The case for not pursuing a career in an EA organizationpost by MarcSerna · 2022-04-12T18:54:09.458Z · EA · GW · 7 comments
I think this idea is particularly powerful for people who so far have had mediocre, average, or slightly above average performance in their education or workplace. If you are one of them, please read twice. Main point: So, what could we be doing? Activism: Earning to give: Promotion of EA mindset: Volunteer-run direct impact projects None 7 comments
This is not a well-developed thought and I am certainly missing something, but it has been coming back to me for a while so I want to share it. This is also not a very new topic, and clearly an “EA should” post, I am sorry I am not quoting every post I am drawing inspiration from, but I have read a lot of people in this forum with similar ideas to these. I don’t have much access to the internet where I am and I can’t give proper credit and back up my statements with links, apologies for that.
I think this idea is particularly powerful for people who so far have had mediocre, average, or slightly above average performance in their education or workplace. If you are one of them, please read twice.
I am not criticizing any institution, if anything I am appealing to those individuals who are unhappy with the current state of affairs to start valuable things now. I am not so much criticizing EA as a possible misunderstanding of some EA ideas. Most of what I am saying is even “EA Mainstream”. 80,000 hours, for example, actively advises people against dropping good careers in “normal” organizations doing good in favor of organizations with the EA label.
I think the focus on having an EA career (employment in EA, founding something EA) might be the wrong advice for most people. I think the other two major options are earning to give, which is no longer prioritized, and raising awareness. So, simplifying, it comes down to having an EA career or convincing others to have it. I think we have much better options that are practical and don’t require you to change pathways.
I think if we get millions of people to 1) be more rational and 2) be better to the world we will have many positive outcomes that we cannot even imagine now. If we stay in our bubble we can’t reach there, no matter how many people EA-labelled organizations can hire. It is safe to stay within a closed community, but it is not the most impactful thing to do.
I think having 1% of humanity lightly engaged in EA-related activities is more valuable than having 0,0001% deeply engaged.
So, what could we be doing?
- We need activism, especially to change the way governments engage with existential risks, and EA causes in general.
- We need much more earning-to-give
- We need people wherever they are to make their immediate context more charitable and more rational. (Their team, institution or company)
- We need volunteer-run projects
Extending some beneficial ideas to be accepted by more people and almost all political groups in a state, country, or town. I think many of the key areas EA is prioritizing (Existential Risk being the most prominent) need change within governments and public opinion, and it might be difficult for small groups of employed EAs to get to attain it. This change will come about much faster if these full-time dedicated researchers, donors, project managers, and service providers are supported by communities of millions of activists aligned with their agenda. They can’t employ two million people but they can surely be supported by them.
A group of two million loosely engaged people, able to vote in one direction, sign petitions, convince others to write petitions, share social media posts, contact their local representatives, and participate in peaceful public acts have a great chance of success even if they only dedicate 2 hours of their lives a month to a cause.
One great big thing people in the EA movement have achieved was done by people who did not change careers: Increasing allocation for global development aid. EA Zurich more than doubled the city of Zurich's international Aid Budget with a ballot initiative in 2018.
Earning to give:
We need more resources. Thousands of times more. The idea that “we have so much more funding now” has been going around for a while. I think there might be a mistaken logical association.
- Longtermism is the most important EA Cause
- Longtermism has more funds than ever and might not need more funding right now
- Therefore, EA causes don’t need more funding.
We might have enough funding for longtermism for a while, and definitely for Meta activities, but global health and poverty is not finished. We have not dewormed the world, we have not given a cash transfer to even 1% of the extremely poor, and we have not stopped malaria deaths. The size of the funding that is needed to make those things happen is so big that we have evolved intellectually as a community and grown out of that focus before we have even started on the job.
We could say similar things about Animal Welfare and other causes maybe even about some existential risks. EA giving is still a tiny part of all giving, there are many great projects not getting the funding they need, there are so many communities not getting the great projects they need.
Promotion of EA mindset:
Consider two careers:
James is a software engineer and an EA who tries to apply for AI Safety jobs, he is fairly smart but for some reason, the interviews are not working well and he has spent the last 2 years applying without success. He spends his time working on his CV and trying to be present in the EA space, being part of fellowships and global conferences, networking, and participating in the forum. He eventually lands a job in an EA organization and he is helping them have a better website, he is not working on AI safety problems but on helping the Meta EA. He had to fill 600 applications and gotten much better at applying for jobs and passing interviews.
John has the same capacity as James, he applies for one EA job, gets rejected, and applies for whatever… entry-level computer engineering job at a food processing company. He spends two years working there and building experience, he donates a portion of this salary to GiveDirectly every month and in these 2 years, he has helped 5 families receive a potentially life-changing cash transfer. In the next few years, because of his rational and charitable mindset, he will bring in a few improvements in his company that improve the interaction of his company with the environment, animal welfare, and charitable giving.
The issue is not just that James might be worse off than John in all metrics that matter to EA (Career Capital, net impact, mental health), but that you can have a million Johns but you can’t have a million Jameses.
Gustav works for a development organization implementing Child Protection projects in East Africa. He reads about EA and realizes he has been wasting his time, he starts applying for jobs and competes with people like James. He does 200 applications and eventually lands an opportunity to be an operations assistant at an AI Safety organization.
Karl works for the same organization and, with Gustav, he gets to know about EA. He eventually evolves his thinking to tweak their Child Protection organization to be more impactful and rational, he leads the process of renewing the Impact Evaluation system in his organization, and he pushes for a re-focus on evidence-backed interventions. This leads to slightly improved well-being outcomes for thousands of children.
One point salient in my examples and previous lines is that people trying to get EA jobs might sacrifice A) their existing career capital and networks and B) their potential career capital and networks. Karl and John have better positions and influence in their jobs than Gustav and James, it might not be the case 10 years from now but it is now. Job hunting is a very inefficient use of time, and while you are dedicated to job hunting you are not doing other things with other people. If you dedicate 200 hours to job hunting and don’t get a job, the only good thing is whatever you learned about answering interview questions and preparing your CV, and there is a limit to what you can learn from a process that tends to have a heavy dose of luck involved. Those are 200 hours that you could have spent improving outcomes in your current job place, or getting a more attainable job where you are more quickly put in value creation chains.
Another reason why I love this type of thinking is because of the counterfactual:
You might be the only EA in your workplace so you have a unique opportunity to change things. Meanwhile when you are applying for EA jobs you are competing with someone very similar to you. So, if you get the EA job you are doing good but someone else could have been doing it anyway. If you are the guy changing things for good wherever you are and they replace you, nobody else is going to do it. This advice is not only for people working in big NGOs or government social services. Not even for people only working for positive things, if you could be the key person mitigating some of the horrible things that your horrible company is doing, you are a unique hero. This is a high-value possibility for literally everyone except those who already work in EA-labelled organizations.
Volunteer-run direct impact projects
If we accept that EA needs more people, we should be aware that we can’t currently accommodate them all. There are not enough things to do for us. This is making the entry point unnecessarily steep. The only accessible thing is to discuss EA.
I think EA groups and individual EAs should think of how EA ideas apply to their country, their immediate environment, and community; try local prioritization, and find actionable things for people to do.
These are some examples, there are other good ideas in this forum:
- Local charity evaluation (some people will only give local, what is the best option in my town?), publish lists, give awards.
- Group analysis and coaching on the previous point (EA mindset in the workplace)
- Look at the broad lists of important causes that EA has considered and see which ones are more actionable for each person, each group, each town, each country, then translate them into the quickest path to action and volunteer-based projects. They are all very impactful and if you have the personal fit or proximity reasons, you could pick any of them as the most impactful for you.
- Coordinate earning to give (eg. Setting group marks, encouraging each other, giving advice on negotiation and financial management).
- Fundraising campaigns for highly impactful organizations.
- Independent evaluation of grants within the EA environment (not necessarily local, but better do it in a team) or by key donors such as the Global Fund, Humanitarian Response Funds, European Commission, or USAID.
- Rationality awareness (some interesting existing EA-aligned groups focus on this first)
I understand that volunteers and activists are not experts and doing some of these “projects” can be unprofessional. However, this might be one of the best ways to start (test something, iterate, evolve) before founding an organization.
In a few sentences, my advice is:
If you care about doing good more efficiently find out what is the most impactful thing you can do, and start the first steps within a week. Just two limitations: it can’t be changing your career and it can’t be communicating about EA, even if you think those are the most impactful things, pick the next one to act.
Put more aggressively: Please, if you are the type of person who sometimes binges the 80,000 hours job board (or this forum) and starts applying to things randomly, just don't. You don’t need to be employed by anyone to be a great source of good to the world. The career move might not be worth it, and the time spent fantasizing and applying is also costing you a small piece of your life.
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