How to choose
So, you’ve seen our ideas and have found some courses of action that look promising. Which should you choose?
Making your final career decisions can be tough. So we’ve created this page to guide you through the process.
The first steps: Generating a list of alternatives
Imagine Jenny has just discovered 80,000 Hours and is choosing her career. First she goes through all our ideas. From this, she generates a long list of options. She isn’t ruling too much out right now, she’s just getting the ideas down.
During this stage, it’s helpful to speak with lots of people. We have a tendency to anchor on specific ideas and miss important options. Speaking to other people can help you to avoid missing promising options (and many jobs are found through personal connections, so you might even find something).
The Second Step: Narrowing down
Narrow down this list with some simple rules of thumb.
- Apply our rules of thumb for impact, and drop options that don’t advance high impact causes or involve high impact activities.
- You might also like to eliminate any options you think you’d really hate doing
- And options that you’ll be really bad at or for which you lack the qualifications
- You might have other rules of thumb based on your own situation, for instance, ‘must be located within 50 miles of my parents’
The Third Step: The Final Choice
Now Jenny is down to just two or three options that make a lot of difference. For concreteness, let’s imagine she’s choosing between entering law and donating the money to Givewell recommended charities or working directly for an effective animal welfare charity. Both look like good options. Which should she choose?
More Rules of Thumb
At this point, one reasonable rule of thumb is just to go with whichever you would enjoy the most. This isn’t a great rule of thumb applied in general, but it makes sense once you’ve got a short-list of great options. This is particularly because you’ll be more productive in a job you enjoy. You’ll also be more effective in encouraging other people to act like effective altruists. When picking a job based on enjoyment, however, make sure you take account of the biases that can trip you up.
If you don’t want to use that rule of thumb, then it’s time to go in-depth. This is often a great time to book an advice session. Getting an outside view on your situation can be very useful, they can bring you up to date with our latest research and can help you come up with a plan of action.
These types of decision are difficult because they are very complex. Here’s some of the things Jenny is likely to be uncertain about:
- Impact: In which option can she make the most difference? This could involve practical uncertainties like ‘how much could she earn in law?’ and uncertainties about what to value like ‘how should we compare animal suffering to human suffering?’.
- Enjoyment: Which job would she enjoy the most?
- Sacrifice: How much should she make personal sacrifices in order to help others?
- Fit with rest of life: How will this job affect her family, friends and leisure time?
How can we make progress?
We find that a useful step at this stage is to attempt to identify a couple of crucial considerations. These are the big issues that will ultimately determine your decision. This is a useful concept, because often career decisions come down to one or two big questions. For instance, if Jenny thought that Earning to Give was higher impact, but was worried about whether she could succeed as a lawyer, a crucial consideration might be ’What are my odds of succeeding as a lawyer?’ Other common crucial considerations are things like:
- How good will I be at some job compared to the other people who have that job?
- How much difference will some activity make?
- How much will I enjoy this job?
How can you identify the crucial considerations?
Look at the four areas above - Impact, Sacrifice, Enjoyment, Fit - and make a list of your key uncertainties in each area. Then try to rank these uncertainties in order of importance.
To focus yourself, try asking ‘if I could get the answer to one question relating to my career choice, what would it be?’ Try to be as specific as possible.
This is also a good time to talk to lots of people about your decision, especially other people with an effective altruist mindset. Ask a question on our forum or speak to an adviser. When you talk to lots of people, you’ll notice that some issues come up again and again. These are the important ones. People with an outside view are also often better at spotting the big picture.
When you’ve got a list, congratulate yourself. This is a big step. Often you realise at this stage that the problem wasn’t as complicated as it first looked.
Making a plan to decide
Now ask yourself, how can I figure out these crucial considerations? It’s often not possible to resolve an issue completely, but remember that you only need to be confident that one option is better than other.
Sometimes the crucial considerations are surprisingly easy to solve. Others might take a bit of work. Make a plan to find out what you need to find out. Include some easy next actions, like sending a message to a friend or buying a book.
Let’s consider Jenny’s once more: ’What are my odds of succeeding as a lawyer?’. Let’s suppose she’s already qualified. Her plan might be something like:
- Find out what proportion of people drop out of law in their first 5 years
- Find out how my qualifications, intelligence and conscientiousness compare to the average lawyer
- Find out whether I could enjoy working as a lawyer Next actions:
- Speak to my friend who’s already working in the industry
- Contact 80,000 Hours to ask about attrition rates
- Speak to HR at a major law firm to ask about the qualifications of their latest hires
Try things out
Remember that the best way to learn something is often just to do an experiment! If Jenny is worried about whether she could succeed as a lawyer, then a good option might be getting an internship and seeing how well she does. It’s often worth spending quite a bit of time figuring out a crucial consideration, since the value of information is so high. We’re talking about 80,000 hours after all.
Don’t forget about reversible options
It’s particularly useful to combine trying things out with reversible options. Some paths, like becoming a doctor, require a big initial investment. With others, you can enter and leave with little cost. For instance, if Jenny is already qualified as a lawyer, then she could consider just starting to work as one. After one year, she can easily leave with more money than she started. The only cost was a year of time. And if this lets her make a career decision that will affect her for many years, it could be well worth it.
Some Useful Decision Making Tools
When deciding which of two options has more impact, it’s often useful to make some very rough quantitative estimates. You might look at, for instance, the number of people you could help in two careers. Often you find that the impact of one option is many times higher than the other. So, even though your estimate is very rough, it’s good enough.
Often you can show that one option is clearly better than another, without needing to quantify impact. This can be useful short-cut.
For instance, suppose that Jenny realises if she became a lawyer, she could pay for two people to work at the animal charity. She speaks to the animal charity, and they tell her that each of these people would probably do the job just as well as Jenny. Then, it seems like the law option is at least roughly twice as good.
Think with Probabilities
We can rarely be certain of anything. Estimation and quantification can go wrong if we’re not well aware of the uncertainties in our results. Try to think in terms of your probabilities of succeeding, rather than definite outcomes.
For instance, if you’re thinking about the likely impact of a particular course, you could borrow this trick from business. Make your best guess at how things will go. Then think about the worst outcome that’s reasonably likely to happen. Then think about the best outcome. Try to estimate the probability of each. Then you can quickly work out an approximate expected outcome. We’re writing more about this. Thinking about the best and worst ways something can go also helps you to avoid being overconfident, or anchoring on an overly narrow range of possibilities.
Go with Base Rates
When dealing with a complex decision, our intuition often leads us astray. We also tend to think that we’re special and that what happens to everyone else won’t happen to us. That’s why when we read that most people overestimate their driving ability we don’t tend to think “I’m probably not as good a driver as I thought.” and instead think “I can’t believe they’re all so overconfident.” By the way, if you’re thinking that this is something other people do and you don’t, then you just did it.
Instead of going with your gut, it’s best to look at what normally happens and go with that. For instance, if one in ten new lawyers make it to partner, then you should act as if you have about a one in ten of making it yourself. We’re writing more about this.
Use Simple Models
A related technique is to use a simple model. Let’s suppose you’re working out which career will make you happy. You know that each of these five factors predicts job satisfaction. A good first step, therefore, would be to score each job out of 10 for these factors. Add up the scores, and go with the top one. If there are extra factors you think are really important, then add them to the model too.
This technique can also be useful when weighing up several different aspects of a choice. For instance, suppose Jenny thinks impact is twice as important as enjoyment and fit with rest of life. Then, she could score out of ten each option for each factor. She’d multiply the impact score by two, then add all three scores together. Whichever option scores highest would be best.
How to be successful?
So, you’ve made a decision. Congratulations!
Now you need to maximise your chances of succeeding in that option. Turn to our page on how to be successful for more.
If you want to find out more about to how to succeed within a specific career, see our career profiles.
For more resources, see our archive