In this article, I'll share my journey of joining an effective altruism (EA) organisation in the middle of my career. I'll talk about the misconceptions I initially held, how I came to understand the fundamental ideas of EA, increased my involvement in the community, and started connecting with more experienced members. I will also share how I became more active through volunteer work and then intentionally worked towards transitioning my career to have more impact.
Within the EA community, you will find many young individuals who started engaging with EA ideas during their university years, devoting significant time to podcasts and articles. While the movement has a large youth presence, seasoned professionals are less common. EA-aligned organisations are eager for professionals who embody their core values. However, immersing oneself in these values can be a challenge if you're already occupied with a full-time job and commitments to family and friends.
I was introduced to EA at the age of 40 and without a university degree. At that point, I couldn't see a clear path to working directly in a high-impact area. Yet, eight years later, I became the Co-Director at EA Germany, guiding individuals on their quest for more impactful career paths. Looking back, I believe I could have made the career transition sooner had I had fewer misunderstandings and focused more on specific areas.
My Misconceptions about EA
When I initially began attending my local EA group meetings, I had misconceptions about the requisites for deeper engagement with the EA community. I erroneously believed that it required a complete dedication to veganism, a commitment to donating at least 10% of income, and a lifestyle wholly centred around maximising impact.
One of my first experiences with the group involved a discussion on animal welfare. As the co-founder of a company that promotes higher animal-welfare yarn from sheep's wool, I felt aligned with their mission. Yet, I noticed that many participants advocated for an entirely vegan lifestyle, excluding all animal products. Their backgrounds, largely consisting of younger students, also seemed to widen the gap of understanding between us.
Later, I met individuals who committed to donating 10% of their income to impactful charities. I admired their dedication but was uncertain if I could match that contribution level. I also came across people who believed that EA demanded a life entirely devoted to maximising the overall good.
However, as time passed, I understood these were individual choices rather than a standard or norm within the EA community. I met actively involved EA members who were not vegans, concentrated more on their careers than on donations, and enjoyed leisure activities unrelated to their impact work. I eventually concluded that, for me, prioritising a career change held more significance than modifying my lifestyle.
Core Values of EA
While it is true that choices are individual, and people have different values and priorities in their private lives, EA has principles that most people follow. These include prioritisation, impartial altruism, open truth-seeking, and a collaborative spirit. Having individuals who adhere to these values in the community and organisations fosters easier collaboration, as there is a higher level of trust and underlying agreement compared to society at large.
My previous experiences in business and political activism taught me to present myself in the best light, select beliefs that supported my purpose, and prioritise self-advocacy over collaboration. Engaging more with the EA community required being open to changing my beliefs, practising epistemic humility, and focusing on how I could help others. I learned this by reading, listening to podcasts, and observing people’s behaviour within the community. "The Scout Mindset" by Julia Galef is an excellent book that introduces the truth-seeking mindset.
Getting more involved
My journey with Effective Altruism (EA) began with a newspaper article, which led me to explore various EA websites. If the introductory article that's currently available had been accessible back then, I would have eagerly read it.
In the following years, I attended talks at my local EA group and utilised EA resources to alter my approach to donations. Only when the Covid-19 pandemic struck did I find the time to join an online reading group. We delved into some of the essential articles about EA compiled in the EA handbook, fostering enlightening discussions.
This deeper exploration of the philosophical ideas and research supporting cause prioritisation and impactful actions enhanced my understanding of EA. It even changed my perspective on global catastrophic risks, elevating it as a higher priority in my mind.
To emulate my experience, consider enrolling in an 8-week introductory program. Be aware, though, that it demands around 3 hours per week, which could be challenging to manage if you're swamped. While not obligatory, this program helped me grasp the foundational concepts that underpin the reasoning in EA. If you prefer, you can also study the EA handbook independently.
As I delved deeper into EA, thinking through podcasts and posts, I discovered that the movement is full of intelligent individuals who had figured things out. Initially, I questioned what value I could contribute and hesitated to contact them. I didn’t want to take the time of busy people working on important things, and I thought I would seem stupid in our interactions.
Once I overcame my reluctance, I found the people very open and encouraging. They shared their challenges, reminding me of the typical struggles in startups and small businesses, such as management gaps, operational issues, and a need for more senior professionals. I realised that my knowledge could be valuable, and it was essential to communicate with others and build networks to understand these organisations' needs better.
Attending EAG and EAGx conferences allowed me to set up one-on-one meetings with participants who could answer my questions. For example, with my background in running a software development organisation, I thought providing similar services in EA might be the best thing I could do. In talks with different people, I learned that gaps in experience around the building and leading of EA-aligned organisations were more pressing and that I could help there.
These meetings became a valuable source of knowledge, and through introductions, I gradually built my network. In addition to the conferences, connections through my local and national EA groups helped. If professional-focussed EA organisations had been more active around that time, I could have also profited by engaging with them.
At an Effective Altruism Global (EAG) conference, I discovered an opportunity to volunteer in a domain closely aligned with my professional experience.
I connected with Devon Fritz, now the co-founder of High Impact Professionals, who was among a handful of mid-career German professionals in attendance. He shared an idea he had been contemplating – to develop a donation management system for Effektiv Spenden. This German organisation facilitates tax-deductible donations to charities that have a significant impact. However, Devon was unable to pursue this idea due to other commitments.
Seeing a perfect opportunity to leverage my software development skills honed in FinTech startups, I contacted Effektiv Spenden and offered to take on this project. They agreed, and I dedicated several hours weekly over the ensuing months to build the system.
The project had an immediate impact by reducing operational costs for the organisation. Furthermore, it provided an invaluable opportunity to familiarise myself with the team, connect with other organisations focused on effective giving, and deepen my understanding of the sector.
On top of this, I began hosting meetings within my local community. These gatherings facilitated deeper connections and fostered comprehensive discussions with a broader range of individuals.
Additionally, I started organising meetings within my local community, which allowed me to connect with more people and engage in in-depth discussions.
Having a network of people in EA who I could discuss ideas with and who could point me to contacts and opportunities was crucial for me to realise that I might be able to contribute and to see where I might have the best fit.
The 80,000 Hours career guide became crucial for me to structure my career planning process systematically. Identifying the most pressing problems required effort, but it helped sharpen my focus and intentions. I also joined a career group, where we collaboratively navigated the guide's steps and engaged in insightful discussions.
I applied for a one-on-one consultation where I expressed my uncertainty about working in the top priority area I had identified: AI safety technical research. To my surprise, my advisor introduced me to professionals already working in that field, leading operations teams – a role I could envision for myself. These connections, both online and at conferences, led to serious discussions regarding potential employment opportunities.
Parallel to this, I gained the confidence to decline job offers from EA-aligned organisations that I perceived as having less impact, despite their appeal. Some opportunities involved leading teams at EA-aligned startups. However, accepting them would have meant deviating from the top causes on my list. Instead of settling for the next available option, I aimed high, seeking roles that matched exceptionally well with my skills and the cause areas I had on the top of my list.
Impact and Community
Being part of the EA community has provided me with crucial support, knowledge, and motivation. However, engaging with the community can be daunting, especially if you are noticeably older than most members. It's vital to remember that deep integration with the broader EA community isn't necessary for making a meaningful impact through your career.
You can use EA resources to gain the necessary knowledge and apply to relevant job positions, even without actively participating in group meetings or retreats. Many working in EA-aligned organisations maintain a fulfilling professional life without having close personal ties within the movement, thus keeping their professional and personal lives distinct.
However, if you're in a situation where you're the only one holding EA values within an organisation, it can be beneficial to reach out to others in the EA community who are in similar situations. By doing this, you can build a network of individuals with shared values and goals, forming a supportive community that understands and can help you navigate the unique challenges you may face.
Navigating a career path for higher impact can be a gradual process. It can be disheartening to face job rejections and the challenge of continuous attempts, and certain roles may be difficult to get into. It's unfortunate when driven individuals keen on shifting careers to make a more significant impact, acquire new knowledge, and establish networks, end up bowing out too early.
However, even if you continue in a different job, you can still maintain your connection with the community. There are various ways to contribute, such as donating within your means, initiating workplace programs at your organisation, volunteering at impactful organisations or mentoring individuals in your free time.
In time, a job opportunity that matches your skills might present itself, enabling you to contribute directly. So, it's important to keep going, or you might miss out on substantial opportunities.
High Impact Professionals: Talent directory and list of professional groups
I thank Devon Fritz, Jacob Schaal and Sarah Tegeler for comments on a draft of this post. For my career transition, I would like to thank the many people who provided crucial input, deep discussions, contacts and encouragement, including Ben Clifford, Beth Barnes, Bill Zito, Devon Fritz, Ethan Alley, Habiba Banu, Jeffrey Poche, Joey Savoie, Jona Glade, Jonathan Harris, Lennart Heim, Nick Fitz, Sara Elsholz, Sebastian Schwiecker and Steve Thompson as well as Charlie, Mart, Jan and Isidor from my local EA discussion group and Vanessa for organising a career program.