The problem (for people like me, and may those who enjoy it keep doing so), as I see it: this is an elite community. Which is to say, this is a community primarily shaped by people who are and have always been extremely ambitious, who tend to have very strong pedigrees, and who are socialized with the norms of the global upper/top professional class.
“Hey you could go work for Google as a machine learning specialist” sounds to a person like me sort of like “Hey you could go be an astronaut.” Sure, I guess it’s possible. “Hey you could work for a nice nonprofit with all these people who share your weird values about charity, and join their social graph!” sounds doable. Which makes it a lot more damaging to fail.
People like me who are standardized-test-top-tier smart but whose backgrounds are pretty ordinary (I am inspired to post this in part because I had a conversation with someone else with the exact same experience, and realized this may be a pattern) don’t tend to understand that they’ve traveled into a space of norms that is highly different than we’re used to, when we join the EA social community. It just feels like “Oh! Great! I’ve found my community of smart people who actually care about getting to work improving the world! Let’s roll up our sleeves together.”
Unfortunately, this can be a costly mistake. As soon as you start making moves that would feel natural in other contexts, like parlaying steady contract work into a regular job, you are likely to run into a very unpleasant brick wall.
Some examples of differences between elite culture and non-elite culture:
1. In elite culture, you’re expected to be very positive in professional settings. You’re expected to say “exciting” a lot, to call things “awesome,” and to thank people creatively and effusively. In non-elite culture, there is no such expectation, and displays of extreme enthusiasm about work don’t go over that well. Even at full enthusiasm-as-lived-experience you’re unlikely to display it in the same way as someone well-versed in elite culture norms. This may get you called a downer.
2. In elite culture, there’s a lot of flexibility, and people often have “runway” when hunting for jobs. So, for example, if someone asks you to take a two week trial period from elite culture, it may not even occur to them that this will require you to quit your job. They may then even admonish you for having quit, should they reject you.
3. In elite culture, lots of people talk about their productivity habits socially. There is a lot of social media posting about productivity techniques, self-help books, etc. Sometimes this can create a cargo cult effect where people feel like that’s what they’re missing, and they parrot the style and pursue lots of productivity boondoggles. I don’t think this tends to work.
Trying to break class barriers is very risky and often excruciating. It also tends to make you feel crazy, since you can feel bias creeping in against you, but you never know for sure if it’s not just perfect meritocracy correctly filtering someone weak like you away from Mount Olympus.
On the plus side, you can get used to it, stop trying to break in, and basically enjoy a position as a highly useful and well-supported element of the professional EA fringe. But at least for me it cost me a year and a half of severe depression. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else.
Sorry to hear about your long, very difficult experience. I think part of what happened is that it did in fact get a lot harder to get a job at leading EA-motivated employers in the past couple years, but that wasn’t clear to many EAs (including me, to some extent) until very recently, possibly as recently as this very post. So while it’s good news that the EA community has grown such that these particular high-impact jobs can attract talent sufficient for them to be so competitive, it’s unfortunate that this change wasn’t clearer sooner, and posts like this one help with that, albeit not soon enough to help mitigate your own 1.5 years of suffering.
Also, the thing about some people not having runway is true and important, and is a major reason Open Phil pays people to take our remote work tests, and does quite a few things for people who do an in-person RA trial with us (e.g. salary, health benefits, moving costs, severance pay for those not made a subsequent offer). We don’t want to miss out on great people just because they don’t have enough runway/etc. to interact with our process.
FWIW, I found some of your comments about “elite culture” surprising. For context: I grew up in rural Minnesota, then dropped out of counseling psychology undergrad at the University of Minnesota, then worked at a 6-person computer repair shop in Glendale, CA. Only in the past few years have I begun to somewhat regularly interact with many people from e.g. top schools and top tech companies. There are aspects of interacting with such “elites” that I’ve had to learn on the fly and to some degree am still not great at, but in my experience the culture in those circles is still pretty different from the culture at major EA-motivated employers, even though many of the staff at EA-motivated employers are now people who e.g. graduated from schools like Oxford or Harvard. For example, it’s not my experience that people at major EA organizations are as effusively positive as many people in non-EA “elite” circles are. In fact, I would’ve described the culture at the EA organizations I interact with the most in sorta opposite terms, in that it’s hard to get them excited about things. E.g. if you tell one of my Open Phil RA colleagues about a new study in Nature on some topic they care about, a pretty common reaction is to shrug and say “Yeah but who knows if it’s true; most of the time we dig into a top-journal study, it completely falls apart.” Or if you tell people at most EA orgs about a cool-sounding global health or poverty-reduction intervention, they’ll probably say “Could be interesting, but very low chance it’ll end up looking as cost-effective as AMF or even GiveDirectly upon further investigation, so: meh.” Also, EA-motivated employers are generally not as “credentialist,” in my experience, as most “elite” employers (perhaps except for tech companies).
Finally, re: “you never know for sure if it’s not just perfect meritocracy correctly filtering [certain people out].” I can’t speak to your case in particular, but at least w.r.t. Open Phil’s RA recruiting efforts (which I’ve been managing since early 2018), I think I am sure it’s not a perfect meritocracy. We think our application process probably has a high false negative rate (i.e. rejecting people who are actually strong fits, or would be with 3mo of training), and it’s just very difficult to reduce the false negative rate without also greatly increasing the false positive rate. Just to make this more concrete: in our 2018 RA hiring round, if somebody scored really well on our stage-3 work test, we typically thought “Okay, decent chance this person is a good fit,” but when somebody scored medium/low on it, we often threw up our hands and said “No clue if this person is a good fit or not, there are lots of reasons they could’ve scored poorly without actually being a poor fit, I guess we just don’t get to know either way without us and them paying infeasibly huge time costs.” (So why not just improve that aspect of our work tests? We’re trying, e.g. by contracting several “work test testers,” but it’s harder than one might think, at least for such ill-defined “generalist” roles.)
Thanks for this context, and for your warm replies in general. I really do feel okay now, I just also feel like I want people to not fall through the same sorts of cracks that I did in the future. I should also be clear that in my experience, lots of people in EA are from a wide variety of backgrounds. But enough core EAs are from a more elite background that’s hard to detect up front, and the culture shock, at least for me, was massive.
I think EA culture is really good relative to general elite culture as I understand it. It’s still the coolest professional culture I’ve been a part of. But I think norms really are a bit different than what I’m used to, in ways I find hard to place, and beyond the ways that are deliberate and reflectively good.
On further reflection re: enthusiasm, I think it’s mostly a difference in enthusiasm around gratitude, specifically. People seem to display gratitude in a different way, which feels a lot more effusive.
I think the EA community is unusually meritocratic, though of course I agree it’s imperfect. I’m glad people are working on making it even better. The fact that it’s unusually meritocratic does make it a bigger emotional hazard, though: it’s easier to shrug off harsh judgments when you distrust the party making them.
In general I find this stuff very difficult to talk about, and feel low confidence and emotional about all of it. But it also feels very salient to me, so I have an impulse that it should be in the conversation somewhere. I hope that other people with painful experiences will share their stories and impressions, too.
>”The problem (for people like me, and may those who enjoy it keep doing so), as I see it: this is an elite community. Which is to say, this is a community primarily shaped by people who are and have always been extremely ambitious, who tend to have very strong pedigrees, and who are socialized with the norms of the global upper/top professional class.”
I wish this were shouted from the rooftops. Literally all the discourse around talent and jobs that I have come across to date in EA has frustrated me because of how this goes unremarked. As you say, many of the ideas that are discussed as the most natural and easy thing in the world are really like ‘go be an astronaut’ to normal humans. Having said that...
>”In elite culture, you’re expected to be very positive in professional settings. You’re expected to say “exciting” a lot, to call things “awesome,” and to thank people creatively and effusively. In non-elite culture, there is no such expectation, and displays of extreme enthusiasm about work don’t go over that well. Even at full enthusiasm-as-lived-experience you’re unlikely to display it in the same way as someone well-versed in elite culture norms. This may get you called a downer.”
I’m not sure I recognise this. I mean… my experience of every work place I’ve encountered, from being a barista through to LEAN manager, has been that there is pressure to be more positive and chirpy than I personally deem sincere or accurate. Reading this as a Brit I also wonder if you’re describing the American elite. I cautiously guess that this wouldn’t describe German workplaces very well either. But generally I do think that there are a heck of a lot of class factors involved here, and I often worry that the community isn’t adequately switched on to these.