The idea this week: you can learn a lot from mistakes.
In that spirit, we’re sharing six stories of mistakes that staff at 80,000 Hours think they’ve made in their careers.
And if you’re interested in hearing more, we strongly recommend a recent episode of our podcast, 80k After Hours, about 10 mistakes people make when pursuing a high-impact career.
1. Not asking for help
A mistake I have frequently made, and still sometimes do, is not asking for help with applications. I usually feel awkward about others reading my letters or essays or practicing interview questions, and I also don’t want to waste my friends’ time.
But whenever I end up asking for help, it improves my applications significantly, and people are usually happy to help. (I enjoy giving feedback on applications as well!)
–Anemone Franz, advisor
2. Ruling out an option too quickly
I first became concerned about risks from artificial intelligence in 2014, when I read Superintelligence. The book convinced me these risks were serious. And more importantly, I couldn’t find persuasive counterarguments at the time.
But because I didn’t have a background in technical fields — I thought of myself as a writer — I concluded there was little I could contribute to the field and mostly worked on other problems.
Now I think this was a mistake. I could have used my time in grad school to research this neglected issue and nascent field, which I now write about often. It’s good to keep in mind that while you want to find work that’s a good personal fit for you and that plays to your strengths, you shouldn’t dismiss certain paths too quickly.
–Cody Fenwick, research analyst
3. A cluster of mistakes
I made a cluster of mistakes when applying for jobs. First, I underestimated how time consuming the application processes could be and didn’t have a strategy for how to balance this with my existing workload. In hindsight, I could have made life a little less stressful by adjusting my expectations of how many things I could apply to and of how much “normal” work I could do alongside applications.
I also should have prioritised getting more information about the work environment of the places I was applying to earlier in the process. I ended up spending time applying to a place where — after learning more about the environment there — I realised it wouldn’t be a good fit for me. I could have found all the information earlier in the process and avoided wasting some time!
Another (silly) mistake here was not storing all of my application responses in one place — whenever an application asked a question that I thought I’d answered during another application, I had to traipse through a bunch of places to find the answer I half-remembered. I think this led to a bunch of duplicated effort.
–Jess Smith, operations specialist
4. Jumping to conclusions from too little evidence
In undergrad, I wanted to test my fit for quantitative finance. But I concluded that it wasn’t for me after only applying to two internships — and getting quite far in the interview process for one of them.
The first mistake I made was only applying to two firms. I felt at the time that applying to more would trade off too harshly against my studies. But I was clearly rationalising the choice to avoid doing something I found really scary. There’s a tonne of randomness in hiring, and if I had applied to 20 internships instead of two, my chance of success would’ve been much higher.
The second mistake I made was in interpreting the results of this cheap test. I didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that I had a great time playing around with the maths problems in the interviews. That was a sign the work would be a good fit for me, and I should probably have applied to other similar opportunities.
At the time, I thought that getting rejected after a long process was a stronger sign that I wasn’t good enough because they had so much evidence of my performance after seven interviews. In fact, I think this was evidence that I was a strong candidate and could probably get much better with some extra work.
–Huon Porteous, advisor
5. Only looking at a narrow set of options
I basically only considered two options for things to do after university — grad school in law or a philosophy PhD — because they were the only ones that were salient and that it seemed like I’d be good at. That’s wild to me now.
–Arden Koehler, website director
6. Insights from recruiting
When I started recruiting staff myself, I realised that I’d made some big mistakes in how I previously approached applications.
The biggest one was trying to make good prose and narrative out of a statement or cover letter instead of very explicitly addressing the selection criteria. Once I was the one with the checklist, the deadline, and the huge pile of applications, I realised how little I prioritised “good writing” like this in a cover letter. I wanted to know if a candidate met the criteria and for them to communicate clearly to me that they understood the requirements.
I also realised that I had often been relying on a job title and description in my application to convey my level of responsibility and knowledge, and that I hadn’t been clear enough on what exactly my role entailed. The same job title can and does imply very different responsibilities in different organisations. What seems obvious to you can be totally opaque to an interviewer.
–Nik Mastroddi, marketer
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