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The Inner Circle Of Cool Effective Altruists Doesn't Exist
Against status anxiety
This post is kind of effective altruist inside baseball, but I hope my non-effective-altruist readers can either change some nouns and apply it to their own status anxiety or enjoy some delicious schadenfreude.
I know many, many people who worry that somewhere there is a secret circle of cool effective altruists who go to the best parties, work the highest-impact jobs, give each other feedback on their papers, know all the secrets about how the effective altruist community really works, have fantastic sex with their brilliant and beautiful lovers, and never once spend a Saturday evening in dirty sweatpants eating leftover takeout and wishing that anyone had remembered they existed and invited them to a party.
I think those people don’t exist. I realize this is a bold claim, because if the secret circle of cool effective altruists exists they’re going to read this post and realize I’m not in the circle and all laugh at me, but I am making it anyway.
The Cool Inner Circle Is A Projection Of Your Anxiety And Not A Real Thing
Now, let me be clear about what I’m actually saying. Probably Will MacAskill and Holden Karnofsky and Dustin Moskovitz and whomever else have a secret effective altruist group chat that no one reading this is invited to, and the chatlogs are spicy.But you’re not Holden and you’re not going to be Holden and it makes about as much sense to have status anxiety about not being Holden as it does to have status anxiety about not being the president.
Certainly, there are private conversations that not everyone gets to participate in, and neat parties that not everyone gets to go to, and invite-only retreats, and so on. If you’re relatively well-connected in the effective altruist community, you’re more likely to participate in private conversations that have salacious gossip about poor nonprofit accounting practices or large language models that aren’t publicly released.If you aren’t well-connected, maybe your private conversations are about someone’s bad breakup instead.
Whether you’re relatively well-connected is, in fact, correlated with some common-sense idea of “effective altruist merit.” People meet friends through their jobs, so you’re probably going to know more cool effective altruists if you work for Open Philanthropy than if you work for Google. In the Bay, many interesting conversations occur at the private longtermist coworking space Constellation. And of course people often want to be friends with people they think are cool.
But no one gets to participate in all the private conversations and get invited to all the neat parties and go to all the invite-only retreats. If nothing else, some people hate each other.
The problem is that these is one of those irregularly declining nouns. The private conversations you’re part of are “my friend having a hard time at work.” The parties you’re definitely invited to without any social strategizing are “my acquaintance having a birthday.” The invite-only retreats you go to are “that annoying work thing I have to go to and miss D&D.”The high-status effective altruists you personally know are “my friend so-and-so who gets into dumb fights on the Internet and always shows up fifteen minutes late to everything, even when you told them it started fifteen minutes earlier than it actually did in order to account for this.” And that’s when you’re lucky and they’re not Eliezer Yudkowsky.
They are only the cool secret circle of effective altruists when you aren’t there.
You are never ever going to be part of the cool secret inner circle of effective altruists no matter what you do, because the cool secret inner circle of effective altruists is defined by excluding you.
Further, as my mom used to say,you can see your own insides, but you can only see other people's outsides. If you see the outside of someone's life, they might seem to have great relationships and fun vacations and meaningful work they're effortlessly brilliant at and all the party invitations they could ever want. But I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve only ever met one person who was actually like that, and she's not a direct worker. Most likely, they have the same boredom and insecurity and relationship stress and loneliness that you do.
If you never see what someone does on weekends, it's easy to assume they're hanging out with cool effective altruists at cool parties to which you are not invited. But they could also be working,or playing Starcraft, or napping, or sitting around in their underwear eating leftover takeout and wishing that someone had remembered they existed and invited them to a party.
Some Relevant Dynamics
A difficulty with countering effective altruist status anxiety, I’ve found, is that it bleeds over from good impulses, or at least neutral ones. You want to know what’s really going on. You have good ideas and want to convince people of them. You want to have a useful job and know that networking helps. You’re scared that you’re not doing good work. You want to talk to interesting people.
But… it bleeds over into straight-up status anxiety, and the exact line can be unclear. When you’re working in a field with complicated problems and uncertain success criteria, it’s natural and good to check in with people you respect to see what they think of your work—but it can become “if the high-status people like me I will be Valid and High-Impact and have Worth As A Human Being And An Effective Altruist.” It is natural and good to want to have friends who get your ideas and have interesting insights and do good work—but it can become “I have to go to that party because the Cool Effective Altruists are there and then the Cool will rub off on me and I will become Cool.”
A problem with this line of thought is that invitations to parties and private conversations and so on are not generally distributed on the basis of objective merit. Personal compatibility and random happenstance matter a lot. I get to read Astral Codex Ten posts sometimes before publication, because I'm Scott's ex, not a position for which I was qualified by any sort of impact evaluation. So does my coparent, who is so far from effective altruist impact that his most recent job was doing laundry for a nursing home.But he and Scott get along—I assume due to a shared interest in standing awkwardly in the corner at parties refusing to talk to anyone—and so he's there. It's a terrible fucking way to assess whether you're Good Enough.
Another problem is the dynamic, especially in the Bay Area, where it feels like the purpose of the effective altruism community is to produce brilliant technical AI safety researchers, and everyone else, from “Giving What We Can pledgers” to “somewhat less brilliant technical AI safety researchers”, is a sort of waste product. My purpose here is not to comment on the sources of this dynamic, whether it is a thing that anyone actually believes, whether it should be ameliorated, etc. My purpose here is to discuss how to make sure your brain isn’t good soil for this particular brainworm.
Doing good is not a contest. The existence of people who do more good than you is a good thing, because it means that more good will be done. The thing that matters is not whether you get the Utility High Score; the thing that matters is that there are children who are alive who would otherwise be dead. There is no diminishing marginal utility of saved children. The child you save matters as much whether someone else is saving a million children or no children at all. “Well, an artificial intelligence might destroy the world, so it doesn’t matter whether children have milk to drink and money for school”:what? This makes no sense. Do the best you can, of course! I’m not suggesting complacency. But do the best you can, not the best Katja Grace can, or the best Scott Alexander can, or the best Dario Amodei can, or whatever.
And to hypothetical people who are like “well, it’s not one of the best effective altruist jobs, so it doesn’t really matter, and people who do it are lame and uncool”… like, fuck off? Those people (imaginary or real) might think that they’re the high-status effective altruists, but you don’t have to agree with them. Why would you even want an invitation to the parties of people that obnoxious?
Countering Effective Altruist Social Anxiety
I have three pieces of advice which I have seen work well.
First: concentrate on cultivating and deepening friendships with people you really like, not on whether you are invited to the cool party at group house whatever. You will be less lonely, you will have more interesting things to do on weekends, you will have a support network in times of trouble, and you won’t have to be anxious that your social life will evaporate if you don’t experience enough professional success. Status is, ultimately, important to the extent that you give it importance.
Second: do good work. The single most important thing you can do to get a cool effective altruist job is to actually be good at shit. I for one have never gotten a cool opportunity through networking, because I hate it and am terrible at it. I’ve only gotten cool opportunities through dropping three-thousand-word blog posts on the Internet and then running away before anyone tries to talk to me. If you have an effective altruist direct-work job, all the status angst is most productively directed at doing your job better. If you don’t have an effective altruist job but want one, you can sometimes work independently (especially if you’re a good writer). But if you can’t, then the best thing you can do is to take all your status anxiety, drop it into an ocean, walk away, and try to get really fucking good at your boring non-effective-altruist job. A personal connection might get you a second look, but a great resume and a fantastic work trial gets you the job.
Third: if you meet a high-status effective altruist, don’t be weird about it. People can tell if you’re trying to get into the cool high-status effective altruist circle by impressing them, and it’s a very uncomfortable interaction. “I’m just some guy,” they think. “My group house’s sink is overflowing with dishes like everyone else’s. Why are you trying to get me to hold court? Stop trying to optimize this interaction to get me to like you! Just talk to me like a normal person.” You are much more likely to befriend high-status people if you realize that their friendship is not a reward you earn by being sufficiently cool, if you’re not viewing it as a referendum as your worth as a person, and if you’re not sticking them up on a pedestal as an exemplar of the perfect life you’re desperately longing for.
But maybe not. Maybe Dustin is going to email me and go “I’m just the money, I don’t get invited to the really cool effective altruist parties that the really cool and high-impact effective altruists get to go to—”
If neither of those sound interesting to you, then being part of the cool inner circle of effective altruists is probably not for you.
My fellow people who don’t get invited to invite-only retreats: have you considered switching to “wow, I’m glad I don’t have to go to invite-only retreats”? Never in my life have I seen so many people experience so much despair about not having to go to boring meetings.
To be clear, I say this with nothing but affection. Dumbass.
Moms are a depressingly good source of rationality advice, a sentiment which to my great irritation I first heard from my mom.
You know, especially if they’re a high-achieving effective altruist, the demographic which invented the advice “you might object to the idea of having to pace yourself but don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to only limit yourself to forty-hour weeks.”
Not, like, programming robots to do the laundry or anything. He put the laundry in the machines.
Although if the world is going to end soon probably do donate to GiveDirectly and not something that takes longer to pay off.