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In my first few jobs, I felt desperate to have an impact. I was often filled with anxiety that I might not be able to. My soul ached. Fear propelled me to action. I remember sitting in a coffee shop one Saturday trying to read a book that I thought would help me learn about biosafety, an impactful career path I wanted to explore. While I found the book interesting, I had to force myself to read each page because I was worn out. Yet I kept chugging along because I thought it was my lifeline, even though I was making extremely little progress. I thought: If I don’t do this excellently, I’ll be a failure.

There were three critical factors that, taken together, formed a “desperation hamster wheel,” a cycle of desperation, inadequacy, and burn out that got me nowhere:

  • Self-worth -- I often acted and felt as if my self-worth was defined wholly by my impact, even though I would give lip service to self-worth being more than that.
  • Insecurity/inadequacy -- I constantly felt not skilled or talented enough to have an impact in the ways I thought were most valuable.
  • Black and white thinking -- I thought of things in binary. E.g. I was either good enough or not, I was smart or not, I would have an impact or not.

Together, these factors manifested as a deep, powerful, clawing desire for impact. They drove me to work as hard as possible, and fight with all I had. It backfired.

This “desperation hamster wheel” led me to think too narrowly about what opportunities were available for impact and what skills I had or could learn. For example, I only thought about having an impact via the organization I was currently working at, instead of looking more broadly. I only considered the roles most lauded in my community at the time, instead of thinking outside the box about the best fit for me.

I would have been much happier and much more impactful had I taken a more open, relaxed, and creative approach.

Instead, I kept fighting against my weaknesses -- against reality -- rather than leaning into my strengths. (1) It led me to worse work habits and worse performance, creating a vicious cycle, as negative feedback and lack of success fueled my desperation. For example, I kept trying to do research because I thought that that work was especially valuable. But, I hadn’t yet developed the skills necessary to do it well, and my desperation made the inherent vulnerability and failure involved in learning feel like a deadly threat. Every mistake felt like a severe proclamation against my ability to have an impact.

I’m doing a lot better now and don’t feel this desperation anymore. Now, I can lean into my strengths and build on my weaknesses without having my whole self-worth on the line. I can approach the questions of having an impact with my career openly and with curiosity, which has led me to a uniquely well-suited role. I can try things and make mistakes, learning from those experiences, and becoming better.

I feel unsure about what helped me change. Here are some guesses, in no particular order:

  • Taking anxiety and depression medication
  • Changing roles to find one that played more to my strengths
  • I’m sad that I’m not better or smarter than I grew up hoping I might be. It took time to grieve that and come to terms with it on both a personal and impact level (how many people could I have helped?) (2)
  • Digging into the slow living movement (3) and trying to live more intentionally and with more reflection
  • Having a partner who loves me and who doesn’t care about the impact I have, except so far as he knows I’d like to have an impact
  • Reconnecting with my younger, child self, who felt curious and excited. In the worst moments on my desperation hamster wheel, I no longer felt those things. I found it really helpful to reconnect with that part of myself via rereading some of my childhood’s foundational books, prompting myself to play, and boggling at or feeling wondrous curiosity about nature/basic facts about the world.
  • Making grounding/centering activities part of my daily routine. For me, these are: yoga, journaling, walks, bike rides, showers, meditation, and deep breaths.
  • Learning the practice of Focusing -- learning how to be with myself without judgment and how to hear different parts of myself

I made a ton of progress using these strategies, and then two things happened, which solidified a core antidote to my desperation mindset.

The first is that my mom died and her death shined a spotlight on some similar struggles. I don’t think she would have described herself as being on a “desperation hamster wheel,” but I know she struggled a lot with self-worth and insecurities throughout her life. Cliché but true: none of that mattered in the end. If she could have had one more month, one more year, I would have wanted her to spend time with her loved ones and lean strongly into her passion (painting). That she didn’t read books much or that she didn’t get into a painting show that one time doesn’t matter at all. Her insecurities and self-worth issues were utterly unimportant in the end; they were beside the point. Mine probably were too.

The second is that I got a concussion and couldn’t work or even look at screens for a couple of months. This reduction made me understand something on an intuitive level (“system 1”) that I hadn’t before, or that I had lost sight of: that I am a person whose life has value outside of my potential impact. My life was still valuable by my own evaluation, even without work. I ate, slept, gardened, cooked, cuddled with my dogs, and called some friends. I was still a full person, a person of value, even though I wasn’t working. It sounds obvious, but it had been so long since I had been fully separated from my working self. I had forgotten that there's a core, a ME, that’s always there, and has value in and of itself.

My current hypothesis is that if you’re stuck on a desperation hamster wheel, you’ll have a lot more impact once you get off of it. (4) You’ll also have a better life, but if you’re on the desperation hamster wheel right now, you might not weigh that piece that seriously. (I think that’s a mistake, but that’s not necessary to get into at this time.) (5)

Being on the hamster wheel is indicative of being stuck in suboptimal patterns, burning yourself out, and a narrowing of thought that is counterproductive to most knowledge work. If you allow yourself to get off the wheel, you’ll be able to think and plan from a more grounded, creative place. New opportunities and ideas will emerge. You’ll have more energy. You’ll be able to see that you have strengths. This was true for me and I’ve seen it be true for others as well. Of course, I might be wrong. Everyone is different and life is complicated. But, if you care a lot about impact, it seems worth taking this hypothesis seriously and testing it out.

If you’d like to try stepping off the hamster wheel, I’m not sure what will work for you -- everyone is different. But, here are some ideas to get started. Also, feel free to reach out to me. I’m happy to brainstorm with you.

  • Take time off and away from the things that feed your hamster wheel patterns
  • Examine whether you have any underlying mental health issues which could be playing into this dynamic in an unhelpful way. If yes, try out some treatments and consult an expert (e.g. a psychiatrist).
  • Practice noticing what enables you to feel grounded, in the present moment, or in your body. Try out different things to see what works for you. Then lean into things that seem to help you.
  • Spend time reflecting and emotionally reconnecting with what excited or interested you as a child.
  • Bolster your social and emotional support relationships.
  • Find a counterbalance to some of the drivers of your hamster wheel. For me, I found the slow living movement to be very helpful; it prompts intentionality and calmness, and provides a separate frame and pushes usefully against some of my hamster wheel tendencies.
  • Explore your options with creativity and openness once you’re a better emotional place.

Dear Nicole-from-a-few-years-ago,

The takeaway messages here that I would love for you to internalize are:

  • Get off the desperation hamster wheel. It sucks to be on it and, anyway, you’re never going to have much impact if you stay on it. In order to have a long-term, personally sustainable impact, you need to find and create a situation that promotes your thriving. Keep in mind that impact is measured over the course of your whole career, not just today. As others have said, altruism is a marathon, not a sprint. (6)
  • Don’t get distracted or emotionally tied up in what’s cool. That’s irrelevant to what you need right now to set yourself up for an impactful career.
  • You do have strengths, even if you can’t see them right now. And when you lean into your strengths, you’ll be able to grow and make progress on your weaknesses. It’s much easier to grow from a solid foundation. Relax and take care of yourself. That is the first step in order to give yourself a solid foundation.
  • Really, get off that fucking desperation hamster wheel. I promise you, it’s not helping. Your martyr tendencies are misguiding you here -- they are correctly tracking that you care deeply about doing good, but the way they are pushing you to pursue this goal is backfiring.

Thanks to Eric, Rebecca, Neel, and Duncan for helpful comments, and a bunch of others for support and encouragement.


(1) My partner, Eric, notes that this reminds him about how humans learned to fly but did so by inventing airplanes, not turning themselves into birds. I don’t know how to work this in smoothly, but the comparison resonated with me a lot, so I’m putting it in this footnote.

(2) Blog post on this topic forthcoming.

(3) Here is a podcast that explores slow living, and which I’ve found helpful. 

(4) Impact, or whatever value/goal that got you on the desperation hamster wheel in the first place.

(5) Blog post on this topic coming at some vague point (i.e., I have an idea, but not a rough draft like I do for the others).

(6) Blog post on this topic forthcoming.

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I enjoyed reading this, thank you.

One small point:

"that I am a person whose life has value outside of my potential impact."

I'm happy to hear that this insight is worked for you, but want to flag that I don't think it's essential. Personally have been trying to think of my life only as a means to an end. Will my life technically might have value, I am fairly sure it is rather minuscule compared to the potential impact can make. I think it's' possible, though probably difficult, to intuit this and still feel fine / not guilty, about things. It makes me fear death less, for one.

I'm a bit wary on this topic that people might be a bit biased to select beliefs based on what is satisfying or which ones feel good. This is the type of phrase that I would assume would be well accepted in common views of morality, but in utilitarianism it is suspect.

To be clear, of course within utilitarianism one's wellbeing does have "some" "intrinsic/comparative" value, I suspect it's less than what many people would assume when reading that sentence.

To clarify;

My read of this article was that this could have been interpreted as meaning "for a form of consequentialism that doesn't give extra favor to oneself, it's often optimal to maximize a decent amount for oneself."

I'm totally fine optimizing for oneself when under the understanding that their philosophical framework favors favoring oneself, it just wasn't clear to me that that was what was happening in this article.

If the lesson there is, "I'm going to make myself happy because the utility function I'm optimizing for favors myself heavily", that's fine, it's just a very different argument then "actually, optimizing for my own happiness heavily is the optimal way of achieving a more universally good outcome." My original read is that the article was saying the latter, I could have been mistaken. Even if I were mistaken, I'm happy to discuss the alternative view; not the one Nicole meant, but the one I thought she meant. I'm sure other readers may have had the same impression I did.

All that said, I would note that often being personally well off is a great way to be productive. I know a lot of altruistic people who would probably get more done if they could focus more on themselves.

[Apologies for the rambly nature of this response]

Thanks Ozzie, I agree with your point here. I don't think this is essential for everyone and I agree it can lead to or be indicative of some weird biased mental move.

A couple of clarifications/mini-rambles on what I mean (but I think what I mean is a much less interesting than a useful discussion about what is helpful to people and what the implications and pros and cons of different views are):

  • I agree that the value I can give to others is a lot more in expectation than the value of my life on its own.
  • My career and donation decisions are mostly based on utilitarian reasoning (or at least that's what I intend). Not all of my life is though (there's a future post on this topic brewing in my mind -- something about a portfolio approach to life).
  • [super confused on this] I think sometimes acting as if I believe more of a virtue ethics-y/deontological thing in some day to day decisions, particularly around personal life/happiness might be better as measured/defined by utilitarianism lights? Anyways, something in the vague direction of this argument feels true for me with optimizing for my own happiness. I'm confused about this though, and depending on the day might respond very differently if asked about it.
  • I think the main underlying point I was trying to make is more along the lines of the latter thing Ozzie said (with one slight edit, in bold) "actually, optimizing for my own happiness more than I had been is the optimal way of achieving a more universally good outcome".
  • I probably should have worded that point differently? I'm not positive though -- I wrote the initial phrase in question for the Nicole of a few years ago who had literally forgotten that she, too, counts and has value. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like a very important realization to me.  I had actually forgotten and that forgetting had lots of subtle impacts on my emotional well-being and intellectual resiliency that were quite bad.

Did Nicole say she was a utilitarian?

Did Ozzie say she did?

It's implied in his comment that either Nicole is a utilitarian or that utilitarianism is correct regardless of if she believes it. I'm concerned the Forum has a culture of assuming everyone involved in EA is utilitarian, so I want to ask about it explicitly when I see it. I wasn't sure if Ozzie know that Nicole is a utilitarian or if this was an assumption.

I read Ozzie's comment as Ozzie sharing his experiences in a post where Nicole shared hers.

Thank you so much for sharing this with us and investing time in writing this.
I found this really insightful and helpful, and I can empathize with a lot of what you've felt throughout this journey.

"I’m sad that I’m not better or smarter than I grew up hoping I might be."
I feel like this is a thinking pattern that many people from our generation have, which is problematic because it's a fact that not everybody can be the most X person in the world, be it most impactful, most beautiful, most talented, or most wealthy. I feel it's also not true on an individual level;  we tend to estimate our potential self while neglecting vital personal preferences - some of us just want to work less than others. and while for some people it feels good to work all the time, for others it's demotivating and depressing, and they are much happier when spending more time with friends and family, or watching Netflix on weekends instead of working and studying diligently.   

One of the biggest struggles for me, and I would assume that's true for other people too, is that it can prevent us from noticing and celebrating our own progress because it always feels that we're still miles away from the finishing line - We're not fulfilling our potential. Then we're demotivated, and that surely doesn't help.

Thanks! This is an interesting point, and I'll mull on it.

Thanks a lot, I feel like this post could prove to be really usefuly for me, especially with giving this pattern a nice handle. I very much relate to stressing myself about having impact with my research. This led to me feeling averse towards trying to think about new "useful" research projects, which plausible decreases my research productivity quite a bit. 

Relatedly, I'm currently reading "Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective" by Ken Stanley and Joel Lehman [1], where they argue that, among others, innovation and research is best achieved by aiming for what's interesting and not what makes progress on a more concrete objective. I don't yet have formed an opinion if I should avoid having impact at the forefront of my day-to-day thinking about research, but I found the idea refreshing that I might just focus on my interest and apply the impact-filter much more sparsely. 

[1] a nice interview about the book can be found here: https://braininspired.co/podcast/86/

[Maybe a tangent]

they argue that, among others, innovation and research is best achieved by aiming for what's interesting and not what makes progress on a more concrete objective.

This reminds me of Julia Galef's Can we intentionally improve the world? Planners vs. Hayekians.

I don't yet have a confident stance on how often/strongly I should, when picking and pursuing research directions, have relatively explciit, concrete plans for how my research would improve the world in mind. (It sounds like you're in a similar boat.) But in thinking about that question, I found Galef's post useful. I also found some of the links I collected here useful - perhaps especially How to do research that matters and (the answers provided to) Do research organisations make theory of change diagrams? Should they?

Also related is the idea that the moral value of additional information is high when there is relatively low resilience in your credence that the current intervention is best. This leads to the (to me) rather unintuitive conclusion that if you have two research paths that both look to be equally good to look into for potentially improving the world, then, ceteris paribus, it may be better to invest in the research path for which you have less evidence that it is a good research path to follow. From Amanda Askell in the link:

[I]f the expected concrete value of two interventions is similar, we should generally favor investing in interventions that have less evidence supporting them.

I like Askell's talk and think this is an important point. Though when making the point without the full context of the talk, it also seems worth noting that: 

  • As an empirical matter, one's naive/early/quick analyses of how good (or cost-effective, or whatever) something is seem to often be overly optimistic.
  • Additionally, there's the optimizer's curse. This is essentially a reason why one is likelier to be overestimating the value of something if one thinks that thing is unusually good. The curse is larger the more uncertainty one has.
  • For both reasons, if you see X and Y as unusually good, but you have less evidence re X, then that should update you towards thinking you're being (more) overly optimistic about X, and thus that Y is actually better.

I think your comment is completely valid if we imagine that the two options "look to be equally good" even after adjusting for these tendencies. But I think people often don't adjust for these tendencies, so it seems worth making it explicit.

(Also, even if X does currently seem somewhat less good than Y, that can be outweighed by the value of information consideration such that it's worth further investigation of X rather than Y anyway.)

As an empirical matter, one's naive/early/quick analyses of how good (or cost-effective, or whatever) something is seem to often be overly optimistic.

One possible reason is completely rational: if we're estimating expected value of an intervention with a 1% chance to be highly valuable, then 99% of the time we realize the moonshot won't work and revise the expected value downward.

That definitely can happen, and makes me realise my comment wasn't sufficiently precise.

An expected value estimate can be reasonable even if there's a 99% chance it would be revised downwards given more info, if there's also a 1% chance it would be revised upwards by enough to offset the potential downward revisions. If an estimator makes such an estimate and is well-calibrated, I wouldn't say they're making a mistake, and thus probably wouldn't say they're being "overly optimistic".

The claim I was making was that one's naive/early/quick analyses of how good (or cost-effective, or whatever) tend to not be well-calibrated, systematically erring towards optimism in a way that means that it's best to adjust the expected value downwards to account for this (unless one has already made such an adjustment).

But I'm not actually sure how true that claim is (I'm just basing it on my memory of GiveWell posts I read in the past). Maybe most things that look like that situation are either actually the optimiser's curse or actually the sort of situation you describe.

Thanks for the link! I'm adding it to my to listen to list :)

A few rambly reactions/thoughts in response to your message in case they are helpful:

  • I wonder if doing some experiments here would be useful. e.g. do you seem to have more impact if you assess your impact/usefulness daily, weekly, monthly, yearly? (or whatever intervals feel worth a test to you) What happens if you experiment with just leaning into your interests (rather than usefulness)? Seems worth trying some things out and then taking time to reflect on how they went. I've benefited a lot from experimentation of this form.
  • FWIW I find assessing my impact more than a couple of times a year to be quite stressful and not very helpful (often a distraction from actually doing things). Interestingly and perhaps counterintuitively, I find prioritizing based on expected value to be useful in my role daily. Somehow the frame of prioritization enables me to make those trade-offs without kicking up this sort of desperation hamster wheel/stress cycle. I wonder if trying on different frames could be useful for you too? Prioritization depersonalizes it a bit for me in a useful way.

This is a great post, thanks for writing it! And I'm glad you've made a bunch of progress on this failure mode

Thanks for writing this up! I'm sharing it with a friend

Yay! Hope it helps them

Thank you for writing this fantastic post! 

I think understanding & growing more skillful in this territory is extremely important (from an impact-maximizing perspective and from other perspectives too).

I'm reminded of some of the practices I listed here, and of Jessica's post On hiding the source of knowledge as well.

How do you think the professional and social spaces you were participating in during this time interacted with the hamster-wheel feeling?

Thanks for the links!

I think my professional and social spaces at this time both made this feeling worse (because others felt this too and there was feeding on each other's angst cycle) and enabled me to get out of it/provided a healthy path forward (because others had navigated this before and gave me thoughtful and insightful advice, and also supported me as I made steps in this direction). I also think it's a broader dynamic than my personal professional and social spaces -- I was mostly within EA at this time, but I've seen this dynamic play out in a lot of other "do-gooder" friends from college who were never involved at all with EA.

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