This post is cross posted on my blog

People often look to others that they deem particularly productive and successful and come up with (often fairly ungrounded) guesses for how these people accomplish so much. Instead of guessing, I want to give a peek behind the curtain. 

I interviewed eleven people I thought were particularly successful, relatable, or productive. We discussed topics ranging from productivity to career exploration to self-care. 

The Peak behind the Curtain interview series is meant to help dispel common myths and provide a variety of takes on success and productivity from real people. To that end, I’ve grouped responses on common themes to showcase a diversity of opinions on these topics. 

This first post covers “Have you ever doubted whether you're good enough to pursue your career?” and other personal struggles.

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My guests include: 

  • Abigail Olvera was a U.S. diplomat last working at the China Desk. Abi was formerly stationed at the US Embassies in Egypt and Senegal and holds a Master's of Global Affairs from Yale University. Full interview
  • Ajeya Cotra is a Senior Research Analyst at Open Philanthropy where she worked on a framework for estimating when transformative AI may be developed, as well as various cause prioritization and worldview diversification projects. Ajeya received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley. Full interview
  • Ben Garfinkel was a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the time of the interview. He is now the Acting Director of the Centre for the Governance of AI. Ben earned a degree in Physics and in Mathematics and Philosophy from Yale University, before deciding to study for a DPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Full interview
  • Daniel Ziegler researched AI safety at OpenAI. He has since left to do AI safety research at Redwood Research. Full interview
  • Eva Vivalt did an Economics Ph.D. and Mathematics M.A. at the University of California, Berkeley after a master’s in Development Studies at Oxford University. She then worked at the World Bank for two years and founded AidGrade before finding her way back to academia. Full interview
  • Gregory Lewis is a DPhil Scholar at the Future of Humanity Institute, where he investigates long-run impacts and potential catastrophic risk from advancing biotechnology. Previously, he was an academic clinical fellow in public health medicine and before that a junior doctor. He holds a master’s in public health and a medical degree, both from Cambridge University. Full interview
  • Helen Toner is Director of Strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET). She previously worked as a Senior Research Analyst at Open Philanthropy. She is a member of the board of directors for OpenAI. Helen holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown. Full interview not available. 
  • Jade Leung is Governance Lead at OpenAI. She was the inaugural Head of Research & Partnerships with the Centre for the Governance of Artificial Intelligence (GovAI), housed at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. She completed her DPhil in AI Governance at the University of Oxford and is a Rhodes scholar. Full interview
  • Julia Wise serves as a contact person for the effective altruism community and helps local and online groups support their members. She serves on the board of GiveWell and writes about effective altruism at Giving Gladly. She was president of Giving What We Can from 2017-2020. Before joining CEA, Julia was a social worker, and studied sociology at Bryn Mawr College. Full interview
  • Michelle Hutchinson holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Oxford, where her thesis was on global priorities research. While completing that, she did the operational set-up of the Centre for Effective Altruism and then became Executive Director of Giving What We Can. She is currently the Assistant Director of One-on-One Programme at 80,000 Hours. Full interview
  • Rohin Shah is a Research Scientist at DeepMind studying methods that allow us to build AI systems that pursue the objectives their users intend them to pursue, rather than the objectives that were literally specified. Rohin completed his PhD at the Center for Human-Compatible AI at UC Berkeley and publishes the Alignment Newsletter to summarize work relevant to AI alignment. Full interview

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The interviews were done in late 2020 and early 2021, and may no longer accurately represent all of the guests’ views. 

The following quotes have been cleaned up and condensed from the original interviews, and then checked with the original speaker. Quotes have been grouped by common themes, but not necessarily the question they were said in response to. 

These answers were given during spoken interviews, usually without preparation, and transcribed. You can view many of the full interviews to see the quotes in context and read more about the guests’ experience and perspective. 

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Have you ever had doubts about whether you're good enough to pursue your career?

It’s hard to evaluate how good you are until you have experience under your belt 

Yes. I've definitely had doubts like that and sometimes reality is not graded on a curve, so I don't know if I'm good enough in some absolute sense, even now. 

I feel like the stress that I feel from that has gone down over time. Just being here longer and having more things under my belt basically and noticing. I think when I'm in a wandering the desert phase, I’m especially likely to feel like I'm not good at the role. When you're new, you don't have very many cycles of that under your belt. It doesn't feel like a thing that's part of a cycle and that can be very demoralizing.

I feel like I'm more chilled out about it now because I'm like, "This happens and I'm probably going to be in this place for three months," but I've had so many three-month periods now and I kind of expect to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That was much less true when I was new and I didn't know if there would be this other higher energy, higher conviction period at all.

Ajeya Cotra

It matters more whether it would be better if no one was doing this work 

It’s not something I hugely fear either way. I feel like maybe there’s some underlying sense that you could be stealing a job from someone better suited if you're not good enough. I never really felt that. If there are people out there who think they could do my job better than me, they should definitely get in touch. 

But if I start to review my CV and what I've done so far, it compares reasonably well or favorably to other folks doing similar sorts of positions in the EA community. I don't feel like I'm out of place on the objective merits.

I guess the other worry would be, of course, whether I'm just way below the level which this job needs because of how important the work it's doing is. I guess that might be true in a sense. It's definitely the case that I want a much smarter person than me doing the work I'm doing, but that can't be helped. 

Similarly, though I guess maybe my ego would disagree, I also feel I wouldn't be hugely perturbed if I couldn't do some massively important thing or some potentially massively important thing. 

I think if it turns out – if I wake up one morning, I get like Nick Bostrom and all my colleagues telling me, "Greg, well, thanks for what you've done, but we've unfortunately come to the realization that you are so far below the bar of this work, that it's really better that you just quit and do something else." Well, it would be surprising, and disappointing, but I wouldn’t feel like it’s a big disaster for how my life would go. 

Greg Lewis

Address what the doubts are about, then let them go

I think often I feel those. A recurring theme for me is trying not to just ignore or suppress bad emotions of various kinds, but trying to really think about, "Well, is there a true thing motivating this? What can I learn from it?" Then trying to extract that value or digest that intuition or something, and then try and let the feeling go.

I guess what that looks like in this case is really trying to think through like, "Well, why do I feel like I'm not equipped for the role I'm in, or the situation I'm in, or something?” Can I do a quick reference class check of, "Who else is in this situation?" and like, "Am I lacking important skills that those people have?" or, "What might be needed here?" and, "Should I be preparing differently?" or in dramatic cases, withdrawing from the situation if I'm really not qualified or whatever?

I think that's part of how I cope with it. Part of how I cope with it is knowing that a lot of people feel this way and that even people that I think are incredibly impressive, and obviously impressive, sometimes feel this way. 

Helen Toner

It just doesn’t seem useful to think about all that frequently

I don’t think about this much on a day to day basis. It's definitely not because I'm super confident that I could do all the things that are on my plate. I think it's more driven from a place of like, "I think it's quite counterproductive to spend that much time mulling things like that over." I think it's obviously important to be calibrated about my abilities and to pursue careers that are actually within reason for me to be able to do well. I think the data for that comes from bigger data points rather than the day-to-day data. 

Jade Leung

Reality isn’t a teacher’s test

One angle that's gotten easier for me over time is I don't need to figure thing out on my own. These problems and projects weren't given to me by my teacher, so there's no guarantee that they're solvable. 

I should not be surprised if I've set impossible tasks for myself, and it should always be a hypothesis that I have. It should be a salient hypothesis. That kind of self-confidence is valuable. Maybe it's the task's fault. I don't know, this isn't an exam. It's not like you "should" be able to do this thing. 

Ajeya Cotra

More doubts about whether my research can be impactful  

I think for research specifically, I don't think I've had super strong personal doubts. To the extent that I've had doubts, the main category is things that more along lines of not being productive or disciplined enough. It often seems that top researchers (far from always but it seems like often) have very high output and that sort of thing.

I've also had the general concern about how useful is research generally or how useful is this research I'm doing, "Will anything actually come of it?" or "Can you actually figure anything out?" or “Are large swaths of different academic areas mostly bunk and no one actually knows anything and the methods are not legitimate?” I've had that sense of anxiety. I've had the sense of anxiety being overly undisciplined.

I don't think I've had that much of like, "Can I, if I buckle down, produce at least good enough for being in the field research?" I think that early positive feedback was probably quite helpful for that. I’ve had these other forms of anxiety to a larger degree.

Ben Garfinkel 

I made life choices not to do the really intense thing 

I think there have certainly been times where the workplace I was in was much more intense-feeling. For example, when some of my co-workers were doing Y Combinator, that is just a whole intense world. I think visiting them and seeing the insane number of hours that you put in during a project like that or the early stages of a start-up, it makes me realize like, "Oh, people do really put in way, way more time than I am putting in." At the time, I had two children under the age of three, and it was just not a time when I was planning to work a million hours.

I think that that was maybe the time in my life where I was most like, "Wow, other people really can do this whole thing, and I guess I could if I had to or if I were different somehow." I never put myself in a like Y Combinator or start-up type position where you need to just put in a ton of hours, because I think I would hate it, and also, I have little kids. So I've just made choices that are incompatible with that.

Julia Wise 

What were the biggest struggles you had in getting to where you are?

Failing again and again until I succeeded 

Although that [winning the Pickering Fellowship[ sounds easier than what it actually was. There were a lot of other scholarships that I applied to and was always either just flat out rejected or sometimes I was final round but not the finalist. It was always hard to see those rejections and be like, "I'm always just good enough but not quite there." Then there was this final one that was right. I was right for them and they were right for me. That's all I actually needed.

Abi Olvera

Figuring out what to do after college 

I think the time at the end of college when I was trying to figure out what to do, through the time when I got hired at OpenAI-- Honestly, it was a pretty rough period of my life. AI safety seemed probably really important although I didn't fully understand the arguments at the time. I think one thing that was particularly rough is that I didn't really feel I had people around me to even discuss these things that well with. 

I also think I didn't take advantage of some resources that I did have, like I definitely knew people in the space and I knew EAs and I certainly could have reached out more and built more friendships that gave me some more confidence in my thinking and my plans and improved and refined those. I spent a long time trying to decide whether I even wanted to accept my PhD offers because I didn't really feel like I was prepared to do a PhD.

In hindsight, I think I was, as long as my expectations were a little bit lower. I think I should have expected to spend quite a bit of time just skilling up in ML and getting started on some research project even if it wasn’t AI safety-relevant. But at the time it felt like this was a thing that seemed very daunting to me and people were telling me, “you should totally be qualified for this.” It seems very reasonable so I went for it, but it did seem pretty daunting. I'd taken a grand total of like one ML class maybe and plus a special January class and didn't really feel I was prepared.

Daniel Ziegler 

Not knowing what the hell I was doing for two years 

I think probably the biggest one was just for at least one year and probably more like two, I was in AI safety and I felt like I was floundering around not knowing what the hell I was doing. That's a long time to be floundering around and not knowing what you're doing. I think had it not been the case that I could see everyone else also floundering around and not knowing what they were doing, I might've given up.

Rohin Shah

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"Jade is Governance Lead at OpenAI" you seem to be missing the surname here.

Fixed! Thanks for catching that.