Content warning: self-doubt, mental health, cosmic insignificance, unkind behaviour within EA interpersonal / professional circles

Epistemic status: highly confident based on my EA experience, and that experienced second-hand in EA. Decided not to back this stuff up empirically with research on e.g. psychological safety, because I think such subjective arguments should stand on their own.

Tl;dr: Help your fellow EAs, and yourself...

  • believe that they are enough; that their self-worth is not connected to whether they win or lose at what they do; to how smart they're seen, or how effective; that they are worthy as they are
  • walk more lightly down our paths towards big altruistic ambitions, and feel we are allowed to be happy whether we succeed or fail

"Whether you succeed or not, I love you. And you will be happy either way"

This expression - either verbatim or a paraphrase - is what I've been lucky to receive from partners, friends and family every time I was doing something that I cared a lot about; usually applying for what I thought was a high impact job. I think it's been the difference between tens to hundreds of hours of self-doubt and picking my life apart, and hours smiling. And from late night conversations with many EA friends and acquaintances, not to mention the trove of self-doubt confessions to be found on this forum, I'm convinced we all need to start telling each other a version of this.

"Whether you succeed or not, I love you".

Content warning: self-doubt, mental health, unkind behaviour within EA interpersonal / professional circles

(This starts out rough, skip to the final paragraph if you want the positives.)

I think a lot of EAs doubt their peers feel this stable positive regard towards them. Many worry about doing something stupid which is not seen as a mistake but as an indication that they are "not smart enough"; that they'll then be excluded from collaborations if they slip up; or they'll be downgraded in other people's estimations if they don't succeed at getting a certain job or scholarship or whatever. Some friends of mine are even afraid of throwaway comments resulting in this. This is pretty rough.

I've experienced something similar but not quite the same. I've had people I was close to question whether I was "smart enough" when discussing esoteric EA topics, and behave unkindly towards me. 

You can have intrinsic self-worth and believe it is not pegged to your success. But you'll still suffer a lot if you think that the worth others ascribe to you is pegged to your success. I'd say I had strong intrinsic self-worth when I had the "smart enough" experience above, and it did corrode my sense of self.

But as well as my own first-hand experiences, I've observed others EAs behave this way towards others; for example, people discussing whether someone is really smart / capable based on things like how an internship went. Revising their opinion of their 'innate talent' and their opinion of them overall. I'm glad to say I've seen the opposite; people discussing how that person could have done better when they failed, but still backing them as a person and helping them move forward.

Why am I so against this? 

  • It's ironic in how much it runs counter to purported EA values; we're EAs because we value flourishing and want to end suffering for all, explicitly because we think (people's) experiences matter; yet this is once common mechanism through which EA directly contributes to not great experiences for people.
  • Success or failure at T-1 very often is not even much of an update. Every success / failure we have is just one indicator on the long and hopeful path to making a difference, and means even less the earlier you are on your path. To me, that makes these judgements silly, and often betrays hubris and immaturity of those making them.
  • Worse yet, fear and threat-mindset holds people back from being their best self. Anyone who has pinpointed what their negative self-talk sounds like can speak to this. I personally know how much fear this inculcates, how much it compromises your ability to think, and how horrible it is to live with. It's a perfect example of how evaluation is not a neutral act; it has causal effects.
  • It's harder to try big things or take big risks if you think you might be written off for failure. Psychological safety, in essence. It's not just compatible with 'be more ambitious' as the new EA mantra, it's a necessary condition for many people.
    • Some might counterargue about how the psychological composition of exceptionally successful innovators runs counter to this. This might be true, but I wouldn't wish that life for anyone, especially not for most people in EA.
  • How we affect people around us by our behaviour towards them is far from negligible. It's one aspect of our lives we can be most confident in. It is very real. So real that I don't know how we cannot dedicate a good chunk of our hearts and minds to it.

The EAs I'm close to now never make me feel like my worth or value is in question. I'm sure it's conditional on me not being an asshole, but that's a reasonable condition. I'm even happier when I hear my EA friends say things like "yeah maybe that could have been done better" and figuring ways to support the other person, rather than beginning to write them off. Thinking of the names and faces I have in mind, I smile and feel tears start to emerge. 

"And you will be happy either way". 

Content warning: self-doubt, mental health, cosmic insignificance

EA has astronomically lofty ambitions. Cumulatively, we're trying to tackle global suffering of all sentient beings, present and future, prevent the end of the world, and populate as much of the universe as we can with flourishing minds and experiences. Every little thing you do will necessarily feel bound up in cosmic importance. It's literally more than the weight of the world. 

But all of us are just one person. Against this cosmic backdrop, all we can do is hilariously small. On historical priors, conquerors and leaders who changed the face of the world still had less enduring impact than they probably hoped for; or their eventual impact took a shape they didn't necessarily expect. I can't help but feel the same uphill battle faces all of us, including people considered the most impactful right now - the billionaire philanthropists, the thought leaders, people leading large funding programmes. And bound to be some egregious luck involved for whoever does and doesn't make it. Thinking about myself in this way, I laugh as I feel like I'm the butt of the universe's joke.

We are all united in a struggle to make a difference against the universe's great tide of cruel indifference. Some of us a bit better positioned than others ex ante, but with so much moral uncertainty and accidents of history making the big difference, you almost have to laugh at the confidence we sometimes exude about our abilities. You'd laugh with tears in your eyes at how some of us torture ourselves over this. 

I find it useful to think about this in everything I do. I can donate effectively as much as I can, and work as hard as I can on what I think matters, but ultimately the odds are stacked against me, like they are for everyone. I cannot peg my happiness to being as successful in tackling the big EA issues, because the indifferent universe refuses reasonable odds[1]

This does not mean defeatism, and it does not mean nihilism. At least not to me. It means that all I can do is my best. And that I must keep myself honest about whether I'm trying my best, but unapologetically lean into the things that do make me happy; my friends, sci-fi, writing, partying, nature, love and connection. And defend my happiness against whatever might be preying upon it; including if that is a worldview I subscribe to.

Final thoughts

Simple sounding platitudes are often harder to live by, and this is no exception. Navigating between trying to be really altruistic and effective AND creating or defending your own happiness is hard. Each recipe will likely be very individualised. But we can help each other with it, with a genuine sense of solidarity and support for each other, and a recognition that we're all trying to tackle cosmically massive problems, and that we all deserve love, affection and to believe we are good enough humans. Because THAT is a form of impact we can be pretty confident in, and is the butt of no joke.

 

 

  1. ^

    Writing this, I'm reminded of my childhood self who believed that I could be the next Mariah Carey, cognitively sidestepping my burgeoning understanding of probability as I announced my intentions...

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Content warning: If you stare too much into the void, the void stares back at you.











So the title of my blog is Measure is unceasing partly as a reminder to myself that some of the ideas which are presented in this blogpost are dead wrong. In short, I think that people are judging each other all the time. In the past, pretending or wanting to believe that this isn't the case has provided me with temporary relief but ultimately led to a path of sorrow.

I particularly take issue with:

But you'll still suffer a lot if you think that the worth others ascribe to you is pegged to your success

The problem with that form of reasoning is that the worth others ascribe to you is in fact pegged to your success. Other people will hold you in higher regard and esteem if you are in fact successful. You will get more grants, jobs or career opportunities, your ability to intervene in the world will be greater, and, perhaps most importantly for your wellbeing, you will attain more romantic success.

To be clear, I agree with your diagnosis that taking this fact to be true is emotionally hard. But I disagree that pretending that it isn't the case is a good solution. I've personally found value in learning to accept it instead and taking action to make reality come closer to what I desire it to be.

Or, in other words, I agree that having psychological safety is good. But I think this is the case for true psychological safety, which could come from a circle of close friends or family who are in fact willing to support you in hard times. So psychological safety > no psychological safety >> a veneer of psychological safety that fails when it is tested.

they are worthy as they are

So I think you can defend versions of this, but you end up with a notion of "worth" that is pretty essentialist and isn't really correlated with many of the stuff you care about (career success, influence over the world, romantic success, etc.). As such, I haven't found it valuable. I've found more value in deriving worth from "having given my honest best shot" and taking actions that will make me more formidable, like mastery over skills.

cosmic insignificance

I don't find the yardstick of the universe useful, but I like humans v. nature framing.

The more I reread your post, the more I feel our differences might be more nuances, but I think your contrarian / playing to an audience of cynics tone (which did amuse me) makes them seem starker? 

Before I grace you with more sappy reasons why you're wrong, and sign you up to my life-coaching platform[1] counter-argue, I want to ask a few things...

  • I am not sure whether you're saying "treating people better / worse depending on their success is good"; particularly in the paragraphs about success and worth. Or that you think that's just an immutable fact of life (which I disagree with). What's your take?
  • How do you see "having given my honest best shot"as distinct from my point of the value in trying your hardest? I'm suspicious we'd find them most the same thing if we looked into it...
  • Do you think that mastery over skills (as a tool to achieve goals) is incompatible with having an intrinsic sense of self worth? I would argue that they're pretty compatible. Moreover, for people feeling terrible and sh*t-talking themselves non-stop, which makes them think badly, I'm confident that feeling like their worth doesn't depend on sucessful mastery of skills is itself a pretty good foundation for mastery of skills.

Honestly I'm quite surprised by you saying you haven't found 'essentialist' self-worth, or what I'd call intrinsic self-worth, very valuable. I'd be down to understand this much better. For my part...:

  • I abandoned the success oriented self-worth because of a) the hedonic treadmill, and b) the practical benefits: believing you are good enough is a much better foundation for doing well in life[2], I've found, and c) reading David Foster Wallace[3]
  • I don't mind if people think I'm better / worse at something and 'measure me' in that way; I don't mind if it presents fewer opportunities. But I take issue when anyone...:
    • uses that measurement to update on someone's value as a person, and treat them differently because of it, or;
    • over-updates on someone's ability; the worst of which looks like deference or writing someone off.
  1. ^

    First week is free, pal

  2. ^

     And of course I notice the paradox in points a) and b); it's a classic. But I'll embrace the contradictions that help.

  3. ^

    lol #cliché

The more I reread your post, the more I feel our differences might be more nuances, but I think your contrarian / playing to an audience of cynics tone (which did amuse me) makes them seem starker?

I think that I disagree with you with regards to how people value other people, and how people should expect other people to value them, and less about where one should derive one's own self-worth from [1]. As such, I do think that we have a disagreement.


I am not sure whether you're saying "treating people better / worse depending on their success is good"; particularly in the paragraphs about success and worth. Or that you think that's just an immutable fact of life (which I disagree with). What's your take?

I think it is good in the case of, for instance, your professional life. For instance, funders are likely to fund projects differentially for people who have previous successes under their belt. People might fire other people if they haven't been going well at their jobs.

In the case of personal life, it's more ambiguous. As we both agree on, it causes sorrow. However, I think it's hard to change, because there are traits that make someone a good friend, romantic partner, colleague, and I think that it's a bit futile to go against that. I don't think it's literally impossible, but I think that there are time tradeoffs, and developing existential chill is one of many things one could do with one's time.

I've also had bad experiences with situations which gave the outer impression of being high trust/high acceptance, but weren't in the end when that acceptance was pushed a bit.

I think that sometimes you can get away with a "judge once" regime, where once you are in someone's circle of care they care about you unconditionally, but I also think that people have limited spots.


How do you see "having given my honest best shot"as distinct from my point of the value in trying your hardest? I'm suspicious we'd find them most the same thing if we looked into it...

I'm not sure what your point of trying your hardest is, maybe:

I can donate effectively as much as I can, and work as hard as I can on what I think matters, but ultimately the odds are stacked against me, like they are for everyone

I think a difference might be that I derive some self-worth from staying true to my ideals, or "staying true to inner self", but I read you as saying that you derive self-worth from some intrinsic value. I read that paragraph as saying that "you can work as hard as you can", but not making a statement related to that as self-worth.

It's possible I'm missing what the point was.


I think that we have different things:

  • How you value yourself
  • How other people value you
  • How you value other people

your other points/questions are more about how you value yourself ("self-worth"?), but I am mostly talking about how other people value you ("external worth"?), and neither agree nor disagree on the points about self-worth.

Muddying the above do think that how other people perceive one is usually a pretty important part of people's self-worth, and while I think this might be changeable with effort, I'm not sure to what extent that is a good use of one's time.

Maybe I should have written

I've found more value in deriving worth (part of my internal self-worth) from "having given my honest best shot" and taking actions that will make me more formidable, like mastery over skills (which increases both self-worth and external worth).

I don't think that mastery over skills is incompatible with notions of internal self-worth.

I'm confident that feeling like their worth doesn't depend on sucessful mastery of skills is itself a pretty good foundation for mastery of skills.

I would disagree over external self-worth. I think that people with more mastery over more skills are more valuable to those around them.


I don't mind if people think I'm better / worse at something and 'measure me' in that way; I don't mind if it presents fewer opportunities. But I take issue when anyone...:

  • uses that measurement to update on someone's value as a person, and treat them differently because of it, or;
  • over-updates on someone's ability; the worst of which looks like deference or writing someone off.

The "I don't mind if it presents fewer opportunities" vs "[I do mind if they] treat them differently because of it" seem incompatible.

Here is a scenario: We have a few conversations. These conversations aren't enough for me to be very sure, but I come away with the impression that you are a boring conversationalist. In the future, I tend to seek other conversations. Is this something you'd object to?

What if you change ("conversations, "boring conversationalist") to ("dancing sessions", "clumsy dancer"), ("trial tasks", "unproductive contractor"), ("date", probably not a potential relationship"), ("chess matches", "vastly superior/inferior chess player"). I'm unsure what you would say here, or why.

writing someone off.

I actually really do to this, I think that writing off people quickly is necessary in contexts like dates, job opportunities with many potential applicants, bloggers to read, etc. It's possible you have some more nuanced meaning here, though.


  1. I reserve my right to take issue with that at some future point. Also, I liked the " I grace you with more sappy reasons why you're wrong, and sign you up to my life-coaching platform" sentence. ↩︎

Here is a model that I want to share with you:

It's worded in terms of starting projects and receiving funding because that's been on mind, but you could translate it to other domains. There should also be a third dimension which is "well, but how good are you, really".

I claim that knowing where you are on that grid is important, because it will lead you to better actions (in the case of "correctly depressed", it might be "attain mastery of a skill" so that you move one level up, or "being ok with being humble" [1]).

I don't know what you are claiming with regards to that grid.


  1. E.g., supppose that "project" in this grid is "starting your own organization". In many respects you'll want to be "correctly depressed" w/r to that. Maybe not the best name. ↩︎

I appreciate this chart! I think one thing that surprises me about a lot of these conversations is that people come from the presumption that intuitions/beliefs carry zero information and will always carry zero information, whereas I prefer to approach it from the angle of intuitions having nonzero information and it's valuable for us to align them to be more accurate. 

Thank you for writing this Nuno.

Posts around self-worth, not feeling "smart enough" and related topics on the EA Forum don't resonate with me despite having had some superficially similar experiences in EA to the people who are struggling.

My best guess is this is because this is true for me

Or, in other words, I agree that having psychological safety is good. But I think this is the case for true psychological safety, which could come from a circle of close friends or family who are in fact willing to support you in hard times. So psychological safety > no psychological safety >> a veneer of psychological safety that fails when it is tested.

I am happily married (to someone I found in the EA Community in 2014) and have a strong relationship with my parents.

That said, I do think there is something wrong with the EA Community when people trying to do as much good as they can do not feel appreciated! But it's important to narrow down what exactly it is that people should be able to expect from the Community (and where it needs to change) and what not.

Oh, I love(!) this. Really resonates, particularly the idea that feeling like your worth depends on your impact perversely reduces your capacity to take risks (even when the EV suggests that's what you should do).

I feel like this idea of unconditional care has been the primary driver of my evolving relationship with EA. FWIW, I think a crucial complement to this is cultivating the same sense of care for yourself.