Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is The 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and when you shouldn’t take your books back to the library. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Today I’m talking to two of our advisors who are constantly speaking one-on-one to people about how they can have more impact with their careers. Michelle was last on the show for episode 75, Michelle Hutchinson on what people most often ask 80,000 Hours, while this is Habiba’s first appearance on this show.
If you listen to this episode and decide you’d like to get advising from Habiba or one of her colleagues, our one-on-one team is a bunch bigger than the past and so has more capacity to talk to people than it used to. You can learn more about what the service can and can’t offer and apply to speak with someone at 80000hours.org/speak.
We’re splitting this episode up into two parts in a naked attempt to get you to subscribe to our new show called ‘80k After Hours.’ If you want to hear the second half, which will cover
- Advice for younger people
- The impact of the 1-1 service
- The biggest challenges for the 1-1 team
- Agnes Callard’s essay “Against Advice”
- And making people more ambitious about what they can do
…then just search for ‘80k After Hours’ in your podcasting app.
That new show will include more experimental content, article readings, chats within the 80,000 Hours team, interviews we do on other shows, and more.
So far on that feed, you can find an interview with another of our advisors, Alex Lawson, who was a teacher for many years, covering advice on how to get the most out of being a student. There’s also a reading of the article “Be more ambitious: a rational case for dreaming big (if you want to do good)” by Habiba. And finally, there’s an interview with Keiran and me talking about the philosophy of The 80,000 Hours Podcast, among other topics.
The last few weeks have been pretty tough with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raising the possibility of escalation to a great power conflict between nuclear powers, or future invasions of small countries by their larger neighbours.
We’re currently working on some episodes to explore those topics — and what, if anything, can be done about those threats — so stay tuned for that.
I can see from our downloads that we have at least a few dozen listeners in Ukraine — I hope you and your loved ones are finding a way to stay safe.
Without further ado, I bring you Michelle and Habiba.
The interview begins [00:02:24]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Michelle Hutchinson and Habiba Islam. Michelle has a PhD in moral philosophy from the University of Oxford, where her thesis was on global priorities research. Since then, she has filled a range of roles at Oxford University and Giving What We Can, but she currently does one-on-one career conversations for 80,000 Hours.
Rob Wiblin: Habiba studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University before qualifying as a barrister, working as a management consultant at PwC, and working as a senior administrator at Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute and the Future of Humanity Institute, and now is also doing one-on-one career conversations at 80,000 Hours. Thanks for coming on the podcast, both of you.
Michelle Hutchinson: Great to be here, Rob.
Habiba Islam: Thanks for having us.
Rob Wiblin: I hope to talk about your most common suggestions for people who come to you for advice, and how well our career advising actually works. But first, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important? Maybe Habiba first.
Habiba Islam: Most of my job is doing one-on-one careers conversations with people and following up with them over the next few months as well. I also do some other stuff alongside that: a little bit of sourcing leads for people in the EA community who are hiring for really promising roles — sort of mini versions of head hunts — and helping with other strategy things for the one-on-one team, like working out whether it’s a good idea to send people books before we talk to them, that kind of thing. But most of it is the careers conversations.
Rob Wiblin: How long are the conversations these days? Is it about an hour? Has it always been about an hour?
Habiba Islam: So we schedule something for 30 minutes, but we try and hold the full hour, just in case it’s useful to go on a bit longer.
Rob Wiblin: And the team’s grown a bit recently, right? So we’re able to actually do conversations with a bunch more people than we used to be able to?
Habiba Islam: Yeah. It’s very cool. I’ve been really trying to ramp up the amount of calls that I’ve been doing this year. But recently a new advisor has joined the team — Alex Lawsen — which has been great, and he’s got up to speed really fast. And we’ll also have more people joining the team soon.
Rob Wiblin: Michelle, you were last on the show about two years ago to chat about advising.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, two years ago.
Rob Wiblin: I think the conversation might have been two years ago, but I reckon there was a little bit of a delay — Keiran and I were a little bit slow getting that episode out — so it might be 18 months ago from the perspective of listeners. But I think you might be the first person to come on the show for a third time.
Michelle Hutchinson: What an accolade!
Rob Wiblin: You’re beating out Will and Toby and Spencer, so congrats. What’s changed in advising since that episode two years ago?
Michelle Hutchinson: One of the big things, as Habiba mentioned, is growing the team quite a bit. We’ve hired three new people — Habiba being the first of those, and Matt Reardon is about to join us. We’ve also gotten a bit more information about how useful the conversations are, and in what particular ways they’re useful, that we’ll be talking about in a bit.
Rob Wiblin: What kind of data have you gotten? Is it more survey data? Or maybe people’s careers are coming along a bit now, so we have a sense of how they’re playing out?
Michelle Hutchinson: A bit of each. The thing I was particularly thinking about was doing a user survey, getting a sense of what proportion of people actually change their careers based on having the conversations. And then others in the community have also done surveys and passed on their results to us to try and give us a slightly less biased sample.
Rob Wiblin: Habiba, remind me, how many calls have you done this year? I can’t remember the exact number, but I remember being taken aback and somewhat disturbed.
Habiba Islam: [laughs] I think I’m at about 390 at the moment.
Rob Wiblin: So about two every work day? Maybe more than that. Two and a half a day?
Habiba Islam: I tend to schedule them so that I do weeks that are particularly intense and then some weeks that I have off, and do them in rounds, which works like that. I like to try and make it like an “advising sprint,” where I’m doing a lot in one particular week.
Rob Wiblin: How do you maintain your energy through that? I only have to talk to one person a week at most. Occasionally, two people, but —
Habiba Islam: And that’s a struggle for you, isn’t it? Hopefully this isn’t too taxing!
Rob Wiblin: I’m going to go home exhausted and sleep 12 hours. Maybe you just like people more than I do.
Habiba Islam: I think I do find talking to a person to be particularly energizing. It certainly is a bit of my personality that if I’ve got someone in front of me, I will put in a lot of energy to be cheerful and engaged and talking to them. But it definitely does get tiring if I do a lot in one go, hence why I schedule having some weeks off.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any kinds of calls that are more tiring?
Habiba Islam: If I’m not able to help someone that much, that’s a frustrating experience for them and then a sad experience for me. But we actually are really good at trying to find the people that we can help the most to talk to, so this actually doesn’t happen that often.
Rob Wiblin: So you’ve gotten better at screening people at the application stage to figure out whether the conversation’s going to be useful for them or not?
Habiba Islam: Or we’re just getting loads of really talented altruistic people applying.
Michelle Hutchinson: We also try to be as careful as we can to moderate people’s expectations well. The last podcast really helped with this I think, because we can send people the podcast beforehand, and they actually know what kind of careers advice we are going to give. This is particularly useful with younger people, who have a huge number of different options, and would really like someone to be able to cut down the options pretty specifically for them — and we just can’t tell them which thing is the best thing for them to do. It’s just a difficult time of life — particularly, in some ways, if you are very talented — because you have so many different options and it can feel overwhelming.
Rob Wiblin: So that’s the main thing that people might want that you can’t do? You just being very directive and saying, “No, don’t do this — do this”?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest thing that comes up that people would like us to be able to do and we can’t.
Rob Wiblin: What are the kinds of people who you struggle to help out the most? Who you either have to say, “We shouldn’t do a conversation just yet,” or maybe you do end up talking with them and then find it’s not all that they hoped it would be?
Habiba Islam: One of the things is that there’s only so many areas that I actually know that much about. As a service, we have some levels of specialism in the kinds of things that 80,000 Hours talks about a bunch — so some of the existential risk reduction–type career paths that might relate to that thing. And I just tend to have a lot less knowledge around some other areas that people might be really interested in, so I’m just maybe less able to help them out.
Michelle Hutchinson: In some cases, we also find that people just have really good plans already. Some people come to us having thought through a lot of the different considerations, talked to a bunch of their friends, and have been proactive about reaching out to other experts and getting materials and things. And in some of those cases, we basically can just say, “Seems like a sensible plan. Go do it.”
Rob Wiblin: Cool. Are people happy or sad to get that advice? It cuts both ways slightly.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it depends a lot on the person and how much they expected. Some people actually quite like getting the affirmation, because what they’re really worried about is, “Am I missing something crucial here?” And someone who has similar values to them, and also really cares about helping them get their career right, saying, “I can’t think of any other considerations that you are missing” can be pretty reassuring and get them energized to actually go for it, even if it feels a bit risky. Whereas other people, we’re really feeling their plan is still speculative, and involves trying out things and applying for quite a lot of things, and they were really hoping to get more suggestions or something more directive.
Cause prioritization [00:09:14]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on and talk about the kinds of things that you both find yourself saying reasonably often. Last time, we did a bunch of these “most common pieces of advice given” — which sounds like it was useful, because as we hoped, you can just direct people to that episode ahead of time, and don’t have to say it again and again.
Rob Wiblin: But I’m curious to know what things might have changed, or what new advice you have, or whether there’s anything that we were mistaken about two years ago. Are there any new or different themes that show up fairly often these days, Habiba?
Habiba Islam: I think a lot of the stuff that Michelle said on the previous podcast really still rings true.
Rob Wiblin: Stands the test of time.
Habiba Islam: Yes, I think so. One of the things that I’m trying to do a lot — consciously try and do more on calls over the last few months — has been focusing a lot more on the cause prioritization part of a call. Which you might think is not a standard part of a careers advising call or process, but actually I think it’s surprisingly important for thinking about what to do with your career.
Habiba Islam: People maybe have a tendency to think particularly about the skillset or the thing that they have most experience with most recently, and then think forwards from that to the kinds of roles that seem open to them right now. But I try and encourage people to think really big picture about their career: think about what are the biggest problems in the world, and consider what kinds of paths might actually be working on those problems. Particularly because there actually might be ways that they’re just not considering that they’re able to actually contribute to those.
Habiba Islam: When you start from that perspective, this big question of, “Which problems do I think are the most important?” actually becomes a really important question as part of your career decision — so I’ve relatively tried to put more emphasis on that part of the conversation.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think this is also a big value add of ours, because it’s the part that most careers advising services don’t offer at all. They’re very much trying to talk through “What are your next possible steps, and how are you going to get those?” and they do less of this bigger-picture thing. And also they just focus much less on the “How can you have the most impact in the world?” side of things, compared to “What will be most suited to you, and how will you have a career that you enjoy?” — which is very important also, but neglects this whole other piece.
Rob Wiblin: We’re just talking about that way more than other career services — indeed, maybe infinitely more. So a common situation is that someone comes in and they’re on a particular path, and they’re like, “What’s the next step that I should take within the thing that I’m existing on?” And you’re more inclined to say, “Hold up a minute. Let’s back up and think about the bigger picture — what are you actually trying to accomplish down the line?”
Habiba Islam: Yeah. There are just so many examples of people that I know who have really impactful careers, and the undergrad that they did was just something quite unrelated to that kind of thing. You can have studied physics, or history, or whatever it is at undergrad, but be incredibly successful in things that aren’t specifically directly related to that. So I think it’s just really helpful for people, particularly earlier on in their career, to think more ambitiously about where they might be able to contribute.
Rob Wiblin: Can that be a difficult issue to broach? So people are coming for concrete ideas on next steps, perhaps, and you’re saying, “Well, you’ve been worried about problem X. But have you considered not worrying about that so much, and instead doing something quite different?”
Habiba Islam: This is part of setting expectations at the beginning of the call and hopefully — Michelle’s previous podcast talked a bit about this — about what we actually do on the call. Just setting people’s expectations, and actually asking people for permission at the beginning of the call if it’s all right if we dive into that for a little bit before we get to some of the concrete careers advice. We have a document that we get people to fill out before, which specifically asks people for their definition of “positive impact” and some thoughts on their ranking of problems, so that is a good segue into discussing that.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think this can feel quite stressful to people as well, because they’re coming from a particular pathway and have a sense of what that looks like and what continuing on it might look like. And also they feel like they put in a lot of effort to learn the specific things that they have been working on so far, which definitely seems very understandable to me. I spent a lot of time studying philosophy and then basically don’t use it at all. And it was all optimized for going into academia, and then I just didn’t.
Michelle Hutchinson: But in fact, it can just work out really well for people to switch, particularly if they’re switching early-ish on. That’s quite difficult to see at the point where you’ve just spent three years studying economics or whatever, by comparison to when you are looking back and saying, “Now I’ve had a few years working at something that’s totally unrelated to my PhD, and actually I really enjoy it and it’s not been a problem.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. We recently put out an episode with Carl Shulman that some listeners might have heard, where he was arguing (among other things) that when trying to figure out what problem in the world to focus on solving, maybe we talk too much about this high-falutin’ moral philosophy about population ethics and so on. But actually what people really need to guide them is just the basic empirical information about the state of the world, and what’s going wrong, and what are the most likely disasters, and how probable they are, and who’s working on different problems — that basic lay of the land. How do you find the split between those two things in the conversations?
Habiba Islam: I think we try and cover a bit of both. The cause prioritization question involves a little bit of moral values, and it also involves a little bit of empirical stuff as well. In some ways, I think it’s easier to take your own view on the moral side of things, and it requires a little bit more investigation sometimes to get a view on the empirical stuff. And both of these can seem really daunting to people, to feel like they have to solve moral philosophy to work out what to do with their career. And I think it doesn’t have to be that hard, but there are some key choice points that might be slightly easier for people to focus on. Yeah, it’s a little bit of the moral stuff and a little bit of the empirical stuff.
Michelle Hutchinson: And one way that we can add value sometimes is basically just giving people a sense that they can think through these things and come to their own view. I feel that I’ve chatted to a lot of really smart, well-informed people who feel like it’s above their pay grade to have any opinions on what the most important problem to work on is, and therefore don’t end up spending much time thinking about that and actually deciding — and I think that’s a real shame for their career. I was talking to one lady, for example, who has a PhD in physics from Cambridge and still felt like, “Well, I’m not smart enough to get to grips with these kinds of things.” And I just think that’s totally wrong, and getting people to think these things through can be pretty useful for their career.
Rob Wiblin: To what extent do people’s decisions about what to work on rest on more technical issues in moral philosophy, versus just asking the basic questions of, “Do you care about people here more than there?” or “How do you feel about helping people in the future?” Is it primarily probing people’s basic intuitions, or do we need to get into the math of it, so to speak?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it depends a lot on the case. In some cases, people just haven’t thought about these questions too much, and they’ve been really compelled by some particular problem. It’s more a question of talking through the different problems and getting them to think about them — then people might realize that although they feel particularly compelled by a certain problem, when they’re actually comparing it to another one, they think the second one’s more important.
Michelle Hutchinson: In some cases, people have some intuitions in a particular direction, but haven’t quite thought explicitly about those intuitions. Climate change is one that often elicits these kinds of cases, where people might have the view that they’d prefer to help people in the present, but simultaneously feel that climate change is a particularly important problem to work on. And actually, when they think about it in more detail, they realize the reason they think that climate change is particularly important is that they think it could have a bearing on the longer-run future. So in that case, they do in fact have a view, but it’s not quite been made explicit.
Michelle Hutchinson: And then there are other cases where people just, in fact, feel very torn — so it’s less a case of figuring out what the intuition is, and more a case that they know that they have intuitions pointing in different directions. That’s when it really gets into the complexity, and we don’t tend to be in the business of doing that. That’s just a really hard question that to get an answer someone finds satisfying could just take them years. We’re more trying to help people who are in the former two camps think through whether they, in fact, have stronger intuitions in a different direction than they were expecting or something.
Habiba Islam: It’s vanishingly rare that we really go into the specific depths of a particular philosophical debate. Unless the person I’m talking to themselves has a philosophy PhD and is really excited about this kind of issue, I don’t really recommend people go off and read philosophical papers and work out their own view there. I think something that can be quite helpful is checking out a book like The Precipice, which goes through some of the arguments in favor of longtermism or working on existential risk in a very accessible way that I think many people can engage with and form their own views on.
Unexpected outcomes from 1-1 advice [00:18:10]
Rob Wiblin: Have you ever prompted people to reflect on their values or what they want to go and solve, and they’ve gone off in a quite unexpected direction of something that you might not advise, or at least didn’t anticipate?
Habiba Islam: I definitely have been surprised afterwards. So I’ve checked in by email with someone I’ve spoken to a few months later, and it turns out that they’ve latched onto something quite different. At that point, I’m like, “Good for you. Have fun.” The person I’m thinking of was really getting into a sense of finding their bliss in a meditation-style thing, or something like that. So people do come to 80,000 Hours from very different approaches to worldviews sometimes.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any empirical facts that you sometimes throw at people, where they’re taken aback or it has a big influence on them?
Habiba Islam: Sometimes talking about AI timelines is quite surprising. There’s been some great content and some great research in the community on this now, so referring to Ajeya Cotra’s report, and this median timeline of transformative AI being 2050, I think is quite a surprising fact. And the other thing that comes to mind is this standard illustration of [how much of a difference cause prioritization makes[(https://80000hours.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Neglectedness-chart-in-brand-colors.png) — thinking about how much money goes into US welfare spending, and 10 times less than that going into climate change, and 10 times less than that going into pandemic prevention — which makes a lot of sense to people as that’s important nowadays, given COVID. We have a lovely graph about that on our Start here guide on our website.
Michelle Hutchinson: A thing that people sometimes are worried about more than we worry about is overpopulation. Then some of the data on how much fertility rates have been dropping across the world ends up being fairly surprising to people — the stuff that Rosling wrote about in Factfulness.
Rob Wiblin: It’s interesting. I remember I tried to write a piece on overpopulation years ago, and then abandoned it because it turned out that it was a very complicated issue. And even I wasn’t quite arrogant enough to think that I’d nailed it in that blog post.
Michelle Hutchinson: [laughs] That doesn’t sound like you at all.
Habiba Islam: It’s maybe worth writing something, because there’s a lot of Gen Z people who are now very worried about climate change, and it does seem like this idea is really taking off that they don’t want to have kids.
Rob Wiblin: If I had to just say one thing about overpopulation, it would be that rather than making things worse, it just speeds things up. So it causes more rapid consumption of fossil fuels, and it also causes all of the technological changes that we hope will eventually get us out of climate change to also happen sooner. Imagine if we just doubled the population or halved it — basically, history proceeds twice as quickly or half as fast, because it’s basically proportional to the amount that people are working rather than the amount of time that passes. I think most people don’t think about it that way, but that’s closer to the truth than thinking that each extra person is just a burden and just makes things worse.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. So presumably, which direction you think this will go is going to depend on what you think about progress studies, and whether scientific progress is speeding up or slowing down. Because if you think that scientific progress is radically slowing down, then adding more people is just going to add more carbon emissions and things, but isn’t going to add as many more breakthroughs as you would want. Whereas, viewing scientific progress as continuing apace, then this would seem less worrying.
Rob Wiblin: Doesn’t that kind of cancel out? Because we’re going to have a particular number of person-hours worked eventually, and there’s going to be a trajectory of emissions and a trajectory of technological improvement, and having more children just causes that to happen sooner in time. So it’s definitely a worse situation if technological advance is happening more slowly, but that will be true even if population is declining — we’ll just play out the same trajectory more gradually.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, good point.
Habiba Islam: You might not need technological advancement to work on things like reducing carbon emissions. Maybe you think that we have the technology and we just need to make a transition, and then that would be a case where if the population grows faster, then we sped that up without actually having enough time to deal with it.
Rob Wiblin: I think that’s the best argument in the other direction: that there are some things that are proportional to clock time, rather than the number of person-hours worked in the world. And potentially, political change around climate change could be more like that, where progress proceeds one funeral at a time, perhaps, and you need a turnover of people to get to younger generations who care more about climate change. But this is a complicated one. Maybe we’ll be able to do a full episode on this overpopulation question at some point.
Making time for thinking about these things [00:22:28]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s go back to what new themes or regular advice shows up. Is there a different thing other than reflecting on your values and choosing the right problem?
Habiba Islam: As someone who came from doing consulting for four years and working in operations, I quite enjoy talking to people who are in consulting, or working in the corporate sector or in a traditional private-sector job. And I find it interesting talking to them about making the time to think about some of this stuff, and think about making a career change.
Habiba Islam: I often try to emphasize how useful some of the skills are that they already have. I think people — particularly if they’re not very well connected to the effective altruism community — might be a little bit distant from realizing just how many skills they’ve already acquired, and how useful those could be in various different direct work settings. So there’s one thing about emphasizing how much people might want to consider switching into something that’s more direct work — whether that’s going more in a policy direction or in operations or something like that.
Habiba Islam: And then talking a bit more about making time for actually focusing on this kind of thing — because I’ve been there in consulting, where I just didn’t have the headspace and the time to think about big-picture questions, let alone job applications. I think it’s helpful to talk to people about maybe just taking some leave to think about this kind of thing, or making some goals with friends, or some commitment mechanisms to be able to set aside some time, or getting involved more in the effective altruism community as a way to engage more with some of the ideas and help facilitate a move to something more directly impactful.
Michelle Hutchinson: Another thing that Alex has been noticing is how important it is to think through what specific goals you’re trying to aim for with some decision that you are making, or with a particular thing that you are working on. It can be really tempting to try to get towards too many goals at once, such that you’re not actually doing the best thing for either thing that you are doing.
Michelle Hutchinson: So you can imagine, for example, taking a job which has a high enough salary that you can donate a bit and also is in a sector that you think is pretty good — so maybe you think it’s making a corporation a bit more environmentally friendly, although you don’t think that it’s making it tons more environmentally friendly. In that case, you could do better to either try to go for a job at a for-profit that will earn really well in order that you can donate that money to a climate change charity, or go for working at a charity where you won’t necessarily earn enough to donate at all, but it’s the best charity that you can find.
Michelle Hutchinson: This is obviously not always true. It can be particularly good to get the low-hanging fruit of two different things, but it’s often pretty sensible to think through specifically what your goals are, and whether there’s a way of achieving them separately — rather than taking some middle way that’s satisficing in a number of ways.
Rob Wiblin: So the issue there is that people are drawn to a middle ground that feels like it’s getting a bit of everything, rather than going for something that’s extreme in one dimension and weak in another. Perhaps in normal life, it’s often better to do the compromise thing. But maybe in social change, the outcomes are more in the tails — more when you really manage to nail one aspect of a career — and it’s a little bit hard to make that really strong bet.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think the impact is more in the tail, and also the different outcomes can in fact be compared. So the thing that you care about ultimately is, “How much am I, in fact, countering climate change?” as opposed to, “Am I using both my money and my time to counter climate change?”
Rob Wiblin: I see. There’s a temptation to try to have impact through multiple different routes, rather than just doubling down on one that seems like it’s the one that’s getting the most bang per hour.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Interesting.
Habiba Islam: And there’s something helpful about being part of a community and coordinating with the community, which should hopefully facilitate it being easier for people to focus more specifically on what’s going to be their comparative advantage. Because it’s better if there are two different people for each of them to go specialize — one of them doing the direct work and one of them doing the earnings — rather than both of them to try and hedge and do a bit of both, which very much relates to “the impact is in the tails” thing.
Rob Wiblin: I see. So you can think of, “I’m making a big bet, but across the two of us — ”
Habiba Islam: You’re hedging.
Rob Wiblin: “ — we’re trying both methods as a group.”
Balancing different priorities in life [00:26:54]
Rob Wiblin: Any other common themes?
Habiba Islam: One other thing that comes up is talking about people’s prioritizations around different priorities in their life, and impact is not the only thing that you are aiming for in your career. Often I just give people a message that if they’re struggling with mental health-related things, to prioritize that and put that first. Obviously we’re not a counseling service, and don’t have expertise in this area, but this is something I do try and emphasize to people, and give people permission to focus on that kind of thing — I think it’s helpful to have an outside person sometimes say that. I often recommend the podcast that Keiran did with one of the 80K staff members on their own journey there.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think that’s really important. There’s definitely some subset of people that we talk to who feel like they’re only doing what they ought to if they do the most impactful thing they possibly could, and spend all their time and all their money helping others. And that doesn’t seem like a recipe for actually having an impactful career, because you’re likely to burn yourself out. I don’t think we should be in the business of pushing ourselves and each other that hard — I think it’s very important to find a career that’s actually going to be fulfilling and sustainable for you, and that allows you the amount of time off that you need.
Michelle Hutchinson: And then also for us to support each other insofar as we can. The wider world also isn’t always that good at really taking seriously the amount of mental health help that people need. I feel pretty fortunate to be in a community of people where people are pretty happy to talk through mental health challenges that you might have, and what kinds of things you can do about them — whether it’s a good idea to try meditation, or try a CBT app, or go to counseling, and that kind of thing. As Habiba said, we’re not counselors and therefore pretty careful about the kinds of things that we say, but I definitely want us to encourage people to be open and seek help, and kind of destigmatize mental health as much as possible.
Rob Wiblin: Sounds like a trap that some people might fall into is that they’re having some personal problem — potentially a health issue — and they feel like despite that, they still have to focus directly on trying to have an impact right away. Potentially that can be putting the cart before the horse. What they need to do is deal with their health problems or whatever is making it difficult for them to progress in their life or their career, and then once they’ve dealt with the underlying challenges, then they can get back to thinking about the career aspect.
Habiba Islam: Yeah, absolutely. There is the analogy of in an airplane, putting on your own oxygen mask first before you then help the people that you’re traveling with or your children or something — that’s always the standard advice.
Rob Wiblin: I guess people might feel like it’s self indulgent in some way, or potentially that’s negative self-talk that people can get into — that taking care of themselves is just selfishness and silliness.
Habiba Islam: I think that’s very unhelpful self-talk, and isn’t going to lead to the best outcomes in general. If the thing that you care about is having the most impact, it’s counterproductive self-talk.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think it’s also just incredibly hard when you are in this mindspace to zoom out. While I was pregnant, I felt very tired and lethargic and not very inclined to work. And I found that difficult from my identity point of view, because I felt like somehow I had turned into a lazy kind of person, and not like I could cut myself slack for that. In that case, it was just very directly obvious what was causing it and that it was time-bounded, but it was still very hard to just say, “OK, I just won’t work as hard for these few months.”
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it’s just so much worse when you have a chronic health problem where you don’t know when it’s going to get better, and you feel like you really have to push through now. When in fact it could be better to zoom out and say, “Well, this year is going to be a year when I focus on figuring out whether I can do anything about my underlying health, and maybe don’t even do that, but just cut myself slack and have an easy year of it.” When looked at from the point of view of a 50-year career, that’s just totally reasonable.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Another thing that could be psychologically helpful is to think about this from the perspective of the community again, as a group of people. We should have some kind of trade system, where people who have good mental health or good health in any given year, they work extra hard and push themselves a bit more. And people who are having a hard time, they do a trade across time where they’ll work harder when they’re doing better again personally, but then this is the year when they get to chill out a little bit more and think more about getting back on track personally.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think being part of a community is hugely helpful. Another way in which the community can be helpful is just reminding each other: when you are not the one in the difficult space, it’s much easier for you to take the zoomed-out point of view.
Michelle Hutchinson: I had a late-term stillbirth, which was pretty difficult for me, and I was really grateful to the people in the community who were just, with hindsight, very sensibly telling me to take things easy, and not having any specific expectations of what I would do. And suggesting a bunch of things like, Should I go traveling? Should I just take things easy for ages? Should I work if I actually want to? I think having people around you at those kinds of times who clearly share your values and so aren’t just being totally biased, but are saying, “Hey, now’s the time to zoom out and look after yourself” can be incredibly useful.
Gaps in the effective altruism space [00:32:06]
Rob Wiblin: Are there any particularly important gaps in the EA space these days that you’re excited to fill?
Habiba Islam: One of the things that’s pretty exciting to see is that there have been a lot of new projects working on AI safety springing up this year, and often they really need really solid engineers to join the team. I think this is a role that people haven’t quite realized is as impactful as it actually is. This is doing things like machine learning research engineering within a safety team.
Habiba Islam: Particularly people coming from a software engineering background, if they’re interested in AI safety, maybe they’re thinking about going in a research direction and think they have to go do a PhD. But that’s quite a different skillset from something that you might have been working on in the past if your background is in software engineering. I think it’s well worth considering going more in an ML research engineering direction.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. Another thing that I’m really excited to see more people doing is trying out their own projects. There are a lot more philanthropists interested in problem areas at the moment — one of the things really lacking is people actually able to figure out which specific things need to happen in the world and go out and do them. It’s much easier to join an existing organization with a mission than it is to set up your own one. But for people who do feel that that could be their comparative advantage, that could be really valuable.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any new problems or jobs or paths that are on your radar at the moment? Do we have flavors of the month here at 80,000 Hours? I feel like sometimes there is chat about stuff on Slack.
Habiba Islam: We try not to update our advice too radically too quickly because no one can plan your career around that — you’ve got to commit to something for many decades. But over the last few years there’s been more interest in a patient philanthropy approach, and so it’s interesting to see things like Founders Pledge and EA Funds setting up a patient philanthropic fund, and maybe there’s other things in this space that might be interesting for people to explore. If people are interested in finding out more about what patient philanthropy is all about, we have a great podcast, number 73, with Phil Trammell talking a bit more about this in detail.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I’m also pretty excited about people working in government and in governmental organizations like the UN. I think for people trying to have the most impact with their career, it can be easy to feel like you ought to join an organization that is specifically aiming itself at a specific version of impact. Because it’s going to be, again, easier to follow a mission set by someone else than joining a huge bureaucracy like the UK government Civil Service or something. But actually most of the work done in the world is done by, for example, world governments — so if we’re really going to safeguard the future, those are the kinds of places where people need to be.
Rob Wiblin: Last time we spoke, we were really psyched that there were 400 jobs on the job board. We were like, “Go Maria, finding so many things.” I think we have more like 800 or 900 now. How often are you able to direct people to the job board and help them find a role on there?
Habiba Islam: It’s a great resource and if people are actively job hunting, it’s definitely the top place that I’d recommend people go. Even if people aren’t at a stage where they’re literally applying for jobs right now, but they want to get a flavor of what would this path even look like, I often just suggest specific roles so they can get a sense of what it would look like to go in this direction. Sometimes I suggest specific roles from the job board. Sometimes I just talk about some people and share some LinkedIns of these kinds of paths that you could go for.
Habiba Islam: Often suggesting something on the job board is surprisingly powerful. There have been cases where people would apply for something — even if they’d seen it before and considered it, but not actually applied. But when someone says, “Actually, I just think you should go for this. I think you actually could be a really good fit,” then they might actually consider applying for it. It’s sort of surprising to me that that is that impactful, but I think sometimes it really just does work out well.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think there’s some combination of having a specific next step that someone can take, because it can just seem so overwhelming to figure out “What’s the best possible thing that I could do next?” as opposed to being presented with a concrete option that’s good to go for.
Michelle Hutchinson: And then the second piece of it is that it seems like there are a lot of people who are really underconfident about what they might do, and are worried about putting themselves forward, and the place they apply to thinking they’re obviously not qualified — when usually that’s just not at all the case. So having a second person who’s more neutral say, “Yes, this is a reasonable thing for you to apply for. You should absolutely go for it” can really make a difference.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any examples of people who’ve taken jobs straight off the job board after you’ve spoken with them?
Habiba Islam: Yeah. For example, there was an operations strategy role that was going at a policy organization. I recommended a few people who I thought would be a good fit for it to the hiring manager, who then reached out to some of them and encouraged them to apply, saying, “80K thought you were an excellent fit.” The particular person who they ended up hiring had seen the job posting before, but had looked at it and thought that she wasn’t qualified for applying and decided not to apply for the role. But when the hiring manager reached out to her and specifically said, “I thought you would be a good fit for this” or “80K thought you would be a good fit for it,” then she decided to apply, and in fact was the best candidate for the job and got the job. Which I think is just a great example of a little nudge actually being quite powerful.
Plan change vignettes [00:37:49]
Rob Wiblin: So far we’ve been talking about 80,000 Hours’ advice at a fairly abstract level. Let’s try to make it a little bit more concrete with what I’m going to call “A sampler platter of plan change vignettes” (to mix my metaphors) — a few quick stories of people who actually managed to apply all this thinking in their real lives.
Rob Wiblin: We have a Slack channel, #plan-changes, where people are constantly talking about the amazing folks we are advising or who are reading the website, who then report back that they’ve often made quite radical changes in their lives. Which is pretty inspiring, and makes me feel good about making the podcast — knowing that there’s people out there who actually applied it in their lives, and they’re not just listening to it purely for interest.
Rob Wiblin: What’s an example of someone who has changed their career after speaking with you, who you really appreciated?
Michelle Hutchinson: For me, one person is Sophie. When I chatted to her, she was still an undergraduate, and was considering a number of different options for after her undergrad — including medicine and law — and had really set herself up well to do those. But after reading a bunch of 80,000 Hours’ content on pandemic risk and chatting to us, she decided to figure out how she could contribute to biosecurity.
Michelle Hutchinson: During the COVID pandemic, she actually helped to found an organization called 1Day Sooner, which was lobbying for challenge trials. She’s now been studying a master’s at the Center for Health Security in order to set herself up well for this. And she’s just really made a huge change in what her plans for life were, and moved to a different country where she didn’t know anyone in order to do this. I think it’s incredibly inspiring, and I really look forward to seeing what she does with her career.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do you know if she’s having a good time?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes, I think she is. I’ve been lucky enough to actually meet her in person, which has been great, and I think she is really enjoying what she’s working on.
Rob Wiblin: Was there any theme of our advice that she had to apply in particular? I suppose it’s: don’t just stick with the thing that you’ve already been trained to do, and be willing to look more broadly.
Michelle Hutchinson: That, and also thinking about cause prioritization fairly carefully. So starting with the lens of, “What global problem do I think is most important?” and then, “Which of the couple I think are most important can I easily fit into?” Rather than thinking more bottom-up of, “What have I already learned, and where might that fit in?”
Habiba Islam: Sophie is a really good example of one of these people who had always wanted to become a surgeon. This was her life goal. Her family, and her friends, and her immediate circle were all expecting her to do this. It was like it was the done thing for a smart, altruistic person in her community to do. And it was a huge deal to switch out of that. But I think it was just super admirable that she really took this decision really seriously, and I think Michelle helped a lot with the advising call in helping her think that through.
Habiba Islam: Another thing to take away from Sophie’s story is that one of the things that I think was quite pivotal for her was being able to get Open Philanthropy early-career funding for people working on biosecurity research. I really want to encourage people to apply for that kind of funding, and not feel constrained by the cost of doing something like a master’s in pivoting and switching careers. The funding can be a real enabler to switching, and there is funding available in the effective altruism community. Philanthropists want to help you.
Rob Wiblin: OK. I can’t ask too many more questions, or this will become a plan change story rather than a plan change vignette. So what’s another example of someone who’s shifted their career after chatting to you guys?
Habiba Islam: One person who was one of the very first people I spoke to was Jonas. I spoke to him with Michelle very early days, because this was during my work trial before I actually started working at 80,000 Hours. He was doing a law PhD at the time, and had already come across ideas from Nick Bostrom around existential risk and AI. But after the conversation, we put him in touch with some other people in the effective altruism community thinking about law and priorities.
Habiba Islam: And he’s gone on to be a key person running the Legal Priorities Project, which is this new organization that is working on the most high-impact research from a longtermist perspective within the legal profession. I think there’s lots of ways to do this kind of research — lots of angles which seem really promising — but it’s not a very common paradigm for thinking about things in legal research.
Habiba Islam: He’s also currently doing a policy internship at Google DeepMind, which is very exciting. One of the things that’s really cool about what Jonas is doing is setting up a new project within the wider effective altruism community, and filling a gap that wasn’t there. I think it would be really great to see more academic research projects springing up within different disciplines. We’ve now got Global Priorities Institute on philosophy and economics, and there’s the Legal Priorities Project. This kind of thing is really great, and I’m really excited to see where it goes. I’m also an advisor on the Legal Priorities Project, to flag my conflict of interest.
Rob Wiblin: Full disclosure. Do you ever worry that people are too keen to start their own thing? I don’t know whether it’s appealing to have the freedom to be managing yourself, but it does seem like a lot of people are very excited to start their own project, and maybe not appreciating quite how hard that can be.
Habiba Islam: That’s not a thing that I worry about too much within the effective altruism community. Actually on the other end of the spectrum, there’s quite a lot of hesitation around starting up new projects. I think many people would say that we want to shift the dial a bit and encourage people to try more things.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think there is a bunch of hesitation with a lot of people. I do worry about how it kind of feels cool to set up your own thing. And I have kind of an aesthetic preference or something for people coordinating, so I would kind of prefer people to join together, rather than have lots of different things going in different directions. But some people are underconfident about setting up a thing and other people are overconfident about it, and so different people could do with different advice.
Rob Wiblin: All right. Moving along. What’s our third one?
Michelle Hutchinson: One person that I chatted to somewhat recently was a law student in Australia, Michael, who was being relatively conservative in the types of things that he was applying for. They were already relatively ambitious, but I think he’s just really quite talented and sensible, and so I was pretty keen to push him to apply for some even more stretch things. And I think he ended up finding that pretty useful.
Michelle Hutchinson: In particular, it seemed important for him to try out applying for the kinds of jobs that he thought were immediately helpful, as opposed to only ones that would help him gain skills to later get jobs that he thought were directly useful. He’s ended up being a researcher at Giving What We Can, which I think he’s quite excited about starting. And I’m really looking forward to seeing the research that he produces.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What was the underlying reason? Was it just not appreciating the school level that he was at? Or perhaps focusing too much on career capital in the very long term?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think one thing was that his perception was that organizations focused on impact just get huge numbers of applications. That kind of thing is well known, without it necessarily being clear which people are most likely to actually get the jobs. It just doesn’t seem at all appealing to put yourself forward for something where it seems really clear you’re not going to get it.
Rob Wiblin: What’s going on there? It just seems like there are some positions where a lot of people apply, and so the success rate has to be reasonably low. I guess it’s just that people are not super good at being able to tell whether they are of the class of people who have a good shot or don’t have a very good shot? And perhaps they need someone with an external view who can give them a better sense of what their chances are.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think that is basically right. This seems pretty true across the board. The job that my sister ended up getting had 600 applicants, and similarly, it seems very difficult to know if there’s that many applicants, how you can really be the right fit for it? Talking to other people seems pretty sensible here. It feels just quite difficult thinking through your own case to get a really clear picture of this. Whereas when chatting to other people, they can more give a zoomed-out view of how likely it is you’ll get something.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe some people don’t appreciate that if an organization finds two or three people in a hiring round who would potentially be a really good fit, then they’ll keep them in mind next time, and maybe even create roles sooner in order to be able to hire those people. So it’s perhaps more of a threshold hiring system, rather than just there’s only one role available, so if you aren’t the very best in the pool then you won’t get hired.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that’s true. And also there can be network effects, where people would often ask people in the same industry for recommendations for people. So if someone has a couple of candidates who nearly got the job with them, they’re quite likely to mention, “This person seems pretty good. Maybe you should consider hiring them.” And so often going through a process like this, while very time-consuming if you don’t get it, isn’t necessarily a total waste.
Rob Wiblin: Cool. That’s three. What’s a fourth plan change vignette?
Habiba Islam: Neel is a great example of someone who explored a bunch after graduating before landing on what was going to be his first main role. He did a research engineering internship at DeepMind and other internships exploring AI safety at the Center for Human-Compatible AI and Future of Humanity Institute, as well as an internship at Jane Street looking at a more traditional earning to give path. And then he did a bunch of thinking between the two, before landing on working at Anthropic, which is one of the most exciting new projects in the AI safety space. So I’m really excited about what he’s going to be doing there.
Habiba Islam: The call that I had with Neel was actually sort of a followup call, when he was facing a bit more of a decision about what to do with some specific internships. I think the thing that I did talking to him was just a bit more of debugging — thinking through his plan and what his options were — rather than any sort of massive careers advising insights or anything like that. But I think that was really useful, in that one of the things that he took away from that was that maybe he had a bit more flexibility than he thought — he could sort of push some of the timings of some things, he could maybe create some other opportunities by reaching out through his network. And that hopefully helped with some of the ultimate exploration that he was doing.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any other themes that he’s applying there?
Habiba Islam: Yeah. He was thinking really broadly about different impactful-type paths, from thinking about earning to give to thinking about research engineering as a really impactful way of working on AI safety. Another thing that I thought was really useful when facing this particular choice between a couple of different paths, or weighing up two different options, is writing out a document with a bunch of your considerations. Then rank things based on some of your highest priorities, and share it with a bunch of people whose opinions you trust and get feedback. So he’d done that already a little bit, and I think I was partially feeding into that process.
How large a role the 1-1 team is playing [00:49:04]
Rob Wiblin: Looking across all of these and other plan changes, do you have a sense of how large a role the one-on-one team is playing, versus people doing research more generally, going to EA Global, learning more on their own time? Is it kind of central for a lot of people, or is it playing an assisting role as part of a broader picture?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it does depend a lot on the person, but in general it’s going to be more of an assisting type of role. It’s typically going to be helping people by getting some sense of who else they should be talking to, or answering some specific types of questions they have, and suggesting some more resources to them. Sometimes doing some signposting if they’re coming to it with a bunch of different possible options — suggesting ways that they could explore some of those options before going deeper, that type of thing.
Habiba Islam: In the past, we’ve mostly talked to people who haven’t been as connected in with the wider effective altruism community, which I think meant that this might be a more important thing for them, in terms of who they’re talking to about careers advice as particularly impact-focused.
Habiba Islam: Nowadays, even when we’re talking to people who already have a bunch of connections or are already doing a bunch of their own research, it does seem to be the case that sometimes it’s quite hard for people to carve out an hour’s time to talk to someone a bit more, just specifically focusing on their career. It’s socially not a thing that’s very easy to do — it’s sort of saying, “Can we talk about me for an hour?” or something. So sometimes actually we can just be helpful as being people who are going to be here to listen to you, and focus on your specific career decisions, with dedicated time for that.
Michelle Hutchinson: And in particular people with similar values to you. A lot of the people we talk to because they’re not terribly connected into the community yet. Usually they find that the people they talk to about their career have fairly different priorities, and a different framing on what kinds of things you might do. So talking to someone who shares your worldview and values can be pretty useful.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It can make people feel validated, or feel like it’s OK to do this because they spoke to someone — they know someone who broadly agrees with their ideas.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. Especially if someone from 80,000 Hours is the only person in their immediate circle who’s saying, “Yes, it’s actually a great idea to put impact first and go for this slightly more unconventional route,” rather than the traditional route that you were on before or your parents did or something.
Michelle Hutchinson: And it’s particularly important if you were on a fairly standard route — like studying for being a doctor and then studying public health — and the thing you want to do is move to the other side of the world to work for a think tank that your parents haven’t heard of or whatever. It seems particularly important to really check your reasoning with other people, rather than just going off of your own steam.
Rob Wiblin: How motivating is hearing about people changing their career? I find one of the most motivating parts of my job is releasing the episodes and then getting positive feedback on them. I suppose the equivalent for the one-on-one team is you spoke to someone and then they went and changed jobs. Does that similarly drive you forward?
Habiba Islam: It’s huge. It’s really wild that I have a job that actually impacts people’s lives in this really significant way. A career is a massive thing. I think it often takes a while for some of these changes to happen — people’s careers move kind of slowly. So I expect that I might hear more in the coming years than I’ve already heard. But still, even just the smaller examples that I’ve come across so far, where people have actually gone and done something different after talking to me, is mind blowing.
Michelle Hutchinson: I just find it so rewarding. I got an email from someone the other day who’s setting up a shrimp welfare charity, who had come from working in finance in real estate, and was just emailing me to say, “Thanks for chatting. I think it made a difference in helping me feel that this was actually a reasonable thing to do, given what a big shift it was.” So it’s not like I had suggested this particular thing. I had just gone through his reasoning with him and been like, “Yeah, this seems to make sense to me.” It was just so nice to hear someone making such a big difference, and then making such a big difference in the world, and feeling that I could be a small part of making that happen.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe I’m getting a biased sample here, but it seems like the folks you’re talking to are remarkably open to shifting. I feel like 10 years ago, we would talk to people and the ideas would bounce off a lot, and it would be quite hard to get people to take them seriously. But now it seems like there’s such a broader audience of people who are just interested to quit and go do something unconventional. But maybe this is the minority of the advisees?
Habiba Islam: Insofar as that’s true, I think a huge amount of credit goes to the work that university groups are doing, and the professionalization around the fellowship schemes. The existence of something like The Precipice out there in the world, where people have had a chance to engage with some of the ideas, and start taking them really seriously.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. And I think it is that you asked us specifically for people who have changed their careers a lot. [laughs]
Rob Wiblin: Is there any kind of sampling bias here? No, I don’t see it. I guess we’re often advising people to go and do things that are fairly high risk — or where there’s some chance that they’ll go great, and there’s some chance that they won’t pan out. So presumably there must be stories sometimes of people who have changed their plans and then it hasn’t worked out, or they’ve gone back to what they did previously, or they’ve had to switch again. What are stories of people who’ve had high-variance outcomes?
Michelle Hutchinson: Sam Bankman-Fried is a really interesting case of this, where he had been considering going into politics, and then came across 80,000 Hours early-ish on his career and decided instead to earn as much as he could to donate to charity. And early on, he got a really great job at a quant finance firm, and then spun off to set up his own firm. And that seemed like a really high-risk strategy, and I think there was a period where it seemed pretty unclear whether actually he would’ve done more good had he gone into politics. But in fact his firm has since done incredibly well, and so now it really seems like an excellent decision.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting. So just for those who don’t know, Sam Bankman-Fried is now a multibillionaire who started a financial technology firm, and is planning to give away basically all of it along effective altruist lines. So initially he was earning to give in a more traditional way, then he quit and did a startup. And basically at some point it seems like that kind of fell apart, or it seemed like it wasn’t going to work, and it had been a big mistake to quit the safe job and go do the high-risk thing. But then they turned it around and created a different kind of firm that has super flourished.
Rob Wiblin: I guess it just speaks to the unpredictability of these things, or inasmuch as 80,000 Hours has influenced him, it means that our impact has been flying back and forth with the winds of fortune, depending on how Sam Bankman-Fried’s life is going. It just speaks to the volatility of careers, potentially. Or that you can be in the middle of something, making all of these good bets, and there’s no guarantees exactly how things are going to work out.
What about when our advice didn’t work out? [00:55:50]
Rob Wiblin: So Sam Bankman-Fried is an example of a high-variance outcome, but we’re regularly advising people to go and do things where it’s just not clear whether it’s going to work out. It could go really well, it could go really badly. What could we say of people who have followed 80,000 Hours’ advice, or advice of other people influenced by our ideas, where they decided to reverse it and go back to what they were doing before? Or they just had to completely change direction, because the thing that they were hopeful would work out didn’t work out?
Michelle Hutchinson: The kinds of things that we’re suggesting people could try out are often pretty ambitious, and they’re fairly high risk. And the kinds of people who really want to dedicate their lives to helping people as much as possible are often pretty perfectionist, and work really hard, and also care a lot whether they’re actually succeeding.
Michelle Hutchinson: So there are a bunch of people who try to switch into some other career, only to find three years down the line that actually the thing they’re doing doesn’t suit them that well, and switch back feeling that those three years weren’t well spent. Or even worse, they switch into something that’s really quite stressful for them — whether that’s because they’re working at a charity where everyone feels very mission driven and the stakes feel incredibly high, or because they switch into some extremely competitive area where they want to earn a lot of money, and then end up burning out and needing to take a while out to look after themselves, or switch into something that they feel actually isn’t that impactful at all but at least looks after themselves.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think as a community, we need to really recognize that that happens, and look after each other to make sure that people can in general take some risks, knowing that they have some kind of safety net.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. If you’re going to recommend that people go out and take big risks, hoping to harvest the upside of that, then you also have to ensure that people on the downside don’t then feel like failures, or that they don’t get social support just because their immediate project didn’t pan out. A lot more people will be willing to take the risk if they know that they’re going to be supported, and people are going to appreciate what they tried to do even if it doesn’t work out ex post.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. As you say, it’s not just the support that matters, but also the appreciation. We need to not just give shout-outs to the people for whom things actually worked out, but also for the people who tried things that didn’t actually work out. And they don’t necessarily want to be named on a podcast, but it’s important in our individual lives to really bear in mind that it’s actually really difficult to try out something totally different, and then to have to go back to what you had been doing before. We should really appreciate the people who gave some difficult thing a good go.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. I’m a big believer in the fact that all you can ever ask of someone is for them to do the thing that they are capable of doing, and that they make the right choices in expectation — not judging them ex post, by what in fact happened.
Michelle Hutchinson: And that’s so hard to remember. It’s hard to remember after the fact, and it’s hard to remember beforehand. I often find it surprisingly difficult to do the thing that’s highest value in expectation if I know that it could go wrong — but actually that is what we need to do if we’re going to help people as much as we can.
The process of planning a career [00:59:05]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on and talk about the process of planning a career. We’ve had a lot of new pieces on that this year — Ben and Arden and Luisa have been very busy writing up articles and sticking them up on the website. I find it hard to keep up myself.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, me too.
Habiba Islam: A bit rich coming from the podcast.
Rob Wiblin: We’re only four hours a week. You can run it at 1.3x. But there is one that I have definitely gotten through, which is just about a five- or 10-minute read that summarizes the rest. It’s called “Planning a high-impact career: a summary of everything you need to know in 7 points,” which, obviously, we’ll stick up a link to. What’s something from the new content that you find yourself often referring to, or emphasizing for people you’re speaking with?
Habiba Islam: A lot of the steps of the process are very much building on some of the advice that we’ve had for a long time. For example, the Plan A, Plan B, Plan Z that you can fall back on is a core part of the planning bit of it. One of the other things that’s very much emphasized is starting big picture with what you want out of your career, and what problems are the most important to work on.
Habiba Islam: One of the bits that’s a little more new and I really like talking to people about in advising calls is around thinking about career strategies. So once you’ve got to the point where you have a sense of the kinds of longer-term paths that you could be aiming for, what’s the way that you orient towards that?
Habiba Islam: One of the things you could do is bet on one particular path and really go hard on that one. But that’s not the only thing that you could do. You could, for example, do some more active exploration, where you try and test out different things in an order that makes sense. I think that’s often a particularly useful thing for people to bear in mind earlier in their career. And then there are a couple of other strategies that you could try around taking opportunities that present themselves for great career capital or impact opportunities.
Habiba Islam: I think that’s just a really helpful framing that I like a lot, particularly because this idea of thinking about a career plan can be really daunting. And actually, in fact, all you need is a sense of where you’re going, and some framework for working out how you’re going to get there.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I certainly found it really daunting to think of creating a career plan. Over the new year, I actually went through our whole planning process with Arden. She was in California at the time, so we spent a bunch of time on calls going through the thing. I found it really helpful, because I’ve just not really had much of a career plan at all in the past — despite working for 80,000 Hours — and I found this a really good structure for getting me to actually do it. I did find it pretty difficult at points, and particularly difficult not to get too hung up on the details, and get stuck on one section. So it was particularly useful to be doing it together and be checking in regularly, saying, “OK, we’ve done that part of the section. Now, onto the next one.”
Michelle Hutchinson: But I did actually find it useful in giving me more direction over what I might want to do in the future, and also in terms of spitting out next steps. One of them that came out of it was that I realized I was interested to learn more about grantmaking, so I ended up applying to be on the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund, and do that as part of my self-development this year.
Rob Wiblin: What do you think people find most difficult about career planning? I suppose one thing that’s necessarily challenging is it involves thinking about yourself, which can bring out people’s insecurities about, “What am I capable of doing? What am I not capable of doing?” I feel very averse to making a career plan. I’m not quite sure why, but it doesn’t sound like that much fun. Except maybe dreaming at the early stages — I’m like, “What? I could be prime minister one day.” But then it seems like it’s going to get close to emotionally sensitive topics quite fast.
Michelle Hutchinson: It feels like bragging to me almost. It involves some taking yourself seriously that I find extremely difficult, because you have to be thinking through, “What impactful thing could I do?” And there’s just a large part of my brain continuously being like, “You’re just being arrogant thinking that you could have an impact” and that kind of thing. That’s certainly a thing that I find hard about it.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. I think there’s a sense in which, at least from the outside, it feels like a career plan has got to be this incredibly detailed thing that sets out, like, “What am I going to do each year of my life to achieve this end goal of becoming prime minister?” or whatever it is. And that’s just not a useful form of a career plan, and that’s not what the output of our career planning process is going to actually give you.
Habiba Islam: One of the key things that I think is really helpful is at least getting to the stage where you’ve identified your uncertainties, and you know how you are going to go about trying to reduce those. That is one of the core pieces that is actually, hopefully, really useful. And if you frame it to yourself as that, maybe that seems a little more appealing.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Should we stop calling it a plan? Because that does bring to mind the idea of a very complete set of instructions of how you’re going to do it and what exactly you’re going to do. It feels more like a scaffold, or a set of visions, or career idea mapping, or something like that.
Habiba Islam: Ultimately, you do want to get to some practical next steps, so I think there is a very action-guiding bit of it, but it doesn’t need to be next steps very far out into the future. You’ve got to bake in enough flexibility to be able to adapt to how the world is going to develop in the next few years.
Michelle Hutchinson: One thing I quite like about it is that it comes with a template, and that feels much more drafty, and helps to some degree to set this framing of, “You are just trying to put a few things down on paper.”
Michelle Hutchinson: Because for people who are inclined to be perfectionist, we’re asking these incredibly difficult questions of ourselves: What do I think is the most important problem in the world? What job would I be most qualified for? I feel that there’s a very strong pull towards, “Well, I’d better answer this question thoroughly,” and answering this question thoroughly is basically a life’s work on its own. So it seems pretty important to find different ways of priming ourselves to be like, “Nope, you need to just do a quick and dirty ‘figure out what’s action-guiding about this and what isn’t’ kind of process.”
Habiba Islam: Yeah. The career planning process comes as this multi-week process that you can do with a friend, for example. There’s quite a lot to get through in the week that goes into what you think the most pressing problems are. And it’s a tough thing to do, and it’s worth flagging to people that you don’t have to have gotten to your final answer here — I think I continue to be developing my views on this as I learn more over the years.
Habiba Islam: But potentially, if people are doing this by themselves, and this feels like a point where they’re getting a bit stuck, maybe that’s a good time to apply to advising or reach out to your local group and try and do some sort of collaboration and get some external advice there.
Why longtermism is hard [01:05:49]
Rob Wiblin: We’ll come back to some more advice you have for people in a minute. But before that, Michelle, a few months ago you wrote this blog post that got quite a lot of views and quite a lot of upvotes on the Effective Altruism Forum, called, “Why I find longtermism hard, and what keeps me motivated.” From the reaction, I suspect quite a lot of people can relate to the things you were describing in there. What’s one reason why you find it harder to motivate yourself to work on longtermist projects than perhaps some other alternatives?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that helping people who are alive today feels both incredibly compelling and important, because it seems kind of outrageous the suffering that we allow to go on these days. The idea that there are people dying of malaria for want of really very cheap bed nets, and people suffering for years from worms for want of pills that are actually given out for free by pharmaceutical companies, just seems like a grievous injustice. And if we don’t work on that, then no one will, and the people who die will just be lost forever and they will in fact be grieved for.
Michelle Hutchinson: Whereas working to ensure that people in the future in fact end up getting to live feels far more uncertain and speculative — because who really knows whether the things that we are doing today will make the difference or not? If the things that we are doing are, in fact, averting existential catastrophes if we succeed, we’ll probably just never know that that might otherwise have happened. And then also it feels like surely someone else will be able to help those people — unlike the people alive today, who no one will be able to help in the future.
Rob Wiblin: So there’s the irreversible loss aspect, where it seems like by focusing on the long-term future, we’re losing opportunities to help people today, who then won’t be around to be helped. Whereas, can’t we fix the long term in the future, once the more immediate problems are gone?
Michelle Hutchinson: Right.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose the fact that we might not know whether we’ve succeeded makes it less viscerally appealing. I guess also just empathy with people who are alive today is a bit easier to generate than empathy for people who might be alive at some point in the future or not.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yes, I think it’s much, much easier to generate. And then there’s also something that just feels intolerably callous about letting people die today for the sake of some speculative benefit that we could have in the future. It feels like really rolling the dice with someone else’s life.
Rob Wiblin: If something isn’t motivating in this visceral, driving way, should that give us pause about whether it actually is a good thing to focus on? Like whether the philosophy is right?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it probably should. At the end of the day, the philosophy all comes down to your intuitions as well. What is it that makes me convinced that the thing I should be doing is reducing suffering and increasing happiness? It’s my intuition that suffering is bad. If I have some strong intuition that I should be preventing unnecessary deaths now, that’s something that I should take into account and I should at least inspect the arguments more carefully than I would if they felt intuitively right.
Rob Wiblin: OK. Inasmuch as the conclusion is counterintuitive, it gives us reason to go back and check whether the reasoning is right. I suppose how much weight you’ll give to the intuitions about the specific case depends on your metaethics, or where you think these things come from, or how you get evidence about what’s right and wrong.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right.
Rob Wiblin: But obviously, given that you bought into doing longtermist work, you don’t think that it’s the last word. How do you get to that conclusion, having gone through the intermediate step that it feels counterintuitive?
Michelle Hutchinson: Basically by thinking further about this argument, and trying to flesh out the reasons why, in fact, it might be better to help people today, and why they might be in some sense more valuable than the people who would be alive in hundreds or thousands or billions of years. And finding that I just can’t find any reasons that I think are truly justifiable for having some kind of pure discount rate.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess almost everyone is going to reject the idea that their degree of empathy is a good moral guide in some cases. Because almost all of us find some things disgusting that we don’t think are actually wrong. Or we care more about some particular people, but we don’t think it’s justified — we think it’s an unreasonable prejudice. The question is, is this an example of that, where we are particularly emotionally motivated by something? And then, should we disregard that on further reflection, or should we embrace it and say that this is a sound reason?
Michelle Hutchinson: Right. This feels like a very clear case to me that’s similar to other types of cases where I have increased empathy for people who are close to me. So grievances that befall my little sister feel far more salient to me than ones that befall a random person in the same city as me. Things that happen to people in the UK feel more emotive than things that happen to people on the other side of the world.
Michelle Hutchinson: But I don’t think that that’s actually a guide to how valuable morally those people are. It’s definitely some indication that I should think about ways of helping my sister more than random strangers, because I’m going to have far more access to what will help her. But I ultimately think that a bunch of this is bias rather than information. I think that feeling that I should help people who are close to me in time is basically similar to the feeling that I should help people who are close to me in space.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. You’ve studied philosophy, so you’ve thought a lot about the philosophy here, and ended up deciding that maybe it would be good if you could be motivated by longtermism. How do you actually stay motivated to work on those projects on a day-to-day basis?
Michelle Hutchinson: The biggest thing is putting myself in an environment where I feel other motivators towards the work that I think I ought to do. What that looks like is going to vary a ton person to person. For me, the biggest thing that motivates me is wanting to help out my team: I don’t want to let down my manager, I want to do the best I can by the people that I manage, I want as a team for things to go well. Putting myself in a situation where I have a lot of team members that I really care about is really the thing that gets me up in the morning and keeps me working hard.
Michelle Hutchinson: There are a lot of other things as well. One of them is making concrete commitments. For example, I’m a member of Giving What We Can, which means that I’ve pledged to give 10% of my income for the rest of my life to the charities that I think are most effective. That’s a pretty solid commitment that I certainly right now don’t plan to break, however much I feel at some particular point compelled by a charity closer to home or something. In those kinds of cases, I’ll try to donate from outside of my pledged money — so this is a way of keeping myself on the straight and narrow, even when it feels tempting to stray.
Rob Wiblin: People like me find longtermism motivating from the start. Should people maybe try to learn from the aspects of it that I find motivating? Or am I just messed in the head? Perhaps I would just be taking people down the wrong path to adopt my mindset.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think learning from people who find it intuitively appealing is actually really important. One of the things that I find makes it easiest for me to stick to is precisely talking to you a bunch, and hearing how you think about things, and arguing through whether I’m actually doing the thing that I reflectively endorse.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I find it motivating on a visceral level because there could be all these people having such fantastic lives — vastly better lives than I would have. That just seems really good, and then it seems like a terrible waste for that not to exist. Do you get much mileage out of considering that angle on it?
Michelle Hutchinson: I get some from that. I think I tend to be more motivated by some feeling of injustice towards the less powerful party or something. The thing that really gets to me is that we are the ones that get to choose whether the people in the future get to live, and they have no way of influencing our actions — they’re just totally dependent on us deciding to do the right thing. I think it’s the idea of all of these flourishing lives in the future in conjunction with the fact that they are entirely powerless by comparison to us. It’s just our strong moral duty to stand up for them because they can’t stand up for themselves.
Rob Wiblin: It’s interesting that the relational justice aspect is more motivating than the consequentialist one. There’s something about an injustice that just feels so important that it maybe takes priority over just generic beneficence towards total strangers.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think that’s right. When I’m having a day when I’m finding my job particularly tough, and have to do something particularly stressful or aversive, I actually have a thing written out from one of our colleagues about how it’s just really important to help the people that can’t help themselves.
Habiba Islam: This process of thinking through what you found hard about longtermism and then the way that you could motivate yourself — I’m curious about how explicit this was historically for you when switching, because I know you ran Giving What We Can back in the day when it was a global health–focused charity, and have now made the switch.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it was not very explicit. The switch also didn’t feel very stark to me, because back before I ran Giving What We Can, I did the operational setup of the Centre for Effective Altruism, which was already a very broad organization, most of whose employees cared about helping people whenever they lived. From the time that I began making impact the key determinant in my career, this was pretty important for me. At that point I already was surrounded by other people, and the main motivating factor for me was working with them.
Michelle Hutchinson: I do think that Giving What We Can really made salient to me how much it helps to have other people supporting you in actually living up to your own values. I’d come across Peter Singer when I was in high school, and had kind of taken the direction of, “Well, that seems clearly what I ought to do, and what I will never do because no one else does.” It was really only in university when I came across a bunch of other people who were really putting it into practice, like Rob, that I started realizing, “Actually no, this is a thing I’m going to do. I actually have to live up to my values now.” One of the ways in which that was true was actually donating money, and another way was thinking through what thing was most important to work on — rather than most compelling to me.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think I’m mostly motivated, at least on the philosophical level, by the general beneficence thing of imagining that there’s an amazing party, and you could make the party have twice as many people, and there’ll be twice as many people having a great time.
Rob Wiblin: But another angle that motivates me a bit sometimes is that I’m actually worried that I’m going to die in one of these horrific disasters. And that I’m going to live to see, in my lifetime, everything go belly up and society collapse — because we were horrifically negligent and didn’t manage to do the obvious stuff that we should do to safeguard civilization. Do you get any mileage out of contemplating that possibility?
Michelle Hutchinson: I actually don’t find the idea of dying terribly problematic. The thing I do find very problematic is my husband and son dying. I definitely do get some mileage out of how I would really like Leo to live a long, happy life and not to die at age 20. But I think I easily get into a more anxious than productive mindset, so it’s actually not that useful for me to think too much about the kinds of disasters that could hit fairly soon, and end up inhabiting the feeling of that. Because I think it could easily tip me into a feeling of being too anxious to work, rather than being constructive.
Habiba Islam: And also when you’re thinking about getting the motivation from, like, me personally being affected by one of these existential catastrophes, I think that doesn’t necessarily track the biggest global problems. I think it’s much more likely I’d die in a road traffic accident.
Rob Wiblin: Oh yeah. It makes no sense from a selfish point of view. Like, “I’m going to save my life by hosting The 80,000 Hours Podcast.” Obviously if I was just selfish, I should just spend more money on myself, rather than have a one-in-a-trillion chance of saving civilization in order to save my own life. But I don’t know, on some gut level it brings home the reality of it — that actual people will die, like me.
Rob Wiblin: I guess another angle that I sometimes find viscerally appealing is just being so mad at the stupidity of the world. Like, why aren’t we spending money preparing for pandemics? It’s so obvious. The arguments are so strong. We’re such morons.
Habiba Islam: That is such a Rob motivation.
Rob Wiblin: You want to fight injustice and I want to fight stupidity. At the end of the day, we end up in the same place. Habiba, you’ve mentioned in the past that you are motivated by longtermist work for some reasons that might be different from Michelle and me. What’s one of those?
Habiba Islam: I feel some of this to some extent. I think I feel the sort of “impartial beneficence to make the world bigger” a lot less than Rob does. I feel the relational justice thing like Michelle does. But even more than both of you, I think I have quite a lot of nonconsequentialist instincts. I do have consequential instincts, but I also have relatively strong instincts about wanting to be a good person, and act out of kindness or love towards others — and that being intrinsically valuable, not just instrumentally valuable because it creates good consequences. You might characterize this as some kind of virtuous instincts.
Habiba Islam: And so that means that there are some other reasons for working on existential risk reduction that speak a bit more to some of those kinds of instincts sometimes. So for example, Toby Ord, in The Precipice, makes a number of different arguments for why we might care about existential risk reduction particularly. Including things like thinking about this arc of history and where we are as humanity now, and thinking about the virtues that we might have as a species, and wanting to pay due respect to the work that had been done by our ancestors and pass on the baton to the next generation, and also just being a wise and kind and prudential species.
Habiba Islam: That kind of thing speaks to some of my slightly more virtuous instincts. And I feel quite reassured by the fact that there are these other arguments that converge on existential risk reduction being a good thing to do, and it doesn’t just rely on one specific moral theory. That definitely helps, with a moral uncertainty hat on.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Is it mostly about the virtues of human civilization, and wanting to improve those? Are there also individual virtues that someone expresses by working on longtermism? The virtue of impartial beneficence, perhaps?
Habiba Islam: [laughs] I find it a bit hard to really feel the case that it’s personally virtuous to focus on the future. One of the problems with virtue theories is that it’s very easy to change what makes it onto the list as a “virtue” or something. But I’m a little bit resistant to making virtues of consequentialism — that’s not really the way that I think about them usually. I think that I feel a bit more about this humanity thing — it does just feel analogous to the reason why I care about being a good person myself: I want to be part of this endeavor, which is us being a good species. And so I think it sort of rhymes, it hits the same intuition.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose you could think that it’s good for humanity to be prudent, which then requires that individuals be prudent in managing risk — both personal risk and risk for groups as a whole. I don’t really understand how virtue ethics works.
Habiba Islam: Really, Rob? [laughs]
Rob Wiblin: Well, that sounded like a thing that could make sense.
Habiba Islam: I feel very compelled by arguments around thinking about the world portfolio. And it seems very sensible for people who happen to find themselves in this small overlap of the Venn diagram of being very privileged, and able to use their careers to help others, and also caring about helping others impartially — it seems like those people in that small group should be putting their efforts behind the projects in the world that are trying to nudge humanity more in the direction of being prudential and responsible and caring about future generations, that kind of thing.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any other motivations that you find more salient than Michelle and me?
Habiba Islam: One of the challenges that I think I also feel more acutely than Michelle is a little bit around a prioritarian instinct, or an instinct to help the worst off. And I think that that actually, in some ways, pushes against some versions of extinction risk reduction. Because it might seem like some of the worst-off people who I might be able to affect are the people who are alive today — if you think that generally life expectancy is getting better, life quality is getting better, and in the future we expect people to be living richer, more fulfilled lives than people nowadays. You might think that in addition to the thing that Michelle talked about — about people nowadays who die being lost and grieved for — it’s also that plausibly, they are actually some of the worst-off people who might exist in the next few generations.
Habiba Islam: So that’s a reason, in addition to some of the ones that Michelle talks about, why longtermism might be particularly hard for someone with my kind of moral view. In terms of what I do in thinking about that, one of the things that I care about quite a bit — when I think about things like climate change — is that the people who seem like they’re going to be suffering the worst from the effects of climate change also seem like they would be the people in the very poorest countries of the world, who had basically no part in causing this global problem. The people who caused this global problem, or the actors that caused the problem the most, are the rich industrialized Western countries who polluted over the last few hundreds of years.
Habiba Islam: It seems that speaks to this injustice instinct. I think that’s very salient to lots of people around climate change. I actually think it’s under–talked about that this applies to a lot of other existential catastrophes as well. So your textile factory worker in Bangladesh has caused nothing to do with the problem of misaligned AI, but they might be a person who ends up suffering as a result. And your subsistence farmer in Kenya had nothing to do with gain-of-function research in a lab somewhere, but still might suffer quite horribly if we as a species don’t consider these risks carefully, and try and prevent them from being at risk of suffering.
Michelle Hutchinson: How do you think about the comparison of people who don’t get to have a life at all, versus the people who are alive but have lives that could be decidedly better? Because it feels a bit difficult to say that people in the future will have better lives if the question at hand is, “Are they actually going to get to live at all?”
Habiba Islam: Yeah. I feel conflicted about this. I think I don’t feel as strongly as Michelle. I haven’t internalized as strongly as Michelle this total view — where I think Michelle would feel quite strongly about enabling people to get the chance to exist. I just don’t feel that quite as strongly, because I think that my obligation instincts mostly attach to specific individuals — if someone doesn’t yet exist, it’s very hard for that to pull on that “obligation to this person” instinct.
Habiba Islam: And you might pass that as person-affecting, but I don’t actually think it is. I think it’s unrelated to person-affectingness — I think it’s much more to do with where I think obligations come from. But at the same time, I do think that a world with more people in it is better than a world with fewer people in it.
Rob Wiblin: So long as the people are having a great time.
Habiba Islam: So long as people have a great time. Yeah, yeah. I do think a longer future with more happy people in it is better than one that gets cut off shorter, but it just doesn’t have quite as much of this visceral motivating pull to it. Which is, again, why I quite like the thing that Toby Ord says in The Precipice. He makes this move where he switches from thinking from the individual person’s perspective to thinking from humanity’s perspective, and makes this argument about how humanity being cut off in its infancy and not being able to achieve its potential is analogous to a person dying in their infancy and not being able to live the full and rich life that they get to live. And that second thing is obviously bad. And I quite find that taking the humanity perspective is a bit more motivating than the thing that Michelle mentioned, which is the people themselves getting to exist.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it’s really interesting what different people find motivating, because it’s definitely not an important part of my moral views to have specific obligations. I basically just think that we should be working to improve consequences, but it is a strong part of my motivation to feel that I ought to be helping the people who can’t help themselves. That’s most easy to feel when it’s an identifiable individual that I know, but I still get a fairly strong pull from people that I can’t identify or describe in any way — whether that’s because they’re far away from me or because they are in fact not an identifiable person at all, because they’re one of the people who might come into existence.
Rob Wiblin: Just to wrap this section up, I guess people are motivated by a bunch of different philosophical considerations, but my guess is that more people are like Michelle than perhaps think about it when they’re planning out their career. Because I feel the same way as you, Michelle: on a day-to-day basis, I’m not primarily motivated by moral philosophy considerations, or even empathy or injustice or anything like that. I’m going to work because I have a job. And it is good that in the broader sense, when I reflect on my life, I think I’m doing something good — but I’m more motivated by the fact that there’s weekly meetings with everyone.
Michelle Hutchinson: It’s really just that your boss is so scary, isn’t it, Rob?
Rob Wiblin: Howie is a brutal taskmaster. Do you think that for most people in real life, most days, this is the thing that drives them forward? That they are part of a team trying to do something, and they don’t just want to be sitting around accomplishing nothing?
Michelle Hutchinson: That would be my guess. Also I think it’s a bit difficult to know what motivates you until you’ve tried out some things. I found it pretty surprising how much I loved this job when I started doing it, because I had expected that I would find it pretty draining to have a lot of conversations with people that I didn’t know. In fact, I find it incredibly motivating because the thing that happens is day on day, I’m sat opposite someone who is kind and smart and trying to help other people. And the thing I’m doing is trying to make it the case that they are helping other people even more. That’s the thing that really gets me in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted.
Michelle Hutchinson: So I think it seems pretty important for people to just try out and see whether the thing that motivates them is being part of a team, or having some really difficult and interesting problem to solve, or what.
Habiba Islam: Yeah. This is the kind of thing that I feel a lot of advisees mention. Especially if someone early on in their career says something like, “I think the longtermism argument in the abstract seems correct, but I don’t really think that I could be motivated to work on this day to day” — they are probably in most cases worrying about this somewhat unduly. There are actually very few jobs that involve directly working with beneficiaries, and actually seeing the impact that you’re having. There are some in caring healthcare professions and education and things like that, but far and away, most jobs involve working towards proximate goals, and most jobs have structures around them with milestones and deadlines and projects and things like that that give you shorter feedback loops and a sense of satisfaction.
Habiba Islam: And humans are just quite good at finding meaning in the thing that you are doing, to be honest. Especially if someone is worrying about this early on — maybe just after undergrad — without having had a main proper job before, I think you might just be quite surprised by how hard you can work, and how much you can care about just an average job. If you’ve been in consulting for four years and quite used to doing stuff that isn’t very directly related to your worldview and your values, you can get quite used to the idea that this can just be motivating in a lot of different ways.
Habiba Islam: I really liked working in consulting. I really wanted to help my clients and do a good job for my boss. But it had nothing to do with the things that I really fundamentally care about from a moral perspective — which is why I’m not doing it now, but I was good at it while I was doing it.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any other global problems that people find it hard to motivate themselves to work on? Perhaps despite thinking that on some level it would be justified if they did?
Michelle Hutchinson: I would expect that there are quite a few people who think that animal welfare is the most important thing to work on — because it’s just really surprising the cruelty that we inflict on animals at the moment — but that they find it more compelling to help humans, because society at large just isn’t set up to make people feel empathy for chickens.
Habiba Islam: This links to one of the points that Michelle also makes in the post, which I really like: if you yourself are finding these things hard to motivate yourself to work on — even though they are in fact actually the important things to work on — that means that other people are finding them hard to work on too. Which means that overall, you might expect that these things are disproportionately neglected. Actually this is quite helpful to bear in mind when you are thinking about just how important it is for you to maybe work on this specific neglected thing.
Rob Wiblin: Another one maybe in this class is people find it more motivating to work on cancer research to come up with better treatments for cancer, than they do to work on anti-aging to stop people from getting sick or having cancer in the first place. There’s something where treating disease feels more motivating than preventing people from not being able to repair their cells as well anymore, so they just never have diseases in the first place.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think a large part of that might be coming from some feeling of, by the time someone’s lived to old age, they’ve had their fair chance at life and we should let someone else have a go. And a lot of the motivation for treating cancer comes from preventing people’s lives being cut short in some way.
Rob Wiblin: Seems like often when people reflect on that, they see that there’s a degree of arbitrariness in what we think is “a fair shake at the sauce bottle,” as Australians say. At least two Australians say that, I don’t know. Because in the past, people would’ve said, “50 years, that’s a totally reasonable amount,” or “Infant mortality, who cares? Infants die all the time, it’s the natural way of things.” And probably in the future, people will live for much longer, and they’ll feel it’s crazy that people die at 80, that that’s a grave injustice. It’s just all a bit whatever you’re used to.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, to some degree. I mean, there are definitely philosophers who really defend this idea that there’s a fair share and it needn’t be totally arbitrary. For example, it could be to do with the current average of human life, and it would just be a more equitable society if everyone lived to about the same age. And that it’s fine for that age to increase, but it’s more important to make sure that everyone gets to the average age or something.
Rob Wiblin: Fortunately people are constantly changing identity over time, because their properties change as they get older and their opinions change and they meet different people. So this isn’t really a concern, because all people get to live the same amount of time.
Habiba Islam: Should there be a personal identity trump card? Because that’s at play in any discussions of like, “But you’re not the same person!”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, well, it’s true. Anyway — [laughs]
Michelle Hutchinson: Another important thing that people find difficult to work on by comparison to other things is problems that they themselves don’t really experience at all. People in rich countries disproportionately feel a pull to work on cancer or Alzheimer’s because they had family members who suffered from them, at the expense of working on things like schistosomiasis — where they’ve just never come across anyone who suffers from schistosomiasis.
Michelle Hutchinson: It’s a similar problem happening in the world and is something that it’s important for us to pay attention to, because I definitely feel this pull of wanting to help the kinds of problems that my family members have had. But if those of us in rich countries do that, then people in really poor countries are just going to be incredibly badly off because there’s no one right down the road feeling the badness of their disease and also with the resources to help them.
Rob Wiblin: That tendency can reach comical levels, I suppose, when people are donating to their kids’ school to renovate the rowing shed or something like that. It can feel so visceral because it’s something that personally affects you and the people in your family. But once it’s at that level, I suppose people are not inclined to defend it philosophically as the most important thing, even if they find it more appealing.
Rob’s outro [01:35:32]
Rob Wiblin: All right, if you’d like to hear the final hour of the interview, just subscribe to our new feed called ’80k After Hours’ and you’ll find it right there.
If you’re a fan of this show, the odds are good you’ll love what we put on there as well. The rest of the conversation covers Michelle and Habiba’s specific advice for younger people, how well the one-on-one service works and the biggest challenges the team faces, our reaction to Agnes Callard’s essay “Against Advice,” and how useful it is to nudge people to be more ambitious.
And if you’d like to apply for advising from Habiba or someone else on the team, just head to 80000hours.org/speak. The process is pretty painless, and we have a pretty fast turnaround on applications at the moment.
All right, The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.