We all have things that we feel self-conscious about. But it can be difficult to talk openly about such things while being cognizant of our privilege.
I don't want to compare my feelings of inadequacy with those of others. I know that I am extremely well off, but when we look at ourselves, we always seem to compare ourselves to the best of others. It's difficult not to feel inadequate in the fields where I just wish that I could be and do better.
This past weekend, Katherine accepted an award for the Maryland high school art teacher of year. While prestigious, it's not unexpected. The year before last, she won the Montgomery County high school art teacher of the year, and she's been extremely active in helping art educators state-wide for a while now. Yet, on the drive over, she expressed her feelings of self-consciousness. Despite knowing all that she has accomplished in her field, she still expressed feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Which is understandable. She's human, after all. But I couldn't help but to think of all the high school art teachers that I know, and of how many of them that just don't plain work as hard and as efficiently as Katherine does. To me, it is obvious why her peers have decided to recognize her as the most prominent secondary level art teacher in the state this year. But, in her head, the comparison is not to the average art teacher in her state, but to the idealized top art teachers that she can imagine. And, amongst that group, she feels quite inadequate.
Playing reference class tennis with myself would be a waste of time, but I can't help but to echo her feelings when it comes to the work I do in the field of effective altruism. There are so many effective altruists that have graduated from the top universities in the world, working at prestigious institutions and/or earning massive incomes. Comparing myself to these people on these terms can make me feel self-conscious.
I'd like to think that I'm intelligent. That I'm thoughtful when it comes to others. But can I really be a good judge of myself? If I am to avoid bias, I need some way of comparing myself using a proper reference class.
Recently, a friend got so upset with me for being so strongly inconsiderate that she ended up removing me as a friend on social media. If you had asked me only a day previous to this whether I could do something that would cause such a reaction from one of my friends, I would have maintained that that would be extremely unlikely. Yet it did occur, and I am at a loss to explain why.
Steelmanning her point of view, I suppose it was because I was saying something derogatory toward her while she was already down, and this was over the line because you don't kick a person when they're down. Saying it like this does make me seem like an asshole, I guess, though I still don't think that if I could redo the conversation that I would choose to act any differently. She is not doing well financially, and she was asking me for a moderately large loan to get out of what she called an emergency situation. My response was that I had given her over a dozen loans so far in the past decade of over $1k each and despite her numerous promises to repay, she had not made even the slightest attempt to repay any of it for several years. I reminded her of this as my explanation for why I could no longer loan her any money. I then gifted her a small amount, hoping that this might help her immediate emergency situation. Her response was to unfriend me, saying that I was an asshole for saying derogatory things about her while she was in a bad situation already.
Judging myself is inappropriate, because biases abound. But if I am to judge based on her perception of me…
I went on a first date with someone intelligent. During our discussion, I said something that, looking back, I really regret. I said that I felt like I wasn't very smart. What I meant was that, in the reference class of comparing myself to people I associate with in the EA movement, I am just not nearly as quick as they are. This is the wrong reference class. I know this. This is especially wrong when you're on a first date -- they don't yet know you, and they can't possibly understand the context behind such a stupid thing that you might say. Self-deprecation is not good. It's not funny; it's not helpful. I regret doing it. But I did; it just came out too easily. Thankfully, she looked past it. I guess other parts of the conversation at least made up for it.
Yet despite knowing that it isn't appropriate to say, I nevertheless still feel it. I really do. I'm not nearly as effective as I could be. I don't read nearly as much as I could. I don't give nearly as much as I'd be able to if I just worked as hard as I'm capable of. When I speak to peers about money, I can't help but to realize that they're making $200k or more each year, while at my peak I've only had a salary in the $115k range. Now, working directly for EA charities, I earn far less than that, but I consider the difference as a form of in-kind giving. But, again: this is the wrong reference class. In comparison to the world at large, I am extremely affluent. I have the luxury to be able to quit a job and spend six months before deciding what I want to do next. I know this; but what I feel is inadequacy. I went to a great college. I had absolutely top-notch philosophy teachers; I was able to read to my heart's content in the best philosophy library in the state of Alabama. But what I end up comparing myself to are peers that graduated from Ivy league institutions. It's maddening to know that this doesn't matter; that their education in terms of both breadth and depth is not dissimilar to my own, especially considering how much autodidactic extra-curricular stuff I went through. But what I know is not what I feel.
What makes it worse is that I cannot really talk about this with anyone. In the context of a conversation with a person in the same room with me, saying these things just makes me look like an ass. I mean, can you imagine? "I feel so stupid and poor and uneducated," Eric unthinkingly complains, despite being the literal opposite of all three. And so I write my feelings on my blog instead, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one I know (and no one that I don't know) reads anything I write here. It's like this is my own private journal, kept locked in a box under my bed, except I put it online with my name next to it, and no one cares because why would they? This is a safe space. I can say my true feelings here, even if those same feelings would make me look like an absolute ass if I ever said them to my actual friends in real life.