Thoughts on 80,000 Hours’ research that might help with job-search frustrations

I intend to start working at 80,000 Hours this September, and in the meantime they’re contracting me to write some articles about careers and doing good, including this one. Nonetheless, this article represents my personal opinions only, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the 80,000 Hours team.

An EA Forum post from earlier this year demonstrated the difficulty of getting a job in effective altruism organisations, the frustration many people feel as a result, and the sense that other ways of doing good are not as highly valued by the EA community as they should be. People in the community have published a number of thoughtful responses.

I am currently doing some part-time contract work for 80,000 Hours, and I plan to start working there full-time in the fall. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about 80,000 Hours’ research. And I wanted to add to the discussion a few ways I think that 80,000 Hours content might have inadvertently contributed to these problems, as well as some ideas for how people can get more out of their advice.

The main takeaways are:

  • Roles outside explicitly EA organizations are most people’s best career options.

  • Sometimes these roles aren’t as visible to the community, including to 80,000 Hours, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t highly impactful.

  • Many especially impactful roles require specific skills. If none of these roles are currently a great fit for you, but one could be if you developed the right skills, it can be worth it to take substantial time to do so.

  • You should use 80,000 Hours to figure out what your best career is and how to get there, not what “the” best careers are.

I haven’t seen people talk that much about the last point, so I spend the most time on it.

Over-representation of EA organizations in 80,000 Hours content

Given unlimited resources, 80,000 Hours could catalog every job opportunity that might be someone’s best option, and then direct that person toward it. But 80,000 Hours is a small team, and has only been around for 7 years. Because of this, their ideas and recommendations should be treated as tentative and growing over time.

Not only that, they are growing outward from the knowledge most central to EA. This means that 80,000 Hours is less likely to know about, and thus less likely to recommend, opportunities that are less familiar within the EA community.

It will be rare for an opportunity at an EA organization to escape their notice. But many great jobs in the wider world never come to 80,000 Hours’ attention, and when they do, there may be no time to look into them.

Thus, opportunities at EA organizations are more likely to be featured—in write-ups, in the job-board, in coaching advice—than opportunities at unaffiliated organizations that are less familiar to the EA community. And this will be the case even if the roles at the less familiar organizations have higher potential impact.

The contrast between career paths that 80,000 Hours explicitly recommends and those it doesn’t often reflects differences in those paths’ effectiveness, but sometimes it just reflects differences in how much they’ve been vetted. Just as GiveWell’s recommendations might be missing an effective nonprofit because they haven’t yet looked into it, so might the 80,000 Hours job board be missing many promising roles for high-impact work. And this is more likely when the role or the problem it addresses is less familiar to the EA community, and so less likely to be researched by the 80,000 Hours team.

Talk of talent gaps

One thing the original Forum poster emphasized is that because they had heard there were “talent gaps” in the EA community, they thought getting a job at an EA organization would be relatively easy so long as they were generally capable.

80,000 Hours tried to address this issue in a November article, Think Twice Before Talking About Talent Gaps: Clarifying Nine Misconceptions. Ben Todd says that talk of “talent gaps” at 80,000 Hours and elsewhere might have inadvertently contributed to some misunderstandings. Here are three points from Ben’s post that help explain why the existence of a “talent gap” doesn’t mean that working at an EA organization is the right fit for most smart and capable people who are enthusiastic about effective altruism:

  • The existence of “talent gaps” doesn’t really mean that there is a lack of talent available. The term refers instead to a lack of specific skills needed in the community. Hence, a better term is “skill bottlenecks.”

  • Skill bottlenecks in the community don’t mean that it will be easy to get hired at an EA organization. The reason is the point above: one can be hugely talented in various ways, but not have the specific skills needed.

  • Important skill bottlenecks also exist in policy, academia, and other fields without explicit EA organisations. These are very important and often require specific skilling up outside EA.

These clarifications were made only after the confusion over talent gaps became widespread, and Ben’s post didn’t help as much as 80,000 Hours might have hoped. The full post is worth checking out, both for justification of these positions and other points about how ‘skill bottlenecks’ seem to work in the EA community.

Less focus on earning to give

One reason 80,000 Hours started talking about “talent gaps” in the first place was to combat the misconception that it, or EA in general, are just about earning to give, and to highlight the need for people to do direct work as well. 80,000 Hours has been aggressive in its efforts here because many people outside the core EA community still perceive EA as primarily about, or even synonymous with, earning to give. And 80,000 Hours knows that its past emphasis on earning to give played a substantial role in making this the case.

80,000 Hours’ pushback seems to have failed to convey nuance. Some people—especially those who never had the preconception that EA is primarily about earning to give—have concluded that it thinks earning to give is a bad option for almost everyone, or that more funding is not useful for the EA community. However, that would be taking things too far.

80,000 Hours thinks earning to give is the best option for a substantial number of people—those for whom it’s their comparative advantage. They are keen, however, to make sure that people fully consider direct work options, instead of defaulting to earning to give because they’ve heard it is the best way to do good with one’s career.

This points to a general difficulty: because 80,000 Hours has a large and varied audience, with a wide range of preconceptions about what makes for an effective career, it is hard for it to communicate equally well with every kind of reader. In trying to disabuse one group of people of a tenacious misconception, 80,000 Hours probably inadvertently created another misconception among a different group of people.

Repeating “EA is not all about earning to give” over and over again has a different effect on people who never thought that was the case, or who follow 80,000 Hours closely enough to hear the message many times, than it does on people who did think that was the case and only read something about effective altruism once a year.

The focus on more senior roles

As the EA community has matured, 80,000 Hours has shifted its main focus toward filling as many mid-career (and sometimes even senior) roles as it can. This is because when the best possible candidate fills one of these roles, not only can they have an outsized direct impact, they can help other people have a greater impact too, through mentorship, management, better defining problems that others can then work on, and drawing experienced people into their field.

It used to be much harder to get members of the effective altruism community into more advanced positions, because the community was mostly young and inexperienced. At one point, most of 80,000 Hours’ readers were in college or had recently graduated. But that has changed slowly over time. 80,000 Hours’ audience is now a lot more diverse, including not only young people but also plenty in graduate school or the middle of impressive careers.

80,000 Hours has recently focused more on making material for the latter groups, partly because that content doesn’t exist elsewhere, and partly because filling senior roles is especially impactful. But this may have caused readers earlier in their careers to be discouraged by content that isn’t chiefly aimed at them. Again, the fact that the 80,000 Hours audience is diverse results in the same content being very helpful for some, but unhelpful or even counterproductive for others.

Advice about building career capital by starting at the bottom of an organization should have combated this issue, by showing people who are less advanced in their careers how they should work toward more senior roles. But this advice wasn’t always emphasized enough. And because of the misconceptions about “talent gaps,” especially within EA organizations, some might have gotten the impression that starting in a more entry-level role wasn’t going to be necessary.

Most readers who are still early in their careers must spend considerable time building targeted career capital before they can enter the roles 80,000 Hours promotes most. This might be frustrating, or make people feel like they’re “not doing enough.” But building career capital that’s relevant to where you want to be in 5 or 10 years is often exactly what you should be doing.

The “big list” view of doing the most good with your career (and why it doesn’t make sense)

One way to think about doing good with our careers is to picture a big list of all the career paths in the world anyone could pursue, ordered from most to least impactful. The higher our own career ranks, the more good we’re doing, and the better we should feel about ourselves, the more people should respect us, and so on.

This is a bit of a caricature, but it doesn’t seem that far from the way people sometimes think. I know I often think in this way. And it can sometimes feel like 80,000 Hours’ career advice is articulating a big list like this. Moreover, once we’re thinking in this way, it’s easy to feel like where our path ranks on such a list should have important consequences for our social status or self-esteem.

Still, I think this “big list” picture is wrong, for three reasons:

1. It imagines a single, unified ranking of career paths ordered from most to least impactful.

But the complication of interaction effects between different people’s actions makes me skeptical that there is such a unified ranking, even in theory.

The impacts of different people’s paths and actions often depend on one another, such as in cases of cooperation or trade. Some people’s actions might determine the possibilities for other people’s actions or make them more or less effective. These factors makes it very hard to meaningfully rank them.

For example, how would you rank actions by multiple people that are all necessary conditions for any of them to have an impact? Whose actions were more impactful, Norman Borlaug’s or Norman Borlaug’s mother’s?

2. For every reader, such a list would include many paths that they can’t take.

Most of the career paths on a big list of everyone’s possible paths will be irrelevant to you, because obviously your options are limited by your circumstances. More on this below.

3. The “big list” picture makes an unwarranted assumption about how we should feel about ourselves and others.

Many people in the EA community think that the best actions to take in any given situation are those with the most positive impact. But it doesn’t follow that the people we should hold in highest esteem, or who should be most proud, are those whose actions have the most positive impact.

I don’t claim to know exactly how we should think about the criteria for things like esteem and pride. But I don’t think these should be proportional only to how much good a person has done.

Different people have different options available to them. Maybe some career path would be really high-impact, but it’s impossible for someone to take, for whatever reason. From a utilitarian perspective, it clearly doesn’t make sense for them to feel bad about not taking that path, even if it would have done a lot of good had they been able to do so. Feeling bad won’t make them any more able to take the path, nor does it seem to make things overall better in other ways.

From a non-utilitarian perspective, it doesn’t seem like how much good I do fully determines how I should feel about myself either. I hope that in 100 years most people will be doing much more good than I can today because they have greater wisdom, new technology, and better coordination. Should this comparison with the big possible impacts of future generations make us feel worse about ourselves and one another? I don’t think so. How I should feel about myself and how others should feel about me are not just functions of how much good I do.

Despite these flaws, the “big list” picture seems like it might be playing a part in the frustration and disappointment that many people feel in the highly competitive EA job market. It has definitely played a part in my own experience.

Of course, getting rejections is never easy. But if you read 80,000 Hours as offering a “big list” of the best careers, and you feel like your status with yourself or your community is tied up with doing the top things on that list, that makes getting rejected from one of those top things feel even worse.

The “personal list” view

It seems to me that the way to think about doing the most good you can do with your career is to put the emphasis on the you. Each person has their own list of possible careers available to them, ranked from best to worst. What each person’s list looks like depends on:

  • The options available to them.

  • How other people will act given what they do.

Our ambition should be to do the best things on our personal lists.

Because each person’s list only includes actions available to them, and because the ranking is determined in part by what other people will do in response to each action, this approach doesn’t have the problems that the “big list” picture does.

But it’s really hard to figure out what is on your personal list, or how the different options compare to each other.

We should read 80,000 Hours as trying to help people figure out what their personal lists look like. Sometimes they do this by giving general advice about how to figure out what options are on your list and how they rank. This often involves tools for assessing your skills and interests, or for understanding how your actions could affect other people.

Sometimes 80,000 Hours tries to help people with their lists by promoting particular career paths that they think do belong high on the lists of some people who haven’t yet realised it. But if, after some investigation, you find some path they talk about isn’t on your personal list, that shouldn’t make you feel bad.

Someone might object: if we don’t make it feel bad to not do the most impactful things, how will we be motivated to do the most good?

But as I said above, it is impossible to motivate someone to do something that simply isn’t an option for them. At most, people should feel bad for not doing the top things on their personal lists, or not trying to figure out what those things are.

A different objection is that maybe what my list looks like is itself grounds for pride or esteem.

This has some intuitive appeal, but seems unjustified to me. It can’t be justified in terms of motivation, for the reason just given. And I don’t see any other available argument. Usually we think highly of people for doing the right action among a set of options available to them, or for following the reasons they have to think or act in a certain way. But I don’t know what would justify thinking highly of someone just for their list being what it is.

I actually think the EA social community is generally on board with these points. People don’t go around trying to make people feel bad because they aren’t as impactful as someone else, and we recognize that impactful work is often interdependent in complex ways. But it’s important to be vigilant because it’s pretty easy to fall into the “big list” way of thinking.

In sum: 80,000 Hours’ research does not and cannot yield a “big list” of the best career paths, because no such thing exists. Instead, we should use 80,000 Hours content to map out our own personal lists and figure out how to do the top things on them.

Thanks to Robert Wiblin and Howie Lempel for feedback on a draft of this post.