When I talk to random people around my town, and ask how they're doing, a large fraction of them open with "well, the world sucks, but..."
They do this whether or not they, personally, are about to report that they're doing well. It feels like a necessary caveat to them. To me, this is a sign that they're in a social context that cuts against their thriving. Does the world suck? Very hard to say with confidence. The world is very big, and there's no clear objective standard. But carrying around "the world sucks" is heavy, and makes it harder to enjoy life.
So I'd like to tell them to consider just... not thinking that anymore? The belief probably isn't paying rent. It's probably not rigorously considered. Just this cached thing, sitting around, making life slightly worse.
But I don't, because they're random acquaintances and their world models are their business. Same with you, reader of this post. But I'm going to make a recommendation to you, anyway. Consider leaving the organized EA movement for a while.
If your reaction is "but this movement is great! I'm really happy and energized and ready to make the biggest difference I can with all my new exciting friends" then yeah, keep doing your thing! I probably don't have anything to offer you. And for what it's worth, I also agree the movement is great, and I am personally somewhat involved right now.
But I think it's pretty clear that lots of people in the EA orbit are persistently unhappy. And the solution to being persistently unhappy with a social arrangement or memeplex, usually, is to leave.
Famously, this often doesn't occur to the person suffering for a long time, if ever, even if it looks like the obvious correct choice from the outside.
What do I mean by leaving?
I don't mean "stop caring about doing good". If you've taken the Giving What We Can pledge, for example, I'd definitely keep it. What I mean is something more like "stop expecting EA to provide for any of your core needs." This includes, at least:
- Social - have non-EA friends. Ideally have some be local. Talk about other stuff with them, mostly.
- Financial - do not rely on EA funding sources for income that you couldn't do without. Don't apply for EA jobs.
- Emotional - do not have a unidimensional sense of self-worth that boils down to "how am I scoring on a vague, amorphous impact scale as envisioned in EA terms".
Actually, that's probably about it. If you're persistently unhappy, and don't feel fulfilled socially, financially, or emotionally, stop doing those three things.
What are the upsides?
First, consider yourself. It's easy to take this idea too far, but the person you have the greatest responsibility for - except perhaps your children or in some niche situations your spouse - is yourself. You have direct access to your emotional state. If you're not flourishing, it is first and foremost your responsibility to address that. And addressing it is worth something, even in the EA framework.
Second, consider bias. I think there's a common story which goes something like:
Well I need to make sure I make a good impression on people at orgs X and Y, since I might want to work for them. But they have close relationships with Z and A. So I need to be rubbing elbows with those people, too. To do that it'll help for me to live in the most expensive city in the world, which makes it really important I don't irritate C and D, because I'll need substantial funding just to not burn through savings.
I didn't properly appreciate this for a long time, but I keep seeing people be nervous to like, seriously criticize EA, because their (aspirational) livelihoods depend on it.
This is very bad for epistemology. It may be the single worst thing for epistemology, actually. People who feel socially precarious believe the dumbest stuff for basically no reason, indefinitely. The solution is usually to make tracks. Give the cool kids a few chances to let you in. If they don't, or they don't treat you how you'd like, vote with your feet. And later, if you do feel like contributing to discourse, you'll do it with a much clearer mind.
Third, consider value of knowledge. It's not actually very hard to get back into EA after a while. Don't burn any bridges or be a jerk to anyone, but that should go without saying. If you simply log off for a while, and you ever get the itch again, it's easy to return. And indeed, I think that's the best way to return. Consider two people:
Person One: lives in the Bay Area and has had a few internships for EA-ecosystem organizations. Can't seem to break in to a more stable and serious employment situation. Has good credentials but has been loosely in EA since college and has never applied for a job outside the informal EA network. Is struggling with significant mental health challenges. Has bursts of manic energy and gets excited about projects, but loses initiative when nobody really supports them.
Person Two: lives in Omaha, and is married to a spouse without much interest in EA, and has two children. Did EA stuff for a while, and gives 5% each to CWF and SCI. Is kind of tired of their job and considering other opportunities in general, so takes a peek at the EA Forum and 80k Hours board to see if anything remote might be up their alley.
Person Two is plausibly a better candidate, and certainly not obviously a worse one. And more importantly, they can browse with high confidence that this is what they actually want, and not simply them being afraid to leave the only socioeconomic niche they've ever known as an adult. If you cultivate the ability to easily support yourself totally separately from EA, the desire to engage with EA is no longer tangled up with your basic survival drive. Clearer, crisper motivations are valuable in their own right, and instrumentally good too.
What are the drawbacks?
You might have less impact.
Or you might not! The people who seem to have had the greatest impact in history - Bourlag and Petrov, for instance - just sort of were in the right place at the right time with the right interests.
The paradigm of evaluating impact in EA is community specific. Does it track reality? Depends on a bunch of underlying assumptions. On what level do you really believe those assumptions in an unbiased, clear-thinking way? The best way to know that is to get away from the social community based around them, and see if they still ring true. Maybe some will, and some won't.
But social communities have a way of reinforcing themselves. It's sensible that peripheral EA activities intuitively make sense to random people outside the bubble - nobody is terribly confused if I mention that I donate some money to provisioning malaria nets. But it's interesting that inner core EA activities like reducing AI risk or community building at top universities just seem... weird and onanistic from the outside. Does this mean they're invalid? Not at all! The general public is wrong about loads of stuff all the time. But it means maybe there's value in putting yourself outside, and see what you, personally, think from that vantage point.
How would you do it?
If you keep striking out for EA jobs, just tap into your other social networks - possibly through family if you don't have many non-EA friends, and play the ordinary applying for jobs game. Referrals are good. Hold one for a few years, do well, and you may be surprised what that does for your mental health and perspective.
If you're more concerned with diversifying socially, go to whatever events will have you, including maybe public ones. Maybe bring something - one thing I did when I wanted more friends in my early 20s was just going to public house shows and always bringing a 6 pack of ciders to share with whoever I might meet. Most of the time I totally struck out. But eventually I met someone with a group of friends and piggybacked into it. Ten years later that group still contains about half my local friends.
But my advice doesn't really matter here. These are problems about which there's tons of advice out there, both publicly and from whoever you most trust. And if everyone you most trust is in EA, that's another sign it'd be good to diversify!
Listen, with reservations, to your gut
I think "listen to your gut" is overdone, especially if you're anxious or obsessive.
That being said, you probably have some instinct of whether involvement with organized EA is making you unhappy. And you can calculate whether it's doing much of anything for you apart from influencing your ambient emotional state. If the answers to those questions are "yes" and "no", it's probably time to hit the bricks for a while.
If they aren't, great! It's a good community for many people. But things that would be red flags in any community are still red flags here. Like if you notice yourself thinking:
- I'm not good enough to contribute
- I'll never be invited to do really important stuff
- Whatever I can do here, it's better than anything that isn't here by definition
- Being part of this movement is who I am
Those are bad signs. And they're bad signs even if you have counterarguments ready. The counterarguments may well prevail! But their presence is not in itself an invalidation of the "these feelings mean it's time to get distance" heuristic.
And again, you can come back! Taking breaks is underrated at almost every level. So if you think it might be heathiest for you to leave, do yourself a favor and actually think it through.