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Personal fit as talent, determination, and obsession

When reading the advice of 80,000 Hours, I have always been confused about how to break down personal fit. They themselves are oddly silent on this question.[1] Only this old interview with Holden Karnofsky contains some hints. Inspired by a recent Paul Graham essay, I realized that large parts of it can probably be explained as talent, determination, and obsession:

  • Talent roughly refers to something like potential ability, conditional on practice. Ask yourself: “How good could I get at this if I tried really hard?” 
  • Determination is probably made up of conscientiousness facets like self-efficacy, achievement-striving, and self-discipline as well as the perceived or felt stakes in the activity. Ask yourself: “How much would I actually fight for this?”
  • Obsession is a different kind of motivation. It’s the kind of motivation that is not inspired by a goal but directed at the task itself; for its own sake. It’s what 80,000 often calls “passion”. Ask yourself: “How much would I work on this if there was no reward at the end?”

Paul Graham argues that obsession is a proxy for talent and a substitute for determination. I would add to that determination can also be a substitute for obsession, albeit at a higher personal price. That matters because the advantage of determination is that it can be pointed toward whatever matters most. Obsession cannot, or at least not as easily. 

[1] 80,000 Hours mainly recommend testing personal fit and offer some questions to ask oneself when assessing personal fit here. However, that still leaves open what actually determines personal fit.

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