Why you should focus more on talent gaps, not funding gaps


Many members of the effective altruism community see making a difference primarily in terms of moving money to fill funding gaps rather than moving talent to fill talent gaps. This seems to me to be one of the community’s more serious mistakes, which causes us to:

  • Put too much weight on earning to give and fundraising.
  • Put too little weight on gaining expertise and developing the skills needed for direct work.
  • Overlook pressing causes that aren’t funding constrained.

In the rest of the post, I’ll:

  1. Outline what I mean by talent gaps.
  2. Suggest why the community might be biased towards focusing on funding gaps.
  3. Argue there are whole cause areas we’ve completely overlooked due to this focus.
  4. Argue that many of the causes the community does support are also more talent constrained than funding constrained.
  5. Argue that the importance of talent constraints compared to funding constraints is likely to increase over the next 2-5 years.
  6. Argue further that this imbalance is likely to persist in the long-term.
  7. Consider some of the arguments against focusing on talent gaps.
  8. Give ideas for what the community should do differently in order to focus more on talent gaps. In particular, I’ll outline who should earn to give and who shouldn’t, and list the greatest talent needs within the community.

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Systemic change becomes non-systemic change and vice versa

As you might have heard, there is an active debate among the 80,000 Hours community about the effectiveness of attempts to change societal systems – such as laws, institutions or social norms – versus so-called “non-systemic” approaches, such as funding health treatments directly, or becoming a teacher.

Sometimes these debates become quite heated.

To put my cards on the table, I lean towards systemic change being a more promising approach, at least given my skills. Hence, I’ve studied public policy and worked in a Government think tank myself. I also see one of the major long-run impacts of 80,000 Hours to be changing social norms about how people think about how they spend their working life.

But I find it hard to get too passionate with those who lean the other way. One reason for this was well explained in a comment by my friend Catriona Mackay:

I think that people on the whole are biased towards against non-systemic change (i.e if you did a survey asking whether it’s best to treat the causes or the symptoms of poverty, almost everyone would answer ’causes’, even if there were strong evidence that both were effective in terms of increasing net well-being), and so it’s likely that non-systemic causes are more underfunded, so I can contribute more.

On the other hand, I think that scaling up proven health solutions and cash grants and so on are also ways of contributing to systemic/revolutionary change.

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The social impact of different professions

Economists and Harvard and Chicago recently published a paper1 that contains a number of estimates of the social value produced by different professions per dollar of salary. The estimates aren’t the core aim of the paper, but are none-the-less fascinating.

The first set of estimates are by one of the authors of the paper, Lockwood, and aims to stick to views that would be typical based on the the economics literature:

ProfessionLockwood’s estimates (additional social $ value produced per $ of salary at the margin)
Business operations0.1
Financial Services-0.5

What do these figures mean? Read on for more…

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Interview: Holden Karnofsky on cause selection

Holden Karnofsky

In August 2014, we interviewed Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell, to discuss how the results of the Open Philanthropy Project (formerly GiveWell Labs) might extend to career choice. In particular, we regard the Open Philanthropy Project as the best available single source of information about which causes are most high priority (for more, see our cause page, and we want to explore how much the results transfer from philanthropists to people picking careers. See our previous interview with Holden.

The interview was carried out in person in GiveWell’s offices and recorded. Below, we list some of the key points and excerpts from the interview edited for clarity, which were reviewed by Holden before publishing.

Key points made by Holden

  • If a cause is on the Open Philanthropy Project’s list, that’s an extra reason to seek a job in that area.
  • However, if a cause isn’t on the list, it may still be promising, especially if you have good personal fit with the area. Personal fit may often overwhelm considerations about the general effectiveness of a cause.
  • There can be other differences between the causes that are most promising for philanthropists and those that are most promising for job seekers. For instance, since OPP’s causes are often constrained by a lack of money, it may be difficult to get a job within them.
  • Some ideas for causes OPP isn’t investigating, but at first glance still look promising for job seekers include: environment and climate change, scientific research, for-profit work (especially in innovative areas), and foreign relations.
  • OPP aren’t highly likely to drastically change their list of causes (especially within global catastrophic risks and political advocacy) for at least two to three years.
  • If you want to make a difference in the for-profit world, avoid activities that make money through (i) zero-sum games (ii) addiction (iii) a marketing-first approach. If you’ve cleared those filters, then ask (i) is this scalable? (ii) does it make people’s lives better in a significant way? (iii) are you good at this activity?

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Which cause is most effective?

In previous posts, we explained what causes are and presented a method for assessing them in terms of expected effectiveness.

In this post, we apply this method to identify a list of causes that we think represent some particularly promising opportunities for having a social impact in your career (though there are many others we don’t cover!).

We’d like to emphasise that these are just informed guesses over which there’s disagreement. We don’t expect the results to be highly robust. However, you have to choose something to work on, so we think it’ll be useful to share our guesses to give you ideas and so we can get feedback on our reasoning – we’ve certainly had lots of requests to do so. In the future, we’d like more people to independently apply the methodology to a wider range of causes and do more research into the biggest uncertainties.

The following is intended to be a list of some of the most effective causes in general to work on, based on broad human values. Which cause is most effective for an individual to work on also depends on what resources they have (money, skills, experience), their comparative advantages and how motivated they are. This list is just intended as a starting point, which needs to be combined with individual considerations. An individual’s list may differ due also to differences in values. After we present the list, we go over some of the key assumptions we made and how these assumptions affect the rankings.

We intend to update the list significantly over time as more research is done into these issues. Fortunately, more and more cause prioritisation research is being done, so we’re optimistic our answers will become more solid over the next couple of years. This also means we think it’s highly important to stay flexible, build career capital, and keep your options open.

In the rest of this post we:
1. Provide a summary list of high priority causes
2. Explain what each cause is and overview our reasons for including it
3. Explain how key judgement calls alter the ranking
4. Overview how we came up with the list and how we’ll take it forward
5. Answer other common questions

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Neglectedness and impact


Let’s suppose there’s a cause that you care about much more than society at large. In your eyes, that cause is neglected. All else equal, you should have more positive impact by working on a neglected cause, because other people won’t already be taking the best opportunities within it. But how much more positive impact can you expect?

The following is a set of research notes we made while performing a case study, which we’re making available for feedback on our thinking. It argues for a simple result: If you care about an output K times more than society at large, then (all else equal) you should expect investing in gaining that output to be K times more effective than making other investments.

For instance, most people don’t put a high weight on avoiding animal suffering. Let’s suppose you do. In fact, you estimate that you care about it roughly 10 times more than the average person (i.e. you would be satisfied investing 10 times the amount of resources to avoid the same amount of animal suffering compared to the average person). Then, you should expect that investing to end animal suffering is, all else equal, roughly 10 times more effective than making other investments.

This seems like it might be a highly relevant consideration in picking causes. If the argument is correct then, all else equal, we should expect more neglected causes to be more effective. Our current position is that the arguement below shows that we should weight neglectedness to some extent in picking causes, but we’re not yet sure how highly we should weight it because we’re not sure: (i) how important neglectedness, as modelled in this way, is compared to other considerations we could investigate (ii) how tractable it is to investigate.

The research note also explores how important this consideration is to members of 80,000 Hours, the effect of adding further considerations, and how the result might be applied in practice.

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A framework for strategically selecting a cause

Introduction and summary

We could have all the influence in the world, but if we focus on the wrong opportunity, we’re not going to have much impact.

How can we make sure we work on good opportunities in our careers? At 80,000 Hours, we think it’s really useful for most people to work on picking a cause to support in their career. By cause, we mean a set of opportunities for making a difference such that the people working on them tend to share common knowledge, skills and core values.

But how can we compare causes in terms of potential for impact? In this post, we present our answer, which we think differs considerably from how people normally go about choosing a cause, which focuses mainly on personal passion. Your degree of passion is important, but it’s just one factor among several others, which we’ll describe in this post.

Our answer to how you can compare causes in terms of the impact you can have with your human or financial capital, is in the form of a framework you can apply. Note that what follows is just our current best answer – it’s likely to change, and involves many judgement calls that some people may not agree with.

In a later post, we’ll apply this framework to a selection of causes we think are particularly promising.

In summary, we think you should look for the best overall combination of the following three factors, the names of which we took from GiveWell Labs:

  1. Important: If we make more progress on this cause, the world will be made a better place. By ‘world made a better place’ we mean that lots of people will be made better off in important ways. Causes can also be important indirectly, because progress on them lets us make progress on other important causes or provides valuable information about which causes are best.

  2. Tractable: There are definite interventions to make progress within this cause, with strong evidence behind them For instance, there are definite opportunities for progress, backed by widely accepted theory, randomised control trials or a track record of success.

  3. Uncrowded: If we add more resources to the cause, we can expect more promising interventions to be carried out. Uncrowded causes are often undervalued or neglected by society. There may be a shortage of important actors within the cause.

We think you can assess causes by:
* Assessing these factors and their subfactors by asking experts and gathering other relevant data (e.g. data about how many people are affected by a problem, how many people are working on the cause).
* Drawing on cost-effectiveness and benefit-cost analyses prepared by the Copenhagen Consensus, JPAL and other academic research.
* Using the results of GiveWell Labs, which aims to assess causes from the perspective of a donor (with the caveat that the best areas to lead your career within are likely to be different from the best areas to donate to).

In the rest of this post:
* We explain why we picked these factors and further explain what we mean by them
* We give a summary checklist of criteria you can use to compare causes
* We suggest how it might be practically applied
* We sketch how we came up with it

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Why pick a cause?


We normally find our coachees benefit from picking a cause as part of their career planning, like global health or mitigating climate change, which they can use to compare their career options. Why?

In this post, we outline four reasons to pick a cause. In our one-on-one coaching, the idea of picking a cause has been something that many people hadn’t heard of, or thought about, and hearing about it has led to some significant career changes.

Note that when we say “pick a cause” we mean make an educated best guess (or perhaps pick 2 or 3 causes you find it difficult to choose between). We don’t mean pick a cause and stick to it for ever. Nothing in career choice is certain, so don’t get hung up on uncertainty. Make a best guess and be prepared to revise it.

In the rest of the post, we overview our reasons for picking a cause:

  1. Picking a cause is one of the best things you can do to increase your impact.
  2. We think picking a cause provides you with a useful level of direction in planning your next steps, which is neither too narrow nor too broad.
  3. Picking a cause seems to be a useful way to narrow down careers based on personal factors and deeply held value judgements.
  4. Having a cause can be motivating.

We’ll also give a couple of other lines of evidence.

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Summary of our thoughts on how to pick a degree


I recently came across this post, which prompted me to summarise our current thoughts on how to pick an undergraduate degree.

I’d like to caveat that most of the following is just a judgement call, based on listening to what thoughtful, successful people have said about the topic (e.g. see here, here), my experiences of coaching, and thinking through the issues. Where there is further research on the claims, I’ve linked to it. Otherwise, assume it’s just my judgement call. Note that I don’t think I’m going to say anything that’s particularly controversial or against common sense.

In summary – what’s best?

It’s highly important to go to a prestigious university, do something you’re good at (which probably means picking something enjoyable and motivating) and use free time to meet people and learn useful skills.

With this constraint in mind, and if you broadly want to keep your options open, try to do the most impressive subject you can, ideally one which gives you skills in applied maths, statistics or programming. Top subjects would be things like: Maths (especially if combined with applied courses), Physics, CompSci, Engineering, Economics and Pre-Med. If you’ll hate these subjects or find them really hard, however, it’s probably best not to do them!

Note that there’s a tension between academic success and gaining connections, work experience and other skills. If you’re interested in a research career, then go for academic success. Otherwise, concentrate on getting ‘good enough’ grades (a 2.1 in the UK or a GPA around 3.4 in the US), and use the rest of your time to meet interesting people, get useful skills and do something impressive. That’s because our impression is that most employers value these traits more than good grades.

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Introduction to our career model


Drawing on similarities between an individual planning their career and a startup business, we’ve realised the importance of learning and adapting to change early in your career. Rigid career plans don’t seem that useful, and could even be harmful – but you do still need some means of direction and motivation for the future.

One promising solution we’ve found is the idea of having a “career model”: identifying your aims and values, and making a best guess of how you might achieve them. What’s key is that this model is designed to be tested and adapted as you learn.

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How to assess the impact of a career

How do you even begin going about trying to assess the impact of a career?

It might seem impossible. But if you don’t try to weigh up your options, you’ll end up doing far less for the world than you could otherwise.

It’s not an easy question, but it is a fascinating one that has a great deal of importance for the world. After talking one-on-one with around 100 people about their careers, asking people who have made a big impact, and thinking through what matters, we’ve developed an initial simple framework for assessing the value of different careers.


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Your career is like a startup

We think that we can draw many useful insights about career planning from thinking about how startups operate successfully. There seem to be a lot of direct analogies between startup strategy and career planning: both mean finding a niche where you can excel and beat the competition, and both require doing so in a highly uncertain and changing environment.

So what can we learn about career planning from startup strategy?


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How important is keeping your options open?

Why do so many elite graduates go into finance and consulting? At Princeton, for example, more than 30% enter finance alone.

The Aspen Impact Careers recently conducted research that attempted to work out why so many elite graduates enter finance and consulting (unpublished). They found several important factors, which chime with the explanations proposed by commentators in the media. But they proposed that the single biggest factor was a desire to keep options open. Entry level consulting and finance jobs successfully market themselves as a great general purpose training and a ticket to all sorts of other jobs in the future. The same is true of Teach for America. The demand is real, and all three have been rewarded with strong applications.

From an entirely personal point of view, it makes sense to prioritise keeping your options open in the first couple of years of your career. You have little idea what you’ll enjoy or be good at when you start working, or what opportunities will come your way in the future. A good way to deal with the problem is to take the job that most keeps your options open. That way you can learn more about what you enjoy, but retain the ability to switch into another job if it turns out you don’t enjoy your first one.


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How important is networking for career success?

“After two decades of successfully applying the power of relationships in my own life and career, I’ve come to believe that connecting is one of the most important business – and life – skill sets you’ll ever learn. Why? Because, flat out, people do business with people they know and like. Careers – in every imaginable field – work the same way.”
— Keith Ferrazzi, Author of Never Eat Alone

Many business books and careers advice websites claim that networking is essential for career success. It’s something that many job-hunters think they should be doing, but is it actually helpful? The evidence suggests yes.

There have been several studies that show more workers find out about new jobs through their personal network than any other method. For example, a study of workers in the Quebec provincial government found that 42.7% of the 2553 people in the study had found the job through personal contacts despite the government’s efforts to formalise the application process. An unpublished study of 1780 people in the Philadelphia area found that 56% of those who weren’t self employed got their current job with significant help from another person.

A longitudinal study that questioned people on their networking behaviours and then recorded their salary over three years found that networking was related to salary growth. There is also some evidence that you’re more likely to find a job through your acquaintances than through close friends. Also, often as you become more senior in an organisation,

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The single number that best predicts professor tenure: a case study in quantitative career planning

Cal Newport is the best-selling author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which argues, as we have, against the common sense careers advice ‘do you what you’re passionate about’. He has also written about how to optimise academic study, for instance in How to Win at College. In this post he discussed a predictor of success in research, how it might be used, and suggests that we need more quantitative career planning. It is reposted with his permission from his blog.


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Salary or startup? How do-gooders can gain more from risky careers

Consider Sam, a software engineer at Google. His employer ranks highly in both quality-of-life and salary rankings. Sam is a great coder, and passionate about his work. But Sam is not satisfied: he is sorely tempted to take his savings and launch his own company. There are costs in taking the plunge: entrepreneurship would mean working harder, and investing time and money into a venture that might easily fail with nothing to show for it. On the other hand, success would mean bringing his vision to life, and potentially a financial payoff far beyond what he could hope for as a salaried employee.

Considering just these factors, Sam isn’t sure which way to go, like many other talented technologists. But if one of Sam’s goals is making a big impact on the lives of others, that can tip the balance towards entrepreneurship. Here’s how…

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High Impact Science

Paul Ehrlich began his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, with this statement:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to
death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a
substantial increase in the world death rate.

Ehrlich predicted the deaths as a consequence of the challenge of feeding a
rapidly growing world population, pointing to recent devastating famines in
South Asia. But even as those words were written, the fields were being planted
with new, higher-yielding semi-dwarf strains of wheat and rice.

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