Today is my two-year anniversary with EA NYC, where I serve as director. To say I've learned a lot would be a tremendous understatement. The more visible parts of that learning are often technical: who's doing what in which organization, why [niche thing I'd never heard of] is actually really important, what mentorship opportunities exist for people with [these very specific qualities], how to wrangle 100+ people into a group photo and still have everyone visible. (I've gotten super good at that last part!) But I've also learned—or relearned—some much larger life lessons.
None of the below lessons are wholly novel, but I think they're worth stating for the broader community. Regardless of where I personally am in five or ten years, I think this is a list I'll return to. The contents are simple but so, so easy to forget. Without further ado, here are ten major lessons I've from my tenure thus far:
1. Many people who want to do good in the world feel alone as a result
Through my role with EA NYC, I'm often among people's first touchpoints with the EA community. I constantly have conversations with people who feel deeply unfulfilled in their life and their life's work, with an underlying knowledge they're not currently doing much of meaning. Often, they are in their 30s or 40s. Often, they are—or think they are—the only one in their circles who wants to do something that matters. To them, even just learning the EA community exists feels like a door into a new world, one where they no longer need to feel deeply alone in their desire to do good. There are many people who want to do good and are willing to devote their lives to it, it's just a matter of finding them and helping them believe it's possible. Which leads me to:
2. Extremely impressive people have imposter syndrome
I routinely speak with extremely accomplished individuals who I'm so excited to have join the community and have multiple promising routes to impact lying before them. Yet, they profoundly question their abilities. More than once, I've felt quietly intimidated while speaking to someone, only to have them then ask me, "Is there a place for me in EA? Do you think someone like me has anything to bring to the table?" People you would least expect are plagued by self-doubt. People with a range of backgrounds and skill sets are nearly universally poorly calibrated when it comes to their own potential. As a result:
3. People often want "permission" to do good
Many people are waiting for an external green light to signal "you can do something that matters." Others, like the SuccessIf advising team, have explained this concept more in-depth than I will here. In a word, people often want an external party to say, "Yes, this is okay to do," before they do it. That external validation or assurance can be a deciding factor in whether or not they take an action. And as community builders and community members, it's our job to provide that permission slip, reassuring others that their contributions matter, their thinking is rational, and they're not alone in this journey.
Tangentially, I worry that EA's focus on professionalized channels toward improving the world further fosters "permission culture" in comparison to, for example, grassroots social movements. A job offer should not be a prerequisite to making an impact, and a rejection letter certainly shouldn't stop you from picking up your phone and calling your elected official or volunteering for a human challenge trial. Being able to keep going and keep believing in your ability to have an impact can mean recognizing that:
4. Tempering rejection is a learned skill
A lot of my observations above come back to a fear of rejection. Rejection, in any form, can sting. And it's already a big topic in EA, with posts like The Cost of Rejection, Recovering from Rejection, and Celebrating Rejection, among many others. The ability to temper rejection is a muscle, and if you don't exercise it, you'll be weak when rejection hits. With time and exposure, resilience builds. Every "no" can be a stepping stone to a future "yes," teaching us persistence, refining our approaches, and reminding us that we're on a journey. And it's even more important to be okay with rejection or failure because:
5. There are no adults in the room
This realization can be both liberating and terrifying. If you're in any room long enough, you're likely to realize there isn’t a higher authority with a plan, and often the people you previously assumed were the adults are also just figuring things out as they go along. I've experienced it in basically every room I've entered and, for me, it underscores the importance of taking initiative and not waiting for someone else to provide answers. But it also doesn't replace seeking out and actively cultivating a base of experts because:
6. Getting adults in the room requires making room
If we want experienced voices and guiding hands, we have to create an environment that welcomes them. There are experienced professionals who are aligned with EA principles. We just haven't prioritized creating a hospitable community for them. Experience becomes all the more important when dealing with novel terrain as:
7. Blank slates are scarier for some than others
In EA, we pride ourselves on seeking out the neglected and figuring out how to take action where no action has been taken before. We often operate without templates, and consequently without the "permission" of a path someone else has already paved. Some people love this. Some people completely freak out. It's okay to say, "I'm just a kid and I need an adult in the room." On the topic of who is in the room:
8. Inclusivity requires exclusivity
To cultivate a truly inclusive environment, you need to set boundaries. This can mean excluding behaviors, attitudes, or even individuals that threaten the integrity of an inclusive space. When determining if someone should be allowed in a space, we often focus on that individual but overlook those who are absent due to their presence. In EA, we may need to be more vigilant about exclusive inclusivity because:
9. People who care a lot can be easy targets for predators
People with predatory inclinations are often drawn to communities that pride themselves on their empathy, their compassion, and their altruism. Such communities can become easy prey for those with ulterior motives because they have a deep culture of trust. Vigilance and education are key to ensuring that the very qualities that make our community strong do not become its vulnerabilities. Leaders and members alike must remain aware and proactive in safeguarding the integrity and safety of our community. It's crucial to build communities where people can be both caring and cautious. A somewhat more lighthearted word of caution:
10. You will run into your ex at EAG, or: Social/professional divides are hard without active effort
Is that okay to say on the Forum? But truly, the worlds of our personal and professional lives can blur, especially in tight-knit communities like the EA movement. Navigating this requires active and continuous effort in drawing and respecting boundaries. Proceed with the understanding your partner may become your ex and you will run into your ex at EAG, not just this year but next year, and the year after, and the year after that. Some of the blurring of the personal and the professional may be unavoidable, but recognizing that means we can take active steps to mitigate its more treacherous manifestations. I recommend reading Julia Wise's Power dynamics between people in EA at least twice a year! And establishing trusted sounding boards outside of EA to sanity-check any big decisions you make that may have professional implications down the line.
This list, of course, is just a small snippet into the wealth of insight the EA community continues to offer me. I feel incredibly grateful I get to spend every day serving and learning from this community, and especially grateful I get to work alongside the rest of the EA NYC team. ❤️ Thank you for these past two years, and cheers to hopefully many more!