Skip to main content
  1. Posts/

Careers, Ambition, and Humility

·7 mins

Dear Sebastian,

I read your open letter on your economics curriculum. I happen to be thinking a lot about career advice at the moment, so the advice you include from 80000hours was interesting to me. I love the idea of including career advice in an economics class, and situating it right when the curriculum has caused that sort of angst in your students is perceptive. But I have mixed feelings about what I found at 80000hours, and it provides a useful framework for talking about the thoughts I already had brewing.

Career Advice is Good #

You link to this article overviewing 80000hours' philosophy, and this one on career stages. The overview is the kind of thing I desperately needed to hear in high school and college, when I grossly underplanned.1 A lot of the advice is excellent- thinking about autonomy, mastery, and purpose, thinking about how to match your skills with effective opportunities to tackle pressing problems, aiming high and having backup plans.

The problems start when 80000hours discusses which careers they find worthwhile. They recommend working on pressing global problems, and the career stage article mentions a co-founder’s work on the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative. Hold on. What’s on this list of pressing global problems? Pandemic prevention, sure, but then… AI risk, effective altruism, research to help rank global problems by importance… uh oh.

This is a recruiting front for the California rationalists.

I’d like to acknowledge up front that I know that this list of priorities isn’t what you directly included in your curriculum; it’s a secondhand link from those pages. So please consider my objections to have only a glancing relevance to your curriculum. With that caveat in mind, I have two problems with the way these priorities are framed. Then I have a third swirl of thoughts which I haven’t figured out in my own mind and which was already going to be the topic of my next discussion night before I saw your letter.

Maintenance vs Expansion #

Bret Devereaux’s rule of thumb is that 90% of the grain grown in pre-industrial agrarian societies went to feeding the subsistence farmers who grew it. The other 10% could be extracted by the state to support all its other activities- including warfare, yes, but also things like metalworking that improved farmers' lives. Consequently, subsistence farmers constituted 80-90% of the population of almost every pre-industrial agrarian society. If you were giving career advice in such a society, you’d have to acknowledge that most of your pupils would be farmers.

I think the analogue in our society is maintenance jobs vs expansion jobs. Someone who works to expand human knowledge or capacity, say on AI or pharmaceuticals or satellites, depends on a vast network of people doing maintenance jobs to support them. Generations turn over every 30 years, requiring many (most?) to devote their lives to parenting and educating just to maintain the same knowledge. Wood rots and software obsoletes, requiring many to devote their lives to repairing houses and maintaining code just to keep the same level of infrastructure. People still need to eat, and though our agricultural processes are preposterously efficient, a sizable chunk of the population still works in food service just to keep everyone going. Overall, I hypothesize that 80-90% of jobs in our society are maintenance jobs. 2

Career advice to a group must be shaped by this reality. We cannot teach everyone to be dissatisfied with maintenance jobs.3 But that’s what 80000hours does. Their definition of impact focuses predominantly on emerging 21st-century problems, with no mention anywhere of the continued need for maintenance jobs to undergird the system.

I think the underlying issue is elitism. I get the impression that California rationalists actually consider maintenance jobs beneath them. Maybe they could appreciate their dependence better if they had economics training grounded in the liberal arts.

Global vs Local #

80000hours instructs us to consider pressing global problems. There’s no mention of trying to tackle the biggest local problems. This is an enormous flaw! Local problems are far more likely to be tractable. You’re not going to make global supply chains more efficient, but you could very well get a small group together and open a new food pantry in your neighborhood. I’m aware of the obvious objection- that everything is run by humans, so of course someone’s actually affecting global supply chains meaningfully- and I respond that that’s a far smaller group of people than the number that can make a difference locally.

I know you’re on board with thinking locally, so I don’t think I need to belabor the point. I’ll just note that this is a different instance of the same general problem: their advice is aimed at an elite audience that can afford to focus exclusively on elite concerns, and it’s unsuitable for diverse groups.

Christian Ambition vs Christian Humility #

And now we come to the enigma. The thoughts in this section have been at the front of my mind for a few weeks now, but I’m no closer to working them out. I’m trying to figure out how to navigate between the bundle of ambition, pride, and dissatisfaction on the one hand, and acceptance, humility, and contentment on the other. It seems very hard to have ambition without dissatisfaction; what else would push you to try to achieve more? And why would you try unless you are proud? 80000hours recommends the ambition bundle, which fits with its elitism; but that’s just a jumping off point. The rest of this letter leaves 80000hours behind to explore what our Christianity has to say.

I recently subscribed to Plough magazine, published by the Bruderhof community. I gather that the Bruderhof is an evangelical version of a Catholic Worker- an intentional Christian community oriented around communal living, mutual support, and obedience to Christ’s commands to honor the outcasts of society. Plough has compelling stories that remind me to slow down; that I am called to a humble life; and that the powerless are at least as important in the eyes of God as the powerful. That’s what pulls me in the direction of acceptance, humility, and contentment.

On the other hand, Jesus tells us, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required." He warns against squandering talents. And a myriad of saints could not be called anything but ambitious, from the apostles to founders of orders, missionaries and scholars. That pulls me in the direction of ambition, pride, and dissatisfaction with my current state.

Perhaps the problem is that I don’t understand the sin of pride very well. I know I’m susceptible to it, but I rarely confess a sin related to it. It’s not something I’m well attuned to when I examine my conscience. Dante’s Purgatorio names pride the most deadly of the seven deadly sins, so I’m probably in danger here; but I also know that my stubbornness and resolve can be used in the service of God. How do I tell when stubbornness is a sinful kind of pride, rather than an insistent hunger and thirst for righteousness? How do I tell when my desire for a more fulfilling career is an offense against Christian gratitude, rather than a useless servant awakening to the realization that he needs to invest his talent better?

Should I try to maximize my impact, or should I try to be content in a simple community? Should I imitate Ignatius of Loyola, or Alphonsus Rodriguez? Catherine of Siena, or Therese of Lisieux?

I know that you come down firmly on the side of ambition. I’m not quite there yet, though. I don’t quite see how to square that approach with avoiding pride. I don’t quite see how to prevent it from ending up disdaining a bunch of jobs it depends on.

I look forward to learning from you, and from everyone who attends the discussion night I’ll schedule on this topic. In the meantime, I’m just careening from one to the other, hoping to scratch more virtue than vice from each day.



**Update: ** Here is Sebastian’s response.

  1. I’d heard enough “what if today were your last day on Earth” messages that I used them as an excuse not to think too hard about the future, convincing myself that my attitude was Christian. It wasn’t. ↩︎

  2. I tried to ground this by looking at BLS stats, but the top-level categories don’t map onto the maintenance vs expansion distinction very well. My spitball is Expansion Jobs = Information + half Goods-producing + half Healthcare + 10% Utilities = 22.8M jobs = 15%, not including full-time parents in the denominator. ↩︎

  3. It’s definitely true that there are some maintenance jobs that no one wants, whether because of hours, smells, or a lack of autonomy and mastery. That’s an economic problem in want of an economic solution, whether in changing conditions, raising pay, or increasing immigration. ↩︎