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Why are you here? An origin stories thread.

tl;dr I think origin stories are useful. Please share yours if you like. Here's mine.

 

Introduction

I generally find "origin stories" - personal accounts of how people first become involved with EA - to be quite illuminating, and I think that the bulk of their value comes from their aggregation. We have a lot of data on this at a high level, but I would expect a much smaller number of stories at a much finer level of granularity to be about as useful. You might notice particular communities that many EA folk were involved in before EA. You might see particular articles, individuals, ideas or events that were common formative moments for people. Or you might spot common features of paths of people from underrepresented groups in EA[1]. All of these things can help inform more effective strategies for community-building.

I often ask about origin stories in person. (Pro tip: "Why are you here?" is great for clickbait, bit confrontational for a first meeting; try "How did you get involved in EA?", "What was it about EA that first appealed to you?", "What brings you here today?" or even simply "What's your story? Tell me more about you.") But it's very difficult for me or others to spot trends in a collection of anecdotes stored in my brain, so I invite you all to share your story here. If you'd like me to share it anonymously on your behalf, you can share it here. Readers, don't forget the sampling bias we have, e.g. if "I used to be part of this other online forum" comes up a lot in these stories, no that does not mean that EA folk basically all love online forums.

Share as much as you wish to. One line is fine. If longer, don't feel that you need to explain any gaps or vagueness (but of course, please don't be deliberately misleading). Don't censor yourself too much with the thought that "Oh that's probably just me - that bit won't be useful for spotting trends". And consider including any "sub" origin stories that are applicable e.g. How did you first join an offline or online community? What's the story behind your first significant donation or altruistically-motivated career change? When have you made a significant shift in cause prioritisation and why?

 

I'll go first.

 

Why I'm here

Childhood

Thanks to an obsession with record-keeping and a good memory, I can see some very early roots. As a child I had a standard magic wish: "Happiness for everyone forever." I (told myself I) killed spiders because that's one quick death for a spider against many flies being slowly eaten alive. My favourite games were "schools" i.e. "teach my sister to read despite her protests" and "boat crash"/"plane crash" i.e. "all of my toys are on the verge of death and we manage to save them all". A consequentialist hero syndrome if ever there was one.

 

Early teens

In my early teens, teachers and friends prompted me to think more about ethics and rationality within the context of religion. I ended a school essay on abortion with "if there's no pain, there's no problem" (referring to the foetus). I went to church for two years for reasoning similar to Pascal's Wager, despite this choice generally leading to a lot of misery for me and everyone around me. At this particular church, I was made fun of for considering Islam and for Googling for more questions about Christianity rather than for answers, and the judgements of my romantic life really stung, but my poor fellow churchgoers did try so hard with me and must have thought me mad for attending for so long as a very anguished agnostic.

At some point in this period I also became a moral non-cognitivist (thought that "right", "wrong", "good", "bad" etc. didn't refer to anything fundamental in the universe) - I'd gained more appreciation for the influence of society on our so-called "moral" beliefs, and I couldn't conceive of what it would mean for anything to really matter. I wrote in my diary: "The meaning of life is that there is no meaning".

 

Mid teens

Still, my interest in the fundamental questions about life persisted and at the age of 16 I discovered philosophy. Yes! This was it! I devoured the subject, spending nearly every spare moment of college in the library, filling ringbinders with notes and discussing philosophy with anyone who'd humour me. As with religion, I struggled to understand how other people could go about their lives without giving these questions serious thought. "Sure," I thought, "philosophy is notorious for its lack of progress, but that's in part because its successes split off into new disciplines and in any case, don't you all at least want to try??" I discovered Peter Singer's work and loved his rational approach to ethics. At some point I was walking home, and I still remember the place where I stopped as a thought hit me: "Happiness is intrinsically good". There's little more I can say about that, but suffice it to say that from that moment on I have been a moral cognitivist. Perhaps nothing actually matters, but I think that contemplation of a particular feature of direct experience has allowed me to at least conceive of something really, ultimately "mattering".

Thanks to my new-found moral cognitivism built around what felt like an insight - happiness is intrinsically good - I focused my philosophy A-level on ethics where I could, and contributed to my sixth form's Activists' Society.

Beyond this "insight" and basic principles of rationality, I hadn't yet come across anything that seemed relevant to what was ultimately right or wrong (I wasn't thinking about useful day-to-day moral habits, intuitions or heuristics yet, reasoning that that could only come after I had some fundamental principles in place to draw from). Except perhaps my own rather extreme risk-aversion when it comes to my personal safety, and I wondered if I should conclude from that that our moral obligations are always with the worst-off. For a while, my top candidate ethical theories were classical utilitarianism and what I called "bar consequentialism" (until I found existing terms for similar ideas) - basically the idea that we should always focus entirely on trying to increase the happiness of whoever is suffering the most in the world. Utilitarianism didn't seem to put enough weight on avoiding suffering, and "bar consequentialism" seemed ridiculous for attributing no value to any increases in happiness or alleviation of suffering unless the subject was the worst-off person in existence, but any way of combining the two seemed arbitrary. Prioritarianism (whereby if you're suffering more then it becomes more important - but not exclusively important - to help you) showed some promise, but then I concluded that it was actually just the same as classical utilitarianism, and that I could just be a classical utilitarian who puts relatively large numbers on extreme suffering when it comes to judgements around exactly which experiences count as exactly which degrees of happiness/suffering. Nice. Utilitarianism it is. Job done.

Not quite. I was still far from certain, and although I knew that a lifetime would not be long enough to find answers, I was going to do my best. I drew up a life plan that involved studying ethics through philosophy (and, to some extent, theology) as a career at the best university I could get into, publishing whatever I learnt and donating what I could.

Alongside all my philosophising at sixth form I'd been stepping up my altruistic behaviour. I thought most farm animals probably had happy lives even though some of them were awful, so it was fine to eat meat because otherwise those animals wouldn't exist at all. Then I realised one day that this was the wrong way to think about it - that the awful lives were really awful, and since we didn't really know where our meat came from, we shouldn't take the chance - and declared myself a vegetarian in the same breath. I donated to and volunteered for several charities. And I took over the Activists' Society when no one else would (a habit picked up from math class where I felt despised for putting my hand up and getting the answer right, but I nevertheless wanted the lesson to progress...also a behaviour I'd repeat a few times in the years to come). I learnt about perceived self-righteousness quickly, and we rebranded as the self-deprecating Save The World Club. I don't know why my altruistic motivation steadily increased over this period, but it did.

 

Late teens to present

I moved to Oxford for university and soon heard about this society that had just launched called Giving What We Can. What an awesome project! I attended a talk by the founder, Toby Ord, on vegetarianism and remember thinking, "It's another Peter Singer".

My mental health declined at Oxford (as I thought it probably would) and I sent emails to Peter Singer and Toby Ord asking for advice about whether to drop out, saying "When other people are giving me advice they never factor in the 'ethics' part anywhere near as much as I do so its not always that helpful." They made time for me and told me what I expected to hear, but I really valued the reassurance of hearing someone else say it. I dropped out.

But I maintained my connection to Oxford. At the first Giving What We Can talk I attended I audibly gasped at the differences in cost-effectiveness estimates from the DCP2 report. I met one of the Felicifia admins at the talk and became an enthusiastic user; for some reason I'd never thought to Google "utilitarianism forum". It was there that I came across the wonderfully concise line: "Utilitarianism and Nihilism are the only ethical systems that make any sense. If nihilism is true, it doesn't matter what I do, so I might as well assume it's false." (I'm nowhere near that confident of course, but it's a nice summary of why I don't bother thinking about the possibility of nihilism any more.) There was some overlap between the Giving What We Can crew and the transhumanists/rationalists and one of the people in this overlap told me the astronomical waste argument at a pub meet-up. I thought it was ridiculous. Then I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on why it was sensible. I kept up my co-leadership of the Oxford anti-genocide society for a while (so chosen because I figured the most effective ways to maximise happiness might still be to focus on the worst-off, and I couldn't think of anything worse), but eventually my co-leadership of the new Giving What We Can: Oxford society took over. I also launched another charitable student society at one point but eventually that too was handed on so that I could focus more on the emerging "Effective Altruism" movement. I couldn't get enough of it. In those early years I learnt so much, never failed to be excited at first meetings with like-minded souls, and attended several retreats where I experienced a very strong sense of community, of a beautiful, meaningful shared purpose and heartfelt mutual support to help each other get there.

By the time we decided on the name Centre for Effective Altruism I had one of the fancy "director" titles (we students love our fancy titles) and was working on community support for Giving What We Can. When The Life You Can Save needed new leadership, I stepped up, and when my mental health deteriorated, I stepped down. I then spent three years in jobs in which my priorities were (i) my mental health and (ii) exploration of a large variety of industries and people. Then last summer I was able to take some months off to reevaluate and, feeling more mentally healthy and realising that I'd learnt relatively little of value in my three years "off", I decided to try EA community-building full-time again.

 

This is one version of my story. It's already a bit more exposure than I really feel comfortable with at the moment, so I've left out a lot of the embarrassing mistakes I made (nearly all around being too confident and/or emotional in my judgements) and a lot of the things I found difficult. But I hope that you find something useful in it, that you enjoy reflecting on your own story, and that you remember that we each have a story riddled with personal mistakes and challenges but united in one belief: Tomorrow can be brighter than today[2].

 

Final notes

Readers, please remember to keep in mind that these stories are not who we are. They are some of the places we have been and/or snapshots of where we happen to be today. And no doubt they contain many honest innaccuracies.

For anyone interested in more on this topic, see The Life You Can Save's Supporters Stories, Tom Ash's A taxonomy of EA origin stories, and some more from Origin Stories Month in January 2015. [Edit: Also on the related question of how people found one of the top sources of EA folk, the LessWrong survey (2014) lists referrals as follows: a link (464, 31%), Harry Potter and the Methods Of Rationality (385, 26%), Overcoming Bias (210, 14%), friend (199, 13%), search engine (114, 8%), other fiction (17, 1%).]

 

______________________________________

[1]By "underrepresented groups" I mean "the collection of people who currently possess to a relatively high degree the kinds of skills, experiences, motivations, resources, mindsets, habits or other characteristics that you would like to see more of in the EA community". Maybe for you that includes demographics severely underrepresented in EA compared to the global population. Maybe it's "very high altruistic dedication" etc. Of course, qualitative origin stories are not the only way to collect relevant data on this.

[2]This post is not just about data collection; the timing is no coincidence. My hope is that this might also serve as a kind of "EA gratitude journalling" - that reflecting on your early days in EA and what you loved or grew to love about it will help generate positive feelings of nostalgia, appreciation and camaraderie. At the time of writing, I sense that tensions are particularly high in our community. I of course have my own thoughts on what mistakes particular people/organisations have made or are making, and on whose judgment or honesty I most trust on which matters, and I think it is often extremely important to discuss them. And often emotion is in the driving seat when I'm discussing my latest thoughts, despite my self-deception to the contrary, we're all human. But I suspect that an extra dose of empathy and mutual appreciation would be useful for the disagreements being aired right now and I hope that taking part in this exercise, even privately, will help. Almost no one is evil. Almost everything is broken.

Comments (9)

Comment author: Jamie_Harris 05 August 2018 10:53:33AM 10 points [-]

(Holly probably knows most of my story but writing about myself seems fun so I'm going to do it anyway... maybe it'll be somehow useful for someone too)

When I was 5, I refused to eat meat for emotional reasons (something along the lines of "Mum, that thing you're cutting up still looks like a real chicken and that is sad, I'm going to cry lots now").

When I was about 16, my schoolfriend (also a vegetarian) bought me Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for my birthday. Reading this turned my personal, emotional choice into something which felt like a moral imperative. Despite never having engaged with any philosophy before, Singer's views felt almost like a manifesto of what I thought I believed in. I've been pretty staunchly utilitarian since (although I still haven't engaged very deeply with much philosophy).

I knew that I wanted to contribute positively to the world through my career. Given that history was my favourite subject, it seemed like the best way to help the world was to become a history teacher. I fixed my career plans upon this, and didn't really consider any alternatives to this for years to come...

When I went to university I had hoped to find an animal advocacy student society, but there was none, so I set one up within weeks, alongside a few other people.

It was at uni that I first heard of Effective Altruism. Max Dalton (now at CEA) was at my college at uni and so was in my (extended) friendship group. He was heavily involved in the Oxford GWWC society. I didn't ever speak to Max about EA whilst I was at uni, but I'd guess that most undergrads in my college had heard of EA because of Max. I also went to hear Peter Singer gives talks twice while I was there, and I think one of the talks was about Effective Altruism (before I knew much about it); I don't remember it well, so it obviously didn't leave as much of an impression on me at the time as Animal Liberation had. I thought that EA sounded like a great idea, but that I couldn't engage with it yet, because I wasn't earning any money, and my understanding was that EA was about donating effectively. So I decided I would donate 10% of my income to effective charities once I started earning, but that there was nothing else I needed to do in the meantime.

After my degree and 1 year teacher training course, I began working as a teacher and immediately began donating 10% of my income. I also started tentatively looking for potential EA-related volunteering opportunities (e.g. ACE) but nothing came of this at the time.

I spoke to some uni friends who were at similar levels of support for EA as I was. They said they had taken the GWWC pledge. I decided to sign up, since I was already donating 10%.

After signing up, David Nash (EA London) sent me an email asking if I'd like to come to EA London events. I said yes and asked how else I could get involved; I ended up taking over the majority of the organising of the Effective Animal Altruism London sub-group which he had set up with Saulius (another EA based in London) but didn't have much time to put into organising.

My responsibility for this group (and my general interest) led to a period of deepening involvement in EA; trying to read as much as I could that came out relating to EA and animals and volunteering for several EAA organisations. At some point I decided that I wanted to change my career to have a greater positive impact; this was why I had chosen teaching in the first place anyway, I just hadn't thought the implications of this through. After several months of agonising, speaking to various people and an 80K coaching call, I decided to work towards working directly in the Effective Animal Advocacy community (as opposed to focusing on building more flexible career capital). So I started an EAA blog, contiued to focus on reading into the area and my volunteering.

A few months later, I have just started working full time as a researcher at Sentience Institute.

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 05 August 2018 08:30:59AM 9 points [-]

Great idea!

When I was around 10, I found the killing and torture of animals for meat and fur atrocious, so this is when I decided to become vegetarian. I have been vegetarian since then.

It wasn't until a few years later that I became more interested in a larger variety of issues, with my pet topics being environmentalism and feminism. I started doing political work when I was 16. I joined a left-wing political group that also focussed on a lot of other issues, like global poverty, democracy and animal rights. It was the first time in my life I met smart and dedicated people.

Apart from that, I spent most of my time reading through all the non-fiction books in the library I could find. I had always wanted to go into academia. I think I started looking forward to doing a PhD when I was around 10.

When I was 17 I found LessWrong. A year later someone who was also interested in LessWrong introduced me to EA and I started talking to the Swiss EA crowd. I had never previously thought about cause prioritisation and was really excited about the concept. This was in 2012.

At the same time, I started a cultural anthropology degree. Given the focus of psychology on WEIRD subjects, it seemed like a great starting point to dismantle misconceptions about humanity. But I was quite disappointed in how the subject was taught, so half a year later, I switched to maths.

It was 2013 by now and I stayed in touch with the EA Community online and visited the UK and Swiss EA Hubs a couple of times. I lived in Germany at the time where no EA Community existed yet. I started organizing a local LW meetup.

I stopped doing political work when I was around 19 because I thought it wasn't "effective" enough. I thoroughly regret this. I had a great network and know quite a few people who have great roles now and lots of experience. EA only came around to politics as a worthwhile avenue to doing good years later.

I focussed on finishing my degree, continued to make sure to stay in touch with the international EA Community and started organizing a local EA meetup once there was more interest in EA in Germany. I mostly regret now how I spent those years. I wish I had been around more people who were actually trying to do things which I cannot say about my local EA/LW network. Continuing political work would have been good, or moving to an EA Hub. But the latter would have conflicted with my degree.

I finished my degree last year and moved to London and recently also spent a few months in Berkeley. This has been a large improvement compared to the previous situation.

Comment author: Darius_Meissner 10 August 2018 01:03:12PM *  5 points [-]

Given how incredibly positive I see the influence that EA has had on my own life, this post is a fantastic opportunity for me to say ‘thank you’. Thanks to all of you for your contributions to building such an awesome community around (the) ‘one thing you’ll never regret’ – altruism (I got this quote from Ben Todd). I have never before met a group of people this smart, caring and dedicated to improving the world, and I am deeply, deeply grateful that I can be a part of this.


I remember that in elementary school was the first time I was confronted with other students believing in what they referred to as ‘GOD’. Having grown up in a secular family myself, I was at first confused by their belief, and then started debating them. This went on to the point when one day I screamed insults at the sky to prove that there was no one up there listening and no lightning would strike to pulverize me. My identity started to grow, and after reading the Wikipedia article on atheism in early middle school, ‘agnostic-atheist’ was the first of a number of ‘-isms’ that I added to my identity over the years (though, as I will describe, some of these ‘-isms’ were only temporary). Unsurprisingly, when I encountered the writings and speeches of Richard Dawkins in my teens, I quickly became a staunch fan (let it be pointed out that I am more critical nowadays about his communication style and some of his content).

I can contribute my early political socialization to attending summer camps and weekend seminars of a socialist youth organisation in Germany in middle school. There, for the first time, I met people who really cared about improving the world, and I learned about social problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and – the mother of all problems, from the socialist perspective – capitalism. Furthering this process of ideological adaptation, I learned that the supposed solutions for these and other social problems were creating a socialist, communist or possibly anarchist world-order – if need be, by means of violent revolution. In hindsight, it’s interesting for me to look back and see that this belief in a violent revolution required an element of consequentialist thinking (along with very twisted empirical beliefs largely grounded in Marxism): to create a better society for the rest of all time, we might need to make sacrifices today and fight. I always had a great time with the other young socialists, made friends, had my first kiss, went to various left-wing protests and sat around camp fires where we sang old socialist workers’ songs. (A note on the songs: I remember how powerful and determined they would make me feel in my identity as a social-ist, connected to a cause that was larger than myself and celebrating those ‘partisans’ who were killed fighting (violently) in socialist revolutions. Hopefully, this was a lasting lesson with regards to methods of ideological indoctrination). The most long-lasting and positive effect this part of my life had on my personality, was in igniting a strong dedication to improving the world – I had found my ultimate and main goal in life (provided and hoping that won’t change again).

During my last lesson in ethics class in middle school, we (around 30 omnivore students) debated the ethics of eating animals. The (to me at the time) surprising conclusion we reached was that, in the absence of an existential necessity for humans to eat meat to survive, it was ethically wrong to raise, harm and slaughter animals. On this day, I decided to try vegetarianism. I began to look into the issue of animal farming, animal ethics, vegetarianism and veganism, and I was shocked by the tremendous suffering endured by billions of non-human animals around the world, and that I had contributed to my whole life. Greedy for knowledge, I read as much as I could about these topics. It still took me a year to decide to be vegan henceforth. I read Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ only after I went vegan, but it certainly increased my motivational drive to dedicate my life to reducing the suffering of non-human animals – what I then perceived as the most pressing ethical problem in the world (+ the book was my first real exposure to utilitarian thought). Throughout my high school years, I would write articles about veganism for our school’s student magazine, organise public screenings of the animal-rights movie ‘Earthlings’, distribute brochures of animal rights organisations, debate other students on the ethics of eating meat and supply our school’s cafeteria with plant-based milk alternatives. Later, as part of my high school graduation exams I wrote a 40-page philosophical treaty on animal ethics.

In high school I also learned about environmental degradation – caused, of course, by evil multinationals and, ultimately, capitalism – and started caring about environmental preservation (considering myself an environmental-ist). Reasoning that changing only my own consumer behaviour would have limited effects, once again I started taking actions to affect the behaviour of others. For instance, I started a shop from my room in the boarding school, reselling environmentally-friendly products, such as recycled toilet paper, to other students (I would sell the goods at the market price, without making a profit). I also decided that after my graduation from school, I would take a gap year and go to India to volunteer for a small environmental non-profit organisation. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, in hindsight I don't think that my work as a volunteer had a big impact).

And then I attended the single most transformational event of my life: an introductory talk on effective altruism, brilliantly presented by the EA Max Kocher, who at the time interned with the predecessor organisation of what would later become the Effective Altruism Foundation. I was immediately attracted by the EA perspective on reducing animal suffering (though I remember finding the ‘risks to the far-future from emerging technologies’ part of the presentation weird). Previously, I had read a lot of stuff online written by vegans and animal rights activists, but somehow I had never come across a group of people who were thinking as rationally and strategically about achieving their ethical goals as EAs. Once again, I became greedy for knowledge, and – in reading many EA articles, books, listening to podcasts and watching talks – felt like a whole new world was opening up to me. A world that I couldn’t get enough of. And in the process of engaging with EA, I encountered a great many arguments that challenged some of my dearly held beliefs – many of which I subsequently abandoned.

Some of the major ways I changed my mind through EA include:

  • I got convinced that what ultimately counts morally are the conscious experiences of sentient beings, and thus stopped caring about ‘the environment’ for its own sake. Learning about the prevalence and magnitude of the suffering of animals living in the wild, I left behind my beliefs in environmental preservation, the protection of species over individuals, and the intrinsic importance of biodiversity.

  • The most important normative change I underwent is growing closer to hedonistic utilitarianism, and totalism in population ethics. In parallel to this process, I engaged more with arguments like Bostrom’s astronomical waste argument, and ultimately accepted the long-term value hypothesis. That said, keeping epistemic modesty in mind and the wild divergence in favoured moral theories among moral philosophers, I do attempt to take moral uncertainty seriously.

  • The most important change in my empirical worldview came with learning more about the benefits and achievements of market economies and the tremendous historical failures of its so-called socialist and communist alternatives. I stopped attributing everything that was going wrong in the world to ‘capitalism’ and adopted (what I now think of as) a much more nuanced view on the costs and benefits of adopting particular economic policies.

  • Relatedly, I became much more uncertain with regards to many political questions, due to giving up many of my former tribe-determined answers to policy questions. In particular, I have reduced my certainty in policies with strong factual disagreement among relevant experts.

After having engaged with EA intensely, though passively for more than one year in India, upon my return to Germany I was aching to get active and finally meet other EAs in person. Subsequently, I completed two internships with EAF in Berlin, started and led an EA university chapter at the University of Bayreuth, before ultimately transitioning to the University of Oxford, where I am now one of the co-presidents of EA Oxford.

The philosophy and community behind effective altruism have transformed my life in a myriad of beneficial ways. I am excited about all the achievements of EA since its inception and look forward to contributing to its future success!

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 10 August 2018 01:44:00PM 1 point [-]

Some parts of this sound very similar to me, down to 'left-wing youth political organisation who likes to sing socialist songs' (want to PM me which one it was?).

I have noticed before how much more common activist backgrounds are in German EAs vs. Anglo-Saxon EAs. When I talked about it with other people, the main explanation we could come up with was different base rates of sociopolitical activism in the different countries, but I've never checked the numbers on that.

Comment author: Naryan 09 August 2018 09:02:23PM 5 points [-]

Pretty cool idea - since I'm new to EA, I hope this will become a neat snapshot for me to look back on in a few years to see how far I've come.

Growing up, I believe I was raised to be a decent member of society - be kind to others, don't litter, help those in need. I never really thought explicitly about ethics, or engaged deeply with any causes. Sure, I'd raise money for cancer at "Relay for Life", but it wasn't because I thought the $100 dollars would make a difference - more because it would be fun to have a camp-out with friends.

In my twenties, my goal was primarily to make money to retire early so I could travel, and maybe volunteer my time to help increase financial literacy, or apply my career experience in a not-for-profit. Fairly ephemeral goals though - I also considered becoming a full-time music producer.

Rationality

When I was 28, I found Less Wrong from a link my friend posted on Facebook. Over the next two years I read every essay in the Rationality sequences, supplemented by a healthy amount of psychology/economy/math/self-help style audiobooks. Reading that material was an enjoyable journey and lead to a few minor epiphanies. * I love improving my thinking, and upgrading my effectiveness * I thought deeply about my ethics for the first time * I have a responsibility to improve the world in the biggest and best way possible

Seriously - the last book "Becoming Stronger" and the sequence "Challenging the Difficult" really motivated me to think much larger than I had before. Discovering 80,000 Hours around the same time was a great template to follow.

Effective Altruism

In May 2018 I attended my first EA meet-up. I recall thinking, "Wow! There are actually other rationalists out there". Up until that point, I'd never really met others who thought or spoke similarly, let alone a whole room full of them. I'm currently enjoying the learning curve, finding more questions than answers. * Attending weekly meet-ups at the Fox & Fiddle with EA Toronto * Hosting games nights, going on hikes, watching debates * Independently tackling cause prioritization, clarifying my ethics and their implications for where I should dedicate my effort * Excited to attend the EA Summit 2018!

I'm currently working with a team of amazing EAs towards my top cause priority, and hope to launch this autumn.

Comment author: AmritSidhu-Brar 08 August 2018 10:02:23PM *  5 points [-]

I think this is a great idea, and I was really interested, and also touched, by the stories people have already posted, so thank you all! Holly, I love the sentiment of “an extra dose of empathy and mutual appreciation” – I feel like to some extent EA culture, or at least that of its online spaces like this one, is very good at hiding the many meaningful personal relationships that I know the community has fostered.

I found EA in late 2012, just after I’d started my first degree in Oxford. At the first meeting of the science fiction society (which I then never ended up going back to), someone pointed me towards HPMoR. I then looked it up when I got back to my room and read a bit of it, and then found someone talking about EA in the comments section. I never did read the rest of HPMoR until a long time later, and apart from that I’ve never interacted with the rationalist community, so I always feel like this origin story is amusingly mismatched to me... Anyway, I then read about EA a bit on the internet, generally thought it was a great idea, and it sat around in the back of my mind for a while. About a year later, I think, I started regular EA-guided donations.

I know for a fact that I’ve changed a whole lot in the last six years, which I’m happy about, because I really don’t like six-years-ago me. When I started university (studying physics) I was – not remotely to say that I think all of these things are bad, of course, only some of them – very analytical in my approach to most things. I was entirely emotionally inept – I didn’t really form emotional friendships (at least, not ones that were emotional from my side); I sometimes treated people rather badly, enough that I’m pretty surprised looking back that some of my friends stayed with me, and I just really didn’t understand most people’s emotional needs, which often led me to be very judgemental and superior, including on moral issues. I liked having very long, theoretical conversations with my fellow students late into the night (that hasn’t changed!), and I liked being reactionary and expressing opinions that were different enough to be shocking to others. Morally I think I was a pretty rigid deontologist.

(As a point of interest, for a while afterwards, I held a really weird position of just-about-moral-realism, where I thought that what was, universally and really, right and wrong for one person, might be entirely different for another in the same situation – I thought that real morality existed, but depended on the actor about whom the question was being asked as much as the action. I had this way of visualising it that was of there being a little “moral bubble universe” attached to each consciousness that was real, but that was only true for that one person, and each person had a moral sense pointing into that space, that could tell them only about what was right for them.)

Once I encountered EA (which was at the time when it seemed to almost entirely concern charitable donations), I did agree with it wholeheartedly; being good is good, and being better is better. But, to be uncharitable to my earlier self, I also liked it because it let me dissociate morality and caring, and because the analytical, counter-intuitive, and just plain unusual nature of it fit well with my, I suppose, aesthetics of ideas at the time.

I didn’t do a lot more with EA other than read about it and direct my donations, and donate increasing (but still small) amounts for a long while after. In 2015 I finished my physics degree and moved to Cambridge, to start a second undergraduate degree in medieval languages. I read a lot more about EA, on the internet and Doing Good Better once that came out, and also started donating more, and eventually took the Pledge last year. However I didn’t do anything with the Cambridge EA group other than go to one formal hall and hang about on their mailing list. Looking back, I think this was because my plan at the time was firmly to remain in academia in the humanities, and I think I had some guilt over the fact that as someone who felt like I knew a fair bit about EA by now, should probably be using it to direct my career, but didn’t want to and so felt vaguely uncomfortable (although of course I shouldn’t have) about the idea of mixing with lots of core EAs.

Compared to the me described above, by maybe two years ago, I’d changed a whole lot (fortunately) – I’d become actually vaguely emotionally capable, both in understanding others’ feelings and my own. I’ve been able to make a wonderful group of close emotional friendships, and I think (hope?) that I’ve become a much more pleasant person to know since I became able to care. While I certainly do still like to be analytical, and think things through properly (and this is a good thing), my opinions have mostly become a whole lot more mainstream and acceptable on many matters as I worked out that on thing after thing, the norms that society’s settled on are actually often pretty good to follow – I have also entirely changed on political opinions, from pretty rigidly conservative to pretty radically left-wing. I’m now certainly a consequentialist morally speaking, although I haven’t worked out precisely what kind yet. (Preference utilitarianism appeals the most to me, but doesn’t satisfy, and I’m nowhere near a satisfying position on population ethics.)

I definitely still fully identify with EA; in some ways it’s the most prominent belief that I feel I’ve actually stuck with, but my reasons for appreciating EA have definitely changed. Obviously a big part of it is still that EA is simply morally correct. However I feel now, if I may risk getting somewhat floaty, more like I’m an effective altruist because I care about people, because I feel like I’m part of a global community of humanity, and it’s tragic that there are so many people who suffer, people who are just like the friends I love in everything except that they were born in the wrong house; it’s tragic that we can’t help them all, and EA is important to me because tells me how we can make the world the biggest little bit less terrible that we can. I also love the idea of EA as a real community of people dedicated to doing good.

Soon after starting my masters course (still medieval languages) I realised I was much less certain about doing a PhD than I had thought, and didn’t apply for one, instead planning to take a year out and think about what I wanted to do. Since then, I had a bit of an EA renaissance (not that I’d particularly had an off period), started reading things a lot more, listening to the podcasts, went to a couple of EA Cambridge events, talked about things more with the one of my closest friends who is very involved in the Cambridge community. When I read the 80,000 Hours article about operations work, that really clicked with me as I didn’t feel most of the other direct work profiles had, and I ended up getting advice from a couple of CEA people, and now plan to work at something relevant for the next year while I’m committed to living in Cambridge with my friends here, then look for something directly effective after that.

Thank you also for posting something that I felt confident enough to reply to – I’ve been reading the forum for ages but never yet managed to comment on anything. Hopefully it will be easier now! And I'm sorry that this got a little long...

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 04 August 2018 10:05:37PM 5 points [-]
Comment author: tom_sittler 10 August 2018 03:07:48PM *  3 points [-]

In primary school, I wanted to defend nature (no doubt influenced by my dad, an environmentalist). I tried to create the "Environment Club" at my school. I still have some documents, in French, from that time (around 2006).

Here is an extract form a Microsoft Word document called "convincing.doc", last edited in March 2006:

Step n°1 : raise awareness about the destruction of the environment

Step n°2 : convince to act

Step n°3 : act

I made a leaflet explaining pollution and the greenhouse effect in Microsoft PowerPoint. It included slogans such as "Destroying our environment is destroying our future" and "acid rain: danger!", in WordArt, of course.

In another document called "PROJECTS.doc":

SECONDARY PROJECT OF THE CLUB

Because it is spring, there are many ladybirds in the school courtyard. So children capture them for fun: the club must prevent these children from capturing them, or, if they have already captured them, deliver them. For a tactic, see below. [...]

PRINCIPAL PROJECT OF THE CLUB

The principal project of the club is to convince a maximum number of people to environmentalism.

In "TACTICS FOR LADYBIRDS.doc":

  1. If they have put down the animal, take it and release it. But for that one must know if they have put it down and where. For this, place a spy who the children do not know, or know little.

  2. To make the children put down their ladybird: someone occupies them and proposes a pleasant game, and then advises them to put down their ladybird for the duration of the game (if needed, do not look at the hiding place, for this place a spy) [...]

  3. If the children are very small, tell them that ladybirds release a deadly liquid!

I no longer endorse lying for the greater good.

Skipping forward, when I was around 14 or 15 I read "Poor Economics" by Banerjee and Duflo, which I had seen my dad read. I immediately saw the appeal of randomised trials: Science! Plus, the book contained a good amount of Malcolm-Gladwell-style counter-intuitive "insight porn", which I was very fond of at the time.

The book made me realise the scale of global poverty. I was especially impressed by the possibility of substantially helping the very poor with only cheap interventions. I started having thoughts which I would now recognise as consequentialist: "You can help kids get vaccinated using just a bag of lentils (!); this is SO IMPORTANT! Why the hell isn't everyone talking about this?".

Eventually I continued on with my life. Perhaps I figured that if no-one around me cared about global poverty, it couldn't be that important. But there remained some cognitive dissonance.

When I was 16 my dad gave me "The Life You Can Save" as a gift. The book made an explicit, unabashed case for the beliefs which had been implicitly floating at the back of my mind. It was illuminating. I decided that helping the global poor was in fact the most important thing, other people's indifference be damned! Although I did check out GiveWell's website briefly, I didn't dive in deeper, nor did I become aware of other online EA materials. This must have been 2012.

(My dad later told me that he had hesitated about giving me "The Life You Can Save", lest it come off as too preachy.)

Because of inertia, or because these ideas take time to sediment, I didn't actually change my behaviour for at least another few years. At some point between the ages of 16 and 18, my interest in global poverty grew from a trickle to a flood. By the end of 2014, the year I left school, I was aware of Giving What We Can, and was reading more and more about EA. I devoured the websites of GiveWell, 80,000 Hours, and so on. I went vegetarian that year (although at first mostly for environmental reasons); then I volunteered remotely for The Life You Can Save in my first year of university in Paris. After I got an offer to go to Oxford in 2015, I decided to apply for a summer internship at Giving What We Can.

The internship, in the summer of 2015, was a mind-blowing dive into the EA community. Suddenly I was in an office full of impressively smart people who shared my values and my thinking style. I had found my tribe.

Comment author: M_Allcock 15 August 2018 09:26:04PM 2 points [-]

That's for the inspiring story, and to all the previous commenters.

My memory is one of my most failing attributes, but this post has encouraged me to contribute to this forum for the first time after being an occasional spectator, so here goes.

In early 2016, I was playing table-tennis with my older brother. Table-tennis is a unique game because it takes a lot of concentration, yet it is possible to have a fully engaged conversation with your opponent at the same time. Back and forth, we talked. I said something like this:

“I’m gonna start a PhD soon. I’ll earn a small stipend. Based on how much living has cost over the last few years, I’ll still have a lot left over. Then I’ll graduate and earn more money, and have more left over. Other people surely need this surplus money more than me. So I should give some of it away.”

At the same time, I was trying to make better financial decisions, and was dabbling in financial investment. So I asked my brother a question:

“With this leftover money, is it best to give it to charity now or to invest it and give it later?”

We threw around some ideas about compound interest, duty to help now, problems now being worse than problems later, and that we might learn more later to give in a more impactful way. We didn’t get very far with the discussion, so I Googled it. The words “Effective Altruism” kept cropping up, and I found my way to Peter Singer’s TED talk.

I was already convinced by Peter Singer’s anti-speciesist arguments against eating animal products, as I had been vegan for about a year, so it was intriguing to hear about other philosophical stances he argues for. His talk piqued my interest in EA, which, with the aid of our local EA group, has slowly drawn me further and further into its logical and compassionate underworld.

I had dabbled with various social and intellectual movements previously, but had always felt something not quite right. Some were to insular, some too tribal, some lacking in good intellectual practices, with misaligned incentives. What I loves about EA, that other groups I have dabbled with in the past, is its ability to self criticise, to learn, to change its mind, to accept that we might be wrong, and that other people might be right, but to try to listen to all parties, and to get as close to the right answers as we can be. I also was drawn in by the idea that this movement is not be bound to an arbitrary cause, rather it is about finding correct answers to one of the most fundamental questions we face: how can we do the most good?

Since then, I have met some of the best people I know, I have changed my mind a lot, and I have improved in many areas of my life. I am now the chair of my city's local group, I volunteer for an EA-aligned organisation, and I am planning on moving from researching mathematics to something closer to what the world needs once I finish my PhD. I can’t wait!