The question of “What can I do for the world and how should I do it?” hangs over me a lot of days. Although thinking about the Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence model helps me get away from idle anxiety, but can also compound the frustration.
In the end, I think I’m probably still going to prioritize pursuing my own idiosyncratic goals, and fulfilling social obligations (to my family, friends, and large community). Then, it’s a question of how I can also align those efforts – or at least balance it – with contributing to something really meaningful for the good world.
Like a lot of other people, I’m still clumsily trying to figure out the first part, the “me” side, let alone the part about hard problems and global utility.
I think 80,000 hours is great resources for those in career transition who are looking to better align their efforts/interests with something that will have positive impact.
Even though the folks who started this are acquaintances I respect, I avoided their guides for a long time. I thought it was just going to end up telling me that I should just go work the highest paying full time job at the nearest, richest STEM MegaCorp. I thought it would just tell me to work there for the rest of my life, and donate as much as possible.
But it was wrong for me to presume that. All the advice I’ve seen there and from the EA folks in general is about maximizing your contribution along with your sense of career and personal fulfillment. 80,000 hours doesn’t focus entirely on people following traditional career paths, either. They have analysis that applies to entrepreneurs and social organizers, too.
So that’s one thing to look at.
In another approach, we can start with the problem and ask: okay, what kind of things could we really use in the world that could give us a fighting chance of solving this problem?
Bret Victor wrote an amazing article trying to analyze what a technologist can do about climate change.
I don’t have enough expertise to know how much he’s gotten right, but gosh darn it if this isn’t the kind of approach we should be trying more often, for other challenges.
I think a key thing here is if we’re going to do things that have a big impact, we probably can’t do it alone. Even if we find a way to do something meaningful all by ourselves, for the really hard problems, we’ll still need to coordinate with others to address the problem systematically. But in most cases, there’ll at least be some team or community involved. At the very least we’ll incorporate ideas that originally came from others.
And that part scares me sometimes, because it opens the door for me, personally, not being qualified. Even if I know I have some kind of comparative advantage, I still worry about being able to use it to move in the right direction.
I think trying to help shape the most important things in the world entails a fair amount of risk. And that’s part of the reason a lot of otherwise good people don’t really think about what they can do very much. I don’t lose respect for people who just want to do their best in their own lives for the time being. That is plenty hard enough.
I’d say acknowledging how hard it can be is part of the work as well. Maybe acknowledging our limitations might be a co-requisite to understanding the details of the problem itself. I find it helps me take things more seriously, and it helps me better discern where the border of concern vs. influence lies, and how I can go about expanding my own influence, or help others do the same.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’m still working this out myself, piece by piece and error by error – and probably will be for the rest of my life.