I think we’re currently too far in the direction of “there’s like 10 legitimate career paths for people involved in effective altruism, and no others”. That’s crazy, there are dozens and dozens of career paths where you could make a difference. A huge difference — you might make the difference.
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 twelfth 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 the biggest flaws of 80,000 Hours?
People need to think through these questions for themselves
I think 80,000 Hours generally give pretty good career advice, but I’m worried people take it as gospel — because 80,000 Hours have kind of cornered the market on giving career advice to people in the effective altruism (EA) community. But it’s important to make it clear that these questions are really hard, and smart people disagree about the answers, and you actually need to think it through for yourself — though you still might get it wrong.
A lot of people feel like 80,000 Hours is not talking to them
I know a lot of people who are fairly competent people who donate a lot of money, participate in online discussions, and overall are part of the ecosystem that allows us to develop good ideas. They feel like 80,000 Hours is not talking to them at all, has no advice that is applicable to them — they have this perception that 80,000 Hours is for people who are vastly more impressive than they are. This can make them sad, and it can drive them away from EA a little bit. Certainly if they don’t have a strong EA network they can bounce away from EA. If it’s the case that we should be a mass movement, this seems like a problem.
I’d be excited about an EA movement that encouraged lots of people who weren’t able to contribute directly right now to get a regular job, and that provided those people with a lot of thought-provoking resources they could engage with during their spare time. Some of them can then blossom into people who can do direct work.
It’d also be great to have the perception that EA really valued the people who were participating in building the ecosystem of the community, while working their regular job as a flight attendant or police officer etc. Jobs like that allow you to save enough money to save a few lives per year, and leave you with a lot of mental energy at the end of the day to pursue your intellectual interests.
If 80,000 Hours stopped being public facing almost entirely, and just focused on reaching out to elite people, connecting them with the best jobs, that would be valid. But I think there’s a problem if the content is public, but a lot of people who read it come away thinking that there isn’t any way they could possibly contribute anything of value to this movement.
I am very concerned about intelligent people being turned off by 80,000 Hours’ elitism. I have argued that there is a lot of good content that 80,000 Hours has developed that would be useful to the typical college graduate. I understand the focus on maximizing impact with especially high-impact career changes, but if EA gets a reputation of being elitist, that could compromise future growth potential. So I don’t think it is a good idea to rewrite the career guide for an even more advanced audience. It seems like there should be some non-offensive way of routing different ability (or dedication?) levels to different parts of the website.
I am also concerned about deemphasizing earning to give, because I think there are lots of fledgling organizations that would benefit from more money. Also, earning to give is the most accessible and scalable effective career, because people can do it without even switching careers. Though it is true that current giving in EA is dominated by billionaires, that will not necessarily continue to be the case. If people in developed countries were chosen randomly and all gave 10%, it would not actually be dominated by billionaires.
I think 80,000 Hours is assuming too short of job lengths. They originally interpreted the data for younger people of the average time that people have been in their current job of four years as the average time that people stay in their job. But if everyone stayed in their job for 40 years, if you polled everyone, the average person would say they have been in that job for 20 years. Therefore I think the average time that young people stay in a job is about eight years.
Too focused on a few highly legible career paths
Although you’re moving away from this — making it seem like “a career” is a natural unit. Listing careers and then ranking them — I think that’s pretty inaccurate and misleading. The interesting stuff is in the grey space between the careers.
I’d like to see more stuff like the Ben Kuhn post on the EA forum: “Career choice: Evaluate opportunities, not just fields”. Throughout your life you’ll encounter a lot of different specific things that you can do, and the details of the specific things could matter just as much as what cause area or career they fall into. Spend more time thinking about the specific opportunities that may be available to you, compared to the abstract divisions of areas.
Overly focused on a few highly legible career paths.
If I was in 80,000 Hours’ shoes, I would start with just model causes, not career paths. I wouldn’t even refer to “AI safety”, I’d say something like, “the project of causing AI to be built safely and then deployed well” — and then ask, “okay, what’s going to be needed for that cause?”
It might need tons of different things. You obviously need researchers, but you’ll also need managers, you’ll need people who can communicate these ideas, you’ll need people to convince other people, you might need people in government, in information security, you’ll maybe need to build alliances with other countries, you’ll maybe need an intimate knowledge of industry — there are just so many things you’re fairly likely to need.
And so I would prefer to encourage people to develop skills and career capital in relevant areas where they might be great. And that can include something very general, like being a strong writer, speaker, or manager.
I don’t want to take this too far, I think if you can plausibly do AI safety technical research well, you should do it. But I think we’re currently too far in the direction of “there’s like 10 legitimate career paths for EAs and no others”. That’s crazy, there are dozens and dozens of career paths where you could make a difference. A huge difference — you might make the difference.
It’s less worth it for 80,000 Hours to invest a lot into researching a career path that only 3 people can go into effectively — but that means that the kinds of paths where your input would be extremely important can get overlooked. The absolute best career for you might never be able to make a top careers list.
Should be more ambitious in trying to reach the next generation of influencers
I think a strong case could be made for massively expanding 80,000 Hours.
I think the multiplying effect of putting a lot of money into educating the most talented young people could be enormous.
80,000 Hours with a large marketing budget — hiring people just to organise the most influential US campuses. You could have 10 full-time staff, each in charge of organising 10 campuses — writing articles for the school newspaper, handing out leaflets, giving presentations etc. Then have volunteers who want to dedicate 10-15 hours a week. Have a clear programme for what they’re doing. And then the entire next generation of influencers — politicians, philanthropists etc — could understand EA principles and 80,000 Hours specifically. If they ever find themselves sitting on a yacht with a billionaire — they’ll know what to say to them.
Where do the titans of industry and politics go to school? We can answer those questions — and focus on those places. EAs should be hosting events, taking out ads, taking on fellows — I feel like there would be such a big multiplier factor.
There are limits to meme-spreading
I wonder if 80,000 Hours is really thinking about how meme-spreading works, and what memes they want to spread, and understanding the limits to meme-spreading.
I think sometimes 80,000 Hours just tries to write what they think, and then if they want to correct themselves they write a correction, and they’re modelling it as though everyone is going to read their posts, and process all the content. They’re not modelling it the more correct way, which is something like: people will read the headline, and take away some very high-level, low-fidelity thing.
I’m not sure 80,000 Hours are thinking enough about how confident they are in the value of getting a lot of people to believe a very simple thing before they promulgate it.
They make it more likely that people will ignore their gut feelings
Some of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my career were ones I thought through very carefully. I thought of all the key considerations explicitly, I considered counterfactuals, I looked at my comparative advantage — but they were ultimately bad decisions.
Major things like where to live, or where to go to school… at a gut level it didn’t feel right, but the alternatives just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
I think it would have been perfect for me to take time away from school, to explore things. But there wasn’t the social support, or the grants that exist today.
When you get what everyone thinks is a great job offer — it seems like madness to turn it down. To say “I’m actually just going to take some time away, to really think about what I want to do”. But that’s what might have been right for me.
I had a gut feeling that a big decision would make me unhappy, but I couldn’t really say why explicitly. When you’re thinking about everything very carefully, it’s easy to be dishonest with yourself about how important personal happiness is to you.
I’m glad that these career tools exist, but I want people to take any intuitive aversion to a decision seriously. Even if you think really hard and can come up with no way of explaining it. If you just have a feeling that you don’t like a city, but you don’t know why, I think that should be evidence that moving there is a bad idea.
In these circumstances, open up your option space if you can. Think about things that seem totally out of the box, “no one would ever do that”; put that into your option set and see how you feel about it.
It’s not that 80,000 Hours is explicitly bad on this, but the tools it provides makes it more likely that people will make the mistake of ignoring their emotional responses.
It pushes people towards direct roles too early
I think it pushes people towards getting direct roles too early, and that contributes to the problem of people being so concerned about “what roles are open now?”
I worry about encouraging a whole bunch of people to go into jobs when those jobs don’t exist. I worry about overly-general career advice.
It’s not accessible for people from poor backgrounds
I don’t think 80,000 Hours is well designed for people from poor backgrounds. There’s a big group of people that no one is talking to, and if they had access to the right advice, it could make an enormous difference. Opening up 80,000 Hours as a realistic possibility to poorer people could be incredibly valuable.
The definition of ‘earning to give’ is too narrow
I had a problem with your definition of earning to give (ETG) [the part about choosing a job to earn more money in order to give].
I think if someone is mid-career, not willing to make a big change, but wants to donate 10% of their income to effective causes — it seems like we could call that earning to give. But that would be a very different definition compared to 80,000 Hours.
On the EA Survey, you’re asked “how are you an EA? Is it research, other direct work, or ETG?”. But then people have to pigeon hole themselves. If they’re not a researcher, and they don’t do direct work, they have to put ETG.
Editor’s note: 80,000 Hours doesn’t write or manage the EA survey.
Should provide more support for people who aren’t primarily focused on the long-term future
I think 80,000 Hours should provide people who aren’t longtermists with a little more guidance. Even if you overwhelmingly care about the far future, I think there’s value to having a broader base — and if 80,000 Hours better supported people who care about things like global development and factory farming, that will help protect against further narrowing EA into a smaller and smaller group of people.
I think 80,000 Hours is generally doing a great job, and I recommend that people go there. But I want to be able to make those recommendations without having to worry about them becoming demoralised. So many people are introduced to EA by 80,000 Hours, and a lot of those people come in caring about global poverty, or animal welfare. Maybe they’re not ready to make a big change straight away to caring about the far-future — and I think it’s really important that they not be turned away.
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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.