Career Suggestion: Earning to Skill

Epistemic Status: I haven’t run this past anyone, I’m just bashing this out on a plane. Take this as Ruby’s tentative opinion and note that Ruby hasn’t spent that much time considering EA career advice.

In the past couple of months, I’ve attended an EA student retreat, EAGxOxford, and EAGxBoston (on my way to EAG London now). At all of these, I have encountered a lot of students who are trying to figure out how to have to impact once they graduate.

Overwhelmingly these students are seeking immediate direct impact options; primarily in AI Safety, Biosecurity, or Community building. There are a decent number of roles available, but not as many as the number of people I’m meeting.

Something I am not hearing really at all, though it has been advocated before, is that people seek out regular industry jobs where they will grow and learn a lot. My name for this is Earning to Skill.

The Earning part doesn’t actually matter anymore – it just allows for a more catchy name that riffs off Earning to Give. [I will tentatively say that Earning to Give is dead. If you’d be donating to longtermist/​x-risk causes, I’d be surprised if you can find worthy donation targets the current major funders or their many regranters wouldn’t already fund if they knew about them (so just tell them).]

[I retract that. The Earning part matters for building up your own financial reserves which will give you future freedom to explore more options. It’s great to not have to get a job or apply for a grant. Financial security is also good for psychological well-being]

Skills definitely matter. There’s a lot you don’t get from university degrees that you will learn from spending a few years in an at least moderately functional workplace with good mentorship. And while I’m open to hiring people straight out of university if they seem promising enough, it’s much easier to judge and be confident of someone’s abilities after they’ve worked for a few years.

Personally, when I graduated in 2015 I correctly judged that I wasn’t that useful to direct EA work. And I think that I further correctly judged that I would learn and grow faster in an industry job than EA work. Instead of trying to get a job at CFAR, I got a Data Science job. The Data Science job became a Product Management job. After a couple of years at that, I felt I wasn’t growing at my company anymore, plus I felt “useful”, so I quit and explored other options. Soon after I joined the LessWrong 2.0 team.

I still feel that an outsized proportion of the skills I’m using day-to-day now (I’m currently Team Lead for LessWrong), I gained in those two years of industry work.

Some things I learned:

  • How to manage my time among a large number of varying-size tasks for varying importance and urgency

  • How to communicate information to different people

  • How to have working relationships with people

  • How to prioritize

  • How to collaborate with others on complex projects

  • What function and dysfunction look like within a company

  • How to be resilient/​scrappy/​perseverant

  • How to resolve conflict with coworkers

  • How to model my coworkers

  • How to negotiate both with people inside and outside the company

  • and probably a bunch of others things I haven’t gotten names for

  • A bunch of technical Data Science skill

I benefitted heavily from the mentorship I had there (two different very good mentors), the likes of which I have not had since switching to direct work, and also exposure to a wide variety of skilled professionals with many years of experience.

Mentorship is great because your mentors can point your blindspots to you, i.e. things you really need to work on but you don’t even realize how bad you are at them. It’s excellent if your mentor is strong at your blindspot/​weakness and coaches you in it (I got a lot of this from one of my mentors on social relationships).

Even if you predict short timelines, I’d wager that for many people, 1-3 years spent in a good industry workplace environment will cause them to have greater lifetime contribution to the world than if they scrounged around for a direct impact job that wasn’t that good.

This isn’t a universal prescription, of course. The best thing for people will immensely depend on them, their circumstances, and opportunities, but I’d at least like to hear people who are very uncertain of what to do considering Earning to Skill.

And I’d like to hear people respecting this as actually a pretty good option for people to take up. If someone takes up a hard job where they’ll learn, they’ll get my respect at least.


Which industry jobs should I maybe seek out?

I think which particular domain matters less than that the job is hard and the company is competent on at least some dimensions. By hard I mean “solving hard problems like running a startup” rather than “you have to wake up at 5am”. I think doing hard things is healthy for growth. Take on a bit too much responsibility (not too much, but enough that it’s uncomfortable – better to not feel qualified).

You also want to be learning from people and systems are doing something right. If a company is selling a product or service and making money, probably doing something right. (And it’s a great exercise to help identify what they’re doing wrong and help them fix it.) If a think tank is successfully influencing policy, probably doing something right. Note I don’t expect to find a company that’s doing everything right.

It is important to determine which aspects of a company are healthy and which are dysfunctional. No company I’m aware of has been free of dysfunction, but you can still learn from them.

What if people experience value drift and don’t ever switch to impactful work?

I think it’s a risk worth taking, but also something that can be mitigated by staying socially tied to EA. Attend meetups (start one at your workplace?[1], read the EA Forum and LessWrong (even better, write posts), attend EAGs, etc.

  1. ^

    Facebook/​Meta, Google, and Bloomberg all have EA groups, I believe.