Snapshot of a career choice 10 years ago

by Julia_Wise5 min read23rd Sep 202111 comments

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History of effective altruismCommunity experiencesCareer choice
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Here’s a little episode from EA’s history, about how much EA career advice has changed over time.

Ten years ago, I wrote an angsty LessWrong post called “Career choice for a utilitarian giver.” (“Effective altruism” and “earning to give” didn’t exist as terms at that point.) 

At the time, there was a lot less funding in EA, and the emphasis was very much on donation rather than direct work. Donation was the main way I was hoping to have an impact. I was studying to become a social worker, but I had become really worried that I should try for some higher-earning career so I could donate more. 

I thought becoming a psychiatrist was my best career option, since it paid significantly more than the social work career I was on track towards, and I thought I could be good at it. I prioritized donation very highly, and I estimated that going into medicine would allow me to earn enough to save 2500 lives more than I could by staying on the same path. (That number is pretty far wrong, but it’s what I thought at the time.) The other high-earning options I could think of seemed to require quantitative skills I didn’t have, or a level of ambition and drive I didn’t have.

A few people did suggest that I might work on movement building, but for some reason it didn’t seem like a realistic option to me. There weren’t existing projects that I could slot into, and I’m not much of an entrepreneurial type.

The post resulted in me talking to a career advisor from a project that would eventually become 80,000 Hours. The advisor and I talked about how I might switch fields and try to get into medical school. I was trying not to be swayed by the sunk cost of the social work education I had already completed, but I also just really didn’t want to go through medical school and residency. 

My strongest memory of that period is lying on the grass at my grad school, feeling awful about not being willing to put the years of work into earning more money. There were lives at stake. I was going to let thousands of people die from malaria because I didn’t want to work hard and go to medical school. I felt horribly guilty. And I also thought horrible guilt was not going to be enough to motivate me through eight years of intense study and residency.

After a few days of crisis, I decided to stop thinking about it all the time. I didn’t exactly make a conclusive decision, but I didn’t take any steps to get into med school, and after a few more weeks it was clear to me that I had no real intention to change paths. So I continued to study social work, with the belief that I was doing something seriously wrong. (To be clear, nobody was telling me I should feel this way, but I wasn’t living up to my own standards.)

In the meantime, I started writing Giving Gladly and continued hosting dinners at my house where people could discuss this kind of thing. The Boston EA group grew out of that. 

It didn’t occur to me that I could work for an EA organization without moving cities. But four years later, CEA was looking for someone to do community work in EA and was willing to consider someone remote. Because of my combination of EA organizing, writing, and experience in social work, I turned out to be a good fit. I was surprised that they were willing to hire someone remote. Although I struggled at first to work out what exactly I should be doing, over time it was clear to me that I could be much more useful here than either in social work or earning to give.

I don’t think there’s a clear moral of the story about what this means other people should do, but here are some reflections:

  • I look back on this and think, wow, we had very little idea how to make good use of a person like me. I wonder how many other square pegs are out there trying to fit into round holes? Since that was the very beginning of career advising in EA, I expect people get much better advice now. But I do often tell this story when I meet someone who’s feeling like a failure because they haven’t found a good career niche — that’s just how I felt 10 years ago. And a few years later I found a role that I think was a remarkably good fit for me.
  • Blogging turned out to be a good way to connect with people even before I found particularly useful work. Well before I ever traveled to Oxford or the Bay Area, I knew a lot of EAs in part through my writing. I don’t know how to quantify its effect, but I think it’s had more impact (via encouraging others) than my actual donations.
  • The advisor and I didn’t take movement building work nearly as seriously as we should have. Maybe they didn’t have enough information about whether I would be good at it to recommend it to me — after all, if I had done a bad job or pushed out a better organizer, that would have had a negative impact. But I should have tried it out more to get a sense for whether I could have done a good job.
  • I was probably too attached to getting a normal paid job at an organization. My husband and I could do fine on one income and had health insurance through his work, so even without getting paid I could have created my own job doing EA outreach or community-building. I don’t think this would have gone great, because I wasn’t used to figuring out projects to work on without someone else directing me, and once I was at CEA I still wasn’t very good at this. But it would have been worth trying.

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Tangentially related: I would love to see a book of career decision worked examples. Rather than 80k's cases, which often read like biographies or testimonials, these would go deeper on the problem of choosing jobs and activities. They would present a person (real or hypothetical), along with a snapshot of their career plans and questions. Then, once the reader has formulated some thoughts, the book would outline what it would advise, what that might depend on, and what career outcomes occurred in similar cases.

A lot of fields are often taught in a case-based fashion, including medicine, poker, ethics, and law. Often, a reader can make good decisions  in problems they encounter by interpolating between cases, even when they would struggle to analyse these problems analytically. Some of my favourite books have a case-based style, such as An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. It's not always the most efficient way to learn, but it's pretty fun.

I agree more case studies would be great. Unfortunately I don't think producing them is going to be at the top of our stack at 80k for at least a year - right now we're focused on producing content aimed at attracting new readers, and we haven't generally found this type of material is the best for that.

If someone on the forum would like to write a study of their own career though (or interview someone else), I think that could be a pretty useful piece of content. We'd be interested in incorporating them into our planning process, which could really use more worked examples (and could later develop into the practical kind of book you're outlining).

More people should write posts like these!! Do you think it would be helpful for people to write posts at the beginning of the 10 years? Like how they are thinking about their decisions, with the intent of revisiting in 10 years? That might be an easier way to get material if you don't mind waiting 10 years, haha

Just want to uplift Julia's role writ large in setting a standard for generosity, whether it's direct giving, in  building community, or in generosity of spirit. 

Always grateful to see your words here.

I think this is a good example of how career advice is mainly about funneling people to thinks that currently exist and are sufficiently scaled to take new people, but often the best thing to do is go to something that does not exist yet. Similarly, it's not a good idea to plan a career ten years into the future, especially when you are young, because things change too fast in hard to predict ways.

Yes, this!! I would be very interested in talking to more people who are preparing themselves (building career capital, for example) for a project that doesn't exist yet. If this is you (or has been you in the past), please send me a message! There's a lot more uncertainty in a path like this, but I think more people doing it really raises the bar for what can be possible for EA to accomplish.

I just wanted to say that I always enjoy your posts, Julia :) . It's so nice to hear people honestly talk about the mental struggles of discovering your limits and how much you can sustainably give to this world - so many of us still struggle with this. All the best!

Thank you for sharing this! Your and Jeff's EA meetups were my first introduction to the EA community more broadly, and the warm and welcoming tone that you set made a real difference. And in a space that often felt very male and STEM-dominant, it really helped to have another woman to talk to from a direct-work background. You've done so much good for the community, work that may not have been possible if you had ignored your instincts way back then. 

And I appreciate your candor; I know I tend to assume that people who have been more successful weren't wracked with doubt in the past. It definitely helps provide some perspective. 

Thank you for sharing this and for normalizing uncertainty. I’m glad that you landed with your feet on the ground and your head and heart intact!

Lovely! This reminds me a lot of Holden talking about the "readiness to switch", where you've built up something you're good at, and then, when you find out how it's useful, you have the ability (material, psychological, etc) to switch.

This is exactly what I wanted to read today as I make the hard choice to pivot in my career. Thank you for being so real!