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I think trying out different things, and forming your own views on what’s worthwhile, actually stands you in good stead later down the line.

I think it would be a shame if people went straight to assuming that we’ve got it all worked out and therefore they should only try the things that seem like they are the perfect, most effective things already or something.

Habiba Islam

In this episode of 80k After Hours, Rob continues to interview his 80,000 Hours colleagues Michelle Hutchinson and Habiba Islam about the 1-1 team.

This is the second of a two-part interview. You can find the first part on the original 80,000 Hours Podcast feed.

In this part, they cover:

  • Whether just encouraging someone young to aspire to more than they currently are is one of the most impactful ways to spend half an hour
  • How much impact the one-on-one team has, the biggest challenges they face as a group, and different paths they could have gone down
  • Whether giving general advice is a doomed enterprise
  • And more

Who this episode is for:

  • Young people interested in 80,000 Hours
  • People curious about the inner workings of the 1-1 team
  • People who left the first part wanting more

Who this episode isn’t for:

  • People who left the first part wanting less
  • People who like up-to-date movie recommendations

Get this episode by subscribing to our more experimental podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80k After Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue, original 1924 version” by Jason Weinberger is licensed under creative commons

Highlights

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.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Part one of this interview

80,000 Hours resources to find an impactful career:

80,000 Hours career articles:

Effective altruism community funding and resources:

Other 80,000 Hours Podcast episodes:

Everything else:

Transcript

Keiran’s intro [00:00:00]

Keiran Harris: Welcome to 80k After Hours. I’m Keiran Harris — producer of the show, and former TV bounty hunter.

Today’s episode is part of a shameless attempt to drive subscribers from the original 80,000 Hours Podcast to here, by forcing people to listen to an episode in two parts.

In the first part, Rob spoke with two of our advisors — Michelle and Habiba — about their common advice, their favourite stories of people who’ve changed careers, and how Michelle deals with the emotional challenge of trying to help people who haven’t been born rather than people alive today.

In this second part, the very same people discuss:

  • Advice for younger people
  • The impact of the 1-1 service
  • The biggest challenges for the 1-1 team
  • Agnes Callard’s essay “Against Advice”
  • And making people more ambitious about what they can do

It’s probably fine to listen to either part first, and you can find that first part on the original 80,000 Hours Podcast feed — it’s number 122.

OK, here’s Rob, Michelle, and Habiba.

Advice for younger people [00:01:06]

Rob Wiblin: Let’s talk for a bit about what advice you give to people earlier in their lives, when they may be students at high school or doing undergrad degrees. Do you talk to people at high school?

Michelle Hutchinson: Occasionally.

Rob Wiblin: Is that potentially going to become more common in the future?

Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, we’ll probably do it a bit more. It is a bit harder to add a lot of value to someone in high school, because their plan is already typically fairly mapped out. Usually they’re about to go to university and they still have a bunch of time to figure out what major to do and things, so they don’t have that many action-relevant questions for us.

Rob Wiblin: Well, let’s try to add some generic value here. We haven’t talked that much about what young people should do on the show before, but it seems like there can be quite a lot to gain from shifting your trajectory or shifting your ambitions early on. I’ve heard from people who say they wished that they’d learned about 80,000 Hours years before, when they were in high school, because it would’ve put them on a different path. But I guess also there might be some concepts that are relevant to everyone. What’s a message you might want more students to be hearing?

Michelle Hutchinson: One 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.

Rob Wiblin: I guess we shouldn’t be too harsh on hanging out with people, because folks do potentially get a lot of value out of, well, improving their social skills, but also making new connections. It’s probably better to be spending time with your friends than studying really inefficiently. We wouldn’t ever recommend that someone do the reverse: that they stop hanging out with their friends and instead just study much worse.

Habiba Islam: We have a really nice article actually, “Advice for undergraduates.” I think it is really worth emphasizing that during your university time, studying is a useful part of that but is not even obviously the majority of the thing that you should be focusing on. Depending on what it is that you want to do with your career, then thinking about career stuff, thinking about learning more broadly, different reading around interests, thinking about cause prioritization, thinking about just traveling, getting experience doing leadership roles in community clubs and things like that — all of these things just can be really important. And if you can get better at using your time, you can spend more time on all of these different things.

Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. Definitely a thing that probably would’ve been useful for me as an undergraduate would be getting to know a broader array of people through joining different clubs and things like that.

Rob Wiblin: There’s a strange paradox where it feels like people don’t value an incremental hour very much until they graduate, and then suddenly they’re earning money and they value it a ton. But it’s not obvious how this can be consistent, because lots of the things that they could do later, they could have been doing earlier. It seems like there should be some rough equivalence in how much they should be willing to save an extra hour in the final year of their undergrad versus the first year of their working. Or even the first year of their undergrad versus five years into their career.

Rob Wiblin: How can there be such a stark difference in how people treat time, given that they could just save time, work harder, and then just push their life forward quicker by graduating sooner, for example. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Maybe there’s something where there’s just things that you can do once you have a job that you couldn’t do before at all. I guess you could also think it’s a credit-constraint issue — that people have much more money after they graduate and get a job. And for that reason, there’s things that it would be good if they could borrow money against their future income and do earlier, when they’re an undergraduate, but they can’t. And so they’re left with lots of time and no way to fill it.

Michelle Hutchinson: I think that definitely is part of the effect. Some of it also is just your reference class and who you are around. Once you’re working, you’re suddenly around a ton of people who have been working for a long-ish while and have a bunch of money and gotten into the habit of using it to save time and things like that. I think that’s part of why I was thinking it seems important to spend your time at university meeting more people, because it’s just very useful to surround yourself with people who are doing the kinds of things that you want to be doing.

Rob Wiblin: The stuff that I feel I don’t have time for these days is learning more broadly. I barely have time to keep up with the most important effective altruist research that’s coming out, and I get to read books sometimes in order to be able to prepare for these interviews. But I kind of wish that I had read a whole lot more stuff when I was in undergrad, when I did just have hours that I would fritter away, potentially playing computer games or hanging out with people in a somewhat aimless way.

Habiba Islam: Yeah. I think once you get your first job, you’ll be like, “Wow, I do not have time for doing quite as many of these things as I wanted to.” Which is why I think that things like the effective altruism introductory fellowships that some of the community groups run are just really great guided reading groups, where you have other people to discuss some of these ideas with and nudge yourself to do some more of this kind of learning more broadly beyond your cause.

Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I find reading groups so useful for getting me to actually read the things that I want to, and then also to understand them better, because you get to chat to other people about the uncertainties you had in it.

Rob Wiblin: One thing that I suspect that many people should do — though I suppose it’s slightly risky advice and you shouldn’t give it to everyone — is just borrow more money, like go into debt when you’re a student. Because very likely your income is going to be a bunch higher and you hope to reduce this inefficiency.

Rob Wiblin: It’s like the joke: when you’re young, you have no money; when you’re middle-aged, you have no time; and then when you’re old, you have no energy. To some extent, you want to fight against that. Try to preserve your health so you have energy when you retire. Take some leisure time when you’re middle-aged and at the peak of your career. And to solve the one when you’re young, where you are potentially not getting as much out of life as you could, I guess you can try to get money out of your parents or money out of someone else. But alternatively, if you’re reasonably confident about your career prospects, then you can just try to borrow money where you can, and use that to get more out of your undergrad.

Habiba Islam: Or perhaps there are scholarships available, if borrowing isn’t something that you feel psychologically comfortable with. Because I think money is just psychologically a very fraught thing for some people, especially depending on what kind of socioeconomic background you come from. So being aware of the funding sources that are available, potentially in the wider effective altruism community, might be quite useful. Open Philanthropy has this year started an undergraduate scholarship program for people wanting to study in some US or UK universities.

Michelle Hutchinson: There’s also the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund, which is increasing its remit and has already provided scholarships to students, paying for tuition in some cases.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. One sort of spending that I would recommend to lots of people — at least if they can find a way to get access to the money through scholarships or parents or the banking system or whatever method they have — is sometimes I meet undergrads or high school students who are using very old laptops or equipment, where it’s clearly just going to be slowing down their ability to get things done on a computer where they’re doing basically all of their learning.

Rob Wiblin: I also sometimes meet people who aren’t able to spend enough on rent in order to get a comfortable place to study effectively. And that just seems like it could be quite catastrophic in terms of wasted time or foregone learning, if you don’t have a quiet place where you feel comfortable to actually spend a lot of time in your day — learning as quickly as you can, learning as efficiently as you can, and also potentially doing side projects.

Rob Wiblin: Rent can be expensive, but we would think it was nuts if we didn’t provide people working at firms in their late 20s with a reasonable place in which to work and get things done. And yet we regularly allow undergrads to. There’s no places in the library and the house isn’t really a conducive place to study, because there’s too much noise, too many other things going on, too many distractions. That seems a little bit mad that we’ve set things up this way.

Habiba Islam: I think it’s worth floating that to a lot of people, this might feel quite unusual compared to the culture that there is at the university and what your peer group is doing. Particularly if you’re part of a community that wants to do a lot of good, I think people can feel hesitant or uncomfortable about spending resources on their own personal productivity and that kind of thing.

Habiba Islam: And I really sympathize if people feel like that — I similarly feel like that, even working at 80,000 Hours. But I think that’s part of why we’re pushing a bit more in this direction, because it’s really valuable for people to go a bit further than they might go by default on these kinds of issues — just because what you’re doing is really important. You have a huge amount of potential, and it’s worth investing in yourself. It’s going to pay dividends in the longer run. And so I think that’s sort of where we’re coming from in this conversation.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I try to get people to see a symmetry between money and time in this respect. I wrote this post long ago that’s like, don’t waste time to save money. Sometimes you’ll see people who spend effectively hours bargain-hunting to find cheaper versions of things. And they might think, “Oh no, I’m being very frugal. I’m saving money.” And I’m like, “You’re not really being frugal with time. You’re being a spendthrift with your time. You’re wasting time in order to save money.”

Rob Wiblin: If you think about the hourly salary that they’re getting — it could be like $5 per hour — you need to think, “Would I be willing to lose an hour of my life for $5?” And always be kind of thinking about the equivalents, and how valuable is the money relative to the time? And think about it over your lifetime as a whole, because if you’re going to lack time in the future and be willing to pay $50 when you are 27 in order to get an extra hour of work, then maybe you should do that work now, if there’s any way to bring it forward.

Habiba Islam: I think studying economics at university also made me start thinking in this direction. It was the first time in my life that I was like, “I’ll get a £2 fine if I don’t take this book back to the library right now.” But that was not very convenient for where I was, and from having studied a bit of economics, I was a bit like, “I could just eat the £2 fine, if that’s actually better for me.”

Habiba Islam: I did ridiculous things when I was an undergrad. There was a time where to avoid a 50p charge on using my debit card, I went and walked for what ended up being 20 or 30 minutes to go find a cash point. I think doing that kind of thing made me realize I’ve got the wrong exchange rate in my own head here.

Rob Wiblin: $1 per hour, you’re worth it.

Habiba Islam: So don’t do those kinds of things at all.

Rob Wiblin: All right. That’s time and money and trying to make better use of time. Is there anything else that you wish more high school or university students were hearing more often?

Michelle Hutchinson: Trying not to let yourself be locked in by what you’ve studied so far, as far as possible, seems pretty important. Because it feels most salient to you, what you’ve already studied. And so it feels pretty hard to change direction, even if what’s going on is that you’ve studied two years of one subject so far. But actually, university is the best time to explore widely and maybe change course. After university, a lot of people end up taking jobs that don’t have anything to do with their undergraduate. And so thinking pretty widely about what options are open to you seems pretty great.

Michelle Hutchinson: It’s often not that easy to do, because professors at university are very focused on academia and focused on your subject. So you hear a lot about what it would be like to do grad study or to go into academia, and not that much about what it’s like to do a whole host of other kinds of jobs. Which is where reading widely, like Rob said, can be really useful for making sure that you are thinking about all the different options that are available to you — and thinking through how hard would it actually be to get into them — rather than just thinking, “What does the thing that I’ve just been doing most naturally set me up for?”

Rob Wiblin: So you think people have sort of a functional fixedness? Where they’re like, “I graduated with petroleum engineering, so I need to be a petroleum engineer.” Or they don’t want to perhaps squander the qualifications that they’ve gotten, or they would feel that it’s squandering the qualifications to not go and use them directly.

Michelle Hutchinson: Yes. Absolutely. And I think this does just feel bad if you worked really hard at something, and then you go into something else that you could have done a couple of years ago, so you didn’t actually need that qualification to do. It can be really frustrating, but we do know quite a lot of people now who have really shifted what they did. For example, one of our staff members works in internal systems for 80,000 Hours and she qualified as a doctor. Sorry, two of them!

Rob Wiblin: Two of them. It’s true. We have two doctors on our internal systems team.

Habiba Islam: The list of what people who qualified as doctors have gone on to do: AI safety research, internal systems, just like all kinds of things in the EA community. Biosecurity research is maybe a natural —

Rob Wiblin: That feels more natural. Yeah.

Michelle Hutchinson: I think one of the things going on with people having finished their qualification as a doctor is that, two years into studying medicine, you feel like, “Well, I shouldn’t squander that. I should finish my qualification.” Then once you finish the qualification, you won’t easily be able to switch back into being a doctor unless you do the two first foundation years. So people can get all the way through med school and do two foundation years and then think, “Actually, I don’t think it’d be best for me to be a doctor” and switch, when it would’ve been much better if they had switched two years in instead.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’s interesting. I suppose one metaphor for this would be throwing good time after bad, where you’ve already potentially spent three years studying something that you don’t really, in your heart, want to use. And then you’re inclined to spend more time going down that path. Is it just the sunk cost issue? Or just to admit that you’re not going to use your degree directly is just taking this massive upfront cost — you’re writing that off — and maybe people find that psychologically hard to do?

Habiba Islam: I think there’s a bit of that going on, but I do think this is actually just a bit about people raising their aspirations and widening the kinds of options or the possibilities that they’re even considering. There are certain things that will be familiar to you. There’ll be things that were at the university job fair, and you’ve been flyered to hear about, and that kind of thing. Which is why I think that this is just really important advice.

Habiba Islam: Probably the main thing I would say to people is this emphasis on exploring, in part because of this idea about widening your options. Don’t get too anchored on the one thing that you’ve so far enjoyed. Think about your career as this very long thing. It’s multiple decades, so you’ve got to try and maximize the impact that you’re having over the course of that whole time. It is well worth it at the beginning to spend a few years trying out different things before you land on the thing that you’re going to focus on and become more of an expert in.

Michelle Hutchinson: I think another thing going on is that it can just take you a while to really understand how you feel about something. I did physics at university for my undergrad, and at the end of my first year, I remember coming to the rather sad realization that I just didn’t like physics that much. And you might think that it would take me less than a year. In fact, when I said to one of my friends, “I’m actually not sure I like physics,” she looked at me and was like, “Did you ever like physics?”

Michelle Hutchinson: Particularly for courses like medicine — where maybe studying medicine is quite different than being a doctor — it can be the case that you end up doing a lot of studying and you like studying medicine, but then when you become a doctor, you realize that you don’t think you should continue being a doctor.

Rob Wiblin: All right. Yeah. Are there any other themes you wish more students were hearing?

Habiba Islam: One of the things that’s great to do at university in general is to get involved in student groups and volunteering or leadership positions. Partially just from getting the experience of doing that kind of role — it’s great training for learning things that are going to serve you well in the workforce.

Habiba Islam: But in particular, getting involved in the effective altruism community and maybe some of the community building there seems particularly useful — not just from a skill-building perspective, but also from a direct-impact perspective. Because the university groups are just huge in terms of how important they are in getting people interested in effective altruism. When you look at the EA Survey, personal connections are the biggest deal for getting people involved in effective altruism, and university is the age where most people come across this kind of thing.

Habiba Islam: If you are going to get involved in one of these groups, then A, you’re skill building; B, you are helping with this direct impact of getting other people involved; and C, for many people who’ve gone on to do really impactful things in the world, being involved in running a group was actually a really key, important feature of their journey. Being responsible for actually having to talk to other people about the ideas and organize events and that kind of thing really gives you a bunch of commitment to actually learn more about it yourself, to be able to talk to other people about it. So I think it’s actually just a really great thing for many different reasons, from a skill-building perspective.

Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I found it hugely useful to be involved in my university effective altruism group, in terms of getting to know other people with similar values to me, who were thinking about these kinds of ideas and what types of considerations should be on my radar, and holding me accountable for learning more about it and for actually putting it into practice.

Habiba Islam: So one of the things that it’s really helpful to take the time to learn about is specifically diving into this kind of cause prioritisation thing, and what your views are on which problems are the most important because there could be this massive variation between what’s actually the most important to work on. And the fellowships that I just mentioned are particularly great for that, I think.

Rob Wiblin: What might either of you have benefited from hearing personally when you were an undergrad or perhaps at high school?

Habiba Islam: It’s hard to feel that this is going to be useful for other people, because I feel like I had an atypical experience.

Rob Wiblin: I’m curious now.

Habiba Islam: I did lots of studying and I did a ton of community volunteering, organizing things. This is before effective altruism was so much of a thing, so I did a lot of RAG, Raise and Give, which is like the charity stuff and Amnesty International and that kind of thing. And then I went to an EA talk in my last year.

Habiba Islam: So one thing that is more applicable to people is that I didn’t even consider grad school at any point. I didn’t ever try research. Even though I did well academically, it just didn’t really cross my mind to consider that. And then the next few years of my career, I went further and further away from that being the kind of thing that was plausible for me to do. After four years of consulting, I’d kind of trained myself to like doing fast-paced work and now it seems less likely I would ever be likely to go in that direction.

Habiba Islam: I didn’t even do a dissertation. I only did exams for my undergrad. So I really do think that would’ve been a useful thing to try while at university. It seems great to try while you have access to libraries and to professors and things to get a chance, and holidays to do some research internships — that would’ve been a great thing for someone to tell me, or for me to tell me in the past.

Habiba Islam: The other thing was that — like I said, atypical experience — I did all this studying, did the groups, community stuff. And I just didn’t make any friends. Not to sound like a massive loser, but I didn’t socially hang out with people ever. And I think that was —

Rob Wiblin: Seems like an oversight.

Habiba Islam: I know. And I feel really bad, because everyone tells you, “University is so great. You make new friends who are going to be your friends for the rest of your life.” And I just completely failed to do that. I did have a nice time. I was very happy while I was at university. But that was a thing.

Michelle Hutchinson: Luckily you’ve since made a bunch of friends who will follow you around for the rest of your life.

Rob Wiblin: Surely much better than the friends you would’ve made at university. Was there any reason you didn’t spend that much time socializing? Didn’t feel it was the most important thing to do, or…?

Habiba Islam: It didn’t really cross my mind.

Rob Wiblin: So it really was just an oversight.

Habiba Islam: It was just an oversight. At that point, and still now, family was very important to me. So that was a big anchor — I’m pretty sure I talked to my family once a day or something. And I really enjoyed throwing myself into these things of work and the community stuff, like volunteering and that kind of thing. And then I was just kind of introverted in my spare time. Yeah. Not really sure.

Rob Wiblin: Michelle, is there anything, any mistakes that you’ve made?

Michelle Hutchinson: I really would’ve wanted to try out more different things during university. So I spent basically all university holidays loosely studying, but in a very unproductive way. And I really would’ve wanted to spend them instead doing things like internships, or learning about different kinds of jobs there are in the world, and how to figure out whether they were well suited to me.

Michelle Hutchinson: I also just would have wanted to be more intentional about how I was spending my time, and what directions I might go, starting from high school. I studied physics and philosophy at university, and that’s just not that useful. It was quite fun, but I really think I could have studied something that would have been just as fun and more useful for the world.

Michelle Hutchinson: For example, I considered studying politics, philosophy, and economics. And I think that would have given me a better understanding of the world and useful ways of helping others than the actual degree that I did. So I think both in big ways like that and smaller ways — like what kinds of jobs do I think I should be trying out during my summer holidays, and what things do I think I should be learning alongside my studies rather than just getting good grades — would have been good.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do you ever worry that the vibe that we have here is going to cause people who are potentially quite young to not be as free-spirited, or experimental, or just curiosity-following as maybe would be ideal? I remember when I first started my undergrad degree, every so often I’d meet someone who was just clearly deeply committed to some path that they had in life. They were like, “I’m going to become a politician,” or “I’m going to win this scholarship, win this prize.” It’d be like, “You’re creeping me out. How can you have such a clear vision of what you want to do? And be so driven?” I don’t know, maybe I thought of it as kind of narcissistic or something.

Rob Wiblin: But I don’t know. Maybe we should just tell young people to do what they find interesting, at least at that age. We often tell people not to do that so much, maybe when they’re 50. But when you’re 19, maybe you should be just doing what young people have always done kind of disproportionately.

Michelle Hutchinson: In some ways my vibe was in fact going in the opposite direction from the one you’re pointing at. Because I was so focused on my degree and just spending all marginal time reading more physics and philosophy — whereas I should in fact have been experimenting more and following my curiosity on different things.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe it’s more the stuff that I was saying, like, “You’ve got to treasure every hour.” Maybe it’s important sometimes to not treasure every hour.

Habiba Islam: Yeah. I do think it’s helpful for people who are at early stages in their career to not look at our advice and take it too much like it’s gospel, like, “I must do these specific things and go for this particular path” or something like that. I think there’s a temptation to do more of that for younger people than there is for people who are later on, who have thought about multiple different sources and their own views. Hence why if I were to try and give people advice, I would emphasize this exploring thing more — like come to your own views on a lot of this stuff.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Habiba Islam: I also don’t want to be too down on non–effective altruism at an early age. I did stuff at university that was super ineffective. I did a CV writing class at a local homeless drop-in center — and I was terrible at it, and one person came. I’m not sure that a lot came out of that specific experience, but in general — having done various different attempts at trying to do good — I think I got a better sense of how some of these issues are complicated, and some of these things I don’t have the right requisite knowledge yet to be able to be useful for. And getting a sense of seeing what works and what doesn’t work.

Habiba Islam: Sometimes, at least for some people, it is just very powerful to have had experience doing something where you get to see firsthand something like extreme poverty — even if the project that you’re doing isn’t the most impactful project that there is in the world. And maybe you could have had even more impact if you just donated to the project, rather than being there yourself.

Habiba Islam: I’m not sure how much I endorse this, but just in general, I think trying out different things, and forming your own views on what’s worthwhile, actually stands you in good stead later down the line. I think it would be a shame if people went straight to assuming that we’ve got it all worked out and therefore they should only try the things that seem like they are the perfect, most effective things already or something.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe another thing in this cluster is that when you’re younger, it’s easier to meet people outside your bubble, potentially. You can go and get a job and work in hospitality. Maybe you don’t expect to work in hospitality later in your career, but you can learn to get along socially, and learn how to communicate with a broader audience. Because once you start working consulting, then you’re going to be bubbled to an even greater degree than you are early in life. And it can be hard then to build the skill of, “How do I speak to people who aren’t in my immediate group of friends?”

Michelle Hutchinson: I think I do basically agree with this. I had a period when I was a child living in Indonesia, in Jakarta. I think seeing a really different area, and actually living there, and getting to know people there probably gave me a somewhat different perspective than had I just grown up in the UK. And doing some of this kind of stuff as a student could help with that.

Michelle Hutchinson: It doesn’t necessarily need to involve going abroad. One of my friends at university volunteered at a refugee center, and it was just pretty interesting how people basically just down the road from Oxford were living — the difficulty of the government trying to prevent it from being too easy to come into the UK, and therefore treating asylum-seekers really shockingly badly. And just knowing her doing that gave me somewhat of a different perception of what laws I think were reasonable and things — I think it would have been even better if I had actually gotten involved in some of those kinds of things.

Michelle Hutchinson: There is some danger to this kind of thing, in that seeing that kind of suffering firsthand can make it pretty hard to then work on something else. I read a great blog post by Julia Wise a long while ago about figuring out what problem you think is most important to work on, and then letting yourself learn tons about it, to the point where you feel really empathically drawn to it. I think different people are going to struggle with this to different degrees though.

Rob Wiblin: All right. We’ve talked about a bunch of messages that we think might be useful for more students to hear than currently do. How confident can we be that any of this is sound advice? Or that it’s pushing people even in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction? It feels like the empirical loop here is quite weak, because we’re never going to see people who take this advice and then know the counterfactual of how things would’ve gone otherwise.

Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think really all of this should be taken with a lot of salt — this is very much bits and pieces that we’ve picked up, you know, “I watched someone do this thing and I think it would’ve been better if I had done that” and “Here are a few views to consider when thinking about what you should do.” But you should ask as many sensible people as you can for their takes on what kinds of things might be good to do. And then you should yourself think a bunch about what thing you actually are going to act on.

Impact of the 1-1 service [00:30:20]

Rob Wiblin: All right. Let’s push on. Earlier, we talked about the broad theory of how the one-on-one team and all of the career conversations are likely to have an impact. But when we invite non–80,000 Hours people on the show, we often pick apart their projects, and ask them about their strengths and weaknesses, and how much impact they’re having. So it feels only fair that we should do that to ourselves. Or at least only fair that I should do this to you two.

Rob Wiblin: We’re running out of time, so we will have to do this relatively quickly. But first, how do you conceive of the different streams of positive impact that the one-on-one team might be having?

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.

Rob Wiblin: If we were thinking about this from a benefit-cost point of view, I suppose each year that one of you works is one person-year of effort that’s gone in. And in order for these career conversations to be worthwhile, then you’d want to be producing at least the equivalent of your own effort every year in additional value that someone else has gotten out of the work that they’ve done — either having more impact, or doing something quite different, or getting to where they were going to be sooner.

Rob Wiblin: How can you collect evidence on whether you are getting more than one year per year — or ideally, hopefully, several years per year — of effort that you’re putting in?

Habiba Islam: Yeah. This is really complicated.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I know it is. Sorry.

Habiba Islam: Over the years, within the team, I think we’ve put a lot of effort into trying to measure this kind of thing and quantify it. Ultimately, we do really care about the opportunity cost of what people on the team are doing, and also whether this is a worthwhile project at all. So it is important to us that the work that people are doing in this year is generating more value. Over the years, we’ve tried to do some investigation into people who have made plan changes, and then various different investigations of what went into that change and what the counterfactual would’ve been — how much is down to us, which different programs were involved, that kind of thing.

Habiba Islam: Ultimately, when you do all of that work, we try and put it into this comparable metric, which we call a DIPY. So a DIPY stands for “discounted impact-adjusted peak year.” What goes into that is that we’re trying to standardize how much impact someone is having. People are working on different problems, people are working different amounts, all that kind of stuff. So we try and standardize it to one DIPY is one year’s worth of work on something that’s important and high quality at someone’s peak output. And we have to calibrate it to something, and, partially to help us make this evaluation between the work of the team and how much value we’re creating, we calibrate it to one DIPY is roughly one year’s worth of our work. So people can be doing better work than us as well, but that’s what one DIPY comes out to.

Habiba Islam: That said, when we try and do a bunch of this different evaluation, our best estimate is that the one-on-one team is creating between four and five of these DIPYs per year’s work of an advisor at 80,000 Hours. But that could be out by quite a bit — it could be out by an order of magnitude, even — so we try not to put too much weight on that specific measure. But roughly, we think that this is maybe competitive with other programs at 80,000 Hours. It’s maybe competitive with the podcast. It’s maybe not quite as impactful as the website, which just has this huge reach. But it seems like an impactful enough program that we’re excited about expanding it and offering it to more people.

Rob Wiblin: So this would be a very purist way of thinking about things, where you try to think about quality time in versus quality time out. I guess you could think of it like investing: one year you put in $1, how many dollars are you getting out at the end of the year, in all of the other people who you helped to have more impact? To most listeners, this would sound obvious that you should analyze it this way. And we have tried to do that. It is exceedingly difficult, as you’re saying: you end up coming up with numbers, but it’s a lot of effort and there’s massive uncertainty around it. And it’s not always clear that it’s super, super action-guiding.

Rob Wiblin: I guess if the number was really low — like far below one — then you might start to question whether it was worth it. But it is surprising how hard organizations find it to get great guidance out of these purist impact measures, where they’re just trying to tally up all the good that they’ve accomplished. If people want to learn more about the DIPY measure and our various efforts to do this, they can check out our annual review from last year.

Rob Wiblin: What are some other ways that we try to figure out whether what we’re doing is worthwhile, and maybe what parts of it are most worthwhile?

Habiba Islam: Another alternative way of looking at how good a service we are providing is actually just to look at what our users say about us, and see if we are providing a good service by their lights. We can just look at feedback from users: we give people a feedback form after the calls, and 70% rate us six or seven out of seven for how useful we’ve been to them.

Habiba Islam: One of the other things that we do is this user survey. We did a big user survey last year, going to a wide range of people, asking about all of 80,000 Hours’ different programs. From that, 175 people who’d received advising filled it out. That’s out of a total possible of over 800 people that we’ve ever advised — so it’s a relatively small sample of advisees — but of those people, about half of them said advising was important for them in either taking a job or changing a career, which were the two things that we asked about on the survey.

Habiba Islam: But then it could be advising was important, but so was the website, or so was the podcast. So then, when we asked people, “What was the most important 80,000 Hours service for this plan change?”, 26% of those advisees said that advising was the most important — it goes from 50% if you’re saying advising was important at all down to 26% if it was the most important service.

Habiba Islam: It’s worth flagging that this is not to say that half of advisees think that advising is going to be important for them taking a job. I think that the people who bother to fill in a user survey are going to be disproportionately people who have been affected by 80,000 Hours. So I think that there’s going to be lots of people who didn’t take our advice or didn’t make a change, and just didn’t bother to fill in the user survey and tell us that. But it’s nice to have some sort of feedback from our users here.

Habiba Islam: I did try and do a thing where I qualitatively coded the valence of the comments that people wrote. And again, about half of them said something positive about their advising call, or at least ticked the box that advising was important for a change. But a solid 37% of people just didn’t even refer to their advising call in the survey as well.

Rob Wiblin: What fraction of calls do you think are worthwhile, after the fact?

Michelle Hutchinson: Each of our advisors tries to figure out, after a call, whether they thought that call was likely useful for the person or not. Right now, we rate about 80% of our calls as probably worth having.

Habiba Islam: One of the things that makes working out the usefulness of a call really hard is that, like I said, careers take a long time to change. We don’t find out about the impact that we’ve had on people until many years after. Last year, doing our impact evaluation, we discovered a whole bunch more plan changes, as we call them, from 2017, that we just previously weren’t aware of. So there’s this huge lag, which means that it’s quite hard to get a really sharp sense very soon after the calls about how useful this is going to be to a person.

Rob Wiblin: Lots of listeners might be worried that when we survey people on this kind of thing, that they are going to tell us what we want to hear — that they’re biased towards saying that things were useful, or attributing things that they might have done anyway to advising or to 80,000 Hours as a whole — because it will make us happy. Or maybe it’s just hard for them to think of the ways that they would have ended up doing something useful anyway, even if they hadn’t happened to read our website or listen to the podcast or get advising. What kinds of methods do we use to address that?

Habiba Islam: In the past, when we’ve done these more in-depth case studies where we interview people quite a lot about their plan changes, we are very cautious on how much we estimate the percentage chance that we had an effect on them — so our estimates are typically considerably more conservative than the person gives themselves. People often say to us, “There’s a 90% chance that I’d be doing something else if it wasn’t for you,” and that typically goes down in our evaluation to something like 30%. It’s not ridiculous for there to be that level of difference, I think, between what we try and evaluate and what people might self-report.

Habiba Islam: And specifically when it comes to the user survey, I think this is definitely a thing that we should be aware of, that people might be particularly positively reporting because they know that we’re going to be reading the results. We really did try and design our user survey to encourage people to tell us the negative effects that we’d had on them. I think there were multiple points where we said, “Have we had any negative effects on your career?” Or the downsides of the advising, or the things that weren’t so helpful, which I guess is us trying to compensate for this kind of effect.

Michelle Hutchinson: Another thing that’s helping us now is that other people in the community are starting to do surveys and ask specifically about 80,000 Hours. The Open Philanthropy Project did a survey like this, where they asked about a whole host of different groups and 80,000 Hours was one of them. And then they asked people whether they were happy for their results to be shared with 80,000 Hours. That gave at least a sense of what people say when they’re not necessarily directly targeting it at us — although, obviously, we should expect that people who had said nicer things about us would be more likely to be willing to have those shared.

Biggest challenges for the 1-1 team [00:42:47]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, that makes sense. Wwhat has been one of the biggest challenges that the one-on-one team has faced in trying to have more impact?

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.

Rob Wiblin: Are there any other visions for what service the one-on-one team would be delivering that has been considered over the years, which get rejected in favor of what you’re doing now?

Michelle Hutchinson: We’ve considered a pretty broad range over the time. Last year, I did a fairly in-depth consideration of different ways we could do these. Examples of the types of things we considered at that point were having a service that was much more time-intensive per person — so talking to fewer people, but for each person we talked to, talking to them, say, every month for a few months or something — spending more like 20 hours per person, rather than one hour per person, really helping guide their journey into effective altruism and things.

Michelle Hutchinson: We ended up thinking that that one was going to be less valuable probably, because we often have quite a few things we can quickly say to a person in particular, or other people we think would be useful for them to be in contact with, or resources we can send them. So we think probably we would get less value out of the next few hours. We think that this kind of thing is a really useful thing for some people to do — but it’s not clear that you want a stranger doing this with you, as opposed to finding people who know you relatively well and getting a mentor in a similar area to you, that type of thing.

Michelle Hutchinson: And then other examples are things like giving workshops or speaking tours or talking to a broader range of people than we do now, but for an even shorter period of time. So if you think that a lot of what people get out of the service is basically getting to meet someone with similar values to them and being face-to-face on the call, maybe you could do 15-minute calls with people — where you actually don’t know as much about them — and that would end up being more useful.

Michelle Hutchinson: In the past, we also have done quite a lot of headhunting, and that’s a thing that we are now doing in a more pared-back way. We think that, potentially, we get quite a bit of the value doing a slightly scaled-back version of what we were doing, but we would like to do more of it in the future.

Habiba Islam: I can say a little bit more about the mini scaled-back version of headhunting. That’s a thing that I spend a bunch of time doing nowadays — I call them mini hunts. There are organizations in the wider effective altruism or x-risk community that sometimes get in touch when they’re hiring for particularly impactful roles, if they want some help sourcing leads for that. Then I can do some thinking through our network, checking our CRM, asking some of the other advisors or other members of the 80K team sometimes for recommendations, and pull together a shortlist and send it over.

Habiba Islam: Then sometimes, I do some more ongoing support, where I might reach out to those people and encourage them to apply. So doing this pared-back version of headhunting does seem to give you a ton of the value for a relatively small amount of my time, which means that I can slip some in there between weeks when I’m doing advising, which is very helpful.

Habiba Islam: It’s something that we would maybe like to do more of in the future, as we grow the capacity of the team as well. One thing that’s particularly useful is for me to have a sense of people within the community who are interested in being suggested or put forward for roles, or maybe contacted if there are some roles that they might be qualified for. A lot of the time, I’m doing these mini hunts for roles that are publicly available, but occasionally, we might get asked by organizations where they’re not publicly hiring, so it’s useful to have a sense of who might be open to that kind of opportunity.

Habiba Islam: If that sounds like you, and you are actually in a role right now but would be interested in being put forward for roles that come across my desk, then I would definitely recommend that you let me know. I’ll put a form on the website, on the team page under my name, that you can fill in to confidentially let me know that you would like to be considered for roles.

Rob Wiblin: Nice. For people who are interested to learn more about 80,000 Hours’ internal strategizing, probably the best place to go is to look at our annual reviews. Yeah, we’ll stick up a link to a summary of the one from last year, and then we also have a link to a Google Doc, which is a lot longer, for people who are especially, indeed, more enthusiastic than I am to learn about what 80,000 Hours is doing.

Habiba Islam: You’ve got no idea what we’re doing, do you, Rob?

Rob Wiblin: I know what the podcast is doing, which is moving on to the next section.

Agnes Callard: “Against Advice” [00:49:38]

Rob Wiblin: We are almost out of time, but I do have a little final section, which is a bunch of questions that I was not clever enough to slip in meaningfully anywhere else, so they’re just left over here.

Rob Wiblin: First off, there was this essay, I think a year or two ago, written by the philosopher Agnes Callard, called “Against Advice,” which a whole lot of people forwarded to me because I guess we’re in the business of providing careers advice. And I read it and I actually really enjoyed it. Did either of you two see it or remember it?

Habiba Islam: Yes.

Michelle Hutchinson: I think I read it but I don’t remember it.

Rob Wiblin: All right. Well, I’ll give a brief summary of it. Agnes Callard divides advice into three different categories. The first one is “instructions,” where it’s like, “Here’s how to get to the library,” or “Here’s how to open this coffee percolator” — things where it’s extremely concrete, where you can just do it and it’s the same for everyone.

Rob Wiblin: The third category is “coaching,” where you know someone really well, and you figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are, and give them a lot of detailed advice on how they can be better at some task, like writing or doing philosophy or whatever.

Rob Wiblin: And then there’s this middle thing called “advice,” which is where you try to do the final thing — which is give useful, specific information that someone could use in order to develop a skill — but in the guise of the first one, where it’s just like broadcasting information. For example, on the podcast where we try to provide generic instructions that anyone could use in order to get better at some skill, but it’s brief and you don’t know the person.

Rob Wiblin: And basically, Agnes argues that this is usually not possible. That when people are asked to give advice of this sort, it tends to fall flat, and they just end up saying platitudes like, “You should try practicing writing every day” — something that is true, but not useful and not really adding that much value. I think it’s interesting to wonder why that is, but my experience is that there definitely is a tendency in this direction — that when you try to broadcast life-changing advice, important advice on how people can do better in their life to everyone, it either ends up being wrong or a bit hollow.

Rob Wiblin: Do either of you have a reaction to that, and whether that’s perhaps relevant to me or to 80,000 Hours as a whole?

Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think this seems pretty sensible overall. I often think of what we’re doing as like signposting. So it’s trying to get a really good lay of the land, so that when people come to you saying something like, “Where’s a pretty cathedral?”, we can point them in the right direction. Where in this case, it’s quite often, “I want to learn more about this kind of thing — do you know of any resources that are good at that?” Or, “I want to speak to someone who is working in finance but also considered being an engineer.” That type of thing.

Rob Wiblin: I actually think the one-on-one team is somewhat off the hook, because probably you fall more into the third category, where you’re actually spending enough time to get to know people. It’s not only the half-hour or one-hour conversation and potentially even followup calls; you’ve done so much work ahead of time that you can tailor the advice usefully to the specific person you’re talking to, and point them in the right direction to other people, who can give them even more coaching-style advice.

Michelle Hutchinson: I think that is somewhat true. I feel a bit skeptical of the idea that we know the people well enough to be able to tailor things very exactly, which is why the thing I was thinking we do was more like answering direct questions. That’s really the key difference: rather than saying a whole bunch of things, you’re trying to get some sense of the person and then getting them to ask questions, where the question need not be as direct as that. It could be more like they express an interest in a specific type of area and you say, like, “Here’s something that you might want to consider reading more on that area.”

Habiba Islam: I think it is relatively rare for us to try and give the specific steps kind of advice. But one thing that does seem to fall somewhat in this category, and I do think is useful, is trying to construct your ladder of cheap tests kind of advice — which is the kind of thing that I might say to someone even in just a somewhat generic way. Where like, if they’re interested in a particular area, to start off by trying to explore it, learn a bit more, and gradually put in more and more time, and maybe write a post on the Forum about it or something like that. I think this is one of the things that maybe falls into the category of specific advice that’s about specific steps.

Michelle Hutchinson: And maybe I slightly take back that we’re not doing much that falls into the last bucket, because some of the things we can say to people is about having more of a big-picture view of which kinds of things they’re considering, or seem kind of realistic for them or something. This is probably most useful for fairly young people, who find it more difficult to assess what kinds of things they’re going to be realistic candidates for, and we have a better sense of that.

Michelle Hutchinson: In that case, it is a case of having asked them to do quite a bit of prep work, and having their CV and things, and simultaneously being in touch with lots of different organizations trying to increase impact — and therefore being able to say at least something about how good of a candidate they might be for different roles, and whether it is or isn’t sensible for them to be looking to go in a certain direction.

Rob Wiblin: I feel like Agnes’s critique is perhaps most brutal for the personal advice section of the podcast — and indeed, she uses podcast interviews as the example where this kind of advice often falls flat. We used to do more of these personal advice sections early on. And I think part of the reason why we don’t do it as much anymore is that one way that you could make it very actionable and definitely useful was to narrow it down to things like: Who are the specific PhD supervisors, who someone who wants to work in this area should go and talk to? What conferences should they go to? What’s the best paper to read?

Rob Wiblin: This is much more on the instruction side, but then you’ve narrowed the audience massively. So you’re almost getting towards the coaching level, because you’re assuming that there’s a listener out there who fits a particular profile and who wants to know who’s the best PhD supervisor in this very narrow area.

Rob Wiblin: Then there’s also trying to give people general life advice — like lessons that I’ve learned, what mistakes I’ve made, and what we can learn from that. And I think there is some useful generic advice that is sufficiently general that most people listening to it will benefit from it, but the number of things that are true for most listeners is pretty limited.

Rob Wiblin: And the reason a piece of advice might be controversial or non-obvious is because there’s many people making errors on both sides. You could try to give a piece of general advice — like “You should explore more” — but there are actually people on both ends of that spectrum: some people who are exploring too much and some people who are exploring too little. And it can be hard to just spray out advice to an entire audience of 10,000 people and have it be actually meaningfully useful, or able to change their life in a positive direction. In order to know that, you have to know a lot about the person.

Michelle Hutchinson: I think the case in which that might not be true is where you found some audience that’s pretty different from the typical or something. I found a surprising amount of parenting advice not that applicable to me, but when I looked at the advice that my friends would’ve given me, it turned out that they were similarly career- and impact-oriented, such that they approached it kind of similarly to me. I would guess that there is going to be at least some mileage we can get out of the fact that our audience is going to be aiming for impact more than the typical person out there — so there will at least be some things that are relevant for that reason that aren’t obvious.

Habiba Islam: But on the other end of the spectrum, the thing that the podcast can do really well is this in-depth look at that particular person’s career — like with Andy Weber or Tom Inglesby. Then people can take from that the lessons that they want, which is not all going to be applicable to your career, but it’s at least interesting and informative about what they did.

Making people more ambitious about what they can do [00:57:23]

Rob Wiblin: OK. One other quick one. I was reminded on Twitter recently of this post that Tyler Cohen wrote a couple of years ago. I think it was just completely off the cuff, but it’s kept doing the rounds, I guess because it just resonates with people again and again.

Rob Wiblin: A quick quote from it is:

Yesterday I had lunch with a former Ph.D student of mine, who is now highly successful and tenured at a very good school. I was reminded that, over twenty years ago, I was Graduate Director of Admissions. One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter. My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy. […]
At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous. This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.”

Rob Wiblin: To what extent do you think that channel of making people be more ambitious about what they can do is one of the most useful things that the one-on-one team does, or that perhaps 80,000 Hours does as a whole?

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.

Rob Wiblin: It’s true what you’re saying that that is a meme that gets promoted a lot in elite schools. But at the same time, it feels like there’s this part of our culture which is fatalistic about everything. And it feels like the smart opinion is that the world is bad, it’s getting even worse, and nothing can be done.

Rob Wiblin: Whereas I just feel like the world is actually surprisingly good, given that humanity’s done so little to improve it so far, and is getting better in a whole lot of ways. And almost all the problems that we talk about, there’s just so much concrete stuff that can be done, and people have barely even tried to solve these problems before they’ve even written them off as not possible to fix. So yeah, let’s approach the world with more of an engineering mindset of, “We will fix these problems, by jove!”

Michelle Hutchinson: But some of it is just very intimidating, and we just really need those of you with more self-efficacy helping us go at it.

Rob Wiblin: Climate change, no problem.

TV and movie recommendations [01:01:26]

Rob Wiblin: All right. It is Friday night, and we’ve got a house party to get to. But I want to offer some TV and movie recommendations. So in order to give myself an excuse to do that, I will first ask you, what TV and movie recommendations do you have for the audience?

Habiba Islam: I feel like I was a bit late to the party on this one, but I recently watched It’s a Sin, which is available for people in the UK from Channel 4, and is a show by Russell T Davies, who you may know as the showrunner who brought back Doctor Who.

Michelle Hutchinson: I sure do.

Habiba Islam: And it’s particularly about the experience of gay men in the 80s, and their experience with AIDS crisis. I thought it was a fantastic show. I think it’s a great example of how fiction is so powerful in helping you experience the world through other people’s eyes, and that’s just such an excellent thing for expanding your empathy for other people. And it’s a funny show and also just really touching and very sad and quite haunting, but I really recommend it.

Michelle Hutchinson: Well, to bring down the tone a bit, I recently very much enjoyed A Discovery of Witches, which is a kind of fantasy world where vampires and werewolves are real, and it’s set in Oxford and then in France, and is absolutely beautifully filmed. And it’s just basically pretty happy, and a lovely escape. I was sick one week and spent the whole time watching it, and really got a lot out of it.

Rob Wiblin: Last week, I went and saw the James Bond film at the cinema. I think I had not actually been to a cinema in three years.

Michelle Hutchinson: I’m shocked that you went to one.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, no, it’s crazy. So I think for 18 months, it was COVID that was keeping me away. And I guess before that, it was because I don’t like movies or going to the cinema. But actually, despite my general not-liking-movies thing, I really enjoyed it. It was full of effective altruist themes and just really well produced.

Rob Wiblin: I suspect a lot of people are going to go to this movie because they feel like they’ve been forced away from the cinema for a long time. And that was kind of me. So if you fit that profile, give it a go. It’s a lot of global catastrophic biological risks in there. So maybe go listen to the Tom Inglesby interview from 2018 before you go. It’s important prior reading.

Habiba Islam: As a side note, I’m a big fan of “pop culture crossover with EA” funny threads on Twitter, which I’m carving out as my niche now. I’ve done Twitter threads of “What career paths would Lord of the Rings characters go and do if they were into high-impact careers?” And I will do more in the future.

Rob Wiblin: We’ll definitely stick up links to that, as well as everything else that we’ve talked about in this episode. My guests today have been Habiba Islam and Michelle Hutchinson. Thanks so much for coming on the show, both of you.

Habiba Islam: Thanks Rob, it’s been fun.

Michelle Hutchinson: It was great.

Keiran’s outro [01:04:15]

Keiran Harris: If you’d like to apply for advising from Habiba, or someone else on the team, just head to 80000hours.org/speak. It’s completely free, and it shouldn’t take long to fill out an application.

And if you did listen to this before you’d heard part one, you can head over to the original 80,000 Hours Podcast feed and search for episode number 122.

All right, audio mastering and technical editing by Ben Cordell.

Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.

And I produce the show. Thanks for listening.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths - from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected]

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