Let’s say that you picked a skill that’s never going to get you a direct-work effective altruism job, but you kicked a bunch of ass, and you know a bunch of other people who kick ass.

So now you have this opportunity to affect people you know, and get them to do a lot of good.

And they are not the people you would know if you hadn’t kicked ass.

Holden Karnofsky

Holden Karnofsky helped create two of the most influential organisations in the effective philanthropy world. So when he outlines a different perspective on career advice than the one we present at 80,000 Hours — we take it seriously.

Holden disagrees with us on a few specifics, but it’s more than that: he prefers a different vibe when making career choices, especially early in one’s career.

While he might ultimately recommend similar jobs to those we recommend at 80,000 Hours, the reasons are often different.

At 80,000 Hours we often talk about ‘paths’ to working on what we currently think of as the most pressing problems in the world. That’s partially because people seem to prefer the most concrete advice possible.

But Holden thinks a problem with that kind of advice is that it’s hard to take actions based on it if your job options don’t match well with your plan, and it’s hard to get a reliable signal about whether you’re making the right choices.

How can you know you’ve chosen the right cause? How can you know the future job you’re aiming for will still be helpful to that cause? And what if you can’t get a job in this area at all?

Holden prefers to focus on ‘aptitudes’ that you can build in all sorts of different roles and cause areas, which can later be applied more directly.

Even if the current role or path doesn’t work out, or your career goes in wacky directions you’d never anticipated (like so many successful careers do), or you change your whole worldview — you’ll still have access to this aptitude.

So instead of trying to become a project manager at an effective altruism organisation, maybe you should just become great at project management. Instead of trying to become a researcher at a top AI lab, maybe you should just become great at digesting hard problems.

Who knows where these skills will end up being useful down the road?

Holden doesn’t think you should spend much time worrying about whether you’re having an impact in the first few years of your career — instead you should just focus on learning to kick ass at something, knowing that most of your impact is going to come decades into your career.

He thinks as long as you’ve gotten good at something, there will usually be a lot of ways that you can contribute to solving the biggest problems.

But that still leaves you needing to figure out which aptitude to focus on.

Holden suggests a couple of rules of thumb:

  1. Do what you’ll succeed at
  2. Take your intuitions and feelings seriously

80,000 Hours does recommend thinking about these types of things under the banner of career capital, but Holden’s version puts the development of these skills at the centre of your plan.

But Holden’s most important point, perhaps, is this:

Be very careful about following career advice at all.

He points out that a career is such a personal thing that it’s very easy for the advice-giver to be oblivious to important factors having to do with your personality and unique situation.

He thinks it’s pretty hard for anyone to really have justified empirical beliefs about career choice, and that you should be very hesitant to make a radically different decision than you would have otherwise based on what some person (or website!) tells you to do.

Instead, he hopes conversations like these serve as a way of prompting discussion and raising points that you can apply your own personal judgment to.

That’s why in the end he thinks people should look at their career decisions through his aptitude lens, the ‘80,000 Hours lens’, and ideally several other frameworks as well. Because any one perspective risks missing something important.

Holden and Rob also cover:

  • When not to do the thing you’re excited about
  • Ways to be helpful to longtermism outside of careers
  • ‘Money pits’ — cost-effective things that could absorb a lot of funding
  • Why finding a new cause area might be overrated
  • COVID and the biorisk portfolio
  • Whether the world has gotten better over thousands of years
  • Historical events that deserve more attention
  • Upcoming topics on Cold Takes
  • What Holden’s gotten wrong recently
  • And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

Highlights

Aptitude-first vs. career path-first approaches

Holden Karnofsky: It’s somewhat of a fuzzy distinction. Some of the aptitudes I list basically just are paths, like academia. But I think a career path tends to be based around a particular endpoint. And a lot of times that endpoint is sometimes cause-specific, or even organization-specific. So it’ll say, I want to work at an organization like this, working on a problem like that, in this kind of role. And it’s just like, it’s a very specific target to be aiming for. And I think most people are just wrong about where their career is going to be in 10 years. Their best guess is just wrong. I mean, it depends a little bit. There are some career paths where you really… They’re very well-defined. They’re scaffolded. You have to get on them early. People give you a lot of help figuring out how you’re progressing.

Holden Karnofsky: So the distinction kind of dissolves there, but I think there’s other careers where it’s very hard to tell where you’re going to end up, but it’s very tractable to tell whether you’re good at the kind of thing you’re doing and figure that will land you somewhere good. And if it doesn’t land you in direct work it’ll land you somewhere good anyway, because there’s things you can do as long as you’re good at what you do. So I would say that’s the distinction.

Holden Karnofsky: And I would say to imagine the distinction, just imagine two project managers, and one of them is saying, “I’m hoping I will pick up skills here that will allow me to work at an effective altruist organization on project management.” And the other person is saying, “I don’t know what my plan is. I’m just trying to get good at project management. And I’m trying to see if I’m good at it, and I’m really focused on that.” And then you go 20 years later and it’s like, well, it turns out that all the effective altruist organizations are fine, they don’t need project management, but like there’s some other weird job that didn’t exist at the time that we were having this conversation, and it’s not project management, but it takes a lot of the same skills. You needed to be a good manager. And it’s not even at an EA organization. It’s like, you’re at a non-EA AI lab, but by being a valuable employee, you’re getting a voice in some of the key issues or something like that. It’s just like something you didn’t think about before.

Holden Karnofsky: And so you imagine these two people and it’s like, the first person was focused on… One of the people, I don’t remember which one I said first, was focused on the right question, which is, “Am I good at this, or should I switch to another aptitude?” And another person was like, “I have this plan,” and their plan didn’t work out.

Specific aptitudes

Holden Karnofsky: Yeah, so there’s a cluster of aptitudes called ‘organization running, building, and boosting.’ And that includes things like doing management of people and helping organizations set their goals, hit their targets. It can include operations jobs. It can include business operations jobs. It can include, if you stretch it a little bit, communications jobs, a lot of things. And it’s like, if you come into an organization and your thing is you’re a project manager who keeps people on track and you’re a good personnel manager, that’s an aptitude you’re building, and that aptitude is going to stay with you.

Holden Karnofsky: If you’re doing that at a tech company, but you’re really good at it and you get better at it, and then you go later to an AI lab, you’re still going to be good at it. And that’s going to be one of the skills that you bring to the AI lab. And that’s a case where you were able to build something useful without having immediately a job in the cause you wanted to be working in that then did transfer. So, that’s an example of an aptitude. I talk about various research aptitudes, where you try to digest hard problems. I talk about a communications aptitude where you try to communicate important ideas to big audiences. I go into a bunch of different things.

Rob Wiblin: Just to complete the list of aptitudes that you mentioned, I think the last few ones were software and engineering aptitude, quite a transferable skill. Then there was information security. So it’s like computer security, helping people keep secrets. I guess that one’s beginning to approach a little bit like a job or career. And then there’s academia. So, that’s like a broad class of roles.

Holden Karnofsky: Some of them are broad classes of aptitudes that have a bunch of stuff in common. A lot of the point of the post was to be like, how do I take my guess at what I could be great at? And how do I start learning whether it was a good guess, and start changing my mind about it, which I think is often a better framework to be learning than some of these other frameworks.

Holden Karnofsky: And then I think another aptitude that I just skipped over is political and bureaucratic aptitudes. So like, if you’re in the government and you’re climbing through the ranks, that’s the thing that you can be good at or bad at. You can learn if you’re good or bad at it. And if you’re good at it, you’re going to be good at it. And if you change your mind about what cause you to work on, you’re still going to have those skills, and they’re going to help you get into whatever cause you wanted. I also talk about entrepreneurs. I talk about community-building aptitudes, like trying to help people discover important ideas and form a community around them. That’s a thing that you can try out. You can see if you’re good at it. If you’re good at it, you’re going to keep getting better at it, et cetera.

How to tell if you're on track

Holden Karnofsky: I think some of these other frameworks, which I think are great, but I think you can end up lost on, how am I refining my picture of what I should be doing and where it should be. So it’s like, I wanted to work in AI, I managed to get this job in an AI organization. What do I do now? What am I learning about what kind of job I should be in? The aptitudes framework is a way of saying, look, if you’re succeeding at the job you’re in, then you are gaining positive information about your fit for that aptitude, not necessarily for that cause. And if you’re failing at the job you’re in, you’re gaining negative information about your fit for that aptitude, not necessarily that cause or that path.

Holden Karnofsky: And so, yeah. I mean like, so you gave the example of, I want to be in government. And it’s like, well, yeah, if you go into government and you have some peers or some close connections, they can probably, after a year, they can tell you how you’re doing. They can say, hey, you’re doing great. You’re moving up. You’re getting promoted at a good rate. People here think you’re good. This is a good fit for you. Or they can tell you, you’re kind of stalling out. And people don’t like this about you and that about you, or the system doesn’t like this or that about you. And then you can start thinking to yourself, okay, maybe I want to try something else. Maybe government’s not for me.

Holden Karnofsky: So it’s this framework where it’s not too hard to see if you’re succeeding or failing. A lot of people who aren’t necessarily all the way in your headspace and don’t have all the same weird views you have can just tell you if you’re succeeding or failing. And you can tell if you’re getting promoted, and it also matters if you’re enjoying yourself and if you’re finding it sustainable. These are all actual predictors of whether this is going to be something that you keep getting better at and end up really good at.

Just try to kick ass in whatever

Holden Karnofsky: The job market is really unfair, and especially the market for high-impact effective altruist jobs is really unfair. And the people who are incredible at something are so much more in demand than the people who are merely great at it. And the people who are great are so much more in demand than people who are good. And the people who are good are so much more in demand than the people who are okay. And so it’s just a huge, really important source of variation. And so then it’s like, can you know enough about what cause or path you want to be on, that the variance in that, the predictable variance in that, beats the variance in how good you’re going to be? And I’m like, usually not. Or usually at least they’re quite competitive, and you need to pay a lot of attention to how good you’re going to be, because there’s a lot of different things you could do to help with the most important century, and a lot of them are hard to predict today.

Holden Karnofsky: But a robust thing is that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it so much better if you’re better at it. So, that’s part of it. Also, people who are good at things, people who kick ass, they get all these other random benefits. So one thing that happens is people who kick ass become connected to other people who kick ass. And that’s really, really valuable. It’s just a really big deal.

Holden Karnofsky: You look at these AI companies and they want boards, and they want the people on their boards to be impressive. And it’s like, those people, a lot of those people are not AI people necessarily, or they weren’t for most of their careers. They kicked ass at something. That’s how they got there. And you know, a lot of my aptitude-agnostic stuff is about this too, where I’m like, let’s say that you missed, and you picked a skill that turned out it’s never going to get you a direct-work EA job, but you kicked a bunch of ass, and you know a bunch of other people who kick ass. So now you have this opportunity to affect people you know, and get them to do a lot of good. And they are not the people you would know if you hadn’t kicked ass.

Ways to be helpful to longtermism outside of careers

Holden Karnofsky: The basic vision is just, you’ve got a set of ideas you care about, and you’re good at something. You’re a role model. People look up to you, people are interested in the ideas you’re interested in, and they listen to you, they take you seriously. You show up to community events with other people who care about these issues. You make those events better. Now more people come to the events, more people are enjoying the events. More people are kind of getting into the ideas, taking them seriously. You’re also helping improve the events. You’re saying these events aren’t working for me, this community isn’t working for me, and I’m this great role model and I’m this kind of person you should want to make happy.

Holden Karnofsky: And so you’re doing all that stuff. And I think that’s a fair amount of impact. I think that just being a person who is connected to other successful people at different levels of success and just kind of living the good life and having an influence on others by your presence… So that’s a lot of it. And then I think there’s another thing that I think is a large chunk of the impact you can have in any job, which is kind of a weird meta thing, but it’s being ready to switch, which I think is actually super valuable. It’s super hard. And so if what you are is you’re a person doing a job that’s not direct work on longtermism, there’s two different versions of you.

Holden Karnofsky: There’s a version of you where you’re comfortable, you’re happy. And someone comes to you one day and they’re like, “You know what? You thought that your work was not relevant to longtermism, but it turns out it is, but you have to come work for this weird organization, take a giant pay cut, maybe move, get a lot less of all the stuff that you enjoy day to day. Will you please do it?” And there’s a version of you that says, “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m completely comfortable.” And there’s a version of you that’s like, “I’m in. Done. I’m ready.” I think it’s really hard to be the second kind of that person. And I think if you’re a successful person in some non-longtermist-relevant job, you could be thinking about what it would take for you to be that person. You probably need financial savings. You probably need just a certain kind of psychological readiness that you probably need to cultivate deliberately. You probably need to be connected enough to the community of longtermists that you wouldn’t completely be at sea if you entered into it one day.

Holden Karnofsky: And so it’s hard. It’s a lot of work. It’s not easy. And it’s super valuable in expectation, because you’re really good at something. And we don’t know whether that something is going to be useful. So there’s a chance it is, and the usual expected value calculation applies. And so I think if you’re managing to pull off both those things, that you’re kind of… You’re respected by people around you, you’re a positive influence and force and someone who’s looked up to, and you’re ready to switch at any moment, I’m like, “Gosh, your expected impact is really good. I’m comparing you now to someone who, they’ve got that job that everyone on the EA Forum is always going gaga over, and they’re barely hanging on to it.” And I’m like, yeah, I think the first person. I think the first person has a higher expected impact.

The state of longtermism

Holden Karnofsky: I think about this a lot, because my job is to help get money out to help support long-term goals, and especially because recently I’ve focused more exclusively on longtermism. And I mean, I think it’s an interesting state we’re in, I mean, I think the community has had some success growing, and there’s a lot of great people in it. I think there’s a lot of really cool ideas that have come from the community, but I think we have a real challenge, which is we don’t have a long list of things that we want to tangibly change about today’s world, or that we’re highly confident should change, or that we’re highly confident that we want people to do. And that can make things pretty tough.

Holden Karnofsky: And I think it reminds me a bit… It’s like an analogy to a company or an organization where when you’re starting off, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and it wouldn’t really be easy to explain to someone else what to do in order to reliably and significantly help the organization accomplish its mission. You don’t even really know what the mission is. And when you’re starting off like that, that’s like the wrong time to be raising tons of money, hiring tons of people… That’s the kind of thing that I’ve struggled with a lot at GiveWell and Open Philanthropy is like, when is the right time to hire people to scale up? If you do it too early, it’d be very painful, because you have people who want to help, but you don’t really have a great sense of how they can help. And you’re trying to guide them, but unless they just happen to think a lot like you, then it’s really hard to get there.

Holden Karnofsky: And then eventually what happens is hopefully you experiment, you think, you try things, and you figure out what you’re about. And I guess there’s a bit of an analogy to the product/market fit idea. Although this is a bit different, because we’re talking about nonprofits and then figuring out what you’re trying to do.

Holden Karnofsky: But that’s an analogy in my head, and it makes me think that longtermism is in a bit of a weird position right now. We’re in this early phase. We still lack a lot of clarity about what we are trying to do, and that makes it hard to operate at the scale we could to push out money the way that we hopefully later will.

Why Holden thinks 'cause X' is a bit overrated

Holden Karnofsky: The EA community is very focused on a few causes right now. And maybe what we should be focused on is finding another cause we haven’t thought of yet that’s an even bigger deal than all the causes we’re thinking about now. And the argument goes, well, if no one had thought about this existential risk in AI stuff, then thinking of it would be by far the best thing you could do. And so maybe that’s true again now. And so I get that argument and I certainly think it could be right.

Holden Karnofsky: And I don’t think the right amount of investment in this is zero. I also think we should just look at the situation. You’re kind of pulling causes out of an urn or something, and you’re seeing how good they are and you’re thinking about how much more investment in finding new causes is worth it. And it’s like, if the first three causes you pull out are all giving you the opportunity to let’s say benefit 10% of the current global population, if you do things right, then you might think maybe there’s a way to do a lot better than this. And then you pull out a cause that’s like, well, this century we’re going to figure out what kind of civilization is going to tile the entire galaxy. And it’s like, okay, well I think that drops the value of urn investment down a bit.

Rob Wiblin: …What more could you want? Where else is there to go?

Holden Karnofsky: Exactly, where else are you going to go? And it’s also neglected. So you’ve got importance and neglectedness off the charts. You’ve got a tractability problem.

Holden Karnofsky: But that’s exactly why, I mean the kind of person who would be good at finding cause X who finds these crazy things no one thought of… Well, there’s plenty of crazy things no one thought of that could be relevant to how that particular cause goes. There’s so much room to be creative and find unknown unknowns about what kind of considerations could actually matter for how this potential transition to a galaxy-wide civilization plays out and what kinds of actions could affect it and how they could affect it. There’s all kinds of creative open-ended work to do. So I think it’s better to invest in finding unexpected insights about how to help with this cause that we’re all looking at that looks pretty damn big. I’m more excited about that than just looking for another cause. It’s not that I have some proof that there’s no way another cause is better, but I think that investment is a better place to look.

Related episodes

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].

What should I listen to first?

We've carefully selected 10 episodes we think it could make sense to listen to first, on a separate podcast feed:

Check out 'Effective Altruism: An Introduction'

Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

If you're new, see the podcast homepage for ideas on where to start, or browse our full episode archive.