My top takeaways from the post:
- As in so many other situations that involve advice, your mileage may vary.
- When an organization says something, the background behind that statement is often complicated and involves compromise between many different opinions.
- Check publication dates when you read things! (I've been burned by this plenty of times, even with GiveWell, which is unusually good about updating their pages to note when they've gone out of date.)
We’ve found that readers sometimes interpret or apply our advice in ways we didn’t anticipate and wouldn’t exactly recommend. That’s hard to avoid when you’re writing for a range of people with different personalities and initial views.
To help get on the same page, here’s some advice about our advice, for those about to launch into reading our site.
We want our writing to inform people’s views, but only in proportion to the likelihood that we’re actually right. So we need to make sure you have a balanced perspective on how compelling the evidence is for the different claims we make on the site, and how much weight to put on our advice in your situation.
What follows is a list of points to bear in mind when reading our site, and some thoughts on how to avoid the communication problems we face.
We’ve been wrong before, and we’ll be wrong again
We still have a lot to learn about how people can best have a positive impact with their careers. This means, unfortunately, that we make mistakes and change our advice over time. And this means that in a couple of years, we’ll no longer stand by some of the claims we make today.
Our positions can change because the world changes — for instance, a problem that was more pressing in the past can receive lots of attention and become less pressing over time. Our positions can also change as we learn more — for instance, we weren’t aware of the arguments for the importance of AI policy five years ago, so we didn’t feature that path as prominently back then.
We also simply make mistakes in our analysis or communication. You can see some examples of mistakes we made in the past here.
We do our best to check our positions and communicate our confidence in them, and have spent over eight years thinking about how individuals can maximise the impact of their careers. This means that we think our advice is worth considering if you share our aims of making the world a better place.
However, the topic of how to best have an impact with your career is extremely complex and interdisciplinary, and compared to the attention it warrants, has hardly been explored — we’re still at the very beginning of our understanding. For these reasons our positions sometimes change within a matter of years. It also means that it’s hard to ever be more than about 70% confident in our answers.
For these reasons, we aim for our views to be taken seriously, but never to be acted on unquestioningly. So as you read, you might try to strike a balance between what you previously thought, what other advisors say, and what we think, depending on how strong you find the empirical and theoretical evidence for each position.
Many of the questions we tackle are a matter of balance, and different people will benefit from considering opposing messages
Some job seekers are overconfident in their chances of success. It’s often useful for them to spend more time coming up with good back-up options. Other job seekers are underconfident. It would be useful for them to consider some more ambitious or risky options. This makes it difficult for us to strike a balance between encouraging caution and inspiring people to aim higher.
More broadly, many questions in career strategy come down to having a balance between different considerations. For instance, it’s usually both important to try to gain transferable career capital (for flexibility) and to work towards specific opportunities to have an impact. Some readers focus too much on transferable career capital, and would be best served by spending more time thinking about how to aim at a particular pathway, whereas others are overlooking it to the detriment of their long-term impact.
When it comes to issues like these, we aim to explain the underlying tradeoffs. For instance, we try to talk through how to work out how highly to prioritise transferable career capital compared to other factors. This is much harder to communicate than a simple message like “focus more on career capital”, but any simplified message like that would mislead a substantial fraction of our readers.
We think the best way for us to handle these situations is to try to cover both sides of an issue, and help people make up their own minds. For instance, we encourage people to both make applications to ‘stretch’ options, which they think they’re unlikely to get, and to prepare ‘back-up’ options. The hope is this should work out well, whether someone is currently too ambitious, or not ambitious enough.
As a reader, we urge you to bear this problem in mind. Try to work out which side you currently fall on, and in which direction you might need to correct.
This often comes up when we announce changes in our advice. For example, early on we heavily emphasized earning to give (taking a higher earning job in order to donate more to effective charities). We think it’s the best option for fewer people than we did before, and that some people overrate it due to our old advice. We’d like to tell these readers why we changed our mind and expose them to arguments for leaving earning to give.
On the other hand, earning to give is a counterintuitive way to make the world a better place and most people who haven’t read our work before haven’t encountered the arguments in its favour. We still think it’s the top option for some readers.
We’d like to convince our longtime readers to consider options outside of earning to give while introducing newer readers to the idea that earning to give is a surprisingly effective way to do good. Unfortunately, it can be hard to accurately convey both messages at the same time and we sometimes fail to hit the balance right, leading one message to dominate.
Another example: while most people should probably think more about how they can use their career to help solve global challenges, if you’re already an enthusiastic seeker of advice on that topic, it might be most important for you to focus a bit more on taking care of your personal needs to avoid burning out.
You can find some more examples, and discussion of this general problem, in “Should you reverse any advice you hear?”
Personal fit matters, so focus more on strategies than simple answers
As the previous section shows, much career advice can’t be applied universally.
Besides many questions being a matter of balance, another challenge is that a person’s specific skills and situation play a major role in which options they should focus on, and so if we say a path is a promising way to make a difference, that doesn’t mean that it’s a promising option for you personally.
Even if we think career path A is currently a higher priority than career path B, there are almost always plenty of people who could succeed at A but ought to choose B instead. The most important factors for any given career decision are often the idiosyncratic ones: not just which organisation you’re considering or the seniority of the role, but also the room for advancement in your particular position, whether there are opportunities to truly excel and impress others, whether your supervisor would be a good mentor, and so on.
Similarly, your personal fit for a particular position is incredibly important: if you might be better at path B than path A, that can easily make path B best for you. No matter how useful it would be to be a Chinese diplomat, that won’t help you plan your career if you were born in Germany.
This means our advice can’t offer a ranked list of ‘The Best Careers’ that is true for everyone. But unfortunately, when we talk about specific career paths, this is much more concrete and memorable than talking about the underlying principles, so it’s easy to overweight their significance.
Rather, we think you should use the options we talk about as a way to generate ideas. The aim is to come up with your own personal short-list of promising options, and then to narrow that down to find the best option for you.
To help you do this, we also provide decision-making advice and a step-by-step process at the end of the key ideas series. These act as a checklist to help you think through your own decisions. We also aim to emphasise the importance of personal fit. Though as we say, this content often gets neglected and is harder to apply than a concrete career suggestion.
A related problem is that there are many career paths we haven’t yet had time to think about or consider, and by leaving these out, we sometimes (unintentionally) give the impression that we don’t think they’re promising.
And of course there are also many paths that can make sense for an individual, but wouldn’t make sense for our audience as a whole. We don’t write about these options, which can give the impression we don’t think they’re promising.
For instance, we encountered a magician who had a realistic chance of landing a national-level TV show, but was considering working in consulting otherwise, in part due to our articles on consulting. In that case, the magician path seemed to us like a better way to try to gain career capital, though we’re not planning to list ‘magician’ as a recommended career path any time soon.
Again, this means that, as a reader, the challenge is to think about the options that are open to you individually, rather than only focus on the specific paths we’ve been able to review and discuss so far. We hope that our articles on decision-making will be helpful in generating those and comparing amongst them.
One possible solution to the problem of different roles being relevant to different people is to try to flag which article is relevant to which type of person. We do this to some extent, but we haven’t mastered it, because it’s often very challenging to know what makes someone a great fit for a career in the first place. We don’t want to mistakenly put off a group who could have used our advice. Our hope is that as our research advances we’ll be in a better position to add this kind of detail.
You can read more about the idea of a personal list, and challenges with communicating our ideas here. Some of these challenges make it hard to give easy-to-absorb advice in general. You can read more about the problem in the essay Against Advice by Agnes Callard. This is one reason why we aim to supplement our online content with one-on-one advice, even though it’s much more expensive.
Older articles on the site may not represent our current views, so check the publication date
As we noted earlier, our positions change over time. As a result, the articles we wrote in the past are usually different than what we would say if we were writing about those topics today.
We have hundreds of pages of content but only two or three people who work on research, which makes it challenging to keep everything up to date.
We aim to add warnings to articles that we feel no longer fully reflect our views. We’ve not always done a good job of this in the past, but we’re trying to be more proactive going forward.
As a reader, we’d appreciate if you could bear in mind that the older an article is, the less likely it is to reflect our views today.
If there’s a conflict between two articles on our site, it’s more likely we’ll agree with the newer one. Our aim going forward is that the key ideas cover page will be the canonical description of what we think.
If you do find a conflict, please message us at info at 80000hours.org.
There are disagreements within the team
We now have over ten staff members, who have a range of opinions and experiences of the world.
As a result, there’s a diversity of opinion among the 80,000 Hours team about what problems are most pressing, the most promising ways to solve them, and many other questions as well. We think this is really useful: maintaining a variety of perspectives on the team ensures claims get challenged and we don’t become intellectually lazy.
When writing articles, we try to discuss and resolve disagreements, but that doesn’t always work. We then have to decide between cutting the relevant section, presenting multiple views, or going with the primary author of the piece.
Core articles, such as the key ideas page usually give views almost all of us agree on. On the other extreme, off-the-cuff comments from Rob on The 80,000 Hours Podcast are often his personal views and nothing more.
While it’s natural to talk about ‘the 80,000 Hours position’ on a topic, sometimes what you read only reflects the considered views of one or two team members.
If two of our articles seem to disagree, it may simply reflect a difference of opinion between the authors.
Our advice is aimed at a particular audience
We aim our advice at people with an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, who want to make impartial positive impact the main focus of their careers, especially with a focus on the global problems that we most recommend.
We aim our advice primarily at those who live in rich, English-speaking countries: especially the USA and UK.
We also aim our advice at those who want to take an especially analytical approach to doing good.
Some of our advice, such as our list of priority paths, is aimed in particular at those who are unusually ambitious and high-achieving. In general, the more similar you are to our core audience, the more applicable the advice will be.
That’s not to say our advice won’t be useful if you don’t fit our core audience perfectly. Indeed, many of the questions we discuss, such as which global problems are most pressing, are relevant to anyone who wants to do good in an impartial way. It’s just that you need to be more cautious about what applies, especially when our advice gets to the level of discussing specific options and actions, rather than general processes for thinking through strategic considerations and making decisions.
Many people are not in a position to focus their attention on solving big global problems. And that’s fine. If you are in that fortunate position though, then we hope 80,000 Hours can help.
Treat doing good as just one important goal
Attempting to maximise your contribution to the world’s most pressing problems is an exciting and worthwhile challenge, but there’s always more that can be done, which makes it easy to get overwhelmed. Figuring out your best option requires confronting some of the biggest questions out there. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed.
80,000 Hours is primarily about how to maximise your impact, rather than how to live a good life all considered. This can make it seem like we don’t care about other goals, and recommend our readers focus on doing good to the exclusion of everything else.
However, most of the team see having a positive impact as just one important goal among several in our lives. This means we’ll often do things that aren’t optimal from the perspective of doing good, and we think that’s fine.
As an aside, even if your only aim were to maximise your impact, then you’ll still need to find a path that’s sustainable, and to take care of yourself.
Play the long game and aim for steady progress
When people first encounter these ideas, it often takes them several years to work out how to apply them to their own lives. There is a lot to digest, career decisions often require months of thinking, and it can take a while for the right opportunities to come along. If you’re not sure how to contribute right now, or don’t feel able to, that’s normal. Focus on investing in yourself, learning more, taking small steps, and you’ll find yourself in a better position in the future.
In pursuing a better career, it can also be easy to become a perfectionist and never feel satisfied. Bear in mind that you have limited time to make decisions, and most of us need to cross the river by feeling the stones. Aim to find the best next step you can given your constraints, rather than the (unknowable & unattainable) perfect option.
It can also be easy to compare yourself to others; but how much impact other people have isn’t relevant to your decisions, or how you should feel about yourself. There will always be someone having more impact than you (with only one exception). What matters is that you’re improving and fulfilling your potential.
How to best choose a career with positive impact is a complex topic, and it’s also difficult to communicate about, and apply to individual situations.
We do our best to highlight ideas we think will be useful to at least some of our audience without being detrimental to others, in a format that lots of people can use — but we don’t always get it right.
We hope that by pointing out these challenges for all our readers to bear in mind, it will make our content more useful.