During an in-depth conversation on positive impact, I learned that I have unnuanced and overconfident tendencies about what positive impact means. In particular, I had baked naive EA thinking into the definition of impact without adding the appropriate level of nuance to the mixture. In the following, I'll share an embarrassingly unfiltered account of the thinking process I went through as I worry it may be true for others as well.
Update note: It's clear that EA has made great contributions like raising important questions, generating crucial considerations, and a new way of approaching altruism - especially for people with certain assumptions and resources (for more, see this post). However, if treated without sophistication and calibrated epistemics (like "past-me" did) then it becomes problematic.
As an EA I think, talk, and care a lot about having positive impact. But what is positive impact really, and how do I assess it when the rubber hits the road?
Over the past couple of weeks, I've been diving into another round of career planning. This has been associated with a lot of distress. In particular, I've been concerned with having a lot of positive impact. Being an exceptionally impactful person. If I'm honest, my concerns and goals have been revolving around the ambition of being one of the most impactful people in the world. But what does that even mean?
For the past five years, I've felt that I've become increasingly knowledgeable - almost an expert - on impact as I've been thinking about my career plan, organizing local groups, and processing EA content. Frankly, in most conversations with "non-EAs" I've felt a sense of superiority in my understanding of impact. Tacitly assuming that my non-EA friends and colleagues think they know what impact is without really knowing it.
(The following is an embarrassingly truthful account of a conversation I had with one of my friends. I realize that it's centered around people, which may be foreign to some. However, I expect that doing the same for organizations or actions may be equally valuable.)
During a conversation with one of the most thoughtful people I know (who happens not to identify as an EA), I was forced to scrutinize this superiority by interrogating how well I understand impact. He asked me, who are some of the most impactful people in the world? I treated this as a brainstorming session and readily listed the first people who came to mind:
- Will MacAskill
- Kellie Liket (founder of Effective Giving NL where I interned a while back)
- Brian Johnson (founder of optimize.me and an extraordinary teacher)
- Toby Ord
- Joey Savoie (Charity Entrepreneurship)
- Peter Singer
- Nelson Mandela
- Stanislov Petrov
He followed up by asking, what about someone like Bill Gates?
I responded, well, I don't know how important his focus areas actually are. He seems to be very focused on areas that aren't that neglected, and it may be that they aren't that important for the long-term future.
Puzzled by this list and my hesitancy around someone like Bill Gates, he asked me, how do you define impact?
I answered that I believe that impact boils down to positively altering consciousness. That is, positively influencing sentient beings.
But how do you actually operationalize that - how would you compare the impact of Will MacAskill to that of Gandhi, he asked.
At this point, I was feeling some discomfort. Part of me just wanted to change the topic. I'm tired and exhausted, I thought to myself. I slowly realized that my understanding of this topic might not be perfect, which was painful.
However, I started to flesh out my answer to his question.
Will has started Giving What We Can, which has raised ~ 1.5 bn USD in pledged donations. However, I believe it was actually Toby Ord's idea, and obviously, Will didn't do it alone - many good people were working on it.
Will also started 80,000hours, which has established some key priority paths, guided millions of readers, and coached hundreds of people from top universities. The team at 80,000hours has estimated that they enabled a lot of significant plan changes. However, I don't fully understand what this means and how certain are we that those changes were good? Also, as far as I know, they mainly do one-off sessions, so I wonder what the lasting effects are and what people would have done counterfactually if they had pursued things based more on personal fit and passion outside of existing cause areas.
Will also gave a TED talk with one million+ views, and co-founded EA that now has more than 100 local groups worldwide. Finally, he also has conversations with major philanthropists and has helped guide their donations. Overall, that's very impactful.
As for Gandhi, he helped a massive nation to independence and became a symbol of peace and non-violence, but I can't add much more than that. (Clearly, I didn't have a particularly elaborate understanding of this).
My friend then added, what about the fact that Gandhi led a revolution with peace and non-violence? What about that he went on to become a symbol of peace and directly inspired other world leaders like Nelson Mandela?
At this point, I got silent. Slowly coming to terms with what had just unfolded and seeing the cognitive dissonance. Had I been under the illusion of understanding "impact"? A concept so central to my achievements, aspirations, and identity. With discomfort and embarrassment, I acknowledged that impact is probably a lot more complicated than what I had been thinking and that it'd be wise of me to be more humble about assessing impact associated with specific people, organizations, and cause areas. At this point, we went a bit meta on the list of people and concluded the following:
- I can only list the people that I know something about. Right now, it's heavily biased towards EA folks (five out of the nine people I listed above are EAs) because that's the community that I'm part of.
- My impact assessment will often be based on whether it resonates with me, which is related to how many times I've seen a person or an organization presented as being impactful. As of now, EA labels, language, and reasoning resonates deeply with me. That isn't inherently problematic because there are a lot of solid principles and values embedded in that. However, it becomes actively harmful for my thinking if I immediately discount the impact of others just because they don't have EA labels on them. It seemed as if I had baked EA thinking into the definition impact without adding the appropriate level of nuance to the mixture.
- I may be overly focused on the magnitude of the impact rather than the robustness of the sign of it.
- Impact attribution is much more difficult than I had somehow managed to convince myself of. Should Peter Singer be credited with a big chunk of Will's impact because he inspired him? How much of EA's impact can be attributed to Dustin Moskowitz and the wealth he has brought EA via Open Phil? What about the art dealer who provided the early funding to CEA and 80,000hours (sadly, I don't remember his name, but he was honored at EAG London 2018).
EAs have made some solid contributions by asking unique questions, spreading important memes, raising donations, and changing thousands of people's careers based on impartial altruistic values and truth-seeking principles. However, I've had (and probably still have) unnuanced and overconfident tendencies about the very things that I care about, and I worry that may be true for others as well. This probing conversation on a fundamental concept was very useful for me, and perhaps such conversations can be useful for others as well.
If you're up for it, try to sit down with someone who can facilitate your thinking and ask yourself fundamental questions such as: Who do you find to be extraordinarily impactful and why? What organizations are impactful and why?