The Road Less Travelled: Replaceability and Neglected Causes

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The replaceability issue often means that pursuing conventional ethical careers isn’t the way to have the most impact.

Instead, it’s better to focus activities in which you have a special edge, or on neglected activities – those which wouldn’t get done if it wasn’t for you.

Seeking out neglected activities is a common theme across all high impact careers. Just as seeking out a job that wouldn’t have be done otherwise is a good way to make your career high impact, so is researching a neglected field or funding a neglected intervention.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most cost-effective interventions to combat global poverty are treatments for the so-called neglected tropical diseases. These diseases went under the radar because they rarely affect westerners and tend to be non-lethal. It was precisely because of this neglect that such a huge opportunity existed – big pharma was handing out the easily administered treatments for free, they merely needed to be distributed at a cost of only 50p per year per person. Thankfully, due to the campaigning efforts of the Gates Foundation and others, there’s now a major move to eliminate them.

Setting out wanting to make a difference, the first things that go through our mind are the most well known ways to make the world a better place, and the most well known causes to get involved in. But it’s precisely because they are well known that your impact is likely to be higher doing something else.

There are many extremely important problems to solve – improving democracy, social justice, mitigating climate change, and so on – but there’s often already thousands of talented people working on these problems. There are other problems that are also important, but which have far fewer people working on them. It’s likely that your marginal impact will be much higher if you work on them rather than the areas where everyone else is working.

The line of 80,000 Hours, therefore, will always tend to be against the crowd. We saw this with our campaign to raise the profile of professional philanthropy. Professional philanthropy is often higher impact than conventional ethical careers precisely because (i) lots of people want conventional ethical careers and so are prepared to accept low wages for them, and (ii) very few high earners donate a big fraction of their income. And as one might expect, taking a stand against the crowd tends to attract criticism. That extends beyond professional philanthropy. Many of our members are engaged in furthering ‘weird’ or otherwise unconventional causes. But if you want to do as much as possible for others, think about taking the road less travelled.