Kick someone’s butt today


If you are short of time, this is the main idea of the post: In their journey to achieve a high impact career, the main bottleneck EAs are usually faced with is personal uncertainty*. To reduce this problem I suggest EAs help each other speed up career exploration by triggering each other to take opportunities when these are open to them.

*I define personal uncertainty as “uncertainties regarding personal fit and current and future risks which may affect motivation and confidence to follow an impactful career” (see LCAN career factors).

Thanks to Vaidehi Agarwalla, Zoë Gumm and Angela María Aristizábal for kicking my butt to post this and to Jonathan Leighton for valuable feedback.

Full Post

While I conducted research about career bottlenecks within the EA community as part of the Local Career Advice Network with my collaborator Vaidehi Agarwalla, I became aware of a particular problem for members of the community: personal uncertainty. Personal uncertainty happens as a result of several factors, e.g. impostor syndrome, several options to choose from, uncertainty about how to have impact, knowing what one is good at/​can become good at, etc.

Now let me paint a picture about personal uncertainty for you by sharing my own experience. After 1 year of being active within the EA community, I had gotten as far as narrowing down the type of work I was interested in (management and operations). I was already getting career mentorship via WANBAM and talking with several people doing the kind of work I was interested in within my preferred cause area. Despite this, there were still several opportunities (e.g. through other career paths or cause areas) that I was overlooking. I knew about these opportunities, and yet it was as if I was letting them pass before my eyes. I could have tried pursuing them, but I wasn’t taking action.

What triggered me to act was having someone I met through EAG (now a very good friend) kicking my butt (For the record: This person was newer to EA than I). They asked me several questions about my interests, my experiences and my plans for the future, and I told them I had heard about a particular opportunity they suggested during conversation. They asked me: “Why haven’t you tried that?” and I replied: “I’m not sure. Maybe I’m not a good fit.” And what actually got me to take action is that they told me: “Do it. Apply!”. They didn’t ask me, they didn’t suggest it. They were bold enough to tell me what to do even though that was the first time we had met.

I learned that I was motivated, just very uncertain, and they were the trigger that put me into action and broke the cycle. I learned that what was holding me back was not the fear of failing but rather the psychological stress it would cause me to consider and compare other opportunities within my career path: How much of my time would they consume? What does this mean for my personal finances? Will I be happy if I pursue them? How would this fit with the rest of my life and my current career plans? Would I have what it takes to pursue them? What if I realize I’m missing key skills or knowledge?

My brain did an excellent job at keeping me away from the hard work of figuring out the answers to these questions by almost making me blind to certain opportunities which I didn’t see as such but as a psychological burden among many of my other responsibilities. I have now learned to treat applications as learning opportunities and personal career research. This helped relieve a lot of the psychological pressure coming from them.

Having learned this I’d like to encourage:

(1) more people to take the next step in their EA journey. This could be as small as reading an article or as big as applying to a job or graduate school

(2) for EAs to strongly encourage others more often

(3) asking people more often whether they have a strong opinion about what you should do, hence welcoming strong encouragement

(4) look for ways in which you can find peer accountability for your projects and career plans and do it for others as well

I’m aware butt-kicking isn’t always the best idea. I’m listing some things to consider to help others decide when it might be appropriate. Help me expand/​correct this list through the comments.

When do I think butt-kicking is called for:

  • The person doing the butt-kicking has a better understanding of the opportunities to be considered

  • The “target” is someone that seems unable to make a decision because of fears, or is trapped in a loop, and (almost) any decision would be better than none

  • The “target” just seems to need an external show of confidence

When I think butt-kicking is not helpful, annoying and potentially harmful:

  • The person has demonstrated that they have weighed different options and have made calculated career decisions so far

  • The chances of the thing you are triggering the person to do of being net-negative is high e.g. giving a presentation on EA to 1000 people when you don’t know much about EA

  • (Depending on what you are encouraging the person to do): The main bottleneck of the person is clearly not just “personal uncertainty” but other things such as financial and psychological issues

Some concrete ideas on how you can personally speed up someone’s career exploration:

  • Pointing out opportunities to people and following up

  • Offer to check their applications and to hold them accountable for sending them out in a timely manner

  • Looking for accountability buddies for specific projects

While trying to advance your career:

  • Has someone triggered you to do something in the past? e.g. apply for a job, internship, start a project, etc.

  • Have you triggered anyone to act?

  • How can we embed this type of action into the interactions community members have with each other?