The Peek behind the Curtain interview series includes interviews with eleven people I thought were particularly successful, relatable, or productive. We cover topics ranging from productivity to career exploration to self-care.
This ninth and final post covers general advice from my guests.
You can view bios of my guests and other posts in the series here. This post is cross posted on my blog.
We want to think, figure out some things to do, and then, if we do those things, the world will be better. An important part of that, obviously, is making sure that the things you think about, matter for the outcomes you want to cause to happen.
In practice, it seems to me that what happens is people get into an area, look around, look at what other people are doing. They spend a few minutes, possibly hours thinking about, “Okay, why would they be doing this?” This seems great as a way to get started in a field. It's what I did.
But then they just continue and stay on this path, basically, for years as far as I can tell, and they don't really update their models of "Okay, and this is how the work that I'm doing actually leads to the outcome." They don't try to look for flaws in that argument or see whether they're missing something else.
Most of the time when I look at what a person is doing, I don't really see that. I just expect this is going to make a lot of their work orders of magnitude less useful than it could be.
One thing on my to-do list is to make sure I fail every month at something because then that means that you have been reaching your max. When I was applying for fellowships, scholarships, internships in policy and whatever, if I had looked at every single rejection as a failure rather than just expected, then I wouldn't be here.
Guilt is a symptom, not a motivator
I think guilt is a feeling I have reasonably often, not too intensely, and not all the time. It doesn't generally cause me to be motivated. It's more usually a symptom of being in an unmotivated place. Or being in a place where there's not so many hours I can pour into my thing and I'm wandering in the desert. I'll often feel, less frequently now but still sometimes, I'll feel guilty and frustrated that I haven't moved on something yet, things haven't moved forward, I haven't put in a lot of hours.
Guilt can get you to do some things, like call your parents or maybe even run an extra lap or something. The bottleneck for finding traction in research isn't something that I find I've been able to usefully address by feeling guilty about it. It's more like an effect of being in a place where I'm for whatever reason not that productive.
It’s okay to skill up before doing impactful work
I made a mistake of feeling I needed to be working on some really impactful thing right away. I think that worked out okay, in my case. I got somewhat lucky in that regard, but I should have been totally happy to take at least a year or two and just try to find the place where I could skill up as well as possible.
You don’t need to be impactful immediately in your career
Maybe don't stress out about the fact that you're not impactful now.
Competing with the very best takes a lot of time and effort
It's really hard to be the top percent, to compete with people who are the 20 who get the national scholarship. I feel like if I would have eased up, it wouldn't have happened and then I would have had outcomes that are more typical of people from my socioeconomic background. I would say I actually wasn't unhappy but I had reached, probably, the max of what I could do, at least in terms of time.
Maybe one thing is trying to get a sense of either calibration or confidence of recommendations. I think my impression is that EA land has gone wrong in the past along the lines of miscommunications like, "Oh, org x says y." While y is meant as a tentative suggestion, we take that as a cast-iron recommendation and then make lots of decisions. Which then, because it was tentative, actually turned out to be mistaken, and we're a bit screwed over by that. One way of avoiding this, is trying to interrogate—“Have you examples of this? Are there counter-examples? Can you give a credence on this?”
You don’t have to be a superstar to do good
[EA] is a group project, and you can only decide for yourself as an individual what your career's going to be, but EA's made up of a bunch of different people with different careers and different projects and different skills. Yours may or may not be this great success story, but we don't all have to be.
Back in Earning to Give, I was just like, "I just can't see my way to it. I don't know what I'm good at that would earn a bunch of money, there's nothing.” If we'd stayed in that world where we're really funding constrained, I just wouldn't have been able to contribute that much. I still would have tried, but there just would have been a pretty different niche. I think trying to make peace sometimes with, "Okay, I'm going to have this niche, and it's not going to be cool or famous or something, but, that's just how it is."
I think, if we had stayed in the days where I was only saving people's lives by donating to GiveWell charities, that's still really good. Michelle Hutchison has a good post about this, that it's just like having some absolute impact. Even if other people are having more impact than you, it doesn't reduce what you are able to accomplish. In the beginning, we were all just like, "What? I can save a life for $2,000 or whatever?" And that's still there. The numbers changed around, but you can still do good stuff without being a superstar, and no one can take that away from you.
You might not need a lot of education to do the thing
I assumed that a lot of the world had more accumulated knowledge than it really did. When we were initially setting up CEA, it really felt like, “Well, I assume that there's a lot to note before you can set up a company. That it’s this complicated business that a bunch of people have studied hard to do, and that's the only way you can set up a company.” Whereas it turned out, in fact, you can just read Companies House website and then just go and do it.
I think part of this is coming from people who are interested in academic things and do quite a bit of study. That gives you a false perspective on the world because you do a master's in philosophy and then end up doing a PhD and it's all aiming towards academia. The idea is that you need to have done 10 years of education in order to do this thing.
The idea that there could be something like setting up a company that actually you can just do by reading the website and then filling in the form feels really surprising.
I see this quite a lot in the people I talk to as well, particularly the ones who have done PhDs. Someone will have done a PhD in chemistry or something and be interested in going into policy and feel like, "Oh, presumably, therefore, I need to do a bunch of training in policy or do some policy degrees or something" when actually there are a bunch of fellowships directly designed to get people who have PhDs in science directly into Congress or something, but that feels very counterintuitive when you are in this environment where you need to have done tons of education in order to do a job like a postdoc.
Sometimes it’s good to finish things even if you’re not sure they’re important
I had decided that actually, this approach I was thinking of was not likely to work, so probably it wasn't that important. I ended up finishing it anyway, out of a principle of: it's good to finish projects because, as you go through them, you often think that they will be bad or not that useful, but sometimes they'll be impactful in a way that surprises you. At the very least, you want to tell everyone else, "This is what I did, here's why I think it's not that good, and you shouldn't be thinking about it."
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I think my most important general life advice is: it's ok to "fake" having adhd in order to get stimulants from your doctor. ADHD isn't an Aristotelian category, and doctors are typically extremely biased towards minimising risk instead of trying to help you the most in expectation. Your doctor and you do not optimise for the same things.
Needless to say, stimulants won't work for everyone, but the downsides on therapeutic doses are minimal (you can just stop taking them if they don't work) and the upsides can be life-changing and long-term.
Morally, the government is using violence to stop people from selling you drugs that could help you. If you're lying to them in order to correct for that injustice, I think it's fair game.
I'm hoping that saying this openly will make people act on what they already know to be true. I don't think I'll convince anyone. I can recommend Scott Alexander's (going by "Lorien Psychiatry") post on Adderall.
If you need to remind yourself to book an appointment, feel free to message me and I can check up on whether you've completed the task in two weeks or whatever interval you need. : )
I'm a big fan of stimulants-for-all, but people should know that they can cause obsessiveness if you take too high a dose. When I first started, I would obsessively spend all day trying to solve a single math problem and couldn't give up and move on even though I was making virtually no progress.
But if you feel like you're doing too much math and not able to prioritise, you can stop taking them. If you feel like they work for you, you can keep taking them.