[Podcast] Having a successful career with anxiety, depression, and impostor syndrome

by Aaron Gertler2 min read24th May 20213 comments

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Effective altruism lifestyleSelf-care80,000 HoursAudio
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Note: 80,000 Hours wants to keep the interviewee's name off of Google in this context. You can use "Howie" in comments, but please don't use his surname. We'll redact the surname if any comment happens to use it (but won't otherwise change the comment).


I'm linking to one of my favorite 80,000 Hours podcast episodes ever — not only because the topic seems important and broadly relevant, but because some of the interviewee's advice was directly applicable to problems I was experiencing and problems I've been working through with friends who are struggling.

I'd honestly recommend the episode to basically anyone in or out of EA, with a few caveats:

  • As 80,000 Hours notes, the conversation gets pretty intense. See the end of the quote below for advice on working around the most intense bits.
  • The podcast goes on at length about the ways in which the EA community can be deeply supportive of people struggling with mental illness. I can imagine parts of it being a difficult listen for people who either (a) spend a lot of their time in other communities that aren't so supportive, or (b) haven't gotten the same kind of support from within the EA community. In either case, I can imagine some of the advice not being very applicable, and this being frustrating.

Points that especially resonated for me:

  • Your friends may not be available all the time, but they'll almost always want to help in some way. Consider ways that even a few minutes per day of a friend's time could be good for you.
  • If you're struggling to get something done, and you're about to spend hours worrying about it or frantically churning out a terrible version of it before some arbitrary deadline... well, I'll quote the podcast:
    • Sometimes you can literally just write a one sentence email that’s like, “Hey, I’m not going to get to this for a week. I’m sorry,” and that clears the whole thing. The person writes back, “That’s totally fine,” and you don’t have to feel bad about it at all anymore. And nobody was ever upset.

Episode description

Mental illness is one of the things that most often trips up people who could otherwise enjoy flourishing careers and have a large social impact, so we think this could plausibly be one of our more valuable episodes.

[...]

We also hope that the episode will:

  1. Help people realise that they have a shot at making a difference in the future, even if they’re experiencing (or have experienced in the past) mental illness, self doubt, imposter syndrome, or other personal obstacles.

Give insight into what it’s like in the head of one person with depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome, including the specific thought patterns they experience on typical days and more extreme days. In addition to being interesting for its own sake, this might make it easier for people to understand the experiences of family members, friends, and colleagues — and know how to react more helpfully.

Several early listeners have even made specific behavioral changes due to listening to the episode — including people who generally have good mental health but were convinced it’s well worth the low cost of setting up a plan in case they have problems in the future.

So we think this episode will be valuable for:

  • People who have experienced mental health problems or might in future;
  • People who have had troubles with stress, anxiety, low mood, low self esteem, imposter syndrome and similar issues, even if their experience isn’t well described as ‘mental illness’;
  • People who have never experienced these problems but want to learn about what it’s like, so they can better relate to and assist family, friends or colleagues who do.

In other words, we think this episode could be worthwhile for almost everybody.

Just a heads up that this conversation gets pretty intense at times, and includes references to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

If you don’t want to hear or read the most intense section, you can skip the chapter called ‘Disaster’. And if you’d rather avoid almost all of these references, you could skip straight to the chapter called ‘80,000 Hours’.

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:57 AM
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I found that this episode increased my faith in the EA community a little bit. One of my caricatures of other EAs when I first found the community was "it's good these people exist but they'd make terrible friends because they're so impartial they'd leave me in a rut to squeeze the epsilon out of an EV that bears a resemblance to a probability." 

It was a bit of an (irrational?) fear that EAs and EA orgs were constituted by hyper-utilitarians that'd sacrifice their friends / employees if the felicific calculus didn't add up. 

But most people I've met in (at least my section of) the EA community have been unusually kind  and compassionate people. Some I am very glad to call my friends.  And I don't think they would jettison me if I gained a debilitating illness, which makes me more motivated to do good. 

Note: Of course there's instrumental utilitarian reasons to act in a manner more consistent with commonsense decency.

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This made me want to hear more narratives and cases like this that give a helpful but honest report of what someone's experience of mental health was like. I've thus far avoided the extant literature out of a fear that reading / listening to cases of people experience severe mental illness would degrade my own well-being. 

In particular, I'd like to hear about other people in the EA community and hear more stories (there've kind of been a few on the forum) who weren't as lucky as Howie. 

Instrumental utilitarian reasoning aside, it makes sense that people whose common traits include:

a) An unusually high degree of altruism, often driven by compassion, and

b) A feeling that only a small number of people share some of their fundamental values

...would be exceptionally altruistic and compassionate towards the people around them, and also feel a special sense of kinship with people who share said values (even if those people weren't their friends).

I understand where the "terrible friends" caricature comes from, but I feel like it's a meta-caricature that goes too many levels deep: people in EA usually aren't that impartial, because it's very hard for humans to do that, and the "unusually high compassion" trait tends to pull a lot more weight (at least in my experience — like any community, EA hasn't been a good place for some people, and indeed, not all are as lucky as Howie).

I'm so grateful to Howie for sharing this. In these last few years of figuring out who I am/how I could be of "some actual use" - I spent months caught in the depths of an existential depression. 

As an EA, you tell yourself that all the risks and personal sacrifices you make are fine, because if they pay off, they'll be so helpful for a world in dire need. But our brains certainly didn't evolve to be exclusively logical - and every inevitable failure is just more fuel for that part of your head that loves to wake you up at 3am to tell you that you're a "worthless f-----g idiot."[1]

For me, it got bad enough where I turned into a hermit. The walls of my childhood bedroom basically became the borders encompassing my world. I was reading all day, even when I didn't want to, just to try to make sense of human life. My brain was all over the place. I learned a lot more about suicide methods than I'm proud to admit.

But that was a while ago. These days, with the help of a wonderful psychologist[3] and a daily dose of vitamin Z[4], I'm happy to say I'm doing MUCH better. Not perfect of course, but reasonably happy.

Just getting to hear about someone else going through similar things was incredibly validating and comforting. Thank you so much, Howie.

[1] wow, thanks for letting me know![2] Can I go back to sleep now?[3]
[2] (yet again)
[3] (no? great!)
[3] who I sort of developed a secret crush on for about a year - so yeah, that was funny. 
[4] I always loved those commercials with the little Zoloft sadness rock when I was a kid - had no idea that little guy was going to turn out to be me.