On Becoming World-Class

In Septem­ber, Bob Muel­ler posed an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion on Face­book:

How does “be­com­ing (one of) the best in the world” in some not-in-any-way effec­tive field or niche com­pare to tra­di­tional EA ca­reers?

Bob, who prac­tices a niche, un­speci­fied form of digi­tal art, de­scribed him­self as “quite mo­ti­vated about a lot of things”. He didn’t seem per­turbed by the prospect of switch­ing to some more “tra­di­tional” ca­reer.

This made me won­der: If a per­son re­ally does have equal ac­cess to both of these op­tions—pos­si­bly world-class at an un­usual pro­fes­sion, or mod­er­ately tal­ented at an EA-al­igned pro­fes­sion—and would be equally happy and satis­fied in both places, how should they make the choice?

There are many skil­led peo­ple in the com­mu­nity, so I sus­pect that Bob isn’t the only per­son who will end up think­ing about this. I hope that my thoughts—and those of the com­menters! -- might come in handy.

Ex­ist­ing thoughts on this topic:

80,000 Hours’ lat­est ca­reer ar­ti­cle notes that one high-im­pact ca­reer path in­volves “ap­ply­ing an un­usual strength to a needed niche”.

An­thro­pol­o­gists, for ex­am­ple, helped the global health com­mu­nity con­tain Ebola by de­liv­er­ing crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion on lo­cal burial prac­tices. And there are plenty of more com­mon ex­am­ples along these lines: Every or­ga­ni­za­tion needs some­one who un­der­stands ac­count­ing, and some­one who knows how to de­sign a web­site.

That said, the EA com­mu­nity may be able to hire pro­fes­sion­als in these fields as con­trac­tors, with­out need­ing to find ac­coun­tants or de­sign­ers who know any­thing about our par­tic­u­lar be­liefs. And while we need solid and com­pe­tent peo­ple for these tasks, we can prob­a­bly get by with­out any­one “world-class”.

Any­way, in Bob’s case, his work seems even less likely than an­thro­pol­ogy to hold di­rect rele­vance for EA or­ga­ni­za­tions. (As far as I can tell—Bob, if you’re read­ing this, you’re wel­come to provide more de­tails in the com­ments!) So the 80,000 Hours ad­vice isn’t too ap­pli­ca­ble for his situ­a­tion, and the situ­a­tion of other EAs with “not-in-any-way effec­tive” tal­ents.

Given all of this, what value could some­one like Bob bring to EA if he pur­sued a ca­reer in digi­tal art, and rose to the top of his field?

Some Face­book com­men­ta­tors seemed a bit skep­ti­cal of the idea, with good rea­son:

  • The top peo­ple in most fields, if those fields aren’t nat­u­rally prac­ti­cal or lu­cra­tive, prob­a­bly won’t be­come wealthy or fa­mous.

  • Even in fields where be­ing at the top does mean fame or for­tune, be­com­ing a “top per­son” is a risky propo­si­tion. If Bob over­es­ti­mates his skill, he may flounder some­where be­low the peak of a win­ner-take-all mar­ket.

  • Artis­tic skills in par­tic­u­lar may not be very trans­fer­able. Some­one who tries to be­come a top pro­gram­mer in an ob­scure lan­guage could have more suc­cess fal­ling back to a “nor­mal” ca­reer in soft­ware than some­one whose art goes out of style would have be­com­ing a “nor­mal” graphic de­signer. (De­sign­ers make a lot less money than pro­gram­mers, and there aren’t nearly as many of them.)

Every case is differ­ent, but these ar­gu­ments do form a rea­son­able case that peo­ple like Bob should stick with a more stan­dard EA-al­igned ca­reer path.

How­ever, I sus­pect that there are se­ri­ous po­ten­tial up­sides to be­com­ing world-class even in an “ir­rele­vant” field—but that they’re harder to see or imag­ine than the down­sides. Mak­ing art is risky, but when it’s done by some­one with strong EA val­ues, a lot of good pos­si­bil­ities open up.

For the rest of this piece, I’ll play Devil’s Ad­vo­cate against the stan­dard view, and con­sider what an EA who be­comes a world-class artist—or world-class in some other pro­fes­sion—could do for the com­mu­nity.

1. Be­ing world-class cre­ates con­nec­tions. Bob’s art has already been used by a “clas­sic” mu­sic fes­ti­val. That didn’t cre­ate any di­rect op­por­tu­nity to ad­vo­cate for EA, but let’s say his an­i­ma­tions catch on—and Daft Punk asks him to help out with their next tour. Sud­denly, ev­ery EA who knows Bob is two de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion from Daft Punk, and three de­grees from much of the mu­sic in­dus­try.

“But it’s not like Daft Punk is go­ing to have an ex­tended philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion with Bob, right? Why does this help?”

This is true. But a per­sonal con­nec­tion, how­ever brief, is a pow­er­ful thing, and can cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties well into the fu­ture.

If Thomas Ban­galter de­cides to donate his elec­tro-funk for­tune to char­ity in a few years, and hits up his ad­dress book or reaches out on Twit­ter to ask for ad­vice—can we call this “pul­ling a Be­zos”? -- he’ll be likely to no­tice a sug­ges­tion from his old friend Bob, who helped him out on his last tour.

And wow! Who knew that Bob was so into char­ity, or that he was per­son­ally ac­quainted with so many Oxford pro­fes­sors? Looks like Thomas was in luck; time to send a few emails...

In a more gen­eral sense, I’ve seen a lot of Face­book posts over the year from EAs whose wealthy friends wanted their ad­vice on char­i­ta­ble dona­tions. Any pro­fes­sion (chore­og­ra­pher, per­sonal chef, stunt dou­ble) which ex­poses you to peo­ple with a lot of wealth and sta­tus—even if you aren’t rich or fa­mous your­self—seems like it could have the same effect.

(Worth not­ing: Many pro­fes­sions with no ob­vi­ous con­nec­tion to wealth or sta­tus could be­come con­nected if you get good enough. Dr. Peter At­tia spe­cial­izes in nu­tri­tion sci­ence, a rather ne­glected cor­ner of medicine, but his work has led to his ap­pear­ing on one of the world’s most pop­u­lar pod­casts and serv­ing as a per­sonal health con­sul­tant for suc­cess­ful tech en­trepreneurs.)

2. Be­ing world-class cre­ates val­idity. I once worked for a re­cruit­ing agency that helped tech star­tups find pro­gram­mers. But good pro­gram­mers are in­un­dated with re­cruit­ing mes­sages, and even our most elite, ex­pe­rienced agents had low re­sponse rates when they reached out.

Once, we were in a des­per­ate spot, and asked the CEO of a com­pany we worked with to write the mes­sage them­selves. His mes­sage, though it was dashed-off and to­tally un-op­ti­mized, performed at least twice as well as ours.

Be­ing a CEO clearly helps you get at­ten­tion, but I think it helped that this par­tic­u­lar CEO, who was a pro­gram­mer with a stacked LinkedIn page, had val­idity. He used tech­ni­cal jar­gon that we re­cruiters couldn’t use with­out sound­ing fake. He clearly had some­thing in com­mon with the peo­ple he wrote to, and could, by im­pli­ca­tion, un­der­stand their con­cerns in a way we couldn’t match.

Most pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ties con­tain a lot of peo­ple who would be­come in­ter­ested in EA if they heard the right mes­sage—which could mean hear­ing from the right per­son. If we want to con­vince digi­tal artists to think about EA (say, if we want to see more art with EA themes), it will help to have digi­tal artists in our com­mu­nity, even if they’re only “well-known” to other artists.

Same goes for ad­ver­tisers and au­thors; lawyers and land­lords; pod­cast­ers and pro gamers. My im­pres­sion from work­ing in a few differ­ent fields is that pro­fes­sional net­works be­tween “elite” mem­bers are very tight; even one or two peo­ple with EA lean­ings could have a sur­pris­ing amount of di­rect in­fluence.

(On “con­nec­tions” vs. “val­idity”: The first re­lates to a world-class per­son meet­ing peo­ple in other fields, the sec­ond to meet­ing peo­ple in the same field.)

3. Be­ing world-class cre­ates di­ver­sity. Alice, a banker who read some ar­ti­cles about effec­tive al­tru­ism and wanted to learn more, signs up for EA Global 2020.

The timeline splits, and two ver­sions of Alice at­tend two differ­ent con­fer­ences:

a. At EA Global A, Alice talks on the first night to ten differ­ent peo­ple. Four of them are soft­ware de­vel­op­ers. Two are philoso­phers. One is an eco­nomics PhD stu­dent. One stud­ies some sort of es­o­teric com­puter sci­ence field that she doesn’t re­ally un­der­stand. Two are un­der­grad­u­ates, who are re­spec­tively study­ing soft­ware de­vel­op­ment and biol­ogy, be­cause some­thing called “pan­demic risk” is ap­par­ently a ma­jor con­cern. It’s all a bit over­whelming, and very ab­stract, and it sets the tone for the rest of her con­fer­ence.

b. At EA Global B, Alice talks on the first night to ten differ­ent peo­ple. Most of them work on com­puter sci­ence or philos­o­phy, but one is a pro­fes­sional poker player, which is very cool and not at all what she was ex­pect­ing. And then there’s Bob, the digi­tal artist, who helped out with Daft Punk’s last tour and shows her some epic an­i­ma­tions on his phone. Alice goes back to her ho­tel feel­ing like the com­mu­nity is vibrant and di­verse, has a few more in­ter­est­ing en­coun­ters over the course of the con­fer­ence, and winds up reach­ing out to her lo­cal group when she gets home.

A com­mu­nity where al­most ev­ery­one does the same few things might still thrive; there are many more ways to be di­verse than just “ca­reer”. But hav­ing a wider range of pro­fes­sions has some ad­van­tages:

  • We have a wider pres­ence through­out our com­mu­ni­ties, such that more peo­ple are likely to run into an EA at some point in their lives.

  • We pre­sent a more bal­anced pic­ture to a world that likes to stereo­type us as a haven for tech nerds, weird philoso­phers, and no one else.

  • Within EA, we learn more from each other, and de­velop an in­ter­nal un­der­stand­ing of more fields. An ac­coun­tant hired from a ran­dom firm can keep the books for an EA or­ga­ni­za­tion, but they won’t write a post on the EA Fo­rum about ba­sic ac­count­ing prin­ci­ples that even small al­tru­is­tic pro­jects can use to save money and time.

    • This post doesn’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist, as far as I know, but if we had a few more EAs with back­grounds in ac­count­ing, per­haps it would!

(The “ca­reer di­ver­sity” con­sid­er­a­tion doesn’t just ap­ply to peo­ple at the top of their fields. If you do some­thing that isn’t com­mon within the com­mu­nity, at even a rea­son­ably skil­led level, we may have a lot to learn from you!)

None of these con­sid­er­a­tions ap­ply uni­ver­sally. It may be the case that, be­tween the risk of over­es­ti­mat­ing one’s skill and the difficulty of get­ting to the top of any pro­fes­sion, al­most all EAs would be bet­ter off pur­su­ing ca­reer paths with clear di­rect im­pact.

But it still seems im­por­tant for our com­mu­nity to rec­og­nize and sup­port some­one who has a re­al­is­tic chance of be­com­ing, say, a fa­mous EA com­poser. Or an EA bronze medal­ist in curl­ing. Or the first EA in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives...

...or even some­thing re­ally weird like “the EA-al­igned per­son who wrote the most pop­u­lar piece of Harry Pot­ter fan­fic­tion ever”. We can’t ig­nore the risk, but we also shouldn’t ig­nore the op­por­tu­nity.

Ques­tions for the com­ments: Have you ever tried to be­come world-class at some­thing? Or had the chance to try, but opted to take an­other path? What were your re­sults? Are you happy with the choice you made?