Interrogating Impact

Summary

Dur­ing an in-depth con­ver­sa­tion on pos­i­tive im­pact, I learned that I have un­nu­anced and over­con­fi­dent ten­den­cies about what pos­i­tive im­pact means. In par­tic­u­lar, I had baked naive EA think­ing into the defi­ni­tion of im­pact with­out adding the ap­pro­pri­ate level of nu­ance to the mix­ture. In the fol­low­ing, I’ll share an em­bar­rass­ingly un­filtered ac­count of the think­ing pro­cess I went through as I worry it may be true for oth­ers as well.

Intro

As an EA I think, talk, and care a lot about hav­ing pos­i­tive im­pact. But what is pos­i­tive im­pact re­ally, and how do I as­sess it when the rub­ber hits the road?

Over the past cou­ple of weeks, I’ve been div­ing into an­other round of ca­reer plan­ning. This has been as­so­ci­ated with a lot of dis­tress. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve been con­cerned with hav­ing a lot of pos­i­tive im­pact. Be­ing an ex­cep­tion­ally im­pact­ful per­son. If I’m hon­est, my con­cerns and goals have been re­volv­ing around the am­bi­tion of be­ing one of the most im­pact­ful peo­ple in the world. But what does that even mean?

For the past five years, I’ve felt that I’ve be­come in­creas­ingly knowl­edge­able—al­most an ex­pert—on im­pact as I’ve been think­ing about my ca­reer plan, or­ga­niz­ing lo­cal groups, and pro­cess­ing EA con­tent. Frankly, in most con­ver­sa­tions with “non-EAs” I’ve felt a sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity in my un­der­stand­ing of im­pact. Tac­itly as­sum­ing that my non-EA friends and col­leagues think they know what im­pact is with­out re­ally know­ing it.

The Conversation

(The fol­low­ing is an em­bar­rass­ingly truth­ful ac­count of a con­ver­sa­tion I had with one of my friends. I re­al­ize that it’s cen­tered around peo­ple, which may be for­eign to some. How­ever, I ex­pect that do­ing the same for or­ga­ni­za­tions or ac­tions may be equally valuable.)

Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with one of the most thought­ful peo­ple I know (who hap­pens not to iden­tify as an EA), I was forced to scru­ti­nize this su­pe­ri­or­ity by in­ter­ro­gat­ing how well I un­der­stand im­pact. He asked me, who are some of the most im­pact­ful peo­ple in the world? I treated this as a brain­storm­ing ses­sion and read­ily listed the first peo­ple who came to mind:

  • Will MacAskill

  • Gandhi

  • Kel­lie Liket (founder of Effec­tive Giv­ing NL where I in­terned a while back)

  • Brian John­son (founder of op­ti­mize.me and an ex­traor­di­nary teacher)

  • Toby Ord

  • Joey Savoie (Char­ity En­trepreneur­ship)

  • Peter Singer

  • Nel­son Mandela

  • Stanis­lov Petrov

He fol­lowed up by ask­ing, what about some­one like Bill Gates?

I re­sponded, well, I don’t know how im­por­tant his fo­cus ar­eas ac­tu­ally are. He seems to be very fo­cused on ar­eas that aren’t that ne­glected, and it may be that they aren’t that im­por­tant for the long-term fu­ture.

Puz­zled by this list and my hes­i­tancy around some­one like Bill Gates, he asked me, how do you define im­pact?

I an­swered that I be­lieve that im­pact boils down to pos­i­tively al­ter­ing con­scious­ness. That is, pos­i­tively in­fluenc­ing sen­tient be­ings.

But how do you ac­tu­ally op­er­a­tional­ize that—how would you com­pare the im­pact of Will MacAskill to that of Gandhi, he asked.

At this point, I was feel­ing some dis­com­fort. Part of me just wanted to change the topic. I’m tired and ex­hausted, I thought to my­self. I slowly re­al­ized that my un­der­stand­ing of this topic might not be perfect, which was painful.

How­ever, I started to flesh out my an­swer to his ques­tion.

Will has started Giv­ing What We Can, which has raised ~ 1.5 bn USD in pledged dona­tions. How­ever, I be­lieve it was ac­tu­ally Toby Ord’s idea, and ob­vi­ously, Will didn’t do it alone—many good peo­ple were work­ing on it.

Will also started 80,000hours, which has es­tab­lished some key pri­or­ity paths, guided mil­lions of read­ers, and coached hun­dreds of peo­ple from top uni­ver­si­ties. The team at 80,000hours has es­ti­mated that they en­abled a lot of sig­nifi­cant plan changes. How­ever, I don’t fully un­der­stand what this means and how cer­tain are we that those changes were good? Also, as far as I know, they mainly do one-off ses­sions, so I won­der what the last­ing effects are and what peo­ple would have done coun­ter­fac­tu­ally if they had pur­sued things based more on per­sonal fit and pas­sion out­side of ex­ist­ing cause ar­eas.

Will also gave a TED talk with one mil­lion+ views, and co-founded EA that now has more than 100 lo­cal groups wor­ld­wide. Fi­nally, he also has con­ver­sa­tions with ma­jor philan­thropists and has helped guide their dona­tions. Over­all, that’s very im­pact­ful.

As for Gandhi, he helped a mas­sive na­tion to in­de­pen­dence and be­came a sym­bol of peace and non-vi­o­lence, but I can’t add much more than that. (Clearly, I didn’t have a par­tic­u­larly elab­o­rate un­der­stand­ing of this).

My friend then added, what about the fact that Gandhi led a rev­olu­tion with peace and non-vi­o­lence? What about that he went on to be­come a sym­bol of peace and di­rectly in­spired other world lead­ers like Nel­son Man­dela?

At this point, I got silent. Slowly com­ing to terms with what had just un­folded and see­ing the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Had I been un­der the illu­sion of un­der­stand­ing “im­pact”? A con­cept so cen­tral to my achieve­ments, as­pira­tions, and iden­tity. With dis­com­fort and em­bar­rass­ment, I ac­knowl­edged that im­pact is prob­a­bly a lot more com­pli­cated than what I had been think­ing and that it’d be wise of me to be more hum­ble about as­sess­ing im­pact as­so­ci­ated with spe­cific peo­ple, or­ga­ni­za­tions, and cause ar­eas. At this point, we went a bit meta on the list of peo­ple and con­cluded the fol­low­ing:

  1. I can only list the peo­ple that I know some­thing about. Right now, it’s heav­ily bi­ased to­wards EA folks (five out of the nine peo­ple I listed above are EAs) be­cause that’s the com­mu­nity that I’m part of.

  2. My im­pact as­sess­ment will of­ten be based on whether it res­onates with me, which is re­lated to how many times I’ve seen a per­son or an or­ga­ni­za­tion pre­sented as be­ing im­pact­ful. As of now, EA la­bels, lan­guage, and rea­son­ing res­onates deeply with me. That isn’t in­her­ently prob­le­matic be­cause there are a lot of solid prin­ci­ples and val­ues em­bed­ded in that. How­ever, it be­comes ac­tively harm­ful for my think­ing if I im­me­di­ately dis­count the im­pact of oth­ers just be­cause they don’t have EA la­bels on them. It seemed as if I had baked EA think­ing into the defi­ni­tion im­pact with­out adding the ap­pro­pri­ate level of nu­ance to the mix­ture.

  3. I may be overly fo­cused on the mag­ni­tude of the im­pact rather than the ro­bust­ness of the sign of it.

  4. Im­pact at­tri­bu­tion is much more difficult than I had some­how man­aged to con­vince my­self of. Should Peter Singer be cred­ited with a big chunk of Will’s im­pact be­cause he in­spired him? How much of EA’s im­pact can be at­tributed to Dustin Moskow­itz and the wealth he has brought EA via Open Phil? What about the art dealer who pro­vided the early fund­ing to CEA and 80,000hours (sadly, I don’t re­mem­ber his name, but he was hon­ored at EAG Lon­don 2018).

Conclusion

EAs have made some solid con­tri­bu­tions by ask­ing unique ques­tions, spread­ing im­por­tant memes, rais­ing dona­tions, and chang­ing thou­sands of peo­ple’s ca­reers based on im­par­tial al­tru­is­tic val­ues and truth-seek­ing prin­ci­ples. How­ever, I’ve had (and prob­a­bly still have) un­nu­anced and over­con­fi­dent ten­den­cies about the very things that I care about, and I worry that may be true for oth­ers as well. This prob­ing con­ver­sa­tion on a fun­da­men­tal con­cept was very use­ful for me, and per­haps such con­ver­sa­tions can be use­ful for oth­ers as well.

If you’re up for it, try to sit down with some­one who can fa­cil­i­tate your think­ing and ask your­self fun­da­men­tal ques­tions such as: Who do you find to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­pact­ful and why? What or­ga­ni­za­tions are im­pact­ful and why?