Interview: Holden Karnofsky on the importance of personal fit

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Holden Karnofsky

In January 2014, I interviewed Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell, to further discuss his views on the importance of personal fit in career choice, and how they might differ from our own. See our previous interview with Holden.

The interview was carried out on Skype and recorded. Below, we list some of the key points and excerpts from the interview. These have been edited for clarity, and were reviewed by Holden before publishing.

Summary of Holden’s key points

  • Your degree of “fit” with a role depends on your chances of ultimately excelling in the role if you work hard at it, arising from the match between yourself and the requirements of the role.
  • Holden believes that if you want to make a difference, seeking out roles with which you have a high degree of fit should be a top priority, especially early in your career. This is because:
  • Fit is easier to judge than many other factors, such as how much immediate impact you have, which means it’s easier to improve your degree of fit over time.
  • It’s harder to change your career ‘role’ than your cause later in your career. For instance, if you become a great salesperson, it’s relatively easy to transition into an organisation that works on a different cause, but much harder to become great at some other skill. This means that early in your career it’s more important to figure out what types of roles suit you than what cause to support early in your career.
  • There’s huge, robust benefits from being good at your job including (i) better career capital – “it gives you a better learning experience, better personal development, better overall status, better overall opportunities” – (ii) higher impact within your field.
  • Excelling at what you do is one of the most important rules of thumb for having more impact, partly because a lot of the world’s impact comes from extreme cases, so your chances of being an extreme case may dominate your expected impact. In particular, extreme impact often arises from innovation – spotting ideas others haven’t – and this is more likely when you’re at the top of your field.
  • Some other criteria that are important early in your career are: (i) the general status of the option (ii) the pay (iii) how much you’ll learn about yourself and your other options from taking this option.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Holden’s views on career choice for people interested in effective altruism, we recommend seeing the transcript of his conference call on career choice.


Excerpts from the interview

Ben: Your claim is that when you’re working out in which career you can have a big social impact, one of the most important criteria is ‘fit’.

Holden: Fit is a very broad term, but I would endorse that statement. People have strengths and weaknesses, interests, non-interests. There’s a whole bunch of reasons that those things should be the dominant consideration in what job to take especially in your early career.

Ben: Could you clarify exactly what you mean by fit? One interpretation is how good you think you’ll be at your job, which maybe we could clarify as your expected ability in the role. Do you see that as being the main thing?

Holden: I think that is one way of summarizing fit. I do think that fit is this whole matrix and some of it is hard to analyse and make explicit. It includes what you’re good/bad at, what you are/aren’t interested in and other rules of thumb. One of the people that I think about a lot in this context is my girlfriend because we’ve talked a lot about her career choices and she’s unusual. She’s done things in not the normal way and gotten good outcomes. One of the things we talked about was when she loved working on a political campaign. A lot of people who work on campaigns usually then go on to work on the Hill, there was this argument that just because of that, she should go and work on the Hill. That’s a fit matter, but it’s not directly about strengths/weaknesses/interests. It’s a pattern. She’s a certain type and people of that type tend to do a certain thing, but I think in this case it gave the wrong conclusion.

Ben: What’s the relationship between aiming to have good fit and the advice ‘do what you’re passionate about’?

Holden: I think that passion is a means to an end. I won’t defend passion too much because I think that if you over-emphasise passion, you are telling too many people to go into the arts (though of course some people should go into the arts). Passion is a factor; it’s something of a predictor of how good you can become at something; I wouldn’t use passion as the only predictor.

Ben: What are some of the benefits of good personal fit?

Holden: Being good at something is super important: it gives you a better learning experience, better personal development, better overall status, better overall opportunities and much better chances of having extreme impact.

I model the world as having most of the impact from extreme cases, ‘home-runs’. I think that’s true in business, science and social impact. If you have good personal fit, your chances of being that extreme case are dramatically better – you climb the ladder, you get to see and do things that other can’t, and you get to make unique contributions.

Ben: One thing we have been saying is really important in career choice is where you’ll gain the most career capital, which we break down into skills, connections and credentials. One way of seeing the importance of personal fit is if you’re really good at your job then you get better career capital.

Holden: ‘How high status is your job’ is important. In your early career, you tend to get a few job offers, and if one is more prestigious and better paying, that’s important.

Ben: The other line of argument for personal fit, was that if you’re really good at something, you have better chances of higher impact. Could you expand on this a bit?

Holden: I think really dramatically giant home-run impact usually comes from people who are the best at what they do. You want to be the best at what you do because you see things in your environment that other people in your environment can’t see and it’s impossible to say in advance how big a deal those are. For example, Norman Borlaug, for whatever reason, was really good at agricultural research, I don’t know what analysis in advance would have told us that agricultural research was the most important cause. I imagine it might have been a contender, but at that time it wasn’t probably what most people would have predicted as the most important cause. I think he made it a bigger deal than anyone thought it could be. Or consider Facebook. Social networking had been around a while, people were trying and failing. Facebook changed the world greatly. The bottom line is you can see things others don’t see and you can turn your area into something others didn’t think it could be. When you are at the top of the ladder you have more knowledge, contacts and better ability to see the world.

If you believe that social impact is coming a lot from the big home runs and you believe that they take the form of innovations, then you want to be somewhere where you see something in your environment that others don’t. Being someone in a mediocre job isn’t as good as being someone of a higher status. You want to be world class if possible.

I also think this may apply to sub-areas. Instead of being the best in the world at something major and doing something world-changing, you might be the best in your field along some particular dimension and do something that changes your field, or be the best at your company along some particular dimension and do something that changes your company.

Most of your impact is impossible to see right now. It’s unexpected, you don’t know what it’s going to be like – most of the best impacts in the world are unexpected. Being at the top of something just gives you better opportunities.

Ben: What about trying to pick the right cause? Maybe you can set yourself up in a promising, neglected, area with a better average of getting to the top.

Holden: I actually think that careers are largely not subdivided by cause. Cause is a non-natural category.

Ben: We see them as an extra variable, you choose your career role and cause, largely they’re independent, but in some cases they’re related.

Holden: I agree there are two things that relate to each other. Most of the best careers are people trying a bunch of stuff and ending up somewhere they didn’t expect. If you go out in your career trying to find something that fits you well you there’s more feedback. You have a concrete question to ask yourself: does this fit me well, i.e. could I see myself sticking with this work and becoming obsessed with it and becoming great at it? That’s something you can learn about if you target it and try and get it right. It’s hypothesis driven research. Something that I think about a lot is unknown unknowns and how you can make them work in your favour. Can you treat unknown unknowns as random variables that balance out? I don’t think you can or should. There’s certain heuristics that makes unknown unknowns work in your favour and some that work against you.

In response to your comment about causes, I think it’s important to note that the thing you get locked into in a career is not really causes. Choosing a career based on a cause doesn’t seem like a great idea to me. Early in your career you need to figure out what your skills are, what you’re going to be good at, and you can switch causes at anytime in your career. You could be a salesperson for a tobacco company and become a great salesperson, and whenever you want, you can go over to be fundraiser for a charity. The fact is that you target becoming a better salesperson rather than targeting climate change because when you’re at the peak of your role, you can target whatever you want, and also after 10 years there may be a different, more important cause to target. You’ll be taking advantage of whatever the selection of cause is at that time instead of using the state of cause selection now to make a choice that doesn’t really matter as you can switch it later.

In the first four years after college I think you should develop yourself and your network mostly. Learn about the world, see things you didn’t expect, see things that surprise you, get a better set of experiences.

Ben: Your network seems quite cause dependent. If you go and work at GiveWell, in consulting or at an art gallery, you’re going to end up with a very different network.

Holden: If you can end up doing a good job at a high status organisation you can end up getting a good network and if you don’t, you don’t. From working at GiveWell, I’ve ended up knowing people in many different industries.

Ben: One line against fit that I’m interested in is, thinking about my own case, there was a couple of options, and it seemed like I could be interested in and get good at all of them. It didn’t seem that useful to ask myself ‘which one would I be best at?’.

Holden: Don’t you feel like if you knew more about what different jobs were like day-to-day that you’d have been able to make the decision better? I think that may be where there’s the most room to improve.

Ben: Not in my case – I tried all three. I found it was difficult to gain more on that front.

One issue in organisational psychology is to what extent are predictors of success general or specific? It’s interesting that 30 years ago, people thought it would all be person specific, but predictors that have been firmly established are ones that apply pretty generally, such as IQ, conscientiousness and grit.

Holden: Probably because the general stuff is more easy to study.

Ben: That could be it. Common sense says personality stuff matters quite a lot.

Holden: I’m also thinking more about strengths and weaknesses.

Ben: What would these strengths and weaknesses be: capabilities, abilities, values, skills?

Holden: I don’t have a great definition of them. I could tell you about my strengths and weaknesses. I’m creative and intelligent and able to rock the boat and do things that can create uncomfortable situations and then not be bothered about it. But I’m not the best diplomat, I don’t have a lot of patience for being sunny and making people happy. My girlfriend is really good at getting along with people and managing people, she’s less likely to suggest a totally new crazy way of thinking about things. That would be a hard thing to study.

Ben: It seems a good line of argument is psychologists just haven’t been able to find the correlations because it’s too complicated.

Holden: In general we shouldn’t get too hyped up about what social sciences say. There are some things that are strongly proven, but very few of them.

Ben: There is a scheme of personality in careers which is the Holland type. It puts people into six types and one of them is the social type which is when someone says they like things to do with helping people. And then they try find the jobs where people score highly on this.

Holden: People are already factoring this in when they look for jobs. It’s not a controlled experiment in any way.

Ben: Suppose there are people who are quite generally able and they have a lot of options where they would be good at all of them. Do you think that when you get to that point the importance of fit can tail off quite a lot? Or do you think even then you’d try and find out a lot more about how you perform in those jobs and what they’re like.

Holden: I think the chances of having outsized impact is best if you’re a superstar, because of the influence, network and options it gives you and the ability to see things others don’t. I assume we’re talking about people with high hopes and expectations for their impact on the world. Then, you want to find something where you can think “I can just crush this”. That’s where passion comes in. I don’t think people should just say “I’m passionate about ‘X’ so I’m going to go and do it”. On the other hand, if you try three jobs and there’s one where you’re just on it, and super interested, and engaged and as a result you’re crushing it, where are your odds highest of being a rock star a few years down the line, with killer networks, killer abilities and all kinds of things that we can’t describe from this vantage point, then go for that one.

I also think people should be weighing happiness heavily in a job choice, even if I was 80,000 Hours and focussing on altruism.

Ben: Another argument against optimising around fit to consider: optimising around fit early in your career could bias you against exploration, because what you know you’re good at is stuff you’ve already done. This could you make you miss opportunities to grow in ways that might let you have a lot of impact.

You could counteract this risk by optimising around fit plus some combination of also optimizing for: (i) discovery (ii) gaining useful skills (iii) aiming towards plausibly good options.

Holden: I basically agree with that, especially (i) and (ii). I think the most important factors early on are probably things like “overall status level of the job”, “quality of contacts,” etc. as well as potential for learning. I also think my concept of “fit” is closer to “a path you can realistically see ending in superstardom, keeping in mind that superstardom probably requires a lot of persistence and hard work without burning out” than “a job you perform well at this moment.”

Ben: How do you think we can best help people learn more about their personal fit in different jobs?

Holden: When I think about the people I know who seem to have gone about their career in a good way, a couple of approaches come to mind. One is ‘I want to look for a job, let me talk to someone who has this job, let me try to understand this job before I do it and not just jump in based on a quick pattern match?.’ Generally being more open, more ready to leave a job, more ready to try something else, and more ready to consider things that you wouldn’t stereotypically consider. Related to being open is having a broad view of social impact. There is room to give people a more intelligent model of social impact but not by getting precise about the dollars and causes.