The Peak 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 second post covers “Do you need to love your work to do it well?”
Do you think that loving your work is correlated with or necessary for doing it well?
It’s important for doing research
I think that having an inside view vision for research is very important for getting it done right. It isn't enough that somebody argues to you that it would make sense to do a certain type of research. It needs to grab you and be generative in your brain in a way that's hard to force. That definitely feels important for a research role. With that being said, I don't think every day or week feels like you're grabbed with something exciting and really like it.
Like I said, there's long periods of being for me, frustrated and lost in a fuzzy domain. I think it helps to just have patience to ride that out and be like “I am probing a lot of different directions. I am waiting for the feeling of traction.” That often is accompanied by joy, and excitement, and energy, and being in a mildly manic state, but that's not the whole job. A lot of the job is systematically and patiently poking around trying to cause that to happen. Then also a lot of the job is riding it out and following it through. I don't generally tend to think in a frame of loving the whole job but I do think just having energy is almost pathologically valuable for getting a lot of good stuff done.
Research goes better if you love it
It's definitely correlated with it. I think just one aspect of that is I think curiosity is really important as a form of motivation. I think I’m possibly excessively curious but I think it's definitely necessary for getting ideas, and seeing stuff that's interesting or confusing to you, or having motivation to read broadly and find different stuff that comes together. I think if you're a curious researcher, you just find yourself constantly being curious about stuff, then it's pretty likely that you're going to be someone that enjoys research. It's like a method of satisfying your curiosity often.
I do think it probably is possible, especially for certain kinds of research, to do a good job even if you're not that into it. I think deep anxiety might also work for some people. I would not recommend this. I would definitely strongly recommend loving it.
You can do work just because it’s important, but it’s easier if you’re engrossed
You probably should be doing work that you really enjoy. Right now I feel like I'm not enjoying being a research engineer as much as I’d like, and that definitely makes me worse at it. I'm in this weird position where that does concern me pretty significantly, but also it maybe feels outweighed by the urgency of what we're doing and the lack of people to replace me.
If you want to do great intellectual work, you want to be engrossed with something to the point where it is often occupying your shower thoughts or your-wake-up-at-5:00-AM thoughts. You want to be obsessed with it to the point where you're not just solving the next task, but you're also, without too much effort, developing your ideas for the bigger picture or the vision for what could be. Also, I think it just means that you can spend a lot more time productively working on something if you're just curious about it or driven by it or whatever.
Enjoying work makes it easier to do well
I think correlated with, but not necessary. If you got me to do something like transcribe a document from one format to another format and update the citations manually one by one, that's not a very enjoyable topic and I sort of find myself reluctant to work. I probably won’t do it very well for that sort of reason. There are some tasks I know I dislike intensely, and happily there's a few I enjoy a lot. Like commenting on an interesting google doc, for example, is something I naturally like doing. I'm probably better at that than something where I'm not naturally well suited to the sort of work.
Some baseline motivation is necessary
I think it's definitely correlated.
I find talking to people relatively easy and don't dread it, I don't find myself in the middle of a conversation being like, "Oh, man. I wish this conversation was over." and I feel like that matters. Having enough of the fit with the work that most of the time, most kinds of tasks feel interesting or motivating.
I worry sometimes when we talk about enjoying your work-- There's a bunch of stuff that I do for fun that I enjoy way more than work. If I didn't have other reasons to want to do the work that I'm doing, I would just do the things that are super fun. I don't think finding your work super fun or having it be your favorite thing seem as important to me as like having some basic motivational space or something.
Feeling motivated is necessary, at least
I think I want to replace love with something like feel really motivated. Often that for me means that I really actually love the day-to-day thing of it but I also love the idea of the thing that I'm doing and the prospects of what it could do in the world.
If I'm feeling really motivated about something, I am much, much, much better at doing my job. Conversely, I have had some experience in the last couple of years when I've lost motivation for the thing that I'm doing. In theory, I feel like I should be able to do it or I feel like I should do it. I just totally wasn't successful at trying to make myself actually just do the thing out of sheer willpower and some abstract belief that it was the thing that I should do.
I was doing a job initially where I was very motivated. What that looked like was, it was incredibly easy to do a lot of it. It felt like it was very energizing, it felt challenging. It felt like I was able to actually do things to a pretty high quality.
Then I basically had a period of kind of burn-outie symptoms where I lost a bunch of motivation because of particular things that happened. That meant that I felt like I had to push through and do the job but I wasn't as motivated to do it.
It was actually just genuinely pretty shocking to be like, "Wow, I don't really want to get out of bed." I look at my task list and I'm not excited about doing any of the things there. I was much slower, just empirically slower at doing things. I was more into satisficing as opposed to optimizing how well I was doing certain things. I would check what time it was so I could end the day at a reasonable time whereas I just usually wouldn't be doing that at all.
You can love something and still find it draining
It’s funny because I do love research but I find research more draining than, say, having a lot of conversations with people. I can put in fewer hours a day of it without tiring but that doesn't mean the process of it is a continuous negative. It just means literally that I don't have as much of it in me. That's like, other things being equal a disadvantage but it doesn't feel like it is dominant consideration for me.
It's more like what do I get done for the amount of energy I can pour into this. It's going to be very variable and there are going to be long periods where the amount of energy I can pour in is pretty limited. There are going to be some bursts where I can really put on the gas because I have a direction I like and there's a long way to go in that direction.
Really productive people usually really love what they’re doing
The most productive people I can think of all really, really, really love what they're doing. I can't think of many that don’t. At least if I'm selecting for out-of-distribution productive people, it seems pretty strongly correlated with “I’m really actually just totally obsessed with the thing.”
I can think of friends and colleagues who I think are less black and white about it than I am. Yeah, definitely can think of colleagues for sure who don't feel challenged or particularly excited about their day-to-day. It's this bigger vision of what they're enabling an organization to do, for example, that keeps them at the job. It's self-punishing in the sense that they're, in some cases, just quite miserable in a day-to-day sense, but there's this higher-level thing that keeps them going. In terms of that being a sustainable thing, these colleagues usually bounce off those jobs within a couple of years. It doesn't seem super sustainable.
Not for routine work, for me
It helps when it's enjoyable, but I also think, honestly, I've done a lot of productive work during times when I was pretty unhappy. It hasn't obviously been correlated when I do good work and when I'm feeling good about work or doing well personally.
There have been times when I was really pretty miserable and got a lot done because it was the EA Global season and we just needed to get a lot done. I just did the very routine work that needed to happen. I don't think I could do that forever.
Not necessary, but loving it makes you better
It's probably correlated but not necessary. There have been a bunch of things I've done in various of my jobs that I've done well despite not loving them. I found quite a lot of the stuff I did at GPI pretty stressful and not that rewarding because a lot of it was working against other people. The kinds of things that GPI is trying to do are not the typical types of things that an academic faculty does. That increases the risks and complexity in things for the faculty.
To compound that, we were trying to do it as fast as possible and to as high a spec as possible. There was a lot of trying to persuade people that we should be able to do this even though it would make their life harder. I really didn't enjoy that sense that I was nagging people and stuff. That meant that I did some parts of it worse than I would have otherwise.
I found it a bit hard to be always the right amount of friendly, patient, and diplomatic, particularly when the stakes felt higher to me or something. It just at times was very visceral to me that a couple of thousand pounds, to me, meant potentially a life saved from malaria, and a couple of thousand pounds to Oxford University is a drop in the ocean. That meant that I became more frustrated and grumpy than would have been good for the job.
Overall, I did pretty well at it. Probably one of the biggest effects this had was just that I couldn't work as hard. I did significantly less work at GPI than at 80K, entirely endorsed by my team as well. Hilary [Greaves] is, in general, big on work-life separation and, in particular, was keen on me making sure that I took evenings and weekends properly off and didn't get too anxious. That feels very different from my feeling at 80K where I'm just like, "Well, there's nothing I'd rather be doing. Why would I take more time off?"
Probably very important for researchers
My intuitive answer is "man, that sounds like a huge handicap if you're trying to do anything that involves research-style thinking.” I think that it's probably an overreaction. I have trouble thinking of examples of people where I know that they are not very intellectually engaged by their work, yet I think they are doing excellent work. But also, there's not that many people where I would know one way or the other if they fit in that bucket.
It seems like a pretty big handicap. I wouldn't be surprised if it just basically forced you to be below the 80th percentile. Like, just that fact alone tells me you're below the 80th percentile with very, very high probability before even updating on, I don't know, intelligence or some other factors.
I could also see it being like “It's a handicap but depends on the person.” Where on average it's a handicap, but there are definitely some people where it just doesn't make any difference at all.
My guests include:
Abigail Olvera was a U.S. diplomat last working at the China Desk. Abi was formerly stationed at the US Embassies in Egypt and Senegal and holds a Master's of Global Affairs from Yale University. Full interview.
Ajeya Cotra is a Senior Research Analyst at Open Philanthropy where she worked on a framework for estimating when transformative AI may be developed, as well as various cause prioritization and worldview diversification projects. Ajeya received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley. Full interview.
Ben Garfinkel was a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the time of the interview. He is now the Acting Director of the Centre for the Governance of AI. Ben earned a degree in Physics and in Mathematics and Philosophy from Yale University, before deciding to study for a DPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Full interview.
Daniel Ziegler researched AI safety at OpenAI. He has since left to do AI safety research at Redwood Research. Full interview.
Eva Vivalt did an Economics Ph.D. and Mathematics M.A. at the University of California, Berkeley after a master’s in Development Studies at Oxford University. She then worked at the World Bank for two years and founded AidGrade before finding her way back to academia. Full interview.
Gregory Lewis is a DPhil Scholar at the Future of Humanity Institute, where he investigates long-run impacts and potential catastrophic risk from advancing biotechnology. Previously, he was an academic clinical fellow in public health medicine and before that a junior doctor. He holds a master’s in public health and a medical degree, both from Cambridge University. Full interview.
Helen Toner is Director of Strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET). She previously worked as a Senior Research Analyst at Open Philanthropy. She is a member of the board of directors for OpenAI. Helen holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown. Full interview not available.
Jade Leung is Governance Lead at OpenAI. She was the inaugural Head of Research & Partnerships with the Centre for the Governance of Artificial Intelligence (GovAI), housed at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. She completed her DPhil in AI Governance at the University of Oxford and is a Rhodes scholar. Full interview.
Julia Wise serves as a contact person for the effective altruism community and helps local and online groups support their members. She serves on the board of GiveWell and writes about effective altruism at Giving Gladly. She was president of Giving What We Can from 2017-2020. Before joining CEA, Julia was a social worker, and studied sociology at Bryn Mawr College. Full interview.
Michelle Hutchinson holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Oxford, where her thesis was on global priorities research. While completing that, she did the operational set-up of the Centre for Effective Altruism and then became Executive Director of Giving What We Can. She is currently the Assistant Director of One-on-One Programme at 80,000 Hours. Full interview.
Rohin Shah is a Research Scientist at DeepMind studying methods that allow us to build AI systems that pursue the objectives their users intend them to pursue, rather than the objectives that were literally specified. Rohin completed his PhD at the Center for Human-Compatible AI at UC Berkeley and publishes the Alignment Newsletter to summarize work relevant to AI alignment. Full interview.
The interviews were done in late 2020 and early 2021, and may no longer accurately represent all of the guests’ views.
The following quotes have been cleaned up and condensed from the original interviews, and then checked with the original speaker. Quotes have been grouped by common themes, but not necessarily the question they were said in response to.
These answers were given during spoken interviews, usually without preparation, and transcribed. You can view many of the full interviews to see the quotes in context and read more about the guests’ experience and perspective.