my behavior. 

My even stupider mistake was to not reach out to the EA community for help. With EAs, I think I would have communicated better and they would have probably helped me better. I should have spoken to people, but in particular I should have moved somewhere like the EA Hotel or just anybody's house. My email-phone-and-social-media avoidance would have made this difficult, but not impossible. Unfortunately I didn't do it because I really didn't want to become a burden upon the EA community. I didn't want to occupy EA community resources when I could instead use my parents for room and board. Also, I disliked the frequency of mental health problem stories in the EA community and didn't want to contribute to a bad atmosphere. I felt I should fix myself before spreading malaise to better, harder-working people. I don't think I need to explain that while my sentiment was kind of noble, it was also deeply stupid. 

Fortunately, I was not completely useless - during this time I worked on some online projects for the benefit of the EA community, as much as I could while being addicted to video games. Of course it doesn't come close to the impact of a proper career. 

The happy ending

I did eventually escape this bad situation. Here are the two things which worked for me:

First, my parents bought me a smartphone to replace my flip phone. This made things better because I could see emails and respond to them immediately, like text messages, rather than letting them pile up in my computer inbox and having to open the inbox to view them. I also accepted that being on top of social media accounts was not going to be an important part of my life. I realized that conquering my aversion to checking Facebook was not a prerequisite for having a job, nor was wrapping up my ongoing online projects for the EA community, and nor was responding to old emails. This may seem obvious now, but it just wasn't my paradigm when I had recently experienced the damage caused by letting such aversion get out of control. With a new perspective I realized it would be so easy to simply print resumes, walk around town and ask for jobs. I did this and got hired two weeks later. 

Getting a job was the second thing that worked; it has switched me back on. I'm now on top of my emails and phone, I have no significant problems staying on task or showing up to work on time. In three months I've advanced in my job from $17/hour, 30 hours a week to $22/hour, 55 hours a week and have no real problems coping with the workload. It's white collar work that offers fairly broad career capital for the private sector. I'm confident now that I have the mental health and drive for a hardworking career, as long as I avoid the pitfalls of my grad school environment.

I still feel bad about how much worse my career is compared to what I could have achieved had I gone straight into the workforce after undergrad. In finance I could have earned over half a million dollars by now. Failing that, I wish so badly that I had done something decisive with my life after failing grad school, like reenlisting in the military - anything better than unemployment. I will always have enough money to buy the modest things that I want, and the fact that my donations will be so paltry doesn't hurt me on an emotional level, but the loss of status and sense of achievement is hurtful. It's made worse by the fact that I've essentially lost so many years of my life. But I'm a basically competent, mentally healthy human being and that's the most important thing.

Lessons

I don't know what lessons you can draw from a single story like mine. Judgments about the right or wrong approach to careers and mental health should probably be driven by big trends and commonalities, not anecdotes. That said, perhaps my anecdote helps inform some of you, or can be part of anecdata.

If I was to blame someone for my situation it would primarily be myself for my low conscientiousness, bad communication and stupid judgment. That said I would have gotten better sooner if certain other people had behaved differently. In addition to my parents as described above, I do feel that Signal Data Science mishandled me. Because the class size was so small, an instructor should have noticed and said "hey, Zeke (not my real name), you've stopped making progress. What's going on? Talk to me." Maybe that would have helped. Maybe the lesson here is that we should be more proactive about watching and checking in on other members of the EA community. Of course I don't mean to blame anyone besides myself, only offer points for improvement. By the way, Matheny, Shulman and MacAskill certainly did nothing wrong. 

My decision to study computer science instead of going straight into the workforce was definitely bad in hindsight. I'm pretty confident that I would have performed decently in finance, as I perform well in my current job. Moreover, the FTX crash means that the advice against earning to give was not so good in hindsight - and honestly, if anyone had told me in 2016 that the reason the EA community was "talent, not funding constrained" was primarily because of a single wealthy cryptocurrency investor then I might have stuck with earning to give, recognizing the risk. Finally, I'm more skeptical nowadays about the idea that certain research programs (e.g. AI safety) are vastly better than others, which makes program management less appealing. 

But I also think I underrated the option of working in program management as a non-scientist. It would have been theoretically a bit worse for my career, and much worse for my ability to speak on unusual ideas like AI x-risk, but better for personal fit. Also, I could have started out in finance while preserving the option to move straight into a non-scientist program management role. Honestly I don't remember any good reason I had for dismissing this career path, except that I was fixated on STEM graduate school as the highest and greatest form of achievement.

Edited to add: I want to be clear, the reason I'm posting pseudonymously is not to hide my identity from the EA community but to hide it from employers, family members and doxxers. My real name is available upon request.

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Thanks for sharing, I thought this was interesting and relatable. 

For what it's worth, you seem like a really committed person to me, so I wouldn't call you lazy (if you're "lazy", why can you work 50 hours and managed to perform well in the military?). In some cheeky sense, you might have benefited from being more lazy and "giving up" sooner, rather than trying to push yourself to make it work for years, always hoping that change is around the corner. 

In my early twenties I also tried to study computer science and programming for similar reasons (AI safety research, EtG potential). I think I basically gave up after like 1-2 weeks because I did not like it. In some sense, you could say that my own laziness saved me from making the potentially huge mistake of pursuing something for a few years and then burning out/getting stuck in the sunk cost fallacy, etc.

Though that's usually not how I view it. Over the years I've often blamed myself for being a lazy quitter and that I should have tried harder back then to study CS. Otoh, stories like yours are (weak) evidence that it probably wouldn't have ended well and that I should be glad to have continued to study where my personal fit was higher even though it was (way) less impactful. 

Anyways, enough rambling about myself. In my book, you tried really hard to have impact and showed real courage in sharing your story. I think you're cool. :)



 

You're absolutely right David - that's a better way to live and I'm happy for you, cheers and thank you for the kind words.

It takes courage to share such detailed stories of goals not going right! Good on you for having the courage to do so :-) 

It seems that two kinds of improvements within EA might be helpful to reduce the probability of other folks having similar experiences. 

Proactively, we could adjust the incentives promoted (especially by high-visibility organisations like 80K hours). Specifically, I think it would be helpful to: 

  • Recommend that early-career folks try out university programs with internships/coops in the field they think they'd enjoy. This would help error-correct earlier rather than later. 
  • Adjust the articles on high-visibility sites to focus less on finding the "most" impactful career path, but instead one of many impactful career paths. I especially say this because sites like 80K hours have gotten a lot more general traffic ever since they vastly increased marketing. When you're reaching a broader target audience (especially for the first time), it's not as essential to urgently direct someone to the exact right career path. It might be a more reasonable goal to get them thinking about a few options. Then, those who want to refine their plan can be directed to more specialised resources within EA (ex: biosecurity -> reading list).

To be more specific about what I mean by making content focus on "one of many impactful paths," here are examples of content rewrites on 80K hour's career reviews:

Original: "The highest-impact career for you is the one that allows you to make the biggest contribution to solving one of the world’s most pressing problems."

Rewrite: The highest-impact career for you depends on your unique skills and motivations. Out of the careers that suit you, which ones increase your contributions to solving one of the world's most pressing problems?

 

Original: "Below we list some other career paths that we don’t recommend as often or as highly as those above, but which can still often be top options for people we advise."

Rewrite: Below, we list some career paths that we recommend less frequently than those above. However, they might specifically be a good fit for your unique preferences. 

 

Original: "The lists are based on 10 years of research and experience advising people, and represent the careers it seems to us will be most impactful over the long run if you get started on them now — though of course we can’t be sure what the future holds."

Rewrite: None, the ending clause on uncertainty is good :-) 

 

Reactively, various efforts have been trying to improve mental health support within EA. I look forward to seeing continued progress in creating easily-accessible collections of resources!

Thanks for the kind words Madhav, but I do disagree:

Recommend that early-career folks try out university programs with internships/coops in the field they think they'd enjoy. This would help error-correct earlier rather than later. 


I imagine that's already suggested somewhere in the career guides, anyway it's exactly what I did - as I pivoted my goals in the final year of undergrad I became a computer science research assistant and took courses like linear algebra and intro to machine learning, then did data science bootcamp over the summer. I believed I knew from experience that these were tough but survivable experiences.

I think most people would have error corrected in the same situation; few people would be as stubborn/selfless as I was. 

Adjust the articles on high-visibility sites to focus less on finding the "most" impactful career path, but instead one of many impactful career paths. 

My impression of public EA career advice is that it is mostly fine. At the time, I sometimes derided it for being too meek, and consciously held myself to a stricter standard than the vibe of 80k Hours. Had I read your rewrites I would have ignored them. I believed in utilitarianism long before I read 80k Hours.

I also relate a lot due to my PhD experience. Thanks so much for writing this, I’m glad you got out of it as well.

Maybe the lesson here is that we should be more proactive about watching and checking in on other members of the EA community

I think that’s a really good idea. While people saw my struggles during my PhD, I think there was never a real intervention of someone talking it out systematically with me. I haven’t followed up on their work, but maybe this project is covering something like this and is still ongoing/worth expanding? https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/2jWLvBH8abzscDbPs/announcing-effective-dropouts

I love this. I want to be their ambassador and give speeches in elementary schools.

Thank you for this article; I am currently navigating a similar situation. I am still waiting to find myself in a sufficiently favorable position to introduce myself in this forum.

While I enjoy learning, I'm not particularly fond of examinations. Nevertheless, this aversion didn't hinder me from earning my mathematics degree. My initial job was in the government for the developing country where I reside. In my second and current position, I briefly served as a software engineer and am currently engaged as a product designer.

One of the driving forces behind my work is the knowledge and understanding of the impact I make on people's lives, prioritizing it over the profit generated for the consultancy firm. I feel fortunate and grateful that the startup environment has afforded me the opportunity to delve into various areas, such as operations, marketing, and shaping the company's culture. However, hitting the proverbial ceiling brings about significant disruption, affecting not only one's daily tasks but also one's mental state so I can relate to your sense of losing status and achievements.

Fortunately, my love for growth prompted me to consider pursuing a master's degree, aligning with both human-centered design experience and my Mathematics background. However, upon reflection, I realized that my goals did not align with the company's current stage and the absence of senior management support for my career progression.

I discovered effective altruism while working on my dissertation proposal, and it's a bonus to find a community with individuals like yourself. Thank you

I see elements of a common story in EA: I'm ok at X and EA needs more X, so that's what I'll do, even thought I'm not super passionate about it. The value to the world will make up for my lack of enthusiasm. I will make a sacrifice for the greater good.

This is a noble ideal, but in practice, I've never seen it sustained over the long term. There are a lot of ways to contribute to EA, and while some on paper might look more effective than others, intrinsic motivation dwarfs any of those differences. As long as you are choosing from the options within EA (or whatever you feel is effective), finalizing based on your internal compass is the way to go.

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm confident it will help others "fail faster" and avoid spending too long on a path that doesn't work for them.

In the broader economy there are a lot of people who successfully do a job they're not super passionate for many decades, simply because they don't have much choice. Even inside EA there are a lot of roles that look just like an ordinary job at an ordinary corporation, except the employer is an EA org. If ordinary people, often viewing their jobs as a necessary evil to pay the bills rather than a vocation, manage to make entire careers doing those jobs, it's a bit surprising if EAs can't manage to do the same thing. Perhaps EAs have such good alternative options that this looks less attractive on a relative basis?

I generally agree, but can see a few reasons this might be somewhat different in the EA population:

People in the ordinary economy who "successfully do a job they're not super passionate" about may not do that job very well. If your job is about advertising consumer goods or something, you are less likely to feel distressed by being a mediocre performer than if your job involves an EA cause area.

Most people have enough occupational flexibility to avoid jobs that are particularly ill-suited for them (e.g., that are too unstructured, too social, too mathematical, etc.). Indeed, many can choose (at some point) between several career fields with roughly equal pay and may be able to pick a field they are relatively well-suited for even if they lack any passion for that line of work. To the extent people feel they ought work in one of a very few number of fields or roles, the risk that they've talked themselves into something they are ill-suited for increases.

I think this is mostly true, but doesn't seem to take into account that it is possible (I claim) and not unlikely (I speculate) that people develop a passion for something while they work on it. So I would still want people to try their hand at things that might not intuitively seem super appealing to them, ideally with cheap tests and iterative depth.

Sure, I'm all for trial and error. But the key is to "fail fast." If you're white-knuckling it—or even just drifting along not really engaged—for months on end, it's time to make a change.

I think it’s good to remember that personal fit isn’t just about happiness, it’s also about how good you will be at the job over the long-term.

That’s true but in my experience the two are related. Things you care about you’ll be better at and vice versa. The protagonist from Good Will Hunting is the exception, not the rule

Thanks for sharing! I find these stories quite informative. Sure, you are only one person, but you also provide lots of detail, which makes it easier to know what is generalisable or not.

For several following years I was in the shameful situation of NEET, i.e. unemployed and hardly doing anything productive while staying in my parents' house.

In case anyone is wondering, NEET stands for not in education, employment, or training.

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