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!