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“I really needed to hear that”

His eyes were downcast, his normally jocular expression now solemn. I had really said something that had spoken to him, that had begun to assuage some hurt which had before remained unacknowledged.

It’s not your fault. Four words.

Later, I was listening to him tell someone else about everything he was juggling, listing off responsibility after responsibility, and asking them how he could do more.

This was when I realised that I needed to write about this, not just because it could help other people who are organising, but for myself. To tell myself the things I needed to hear and to really believe. As the meme goes: people always ask about what EA Organisers are doing, but they never ask how EA Organisers are doing. And in the (currently ~85) posts on the forum tagged EA Organising, I’ve seen barely any which really treat EA Organisers as ends in themselves. To me, this is a damn shame, because they are some of the best ends-in-themselves I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

So, to the EA organisers out there: from a former organiser, these might be some things you need to hear.

It’s Not Your Fault

Let me tell you my story.

I’d been organising for EA UW–Madison for a semester when I got “promoted” big-time. I’d been the outreach coordinator for a while, sending out newsletters and helping around here and there where help was needed. Suddenly, I was part of the exec team, essentially a co-President, and also President of the nascent animal advocacy spin-off organisation. And I was taking 5 classes.

I worked really hard. Not just objectively speaking or whatever. I put my entire being into the success of the clubs I was working for. Tabling, speech-giving, outreach, socials, speaker events, everything. I thought that if I just did more, if I just did it right, we would get a ton of new people. I’d have done an exceptional job and made my positive impact on the world. I’d have made an impact on our group that would last for years and years.

Unfortunately, that success did not come. Attendance of the events for both EA and animal advocacy dwindled, so that sometimes it was just me sitting in the office alone, hoping someone would drop by. Organisers got busy with school, and meetings became more sparse and sporadic. Sign-ups for the clubs (EA and animal advocacy) and both fellowships were abysmally low, and attendance was lower. We had one animal ethics fellowship group which none of the participants even finished. Out of the new animal advocacy organisers I’d wanted to onboard, only one (and you know who you are; thank you so much) consistently showed up.

Adding insult to injury was that we had some successes—just not anywhere I was directly involved. Our AI Safety group exploded in popularity, and biosecurity also seemed to be doing well. The one animal advocacy event that had significant attendance was the one that I was not involved in organising. It felt like the common denominator of all of the failures was me. I even said once that I felt that everything I touched turned to dust. Somehow, it felt like it was my fault.

That feeling was really emotionally painful. It was, in terms understandable to EAs, a giant negative prediction error. I’d been told that we were doing some of the most effective and valuable work in the world. It had been implied that every convert to EA, every leader onboarded, every person flown to an EAG was lives saved. I’d been led to expect that my work would be serious and impactful and meaningful. It certainly didn’t feel that way at 7 PM on a Monday, sitting in the empty office and fiddling with the text color of one of our newsletter’s headers. Most painful was that I had somehow internalised that success was possible if I just worked hard and smart enough. And when I didn’t succeed, I felt that I had let my friends, my group, and the world down.

Looking back, I can see that my view of the situation was very wrong (as my good friends tried to reassure me). It was the spring semester, and usually those are relatively slow. A number of key leaders essentially dropped off the map (I don’t blame any of them, by the way); one graduated, and the others took time away for mental health reasons. There were a few consistently present new leaders, but they needed time to be trained and integrated into leadership. I was saddled with a ton of new responsibilities, most of which I had to figure out how to navigate practically on my own. And, of course, everyone made mistakes, and chance things occurred.

We don’t talk about our failures enough, both in the broader culture and in EA. Specifically in EA, I feel that there’s not enough acknowledgement that sometimes there’s nothing you can do. A lot of the things that you do are going to fail or are not going to live up to the standards you set. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try or that there’s nothing that can be improved. But we have to recognise that we are limited humans, most of whom are around 18 to 22 years old, and give ourselves grace accordingly. 

But in those moments, I felt such a personal sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. I couldn’t believe my friends and colleagues when they told me that it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes I still struggle with that, though I’m much better about it now. But I know how strong and gut-wrenching that feeling can be. So I’m telling you.

It’s not your fault.

EA Has Grandiose Narratives—Don’t Let Them Get To Your Head

Yes, I said it. EA has grandiose narratives. Nowadays saving the world and improving the lives of future quintillions is all the rage. And yeah, at the highest level, that’s a good mission.

But remember back in the core EA days, when it was precisely this kind of grandiose narrativising which EA cautioned against? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Seriously though, remember how we used to warn people not to buy into PlayPumps stories, and to focus on the boring work of deworming and malaria nets instead? I guess you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, eh?

To some extent, the grandiose narratives are needed or at least justified. It is good to have a higher-level directive. And people like grandiose narratives—it’s what gives their lives meaning, and it’s what attracts people to the cause. But these narratives are like fire: they chew up and spit out everything in their path, including you.

When I first joined as an organiser, I just wanted to be helpful. I wanted to prove myself to these really cool people. I took some initiative and did some good work. Tabling, writing newsletters, etc. It was fun and I did a good job. But the quasi-eschatological narrative was everywhere, and pretty soon, it started creeping into my mind. I became obsessed with ending suffering in its totality, and implicitly believed that I had some role to play in the total success or failure of that endeavor in the course of history. Talk about grandiose! And yet, I don’t for a second believe that I’m the only one who has had this deeply held belief. Some of you probably feel this too, upon reflection.

Even from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I think this grandiosity made me a less effective leader. In the spring semester, I put a lot of effort into projects that were, in retrospect, a giant waste of time. I wanted to feel like I was doing something useful, so if I created more forms and more bureaucracy and did more events and talked to more people, that was better. The more work I did, the more innovative I was, and the more stretched I felt, the better I was doing (i.e., I was Goodharting). In retrospect, I think that my most productive endeavors tended to be the ones which I overlooked. Like making sure the time and place of the events in our newsletters was correct. Or picking up some little errand that no one else could get. Or regularly checking the relevant email inboxes. But it doesn’t feel like you’re saving the world every time you check your inbox, does it?

It’s also really mentally unhealthy to hold such expectations. The fact of the matter is that your socials are essentially glorified vegan pizza parties (if you have the budget for pizza, that is) where somewhere between 80% to 90% of the people in attendance are there for the food. EA, contrary to popular belief, does not stand for Everyone Altruism. Not everyone can be an EA, and not everyone will want to be one, no matter what you say or do. You can always hope to increase retention rates and think about how to keep people from slipping through the cracks. But to set such high expectations on yourself and to put such weight on the outcomes is really dangerous. It feels great when things go well, but when things inevitably fail, it will run you into the ground. None of this is to say the work you’re doing isn’t important—on the contrary, I still think it is highly important. But we need to go back to thinking of that importance in the way we think of deworming as important—humble work that makes incremental improvements to the world where it can, not the grandiose megaprojects which will on their own decide the fate of the universe.

Don’t Make Organising Your Whole Life

I’m not saying you shouldn’t make organising a substantial part of your life—I think it can be a very good experience and quite impactful. But I would generally advise against substantially sacrificing school performance and career opportunities for organising.

There might be some exceptions. If you are pretty sure you want to go into EA organising, and you have a grant or are otherwise accountable to some EA professional(s), then sacrificing other things may be worth it. If there are current responsibilities which absolutely no one else can fill which really will have a counterfactual impact (like being President of a club which would otherwise die), then it is worth considering.

But I think aside from these cases, your personal development should take priority. Personally, I feel that organising for EA has not done much for me career-wise, other than signaling to other EAs that I was committed to EA (which is substantial, but not as much clout as I’d have liked it to be). I should definitely have focused more on career development, upskilling, and networking than I actually did (which is perhaps not saying much, because I put basically all my time into organising and school). But I do worry that there’s the impression that the most important thing a university student can be doing is organising, when I think that’s often not the case. I think many of my friends have reached a much better balance in this way: even though they’re important organisers with a lot of responsibilities, they still set aside substantial time to work on career development and upskilling (and school, especially for the ones who want to go to grad school). Organising is important. But so is self-development. And a lot of the time, the latter should take precedence over the former.

Also, not everyone who wants to be involved in EA is cut out to be an organiser. Some people would rather focus on learning or career development, and that’s fine! For me, a big part of organising was that I’d get to spend time with my friends. I didn’t realise that you can also spend time with your friends outside of organising. You can be part of the community, have good conversations, forge good relationships, and be doing highly impactful things all without being an organiser. So don’t make organising your whole life just because it’s your only option. If there’s something else that’s more important for you than being an organiser, or if organising is really taking a toll on you, then it’s probably best for you to scale back on organising.

Prepare To Be Redundant (if you can)

One of the things I think I did quite well was thinking about continuity. The biggest achievements were not those which are attributable to me personally, but to people who I onboarded and trained to replace me.

There are usually going to be people around who are going to want to take on more responsibilities. Really engage with them. Take the time to train them and guide them. Trust them to carry out the responsibilities you assigned to them. Give them room to take the initiative. That’ll give you more time to focus on higher-level things you really need to do while building confidence, commitment, and skills in your colleagues. At the very least, I think a high priority for each group is to prepare for succession. Especially if the President is in their junior or senior year, one of their primary duties should be identifying and training potential successors.

I feel like this is really common-sense advice, but maybe it’s not followed as much as it should be? Like I’ve heard of cases where clubs have died for lack of continuity or have suffered sudden changes in leadership. And of course that happens—life is unpredictable. But also maybe some of that would be preventable if we built in more redundancy. I think a big part of the success and continuity of the UW chapter—despite it being a less supported university group which was not expected to flourish—was that we had a good amount of redundancy. Even when people left or graduated or took time away or we had a bad semester, we had sufficient capacity to make things work, to keep the lights on.

One of my goals going into the spring semester was that, by its end, I’d be able to leave and things would function essentially the same without me. And I’m proud to say that they have done so—in fact, I’d say they functioned better. 

EA wisdom tells us that we want to find a role in which we’re irreplaceable. I’d just add that we don’t want to leave it that way.

Take Time Away… Don’t Wait Until You Need It

One of the things I’m glad I did in retrospect was stepping back before I absolutely needed to and doing so gracefully.

By the middle-to-late spring semester, I could tell that I was approaching my breaking point. I was pretty depressed, sometimes just lying down on the floor in my apartment and finding it difficult to get up. My mood was pretty unstable all around and generally quite negative. I felt hopeless and burnt out about the work I was doing. Most of all, I could tell that I was bringing a toxic energy to the people I worked with. Being some of the best people in the world, they were very understanding and compassionate given my sullenness and occasional outbursts. But I was beginning to see that my relationship with organising was just not working out at that moment. So I stepped back. I made my one faithful colleague in animal advocacy the official President. I handed off newsletter duties to a person I had been training on them for a while. Everything else I passed onto others who were able and willing to pick up the slack. I then announced that I was stepping down from all my positions in EA and animal advocacy. EA and animal advocacy UW were able to wrap up the semester pretty much unscathed. And I was able to finish the academic semester and retain a sufficient amount of my sanity.

If I could go back and do things differently, the only thing I’d change would be that I would have started stepping back even earlier. I was feeling fairly unstable and depressed for weeks and even months before I finally began to step back in earnest. But I think maybe before then, I didn’t allow myself to realise that. Maybe there was some pride within me that refused to acknowledge that stepping back was the right option. I’m grateful that the pride was not so strong that it forced me to run into the ground before seeing the truth.

You Are An End In Yourself

“I’m an end in myself, too”

I felt an ache in my heart, because I knew how much it took for him to say that. This person—let’s call him J—had been one of those total utilitarian types, the ones who wanted every action in their lives to be the absolutely most optimal one, you know the type. He’d joined as an organiser a semester after I had, and he also put everything into it. He was set up to be our EA group’s vice president, carrying out a bunch of responsibilities for our EA and AI Safety groups, all while taking six classes. He later told me that his drive to do the most good was even more obsessive: every single day and every word he’d say were crafted with the intent of being optimal. His life and every part of it were just a means to an end.

Knowing what I know now, I regret not being more there for him rather than for his potential. That I’d seen the warning signs, the hints he dropped, perhaps hoping someone would pick them up. There was a particular moment where he asked me to push him harder so that he’d get more done. I think I told him to be more serious about reaching out to professors and stuff. Not bad practical advice or anything. But now I wish that I could go back and sit down with him and just talk about him. How he was doing. How he felt about organising. What was going on in his life. Instead of being jealous of how much he was doing, maybe I should’ve been concerned. But I wasn’t, and in some sense none of us were, until it was too late. Towards the end of that semester, J had to take time away from not only EA but from school as well. He’s now back in school and doing much better, but is pretty much uninvolved with EA. And honestly, for his sake, I hope it stays that way. Maybe in the utilitarian calculus of things it would have been better if he made himself miserable while running the EA group. But when I see how negatively this experience has affected him, how it still haunts him, I feel something very wrong about that thought.

Though J’s story may be something of an extreme case, I worry that it highlights a greater trend in EA organising. Aside from J, I and at least 2 or 3 other student leaders have had substantial negative experiences with EA organising which had nothing to do with our leadership and everything to do with the expectations and burdens we carried. We have all had to learn to be less total utilitarian in our thinking, and to treat ourselves as ends and not mere means. And I think we are better for that.

Final Thoughts

Organising for EA has been simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst experiences of my life. I met and had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing people ever. I made some lifelong friends. I was part of something which was genuinely important and serious about making the world better. At the same time, I feel that some parts of EA culture at large were quite toxic and ultimately harmful to me and several of my friends. The expectations they fostered, combined with the demands they implied and which we made of ourselves, had substantial to severe impacts on our well-beings. The experience of organising for EA really left me feeling like a failure and a weakling, and I think a large part of this negativity was due to me not being really prepared for what I was getting thrown into. I’m hopeful that my and my friends’ experiences can be helpful to others so that they can avoid some of the things which befell us, and have better and more sustainable experiences organising than some of us did.

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Thank you for your service.

I appreciate you helping others learn from your experiences, and I'm sorry they were difficult ones. Thank you for flagging the risks here.

University of Arizona group organizer here; everything you've talked about are things that we have tried to reconcile with. But, having not yet faced a lot of those extreme changes in leadership, significant burnout, etc I believe we are struggling to fully internalize the consequences. And just because the symptoms haven't been made readily apparent, doesn't mean that the same underlying conditions aren't there in our organization.

The largest thing we have tried (and to a large extent, I believe failed in) is prioritizing the organizers themselves as an end. We have always had the strong beliefs that our organizers were going to be some of the most impactful members of the club; but the allure of new members and the demands of organizing have (i believe) put our priorities in a biased order. This semester has been much better, and I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts, they will play a role in how we move forward into our next semester and potential culture/workload changes that need to be made.

Ironically I have only been talking about our student club and not really myself. I am likely going to not be organizing next semester, but it is because I will be working on a riskier, more demanding, and very grandiose project for much of next semester (the irony is staggering). Your thoughts have definitely given me pause in regards to this new project, but I strongly believe it is something that I want to/should. That being said, it is really nice to hear this from another student doing organizing, and I'm no hyper-agentic organizing savant (far from it) and so I will keep your words and thoughts in the forefront as I move forward. Thank you very much,

Best regards,
Leopold

Hi Leopold,

Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I appreciate that my experience has informed your decision-making, but in the end it’s just my experience, so take it with a grain of salt. I also appreciate your caution; I would say that I’m also a pretty cautious person (especially for an EA; I personally think we sometimes need a little more of that).

I will say that big and risky projects aren’t necessarily a bad thing; they’re just big and risky. So if you’ve carefully considered the risks and acknowledged that you’re committing to a big project that might not pay off and you have some contingency plans, then I think it’s fine to do. I just think that sometimes we get caught up in the vision and end up goodharting for bigger and more visionary projects rather than more actually effective ones (my failure mode in Spring 2023).

Best, Kenneth

It definitely has helped me think over some things (albeit taken with that grain of salt), and I've definitely internalized the size and risk of the project, so I'm nervously excited. Always great to hear from another organizer. Keep hopes high, don't expect too much, and good luck in your endeavors.

Peace, Leopold

Executive summary: The author, a former EA organizer, provides advice and reflections for current EA organizers, emphasizing the need for self-care, managing expectations, and not sacrificing personal development for the sake of the organization.

Key points:

  1. It's not your fault if your organizing efforts don't succeed as expected - EA organizers are often young and facing many challenges.
  2. EA has unrealistic "grandiose narratives" that can lead organizers to burnout by setting overly high expectations.
  3. Organizing should not become your whole life - personal development and career opportunities should take priority in many cases.
  4. Prepare for redundancy and succession planning to ensure the group's continuity beyond any single organizer.
  5. Take time away before you reach burnout, and recognize that you are an end in yourself, not just a means to an end.
  6. The author cautions that the demands of EA organizing have negatively impacted the well-being of some organizers.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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