Being more ambitious has become a very popular meme within the EA community and “a culture of ambition” was the unofficial motto of the recent EAG London conference.
I understand the argument that we should strive for opportunities which have a small chance of success but huge payoff in impact if they work out. If most of us were to act this way, then the aggregate impact of the whole community will be bigger and what we care about is more overall good in the world, disregarding who brought it about.
Most of the people taking this attitude will fail at what they are trying to achieve, because the things they are working on are very hard. That is an intrinsic property of this “high risk, high reward” style of doing good, but it feels bad to fail.
Here is the idea in the words of SBF on the recent 80k podcast:
“So I think there are really compelling reasons to think that the “optimal strategy” to follow is one that probably fails — but if it doesn’t fail, it’s great. But as a community, what that would imply is this weird thing where you almost celebrate cases where someone completely craps out — where things end up nowhere close to what they could have been — because that’s what the majority of well-played strategies should end with. I don’t think that we recognize that enough as a community, and I think there are lots of specific instances as well where we don’t incentivize that. ” (emphasis mine)
Supporting the argument intellectually is one thing, but coping with failure is another. How can we make it feel more rewarding for everyone who did the right thing and tried the ambitious project, but ultimately didn’t succeed?
Anecdotally, I recently found myself in a career situation where I was trying to build up skills which me and others consider valuable to have more of in the EA community. Unfortunately I started noticing that the situation wasn’t ideal for me and my mental health was getting worse. While making the decision to stop pursuing this particular path, I had thoughts like “Oh man, I really don’t enjoy doing this, but it would sure be useful for me to build up skill X so that in five years I can realize this really ambitious project Y. Therefore maybe I should continue anyways”.
Surely others have been in a similar place. A few data points of people mentioning the bad feeling of failure to the point of burnout (!) are in this recent thread of EAs failing in high risk, high reward projects.
Some people will thrive in an environment with a high risk of failure and the thought of potentially achieving something incredible will be enough motivation for them. Many others will find such an environment difficult and I worry that they will be put off from EA.
In short: How do we create a culture of ambition without deteriorating the community’s mental health?