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If we were going to summarise all our advice on how to get career capital in three words, we’d say: build useful skills.

In other words, gain abilities that are valued in the job market — which makes your work more useful and makes it easier to bargain for the ingredients of a fulfilling job — as well as those that are specifically needed in tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

So today, we’re launching our series on the most useful skills for making a difference — which you can find here. It covers why we recommend each skill, how to get started learning them, and how to work out which is the best fit for you.

Each article looks at one of eight skill sets we think are most useful for solving the problems we think are most pressing:

Why are we releasing this now?

We think that many of our readers have come away from our site underappreciating the importance of career capital. Instead, they focus their career choices on having an impact right away.

This is a difficult tradeoff in general. Roughly, our position is that:

  • There’s often less tradeoff between these things than people think, as good options for career capital often involve directly working on a problem you think is important.
  • That said, building career capital substantially increases the impact you’re able to have. This is in part because the impact of different jobs is heavy-tailed, and career capital is one of the primary ways to end up in the tails.
  • As a result, neglecting career capital can lower your long-term impact in return for only a small increase in short-term impact.
  • Young people especially should be prioritising career capital in most cases.

We think that building career capital is important even for people focusing on particularly urgent problems — for example, we think that whether you should do an ML PhD doesn’t depend (much) on your AI timelines.

Why the focus on skills?

We break down career capital into five components:

  • Skills and knowledge
  • Connections
  • Credentials
  • Character
  • Runway (i.e. savings) 

We’ve found that “build useful skills” is a particularly good rule of thumb for building career capital.

It’s true that in addition to valuable skills, you also need to learn how to sell those skills to others and make connections. This can involve deliberately gaining credentials, such as by getting degrees or creating public demo projects; or it can involve what’s normally thought of as “networking,” such as going to conferences or building up a Twitter following. But all of these activities become much easier once you have something useful to offer.

The decision to focus on skills was also partly inspired by discussions with Holden Karnofsky and his post on building aptitudes, which we broadly agree with.

If you have more questions, take a look at our skills FAQ.

How can you help?

Please take a look at our new series and, if possible, share it with a friend!

We’d love feedback on these pages. If you have any, please do let us know in the comments, or by contacting us at info@80000hours.org.

Thank you so much!

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:53 PM

Not sure where it's best to leave this comment, but I might want to caution a bit against leaning too heavily on "what do you like best in high school" as a guide to what to study/work on. I read your excellent engineering profile on your website and recognized myself having used my passion and abilities in high school physics to guide me to mechanical engineering. However, I really enjoy both software engineering as well as data analysis, and have some evidence I do well in these, if not better than in mechanical engineering.

The problem was that I was never exposed to software engineering or data analysis/science in high school so I did not know my passion or skill level in these disciplines. I do not know how to solve this problem of not getting exposed to all fields in high school, or even university. I love the US liberal arts education where you are forced to try other disciplines and worry that students in Europe/non-liberal-arts-institutions might only at a very late stage in their life, or not at all, realize there was something they love even more and do better in, but that they were never exposed to. I did see that you mentioned in your profile that certain universities have "discipline agnostic" first years in engineering - but I think perhaps there is a case to be made that those that do not naturally get exposed to all fields, have a hard think about whether they might actually be a better fit for something they have not yet tried.

Totally agree! Indeed, there's a classic 80k article about this.

When working out your next steps, we tend to recommend working forwards from what you know, and working backwards from where you might want to end up (see our article on finding your next career steps). We also think people should explore more with their careers (see our article on career exploration).

If there are areas where we're giving the opposite message, I'd love to know – shoot me an email or DM?

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