On Becoming World-Class

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-10-19T01:35:18.898Z · EA · GW · 7 comments


  Existing thoughts on this topic:

In September, Bob Mueller posed an interesting question on Facebook:

How does "becoming (one of) the best in the world" in some not-in-any-way effective field or niche compare to traditional EA careers?

Bob, who practices a niche, unspecified form of digital art, described himself as "quite motivated about a lot of things". He didn't seem perturbed by the prospect of switching to some more "traditional" career.

This made me wonder: If a person really does have equal access to both of these options -- possibly world-class at an unusual profession, or moderately talented at an EA-aligned profession -- and would be equally happy and satisfied in both places, how should they make the choice?

There are many skilled people in the community, so I suspect that Bob isn't the only person who will end up thinking about this. I hope that my thoughts -- and those of the commenters! -- might come in handy.

Existing thoughts on this topic:

80,000 Hours' latest career article notes that one high-impact career path involves "applying an unusual strength to a needed niche".

Anthropologists, for example, helped the global health community contain Ebola by delivering critical information on local burial practices. And there are plenty of more common examples along these lines: Every organization needs someone who understands accounting, and someone who knows how to design a website.

That said, the EA community may be able to hire professionals in these fields as contractors, without needing to find accountants or designers who know anything about our particular beliefs. And while we need solid and competent people for these tasks, we can probably get by without anyone “world-class”.

Anyway, in Bob’s case, his work seems even less likely than anthropology to hold direct relevance for EA organizations. (As far as I can tell -- Bob, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome to provide more details in the comments!) So the 80,000 Hours advice isn’t too applicable for his situation, and the situation of other EAs with “not-in-any-way effective” talents.

Given all of this, what value could someone like Bob bring to EA if he pursued a career in digital art, and rose to the top of his field?

Some Facebook commentators seemed a bit skeptical of the idea, with good reason:

Every case is different, but these arguments do form a reasonable case that people like Bob should stick with a more standard EA-aligned career path.

However, I suspect that there are serious potential upsides to becoming world-class even in an “irrelevant” field -- but that they're harder to see or imagine than the downsides. Making art is risky, but when it's done by someone with strong EA values, a lot of good possibilities open up.

For the rest of this piece, I'll play Devil's Advocate against the standard view, and consider what an EA who becomes a world-class artist -- or world-class in some other profession -- could do for the community.

1. Being world-class creates connections. Bob's art has already been used by a "classic" music festival. That didn't create any direct opportunity to advocate for EA, but let's say his animations catch on -- and Daft Punk asks him to help out with their next tour. Suddenly, every EA who knows Bob is two degrees of separation from Daft Punk, and three degrees from much of the music industry.

"But it's not like Daft Punk is going to have an extended philosophical discussion with Bob, right? Why does this help?"

This is true. But a personal connection, however brief, is a powerful thing, and can create opportunities well into the future.

If Thomas Bangalter decides to donate his electro-funk fortune to charity in a few years, and hits up his address book or reaches out on Twitter to ask for advice -- can we call this "pulling a Bezos"? -- he'll be likely to notice a suggestion from his old friend Bob, who helped him out on his last tour.

And wow! Who knew that Bob was so into charity, or that he was personally acquainted with so many Oxford professors? Looks like Thomas was in luck; time to send a few emails...

In a more general sense, I've seen a lot of Facebook posts over the year from EAs whose wealthy friends wanted their advice on charitable donations. Any profession (choreographer, personal chef, stunt double) which exposes you to people with a lot of wealth and status -- even if you aren't rich or famous yourself -- seems like it could have the same effect.

(Worth noting: Many professions with no obvious connection to wealth or status could become connected if you get good enough. Dr. Peter Attia specializes in nutrition science, a rather neglected corner of medicine, but his work has led to his appearing on one of the world’s most popular podcasts and serving as a personal health consultant for successful tech entrepreneurs.)

2. Being world-class creates validity. I once worked for a recruiting agency that helped tech startups find programmers. But good programmers are inundated with recruiting messages, and even our most elite, experienced agents had low response rates when they reached out.

Once, we were in a desperate spot, and asked the CEO of a company we worked with to write the message themselves. His message, though it was dashed-off and totally un-optimized, performed at least twice as well as ours.

Being a CEO clearly helps you get attention, but I think it helped that this particular CEO, who was a programmer with a stacked LinkedIn page, had validity. He used technical jargon that we recruiters couldn't use without sounding fake. He clearly had something in common with the people he wrote to, and could, by implication, understand their concerns in a way we couldn't match.

Most professional communities contain a lot of people who would become interested in EA if they heard the right message -- which could mean hearing from the right person. If we want to convince digital artists to think about EA (say, if we want to see more art with EA themes), it will help to have digital artists in our community, even if they're only "well-known" to other artists.

Same goes for advertisers and authors; lawyers and landlords; podcasters and pro gamers. My impression from working in a few different fields is that professional networks between "elite" members are very tight; even one or two people with EA leanings could have a surprising amount of direct influence.

(On "connections" vs. "validity": The first relates to a world-class person meeting people in other fields, the second to meeting people in the same field.)

3. Being world-class creates diversity. Alice, a banker who read some articles about effective altruism and wanted to learn more, signs up for EA Global 2020.

The timeline splits, and two versions of Alice attend two different conferences:

a. At EA Global A, Alice talks on the first night to ten different people. Four of them are software developers. Two are philosophers. One is an economics PhD student. One studies some sort of esoteric computer science field that she doesn't really understand. Two are undergraduates, who are respectively studying software development and biology, because something called "pandemic risk" is apparently a major concern. It's all a bit overwhelming, and very abstract, and it sets the tone for the rest of her conference.

b. At EA Global B, Alice talks on the first night to ten different people. Most of them work on computer science or philosophy, but one is a professional poker player, which is very cool and not at all what she was expecting. And then there's Bob, the digital artist, who helped out with Daft Punk's last tour and shows her some epic animations on his phone. Alice goes back to her hotel feeling like the community is vibrant and diverse, has a few more interesting encounters over the course of the conference, and winds up reaching out to her local group when she gets home.

A community where almost everyone does the same few things might still thrive; there are many more ways to be diverse than just "career". But having a wider range of professions has some advantages:

(The "career diversity" consideration doesn't just apply to people at the top of their fields. If you do something that isn't common within the community, at even a reasonably skilled level, we may have a lot to learn from you!)

None of these considerations apply universally. It may be the case that, between the risk of overestimating one's skill and the difficulty of getting to the top of any profession, almost all EAs would be better off pursuing career paths with clear direct impact.

But it still seems important for our community to recognize and support someone who has a realistic chance of becoming, say, a famous EA composer. Or an EA bronze medalist in curling. Or the first EA in the U.S. House of Representatives...

...or even something really weird like "the EA-aligned person who wrote the most popular piece of Harry Potter fanfiction ever". We can't ignore the risk, but we also shouldn't ignore the opportunity.

Questions for the comments: Have you ever tried to become world-class at something? Or had the chance to try, but opted to take another path? What were your results? Are you happy with the choice you made?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2018-11-02T15:10:29.021Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My main takeaway from this post is that people who are on a clear path to becoming world-class (or already are) can be great advocates for EA or for effective giving among their (fringe/prestigious) peer group, and that the EA community should be welcoming and encouraging them to be active members of the community. I do think that the concerns raised and the framing of the conclusion are apt.

Engaging with the prompt, I am considering an academic career. This may not lead to me being world class (say, win a Nobel Prize), but this is a likely path to becoming high status which has similar merits. I guess that in the technical or research oriented world, it is easier to have both high status and to do EA-aligned work, so I do not think of this as a major consideration.

I find it interesting that the three arguments given also apply somewhat to the value of high social skills:

1. Better social skills lead to stronger connections. People with exceptional social skills can also be more likely to connect with high status individuals.

2. Being more charismatic helps one be more persuasive (in a different manner than written above).

3. Having more people with high social skills in the community can help newcomers feel more at ease and engaged with EA.

comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2018-10-23T21:48:05.496Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's not obvious to me how to get order of magnitude estimates on the expected value of these considerations. They seem likely to be true, but I'm uncertain how to weigh against the value of a 'traditional' EA-aligned career. (Edited for clarity)

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-10-31T06:24:31.322Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


I'm also quite unsure about this, largely because there's an enormous visibility bias; I can think of a few people within EA who did become world-class at something, but barely anyone who tried and failed. But this is something I hope to collect some anecdata on in the future (and through comments on the post).

One more important factor is the extent to which being a part of the EA community might help your chances of getting to a world-class level in something (through access to mentorship, access to lots of people who can help you stick to your goals and spread word about your work, etc.).

This may not be true often, if at all -- hanging out with musicians seems like a much better idea than hanging out with EAs if your goal is to win fame as a musician -- but I can see 80,000 Hours having some interesting general insights if they ever decided to research the general area of "becoming famous". (This seems antithetical to most of their current thinking, and would probably not be a good use of their

comment by SiebeRozendal · 2018-10-24T12:46:48.987Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey JP, I don't mean to sound condescending or policing, but I find this comment to be full of (unnecessary) jargon which would be very hard to read for newcomers. What would help:

  • Writing out abbreviations ("EV" --> "expected value")
  • Writing out the reasoning instead of a concept ("the value of the opportunity cost" --> "the benefits of pursuing a 'traditional' EA-aligned career)

comment by Buck · 2020-02-26T05:05:38.619Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that it's important for EA to have a space where we can communicate efficiently, rather than phrase everything for the benefit of newcomers who might be reading, so I think that this is bad advice.

comment by JP Addison (jpaddison) · 2018-10-24T21:32:19.068Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

No worries. I'm a newcomer to posting Forum comments, so I expect to need to train my writing. I updated the comment, thanks!

comment by markus_over · 2018-11-10T15:49:17.378Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the post, really interesting read! I find your arguments quite intriguing.

Whether aiming at becoming world class is a valid strategy or not seems to vary quite a lot depending on which area we're talking about. I guess for musicians it's very difficult to make such an argument - there are just too many highly talented people out there, plus there seems to be a lot of luck/randomness involved in achieving fame/recognition there. So even if you're an extremely capable singer/guitar player/drummer/..., the chances may just be too slim. Things may look different for more exotic instruments, or even sports that aren't very popular. If you have the right preconditions to be good at discus throwing, and you decide to give everything to become world class at it, the chances are probably much higher you'll succeed simply due to the much smaller base rate of people sharing that goal. And while the recognition that comes with it is certainly reduced when compared to actors/musicians/NBA stars etc., I'm pretty sure the "expected recognition" when taking such a path is much, much higher overall.

Similarly, there surely are many artists, but it's quite possible that certain niches with a lot of potential for motivated individuals exist.

Secondly, when stating that generally it seems like a good idea to have more world class in anything people in the movement, there are of course the two options of either developing those people from within the movement (which we're mostly discussing here), or advocating among already world class at something people to join the movement. I'm not sure if any organized attempt to achieve the latter already exists, but it might certainly be worthwhile as well, and for many of the more mainstream areas, I'd argue the chances of this strategy to get more world class at something people into the movement are much higher than via the "hold my beer I can do this" approach.