I’ve never met anyone where I’ve thought “wow, this person learned so much from consulting, and now they’re really good at analysing a problem and helping me out.”
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 third in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Other entries have asked:
- “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
- “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”, and
- “If you were 18 again, what would you do differently this time around?”
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.
Table of Contents
What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?
Having a special job
A lot of people seem to have a sense that they’re failing in some deep sense if they just have a normal job that’s stable, that pays well, and that leaves them with a good amount of mental energy at the end of the day. I think that’s actually a really good, morally commendable path. Lots of people should just do that. It puts you in a good position to figure out where you should go from there, and you’ll experience a lot more growth doing that for a couple of years compared to being a starving artist for a couple of years.
If you have the mindset that getting a normal job is a form of failure, you’ll probably find that it sucks for the first couple of weeks — jobs just aren’t actually as fun as doing whatever you want. But I think that after a while most people are able to adjust. You might think going in that you’d be miserable in a normal job, but that probably isn’t true.
Within the effective altruism community, a lot of people are stressed about their status, about being part of the club, about being one of ‘the impressive people’. I think all the 80,000 Hours priority paths are an easy way of being an upstanding member of the effective altruism community, and getting respect from others in the effective altruism community, and I worry that people opt-in to them too much.
I think the dynamic is kind of like how people in the wider world as an undergraduate, or at least this certainly used to be the case, they would all want to go into finance, and law, and accounting — because these were the safe options that you knew your mum would be proud of if you went and did this. And the path is well-charted out.
And in effective altruism, the 80,000 Hours priority paths are a bit like this. If you go into these, you know that other people in effective altruism are going to respect you, you get a lot more advice on how to succeed within those paths, you have to work things out for yourself less. And so, even though I am really pro the priority paths — I do worry that creates too much of a bias.
Perhaps there should be more people who think “I’m going to do this other thing, because I think it’s really important and I’m really excited about it and think it’s an unusual fit — even though it’s not a priority path”. It might mean that the person ends up doing really well in an area that isn’t a top priority path, rather than doing a mediocre job in a priority path role.
Why do I think this?
One reason is that I really feel this social dynamic, and it worries me.
Secondly, I’m personally worried that people think there’s a greater evidential base behind some of the priority paths than there really is.
From my perspective at least, I would be very unsurprised if it were the case that there’s no plausible pathway where the current paradigm of deep learning ends up determining the future of humanity. Even though AI might be incredibly important in general, the current paradigm might be too narrow, or too brittle. In which case, if we’ve gone really hard on placing all these AI safety researchers, it could have been a huge bet on something that didn’t pan out.
Or another case could involve synthetic biology. There could be a massive crackdown from the government, or sweeping regulation that ends up halting the progress of distributing this technology — such that now there’s not very much to do.
I’m not saying either of these are particularly likely, it’s just that the priority paths are quite sensitive to both conceptual issues — how strong the arguments are — and just what happens in the world.
And so if we’re taking people who had a strong comparative advantage in some other area, and they just go into a priority path instead — then in those worlds where the priority paths end up not seeming that good in ten years’ time, then it would have been great, perhaps, if we had people in that other area where they had the strong comparative advantage. Maybe they would have been high up in the government, even if they’re in the transport department or something, but then could switch into something really high-impact at that later point.
Socially defined success metrics. “I’ll go and get a PhD because that shows that I’m smart”, or “I’ll go into this field which has smart people in it, because if I succeed it’ll show that I’m smart”.
Status, money for luxuries.
The comfort of being able to predict where they’ll be decades from now. If you’re talented and hard-working, there’s no need to worry excessively about your long-term prospects. Maybe just try to do the best thing you can think of now, going in with the expectation that you’ll probably be doing something completely different in a few years.
Security, even if they have enough to afford to take risks.
Having an impact straight away
I think people in the effective altruism community are looking for how they’re going to have impact, in a specific way that they envision. And often on a specific time-frame. I think that’s usually a mistake for an early career person.
If you’re an early career person, the first questions you should ask yourself are: how am I going to become a person with more options? A person with more skills? A person with more self-knowledge? A person who is more ready to do something amazing — and you don’t yet know what that something is?
I think that’s a much more productive formula for career choice compared to “what is the career I can pick that will maximise my impact?” In particular, I think it’s an enormous mistake for someone who’s early career to make a decision based on where they think they’ll have the biggest impact in the first year. That might even be anti-correlated with the right choice.
The people I know who I consider to have the best, most successful careers — very often it just took them 5-20 years to get to a point where they could do much of anything useful. But then they’re able to do amazing things that no one else can do, and just have an enormous impact.
Most people that I’ve seen, including me, took at least two years to get anywhere close to their maximum potential — and their maximum potential accounted for the vast majority of their lifetime impact. And by the time somebody realises their maximum potential, they’re generally on a different track than they originally envisaged. That’s also been true of most of the best careers that I’ve seen.
Going into consulting as a way of getting career capital. Honestly, I think it makes you a worse thinker, if anything. I’ve never met anyone where I’ve thought “wow, this person learned so much from consulting, and now they’re really good at analysing a problem and helping me out.”
But I have met a number of people where I think “this person has spent a lot of time in consulting, and now they’re really focused on style over substance”. Or, they have very wishy-washy ideas, in a way that’s more optimised for pleasing a lot of people, perhaps, and not offending anyone, rather than actually making helpful, hard decisions.
I think people can overvalue career capital. I’ve seen people think they need to go into consulting or banking — and if their comparative advantage is earning to give that’s fine — but I’ve seen people do that largely because they’ve been pressured into getting “a real job”.
People come across from the private sector, but their experience isn’t at all helpful, they’re basically starting fresh.
I think for most people, basically from when they’re out of college, the best move is to go straight into direct work.
One thing I don’t think people do often enough is use law school or business school as a backup. You can go get a job in your relevant area, ideally a promising but high-risk one, and then if it doesn’t work out — you’ll look better on your law school application.
Too often people follow a conventional path, and then justify it as career capital.
In the effective altruism community, I think it’s really overrated to try and do actual AI safety research during your PhD. If you’re interested in this path, I think you should just try to get a really good ML PhD. And if you can’t do that, then you’re probably not capable of doing good AI safety research that makes the AI community look good (except maybe some heterodox/MIRI style stuff).
I’ve heard from a lot of people that if you want to do AI Safety Research it’s not a good idea to do a CS PhD that’s not focused on ML.
I think there’s a more general theme here — premature optimisation. People try to do useful things too quickly, rather than focusing on setting the foundations for doing things well in the future. But of course, there are people with the opposite problem, setting foundations forever; unfortunately, there’s really no substitute looking out for your own biases and failure modes, and trying to correct for them.
Sometimes being happy and doing the most good are not a perfect Venn diagram.
I try to think in four quadrants for major decisions. How will it affect my happiness in the long-term/short-term? And how will it affect the world in the short-term/long-term?
Taking the most well-known paths
I definitely think people feel like “in effective altruism there’s the high-impact stuff, which is working for a handful of organisations”, and something like “I’m just going to go into the government, and get a lot of experience, and just do well”, is not well-regarded.
The approach of “I’m just going to start out on a path that has no direct impact for a decade” is not regarded as high-status. And I’m worried about that creating a major bias.
We have so few people in government. Most of the time you’re doing stuff that’s not very useful for a very long time — before having the kind of prestige and connections such that you can have a massive influence.
Certainly if you were going into party politics, you’re benefiting constituents on say, the local parks, for years — to have some shot at being in cabinet or something.
It might well be that the optimal portfolio of people in effective altruism involves quite a proportion of people going into career paths that pay off one time in ten, or maybe even worse, say, one time in twenty. And if you’ve got this setup where, culturally, people feel like they need to be making a difference in order to feel like they’re rewarded — that feeling does not scale linearly with impact.
And so, what we’d expect is there to be this strong bias towards people making safe bets, where they know they’re going to have some level of influence, rather than pursuing something where nine times out of ten they’re going to achieve absolutely nothing, but one time out of a hundred they end up as President or Prime Minister or something.
If there was some way to provide a culture where people are making strategic decisions, but are also totally happy working on something that is different to what the rest of effective altruism is working on, or are working on something that maybe won’t have any impact for ten years, or maybe it only has a one in ten chance of paying off, but they like their job, and they feel respected, and rewarded by the wider effective altruism community — that would be the perfect situation.
All entries in this series
- Career advice I wish I’d been given when I was young
- 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?
Other relevant articles