comment by Sophia ·
2022-07-14T12:10:37.322Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I don't think it is your capacity for impact, your intelligence or anything else that would stop you from adding a tonne of value to the effective altruism project. Your post is insightful (a sign of intelligence if I were to look for signs) and I also think that intelligence and competence are complicated and are so far from perfectly correlated with impact that worrying about them on an individual level seems counter-productive to me (lots of people have said similar things in the comments, but I felt this was, nonetheless, still worth reiterating).
The biggest thing I see is whether the effective altruism community is a place where you feel you can add value and, therefore, whether you can be here and be mentally healthy. Regardless of reality, how you feel matters. I think people struggle in this community not because they can't contribute, but because they feel they can't contribute "enough", or at all. I think "enough" is a low bar to pass in reality (where enough is "the world is better because of your contribution than it would have been otherwise": thanks comparative advantage).
I think feeling like you're enough is the real challenge here.
Why I think people like me and not-so-like me can contribute to this community whether or not we are above average and what really should be at the core of deciding whether this community is for us
An anecdotal account of the unimportance of being analytical or finding forum posts relatively easy to read (which often gets confused for "intelligence" in this community) in determining your ability to contribute
In my experience, in whatever ways I guess I've had an impact, I think being in the right place at the right time and caring a tonne has mattered much more than my intelligence. I'm rarely the smartest person in the room (and I think this is a good thing!). However, in places where I've messed up and could have had much more impact, I feel like self-love was a bigger factor than intelligence. I've seen much more intelligent people than me mess up. I have seen people who I have judged, at some point, to be much less intelligent than me do much more for others than I ever have.
What I lack in intelligence, I feel I maybe make up for in relatability and I think that actually is a massive deal. I am weirdly analytical so fitting in was strangely easy for me, but I really do wish all the people I know who are more competent than me in so many different ways also could feel the sense of belonging that I feel here (there are a lot of people who probably would outperform me on an IQ test and/or who are much more successful than me who can't "trick" people, a skill in itself in my eyes, in conversation as well as I can into thinking they're smart/insightful).
Even if it could be true, that on average, intelligence, as judged by EA forum post comprehension or people thinking you're smart or doing well on some kind of standardized test, was somewhat correlated with impact, impact is extremely noisy.
I am confident that so many people smarter than me, even if they are trying, are going to have less impact than me and so many people less smart than me by any reasonable measure are going to have more impact! The world is messy. Impact is noisy. Any social scientist worth their salt will tell us that people are not like particles, psychology (unlike physics) does not have the same kind of narrow confidence intervals that make this sort of reasoning all that meaningful. Nonetheless, I'm going to continue to try and make broad, sweeping generalisations.
Things like caring a tonne, I think, often gets you further or having really deep levels of self-acceptance and self-compassion (which is something I believe anyone can get with a good enough psychologist if they have the time and money for one) or conscientiousness seem likely to me to be more predictive than IQ. I'd guess, even all of these traits put together will still be pretty noisy if we try and apply it to any individual.
Sometimes I catch myself feeling insecure in this community because I'm not competent or smart or conscientious enough to have "enough" of an impact. But what even is enough?
The way I see it, it doesn't even matter if it is true that I can contribute much less than others because I am less smart or less conscientious or less "whatever-thing-I-am-insecure-about". I am pretty certain, if I am honest and upfront about what I can and can't do, if I'm self-aware enough to communicate clearly what my strengths and weaknesses are, due to comparative advantage, I can certainly find a way to contribute something.
Thanks to comparative advantage (and having a very good psychologist), I honestly believe I can make this community better able to help others than if I weren't here at all. That is enough for me (that and the fact that being in this community makes me happy).
Others being able to contribute much more than me does not make my contributions, in absolute terms, any less valuable. Others being able to contribute much more than me just means much more is going to get contributed! It literally just means the world is a much better place than it would have been otherwise! Those people are using what they have to make the world a better place and that's pretty wonderful. I'll do the same in my own little way.
I can't change my baseline level of intelligence. I can still contribute. I can still do something about the mess of a world we live in.
I am in an entry-level job, earning a fairly average amount for the country I live in and I can speed up the end of absolute poverty by donating 10% of my income.
Even if this community has more money than before, it does not have nearly enough to end absolute poverty and prepare us for future pandemics and give AI safety researchers a fraction of the resources AI capabilities researchers have let alone anything else.
This community doesn't have, nor do I expect it to have any time soon, the sorts of resources that will allow it to solve all the world's most pressing problems. I don't need to be able to contribute as much as Sam Bankman-Fried for my contribution to matter a tonne more to the person I helped than that same money mattered to me.
I don't need to contribute as much as others to feel like I belong here and to feel like the amount of value I am capable of adding is enough. Comparative advantage means that I know that if I'm self-aware enough to place myself well, I'm pretty confident that I can contribute regardless of how my baseline gifts compare to others.
Being happy here and believing (on expectation) I can contribute is enough of a reason for me to feel fully justified in sticking around all these people who are even more gifted than me (I know it's hard to imagine that someone could be more gifted than a random ADHD mess of a woman who is in an entry level job in her late-20s, shocker!).
I do wish that people who were smart or competent in ways that I am not felt the levels of belonging that I feel in this community. I don't feel like I can easily bring along people who aren't as weirdly analytical as me (regardless of whether they are more intelligent or more competent than me according to any traditional measure). I also know that I don't have to be extraordinary to make it easier for extraordinary people to feel like they belong here. 7 years ago, in my local group, I was often the only woman in the room. Nowadays, I honestly don't know whether there are more women or men in my local group. Having another woman there first made it easier for the next woman to feel like this is the sort of place where she could belong and thrive. Extraordinary women have felt more welcome in rooms that I was in, simply because there was another woman there too (turns out you let one in, you let us all in :P). One "average" woman (and by the way, since when is being average a bad thing?? Half the population is below average and so if I'm in that half on any given trait, then that's totally fine with me!). I hope that being female is no longer weird (I think my local community might be better in this way than others but I honestly have no idea and I've spent too long on this comment to be bothered to look up the latest EA demographic survey).
I think being different but still completely and deeply passionate about the effective altruism project brings a tonne of value to the community.
You being good for the community doesn't mean the community is good for you
I don't think being able to contribute means you should necessarily stay engaged with this movement!
For example, if the effective altruism community was bad for my mental health in the ways I've seen it be bad for other people I've known, I would think I should leave because staying in a relationship that is bad for you is bad for everyone (my guess is this holds in both romantic partnerships and for social movements too).
Likewise, if you feel that this community is not good for your mental health and that you'd feel more valued and fulfilled elsewhere and maybe even better able to contribute out of this community than in it, then leaving for that reason is a great idea. Mutually beneficial relationships here only!
I'm not sure how to help create a community about effective altruism that also allows for all sorts of different sorts of people who care deeply about others and who act on their best guess of how to do that a significant proportion of the time. I think that keeping effective altruism about effective altruism is challenging. Nonetheless, I believe that we can become a lot more inclusive with time by putting an extra bit of effort into making people who are a bit different, but still fundamentally care deeply about effective altruism and also understand what it is, feel like they belong here.
I know not all of our experiences are going to be the same, but I think swapping our own personal stories might help more people carve out their space and their sense of belonging here or elsewhere so understanding every forum post doesn't feel like the defining feature of our community (I don't think everyone understands every forum post anyway, even the people who are much more typical members of this community than me).
I might write out my experience in this community and finding belonging here in more depth in a top-level post (but I'm so ADHD that I've unfortunately got a graveyard of things that matter to me that have become quite ugh that I hope to get to long before this).
While we might be able to evaluate ourselves somewhat accurately on any given trait compared to our peers, no one trait tells us all that much about how much we can contribute and imposter syndrome can certainly make us blind to our strengths.
Even the objectively best people in the community (this was partly ironic, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Sam Bankman-Fried, is, in fact, going to donate more than me and is, therefore, objectively going to have more of an impact through his donations than me - a controversial statement indeed) are going to feel imposter syndrome around some people sometimes until they see a great psychologist or unless they were born with a very healthy disposition that makes them much less likely to indulge in self-loathing (from Sam's podcast episode, he seems like an example of someone who just is mentally healthy but he still was the example I wanted to use because amount donated is such an uncontroversial measure of impact: point is, extraordinary people sometimes have imposter syndrome too and so do more salt-of-the-earth, proudly average people like me and it really doesn't seem to have much to do with anything of substance).
In the meantime, I think extreme self-compassion goes a long way when you feel like you're not good enough to be here because I think that it is literally a fact proven by economists under weak enough assumptions to hold well enough in the real-world afaict that everyone can contribute (with some minor caveats that I am happy to go into in more depth but are more about mental health and self-awareness and not really much to do with the traits discussed by the OP)!
Focusing more on the fact that everyone can contribute and letting go of this idea that "enough" requires anyone to be smarter or better than anyone else seems more wholesome, more useful and more true than focusing on many other things that make me, the OP, and many others unnecessarily miserable for a moment until something like Ajeya's talk reminds us that that comparative crap isn't what all of this is supposed to be about (Sam BF donating does not make my donations any less valuable in absolute terms beyond him taking all the best donation opportunities, which he obviously hasn't because as far as I've observed, absolute poverty is still, tragically, a thing of the present and GiveDirectly could do a lot for that when we run of all the interventions that are six times better than cash transfers).
Even if it is true that some people can understand more forum posts than others and that is well-correlated with something we might care about, even if this is true, and I am relatively unconvinced of this personally, it's so noisy and also not actionable enough for it to do any good to anyone to waste time and energy on thinking "am I enough?" because the answer to this question, "are you enough?" is a resounding yes. If being in this community is healthy for you, then you are definitely much more than enough to be a contributor! Now your full attention can go to the real question which is, is this community enough for you? It has some good bits and some bad bits and for different people, the answer to whether the good outweighs the bad will absolutely be different. This community has been exceptionally kind to me. I am aware that this is not everyone's experience. Furthermore, everyone being pretty nice or virtuous doesn't even mean this community, overall, can't have toxic elements anyway.
At the end of the day, we're all probably smart enough to help others quite a bit over our lifetimes. That's all there needs to be to it. The only real question is not "are you enough for this community?" but is this community good enough for you and your mental health for engaging with it to be worth it for you. It is fine to find a place to contribute here or elsewhere. This community is here if it's helpful and should absolutely be abandoned if it isn't, for whatever reason. As others have said, you can still bring the bits you love elsewhere, perhaps somewhere with zero association with this community, and leave the rest. Bringing the best stuff and leaving the rest can not only be good for a person's well-being but can also be hugely impactful in its own right, if impact is an important consideration for you (it doesn't have to be! For the OP, it sounds like it probably would be but it's obviously fine for this to not be a priority and it is especially fine for it to not always be a priority).
Or if you decide staying engaged in this community is good for you, that's great too and we're lucky to have you.
PS. I don't think how average we are actually changes the whole comparative advantage thing being a slam dunk argument that anyone can probably find a way to contribute (but also that being able to contribute is neither here nor there for deciding whether to stay involved in this movement, the real question is actually about whether this movement is healthy for you and its totally fine for it to not be and for you to find purpose and meaning and value elsewhere for that reason!).
I think I'm way above average in how analytical I am and I'm way below average in my ability to be on time to things (I'm working on it though). I don't think it matters much to the central point of this whole comment how average I am. I know that I have found it easier to belong here than others who, on objective tests of intelligence, perform better. I know that I'm also not that thick (but so clearly neither is the OP). I also don't think the solution to this issue is to reassure people that they are smart. I don't think the solution is to ignore the fact that, on a population level, more money or more intelligence or more charisma or more warmth or more conscientiousness or being prettier or taller (woe is me -- my legs are forever a little stumpy because I have no intention of getting leg-lengthening surgery and statistically, that really does harm my expected earnings and therefore my expected donation-wise impact) or being born rich all give a leg-up in life and in any goal you want to pursue, including social impact! However, I think 1) this stuff is oh so noisy, 2) everyone who is self-aware and honest can contribute something (even when we don't have the statistically optimal amount of a trait: despite my short legs, I'm pretty sure I can earn enough to donate a life-changing amount to someone in the world), 3) saving a life is still saving a life whether you are the only person in the world who has ever done it or whether everyone else is saving hundreds: it may not feel the same but it is, actually, still saving a life and it still matters as much as saving a life matters or any other impact you're able to have by focusing on what is useful and letting go of the rest and 4) people who are different from the existing community who understand what effective altruism is and who care deeply about it can contribute a lot to this community in paving the way for a wider range of people to understand what scope-insensitivity is about, why it might matter and how many different types of people can contribute to helping others a tonne. This is unlikely to be the only way people who are different from the existing mean community member can contribute, but as high-fidelity communication is darn hard in the best of times, and the more people are different, the harder crossing inferential gaps [? · GW] can be, this is a very significant contribution.