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:
- Research Scholars Program at FHI
- Future Perfect Fellow at Vox
- Junior Researcher at an EA org
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:
Thanks for this - one of my favourite blogs!
Few questions (not all directly related to the job, so feel free to skip all/any of them):
It depends on your skillset. My impression is that EA is not really talent constrained, with regards to the talents I currently have. So I would have a bit to offer on the margins, but that's all. I also just don't think I'm nearly as productive when working on a specific set of goals, so there's some tradeoff there. I'm interested in doing RSP one day, and might apply in the future. In theory I think the Vox Future Perfect role could be super high impact.
I probably should.
The short answer is that it's an irreversible decision, so I'm being overly cautious. But mostly it's aesthetic: I like Ender's Game, Death Note, etc.
X-risk = Applied Eschatology. Progress Studies = Applied Theodicy.
Congratulations on writing an impressive number of posts on your blog! You mentioned no longer having a 'day job.' How do you generate money as a blogger? Is money is a stress for you?
Prior to blogging, I had a day job for a while and lived pretty frugally. I told myself I was investing the money to donate eventually, and did eventually donate some, but kept the bulk of it. So when I first started blogging I already had enough to live on for a while. Then I got the EV grant, and a bit of additional private funding. So long story short, it's not stressful, but it is something I think about. I'm not 100% sure what the long term strategy will be, but based on the feedback I've gotten so far, I think it's likely I'll be able to continue getting grants/donations.
If you keep writing on a topic, maybe one day you can publish a collection of your blog posts as a book?
I've wanted to do this for a while, but haven't yet amassed enough material on a topic to consider it a very coherent work. But someday...
You list various potential paths to impact. What do you think your path to impact has been so far and/or will be in the future? Was impact an important consideration when deciding to be a blogger?
It's really hard to tell if my writing has had any impact. I think it has, but it's often in the form of vague influence that's difficult to verify. And honestly, I haven't tried very hard because I think it's potentially harmful in the short run to index too heavily on any proxy metric. F.e.x. I don't even track page views.
Though I have talked to some EA people who mostly told me to keep blogging, rather than pursuing any of the other common paths. Some people did recommend that I pursue the Future Perfect Fellowship, which I think is likely to be super high impact, but it just wasn't a good fit for me.
I didn't think a lot about it. It was basically "Scott Alexander has a good blog, some EA people have good blogs, this seems to be a worthwhile activity".
One way to explain it is as self-mentorship. Todd's latest report indicates that EA really is talent constrained, and specifically senior talent constrained. Unfortunately, the senior talent pipeline is not that healthy right now, largely because there is a lack of senior talent available to mentor junior talent in the first place. So blogging is one path to eventually becoming senior talent without taxing EA resources, and does effectively create new capacity out of nowhere.
On that path, some good next steps could be to:
Thanks! I asked because I am currently going through 80k 8-week planning course and I get impression there is just large uncertainty around what could or could not be impactful.
This is cool, and I think it is underrated as a path. In either case, I wish more people tried out just writing, especially on the EA Forum.
What do you see as the difference, if any, between being an internet blogger and being an independent EA researcher (besides sounding less pretentious)? What would you see as the difference, if any, between being an internet blogger and a journalist?
Thanks! That's one perk I neglected to mention. You can try blogging in your spare time without much commitment. Though I do think it's a bit risky to do it half-heartedly, get disappointed in the response, and never find out what you would be capable of if you went full time.
There are lots of bloggers who definitely don't do independent research, but within the broader EA space it's a really blurry line. One wacky example is Nadia Eghbal who's writing products include tweets, notes, a newsletter, blog posts, a 100 page report, and a book.
The journalism piece is interesting. Previously I would have said there are mainstream journalists, and then small-scale citizen journalists who focus on hyperlocal reporting or something. Now so many high profile journalists have gone to Substack to do something that is often opinion-writing, but sometimes goes beyond that.
In the past, I also would have said that journalists have more of a responsibility to be impartial, be the view from nowhere, etc. That seems less true today, but it's possible I'm conflating op-eds with "real reporting", and an actual journalist would tell you that there are still clear boundaries.
However, if journalists just do opinion-writing on their substack, and that kind of journalism becomes dominant, these boundaries may dissolve. That is not necessarily a good thing, though.