Fast forward to a few months ago when I listened an interview with Peter Singer on the Lex Fridman podcast and he mentioned 80,000 Hours. Over many evenings with my new born son asleep on me on the sofa I read your key ideas pages and problem profiles and started to think about how I can change my career to maximise its long term impact.
Sometimes being an effective altruist feels really tough. There is so much suffering in the world, and no guarantee that people in the future will even get to live. There’s a lot of work to be done to try to counteract these things, and the work is usually not easy - whether you’re working a high pressure job to earn money to donate, needing to make stressful judgement calls about the ways to solve big problems or applying for roles to try to figure out how you can best contribute.
One of the things that I find most heartening when effective altruism feels rough is reading through the applications we get to speak with our team. Reading through so many people’s plans for their careers and journeys to effective altruism is by turns humbling, heartwarming and inspiring. It reminds me how many of us are working together on improving the world, and how dedicated and caring my fellow travellers are. It makes attacking the world’s problems feel a bit more manageable.
I wanted to try to share some of the feeling I get from reading these stories. I’m not intending them as endorsements of specific actions. In particular, I think something EA does well is avoid glorifying sacrifice and making clear that the less effort you need to expend to help someone, the better. But people being willing to do what’s needed even at great personal cost does mean we’re more likely to be able to pull off difficult things. I also find it deeply moving.
There are so many different ways in which people’s stories are touching. Some people have had a really tough time themselves growing up, and yet somehow got through that with a determination to use their time to help others. Others have a plethora of options that would net them riches and prestige, yet decide to spend their labour figuring out how to help others as much as possible instead.
I want to share a few stories of people I've come across (with details removed for anonymity). I hope they give you a taste of the awe and feeling of connection to others I feel when I read about them.
- The medical student nearing the end of their training who plans on radically switching career track. Having gotten into EA, they're willing to take a role in a totally different field despite all the hard work they put into their degree and how unintelligible their choice will be to their family.
- The introvert willing to spend their free time fundraising door to door despite how horrible it is asking people for money
- The vegan who donates 10% and gave a stranger a kidney, yet (crazily!) summarises their contributions so far as if they were no big deal and just what anyone might do
- The student who chose their university based on being able to finish their degree as fast as possible in order to be out in the world helping others
- The professor, many years into their career, willing to switch research focus entirely or leave academia because they read *The Precipice* and realised their skills are well suited to increasing humanity’s resilience
- The early retiree who deliberately saved enough to retire by 40, but is willing to work a difficult corporate job in order to make money to give away
- The winner of one of the toughest international maths competitions with an interest in a pure maths academic career, but who is instead working on the applied problems they think will most help others
- The student already donating a significant proportion of the money they earn, and feeling lucky for being able to do so
The stories above, and many more like them, are incredible to read every time. But there’s also the sheer number of people who are taking helping others so seriously.
There are just so many people willing to spend many hours carefully planning their career despite how aversive that can be.
Applying for jobs is time consuming and anxiety provoking, yet there are so many people willing to put in tens of applications in order to find the role that allows them to most help others.
Doing the research required to compare the impact of different paths is complex and laborious. Yet there are so many science students reading philosophy to try to figure out what they think constitutes impact, and humanities students poring over empirical studies to figure out what interventions are actually the most effective.
Also incredibly touching is hearing about people moved by seeing the poverty in their neighbourhood and yet donating to help people on the other side of the world because they believe all lives are equal and that’s how they can help others most; or who try to figure out how they can help people who will live hundreds, thousands, or millions of years from now, despite feeling deeply sad about the suffering in the world today, and knowing they therefore won't be able to prevent it. (I've written before about how hard I find that in my own case.)
We have so much work ahead of us to rid the world of suffering and ensure that people in the future get the chance to live. But the people I see all the time willing to do that work -- they give me hope.
This post came out of one of my colleagues claiming they were going to record me gushing about how nice people are whenever I look through our applications and release it as a podcast so everyone could know how much I love all our applicants. Also thanks to Arden Koehler for many useful comments.
I love this post! Thank you for sharing it :)
Thank you for writing this, Michelle. It's so inspiring to see.
I agree with your sentiment that EA can be a demanding, onerous philosophy at times. It's really heartening to hear that there are so many people who join the movement despite its demandingness.
In my eyes, EA is such a tremendous opportunity - a genuine gift - that I've stopped thinking of it over the past year as something that we ought to do, but as something we get to do.
I'd be curious to hear if you feel similarly!
I definitely feel lucky to be at such a fortunate time in history when absolute poverty is so much lower than it has been over the millennia past, and when we have the chance for so much less suffering and more happiness than ever before. I also really appreciate being part of the EA community. This year's isolation has really brought home to me how much it means to me to be surrounded every day by kind people working for the same goal.
I'm less sure of the specific framing of 'EA as an opportunity', because so much of EA is about preventing suffering or destruction. Without those being a possibility, we wouldn't be able to work to prevent them. But I wouldn't want to imply that their possibility is a good thing. So I guess I might rather say that, given the state of the world, being part of this community feels like a true gift.
There are many people who are working to make this world better place to live, but they are outnumbered by those people of are making this world a hell, But definitely good work will prevail.