Career advice I wish I’d been given when I was young

Note: A reader who prefers to remain anonymous — but whose career we think did a lot of good — passed us this list of advice which they were grateful to have received, or wish they’d been given when they were younger.

We thought it was very interesting, including where it doesn’t line up exactly with our usual views, and so are publishing it here with their permission.

The advice is targeted towards people sympathetic to the principles of effective altruism, especially those with an interest in public policy careers, but we think much of it is more broadly useful.

  1. Don’t focus too much on long-term plans. Focus on interesting projects and you’ll build a resumé that stands out — take on multiple part-time consultancies and volunteer projects in parallel to quickly build it out. Back in my 30s, most of the things on my resumé were projects that involved 10% of my time each, and about half of them didn’t pay me any money. Those projects sounded fancy and helped me to get good full-time jobs later on.

  2. Find good thinkers and cold-call the ones you most admire. Many years ago I was lucky that people like Peter Singer, Peter Unger, John Broome, and Derek Parfit were kind enough to respond to my letters. (Any readers who are famous should take the time to respond to strangers’ emails.)

    I was similarly lucky that some of the policy professionals whose work I was most impressed with replied to me when I wrote out of the blue to say that I wanted to work for them. If you have contacts in their networks who can vouch for you, that also helps.

    (Editor: See our article on the importance of meeting people.)

    In a few cases it really helped that I didn’t need to get paid, since lack of funding is a common reason for an employer to say no. So, if you’re in a position to do so, try to save money from paid projects and spend it on unpaid projects that are intrinsically valuable or that look good on your resumé. Unfortunately, this advice is much easier to follow for people who come from a privileged financial background and don’t have a lot of financial responsibilities (e.g. to family or dependents).

  3. Crowdsource your career decisions. I’ve done this for most of the last few decades, polling people I trust, and the advice seems generally good in hindsight.

  4. Be a pleasant person. People want colleagues who seem pleasant and happy and good humoured. Washington DC especially operates more on social capital than on merit, and brilliant jerks typically don’t do as well in government as they do in industry or academia. In the rationality community I know there’s a lot of emphasis on providing direct critical feedback, but if you’re planning to get things done in the policy world, practice being nice.

  5. Assign a high value to productivity over your whole lifespan. Adopt habits associated with good long-term mental and physical health, including long-term relationships, exercise, nutrition, and sleep.

    (Editor: See our compilation of evidence-backed health and self-improvement advice.)

  6. Don’t over-optimise things that aren’t your top priority. I try to avoid the time and anxiety associated with over-optimising. For most decisions I just use satisficing heuristics — is this action sufficient to meet a project’s primary goal? Unless it’s a highly consequential and irreversible decision, I don’t spend much time thinking about it.

  7. Read a lot, and read things that people around you aren’t reading. Set up Google Alerts for obscure topics that you think are important and aren’t likely to be covered by blogs. I have about 200 Google Alerts and most of them are weird enough that I get maybe one alert per month, but they’re often really useful.

  8. Avoid stuff that could cause irreversible reputational harm, or slow down a security clearance. Avoid committing crimes, avoid drugs, and avoid saying stuff online that you could regret later.

  9. Reflect seriously on what problem to prioritise solving. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about global health and animal welfare but, despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to avoid the conclusion that we should focus on reducing existential risks. Among those risks, I’m a little worried about the effective altruism community piling into work on artificial intelligence to an excessive degree. We certainly need more people working on AI, but I hope some are planning to help prevent biological accidents, nuclear war, and cyber attacks that damage critical infrastructure.

  10. Work to solve problems that aren’t popular. Popularity of a problem is evidence that it is hard to solve, competition is high, and your individual contribution is likely to be small. In contrast, neglected problems often have low-hanging solutions that no one has bothered to look for, there’s less competition to break into roles that have influence, and your individual contribution may be uniquely large. This is essentially the standard market advice to buy low and sell high.

    (Editor: See our problem selection framework which has ‘neglectedness’ as a criterion, or our article on why the world’s most pressing problems aren’t the ones that first come to mind.)

  11. Read more history. I still read a lot about technology, but at the margin I probably get more value from reading histories of institutional disasters and near-disasters, and the biographies of people who helped avoid some of those disasters. You can get a list of some of these in this footnote: 1.

  12. Avoid spending time to earn or save money. I now see time as my most valuable resource, and I’m willing to spend money to save time. I pay for ridesharing so that I can work during transit, I frequently buy meals so that I can save time spent cooking, I pay higher rent to have a shorter commute, and I don’t spend time searching for bargains.

    For several years I spent a lot of time finding creative ways to reduce my living expenses in order to be able to donate more. In hindsight, if I had assigned a value of just $20 an hour to my time, most of those efforts at cost-reduction weren’t actually cost-effective.

  13. I’m also pretty sceptical of ‘earning-to-give’ careers. That’s because it’s very unlikely that you can earn more money than you would have been able to direct in a funding organisation — there’s a lot more competition to become a billionaire than there is to become a leader or grantmaker at a foundation or important government agency.

  14. Find easy ways you can come across better. Many years ago a friend suggested that for people trying to have a big impact, there might be no more cost-effective self-improvement investment than enrolling in Toastmasters and buying a gym membership. If I were more rational I’d take this advice, and in general the effective altruism community might invest too little in superficial improvements, such as appearance and charisma.

  15. Find the biographies of people whose job you’d like to have, and figure out how they got there. You can potentially try to reverse engineer their career path.

  16. Some jobs in government may be easier to get than you imagine. I think that’s because they’re typically not as financially rewarding as corporate jobs with comparable hours. Rather than consider a life in government, I suggest trying a 3 to 5 year stint, and see what you’re able to contribute.

    (Editor: See a recent podcast episode with a great deal of concrete advice on how to do exactly this.)

  17. I think there might be an over-emphasis on ‘personal fit’ in effective altruism. I haven’t loved my jobs, and if important jobs were more pleasant, there would probably be more people doing them, and more of our problems would be solved. I’ve settled for tolerable jobs that seem important. I’ve had a lot of satisfaction from working at my jobs but they have been hard, some days were really rough, and it was a weekly toss-up on whether I had ‘personal fit.’

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Notes and references

  1. Nuclear disasters and near-disasters

    Limits of Safety by Scott Sagan

    Essence of Decision by Graham Allison & Philip Zelikow

    Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes

    Whole World on Fire by Lynn Eden

    Other institutional disasters

    Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow

    Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

    Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter

    People who tried to prevent or affect disasters

    Soviet Intentions 1965-1985

    John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More by Norman Macrae

    Brighter than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk

    Wizards of Armageddon by Fred Kaplan

    Thirteen Days by Bobby Kennedy

    Running the World by David Rothkopf

    White House Warriors by John Gans

    The Disaster Experts by Scott Knowles

    and biographies of National Security Advisors, including Brzezinski, Scowcroft, Kissinger.