Thanks for this context, and for your warm replies in general. I really do feel okay now, I just also feel like I want people to not fall through the same sorts of cracks that I did in the future. I should also be clear that in my experience, lots of people in EA are from a wide variety of backgrounds. But enough core EAs are from a more elite background that's hard to detect up front, and the culture shock, at least for me, was massive.
I think EA culture is really good relative to general elite culture as I understand it. It's still the coolest professional culture I've been a part of. But I think norms really are a bit different than what I'm used to, in ways I find hard to place, and beyond the ways that are deliberate and reflectively good.
On further reflection re: enthusiasm, I think it's mostly a difference in enthusiasm around gratitude, specifically. People seem to display gratitude in a different way, which feels a lot more effusive.
I think the EA community is unusually meritocratic, though of course I agree it's imperfect. I'm glad people are working on making it even better. The fact that it's unusually meritocratic does make it a bigger emotional hazard, though: it's easier to shrug off harsh judgments when you distrust the party making them.
In general I find this stuff very difficult to talk about, and feel low confidence and emotional about all of it. But it also feels very salient to me, so I have an impulse that it should be in the conversation somewhere. I hope that other people with painful experiences will share their stories and impressions, too.
The problem (for people like me, and may those who enjoy it keep doing so), as I see it: this is an elite community. Which is to say, this is a community primarily shaped by people who are and have always been extremely ambitious, who tend to have very strong pedigrees, and who are socialized with the norms of the global upper/top professional class.
"Hey you could go work for Google as a machine learning specialist" sounds to a person like me sort of like "Hey you could go be an astronaut." Sure, I guess it's possible. "Hey you could work for a nice nonprofit with all these people who share your weird values about charity, and join their social graph!" sounds doable. Which makes it a lot more damaging to fail.
People like me who are standardized-test-top-tier smart but whose backgrounds are pretty ordinary (I am inspired to post this in part because I had a conversation with someone else with the exact same experience, and realized this may be a pattern) don't tend to understand that they've traveled into a space of norms that is highly different than we're used to, when we join the EA social community. It just feels like "Oh! Great! I've found my community of smart people who actually care about getting to work improving the world! Let's roll up our sleeves together."
Unfortunately, this can be a costly mistake. As soon as you start making moves that would feel natural in other contexts, like parlaying steady contract work into a regular job, you are likely to run into a very unpleasant brick wall.
Some examples of differences between elite culture and non-elite culture:
1. In elite culture, you're expected to be very positive in professional settings. You're expected to say "exciting" a lot, to call things "awesome," and to thank people creatively and effusively. In non-elite culture, there is no such expectation, and displays of extreme enthusiasm about work don't go over that well. Even at full enthusiasm-as-lived-experience you're unlikely to display it in the same way as someone well-versed in elite culture norms. This may get you called a downer.
2. In elite culture, there's a lot of flexibility, and people often have "runway" when hunting for jobs. So, for example, if someone asks you to take a two week trial period from elite culture, it may not even occur to them that this will require you to quit your job. They may then even admonish you for having quit, should they reject you.
3. In elite culture, lots of people talk about their productivity habits socially. There is a lot of social media posting about productivity techniques, self-help books, etc. Sometimes this can create a cargo cult effect where people feel like that's what they're missing, and they parrot the style and pursue lots of productivity boondoggles. I don't think this tends to work.
Trying to break class barriers is very risky and often excruciating. It also tends to make you feel crazy, since you can feel bias creeping in against you, but you never know for sure if it's not just perfect meritocracy correctly filtering someone weak like you away from Mount Olympus.
On the plus side, you can get used to it, stop trying to break in, and basically enjoy a position as a highly useful and well-supported element of the professional EA fringe. But at least for me it cost me a year and a half of severe depression. I wouldn't wish that on anyone else.