A friend of mine who is into EA said a few days ago that he thinks most people cannot have an impact, because to have an impact you need to be among the 0.1%-1% best in your field. I have encountered this thought in quite a few people in/interested in EA, some of whom say that this thought has dragged them down a lot. When I led an EA career workshop for students who received the Studienstiftung scholarship, one of my participants who had just realised he could have a lot more impact if he switched career paths, said to me something along the lines of: “Oh man, what I have been doing was worthless”. I replied: “Ehm no it wasn’t? :) You seem to have improved lives noticeably. The fact that there are better opportunities than what you did does not take away that value. In fact, it’s because improving even a single life is valuable that the best opportunities are so incredibly valuable.” 80k (probably rightly so) seeks to focus on the top 1%, but that does not mean that you cannot have (a lot of) impact if you are less good at what you do.
Here is what I think is going on when people despair about their impact. I think our ability to feel what “unusually high impact” means is very limited. Our head knows that there is a big difference between saving a few people and saving a multitude of people, but our heart doesn’t quite get it. So what some people in EA then seem to do is this: They assign the value level “maximally valuable” to the most impactful thing someone could do - so far, so good. But then when they encounter a lower level of impact (such as saving one life), they reduce their value judgment by however lower the impact is compared to the highest possible impact. This leaves them with an inappropriately low judgement of value for this impact, because our judgement of value for the highest impact possible was way too low to start with. It's the opposite to what people outside of EA tend to do - (correctly) give a lot of value to saving one life but not scaling this judgement up appropriately. I think it's possible to avoid both mistakes - at least, I think that I am able to avoid them both.
I think underestimating the value of significant but non-maximal impact is a problem. For one thing, it’s a misconception and misconceptions are rarely helpful. Second, I think this is probably bad for the mental health and productivity of our movement, because it de-motivates and saddens people. Third, it probably affects not only people who have “average” talent, whatever that means, but also those who are in fact excellent at something but who think of themselves as average. There seem to be a lot of people like this in EA. Fourth, I think it’s bad for public relations because it can make people feel useless and can come across as arrogant.
How do we fix this misconception? I hope that this post helps a bit with that - what follows are some other ideas. Perhaps the idea I’m presenting here, or related ones, could be included in the mental health workshops at EA conferences together with CBT and ACT methods for those who want more help emotionally distancing themselves from this or other unhelpful thoughts. Movement builders could watch out for this misunderstanding and correct it, like I did at the workshop I mentioned above. Maybe EA-related websites could include the idea somewhere, such as in their FAQs. I don’t know how much these things would help, but my personal experience with clarifying this misconception to people has been positive.
Thanks to Rob Long for helping me improve this post!
I fully agree! It's certainly possible to have a lot of impact if your skills are average! And any amount of impact matters by definition. I suspect that it doesn't always seem like it because people tend to try to have impact in only the more established, direct ways. Or because some average-skilled people don't want to acknowledge that others are more suited for certain projects. I like the framework introduced by Ryan Carey and Tegan McCaslin here. One of the steps is "Get humble: Amplify others’ impact from a more junior role."
I also like to think of EA (and life in general) as a video game with varying difficulty levels, and if your skills are only average (or you suffer from mental health issues more so than others), you're playing at a higher level of difficulty and you can't expect to earn the same amount of (non-adjusted) points. Upwards comparisons don't make sense for that reason!
Here are two posts from Wei Dai, discussing the case for some things in this vicinity (renormalizing in light of the opportunities):
Thanks for posting this -- I think this might be a pretty big issue and I'm glad you've had success helping reduce this misconception by talking to people!
As for explanations as to why it is happening, I wonder if in addition to what you said, it could be that because EA emphasises comparing impact between different interventions/careers etc. so heavily, people just get in a really compare-y mindset, and end up accidentally thinking that comparing well to other interventions is itself what matters, instead of just having more impact. I think improved messaging could help.
Yeah, I’m super noncompetitive, and yet, when I fear that I might replace someone who would’ve done a better job – be it because there is no interview process or I don’t trust the process to be good enough – I get into this compare-y mindset and shy away from it completely.
Being judgey toward oneself or others for being only able to contribute an average or below average amount is of course bad. EA should be about making the most efficient use of the resources (money, talent, etc.) that you have. Any other attitude is plainly self-defeating.
I'm not sure how much I agree with the premise that only the top 1% of a field have a major impact though. I think we should all be humble about how much we really know about the influence we have. There are so many unknowns that it is possible that the "biggest impact" interventions will backfire spectacularly. Also, in some fields , the most prestigious positions (professors at R1 universities) are not always the same as the most influential (often in private industry or government). The most talented people usually go for prestige over influence. Similarly, not-particularly talented people might find high degrees of influence in unexpected places. For example, mobilizing your local government to make a positive change can be achievable for many people who don't have any extraordinary skills and can be a catalyst for more widespread change.
A couple reasons to be skeptical of the "top 1%" idea:
It does seem true that some people are much more famous than others, but I don't think we can trust the distribution of fame to accurately reflect the distribution of contributions. The famous CEO may get all the credit, but maybe they couldn't have done it without a whole host of key employees.
Even if the distribution of actual contributions is skewed, that doesn't mean we can reliably predict the big contributors in advance. I found this paper which says work sample tests used in hiring ("suggested to be among the most valid predictors") only weakly correlate with job performance. Speaking for myself, a few years ago some EAs I respected told me "John, I don't think you are cut out for X." That sounded plausible to me at the time, but I decided to take a shot at X anyways, and I now believe their assessment was incorrect.
Longer exposition here.
But at the end of the day, constantly comparing yourself to others is not a good mental habit. Better to compare yourself with yourself. Which version of yourself will do more good: The version of yourself which wallows in despair, or the version of yourself which identifies people you think are doing great stuff and asks "Is there something I can do to help?" Last I checked, we have long lists of EA project ideas which aren't getting worked on.
I think the most important message in your message is the one about doing the most with the resources that one has. I think there is a form of contentment that should be highly rewarded socially. I for one am very impressed when I see someone who is not in the top ~ 1% and yet is motivated to do their best. (I want to be like that too.)
Yet I want to add a less important note to the second part: Very impactful roles (I’m thinking of the world at large here, not EA) tend to filter for people with a certain recklessness. A certain president comes to mind, but I even think that someone as skilled as Elon Musk has so far probably had a vastly net-negative impact. So there is a separate skill of thoughtfulness that might have a huge effect on one’s impact too.
Individuals in common (or "average") roles can also make having an impact seem to be more accessible — and a more-compelling moral necessity — to others who have typical, or even outstanding, resources to make a difference.
For example, the Washington Post noted that this waiter's and part-time teacher's financial support of low-income students in Ghana inspired both his friends and wealthy members at the country club where he works to also donate. While bed nets or other investments may be higher value from an EA perspective, this is still an interesting case study of an average-income person (from a U.S. perspective) having impact well beyond his own professional work or ETG capacity:
I really appreciate your sharing a story that I probably wouldn't have seen in my other reading. Regardless of the details of where he donated, interesting case studies of philanthropic success can be valuable to the EA movement in many ways.
Thanks so much for the kind feedback, Aaron! Here's one involving a cataloguer at a library in the "unexpectedly significant financial impact from a person with average income, in a U.S. context, category" — in case anyone finds it interesting: Librarian Quietly Saved $4 Million, Left It to School Where He Worked. Some might see it as a cautionary tale, since Morin's alma mater was then criticized for spending $1M on a video scoreboard for its college football team. Of course I think many of us would've wished he'd encountered EA and saved >1,000 lives in expectation from the gift (by offering it to AMF or an EA charity of your choice) instead.
A brief synopsis of his humble life and outsized impact comes from this CNBC report:
I think I basically agree with you here. I don't have much to say by way of positive proposals, but maybe this blog post is helpful: http://mindingourway.com/the-value-of-a-life/ Basically, the value of a life should be measured in stars (or something even bigger!), even though the price of a life should be measured in dollars or work-hours. Thus if you do something impactful but less-than-maximally impactful, you should still feel proud, because e.g. the life you contributed to saving is immensely, astronomically valuable.
Thanks for bringing this up. I've been mulling on this for a while and might write something myself. A couple of thoughts.
If you discover you could be doing a lot more good than you currently are, you could have (at least) two reactions: disappointment that you haven't been doing more in the past and/or excitement that you could do better in the future. Both of these perspectives are valid and it seems you could focus on either one.
For those who, like me, tend to find it quite easy to be disappointed with and hard on themselves, I might help to think "well, the past has happened. There's nothing you can do about that now. So let's look to the future."
The title of this post made me think you were going to talk about something else, which is whether those who aren't in the top 1% of a given field (I suppose this most naturally applies in academia) have very little impact. I don't know if this is true - it's certainly the sort of thing people believe, but it might just be folk wisdom.
It does strike me as true that the people at the top of a field have a disproportionate share of the impact.
What does that imply you should do if you're not in the top 1% and what to do the most good? Well, maybe you should keep going in your field but maybe you should switch. Depends on context.
A totally separate question is how you should feel if you aren't one of those people having a huge impact.
I take it I should be trying to do the most good I can do, emphasis on the 'I'. I can't be anyone else, so it's irrelevant, in some important sense, whether or not others do more (or less). The right comparison is between how much you do in your actual life compared to the other lives you could have led. The important bit is that I am trying my best. Nothing more can be asked because nothing more can be given.
Random thought related to activities that require little skill but feel meaningful and arguably contribute to the broad project of EA: I sometimes find myself wondering how I can be one among at best a handful of people who publicly celebrate and cheer for some EA-related work or project. For example a couple of months ago I was part of a small audience for a public talk by an AI researcher who shared advice and talked about her work. The talk itself was interesting and useful for me, but it also felt really meaningful and positive to spend some thoughts and emotions just celebrating her work, feeling grateful that there’s one more person with altruistic intentions and the competence to do difficult things, and me being able to radiate some positivity and gratitude in her general direction. I have the impression that we would be an even nicer community if we did more of this and that simply doing this is already a meaningful and noteworthy contribution.
ETA: Thanks a lot for writing this, Fabienne. I relate a lot to experiencing drops in self-worth because of comparisons with people that in expectation are able to have much more positive impact than I, and also know of others who experience the same, which as you say is really unfortunate.
Thanks for this post; I do think a lot of EAs would benefit from reading this (or hearing similar ideas).
Michelle Hutchinson's post on Keeping Absolutes in Mind also nicely makes similar points.
And Choosing the Zero Point makes interesting points that I seem to recall are tangentially relevant.
Yeah, that seems true to me as well. I imagine such people, or people trying to help such people, might benefit from this post (though I haven't read it yet myself): Countering imposter syndrome. And there's also this lightning talk on imposter syndrome in EA.
I wrote about something similar about a year ago: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Z94vr6ighvDBXmrRC/illegible-impact-is-still-impact
I second that this is a problem exacerbated by 80,000 hours. For example, I used to work in biomedical research, and 80,000 hours recommends a career path that involves getting a PhD at a top school. I did my PhD in India, which severely limits my career capital. Eventually, I decided to leave research and move to data science to ETG. To be clear, there were other factors involved and I think it's likely that 80,000 hours is correct that it's only worth being in academic research if you are in the top 0.1%. But it is strangely discouraging nonetheless
This LessWrong post makes an interesting point about 'exploiting dimensionality' to have an impact.
For example (using the top comment on the post), you may not be the best at AI Safety and you may not be the best YouTuber, but if you combine the two and become an AI Safety Youtuber you may well be one of the best at that and have very high impact! (EDIT: I'd recommend people read the post as there's a bit more too it than this and it's very interesting).
That's a bit of an aside from your point though. I completely agree we need to counter the despair that people feel at not having unusually high impact - it's not helpful at all.
Thanks for writing this, it was really enjoyable to read and I don't see very many short posts like this on the forum.
I agree with most of the points made in this article and I have come across people who have recently come across EA who have had similar reactions to the first paragraph.
I do think that there is a set of people for which the 'vast differences in the goodness of different choices' insight (which can lead to this problem of not feeling like you are doing the maximally good thing) is still very valuable. I don't think this post argues against this but there is probably a trade-off between stressing this point and not making people bad that the thing they are doing may not be maximally good.