I would know that I don’t want to go into academia, or be a technical person… So I would abandon that, and instead take easy classes and get really good grades, and learn about the things that seemed most interesting and important to me.
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 fourth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Previous entries 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
- “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”
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
- 1 1. What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made in your career so far?
- 2 2. Imagine you’re 18 and starting your career over again — what’s your plan?
- 3 3. What’s the most important thing you’ve changed your mind about over the last few years?
- 4 4. What’s the most important decision you think you’ve made in your career so far?
- 5 Enjoy this?
- 6 Learn more
1. What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made in your career so far?
Most of my biggest mistakes in my life have been hiring, and most of my biggest wins in my life have been hiring.
I think for many people, once they get to the top of their career, that’s where the big stakes are. It’s very hard to unwind a hiring decision. When you get it right, it’s so good — and when you get it wrong, it’s so bad.
Sometimes it’s about who you hire, and sometimes it’s about the timing of hiring.
I’ve made mistakes in the past by hiring people for roles that weren’t well defined enough yet, that we didn’t have a good enough sense of yet to really know who was going to fit it, and how to tell if someone was going to fit it. I think that led to suboptimal hiring, and suboptimal hiring is just about the worst mistake you can make.
I really try to approach almost everything in life as a series of little decisions, instead of one big decision that I’m making. Most things in life I try to set up so that I can change my mind at any time, but hiring just isn’t that — so you just have to get it right. And I often don’t.
I’ve hired people when there have been warning signs. People who were smart, hard-working, mission aligned, but where others told me “don’t hire that person.” A bad hiring decision can be incredibly costly; one unhappy, disgruntled person can poison an organisation.
Not paying for tutoring
I think it was a mistake to not pay for tutoring. In college I was really frugal, and just didn’t value my time enough. If you want to do a PhD, getting tutoring might be the difference between getting into a good programme and a great programme, and that has a real impact in terms of getting the best jobs down the road. In my case, it’s possible that tutoring could have saved me years of time in terms of eventually getting my current role — and if I knew that then, obviously it would have been worth the money.
It’s a little bit different from the standard advice that you have to value your time; there are some particularly high-stakes moments in your life where it’s definitely worth spending the money.
Doing a PhD in the US
I think doing a PhD in the US was probably questionable, compared to the UK. It has some benefits, but it took a long time. US PhDs are heavily designed for teaching — but If you’re not thinking about going into US academia, I don’t think it makes much sense.
Choosing the wrong university
An Ivy League PhD would have made it easier to get a professor’s job sooner.
Missing an opportunity
Not co-authoring with an advisor one time that I had the chance. Damn!
Thinking too narrowly about what I could do
I think I started off with too narrow a conception of what I was good at and assumed I should do something that fit those skills, rather than thinking broadly about what I could do.
Getting advice from the wrong people
Not getting advice from the right people about something I was working on. I should have reached out to more people. The people around me were not experts, so I should not have trusted their judgment. It would have taken a lot of effort to find the right people, but it also would have made a big difference.
2. Imagine you’re 18 and starting your career over again — what’s your plan?
To graduate quickly
I would know that I don’t want to go into academia, or be a technical person (which I think I could have figured out early in college, if I’d thought about it carefully and had memes around me about strategic career choice). So I would abandon that, and instead take easy classes and get really good grades, and learn about the things that seemed most interesting and important to me.
And I would focus a lot on running an effective altruism (EA) student group. I think that’s one of the highest impact things I could do at that age — just really try to create a group that’s appealing to the best people around me. I would do that by recruiting the really interesting people I know, and being pretty exclusive. Either separate things out by having something that’s really nice for beginners, and then something that’s more for hardcore technical discussions. Or I could just focus on doing the hardcore technical discussions and deliberately be really inaccessible to beginners.
I would also try to graduate unusually quickly. In the US, I’d try to graduate in three years instead of four. I think a lot of people can do that if they take easy classes, an easy major, and really try. But that’s not normal, people don’t think about it.
Go to a top school
Not be so frugal and go to an Ivy League school for undergrad instead of a state school. Not take an extra year of undergrad taking interesting courses, because I could just read the textbook later.
Better recognise the opportunity cost of delayed graduation.
Find an applied top ranking PhD program. Had I understood the basic logic of most of the PhD’s in the US coming from 100 universities and yet them having to be distributed as professors over 4000 universities and many of the PhDs not ending up in academia, I probably would have been more risk-averse and played more by the rules in order to get a research professor position sooner.
I would’ve learned more time efficiency tricks sooner and would’ve learned about rationality sooner.
But basically because the equivalent dollar per hour of doing non-effective work is significantly higher as a research professor than most other jobs, it still makes a lot of sense for people like me to get a PhD.
Focus on highly technical topics
I think in college I’d either want to be more academic, or less academic. I think maybe I’d want to learn physics and CS, and get on a track where it’d be easier for me to do technical stuff later in life. But I also know that would mean that I’d have to work a lot harder in school. I think what I actually ended up doing was not working very hard in school, more of my learning came from extracurricular activities. It was more of a social experience for me and less of an intellectual one. So I think I’d go in one of those two directions — I’m not sure which.
I’m pretty happy with how things have gone, so I don’t regret the less technical path.
I think most things that you can learn in life are very hard to learn in school. I think people tend to learn a lot more on the job than they do in school — you learn more by having something that you’re trying to get done. It’s hard for knowledge to be so general and well established that you can learn it in a classroom instead of in the context where you need it, and it’ll really hold up and be useful to you.
But there is a specific set of topics where you just really need to learn a whole bunch of stuff, that is well understood, that builds on each other, that is highly general, and that you have to learn in sequence. Math, physics, CS — I think school is the right place to learn in these areas. It’s a great time, and a great format to learn in these areas.
If I were starting over I would at least understand that, and I probably would use my schooling to learn highly technical topics, because I’ll never have another chance to spend that much time learning those topics. And all the other stuff I learned in class I’m guessing I could basically learn, as I needed, on the job.
Become a better thinker
I think I spent too much time trying to be technical, but it turns out I’m much better at verbal skills compared to maths, and I should have leaned into that more.
I think every 18 year old should try to found a campus effective altruism group if they can — it has clear networking benefits, but it’s also a great way to help clarify your thinking.
If you go to college, then the years between 18–22 while you’re there are the years where you have the least demands on your time and energy in your whole life. And you should focus that time on getting good at thinking about the world, thinking about important questions, learning about your own skills and your ability to motivate yourself. You can then emerge from college a better thinker connected to other smart people.
Unless you’re trying to build a technical skill set, I’d treat the classes as pretty incidental.
Learn to write simply and clearly
Assuming I only get to keep my wisdom and not explicit knowledge or skills, I’d:
- Learn personal finances and retirement concepts and put money into retirement immediately
- Learn critical thinking, research methodology, and statistics/probability regardless of initial ability (stats and research methods skills would realistically require school for me)
- Learn to write simply and clearly and start a blog to practice
- Get really good at networking and learning people’s names
- Do everything I can to minimise or avoid student loan debt
- Take on complicated organising activities and actively learn project and people management
- Participate in diverse groups to build my network
- Sign up for toastmasters
Go into politics
Probably politics. I think it would be a big personal sacrifice to be in a situation where you were forced to constantly morally compromise — but the capacity to do good in a politically powerful position is significant. I think I probably could have attached myself to a successful campaign, and that would have given me far more influence in trying to do the most good possible today.
Develop expertise in one specific area
I did wildly different things. And if I look at the people who I consider to be the most successful, it seems to be because they developed expertise in one specific area.
In undergrad, you can do things that will end up being important. Even in childhood, I think there are things you can do that will end up being meaningful later. You can develop good math skills, good coding skills in high school, right?
Of course I’m not saying not to have a happy childhood — but that doesn’t mean you should think of high-school as time that can be wasted.
Do a quantitative undergrad
I would do a math or CS major. For some reason no one told me that math majors would be useful, so I didn’t even consider it.
Studying a quantitative subject, economics etc. I’d be interested in pursuing AI policy work.
I’m interested in AI, so I would want to do a quantitative undergrad. Maybe maths or CS. And I’d just directly work on the questions I thought were relevant.
3. What’s the most important thing you’ve changed your mind about over the last few years?
Wild animal suffering
I always thought wild animals mattered morally, but I didn’t think there was much hope for realistic interventions. I also used to be pretty dismissive of the possibility that insects were conscious, where as I now think there’s a greater than 10% chance that they are — probably higher than 20%. And that means that reducing insect suffering might be one of the most important animal welfare problems.
I’ve changed my mind on this mainly because of conversations, with a mix of ethicists, scientists, and effective altruists. The arguments I’ve found most convincing are: (1) evolutionary reasons for any creature that can escape from pain to develop ability to feel pain, (2) observations of insects performing behaviors consistent with consciousness, e.g. tending to wounds, acting frantically, etc. (3) evidence of insects having the necessary brain hardware to be conscious in some way.
I’m less excited about animal welfare corporate campaigns (from very excited to moderately).
I’m more optimistic about plant-based meat (maybe it could be several % points of the market in 10 years).
I read a lot of things across a wide range of domains and very slowly came to think it was really important, and that those arguing it isn’t just weren’t making a strong enough case.
There have been a few Effective Altruism Forum posts about risks of large amounts of suffering in the future (so called s-risks) over the last couple of years that have made me think that maybe we should be taking this area more seriously.
I’ve gone a little up and down on the utilitarian way of thinking about the world. I think I updated a lot towards it, and then maybe half as much away from it.
I think the cause of the initial change was just learning more deeply about the case for the utilitarian worldview. I’ve always kind of been instinctively utilitarian, I’ve always kind of had a part of myself that thought “hey, just maximise the utility”. But learning more in depth about what is wrong with population ethics that discard future people and extra people, what specific problems you can have if you’re following ethical systems other than utilitarianism — that updated me toward that worldview.
And then following that, through watching other people and watching myself, I’ve just come to realise that a lot of unappealing bullets that you bite when you do non-utilitarian things are actually just bullets that everyone bites (including the most hardcore EAs). And when pressed few people can really stand behind saying that they are biting these bullets out of weakness; they’re at least confused about whether they endorse them. And so we should probably just learn to live with ourselves for biting those bullets, to some degree. We should probably accept that there’s no single master moral framework that captures all the drives in ourselves that we would endorse upon reflection, or at least not one that is simple enough for us to hold in our heads and solid enough for us to be confident in today. I think for basically everyone, there’s at least some degree to which “doing good” — and more broadly “living the life I would endorse” — is a bit of a fuzzy concept and incorporates multiple frameworks that nobody has unified into one.
I’ve found the case for longtermism more and more persuasive. A few years ago these ideas would have just seemed like abstract thought experiments. But having thought about it more, I find it almost overwhelmingly persuasive, and this view now shapes my career decisions.
It’s not that I didn’t care about it, but I didn’t think there were really tractable ways to improve the far-future. I now think there are some kinds of questions which we can reasonably answer, and so it’s worth paying more attention to. I made this switch after reading a lot more in this space and thinking about specific arguments. There’s so much that we don’t know — so I’m more hopeful that investments in learning about the long-term are worthwhile.
How accommodating we should be with China. I feel much less good about just letting them get on with things without calling them out.
When I was really young, I used to look at the ideal — and I would try and let that guide me to a final outcome. So if I didn’t like the current voting system, I’d think about the ideal voting system and try and get everyone to adopt it. Same with political systems. But I’ve become a little more of a realist as I’ve gotten older — you need to take the world as it is. I don’t think you should just look at a political system in abstract and try to assess how good it is, but look at the actual political system and ask why you want to change it, and what’s the best way to make steady progress to do so — and the result may not look very much like your ideal world.
If you’re focused on ending factory farming, for example, your ideal scenario might be that no one has the preference to eat meat anymore because they find the very idea of eating meat horrifying. But in reality, plant-based and clean meat might end up being your best chance of success — even if you think they don’t have a place in the ideal world.
As I get more convinced about the arguments for longtermism, I get more convinced that culture is really important — that developing good culture is one of the ways we can have a lasting impact. In the short-term this should mostly be focused on specific communities, but long-term the idea of building good culture globally seems very important.
I think I have become a lot more social justice sympathetic than I was five or ten years ago — and I think it’s for good reasons.
I think a lot of social justice people are strident, and illogical, and annoying and get a lot of things wrong. It’s easy to dismiss them for this reason and I think a lot of EAs do. But I think there are a lot of good points that people are not seeing because they are not listening, because they don’t want to, because of the qualities I listed. I don’t really blame those people, but I think they are missing important insights. That is definitely a change for me.
I’ve gotten way more persuaded that lots of people’s beliefs are shaped by incentives around them, and I think that’s really dangerous.
4. What’s the most important decision you think you’ve made in your career so far?
Leaving my first field. I’d spent so many years of study and work — all leading towards this idea of conventional success — and I left it all behind. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so glad I did.
At one point I got quite far in one field, and then took several months out and completely switched fields.
The choice of my particular field of study in grad school. It was certainly a fork in the road. I think I chose the right path!
Taking an academic job
Taking an academic job I wasn’t particularly excited about. It allowed me to donate, and had I waited and just published papers outside of academia I think it would have been difficult to get in at a later date. Then it eventually led to a research-intensive academic job with higher impact.
Other relevant articles
- Your career can help solve the world’s most pressing problems
- All the evidence-based advice we found on how to be successful in any job
- Find a high impact job on our job board
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?
- What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?