Habiba Islam: 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.
Habiba Islam: 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.
Do you need to know a bunch about philosophy to get advising?
Michelle Hutchinson: 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.
Balancing different priorities in life
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.
What about when our advice 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.
Why longtermism is hard
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.
Michelle Hutchinson: 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: 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.
Michelle Hutchinson: 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.