The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and who would like to remain anonymous.
How have you seen talented people fail in their work?
Not spending enough time on their mental health
Burning out. As a way of preventing burnout, try to figure out as best you can whether that entry-level job is bullshit. Are they going to pay attention to your career development? To your skills? To your needs? If not, probably don’t take the job — because there’s a real chance you’ll become disillusioned with the area completely.
I think a lot of people just overestimate their ability to work hard at something they’re not into without burning out. I’ve seen a fair amount of that, it’s really disturbed me.
I’ve seen people work really hard for a long time, and have other people say “hey, can you ease up on yourself? I’m worried about you.” And then one day just lose it. I’ve seen people just stop coming to work. I’ve seen people be unable to continue at their job, whereas if they had slowed down a bit they could have been sustainable.
I have several major cases in mind, where I truly believe that if they had been jogging they could have kept jogging, but because they sprinted — they just stopped. And they reached a point where they couldn’t do their work anymore. And they became incredibly unproductive, even negatively productive. Negatively impacting people around them.
It’s something I’ve seen a lot of. I don’t think that’s a small issue, I think it’s a huge deal. I think out of all the potential that I’ve seen lost, that seems avoidably lost, maybe more than half comes from that exact phenomenon.
I think a lot of people contend with anxiety spirals. They feel like they’re not doing well enough, and then they feel stressed and start to avoid their work, and then because they’re feeling stressed and avoiding their work — their performance actually does start to suffer.
For me, when this happens, I often end up refusing to look at my email because there will definitely be emails that I should have dealt with — but now it’s too late to deal with them in a respectable amount of time, so I think “well, might as well never think about this at all”.
Personally, if I notice myself even slightly avoiding emails I immediately drop what I’m doing, and force myself to go through my inbox right then. Because if I don’t, then it’s only going to get worse. But that doesn’t work for everybody.
I’ve seen people just get depressed. And sometimes those people are putting in real effort on their mental health — but I think no matter how much time you put in, you’re probably not putting in enough.
Not thinking about their life as a whole
Maybe it’s fine to drive yourself by force of will if it’s really important and it’s temporary, but if you try to build a career around that… things can go badly. I’ve seen several people recently who are really smart who have run into this, and it’s a hard thing to get over. It’s not like you just take a vacation and you’re fine — this kind of thing can make you feel pretty lost.
By focusing on what they’re doing over the next year or two rather than stepping back and thinking about their life as a whole. If you work in a fast-paced place, for example, then everything is always going to feel like it’s on fire.
You have to have a life where you can survive and get through that stuff for a long time. You have to make sure you can continue to function for your whole career and not just the next couple of years.
I guess this might sound generic, but I mean it sincerely: if you have a plan to do something really important for 10 years, you have to have a life that you can live for 10 years. You need to try to be happy over the long term.
It’s really hard to be motivated day-to-day by the promise of slightly reducing existential threats or something — you need to really enjoy your work. Personal fit should be emphasised even more. Once you’ve chosen a cause area, think about what you really like doing, what makes you satisfied, then go and do that.
Making career strategy mistakes
Getting a PhD and especially postdoc with the expectation of getting a professor position at a top university. A research professor position can be very high impact. But even though there is awareness that it is difficult to get a tenure-track job, I think there is less awareness that a minority of those tenure-track jobs are actually research intensive.
This is because most of the jobs are at community (two-year) colleges or four year colleges, at least in the US. Even at Masters level universities, the majority of the work could be teaching instead of research. Only once you get to the top roughly 200 universities in the US (1,000 globally?) are you doing research most of the time.
I’ve seen people be too jumpy. So, some opportunity presents itself, and it seems really good, and they just quit what they’re currently doing and hop on to the new path.
It seems particularly common in effective altruism for people to be happy to jump ship onto some new project that seems higher impact at the time. And I think that this tendency systematically underestimates the costs of switching, and systematically overestimates the benefits — so you get kind of a ‘grass is greener’ effect.
In general, I think, if you’re taking a job, you should be imagining that you’re going to do that job for several years. If you’re in a job, and you’re not hating it, it’s going pretty well — and some new opportunity presents itself, I think you should be extremely reticent to jump ship.
I think there are also a lot of gains from focusing on one activity or a particular set of activities; you get increasing returns for quite a while. And if you’re switching between things often, you lose that benefit.
There are definitely people I know who I now consider to be extremely talented, but who maybe weren’t even that good at what they’re doing when they started out, but they kept sticking it out — and now years later I think they’re excellent at their job. They did this just by being really focused on this one activity, and developing mastery of it.
It’s easy to get distracted by some opportunities that on the face of it seem good, but that are likely to lead to dead ends — they won’t allow room for advancement.
I think it’s important to remain in a position where you continue to have pretty good alternative options. This is partially for your own well-being; it’s a lot easier to struggle through tough work if you know you can leave at any time and do any number of other things. It’s a lot harder if you close off a lot of options.
Be very careful of burning bridges when you do decide to take a new opportunity.
There are leadership qualities that are really prized — people just getting out there and doing new, cool things — and people have a tendency to try and make themselves fit these perceived top paths. But not everyone is like that, not everyone is suited to those roles.
It’s possible to be someone who loves to solve problems, but has no interest in going out into the world and being the flagbearer for that problem. So you need to find your role. Are you an ideas generator, or are you someone who finishes projects?
If you’re a talented person, it can be easy to overlook a lack of personal fit. You can find yourself in a leadership role, without realising that you basically don’t like leading people — and you’ll probably do pretty badly in that role.
Being too reliant on advice
Following advice blindly. Thinking that someone they respect has everything figured out so they can just do that. If they follow that but things don’t work out, they can then feel unmoored from their own judgement. If they didn’t get themselves to where they are with their own judgements and intuitions, once their source of wisdom goes away, what do they do? Starting over is hard professionally, and really hard psychologically.
Obviously, sometimes people are too confident in their inside view. Being too confident in your inside view can correlate with a lack of talent — it shows a lack of awareness of when others may have better judgements.
But I’ve seen people be too reliant on the outside view — they’re unwilling to give themselves space to explore inside views. I would’ve been excited for these people to rely on their own judgements, and think they could have come up with something pretty cool.
Being unwilling to compromise
Perfectionism can be a powerful driver towards improving things across the board, but it sometimes blocks people from completing things — or sharing things publicly. And that can be very costly.
Maybe trite, but definitely true — the perfect being the enemy of the good. A lot more work gets done by non-perfectionists, and that’s frustrating.
The idea of purity of vision. People who are so attached to their way of doing things. Being unable or unwilling to cooperate.
Not having access to knowledge about how to succeed
This is a depressing one, but I think some of the most talented people I’ve met who didn’t go on to have a great career were just victims of a society that was structured really poorly for them.
Successful people often had a lot of help to get where they are. It’s much harder if you don’t have anyone in a position to teach you how to do things like succeed at school even if your school isn’t great, choose the right university, or succeed in the field you’ve chosen.
The reason a lot of those talented people didn’t succeed is because no one was around to tell them how to do all that stuff – basically, the knowledge about how to succeed that typically gets passed on from successful people. So much of success depends on that kind of knowledge, which some people don’t get access to.
Neglecting important skills and habits
Talent is not enough on its own. These days, you need to both work hard and work smart — working smart is not enough, unfortunately. A lot of people kind of cruise through high school and undergrad and never learn good habits. You can be very talented, but if you don’t have your shit together you won’t be able to make good use of that talent.
It’s well worth taking the time early on to figure out how to be maximally productive while staying sane. If you didn’t learn that before, today is likely the best day to start because the benefits of good habits compound over time.
Sometimes you can be really passionate and talented, but interact in a way that others find unpleasant — and this can turn people off a cause area.
One way this can show up is when disagreements pop up in conversations with people new to the area; instead of just amicably moving on, it can feel necessary to show that other person why they’re wrong, even if it’s very costly or you come off as confrontational. These social skills are really important, but often neglected.
Making social impact mistakes
In terms of having an impact — never actually doing direct work.
People can convince themselves that they’ll be able to, say, do pro-bono work as a lawyer on a cause they care about once they’ve established themselves — but they soon find out that’s incredibly difficult. So they start donating a bit, but then life circumstances change; they have a family, they realise how expensive it is to live in a major city — and eventually they’re not even donating much either.
I’ve seen plenty of really smart, really committed people basically ending up having no impact because they’ve been completely removed from a community. Even if they’re aware of this, and are unhappy about it — they can feel trapped into thinking “I can’t possibly leave my job now”. I’ve even seen this happen with people early in their career, maybe only 5 years after leaving law school.
If you might be in this situation and really want to have an impact, you probably shouldn’t become a lawyer in the first place.
Being swayed by social pressure. Your peers might consider X the cool thing to do, when Y is clearly going to be the better option for you (taking into account the counterfactual — who would they have hired if I didn’t take the role?).
This is particularly true for less sexy roles within less sexy areas. A good nonprofit might need someone to handle their finances or IT, and you might have a relevant background — but your friends aren’t talking about that as a cool way to improve the world. If you can resist being swayed by social pressure, you’ll be in a better position to have an impact.
There are a lot of examples of really bad organisation management that causes people to leave in disgust and frustration.
I see a lot of people trying to take the job that they’ve calculated will do the most good. And I don’t think that generally works for those people.
And then I see people who try a million things and end up somewhere different from what they had expected, who had mostly focused on becoming generally highly capable and highly respected — and that group of people seems to do a lot better.
But I don’t know what would have happened if the first set had tried to do what the second set did, or if the second set had tried to do what the first set did.
I’d say a good 70% of the success I’ve had is due to luck. That can be dispiriting if you’re just starting out, but it also means that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if your career doesn’t go exactly how you planned.
You could have all the talent in the world, be extremely hard-working, and it still might not work out.
About the Author
This article was produced by 80,000 Hours. 80,000 Hours is a web platform that is dedicated to helping as many people as possible lead high-impact careers.They do this by providing career advice for talented young people who want to have a social impact. see more.