I just read a great article by Dillon Bowen titled ‘The crucible of the application process’. Bowen discussed some of his frustrations about being a young academic applying for jobs and scholarships. In particular, his motivations for wanting to do good were often questioned. I’ve highlighted some key quotes, because I can’t beat Bowen’s words here.
“…the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?
Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.
Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?
What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.”
“But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care? This was the final question of my Rhodes nomination interview. I can’t properly express the frustration I feel whenever this question is put to me. Every time I try to explain the importance of extreme poverty, and every time my answer isn’t good enough.
It was all I could do at that moment to keep my composure. What do you want me to say? I felt like asking. There are 900 million people living on less than $2 a day. That’s why I care. That’s the reason. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter that I’m White, it doesn’t matter who my ancestors were, it doesn’t matter what country I’m from. All that matters is that people are suffering and I can help them. What more reason do I need?“
This really resonated with me. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this phenomenon is restricted to academia, as Bowen hopes. I had a similar experience when I was going for a job in the energy industry 3 years ago and made it to the final round interviews (2 available jobs out of 6 remaining candidates).
To that point, I had been asked a range of technical and aptitude questions, but also questions about my motivation. This was before I discovered anything like effective altruism, but I was already broadly aligned with the views that you highlight here.
The answers I gave were pretty similar to Bowen’s. My motivation to combat poverty and climate change came not from a personal connection to the issues, but of believing they were the most pressing issues, and the best opportunities for me to do good.
In the final interview, they asked me a question that stumped me. “What makes you wake up and want to be a geologist each day?” I was confused, because I thought I had answered that. I told them again about my reason for choosing the oil and gas industry. I believed the industry had a big role to play in both poverty and climate change, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to change the industry from the inside to become even better.
They weren’t satisfied. I paraphrase the second question, but it was something to the effect of “But what specifically motivates you?”
Was it so incomprehensible that I would want to do a job because of extrinsic reasons? I told them I woke up every morning and watched the news to remind myself of the horrors in the real world, to motivate myself to work harder and try to stop them.
Finally, I told them that my father was in the oil and gas industry too, and from a young age my family and I had gone camping and collected fossils and rocks and developed a fascination. They seemed happier with that. I didn’t get the job.