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The Peek behind the Curtain interview series includes interviews with eleven people I thought were particularly successful, relatable, or productive. We cover topics ranging from productivity to career exploration to self-care. 

This eighth post covers thoughts on mentors, colleagues, and feedback.

You can view bios of my guests and other posts in the series here. This post is cross posted on my blog.

How did you develop your most meaningful mentors? Who encouraged or inspired you? 

Admit your vulnerability and ask 

I’ve developed great mentorships by asking questions, and sometimes coming clean about my total ignorance about a topic, tactfully. Without seeming incompetent, you can definitely talk about your vulnerability and knowledge gaps. For example, after some big meeting, I can tell that there's some background information that I'm missing, maybe an ulterior motive someone seems to exhibit. To know the whole picture, I'll privately ask a trusted higher-up for the things between the lines. People are often glad to teach others the ropes.

Abi Olvera

Having role models can open doors 

Setting up a charity feels like this big intimidating thing that someone coming straight out of university would have no idea how to do.

Charity Entrepreneurship is saying, "Hey, you too can do this. Here are some things that you need, you need to be a smart person and have a good idea and stuff like that. Hey, we're going to vet people and figure out if you seem like actually a good fit for this. Also, we're going to describe some projects that you could do that are worth trying. Also, we're going to model it. Look, here are a couple of charities that have gone really well. You too can do this."

I think that kind of thing is also pretty useful because as an undergrad, I just hadn't really come across anyone who was setting up companies or charities or anything. I had no idea that you would be able to do this without too much work. The kind of thing that made it feel way more viable was talking to some people who had done it and were just like, "Yes, no, this isn't that hard. Here are the kinds of things you do. Also, here are some other people you can ask for help from," that kind of thing.

I think putting more information out there, I guess including the kind of thing that you're doing with your interview series, can help people realize that these are the kinds of things that they could have a go at as well.

Michelle Hutchinson

Learn by working with senior people

It's important to hear what more senior people think, who’ve sort of gone through this process. Especially because senior people tend to be more plugged in and have a lot of accumulated knowledge. So trying to pick their brains on things tends to be more valuable. You can also learn a lot through collaborating with people. I'm working with this guy right now, Stefano DellaVigna, who's fantastic. And it's been a great learning experience for me to see how he works on grant applications and how he phrases things. It's been really wonderful working with him. So some of that is also just learning by working with other people.

Eva Vivalt

Work with people who can mentor you

I think because the field that I'm in is very relationship-based, relationships have been pretty important. Two really obvious examples have been the two main bosses I've worked with, Holden Karnofsky and Jason Matheny. Just trying to have good relationships with them, trying to do good work so that they trust me in my work. I think they both have supported me a lot. That's been very, very important. 

Helen Toner

Encouragement is sometimes necessary 

I tended not to find it easy to come up with ideas and just decide to execute on them. It meant that it was really useful for me to be surrounded by people who were ambitious and had ideas.

In particular, I'm very motivated by helping the people around me. As soon as there was someone doing some ambitious project and they were like, "We want to do this thing. Do you think you can do this part of it or something?" that immediately feels way more appealing to me than coming up with that idea and deciding to do it. Things like running Giving What We Can, I just definitely don't think I would have, on my own steam, decided that I was ready for. Whereas having someone be like, "Nope, I think you are ready for it, and you're going to do it, go get them" made all the difference to me.

I think some of that can come somewhat quickly. I think part of what advising does often is, look at someone's CV, talk to them for half an hour and be like, "Yeah no, I just think you can do this, maybe won't go well, but I'm pretty sure you can do it. You certainly can try. No one will think you're ridiculous for trying," that kind of thing.

I think it doesn't require many months of getting to know someone super well, you can just be like, "You're the kind of profile for whom this is reasonable." 

Michelle Hutchinson 


How do you elicit useful feedback? How important is being surrounded with or working with other great people? 

Use objections you’ve already heard to elicit better feedback

Trying to anticipate objections and listing objections that you've already heard and asking people to say if they agree with them or if that sparks any thoughts, is pretty helpful and will get you a lot more responses.

Ajeya Cotra

Being surrounded by great people seems important for research

I think I've definitely benefited from having people to follow or at least people to try to join in their projects. I've benefited from that a lot. As far as research ideas goes, this definitely feels true to me. It does seem really important to have people that bounce ideas off.

Some people also seem to just go off on their own, do a bunch of really good stuff. I don't know how that would work.

Daniel Ziegler

Get feedback opportunistically or go where it’s easy

The main way I get feedback is actually by talking with particular individuals. Like there’s some person who is in my field, and I reach out to them directly and try to chat with them. It can also be a little bit more opportunistic—so it's maybe somebody who's not quite in my field, but you know, maybe they're in my department or I run into them in the hallway or see them at a conference or something like that. So your environment also matters. 

Eva Vivalt

Ask observant, kind people for feedback 

I think if you can identify people who are both observant and reasonably kind, and try to seek out feedback. One of my coworkers in that first social work job just gave me some kind feedback about like, "Here's some things you're doing that are annoying people." She did it in this gentle way and I'm just like, "Oh my gosh, I wish you had told me that six months ago.” That was very helpful.

I think if I had said, "Hey, you've been in this field a lot longer than I have. If you had three tips to give me, what would they be?" then I wouldn't have been so embarrassed when I realized, "Oh my gosh, I've just been screwing up these things," and not knowing it because my manager was too busy until like three months in to be like, "Here are all the things that annoy your coworkers."

Julia Wise 

Pick people’s brains about areas they know well 

People can really point you to the things that you should be paying attention to, which is really useful. It's not only the case that you can come to them with specific questions that are useful for your work, but also that they can notice other things that they know about that are useful for your work until you can really find the most useful things. I find the EA community great for this just very disproportionately if you write to a person like, "Hey, 'I have some questions about your specific job,'' they're happy to chat. 

Then I prepare beforehand to make sure that I have specific questions. For example, during advising sessions, I'll try to write down afterward whatever came up that I didn't know the answer to and that way, when I'm talking to someone if I notice like, "Hey, I feel like I have a few finance questions," I can reach out to someone in finance and be like, "Hey, do you want to chat?" and then go through my questions.

Michelle Hutchinson

Try copying beliefs to build models

I think an example of this is when I was trying to build my models of how AI will work. 

One of the major things I did was “Can I take some person who's already working in AI safety and has written a decent amount about their views? Can I inhabit that person's perspective and explain why they have these views?” Frequently, I couldn't, but some of the times I could. I think even when I couldn't, the act of trying gave me a lot of information. 

Imagine that is like giant haystack of possible things you could think about AI safety, and then there's this one needle that's Eliezer Yudkowsky. Then you're like, "Okay, well, I don't really know exactly where Eliezer's needle is in the entire haystack, but I know it's in this tiny little portion over here based on things that he's written." 

A lot of the things, that already narrows it down a lot, and then I can think about, "Okay, well, it can't be this particular view because that makes no sense. Maybe it's this other thing." It narrows down your search space a lot. Rather than sifting through the whole haystack, you're like, here are these 10 different spots where it could be out of millions of possible spots, and search only those 10.

Rohin Shah

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