Advice for younger people
Michelle Hutchinson: One piece of advice is taking your productivity seriously. A lot of students treat their time as extremely cheap, because usually they don’t have much money and they do have plenty of time. So they end up doing things that are pretty inefficient. For example, they don’t necessarily think through carefully how to study as efficiently as they can. I definitely was very guilty of this. I just kind of figured out a way that I would revise for exams in high school and then continued doing that, rather than doing any reading about what the best study techniques might be.
Habiba Islam: And this is not just about studying well — when you’re thinking about productivity, you can be learning habits that are going to stand you in good stead for the whole rest of your life. And you can apply them to the extracurricular stuff that you’re doing, to the careers things that you’re trying out, internships and things like that. It’s a very broadly useful skill.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. And there are a bunch of things that can help you with your productivity that people don’t necessarily look into. One that I find very important is having an accountability partner. In normal jobs, you usually have a boss, who asks you every week, “How did your work go last week? What’s your plan for next week? What went well and badly last week? How are you going to improve for next week?” And I find that extremely useful for keeping me on track, and making sure that I’m thinking realistically about things and not beating myself up, but am setting ambitious goals and things. Students don’t have anything like that, but they could easily pair up and help each other in that way.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. I definitely know some people who’ve done this at PhD level, where they effectively found themselves like a line manager for a friend. And like Michelle said, this is the kind of thing that you could do earlier on as well, for sure.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think people at high school, and certainly me in the early years of undergrad, I didn’t value each hour of my time all that much. I suppose one reason is you don’t have that much money, so you feel like you have to potentially waste time in order to save money in a bunch of different ways. But another reason is like, “I study more efficiently, now I have more time. What am I doing with that extra time?” Back then, I think my marginal hour was just spent hanging out with people, which is kind of useful, but it’s not super useful. Is there anything you would recommend that people re-divert their time savings from efficient studying towards?
Michelle Hutchinson: The thing I really wish I had done was think more about where I was aiming for and what I needed to do to get there. Because I, like you, spent a lot of my time hanging out, maybe reading extra things for courses in an unstructured type of way. Whereas what I would’ve really liked to do was learn a bunch more about what kinds of jobs I would be good at, by taking on research assistanting, or reading more about what it would be like working in some particular type of industry, maybe taking an internship there. University is a fantastic time for doing internships during the summer and testing out a bunch of different things, but it’s very easy to not actually get into doing that.
Impact of the 1-1 service
Michelle Hutchinson: I think there’s a bunch of different types of value people get out of our conversations, and it depends a lot on the person, but I think of it as three different kinds of buckets. One of them is on the “sounding board for a person’s plan” side — thinking through how they might rank the different options they have, what the next steps might be, that kind of nitty-gritty. The second is basically encouragement of different forms — that might take the form of actually reassuring someone that the plan they have is a good one, or encouraging people to reach out to others and seek the guidance that they want. And then the third is providing what you might think of as more concrete benefits — introducing people to others working in fields they’re interested in, or sending them specific resources and flagging books that they might find useful to read.
Michelle Hutchinson: That latter part is probably where most of our value comes from. I think of the conversations as learning a lot about the person in the first two thirds of the call, to try to figure out where they fit in the overall landscape and what kinds of directions might be sensible for them. And then, towards the end of the call, thinking through how can they learn more about whether they’re a fit for that direction: How can they figure out whether they would like it? What should their next steps be in terms of finding that out or applying for things?
Habiba Islam: Yeah. Ultimately, then, all of these ways that we’re helping people hopefully cash out in helping people to shift their career plans, ideally, and move into a particular role that’s their specific niche — the way that they can have the most impact.
Habiba Islam: Sometimes, within 80,000 Hours, we talk a bit about two different ways that we could change someone’s career. Potentially one of the biggest things that we could do is this kind of trajectory change — where someone was going off in one particular direction and then, due to our influence and our help, they switched to going in a completely different direction. This is actually relatively rare, because a lot of the kinds of people that we might help are altruistic, agenty, smart people, who would connect with the community and find out some of these ideas even if we didn’t exist. So it’s relatively rare for us to think that someone would never have come across this help or never made this big of a change, although we think that at least there’s some chance that we’ve caused this trajectory change.
Habiba Islam: One of the other things that we think is often more likely is speeding up someone to end up on that path. Maybe the help that we give them means that they’re able to start working in a really impactful role four or five years earlier than they would have otherwise, if they had to work this all out by themselves.
Biggest challenges for the 1-1 team
Michelle Hutchinson: One problem we have is that this isn’t a very scalable type of intervention. It is very labor intensive. And then also, you need to hire people who are pretty good at getting an understanding of people, and have a good understanding of a lot of different careers, and are going to be good at signposting people, and good at having conversations about values and things. That means that we historically have just not been able to offer that many conversations to people, and a corollary of that is that we’ve had a fairly selective process for which people we talk to — to try to find the people that will actually get the most out of it.
Michelle Hutchinson: The thing that’s particularly worried me about that is that people can apply for the service and then be turned down for having a conversation, and take that as a strong negative evaluation of their likelihood of having an impact. That’s not at all what we intend to convey when we say that we think we’d be more useful to someone else, because there are just a lot of different reasons that we might be able to be useful to one person and not another — including pretty contingent things, like someone applies who happens to be considering doing a project in an area where we know someone else who’s trying to do a similar project, and we think it’d be useful to put them in touch and things.
Michelle Hutchinson: But that’s definitely something that we’ve worried about quite a bit in the past, and we’ve tried to make some changes to head off this a bit. For example, we now introduce some people who apply that we don’t speak to to other people in the community who are also able to have these kinds of conversations. But it’s a thing that continues to be on our mind.
Making people more ambitious about what they can do
Michelle Hutchinson: I think this is a hugely important thing. I think a lot of people feel like the world is somehow irreparable, and there’s nothing they can really do about it. So giving specific ways that they might be able to help with it, and the general sense that there are things out there that people can do really helps. And then also talking to people specifically and saying, “Hey, you actually seem really talented. You absolutely can do something useful. You should go for it,” can be pretty useful.
Michelle Hutchinson: One of the most recent additions to our team, in fact, ended up applying for the job because I talked to him on one of our one-on-one calls, and said that he seemed like a great candidate for applying for a bunch of direct work jobs, which he previously had felt too nervous to apply for. And I encouraged him to apply for them, and now he’s working with us. So I think this is actually just a big part of our value add.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. I’m particularly interested in being more ambitious from an impact perspective. I think that’s just a really huge value add of the effective altruism community in general. This is part of the reason why I signed the Giving What We Can pledge — just because I became aware that it was a thing, and it didn’t really occur to me that I could make such a significant commitment until someone floated the idea.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. It’s been so significant for me as well. My first job was running Giving What We Can, and it just wouldn’t at all have occurred to me that I could set up or run a charity until someone was like, “Hey, this is an important thing to do. You agree it’s an important thing to do. You should have a go. I think you’ll be fine at it.” And then I figured out how to do it, and it went fine.
Habiba Islam: More than fine. I’m also pretty keen on giving people a taste of the sort of privilege that you get when you get to go to a really elite school or elite university. In a lot of those situations, people are constantly told that they can achieve great things, and go into life with this robust sense of, “Of course I can.”
Rob Wiblin: Self-efficacy.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. And I think more people could stand to hear something similar.