‘Replaceability’ isn’t as important as you might think (or we’ve suggested)

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Often if you turn down a skilled job, the role simply won’t be filled at all because there’s no suitable substitute available. For this and other reasons we don’t place as much weight as we used to on the idea of ‘replaceability’.

When we started 80,000 Hours, one of the key ideas we presented was the replaceability argument:

Suppose you become a surgeon and perform 100 life saving operations. Naively it seems like your impact is to save 100 people’s lives. If you hadn’t taken the job, however, someone else likely would have taken it instead. So your true (counterfactual) impact is less than the good you do directly.

I still think this is a good argument, but I’m not sure how relevant it is when comparing real career options.

In particular, I see the argument often being used incorrectly in the following two ways:

  1. Ignoring direct harm: Suppose you’re considering taking a job that some people think is harmful (e.g. certain parts of the financial sector) in order to donate, do advocacy or build skills. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so the potential harm I’ll do directly doesn’t matter”.

  2. Ignoring direct impact: Suppose you’re considering working at a high-impact nonprofit. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so I won’t have much impact.”

I disagree with both of these claims in most circumstances. Why?

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Update: how many extra donations have we caused?

One way 80,000 Hours has an impact is by increasing the amount our users donate to high-impact charities. As part of our annual review, we did a quick update to the figures from our last review. The process we used wasn’t as thorough as we would have liked, but provides some encouraging evidence of our impact.

What we did

We identified the largest donors we know of who (i) have made significant plan changes according to our definition and (ii) say they intend to earn to give.

We asked them the following questions via email:

  • How much have you donated over the last three years?
  • How much do you expect to donate over the next three years?
  • Where to?
  • How much of this is attributable to 80,000 Hours? (meaning what wouldn’t have been given if 80,000 Hours didn’t exist).
  • How much have you pledged to give as part of GWWC or otherwise?

For those people who responded last year, we asked for an extra year of data. You can see the answers and case studies from last year’s review in the appendix here.

We received responses from all ten people asked. Each intends to give to whichever charities they believe to be highest-impact (in practice, this mostly means effective altruist organisations or charities recommended by GiveWell or Giving What We Can). Also included in our results is last year’s highest donor (“A”),

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Is wealth inequality so extreme that it’s OK to be a ruthless trader?

U.S._Distribution_of_Wealth,_2007
Wealth inequality globally is incredibly high. Perversely, this can be an argument in favour of working in finance.

Many people are concerned that ‘earning to give’ in the financial industry is overall harmful for the world, even if you give away most of your income to outstanding charities.

To figure out if this is true, we have been researching the size of the harms (and in some cases, benefits) caused by finance. (Though please note 80,000 Hours is not just about earning to give and in fact we think it’s the best path for only a small share of our readers.)

One of the concerns we’ve investigated is that some parts of quantitative finance are a socially-useless competition between traders that only changes who gets some amount of income, not that someone gets it. I think this is true, but the incredible amount of inequality in the world makes this argument against working in finance fairly weak.

If you make a random clever trade on a stock exchange and beat some other trader to a profit by 1 millisecond, whose pocket is this money coming from? A poor African farmer? No, they have no wealth to take. A middle class American family? It’s possible, but most of their wealth, if they have any, is probably in their house or bank account.

We don’t have perfect figures here, but looking at reasonable estimates,

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LinkedIn finds the most common ways in and out of every career

We recently wrote a career profile on medicine which said that one of the most common exit opportunities for physicians was into academia. How exactly did we know that?

LinkedIn has mined their enormous dataset to find the most frequent career transitions for people from a huge range of different professions. It turns out that the most frequent transfer for a physician or surgeon is to become a university professor, presumably studying or teaching medicine itself. Most roles have several common options.

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I strongly recommend playing around with it and reading their analysis. It turns out that ‘sales’ is a huge skill area and one of the most common next steps for people from a very wide range of professions. Almost every business needs some people to work on sales!

You can use this both to see what your natural next career moves are, and figure out what indirect paths you can use to get into a particular different position you have in mind. It doesn’t do the reverse lookup itself yet, so you’ll need to guess which options are most likely to lead you into the one you want.

We’ll be incorporating the wisdom of this tool into our career profiles as we update them.

The broad skill groupings they classified seemed to me to be:

  • Sales, hospitality and logistics (blue)
  • Health and education (red)
  • Information technology (pink)
  • Practical trades,

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Systemic change becomes non-systemic change and vice versa

As you might have heard, there is an active debate among the 80,000 Hours community about the effectiveness of attempts to change societal systems – such as laws, institutions or social norms – versus so-called “non-systemic” approaches, such as funding health treatments directly, or becoming a teacher.

Sometimes these debates become quite heated.

To put my cards on the table, I lean towards systemic change being a more promising approach, at least given my skills. Hence, I’ve studied public policy and worked in a Government think tank myself. I also see one of the major long-run impacts of 80,000 Hours to be changing social norms about how people think about how they spend their working life.

But I find it hard to get too passionate with those who lean the other way. One reason for this was well explained in a comment by my friend Catriona Mackay:

I think that people on the whole are biased towards against non-systemic change (i.e if you did a survey asking whether it’s best to treat the causes or the symptoms of poverty, almost everyone would answer ’causes’, even if there were strong evidence that both were effective in terms of increasing net well-being), and so it’s likely that non-systemic causes are more underfunded, so I can contribute more.

On the other hand, I think that scaling up proven health solutions and cash grants and so on are also ways of contributing to systemic/revolutionary change.

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We’ve caused 188 significant plan changes

The results of our annual impact survey are in, so we can give an update on the number of significant plan changes we’ve caused as of the end of April 2014.

“Significant plan change” is the key metric we use to track our impact. See a definition.

Results of the annual impact survey

The survey was open from November 2014 to early March this year. We promoted it throughout February, on our newsletter, our blog and social media as well as in-person. To encourage responses, we offered a $200 prize to one randomly selected respondent.

This resulted in 218 responses, of which 85 people answered “yes” to the following question:

“Has your engagement with 80,000 Hours caused you to significantly change your career plans?”

How many of the people who said “yes” count as having made significant plan changes according to our criteria?

First, we removed 13 people who were already captured last year (though worth noting is that five of these people seem to have made a second significant shift in plans due to us).

Second, we removed a further 18 people who didn’t seem to make our criteria. The main reason was that they didn’t list a specific shift in plans, and instead listed an intention to shift in the future or only gave a very vague response. It’s likely that some of these people would count as significant plan changes if we asked for more detail,

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New definition of a significant plan change

We’re changing how we define “significant plan changes”.

The “significant plan change” is the key metric we track month-to-month to measure our impact.

It’s related to our total impact as follows:

(Number of significant plan changes) multiplied by (the value of the average significant plan change)

We evaluate the value of a significant plan change once every year or two (see our last evaluation). This means the more difficult judgement calls concerning our impact (such as whether plan changes are really improvements, and the extent to which they would have been caused by other groups anyway) are isolated into a separate evaluation process that we perform less frequently.

Our new definition for a significant plan change is:

A sig plan change =df Someone tells us that 80,000 Hours caused them to change the career path they intend to pursue, in a way that they think increases their lifetime impact.

In practice, this means:

  • They fill out one of our surveys saying “yes” to “has your engagement with 80,000 Hours caused you to significantly change your career plans?”
  • They tell us what path they changed from and what path they now intend to pursue.
  • They tell us what sort of engagement with us caused the change (e.g. reading an article vs. coaching vs. speaking to someone in our community).
  • They believe this will result in greater impact (rather than just higher job satisfaction or other benefits).

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If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not.

About 1 in 200 people become doctors, many of them because they want to cure the sick and generally make the world a better place. Are they making the right decision?

To help answer that question, we’ve produced an exploratory career profile on medical careers.

The conclusion of our research is that most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career.

The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA.

However, medicine is high earning and highly fulfilling, and we expect there are more promising opportunities to help others through biomedical research, public health, health policy and (e.g. hospital) management.

Overall, we think going to medical school would be the best way to have a social impact only if someone felt they were a significantly better fit for medicine than the other options we recommend.

Dr Greg Lewis, a practicing physician in the UK, wrote most of the career profile.

Key findings

  • Having more physicians in the developed world has a surprisingly small impact on the health of recipients.

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Disagreeing about what’s effective isn’t disagreeing with effective altruism

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Lately I have had the uncanny experience of reading supposed ‘rebuttals’ of effective altruism that just say a bunch of things that I and most of my colleagues agree with. As we are some of the most involved people in the effective altruism movement, this is strange to say the least.

What is going on here is that effective altruism is both a narrow core idea, and a bunch of associated ideas. Some of these associated ideas happen to be widely held by people who describe themselves as effective altruists – others don’t even meet that standard.

What is the core idea?

  • Effective altruism is the use of evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible.

Many of my colleagues would want to add here that you ‘should’ use evidence and reason to help others as much as possible. But there is no consensus on whether engaging in ‘effective altruism’ is a moral duty, or just something we should be enthusiastic about because we care about others.

What about the associated ideas? I could listed dozens, but some are:

  • It’s highly effective to give to GiveWell recommended charities;
  • Randomised controlled trials are a great way to figure out what works in development;
  • Animal welfare is an important thing to worry about;

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Get the chance to save the world with this one weird trick

one-weird-trick2When I was an undergraduate I came to fully understand the depth of the world’s problems: tens of billions of animals were suffering in factory farms, humanity faced the risk of catastrophic nuclear war, billions continue to live in horrendous poverty, and that was just the start. I wanted to solve these problems, but when I tried to take concrete steps I mostly felt powerless and frustrated.

I was right to feel powerless. As an undergraduate there was relatively little I could do to directly solve anything.

I had no income to give; no insights that hadn’t been had; and no platform from which to ask people to change their behaviour. I really didn’t want the world to be incinerated in a nuclear apocalypse, but – fortunately – nuclear security policy isn’t set by random Australian undergraduates who happen to think they know what’s best.

Luckily for most of us, this powerlessness need only be a temporary, if unpleasant, condition.

If you are a high school student or undergraduate frustrated about your limited influence in the world, there’s one thing you need to be working to get.

With it comes the ability to change things.

Some younger people manage to get a lot of it very quickly, but the majority of us will have the most of it between 40 and 60, so you need to keep a long-term view.

A lot of our advice for young people is geared towards helping them accumulate more of it.

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What people miss about career capital: exceptional achievements


Pooja Chandrashekar is a good demonstration that sometimes the best way to show people you can achieve amazing things is just to achieve amazing things. (Photo by J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

When we talk about “career capital” it seems people first imagine “brand name” jobs e.g. working at Google, McKinsey, or getting a credential like a law degree or graduate study at a prestigious university. And it’s true these paths all boost your career capital. But I think there’s another important component of career capital that’s often neglected.

A big part of having really strong career capital is having eye-catching, valuable achievements. Eye-catching achievements make you stand out, another form of credential. Standing out helps you to meet successful people, building your connections. The process of getting exceptional achievements usually involves pushing yourself too, so it correlates with learning strong skills. Overall, striving for eye-catching achievements seems at least as important as gaining prestige or conventional credentials – so if you only focus on the latter you could be making a mistake.

One example to illustrate (but of course not prove!) the point: Pooja Chandraskekar, who this year was one of the few students in the world to be admitted to all the Ivy League Universities. Among much else, she developed a mobile app that predicts whether a person has Parkinson’s disease with 96% accuracy. She needed these achievements to make her stand out among all the other people who have “ticked the boxes” of good grades,

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Defining ‘Earning to Give’

We’ve found there’s sometimes been confusion about what ‘earning to give’ means. Here’s our working definition.

You’re earning to give if and only if:

  1. You deliberately pursue a career that is high-earning (given your options) in order to do good through your donations AND
  2. You donate a very significant proportion of your earnings, where for someone earning more than the average in rich countries, ‘very significant’ means at least 20% of income.

As with all the technical terms the effective altruism community has introduced, we should worry about how the meaning of that term might change over time as it gets more widely used. For ‘earning to give’ I think the biggest concern is that the qualifying bar for % donations goes down: I think someone who’s in a high-earning career but only giving 2% shouldn’t count as ‘earning to give,’ but I can foresee scenarios in which people start using the term that way. Of course, for someone who is not able to take a very high-earning career, the bar for % donations should be lower.

Sometimes I hear ‘earning to give’ to be used almost synonymously with ‘donating': I think, though, that it’s more useful to keep the concept of ‘earning to give’ focused on a specific career strategy, rather than simply donating in whatever career you’re already in.

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Effective altruists love systemic change

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Effective altruists are out working every day to fix society’s systemic problems. It’s time to definitely rebut the claim that we don’t care about systemic change.

Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.

Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against systemic change.1

Despite being the most widespread critique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.

Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that they could!

So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.

What about in practice, though? Here are some systemic changes people who identify as effective altruists are working on today:

  • Most of the recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are all clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
  • The OpenBorders.info website also researches and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
  • A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is trialling making submissions to open policy forums held by the US government over this summer.
  • Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research the most important policy priorities for governments, and how they can establish better cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
  • One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within non-profits, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
  • Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was about appropriate use of discounts rates by governments thinking about health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
  • Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows.
  • Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and preclude conflict.
  • 80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts on animal welfare, such as Humane Society US-FARM, or are activists working for dramatic society-wide changes in how humans view the moral importance of non-human animals.

It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.

We’re not done though.

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80,000 Hours thinks that only a small proportion of people should earn to give long term


Norman Borlaug didn’t make millions, his research just saved millions of lives.

One of the most common misconceptions that we’ve encountered about 80,000 Hours is that we’re exclusively or predominantly focused on earning to give. This blog post is to say definitively that this is not the case. Moreover, the proportion of people for whom we think earning to give is the best option has gone down over time.

To get a sense of this, I surveyed the 80,000 Hours team on the following question: “At this point in time, and on the margin, what portion of altruistically motivated graduates from a good university, who are open to pursuing any career path, should aim to earn to give in the long term?” (Please note that this is just a straw poll used as a way of addressing the misconception stated; it doesn’t represent a definitive answer to this question).

Will: 15%
Ben: 20%
Rob: 10%
Roman: 15%

Instead, we think that most people should be doing things like politics, policy, high-value research, for-profit and non-profit entrepreneurship, and direct work for highly socially valuable organizations.

The misconception persists for a few reasons: when 80,000 Hours first launched, we led with the idea of earning to give very heavily as a marketing strategy; it was true that we used to believe that at least a large proportion of people should aim to earn to give long-term;

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In some careers your parents can give you a huge boost. Should you do what they did?

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Would Angelina Jolie have been as successful if her father wasn’t Jon Voight?

In our talks we often note that in the past people typically went into the same career as their parents, but today young people are free to choose from a much wider range of options that might suit them better. That’s true, and it’s a great thing. However, there are still sometimes reasons to follow in your parents’ footsteps.

New research shows that working in the same field as a successful parent can give your odds of success a huge boost. Surely some of what’s going on here is that the child of a star parent is more likely to try to enter the same field in the first place, but part must also be that they are more likely to succeed when they do so.

Some, perhaps even most, of that effect will be due to to unfair and zero-sum nepotistic advantage, and so shouldn’t be actively exploited. But part of it must also be down to nothing immoral: you will start learning about the work incidentally from a young age, you’ll happen to make useful contacts as you grow up, and your parent may even be able to offer you personal coaching.

Unfortunately, the boost seems to be largest in fields where performance is hardest to measure (it’s smaller in sport and science) or where a brand surname matters, as in politics.

Here are the results for some of the most competitive positions in society:

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I recommend reading the full article which has many more details.

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Why are wages less stable in skilled professions?

There is some evidence, in fact, that markets for highly skilled workers, such as engineers and other specialized professionals, exhibit systematic periods of boom and bust…1

Earnings tend to fluctuate significantly more in highly skilled professions than in others, rising to high levels for a number of years before plunging and, ultimately, rising again. Why is this the case? Here’s the explanation put forward by Harvard economist George Borjas in his leading textbook on Labor Economics.2

What’s going on?

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I want to make a difference. Should I work in marketing?

If you want to make a difference, should you work in marketing? The short answer: probably not. Although marketing may have positive effects through informing consumers, there’s also arguments that marketing is harmful, so it’s overall effect is unclear.

However, marketing is a valuable, transferable skill. So spending several years in marketing keeps your options open and could open up positions in high-impact organisations.

It’s also well paid, so worth considering for earning to give.

Overall, it’s worth considering as an early career option, especially if you’re stronger on verbal rather than quantitative skills, and don’t want to work in consulting (which is also highly paid and keeps your options open).

Read our full new career profile.

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What are your chances of getting elected to Congress, if you try?

Congress being sworn in

The short answer to this question is ‘very low’. In total there are 535 seats in Congress and 320 million people living in the USA. At any point then, just 1 in 600,000 people living in the USA are members of Congress.

In a competition this insanely selective, only a small share of the population will have what it takes to seriously pursue a career in national politics. Some people who seem like they could be in with a chance – great undergraduate results, high verbal intelligence, charisma and persuasiveness – come to us looking for advice on their career.

If you were one of these people and actually tried to become a member of Congress, your odds would be much higher than 1 in 600,000 – but how much higher exactly?

It’s not straightforward to find a way to make progress. Nevertheless, we think we have found an approach that can get us in the right ballpark for some kinds of people. The method we will use is called reference class forecasting. In reference class forecasting you find a group that you are a member of and see what share of people in that group succeed.

Who makes it to Congress?

If you want to know how closely you resemble existing members of Congress the paper to start with is ‘Membership of the 114th Congress: A Profile‘, from the Congressional Research Service.

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