[Note, when reading this post, I advocate keeping this important comment from Seb in mind.]
As the CEA team reviews Pareto Fellowship applications, we are noticing a funny phenomenon. This phenomenon afflicts even some of our very top applicants.
These applicants will have an excellent goal G, like "Found a project that fills in some neglected area of the EA ecosystem" or "Have the following exceptional achievement: ________." However, they seem to have far too many indirect capacity-building steps between now and G. This is even the case when it's obvious to me that they already have many of the relevant skills, or access to the relevant resources to get started directly on G.
Here's an exaggerated example plan of the type:
1. Finish undergraduate studies to gain more knowledge and skills.
2. Finish graduate studies to gain more knowledge and skills and credentials.
3. Take a consulting job to gain more career capital.
4. Transition to finance to gain a treasure chest of funds.
5. Finally, go ahead with G.
Example from Rob Wiblin:
My guess is that these applicants are missing the following pieces:
- Launching your own independent project often requires a very different set of skills than, e.g., gaining career capital, gaining abstract knowledge, gaining credentials, etc. It's probable that after 5-10 years of indirect preparation, you still won't have the relevant skills.
- The best way to learn how to launch a successful project is by launching many projects. Many of these will be of not-great quality or they will fail. However, you will find that these costs are not as dire as you thought they might be.
- Running a project and failing is often better for both your skills and career capital than never having run a project at all. In particular, note that even with many failed projects, you will have built up partially fungible networks and influence. This may be culture-specific, but I've seen many Bay Area entrepreneurs even bragging about how many failed startups they've launched. Personally, I would sooner hire someone who has launched a project and failed over applicants of similar quality.
- Many successful EA projects (and organizations in general) have been founded or run by people who are very early in their careers or even still at university. See: Oliver Habryka, who is running EA Global this year at the age of 20. He can do this because he cut his teeth on launching/running many similar projects in the past, and is now probably the most qualified person for this project in all of EA.
- Launching your own project is not as scary as you think. After it's up and running, you will be amazed that you were ever tentative about launching your own project.
- In my experience (and in the experience of most project-founders I know), formal credentials are massively overrated. You can often get to G without formal credentials if you already have impressive achievements under your belt, or can demonstrate the relevant skills, or learn how to become good at networking, or learn how to become good at social skills. (Speaking from my own experience with myself: even socially-challenged nerds can learn how to become very good at these latter two.)
If you think the text above is relevant to you, I would advise a few exercises that have always helped me:
- Imagine you try to tackle G and fail. How catastrophic would failure be? (E.g., Will no one ever hire you again? Will you die?) Would it still have been worth it to have tried on expected value grounds?
- Map out all the steps you currently have planned before G. Now imagine that the earth is going to explode, and the only way to prevent this from happening is by cutting 80% of the steps. Which steps do you cut? Were these steps utterly critical - i.e., could you still get to G without them?
- Is there a minimal version of G you can dip your toes into now without committing?
- If your plan depends on getting formal credentials, ask yourself, "Might I get to G faster by racking up achievements, or by demonstrating the relevant skills that I already have, or by becoming good at networking, or by learning better social skills?"
- Obviously, if everyone and their brother-in-law starts launching their own project, this will harm the signal-to-noise ratio inside EA. However, I'm fairly confident that we are far from saturation.
- As Ryan Carey notes: "This kind of article is going to move a lot of people to be more rash, for better and for worse." So here's the caveat: launching your own project is still really freaking hard. E.g., most businesses fail and many more don't provide much value. Grit and operational planning and using tools like Guesstimate to create theories about your project's expected value are still going to be critical. But even provided such things, just as one falls of the bike when learning how to ride it, you should expect the equivalent when learning how to launch projects by launching projects. Start with training wheels (but also, push yourself down a hill). Anyway, importantly, this post isn't about how to create the best world-improvement projects, but rather that:
- (a) Launching projects often doesn't require as much indirect capacity-building preparation as I've observed people doing in EA, and a lesser point that,
- (b) Launching projects is probably the best way to learn how to launch projects, rather than a whole bunch of indirect capacity-building steps. This is probably explained by something similar to context-dependent memory and the encoding specificity principle, but, in my grandma's words, "use your eyes." If deliberate, direct practice in X wasn't the best way to learn X, wouldn't that be surprising?
ps I recommend this post with a similar theme from 80,000 Hours: "What people miss about career capital: exceptional achievements."
pps Don't worry if you're one of these Pareto Applicants. If you're one of the best fits, you'll still make it in!