2 hrs 46 min

#110 – Holden Karnofsky on building aptitudes and kicking ass 80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

    • Education

Holden Karnofsky helped create two of the most influential organisations in the effective philanthropy world. So when he outlines a different perspective on career advice than the one we present at 80,000 Hours — we take it seriously.

Holden disagrees with us on a few specifics, but it's more than that: he prefers a different vibe when making career choices, especially early in one's career.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

While he might ultimately recommend similar jobs to those we recommend at 80,000 Hours, the reasons are often different.

At 80,000 Hours we often talk about ‘paths’ to working on what we currently think of as the most pressing problems in the world. That’s partially because people seem to prefer the most concrete advice possible.

But Holden thinks a problem with that kind of advice is that it’s hard to take actions based on it if your job options don’t match well with your plan, and it’s hard to get a reliable signal about whether you're making the right choices.

How can you know you’ve chosen the right cause? How can you know the job you’re aiming for will be helpful to that cause? And what if you can’t get a job in this area at all?

Holden prefers to focus on ‘aptitudes’ that you can build in all sorts of different roles and cause areas, which can later be applied more directly.

Even if the current role doesn’t work out, or your career goes in wacky directions you’d never anticipated (like so many successful careers do), or you change your whole worldview — you’ll still have access to this aptitude.

So instead of trying to become a project manager at an effective altruism organisation, maybe you should just become great at project management. Instead of trying to become a researcher at a top AI lab, maybe you should just become great at digesting hard problems.

Who knows where these skills will end up being useful down the road?

Holden doesn’t think you should spend much time worrying about whether you’re having an impact in the first few years of your career — instead you should just focus on learning to kick ass at something, knowing that most of your impact is going to come decades into your career.

He thinks as long as you’ve gotten good at something, there will usually be a lot of ways that you can contribute to solving the biggest problems.

But Holden’s most important point, perhaps, is this: Be very careful about following career advice at all.

He points out that a career is such a personal thing that it’s very easy for the advice-giver to be oblivious to important factors having to do with your personality and unique situation.

He thinks it’s pretty hard for anyone to really have justified empirical beliefs about career choice, and that you should be very hesitant to make a radically different decision than you would have otherwise based on what some person (or website!) tells you to do.

Instead, he hopes conversations like these serve as a way of prompting discussion and raising points that you can apply your own personal judgment to.

That's why in the end he thinks people should look at their career decisions through his aptitude lens, the '80,000 Hours lens', and ideally several other frameworks as well. Because any one perspective risks missing something important.

Holden and Rob also cover:

• Ways to be helpful to longtermism outside of careers
• Why finding a new cause area might be overrated
• Historical events that deserve more attention
• And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

Holden Karnofsky helped create two of the most influential organisations in the effective philanthropy world. So when he outlines a different perspective on career advice than the one we present at 80,000 Hours — we take it seriously.

Holden disagrees with us on a few specifics, but it's more than that: he prefers a different vibe when making career choices, especially early in one's career.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

While he might ultimately recommend similar jobs to those we recommend at 80,000 Hours, the reasons are often different.

At 80,000 Hours we often talk about ‘paths’ to working on what we currently think of as the most pressing problems in the world. That’s partially because people seem to prefer the most concrete advice possible.

But Holden thinks a problem with that kind of advice is that it’s hard to take actions based on it if your job options don’t match well with your plan, and it’s hard to get a reliable signal about whether you're making the right choices.

How can you know you’ve chosen the right cause? How can you know the job you’re aiming for will be helpful to that cause? And what if you can’t get a job in this area at all?

Holden prefers to focus on ‘aptitudes’ that you can build in all sorts of different roles and cause areas, which can later be applied more directly.

Even if the current role doesn’t work out, or your career goes in wacky directions you’d never anticipated (like so many successful careers do), or you change your whole worldview — you’ll still have access to this aptitude.

So instead of trying to become a project manager at an effective altruism organisation, maybe you should just become great at project management. Instead of trying to become a researcher at a top AI lab, maybe you should just become great at digesting hard problems.

Who knows where these skills will end up being useful down the road?

Holden doesn’t think you should spend much time worrying about whether you’re having an impact in the first few years of your career — instead you should just focus on learning to kick ass at something, knowing that most of your impact is going to come decades into your career.

He thinks as long as you’ve gotten good at something, there will usually be a lot of ways that you can contribute to solving the biggest problems.

But Holden’s most important point, perhaps, is this: Be very careful about following career advice at all.

He points out that a career is such a personal thing that it’s very easy for the advice-giver to be oblivious to important factors having to do with your personality and unique situation.

He thinks it’s pretty hard for anyone to really have justified empirical beliefs about career choice, and that you should be very hesitant to make a radically different decision than you would have otherwise based on what some person (or website!) tells you to do.

Instead, he hopes conversations like these serve as a way of prompting discussion and raising points that you can apply your own personal judgment to.

That's why in the end he thinks people should look at their career decisions through his aptitude lens, the '80,000 Hours lens', and ideally several other frameworks as well. Because any one perspective risks missing something important.

Holden and Rob also cover:

• Ways to be helpful to longtermism outside of careers
• Why finding a new cause area might be overrated
• Historical events that deserve more attention
• And much more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.


Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel

2 hrs 46 min

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