This is my first proper post on the forum and is more of an opinion piece than one supported by plenty of hard evidence, though I have tried to reference where possible. I will explain how it’s taken me until the age of 30 to land my first vaguely EA-aligned, post-graduate studies job, but why that’s not necessarily a bad thing. EA is a predominantly young community, and it’s fair to say that there are many very talented people who have accomplished a lot in the first few years of their careers – which is great. But I hope by writing this it will allay the fears of anyone else who has had an experience more like mine - feeling lost for a while, making several career and/or further study twists and turns (I’m reluctant to call them “mistakes” – more on that later).
Why I think this is important
I wanted to write this post as I feel there is an awful amount of pressure to get things “right” in your career from a young age, and if you don’t, you can feel like a failure as early as your mid-twenties (at least, that’s how I felt). From a young age, my self-worth was tied to whether I achieved top grades at school so I could get into a good university, where I was then expected to obtain at least a 2:1 degree and then some kind of prestigious graduate job. As one of my very smart friends from school remarked to me some years ago, who was also finding it difficult to land a job they enjoyed - “we were good at school, but not very good at the next bit”. For some, passing exams might be the easy part, but finding your feet in the wide world of work isn’t something you can revise for, but can only test out repeatedly. I would hate to think that people may feel demotivated or give up on an impactful career, if they think they are not experienced enough or that it’s “too late”, when they may still have plenty of time or more skills than they give themselves credit for.
While I know “80,000 hours” is an approximation, nowadays we’re living and working for longer than 40 years on average. At least in the UK, while it was common until recently to retire around age 60, most younger people now will probably only be able to receive the state pension from age 68 – and this may go up again in the decades ahead. Age 60 versus 68 might not sound like a huge difference, but combined with the growth of flexible working and learning, including part-time online courses, it is easier for people to change careers or “job-hop” throughout their adult life than it used to be. To take a crude example, in the past I’d have probably considered age 50 to be “too late” to do a degree with a view to changing career; while now, there could be 15+ years of that new career left after graduating, making it a lot more worthwhile. As 80K have said, many jobs now weren’t around 10 years ago, so we can’t imagine the types of jobs that will be required in the future – meaning we’re very likely to need to change/adapt careers and upskill over the years anyway (without wanting to digress regarding chat-GPT etc., but it is a valid concern too).
Given all this, I think we can allow ourselves a lot more time to make those career twists and turns we might otherwise fear, particularly early on in our careers. We should be trying out multiple things, and not being afraid to get it wrong the first time (or even the second). While needing some good “generalists” has been noted in EA, for example, people who have an excellent operations mindset, the potential advantages of being a generalist in a world of specialists should be further emphasised. The book “Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world” by David Epstein provides various examples and is something I’d recommend to anyone for whom any of this post rings true. In the popular Diary of a CEO podcast, a couple of quotes that stood out to me from recent episodes include these by Robert Greene (23 March 2023, ~1h 21m):
Steven Bartlett: If there’s a 23-year-old who’s listening who is an apprentice at a florist, and they’re being offered 5 different jobs, which one should they be looking at?
Robert Greene: That’s a very easy question to answer. You want to look for the job that offers you the most opportunities of learning. If you’re going to go to a florist where there’s only one other person there, like an entrepreneur who’s started it, and you’re going to be their right hand man/woman, and the pay is going to be half of what you could get at this very fancy… department store where they pay you triple, take the job which pays one third where you’re going to learn the most – you’re going to learn about the business, you’re going to learn from the ground up, and there’s going to be a level of excitement where we might not survive the next few months, we’ve got to work hard, we’ve got to be motivated… A lot of people when they’re 23, they grab the job with the biggest paycheck, and that’s a mistake – if you go to a large firm… you don’t have as much responsibility, you have to deal with all the political games… you’re not developing skills as much”
and by Barbara Corcoran (Moment 102, 24 March 2023):
Steven Bartlett: You had some 22, 23 jobs before starting your own business. Everything from being a receptionist, to being a waitress and everything in between. We often look back at those jobs… some people might think they’re a waste of time… what’s your view – what role did that play in your overall success?
Barbara Corcoran: I think whether you have a menial job or an important job it’s what you’re learning. There wasn’t a job where I didn’t learn a lot. For me, I would take any job not based on pay but what could I learn? – because that made you more valuable… I never thought it made you more valuable to be paid more, but hey, I haven’t done this before, let’s see what this is about? And you learn skills. I think I learned more through my waitressing jobs… about people… than building my business.
My career (or lack of) so far
When I first heard about EA and 80K, it was at a time of my life where I was really struggling with what to do. Aged 23, I had embarked on a PhD which I was both not ready for and didn’t align well with my skills or interests. After a few months I felt mentally burnt out, was about to see a therapist for my anxiety, and decided to drop out and work in hospitality for a while - which ended up being just under a year. Most people would probably see this as a terrible use of my time, and it was arguably something I was (very) over-qualified for – without wishing to sound dismissive of such essential jobs. But I look back on that time far more fondly than I do the unsuccessful PhD, and I believe I learned far more from it (in agreement with Barbara Corcoran). I learned to not be impressed by ostentatious displays of wealth and how poorly some people manage their money (both common where I worked), how to deal with awkward drunk customers, and how to work with colleagues with very different backgrounds and interests to mine – as well as important soft skills like receptionist duties, dealing with cash and providing good customer service. After having my confidence knocked from my previous academic experience, it taught me that I could stand up to people and speak my own mind again. While I still have a lot to improve on, I don’t think I would deliver presentations or express myself in meetings as well as I do if I hadn’t had this experience.
Once I had gained as much as I could from my hospitality job and felt I had taken enough of a step back, I had the confidence to dip my toe back in the academic pond, and applied for PhD positions I was more qualified for and interested in, and that would provide some broader experience outside of the PhD itself. I was fortunate to be accepted for a position where I would spend some time abroad in industry, and during the programme I also did an internship in a public sector body. I now know that PhDs are a pretty slow way of gaining career capital (as mentioned in e.g. here), and particularly given that I’m now moving away from academia I wouldn’t necessarily do it again, or I’d certainly do things differently if I did. My PhD ended up being very self-guided, which wasn’t helped by the COVID-19 pandemic pausing practical activities and face-to-face meetings for a long period. I’m yet to do my viva, and I hold a lot of concerns about it as I applied many self-taught statistical methods. Despite the confidence I gained from my previous experiences, I wasn’t as persistent as I should have been about asking for more guidance from experts in the field. This is the biggest takeaway that I’ll take forward to my new job in policy, which I’m looking forward to starting in a couple of weeks. Despite the not-so-positives, I was able to get through the PhD (to date) feeling generally positive and confident in my abilities overall, and I know I wouldn’t have got the job offer I received without both the experience I gained during my PhD and the maturity that came with the passing of time.
If I had to provide one takeaway from this post and my experiences, it would be - don’t be so hard on yourself. Some people need more time, more life experience and to make more career twists and turns (not mistakes) until they find what they want to do and/or do something more impactful. Unless you are very unfortunate, the likelihood is that you’ll have the opportunity for a long and hopefully successful career, provided you maintain some motivation to make a difference one day. You might just have to be a bit patient first.
One counter-argument I anticipate is “isn’t it a better use of your time to do a “menial” job while you’re young, e.g. on the side of university studies?”. I’ve worked part-time jobs across retail and other sectors from age 19, and while there is value in doing this, it’s different if it becomes your sole source of income and the one thing that’s keeping you busy. When I was 19, I viewed my part-time jobs just as a way to support my living as a student, and to save up for a Master’s degree, not as a learning opportunity in and of themselves. As I mention in the footnote, this may not apply to people who are more mature from a younger age, and perhaps learn more quickly.
This is not to rebuff specialists. Specialists are incredibly valuable and as I struggle to complete my PhD I have increasing admiration for those who can stick at a tough problem and develop niche skills in something specialist – particularly if those skills are particularly rare and valuable, from growing things in a lab to advanced coding abilities. I just know that my working preferences and personality don’t align so well with these specialist fields.
Something that I believe is not mentioned (much?) in career advice but which I’d argue is very important is one’s degree of maturity when contemplating certain career paths i.e. if you’re ready to stick at a certain path for an extended period of time. Some people may be ready to go straight into an impactful role after university, or enrol on a 3-year graduate scheme or PhD, and that’s great! But I wasn’t one of those people. Even though I knew that working in hospitality for a while wasn’t an impactful thing to do, it was what I needed at the time, and I wouldn’t have had the mental capacity or maturity at that time to embark on a “serious” career. If I had forced myself to do something more strenuous when I was already feeling stressed out, I think I’d have taken even longer to recover, which would have delayed my career further. This doesn’t mean people like me won’t ever be ready for an impactful job – they may just take a bit more time. That’s why I’ve written this article!