In general, if you’re doing interesting things, and you’re learning new things — then you’re doing fine; you’re not in a state of emergency where you need to be panicking about whether you’re doing the wrong thing.
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 most of it is more broadly useful.
This is the sixth 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.
What are some bad habits you see among people trying to improve the world?
Focusing too much on increasing the hours they work
The use of how hard you work as a proxy for how effective you are. Sometimes people who are seen working all hours are seen as being clearly the most effective, and people who work more regular hours as being less effective. There is a correlation between workrate and effectiveness, but it isn’t because of a lack of schedule — and working the most hours in your office definitely doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the most effective person there.
I’ve found that I’m much more effective working on a schedule, even if I work longer hours than a traditional job. Whatever hours you choose — I’ve found it really important that I’m working hours that I’ve chosen. If I stay at the office really late even for one night, my week long productivity dramatically decreases. I don’t think that this is what everyone should do — but each of us has a different optimal set-up. For some, that could involve staying up all night during important projects. But for others, it’s much better to stick to a standard routine.
I think people who are unhappy with how much they’re getting done try to solve the problem entirely by working more hours, which I think is almost never a good idea, unless baseline hours worked is quite low. Trying to forcibly and dramatically raise one’s hours seems like it’s almost never successful.
I personally work a ton of hours, but it’s usually because I’m feeling really intense about what I’m doing, and I want to do it, and I’d rather be working than not working. It doesn’t mean I enjoy it more than I’d enjoy watching TV, but in a deep sense, I’d rather be working than not working at that time.
It’s only about twice a year that I might be in a situation where I really dread doing work and really wish I wasn’t working, and I work anyway and force it because of what needs to be done. That’s rare.
Trying to work more hours from a not-too-low starting point, at worst is going to just fail and lead to burnout, at best it might give you a 25% productivity bump. But learning to prioritise, learning to do a more superficial job of things you can do a more superficial job of, learning to focus, learning to skip things, and — even more importantly — learning to hire, manage, delegate, learning how all that works and how you can do it well instead of poorly, that can increase your productivity by orders of magnitude.
And I also think that going into a job that fits you better can improve your productivity by at least a factor of a few. Just naturally your hours go up without it being less sustainable.
So, I think when you observe massive differences in productivity between people, some of it is traceable to pretty durable differences in how hard and how effectively they work. But of the part that isn’t as durable, a lot more of it is explained by the fit between the job and the person, and also the person’s ability to prioritise, pick the right things to skip, the person’s ability to hire and manage. And I think almost none of it is explained by this thing people do to themselves, where they say “I need to get more done, so I’m going to work more hours.”
Relying too heavily on conventional wisdom
I think people in the effective altruism (EA) community just trust each other way too much. A lot of people just have this idea that AI timelines are such and such, and the AI alignment problem is going to be so and so difficult — and people just believe this stuff way too much, given the evidence they have.
I think most ‘EA conventional wisdom’ is overrated by most of the community. I would agree that a lot of it is a best guess, but I have the sense that a lot of people are betting on it more heavily than they should be.
And if we were all doing something like maximising our generic capability and options with our careers, we might be in a better place. Because if we really knew we were right about all this AI stuff, that might be one thing. We really don’t. And I think that means that we’re going to change our minds in the future a lot. And so having a lot of options and a lot of doors open to us is going to be really valuable.
I think most things about AI timelines, and models of how hard AI alignment will be and so on — it’s all stuff that a small number of people have kind of made up, and hasn’t been very heavily vetted. And I think people should be very suspicious of each other, and not trust other people involved in effective altruism so much.
I’m a bit worried about people who develop their worldview based solely on the information they get from the effective altruism sphere. It means that you end with an epistemically homogenous community.
It’s tough, because if you’re part of the EA community, then others who are involved might be the people you’re most likely to end up talking to. But I certainly have found reading widely in other disciplines, for example history, just very helpful for enriching my worldview. And it makes my assessment of various arguments a bit different than they might otherwise have been.
Taking everything too seriously
I think a lot of people build things up in their heads as being much higher stakes than they are. They think of “this job, or this project, or the way I spend the next month, or whether I get a promotion this quarter, or whether this place wants to hire me, or whether I’m good enough to do this work” as the most important thing.
In general, if you’re doing interesting things, and you’re learning new things — then you’re doing fine; you’re not in a state of emergency where you need to be panicking about whether you’re doing the wrong thing. There are almost no opportunities that are your one and only chance to do something good or valuable.
People should really lessen the amount of significance they give to individual career moments. If something doesn’t work out, just keep looking for something else that’s a better fit.
Taking themselves too seriously. Feeling that they need to find the absolute most important problem in the universe and then find the absolute most important role within that field to work — they’re probably not going to be able to do that. They should aim for more realistic goals, and not focus so much on optimising everything.
I think people involved in effective altruism sometimes underrate the value of having a normal life. I want people to know that it’s healthy and good to have friends who have no interest in effective altruism, and do regular social things.
Undervaluing their time
I think the biggest thing is undervaluing their time, or not being willing to trade money for time aggressively enough. When you’re young, you’re often encouraged to be vaguely frugal. But if you’re a really talented person, you’ll probably eventually be in a situation where you have real financial security (if you want that).
If you have to obsess about money, then you should. But if you don’t — you’re likely biased towards doing it anyway, because young people are used to having very small amounts of money to play around with.
If you’re creating life strategies based on the assumption that you’re living in a world where you’ll make a real difference, then you should assume that your time is important. It might be the case that you’ll never do anything really important from an effective altruism perspective. But there’s no point in obsessing about the worlds in which you can’t make a difference, because in those it doesn’t matter what you do. The world where you will make a difference is one in which your time is probably very valuable. So you should treat it like it’s valuable.
Often there are clever ways to pay money to get time back that aren’t commonly considered. For example, there’s a taboo around grad students hiring a house cleaner or taking Ubers a lot. But that might save you a lot of time.
Another example for young women is egg donation. If you want more money to buy yourself more time, you can spend about 40 hours to get a 5 figure amount — which is obviously an unusually good amount of money per hour for a young person. It’s something that seems repellant to some people, and if that’s how you feel then you shouldn’t do it; I don’t think people should try to push their comfort zones like that. But if this idea doesn’t bother you, and you’re a talented young woman at college — then the amount of time you can buy with that money might be a tradeoff worth seriously considering.
(Editors note: This isn’t an option for everyone, as the preference for donors who are heathy, tall, graduates, and have few or no inheritable health conditions in their family, among other characteristics, is so high that most clinics don’t accept donations from others.)
Undervaluing prioritisation and delegation
Generally, not caring enough about management. I regularly hear stories about terrible managers in the nonprofit world. I think this is partly due to a bias towards promoting the longest serving employees to management positions, who might not actually be suited to those positions. If a talented new person comes into an org and found they have a terrible manager — that could cause them to leave the org, and maybe stop working on the cause entirely.
I think in general prioritisation is really tough. Prioritisation and management are the two best ways to increase your productivity and your success, and they’re both really hard to do.
I see people just unwilling to drop something from their plate because they think it’s valuable. Often they’re right that it’s valuable, and often they should drop it anyway.
I see people underestimate the benefits of focus — underestimate how good it is to have a really small number of things you’re trying to do really well. If someone is currently spending 20% of their hours on goal X, they often imagine that spending 10% on 8 other things is fine. And really if they dropped 6 of the other things, their productivity might go up an order of magnitude. Because they’re not just increasing their hours, they’re increasing their focus, they’re increasing their seriousness, and they’re increasing their competitive edge on other people.
So I think people generally, and people involved in effective altruism in particular, take on too many things. And they’re not determined enough to find something they can do amazingly well.
I think people also just underestimate the difference in value to them — their career, their options in the world — of doing something really well, instead of doing something okay.
I think most aspiring effective altruists just don’t have a good sense of how recruiting and management works, so they don’t know how to find ways to get other people to do the things they’re currently doing. Some people delegate too little, some people delegate too much, and if you don’t do it well you’re missing out on a giant productivity advantage.
Focusing too much on the purity of their personal consumption
Focusing too much on the impact of their own personal habits. For example, I don’t think personal recycling does that much good for the world relative to how much people focus on it. It’s not that it does nothing, it just wouldn’t be the best thing to focus on if you’re trying to solve climate change. You’d focus on what companies, or even states do maybe.
But people feel as though what they do in their everyday lives is the really important thing.
For people focused on animal welfare, whether you personally eat meat might not be the biggest factor in helping to solve the problems. People in this space can react badly to someone merely reducing their meat consumption — but this seems like an unhelpful purity thing.
So people focus on making sure their hands are clean, their carbon footprint is neutral etc, but these personal decisions might have a negligible impact on the world compared with major personal decisions, like deciding on a career path, where to give, or how to try to change things.
Not getting enough feedback from others
People should talk to other people more. I think there’s a tendency to go off and do your own thing, without getting feedback at an early stage from other people as much as would be ideal. You could end up wasting a lot of time by pursuing the wrong thing.
For projects that will eventually need a lot of buy-in from others, you can learn about whether you’re likely to get that buy-in at an early stage. You might be attracted to the lone-wolf model — getting freedom to be as creative as you want — but eventually you’re going to need people to be interested in your thing. You’ll need people to appreciate your work, and it’s hard to know what they’re likely to appreciate without talking to them.
I think people should try and get honest feedback about how they’re doing, and what they’re good at. That can be very hard to do, and on average people just don’t do it enough.
Not being friendly and cooperative enough
I think there’s a bad habit of thinking that this is a community where you have to come off as unfeeling or intense or even somewhat calculating. Just try to be a generally nice person. There’s no need to meet someone and think “how can I have the perfect interaction in order to maximise the amount of good done for the world?” — just relax and be friendly to people.
I’ve seen examples of people applying a kind of warped utilitarianism that leads them into being a bad person generally. They think they’re really impactful, and that their impact justifies mistreating other people. Aside from the damage they do to their cause with negative publicity — there’s a really good argument to just “be a good person”.
Having too much of an activist mindset
Premature optimization that leads to being too much of an activist.
Sometimes you see a cause that’s important, and then you start working on it, and soon a lot of your identity gets tied to that cause. You get convinced that everyone else is evil for not working on your cause. And you stop epistemically respecting other people, you start thinking the ends justify the means in getting them to see things your way.
It’s quite unhealthy for both you and your community to get in the habit of not looking really hard for the truth — but it is what a lot of activist communities incentivise.
So, I’m wary of young people getting involved in activist communities. Maybe one day you will want to go down that route, but it’s good to give yourself a lot of time to make that decision, so you can think about it as clearly as possible for a while before those incentives gain a lot of ground.
Not thinking about work/life balance carefully enough
I really do think we should all be thinking about the $10 we spend on a movie as $10 stolen from the mouths of starving people, or suffering animals, or future generations. And we should at least be honest about that. It doesn’t mean that you never go to the movies, it just means that you don’t rationalise it.
I also think there are far more people focused on work/life balance because they’ve been told to focus on work/life balance, than are focused on work/life balance because they actually need to work less.
Obsessing about grades
Obsessing about getting good grades, without thinking about whether getting a good GPA is actually important. I burned hundreds, maybe thousands of hours on that, without really thinking through whether the odds of it really increasing my impact justified the time and stress.
Not embracing their confusion
There’s a bit of clustering around which ideas are cool. People think “I want to work on problem X because I’ve been told problem X is important”, but without actually having a good sense of what that problem is, or why it’s really important. And when you’re in that situation, it’s really hard to identify what actually helps with the problem.
They only have a surface level knowledge of what the problem is — and it’s too easy for that to come apart from what the actual problem is.
I think it can be fine to engage with a problem by thinking “I don’t really know what’s going on here, but a bunch of smart people seem to say it’s important.” But if you’re in that situation, it’s good to be able to recognise that. There’s an incentive to convince yourself that you really do know what’s going on, because then you’ll be more respected by your community.
The appropriate response to a lot of problems is just confusion — but confusion isn’t exciting. There’s a bad habit that people don’t let themselves be confused often enough.
Naively applying a particular moral view
Getting tied to a particular moral view, and then applying that in a naive way. Humans are pretty bad at prioritising in real time, so if you’re always trying to optimise your life around “doing the most good” — it’s probably not going to work out well.
Not taking seriously that equally smart people disagree with you
I just think everyone should notice that a bunch of people who are really smart and care about doing the most good disagree with them about how to do it and what’s most important, and in that situation confidence really needs to be justified.
Like… I think it’s generally strange that most people have an attitude of “well, I know deep down I’m right” or “my friends and allies are right” when there are equally smart people with similar values and as much knowledge and experience — or more! — who disagree with you. I think that attitude is completely natural but a problem.
Focusing too much on self-improvement
I think that some people in this community can get into a kind of excessive focus on self-improvement without reflecting on its costs.
Like I don’t really try to optimise my life for productivity any more because I don’t think the returns I get from it are very significant.
Trying to speak so precisely people don’t understand you
I think EAs can get into a trap where they’re so concerned about representing exactly what they mean — you get these long, tortured sentences — when sometimes it’s better to just give a broad explanation of your view.
It can be off putting to people outside of the EA world when they hear “I have a 40% credence in this but that isn’t accounting for…”.
Not optimising donations to reduce their taxes
People are often not sophisticated with their giving. Being able to understand your tax situation can allow you to give far more effectively. For example, if you have a lot of bitcoin, it really matters how you give, in terms of how much money ends up going to your cause area.
Buying houses rather than renting
A common mistake (perhaps not so prevalent in effective altruism) is thinking that renting is throwing money away. In reality, people can be nearly risk neutral in their investing and get higher returns than the S&P 500 by accepting greater volatility in small companies and companies around the world. In this case, it is likely that using the money that would be tied up in a down payment could provide greater benefit if invested in stocks instead.
Not asking the bigger questions
One common mistake is that people try to get incrementally better at a specific intervention, rather than stepping back and asking “is this even a good idea?”
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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.