Spreading the mantle of heroic responsibility

Eric Rogstad and I started Seattle Effective Altruists, little over 6 months ago. We quickly gained several regular attendees and had about a meetup once a month. Unfortunately, soon after Eric left for a new life of whimsy and adventure, so I came to do most of the organizing and logistics. It felt firmly “my” thing. Its kind of fun to be in charge of something, but isn’t very sustainable and probably healthier to have several involved people.

Edit: I also noticed that it being “my” thing prevented other people from other people making it their thing.

I decided I didn’t want it to be “my” thing, and I wanted to get more people interested in helping. The advice saw somewhere was to ask people to do small things to help out, and then bigger things until they’re pretty involved.

This led me to look for as many things I could delegate as possible. Things like greeting newcomers, making sure meetups are cross-posted, posting meetup notes, etc. This went okay, but there wasn’t that much to delegate, and it didn’t seem to lead to significantly increased involvement. One positive outcome is that I now reflexively ask myself if a given task is something I can ask someone else to do.

The other deliberate strategy I tried seemed to work quite well:

Whenever I found myself talking one-on-one with someone who had come more than once, I would ask them what they were excited about in EA and/or the group. I would talk with them about it, and if we came up with ways the group could help their goal, I would ask them if they would be willing to help organize and lead that meet up. Then, later, I would instant message them about actually planning the meetup.

This worked surprisingly well, three different people have come to lead meetups this way, and there are a couple of other people who are interested. One person led a meetup about existential risk, one about criticisms of EA, and one a factory farming documentary night.

Currently, I’m trying to spread ownership of the group more permanently by creating a core of 3-5 people who take heroic responsibility for the group, as I have seen suggested for student EA groups. Two of the obvious people to ask came from the people I asked to help run a meetup. We’ll see how that goes.


I think rationality techniques are pretty interesting and cool, but there aren’t that many that I recognize as “rationality techniques” that I find myself using all the time. One I can think of is “when you want clarity, ask for examples”. For example, if someone at work is arguing that our team shouldn’t use design X for a new project, and I see why clearly, I’ll ask them for examples of the kinds of problems they’re worried about. I started doing this during the CFAR camp I attended, and I don’t think I’ve stopped since. 

The only other rationality technique I use regularly is brainstorming, and that’s the one I want to talk about.

My roommates and I brainstorm for each other pretty regularly, especially for things like thinking of gifts friends and family, meetup activities, dates, costumes, dinner or party themes, but some more important things. Brainstorming seems to give us more decent ideas than we would otherwise have for problems like these. 

Official Brainstorming Protocol

  1. Get 1-4 people
  2. Name brainstorm goal
  3. Set timer for 5 minutes
  4. Silently write down as many ideas as you can think of till the timer goes off.
    • Write down all ideas, even bad ones.
  5. Each person shares all the ideas they wrote down
    • Don’t criticize the ideas
  6. Discuss promising ideas

Writing down all your ideas is hard; it’s difficult not to filter. Luckily, this skill seems to get easier with practice. The protocol seems to work best with other people, but I’ve used this frequently by myself too. 

One particularly successful case came when last time I was looking for a job. I brainstormed for potential leads, people to talk to and companies to investigate. This led to an excellent list of leads that turned to a number of interviews. Many of these, I would have thought of naturally, but some seem like they only would have come out because of brainstorming and doing it at once allowed me to have them all up front.

We’ve also used this technique for more troubleshooting life issues, like getting to bed on time, trying to ignore my tasklist less, or how to have more organizational time in the morning. Brainstorming has helped on these bigger problems, but less dramatically. It often comes up with an extra idea or two to try and it usually helps me feel more excited about trying things, but doesn’t lead to something that works reliably.

Some domains, especially lower stakes ones, seem to benefit a lot more from simply having lots of ideas. And for these brainstorming seems very helpful. 

Introduction to Style for Effective Altruists

Edit (12/11/2015): Turned ‘resources’ into a reading list.

A couple years ago, I gave a presentation on Style/Fashion for Effective Altruists/aspiring rationalists, and I was quite happy with how it turned out. We recorded the first half, and you can find the slides here (short version here). We followed up the presentation with a trip to a couple of department stores, Nordstrom and Target, which turned out to be very helpful.

Follow up advice

One thing I didn’t mention during the presentation is that, it takes a while to internalize the lessons of fit and color/contrast and style, so it’s best not to rush in and spend a lot of money at first. Get a couple of simple, basic things first, try them out for a while, and gradually expand your comfort zone.

Reading list

For men, I recommend the following reading list (in reading order):

  1. My intro slides on fashion. Or the recorded presentation.
  2. r/malefashionadvice fit guide
  3. Primer’s fit guides (index after the picture). Especially shirt and pants guides.
  4. Basic wardrobe. Good as a set of Quest Items.
  5. Shoes: shoe style (instead of fit) is comparatively important, and guides are especially helpful here. This guide is really good.
  6. Button up shirts
  7. Pants
  8. Jeans
  9. What are you wearing today? threads are a great source of pictures with commentary you can use to learn via reinforcement learning. Make predictions on how other people will judge each picture.
  10. r/malefashionadvice has many other guides on the sidebar. Some are excellent and some are not so good.

For women: read the first three, then I suggest looking at the guides on r/femalefashionadvice (though I do not have extensive personal experience here).