Content warning: self-doubt, mental health, cosmic insignificance, unkind behaviour within EA interpersonal / professional circles
Epistemic status: highly confident based on my EA experience, and that experienced second-hand in EA. Decided not to back this stuff up empirically with research on e.g. psychological safety, because I think such subjective arguments should stand on their own.
Tl;dr: Help your fellow EAs, and yourself...
- believe that they are enough; that their self-worth is not connected to whether they win or lose at what they do; to how smart they're seen, or how effective; that they are worthy as they are
- walk more lightly down our paths towards big altruistic ambitions, and feel we are allowed to be happy whether we succeed or fail
"Whether you succeed or not, I love you. And you will be happy either way"
This expression - either verbatim or a paraphrase - is what I've been lucky to receive from partners, friends and family every time I was doing something that I cared a lot about; usually applying for what I thought was a high impact job. I think it's been the difference between tens to hundreds of hours of self-doubt and picking my life apart, and hours smiling. And from late night conversations with many EA friends and acquaintances, not to mention the trove of self-doubt confessions to be found on this forum, I'm convinced we all need to start telling each other a version of this.
"Whether you succeed or not, I love you".
Content warning: self-doubt, mental health, unkind behaviour within EA interpersonal / professional circles
(This starts out rough, skip to the final paragraph if you want the positives.)
I think a lot of EAs doubt their peers feel this stable positive regard towards them. Many worry about doing something stupid which is not seen as a mistake but as an indication that they are "not smart enough"; that they'll then be excluded from collaborations if they slip up; or they'll be downgraded in other people's estimations if they don't succeed at getting a certain job or scholarship or whatever. Some friends of mine are even afraid of throwaway comments resulting in this. This is pretty rough.
I've experienced something similar but not quite the same. I've had people I was close to question whether I was "smart enough" when discussing esoteric EA topics, and behave unkindly towards me.
You can have intrinsic self-worth and believe it is not pegged to your success. But you'll still suffer a lot if you think that the worth others ascribe to you is pegged to your success. I'd say I had strong intrinsic self-worth when I had the "smart enough" experience above, and it did corrode my sense of self.
But as well as my own first-hand experiences, I've observed others EAs behave this way towards others; for example, people discussing whether someone is really smart / capable based on things like how an internship went. Revising their opinion of their 'innate talent' and their opinion of them overall. I'm glad to say I've seen the opposite; people discussing how that person could have done better when they failed, but still backing them as a person and helping them move forward.
Why am I so against this?
- It's ironic in how much it runs counter to purported EA values; we're EAs because we value flourishing and want to end suffering for all, explicitly because we think (people's) experiences matter; yet this is once common mechanism through which EA directly contributes to not great experiences for people.
- Success or failure at T-1 very often is not even much of an update. Every success / failure we have is just one indicator on the long and hopeful path to making a difference, and means even less the earlier you are on your path. To me, that makes these judgements silly, and often betrays hubris and immaturity of those making them.
- Worse yet, fear and threat-mindset holds people back from being their best self. Anyone who has pinpointed what their negative self-talk sounds like can speak to this. I personally know how much fear this inculcates, how much it compromises your ability to think, and how horrible it is to live with. It's a perfect example of how evaluation is not a neutral act; it has causal effects.
- It's harder to try big things or take big risks if you think you might be written off for failure. Psychological safety, in essence. It's not just compatible with 'be more ambitious' as the new EA mantra, it's a necessary condition for many people.
- Some might counterargue about how the psychological composition of exceptionally successful innovators runs counter to this. This might be true, but I wouldn't wish that life for anyone, especially not for most people in EA.
- How we affect people around us by our behaviour towards them is far from negligible. It's one aspect of our lives we can be most confident in. It is very real. So real that I don't know how we cannot dedicate a good chunk of our hearts and minds to it.
The EAs I'm close to now never make me feel like my worth or value is in question. I'm sure it's conditional on me not being an asshole, but that's a reasonable condition. I'm even happier when I hear my EA friends say things like "yeah maybe that could have been done better" and figuring ways to support the other person, rather than beginning to write them off. Thinking of the names and faces I have in mind, I smile and feel tears start to emerge.
"And you will be happy either way".
Content warning: self-doubt, mental health, cosmic insignificance
EA has astronomically lofty ambitions. Cumulatively, we're trying to tackle global suffering of all sentient beings, present and future, prevent the end of the world, and populate as much of the universe as we can with flourishing minds and experiences. Every little thing you do will necessarily feel bound up in cosmic importance. It's literally more than the weight of the world.
But all of us are just one person. Against this cosmic backdrop, all we can do is hilariously small. On historical priors, conquerors and leaders who changed the face of the world still had less enduring impact than they probably hoped for; or their eventual impact took a shape they didn't necessarily expect. I can't help but feel the same uphill battle faces all of us, including people considered the most impactful right now - the billionaire philanthropists, the thought leaders, people leading large funding programmes. And bound to be some egregious luck involved for whoever does and doesn't make it. Thinking about myself in this way, I laugh as I feel like I'm the butt of the universe's joke.
We are all united in a struggle to make a difference against the universe's great tide of cruel indifference. Some of us a bit better positioned than others ex ante, but with so much moral uncertainty and accidents of history making the big difference, you almost have to laugh at the confidence we sometimes exude about our abilities. You'd laugh with tears in your eyes at how some of us torture ourselves over this.
I find it useful to think about this in everything I do. I can donate effectively as much as I can, and work as hard as I can on what I think matters, but ultimately the odds are stacked against me, like they are for everyone. I cannot peg my happiness to being as successful in tackling the big EA issues, because the indifferent universe refuses reasonable odds.
This does not mean defeatism, and it does not mean nihilism. At least not to me. It means that all I can do is my best. And that I must keep myself honest about whether I'm trying my best, but unapologetically lean into the things that do make me happy; my friends, sci-fi, writing, partying, nature, love and connection. And defend my happiness against whatever might be preying upon it; including if that is a worldview I subscribe to.
Simple sounding platitudes are often harder to live by, and this is no exception. Navigating between trying to be really altruistic and effective AND creating or defending your own happiness is hard. Each recipe will likely be very individualised. But we can help each other with it, with a genuine sense of solidarity and support for each other, and a recognition that we're all trying to tackle cosmically massive problems, and that we all deserve love, affection and to believe we are good enough humans. Because THAT is a form of impact we can be pretty confident in, and is the butt of no joke.
Writing this, I'm reminded of my childhood self who believed that I could be the next Mariah Carey, cognitively sidestepping my burgeoning understanding of probability as I announced my intentions...