Hide table of contents

It’s just so valuable to have someone who’s totally on board with the mission of the organisation they’re working for, and happy to do just absolutely whatever matters.



The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

The advice is particularly targeted at people whose approach to doing good aligns with the values of the effective altruism (EA) community, but we expect most of it is more broadly useful.

This is the eighth in this series of posts with anonymous answers. Other entries have asked:

  1. “Is there any career advice you’d be hesitant to give if it were going to be attributed to you?”
  2. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  3. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”
  4. “If you were 18 again, what would you do differently this time around?” And other personal career reflections.”
  5. “How risk averse should talented young people be?”
  6. “What bad habits do you see among people trying to improve the world?”
  7. “What mistakes do people most often make when deciding what work to do?”


Why we're compiling career advice and allowing people to answer anonymously

In April 2019 we posted some anonymous career advice from someone who wasn’t able to go on the record with their opinions. It was well received, so we thought we’d try a second round, this time interviewing a larger number of people we think have had impressive careers so far.

It seems like a lot of successful people have interesting thoughts that they’d rather not share with their names attached, on sensitive and mundane topics alike, and for a variety of reasons. For example, they might be reluctant to share personal opinions if some readers would interpret them as “officially” representing their organizations.

As a result we think it’s valuable to provide a platform for people to share their ideas without attribution.

The other main goal is to showcase a diversity of opinions on these topics. This collection includes advice that members of the 80,000 Hours team disagree with (sometimes very strongly). But we think our readers need to keep in mind that reasonable people can disagree on many of these difficult questions.

We chose these interviewees because we admire their work. Many (but not all) share our views on the importance of the long-term future, and some work on problems we think are particularly important.

This advice was given during spoken interviews, usually without preparation, and transcribed by us. We have sometimes altered the tone or specific word choice of the original answers, and then checked that with the original speaker.

As always, we don’t think you should ever put much weight on any single piece of advice. The views of 80,000 Hours, and of our interviewees, will often turn out to be mistaken.

What’s one way to be successful you don’t think people talk about enough?

Take motivation seriously

Maybe the most useful advice I’ve ever had was someone telling me to think about my motivational fit with job options as opposed to personal fit.

Not being concerned with an outside list of “What skills does this position need?”, but instead “How do I feel about the prospect of working at this place for 8 hours a day for years?”

Take seriously what you actually feel motivated by.

To really enjoy what you’re doing — to be sure that you’ve found the right job. When you do this, people can tell — you’ll look like you’re enjoying your best life, and I think that’s inspiring for others.

Be willing to do whatever matters

It’s just so valuable to have someone who’s totally on board with the mission of the organisation they’re working for, and happy to do just absolutely whatever matters.

Because most people aren’t really like that.

When you are a manager, and you have to manage someone where you need to think not only about “what’s the best thing for this person to do with respect to the organisation?”, but also need to consider the idiosyncratic ways in which they’re kind of fussy — it massively increases management overhead, and can quite drastically decrease usefulness.

Whereas someone who thinks “I don’t really care about what title I have, I don’t really care what I do, I just want to advance the mission of the organisation” is just way more valuable. Often many times more valuable.

My guess is that this works better too in terms of advancing your career.

You start to learn skills on the things that are actually most valuable, and you just get the reputation of someone who really gets stuff done — no matter what that stuff is.

In effective altruism (EA), there’s a further consideration. If there’s any career capital that’s zero sum — titles can be like this — then altruistically speaking there’s just nothing to gain from you getting that over someone else.

Unless the zero sum thing is a way of rewarding genuine contributions. Most senior people in an organisation should get better titles. But if you’re not that senior, yet you get a better title anyway — you’ve just deflated the value of other people’s titles. Maybe it’s net-harmful — it’s certainly not net-positive.

Be relentless at pitching ideas

Try to get the least important role at the place you most admire — then try to move up the ladder. Whenever you get the chance, be relentless at pitching ideas. Even if the ideas are terrible, it displays motivation and ambition, and it’s always easier for bosses to hire from within the company.

Improve the performance of others

Being successful in roles that involve supporting others: we probably don’t talk about this enough. At the same time, I think it’s really important that the person wants to be in a support role. Because I don’t want it to be the case that people start talking about how great it is to have people in support roles, even if they don’t want to be there.

And I think those roles are in fact very skilled. I’ve known amazing people who were personal assistants, or who are doing administrative work for organisations, and I don’t want it to be seen as some second-rate thing. They’re really important roles, and they’re probably undervalued, but only go into it if you’re good at it, and you’d enjoy it.

One certainly would be helping to improve the performance of someone else, I’m sure that’ll be significantly undersupplied because it’s not something that a community tends to admire.

I’m a big fan of broadening the ways to be an EA. It’s mainly focused on direct work, and earning-to-give. In addition to effective volunteering, there’s this concept of enabling an EA. It’s sometimes talked about in the context of being a personal assistant to a high-impact person — buying more X person time.

But another way of doing that is by being a partner of an EA — and being happy to take on more responsibility in terms of running a house than you would have been otherwise, specifically to buy your partner more time to do high-impact work.1 This is particularly controversial if discussed in the context of a wife taking on more housework than her husband — it can ignite a whole discussion of gender roles etc. But it really is about comparative advantage. It isn’t discussed much, but it can be important.

Become a fundraiser

In EA, we never really talk about fundraising as a career path. If you’re a good people-person, and are fine with asking for money — you could add huge value as a good fundraiser. It’s often easier to convince other people with money to donate to high-impact causes, rather than to make the money yourself.

Have important conversations with friends

Getting someone else to do good things. It could quite easily be the case that most of the social impact in your life comes down to a single conversation with someone you just happened to be friends with, who ends up becoming extremely wealthy or extremely influential, and you’re then able to connect them to the right people. And that’s pretty weird — the entire value of your career can end up coming from who you happen to know. That can be kind of disheartening, but I think it can be true.

I would include talking to your friends about EA as part of effective volunteering.

Do something really well that others in your community can’t

One thing is diversifying EA. When we tell everyone to take certain careers, there’s a risk that we’re going to really need a particular skill that we haven’t thought of yet. It might be extremely important to have people doing a wide variety of things; we might look back and think “thank God that there’s this one person who has this skill”.

A few years ago, I don’t think people anticipated the importance of having people who are good at information security, communications, operations, management, and executive skills.

A lot of times just being good at something allows you to pick up good management and executive skills that do transfer. So a lot of times when someone has managed a team for a long time, they add something valuable to EA.

In general, it’s really good to be able to do something really well that other EAs are not able to do. I’ve often wished that I could find an EA person who does X, where X is something that EAs don’t value a lot — but they don’t exist.

Do high-impact academic research

You really can do high-impact research as a professor. If you build the right relationships, you can publish a lot in conventional areas by being co-author on papers without that much effort, especially if you can help non-native English speakers with writing. Usually you will have a review before your official tenure review, perhaps after three or four years of starting as an assistant professor.

So you will have an idea whether you will get tenure, so you could try to switch to another university if things are not going well. And even if you don’t get tenure, you can generally get it at a lesser university. If there is some chance of value drift, then you want to prioritize impact in the near term. Perhaps later as EA issues attract more attention, there will be more professor positions actually related to the high impact topics, making switching universities easier and maybe even moving up in rank.

Take chances for generic success

If you have an opportunity to be successful in a fairly generic way, that can position you pretty well in the future, even if it doesn’t seem like the most effective thing now. Say that you wrote something really good, and someone wants to turn it into a book, and it seems like you could in fact do that really well — but you think, “will this book actually be useful, or effective?”

I think general success can lead to further success; it can create future options.

Establish close working relationships

Maybe long-term working relationships between more than one person — could be collaborations or partnerships, could be where one person is leading and another is supporting. Sometimes you have a vision, and someone else who’s helping to execute on that.

I think people think of individuals as a unit — something that moves around, and takes jobs. But there are some famous collaborators. Kahneman and Tversky are a good example.

Married couples have been collaborators too. There are various cases where one person is the public face of the work and gets all of the credit, and historically that’s been the man in a way we’d now rightfully be uncomfortable with. But I think there is a real potential upside in establishing a close working relationship.

Be patient when switching careers

Taking time out to make a career switch. It’s not discussed a lot, it can be tricky, but having advice on precisely how to do that would be valuable.

Teach yourself

For people doing their undergrad, identify and get a handle on broad, useful tools. I can never over-recommend probability and statistics. You don’t even need to do a course in, say, informal logic — you could just order a bunch of books off Amazon and teach yourself.

Sometimes it’s okay to neglect some classes at school in order to focus on more important skills that you’re teaching yourself. You’re going to get worse grades for some subjects, but ultimately the skills you build will likely be worth it — often it’s really valuable to build them early.

Actually talk to people

Talk with people. I’m always amazed how often people who have experience are willing to give you five minutes, and that’s usually worth more than anything you’re likely to find online. If you want to go to grad school for a specific subject, try to find someone who went to grad school for that subject. (But try not to be disappointed if they don’t have time!)

Consider earning to give

I’m not crazy about earning-to-give careers — but I think if you have really strong quant skills, joining a hedge fund with a view to eventually donating millions of dollars is probably underappreciated if your cause area needs extra funding, or at least a more diverse funding base.

Develop good people skills

Frankly, I’ve seen a lot of people get ahead by having good people skills, even in academia. There are loads of smart people who want to go into academia. Being smart isn’t enough. Smart plus good social skills is one way to tip the balance. Another is good time management, but we do talk about that one quite a bit.

Just do things

Actually just do the thing you’re interested in. If you’re interested in ML, start building. If you want to work on policy, start writing about it.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

The number of people working on things outside the overton window is sharply limited by being able and willing to risk being unsuccessful.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities