This is my contribution to the January edition of "Figuring Good Out", entitled "Origin Stories".
Many people think of effective altruism as some sort of sacrifice -- you have to give up income and time in some sort of moral obligation to make the world a better place. I think this approach is misguided. Instead, I think being an EA is the best choice I've ever made for myself, personally and selfishly.
In the most upvoted post on this forum so far, Helen Toner wrote that effective altruism is a question, not an ideology. This is true -- but EA is also a network of people unified by the desire to answer these questions and act upon those answers.
I think being a part of that network of passionate people has been awesome.
It all really started back in 2009, when I was 17. That's when I first started writing, working on a blog I made called Greatplay.net. It was mostly whatever I found interesting, without much of a unifying purpose. But then things changed.
No, it wasn't effective altruism. Not yet. Instead, at the time, it was atheism.
In the fall of 2010, I read Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God and Nicholas Everitt’s The Nonexistence of God. I can’t say that I believed in God prior to reading these books, but I definitely didn’t believe in God after reading these books, and I promptly shifted my blog to a large discussion of why that was the case.
Philosophy of religion mattered a lot to me then, and I wrote about it frequently. Around this time, I got involved with the community website Less Wrong.
In the fall of 2011, things changed again. I read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. For the second time in my life, reading books changed everything. I continued to see some harm in religion, but this was dwarfed dramatically by the harms that come from factory farming and global poverty. I almost immediately resolved to stop eating meat and donate some of my income to effective non-profits in the third world.
When I was first going through the phase where I was excited about atheism, one of the topics most frequently on my mind was how to find purpose without a god to look up to. I found humanism as a temporary answer to this question, but I wasn't satisfied until I found effective altruism. I finally had a chance to make a meaningful impact in the world, which is what I always wanted.
Over the summer of 2012, I got involved in Felicifia, a utilitarian forum, and spoke to many of the people there. Around the same time, I joined Giving What We Can a little later, and pledged to donate 10% of my income.
I continued to blog, but shifted my topics immediately to that of effective altruism.
Eventually, in the winter of 2012, I summoned the courage to post some of my EA writing to LessWrong. There, it was noticed by Michelle Hutchinson, who graciously invited me to write for the Giving What We Can blog. I enjoyed this, and built a relationship with the people there.
Eventually, I heard that Giving What We Can was offering internships. I already had an internship lined up at the time, but I immediately (and politely) dashed it for the chance to spend a summer in Oxford working for Giving What We Can full-time for Summer 2013.
I met many amazing people there and had many amazing discussions. While working there, I also met Joey, Xio, and Tom, who became some of my best friends and I've enjoyed being able to collaborate with them on Charity Science.
After Giving What We Can, I went back to college to finish my last year, sad that I couldn't stay longer in Oxford.
Throughout college, I had been studying political science. Prior to being exposed to EA, I was really excited about becoming a political science professor someday. After being exposed to EA, I thought about ways through which being a professor could make the world a better place.
Sometime in Spring 2013, I had a Skype with Will Macaskill. I told him about my plan to make the world a better place through political science. He was very polite, but skeptical. I suddenly realized that my plan had to change.
While working for Giving What We Can, I undertook a personal career search and had a few career advising sessions with 80,000 Hours. I finally narrowed things down to five potential careers. I posted about this on LessWrong.
A few days into posting about my careers on LessWrong, a user there -- who was a total stranger to me at the time -- reached out and offered to talk to me about one of the jobs I indicated, which was computer programming. His name was Rob. That initial reach out then solidified into dedicated programming tutoring, for free.
Eventually, I learned that the company Rob worked for was looking for interns. Rob encouraged me to apply and offered to submit my resume internally. Three interviews over the next three weeks and I had the internship. The internal referral came from an EA and the skills I needed to get through the interview were due to coaching by an EA. In fact, my entire inspiration for looking for a career in computer programming was due to the EAs I already knew in the field telling me it was promising.
I enjoy my job. I'm working now as a data scientist, and the work environment is fun, the problems are challenging, and I like my co-workers. If I didn't know any EAs, I'd probably be in graduate school right now, and I think that would be a lot less fun.
Thanks to the EA network, I've had an incredible opportunity to do good in ways I never thought were possible. But I've had more than that. I've made great friendships. I got my first career, and a network to help me find dozens more jobs if I ever need them. I have a support network for guidance.
I've lost count of the number of times I've asked for help on something and received it because that person was an EA and I was an EA too. It's been phenomenal to be a part of a network where we truly have the same goals, and helping out other people in the network is just as good as helping myself.
I'm excited for the chance to be in the EA network. I think it's been great for me, and I can't wait to see what comes next.
Great to hear your backstory Peter!
I find it hard to explain to others (and sometimes even hard to fully understand myself) how in some basic sense earning to give (and EA involvement more generally) is an entirely fulfilling (and in some strange way selfish) pursuit. I can't imagine I would be happier or feel like i had a richer life if I spent more money on myself. Nice how these things work out eh!