When you’re at school, you can just spend hundreds of hours really getting to know someone, and you just never really get time for that as an adult. And so if you lose an old friend, then you’ve just lost this huge investment.
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 tenth 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’s some underrated general life advice?
Maintain old friendships
Keep up old friendships — they’re worth a lot. As an adult, you don’t really form new friends in the way that you do as a kid. You can think about it as a time investment; when you’re at school, you can just spend hundreds of hours really getting to know someone, and you just never really get time for that as an adult. And so if you lose an old friend, then you’ve just lost this huge investment.
In particular, with old friends, you might sometimes feel distant from them, you might feel like you’re drifting apart — but you’ll often find that regression to the mean kicks in, and you end up being closer again. That just kind of happens over the course of many years. I’ve been really happy that I’ve taken the time to maintain old friendships.
Figure out how to spend money to save time
It’s worth doing quick dollar per hour calculations for things that could save you time. To my surprise, I found that many things make sense even if you value your time at order of magnitude 1 dollar per hour.
They include things like a dishwasher (you can get a portable or countertop version if you are in a single person household), having laundry in your apartment (you can get a combination washer dryer that uses a standard outlet and no vent-this actually saves you money even when you count the increase in rent due to the lost square footage), using voice recognition software (this is one of the biggest timesaving interventions), using a hands-free phone so you can do housework while on the phone, treadmill desk/exercise bike allowing reading/computer work, having a wireless headset so you can listen to podcasts while grooming, etc.
Find a supportive partner
I think one of the most important things is finding a supportive partner. I might not want to say that publicly. I think a lot of the things that you feel help you the most personally along the way you don’t want to emphasise, even if they were important to you. The reverse statement is perhaps even more important: don’t have an unsupportive partner. Surround yourself with supportive people, more generally, including mentors in your field.
We need to make sure we continue to make time for relationships. Finding a supportive partner is extremely beneficial. Maintaining the strength of that relationship is also hugely valuable — strengthening your relationship can be a great way to reduce your overall stress levels, and allow you to better focus on your work.
Set aside time to think about the big things, then just live your life
Every so often, I have one chunk of time that I spend reflecting on the big things — my overall life plan, what I should work on next — and the rest of the time I don’t really think about it. And I feel like that’s about as effective, if not more effective, as thinking about it all the time. You’re probably less likely to burn out if you’re not beating yourself up about absolutely everything you’re doing. It’s fine to take some time to think about the big things, then just live a normal life the rest of the time.
Have a plan for what to do if your mental health deteriorates
Learn to identify signs of mental health deterioration in yourself, and have a plan for what to do if you see it happening.
This might be something that you naturally start to do as you get older. When you’re young, maybe you just don’t notice these things. And then you eventually start to notice the signs that it’s getting worse, and seeing those signs becomes something you want to pass on to others.
You might have stages where you think, “okay, I am feeling basically level one sadness”. And you know roughly what you can cope with in this stage. But you also know the signs of level two sadness, and if you get there — maybe you know that you need to take time off from work and go into recovery mode. Or maybe you go to your doctor. Or call a friend. Or re-read a certain book that reminds you of lifestyle things you can do to make you happy.
I think people start to have these plans as they get older, and they find them really useful.
Consider an unconventional life
Having a generally unconventional life that’s highly customized to your values (in my case, effective altruist ones) and preferences is tough and people like to stress the risks, especially when talking to younger people, but if you can get away with it, it is just a really fulfilling and joyful way to live.
I think I’m much happier than most of my old friends, on many dimensions, and I feel I get to express more of myself and generally be more myself, and have such a rich sense of meaning and purpose which a lot of people my age seem to struggle to find. I think if I’d gone a more conventional route, a lot of the things that are most precious to me wouldn’t even be a part of my life.
I don’t know what the odds of success with this are, and I do know of some people who tried to do something less conventional and I think it was quite bad for them, so I can’t say I recommend it from a self-interested perspective. I’m just saying that at least for me and a few other people I know, it’s made our lives much better and more meaningful. There’s a lot to gain, as well as to lose.
Get plenty of sleep and exercise
Get enough sleep. Exercise regularly. Experiment a lot with different ways of boosting your happiness, and productivity throughout the day. Maybe that means getting lots of light, maybe that means drinking coffee with theanine, maybe that means chewing nicotine gum, maybe that means working in pomodoros — maybe not. The possible payoffs to these kinds of things are very high.
There are pieces of advice that people sometimes don’t give, that seem really useful. Like, “focus a lot on your sleep, it’s really important”, or “exercise regularly, it’ll make you feel better”.
Do whatever the optimal thing is
Especially within the effective altruism community, it’s incredibly valuable to have people who are willing to do whatever the optimal thing is. It’s probably 10x more valuable than someone who’s really fussy.
Be able to give and receive blunt feedback
Being able to receive blunt criticism and feedback is a very hard, but very valuable skill. And being able to deliver it in a way that makes the other person feel respected is also a very hard, but very valuable skill.
Spend less time reading the news
Dramatically limit time spent on learning nondurable things, like news and twitter. It’s not just the time spent, but also that people tend to actually get less informed about the big picture issues, like believing the world is becoming more violent or more unequal. One compromise I found is the BBC’s “The World This Week” that is just 20 minutes a week.
Editor’s note: You may enjoy these pieces on homicide and global income inequality from our friends at Our World In Data — two of dozens of articles they have tracking the state of the world and how it has changed over time.
Be honest with your yourself about relationships
If you’re asking yourself the question, “should I break up with my partner?” — the answer is probably yes. But it’s also not that bad if you stay with someone who you’re okay about.
Target beliefs rather than groups
Avoid making arguments that needlessly involve criticising groups that people are part of, because it’s often hard for people not to not see it as a personal attack.
For example, if I were talking about a religious belief I disagree with, I’d try to talk about that specific belief and not about the religion as a whole, since not all members of that group will necessarily share that belief.
It’s a bit like if you’re a member of an intellectual group, and other people say “here’s what these feminists think”, or “here are the beliefs of these liberals” — and you wish they’d just target a belief that they think is bad. Why go via the group? It just seems likely to antagonise people in a way that’s totally unnecessary.
Insofar as a large group of people have a belief that I disagree with, I feel pretty comfortable targeting that belief. It seems both more effective and more honest.
Carefully plan for retirement
I have a retirement spreadsheet. The biggest factor when you can retire is your return on investment.
The general rule of thumb is retiring when you have 25 times your current annual expenses (some people say income, but that can be very different from expenses if you donate or save a lot). If you are retiring earlier than the median 61, you could argue you need more to retire, but of course if you have a better return on investment, you could retire with less. But if you do retire with more money, then you can afford to invest it riskily, and continue to donate a lot in retirement.
I think retiring on 25 times consumption of about $50,000 for a four person family or $1.25 million and investing riskily with a backup plan (like getting a less desirable job) in case there is a global depression could make sense.
One should consider Social Security, possible inheritance, reduced expenditures because of owning your home (if you plan to do that), etc. In the US, you have to worry about inflating healthcare costs, but at least they have been a stable percent of GDP for the last 15 years or so.
Make conscious use of your self-knowledge
I think people underrate some very meta skill of having self-awareness and examining advice you get critically, with an eye to whether it’s relevant to you. Knowing “am I generally too risk-taking or risk-averse? Do past mistakes make it seem like I’m underconfident or overconfident? Am I likely to do too much of X or too little?” is like a neat trick for making vague advice more useful and less dangerous.
It’s been surprising to me how I’ve been able to accurately answer the question “how will I later think my current actions or behaviour is flawed?”, but I don’t adjust my behaviour automatically… I need to consciously ask the question, then adjust deliberately. I know some other people are similar. Sometimes you know a lot about yourself, you just need to remember to bring it into the foreground.
Don’t live in the centre of big cities
The most misguided common opinions among people I respect are: risk aversion in investing, not prioritizing positive impact, not valuing the long-term future, thinking that weather is important for happiness, buying a house in the centre of the city (because I think autonomous vehicles will lower real estate values, at least relative to ‘business as usual’), that it’s a good idea to live in the centre of major cities in NATO countries (I think this is misguided because of nuclear war risk), and various cognitive biases.
If you can afford to, just be braver.
Have a sense of humour
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
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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
- Career advice I wish I’d been given when I was young
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.