Mastermind Groups: A new Peer Support Format to help EAs aim higher

post by Patrick Gruban (gruban), Lukas Trötzmüller (Lukas T) · 2022-05-31T18:37:14.213Z · EA · GW · 16 comments


  Aiming high and failing can hurt
  Mastermind groups
  Distinctions between Mastermind Groups and other formats already established in EA
  Patrick's experience
  Lukas' Experience
  Masterminds in EA
  How Masterminds could fail
  Starting an EA Mastermind Matching service

TL/DR: Mastermind groups consist of a small number of people (usually 4-6), meeting regularly over a long time and supporting each other with their goals. Members might provide each other with ideas, critical feedback, encouragement or accountability. The concept is widely used in the solo entrepreneur community but, to our knowledge, has not found adoption within EA yet. We believe mastermind groups could be a valuable addition to existing mentoring and coaching formats within EA. We are considering launching a Mastermind matching service for EAs - click here to indicate your interest.

Aiming high and failing can hurt

Last November, 80k published Be more ambitious: a rational case for dreaming big (if you want to do good) centring around this main theme:

In short, our advice is to do as much as you can to set up your life so that you can afford to fail, and then aim as high as you can. As a slogan: limit downsides, target upsides.

This seems like a helpful framing for thinking about how we can increase the expected impact of the Effective Altruism community. At the same time, this can be very demanding for individuals. If you're looking for a job and are ambitious in terms of impact, that can lead to many rejections, which can hurt. As one applicant to 20 EA jobs with 0 offers wrote, [EA · GW] it can feel as if EA orgs were saying:

We are so talent constrained… (20 applications later) … Yeah, when we said that we need people, we meant capable people. Not you. You suck.

"Rejection hurts, and that hurt matters." wrote the therapist Dystar Eld about job rejections in EA, [EA · GW] and Max Görlitz asks, "How do we create a culture of ambition without deteriorating the community's mental health?" [EA · GW] citing Sam Bankman-Fried, who more broadly talks about rejection on the 80K podcast:

So I think there are really compelling reasons to think that the “optimal strategy” to follow is one that probably fails — but if it doesn’t fail, it’s great. But as a community, what that would imply is this weird thing where you almost celebrate cases where someone completely craps out — where things end up nowhere close to what they could have been — because that’s what the majority of well-played strategies should end with. 

How do we take care of the majority of people who aim high and fail repeatedly? Either applying for jobs, funding, starting organisations, doing independent research, working in non-EA organisations where they try to make a difference, running for election and many other fields?

As a serial entrepreneur, I (Patrick) had to deal with high ambitions crashing down from time to time, costing money and having large emotional tolls. I saw some of my peers give up after the blows and take on regular jobs. One of the most important elements for getting through these phases was having a support group of people I could talk to in similar positions.

Mastermind groups

The concept of mastermind groups was first described almost 100 years ago in "The Law of Success" by Napoleon Hill. After interviewing many successful people of his time like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Hill observed that many were in peer-to-peer mentoring groups.

Mastermind groups today come in many shapes and sizes. Typical they

Distinctions between Mastermind Groups and other formats already established in EA

There is not much research about masterminds. A small study (N=16) found that participants in a post-doctoral mastermind program at a Swedish University described groups as:

Patrick's experience

I never participated in a formal mastermind (although my group of entrepreneurial friends was similar), but I have talked to entrepreneurs who have. Experiences varied based on the other participants and their goals. I got the impression that similar ambition and company size seemed important for people to show up regularly and reap benefits. 

After starting to look for direct work in EA actively, I found that I would love to have a mastermind of people who are sharing the frustrations of waiting, rejections, and uncertainties and being able to reflect on the next steps. Other friends and entrepreneurs I know can't relate to why I would pursue this path instead of earning and donating. In our local group, people are in very different steps of their career paths so it's not easy to find people in similar positions.

At EAG London, I talked with a few mid-career people who are currently earning to give and seemed to have financial and career capital that, in my opinion, would allow them to be good co-founders or leaders of bigger new EA projects. I had the impression that these could be the people who, e.g. the Future Fund is looking for, perhaps even to become founders of megaprojects. While there was interest in these projects, they were not willing to take the next step of trying out new high-risk paths. Perhaps they, too, would be more inclined to take risks with the help of peer support.

Lukas' Experience

I have been part of many different Mastermind groups over the years. Some of these groups were in the solo entrepreneurship community. Others focused on relationships and personal growth. I am also currently running a career-focused Mastermind group for EA Austria.

Here are some lessons I learned:


This guide (from the solopreneur community) gives some insights into running a Mastermind group.

Masterminds in EA

As the concept of Masterminds comes from the field of entrepreneurship, some adaptation may be needed when using it for EAs that are not starting an organisation. Knowledge sharing could be less important, while moral support for rejections might be more so. The shared culture of EA could also lead to a different experience where members might aspire to higher levels of epistemics or share feelings of imposter symptom.

How Masterminds could fail

While Masterminds can help people grow, there are also failure modes that have the potential to be harmful. These include:

For this reason, any service to set up Masterminds should proceed carefully, implementing steps that can mitigate the risks. These could include guidance for participants around reflecting on their experience and feedback and support mechanisms.

Starting an EA Mastermind Matching service

I would love to know if anybody is working on establishing peer-support groups; please comment on this post. I'm also interested in any experiences you have with this format.

If you're interested in joining a mastermind, please enter your email address. We are considering starting an EA mastermind service or linking up with others already working on that. 


We want to thank Matt Putz, Max Görlitz, Steve Thompson and Vaidehi Agarwalla for feedback on early versions of this post. All mistakes are by the authors.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by SteveThompson · 2022-05-31T21:48:54.566Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Short version (IMHO) is that Masterminds  are excellent when you get good people (seniority, experience, entrepreneurial spirit etc) and they are far less good with less relevant  people. 


Take a bunch of very early stage peers. They often have more limited and similar knowledge and networks. On the other hand, take a bunch of essentially lonely and talented entrepreneurs and stick them in a room, magic will happen! 

I reckon it's some combination of neglectedness/isolatedness and relative value.

I'm a member of a Mastermind group (from a Leadership Program I was on many years ago) which includes a couple of very senior civil servants. It's just fascinating to watch how these leaders, unable to access advice and unguarded council from their own subordinates, can help each other - by virtue of their positions, experience and relevance. At the very least they respect each other and understand each other's struggles in a way that few others can. 

 So I suspect that a huge amount of the value of Mastermind groups comes down to the matchmaking. 

WANBAM (now Magnify Mentoring) seems to have had an outsized impact by connecting mentors with mentees across the community. I suspect an equivalent service of matching EAs into Circle/Masterminds could be very valuable. WANBAM's success (from where I sit at least) seems to have been largely due to the skill of the matchmaker(s). Getting the fit "just right". Likewise - getting the Circles "just right" could be amazingly powerful. 

Replies from: Lukas T
comment by Lukas Trötzmüller (Lukas T) · 2022-06-02T09:49:06.245Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Would you say that inexperienced people benefit less from a Mastermind than experienced people? Or would you say that they benefit so little that a Mastermind is not worth for them?

If your claim is that Masterminds are only worthwhile for experienced people, then I disagree for two reasons:

First, the way I see Masterminds, one core aspect is that a group of peers can be much more effective in thinking through problems than a single individual. This is true even if none of my peers have any experience that I don't have. It is surely not true for any imaginable group, but I would guess it is true in the case of intellectually humble and reasonably smart people with similar values, who come together explicitely to support each other. I personally have managed to solve dozens of tricky personal & professional problems with the help of Masterminds groups - problems which I was not able to solve on my own.

Second, people with little experience might need more personal support and motivation than people who already have a lot of experience. They also have less access to mentoring. Obviously, this is not always true, but it seems plausible.

comment by Konstantin (Konstantin Pilz) · 2022-05-31T20:44:09.992Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I started something like this earlier this year to do the 8 weeks career planning course by 80k with two friends and I found it incredibly valuable to the extent that I'd say it would have been almost impossible to get so much clarity on career issues without my friend's support. Strongly encourage others to do the same. (Note that it makes sense to do this with people with a similar focus)

We are planning on check-ins every three months now

Replies from: captainjc
comment by Jeremy (captainjc) · 2022-06-06T16:20:23.361Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a great idea!

comment by anonymous6 · 2022-06-01T03:43:49.488Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My feeling about the phrase "Mastermind Group" is fairly negative. I have heard people mention it from time to time and knew it was from Napoleon Hill, who was kind of the inventor of the self-help/self-improvement book. The phrase is something I associate,  I think reasonably, with the whole culture of self-improvement seminars and content that descends from Hill -- what used to be authors/speakers like Tony Robbins and is now also really big on YouTube. The kind of thing where someone is going to sell you a course on how to get rich, and the way to get rich is to learn to successfully sell a course on how to get rich.

Take this for what it's worth -- just one person's possibly skewed gut reaction to this phrase. I think the idea of peers meeting in a group to support each other remains sound.

Replies from: gruban, jlemien
comment by Patrick Gruban (gruban) · 2022-06-01T08:07:38.540Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I can see your concern and coming up with a new name could be nice. On the other hand, I suspect most EAs wouldn't be too concerned if we use a tool internally in a way that works for us while it's also being used by others for less useful purposes.

comment by Joseph Lemien (jlemien) · 2022-06-01T06:26:44.747Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seconded. I think that the association with scammy MLMs is pretty strong. That being said, if EA simply branded it slightly differently that would remove my concerns: learning circle, accountability club, Junto, etc.

comment by DonyChristie · 2022-06-01T01:49:34.215Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you're interested in joining a mastermind, please enter your email address. We are considering starting an EA mastermind service or linking up with others already working on that. 


I lazily skimmed the post very quickly because I know about Mastermind groups and was looking for a thing to sign up to, and it took a second read for me to notice the sign-up call-to-actions! I recommend making it very big font.

Replies from: gruban
comment by Patrick Gruban (gruban) · 2022-06-01T07:48:00.359Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I've made it bold at the top.

comment by Miranda_Zhang ( · 2022-06-08T02:14:00.906Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This was interesting, thanks! I haven't heard of Mastermind Groups before but in general, I'm excited about trialling more peer-support interventions. This is the approach I took with UChicago EA's career planning program,* which was in turn inspired by microsolidarity practices. I think these interventions provide a useful alternative to the more individual-focused approaches such as 1:1s, 80k career advising, and one-off events.

*It's worth nothing that this one iteration did update me towards , "selection is important," which seems similar to what Steve Thompson is saying - not because I didn't think attendees got value out of it, but because I felt I wasn't creating as much impact as I hoped.

comment by MichelJusten (MJusten) · 2022-06-28T14:14:27.747Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing! I'm thinking of starting something like this at my local university group next semester. I assume the virtual format mementioned

ntiond here generalizes well to in-person events here, but drop a comment if there are any considerations that you think are extra important in an in-person context.

comment by Pavel S. (Pavel Shibayev) · 2022-07-13T16:43:20.796Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a great proposal, and coincidentally I've been building a very similar initiative for the broader public, incorporating EA principles and intended for both a structured collective increase of our marginal utility and mutual support. Anyone interested can check out and subscribe to Please feel free to provide feedback via any medium!

comment by konrad · 2022-05-31T21:51:12.731Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This sounds great. It feels like a more EA-accessible reframe of the core value proposition of Nora and my post on tribes. [EA · GW

Replies from: gruban
comment by Patrick Gruban (gruban) · 2022-06-01T07:52:58.363Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I read your post while researching for this one and found it very interesting. To me, it seemed that you were describing something bigger and more encompassing than a Mastermind that seems restricted in size, topics and frequency of meetings. But there is definitely some overlap and it's one of the few posts on the forum around the deliberate groups and their setup.

comment by Konstantin (Konstantin Pilz) · 2022-05-31T20:48:20.432Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Consider posting this idea in the 80k career planning course group:

Replies from: gruban
comment by Patrick Gruban (gruban) · 2022-06-01T08:36:34.298Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, done