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Navigating Value Drift as a High-Income Professional with Steven Rouk

'If you do get a job with a decent salary, don’t upgrade your lifestyle to the point where you become trapped by your job.... Keep your eye on the prize, i.e. your values and life goals: what do you actually want to do with your life? How do you want to make an impact? Never forget that. If consulting helps you get there, then do it. If not, don’t.

Steven Rouk’s dedication and passion are contagious. After realizing the sheer scale and relative neglectedness of animal suffering, he left his first consulting job to work for Mercy for Animals and later went on to found Connect For Animals, aimed at building movement infrastructure for pro-animal people. In this interview, Steven candidly shares the challenges he has faced in founding and managing his charity (what he describes as ‘a beautiful, painful process’), the importance of spaces for value-aligned consultants, and much more. 

Hi Steven, thanks so much for being willing to share your story with us! To start, could you tell us about your organization, Connect For Animals, mission and theory of change?

Our mission is to find, connect, and empower everyone who wants to help end factory farming globally. To do that, we’re building a digital platform where people can find events, advocacy opportunities, and ways to connect with others who care about this issue. We think that the intensive farming of animals for food is one of the greatest causes of unnecessary suffering globally. When I analyzed the bottlenecks in accelerating progress towards ending factory farming, a major gap that I found was a lack of movement infrastructure to help pro-animal people find relevant ways to get involved. It seems plausible, from the research I’ve conducted, that the majority of people who care about farmed animal suffering aren’t as connected and supported as they would like to be. This dynamic may lead people to burnout or to drift away from the issue. By building this movement infrastructure, we aim to retain more of our people power, which will have indirect positive effects on many aspects of the movement ecosystem and accelerate progress on improving our ultimate metric: animal well-being and suffering.

Sounds like a really important mission! What are your personal goals as the founder of Connect For Animals and what does your day-to-day look like?

As the founder, it’s my job to make sure that we advance our mission every single day. This is a difficult role, because the tasks that need to be accomplished change drastically from week to week. Some weeks, this means devoting all of my time and energy to improving our digital platform. Some weeks, this means fundraising so that we have enough money to continue operating for the next year. Some weeks, it’s marketing; others, it’s team culture, or legal paperwork, or accounting. High-level, all of my work falls into one of four buckets: product, marketing, fundraising, and operations. Right now, as a small team with an extremely limited budget, I’m responsible for the lion share of these domains; but I do try to delegate and outsource as much as possible in order to focus my time on the activities that really need me to do them. My executive assistant and team of volunteers make this possible, and I’m extremely thankful for them!

What prompted you to work on Animal Welfare specifically?

Growing up, I knew that I wanted to do something that positively impacted the world, but I wasn’t sure where exactly I should invest my time and energy. I’ve always been a philosophically-minded person, but I had never really thought about the inner lives of non-humans, other than maybe the dogs I lived with growing up. Once I learned about the suffering involved in animal farming, I came to believe that we should be considering the interests of other animals. Animal welfare suddenly rocketed to the top of my list for where I should spend my time to have an outsized impact. The scale of animal suffering is just unbelievable—globally, it only takes us about 2 days to kill as many animals as the entire human population of the United States—and there is very little attention paid to animal experiences and well-being that atrocities are commonplace. 

We as humans can advocate for our own needs using the same languages and political systems as all other humans; but non-human animals on farms and in our homes are essentially at our mercy to interpret and fulfill their needs, since we are increasingly the most powerful species on the planet. And unfortunately, we usually pay zero attention to non-human animal needs, unless they serve our purposes. 

I think that someone who devotes their time and energy to working on animal issues or donating to animal issues can have an enormous impact, due to the immense scale of the harm being done and the almost complete neglect of this issue globally. I mean, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of land animals killed per day, and that doesn’t even include fish (where the numbers are even greater). It’s impossible to wrap your mind around.

That’s a really compelling set of reasons to take action! Prior to founding Connect For Animals, you were a business consultant. Looking back, did you have any misconceptions about transitioning from consulting to becoming the founder of a high-impact non-profit?

In some ways, I underestimated how challenging starting an organization would be. I knew it would be very difficult; but it’s difficult in ways I didn’t even imagine, and knowing that success and failure ultimately come down to me creates an extra level of pressure that can compound week after week, especially during the hard times. There have been several really hard weeks—weeks where I felt like everything was failing and like I was a total failure. Working through those weeks was difficult, but also taught me a lot. I’ve come to realize that there’s a large chasm between book knowledge and real-life application. I had learned a huge amount about farmed animal welfare (I’m generally a very book-smart person) but once you start creating something, you realize that executing successfully requires a completely different set of skills than raw learning and preparation. There are so many things in life you only learn through doing- it’s a beautiful, painful process!

We’d love to hear about your first exposure to Effective Altruism (EA) and how your engagement with the community and ideas have evolved over time. 

In general, I’m attracted to the idea of doing as much good as possible. My life goal has been to identify what it means to live a good life, and then pursue that as relentlessly as possible.

I first learned about EA sometime in 2016 or 2017 through my involvement with animal advocacy. I worked at Mercy For Animals for a couple of years as a data analyst and researcher, and my department intersected with EA quite a bit. As someone who had studied math and philosophy, the general idea of EA made immediate sense to me: we should think critically about our altruism, just like we would (ideally) think critically about business or any other domain of life. In many ways, the tools of EA aren’t new at all: critical thinking, research, data analysis, rationality, and such. But I do think EA provides a space where it’s the norm to apply these tools to impact, donations, and animal welfare, and fosters a community of quantitative and research-minded folks who use their skills for improving wellbeing. 

I’m rather convinced that some kind of wellbeing optimization probably makes the most sense, although the flavor of “optimization” you choose makes a huge difference. I think regardless of how we choose to optimize wellbeing, getting humans to treat other animals better seems like one of the most impactful things we can do. As you can probably tell, I’m very focused these days on ending factory farming and promoting anti-speciesist values throughout society, so my involvement with EA is usually to help further those goals. I enjoy and find value in learning about other priority cause areas too, as well as sharpening my own mental toolkit, and I’m thankful that there are people devoting their lives to other priority cause areas. I appreciate that EA provides spaces where people think about the question of how to do a lot of good in the world.

Your journey is quite unique since you spent several years working in consulting in between Mercy for Animals and Connect For Animals. When you joined Slalom Consulting, what were you hoping to get out of your time there?

I was looking for a job that utilized my technical skills that also provided me with an opportunity to learn more about how the business world works. Slalom seemed like a company that truly cares about its people (which proved to be true on the inside as well), and there were many talented people who I was excited to work with and learn from. Since I was just coming out of two years at an animal advocacy nonprofit organization (Mercy For Animals), I wanted some time to reflect on that experience and think through how I wanted to make an impact going forward. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to be involved in animal advocacy, but I knew that I wanted to invest my time and energy strategically. After two years, I felt ready to leave Slalom to found Connect For Animals because of the large impact potential I see here. 

In what ways did your time in consulting meet your expectations and in what ways did it differ? 

As someone who mostly brought technical expertise to my projects, the business aspects of consulting were much more of the unknown to me when I first joined Slalom. I didn’t realize how intense the sales processes were, or how difficult it could be to match consultants to projects. The whole staffing environment was very fluid and dynamic, and there were many weeks that I didn’t envy the people who were in charge of doing all of the match-matching, pitching, solutioning, etc. 

I was also surprised and impressed by the versatility of consultants, who were often expected to dive headfirst into new technologies and start using those technologies to solve real world problems in a very short amount of time. But in many ways, consulting reinforced what I already knew: you need to be good at what you do and you need to be good at communicating with different kinds of people.

What do you think is most valuable about having a global network of EA-aligned current and former consultants?

I think of consultants as being highly talented and motivated people who have the capacity to have a serious impact on the world if they put their minds to it. By having an EA-aligned space for these folks, consultants have greater incentives to discuss issues about suffering and wellbeing and use their time and energy towards making the world a better place. In general, I think it’s hugely positive to create these kinds of spaces where people can keep their time and energy focused on important problems. Plus, consultants often make decent money, and an EA-aligned consulting network can help people invest more of that money into building a better future (through donations, etc.). And maybe some consultants will meet future collaborators for projects that can have a large positive impact.

How do you think consultants' skill sets can best be leveraged for solving the world's most pressing problems?

Being a consultant often requires you to think strategically about difficult problems, make various tradeoffs, and pull together teams and resources to make things happen. These are the same skills required to execute just about any project in life, including within EA cause area projects focused on improving wellbeing. There usually isn’t a clear path to success; you just need someone willing to dive in and try to make it happen. That’s what consultants are really good at. Plus, consultants sometimes have connections to resources and influential people, and they can use those connections strategically for impactful work.

What advice would you give to those with a passion for EA who are considering working in consulting?

Regardless of the career path you’re thinking about, always consider all of your options and your decision criteria. What are you hoping to get out of your time there? What is the longer trajectory you’re considering? If you do go into consulting, can you position yourself to learn the most transferable skills, and make valuable connections for future work as well? Are you planning on earning to give, or just developing skills and connections to do impact-oriented work in the future? 

Also, if you do get a job with a decent salary, don’t upgrade your lifestyle to the point where you become trapped by your job. I’ve seen that happen to some people, where they get stuck in jobs that pay well because they’ve increased their spending to a point where they feel like they can’t leave. This is a huge mistake, because those people now have decreased freedom to work on important things. Keep your eye on the prize, i.e. your values and life goals: what do you actually want to do with your life? How do you want to make an impact? Never forget that. If consulting helps you get there, then do it. If not, don’t.

What advice would you give to consultants who may be thinking of exiting to an EA-aligned organization or role?

If you have the skills to help in an EA-aligned role and the ability to make the jump, then do it. It’s probably much easier to get a job as a consultant again than it is to get into a right-fit EA-aligned role, so you can always go back to being a consultant if things don’t work out with the EA role. In my experience, impact-aligned jobs are much rarer and more competitive than consultant jobs. But also be realistic about the tradeoffs: your salary will likely be smaller; you may lose access to some business connections; in some cases, your technical and business skills may not develop as quickly due to the lack of business pressures. The truth is that we need more talented, motivated people devoting their minds and energy to solving the biggest world problems. That’s the route that I’ve chosen to take, and I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else (for the time being, at least). In many cases, be prepared to make some sacrifices- I think it’s worth it!

Love that advice! Any final words of wisdom for us, Steven?

Building a better future is really, really hard when it comes to the biggest problems. I’d encourage you to actively and continuously learn, experiment, and try new things. Seek to integrate your knowledge holistically, searching for a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the world. Continue exploring how you can have a large impact, and how to have the right impact.

The pressures of society will push you in the direction of the status quo, so it’s important to counter those forces with positive pressures: surround yourself with people who also care about impact; read books about impact; and do things to deepen your commitment! Find ways to stay committed to having an impact, year after year after year. If you don’t, you will likely start doing what everyone else around you does (whatever that happens to be). 

It really matters where you invest your time and energy in your life, so take it very seriously. And at the end of the day, I hope you feel profoundly satisfied with devoting yourself to making the world a better place.


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