What drew me to EA: Reflections on EA as relief, growth, and community

by vaidehi_agarwalla4 min read26th Mar 20215 comments


Community ExperiencesCommunity

In this post, I want to share my outlook on discovering EA, and my early experiences in the community. For those who don’t know me, hello! My name is Vaidehi. I work on a few independent community projects such as the EA Hub and the EA Fellowship Weekend. I have a background in sociology and have done some work on understanding the careers advice landscape and community building theory.

I share this for a couple of reasons:

  • I haven't seen some of these points discussed a lot, at least not publicly and/or recently
  • I've found it useful to read about other people's different experiences, particularly when I was newer to the community

The following is a series of related but somewhat unordered thoughts.

EA as relief

There seems to be a somewhat prevalent experience that people feel overwhelmed or guilty about not doing enough when they first discover EA.[1] I have never felt this way. As someone from a developing country, it's normal to be accustomed to many of the inequalities of the world. Seeing the contrast between Singapore (where I grew up) and India it was easy to understand, more viscerally, the suffering present, and the scale of that suffering. What always motivated me was that my life was really good in most ways, and many others’ lives were not. It seems natural that we should spend most of our resources fixing that until the injustice is rectified. Seeing the inefficiencies and limitations of many charities first-hand growing up, it was obvious to me that this should be done as effectively as possible.

Discovering GiveWell was a relief. Not only was there an entire organisation that actually cared about having an impact, but through GiveWell, I also found there was the whole field of developmental economics dedicated to it, with research organizations like JPAL and on-the-ground charities. And later, through 80,000 Hours, I learnt that there was already a framework for evaluating different causes and career paths and planning your carer strategically - a convenient starting point to build off of, rather than trying to figure it all out from scratch.

On a related note, I was surprised and disappointed by the lack of discussion about the developing world in my American undergraduate college, and frustrated by the prevalent discourse norms. In EA, I found a group of people who cared about the whole world, not just their small part of it, and who didn’t need to agree on everything be part of the same community.

Most of all, what made EA compelling to me was that people actually cared about the pursuit of truth - about getting things right even when it wasn’t convenient. GiveWell's mistakes page was a really important example of this in action. Why would an organization - and a charity at that - put their mistakes out in the open, unless they really cared about improving and doing better?

I still had a lot of questions and concerns, but what kept me engaging was the fact that whenever I’d have a doubt, I’d dig deeper and find that there was more to the conversation. (I still have concerns, but now I’m working to improve them directly.)

As an aside, I am also not very motivated by the opportunity framing of EA - the idea that one cause or intervention is 100 or 1000 times better than another, which creates an exciting opportunity to act. To me, a little better is still better. It doesn't really matter if I help 1 or 10 or 10,000 beings, as long as I help as many as I can. I don't care about whether a problem is difficult, or whether there are low hanging fruits. If the problem is important enough, then it's worth trying to solve. Of course, if there are good, or even great, opportunities, it’s a no-brainer to pursue them. I’ve always been quite intervention-agnostic,[2] and EA has helped me to become more cause-agnostic as well.

EA as growth

Discovering EA and 80,000 Hours in particular, (along with reminders from my more ambitious friends) was the kick in the butt to take my career more seriously and to make the most of the opportunity and privileges I had. In my first year of college I preferred to live in the academic bubble and ignore the messy “ugh fields” of the real world, like networking and job applications.

Before discovering EA, I always knew I wanted to do something “good”, but I didn’t have a strong direction. Looking back, I feel embarrassed by my lack of a plan, and all the things I didn’t know that were relevant to my goals: different fields, cause areas, or plausible ways I could influence the world. I didn’t think a lot about moral philosophy (I still try to avoid it if possible), or taking the idea of acting on your moral beliefs more seriously. My knowledge of the world was limited, and EA helped me expand it. Some of these things I would have learnt inevitably, but I often wonder what I would be doing in my spare time if I hadn’t found EA.

There are still many things I am still working on and drawing help from the EA community on such as forecasting, productivity skills and more.

EA as community

In my first interactions with EA in 2018 I didn't really feel like I belonged in the community, I felt like an outsider looking in. My first EA conference was a little intimidating and alienating - I felt like EA was a place for Ivy League graduates with lots of exciting job prospects. Or geniuses who made insightful comments to prominent EA philosophers (this actually happened!). That’s what felt like was valued and high status. I wondered why I had been accepted to the conference at all, and spent much of it attending talks and listening to other people ask Q&As. [3]

It was still a good conference overall, thanks in large part to mealtime conversations -  whether it was the kind operations staff at AMF who asked to eat lunch with me, or a dinner social with a handful of strangers, one of whom is now a good friend. But just as I was beginning to feel comfortable, the conference was over!

Without feeling like I belonged to the community, I was interested in spreading the ideas and intuitions of EA, but not necessarily the community associated with it. I treated EA as one might treat an insightful book- as something to guide you, but not something you need to fully invest in to reap the benefits.

So what changed? What really motivated me to contribute to the EA community was my second EA conference, where I reversed course, attended zero events and spent the whole day talking to people. At that conference, I met many people who shared my concerns and perspectives. I felt like I was actually part of a community, that it was my community, and that it was worth investing time and energy to contribute to it.

If not for that, I think I probably would have gotten on with my life - I’d likely have been influenced to build career capital, and eventually tried to work or donate to more effective charities in the global health space. I may have gotten more involved later on, but possibly not. There is some chance that I would have been on a more effective path - but it would have been a lonelier path, that’s for sure.

  1. If you struggle with this, I recommend the Self-Care tag for useful guidance and insights. ↩︎

  2. I wanted to be a homicide detective until my early teens when my mother pointed out that if I really wanted to help people, I could help a lot more of them through nonprofit work in India. Suffice it to say, my detective career was shelved, and I will never know if I had the potential to be the inspiration for a true crime podcast. ↩︎

  3. All of this contributed to a feeling of aversion towards longtermist causes, which I felt were inextricably tied to this version of EA which I didn’t belong to. It made me feel that if only I were smarter, I would intuitively grasp these concepts and think that longtermism was the natural correct thing to do. (This is not true.) I only properly unpacked my own thoughts on future people and person-affecting views years later, after I’d already been fairly involved in the community for more than two years. ↩︎


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:46 AM
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I wanted to be a homicide detective until my early teens when my mother pointed out that if I really wanted to help people, I could help a lot more of them through nonprofit work in India. Suffice it to say, my detective career was shelved, and I will never know if I had the potential to be the inspiration for a true crime podcast.

Solution: Solve every global problem, in order of priority, until investigating mysterious murders becomes a promising EA cause area. 

...I now feel even more motivated to solve every global problem. This one's for you, Counterfactual Detective Agarwalla.

It's like a secret identity only EAs will understand :D

The "EA as relief" framing resonated with me (though my background is different) and I appreciate your naming it!

I am glad it resonated!