Snapshot of a career choice 10 years ago

Here’s a little episode from EA’s history, about how much EA career advice has changed over time.

Ten years ago, I wrote an angsty LessWrong post called “Career choice for a utilitarian giver.” (“Effective altruism” and “earning to give” didn’t exist as terms at that point.)

At the time, there was a lot less funding in EA, and the emphasis was very much on donation rather than direct work. Donation was the main way I was hoping to have an impact. I was studying to become a social worker, but I had become really worried that I should try for some higher-earning career so I could donate more.

I thought becoming a psychiatrist was my best career option, since it paid significantly more than the social work career I was on track towards, and I thought I could be good at it. I prioritized donation very highly, and I estimated that going into medicine would allow me to earn enough to save 2500 lives more than I could by staying on the same path. (That number is pretty far wrong, but it’s what I thought at the time.) The other high-earning options I could think of seemed to require quantitative skills I didn’t have, or a level of ambition and drive I didn’t have.

A few people did suggest that I might work on movement building, but for some reason it didn’t seem like a realistic option to me. There weren’t existing projects that I could slot into, and I’m not much of an entrepreneurial type.

The post resulted in me talking to a career advisor from a project that would eventually become 80,000 Hours. The advisor and I talked about how I might switch fields and try to get into medical school. I was trying not to be swayed by the sunk cost of the social work education I had already completed, but I also just really didn’t want to go through medical school and residency.

My strongest memory of that period is lying on the grass at my grad school, feeling awful about not being willing to put the years of work into earning more money. There were lives at stake. I was going to let thousands of people die from malaria because I didn’t want to work hard and go to medical school. I felt horribly guilty. And I also thought horrible guilt was not going to be enough to motivate me through eight years of intense study and residency.

After a few days of crisis, I decided to stop thinking about it all the time. I didn’t exactly make a conclusive decision, but I didn’t take any steps to get into med school, and after a few more weeks it was clear to me that I had no real intention to change paths. So I continued to study social work, with the belief that I was doing something seriously wrong. (To be clear, nobody was telling me I should feel this way, but I wasn’t living up to my own standards.)

In the meantime, I started writing Giving Gladly and continued hosting dinners at my house where people could discuss this kind of thing. The Boston EA group grew out of that.

It didn’t occur to me that I could work for an EA organization without moving cities. But four years later, CEA was looking for someone to do community work in EA and was willing to consider someone remote. Because of my combination of EA organizing, writing, and experience in social work, I turned out to be a good fit. I was surprised that they were willing to hire someone remote. Although I struggled at first to work out what exactly I should be doing, over time it was clear to me that I could be much more useful here than either in social work or earning to give.

I don’t think there’s a clear moral of the story about what this means other people should do, but here are some reflections:

  • I look back on this and think, wow, we had very little idea how to make good use of a person like me. I wonder how many other square pegs are out there trying to fit into round holes? Since that was the very beginning of career advising in EA, I expect people get much better advice now. But I do often tell this story when I meet someone who’s feeling like a failure because they haven’t found a good career niche — that’s just how I felt 10 years ago. And a few years later I found a role that I think was a remarkably good fit for me.

  • Blogging turned out to be a good way to connect with people even before I found particularly useful work. Well before I ever traveled to Oxford or the Bay Area, I knew a lot of EAs in part through my writing. I don’t know how to quantify its effect, but I think it’s had more impact (via encouraging others) than my actual donations.

  • The advisor and I didn’t take movement building work nearly as seriously as we should have. Maybe they didn’t have enough information about whether I would be good at it to recommend it to me — after all, if I had done a bad job or pushed out a better organizer, that would have had a negative impact. But I should have tried it out more to get a sense for whether I could have done a good job.

  • I was probably too attached to getting a normal paid job at an organization. My husband and I could do fine on one income and had health insurance through his work, so even without getting paid I could have created my own job doing EA outreach or community-building. I don’t think this would have gone great, because I wasn’t used to figuring out projects to work on without someone else directing me, and once I was at CEA I still wasn’t very good at this. But it would have been worth trying.