Keeping everyone motivated: a case for effective careers outside of the highest impact EA organizations

by FJehn3 min read22nd Aug 201912 comments


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When people enter the EA community, they find that there are two recommended ways to contribute in the long term: working directly on one of the most important cause areas or earning to give. The former definitely has a nicer ring to it. Trying to save the world yourself is a much more motivating story than giving someone else money to do it. In addition, 80k and other EA sources place much more emphasis on doing direct work nowadays. This implies that working directly is seen as more valuable and people should try to do this first and only consider earning to give if they are not able to secure a high impact job. Therefore, most people I met in the EA community want to dedicate their life to work on something important directly, rather than working just on whatever results in the largest amount of money.

However, being able to work on something important seems to be a bit harder than one would think. Especially if your life has some constraints, like not being able to move to another country or not having the opportunity to attend a top-tier university program. In addition, even if you attended a top university and can move around freely, you run into another problem: The number of high impact jobs with a direct connection to EA is limited. Many of those jobs are located in a small number of prestigious organizations and are often widely advertised through things like the 80k job board. This leads to a lot of people applying to those jobs and a highly competitive job market (see here for an example of a person applying to jobs in EA orgs and here for an example of how EA org recruitment works). Therefore, EA orgs can pick from a wide range of very successful, knowledgeable and hard working people. Obviously, this is a good thing. I want the best people to work on the hardest problems. However, everyone else, who does not get into EA orgs, is then left with a problem: How can I still contribute to EA in a meaningful way, even though I cannot get a job at those places which promise the biggest impact possible? Be it because of constraints or other factors.

In the light of this and my subjective empirical evidence, I think this might lead to some problems in the long run. If EA only has a convincing narrative for select few that get into EA orgs, everyone else will become more and more frustrated and might internally connect EA with failure and rejection, which in turn leads people to focus on other things than EA. What can we do about this?

One idea is to put a more positive spin on staying in the field you are already in and promoting EA ideas there. Many people in EA are currently students or doing a PhD. Often they have chosen the field they are working in, because it excites and motivates them. As there are not that many EAs overall, this places those persons in a unique spot. They have deep knowledge of a field and are driven by EA values. If they continue in their field or subfield, they might be the only person there operating under EA values. This means they could have high marginal value in steering the field in a more EA aligned direction, which is a difficult but potentially high value task, depending on the field. This might be especially valuable in academia, as it is often the birthplace for ideas that permeate society. For example, in a recent discussion I had about EA jobs a PhD student reported how he is trying to infuse lessons he learned from effective altruism into the academic discourse of his field. Contributions like this are currently completely overlooked in the EA job discourse, but they provide an opportunity for people not able or willing to get a job at an EA org to do some potentially high-impact work.

This also has some implications for local groups. Right now, it seems to me, their main goal is to recruit more high potentials into EA, to make it possible to get even better people to work on the hardest, most important problems. However, not even all high-potential people in EA are likely to find a high-impact job with a direct connection to EA. To keep these valuable people motivated and value aligned, we will have to invest in local groups to make them not only a short-term welcoming place but a long-term valuable addition to peoples lives. This is important, as value drift might lead a lot of people (empirical data on value drift) away from EA. The motivation and alignment will probably have to be maintained for decades, as people often create their most valuable contributions around their 40s (see for example Figure 4 in this paper) and lots of EAs today have yet to reach their 30s.

Therefore, we should consider adding a third option between earning to give and direkt work in the highest impact jobs with a direct connection to EA: Using local groups to keep people value aligned in the long term and allow them to change their own field in regard to EA values. To facilitate this, the second most important thing for local groups, after outreach to talented people, might simply be creating a nice and welcoming environment, where members want to come back to in regular intervals for years. The members of the local group can help each other to stay motivated and EA-aligned and also help to find creative ways they can have an impact in their specific fields. Well-run and well-coordinated local groups with deliberately curated activities and engaging events such as inspiring workshops and networking events would seem to be a great environment to accomplish this (one recent idea to implement something along these lines is the German Effective Altruism Network).

Cases in which my view on this could be wrong:

  • I assume that it is good, when the EA movement grows and incorporates many people from different fields and backgrounds. However, it might also be the case that a small and elite movement, might be able to accomplish more, as it is able to keep itself aligned more easily.
  • Most examples are from my personal experience. This might be flawed, as the people I know might be preselected in some ways, making them a bad sample of the EA community as a whole.
  • It is next to impossible for one (or very few) person(s) to push their field into a direction that is more aligned with EA values.
  • Maintaining local groups has a higher focus in EA than I think it has.
  • Earning to give is more motivating for other people than I think it is.

Looking forward to learn how other people in the EA community view this.

Thanks to Nadia Mir-Montazeri, Alexander Herwix and Tom Voltz for critical feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

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