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(co-authored by Daniel Wang)

Epistemic status: pretty sure about the problem wasting a lot of people's time (and turning some people away), uncertain about ways to fix it.


  • It seems that people often waste time when discovering EA by being too attached to career plans they had before finding EA.
  • We could try to make this less common by:
    • having facilitators in intro fellowships share their own motivated reasoning upon discovering EA,
    • adding readings about changes in career plan (for instance, the part in Strangers Drowning that talks about Julia Wise or the piece On Saving the World, but the latter doesn't seem newcomer-friendly).

The problem

We've noticed that some people (including ourselves) have a lot of emotional and aesthetic attachment to career ideas, which can bias them when making career choices (overshooting the adjustment that would happen when taking personal fit into account).

(The following two paragraphs are from Nikola's perspective)

For instance, I know one person who, in middle school, decided that the best way to improve the world is to be a scientific researcher and to donate your leftover income to scientific research. Upon going through a The Precipice reading group, this person's assessment of the best way to improve the world had not budged a bit. They locked in their answer about their career plans in middle school. This person has since leaving the reading group not engaged with EA as far as I know.

I personally was very attached to the idea of creating space habitats to reduce x-risk by having a "Plan B" in case something goes wrong on the Earth. I came to the conclusion that this is the best way to improve the world after maybe hours of non-careful consideration, and locked in my answer in middle school. When I discovered EA, it took me months to look at my options more objectively and see that space colonization is not even near the top of the list. I think seeing the part in Strangers Drowning that talks about Julia Wise changing career plans might have helped. Maybe if I had known to look out for motivated reasoning in choosing a career plan, I could have saved a lot of time.

Possible fixes

We're pointing to the fact that priming newcomers to look out for motivated reasoning in their own career planning could save them a lot of time and energy, and maybe prevent some people from leaving EA. We're not certain how to do this effectively though, as there could be some friction in telling people that they could be wrong about something that they're very emotionally invested in.

One way to avoid hurting people's feelings could be to point the barrel at yourself (if applicable) and point out ways your own reasoning was motivated about career plans. This could be very useful for intro fellowship facilitators, who could mention this at the beginning of the fellowship and come back to it from time to time. It would also humanize the facilitator and get across the message that making mistakes is okay and normal, but fixing them is important.

Another way could be to point newcomers to other EAs who have had motivated reasoning and/or big changes in career plans, like Julia Wise or Nate Soares. Probably having some examples of people in more STEM-y subjects would be good (the two people that are mentioned planned to work in social work and politics/economics respectively), and Nikola will probably write a post about their own change in career plan in an attempt to meet some of this need. Also, the post by Nate Soares doesn't seem very newcomer-friendly in its vocabulary, so maybe we need more newcomer-friendly writing about career plan change in general.

Another angle is to look at the probabilities: just what are the odds that, upon some independent consideration and research, someone would find the absolute best way to do good? Of the people who have invested a similar amount of consideration and research, how many are right?

Another way could be to point to scientific studies or rationalist writing about motivated reasoning, but we're not certain how helpful this would be, and we think most people who would get the point of the readings would also get the implication that their own reasoning is motivated and might be insulted.

So, to community builders, it might be helpful to subtly warn newcomers of being too attached to ways to impact the world, and keep in mind that finding out that there are better ways to improve the world than you previously thought is a good thing.





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What I'm hearing in this article is "some people lock in their view of what the best way to improve the world is while they're still in middle school and don't update after that." I agree that's a problem! Encouraging people to consider a variety of careers that could help people and think about what evidence might change their mind definitely seems helpful.

Something this post doesn't acknowledge, but I think is really important, is that doing good isn't the only goal in most people's career choice! Most people want a career that they enjoy and are good at, that pays well and is respected by their family and friends. There can be lots of other more individual factors too.

When I mention my career in EA circles, people often assume that I think my career is the best way to improve the world, without taking my own happiness or any other factors into account. They'll ask questions like, "How did you decide that policy work was the best way for you to do good?" It's often less awkward to just talk about how my job allows me to do good than to talk about how much fun I have working with clever people to make important decisions, how I've been interested in policy since I was a kid, how much I value a stable salary with a generous pension, or the great pay during parental leave.

I wonder if that's sometimes happening in these circles. Maybe your friend who wanted to be a scientist really was 100% interested in improving the world and was frustrated you couldn't see his point of view, but maybe he was just really excited about being a scientist for personal reasons and felt like you were implying he's a bad person for not being willing to give up his life's dream after attending a couple of seminars. I wouldn't be too quick to assume which situation is going on here, and I'd really encourage you when having these conversations to emphasize that people have more than one goal and that's fine.

I am someone who held on to prior career plans after encountering EA for what, in retrospect, feels like too long in light of my goals at the time. So I recognize the phenomenon you're describing in the post, but at the same time I was not interested in re-examining my career when I first encountered EA and I am quite confident that if anyone had tried to directly persuade me that my plans were misguided, it would have turned me off from the movement in much the same way as your friend who left the Precipice reading group. 

For engaging with people who are interested in EA ideas but otherwise similarly stuck on their career plan, I suggest the following:

  • Ask them what role they see their career playing in their life. What are they trying to accomplish with their career? If the answer is anything besides "to have the most impact I can," that probably explains most of the disconnect between what you and they see as ideal career plans. [ETA: Khorton expanded on this idea much more eloquently in another comment.]
  • Ask what they love most about their current work, and what they find limiting or frustrating about it.
  • Ask what else they thought about doing with their lives before settling on their career plan, and what was attractive about those other options. Centering the conversation on paths they already thought about first can help reveal other considerations that their current career is trading off against.
  • At this point, you could ask if they could ever imagine switching to something else in the future. If they say no, they're not ready to have a conversation about it, so just drop it. If they say yes or maybe, they will probably offer some unprompted thoughts on what they might switch to, which can then provide an opening for you to offer ideas that are aligned with the goals they shared with you at the beginning but could be higher-impact than their current option set.

Thinking about other career possibilities is a necessary first step, but for someone anchored on their current career it will likely take some time for them to act on those thoughts. To accelerate the process, you could prompt them (maybe in a subsequent conversation) to think about what circumstances would cause them to actually make a switch. Again, it's crucial to do this in a way that isn't pushy or manipulative -- you need to have achieved some buy-in from them to get to this point rather than jumping straight to it.

Hope that helps!

Some of the comments point out ways that career conversations can go wrong (e.g., people see this as manipulative, people get turned off to EA if someone is telling them they need to change their career). Some comments also point out alternative strategies that would be helpful (e.g., asking people open-ended questions about their career, talking about personal fit/happiness in addition to impact).

With that in mind, I just want to express support for the original strategies endorsed by Nikola and Daniel.

  • having facilitators in intro fellowships share their own motivated reasoning upon discovering EA,
  • adding readings about changes in career plan (for instance, the part in Strangers Drowning that talks about Julia Wise or the piece On Saving the World, but the latter doesn't seem newcomer-friendly).

Both of these strategies seem clever, useful, practical, and unlikely to backfire if implemented well. And both of these seem quite compatible with other techniques (e.g., asking questions, discussing personal fit).

Quick Example of a Strawman and a Steelman of These Strategies

If someone says "well, you just want to be a doctor because of motivated reasoning! I had motivated reasoning too. And you should read this post about other people who had motivated reasoning until they found EA, and then they decided to give up their childhood dreams to do something that was actually impactful." --> This is probably bad

If someone says, "I find thinking about careers really difficult and messy sometimes. I think for a long time, I was set on a particular path, and it took a lot for me to let go of that path. There are also several examples of this happening in the EA community, and I'd be happy to share some of those narratives if you'd find it interesting." --> This is probably good

I'm not sure that "priming newcomers to be suspicious of their pre-career EA plans" is the best framing. It sounds a bit negative and may come off as manipulative, even though that's of course not what you intend.

Thanks, you're completely right, that sounds negative. Changed the title to "Helping newcomers be more objective with career choice", which probably gets across what we're trying to get across better.

I think the new title is better. To nit-pick, "more objective" might imply a sense of "we're right and they're wrong". 

Maybe an alternative could be something like "Helping newcomers feel more comfortable considering new career paths." 

(I don't think you actually need to change the title again-- just throwing this out there because I see how discussions around these kinds of strategies can be perceived as manipulative, and I think the wording/framing we use in group discussions can matter).

Of course, movement building is about promoting ideas/memes. But this is way too much for my taste:

  • First, it sounds like a suboptimal way to attract great people—especially those who think independently. I encourage to think you about a marginal person who would get into EA that way.
  • Second, it is borderline unprofessional for a community builder/career coach to act semi-manipulatively under a hidden agenda.
  • Third, forcing "deconversion" onto people is just beyond reasonable. Maybe I am reading too much into the "problematic example," but giving up your childhood dreams isn't something people should be expected to do after attending a ~random reading group.

Sometimes it might be good to point out motivated reasoning, I can imagine calling someone I know very well on that. Otherwise, I think that it's much better to hold space for their own reflection/weighting of considerations/processing and maybe occasionally help them with open-ended questions (which might kinda point to weaker parts of their reasoning). But even in the latter case of more "motivational interviewing," I personally frame it to myself as "I don't want to play EA with people who don't want to play EA with me on their own."

Is this the relevant passage from Strangers Drowning? If so, I don't find this that compelling for considering totally revamping one's career plans, since it's not clear why her radical new career plan of becoming a psychiatrist is better. As far as I know, Julia's current job at the Centre for Effective altruism is much closer to social work than it is to psychiatry. I think it would be worthwhile to look into other possible readings (or to write one, as Nikola is planning!). I've only skimmed the Julia Wise chapter, so it's possible that I missed something.

It was bad enough to worry about these questions in retrospect, but they became far more pressing when Julia had to think about a career. She wanted to be a social worker—she had wanted to for years—but she could earn far more money doing something else. Was it okay for her to be a social worker anyway? How much was she entitled to consider her own happiness? She could justify not going for the absolute maximum she could earn on the grounds that she would be so crushingly miserable in finance or law that she would have a breakdown within a few years, and then she’d be out the cost of law school or business school or whatever it took to get into the field in the first place. She knew that pushing herself past what she could endure wasn’t going to help anyone. A career had to be sustainable over the long haul. But obviously there were lots of jobs that paid less than finance but more than social work. How could she justify going into a field that paid so little? She struggled with this question for a long time, and though she never did come up with a satisfactory answer, she enrolled in social-work school anyway.

All of this was much less of a problem for Jeff. If he had married someone other than Julia, he thought, he probably would not be spending much more than he was now, he would just be saving the extra rather than giving it away. He wanted to have a pot of money in reserve so he would have more options in the future, and so that, if anything bad happened to his family, he would be able to help. If he hadn’t married Julia, he would have spent a bit more on nicer musical instruments—he especially coveted a new fiddle—and he would have felt freer to quit his job and do something else that paid less. Maybe he would have become a full-time musician or a folk-dance caller. But other than that, his life would be basically the same. He figured he would enjoy any number of different jobs, so he felt free to pick the highest-paid one. He liked working as a programmer, and he imagined that if he had no charitable duties he would probably be doing something pretty similar. It wasn’t hard to make him happy.

While Julia was working on her social-work degree, it occurred to her that she might have enjoyed being a psychiatrist, and psychiatrists earned much more than social workers. That was what she should have done with her life, she realized. But the thought of investing vast sums of money and many years of her life on premed courses and then medical school—years in which, she had reason to believe, she would be utterly miserable and wouldn’t be able to donate anything at all—was too awful to contemplate. Later still, it occurred to her that she could earn more money within social work by becoming one of the despised subspecies that adjudicated claims for insurance companies—those who spent their time denying sick people coverage. The work would be awful, but it would enable her to give a lot more without requiring any additional training, so did she have the right to turn away from it?

The trouble was, she loved her job. Her first position was as a counselor in a prison. Much of the time she couldn’t do very much for the people she talked with—they were in prison, after all—but many of them were so miserable there, and so desperate for kindness, that she saw that just listening to them and being supportive meant quite a bit. And once in a while she felt that something she had said had really helped. One woman in the prison was the daughter of an alcoholic father who had died from the effects of drinking; the father had always told his daughter that her bad behavior had driven him to drink, and the daughter felt dreadful guilt about this, believing that she had effectively killed him. Julia said, What if your father had told his AA group that he drank because of you, that it was all your fault? The daughter at once saw how wrong that would sound to other people, and felt her guilt ease. Moments like that made Julia happy, but she was careful not to let herself get carried away. She was there to think about what her clients needed, not what made her feel good. She wrote in her blog:

This is an ad for a food bank that appears on buses all over Boston. Here we have a pretty young white woman hugging an older white woman. I guess the young woman is supposed to represent the food bank, since she looks happy, whereas the faceless older woman is presumably hungry and therefore in need of comfort. Oh, wait. Except she doesn’t need a hug. She needs groceries. I have a rescue fantasy—what social worker doesn’t? Somewhere inside, we love to believe that we could just hug our clients and make everything better. If we took them home and gave them a good meal and enough sympathy, we believe we could fix everything and earn their undying gratitude. But that is an inside thought. You do not tell your clients about that thought. The point is to help, not to feel helpful. . . . If I needed groceries, would I really want to go someplace where I might get hugged by some misty-eyed young lady with a savior complex? No way.

It's an interesting passage to reference because the moral of this story is almost opposite to what's being suggested in the post. Julia did decide to stay a social worker, even though she believed at the time being a social worker would be less impactful, because she loved her job.

Thanks for this post! I agree this is a problem, and the solution of talking about yours or others' career changes or motivated reasoning seems promising.

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