We just published an interview: Alex Lawsen on avoiding 10 mistakes people make when pursuing a high-impact career. You can click through for the audio, a full transcript, and related links. Below are the episode summary and some key excerpts.
I think the key consideration that I end up highlighting to people who I think are trying to do the best thing right now is something like: It might be that setting yourself up well to do more good later looks like not directly having as much of an impact right now.
Because probably learning is pretty good if you want to have an impact later. Probably getting some signalling experience for a lot of careers, maybe doing a prestigious internship, maybe getting paid a lot of money: these things just often pay off later, and often trade off against doing the very most good with the summer internship you’re doing this year, or in the first two years of your job just after you’ve graduated.
In this episode of 80k After Hours, Luisa Rodriguez and Alex Lawsen discuss common mistakes people make when trying to do good with their careers, and advice on how to avoid them.
- Taking 80,000 Hours’ rankings too seriously
- Not trying hard enough to fail
- Feeling like you need to optimise for having the most impact now
- Feeling like you need to work directly on AI immediately
- Not taking a role because you think you’ll be replaceable
- Constantly considering other career options
- Overthinking or over-optimising career choices
- Being unwilling to think things through for yourself
- Ignoring conventional career wisdom
- Doing community work even if you’re not suited to it
Who this episode is for:
- People who want to pursue a high-impact career
- People wondering how much AI progress should change their plans
- People who take 80,000 Hours’ career advice seriously
Who this episode isn’t for:
- People not taking 80k’s career advice seriously enough
- People who’ve never made any career mistakes
- People who don’t want to hear Alex say “I said a bunch of stuff, maybe some of it’s true” every time he’s on the podcast
Get this episode by subscribing to our more experimental podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ’80k After Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer and editor: Keiran Harris
Audio Engineering Lead: Ben Cordell
Technical editing: Milo McGuire and Dominic Armstrong
Additional content editing: Luisa Rodriguez and Katy Moore
Transcriptions: Katy Moore
Why you shouldn't "just do whatever 80k says is best"
Luisa Rodriguez: One thing you hear a lot is something like, “I should just do the thing that 80k says is best.” Can you say more about what that looks like?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think there are a bunch of different ways this can come up. Maybe the most obvious one is just that, at any particular time, there’s going to be something really salient that it seems like lots of people should do. And maybe it’s because it’s at the top of the ranked list we have. That is one disadvantage of having ranked lists. So a very clean version of this mistake could just be people going, “The thing that’s at number one of the list of career profiles on the 80k website is technical AI safety research, so I guess I have to do technical AI safety research.”
So why might this be a mistake? The obvious thing is just that personal fit really matters. It matters in a bunch of ways. My guess is, during a lot of this conversation, I’m going to end up saying, “Did you know that personal fit is a big deal?” But specifically in the case of someone correctly realising that a thing is really important for more people to do, and then still making a mistake by thinking that they have to do it, what’s going on is something like it’s just a really bad fit for them. And I think there’s one way which is easy for people to internalise this, which is like, “I wouldn’t be very good at this, because I’m dumb or stupid” or something.
And I always say that people are really different. People are good at different things. And not being able to do the thing that’s at the number one place, or the thing that your friend who’s read more of the website than you says is the best thing… Maybe there’s some sense where if you realise that the thing that’s going on there is you aren’t best placed to do that thing — maybe because you would hate it; maybe you’d be good at it, but you would just hate it and you would not manage to force yourself to do it for more than a couple of years — just realising, “That’s not the best thing for me to do. I should do something else.”
I have some guess that it’s easier to realise that maybe you should do something else if you realise that one of the things that you should be tracking is who is best placed to work on what. I can imagine some weird world where you’ve got this ranking of the best things for people to do, and then you just rank people by ability — but the distribution of ability is exactly the same across all the people: you just get like the best people and you put them in the best thing. Once that thing’s full up, you get the next best people, put them the next best thing. The world just doesn’t work like that. That’s maybe the thing that seems top of mind, is this: “I’ve heard one job is really important and I have to do that.”
Trying harder to fail
Alex Lawsen: I’m pretty sure I mentioned in the only other interview I’ve done on the 80k podcast was about how I approached exams when I was a teenager, and actually in university as well, which was really not preparing as much as my classmates would. And there were some other things going on that affected this, but certainly my internal narrative was like, “If I do well, having not tried that hard, then there’s nothing ruling out the possibility that I could have done astonishingly well if I had tried really hard.”
And that internal narrative is exactly the problem. The thing you want to do is rule out the possibility that this is the perfect match for you, so that you can consider whether something else is. And if you keep yourself in this limbo of, like, “Maybe this would be amazing if I tried harder at it…” Yeah. There’s something about, like, failing is really scary. And then it can also just free you up to try stuff that’s just much better for you and for everyone else.
Luisa Rodriguez: Right, yeah. Like, “Great, I have one fewer option for things. There are like a billion things I could do with my career. I don’t have to worry about that one.” Which is probably just good if you’re not feeling like you’re crushing it and enjoying it. Are there other things that you’ve seen as an advisor, or other ways this can look?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think there’s a few. Often these will come up in early-career people who are trying to test out a bunch of different things. Let’s say you think you might want to be able to do some kind of writing-based role. Maybe you want to be a journalist or a public intellectual, or even just like a successful blogger. And so you write a bunch of drafts and you never really share them, or you post like one every six months. It’s on the EA Forum, but not under your own name.
And I think what’s going wrong here is just probably you’re not going to get a tonne of feedback either way, and you’re probably not going to get that much better at writing. Writing careers are hard. Forget impact: just from a personal perspective, you’re really going to have to have a bunch of stuff go well — not just in terms of talent for clarity or excision of ideas or new generative ideas, but even just how fast you can put stuff out. And yeah, if you’re just writing a little bit sometimes and then not putting it out there, you can do this for two years and still have no idea how good your writing is.
Luisa Rodriguez: Right. You get this ambiguous result. And then what do you do with an ambiguous result? You’ve got the nice feeling of like, maybe I could be crushing it, and I don’t have to stare in the face the fact that I’m unambiguously not crushing it. But yeah, you don’t know if that’s the thing you should be doing because it’s going fine, but not exceptionally well.
Alex Lawsen: And there’s some sense in which this is sort of safe in the near term, that you’re not going to hear, “Oh, wow. Try something else.” But actually, if you should try something else — because, just as a random hypothesis, it turns out you might be really good at podcasting — never getting that signal, never getting the nudge to try a different thing, ends up harming you and ends up being difficult.
Luisa Rodriguez: I feel like having success and failure criteria that are objective enough to measure yourself against seems really key here.
Alex Lawsen: Yeah. Here’s a recent example that could be kind of cool. There was a post on the EA Forum fairly recently about ways to test fit for biosecurity careers. I think it was aimed at fairly early-career people, and it was essentially just a kind of smallish research project: Can I produce a report? And it doesn’t have to be original research, but can I produce a summary of some part of this field in 10 hours — five hours a day across the weekend? And then I’ll send that to some people and see whether they think it’s nonsense. But even before I send it to anyone, you’ve got some signal on: How was it to do that? How would I feel if my week was doing that? And I think often this can just come quite quickly.
Why you shouldn't optimise for impact *now*
Luisa Rodriguez: Another common mistake that you hear is people feeling like they need to optimise for having the most impact they can right now. Why do you think that is a mistake?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah. Why is this a mistake? Let’s say that with some part of your time or effort or whatever, you want to do the most good. The thing that I claim most people care about, when they are trying to do this, actually is the most good across your life, or across the time that you’re working. Let’s say I’m a millionaire. I won the lottery. I won a million pounds, and I want to give that away. And I’m going to give away £1,000 a year for the next 1,000 years, because I just set myself up badly. I claim the thing I should be thinking about is how do I do the best with that million? — not how do I do the best with the first thousand — even at the cost of losing money. What this might look like in the money case is that maybe I should hire some researchers to help me work out what to do with the rest of the money.
And I think the key consideration that I end up highlighting to people who I think are trying to do the best thing right now is something like: It might be that setting yourself up well to do more good later looks like not directly having as much of an impact right now. Because probably learning is pretty good if you want to have an impact later. Probably getting some signalling experience for a lot of careers, maybe doing a prestigious internship, maybe getting paid a lot of money: these things just often pay off later, and often trade off against doing the very most good with, like, the summer internship you’re doing this year, or in the first two years of your job just after you’ve graduated.
Luisa Rodriguez: In my case, it feels like it was a combination of wanting to feel good about feeling and thinking that I am having a positive impact, hopefully, on the world; wanting to feel like I’m living by my values of doing the most important thing, and not a thing that seems pretty good. And then also just totally something about wanting my peers to perceive me as doing good and living by my values. So wanting to work somewhere that’s, like, legibly high impact, and not just somewhere that’s giving me career capital, but doesn’t seem as obviously good to them. And I think I’ve had this particularly because being part of the effective altruism community, there are lots of people who all share some overlapping views on what’s allowed, what’s high status — and I just felt super hyperaware of that, and wanted the approval, I guess, from people around me, of doing the good thing now. It’s just a lot of things pushing in that direction. How do we help people push in the other direction?
Alex Lawsen: I certainly think that part of what’s going on sometimes here is this peer approval thing. Maybe, actually, it’s worth saying something like: If you’re a member of this community, or adjacent to it, and you’re talking to lots of other people in a similar position, kind of like making it clear that you won’t judge your friends for taking things that seem pretty normal career capital building instead of the, you know, weird EA internship that seems really cool because it’s got like a four-letter acronym running it.
But yeah, I think part of it can be pressure. The main thing I do to push back on this in calls is just hammering the thing: What are you trying to achieve? You’re trying to achieve the most good — not the most good this year in exchange for less good later. I do think that part of the difficulty is that maybe people are really worried about suspiciously convenient outcomes. Where you like take the high-status job at the quant trading firm, where you’re going to get to play with fun maths puzzles every day. And earn a bunch of money, and be seen as super duper smart by your normal peers who don’t have any idea what this altruism stuff is. That’s a real draw. And I think if that’s a draw that you don’t endorse, because you really care about helping as many people as you can, then it’s easy to not realise that there are “helping as many people as you can”-style reasons for doing that thing anyway.
Luisa Rodriguez: I think it still just feels really costly to me to have to sacrifice the feeling of I’m living by my values, and I feel very proud of that, and it’s a thing I care about a lot. I mean I just wish it weren’t the case, but it is the fact that I care loads that my peers also think I’m living by my values. Is there more from just, like, a sociological perspective that people can do?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah. I think this is a really good thing to push on. Maybe the first thing that seems important is, if I was speaking to Luisa three years ago on an advising call, and she was saying stuff like, “I really want to live up to my values,” the main thing I’d push on is like, “Wait. Your values are about doing the best thing, not the best thing right now. That’s actually the thing you care about.” So I might want to push in the direction of, if I can convince you that this does actually seem best in expectation across your long-run career, then that is the thing that’s in accordance with your values.
And I don’t know whether I would make this next move with everyone, but I find it plausible I might even say something like, “You care about acceptance from people in this immediate social circle of do-gooders, not from the world at large. It’s actually pretty unclear to me that you’re taking the easy route out by doing the normie prestigious internship, rather than the weird self-sacrificing thing that pays you much less. Plausibly, among the people whose opinions you care about, this is the hard option. This is the option where you have to explain your choice, and you feel like it’s not something that has their EA-approved stamp on it.” And I’m like, “You want to live up to your values? You want to do the brave thing? That’s the brave thing.” Sure, the normal world won’t judge you for it. But maybe the normal world isn’t the world you’re paying attention to.
How to stop constantly considering other career options
Luisa Rodriguez: Another one that I’m super familiar with is basically being on a reasonably high-impact path or in a high-impact role, but still constantly considering other career options that might be even more impactful, in a way that’s either kind of distracting or leads to too much switching, and never getting great at one set of skills. I feel like for years I was doing this. I think I’d been working for six or seven years, and I’d never had a job for more than 12 months.
And that was basically, I’d be in a role that I thought was reasonably worth doing, seemed kind of valuable. And then some low self esteem-y thing creeped in, where I was like, “What I’m doing probably isn’t that impactful, because it’s me, and I surely couldn’t be doing anything that impactful.” If ever another opportunity was available and seemed like it might be high impact, and it made the difference between my role and that role seem artificially big to me. I was just like, “Ooh, a chance to actually have a big impact instead of do this bad thing I’m currently doing, which is not impactful because I’m bad.” It wasn’t quite that extreme, but I think that was a thing pushing in that direction.
I think there are probably other things going on too. There’s a thing that can happen where it feels interesting and exciting and enticing to potentially get to do an even more impactful thing. And so whenever something’s presented, you’re just like, “Ooh, new thing! Potential for a new, bigger impact.” And for years it just meant I ended up being in a role for a bit, and someone suggested I apply for another one. In some cases, I got those roles, and then I’d switch because of a bunch of these biases, and then spent very little time getting actually very good at one thing because I’ve done it for years or something.
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think there’s a difficult balance to strike here. It’s not the case that people should just pick one thing and then go, “Great, this is my thing.” And I think people make this mistake a lot too, especially if there’s some “profession” that you’re in. So I think being a teacher, being a lawyer, being a doctor feels like one of these things where, like, “This is the path I’m on. Now all of my options are things within this path.” So yeah, it is hard to strike a balance, because I think people realise this and then they go, “I want to do the best thing,” and then they’re always looking for something else.
Where does this go wrong? There are a couple of different ways. One way — and from the sound of it, this has happened to you before — is you keep switching and you don’t get that much practice. Skills are transferable, but not all of the skills. Or even just you don’t settle into your groove, you feel kind of like, “How much should I even be investing into this place? Probably I’m going to have to switch in a year when I find something better.” That’s one way this can go wrong, and I think emotionally this can be pretty hard.
Another thing, and I see this actually quite a lot too, is people are doing something that seems to me objectively great, and they’re just feeling terrible about it and not putting that much time or energy into it, because they’re doing a bunch of job hunting on the side. Because what if it’s not the thing that’s objectively great? What if there’s something better? And applying for jobs takes time, it takes energy, it takes emotional resilience. And feeling like you constantly have to be putting some of your attention on whether there’s something better, even if you don’t then switch to it, still results in you paying pretty significant costs.
Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, that sounds totally right. So what is the better decision-making process, if this is the kind of trap you fall into?
Alex Lawsen: I have a thing which has worked really well for me. I think it works well for lots of people, and probably won’t work well for everyone. I think I’ll just try to describe the thing, but then I’ve got a metaphor I’ve been playing with that maybe I want to try and describe as well. So the thing is, you stick to some policy, which is like: “I’m going to look at a bunch of things, I’m going to actually seriously consider my options. And then with all of the information I have, I’m going to make a decision. And I’m going to make the decision to do the thing that seems best for some fixed period of time. At the end of that fixed period of time, then I will consider other options.”
And I think for most people, you don’t have to make this a fully binding commitment, that you just instantly say no as soon as anyone says, “Have you considered…?” I think of it as a strong default. If someone says, “Hey, have you thought about doing this other thing?” I can just say, “The next time I’m looking at options is in a couple of years. If you want to pitch me on this really hard, I’m not going to rule out ever doing anything before that time, ever, but you should know that you’ve got a lot of work to do to convince me to even really think about this. Because my plan is to stay for this long.”
Going too far in a good direction
Luisa Rodriguez: Before we wrap up, I am curious if you had any reflections having done this, or any other mistakes that come to mind that we can cover before we call it?
Alex Lawsen: Maybe one theme that seems worth pulling out is something like going too far in a good direction. I think lots of the stuff we’ve talked about has been like, “Conventional wisdom says this. You’ve noticed that conventional wisdom seems to not be tracking quite the thing you care about, or maybe even you just think conventional wisdom is wrong. And so you go, ‘I want to move conventional wisdom in this direction'” — and then you just move it way too hard in that direction. I don’t want to even make the general claim that you should never move things that far. I in fact think you should push some things pretty hard, and keep other things at a satisficing level. But I think there’s some amount of the correct update to make is not always like a really, really big one.
Luisa Rodriguez: To the other extreme. Yeah. That just makes sense, and it also makes sense that it’s hard, and so lots of people make these “mistakes.” If the optimal amount to move in a direction is a bit, but not all the way to the other extreme, finding the exact spot that’s ideal is just going to be really hard. And especially when you’ve got decisions as hard as these. We’ve already kind of qualified that people should not feel bad or guilty or ashamed if they’ve done some of these things. It’s just difficult because you’re doing this balancing act.
Alex Lawsen: I think it’s actually a dynamic of how language is structured, or how people speak to each other, that makes this hard to talk about. And I don’t mean hard emotionally; I mean we don’t quite have the right vocabulary for it. The thing that I want to point out here is we don’t have a neat single word for “I agree with you in the direction, but not as hard as you.” If people are estimating probabilities, then there’s still not one word, but there’s an idea. Let’s say you think there’s a 90% chance something’s going to happen, and I think there’s a 75% chance it’s going to happen. In this case, I can say I think it’s less likely, and it’s still kind of hard to explain why. If I explain why it’s less likely, but I don’t say any numbers, my guess is an observer that didn’t hear the start of the conversation isn’t really going to be able to tell whether I’m saying 75% or 10%.
Luisa Rodriguez: Right. It’s like, are you saying it’s less likely than I think and therefore you think it’s unlikely? Or are you saying it’s less likely than I think, it’s still probably going to happen, but you believe it less strongly than I do?
Alex Lawsen: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. It’s just kind of clumsy and awkward to talk about situations where you and the person you’re talking to both basically think this thing on the left, rather than this thing on the right that everyone else thinks, but you’re a bit closer to the right than they are. There’s just kind of a difficult dynamic. And so I think part of what’s going on here is if lots of your friends and people you talk to about your career decisions are in a kind of similar place to you compared to conventional wisdom, it’s going to be hard for them to error correct. They don’t have quite the right vocabulary to error correct without just saying conventional wisdom at you.