Do you want to make a big difference with your career? Are you willing to go beyond trite advice like “follow your passion”, to compare different causes and consider new paths?
If so, this guide is for you. It will help you to find and compare career options, with the goal of making the biggest impact possible in the world.
We believe that with the help of our guide, if you’re strategic and take your decisions seriously, you can make far more of a difference than you would have done otherwise, and have a deeply fulfilling career.
Our advice is based on what we’ve learned from thousands of hours of research and coaching hundreds of people. We’re committed to gathering the highest-quality evidence, fully explaining our research process and constantly improving our answers. Read more on how we do our research and why we’re credible.
Why should I care about making a difference?
You have the potential to achieve a huge amount with your career. In just a few years, we have helped people to found cutting-edge organisations, earn and donate enough money to save hundreds of lives, and undertake research in vital, neglected areas.
Focusing on making the world a better place is the secret to having a deeply satisfying career. It gives you a sense of purpose, spurs you on to greater achievements and enables you to meet amazing people.
With that in mind, what should you do to ensure that you have the biggest impact possible with your career? Well, let’s start with what not to do…
Six common career mistakes
1. Following your passion
People keep being told to “follow their passions”. But just because you’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean that a career in it will make much difference: a passionate mime artist is still just a mime artist!
The problem is that “follow your passion” gets it backwards. Prior interest in an area is not a particularly good way of predicting how well you’ll perform or how satisfied you’ll be. Instead, research shows that deep satisfaction emerges over time from doing work you’re good at that helps others. Rather than starting from your passions, start with the aim of making a difference. If you believe the work you do is worthwhile, you will grow to be passionate about it.
2. Only looking at public sector and charity jobs
People usually don’t consider all of their options. In particular, people aiming to make a difference often rule out the private sector too quickly, focusing instead on charitable work and public sector jobs like teaching and social work.
This is unfortunate, because parts of the private sector offer good opportunities to build skills and make contacts, placing you in a better position in the long-run. Some private sector organisations also make a difference directly (think of technology innovators such as Intel).
Alternatively, some people can make a big difference by taking high-earning (usually private sector) jobs and donating the money to effective organisations: we call this earning to give.
3. Trying to make a difference too soon
It’s tempting to leap immediately into making a difference, for instance by going to work for a charity. This can be effective, but the danger is that you will get yourself stuck in an area with worse skill development, and you’ll regret it later when you’ve learned more about the options out there.
How can you avoid this? Well, early in your career we would recommend that your top priority should be to build your abilities and learn more about which paths are best for you. You’ve got an entire 80,000 hours to make a difference – think strategically about how to use the entire length of time.
4. Failing to compare the impact of different causes
There are significant differences between the effectiveness of different causes. In fact many well-intentioned attempts to make a difference don’t have much impact.
There are a number of reasons for this: The world faces many problems, but some are bigger than others and some are easier to solve. Some are also more in need of your skills: where lots of people are already working for and contributing to a cause, your additional impact is likely to be small, whereas time and money spent on neglected causes can often lead to huge improvements.
As a result, time spent comparing different causes can help you to make a much larger difference across your working life.
5. Not trying things out
When it comes to working out which career is best for you, standard advice often recommends introspection: reflect on your skills, personality, and passions, then go and find the job that’s the “perfect match” for these traits. But this doesn’t work as well as you might think. It’s difficult to work out where we’ll perform best just by thinking about it. Moreover, research shows that matching your career to your personality and interests isn’t a particularly good predictor of career success. And your interests, passions and skills will change more than you think – there is no single “perfect match” out there.
So what should you do instead? Get out there and try things! Take internships, go and speak to people, and don’t be afraid to try out roles that look promising, and then to move on if they turn out not to be right for you. You never truly have to start from scratch; you will always take with you the experience, skills and connections you have gathered.
6. Having too rigid a career plan
We’re often encouraged to focus on the long term when making decisions. However, when it comes to career planning this can be actively harmful, at least when it locks us into rigid career plans, which will probably turn out to be wrong, because it’s so hard to predict the future.
Instead, focus primarily on your next step: have a broad vision rather than a detailed long term plan. And rather than try to predict the future, the best way to prepare yourself for the long term is to make sure that you build flexible skills and resources, which can be applied in many different ways, so that no matter what the future holds, you’ll maximise your chances of being able to contribute.
Planning your career
So how can you avoid the mistakes listed above and maximise your impact through your career? Here’s where we come in. If you go through the following steps, you are more likely to find the high-impact career which is right for you:
“What does it even mean to ‘make a difference’?”
1. Get oriented: Our framework explains what we mean by making a difference, and sets out what to look for in a high-impact career.
“What are my options?”
“How can I choose between my options?”
3. Make your choice: Our step-by-step process shows how you can rigorously narrow down your options until you find the one that’s best for you.
“How did you reach these conclusions?”
4. Further resources
- Better understand the big picture behind our research.
- See our archive of research reports, interviews and case studies.
- See our list of the other best career advice out there.
Ready to start looking for your high-impact career? Get started with our framework.
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