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