When I was an undergraduate I came to fully understand the depth of the world’s problems: tens of billions of animals were suffering in factory farms, humanity faced the risk of catastrophic nuclear war, billions continue to live in horrendous poverty, and that was just the start. I wanted to solve these problems, but when I tried to take concrete steps I mostly felt powerless and frustrated.
I was right to feel powerless. As an undergraduate there was relatively little I could do to directly solve anything.
I had no income to give; no insights that hadn’t been had; and no platform from which to ask people to change their behaviour. I really didn’t want the world to be incinerated in a nuclear apocalypse, but – fortunately – nuclear security policy isn’t set by random Australian undergraduates who happen to think they know what’s best.
Luckily for most of us, this powerlessness need only be a temporary, if unpleasant, condition.
If you are a high school student or undergraduate frustrated about your limited influence in the world, there’s one thing you need to be working to get.
With it comes the ability to change things.
Some younger people manage to get a lot of it very quickly, but the majority of us will have the most of it between 40 and 60, so you need to keep a long-term view.
A lot of our advice for young people is geared towards helping them accumulate more of it.
We call this thing career capital. What goes into this mysterious and potent sauce?
Did you program an app that can accurately diagnose Parkinson’s? Nah, someone else did that, and they got accepted to every Ivy League University.
Can you tell people you interned at the White House, or consulted for NASA, without completely making it up?
Is there anyone famous and successful who would be willing to tell others that you are talented and trustworthy?
Have a lot of people heard that you are good to work with? Nobody wants to risk working with someone who can’t do their job, or is unpleasant to be around, so all else equal, it’s best to make people like you.
Can you program, manage a team, pick good ideas from bad ones, give an inspiring talk, etc?
If you can’t do at least some things really well, you won’t be able to save the world, even if you do somehow become President.
There’s no point in becoming influential and skilled if by the time you get the chance to save the world you’ve become a jerk. You have to cultivate good character as well: integrity, empathy, courage and more.
In some sense this is all extremely obvious.
The social world is set up to give more resources to those who have the right skills and intentions, and the ability to prove it. Get the things above and people will be much more likely to listen to you and give you power over the world.
But a failure to act on this insight can mean you never achieve the great things you’re destined for. 1
Maybe it’s a mistake that the world is run by older people, but even if that is, take heart: if you play your cards right, your day will come.
So, if you are dismayed at how limited your options for direct impact seem to be, don’t get mad – get career capital!
Some routes to develop a lot of career capital involve heavy specialisation. We usually recommend against becoming so focussed that you can’t change what you work on, unless you are very confident you know what you want to do long-term – and in your 20s you probably shouldn’t be.
Also keep in mind that none of the above is to suggest that you can’t have a directly useful impact early on in your life. If you try, you can start having a positive impact even at a very young age. For example, as an undergraduate I couldn’t invent a meat substitute that ended factory farming, but I could persuade some friends to go vegetarian. Some people manage to make a big splash in their 20s. But for most world-savers, their 20s is the time when they are still gearing up: their most influential days are ahead of them.↩