Response to Aaron Gertler's You should write about your job.
I've been writing since September 1st, 2020, initially about voting and mechanism design, then about an increasingly varied assortment of topics ranging from the importance of economic growth within an EA framework, to the organization of research institutions and more generic career advice.
The blog has been moderately successful in terms of attracting attention from people I respect without causing any major scandals or other negative effects.
I occasionally have some interruptions, but mostly work on the blog full time.
Some skills I've developed include:
Self-management: I have no deadlines, no manager, and generally speaking, no accountability. If I don't choose to do something, it won't get done. The sub-skills include finding good ideas for posts, prioritizing them correctly, avoiding distractions, and actually executing and "shipping". Anecdotally, many of the people I talk to seem to be held back here, whether they're blogging, starting a company or just trying to take a hobby more seriously. If all I got out of the last 9 months was this skill, it all would have been worth it.
Patience: It's one thing to build intuitions for exponential growth, another to actually follow through and make investments on long time scales. Since we're systematically over-exposed to successful blog posts, your view of success is likely distorted, and it will take far longer than you think to become a good writer and to get noticed.
Writing: This sounds obvious, but it's worth noting that you don't already have to be a good writer. The critical thing is not just practice, but having feedback loops, mentorship and goals. Many bloggers have public contact info, and will happily read your draft.
Talking to people: I started blogging in part because I hated lockdown-era Zoom calls, and just wanted to avoid meetings and work alone in peace. Recently, as I've ramped up on more rigorous research projects, I've had to proactively reach out to more senior researchers, ask them for introductions and email authors for clarification or feedback. I was pretty bad at this initially, and would just publish without talking to a single person, even if I was a total amateur in a field with several readily-accessible experts. Since then, I've gotten a lot better at figuring out who to talk to, which questions to ask them, and then actually taking the time to do it.
These are all skills I've developed during the course of blogging, but you can also see them as (very soft) pre-requisites. If you're really terrible at self-management, blogging might not be a good career. The degree to which this is true depends on your views on growth mindset, your own learning ability, etc. I wrote here that several prominent bloggers were "losers" in some sense in their previous endeavors, and so you shouldn't let failure in some other domain discourage you.
Blogging can be an end-unto-itself, but can also be a useful and low-cost way to earn a formal role at a research or media organization. You quickly build up a portfolio of past writing projects, as well as an audience and potentially connections. Some potential next steps could include:
I haven't applied for any of these myself, but have talked to people selecting for these roles, and have some sense that they believe blogging is a reasonable entry point. Of course, that depends a lot on what kind of blogging you end up doing, and how well it fits with the interests of those programs.
Path to Impact
Scott Alexander famously wrote "The less useful, and more controversial, a post here is, the more likely it is to get me lots of page views." In one view, this means you should try to:
- Write some controversial and popular posts, even if they're useless
- Do more useful writing, leveraging your newfound audience as a path to impact
I don't think Scott is endorsing this strategy, and I wouldn't either. As tempting as it is, the problem is that readers are not fungible. You might end up with 10,000 subscribers, but it doesn't help if they're exclusively the kind of people attractive to useless controversy.
It's difficult to formalize, but my own theory of change is closer to:
- Publish good writing, often useful, almost always in good faith
- That aligns with my intrinsic interests
- That aligns with the interests of people I consider to be influential
- Try to correct moral or epistemic errors within that community of readers
The tricky part is "people I consider to be influential". This can mean people with money, or people with large audiences, or people those people respect and listen to. To be clear, this is not really an explicit strategy on my part, but it is how I justify my particular approach to writing.
Other possible paths to impact include:
- Solve specific problems in an important domain, using blogging as a faster and more dynamic alternative to conventional research.
- Write for a popular outlet like Future Perfect and try to slightly shift the behavior, beliefs and values of a million readers.
- Provide independent and sometimes contrarian viewpoints that lend perspective to an existing community.
This last point is somewhat contentious, and can obviously go astray. You also have to play the balancing act of remaining close enough to the community to be trusted, but not so close that you share all their assumptions.
- 20 hours: Writing, doing small bits of research for a specific writing project. Writing long replies to emails or commenting on blog post drafts.
- 8 hours: Reading blogs, papers. I don't have a particular news source I follow, and don't curate any feeds. I mostly just get sent articles from various friends, follow the hyperlinks, and then end up with a bunch of bookmarks to work through.
- 1 hour: occasional phone call, often informal chats with someone who just wanted to talk without a particular agenda.
All those numbers might be +/- 50%, depending on how I'm feeling. I've also taken a couple months of vacation since September.
I received a small amount of funding from Emergent Ventures. From what I understand, grants go as high as $50,000, but that's not confirmed. You could also get around $80,000k/year from EA Grants, or seek out private donors. I haven't asked the Survival and Flourishing, but historically they seem to give out around $50k for individual grantees. You could also explore Patreon and Substack.
Though it's hard work with uncertain rewards, there are benefits:
Meet cool people: If you like football, tough luck, you'll still never meet Tom Brady. If you like weird internet blogs, good news! You can very quickly get in touch with the people you admire, and have a decent chance of getting to hang out with them. This is fun in some kind of unhealthy parasocial sense, but it is genuinely nice to meet people doing work you're interested in, and nice to have those people be interested in your work too.
Flexibility: You have to be careful with this, but no real accountability also means you can do whatever you want! That's scary, but also very fun, especially post-vaccine.
Ride the Hedonic Treadmill: It's not the most popular carnival attraction, but it is the most universal. At some point, you will get your first 10 followers, and it will feel unreasonably good. Of course, there are downsides, but it's not clear to me that you really do "pay back" the happiness when you return to baseline. The weird thing about exponential functions is that their derivatives are also exponential!
Productivity: When I had a day job, I felt languid, tired and unmotivated constantly. This led to doing poor work, and feeling bad about myself. As a blogger, I have a lot of personal accountability and have found it exceptionally motivating. If I don't do work, it won't get done. Accordingly, I work fairly hard, but this doesn't take the form of longer hours so much as getting way more done per hour.
As always, you're welcome to email me. If you have questions you think other people would be interested in, please post them on the EA Forum discussion.
- Holden Karnofsky – My current impressions on career choice for longtermists
- Alexey Guzey - Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now
- Nadia Eghbal – Reimagining the PhD
And previously on my blog: