Lehua closed down her fundraising startup after reading our blog: plan change story

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Learning about ‘counterfactual analysis’ threw some puts on sunglasses cold water on Lehua’s startup idea.

Lehua Gray’s story is an interesting ‘significant plan change’ because she increased her social impact simply by realising what she was doing was not accomplishing anything when the true counterfactual was taken into account.

Lehua is an entrepreneur in Texas who studied environmental sciences but afterwards taught herself coding. In late 2014, along with two co-founders she had just met at the eBay Hackathon, she founded a company that offered charities an innovative fundraising platform and took a cut of the money raised. Her role in the startup was a combination of coding, UX and sales.

The team’s hope was to make the viral nature of the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ replicable. In their platform, someone would donate money to a charity, but it would only actually be delivered if, say, 3 friends who they nominated matched their donation. They might also be offered the option to do a public challenge on social media that would spread the fundraiser instead of donating the full amount, as in the ‘ice-bucket challenge’.

Over a period of 9 months they had built this platform and were improving it while some charities tested it out.

However, in the first half of 2015 Lehua started following me on Facebook and so started regularly encountering and reading new 80,000 Hours’ blog posts about how to have more social impact.

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Stop assuming ‘declining returns’ in small charities

amazon_warehouse
Amazon is one of the world’s largest companies and is still achieving lower marginal costs as it gets larger. Organisations with just a few people will frequently do much better as they get larger.

We often hear people in our community state, as if obvious, that becoming the 5th employee of an organisation creates less impact than becoming the 4th employee. Similarly, later donations are thought to create less impact than earlier donations. This sentiment was widespread in recent discussion about whether to donate to Giving What We Can, discussions on the EA forum about where to donate, and in discussions I’ve had with people about where to work.

The reason stated is “diminishing marginal returns”. The first staff members take the best opportunities, so the extra opportunities available at the margin are worse, so each extra staff member has less impact.

The problem is, assuming diminishing returns to small organisations contradicts basic economic theory.

According to economics, as an organisation scales up, there’s two opposing forces:

  1. Economies of scale.
  2. Diminishing returns.

Economies of scale are a force for increasing returns, and they win out while still at a small scale, so the impact of the 5th staff member can easily be greater than the 4th.

Economies of scale are caused by:

  1. Gains from specialisation. In a one person organisation,

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Are our most engaged readers overweighting career capital?

We’ve spoken a lot about the importance of building career capital. But now, it seems like some of our most engaged readers are putting more weight than we think they should career capital, and not enough on short-run impact.

A situation many people face is something like the following:

  1. The interesting project: Do something where there’s a small chance you really excel, achieve something exceptional and have a big impact.
  2. The safe project: Do something that offers a clear path to good options in the future.

The first option is usually something like doing a for-good startup, capitalising on a side project, or taking an unusual job with a mentor. The second is usually something like doing consulting, working at a prestigious large firm or doing graduate study.

The debate usually boils down to the following: the first path has a higher impact, but the second offers better career capital. Then people reason that since career capital is more important than impact early in their career, they should go with the second option.

That’s often going to be the right answer, but here’s a couple of reasons it might be a mistake.

You might be biased

There’s several biases that push in favour of the safe project.

  1. Ambiguity aversion. Usually it’s relatively clear what the safe project involves and what concrete next steps it’ll lead to (e.g.

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Why even our readers should save enough to live for 6-24 months

grand_canyon_airports_runway_a_2560x1440_vehiclehi.com (1)

Your ‘personal runway’ is how many months you can easily live if you stopped working. It’s a product of the cash and sellable assets you have on hand, your living expenses, and your ability to draw on your friends and family in times of need.

For instance, if you have $10,000 of savings and live on $1,000 per month, your personal runway is 10 months. If you could quickly and comfortably move back in with your parents or stay on a friend’s couch, cutting your living expenses by $500 a month, then your personal runway is 20 months. If you have non-work income, that boosts your runway further. If you’re lucky enough to have a family who would support you indefinitely in a productive lifestyle, then your runway is indefinitely long.

I think most people we advise should aim to have at least 6 – 12 months’ personal runway, and up to 12 – 24 could be good for flexibility.

I’ve noticed some people in the community who don’t have much runway and don’t appear to be saving, because they are donating a lot of income or doing very low wage work. Unless you have family or friends who’ll support you, you should cut back on donations and save until you’ve got enough runway.

Some more detail follows.

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‘Replaceability’ isn’t as important as you might think (or we’ve suggested)

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Often if you turn down a skilled job, the role simply won’t be filled at all because there’s no suitable substitute available. For this and other reasons we don’t place as much weight as we used to on the idea of ‘replaceability’.

When we started 80,000 Hours, one of the key ideas we presented was the replaceability argument:

Suppose you become a surgeon and perform 100 life saving operations. Naively it seems like your impact is to save 100 people’s lives. If you hadn’t taken the job, however, someone else likely would have taken it instead. So your true (counterfactual) impact is less than the good you do directly.

I still think this is a good argument, but I’m not sure how relevant it is when comparing real career options.

In particular, I see the argument often being used incorrectly in the following two ways:

  1. Ignoring direct harm: Suppose you’re considering taking a job that some people think is harmful (e.g. certain parts of the financial sector) in order to donate, do advocacy or build skills. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so the potential harm I’ll do directly doesn’t matter”.

  2. Ignoring direct impact: Suppose you’re considering working at a high-impact nonprofit. You reason “if I don’t take the job, someone else will instead, so I won’t have much impact.”

I disagree with both of these claims in most circumstances. Why?

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LinkedIn finds the most common ways in and out of every career

We recently wrote a career profile on medicine which said that one of the most common exit opportunities for physicians was into academia. How exactly did we know that?

LinkedIn has mined their enormous dataset to find the most frequent career transitions for people from a huge range of different professions. It turns out that the most frequent transfer for a physician or surgeon is to become a university professor, presumably studying or teaching medicine itself. Most roles have several common options.

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I strongly recommend playing around with it and reading their analysis. It turns out that ‘sales’ is a huge skill area and one of the most common next steps for people from a very wide range of professions. Almost every business needs some people to work on sales!

You can use this both to see what your natural next career moves are, and figure out what indirect paths you can use to get into a particular different position you have in mind. It doesn’t do the reverse lookup itself yet, so you’ll need to guess which options are most likely to lead you into the one you want.

We’ll be incorporating the wisdom of this tool into our career profiles as we update them.

The broad skill groupings they classified seemed to me to be:

  • Sales, hospitality and logistics (blue)
  • Health and education (red)
  • Information technology (pink)
  • Practical trades,

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Get the chance to save the world with this one weird trick

one-weird-trick2When I was an undergraduate I came to fully understand the depth of the world’s problems: tens of billions of animals were suffering in factory farms, humanity faced the risk of catastrophic nuclear war, billions continue to live in horrendous poverty, and that was just the start. I wanted to solve these problems, but when I tried to take concrete steps I mostly felt powerless and frustrated.

I was right to feel powerless. As an undergraduate there was relatively little I could do to directly solve anything.

I had no income to give; no insights that hadn’t been had; and no platform from which to ask people to change their behaviour. I really didn’t want the world to be incinerated in a nuclear apocalypse, but – fortunately – nuclear security policy isn’t set by random Australian undergraduates who happen to think they know what’s best.

Luckily for most of us, this powerlessness need only be a temporary, if unpleasant, condition.

If you are a high school student or undergraduate frustrated about your limited influence in the world, there’s one thing you need to be working to get.

With it comes the ability to change things.

Some younger people manage to get a lot of it very quickly, but the majority of us will have the most of it between 40 and 60, so you need to keep a long-term view.

A lot of our advice for young people is geared towards helping them accumulate more of it.

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Defining ‘Earning to Give’

We’ve found there’s sometimes been confusion about what ‘earning to give’ means. Here’s our working definition.

You’re earning to give if and only if:

  1. You deliberately pursue a career that is high-earning (given your options) in order to do good through your donations AND
  2. You donate a very significant proportion of your earnings, where for someone earning more than the average in rich countries, ‘very significant’ means at least 20% of income.

As with all the technical terms the effective altruism community has introduced, we should worry about how the meaning of that term might change over time as it gets more widely used. For ‘earning to give’ I think the biggest concern is that the qualifying bar for % donations goes down: I think someone who’s in a high-earning career but only giving 2% shouldn’t count as ‘earning to give,’ but I can foresee scenarios in which people start using the term that way. Of course, for someone who is not able to take a very high-earning career, the bar for % donations should be lower.

Sometimes I hear ‘earning to give’ to be used almost synonymously with ‘donating’: I think, though, that it’s more useful to keep the concept of ‘earning to give’ focused on a specific career strategy, rather than simply donating in whatever career you’re already in.

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Effective altruists love systemic change

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Effective altruists are out working every day to fix society’s systemic problems. It’s time to definitely rebut the claim that we don’t care about systemic change.

Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.

Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against systemic change.1

Despite being the most widespread critique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.

Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that they could!

So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.

What about in practice, though? Here are some systemic changes people who identify as effective altruists are working on today:

  • Most of the recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are all clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
  • The OpenBorders.info website also researches and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
  • A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is trialling making submissions to open policy forums held by the US government over this summer.
  • Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research the most important policy priorities for governments, and how they can establish better cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
  • One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within non-profits, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
  • Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was about appropriate use of discounts rates by governments thinking about health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
  • Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows.
  • Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and preclude conflict.
  • 80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts on animal welfare, such as Humane Society US-FARM, or are activists working for dramatic society-wide changes in how humans view the moral importance of non-human animals.

It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.

We’re not done though.

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The winner takes all economy

It’s said that we live in an increasingly “winner takes all” economy. The following chart provides a nice illustration.

From “The Rich are Getting Richer” by The Investor Field Guide (click image for link)
From “The Rich are Getting Richer” by The Investor Field Guide (click image for link)

It shows that from the mid-90s, the companies with the largest profit margins have seen their profit margins expand dramatically – from about 15% to over 20%.

Those at the bottom have seen their profit margins shrink, and the middle 60% have seen little change. The winners are increasingly taking it all.

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The rise of income inequality and what it means for your career

One of the most important (though maybe regrettable) long-term trends effecting the outlook of many careers is the rise in income inequality. In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, the difference in earnings between the best and worst paid has risen sharply for the last few decades, with the top earners taking a higher and higher proportion of total income. From the early 1900s to the 1970s, income inequality gradually decreased. However, in Anglo-Saxon countries it began to rise again from the late 1970s. The rise was sharpest in the United States, where the income share of the top decile of earners rose from 33% to 48% in forty years, while the share of the top percentile rose from 8% to 17%.1 In Japan and the rest of Western Europe on the other hand, inequality was either steady or rose much more gradually.

Increasing income inequality means a better outlook for many high-earning careers. It may also reflect trends in which skills are most in-demand and useful as technology changes, making it important to understand if you want good career capital in the future. Finally, it may mean the financial rewards of being at the top of a profession (compared to the middle) are increasing, and this means the importance of personal fit is increasing.

The top decile income share: Europe and the U.S., 1900-2010
This graph is taken from Pikkety (2014) 2

In the rest of this post, we’ll look at the reasons economists have put forth for the increase in income inequality, and speculate on whether the trend will continue.

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Should I help now or later?

If you’re committed to making the biggest difference possible with your career, you may well find that there is a tension between doing good now and laying the groundwork for doing good later.

For example:

  • Next year, you have two choices. You could work for an effective charity, making an immediate difference to its beneficiaries. Or you could go to graduate school and build up your career capital, (hopefully) allowing you to have a larger impact later.

Alternatively:

  • You have a substantial sum of money. You could give it today, or you could invest it, allow it to grow, and then give the larger amount later.

How can you go about deciding between these options? Here we present a summary of our findings – the full research has been published on the Global Priorities Project page.

The main factors

Which option is highest-impact varies from case to case. In general, the earlier you are in your career, the less stable your view of the best cause and the more well-established the cause, the more the balance shifts from doing good now towards doing good later.

Here’s a summary:

Now vs Later flowchart

We’ll further explain each factor below.

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We change more than we expect (so keep your options open!)

How much will your personality, values and preferences change over the next decade? Probably more than you think, at least according to a recent paper, “The End of History Illusion” by a team of psychologists at Harvard and the University of Virginia.

In a number of separate experiments, the authors asked a total of over 19,000 people between 18 and 68 to measure their current personality, values and preferences. Half of them were also asked to complete the assessment as they believed they would have done ten years earlier, while the other half were asked to predict what they would say in ten years’ time.

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Which careers are most likely to be automated?

New and improved technologies will make jobs redundant, even as they open up new opportunities. This has always been the case, but with recent advances in Machine Learning and Mobile Robotics, changes in the labor market could be particularly extreme in the years to come. In fact, a recent paper suggests that up to 47% of American jobs could be vulnerable to automation within the next couple of decades.

That paper is “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?”1 by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the Future of Humanity Institute (which is affiliated with 80,000 Hours). In the paper, widely discussed in outlets such as The Economist and The Financial Times, Frey and Osborne look at the likely impact of recent advances in order to determine which jobs are likely to be automated.

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Stop worrying so much about the long-term

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Today I’ve been reviewing our most recent round of coaching, and something struck me about the applications. Many of them were written by people who were clearly desperate to plan out the next decade of their career, or even their entire working life. As a result, they tended to feel anxious and even overwhelmed by the options available and the weight of the decisions in front of them.

Might this be you? Some giveaways are phrases like “how can I find the right career for me?” or “I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life”.

To people who feel this way, I have this advice: stop worrying so much about the long-term.

Don’t get me wrong, of course your career decisions are important. 80,000 Hours is built around the idea that you can make an incredible difference through your career choices, if you choose carefully.

However, I don’t think that making a detailed career plan is a particularly good way to ensure that your career goes well in the long-term. A better idea, especially at the start of your career, is to make sure you get the next step right: focus on getting into a better position, and then worry about what comes next when more decisions arise.

This may sound counter-intuitive. So why do I recommend it? Four reasons:

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Why and how to keep your options open

Keeping options open is important for everyone, it’s especially important if you want to make a difference, because the most effective career opportunities are likely to change in the future. Indeed, we think it’s usually more important to keep your options open to make an immediate impact.

Many people think that ‘keeping your options open’ means being non-committal and avoiding tough decisions. We disagree. The best to keep your options open is to commit to building flexible abilities and resources, such as transferable skills, money and a public platform.

For more, see our new page on the topic.

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Should you wait to make a difference?

The issue

One big picture consideration in career choice is the question of how important it is to make a difference now versus later. Here’s the issue: suppose you could either work at a charity next year or go to graduate school. If you work at the charity, you’ll be making a difference right away, speeding up progress. If you go to graduate school, you’ll be investing in yourself and able to have a larger impact later. Which is better?

If you think it’s better to make a difference as soon as possible, the more you’ll value your immediate opportunities for impact. In our framework, you’ll put more emphasis on path impact potential. If you think it’s better to invest and give later, the more you’ll value activities that build your skills, connections and credentials (career capital), and the more you’ll value learning about the world so you can make better decisions in the future (exploration value).

There’s a similar issue with charitable giving. If you have some money, you can either give today, or you can invest your money, which will grow over time, and give a larger amount later. Under what circumstances should you invest rather than give now?

Summary

Overall, we favour investing in your human capital and wealth early, so that you make a greater difference later in your career. Why?

  1. You’ll be able to find better opportunities to make a difference in the future, because you’ll get wiser and be able to use better research in which causes and careers are most effective.
  2. Early-to-mid career, most people can make investments that significantly increase their career capital, such as learning new skills, doing a graduate degree and building a professional network. The returns from these investments more than justify the cost of waiting.

Nevertheless, there are a few other reasons to start making a difference now: it will teach you about the world; it will help you find collaborators; it’s motivating; and it will help you build altruistic habits.

So, overall, we suggest that early in your career you mainly focus on building career capital and learning more, though still put some weight on your immediate impact. If choosing between two jobs, this could mean choosing the one that best builds your career capital, using immediate impact as a tiebreaker. As you get older, put more and more weight on your immediate impact.

Read on to see a full discussion of the considerations and our reasoning.

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What does economics tell us about replaceability?

Introduction

‘Replaceability’ has become a core concept in discussions of career choice among Effective Altruists (EAs) – put simply, people should not simply consider the ‘direct impact’ from doing a job, but instead the difference in outcomes resulting from taking that job, relative to not taking it. Ben Todd and Seb Farquhar have both written blogs introducing this concept, and the importance of counterfactual reasoning in general (read these first if you’re not familiar with replaceability!); Paul Christiano and Ben Kuhn (among others) have written blogs further exploring the concept, and its various representations and applications. Some Effective Altruists (EAs) have noted that representations of replaceability have varied in their sophistication, and Will MacAskill summarises this nicely as the ‘simple view’, ‘simplistic replaceability’ and ‘correct replaceability’.

‘Correct replaceability’ is particularly nuanced and complicated, and comprises taking into account the full set of counterfactual outcomes not only in your (potential) job, but in any other jobs affected by the employment decision, through knock-on and labour market effects. Given this, and that ‘replaceability’ varies significantly across different industries and jobs, Will MacAskill and Ben Todd asked me to think about what Economics has to tell us about the concept. For clarity, rather than think about the ethical considerations of ‘replaceability’ as a whole, they asked me to answer a sub-question, namely: “according to mainstream economics, if I add myself to the labour pool for job type X (being a doctor, or an aid worker, or a banker), then how many more type X jobs come into being (on average)?”. Although these issues have been discussed before, this blog post is a first attempt at providing a thorough analysis of this question.

Summary

  • I set out the classical, Econ 101 supply and demand model and discuss the assumptions it makes. I argue that this is a useful framework for considering our question, then show how the answer depends crucially on the elasticities of labour supply and demand. Unfortunately, empirical economic research cannot tell us much about these elasticities for individual industries.

  • There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to our question – it will vary considerably across different industries and we must try to understand how each industry functions in order to make an informed estimate.
    I believe that the supply and demand framework, or some variant of it, is useful for analysing our question for most jobs and industries, particularly those that are not highly specialised.

  • I discuss how (and whether) this framework should be applied in a few industries, most of which are seen as viable EA career paths. This framework can lead us to some (tentative) conclusions:

    • Entrance into industries with a quantity restriction (e.g. through a limited number of occupational licences) is likely to have (close to) zero impact on the number of jobs in that industry. This may apply to medical school and licensed professional industries (e.g. becoming a barrister in the UK).
    • Entrance into (narrowly defined) industries which require relatively transferable skills is likely to result in less than 0.5 additional jobs in this industry, as (potential) workers can easily substitute into other industries (labour supply is elastic). This may apply to banking and consultancy.
    • Entrance into industries in which (potential) workers have a strong preference to work is likely to result in more additional jobs (perhaps between 0.5 and 1), as workers will not substitute into other industries at such a high rate (labour supply is inelastic). This may apply to jobs in the charity sector.
    • In highly specialised industries/jobs, applying this framework may not be appropriate, as the hiring process will not resemble a competitive market. This may apply, for example, to taking a job with Givewell, who likely follow a process more akin to ‘threshold hiring’.In this case, it seems likely that taking this job may increase the number of overall jobs by close to 1.
  • This post only discusses one aspect of replaceability, and does not consider other issues related to the (direct) impact of a job, effects on the quality of employees, or long term effects of a job, such as creating social value.

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The replaceability effect: working in unethical industries part 1

High earning careers are often perceived as unethical careers. It’s not just that people think earning lots of money is bad, it’s also that a lot of the careers that make you really rich involve things that also seem immoral… This article will look at something called the replaceability effect. It’s the idea that, often, if you don’t take a job, someone else will take it. For some types of jobs, this is a very safe assumption, and it makes the harm you do by taking a job in an unethical industry much smaller than you might first guess.

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