144Joined Apr 2018


Yes, I find trying to make that part less dominant most promising here. If it secretly is still dominant while you pretend engaging in other things for their own sake, you will get this "trick" flavour. 

For me, this part only ended up less dominant once it could fully comprehend that it wasn't leading to good places even by its own light. (I would go: "See, optimiser-Ronja, we have followed your lead for a while now, and we've ended up absolutely depressed and unable to do anything at all. I know you don't want that either. So, please, let go of your grip for a while as we figure out other approaches.")

I think these are true, and mitigate some of the problem of "going all in". As I see it, though, they don't mitigate the potential (psychological) harms from treating most things as a means to impact. 

Yes! yesyesyes. Hey. Wow. Thank you! This is the first time that a forum article has spoken to me as a whole, not just the optimiser part of my brain (which by now is so interwoven with my inner critic that, well, meh).

It felt eerie to see so much of my own journey here: from spritely, quirky, happy  person, to eager optimiser, to dimmed and depressed. When I read your post, I am aching for the Ronja that should have read this years ago, and a sort of raging against this community that no one could see that this was a descent fed by their very own behaviours ("You're thinking of studying anthropology, purely out of interest? But... why?!", "See, self-care is important  because it helps you be productive afterward." "Oh, no, but you're a great person! Look at all the impact you're having!"). 

When I finally realised the unhealthiness of my environment, my solution was to distance myself from the community, to stop trying for impact, and slowly building up from there. But I could only accept to stop trying once it was very clear that lying in bed feeling bad about myself was literally not conducive to any  part of me. Alongside that grief and rage and regret, I also breathe a sigh of relief - I am not alone, it seems. There is nothing wrong with me, maybe I even was onto something in my journey, even though I never articulated it as you just did. Maybe these were not just things I learnt about myself, but pointers to something more deeply human. And maybe it's not the case that this is a community just for optimisers who single-mindedly pursue impact by working and networking and very calculatedly recharging. 

For myself, I have already concluded that, if I am ever  going to do anything with a whiff of greatness, it will come from the Ronja that is shiny-eyed, boundlessly excited, radiating love for the world - and not from the haunted-looking tortured soul that keeps telling herself "yeah, but I should". The open question, for me, is whether I can be this person in this community, or even find pockets of community that understand my altruistic goals and still see and cherish and support the whole person that I am. For now, my policy of cutting ties (with the community as a whole, not with individual friends that also happen to be into EA), focusing on finding communities that nurture a variety of spiritual needs (like for you, music is a big one here) and deepening ties with people who love me just as me has been a good starting point. I am now, very cautiously, re-engaging from here; even though I run in panic from EA events as often as not, or feel hollowed-out and drained afterwards. And that sucks because it now feels like there are some impact-focused things that I really want to do, that are now harder than they would ever have been had I not been burnt so badly before. I am glad that I re-engaged to the extent of finding this post here!

I am very excited about the idea of finding people like you, people who've been through this journey, or just people who feel similarly about pursuit of impact as one  important goal, but who are also in touch with other ends in themselves, and are able to listen to their soul's needs.

As for the practical trade-offs: I think they are relevant, and I wish to think about them more. But I think I'm still learning to lean into the non-consequentialist parts of me, and figuring out what I cherish and, as you phrase it, what spiritual nutrients I require (although that does make me prone to go down the "spiritual Soylent" route. So more like: I need to figure out how to nourish my soul).

So I think I'll have to come back to that one later!

But, again, thank you. I don't know you, but I feel very moved by your post and grateful to you for writing and sharing it.

Yes, fair point. I updated it to reflect this somewhat better.

Talking about "there should be spaces to articulate hunches", I am now taking the plunge and speed-writing a few things that have felt slightly off in EA over the last few years. They are definitely not up to the standard of thought-through critique (I've tried to indicate confidence levels to at least show how they might compare against each other), but I'd like to know if any of them resonate with other people here who might've thought about them more.  The list isn't complete, either.

Things that feel off in EA:

  • Lots of white male people working on AI alignment (pretty sure that this is not great)
  • Issues in the community
    • feeling unwelcome as a woman, and from a non-maths background... why is this still a thing?? >>> feeling quite disillusioned after spending a lot of my early time (very sure)
    • the negative mental health effect of being surrounded by an optimising mindset all the time (and, as a result, internalising "you need to be better", as opposed to "you are enough (as a person)", which maybe results in people being valued/gaining status by how impactful they are, and thereby conflating worth-as-a-person with worth-of-your-actions?) (Very sure, at least in my own experience)
  • How unaware are we of the place this movement takes in the grander scheme of things? I sometimes worry about the resemblance to eschatological movements, but also biases that we pretty surely have. (Unsure about the eschatology stuff, but definitely worried about blindspots)
  • How would a community with a different background approach the question of how to do the most good?
  • What could we learn from an STS/sociology/anthropology analysis of the movement? (these fields tend to study e.g. where a (scientific) movement comes from, and what their values and maybe assumptions are... I feel like such an outside perspective might indicate some blind spots?
  • Relying so heavily on economic tools, and then thinking the solutions are unbiased? (unsure about the extent to which this is a problem, and to what extent this is based in optimising for impact as such and you can't )
  • Lack of respect for established fields, like the whole risk community, and lack of communication between fields. Not using already established methods from those fields, or making use of their expertise. Not really trying to frame things in a way that would be appealing to them (I'm basing this on conversations with staff members at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction in London, and STS (science and technology studies) scholars in Edinburgh and elsewhere). (Fairly sure)
  • In general, perhaps, neglecting some less "wacky" arguments, like the common-sense argument for X-risk reduction, and also thinking about non-utilitarian values (I feel like we're on an okay path here)
  • I have a weird feeling about similarities in thinking to liberal and libertarian ideology. (Just a hunch)
    • Maybe something about the individual as unit of analysis, and calculating in terms of aggregate welfare (of individuals) ? (Medium sure?)
    • And, in turn, neglecting other values like justice, equality etc... I am kind of confused that there isn't more discussion around these values at least.
    • Maybe neglecting goodness of process over concerns over goodness of outcome? I am unsure about this myself, but the kinds of things I'm thinking about are: How important is it that decisions involving all of humanity are made in a democratic/participatory way. I think this is only partially thinking that participation is good in itself, and mostly having a hunch that it would increase quality of outcome... so it's more like "we should care about quality of process because we actually care about quality of outcome, but if we focus too much on outcome, the outcome will actually be worse. (Unsure)
      • Random side note: I've been curious about the potential of citizens' assemblies - maybe as an intervention for improving institutional decision-making? (speculative)

I agree very much! I have a lot of half-finished but mostly not-even-really started drafts myself, and one thing that resonated in the OP was the need for spaces where those hunches can be explored, as opposed to expecting thought-through and well-articulated criticisms. 

Thank you so much for the post! It also resonated very strongly with me, so I felt I might share my own disillusionment journey here, in form of a post I wrote but never published. I wrote it in early 2020 - I followed pretty much the path the OP describes, but decided "this community isn't good for me", as opposed to "I disagree with the guiding principles", so I took a break from the community for around 2-3 years, dialed-down my expectations for impact, and am now back as something like "EA-adjacent". 

Thanks for this! I agree that my past self would have found this, or something along those lines, a very useful starting point. That said, I think I would also have found this process a little overwhelming (esp during initial projects, when I was trying to assess personal fit more than anything else). So here's a quote from the GovAI agenda which I find useful whenever I get lost: _"Ultimately, perhaps the simplest rule of thumb is to just begin with those questions or ideas that most grab you, and start furiously working."_ (p.13)

Great, thanks for the nudge! Also added a bio now.