My Careers Conversation with Holden Karnofsky

Follow up to “Comparing Across My Five Career Categories”, “My Conversation with Satvik Beri”, and 80,000 Hours’s “Interview with Holden Karnofsky”.

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I’ve been having a lot of conversations with various people about career choice, however I frequently have not posted information about individual conversations, choosing instead to publish information in the aggregate, such as “I Now Have Approximately Five Career Categories”, which is built off of information from 26 different people.

One conversation I did have that I chose to publish was a quick email exchange with Holden Karnofsky, a co-founder and co-Executive Director of GiveWell, a non-profit that aims to find “outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give”. Holden asked me to reproduce the email exchange in full rather than summarize it, so I will do so, and then offer my commentary.

The Email I Sent

I sent the following to info@givewell.org.

Hi,

This is probably not the best place to email with this inquiry, but I couldn’t figure out where else to email. I personally identify strongly with GiveWell’s message of effective altruism and their particular approach. Furthermore, I’m very interested in using my career to help GiveWell (or, rather, make the world a better place generally).

I’m a Senior in college now and I’m looking into careers and I’ve started to wonder whether I would do best to try and get a large salary so as to have a lot of money to donate to top charities or do best by trying to find a job at GiveWell (or a similar organization).

I imagine the answer depends on specifics about me that you wouldn’t know, but if you have any advice or can point me in the right direction to answering this question, that would be wonderful. However, there’s also no reason to refer me to 80,000 Hours – I’ve already talked with extensively (they actually suggested I send you this message).

Feel free to ignore this email if you’re too busy addressing more important inquiries.

Best, Peter Hurford http://www.peterhurford.com

Holden’s Response

The following is verbatim what Holden wrote back to me.

Hi Peter,

I looked at a couple of blog posts you wrote on the subject. Here are some off-the-cuff, informal thoughts…

It seems to me that you’re putting too much emphasis on “where am I trying to end up 20 years from now?” as opposed to “Where can I go to make the most of my next year or two?” I think if you get an outstanding opportunity to go outside your comfort zone, try something cool, make some good contacts, etc. you should take it regardless of whether it’s a prerequisite to a particular long-term career. With that in mind, I would probably suggest looking for job opportunities in all of your interest areas - and potentially more - and taking the opportunity that seems like a good way to spend a year or two. A “gap year” consisting of e.g. traveling or staying in a very different country could also be worthwhile, etc.

Given the large number of options you’re considering and the high degree of uncertainty you have, I think option value should get disproportionate weight. I think law school looks particularly problematic on this dimension - 3 years that will teach you relatively little and benefit you relatively little unless law turns out to be the right answer, something that might be easier resolved by process of elimination than by trying law school anyway.

I would, at least early on, weight enjoyment and aptitude very highly relative to the other stuff, and weight the more direct-impact-measures lower. If you can climb to the “top of the pile” of any field, you can have a lot of impact in ways that are hard to predict, but it’s hard to get to the “top of the pile” if you aren’t intrinsically interested. I don’t know of a lot of cases of people who make huge amounts of money doing something that they’re not all that intrinsically interested in, for example. Also, I think you’ll learn more about yourself by prioritizing enjoyment and aptitude early on, and learning about yourself is key for getting on a good track eventually.

I think you might be underrating the impact potential of academics. If you can become a successful academic, you’ll have a lot of freedom plus the network and credibility that your position provides. If you can find an idea that isn’t getting attention from anyone else, and that’s important in humanitarian terms, I think your impact can be substantial. It’s true that most academics don’t go this route, and becoming a successful academic is hard.

One frame that I find somewhat helpful for this kind of decision is to think about your role in the EA movement. If you can give away $5 million in the course of your life, that increases the “funding available to the EA movement” by some percentage (my guess/hope is that it’s well under 1%). If you work directly on EA, you increase the human capital of the movement by a certain amount (this is harder to estimate and depends on how you see yourself compared to other people in the movement). I have a general intuition that over the long run, EAs are going to be disproportionately well funded and will be more bottlenecked by human than financial capital (this doesn’t mean the best thing to do is work directly on EA activities, but it would argue against earning to give all else equal, at least if you don’t expect to be one of the top earners, which it seems you - Peter - wouldn’t under any scenario). Another issue is that building up skills that are more unusual in the EA movement could be helpful. For this reason I have somewhat positive feelings toward market research, because it’s a world that most people in the EA movement don’t have experience with, and an EA who was really good at it could add value in unpredictable ways. I also have positive feelings toward highly open-ended exploration that could lead somewhere unexpected (along the lines of my first point).

I hope that helps. FYI, I’m very interested in these topics, and we’ve kicked around the idea of organizing a conference call on the subject; LMK if that’s something you’d be interested in.

Best, Holden

Commentary

I don’t think there’s that much to say in response, because I find the comments to be largely reasonable and agreeable. I do think that I was overthinking things in the beginning and making it a bit too long-term, but I think I’ve corrected that for the most part. Overall, Holden’s email makes me feel more confident about doing something like market research or programming first, assessing things after a year or so, and then continue on or re-orient toward a different earning-to-give career, direct work, or grad school.

I definitely agree with what Holden says about option value and think I should be wary of tying myself down for too long at first. Holden seems to have a fair amount of agreement with what Satvik and I talked about earlier. [Update: Holden emailed me and told me that he is “largely in agreement” with Satvik, though he can’t speak to the part on negotiation.]

I think I have underestimated the impact of grad school in terms of the influence you could get for holding a PhD. But I’m not confident about the size of this effect, how strong credentials you need to be in order to have influence, or what you can accomplish with that influence.

Additionally, something I haven’t thought much about is the “spillover” direct effects of holding a job on the effective altruist movement. Not only would something like programming or market research give me a salary; it would give me skills that I could apply directly to program or understand markets, etc. The point Holden makes about market research being valuable because it’s unusual is interesting.

Lastly, I found what Holden had to say about the future of funding for the Effective Altruist movement intriguing. I’m not sure if this is true or not in light of what Jeff Kaufman has said about needing to be about 100 earn-to-givers for every direct worker at the current rate of funding gaps discovered. But perhaps GiveWell’s partnership with Good Ventures could be indicative of a lot more money flowing in soon?

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Followed up in “My Case Study: I (Mostly) Finished Choosing Between Careers” and implicitly on GiveWell in “Altruistic Career Choice”.