Author’s Note: These plans are no longer current. Many of my opinions and beliefs have changed between the writing of this post and now. I take no responsibility for inferences made from the content of this post. Let me know if you’d like to check any of the specifics.
Some people have recently asked me what my life plans are. I thought I’d write them up, for a couple reasons: I don’t want to keep giving bad ad-hoc answers; I want to improve my own thinking about them; and I want to run them by other people for comments.
There are many gaps in my plans as they currently stand. However, I thought I’d publish what I have now, for the sake of getting faster feedback and to avoid the perfect being the enemy of the good.
(Note: for things related to this post, I declare Crocker’s Rules. I’m not particularly attached to any part of these plans, except my terminal values. I won’t be offended if you disagree with parts or suggest alternatives. However, I’d ask that you don’t discuss cause selection in the comments. I’m currently undecided; I’ve already seen many arguments pro and con for each cause, and I don’t want useful comments about my plans to be drowned out by a rehashing of these points.)
Note II: this is quite long and written more for my benefit than for anyone else’s. If you do want to read it, you may not want to go linearly. I tried to make it at least somewhat skimmable.
The structure of this document is as follows. First, I’ll go over background knowledge and assumptions that my plans are based on. Then I’ll detail what I think my best few options are. Afterward I’ll go over my current thoughts and beliefs about these options, and what my next steps are. Where I’m aware of gaps or opportunities to gain more information, I’ve inserted italicized questions throughout.
1a. Values and ethics
My goal with this plan is to maximize the amount of good that I can do in the world while maintaining high quality of life and life satisfaction.
i. Philosophical details
I’m a consequentialist. I wouldn’t call myself any particular flavor of utilitarian yet, because I’m still worried about some technical issues: how do we measure utility, given that people frequently have conflicting and inconsistent preferences? How do we aggregate it across lots of people? Are utilities between people comparable? To what extent?
However, I think the conclusion that we should be spending most of our resources to make the world better holds across many different ethical systems. And while I’m confused about the particulars of utilitarianism, the space of possible answers is small enough that most everyday ethical decisions are robust to those variations. So in practice, my ethical uncertainties aren’t a big issue.
Question: am I right in ignoring these technical details for now?
ii. Personal details
One might think that the goals of maximizing the good that I can do, and maintaining high quality of life and life satisfaction, would conflict: for example, given a fixed sum of money, I could spend it on charity (maximizing good) or a better computer (maximizing quality of life) or accordion lessons (maximizing life satisfaction).
However, this is frequently a false tradeoff. First, my life satisfaction is very much tied to how much good I do in the world, so I can spend much of my time achieving both of these goals simultaneously. Although I wish I could play accordion, knowing that I’ve helped materially improve many people’s lives would be much more satisfying for me. While trying to live a fulfilling life can sometimes lead away from the precise optimal thing to do, I don’t believe that this effect is large enough to worry about, at least for me personally.
Second, the amount of resources I can devote to doing good in the world is mostly limited by my quality of life. So if spending money would improve my quality of life noticeably, chances are it would increase, rather than decrease, the resources I could spend on charity. For example, if I buy a better computer, and the difference is noticeable, it will make me more productive, leading to me producing more resources to put towards improving the world. Of course, this line of thinking is prone to rationalization, which I have to be careful of, but that’s a problem with implementation, not with the goals of doing good and having a high-quality life actually being in conflict.
My non-altruistic goals are fairly prosaic. Most of these are the usual suspects: health, close friendships, respect, social approval, sex, fun, power, knowledge, solving interesting problems, etc. I don’t think any of these are particularly unusual, so I won’t discuss them too much.
Question: do I have any unusual personal preferences that I’m neglecting?
iii. Altruistic details
As I mentioned I’m currently undecided on what causes I think are the most effective. I’ve been donating to GiveWell’s recommended charities because it was the easiest point to start giving money. I intend to do more thinking about less certain causes such as animal suffering and the far future before I donate substantially more.
1b. My knowledge and skills
I know a lot of math, computer science, and physics, and some economics and statistics. I have basic knowledge in the humanities and almost none in the softer natural sciences (biology and chemistry). I haven’t studied any high-level humanities (anthropology, anything with “studies” at the end) or soft sciences beyond first-year economics (linguistics, sociology, psychology).
With respect to actual skills, my strongest comparatively is probably programming or math. (For calibration, I’ve interned at Fog Creek and Jane Street and scored in the Putnam top 200 last year.) I’m also a decent writer and musician.
I’m currently weak at interpersonal skills, logistics, and doing busy work.
Question: is my assessment of these as strengths and weaknesses correct? Am I missing others?
If it were necessary I think I could improve these skills somewhat, but I’m guessing that it’s better to do things that play to my strengths and leave the other stuff to other people, unless I come across a seriously under-resourced opportunity in one of my weak areas.
Question: is this intuition reasonable?
I’m self-motivated enough to run a student organization here (Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy), but somewhat poorly when I was running it on my own—it’s going much better now that there are two main organizers than it was when I was doing everything myself (a potential confounder is that I got much more enthusiastic about it and better-organized in the mean time). While I was working essentially by myself over the summer I sometimes found it hard to stay motivated (a potential confounder is that I thought that what I was doing was unlikely to succeed).
Question: where am I in terms of self-motivation and self-direction?
I’ve identified a couple main things that I could do. First, I could earn a lot of money and donate it to effective charities; it seems like the best ways to earn a lot of money are finance or startups. Second, I could do research into important topics in effective altruism, like cause prioritization, identifying effective organizations, etc. Third, I could work for an effective organization in some non-research capacity.
Question: am I leaving out major options?
For choosing a plan are, the important considerations are:
- its altruistic value (on expectation)
- whether it’s sustainable for me to pursue (e.g., reasonably nice, not too much stress, won’t cause me to burn out)
- over what time horizon it pays off (if all the payoff is in 60 years, it’s less valuable because I’m likely to find a better opportunity before then and change plans)
- relatedly, its option value—how easily I could switch to a higher-value plan if I discover one later
Question: for how long should I expect to pursue the plan I choose?
2a. Earning to give in finance
I’ve done a winternship at Jane Street Capital, and it seems likely that I could get a full-time job there. Given what I know about salaries at Jane Street and 80k’s data generally, I’d estimate my expected lifetime earnings somewhere in the double-digit millions pre-tax.1 This is based on the following assumptions:
- I can get a full-time job at Jane Street if I want
- Jane Street stays around
- I don’t burn out
- Their business continues to be, on average, as good as it currently is
- The information I got about their compensation structure was accurate
Question: how likely is it that Jane Street will stay around in time for me to extract a significant chunk of that value?
If my earnings turn out to be on the low end of the distribution, I’ll be able to tell this fairly quickly (probably within two years).
ii. Personal factors
Jane Street plays well to my comparative advantages at math, programming, and (possibly) rationality. Additionally, my impression is that relative to most high-paying finance jobs (e.g. investment banking), and probably compared to doing a start up, the work is less stressful. As such, working at Jane Street seems quite good from a personal-preferences angle.
I’ve already done a winternship at Jane Street, so I have a fair amount of information about how they work. If I wanted to gather more information about working in finance the next step would probably be to interview at other firms and compare, or possibly do another internship.
Question: should I be looking into other finance firms as well? Which ones?
2b. Earning to give at a startup
The expected value of this option is much hazier to me. According to 80k’s research, the risk-neutral expected value of a funded startup is $1.4 million per year. If I’m going to do a startup, the best plan seems to be to try for some set amount of time (a year, perhaps?) and fold if it can’t get funding or other signals of success by then. The previous paragraph relies on the following assumptions:
- Business in the tech market stays roughly as good as it currently is (or was when the data was taken), i.e., no bubbles or crashes
- Availability of funding stays roughly the same (if it becomes easier to get funding, being funded will be less of a signal of success)
- I don’t have characteristics that put me in the wrong reference class for that data to apply (being particularly good or bad at getting funding relative to running a successful startup, having the explicit goal of making money rather than “building something cool” or “changing the world” with the startup)
Question: are these reasonable assumptions?
ii. Personal factors
Personally, I have some aversive distaste for the startup “scene”, which might limit my ability to succeed and make it somewhat psychologically difficult. My impression is that compared to other options, doing a startup would be somewhat more stressful, somewhat less enjoyable, and give me a mildly danger chance of burning out, but this effect isn’t very large.
Question: to what extent is this aversive reaction a handicap?
Question: is my self-motivation high enough to do a startup?
Question: to what extent should I downgrade my estimate due to psychological factors (stress, burnout)?
Whether or not I have good indicators for startup success is less clear to me than my good indicators for Jane Street. I attempted something that was basically a startup over the summer and it did not go as well as hoped (we didn’t get very much done and it looks like it isn’t going anywhere, despite receiving an early indicator of success in the form of some competitive grant funding). However, there were some confounders: I was working alone for most of the time, we weren’t clear on our direction, we weren’t clear about expectations of commitment going forward, and our idea was too complex. I think the lessons I’ve learned from that experience would make a second attempt significantly more likely to get off the ground.
Question: do I have good enough indicators that I should seek more information?
If I wanted to gain more information, I could either intern for a small startup, or attempt a second one myself.
Question: which one would be better?
Research is an option I hadn’t considered until recently; I assumed that it was mostly replaceable (I could earn to give and fund several researchers) but this turns out to be at least somewhat false. As such, I’m now looking into effective altruism research as an option.
I don’t know how to think about the expected value of EA research. I expect significant leverage, since strong research supporting underfunded charities could draw non-EA funding to them. This seems like it might be a good time to do some modeling. I know that Giving What We Can has been doing a bit of related work, but something more general might be useful.
Question: how do I think about comparing this to earning to give?
Anyway, my instinct is that there are fewer people who are suited to do research than to do earning to give, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about causes right now, so if I turn out to be a good fit to do research I should weight it more highly.
ii. Personal factors
The personal value of doing research probably varies a lot with where I do it, and I don’t have a good sense of what my options are. GiveWell would probably be between Jane Street and a startup in terms of intensity; academia could be as intense as I made it (and would have to be intense for a while if I wanted a tenured job). Either way, though, I don’t think personal factors would be a large concern if I chose to research.
I have fairly good indicators for research. I come from an academic family, get good grades in difficult classes, and have strong quantitative and analytic skills and good mathematical intuition.
I’m currently doing some programming work for GiveWell to see if I’m a good fit for working with them. If that goes well I might be able to intern with them and do some research. I could also intern with other organizations, or be a research assistant for a professor on campus.
I’m also currently taking a class on “Reasoning via Models” that should give me some information on how much I enjoy modeling work (although it’s more on the theoretical/philosophical side). I plan to take at least one more modeling course (in economics) before I graduate.
Question: how do I assess whether I’m comparatively better at earning to give or research?
2d. Other EA work
I could also do other kinds of work for other effective or potentially effective organizations (80,000 Hours, Giving What We Can, CFAR, MIRI, Leverage Research, etc.).
Again, the impact here is hazier. It seems that many of these organizations have large potential upside and are relatively small right now, so the value I’d add by working there could be fairly large on expectation, but I don’t know how to compare this to other options. Many of these organizations are at least somewhat cash-limited in addition to people-limited, so even if I could work for them, earning to give to them could also be valuable.
Question: how do I think about this decision?
ii. Personal factors
I can’t think of any specific competencies I have that would make me a particularly good fit for one of these organizations in a non-research role. From my experience running Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy, I seem to be a competent but not exceptional organizer, fundraiser and communicator. As such, unless these organizations are in dire need of warm bodies, I’d rather leave those roles to other people.
Question: is this right? Are there options I’m an especially good fit for that I’m missing?
My current self-evaluation is based on my experience running a campus group, Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy, which involves fundraising, organizing events, doing logistics, writing communications, and recruiting new members, essentially learning as we go (the group is new enough that we don’t have much institutional memory).
There’s a lot of information I’m missing here:
- What is the limiting factor to growth for each of these organizations?
- What would they do with extra [limiting factor] on the margin?
- What would it be like to work with them?
- In what role would I be the best fit?
Question: why aren’t the answers to the first two questions available somewhere publicly?
Many of these can be answered by doing research and speaking with folks from these organizations. I could also visit them in person or intern with them.
3. Current beliefs affecting my plan
Here’s some beliefs that I’ve acquired mostly from conversations with people and reading things. In the future I aim to talk to more people to get a better sense of whether these are true or whether there are things I’m missing.
- My expected earnings from working in finance are greater than my expected earnings from doing a startup.
- Effective altruism organizations are bottlenecked on both funding and people, and the difference in severity of the bottlenecks is close enough that my comparative advantage is the dominant factor.
- I might have a comparative advantage at research, and probably do not at any of the other relevant skills for an EA organization.
- Replaceability largely does not apply to any of the options I’m considering (finance companies, tech companies or EA organizations).
Question: are these correct? Are there other background beliefs I’m missing?
4. Next steps
I would like to acquire a lot more information before deciding to exploit one of these options. As such, my current plan essentially boils down to “1) get the most valuable information 2) make a better plan”. In more detail, some things that seem like good ideas are
- Get more information about how well I could do research by e.g. working for GiveWell
- Get more information about direct work by asking EA organizations about what resources they’re limited by and what they would do with extra
- Figure out how to think better about option value and time horizons better
- Model the effectiveness of research with a couple different models to get a sense for what the value might be
Question: what else goes here?
Anyway, that’s the plan. If you’ve made it this far, congrats! I hope you have some thoughts that you’ll tell me in the comments :)
This used to name a specific number (30m) for concreteness, but I obfuscated it by multiplying it by a random factor and there wasn’t much evidence behind it in the first place, so I’ve removed that. ↩︎