comment by Linch ·
2020-07-16T16:38:23.426Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Hmm this doesn't answer any of your questions directly, but might be helpful context to set: My impression is that relatively few people actually set out to become generalists! I think it's more accurate of an explanation to think of some people being willing to do what needs to get done (or doing things they find interesting, or has high exploration value, or a myriad of other reasons). And if those things keep seeming like highly impactful things to do (or continues to be interesting, has high learning/exploration value, etc), they keep doing them, and then eventually become specialists in that domain.
If this impression is correct, specialists start off as generalists who eventually specialize more and more, though when they start specializing might vary a lot (Some people continue to be excited about the first thing they tried, so are set on their life path by the time they were 12. Others might have tried 30 different things before settling on the right one).
(I obviously can't speak for other EAs; these are just my own vague impressions. Don't take it too seriously, etc)
Advice for someone early as a generalist?
Hmm, I don't feel too strongly about this, but maybe be really inquisitive and questioning of received wisdom? 80,000 Hours doesn't have a monopoly on truth of what jobs are impactful! The same (to a lesser degree) is true for GiveWell and global health charities, or FHI and what is good for the future of humanity.
Often, in any given case they'll have more experience in the topic and have spent more time on it, so you should probably take their advice under consideration, but 1) you are a domain expert in being you, so there are always gaps and pieces of information that others will miss when trying to give you broadly applicable advice and 2) ultimately your life is your own, and you should probably take charge of your own life plans and epistemology.
(For what it's worth, I don't think this is in-principle always true. I can imagine a world very much like ours where specialization is a lot better and the expert careers advice people are just much better than individuals at figuring out what careers are best for them, etc. I just think the world we live in is very far from that).
Did you stumble upon these different fields of interest by your own or did you surround yourself with smart people to get good understandings of various fields?
From the inside, it often feels like I just get interested in things and then explore them! But I don't think introspection is the most reliable source on these things. For example, if I had different friends, I'd undoubtedly have different interests, and be subconsciously guided to different things to focus on. There are also other unconscious biases, for example it is likely that I spend more time on interesting things that I perceive to be higher status among my friends.
I think once I do get interested in stuff, I'm often very willing to ping others to learn about it, eg, to ask dumb questions. For example I probably had at least 20 discussions about programming before my first programming job, and I had calls with Daniel Filan (friend and Metaculus moderator) and David Manheim (superforecaster) before deciding on spending increasingly high amounts of time on forecasting. For specific questions I'm confused about, I also often ping other amateur forecasters, or occasionally biosecurity people I know in EA. I also know a few medical students (and less closely due to the age of my peer group, medical doctors) who I sometimes ask questions about, but relatively few of the questions I'm interested in are directly related to treatment.
Thoughts on impact comparisons?
Too soon to tell.
can a generalist maybe bring knowledge/wisdom from intuitively non-adjacent disciplines into a project and help advance it?)
Yeah I think there are plenty of examples in history where lots of insights are gained from creatively applying fairly standard models in one field to another seemingly disparate field. Admittedly I think this as someone who's NOT a historian (or amateur historian), so I don't have a good idea of the true base rates.
Being a generalist is also not a free win. For example I think there's little stopping me from becoming a fairly good programmer, but obviously I wouldn't be as good at programming compared to if I started programming when I was 12. Something similar will be true for mathematics, or law, or entrepreneurship, or any number of other plausibly impactful things.
It's also easier for other people to interact with you if they think you're a specialist that they can peg easily.
What skills are you lacking \ or which ones would you like to acquire to become a "Jack of all trades"?
Hmm. I think there's a bunch of skills in the general domain of "presentation" that I'm pretty bad at, and meant to improve this year, but the pandemic has become my excuse to not worry about it. For example, improving my accent, having nicer clothes, better general grooming, etc. Pandemic renders a lot of these things moot both a) because there seem to be better things to do in the short term, and b) because the default way to communicate is text plus Zoom calls, so I think people subconsciously judge on those things a lot less.
More broadly, better "people skills" seems pretty helpful, though at the moment I think I have not defined what I'm bad at well enough for me to train a lot in that domain, other than presentation.
I'd also like to get better at math, history, and generalist research.
I think I'd like to get better at introspection and meta-cognition of my own feelings, though I'm not meta-cognitive enough to know if this would actually be really helpful (it's a vicious cycle!).
It'd be great if I can get really good at doing work consistently just because the work needs to be done at a high level, rather than because I'm personally in-the-moment excited about it.
Are you even aiming to become even more of a generalist? Yes or no - please elaborate.
I think my first paragraph might be a good answer to this? I roughly think I'll keep looking for things to do until I find something to "settle down" and specialize in (which might be in 6 months or 6 years).
Caveat everything by a decent margin. It sure feels weird for me to be giving life advice as someone in my twenties. I'm reminded of this line I read recently.
“They made us all look like complete geniuses! There’s a lot to be learned from the wisdom of age,” says a man who is 24.