23 career choice heuristics

We (Olivia Jimenez and I) decided to make a list of all of the career choice heuristics we could think of – see below. Many of these are stated as if completely true, even though we think they aren’t. We invite you to add any additional heuristics you have in the comments.

  • Scale, number helped—do something that impacts many people positively

  • Scale, degree helped—do something that impacts people to a great positive degree

  • Neglectedness - do something that few others are doing or that won’t be done counterfactually

  • Tractability—do something that makes significant progress on a problem

  • Moments of progress—notice where progress happens in your life and find a career path that integrates those

  • Strong team—if you haven’t worked well alone, join an excellent team

  • Likable people—join a team of people that you like

  • Mental well-being—do something that is optimized for being good for your mental health

  • Team smarter than you—join a team where most people are smarter than you

  • Be a thought or org leader—roughly, there are two types of leaders – thought leaders and org leaders; figure out which type you are more likely to be and optimize for succeeding at that type

  • Learn from leaders—learn from the leaders who you most want to be like

  • Maximize learning/​skills, unless—in your early career, focus almost entirely on learning and building skills unless there’s an exceptional impact opportunity that won’t be possible later

  • Rare learning[1] - do something where you learn rare knowledge like technical skills or management

  • Maximize late-career impact—do something that maximizes the impact you will have when you are at your career peak (e.g. because the calendar year will be higher leverage, or because it is better to grow and learn before focusing on direct impact)

  • Maximize immediate impact[2] - do something that maximizes the impact you will have in the next few years (since things will get less neglected and/​or because the calendar year will be lower leverage later)

  • Shower thoughts—do something that you will think about in the shower or while you are falling asleep

  • Comparative advantage—do something that leverages your comparative advantage or personal fit

  • Comparative disadvantage—avoid whatever utilizes your comparative disadvantages

  • Career capital—do something that gives you power/​influence and/​or career capital in important parts of broader society

  • Be honest and have integrity—be honest and have integrity so that the rest of the EA community responds to your actions optimally (including e.g. by giving you a job or status)

  • Be a founder—do something that involves starting a company

  • Scalability—do something that can scalably use money and/​or labor

  • Optimize one thing at a time[3] - goals likely vary in (expected) value greatly, so you should probably only be optimizing one major thing at a time, or taking on one major project at a time; if you aren’t sure what to optimize, optimize for figuring that out

  1. ^

    Thanks to Oli Habryka for this heuristic.

  2. ^

    Whether it is better to primarily focus on making the productivity of your future work better (e.g. via learning, trying lots of things, building skills, etc.) depends on the discount rate of EA or longtermist labor, how long you plant to spend on maximizing learning, and how much more productive you can get per year.

  3. ^

    Of course, this has exceptions; for instance, it is often possible to reach diminishing returns on one goal such that marginal effort is better allocated toward another goal. Even so, I (Jack) think many people around me tend to optimize for more things at once than is optimal, but invite further discussion about this question.