The Cost of Rejection

For those that don’t know, I’ve worked as a therapist for the rationality and EA community for over two years now, first part time, then full time in early 2020. I often get asked about my observations and thoughts on what sorts of issues are particularly prevalent or unique to the community, and while any short answer to that would be oversimplifying the myriad of issues I’ve treated, I do feel comfortable saying that “concern with impact” is a theme that runs pretty wide and deep no matter what people come to sessions to talk about.

Seeing how this plays out in various different ways has motivated me to write on some aspects of it, starting with this broad generalization; rejection hurts. Specifically, rejection from a job that’s considered high impact (which, for many, implicitly includes all jobs with EA organizations) hurts a lot. And I think that hurt has a negative impact that goes beyond the suffering involved.

In addition to basing this post off of my own observations, I’ve written it with the help of/​on behalf of clients who have been affected by this, some of whom reviewed and commented on drafts.

I. Premises

There are a few premises that I’m taking for granted that I want to list out in case people disagree with any specific ones:

  • The EA population is growing, as are EA organizations in number and size.

This seems overall to be a very good thing.

  • In absolute numbers, EA organizations are growing slower or at pace with the overall EA population.

Even with massive increases in funding this seems inevitable, and also probably good? There are many high impact jobs outside of EA orgs that we would want people in the community to have.

(By EA orgs I specifically mean organizations headed by and largely made up of people who self-identify as Effective Altruists, not just those using evidence-and-reason-to-do-the-most-good)

((Also there’s a world in which more people self-identify as EAs and therefore more organizations are considered EA and by that metric it’s bad that EA orgs are growing slower than overall population, but that’s also not what I mean))

  • Even with more funding being available, there will continue to be many more people applying to EA jobs than getting them.

I don’t have clear numbers for this, but asking around at a few places got me estimates between ~47-124 applications for specific positions (one of which noted that ~¾ of them were from people clearly within and familiar with the EA community), and hundreds of applications for specific grants (at least once breaking a thousand).

This is good for the organizations and community as a whole, but has bad side effects, such as:

  • Rejection hurts, and that hurt matters.

For many people, rejection is easily accepted as part of trying new things, shooting for the moon, and challenging oneself to continually grow.

For many others, it can be incredibly demoralizing, sometimes to the point of reducing motivation to continue even trying to do difficult things.

So when I say the hurt matters, I don’t just mean that it’s suffering and we should try to reduce suffering wherever we can. I also mean that as the number of EAs grows faster than the number of positions in EA orgs, the knock-on effects of rejection will slow community and org growth, particularly since:

  • The number of EAs who receive rejections from EA orgs will likely continue to grow, both absolutely and proportionally.

Hence, this article.

II. Models

There are a number of models I have for all of this that could be totally wrong. I think it’s worth spelling them out a bit more so that people can point to more bits and let me know if they are important, or why they might not be as important as I think they are.

Difficulty in Self Organization

First, I think it’s important to note that there are some steps already being taken to try to reduce the overall problem, such as putting out messages that people can self-organize or act independently rather than rely on the existing infrastructures.

But hearing something and internalizing it are two different things. People who become EAs will, by and large, have trouble finding similar flavors of “save the world energy” in non-EA organizations, and while some may manage to find local groups or friends or coworkers or others that they can collaborate with around the ideas of using evidence and reason to tackle big problems in the world, many others won’t.

It is, on the whole, hard work. We should not be surprised if most people who try to do this fail, even with support, let alone those who try without it.

Even if we take for granted that someone isn’t looking for save-the-world energy in particular, and has a more focused goal or cause area, wanting to work with others who are interested in evidence and reason is still highly appealing. Personally, I’m unlikely to ever want to leave private practice and work for a clinic again unless it’s one that can reasonably be considered a “rationalist/​EA clinic,” not just in goals but in day-to-day function.

But on top of all this, there’s something that makes the rejections those in EA face from EA organizations even “worse” than rejections faced elsewhere.

Ingroup vs Outgroup Rejection

Where you’re rejected from matters. Many people, particularly those new to EA, struggle with imposter syndrome and similar worries of inadequacy. When you see people you admire doing something amazing, it can take a lot of courage to decide to apply to join them… which can then make the rejection cut deeper.

This applies to grant funding too. It’s great that people can often see what sorts of activities have been funded in the past, but it also means that if someone’s funding request gets rejected, they will likely feel that they have been judged as lesser-than all the applicants who succeeded.

As noted earlier, our current culture broadly speaks as though people should be ok with being rejected, and I agree that this is an ideal state to reach; the same way a good scientist has to be comfortable and (if they can manage it) even celebratory of null hypothesis results, people who want to accomplish things have to be willing to try and fail and try again.

But celebrating what we want to be and promoting it as the ideal can often make it more difficult for some to work through where they currently are. Enough rejections in a short enough period can wear people down, particularly if there’s a sense of narrow alternatives; it’s easier to shrug off a rejection to one of a hundred places you’d like to work, and harder if there’s only a handful.

False Expectations

Apart from the emotional pain and risk of demotivation, there is also a separate problem that if people have false expectations, they will make suboptimal career decisions. When people think there is an impactful job waiting for them if they just learn the right skills, they take different actions than if they know how low the odds are.

If certain EA orgs are getting more funding than ever and self-describe as “talent constrained,” fewer people may decide to earn-to-give to fund a friend’s project, and fewer people will try to start their own organization. But unless the distribution of funds (specifically those funds accessible through open application processes, which is less than the total amount of money in the EA network) or new jobs is increased at the same pace as the applications, there’s going to be an even greater percentage of applicants who get rejected… and what’s worse, again, the knowledge that there’s lots of funding and a talent constraint can make them feel even more dejected.

This puts organizations and grants in an understandably difficult spot, as they would ideally want lots of people to apply to jobs and grants, and not self-select out for fear of the competition or worries of inadequacy. So what can be done about it?

While we probably will not be able to eliminate the mismatch of supply and demand for labor that will lead to inevitable rejections anytime soon, I think there are likely some simple ways we can reduce harm caused by them. But first...

III. Objections/​Responses

Objection 1: Something along the line of “It’s not our job to…”

Regardless, as a consequentialist I think it’s important to note what is happening and work to improve it if possible, which I think it is. A number of people have burnt out of EA or felt unable to continue on as part of it because of feelings of inadequacy. Other careers have lots of rejections too, but most don’t send out a strong narrative of World Saving and Heroic Responsibility that can make judgements of inadequacy more emotionally impacting than “just” the loss of a job or better salary.

Objection 2: Rejection is part of life, it’s better for people to learn to accept rejection and move on.

We should all be aware of the typical mind fallacy in conversations like this. For many people a rejection is just a motivator to try harder. For others it’s a crushing indicator that they’re not good enough. When paired with lack of feedback for why they were rejected, it can lead to confusion and despair. I have helped a number of people find it easier to take the roll-with-the-punches approach to failure, but it is not an easy thing for many, and can sometimes require a lot of time and energy. Exposure therapy first creates a safe space to face expected adversity, teaches tools to manage the harm caused, and practices with a growing scale of difficult scenarios to prepare for real-world encounters. We should recognize that rejection is part of life, but also strive to make real-world rejections less jarring and costly through things like forewarning, legibility, and signals of care, which can be very valuable.

Objection 3: EA orgs might not have the resources to provide detailed feedback to everyone.

This is understandable, but I feel strongly enough about the value of this that my next question is “Would it be worth hiring someone whose job is to do this?” I don’t have a good sense for the monetary value of the resulting reduction in emotional pain, burnout, retention of people in the community, etc, and I’m open to the possibility that it’s not worthwhile for some small organizations. But I’d be surprised if it isn’t for bigger ones.

IV. Potential Solutions

It’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to solve this problem completely, and I’m definitely not in a position to know what the best solutions to this might be; I’m also sure some of the organizations in question have considered these issues and may have their own internal discussions about which would be net positive or negative.

But to help get a more public discussion going, from the perspective of someone who has spoken with a number of people about it, here are just a few things I think might mitigate the harm:

1. Be honest and open about the success rate of applications

It makes sense that EA orgs would do everything they can to get everyone to apply, especially if their bottleneck really is that one outstanding person who is just the right fit. It also makes sense if you know that people can be very bad at judging their own skills, so you don’t want anyone to self-select out.

One possible disclaimer I’d like to see is something like:

“This position/​funding is very competitive, but it’s our experience that people are bad at self evaluation, so we want you to apply anyway.”

This can help applicants manage their expectations, and will have multiple other benefits:

  • Rejection will hurt less, and be more informative.

  • People with limited emotional energy for applications and rejections, can better prioritize where to apply, when given accurate information.

  • People will be able to make better informed career plans, e.g. not invest too much time in training for a specific job at a specific place.

Being honest and open about the success rate of applications is cheap and scales well. It is just as much effort independent of how many applicants you get. Ideally this information should be posted along with the job ad.

2. Try to provide applicants with a sense of why they didn’t get the position

This is almost certainly easier said than done, particularly if the organization only has a few people fielding hundreds of applications. But between the enormous task of individualized feedback vs generic rejection/​silence, I believe there is space for categories of semi-automated responses; things like:

Thanks for your application! You meet all our skill and experience requirements, but we had other applicants who better suited the role. We would appreciate another application from you in the future, if/​when we have a similar job opening.

Or

Thanks for applying. Unfortunately while you meet the skill requirements, we are looking for someone with more experience. If you would like to apply to a position like this in the future, we will be happy to reconsider your application once you have X Y Z. However keep in mind that any future positions will probably be very competitive, so having the right skills and experience are still no guarantee for getting the job.

Or

Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately this position requires someone with X Y and Z skills, which we did not find in your application.

And so on. Getting these sorts of responses can do a lot for people who might otherwise get discouraged from rejections from positions that they might otherwise have gotten had a more perfect fit not come along, or, if two or more applicants were evenly matched on paper, had the proverbial coin toss gone in their favor.

It is important to acknowledge that giving honest feedback can be intensely uncomfortable. It is very easy to fall into the trap of telling ourselves that we are being nice and helpful by giving false encouragement to the people we are rejecting, when actually we are mostly protecting ourselves from discomfort. One way out of this trap, and to make the task less aversive, is to ask ourselves: “What would I want to know in their situation?” or “What would I tell a friend who trusted me to be completely honest?”

I know there’s some risk associated with this; some applicants might lash out or try to debate the decision. I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do; just that I think it’s the right one.

But I’m open to other thoughts, perspectives, and ideas, and if there’s something I’ve misunderstood about the processes involved, I’m happy to hear about them. Again, I don’t claim to know what the right answers or approaches are for these problems; I can only report what I’ve seen, share the experiences of others, and suggest what comes to mind.