This post is the first in a series I plan to write about management from an EA perspective, mostly oriented towards hiring. Feedback on which topics are useful to cover would be appreciated!
TL;DR: Are you the best in the world at a specific task, such as optimising your company's database? This still might not be the highest impact thing for you to do!
I sometimes talk to prospective employees of CEA who say something like:
- I am the best in the world at optimising my company's obscure proprietary database
- EA organisations don't need anyone to optimise this obscure proprietary database
- Therefore, I should use my “comparative advantage” and work at my current employer optimising their obscure proprietary database, and other people who have a comparative advantage at working at CEA should work there
Comparative advantage is a useful concept, but it doesn’t mean "everyone does the thing which they are best at in the world." If this were true, there would be only one chef in the world (the person who is best at being a chef), only one baker, one software engineer, etc.
What this approach misses is that sometimes the world needs a 40th percentile graphic designer at an EA organisation more than a 99.999th percentile obscure-proprietary-database-optimizer at some other organisation.
I am grateful to the candidates who apply to CEA and say something like “I want you to hire the best person for this position, and am totally happy if you would rather I continue to optimise my company’s obscure proprietary database instead of working for you.” But the important thing is that these candidates apply to the position – unless you are the hiring manager for a position, you probably don’t know what the labor pool is like, and therefore can’t really use the theory of comparative advantage in a useful way.
Appendix – technical argument
The above is an informal argument. Using more technical terms: the mistake people are making is that they are looking only at labor supply, and not labor demand:
If you ignore demand, then you could indeed end up with a scenario where everyone supplies just what they are best able to supply. But that’s not what the theory of comparative advantage actually tells you to do: you also need to know about demand.
You are sometimes able to actually draw these curves: for example if you and a friend are both considering the same two jobs, and the two of you are the only candidates, and both jobs can only hire one of you. In this scenario, you and your friend should consider your comparative advantages.
But this scenario is pretty rare, and in general I have found that the theory of comparative advantage leads people astray more frequently than it is helpful.
80,000 Hours has an article which discusses this in more depth. Lizka wrote a short story about Superman with a similar moral. I would like to thank Will Fenning, Caitlin Elizondo, Max Dalton, Yonatan Cale, Lizka Vaintrob, Jonathan Michel and JP Addison for comments on earlier drafts.
I’m not sure if ignoring demand is even a coherent concept: the point of market equilibrium is that supply and demand have to balance. But hopefully you get what I’m pointing at.
Note that I’m assuming the “price” here is denominated in something like “utility for the world” instead of dollars.