On Becoming World-Class


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aarongertler

In September, Bob Mueller posed an interesting question on Facebook:

How does "becoming (one of) the best in the world" in some not-in-any-way effective field or niche compare to traditional EA careers?

Bob, who practices a niche, unspecified form of digital art, described himself as "quite motivated about a lot of things". He didn't seem perturbed by the prospect of switching to some more "traditional" career.

This made me wonder: If a person really does have equal access to both of these options -- possibly world-class at an unusual profession, or moderately talented at an EA-aligned profession -- and would be equally happy and satisfied in both places, how should they make the choice?

There are many skilled people in the community, so I suspect that Bob isn't the only person who will end up thinking about this. I hope that my thoughts -- and those of the commenters! -- might come in handy.


Existing thoughts on this topic:

80,000 Hours' latest career article notes that one high-impact career path involves "applying an unusual strength to a needed niche".

Anthropologists, for example, helped the global health community contain Ebola by delivering critical information on local burial practices. And there are plenty of more common examples along these lines: Every organization needs someone who understands accounting, and someone who knows how to design a website.

That said, the EA community may be able to hire professionals in these fields as contractors, without needing to find accountants or designers who know anything about our particular beliefs. And while we need solid and competent people for these tasks, we can probably get by without anyone “world-class”.

Anyway, in Bob’s case, his work seems even less likely than anthropology to hold direct relevance for EA organizations. (As far as I can tell -- Bob, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome to provide more details in the comments!) So the 80,000 Hours advice isn’t too applicable for his situation, and the situation of other EAs with “not-in-any-way effective” talents.


Given all of this, what value could someone like Bob bring to EA if he pursued a career in digital art, and rose to the top of his field?

Some Facebook commentators seemed a bit skeptical of the idea, with good reason:

  • The top people in most fields, if those fields aren't naturally practical or lucrative, probably won’t become wealthy or famous.
  • Even in fields where being at the top does mean fame or fortune, becoming a "top person" is a risky proposition. If Bob overestimates his skill, he may flounder somewhere below the peak of a winner-take-all market.
  • Artistic skills in particular may not be very transferable. Someone who tries to become a top programmer in an obscure language could have more success falling back to a "normal" career in software than someone whose art goes out of style would have becoming a "normal" graphic designer. (Designers make a lot less money than programmers, and there aren't nearly as many of them.)

Every case is different, but these arguments do form a reasonable case that people like Bob should stick with a more standard EA-aligned career path.


However, I suspect that there are serious potential upsides to becoming world-class even in an “irrelevant” field -- but that they're harder to see or imagine than the downsides. Making art is risky, but when it's done by someone with strong EA values, a lot of good possibilities open up.

For the rest of this piece, I'll play Devil's Advocate against the standard view, and consider what an EA who becomes a world-class artist -- or world-class in some other profession -- could do for the community.


1. Being world-class creates connections. Bob's art has already been used by a "classic" music festival. That didn't create any direct opportunity to advocate for EA, but let's say his animations catch on -- and Daft Punk asks him to help out with their next tour. Suddenly, every EA who knows Bob is two degrees of separation from Daft Punk, and three degrees from much of the music industry.

"But it's not like Daft Punk is going to have an extended philosophical discussion with Bob, right? Why does this help?"

This is true. But a personal connection, however brief, is a powerful thing, and can create opportunities well into the future.

If Thomas Bangalter decides to donate his electro-funk fortune to charity in a few years, and hits up his address book or reaches out on Twitter to ask for advice -- can we call this "pulling a Bezos"? -- he'll be likely to notice a suggestion from his old friend Bob, who helped him out on his last tour.

And wow! Who knew that Bob was so into charity, or that he was personally acquainted with so many Oxford professors? Looks like Thomas was in luck; time to send a few emails...

In a more general sense, I've seen a lot of Facebook posts over the year from EAs whose wealthy friends wanted their advice on charitable donations. Any profession (choreographer, personal chef, stunt double) which exposes you to people with a lot of wealth and status -- even if you aren't rich or famous yourself -- seems like it could have the same effect.

(Worth noting: Many professions with no obvious connection to wealth or status could become connected if you get good enough. Dr. Peter Attia specializes in nutrition science, a rather neglected corner of medicine, but his work has led to his appearing on one of the world’s most popular podcasts and serving as a personal health consultant for successful tech entrepreneurs.)


2. Being world-class creates validity. I once worked for a recruiting agency that helped tech startups find programmers. But good programmers are inundated with recruiting messages, and even our most elite, experienced agents had low response rates when they reached out.

Once, we were in a desperate spot, and asked the CEO of a company we worked with to write the message themselves. His message, though it was dashed-off and totally un-optimized, performed at least twice as well as ours.

Being a CEO clearly helps you get attention, but I think it helped that this particular CEO, who was a programmer with a stacked LinkedIn page, had validity. He used technical jargon that we recruiters couldn't use without sounding fake. He clearly had something in common with the people he wrote to, and could, by implication, understand their concerns in a way we couldn't match.

Most professional communities contain a lot of people who would become interested in EA if they heard the right message -- which could mean hearing from the right person. If we want to convince digital artists to think about EA (say, if we want to see more art with EA themes), it will help to have digital artists in our community, even if they're only "well-known" to other artists.

Same goes for advertisers and authors; lawyers and landlords; podcasters and pro gamers. My impression from working in a few different fields is that professional networks between "elite" members are very tight; even one or two people with EA leanings could have a surprising amount of direct influence.

(On "connections" vs. "validity": The first relates to a world-class person meeting people in other fields, the second to meeting people in the same field.)


3. Being world-class creates diversity. Alice, a banker who read some articles about effective altruism and wanted to learn more, signs up for EA Global 2020.

The timeline splits, and two versions of Alice attend two different conferences:

a. At EA Global A, Alice talks on the first night to ten different people. Four of them are software developers. Two are philosophers. One is an economics PhD student. One studies some sort of esoteric computer science field that she doesn't really understand. Two are undergraduates, who are respectively studying software development and biology, because something called "pandemic risk" is apparently a major concern. It's all a bit overwhelming, and very abstract, and it sets the tone for the rest of her conference.

b. At EA Global B, Alice talks on the first night to ten different people. Most of them work on computer science or philosophy, but one is a professional poker player, which is very cool and not at all what she was expecting. And then there's Bob, the digital artist, who helped out with Daft Punk's last tour and shows her some epic animations on his phone. Alice goes back to her hotel feeling like the community is vibrant and diverse, has a few more interesting encounters over the course of the conference, and winds up reaching out to her local group when she gets home.

A community where almost everyone does the same few things might still thrive; there are many more ways to be diverse than just "career". But having a wider range of professions has some advantages:

  • We have a wider presence throughout our communities, such that more people are likely to run into an EA at some point in their lives.
  • We present a more balanced picture to a world that likes to stereotype us as a haven for tech nerds, weird philosophers, and no one else.
  • Within EA, we learn more from each other, and develop an internal understanding of more fields. An accountant hired from a random firm can keep the books for an EA organization, but they won’t write a post on the EA Forum about basic accounting principles that even small altruistic projects can use to save money and time.
    • This post doesn't actually exist, as far as I know, but if we had a few more EAs with backgrounds in accounting, perhaps it would!

(The "career diversity" consideration doesn't just apply to people at the top of their fields. If you do something that isn't common within the community, at even a reasonably skilled level, we may have a lot to learn from you!)


None of these considerations apply universally. It may be the case that, between the risk of overestimating one's skill and the difficulty of getting to the top of any profession, almost all EAs would be better off pursuing career paths with clear direct impact.

But it still seems important for our community to recognize and support someone who has a realistic chance of becoming, say, a famous EA composer. Or an EA bronze medalist in curling. Or the first EA in the U.S. House of Representatives...

...or even something really weird like "the EA-aligned person who wrote the most popular piece of Harry Potter fanfiction ever". We can't ignore the risk, but we also shouldn't ignore the opportunity.


Questions for the comments: Have you ever tried to become world-class at something? Or had the chance to try, but opted to take another path? What were your results? Are you happy with the choice you made?