Michelle Hutchinson on what people most often ask 80,000 Hours
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I typically try to get people to go from thinking, “What are a whole host of jobs that would do some good and then which seem most appealing,” to instead thinking, “What things are very most impactful and then… which of those do I think I might be personally well suited for”
Since it was founded, 80,000 Hours has done one-on-one calls to supplement our online content and offer more personalised advice. We try to help people get clear on the most plausible paths for them, the key uncertainties they face in choosing between them, and provide resources, pointers, and introductions to help them in those paths.
I (Michelle Hutchinson) joined the team a couple of years ago after working at Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute, and these days I’m 80,000 Hours’ Head of Advising. Since then, chatting to hundreds of people about their career plans has given me some idea of the kinds of things it’s useful for people to hear about when thinking through their careers.
We all thought it would be useful to discuss some of those on the show for others to hear. Among other topics we cover:
- The difficulty of maintaining the ambition to increase your social impact, while also being proud of and motivated by what you’re already accomplishing.
- Why traditional careers advice involves thinking through what types of roles you enjoy followed by which of those are impactful, while we recommend going the other way: ranking roles on impact, and then going down the list to find the one you think you’d most flourish in.
- That if you’re pitching your job search at the right level of role, you’ll need to apply to a large number of different jobs. So it’s wise to broaden your options, by applying for both stretch and backup roles, and not over-emphasising a small number of organisations.
- Our suggested process for writing a longer term career plan: 1. shortlist your best medium to long-term career options, then 2. figure out the key uncertainties in choosing between them, and 3. map out concrete next steps to resolve those uncertainties.
- Why many listeners aren’t spending enough time finding out about what the day-to-day work is like in paths they’re considering, or reaching out to people for advice or opportunities.
I also thought it might be useful to give people a sense of what I do and don’t do in advising calls, to help them figure out if they should sign up for it.
If you’re wondering whether you’ll benefit from advising, bear in mind that it tends to be more useful to people:
- With similar views to 80,000 Hours on what the world’s most pressing problems are, because we’ve done most research on the problems we think it’s most important to address.
- Who don’t yet have close connections with people working at effective altruist organisations.
- Who aren’t strongly locationally constrained.
If you’re unsure, it doesn’t take long to apply and a lot of people say they find the application form itself helps them reflect on their plans. We’re particularly keen to hear from people from under-represented backgrounds.
Want to talk to one of our advisors?
We speak to hundreds of people each year and can offer introductions and answer specific questions you might have. You can join the waitlist here:
Also in this episode:
- I describe mistakes I’ve made in advising, and career changes made by people I’ve spoken with.
- Rob and I argue about what risks to take with your career, like when it’s sensible to take a study break, or start from the bottom in a new career path.
- I try to forecast how I’ll change after I have a baby, Rob speculates wildly on what motherhood is like, and Arden and I mercilessly mock Rob.
It continues to be awe inspiring to me how many people I talk to are donating to save lives, making dietary changes to avoid intolerable suffering, and carefully planning their lives to improve the future trajectory of the world. I hope we can continue to support each other in doing those things, and appreciate how important all this work is.
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: Zakee Ulhaq.
The difference in impact between different jobs
One thing I find myself talking about quite a bit is the difference in impact there might be between different jobs and also between different cause areas. I think maybe because the kinds of things that we do in everyday life are not that different from each other. I think that the instinct that people often bring to career choice and maybe other areas of life is finding a whole bunch of options which seem to do at least some good and then thinking through which of these seem the most appealing, without looking too much into how much better some are for the world than others. If the thing you’re working on is reducing the burden of AIDS, it’s hugely different whether you do that by working on late stage complications of AIDS like Kaposi’s sarcoma versus on giving out antiretrovirals or giving out condoms.
And then I think if you compare across causes, you can get, again, potentially a hundred times multiplier by looking at an area that’s hugely neglected. So at 80,000 Hours we tend to think that risks that could wipe out the whole of humanity tend to be radically under investigated and underfunded to how much they should be for a whole host of reasons, partly being very speculative, partly that people tend to have incentives to work on things that are nearer-term rather than things that will affect the world in a hundred years. But I think thinking through what you think the comparative impact of working in these different areas are is actually extremely important if you care about helping people as much as you can. I try to typically get people to flip their framing a bit of this to rather than think through, “What are a whole host of jobs that you think would do some good and then which seem most appealing”, to think through, “What things do you think are very most impactful and then rank them” and then at that point, start thinking through, “Okay, which of these do I think I might be personally well suited for”, because I think that difference in framing is going to really prime you for going for these jobs that are hundreds of times more impactful than others.
We're not just excited about our priority paths
I think people often assume that we’re only really excited about our priority paths which are listed explicitly on the website which is definitely not the case. One of the things that’s going on there is that it’s pretty difficult to figure out where people can have most impact. And so we’ve tried pretty hard to find some examples where we think some particular type of role could absorb quite a lot of people and still be amongst the most important things. But I think actually, it’s the case that most of the most important roles are plausibly going to be ones where there’s only a few people who could easily go into them. Or only a few people are needed. Or they’re just the type of roles or careers that we haven’t yet found or haven’t yet worked out are particularly impactful. And those are obviously very difficult to describe.
The value of encouragement
One thing that people are surprised that we talk about quite a bit in advising calls and that ends up being a useful function of them is providing people with encouragement. I think a lot of people feel wary of applying to particularly competitive options, particularly given that they might know statistical evidence of people, in general, being overconfident. But that means that I actually get quite a few advisees who feel that they obviously wouldn’t be able to get some competitive option and so they’re not even going to apply for it. And so talking to them and saying, “Well, it’s worth at least trying out, even if it’s pretty unlikely”. And then providing encouragement also for trying different kinds of options and for feeling better about the types of options that you go for can be pretty important.
I think the types of people who are trying hard to have as much impact as they can in the world are just very prone to compare themselves to the absolute most impressive person they can find. I absolutely feel the pull of this. While I worked at the Global Priorities Institute, my manager was Hilary Greaves who was the academic director and it was incredibly hard not to be wishing all the time that I was Hilary Greaves. Whereas that’s actually not that useful compared to thinking through what’s the best thing that I could be doing. And also people tend to see the ways in which they’re falling short compared to other people rather than the ways they’re doing well compared to other people. So I find it pretty important to encourage people to be feeling better about the types of roles that they’re going into. And also just to generally remember that the kinds of people that we’re talking about who are trying to help the world as much as possible are just typically doing hugely important things. Many of them, for example, are giving away large amounts of money that can buy bed nets to save multiple lives per year. It’s absolutely incredible that we’re in a position to do that and that people are willing to do that when they could be keeping the money for themselves. I think it’s really important that people realize how important that is and don’t just feel bad for the fact that they could be doing something else even better or different.
A big thing that feels worrying to me is not being able to quite separate the things that you could do in theory if you tried harder from the things that you could do if you were simply a different person. And particularly for the people who are around you and doing similar kinds of jobs, it’s actually quite useful to have some sense of, “Oh my colleague’s doing really well at this particular thing because they did a statistics MOOC in their spare time. Maybe I should do that and generally learning from them”, versus, “Oh, actually they’re just a different kind of person”. Partly because that could be in ways that we usually think of as malleable. So it could be that some of my colleagues work several hours a day longer than me but that actually be a total mistake for me to try and work longer hours because I would get more burnt out or whatever. So I think part of this is coming from a kind of sensible intuition misfiring.
One thing that I somewhat frequently see is people who think that some particular area is probably the highest impact one for them to go into but don’t feel terribly passionate about it and therefore relatively quickly rule it out. I think that seems more problematic because I think there’s this really big difference in terms of how impactful different kinds of things are. But then I also think it comes back to this thing about people having some trouble introspecting before having tried something out as to how much they’ll like it. So I really try hard to push people if they’re in that kind of position. To think through specifically what kinds of things drive their motivation and whether there would be ways of being happy working in this area that they think is highest impact that would still motivate them. Because I think people are very different in terms of what kinds of things motivate them. So some people need to be seeing the beneficiaries in front of them all the time and that’s going to make it very difficult for you, for example, to work on a long-term horizon. Whereas other people, so I tend to be the kind of person who’s very motivated by not letting my team down, which means that I can work in quite a lot of different areas. And then also by generally feeling like I’m helping people.
Table of Contents
- 1 Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
- 2 The interview begins [00:02:50]
- 3 The process of advising [00:09:34]
- 4 We’re not just excited about our priority paths [00:14:37]
- 5 Common things Michelle says during advising [00:18:13]
- 6 Interpersonal comparisons [00:31:18]
- 7 Thinking about current impact [00:40:31]
- 8 Applying to different kinds of orgs [00:42:29]
- 9 Difference in impact between jobs / causes [00:49:04]
- 10 Common mistakes [00:55:40]
- 11 Career change stories [01:11:44]
- 12 When is advising really useful for people? [01:24:28]
- 13 Managing risk in careers [01:55:29]
- 14 Rob’s outro [02:12:28]
Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Since its inception 80,000 Hours has offered some sort of one-on-one career advice, but it’s something we haven’t talked that much about on the show.
Of course, over time our advisors end up knowing a lot about what sort of questions our readers are likely to have and what practical challenges they most frequently face.
So today I’m happy to finally be speaking with our Head of Advising, Michelle Hutchinson. Among other things we talk about our differences with traditional career advice, why you should probably apply to more jobs, how to stay hungry to achieve more without being perpetually dissatisfied, times we’ve offered bad advice, how much risk to take, and who’s a good fit to receive one-on-one career advice from 80,000 Hours.
And as if you need more reason to listen, I’m again joined by my research colleague Arden Koehler who last appeared in our interview with Toby Ord.
If you listen to the interview and think you’d be a good fit for advising, you can learn more about it and join the waitlist at 80000hours.org/advising/.
Before that two quick notices.
First, I just wanted to offer a plug for another podcast, NPR’s economics show Planet Money. I mentioned it years ago, but it continues to impress me by putting out another interesting and informative show every few days. Recently they’ve done episodes on the US coronavirus stimulus package, how factories are rushing to retool to produce fask masks, and why the price of oil going negative. I’ve been listening for a decade and can only remember a few bad episodes. I was reminded to mention it because I actually suggested Planet Money to Michelle a month ago and she has also been loving it.
If you want more there’s also their short daily spin-off show called The Indicator.
Second, for the most recent update to our job board, my colleague Maria Gutierrez teamed up with two experts we trust, and together they shortlisted some promising roles in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness.
So if you’re interested in that area you should go and check out the more than 60 opportunities for working to stop pandemic diseases that we currently have on our job board. As always, we’ve included both roles that are mainly valuable for career development, and some of the best roles we’re aware of for people ready to have a big impact in biosecurity work right now.
The job board as a whole now has over 500 vacancies listed across a wide range of problem areas and levels of role seniority. So if you’re looking for something new or want to have more social impact, please do check it out, it’s a real goldmine.
It’s at 80000hours.org/jobs and linked in the show-notes.
Alright, without further ado, here’s me and Arden interviewing Michelle Hutchinson.
The interview begins [00:02:50]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with my colleague, Michelle Hutchinson. Michelle has a PhD in moral philosophy from the University of Oxford, where her thesis was on global priorities research. While completing that, she did the operational setup for the Centre for Effective Altruism and became Executive Director of Giving What We Can, where she was actually my manager when I first moved to Oxford to start looking into how people can have a huge impact with their lives, all the way back in 2012.
Michelle Hutchinson: But I escaped that!
Robert Wiblin: Yep. She later became Head of Research Operations at the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford, and that’s where she was working when we did an interview back in December 2017. But since then, we’ve managed to poach her, and so she’s now 80,000 Hours’ Head of Advising. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Michelle.
Michelle Hutchinson: Great to be here, Rob.
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m also joined by my colleague Arden Koehler. Welcome, Arden.
Arden Koehler: Hey, excited to be here.
Robert Wiblin: All right. So I hope that we’ll talk about common questions you get when doing advising and maybe common challenges that people face and maybe mistakes that you see reasonably often. But first, what is it that you’re doing across the room from me all day, Michelle, and why do you think it’s useful?
Michelle Hutchinson: Fundamentally, the thing I’m doing is talking to people about career decisions that they’re currently facing. I tend to chat to people for between half an hour and an hour and the conversations take very different turns depending on the stage that the person’s at. Some people are choosing between a few different specific jobs or other really concrete options, whereas other people are very early on in their career and they’re really trying to think through what types of paths they ought to go down and what the best ways of testing those are. But I do have a fairly standard kind of set up for how I go through these conversations, starting by talking to people about what they think the most pressing problems in the world are and what they’re really trying to achieve with their career, followed by thinking through their specific options; whether those be something really concrete or these broader kinds of options, and trying to rank those and get a good sense of what the critical uncertainties they have are, followed by what the actual next steps should be.
Arden Koehler: Cool. So, we’ll get to come back to talking about how advising works more later, but, just to give people a little bit of background, we know your story to some extent, but we want the audience to hear it. So, what led you to this kind of work?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I was pretty surprised that I ended up with this job after working at the Global Priorities Institute. I had been there for a couple of years at the point where I moved. And my role switched quite a bit because initially I was really trying to set up the Institute, doing the initial fundraising, figuring out what it meant to be an Institute at Oxford, and then getting all of the paperwork through the University. By the time I left, it was very much an existing organization and a much more standard role that it felt a bit easier to hire someone who had specific skills in how to run a research Institute.
Michelle Hutchinson: I had known about 80,000 Hours for a long while and worked alongside them while being at the Centre for Effective Altruism and Giving What We Can and known about the advising type of role, but never really considered actually going for it. One of the reasons for that is that it just didn’t seem like the natural next step given my background, whereas having done the operational setup of CEA, doing the same for a new organization felt very natural. And in particular, having a PhD from Oxford and working with the academic philosophy faculty there seemed like very much my comparative advantage. But talking to the 80,000 Hours team, it became clearer that actually if you’re going to be giving careers advice on priority paths, then you really need to have some experience with what it’s like working in those and with the kinds of considerations that tell in favor of some rather than others.
Arden Koehler: So what are some lessons that you learned from that process?
Michelle Hutchinson: One thing I learned was that it’s good to explore pretty widely what kind of role you might want to do. And, in particular, to think through not what roles your background look the most natural to go into, but what kinds of roles you think are most impactful for which your background seems like one of the best. So if you do a PhD in philosophy, there’s kind of a neatly mapped out route of going into academia in a way that working for 80,000 Hours is not at all on the radar. But if you look at what kinds of people you’d want to hire to 80,000 Hours, someone who’s worked in some of our priority paths actually does seem like a natural fit.
Michelle Hutchinson: And this is actually just really crucial, because for a lot of the most neglected jobs, it’s going to be exactly the case that there isn’t some obvious pipeline that leads to them. That’s why they’re neglected. Another thing that I learned was that it can be surprisingly nonobvious to you by introspecting what kind of a role you’ll end up really liking. So I tend to identify as relatively shy. Not that good with people. Didn’t think that a job where I was talking to people all day, every day, would suit me at all well. But actually, I really enjoy talking to people one-on-one and having the sense of helping them. And this is just a job that I’ve enjoyed hugely and more than any than I had in the past. And I just had no real idea, despite knowing that the job existed and watching several of my friends do it, that I would feel that way about it and trying it has just made all the difference.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I feel like I would really struggle to do what you’re doing, even though I guess I seem more extroverted than you, but just talking to total strangers for hours a day I think I would find incredibly draining. Did you find that energizing or do you also end up quite tired after doing several coaching calls?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think by the end of the day I’m pretty tired, but I actually do find it very energizing. Some of the others on the team mock me for how often I come downstairs after a coaching call full of, “You wouldn’t believe this lovely person I just talked to who has this great idea of how they’re going to help the world”!
Robert Wiblin: A reaction I would never have [laughter].
Arden Koehler: So you said you really liked the job. Are there any parts of it that you don’t like as much?
Michelle Hutchinson: I’m really not a fan of not getting to talk to everyone who applies. You might think that for effective altruists, it really comes naturally to do a bunch of prioritizing, but I actually find looking through the applications and knowing that there are all these people who are really trying as hard as they can to find the roles that will help the world and then knowing that there are so many of them that we can’t help because we only have finite resources or just because they already have a great plan and I can’t really add anything to them pretty painful.
The process of advising [00:09:34]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So we’re going to go through, I guess, a bunch of advice that you frequently find yourself giving. I suppose I know that readers on the site tend to take what we write a little bit too seriously and we’ve been trying to massage the wording so that people will take our advice with a bit more of a pinch of salt than they seem to be doing right now. But I’m not sure. Do you think advisees take what you say too seriously or not seriously enough?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it really depends on the person and also it’s a bit difficult to tell. Although I’ve been here for a year, that doesn’t feel like that long in terms of actually following up what people do. I think some people definitely seem to err on the side of expecting me to have answers when I definitely don’t. I think I even fell into this before I joined 80,000 Hours where I had this sense that the people in 80,000 Hours had answers and that when I joined I would be told them, which is pretty surprising because it’s not like I thought you had any answers, Rob.
Robert Wiblin: Brutal! [laughter]
Michelle Hutchinson: On the other hand, I think there are also plenty of people who are just generally pretty skeptical of the kinds of things that we’re doing or who have a fairly set track in mind rather than wanting to explore, for whom I end up feeling like I have to push somewhat hard to try and get them to think outside the box a bit more. I think the personality of the person doing the advising makes a big difference here as well, where I find that it feels very difficult to me to get the appropriate level of feeling like I am giving concrete, useful information because to me it always feels like I’m kind of speculating and these questions are hugely hard and then sometimes I rub up against people who just feel like they have way more answers in the world. But I think in general it is easier when talking to people than it is in written content to get people to realize the level of uncertainty you have.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s a benefit of the podcast as well over written articles. I guess I haven’t done advising in a couple of years, but I remember one of the biggest challenges was talking to people for half an hour, maybe an hour at the most, and then there’s so much information you have to collect. It’s like, what things do they enjoy? What things are they good at? What actual concrete options that they have ahead of them? It just takes a lot of the call to get that kind of information. And even by the end, you don’t really have enough to make confident recommendations because you could easily be missing some important piece of information. Did you find that as well or maybe have we found a better way of getting a lot of information out of people before the calls now?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, we’ve certainly done a bit more work on our systems since the time that you’re referring to. So we get people to fill in an application initially which gives some idea of what their possible plans are, which problems they think are most pressing, that kind of thing. And then once we’ve asked someone to do a call with us, we send them another document asking them things like what do they think that they’re naturally most skilled at, what do they think their key uncertainties are and that type of thing. And that really helps. It makes a huge difference when someone has really thought through what it will be useful for me to know beforehand and also what the things are that they think are most important to discuss. It’s still very difficult, particularly if someone has some particular thing that they want to discuss but they didn’t quite realize that they wanted to or something like that.
Michelle Hutchinson: Also, yeah, you just don’t get very much time at all to discuss different options, particularly for people who have just a huge range of things that they could go into. You end up having to spend just like a couple of minutes on each and just give some idea of, “Okay, maybe if you want to go into this, this would be the next step” or something rather than being able to go into detail.
Arden Koehler: I’ve heard that the coaching preparation and the application for coaching have been helpful in themselves to people. Is it designed that way or is that just a happy accident?
Michelle Hutchinson: We have certainly tried to make them useful for people. Yeah. And we have gotten the feedback somewhat regularly that people found it a useful exercise to go through to plan through their options. To think through specifically what their key uncertainties are and things. There’s more that we could do in this kind of area, and one uncertainty we have is to what extent to be trying to optimize that process for being useful for that versus for making people ready for the call. Because some people say, “Actually I would have been happy to do more preparation”. So for example. 80,000 Hours recommend people to have a number of different options of varying levels of competitiveness to try out for including having what we call “Plan Z”, which is the thing that you know you could do if all else goes wrong. That’s not typically going to be the kind of thing that’s going to be that useful to discuss in an advising call, because it could be “Go back and live with your parents and get a job in the local library”. But it’s definitely a thing we think that people should have. So one of the things that we’ve been playing around with recently is should we actually ask people specifically on the document to list that? Not because we need to know it for the call or that we’ll discuss it, just because we think it’s really sensible for everyone to have.
Robert Wiblin: Nice.
We’re not just excited about our priority paths [00:14:37]
Robert Wiblin: Are there any misconceptions that people have about the range of different careers that we’re excited about that come up in coaching?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think people often assume that we’re only really excited about our priority paths which are listed explicitly on the website which is definitely not the case. One of the things that’s going on there is that it’s pretty difficult to figure out where people can have most impact. And so we’ve tried pretty hard to find some examples where we think some particular type of role could absorb quite a lot of people and still be amongst the most important things. But I think actually, it’s the case that most of the most important roles are plausibly going to be ones where there’s only a few people who could easily go into them. Or only a few people are needed. Or they’re just the type of roles or careers that we haven’t yet found or haven’t yet worked out are particularly impactful. And those are obviously very difficult to describe.
Michelle Hutchinson: And so what I ideally want is for advisees to be thinking through what they think is the best possible option for them to go into and to have tons of people exploring different roles depending on what their particular background and skillset is, and then using these analytical tools to compare carefully between them and really squarely aim for impact in them. I’m really pleased that we now have some new content up alongside our priority paths, which are called “niche paths”, which describe some of the various different, more specific types of things people could do where maybe they’re ones that we think we’d just like one or two people working in them. Maybe there’s something like journalist, which is actually pretty difficult to get into and so not necessarily a good thing to aim for unless you already have quite a bit of evidence that you’ll be good at it. Or maybe they’re just things where we’re not really sure at all whether they’ll be very impactful, but we think there’s a good shot that they will be and so we’d be very interested to have people explore them further.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. We’ve also now got on the problem profiles landing page, we’ve got this quite long list of other problems in the world that we know less about than the kind of classic ones that we talk about a lot, but that we think if we looked into them more, we could end up thinking that they are among the most pressing or that we’d love to see more people go into them. And then we, I guess, talk about a couple of other problems that we think are very pressing, but perhaps less so from a longtermist perspective.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I hope that the niche paths list, or the list of other careers that we could become really excited about if we had time to investigate them more and other problems that we could become really excited about if we had time to investigate them more will hopefully combat this perception that there’s only 10 things that are good in the whole world, which I guess sometimes people can read that article and maybe come away with that because the list stands out so nicely. It’s very memorable these lists of 10 different things.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I’m really glad that we have more content on this now. Both for combating that perception, and also for giving people specific ideas. Because I think it is just really difficult to freeform try to figure out what’s most impactful in an area where most people haven’t looked into it at all yet, compared to going into some well trodden path where you’ll have collaborators and other people sketching out for you what would be best and worst to do in this. So the more we can do to ‘processify’ this the better.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, for sure.
Common things Michelle says during advising [00:18:13]
Robert Wiblin: All right. So we’ll come back to talking about advising as a part of 80,000 Hours and what the work is like and I guess whether people should potentially apply it out in the audience. But I guess that maybe the most useful thing we can do with this episode is find things that you find yourself saying reasonably often and then broadcast them through the podcast and then you’ll never have to say them ever again, Michelle.
Michelle Hutchinson: Thank goodness!
Robert Wiblin: Everyone will listen. It will all be handled. Yeah. So what are some of the things you find yourself saying pretty often on advising calls?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think one thing that people are surprised that we talk about quite a bit in advising calls and that ends up being a useful function of them is providing people with encouragement. I think a lot of people feel wary of applying to particularly competitive options, particularly given that they might know statistical evidence of people, in general, being overconfident. But that means that I actually get quite a few advisees who feel that they obviously wouldn’t be able to get some competitive option and so they’re not even going to apply for it. And so talking to them and saying, “Well, it’s worth at least trying out, even if it’s pretty unlikely”. And then providing encouragement also for trying different kinds of options and for feeling better about the types of options that you go for can be pretty important.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think the types of people who are trying hard to have as much impact as they can in the world are just very prone to compare themselves to the absolute most impressive person they can find. I absolutely feel the pull of this. While I worked at the Global Priorities Institute, my manager was Hilary Greaves who was the academic director and it was incredibly hard not to be wishing all the time that I was Hilary Greaves. Whereas that’s actually not that useful compared to thinking through what’s the best thing that I could be doing. And also people tend to see the ways in which they’re falling short compared to other people rather than the ways they’re doing well compared to other people. So I find it pretty important to encourage people to be feeling better about the types of roles that they’re going into. And also just to generally remember that the kinds of people that we’re talking about who are trying to help the world as much as possible are just typically doing hugely important things. Many of them, for example, are giving away large amounts of money that can buy bed nets to save multiple lives per year. It’s absolutely incredible that we’re in a position to do that and that people are willing to do that when they could be keeping the money for themselves. I think it’s really important that people realize how important that is and don’t just feel bad for the fact that they could be doing something else even better or different.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. I’ve often been just incredibly impressed with the people who apply for advising when I’ve gotten to talk to them, which hasn’t been as often on the research team, but every once in awhile just 1), like their experience and things that they’ve done are often very impressive, but also just their drive to do things that are good for the world and it is extremely heartening.
Michelle Hutchinson: It really is. I find reading through applications is tough from the point of view of not being able to take everyone, but really heartening just from getting the sense of there are so many people out there really trying hard to help others and actually doing it.
Robert Wiblin: Every so often I see the advising applications from people who get rejected and sometimes they’re just ludicrously capable and doing really amazing stuff. I guess we just don’t have the capacity. And I suppose there there’s also this effect you were saying that sometimes someone can be making the right decisions already. So even though they’re extremely impressive, it’s not so useful to talk to them.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. Very often we get people come along who already have a very solid plan and are saying, “Oh, maybe I’ll check my plan”. But you know, that’s really not that necessary. That could also be people who were choosing between three separate options, but all of the options look good and they have a good sense of how to get into any of the options. And for those kinds of people, it’s just less high priority to talk to them.
Robert Wiblin: Do you get a chance to email those people and say, “Oh, we considered coaching you, but your plan just looks good, so, you know, carry on”?
Michelle Hutchinson: It depends on the case. So sometimes we’ll do that. Unfortunately it’s just a lot more time consuming and we get so many people on the wait list that it’s more efficient in general to say, “Our coaching isn’t going to be as useful for you” and then not clarify exactly why not.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess if you had to send personalized rejection emails to everyone, you’d never actually get to advise anyone.
Michelle Hutchinson: Sadly so.
Robert Wiblin: Very difficult trade-offs here.
Arden Koehler: Give her Head of Rejection.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so maybe it sometimes it feels that way. Okay. Let’s just back up. So it sounded like there was maybe three different points. One is that people are kind of underconfident and so they need a bit of encouragement maybe to go and just apply for things that seem well worth applying for. Then there’s this issue of interpersonal comparison where people are getting demoralized because they compare themselves to the very best person who they’re aware of and necessarily if you’re doing that, then basically for everyone that’s going to make them unhappy. And then we’ve got this other thing of people never being satisfied with the contribution that they’re making already.
Robert Wiblin: They’re always looking onto the next thing. It’s kind of human nature rather than being pleased with what they’ve managed to accomplish so far. All right, so let’s talk about the underconfidence thing first. Is that just a selection effect? That you maybe choose people who are underconfident from the pool, or do you think it’s just people in general or people in this community as a whole are maybe not confident enough or not willing to take the risk of taking a long shot at applying for something that’s maybe a stretch job to get?
Michelle Hutchinson: I mean I definitely don’t mean to say that. I think, in general, most of our advisees are underconfident. We also talk to plenty who are overconfident. I think it’s much more of a case of it’s very difficult to calibrate yourself as to whether you should be applying for more stretch things or whether you should be applying for more safe options. So I tend to say some of both of these. I do think that there’s a general effect of obviously everyone hates rejection and so people don’t really want to apply for jobs where they’re very likely to be rejected. I think this differs a lot by industry and what kinds of roles people want to go into. So this feels maybe a bit more surprising to me coming from an academic background, because in academia, if you come out with a philosophy PhD from a good university and then you want to get an academic role, you’re just going to have to apply to tens and tens of jobs and be rejected from almost all of them because that’s how the system works.
Michelle Hutchinson: Whereas it’s much less so the case in other industries that people are used to that kind of thing. So they might think, “Well, if that job gets that number of applicants, then why would I bother applying for it” in a way that people who’re used to coming from an industry where you just obviously apply for the top thing expecting to fail do.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. I have some friends from my PhD in philosophy that would keep a spreadsheet where they would compete on how many rejections they get because they were trying to counter this. They were trying to be like, “Okay, it feels bad to get rejections, but we’re going to try to make this a good thing because it’s like a measure of how much we’re putting ourselves out there”, and they’d be like, “Yes, got another rejection”, and then be trying to outdo each other.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think some of those kinds of things would be great to see in the wider world because I think a lot of people in general do just end up doing something that’s not quite as good as they could have done because they’re not used to trying out these techniques to make them more willing to put themselves out there.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess on the overconfidence and underconfidence thing, there’s maybe a bit of an asymmetry where the people who are overconfident, they waste a bit of time maybe putting in job applications for things that they’re too unlikely to get. But that’s not the end of the world. Whereas someone who’s consistently underconfident and never really applies for amazing options that they could get, might be selling their whole career short and making a big mistake that they could correct in maybe just a few weeks of extra applications.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that’s typically the case. I think it definitely could swing the other way where if someone doesn’t apply for enough backup options they could just find themselves in a really bad position because they applied for a whole bunch of jobs until their runway gave out and then they still don’t have a job or an idea of what they’re going to do and they’d actually need the money. So I think it does depend on the person and the situation.
Arden Koehler: I like how in both cases, the prescription is basically, “Apply more widely”. Because it seems really difficult to tell whether you’re underconfident or overconfident from the inside. I mean, it seems like it’s part of the phenomenon is that you can’t tell which one you are or if you’re just like the right amount of confident. Would you say that everyone should just apply for a huge spread?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think I definitely do think that “Apply more widely” is a thing that almost everyone can bear to hear. I think this can go wrong because I do talk to some people, for example, undergrads in their final year who think, “Well I may as well start applying early. What kinds of things are around and are a perfectly reasonable baseline option? And then apply, for example, for good consulting firms because they’re recruiting at top universities. They’re very comfortably available. They’re clearly fine for most of the paths you might want to go into”. And then once you have an offer from something like that, it becomes harder to motivate yourself to apply for other things and it becomes hard to turn down. So I think it is important to apply widely, but also to be thinking fairly carefully, “Okay, is this one of my backup options and if so, am I going to continue applying or something” rather than getting caught into an offer that you got and don’t particularly endorse?
Arden Koehler: Do you think it’s particularly worth people putting thought into the order in which they apply for stuff so they maybe apply for the things that are their best options first and then if they don’t get them… So they don’t get anchored on something that is not their best option if they get it first.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that definitely seems like something that I would typically advise people to do. It can be pretty difficult particularly because some of the consulting places that I was suggesting end up deliberately trying to be the first thing that you would apply for and the first thing to give you an answer so that you have this as your baseline option. And then also this gets back to this problem of if you only apply for the most competitive things, then you can end up in a problem. But I think a bit of forward planning can just help tons here where you try really hard to find out which of your top options you can apply for early on and which backup options you know you can still have time to apply for after that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So how do you think people can get over this reticence to put themselves forward for things that they’re likely to get rejected for? I was talking to someone a couple of months ago who had managed to go quite a long way in their career without having to put out lots of job applications and getting rejected, and was therefore a bit reticent about applying, or potentially they were now going to have to go through a process of applying for a dozen things. And I suggested they should start out by just applying for a bunch of jobs they don’t even want. Then, they can just get very used to smashing out these cover letters and doing interviews without feeling very stressed about it because they don’t in fact want the position and then that will kind of build them up to then feeling confident when they actually do apply for a job that they want.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think that sounds like a great strategy. To be honest, I don’t have a great deal to say here. I think one of the things is thinking through how much you can learn from the application process and often the longer the application process, the more they’re trying to figure out whether you’re really a good fit and would like it as well as just whether you, you know, so for some jobs you’re just going to be putting in tons of CVs and then it’s not actually really going to be a big time sink or that stressful. The ones that are more stressful are these ones with the longer processes, but there you actually get quite an insight into what would this kind of job be like, what would this kind of company be like to work for? And learning a ton that you could then apply to what kinds of other things do I want to apply for in future?
Michelle Hutchinson: It kind of reminds me of applying to go to Oxford for my undergraduate where I was convinced that I wasn’t going to get in, so I very much got into a mindset of how nice it was to go to Oxford and get to eat in the lunch hall and see all the colleges and learn what it is like doing a tutorial because this is the kind of thing I’m obviously not going to get to do, so at least I get a taste of it. And I don’t know whether that kind of mechanism might help people who are applying through these long processes as well.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. It also seems like thinking of it just more generally as this educational experience, like not only do you have a chance of getting the job, but also you’re going to learn more about yourself and about what’s required in certain kinds of careers. So in that sense, just learning more about the world could make it a bit less adversive and also, yeah, thinking about what lessons you can draw from applications for jobs that you don’t get seems like a good thing.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. People can experience the pure joy of doing job interviews.
Michelle Hutchinson: You get to meet new people and see new places.
Robert Wiblin: Almost as much fun as walking around Oxford.
Arden Koehler: Hey, we’re being very–
Robert Wiblin: Try to be constructive, yeah. I wonder whether there’s anything people can learn from dating advice because that’s something where almost everyone earlier in their life is going to have to deal with rejection, potentially. And this is kind of has a similar structure, you’ve got to put yourself out there in order to have any hope.
Michelle Hutchinson: Well I married my high school sweetheart so I’m afraid I can’t comment on that, Rob.
Interpersonal comparisons [00:31:18]
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So the second point you made a few minutes ago was about the interpersonal comparison. What do you think is going on there? I suppose this is a little bit harder for me to understand because I feel like I don’t quite have the intuition as much as some other people do that what really matters is how you’re doing relative to other people who you can see on the news or, I guess, know in your personal life. It does just seem like it’s about the absolute amount of good that you’re doing and just trying to increase that. I suppose, do people worry that people won’t respect them if they’re not doing as much good as someone else that they know?
Michelle Hutchinson: So a big thing that feels worrying to me is not being able to quite separate the things that you could do in theory if you tried harder from the things that you could do if you were simply a different person. And particularly for the people who are around you and doing similar kinds of jobs, it’s actually quite useful to have some sense of, “Oh my colleague’s doing really well at this particular thing because they did a statistics MOOC in their spare time. Maybe I should do that and generally learning from them”, versus, “Oh, actually they’re just a different kind of person”. Partly because that could be in ways that we usually think of as malleable. So it could be that some of my colleagues work several hours a day longer than me but that actually be a total mistake for me to try and work longer hours because I would get more burnt out or whatever. So I think part of this is coming from a kind of sensible intuition misfiring.
Arden Koehler: I also feel like it’s unclear to me that this is the right way to think about things. But it seems very common for people to feel good or bad about the kind of person that they are. So even if it ultimately is a matter of like something that’s not malleable, it’s just like, “Oh, I’m this kind of person”, maybe people shouldn’t feel good or bad about that, but it seems like they do.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I suppose it makes sense that they might feel bad because then they anticipate bad consequences from it. If you’re someone who can’t get a job at all, then maybe you’re not blameworthy because maybe you were just born with particular disadvantages. But nonetheless, it causes you to anticipate that your life will be less fun. And so that’s a reason to care. Although I suppose then feeling bad about it as well maybe isn’t going to help with the situation, but it’s pretty normal.
Michelle Hutchinson: I mean you also might just wish that you could be helping people more or something, right? If you happened to be the kind of person that could do more work or was tons smarter or something, then other people would benefit from that if you have a job that’s really trying to maximize your impact. So this wishing that you could do these things that you, in fact, can’t is more of a wish fulfillment about ways in which the world could be a bunch better.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So it was funny because people don’t have the quite the same attitude to being tall or characteristics that they can see are more fixed. So I think that it makes maybe more sense to be frustrated with yourself when you don’t put in effort. Because maybe if you feel bad about that, then that will actually cause you to put in more effort and you’ll try harder and be more successful. But I suppose when people realize that something is fixed like height, maybe they’ll be sad that they’re not taller because they maybe wish that they could have a more fun life or something like that if they were able to get into the basketball team. But they don’t feel like it’s blameworthy for them that they weren’t born with genes that made them taller.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I think a lot of what’s going on there is that it’s just not that clear which things are fixed and which aren’t fixed. So whereas being tall is just very obviously the kind of thing that’s fixed, being gregarious or being calm or being emotionally resilient are the kinds of things that feel within your control in a way that being tall doesn’t feel within your control and then it’s very hard to distinguish between the, “Here are the things I could be trying harder of, you know, doing CBT and things like this” and “Here are the things that I just should be accepting. I’m always going to be a bit more anxious than some other person or something”.
Arden Koehler: Yeah, and I mean again, this might be a mistake, but at least I feel like I tend to identify more with personality traits and things like ability to put in a certain amount of effort or those feel like somehow more core to who I am than physical characteristics like height and other things and I don’t know; if other people feel this way, this also could explain more why they would be more proud or have just, in general, more intense emotional relationship with these kinds of things that feel more core to who they are.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. Okay. So you’re saying the differences that people wouldn’t identify with being tall as like a core trait?
Arden Koehler: Yeah. Or like few people would say, “Well if I was a foot taller or if I became a foot taller overnight, then I would like be a different person”. Whereas if somebody said, “Well if I gained a whole bunch of IQ points, maybe I would be a different person”.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. So they identify more with being their mind rather than the body that they happen to be in.
Arden Koehler: Something like that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess, I mean this might differ a fair bit between people I suppose. People who do less mental work, like actually do work with their bodies, might regard that as a more core part of themselves.
Michelle Hutchinson: Interestingly, you might expect this to push in the other direction. You might think that given that it’s the case that I think if I woke up with a whole bunch more IQ points, I would be a different person. Whereas if I woke up a foot taller, I’d be the same person. I therefore would feel less bad about the IQ point because as a person, I identify with how many I currently have, or something.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, I thought you might say, “Well, so I could come a whole lot smarter and therefore be bit more productive, but then it just wouldn’t be me. I personally wouldn’t be any morally better off or more virtuous because I would simply become a different person”.
Robert Wiblin: Let’s backup. So it seemed like maybe we could get some progress on this if people were able to identify which of their traits were more malleable and which ones weren’t, because then they could relax about the things that they feel like they can’t change. There’s this great book on mental health called, I think, “What You Can Change and What You Can’t”, which is kind of about this. So it’s looking at different mental health problems and how often they improve and which ones are just very hard to shift. It’s actually kind of old now and a lot of the conclusions are out of date. But I liked that idea because it means that it could potentially reassure people like, “Well you know, I’m struggling with a particular mental health problem, but this is one of the things that people just tend to have to work around and I shouldn’t feel like culpable for the fact that I haven’t managed to improve it because kind of most people don’t”.
Michelle Hutchinson: I also find remembering the comparison pretty useful. This is a thing that you’ve said to me in the past, Rob, “Hey you’re feeling worried about being this kind of person. You don’t feel worried about not being taller even though that might be useful”. And I found that very reassuring.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting. Okay. So I should just push on this thing of “Everything is like height”, and no one I know would feel bad about heights.
Arden Koehler: We go for nuance on this show.
Robert Wiblin: I guess another thing is that people might feel worried mostly just that other people are going to judge them negatively if they’re not having more impact. But my impression is that usually this is exaggerated and more like something that they’re worried about them than other people are. That I guess I rarely hear or see people being like, “Oh, this person’s lazy or didn’t get the best job and so I think that they’re morally a bad person”.
Michelle Hutchinson: It does seem clearly a thing that people impute to other people though, right? And I think even if you know that that’s what’s going on rather than other people feeling this way, it’s hard to really internalize that or something. So I’m currently pregnant and find it very hard to get some kind of internal standard of how much I should be working and things like that which feels satisfying to me. And it feels to me that people are going to think that I’m a wuss or that I’m just not trying. And I, in fact, know if you ask me for any concrete person I interact with, whether they’re going to feel that way, that they’re not. It’s very much internal. But it’s still very difficult to just make that feeling disappear.
Arden Koehler: Yeah, I mean it’s also not just about moral judgment, right? People will worry about just other kinds of judgments.
Robert Wiblin: People just thinking they’re less impressive.
Arden Koehler: Yeah, or I mean social status is a phenomenon and it doesn’t just boil down to how much good are you doing in the world relative to your abilities? And so yeah, it does seem like even though people aren’t going to be like, “That person is lazy” or something like that, it does seem like when people do really amazing things, they get like lots of social status for that.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I mean it definitely seems nice to be admired even if you’re being admired for something that really isn’t down to you at all.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess all of my attempts to reassure people here are getting shot down by you two, but I’ll keep trying.
Arden Koehler: I guess I think that a lot of these things are mistaken ways of thinking, but that they are connected up to these relatively deep ways of thinking. So it’s not a silly mistake to feel this way. It’s kind of like something that would take work to resist because even if it is a mistake, it’s something that’s kind of really easy to fall into because of its connections to so many other things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, this won’t be reassuring to everyone, but I guess even within kind of the community that we’re familiar with, which is really interested in having a big social impact, my impression is that people get status or social status or esteem for all kinds of different things. Not just having a really impressive job or, you know, in practice having a big social impact. You can get social status for being good friends, or fun to be around, or you know, helping other people, finding good TV shows to recommend to others. There’s lots of different ways that you can help the people around you, and they’re not just constantly tallying up in some spreadsheet how much social impact you’ve had. It’s in fact almost nothing like that.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I think, in fact, for most of us that the thing that we end up feeling we emotionally care about is how much is this person trying and are they really caring about helping people? Do they care about helping the people around them or people further away or whatever?
Thinking about current impact [00:40:31]
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So I guess the third point you made which was pretty related to this one, is that maybe people should spend less time thinking about how they could have more impact and also spend at least some time thinking about the impact that they were already having with what they’re doing and feeling good about it. Do you want to elaborate on that?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes. I think that often because there are so many different options for people to be doing and people are doing this thing where they compare themselves to other people, they feel that some of their backup options would leave them being, in some sense, useless. But in fact, for most people, it’s really incredible how much good we can do. Partly just by virtue of being born in a rich country. So people on the median income in the UK donating 10% of their earnings can typically save a life from malaria or help people hugely from deworming or help through a whole host of other ways. And I think it’s pretty incredible to think that any of us could help others to that degree and we absolutely shouldn’t feel bad if that’s what we’re doing with our lives.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess it’s not that different than the normal thing that people have, where they’re always looking for the next raise or always looking to increase their income or get a more impressive job. And then once you get it, you don’t spend much time actually appreciating all the benefit from that. Yeah, it’s pretty deeply baked into human nature. At the same time, I suppose we do want people to think about how they can have more impact, but I wonder whether they could kind of batch that into one day a month. So on the first of every month, you’re gonna think about how you’re not accomplishing enough and how you can do more good. But then the rest of the time you just have to also spend some time appreciating everyday what you managed to get done.
Arden Koehler: I mean I guess I think you don’t really have to necessarily do them on different days as long as you’re vividly imagining the amount of good that you could do if you were to have more impact. It doesn’t really seem like keeping in mind the amount of good that you’re doing right now is necessarily going to be demotivating for making that change.
Applying to different kinds of orgs [00:42:29]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s fair enough. Cool. Okay, so my original question on this line are what are some things you find yourself saying very often in advising, and I guess we’ve gone over one class of things. Is there any other kind of big categories of stuff that you find comes up very often in advising calls?
Michelle Hutchinson: One we somewhat touched on earlier, which was applying widely, and we talked about it in the context earlier of applying for some very competitive things and some things that are more like safe bets. But I think it also comes up in terms of applying to different kinds of organizations. I think that people sometimes end up getting into a particular cluster of people or whatever where certain organizations seem like obviously the ones that you should want to work for and they end up feeling that those are the only roles that they are going to apply for rather than realizing that there’s this huge host of different kinds of jobs that are out there that do a huge amount of good.
Michelle Hutchinson: And so I often end up talking to people about widening their option set a bunch. Maybe that means thinking through some new kind of career paths. So perhaps they are currently a doctor and they’re thinking of going into public health, and then biosecurity might seem like another type of option that they could consider that they hadn’t really before. Sometimes that’s working for different specific organizations. So it’s thinking through, well if you’re thinking of working in the biosecurity space, you might’ve heard of some of the effective altruist organizations working on it because you have friends who happen to work there but you might not have thought of working for places like Johns Hopkins. So I’m often trying to get people to broaden in that sense.
Michelle Hutchinson: I’m so pleased that our job board is now broadening out the types of roles that it advertises. It’s very time consuming for our job board manager to search through all of the huge numbers of types of roles that are out there. But I think it’s really bearing fruit. We’ve now got about 420 roles currently on the job board at a huge range of different organizations in different paths. They give people much more of a sense of how many roles there are out there. Ones they can apply to and hopefully ideas for other kinds of organizations they might look forward to apply to.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Maria is suffering for us all, so make sure you go to the job board, listeners. Yeah. It’s not surprising that this is one of the things you have to do a lot because as I understand it, from the decision making research literature, this is one of the biggest mistakes that people typically make, which is narrowing the range of options that they consider very early on and then if you prompt them, if you force them to consider, “What about things you haven’t put on this list at all”? Then very often they end up choosing something that they’d never even shortlisted in the first round. And I was constantly doing this when I was doing advising years ago. I was just very often throwing other ideas at them to try and get them to broaden their ideas of what they could conceivably do.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. As I say, my career feels like definitely an example of that. I think it’s very understandable that people do this, particularly when you’re coming out of university. It feels like there’s just such a huge range of different possible options that it’s very hard to know where to start, and you’re just very keen to get rid of options rather than adding more on. And this is a thing that sometimes we’ve gotten feedback on from the advising that people are kind of disappointed because they were hoping that we would narrow down their options and in fact we just gave them even more things to worry about maybe they could be doing. But I think it is very important if you’re thinking of what’s the best career for me to have over the next 40 years to really try and get all the options on the table and get some sense of which of the best to start off with.
Arden Koehler: I definitely feel like I also have thought too narrowly about what kinds of things are options for me in my career. So I feel like I’m a good example of this phenomenon. So you mentioned people wanting to rule things out. Are there other ways of ruling out options that you think are actually good or how should people approach this problem of having too many options?
Michelle Hutchinson: So one interesting call I had recently was with someone who was very good at maths and was pretty interested in studying economics in order to work on global priorities research. But when we discussed more what the specific work would entail, it just became increasingly clear to both of us that he really enjoyed doing pure maths and that the kind of work you would do if you are an economist working in global priorities was not that much like pure maths and that he might be better trying out something like AI technical safety first. And that was kind of an interesting conversation because he was already aware of both of these options, but he’d been thinking on a kind of broad level of which of these feels the most instinctively appealing or something, rather than thinking through more of what would the day-to-day work be like. How similar would it be to some of the stuff I’m currently doing. That kind of thing.
Michelle Hutchinson: So I think getting more information about specific jobs can be very helpful because people often are trying to make these decisions relatively quickly and have so many different things going on, are using fairly stereotyped impressions. Another one I think is that people will frequently rule out quant trading as an option because they feel that they’re not the right kind “confident bro” type to enjoy this. But in fact there are hedge funds that are full of geeky mathematicians who really are not that keen on shouting at each other. And this is the kind of thing that you really only know if you try it out or talk to someone who’s doing it. I really like that we have a podcast with Alexander Gordon Brown on this, because it gives people a bit more of a sense of what this job is actually like to work at. So I think ruling things out by specifically talking to people about what are the relevant things to do with their day-to-day. How does that change over time and things is important.
Arden Koehler: Cool. So talking to people about what the day-to-day is like. Maybe trying out the work, if possible. Obviously you can’t do that for everything but, you know, when it is possible or some of the more promising options. And then I guess we were talking earlier about applying and learning a little bit more about the fields by applying to work in the area. So maybe applying for something and then finding out that the application process involves doing something that you really don’t like or feel like you’re not very good at. Could that be another way of ruling things out?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it is a way of ruling things out. I think it’s one that I would probably try a bit later on after I had tried to read about it. Talk to people. Often there’ll be books on areas. Things like that. Partly just because I would expect the kinds of application processes that would give you enough information here to be useful to be really quite time consuming and you might find that it was just much quicker to read a couple of articles on something before that.
Difference in impact between jobs / causes [00:49:04]
Arden Koehler: Okay, cool. That’s really helpful. Okay, so do you feel like there’s anything else that is a common piece of advice that comes up in advising before we move onto some other questions?
Michelle Hutchinson: One thing I find myself talking about quite a bit is the difference in impact there might be between different jobs and also between different cause areas. I think maybe because the kinds of things that we do in everyday life are not that different from each other. I think that the instinct that people often bring to career choice and maybe other areas of life is finding a whole bunch of options which seem to do at least some good and then thinking through which of these seem the most appealing, without looking too much into how much better some are for the world than others. I think this is true both within cause areas, so this is something that I talked about a lot when I worked at Giving What We Can is that even if the thing you’re working on is reducing the burden of AIDS, it’s hugely different whether you do that by working on late stage complications of AIDS like Kaposi’s sarcoma versus on giving out antiretrovirals or giving out condoms. And so even if that’s the specific you care about, you can help hugely more people by working on some of these things than others.
Michelle Hutchinson: And then I think if you compare across causes, you can get, again, potentially a hundred times multiplier by looking at an area that’s hugely neglected. So at 80,000 Hours we tend to think that risks that could wipe out the whole of humanity tend to be radically underinvestigated and underfunded to how much they should be for a whole host of reasons, partly being very speculative, partly that people tend to have incentives to work on things that are nearer-term rather than things that will affect the world in a hundred years. But I think thinking through what you think the comparative impact of working in these different areas are is actually extremely important if you care about helping people as much as you can. I try to typically get people to flip their framing a bit of this to rather than think through, “What are a whole host of jobs that you think would do some good and then which seem most appealing”, to think through, “What things do you think are very most impactful and then rank them” and then at that point, start thinking through, “Okay, which of these do I think I might be personally well suited for”, because I think that difference in framing is going to really prime you for going for these jobs that are hundreds of times more impactful than others.
Arden Koehler: Cool. Yeah. I mean obviously a place to start, which we would say as people on the research team at 80,000 Hours, is looking at the career reviews on the website and looking at the cause prioritization profiles because we’ve tried to do a little bit of this kind of thinking about what is more impactful than what, and like by roughly how much. But yeah, you could probably do a lot of research on things that you’re considering that we haven’t done as much work on, although it’s harder for us to point exactly how to go about that research.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I think often it’s less the case that people in fact disagree with the premise and more that they’re not really thinking about it in these kinds of terms. So if you really push them on, “Do you think that this kind of role is approximately as good as this other type of role”? They say, “Oh no, I think that the second one’s like a hundred times better” or something. But they’re just not really used to intuiting how important it is to take that difference into consideration.
Robert Wiblin: They’d literally say they think it’s a hundred times better and that they wouldn’t necessarily take it barring some good reason why they shouldn’t take it?
Michelle Hutchinson: I mean I don’t usually push people super bluntly in advising and I think people would usually struggle to quantify these things at all, which seems totally right. It seems extremely difficult to quantify them. But I think people are very willing to say, “Yes, I can see why this area might be much more important, but this other area also seems fairly important and neglected and I can see a slightly more natural way into it”.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So they’re kind of categorizing things into important and not important rather than using the full spread.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting.
Michelle Hutchinson: And I think that makes a lot of sense for some areas of life where there isn’t that much difference between things and you may as well simplify to this binary. But I think it really just doesn’t make sense in the area of career choice because there’s this huge spread in terms of impact.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I suppose even with jobs you’d be like, “Well this job is well-paid and this job isn’t well-paid”. I guess you can earn several times more money in some jobs than others, but it’s nowhere near the level of spread that we think you get with social impact. How often do you find yourself recommending that people work on a problem that’s kind of not one of the classic ones that we are always talking about?
Michelle Hutchinson: It’s a bit difficult to say. I guess partly because in a lot of calls I’m less, in any way concluding, “This seems like the thing you should do” and more concluding, “Well it seems worth trying this, then trying this”. There are definitely some areas that are much more speculative that we don’t have things written on which we talk to people. For example, security, where we’re starting to think maybe this is important and we talk to people who are in that area. We also sometimes talk to people who have a particular comparative advantage in some area that we’re very enthusiastic about. I probably talk to these people a lot less than I would if I was simply trying to optimize for talking to people that I think would be impactful, because I’m going to have so much less to say to them.
Michelle Hutchinson: So occasionally we’ll have calls with someone who, for example, is trying to improve the evidence usage in working out what kinds of democratic interventions to make or something. But, I just don’t have a good sense at all of how you do well in that area. I don’t have that good a sense of how you compare it to other areas and so those calls are very difficult and I would only have them if there’s some particularly strong reason to. Whereas for a lot of other kinds of people, I’ll just say, “Well, I just don’t think this is going to be a very useful call for them”.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, fair enough.
Common mistakes [00:55:40]
Arden Koehler: Are there any common mistakes that you feel like you see people making that you think you could give advice on how to avoid?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think one thing that I somewhat frequently see is people who think that some particular area is probably the highest impact one for them to go into but don’t feel terribly passionate about it and therefore relatively quickly rule it out. I think that seems more problematic because I think there’s this really big difference in terms of how impactful different kinds of things are. But then I also think it comes back to this thing about people having some trouble introspecting before having tried something out as to how much they’ll like it. So I really try hard to push people if they’re in that kind of position. To think through specifically what kinds of things drive their motivation and whether there would be ways of being happy working in this area that they think is highest impact that would still motivate them. Because I think people are very different in terms of what kinds of things motivate them. So some people need to be seeing the beneficiaries in front of them all the time and that’s going to make it very difficult for you, for example, to work on a long-term horizon. Whereas other people, so I tend to be the kind of person who’s very motivated by not letting my team down, which means that I can work in quite a lot of different areas. And then also by generally feeling like I’m helping people.
Michelle Hutchinson: So while I rationally think the reason that working at 80,000 Hours is high impact is that it helps beneficiaries living many years in the future to not be wiped out: that kind of thing. On a day-to-day level, the thing that really keeps me going is it’s great to be able to help people who are kind and want to have more impactful careers continue doing that. So I think it’s really useful for people to get a sense of what their motivations might be like and then try out some of these things to see if they actually do suit them.
Robert Wiblin: So sounds like you were saying people would kind of suspect that they wouldn’t enjoy a particular role and then they kind of rule it out early on even though they don’t really have very strong evidence for that and you’re like, “But if it’s going to be 10 or a hundred times more impactful, then maybe they should go and double check that and actually figure out for sure whether they would enjoy it or not”.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes, I think that’s my sense. And it’s particularly problematic because the less neglected an area is, the more it gets talked about and things. So people are, for example, very used to everyone around them caring lots about climate change. So they feel very passionate about climate change, whereas maybe they don’t feel that passionate about preventing future pandemics. And maybe that’s because they find it difficult to work on an area where they could end up having not had an impact and not know about it. But maybe it’s because not very many people around them are talking that much about global pandemics.* And if they read some books on, you know, books like Spillover or something, they would realize that actually this was a thing they thought was terrible and they really wanted to do something about.
*This episode was recorded in December 2019.
Robert Wiblin: Or if they were working with other people who were really into it, which is like inevitably where you’re gonna end up if you’re actually focusing your career on that.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting this thing about people wanting to be able to directly see the beneficiaries of their work, because climate change is so popular, but climate change you’d think is an archetypal one where people can never see the beneficiaries of the work. It’s so hard to identify them.
Arden Koehler: Some people would say it took a very long time for climate change to become a mainstream cause that people were really worried about. And maybe that’s part of why that is.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, maybe. I guess maybe during my lifetime it seemed like it’s one of the top things that people I know are really interested in. I suppose maybe it’s like one step away from the global catastrophic risk work that we’re most familiar with, so perhaps I’m unusually likely to meet people who are really into climate change. It was kind of what I was most into when I was younger, so I have a biased sample, perhaps.
Michelle Hutchinson: And earlier than that it didn’t seem like much of a big deal, right? It seemed like actually this was happening way before there were people really working on it and then there was a concrete effort with things like Silent Spring to get such a movement going.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. I think at least there’s been evidence of climate change for many decades and it doesn’t really seem like things have really taken off until like maybe the last 20 years.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess I feel that’s more likely because of the international public good aspect of it or the international common good issue rather than because there aren’t people who are really passionate about fixing it. It does seem like, at least for some voters, it’s a very important issue and it comes in and out of fashion. It’s something that people engage in activism on.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I mean you might think that the continuing prevalence of homelessness in very rich cities is more evidence of this that you would expect that people are always encountering these people who just seem really badly off and somehow we don’t manage to fix that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it is very odd. I mean this is given as one of the reasons why a lot of people want to go into teaching or into medicine, is that they can directly help people right away. And I suppose there’d be far fewer social services if people didn’t get a warm glow from directly helping people.
Michelle Hutchinson: Maybe our difference in intuition is driving the fact that I’m an advisor and you’re a researcher.
Robert Wiblin: Could be, could be. Yeah. Are there any other common mistakes that people make?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think one thing is people are often understandably very focused on the next job that they’re going to do at the expense of thinking through what their long-term trajectory might look like. One of the biggest ways in which I think this can be problematic is people going into something that is kind of robustly good at providing skills, but not the best way of getting skills for any of the things the person’s actually considering. So people who, for example, have a PhD and then decide to go work at McKinsey without some idea of why they would want to get specifically operational or corporate skills, but simply some idea of, “Well, this is a good next step”. You’re never going to look bad if you worked at McKinsey. I’ll get some kind of skills. And a specific problem I think with going into these kinds of consulting roles is that they don’t really give you the headspace for then figuring out what direction you want to take from here and I think some people at least would get a lot more mileage from thinking through what kind of long-term career trajectory do I think might be most impactful for me and what would be the natural next steps here?
Michelle Hutchinson: You can also go too far in the other direction and you definitely wouldn’t want to say, “I’m definitely going to have this long-term trajectory when I don’t really know what that looks like”, but you might want to say something like, “Oh, I might be well suited for policy, or I might be well suited for working in a think tank. I’m going to think through what kinds of options would be best for getting to either of those and then which ones might be good for getting both or which options might be good at giving me information for whether I would want to go into government or into a think tank”. That kind of thing.
Robert Wiblin: So you think, on average, the people you’re advising haven’t done enough thinking about where they want to be in 10 or 20 years’ time and then so they’re doing stuff that kind of just hedges their bets everywhere and it’s kind of fine for any path and not particularly great for anyone.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes. I think that’s more often the case than the reverse.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you ever see people who have incredibly elaborate, far too specific plans?
Michelle Hutchinson: I can’t actually think of any that I’ve had that fall into that category.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. Yeah, I suppose that’s a whole lot of work and maybe it’s actually quite hard to map out. Like something is very concrete: I mean people mostly find it very hard to imagine where they’re going to be in 10 years’ time rather than having a very concrete vision for it.
Michelle Hutchinson: I also think that career decisions are pretty aversive to think about and that it’s so easy to get caught up in how do I do my current job or my current degree or something very well. And most jobs require you applying for them quite some time out. So this seems particularly difficult when you’re coming out of undergrad where you’re expected to be doing your kind of final exams and finishing up all your term papers and simultaneously applying for these very competitive roles. And so yeah, I think in those kinds of cases, it’s just very hard to make a solid plan compared to going for roles that are very salient and seem fine.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This is embarrassing to admit, but I spent six years doing two degrees before I really spent any time thinking about what I was going to do with my career. Is that kind of typical? I got the sense that to be honest, like the other people I was studying with weren’t putting that much effort into thinking about what they were going to do next.
Michelle Hutchinson: Well, you spent six years studying economics, which is robustly useful and I spent 10 studying philosophy which is not at all. So I’m going to say based on our small sample size, it’s very typical.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Arden Koehler: You at least have good company in this room, Michelle [laughter].
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess I got lucky because the stuff that I found interesting was kind of useful for my career, but I guess it could have easily have gone the other way. I could’ve ended up studying something that’s very arcane and it doesn’t produce any marketable skills. Then I would have been in a very tricky situation graduating, never having given any thought to what job I might take.
Michelle Hutchinson: I also think that standard careers advice is pretty bad here. The careers advice I got in school was very much, “Study the things that you think are interesting” and so I studied physics and philosophy as my undergraduate without really ever planning to be a physicist or a philosopher. In fact, my dad knew better and he suggested I do politics, philosophy and economics as being a more balanced degree that would give more useful skills. But my school was very strongly on the side of “Go for the thing that you find most interesting” rather than the thing that’s potentially going to lead to useful skills.
Arden Koehler: Just to play devil’s advocate here for a second. I mean people are making decisions about what they’re going to study. For instance, when they’re very young and maybe just have not a lot of good ideas about how the world works and so they might not really be able to make decisions based on what they think will lead to an impactful career. Whereas on the other hand, if you study what is interesting or what you’re good at, it does seem like there’s some value in just coming out of college, like pretty good at something as opposed to maybe having done some stuff that you weren’t very interested in but you thought might maybe get you on the road to something that is going to have an impact, but you weren’t really sure because you were 18 and didn’t know very much.
Michelle Hutchinson: I don’t know how much I agree with this coming out being good at something. I think maybe coming out having learned some useful skills and learned more about yourself seems more valuable and this is the reason that I actually feel that American degrees are much better than British ones because in the UK we have to choose one specific subject to study for university and physics and philosophy is actually unusually broad for the UK. Whereas in the US, you take a while to choose your major, and that seems much better. You get a proper time to try out different courses, see which ones you’re good at, which ones you seem to enjoy and only then do you pick your major.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I found it really alarming when I found out how hard it is to switch degrees in the UK. I guess, at least in Oxford, it seems like people just get really stuck on one track and then they might have to just leave the university entirely if they want to do something different. In Australia it’s actually quite flexible. Once you’re inside a university, then transferring degrees is pretty straight forward.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. It’s not impossible at Oxford, but you would effectively have to reapply under a different subject, which I agree seems very problematic.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess we don’t wanna go all the way on the other extreme here and say it doesn’t matter what people are interested in when they’re considering what to study. I guess we have heard some stories of people reading our site and then walking away and thinking, “Oh, it doesn’t matter whether I’m interested in what I’m doing or I’m interested in this job”, which is absolutely not what we’re saying. If you don’t find something interesting, it’s going to be very hard to motivate yourself to study it. You can do that for the first week, but then you’re going to have to deal with this for years and years.
Michelle Hutchinson: Absolutely. A reason I think that economics might’ve been a better option for me to study is that I hadn’t done any of it at school and I actually think I might well have really enjoyed it in addition to it being useful. I definitely don’t think that people should be going for something that they think they’re not going to find interesting at all. And this becomes more and more important the bigger the shift is. So I think we’ve had the odd user shift from humanities to sciences because they’ve heard that they really should be doing computer science or something and making these kind of really large transitions when you’ve already learned about yourself that you’re the kind of person that does better at the humanities and it does seem like a recipe for burning out and not achieving your potential.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Why do you think it is that normal careers advice focuses so much on this ‘what you enjoy’ aspect? I suppose it’s easy advice to give. It’s pleasing to the person to hear that at the time. So possibly that’s just the lowest effort career advice you can give if you’re at a high school.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I’m not really sure. I guess I also feel that a lot of advice is kind of throwing different things against the wall and maybe that careers advisors perceive other people as giving directive advice that’s much less like this. My headmaster, for example, told me to do mathematics at Cambridge when my maths really wasn’t that good. So it could be that they’re trying to counteract what they see as the world imposing, “Here’s the most useful thing. Do that”. And they’re just trying counteract and say “No. It’s very important that you’re suited to the thing you do”.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess you definitely get this from parents sometimes when they really have a vision of what their kid should do even if it’s not necessarily the best fit.
Arden Koehler: It also seems relevant here that most careers advice is not aimed at doing the most good or making your career something that will have the greatest impact. It might just be more generically aimed at having a successful career or even just being happy. And it might be that “Do what you’re passionate about” could be better advice for one of the latter things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that completely makes sense. All right, so I think we’ve been through two mistakes now. Are there any other common mistakes that people should look out for?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think people don’t reach out as much as they should be for advice to other people. People just actually really like helping each other and so reaching out to people saying, “Hey, can I chat to you about your job? Can I get your thoughts on how I should apply for this kind of thing”? And I think that works pretty broadly. So I found this really useful when I was setting up the Centre for Effective Altruism originally. Reaching out to people who had already set up charities and saying, “Hey, can I pick your brain on what are the really important things to know when you’re applying to Companies House and The Charity Commission for setting up an organization. And I was pretty surprised at the time just how helpful people were. Then, when I was working at the Global Priorities Institute doing fundraising and doing grant applications, I was doing some on virtue ethics, which is a topic in philosophy that I knew very little about.
Michelle Hutchinson: And so I ended up sending the grant application that I had to the leading few virtue ethicists in the world, and I think two of the three of them replied and were willing to look over my application, which I just thought was really kind and somewhat unexpected. I think it’s important to keep various things in mind when doing these kinds of reaching out that you want to make sure that your emails are really concise. That it’s very clear why you’re reaching out to them and specifically what you want from them so that they don’t feel it’s just like a cold email that went to lots of impressive people trying to generically network or something. But I think if you do those things and you give them a CV so it’s clear who you are. A one-line on why you’re reaching out to them specifically and a one-line on here’s what I want and it’s a smallish ask.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it’s really surprising how often people are willing to respond. And this can also generalize to things like if you’re interested in trying out being a researcher and you’re still at university, it can be worth reaching out to professors in your university doing the kind of research you’re interested in and saying, “Hey, are you interested in having a research assistant? Here’s my background. Here’s why I want to work with you. I really liked your two papers, this and this. Here’s the kind of skills I have that might be useful for you”. That kind of thing. And it can be really difficult to do, right? Because everyone’s shy. No one likes rejection. You don’t really even like imposing on people and feeling that you didn’t get a response and so probably imposed on them. But I think most people actually don’t mind receiving emails like this even if they don’t have a chance to respond. And so it’s really worth trying.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’m probably unusually in the firing line for getting random career questions in my current role. I do manage to reply to most of them. I mean definitely the ones that are kind of short and have a clear ask and where it’s like obvious why I would have some relevant knowledge because sometimes I do get very long emails or it’s like not clear what they want and then yeah, typically those don’t get a reply. But I mean even where I don’t reply, it’s definitely that I’m more likely just to forget about it than to hold a grudge against the person for emailing me in the first place. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
Career change stories [01:11:44]
Robert Wiblin: All right. Let’s move on to talking about what effect the advising has sometimes had. What are some kind of typical career changes that people have made after talking with you?
Michelle Hutchinson: So one case in which I think I can sometimes be useful to people is bringing up specific kinds of roles that people had just not really come across at all before. One nice example of this is the Research Scholars Program, which is part of the Future of Humanity Institute, which is really trying to train researchers in a very flexible way because often people go through the kind of standard academic PhD type system and end up studying something pretty narrow and also don’t have that much time to try it out. So this is a kind of speculative different type of program that people often haven’t heard of. So I’ve chatted to a few different people about this. For example, one person was working in policy but felt that they would be rather good at research and also were interested in doing some research in order to quite likely go back into policy in future but with a better background. So they ended up, for example, ending up at the Research Scholars Program.
Robert Wiblin: Nice. Yeah. Any others?
Michelle Hutchinson: Another kind of change which can often be pretty useful is what I alluded to earlier, which is thinking through a totally different type of area than people had been considering. So, like I said, talking to a doctor who’s been considering maybe they should be a doctor and maybe they should work in the developing world, maybe they should go into public health. And then talking to them about biosecurity and how they might get into that. And again, because it’s a very neglected type of area, it’s a bit difficult to know how to get into. And then being able to put them in touch with people who are already working on this in different types of areas is pretty useful. Another is talking to people about the amount of impact you might be able to have in organizations that are really optimizing for impact as opposed to setting up your own kind of thing.
Michelle Hutchinson: So I somewhat regularly talk to people who have been fairly successful entrepreneurs and are often thinking about how since they’ve been successful entrepreneurs, they would quite like to now give back and do something socially impactful. But their frame of reference is setting up an organization. They also don’t have that much experience in the specific charitable sectors they’d be interested in and then talking to them about roles they might get at organizations. How that entrepreneurial background will help even if the thing they are going into isn’t being a founder has been fairly useful.
Arden Koehler: Are there any career changes that you’ve seen that have been surprising to you?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think one thing that surprises me is how willing people are sometimes to really switch career if they feel that they could do a lot more impact elsewhere. I talked to someone recently who had been working on improving the criminal justice system in the US for quite a long while and they had been aiming to do good for many years throughout. They deliberately had gone to a university where they could finish their undergraduate early because they felt that was just messing around before they were actually helping people. Then they had worked in criminal justice and then gone to law school. And when I was talking to them they were really very happy to think through, “Is this actually the most impactful cause that I could work on? How should I weigh up the fact that I already have a lot of capital in this area compared to switching area”? That kind of thing. Which I just feel it’s so nice to talk to people who are that flexible and happy and are so much interested in figuring out dispassionately what’s the best thing for them to do.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it’s the kind of case where I think I’d feel nervous because they’ve already got some career that’s working for them and then you’d really worry about getting them to switch here and then it doesn’t work out. Hopefully, it sounds like you probably wouldn’t bring up this case if it had completely crashed and burned.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think I would also be nervous if the thing that was happening was I was getting them to totally switch areas. So this person was halfway through law school and the kinds of things we were discussing were more like a law school background is pretty good for going into government in the US; should you be going into government specifically in criminal justice or in other areas? Those kinds of things. I don’t typically try to get people to entirely switch in ways that don’t use their background at all.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess unless they’re really excited to do that. Do you talk to people who are kind of sick of the career that they’re in and they’re like just champing at the bit to get out?
Michelle Hutchinson: Occasionally, but not that often, I think.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. Is that because we’re often talking to people who are a bit younger who maybe aren’t sick of some path that they’ve been on after a decade or two?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that’s probably right, yes. And unfortunately for people who are in that position also, I often can’t be that useful because it just is kind of clear what their background fits them for and also they’ve typically gotten to a stage of life where actually they would like to be taking their personal preferences more into account so maybe they have a large amount of experience working in international bureaucracies and they really want to do something totally different like set up a startup, but they would like to live in a particular place because they’re already very established and all of these kinds of things. And then, there’s a bit less that I can say to them because it’s often much more exciting for me to think about them continuing in the thing that they were in because they have so experience in it than completely shifting to a thing that maybe they’ll be good at or maybe they won’t be good at.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess doing career transitions in your forties is kind of its own thing, I guess. Hopefully if we get bigger, then eventually we’ll have someone who has more expertise in that and might be able to advise people who are a bit older. I mean there’s a lot of difficult challenges here. If you want to maintain the salary that you have and maybe you have a family now so you’re less flexible in location and you want to move into a completely different area. You might also come up against people’s prejudices about people switching careers when they’re older. Maybe wanting to get people who are more in their twenties. Yeah, it’s not always so simple.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. And it’s just very different from the typical people I talk to and so it’s harder for me to have a lot of useful things to say.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any times that we’ve advised people not to do something and then they haven’t listened to us and then they’ve gone out and flourished and it’s been fantastic and we’ve been, “Oh no, we gave them the wrong advice”.
Michelle Hutchinson: Well, I actually one time gave someone careers advice before I worked for 80,000 Hours, which worked out wrong in retrospect. She was working for an effective charity at the time and seemed to be on a good trajectory there and was wondering whether to set up her own charity and my advice was that she’d do better to spend more time learning about the overall sector before setting up a charity with fewer mentors and things like that, and in fact, she set up the charity and it went extremely well. She managed to get herself some great mentors.
Robert Wiblin: That’s terrible…
Michelle Hutchinson: I know. Disaster!
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you think there’s any particular reason why it worked out well or above expectations?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. She set it up under the guidance of Joey Savoie and others who had just set up Charity Science Health, which is an organization which did SMS reminders for mothers to get their children vaccinated, which meant that she immediately had experienced mentorship, and I think that makes a really big difference. That actually ended up leading to Charity Entrepreneurship being set up.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I was initially skeptical of that whole idea, I think, because just the idea of creating a charity in the developing world from scratch when you’re relatively young, it seemed a little bit far-fetched and it didn’t have a huge chance of success, but that group seemed to kind of have figured out a formula. They’ve had a couple of reasonable successes so far.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, it’s really impressive, isn’t it?
Robert Wiblin: All right. Moving on. Are there any kind of ways that we, on the research team, are failing the advising team? Are there any articles that you really wish we had that would help the people you’re advising a lot but we somehow have not managed to get around to writing?
Michelle Hutchinson: Mostly I would like more answers. More knowledge about the world. But yeah, there are a few kinds of things that I can think of here. One is that there are some concepts that seem like they come up a lot that are maybe a bit difficult to really write down a succinct framing of. So I mentioned earlier this thought about different causes being very differing in terms of impact. And I find myself fairly often wanting to send someone a fairly concise, clear article on why we think that impact is so spread in terms of different jobs. We have some stuff on this. The old careers guide has an article on how much good you might be able to do in your career that compares these things, but it basically only uses examples from poverty rather than across the board. I’d also be pretty interested in just lots more details on some of our careers paths. So I find it particularly difficult talking to people about priority paths, like institutional decision making where I have a general intuition for why this is pretty valuable and we have a short profile on it, but it feels pretty difficult to give people a really concrete sense of, “Okay, so you’re nearly finishing a PhD in decision making. What is your next step? Do you go into government? Do you go into a think tank? Do you try and go into academia for each of these? Where do you go? Do you try and work at the behavioral insights team or is that actually doing more nibbling at the edges of improving decision making rather than figuring out how to make the most important decisions”? And there are quite a few different kind of pathways like this. Being a China specialist is another where it just feels like we don’t have tons of detail on what should people actually go out and do if they want to do this kind of thing.
Arden Koehler: Okay, so more depth, more concrete advice, more next steps. You writing this down, Rob?
Robert Wiblin: All right. Let’s back up and talk again about advising as a service that we provide and 80,000 Hours as an organization. What do you perceive as being the goal of 80,000 Hours advising?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think the aim is very much to get people into a position of doing the most impactful job that they can. And I think the reason that we have this in addition to the content is that often it’s pretty difficult to pitch the research at all sorts of different kinds of people. So we already talked about people being underconfident and overconfident and it’s very difficult for people to get a gauge of where they particularly are. Particularly if, for example, they’re in a different type of situation than maybe our archetypal user. For example, I chatted to someone who was German and so whose background was academically different from many of the people that we talk about and wanted to get some sense of, “Well, I know what kinds of jobs I could get in Germany, but what kinds of jobs could I get in the UK and US”? So I think in those kinds of cases, where different people need to hear different things, it can be pretty useful to do advising.
Arden Koehler: Now you also said earlier that it seems like… I mean this is related to the issue of underconfidence, but sometimes people need encouragement. Maybe they need affirmation or they need to just work through their options and in articles we can provide some framework for thinking about these things, but we can’t actually help people work through their options like you can in a call.
Robert Wiblin: And I guess it’s hard for us to give personalized affirmations as well through the articles. I guess maybe we could design some app where people write somethings out themselves and then it just always spits out about how great they are and encourages them to carry on.
Arden Koehler: I’m sure that will be very psychologically effective.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I understand people!
Michelle Hutchinson: Maybe it’s as effective as hearing it from Rob in person! [Iaughter]
Robert Wiblin: Could believe it.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think it’s a bit difficult to know precisely how useful this ‘going through people’s options’ are because there’s something to be said for a lot of what we’re providing is a sounding board and someone who can ask questions, maybe red team the person to plan a bit. And you might think that they could often do this with a friend of theirs as well as we could. Particularly as the friend is going to know more about that particular person’s situation. I think the thing that we can provide above and beyond that is a ‘goodish’ sense of the overall space and then having quite a bit of practice in thinking through how to quickly try to figure out what the really crucial decision points are for people and what kinds of things they might want to test from that.
When is advising really useful for people? [01:24:28]
Arden Koehler: Okay, so these are some ways in which advising is useful. Is there anything general you can say about the kinds of cases in which advising is really useful for people? So you mentioned earlier like, “Okay, if you already have a really good plan, advising is probably not going to be that useful”, but just wanted to give you a chance to say, “How can I know if my situation is one that could really benefit from 80,000 Hours’ advising”?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think the thing that surprises people is that often we’re particularly useful for people who are not that involved with the effective altruism community. So maybe they’ve read quite a bit of our website, but they aren’t yet connected into the community that much. For someone like that, we’re going to know of quite a few different organizations. They might want to check out different roles they might be suited for. That kind of thing. And also, potentially, we’re going to find useful people for them to chat to in a way that if people are already pretty connected into the community, we’re less likely to be able to provide that kind of value. We’re also going to be most useful for people who broadly share our worldview because my advising is going to be based on trying to get people into the types of roles that I think are the most impactful. So one of the things we’re looking at when we’re considering who to talk to is, “Do these people broadly agree with the problems that we think are most pressing and are they happy to really prioritize working on the most pressing problems, or do they feel really they’re just particularly well suited to work on a specific area that we don’t know that much about and that we’re not going to have any specific jobs to recommend them for”? That kind of thing. So I think if people feel like they have some area they want to work in which isn’t one of the ones that we write about much on the website, it’s unlikely I’ll have much more to say than is already on the website.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess another thing you do is provide introductions and I suppose people who are further away from the effective altruism community are less likely to have been introduced to the people who they should kind of obviously talk to.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right? Yeah. I think that’s very much the case. Another thing that makes a real difference is how locationally constrained people are. Because we just tend to have much better networks and know of far more jobs in some specific areas. So people who either are happy to move, or who are locationally constrained to the San Francisco Bay area or DC or the London-Oxford cluster, are much more likely to find our advice useful than people in other areas. Even if you’re in quite a big city like LA, we might just not know very many specific roles for you. And so we’re only going to be talking at the level of generalities. And I think one thing to bear in mind with this is it’s never nice to get an email saying we aren’t going to talk to you because we think will be more useful for other people. But this really isn’t a reflection at all on you.
Michelle Hutchinson: I personally am currently going through the difficulty of moving from Oxford to London and finding it extremely tough, and so the idea that we would ask people to move across countries or whatever I think just is a really big ask and different people are going to feel very differently about that.
Arden Koehler: Right, and you mentioned that sometimes people also get rejected from advising because it seems like they know so much about what we would have to say anyway that we don’t feel like we’re going to be as helpful to them as we would be to someone else.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right, exactly. Someone who’s already read all of our advice and knows a lot of people in effective altruism is just going to find that we’re not going to be able to tell them things they didn’t already know.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What fraction of people who apply do you actually get the chance to talk to? I mean, I guess the team is what, like two people at the moment, and maybe it’s going to go up to three three next year. Someone’s likely to join us early next year, but there’s only so many people that two or three people can possibly talk to relative to the million or two million people who are reading our website every year.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. And in the meantime, it’s going to go down for maternity leave.
Robert Wiblin: Right. Yeah.
Michelle Hutchinson: At the moment, we can talk to somewhere between one in five, one in 10 of the people who apply and that, at any point, including the fact that we have a wait list and it often takes us a while to get back to these people and that’s obviously a big problem and something that we would like to fix because often people have time-sensitive career decisions rather than ones that will be just the same in two months time.
Robert Wiblin: I guess, yeah, if people get rejected, then what might be the next best option? I suppose, I mean talking to people who know you really well, or talking to people who are kind of already in the paths that you’re considering seems like it could be similarly useful. I mean it’s useful in a slightly different way, but it doesn’t seem like not being able to talk to you should completely hold them up in their career by any means. There’s lots of other sources of information.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that’s totally right. I think our pages on how to make career decisions are extremely useful here and they often go through similar kind of things to the things that we ask people to fill in before talking to us and then the kinds of process that we do. So particularly important things here are thinking through what your different options are and trying to increase the options set as we said. So trying to do a brainstorm yourself. Trying to ask other people, “Hey, what do you think I might be well suited to”? Read up on the 80,000 Hours website and other places for types of roles that you might not have considered. Then thinking through what the cases in favor of and against various of them are including this, “What kind of thing might I want to do in the long-term? What might be most impactful in the long term”? And then trying to think for each of the things that you might do, what the quickest, easiest way of testing whether you should rule out that option is, whether that’s talking to someone who is doing that job, reading a book on it, then maybe doing an internship in it, that kind of thing. And I think through those kinds of processes, you can really get a lot of information and part of what’s going on maybe that it’s just a bit harder to motivate yourself to do this on your own. So, as you say, getting a friend to talk to, maybe getting someone who’s happy to help keep you accountable for doing this could be pretty useful.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. It seems like people could become sort of like each other’s career advisors or something. They could go through it together and then try to like push the other person to come up with more options or do something like that. It seems like it could be something useful.
Michelle Hutchinson: I can imagine that being really useful. I’ve actually done something like that in the past when I had a relatively hands off manager. I worked with a friend who ran an organization who didn’t have a manager and we kind of held each other to account for what things we were going to do, queried each other on, “Is this plan really a realistic one”? And I think you can get a huge amount from just having a second person that’s really questioning your plan and trying to improve it with you.
Robert Wiblin: Wonder whether it’s possible to just ask yourself, “What do you think Michelle would say”? Or “What do you think someone would say” if I was getting advised by them and then maybe you could do a better job of simulating their advice than what you think.
Michelle Hutchinson: Maybe particularly with Rob, given how many hours of podcast content you can listen to.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. At some point people will just train an ML algorithm, I guess, on the podcast and figure out what questions I would ask or what opinions I would randomly express.
Michelle Hutchinson: Heaven forbid!
Robert Wiblin: Then I’ll be automated out of a job! It’s going to be so sad… What has changed about the way we do advising over the years? I guess you’ve been with us for like 18 months or something now, right?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, a bit under. More like a year. So when we first started 80,000 Hours, we were doing a more in-depth process where we were doing quite a bit of research on someone. Then talking to them for a number of hours, I think, and then doing quite a bit more research and getting back to them with an answer. I think one of the things that was going on there was before we had a really wide body of research, we were doing research that was very directed at specific kinds of cases because we knew that those were the things that would really be used. We tended to call that the “case study model” because in order to really make the most of that research, we then wrote up quite a few of these case studies. Since we moved from that model to the more “talk to someone for an hour and do more of a replicable kind of thing”. I think it hasn’t changed a lot, although I think it is somewhat dependent on the personality of the careers advisor as to what kind of thing they can do most usefully for people. So because of my philosophy background, it’s particularly naturally for me to talk through with people, “What kind of thing are you aiming for with your career? What problems are most pressing and why”? Whereas I think other people find that somewhat more of an awkward conversation to have with people. And then I also tend to be on the side of feeling that it’s pretty difficult to have any real answers. And so throwing out tons of considerations at people. Helping them think through things. That kind of thing. Which some people find kind of annoying in careers advising because they’re hoping that we’ll have an answer. Other people appreciate because they’re helping them form their thoughts. Whereas I think maybe other careers advisors have more opinions on what they think actually the person should be doing.
Arden Koehler: Yeah, it seems like the sense of there being no clear answers might have something to do with your philosophy background. So talking through what people’s values are and then what that implies for what kinds of problems they should work on. It seems like a pretty unusual thing to include in a career advising session. Why do you feel like that’s a useful thing to do? Do you feel like people seem to get a lot out of it?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it does depend a bit on the person to what extent they do. I think it is absolutely crucial for me to be able to give them advice to know which kinds of things they prioritize. So I think I would need to do some of this if only to understand what their current thinking was on this. But I actually think it is very useful as well for getting people to take these kinds of questions more seriously because we’re just not really encouraged to in normal life. And again, traditional careers advising, as you say, doesn’t really do any of this. It just asks what kind of thing are you most passionate about. Maybe you should work on that. And I think there are a lot of ways in which people can kind of hold conflicting types of assumptions so people might have some sense of not caring that much about people existing in the future as long as people who are alive now are doing well, but actually care a lot about climate change.
Michelle Hutchinson: And then when you talk to them about this, it turns out it’s not because they think climate change is going to make a big difference on the order of 30 years, it actually is because they care about people in the future quite a lot. And I think these are the kinds of things that people just don’t discuss that much. And so having someone sit down and think through, “Okay, what kinds of assumptions might you need to get to work in this kind of area versus this kind of area” is just really useful for people. Particularly in light of the fact that there might be many orders of magnitude difference in terms of how much impact you’ll have depending on which of these areas you go into.
Robert Wiblin: Do people ever get kind of fed up with them? Maybe how abstract or high level you might go with the coaching and they just want to be like, “No, I want to decide between plumbing and being an electrician”.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes, they do. I try pretty hard to get a sense for people as to how much they’re enjoying the conversation and how much they also agree that it’s useful and that kind of thing. The hardest cases are definitely the ones where people are super polite and are happy to go along with this, but then in feedback afterwards are like, “Oh, I think it might’ve been more useful if we had moved on quicker. I think for most people I can get a relatively good read on, “Do they agree that this is actually a pretty helpful exercise for them”? And then in some cases it’s a bit difficult because maybe the kind of thing they actually want instead is a thing that I’m going to have much more trouble providing. And so then I’m happy to move on, but we move on to a thing that they want a very specific list of jobs for a particular niche area which I just can’t provide, and so then they feel like, “Oh, we mostly did this thing that I wasn’t expecting and then you couldn’t do the thing I did want”.
Arden Koehler: More reasons not to be a polite person, at least, you know. Always collecting those.
Michelle Hutchinson: A hundred percent.
Robert Wiblin: I’ll get on it.
Robert Wiblin: What is the output of the advising sessions? It sounds like it’s rarely just one top recommendation where you’re like, “Yeah, you should do this”. I guess that must happen every once in a while, but more often it’s going to be like, “Well, here’s what we think are the top three and you should go on way and think about them more and learn more about those options”.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. Usually we aim to leave people with a ranked list of options where it’s pretty clear what the top two or three are. And then for each of those, a very clear sense of what are the next steps in those. How do you test whether the first one’s a good fit? That kind of thing. And depending on the stage that might be, you know, “Seems pretty clear that this one’s the top”, and you’re just going to test it by applying to these 10 jobs versus if you’re much earlier on it might be something much more like, “Oh, you’d never thought of working in this particular area. How about you read this problem profile on why this area is useful”? And then you read this other post on what kinds of jobs there are in this area and then you talk to someone about it. If that seems not that good, go onto the next one and read up on that. That kind of thing.
Robert Wiblin: Every so often we hear that people are like, “You’re only coaching 10 or 20% of the people who apply? Why don’t you just hire way more coaches and then you’ll be able to talk to far more people”? What’s kind of limiting our ability to hire people to just do more of it?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think precisely how fast to grow a team is a pretty difficult question. I think when you’re fairly early on in how large a team you have, it’s particularly important not to grow too fast. So at the start of this year, I was the only coach and we hired another person this year, and we’ve just hired another who’ll be joining at the beginning of next year. I think it’s just really important to only gradually add more people to the team, particularly if they’re really increasing the percentage of the team because it can really change the culture. You don’t know how people are going to integrate. I also think this is actually a somewhat difficult type of thing to easily add people to, because as I mentioned, what kinds of things people are good at in doing this somewhat varies depending on the personality and I don’t think we yet have a really good sense of “This is exactly the most important thing that we do”.
Michelle Hutchinson: We find that in some cases the thing that was most useful was introducing people to people. Sometimes it was the ranking of options. Sometimes it was sending them resources. There’s quite a few different things that seem to produce value and that kind of thing means that I think we should probably do quite a bit more testing to figure out what kinds of people we should hire. One thing that’s come up recently, for example, is that it seems that I find it easier to get people to change into a more impactful career if they’re working in global priorities research, which is in large part because I have a better sense of what specific roles there are. They can apply for what specific people they could talk to next, that kind of thing, which gives some evidence that we should be hiring specialists who have been in a bunch of our different priority parts for a long while.
Michelle Hutchinson: Those people are going to be particularly hard to hire because they typically have a good sense of what career they should be doing and those careers aren’t naturally leading to being careers advisors. But this evidence also could be used simply to say we should be getting more information as generalist coaches on these other areas and building off of the other parts of 80,000 Hours. So for example, the fact that we now have this broader job board and so maybe we don’t need specialists, we just need to take more advantage of things like the job board and things. Or, maybe it indicates that we should be tweaking the model a bit more towards more of the “helping people think through their considerations” and less of the “giving concrete jobs”.
Robert Wiblin: I guess 80,000 Hours as a whole has been very much on the side of growing slowly and only hiring when you’re really enthusiastic about someone, which I guess is sometimes disappointing because it would be nice if we had a much bigger team and were producing way more content and doing way more coaching. At the same time, it’s not unusual to see an organization grow kind of quickly and hire cases where they’re not quite sure that someone’s going to work out, and then this actually slows them down because now they’ve got more coordination problems. They’re dealing with staff who aren’t really performing and they’re not really sure what to do about that. And I guess also if you aren’t selecting people who the team gets along well with, then it can produce internal conflict. I mean in the worst case, the most common reason that small organizations fail is just because of internal conflict that causes the project to come to an end completely. So at least we have managed to avoid that scenario so far, Michelle.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I mean I think this is a lot of the advice I got when I was running Giving What We Can about setting up early organizations which was, “You’re going to fall out with your founders and this is going to be difficult to recover from”. And I think 80,000 Hours has actually done very well on this. I think we have five of the original staff members or something and has also managed to maintain its focus, which seems like another important thing because particularly earlyish on organizations, there’s always so many good different things to do and the more people you hire, the more people are interested in a somewhat different thing and so your projects proliferate and you lose focus. And so I think this model does seem to have been pretty beneficial for 80,000 Hours, although obviously it has had a significant downside as well.
Robert Wiblin: Do we have any idea of what fraction of people ultimately end up changing their career plans after talking to you? And maybe also what fraction find it useful in general versus coming away and they’re like, “Oh, this just kept me doing kind of what I was going to do anyway”.
Michelle Hutchinson: I find it a bit difficult to answer the changes in plan because often it can take a really long time for this to materialize. I’d say that, in general, I expect that the value’s going to come in typical cases from kind of smallish tweaks to their plans. You know, someone that they can talk to who will know a bit more about better jobs they could be applying for. That kind of thing. Rather than making big shifts. So I think one thing that’s less of a change in plan but can sometimes result fairly quickly is people actually applying for roles when a lot of people kind of have a general plan of changing role at some point in the nearest future, but still feel like they’re getting something out of their current job, and that kind of thing. And as it’s aversive to apply, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to do that while you’re still liking your current role.
Michelle Hutchinson: So for people who were kind of speculatively reaching out about “What kind of plans should I have”? Sometimes they end up making swifter changes, surprisingly. So someone who’s like, “Oh, I was gonna stay at my company for another couple of years or something”. I had someone recently who was working in a tech company and enjoying it and doing well, but thinking that over the next couple of years they would change. And I suggested that they apply to DeepMind because that seemed like an obvious win if they could move immediately and takes quite a while and they’d simply immediately did that and then did in fact get a job. So that was very rewarding for both of us.
Michelle Hutchinson: In terms of how many people feel that they get something out of it. We tend to send feedback forms to everyone after we talk to them, and about 65% of people give us six or seven out of seven, which is a relatively good rate. We would prefer it to be better. Obviously there’s definitely some calls where we just find that the person wanted something from us that we weren’t able to give, particularly in the realm of very concrete advice about some specific area or maybe at the other end of the spectrum, very generalized career advice that wasn’t really about the impact of jobs. So sometimes I’ll talk to people who want to know things like, “How much do I have to earn to be happy in life and those are just not the kinds of questions that I’m going to be good at answering”.
Robert Wiblin: Hmm, interesting. Do people ever want you to tell them to do a specific thing? They’re looking for someone to validate the option that they prefer and then you have to be like, “Ah, no. Actually I don’t think this is the best option”.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think sometimes that is the case. It might be a bit more the case for particular causes than particular jobs. In particular, where perhaps someone has a relatively good corporate job and would like to go into, say, sustainability consulting or something because it’s going to feel more rewarding and do more good, then I’m in a position of trying to say, “Well that does sound a bit better than a standard corporate job, but actually it sounds hard to have a lot of impact in sustainability consulting. Have you considered something really quite different”? And I think that can be pretty disappointing for people.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. Do you know how they react in the longer term? I guess maybe there aren’t enough cases and you don’t always get back in touch with them later.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, and also I’ve only been here a year and it could take a while. I mean I did have one person send me an email recently who actually fairly quickly after my session with them, who was considering sustainability consulting, ended up getting a different job which was the one that I thought would be much higher impact, who said that the advising was the medicine that he didn’t want but needed.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. I guess those are the kinds of cases where it feels like the advising has the biggest impact, right? Because they’re really shifting what people are going to do. Whereas it seems like in other cases which might be like easier advising calls to take, it’s sometimes less of a counterfactual impact.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. But it is a much more difficult balance to strike because you really can just end up putting people off the general way that we approach having an impact or something. If people come in thinking that we’re going to be, for example, more optimizing for the cause area that they care about or something and then they find me pushing quite strongly towards, “Hey, maybe this thing is like a hundred times more impactful and it’s really matters that we help people as much as we can” and they end up disillusioned with 80,000 Hours more broadly. So I find it very difficult to figure out exactly what line to tread between being pretty frank about which things I think are really important and being kind and supportive and helping people in the way that’s actually going to be useful to them rather than the way that I might have wanted or something.
Arden Koehler: So I don’t know if there’s a good answer to this question, but have you come across any people who were thinking about applying for advising but they didn’t. Or they’d heard of advising but they hadn’t applied where you thought they really should have applied for advising and what kind of bad reasons did they have in mind for not applying for advising?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, so 80,000 Hours has in the past done a deliberate qualitative study of people like this, where they did interviews with people for why they hadn’t applied for advising despite seeming like they were in the category of people for whom it would seem useful, and they knew about it and things like this. My impression, this was before my time, was that it came out with a fairly broad range of interesting answers. So some people who felt that it wasn’t really for people like them, by which they seemed to mean some kind of underconfidence thing where they thought that it was really only for people who could have really impressive jobs and they weren’t impressive or something. This was typically not in fact in any way true of them. They were mostly underconfident. Then some people who when pushed really felt that they didn’t have a good reason for not having applied, and that really resonates with me because I felt that I just didn’t really think about applying that hard and decide against or something. Although I was in a slightly surprising situation by comparison in that through most of my job, talking to Ben Todd or Rob every week.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think we spoke to an advisee about this career path a couple of weeks ago, and I think they were in this class of people who were interviewed as part of that process and were like, “I immediately realized when I was part of that evaluation that I had no particular reason why I hadn’t already applied,” and then just went and did it, and did straight away get coaching. I suppose the default is just not to apply. So you might have heard of 80K advising, but if you don’t make a super active decision, then you’re just not going to have applied. So that’s how things work out unless you make an active decision.
Arden Koehler: I think it’s easy also to have this sense of like, “Well this seems like a great thing for other people. And even if you think like you want help with your career or you just like think that for some strange reason that advice that is useful for most people won’t apply to you”. Because I feel like I used to be like that and I’ve had to very purposefully start asking for advice and making that a part of the way that I live. But it very much didn’t come naturally for me.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting how different people are on these kinds of spectrums. Because I think I’m usually much more on the side of asking people and then trusting their judgment on these kinds of things. So although I didn’t happen to apply for 80,000 Hours advising, it feels like a large part of the decisions I made over my career were from finding people I thought shared my values and seemed really smart and asking them what I should do, which worked out pretty well for me.
Michelle Hutchinson: But I also think that I’m a bit too prone to just saying, “Oh you want someone to run Giving What We Can and you think that maybe I’d be good. Okay, I’m going to do that”. Rather than thinking through tons for myself what I should do. And I think, again, we get advisees who fall into both of these categories. Some of whom have a fairly fixed idea of what they’re doing and are not that keen on you kind of poking at it. And then also people who are like, “What should I do? You’ll know what I should do”. And I really don’t.
Arden Koehler: So we’ve talked about a bunch of considerations and strategies for making career decisions. Do you have any stories of people who seem to have really exemplified these strategies or we could like look at their career and get some examples of how to do it right?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to come across a large number of people who are doing a really amazing job at this kind of thing. One of them’s an old friend of mine. He used to volunteer at Giving What We Can, Jacob Hilton, who after university went into quant trading in order to earn as much as he could to donate and did that for a couple of years very successfully. And then felt that learning more about things like AI safety, particularly talking to other people that he thought were really smart and shared his values, he started thinking that actually maybe he could have more impact to that cause actually working in it.
Michelle Hutchinson: So he started off by talking to his employer about whether he could learn some of the requisite skills within his job and they were happy to move them on to a research desk where he could learn some machine learning and then he started applying to places doing AI fellowships like some of the big tech companies and ended up going to OpenAI to do a fellowship there and training up and then getting a job and is now working there, which I think is just a great example of trying out a number of different things and being happy to change strategy and finding that you learn a lot through doing those things. In particular, because he was initially somewhat skeptical of how important AI safety work is at this point, but was kind of willing to trust some of these experts enough to try it out and actually do a fellowship and learn about what he really thought about how important this was.
Michelle Hutchinson: Another person was someone that I talked to in advising who I just thought was really impressive. She was doing her BA at the time I talked to her in human biology and ethics: Sophie. And she had been thinking of doing law or medicine which are very solid options for helping people in general, but was really using her degree to teach herself as much as she could about the different ways of having an impact in the world. For example, by taking a module where she was allowed to make her own reading list and pick out the things she thought it would be most important to learn about, and now she’s a year out of her degree testing out a number of different things.
Michelle Hutchinson: So one thing is working in a lab where she can do some public health type of research and see whether she might be suited to that. But she’s also been looking into pretty different kinds of things like doing some copywriting for effective altruism organizations in order to get more of a handle on the different considerations. This kind of thing. Then there’s someone who’s gone through advising for 80,000 Hours, not actually under me, but I’ve been lucky enough to chat to him who’s doing a PhD in biotech. And the thing I’ve been really impressed with by Ollie is how much he’s tried to think through all of the different possible kinds of options and talk to different people about this stuff. So thinking through “What kinds of projects might be most valuable in biotech? If I was going to work in biosecurity, would it be best in academia, would it be best in policy”?
Michelle Hutchinson: And then also try to think through other kinds of considerations, like what order might you want to do these kinds of things. And typically academics think it’s just like not that good if you’ve left academia for a couple of years and then come back. So if he’s not sure about academia, might it be better to do a postdoc immediately and then try policy after that. That kind of thing. And then also he’s tried really hard to find some of the most impressive types of options here. What are the postdocs that are just really well thought of that would look great on your CV that you can put out a speculative application to.
Robert Wiblin: Nice.
Arden Koehler: Cool. Yeah, that sounds amazing.
Robert Wiblin: You get to talk to some pretty cool people.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right!
Managing risk in careers [01:55:29]
Robert Wiblin: I guess one thing that we haven’t really talked about so far is managing risk in people’s careers, which I guess is something that must come up a reasonable amount or would often be a concern for people, especially when they think about changing in a big way. I guess when we end up talking about specific cases when you’re talking to people, that’s one of the things where we seem to have different dispositions; I’m just like, “Sure, just move to a different country. Just try a completely different thing. Like who cares at all? Ah, things will work out in the end”. Whereas I think you have more sympathy maybe for people’s concerns that maybe things won’t entirely work out in the end.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes. I tend to be very much more in favor of going the somewhat safer route and maybe the more standard route and tend to be a bit more worried about people taking a year out to self study and those kinds of things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess it’s just purely us imagining ourselves in their position. Imagining what we personally would do.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think a lot of that’s what’s going on. I find it so difficult to really take myself out of the equation particularly, you know, I find myself talking to someone who’s part way through their undergraduate and has been offered some great job and is thinking about whether they should drop out of their undergraduate to do this great job. And I find myself feeling it impossible to advise that they should in fact do this because it was so important to me to do an undergraduate and I really enjoyed it. And when actually the thing you’re trying to do with your undergraduate degree is get a good job. So if you can get that earlier, I don’t have that good of a reason for why you shouldn’t do it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Have you found any strategies for getting around that? I guess you just have to really try and elicit lots of their preferences and then apply it on a system two level to the case.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think talking to other people is also just really helpful in this kind of case, so talking to you tons is really useful because then I get a good sense of “What would Rob say in this kind of situation” and then “What might I answer”. Because I think that both these intuitions are coming from sensible kinds of places. You know the kind of case that I was discussing there does have some ring of truth in that there are plenty of jobs that are hard to get without an undergraduate. There are some visas it’s hard to get without an undergraduate. But it’s really good to have talked to people who have radically different intuitions here so that you get some sense for where is this a kind of case where I’m actually just going off of my natural inclination, and where is it a case where I’m actually going off of this being a useful kind of thing?
Michelle Hutchinson: So I had another kind of case where someone was thinking through what university to go to and was considering between British universities and American universities. And as I said, I was not that keen on British universities because you are so hemmed in to one particular subject. But they were worried about American universities because of the debt that you take on. And in that case, I was very aware that my instinct was going to be strongly against getting people to take on debt when they don’t know how they’ll be able to pay it off, but also aware that this isn’t necessarily a sensible kind of way to think because tons of Americans go to Ivy League colleges and can then pay off the debt. And if you’re going to one of these top colleges and you’re going to study something like CS, which this person was going to, then actually you’ll be in a great position to pay off debts. So what I did that was try to give both sides of the argument and then when I was off the call, went and talked to one of my colleagues, also emailed a friend of mine who went to a worse university than they could have partly for a similar kind of reason to ask, “Hey, how do you feel now given that you are out of this”? And then emailed the person afterwards with more of “Here’s an amalgamation of some people who have different intuitions and things”.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess… so for me, I’m super biased because I’ve moved countries multiple times and I travel a lot and I don’t have a family. Like there’s no particular reason why I’m pinned down anywhere. And so it’s harder for me to put myself in the situation as someone who has very deep connections to one place that they’ve lived a long time and think about how threatening it might be to them to have to uproot all of that and just go somewhere where they don’t actually have any friends yet.
Michelle Hutchinson: And that’s presumably why you hang out plenty with me: owns a house, has a husband, and would prefer never to leave a small suburb.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’m taking a risk and meeting someone completely different from me. Add some spice to my life.
Arden Koehler: It’s very admirable, Rob.
Arden Koehler: So it seems like something that I’ve heard you talk about, Rob, before about why you feel like some people don’t take as many risks as they should is like maybe not appreciating just how awesome the thing could be if it turns out well compared to how much of a setback it will be if it doesn’t turn out well.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I mean I guess it depends a lot on the circumstance. I mean, in general, there’s this phenomenon where trying things out at least once is kind of useful because potentially you could, you know, try out yoga and I mean, I hate yoga, but you could give it a go and if you really like it, then you can do it thousands and thousands of times over your life. I guess moving to a different city in order to try out a job is much, much more costly and actually could end up being quite bad for you for quite an extended period of time. And you’re giving up opportunities to do other experiments as well. So it’s very far from costless. I guess I think the case where people end up being too risk averse is maybe not appreciating just how many fallback positions they have.
Robert Wiblin: And this is absolutely not true for everyone, but some people we know they’ve got parents who are pretty wealthy. Friends who will help them out. They’ve already got really strong credentials, so they’ll be able to go and get some job at the end of the day. And I think, yeah, I’m not sure quite why, but people tend not to reflect on how robust their situation is and they tend to… I guess it seems like almost people are just risk averse based on kind of their personal disposition and not based on actually how fragile their life situation is as a whole. Do you think that’s right?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that’s right. I think it’s also influenced a lot by other people around them. For example, parents, and parents just tend to care a lot more about their children being slightly richer than they do about their children helping the world hugely more, and so they’re going to end up wanting to encourage their children to do the slightly safer path that has a slightly higher expected income in the future than the thing that could really help the world a ton. I also think a separate effect is people finding it hard to really understand what these other kinds of options might look like and therefore being worried about them. So having joked about being the kind of person that doesn’t move, I did very strongly consider moving to San Francisco when 80,000 Hours was based there, but it’s now based in the UK, and so was doing quite a lot of the kinds of things to go over there and found that it was much less bad than I was expecting because I was joining a team that I really got on well with, was doing work that I was deeply passionate about and could relatively easily in fact set myself up in a new country.
Michelle Hutchinson: I was very fortunate that my husband was willing to move. But I think that’s the kind of thing that’s a bit hard to really anticipate. And I’ve come across other kinds of people who have found, for example, that they moved to Oxford to work at organizations there, thinking that this was going to be a really major life change and a real struggle for them and then found it to be much less so than they expected. Particularly because some of the kinds of organizations that we talk about, other kinds that have a fairly good community attached to them, so you’re not coming and not knowing anyone. That kind of thing.
Arden Koehler: Yeah, it also does seem extremely useful for people to have these backup plans in order to feel secure. So I think even if it is the case that you do have things that you could do if something doesn’t work out or these fallback options, I think we often don’t really think about them that much, especially people who are just very excited about a certain path and so just explicitly thinking about that could be good and help assure people. One thing that I think could be going on in terms of people’s levels of risk aversion is there might be this phenomenon, I’m sort of making this up, but it seems like there might be a phenomenon where you get stuck somewhat early on during a time when you don’t really have a good sense of what your backup options would be and you have this idea of what you want to do, but you feel like if you don’t do that, you’d have to go back to square one or you don’t have a sense of having lots of great options and then it’s hard to update from there if you don’t do this explicit reasoning.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess. I’m not sure if this is related, but maybe some people just have the disposition where they trust that something will come along. It’s like they don’t know exactly what the alternative option will be, but they just know in their heart if the thing that they’re doing doesn’t work out and something else will come along and it’ll be fine. And then there’s other people who I think are very scared when they don’t know specifically what other options there would be if their top option doesn’t pan out. I think this could lead to pretty different behavior between people. The former group are willing to take way more risks.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. And it might be about what they’ve been exposed to. So if you grew up in a place where everybody somehow just found some really amazing thing and is having a successful career and then you will have the sense that something will come along. But if you feel like you know a lot of people for whom things didn’t work out very well, then it’s going to be really salient to you that it’s not guaranteed.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean I definitely don’t want to say that listeners in general should go out and take crazy career risks. It really is just a question of circumstance. I guess the thing that I’ve found surprising is that you’ll get the same amount of risk aversion between someone who has no money in the bank whatsoever and someone who has $200,000 in the bank and a big cushion to fall back on. I guess we say that people should build up this kind of reserve of money so they can be more risk taking and they can go and move to a different country and try something out, and then if it doesn’t pan out it’s fine, they’ll just move home. But you do actually have to look at your bank account and check and say, “You know, actually, I could just not work for two years and at the end of the day, things will be fine”. If you never check that and never actually think about how resilient you are, then it’s hard for you to sensibly manage the risk and take the right ones and not others that are too much for you.
Michelle Hutchinson: Another thing that seems different between people on this is how bad they think it would be to temporarily have a career setback. So I think this somewhat rescues me because I tend to typically be fairly risk averse, but I feel relatively little aversion to, “Well, I guess I could start at the bottom on some other thing. And then work my way up and maybe it’ll take a couple of years to do that but that would be okay”. And that’s partly to do with having thought about my financial circumstances and whether that would actually be viable for me. But it’s also to do with some kind of inherent, “Okay. It seems okay if I’m doing a worse job for a while and have to build up to it” compared to people who feel much more of a whether it’s like a duty to the world or a duty to themselves to be really always on the up, and for them it would just be much worse to end up in a situation where they had to take their backup option.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. This is one thing that we’ve not been completely sure about is how bad is it to take a step back in your career? I guess it seems rationally to me like it shouldn’t be that bad because just of course, sometimes people are going to have to take a step backwards in order to get onto a slightly different track. But it seems like we have heard that people can be a bit judgmental about that when on your CV it seems like you’ve taken a job and then taken a less senior job.
Michelle Hutchinson: Well another problem seems to be that it’s so hard to get true information from CVs and so you have to do this amount of guessing or something. So if someone has a gap on their CV, you can’t really easily tell “Were they fired because they’re terrible to work with. Were they doing some kind of, you know, training themselves in something that was pretty useful”? That kind of thing. And then it ends up that what really matters is how good a story you can tell about that time. But that often doesn’t seem to that well track how sensible the time was.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess inasmuch as you’re part of a professional community where people know one another really well, then it seems like you can potentially get around this quite a bit, because people will hear from other people about what you were doing and they can hear about it in a credible way such that, yeah, if you took months off in order to study then they’ll really believe that that is what you were doing and you’ll be able to get back on track.
Michelle Hutchinson: This feels hugely frustrating to me because it means that it’s very difficult to do some big pivot where you start at the bottom in some new area because no one will know you and so they’ll just, you know, maybe very sensibly infer, “Well, you left this other area where you seemed like you were doing fine and now you’re starting at the bottom. Maybe you have a terrible temperament and no one in your previous professional community was willing to have you around”. But it feels like that creates this totally artificial hurdle for people doing something that would otherwise be potentially sensible.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s very regrettable I guess inasmuch as you know that that’s the barrier that you’re facing. Seems like you might be able to find clever ways around it. Like you have to meet these people in some social situation where they can see that you’re not a lunatic and maybe do some very transparent work where people can assess whether it’s good or not without having to put in tons of time and then you can potentially get over that people’s concern that maybe there’s been some negative selection filter that’s caused you to be in the situation in which you’re in?
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. And you might hope that in good situations, you do this shift while you still have the previous job, you get tons of good references, you get into the new job, you immediately start building up a good network there and then you build your way up there such that people at every stage have a good sense of you. But it certainly makes things tougher than it could otherwise be.
Robert Wiblin: All right. So we should wrap up because you’re actually in the last few weeks before you go on maternity leave and I know you’re rushing to finish things before you head off. You’re stopping in two weeks or so. Is that right?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I’m having the baby in two weeks.
Robert Wiblin: I know you’ve been trying to figure out how much time you want to take off for maternity leave. What’s the difficulty of that decision? Why not just take the most time off?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I’ve been finding it a really difficult question to think through because a lot of the information online is all along the lines of how much your priorities shift when you have a child and how people tend to think they’re going to want to take less maternity leave than they in fact do. Tons of people who have a child and then immediately want to give up their job. And I find this a bit alarming to think through because it feels a bit like I should expect to become a totally different person, which is both difficult to plan and also a bit scary. So I’ve been trying to think through because my natural inclination is to think, “Well, I just really enjoy my job. I really enjoy getting to see my colleagues and I’ll probably be kind of bored if I spend too much time sitting at home”. I have no doubts that I will be extremely besotted with my baby. But I imagine they’ll be wanting to, you know, breastfeed and read interesting things at the same time, rather than just spend tons of time staring at the baby.
Robert Wiblin: That’s what motherhood is, right?
Michelle Hutchinson: I assume!
Robert Wiblin: Staring at babies…
Michelle Hutchinson: So I’ve been trying to think through how realistic any of these kinds of things are and what kind of timescale I can come back. Part of that is sensible kind of logistical things to do with what kinds of tasks can I do where it doesn’t matter when I do them. So if I don’t get any sleep one night, I can just sleep during the day. Part of it is what kinds of things can I do with a baby coming along? Part of it is, what are the bounds between, you know, the babies that just cry five hours a day and scream if you take them anywhere versus the ones that sleep really well. But I have been a bit more reassured talking partly to mothers who seem a bit more similar to me and then also talking it through with my counselor and the fact that, in fact, although there are plenty of people who do decide that their priorities massively shift, I shouldn’t expect to be a totally different person.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess in general, outside view forecasting and reference class forecasting is all good, but then if your reference class is that, “Oh, soon I’ll be living in Birmingham and I won’t have a degree”. Then you do have to start wondering, “Maybe I’ve gotten the wrong reference class here”.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think this is a lot of what’s going on that I was just going with the wrong kind of reference class and so it was good to talk to people who are more similar to me and ironically who are more similar to me in the sense that they’d also done this false reference class forecasting thing where they’d expected that they wouldn’t want to come back to work just because the internet had said it and then they were like, “No, I really like my job. Turns out having a baby didn’t change that”.
Robert Wiblin: You look extremely ready to give birth. Are you looking forward to the pregnancy being over?
Michelle Hutchinson: I’m really looking forward to the pregnancy being over. Not a fan of being pregnant.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. People seem to have pretty wide expressions of enthusiasm for being pregnant.
Michelle Hutchinson: They really do. Some of my friends really enjoyed being pregnant and then looked forward to the labor, whereas I feel like labor sounds terrible, but not being pregnant.
Arden Koehler: Looked forward to the labor? For reasons besides they would have a baby at the end of it?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. They just thought it would be really interesting and a natural process and that kind of thing.
Arden Koehler: I guess it is kind of badass. So that’s cool.
Michelle Hutchinson: That is. Yeah, that is one thing. I have to say I’m mostly just looking forward to all the baby cuddles.
Robert Wiblin: Well, I’m sure listeners wish you well and I think by the time this episode comes out, probably the baby will be out in the world–
Robert Wiblin: Crossed fingers!
Robert Wiblin: So maybe I’ll do an outro perhaps where we say the name. Well, my guest today has been Michelle Hutchinson and also Arden Koehler. Thanks so much for coming on the show, guys.
Michelle Hutchinson: Thanks so much for having me, Rob.
Arden Koehler: Yeah, thanks Rob.
Rob’s outro [02:12:28]
As we now know Michelle’s baby’s name is Leo and I’m happy to report he’s out in the world and doing well.
A reminder that if you think you’d be a good fit to receive advising, you can learn more about how it works and join the waitlist at 80000hours.org/advising/. Our team would love to hear from you.
Also don’t forget that you can check out over 500 job vacancies that might allow you to have a bigger social impact on our job board at 80000hours.org/jobs
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris. Audio mastering by Ben Cordell. Transcripts by Zakee Ulhaq.
Thanks for joining, talk to you in a week or two.
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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