What first drew you to effective altruism?
“My earliest memory relating to effective altruism was seeing some university friends posting about the Giving What We Can pledge on Facebook, which would have been in about 2013. I was aware of something called 'effective altruism' back then but actually I wasn't so intrigued by the whole concept of EA at first. However, the Giving What We Can pledge, which was at that time donating 10% of one’s income to help relieve global poverty, seemed like a more obviously good idea to me. I took this pledge myself in late 2014. I had read Peter Singer's essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality due to my interest in philosophy, particularly ethics, and together with Singer's book Practical Ethics I had to rethink a lot of my model for what actions are more or less good to do.
At a similar time, I had found the book Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both co-founders of J-PAL at MIT, which introduced me to some of the evidence-based methodologies used in development economics. I found this fascinating, and wondered how this might apply to other areas of doing good outside of economics. Looking back, it seems like EA institutions like GiveWell might not have existed without the groundwork laid by J-PAL and others, so it seems we owe them some credit.
In 2015, I suffered an intense personal tragedy, the death of my best friend. It wasn’t until then when I really started to think carefully about the nature of suffering, values, and what goods we should be aiming for in life. This event turned out to be the spark that started the fire. After 2015, I started to see that the EA community was a home for big questions that I had always wanted to try to answer; I had simply never had the conceptual framework to make a start. In the community I found people trying their best to think clearly about how to really ‘do’ good, and not just make some analysis about it. I became closer to the online EA community and began to become more involved, attending meetups and conferences, and eventually running a local group. It is now a major part of what makes my life valuable to me, though of course not all of it!”
What has the community come to mean to you?
“People within the EA community mean a surprising amount to me even though most of them are so far away from me most of the time! The connections I feel with EAs go a bit deeper than those I might have with potential colleagues or friends. I’ve not been part of a community where there has been an explicit shared mission before, so this aspect is new and sometimes confusing to navigate emotionally. For the most part I think the same things motivate most EAs I talk to, which makes me feel closer to any given EA person than most people I happen to meet in other parts of my life. A conversation at an EA meetup is always full of surprises, in a literal sense and a theoretical sense, and I often come away with my mind racing and a newly found energy to tackle the difficult problems in my life which are blocking me from having more impact than I do currently. EAs are often some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, which can feel inspiring as well as daunting to try to live up to. The way I handle this at the moment is not trying to compare myself to individual people too much, but generally trying to learn good things to do that I can then apply myself in my career. I know I could count on most EAs for support if and when I need it, and I’ve been grateful for all the advice and coaching I’ve had over the years.”
How has effective altruism influenced the path you're on?
“Haha, well, I wish I could give a sensible answer to this… the reality is that I have tried applying 80,000 Hours careers recommendations to my own life with varying success, and it has been more of a roller coaster than I imagined it would be when I first read about EA in books like Doing Good Better. After completing part of an engineering degree and a whole philosophy degree, I think initially I wanted to be a development economist, then an economist working in policy, then a social science researcher, then a policy professional, all of which was partially inspired by 80k, but then when I finally started studying economics properly I realised this might not be the real thing for me at all! I got interested in reading about artificial intelligence while studying philosophy, and wrote about AI at some length in a final-year essay, but didn’t think it would go anywhere beyond that.
I realised that the way I wanted to have an impact was through leveraging people skills and networks, and the best place I could think to do that was in the place I had always wanted to live, London. In the UK, most policy professionals and government bodies are also based in London. I knew I had to earn money to live in London, which made me revisit my tech skills, and long story short I’m now a software developer attempting to have an impact through running EA meetups for others working in software, data, and tech. I feel somewhat conflicted about how much I stick to 80k recommendations. In law, there is an idea about the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law; similarly, with 80k advice I think I follow the spirit of it more than the letter, if only because a lot of the specifics change too quickly to really keep up with it and have a stable career that grows over time. I think I’ve tried a few things and made ‘experiments’ with personal fit, so maybe I am going about this in an EA way. But mostly it just feels like a mix of chaos, intuition, and doing the best you can with the opportunities you see at the time.
The longer I stay in EA the more I think that it’s really hard to change your mind about the deeper stuff you want from your life and career, at least it takes more than just reading a few articles or listening to a few podcasts. I think that I was lucky enough to have interests that already coincided with things other EAs care about, such as animal welfare and artificial intelligence, and that 80k advice has been a control layer over that, occasionally having a measurable effect on my decisions. I don’t really think most people understand their motivations as well as they often claim to do. For this reason, when talking to others I try to underplay the extent to which my decisions are ‘rational’ and ‘calculated’, and overplay the extent to which my decisions are a product of what I already find interesting. Another way of phrasing this is that the whole EA/80,000 Hours thing of finding your comparative advantage in the world and thinking about your marginal impact is hard to feel at an emotional level. But I think this is the level at which some of our biggest decisions are often made.
So I will be honest and say that I really do want to try to check the 80k website regularly and update my career plans every year or so, and stay up to date with what actions I could take that could have a great impact on the margin. But, I also am motivated by things that seem completely intractable, like trying to build artificial general intelligence, and trying to build a predictive model of global politics. These just don’t seem like things that are either a good personal fit for me in terms of my existing skill set or ways in which I can easily have a positive impact, but I find them interesting anyway. So I do think that EA influences the path that I’m on, but it’s hard to see exactly how much my life decisions result from my own pre-EA or non-EA thinking versus something I’ve got from EA.”
How do you spend your leisure time?
“I read and walk a lot. This year I’m attempting to read 100 books, including audio-books, which is a goal I’m more than halfway towards completing, but it still feels like it’s a bit too extreme to ever do again. Goodreads is absolutely essential for finding and keeping track of everything I read or want to read. And of course, like many typical EAs I listen to a lot of podcasts too, on various topics including feminism, politics, data science, and even China-Africa relations. Last year I started running regularly and I try to do a long run every weekend, which gives me so much more of a feeling of energy than I would have otherwise.
I love music, talking about music, and sharing new music with others, so I try to go to various small venues and clubs in London and I am part of a few online music communities. I used to be so obsessed with walking in London that I would come alone and walk around by myself even when I didn’t live here, discovering new areas and streets, sometimes even late at night until the early hours of the morning. My ‘real life’ friends also share a love for all things creative, which really helps me to restore myself when thinking about EA things gets a bit too much to handle.
My favourite art form, or the one that I can actually make myself, is probably colour film photography, specifically art photography with a focus on landscapes, urban and rural. I enjoy vegan food and wish I cooked a greater variety of it, but rarely have time, so I tend to eat the same few things every week. Fortunately I have managed to build a strong reading habit in place of e.g. a TV habit, with the caveat that I often don’t know what’s going on in the latest episode of the new hot show everyone’s talking about. I’d think that I would care about film more than I do, considering I enjoy reading and listening so much; I do, but I’m also scared of being addicted to something which could so easily be a big time sink. I also think there is so much more to listen to and read out there than stuff to watch, and often books and music cover a wider range of diverse perspectives and interestingness, so I feel fairly justified in my relatively low knowledge of films compared to books and music. Though if you gave me a million pounds tomorrow, and told me I could only spend it on myself, I know that the first thing I would do is go travelling for a long time and see as many new places as I could! The world is so big, and the part we ever see of it is so small, so it’s nice to be able to alter that balance occasionally.”