98Mile End, London, UKJoined Nov 2017


Manages Impactful Government Careers:

Help civil servants do the most good


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Thank you for this post! One thing I wanted point out was that, this post talks about governance failures by individual organizations.  But EA orgs are unusually tightly coupled, so I suspect a lot more work needs to be done on governance at the ecosystem level.

I most recently worked for a government department. This single organsiation  was bigger, more complex, and  less internally value-aligned than the ecosystem of EA orgs. EA has fuzzier boundaries, but for the most part, functions more cohesively than a single large organisation.

I haven't thought a tonne about how to do this in practice, but I read this report on "Constellation Collaboration" recently  and found it compelling. I suspect there is a bunch more thinking that could be done at the ecosystem level.

I am really into writing at the moment and I’m keen to co-author forum posts with people who have similar interests.

I wrote a few brief summaries of things I'm interested in writing about (but very open to other ideas). 

Also very open to:

  • co-authoring posts where we disagree on an issue and try to create a steely version of the two sides!
  • being told that the thing I want to write has already been written by someone else

Things I would love to find a collaborator to co-write:

  • Comparing the Civil Service bureaucracy to the EA nebuleaucracy.
    • I recently took a break from the Civil Service and to work on an EA project full time. It’s much better, less bureaucratic and less hierarchical. There are still plenty of complex hierarchical structures in EA though. Some of these are explicit (e.g. the management chain of an EA org or funder/fundee relationships), but most aren’t as clear. I think the current illegibility of EA power structures is likely fairly harmful and want more consideration of solutions (that increase legibility).
    • Semi-related thing I’ve already written: 11 mental models of bureaucracies
  • What is the relationship between moral realism, obligation-mindset, and guilt/shame/burnout?
    • Despite no longer buying moral realism philosophically, I deeply feel like there is an objective right and wrong. I used to buy moral realism and used this feeling of moral judgement to motivate myself a lot. I had a very bad time. 
    • People who reject moral realism philosophically (including me) still seem to be motivated by other, often more wholesome moral feelings, including towards EA-informed goals.
    • Related thing I’ve already written: How I’m trying to be a less "good" person.
  • Prioritisation panic +  map territory terror
    • These seem like  the main EA-neuroses - the fears that drive many of us. 
    • I constantly feel like I’m sifting for gold in a stream, while there might be gold mines all around me. If I could just think a little harder, or learn faster, I could find them…
    • The distribution in value  of different possible options is huge, and prioritisation seems to work. But you have to start doing things at some point. The fear that I’m working on the wrong thing is painful and constant and the reason I am here…
    • As with prioritisation, the fear that your beliefs are wrong is everywhere and is pretty all-consuming. False beliefs are deeply dangerous personally and catastrophic for helping others. I feel I really need to be obsessed with this.
    • I want to explore more feeling-focussed solutions to these fears.
  • When is it better to risk being too naive, or too cynical
    • Is the world super dog-eat-dog or are people mostly good? I’ve seen people all over the cynicism spectrum in EA. Going too far either way has its costs, but altruists might want to risk being too naive (and paying a personal cost) rather than too cynical (which had greater external cost).
    • To put this another way. If you are unsure how harsh the world is, lean toward acting like you’re living in a less harsh world - there is more value for EA to take there. (I could do with doing some explicit modelling on this one)
    • This is kinda the opposite of the precautionary principle that drives x-risk work - so is clearly very context specific.
    • Related thing I’ve already written: How honest should you be about your cynicism? 

This is great - thanks for writing this.

My addition to this would be that you can increase your empathy for the suffering of others by connecting with your own suffering. Experiences of pain and fear in my own life, definitely make it easier to connect with those feelings in others. 

(And as well as helping empathy, connecting with the motivational usefulness of negative experiences can make the experiences themselves feel a little more meaningful (so a little less bad).)

Thank you for writing this Tyler!  I really enjoyed it.

I have had a similar journey recently. I've also heard a bunch of other examples from people in this community with similar  stories.

There is an interesting tension I find when communicating about this:

If someone's motivational framework is fundamentally shackled to a dominant,  altruistic part, then the benefits of losing the shackles need to put in terms that that part will value. But to really succeed at this you need to genuinely abandon the idea that the values of that part of you are above your other values.

For example I've found myself saying things like "now that I have this perspective, I feel better, and more intrinsically motivated, but am not being any less altruistic, I may even be more altruistic across my life".

You touch on this here:

This doesn’t imply discarding the useful outcomes of activities. In fact, I find that when I engage something for its own sake, I’m far more likely to produce virtuosic work. At a meeting of the rationality community, Anna Salamon once argued that to use truth-seeking as solely a means to fight existential risk (x-risk) would compromise the activity of truth-seeking – for instance, by cutting corners while rushing for an answer. So she proposed an alternative: “Rationality for rationality’s sake…for x-risk’s sake.”

This has the flavour of a trick to me. In order to be free to follow other ends intrinsically, you need to be vulnerable to the prospect of actually being less altruistic, of actually ending up doing less good. Maybe this is a necessary trick? Is there is a way of negotiating with the dominant part that allows it to let go in full knowledge of its vulnerability?

(an approach that has seemed to be working for me here has been comfort zone expansion with respect the feeling of being a bad person.)

Interested in hear what you would write on this

This is great - really inspiring, makes me want to do more of all of those things! Thank you for writing this! I'm going to create a rejection list right now.

One thing I thought in reaction to this is that a reason we might hesitate to be more agentic is being uncomfortable setting boundaries. 

When you put-yourself-out-there a lot, you will also start being asked for things more. Or you might put yourself in a situation that feels bad for some other reason. Being comfortable rejecting requests or removing yourself from a situation seems like a really important related thing to work on. 

Thank you for writing this Julia. I think it's great that we have more shared views  and discussion about power dynamics. I've recently started working on an EA project full time, and it was jarring to realise that at some of the social events I attend, >50% of the attendees are professional stakeholders (and some of the others will probably be future colleagues/stakeholders).

A couple of the points you made seem particularly important to me, so I thought it might be good to emphasize them and elaborate with some ideas:

Inside view vs outside view

Part of the reason power dynamics aren't always obvious,  is that it's very easy to come up with self-serving narratives to explain our own feelings and behavior. And our society has egalitarian norms that push us to want to see things as more equal that they are.  Here is an specific example of this from my partner, Hannah.

I suspect we should be very humble about our ability to clearly comprehend what is going on here. When so much of our social, romantic and professional lives are at stake all at once, there are huge returns to self-deception. This isn't a problem that is unique to EA, but EA is ridiculously tightly coupled in places, so it might be particularly hard.

Taking an outside view is likely to be key to understanding and responding to the power dynamics of your relationships. This will include considering things like age, wealth, experience, self esteem, and seniority.

One of the most important area to take an objective/analytical/outside view of power in a relationship is to consider what your alternatives to a given relationship are, and how they compare to the other person's alternatives (i.e. your respective BATNAs). Growing your BATNA might be a key way to ensure you are not disempowered - e.g.

  • Make more friends and professional relationships outside EA so you can more easily decouple from the community
  • Build financial runway so you can quit if needed
  • Develop skills that  are less specifically targeted at an EA career track
  • Develop a more internally-sourced sense of self worth (see Charlie's post on self-love)

Setting boundaries

The boundary setting things you lay out are great - here are some ideas for relevant boundaries that I have been trying to employ:

  • Set clearer and harder boundaries than feels necessary - e.g. avoid dating any current or likely future colleagues, set much higher bars to date people who are more closely enmeshed in your social and professional circles.
  • Try to be in touch with, and trust, your feelings more - if a situation or relationship feels bad, don't think you need to come up with a narrative to explain it - you can act to set boundaries based on the badness of the feeling alone, and can aim for the minimum viable explanation when telling people why.
  • Avoid putting too much trust in individuals who don't seem self-aware about their own perverse incentives. Nobody will be able to see this perfectly, and self-deceptions will be happening. But if someone isn't able to demonstrate the self awareness or trust to be able to reveal their own incentives, think about backing slowly away.
  • For any relationship where there is a clear dependency (managers and reports, romantic partners, housemates) - insist on regular conversations about how the relationship is going and how it can be improved. In these conversations you should probably have the expectation that you are both minimizing conflict, and a shared goal of uncovering and resolving those conflicts. (resistance to these conversations is the reddest of red flags in my experience...)

The tone of this post is wary, but largely positive. I think it's important to highlight that the areas where power dynamics go most unaddressed are where you will find real mistreatment, abuse, and bullying. 

I would love EA (and people in general) to be having more open conversations about this. Although we should also be humble. Illegible, unaddressed and painful power dynamics are the norm of human groups, not the exception.

This is such a great article! Thank you for writing it. Really interesting ideas.

Here's a thing that came to mind when reading it.

You talk about policy diffusion seeming to be greater from high reputation countries. This seems quantifiable.  

It seems both possible and powerful to build a map of the probability of policy diffusion from country A to country B for policy area X. (for all As, Bs and Xs). Simple example here (arrow size representing probability)

For example - this paper seems to have done something approximating this - see figure 1 in particular (although looks like it took a bunch of manual coding of parliamentary debate data).

The policy diffusion landscape has big implications for my own work (advising UK civil servants on where they can have impact in government), so really keen to talk to anyone working on this.

Thank you for this post Charlie. I've been consuming some of the resources since I first read it and have found them really valuable. I'm pretty convinced of the central idea that self -love and compassion can form the basis of large improvements in well-being.

Thanks for this! I like the 1:1 ops advice in particular. I'm going to set so many alarms!

Possibly a  counterpoint, but I'd recommend considering under-scheduling your 1:1s ahead of time.  In my experience, I get a lot of good ideas of people to speak to during the event. Having time (especially on Sunday) to book those has been important. Under-scheduling also allows you to assess your energy levels on the weekend (Personally I've tended to over estimate my ability to have several intense back-to-back conversations).

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