We (Olivia Jimenez and I) decided to make a list of all of the career choice heuristics we could think of – see below. Many of these are stated as if completely true, even though we think they aren't. We invite you to add any additional heuristics you have in the comments.

  • Scale, number helped - do something that impacts many people positively
  • Scale, degree helped - do something that impacts people to a great positive degree
  • Neglectedness -  do something that few others are doing or that won’t be done counterfactually
  • Tractability - do something that makes significant progress on a problem
  • Moments of progress - notice where progress happens in your life and find a career path that integrates those
  • Strong team - if you haven't worked well alone, join an excellent team
  • Likable people - join a team of people that you like
  • Mental well-being - do something that is optimized for being good for your mental health
  • Team smarter than you - join a team where most people are smarter than you
  • Be a thought or org leader - roughly, there are two types of leaders – thought leaders and org leaders; figure out which type you are more likely to be and optimize for succeeding at that type
  • Learn from leaders - learn from the leaders who you most want to be like
  • Maximize learning/skills, unless - in your early career, focus almost entirely on learning and building skills unless there’s an exceptional impact opportunity that won’t be possible later
  • Rare learning[1] - do something where you learn rare knowledge like technical skills or management
  • Maximize late-career impact - do something that maximizes the impact you will have when you are at your career peak (e.g. because the calendar year will be higher leverage, or because it is better to grow and learn before focusing on direct impact)
  • Maximize immediate impact[2] - do something that maximizes the impact you will have in the next few years (since things will get less neglected and/or because the calendar year will be lower leverage later)
  • Shower thoughts - do something that you will think about in the shower or while you are falling asleep
  • Comparative advantage - do something that leverages your comparative advantage or personal fit
  • Comparative disadvantage - avoid whatever utilizes your comparative disadvantages
  • Career capital - do something that gives you power/influence and/or career capital in important parts of broader society
  • Be honest and have integrity - be honest and have integrity so that the rest of the EA community responds to your actions optimally (including e.g. by giving you a job or status)
  • Be a founder - do something that involves starting a company
  • Scalability - do something that can scalably use money and/or labor
  • Optimize one thing at a time[3] - goals likely vary in (expected) value greatly, so you should probably only be optimizing one major thing at a time, or taking on one major project at a time; if you aren't sure what to optimize, optimize for figuring that out
  1. ^

    Thanks to Oli Habryka for this heuristic.

  2. ^

    Whether it is better to primarily focus on making the productivity of your future work better (e.g. via learning, trying lots of things, building skills, etc.) depends on the discount rate of EA or longtermist labor, how long you plant to spend on maximizing learning, and how much more productive you can get per year.

  3. ^

    Of course, this has exceptions; for instance, it is often possible to reach diminishing returns on one goal such that marginal effort is better allocated toward another goal. Even so, I (Jack) think many people around me tend to optimize for more things at once than is optimal, but invite further discussion about this question.





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This is great! Here are a few more (though some of these overlap a lot with the ones you've listed):

Explore-- Do something that allows you to get exposed to different kinds of tasks, skills, and people. (Seems especially useful early on when thinking about fit. Also lets people find things that they might not have been able to brainstorm or might have prematurely ruled out). Exploring in sprints may be better than exploring 3-5 things at once (consistent with "optimize one thing at a time").

Leaveability-- Do something that allows you to leave if you find something better. 

Anticipate the bottlenecks of the future-- Think about which skills will be the bottleneck in 3-5 years. Learn those. (This is a theme explored in High Output Management).

The average of five-- Consider the heuristic "you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." Who are the people you would be spending the most time with, and how would you feel about becoming more like them? (Shoutout to Jake McKinnon for discussing this with me recently).

Location-- Do something that allows you to work in a location that satisfies you professionally and emotionally. I think it's easy to underestimate how much location can affect people (especially when location is tied so strongly to community/mentorship-- e.g., EA hubs).

Regarding bottleneck skills of the future - I think one skill here is understanding network science. (In progress notes here :D)

A lot of people are decentralising _________ these days :D But network scientists have clear ways to measure the 'degree' of decentralisation and the pros/cons of that degree. Ex: Resiliency to shocks, speed of decision-making, stability of connections. 

I think that'll be more useful in scaling/maintaining decentralised _______ instead of starting decentralised _______.

Thanks for this list, it's a great framework for starting to think through career choices, and I appreciated your inclusion of both immediate impact and late-career impact. I am curious about the bullet point on "Shower thoughts - do something that you will think about in the shower or while you are falling asleep." Is this meant to reflect or indicate deep personal interest in a certain subject area, so that you would be thinking about it even during personal time and potentially make more progress?  Would this be equivalent to "Maximize personal interests and passions?" Or is it more about targeting large-scale thorny problems that are so challenging or preoccupying that they will prompt deeper engagement? Either way, I think it's important to consider these points against the "mental well being" heuristic. 

Also, it seemed to me that "moments of progress" (which has already been further explained in the comments) could be correlated with "flexibility in work modes and approaches" so that individuals could maximize their particular skills and overall impact? So, for example, those who work best in teams and with input from others could maximize that approach, whereas those who prefer other modes could have the freedom to work in their own way? 

Could you please explain the "moments of progress" in your life? I didn't quite understand :/

"Moments of progress - notice where progress happens in your life and find a career path that integrates those"

Edit: my best guess is that you're referring to doing actions that turn out to help you in moments of your life where you have a high 'activation potential'. Ex: When you're in university and have a lot of talented people to work with. Ex: When you're going to be at a conference and have a lot of experts in one field to learn from. 

[comment deleted]10

I'm confused by

Be a founder - do something that involves starting a company

what is the added value of starting a company? I mean, if what you want to do is not done by anyone, badly done, you think you could do it better, etc, it makes total sense. But I don't think that founding a company intrinsically adds value. Additionally, starting a company is something with high risk of failure and so overwhelming that you basically cannot do anything for quite a long time.

Another thing is choosing a path to impact that is being a serial entrepreneur: starting one company has a high risk of failure, but also high expected returns if you succeed. Being a serial entrepreneur leverages on the experience obtained during all the possible failures to eventually achieve high returns. I'm really not sure that, on average, the experience obtained by starting a (one) company --unless you have a great idea that maximises the options to succeed-- outweighs the opportunity costs it entails.

[First comment was written without reading the rest of your comment. This is in reply to the rest.]

Re: whether a company adds intrinsic value, I agree, it isn't necessarily counterfactually good, but also that's sort of the point of a heuristic -- most likely you can think of cases where all of these heuristics fail; by prescribing a heuristic, I don't mean to say the heuristic always holds, instead just that using the heuristic v.s. not happens to, on average, lead to better outcomes.

Serial entrepreneur seems to also be a decent heuristic.


"I don't mean to say the heuristic always holds" I understand that, I'm not going that way.

"on average, lead to better outcomes" That's what in this case I don't see. Starting a company entails a large opportunity cost --you can basically not do anything else for a period of time-- coupled with a large chance of failing. My intuition is that, as a general advice, it may well be net negative, at least as personal advise.

Now I see that it may well not be net negative in the aggregate if the successful instances more than compensate the failures, so it may be a good community heuristic. Was that your idea?

When I read the post, I interpreted this list as heuristics addressed to individuals, not community heuristics.

I haven't thought about it deeply, but the main thing I was thinking here was that I think founders get the plurality of credit for the output of a company, partly because I just intuitively believe this, and partly because, apparently, not many people found things. This is an empirical claim, and it could be false e.g. in worlds where everyone tries to be a founder, and companies never grow, but my guess is that the EA community is not in that world. So this heuristic tracks (to some degree) high counterfactual impact/neglectedness.

I really like this list and think it will be helpful for me!
Do you have thoughts on the relative importance of these various heuristics? Maybe something like a heuristic for which heuristics are most important for one's situation?

Also, you wrote:

Scale, number helped - do something that impacts many people positively
Scale, degree helped - do something that impacts people to a great positive degree

I'd like to point out that "people" doesn't quite capture who EA is trying to help (considering that we strive to do what's impartially good, we arguably ought to reject speciesism and substratism, thus also taking into consideration minds that are non-human and/or digital and/or "???").
I'm not sure what's the best term to use (also depends on the situation in which you use one of the terms), but "sentient beings" / "sentient minds" / "moral patients" seem like terms that  better capture what EA as a community is concerned with.

  • Team smarter than you - join a team where most people are smarter than you

Couldn't you argue that your marginal impact is less here than in a case where you're the smartest in the team?

This heuristic is meant to be a way of finding good opportunities to learn (which is a way to invest in yourself to improve your future impact) and it’s not meant to be perfect.

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