Career choice depends on some big issues and questions that affect a broad range of careers. This page discusses some of the most important.
How to be Happy
We all want to be happy in our careers, so it’s important to know what makes for a satisfying career. In fact, it’s doubly important because you’re likely to make more difference in a satisfying job. See our page on how to be happy for more. It’ll tell you:
- Why happiness is important in making a difference, even if it’s not all that matters
- Why people are bad at being happy
- What makes people happy
- What gives job satisfaction
Go there now
Your true impact in a job depends on the difference between what happens because of you and what would have happened otherwise, rather than only what you do directly. Thinking this way opens up lots of new opportunities to make a difference, but it also means that people often make less difference than they appear to make directly. This is because if you don’t take a certain job, or do a certain important task, someone else will often do it instead. In other words, you’ll be replaceable.
For instance, consider a doctor, Sarah, who treats hundreds of patients per year. That’s her direct impact. But if she hadn’t seen those patients, the most important cases would have been sent to another doctor. Moreover, the hospital would have hired another doctor to work in her stead. Sarah’s still making a difference, but her true impact is significantly less than curing the hundreds of patients she treats directly each year.
The importance of replaceability varies from job to job. We’ve made a detailed estimate of the true impact of becoming a doctor in the UK. We’ve found that while some doctors directly save thousands of lives over their careers, the true impact of becoming an average doctor is probably around saving 15 lives over a career. That’s still a great achievement, but it’s easy to have much more impact. For instance, if a doctor gave away 10% of their salary to the best developing world health interventions, they could save hundreds of lives over their careers.
How can you avoid being replaceable?
Sometimes it’s obvious that the good you do wouldn’t have been done anyway. For instance, if you go into a high earning job and give away a large fraction of the salary, then because you’re giving away much more than the average person in that job, you’re giving away money that wouldn’t have been given otherwise.
You can seek complex jobs in high impact areas, in which you’ve got a special edge. This is because the best employees in professional and management, as well as research jobs have far more impact than the average.
Having different goals from your co-workers. We call this pulling the rope sideways. For instance, you could go into a research field where people aren’t much concerned with impact, and apply for grants for high impact projects. If you weren’t there, these grants would have been given to low impact projects. You could take a high earning job and give the money to charity instead of spending it on cars. You could go into an industry that is dangerous or unethical and seek to make it better from the inside.
Using indirect rather than direct methods. Indirect methods are often overlooked, partly because they are less obvious and partly because credit tends to be given out to people with a large direct impact, rather than a large true impact. This means that if you don’t take them yourself, someone else won’t do it instead. One example is donating money rather than working for a charity. Another is persuading other people to take up high impact (and high glory) projects rather than doing it yourself.
Now vs. Later
When you do something now, it has consequences. If you make a change now, it means that your change can spread extra change.
- Setting up an organisation now lets other people learn from your organisation to improve theirs, even as yours is growing.
- Giving now means that people who would have had to worry about, for example, a physical disability like blindness, no longer need to and can get to work improving other aspects of their lives.
- Persuading people to work on important problems now means that more people start working on them in the future. And all of those compounding growth effects are on top of the fact that you’re making the world better earlier - preventing years of suffering that could have happened.
But there is a cost to acting now. By putting off acting, you can get better information. Once you understand the situation better, you’ll be able to spend your resources much more effectively. If you’re donating, you can always invest your money and generate returns in the mean-time.
The issues are complicated, and different in specific fields. We’re putting together a very thorough analysis of the case of charitable giving, but it applies in other areas too.
Please get in touch with our team for the latest updates at careers at 80000hours.org. If you want to apply these ideas to your own career, then book an advice session.