On being an EA for decades
By Michelle_Hutchinson @ 2024-02-12T21:24 (+186)
A friend sent me on a lovely trip down memory lane last week. She forwarded me an email chain from 12 years ago in which we all pretended we left the EA community, and explained why. We were partly thinking through what might cause us to drift in order that we could do something to make that less likely, and partly joking around. It was a really nice reminder of how uncertain things felt back then, and how far we’ve come.
Although the emails hadn’t led us to take any specific actions, almost everyone on the thread was still devoting their time to helping others as much as they can. We’re also, for the most part, still supporting each other in doing so. Of the 10 or so people on there, for example, Niel Bowerman is now my boss - CEO of 80k. Will MacAskill and Toby Ord both made good on their plans to write books and donate their salaries above £20k a year. And Holly Morgan is who I turned to a couple of weeks ago when I needed help thinking through work stress.
Here’s what I wrote speculating about why I might drift away from EA. Note that the email below was written quickly and just trying to gesture at things I might worry about in future, I was paying very little attention to the details. The partner referenced became my husband a year and a half later, and we now have a four year old.
On 10 February 2012 18:14, Michelle Hutchinson <email@example.com> wrote:
Writing this was even sadder than I expected it to be.
1. Holly’s and my taste in music drove the rest of the HIH crazy, and they murdered us both.
2. The feeling that I was letting down my parents, husband and children got the better of me, and I sought better paid employment.
3. Toby, Will and Nick got replaced by trustees whose good judgement and intelligence I didn’t have nearly as much faith in, so I no longer felt fully supportive of the organisation – I was worried it was soon going to become preachy rather than effective, or even dangerous (researching future technology without much foresight).
4. I realised there were jobs that wouldn’t involve working (or even emailing co-workers) Friday evenings :p
5. I remembered how much I loved reading philosophy all day, and teaching tutorials, and unaccountably Oxford offered me a stipendiary lectureship, so I returned to academia.
6. [My partner] got lazy career-wise, and I wanted a nice big house and expensive food, so I got a higher paid job.
7. I accidentally emailed confidential member information to our whole mailing list / said the wrong thing to one of our big funders / made a wrong call that got us into legal trouble, and it was politely suggested to me that the best way I could help the EA movement was by being nowhere near it.
8. When it became clear that although I rationally agreed with the moral positions of GWWC and CEA, most of my emotional motivation for working for them came from not wanting to let down the other [team members], it was decided really I wasn’t a nice enough person to have a position of responsibility in such a great organisation.
9. [My partner] got a job too far away from other CEA people for me to be able to work for CEA and be with him. I chose him.
10. When we had children I took maternity leave, and then couldn’t bear to leave the children to return to work.
11. I tried to give a talk about GWWC to a large audience, fainted with fright, and am now in a coma.
When I wrote the email, I thought it was really quite likely that in 10 years I’d have left the organisation and community. Looking around the world, it seemed like a lot of people become less idealistic as they grow older. And looking inside myself, it felt pretty contingent that I happened to fall in with a group of people who supported me so well in living up to my values. It seemed very plausible that that wouldn’t stick.
I think I’d have liked, at the time I wrote the email, to see that there were others who had been doing it for a decade with no sign of stopping. Particularly if they were people for whom effective altruism felt hard in various ways, and not their obvious calling. That’s why I thought people new to the community, wondering how viable it is to stick with over the long haul, might enjoy reading my ‘premortem’ and knowing that in fact I’m still a member of Giving What We Can, still spending my day job on figuring out how we can most effectively help others, and still doing it alongside many of the people I set out with.
I also thought it might be useful for me to think through some of what’s helped me avoid the pitfalls I sketched out in my email. Below describes some of the things I found useful over the years.
Thankfully, the EA community has changed in various ways which make sticking with my convictions much easier than I expected it to be.
- When I was offered a job at GWWC, the initial salary was £15,000 a year. The fact that salaries at EA orgs are now much more in line with what I’d make elsewhere makes me much more confident I won’t leave simply to get a better salary. (Despite the fact that my husband does, as predicted, only work part-time and that I’m still a sucker for a nice home and good food.)
- There are now effective altruists all around the world, and it’s easier than it used to be to contribute remotely. If my husband needed us to move to another country, I no longer think I’d fall out of touch with other EAs.
- I’m a big fan of how the growing size of the community has allowed it to professionalise. More pairs of eyes can check emails that go out to large numbers of people, and what I used to have to try to figure out from legal textbooks, like sending out a job offer, we can now consult lawyers on.
On specific items, and what’s helped with those:
2. Surrounding myself with people who share my values has made it easier to feel that sticking to them isn’t letting the people around me down. I think it would have been easy to feel that what I was doing was weird and therefore somehow wrong, particularly when it meant not making as much money for my family as I could. But it doesn’t feel weird - it’s what many of my friends are doing. Thankfully, it’s also exactly what my husband thinks I should do, so I don’t feel like I’m letting my family down (though we’ll see how my son sees it when he’s old enough to have opinions about my career!).
4. I was somewhat joking with my comment about working on a Friday evening. But I did then, and do still, find it hard to strike the right balance on how hard to work. I think I’d have worked fairly hard whatever I was doing. But feeling that your work is aimed at helping others, and that the world needs a lot of fixing, makes it tempting to think you should be working all the time. I’ve been lucky enough to always have supportive colleagues who have helped me figure out a good balance. Some of the things that have been useful to me are:
- Spending time intentionally setting out my schedule and how much I feel good about working.
- CBT techniques to try to get myself closer to reflective equilibrium about how hard to work, for example:
5. and 11. were both, somewhat flippantly, about the idea that a job I might take in EA wouldn’t be one I’d particularly enjoy. How much to take my enjoyment into account when choosing and crafting roles is another thing I’ve struggled to find the right balance on. I still don’t know that I’ve found it, but I have found that I can work significantly longer hours in roles I enjoy than those I find very stressful. That doesn’t mean it’s always worth avoiding the stressful roles, but it is worth taking into consideration. I also think that I’ve found having a role I think has a genuine shot at helping others pretty satisfying.
8. Looking back at this, in large part I just feel really grateful for how much kindness and how little judgement I’ve found in the community. I actually can’t right now think of a single example of someone else telling me I wasn’t doing things for the right reasons, or anything approaching not being a good enough person to be here.
Thinking about this now, the real risk captured by this point is that I might feel inadequate and imposter-y and therefore not enjoy being in the community and end up drifting away. I think us being supportive to each other rather than noticing and judging all the ways we aren’t optimal seems important for making sure it’s a community we all enjoy being part of.
For me, it really helped that I talked to people explicitly about this worry (and similar ones). It’s meant that people could provide reassurance they wouldn’t have otherwise thought to. I also think that finding the right niches of the community has helped me. Sometimes some particular part can feel more ambitious than I’m willing to be, or just have no-one in it who I get on particularly well with. I like that there are now so many different groups - on and offline - so that you can find the people you feel at home with.
10. Of course there has also been plenty of chance and contingency involved in none of the things I wrote coming to pass. For example, after three months of maternity leave it was clear I was not at all cut out for full-time mothering - there’s another version of me which would have loved it.
1. I’d like to say that Holly and I tried hard not to annoy others with our music taste, but that would be false.
Adjusting by inflation
High Impact House - a fictional share house which never came to be
Inflation explains some of why that sounds so low – but it wasn’t that long ago, so it doesn’t explain much!