Trying to give any sort of general career advice — it’s a nightmare. All of this stuff, you just kind of need to figure it out for yourself. Is this actually applying to me? Am I the sort of person who’s too eager to change jobs, or too hesitant? Am I the sort of person who works themselves too hard, or doesn’t work hard enough?
The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.
The advice is particularly targeted at people whose approach to doing good aligns with the values of the effective altruism (EA) community, but we expect much of it is more broadly useful.
This is the first in a series of posts with anonymous answers to a range of questions. You can find the complete collection here.
We’ve also released an audio version of some highlights of the series, which you can listen to here, or on the 80,000 Hours Podcast feed.
Did you just land on our site for the first time? After this you might like to read about 80,000 Hours’ key ideas.
In April 2019 we posted some anonymous career advice from someone who wasn’t able to go on the record with their opinions. It was well received, so we thought we’d try a second round, this time interviewing a larger number of people we think have had impressive careers so far.
It seems like a lot of successful people have interesting thoughts that they’d rather not share with their names attached, on sensitive and mundane topics alike, and for a variety of reasons. For example, they might be reluctant to share personal opinions if some readers would interpret them as “officially” representing their organizations.
As a result we think it’s valuable to provide a platform for people to share their ideas without attribution.
The other main goal is to showcase a diversity of opinions on these topics. This collection includes advice that members of the 80,000 Hours team disagree with (sometimes very strongly). But we think our readers need to keep in mind that reasonable people can disagree on many of these difficult questions.
We chose these interviewees because we admire their work. Many (but not all) share our views on the importance of the long-term future, and some work on problems we think are particularly important.
This advice was given during spoken interviews, usually without preparation, and transcribed by us. We have sometimes altered the tone or specific word choice of the original answers, and then checked that with the original speaker.
As always, we don’t think you should ever put much weight on any single piece of advice. The views of 80,000 Hours, and of our interviewees, will often turn out to be mistaken.
Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?
Be an entertaining interviewee
The best interviewees come in almost like entertainers. They realise that the people interviewing them are bored, they come in with ideas and anecdotes specific to the organisation, and tell them in an entertaining way. That will make you stand out. It might not be the best way to choose an employee, but I think it happens a lot. People want to work with other interesting people.
Don’t constantly criticise others working on your cause
There’s an enormous amount of wasted time on infighting between groups working on the same cause. It’s a dereliction of duty to avoid pointing out significant flaws in other groups, but when it’s clear that a group isn’t going to change their tactics — a constant focus of criticism seems unlikely to be worth the time and energy spent. There’s a lot of proselytising that comes out of people’s need to feel morally superior, as opposed to careful thinking about what will bring about the best outcome.
Don’t follow general advice blindly
The issue with career advice in general, and it’s such an issue for 80,000 Hours, is how insanely context-relative it is. Not just from person to person, but even within a person’s life.
Take a question like “how much holiday should I take?” — well, at some times in my life, I’ve worked incredibly hard and not taken any vacation, and that was exactly the right thing to do. And then at a different point in my life, I took three weeks of vacation, and that was exactly the right thing to do.
So, what were the differences there? Well, for the first case, I wasn’t burned out at that point, and it was a particularly crucial time I think, where it wasn’t clear how long I’d need to work for in this mode, and also it’s just not the case that other people would have filled in this gap.
But then when I started taking more time off, that period allowed me to appreciate that I was quite burned out, and that I needed to change how I was structuring my life. It also gave me the chance to make other major life decisions that I would have made poorly if I were continuing in the “working too much phase” — where your decision-making ability can be impaired.
And so then that’s just within one life. But maybe there are some people that just don’t need to take any holidays. Maybe there are other people that need to take a lot more time off. It can be the case, for physical or mental health reasons, that you just physically cannot work a certain amount. But then for other people that’s not an issue at all.
For a question like “should I leave my job?” — well, some people are too hasty in leaving their job, but some people stick around way longer than they should have.
“Do you defer to the advice of others more, or less?” — some people just don’t defer enough, but some defer way too much.
So, trying to give any sort of general career advice — it’s a fucking nightmare. All of this stuff, you just kind of need to figure it out for yourself. Is this actually applying to me? Am I the sort of person who’s too eager to change jobs, or too hesitant? Am I the sort of person who works themselves too hard, or doesn’t work hard enough?
Following general advice without taking these factors into account is kind of just impossible.
Solve low-level health problems in college
When you’re in college, you should take the time and energy to try and sort out any chronic low-level health problems. Your time is less valuable then, and you might have access to good medical care through your university.
It might be possible to put a lot of work into making sure you can hit the ground running once you graduate, instead of thinking “oh these things aren’t huge problems, I’ll just let them eat away at me a little bit all the time”. You’ll then have to spend time later on, when your time is more valuable, probably with worse insurance — and in the US especially it can be a mess.
Don’t listen too much to anyone’s advice
I think the biggest mistake in careers is listening too much to one person’s advice. I think so much of a career is finding what you can do incredibly well, and because it’s so hard, because it takes so much concentration and focus, so much of that has to do with finding what you can do well.
Enjoyment comes into it, passion comes into it, the fit between you and the task comes into it. And you just have to be there, and try things, and see how they go, and listen to yourself. And if you’re putting too much weight on someone else’s advice it’s bad for that reason.
I think people should listen to advice, they should consider it, but they should really put themselves in career situations where they’re trying something, and they’re thinking about how it’s feeling to them, and they’re thinking about how much they’re growing as a person — and that’s just hard to assess in a general sense.
I think people early in their careers should really look at: how much are they growing? How much are they learning? Are they growing in ways they want to be growing and learning things they want to be learning? Can they see themselves as a person who’s obsessed with the things they’re on track to work on? Are they surrounded by people who make them better, who challenge them to be better, who give them mentorship? Are they gaining new opportunities? Are they moving up in the world?
I think when you imagine a good resume, a lot of people imagine recognisable companies. And I don’t think that’s as important as having impressive skills, as having people who will vouch for your impressive skills, as having a strong network.
Those are all things I think people should be trying to optimise for early in their career, and those are just really hard to give general advice on.
To a first approximation, I think the best early career thing to do is just take the job that is the most impressive job available to you.
By an impressive job, I mean: you have a lot of responsibility, and if someone really understood what you did, and how you did it — they would be impressed. I don’t mean to talk about superficially impressive, like random people who hear your job instantly are impressed, I mean more how sharp people react when they understand what you do. It’s distinct from having a resume that looks good, because it’s not about the name of the company.
It’s often the job that would pay the most if there were less complexity about who’s internalising the value created. Obviously, making a million dollars a year is generally an impressive job, but being a tenured professor is pretty comparable to that I’d say.
I don’t think this idea of impressiveness is the only thing people should consider, but I think it’s a better first approximation than ‘take the job that has the most impact’.
And then I also think people should care a lot about being on track to work on a good cause. I think putting heavy weight on both of those is good.
I would sound much more like a conventional person in the effective altruism community if I were giving later career advice. The goal of your early career is getting yourself to the point where you’ve really developed an impressive set of skills and network and self-knowledge. And once you have those, you can use your common sense to make sure you’re not doing anything that’s way outside your wheelhouse — but other than that, if you just optimise for doing what seems to be the best thing you’re probably going to be in a good place. And you should be willing to make big sacrifices, and do things that aren’t your favourite thing at that point — but that’s once you’ve built a really good self-model, and really impressive skills.
If you’re not good at office politics, steer clear of it
Some people have exceptional office social skills — they’re great at convincing others of their views, leading projects, and getting recognition. And I think career advice should be pretty different for them, compared to people who aren’t like that at all.
Sometimes I see advice that seems to assume that this is a skill that anyone can and should pick up, and I think it’d be fantastic if more advice just explicitly acknowledged: “this will only work if you’re good at office politics”. Or something that says “even if you’re terrible at office politics, this could be a great role for you”.
I mostly don’t think that you can just pick up office social skills. Some people just start their careers with a huge advantage in trying to navigate that world, while others are miserable in environments where they have to do it. It’s sometimes possible to improve these skills over time, but if you’re part of this second group — forcing yourself to deal with office politics is probably a mistake.
Many personal decisions people hassle you about don’t matter
If you care about having a big impact, you’ll have to do a lot of things that will naturally make you look lazy or dumb to other people.
If you work in a top private company, people will expect you to work really long hours — but the hours you work don’t really matter. If you work for an animal welfare nonprofit, people will expect you to be a vegan — but your diet doesn’t really matter.
Ignore these smaller personal decisions — and focus on the key area where you could make the biggest difference, and then work out the key decisions you’ll have to make within that area to maximise your impact.
At the end of your career, the number of hours you worked isn’t going to be the determining factor in your having had an enormous impact. It’ll be the result of these key decisions.
If you need a PhD, get through it ASAP
PhDs take up so much time, and for a lot of career paths are a helpful credential but not very useful on the object level. If you’re in the US and thinking that “I should go into government for X, Y, Z reasons. One of the credentials that matters is a PhD”. Well, just optimise for getting through your PhD quickly and well enough. One way to do this is to do your PhD in the UK instead of the US, because PhDs are much shorter there. If you’re not going to be an academic, it doesn’t seem like the difference matters much — if you can afford it financially, you’re basically getting three of the most valuable years of your life for your career back.
Develop specific skills and think about specialising early
I really regret not having specialised earlier. I look at examples of people around me who did specialise from a young age and that made their lives a lot easier. There is one guy in particular — I don’t know when he started exactly, whether it was in primary or secondary school, but he developed some really impressive skills and made a name for himself before he got to undergrad, continued during undergrad, and I don’t know whether it’s right to say he’s been resting on his laurels ever since, as I’m sure he puts in a lot of work, but he kind of had it relatively easy from that point on.
Not just because people were impressed and gave him good opportunities, but also because something that would normally be really, really hard is much easier for him because he has had so much practice. So for him it is not so painful to set aside distractions and work — being productive is an ingrained habit for him just like brushing his teeth. That must be nice.
I didn’t have that much structure growing up, and I wish the attitude of doing whatever I wanted at the time stopped a little earlier than it did. I was thinking about which problems I thought were important, and that’s somewhat useful — but it would have been far more useful to develop hard, concrete skills at an earlier age. At the end of the day, very few people are interested in your niche opinions. They’re interested in what you can actually bring to the table.
I’ve seen people looking for jobs with the approach “I want to write blog posts all day, I want to tell the world my thoughts!”, and I think “well, unless you’re really famous, no one’s going to pay you for your thoughts. You’ve got to bring something valuable to the table.”
You want things that do stretch you, but they need to be things that stretch you in productive ways.
You usually need to be obsessed to change the world
I have this idea that I put a lot of weight on, probably more than other EAs. It’s this idea that, if you’re looking for serious impact in domain X, or on task X, that’s basically almost always going to come from a person who is obsessed with X, has spent a lot of time on X relative to other people — basically never under 1,000 hours, and often it takes more for a more crowded X. That is almost always where the impact on X is going to come from.
The reason for that is anytime you’re having an impact on the world you’re going to have to deal with a large number of little things. You need to be smart and adaptive, but you also just need a lot of time, and a lot of focus to push through all the things that are going to stand between you and impact.
And so if you want the world to change, if you want to have an impact on X, you either need to become that person — or recruit, develop, or manage that person. Other things are unlikely to work.
I generally expect that not much will come out of casual interventions. I’m rarely excited about projects that start out with people thinking “we’ll do this little project, and this project will have an impact”. Even if the people working on something are incredibly brilliant, if it doesn’t have their real focus, and if they’re not putting a massive amount of time into it, I just don’t expect much.
This worldview has a whole bunch of implications. It generally does stand a little bit in tension to how effective altruists tend to think, where EAs tend to think about things at the level of projects and ideas. So they think, “well, if someone would carry out this set of activities, then that seems like it’d be really good.” I think that’s often true in a sense, but a lot of times the biggest bottleneck to something good happening is finding the right person to work on this in a really focused energetic way such that they can deal with all the unexpected complications that come up along the way. Is there someone who’s obsessed with this? If the answer is no, it’s just not going to happen.
Think about building a safety net
It’s incredibly stressful and high-risk to start your own organisation. But if that’s what you want to do, you should think about doing something to build up a safety net first even if you don’t like it so much.
If you get that job to pay the bills, it’s possible to focus much of your energy on what you think is important. I somewhat neglected my day-job in order to build skills and experience working on something that was important, and I didn’t feel too guilty about it.
Focus in on those scenarios where you really do have a lot of impact
I think there are lots of ways to mislead oneself into working on really indirect, incremental, meta-ey projects that are vaguely related to the problem you’re concerned with, but for which it’s hard to see your work really making the difference. But I think people should make these decisions conditioning on worlds where they do the most good. So instead of just thinking “what might I be good at?” or “does this project seem interesting and related to a problem I think is important?”, think “imagine I save the world. Imagine that my work directly helps fix the whole problem. What’s the story there where I really make this difference?” If the story doesn’t feel plausible, maybe that’s a red flag that your work doesn’t have a good theory of change or you haven’t kept your eyes on the prize.
If you’re early-career, this likely means developing skills where you’re already unusually skilled, or doing things you’re unusually excited about — as long as they’re broadly the kinds of things that could be helpful in this scenario where you have a world-saving impact. You’re more likely to have a comparative advantage at something you’re good at and enjoy, but it’s not the only consideration. Don’t lose sight of fixing the damn problem.
But also, I think lots of broadly useful skills can be honed for helping a lot with important projects. If you think a major skill of yours is writing things in a compelling way — that’s not a career in itself. But it is a broadly useful skill, so it’s likely worth developing it.
Basically, a lot of the most impressive people I know combine great ambition with great patience. They have the stamina to spend a lot of time getting the skills and experience needed to do hard, important things, but they don’t let themselves get distracted during that long journey.
Gain the trust of the right people
Gain the trust of people who have a lot of influence. One big benefit of working with such people is that you can learn a lot; another is that if you do good work, they come to respect and trust you — and that can be crucial in getting the best jobs.
Be wary of slow feedback loops
I think people should be really careful about careers with delayed feedback loops. One of the best things you could be doing in your career is to be trying something, seeing how it feels, reacting to that, learning, adjusting.
If you want to be a mathematician, grad school is probably a good way to learn what it’s like to be a mathematician. But if you’re in law school, or business school — you’re really just waiting. It’s two or three years, and you could have spent that entire time trying stuff, learning, adjusting, levelling up — instead you’re just spending that time waiting. That just seems like a big loss.
So if you’re not sure you need that degree, if you’re not pretty damn confident, I think that’s a place to be extremely careful. And I’m just generally down on people going into law school and business school, by default, unless you’re sure that’s what you need to do.
I’m also wary of traditional careers that everyone thinks they should go into. Those are competitive. I think it’s better to go into careers where you think there’s high demand and low supply for what you have to offer. I think the worst offenders here for me are things like: law, medicine, film, and to a lesser degree academia. I’m wary of careers where everyone wants to go into them.
Be strategic in your career decisions
I think most people should be much more strategic in their career decisions, deliberately thinking about their values and how to maximise their impact, and questioning whether common or default paths make any sense for their values and skillsets. This doesn’t just apply to things they might be good at, or things they enjoy.
When people are thinking about how to approach their undergrad, they often have a scattered approach. They think “Oh, I’ll do some extracurriculars, I’ll try to get good grades, I’ll try to have fun”.
But instead, people who want to maximise their altruistic impact should be more systematically asking questions like:
“Do I think I might want to go into this particular technical subject, and might be a good fit for it?” If so, focus on getting more clarity on whether you want this, and if you do, getting a really firm grounding in that technical subject.
“Do I want to be a shiny, impressive looking person?” If so, take easy classes where you can get excellent grades. Get the prizes for getting those grades. Show that you have stamina and can work the system (if it’s true; if it’s not, that probably isn’t the path for you)
But don’t have vague goals where you want kind of good grades, you want to focus a bit on research etc. If you want to specialise in a subject — specialise well.
Flatter people the right way
If you’re interested in working with someone, study what they’ve done — and be very strategic and specific in your flattery. Tell them you really liked a specific section from their academic paper, or one particular line from an interview. Humans like to be flattered, and you might as well do it properly.
Meeting people in person is incredibly valuable. If you corner people you admire at conferences, flatter them and ask them questions about themselves — then eventually, they’ll ask you what you do.
If you have financial security, have some courage
If you’re thinking about quitting your job to do something that directly benefits the world, and you are lucky enough to have the (financial) security of friends and / or family who will support you — just find the courage to do it.
Think about going to a startup
I think places like DeepMind, OpenAI, CSET, Open Phil, and GiveWell are great places to go early in your career, because you get a lot of context on AI, or effective altruism, and they’re very good career capital building places.
But I think that for someone really early career, almost my next choice a lot of times is just going to any startup. Or any very small company that’s still credible — not a small company that no one cares about — but a company that has some combination of buzz, impressive people, someone really betting on them, has raised money, usually for-profit is better than non-profit all else equal. So that’s kind of my second choice.
And then my next choice would be anywhere where you think you’ll have a weirdly large amount of responsibility and advancement within two years. Where if someone heard what you were doing they’d think “what?! At your age?! With your resume?! You?!”
I think if you have the opportunity like that, or you have the opportunity to be employee #10 at a startup that’s actually looking good, that you actually think is going places — I would take that over most of the things that EAs say to do.
This does depend on who you are. If you’re pretty sure that you’re an academic researcher, and you want to be an AI researcher, go for it. But if you don’t really know what you’re doing — these are good places to learn a lot of stuff, and level-up, and have more options.
And then I think, a lot of more generic stuff — hedge funds, consulting, going to work for Google or Facebook — are pretty decent things to do as well to just pick up general life skills and get options.
Quantitative degrees are often better
If you can, I think that doing a quantitative degree is often better than doing a non-quantitative degree. In general, it’s harder to acquire quantitative skills later or on your own, and they’re valued highly and leave a lot of options in adjacent fields open. So if someone were interested in doing philosophy or math, say, I’d probably encourage them to pursue math at least at the undergraduate level since it’s easier to switch from quantitative fields to non-quantitative fields than vice versa.
Also, PhDs in the US take a really long time — around 6 years — and if the field you’re most interested in is fast moving then you should really think about the value of your time before setting out on that path. If you are going to do a PhD, do it in a top university in your field or in your area of specialisation. The jobs you’ll be trying to get afterwards are competitive, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the rankings of the departments/programs in your field.
When you’re great at your job, no one’s advice is that useful
I think in general if you want to accomplish something, or you want to be good at something, or you want something to happen — you want to throw yourself into it, and get really deep into it. Focus on it. Obsess over it. If you don’t, you probably won’t get the result you want. And if you do — you’re going to find that advice from other people often isn’t that useful. By “advice” here I mean talking to people who aren’t paying much attention to what you’re doing and don’t know you very well and are just reacting to your description of the situation and your questions. And I’m assuming this isn’t a case where you’re asking the world’s expert on X to answer a narrowly defined question that they’re clearly the best person to answer because it’s 100% about X.
I think EAs tend to ask for a lot of advice, as defined above. And they should, I think asking for advice is good. But I think it’s good to understand what that advice is and isn’t. And usually when you’re doing your job really well, no one’s advice is going to be that useful. They’re never going to know what you should do. They’re never going to know as much as you do, and if they do, you’re not doing it right.
They might give you ideas, they might give you new facts that you weren’t aware of, and they might give you information about what’s going to make who angry etc.
But in general, no matter how great a person is, if you follow their advice just because they said it — that’s a warning sign. It’s better if you’re asking advice on something where you’re deep enough in such that you’re really the ultimate expert on it. And that applies to careers too.
Your GPA isn’t the most important thing
In school, focus primarily on major projects and achievements — even if that’s at the cost of your grades in non-essential areas. There are many things more important than GPA.
When I hire people, I still look at education and job titles/previous work — but my main questions are “what kind of complicated projects have they worked on?”, and “what kind of problems have they helped to solve?”.
Whether it’s volunteer or paid work, I think taking on a big project is far more valuable than getting a line on your resume.
Know the relevant senior people
Unfortunately, a lot of things do depend on who you know. Be aware of who the relevant senior people are in any area — their support can be the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful project.
Always make sure that you’re adding value to whatever it is the senior people want to do — pay attention to other people’s interests. There are so many demands on people in positions of influence, they can’t help but look to see which things add value. They have to prioritise in some way, so you need to find a way to show that your goals align.
You’ll likely be told to stop doing what you’re doing
If you’re focusing on an unusual cause area — it’s possible that a lot of people, even those closest to you, will tell you to stop doing what you’re doing. That can be incredibly difficult, and it’ll take a strong motivation to continue.
Consider effective volunteering
I think there are effective volunteering opportunities out there. And I also think that many smaller EA organisations are funding constrained. When comparing two conventional jobs, it is important to think about donating potential, but also how many hours a week you would have to work. If you have to work many hours a week, you would have less opportunity to volunteer.
Another consideration is that some of the hours in a conventional job could be considered effective. For instance, a faculty position could give some opportunity to do effective research. And some jobs have downtime so one could do effective volunteering or actually make more money through freelance work.
Just focus on doing really well at your job
Although you should have periods where you should reflect on the big picture, you should spend most of your time just focusing on doing really well at your job.
Be irrationally optimistic
Have delusional optimism. The correct estimate for your chances of success on your chosen career path might only be 2%, but if you can convince yourself you’ll succeed — it might rise to 5 or 6%.
If you’re reaching out to someone asking for a role, don’t use a boilerplate cover letter. Write something very specific to that person.
Read far outside your field.
Be strategic with your schedule. Take 15 mins a day where you turn everything off and you just brainstorm ideas.
Being proactive rather than reactive in meetings is really valuable — have good ideas ready.
Is academia really right for you?
In the case of academia — really consider whether it’s the right fit for you. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through, and although it has the potential to be a socially useful career — that definitely isn’t a guarantee.
A career is such a personal thing
I think it’s really hard to generalise career advice, and I think, in general, everyone in the world puts too much weight on career advice. On average. I think this is true for effective altruists and non-effective altruists.
I think a career is just such a personal thing, and it’s very hard to say anything that I would feel safe with someone putting a heavy amount of weight on the exact words I said.
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All entries in this series
- What’s good career advice you wouldn’t want to have your name on?
- How have you seen talented people fail in their work?
- What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?
- If you were at the start of your career again, what would you do differently this time?
- If you’re a talented young person how risk averse should you be?
- Among people trying to improve the world, what are the bad habits you see most often?
- What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?
- What’s one way to be successful you don’t think people talk about enough?
- How honest & candid should high-profile people really be?
- What’s some underrated general life advice?
- Should the effective altruism community grow faster or slower? And should it be broader, or narrower?
- What are the biggest flaws of 80,000 Hours?
- What are the biggest flaws of the effective altruism community?
- How should the effective altruism community think about diversity?
- Are there any myths that you feel obligated to support publicly? And five other questions.