What are you going to do with your life?
If you’re like most young people, you care about making a difference. But who’s there to help you with that? So much of the career advice out there today is unhelpful cliches. Here’s some of the most common career advice we’ve found over the last six months that you shouldn’t follow.
1. Do what you’re passionate about
Perhaps the most common advice of all. It’s espoused by hundreds of advice gurus and public figures, perhaps most famously Steve Jobs, who told the Stanford class of ‘05 ”you’ve got to find what you love”, in a video that has gone on to have over 16 million views.
But when Jobs was young, his passions were history, dance and eastern mysticism. Is that what he should have done? He first got into computers as a way to earn cash on the side.
This advice gets things backwards, since passion develops out of applying yourself to something worthwhile. It’s not helpful to think that your passion is out there, waiting to be discovered. You create your passion.
We’ve already offered a comprehensive take-down here.
2. Do what you’re good at
Better, but consider, I’m amazingly good at meat packing. Is that what I should do? This advice is incomplete at best.
And similar to ‘do what you’re passionate about’, it gets things backwards. Getting good at something is the result of thousands of hours of practice. So, your choice of career is more a choice of ‘what should I get good at?’ rather than ‘what am I already good at?’
In part, these two slogans go wrong because they’re too inwards facing – they don’t consider what the world needs, even though this is clearly important in itself, and working on something valuable is one key to a meaningful career.
But people who want to focus on contributing face another slew of bad advice. For instance:
3. Work in a non-profit
People interested in leading a career that makes the world a better place are often encouraged into the non-profit sector (or else the public sector). This is evident in the UK in the ‘ethical careers’ movement, led by books like The Ethical Careers Guide, which prominently features a variety of non-profit jobs as ‘ethical careers.’
Working at a non-profit can be a great way to make a difference. But it’s no guarantee. Amazingly, lots of non-profits probably have no impact. And do workers at non-profit have more impact than the people who fund them? The researchers who push forward progress? The entrepreneurs who transform the economy? Policy makers? Maybe. No one stops to ask.
Further, even if the non-profit itself has an impact, if it has a lot of people who want to work for it, then your individual contribution might be relatively small. You’ll just be taking the job from someone else.
4. Avoid ‘bad’ industries
As well as being encouraged into the non-profit sector, one is pushed away from the ‘bad’ industries. Don’t work in finance, law or advertising.
But this is clearly an oversimplified message. Not every job in finance is obviously bad. And there’s a difference between the harm done by an industry and the harm done by an individual working in the industry. Moreover, this advice ignores the potential one has to use these positions for good, either by receiving valuable training, an influential network or lots of money that can be used to fund good causes.
Perversely, since this advice is widely believed, bad industries can offer more opportunities for having a real impact. If people with good motivations become less inclined to take these positions, then you’d expect there to be more un-taken opportunities left lying around to make a difference. This is certainly the case with donating money, with the rich donating a smaller fraction of their income to charity than the average.
5. Follow your values
Better again. But it’s still just the beginning. This advice is frequently offered, and has some alternative forms like ‘follow your heart’ or ‘do what’s right.’ But it’s normally offered without an appreciation of how hard it actually is to work out your values in the first place, or any of the information you’d need to do so. After all, there’s an entire academic discipline dedicated to the study of creating a good value system (ethics), which doesn’t offer many easy answers.
As an example, consider the following advice: “Write out a list of organisations you feel do good. Try to briefly define what good was done. What themes emerge?” Suppose what comes to mind are a bunch of organisations that plant trees to reduce climate change. Is ‘helping the environment by planting foliage’ what I ultimately value and should devote my career to? Frequently, this is as far as we go. But if you really think about it, there will be other things you care about. For instance, if you could cover part of Africa in forest at the cost of causing a huge famine, would you do it?
In reality, there are many tough trade-offs to make. Donating $2000 to a charity planting trees, means an extra person dies of malaria. Brushing the trade-offs aside is not an option.
Finding advice like this is our motivation for setting up 80,000 Hours. We want to develop the best advice out there on how to make an impact with your career.
Over the next six months, we’ll be publishing a complete package of material on our site to get you started on leading a high impact career, which we hope will start to overcome these cliches.
But before that, we want to know exactly what your sticking points are. What’s the worst advice you’ve received? What have you tried and failed? If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in our short five question survey here.
Or send me an email at ben at 80000hours.org. I read every one.