…doing a bit of good is well-regarded and you feel like a valuable member of society.
Doing something that has a 1 in 20 chance of having a huge impact, but 19 times out of 20 you’re just wasting your time — that doesn’t seem very appealing, including to me.
So I would just expect that to be significantly under-attended to.
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 fifth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. 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.
How risk averse should talented young people be?
If you’re very talented, taking risks is fine
I think exceptionally talented young people should really embrace risk. Exceptional talent tends to win you lots of friends, and even if you don’t succeed in an environment, people will be pretty happy to recommend you for other things that might be a better fit. If most people’s impression of you is “wow, what an impressive person” — you do not need to be risk averse. You’ll find ways to succeed.
But how do you know if you’re that talented? Think about how many of your current coworkers would think of you “wow, this is one of the most amazing people. If it doesn’t work out for them here, there are so many other things I’d be excited about them doing”.
I think a lot of people in this group on some level know it’s true, but haven’t really admitted it to themselves because it feels arrogant. Maybe they’ve heard people say really nice things about them, maybe they’ve had other really amazing job offers. But even if they have all this evidence, they might still not recognise it, they might still be as insecure as everyone else. I think it’s really worth doing whatever you can to get an accurate answer to this.
This is only a tiny percentage of people. But even so, if you’re not quite in this category that doesn’t at all mean that there aren’t great options for you.
If you’re talented without being absolutely exceptionally talented, you should make sure that you have a solid back-up plan — something that you know you can definitely do. It could be becoming a software developer, or something a lot more attainable like working at an Amazon warehouse.
It’s important to know what you’re going to do if your current job doesn’t work out. Don’t push yourself to the point where it feels like it’s this or nothing. Even if you’re a really talented person, sometimes things don’t work out.
I think one really underrepresented demographic in effective altruism is working-class people. If you don’t have the resources to fall back on — doing these high-risk career options is really scary. Becoming a doctor gives you a level of security, and meeting basic needs is psychologically important.
The work you can do with money in the bank is way better than the work you can do with no money in the bank. The work you can do with health insurance is way better than the work you can do without health insurance.
Sometimes risk aversion makes sense, and the community should be trying to make sure that everyone is okay. We miss out on some extremely talented people because they feel like they can’t take the risk. That’s completely understandable, and the rest of us should try to make sure that situation happens as rarely as possible.
But when I look at people who are fairly risk-neutral with their careers, they seem to have done quite well. Basically, being able to be risk neutral isn’t something everyone can do, but it does seem to pay off. So if you can be less risk averse, I think that’s a good idea.
Take huge risks then use grad school to reset
In the US, there’s an amazing opportunity to take huge risks that most people don’t take advantage of. Coming straight out of college, you can basically do anything for a couple of years. I’ve seen people take two years off and not do anything — or work on a really dumb startup idea or something — and then get into a top law or business school. And then they go on to do the most prestigious things. Because it’s a true reset opportunity — people don’t care about what you did before law school, they only care about where you went to law school.
It can actually help your application to business or law school. They already have so many applicants who have worked at top law firms, so your story about running a nonprofit startup with a crazy idea that completely failed is actually appealing to them — it gives their class some diversity.
If your risky move pays off — great, don’t go to grad school. If it doesn’t, go to grad school, and reset.
I don’t know how valuable this advice is for people outside of the US.
And my advice would change here depending on who I was talking to. On the whole, I think people are too risk-averse. But I think some of the most talented people are often the most risk-averse — and this advice could make those people feel anxious.
The priority is surrounding yourself with great people
When you’re young, think a lot about the things you’re going to learn, and the people you’ll be working with for any opportunity — both of those will have a big effect on setting you up later in your career.
I think the way one might be risk-averse is by going to a large institution that has a good reputation — that’s rarely going to be a better idea than joining something less established that will surround you with great people you can learn from.
You’re probably too risk-averse from an altruistic perspective
I think we have pretty good theoretical reasons for expecting people to be much too risk-averse. In the wider world, when it comes to money, people have log returns to happiness from money — so what that means is that if what you’re interested in is maximising the amount of wealth in the economy, people are going to be way too risk averse, and you want to subsidise more risk-seeking behaviour, even though it doesn’t pan out for most people.
The same is probably true in effective altruism (EA), where doing a bit of good is well-regarded, and you feel like a valuable member of society. Whereas doing something that has a one in twenty chance of having a huge impact, but nineteen times out of twenty you’re just wasting your time — that doesn’t seem very appealing. That doesn’t seem appealing to me, I’m not claiming to be different from anyone else. So I would just expect that to be significantly under-attended to.
It depends if you want to influence the halls of power
In a lot of circumstances the thing that will allow you to be successful is to “play the game”. There’s a really good case for risk aversion if your goal is to influence the halls of power. I’ve told a lot of young people who are about to graduate from law school that the worst thing they could do would be to go work for a standard non-profit. That they should go do something mainstream, and build up the credibility and connections that will allow them to ultimately make a difference.
But if you’re not hoping to influence the halls of power, why not jump into something that is risky but has a colossal potential reward?
To make a bigger difference, take a high variance approach to your career
I think people are very risk-averse in terms of what career path they pursue. If you’re focused on worlds in which you make a very big difference, that can be very high variance.
For example, you could be the world’s first great anthropologist focused on effective altruism. Maybe anthropology won’t turn out to be relevant for saving the world, but if it is — you’ll make a huge difference. But it takes a lot of bravery to do that kind of thing, it’s really lonely. So I think people who think they’re only motivated by impact are actually motivated by all these social factors not to do something very high variance like this — you’d be doing something that isn’t high status in your community, it’s hard to explain to people, you can’t talk about it with your friends.
And so I think a really underutilised strategy is to pick something that you find really interesting, and that you might be good at, but that no one else is paying much attention to — and just become the best EA at that thing. If someone ever needs an expert in X field — that’ll be you.
You can also make a big difference by being the first person who does it, as that will open it up as a reasonably seeming path for others. For example, Dylan Matthews and Kelsey Piper becoming EA journalists [at Vox’s Future Perfect] has helped open up that path for others to pursue.
Build up cushion money
I think there is some justification for risk aversion when it comes to careers. It could be a significant psychological blow to be fired, or have a pay cut.
I think that the idea of building up a little cushion money so that you are not desperate to take the first job offer you get is a good idea. Furthermore, having cushion money allows you to have high deductible insurance, saving money. Of course you could argue that you could always go into credit card debt as your cushion. And if you wait until you get a cushion, that could be a long time if you start out with a significant college debt.
A common cushion suggestion is six months of expenses. Many people say that this should be in the form of cash because you don’t want to have to sell out of an investment when it is down. However, assuming logarithmic utility with consumption, I have calculated that it is highly net beneficial to have the money invested.
But overall, there is probably too much risk aversion in careers, for instance prioritizing getting tenure over near-term impact when there are viable backup plans.
The most talented and privileged people should be more risk-neutral.
I think on average, really talented and well-credentialed young people are way too risk-averse. Some of that is because we come from a culture where most people aren’t that talented and well-credentialed, and that culture has norms that are useful for other kinds of people that are not optimal for these most talented and privileged people.
I think this is especially pronounced for people who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, where risk aversion makes a lot of sense. And I think people in that situation don’t update fast enough on the difference between the level of financial security they had growing up, and the level of financial security they have going forward.
Even if you don’t have $100k in the bank — if you’re a really smart person, a decent programmer, who went to Harvard, and you’re worried about whether you’re going to have enough money to make ends meet, you’re probably being way too cautious.
It’s a similar case for really socially adept people who went to top schools, or strong in any broadly useful domain. If you’re someone like that, you’ll probably be able to find a well-paying job if that’s what you want or need eventually.
Caveats: if you think you might not have good mental or physical health, or if you have a massive costly commitment (like supporting a family), then risk aversion makes more sense.
Academics should limit their risks
This may be career-specific. For academia, I would recommend being risk-averse in some ways and not in others. You can’t help but be risk-taking, in that academia has got a very high failure rate, like entrepreneurship — it’s intrinsically a risky career. But be risk-averse in that you don’t close off options early on — for example, if you leave an academic career path or signal to your advisor that you may not pursue an academic job, it will be hard to get back on that career path.
Relatedly, a lot of people think of there as being a “lone wolf” model of science, where only extremely isolated individuals can punch through to make important discoveries — but today academia requires a lot more networking, and going off and trying to do it all yourself is probably not a good strategy. There are some people who could pull it off, but off the top of my head I would guess less than 1 in 1,000 academics in my field, and that’s out of people who made it — I think more of the lone wolves drop out before their first faculty job.
Plan for the long haul
Getting to the point where you’re financially independent as early as possible is helpful. If you did work at a lucrative job that allowed you to retire in your late 30s, you then have the freedom to start risky projects, fail, and think “no big deal”.
You want to set yourself up to be able to retire on a normal time-scale. It’s extremely rewarding to be at the place where you’re able to only do work you really want to do, and getting to that point can be highly motivating.
One challenge to that is that our fluid intelligence isn’t as good when we get into our 40s and 50s, and so you’re using a lot of your peak ability [early on]. It’s important to set yourself up such that you can do your most important work within the window where your mind is operating at its peak level. Once you hit that point of diminishing fluid intelligence, you need to plan to use crystallized intelligence — being able to utilise things you know really well to make a difference, rather than having to rely on being able to adapt to new circumstances.
Once you’re set up to have the option of retirement, you can turn your attention to things like becoming a mentor. No one wants to get to the point of cognitive decline and not have savings — and I don’t think we want to set people up for that.
I do personal giving, but not at the expense of my retirement plan.
Recognizing what’s really risky can be hard
Often I don’t think people are aware of what the real risks are — I think they have misperceptions of risks. For example, if you’re a social media junkie or have some other habit that burns a few hours a day, I’m sorry but it adds up and you probably won’t be as successful as you could have been.
That’s not to say you can’t draw a line and carve out whatever amount of personal time you want, but just be aware that you are doing it. Or sometimes — especially in the EA community — you see people quit a good job for a job with a nicer title or more social prestige, like at a start-up. And then two years down the line the start-up goes under and they can’t go back.
But it depends what line of work they are in exactly — for some kinds of work, it’s easy to find a new job when your old one goes under, and you can have the opposite problem of not wanting to take the plunge when you don’t have much to lose. So either people don’t see big risks inherent in what they’re doing, or they’re making up risks that aren’t clearly relevant.
Make riskier financial investments when you’re young
In terms of investing, those in the effective altruism community tend to believe you cannot beat the market. However, simply doing value investment within the US stock-market can get you a couple percent greater returns (back tested >80 years). And then if you apply well-established value metrics for global investing, you can beat the market by several more percent.
It is good that EAs have emphasized that people should be risk neutral, especially with their charity money. But even for non charity money, it makes sense to be far more risky than most investors (I think including EAs) are.
This means things like investing nearly the whole portfolio in risky countries when they are undervalued and doing leverage. If one is far away from retirement, one’s current net worth is a very small fraction of the future worth (because you will be adding to your retirement as you earn money). Therefore, you should be nearly completely risk neutral.
One way of thinking about this is that stocks are almost guaranteed to recover in 20 years, so there is no loss with risky investing (of course this is assuming that the person is rational enough not to sell out when it goes down). But even as one gets closer to retirement and a prolonged loss could actually delay retirement, the upside is a much earlier retirement, so with logarithmic utility, you still should be very near to risk neutral. I think ‘investing to give’ would make a great 80,000 Hours podcast topic.
If you’re really fortunate, don’t be scared
If you have a degree from a top university, and family and / or friends who will be able to support you financially… if it comes to it, there’s absolutely no need to be very cautious.
You’re not going to end up on the streets, so don’t be scared of taking some risks. You’re going to be fine.
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Other relevant articles
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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.