80,000 Hours has just released two interviews with Holden Karnofsky (the co-founder of GiveWell), in which we discuss: (i) should effective altruists mainly aim to be good at their jobs rather than pick paths that seems 'high-impact' (ii) to what extent do the results of GiveWell Labs apply to effective altruists choosing careers.

The full interviews are here and here. I've pasted the main points Holden made here:

 

Personal fit

  • Your degree of “fit” with a role depends on your chances of ultimately excelling in the role if you work at hard at it, arising from the match between yourself and the requirements of the role.
  • Holden believes that if you want to make a difference, seeking out roles with which you have a high degree of fit should be a top priority, especially early in your career. This is because:
  • Fit is easier to judge than many other factors, such as how much immediate impact you have, which means it’s easier to improve your degree of fit over time.
  • It’s harder to change your career ‘role’ than your cause later in your career. For instance, if you become a great salesperson, it’s relatively easy to transition into an organisation that works on a different cause, but much harder to become great at some other skill. This means that early in your career it’s more important to figure out what types of roles suit you than what cause to support early in your career.
  • There’s huge, robust benefits from being good at your job including (i) better career capital – “it gives you a better learning experience, better personal development, better overall status, better overall opportunities” – (ii) higher impact within your field.
  • Excelling at what you do is one of the most important rules of thumb for having more impact, partly because a lot of the world’s impact comes from extreme cases, so your chances of being an extreme case may dominate your expected impact. In particular, extreme impact often arises from innovation – spotting ideas others haven’t – and this is more likely when you’re at the top of your field.
  • Some other criteria that are important early in your career are: (i) the general status of the option (ii) the pay (iii) how much you’ll learn about yourself and your other options from taking this option.

 

Cause selection

  • If a cause is on the Open Philanthropy Project’s list, that’s an extra reason to seek a job in that area.
  • However, if a cause isn’t on the list, it may still be promising, especially if you have good personal fit with the area. Personal fit may often overwhelm considerations about the general effectiveness of a cause.
  • There can be other differences between the causes that are most promising for philanthropists and those that are most promising for job seekers. For instance, since OPP’s causes are often constrained by a lack of money, it may be difficult to get a job within them.
  • Some ideas for causes OPP isn’t investigating, but at first glance still look promising for job seekers include: environment and climate change, scientific research, for-profit work (especially in innovative areas), and foreign relations.
  • OPP aren’t highly likely to drastically change their list of causes (especially within global catastrophic risks and political advocacy) for at least two to three years.
  • If you want to make a difference in the for-profit world, avoid activities that make money through (i) zero-sum games (ii) addiction (iii) a marketing-first approach. If you’ve cleared those filters, then ask (i) is this scalable? (ii) does it make people’s lives better in a significant way? (iii) are you good at this activity?

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Very helpful, thanks! I'd not heard of the OPP before.

I'm a bit confused on the last bullet, though. What would making a difference in the for-profit world look like? I mainly don't understand why scalability is important, or really what it is.

Scalability means how strongly you are limited by your available resources, as opposed to e.g. demand for your service.

Websites are very scalable because it takes very few resources to serve an extra person. Making houses is not very scalable (currently).

So in other words, prefer activities that help more people with less work?

Paul Polak is the guru for for-profit solutions to poverty and the importance of focusing on scalability. He has a couple books and a website and lots of videos on Youtube -- I highly recommend him.

Scalability means how easily/financially-sustainably something can be spread. Charities are limited with their interventions because every person they help costs them, but socially-beneficial businesses that make profit (ie Nokero) are unlimited because they can keep on growing and spreading to help more and more people through selling their products or services. And then there's charities like One Acre Fund that are mostly but not fully compensated by their own clients, putting them in between the two.