If you were, say 22, had free time, enough money, and decent curiosity and technical skills (but less than spectacular) what would you do? I could get a PhD. I could try and do something with more upside—maybe startups. But what opportunities exist in my blindspot? Writing, consulting, science funding, K-12 education? What can I do to get long-term leverage—gain technical skills?

I hate the idea of watching people make real-world, practical impact while I try away at an irrelevant PhD. I've been trying to embrace learning by doing and just starting on projects. Thoughts here?

New to LessWrong?

New Answer
New Comment

3 Answers sorted by

That's pretty much me. I spent 2021 learning fullstack web dev and I'm spending 2022 bootstrapping a vertical SAAS. I'm doing this on the side while I work as a dev for not for profits (civic tech).

The long-term goal is to keep building those niche SAAS products and open source all the code while donating a yet undecided % of profits to effective charities.

I'm also learning how to write well with the goal of sharing whatever knowledge I acquire along the way through my blog.

I am also working on a moonshot solo research project in the field of complexity science. This will likely take years (decades?) and has a close to zero chance of success but if it works out it'll be a pretty decent contribution to the field.

The general principles I'm following are:

  • Work on tech products as they're highly scalable and the market will ensure you're solving real problems
  • Maximise positive externalities (donate % profits, open source, share learnings)
  • Do science on the side on something that interests you and which won't be a waste if it works out

Getting a PhD isn't likely to pass the opportunity cost test for impact unless you're a genius.

What I'm doing is really low risk, I'm not taking venture capital and I'm still working at my job but that's obviously limiting. If you really want to have a huge impact and don't mind huge risk you could try a startup that solves a huge problem you really care about having solved.

Depends! I think biosecurity and AI safety are both good technical fields to get into - and "getting into" them can either look like immediately trying to read up on the hard problems in the field, or it can look like spending many years building skills that you think will soon be needed by those fields (if you are a good ML engineer or good cell biologist, you can build general skills and wait around for someone going "help, I need some cell biologists to make this biosecurity project happen.").

Sometimes getting into a field will involve going to grad school. I think that's totally okay as long as you're careful about keeping a fairly direct connection between what you want and what you're going to school for. You don't have to be a super-genius to get a PhD (though you still have to be pretty bright), nor does it mean you have to be the head honcho (lots of lucrative and interesting "grunt work" is done by people with PhDs - the aformentioned cell biologists often have PhDs, as do the people who run the big machines that make microchips).

Another option is just to try to make a lot of money and change the world by spending money. I am not the best person to ask about this, but I don't think it's nuts. People often choose careers while not thinking too hard about money, and so being just a little more strategic than average can lead to a large income increase.

I have some questions before I give any advice. 

When you say your technical skills are "less than spectacular", what does this mean? Can you build software? Or do you have some kind of other employable skill that you have rehearsed the basics of? 

The reason I ask this is because if your 22 and don't have a fundamental skill ( balancing books, writing code, etc. ), this should be #1 on your agenda. This is what allows you to write books, consult, etc. 

Some questions:

  • Do you feel like you lean more towards things with more upside? 
  • What kind of life do you want to live? It would be worthwhile to review #29 here.
  • Who, in your life, do you look up to and want to emulate? Scientists? Business people? 
3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:32 AM

What are your goals?

[+][comment deleted]2y6

If you haven't already, I'd suggest you put a weekend aside and read through the guides on https://80000hours.org/

They have some really good analyses on when you should do a PhD, found a startup, etc.