The idea this week: thinking about which world problem is most pressing may matter more than you realise.

I’m an advisor for 80,000 Hours, which means I talk to a lot of thoughtful people who genuinely want to have a positive impact with their careers. One piece of advice I consistently find myself giving is to consider working on pressing world problems you might not have explored yet.

Should you work on climate change or AI risk? Mitigating antibiotic resistance or preventing bioterrorism? Preventing disease in low-income countries or reducing the harms of factory farming?

Your choice of problem area can matter a lot. But I think a lot of people under-invest in building a view of which problems they think are most pressing.

I think there are three main reasons for this:

1. They think they can’t get a job working on a certain problem, so the argument that it’s important doesn’t seem relevant.

I see this most frequently with AI. People think that they don’t have aptitude or interest in machine learning, so they wouldn’t be able to contribute to mitigating catastrophic risks from AI.

But I don’t think this is true. There are potentially really impactful roles for reducing AI risk in:

Many roles in these fields don’t necessarily need you to have a background in ML or technical expertise. In general, I think that there are lots of ways to contribute to most problems.

Once you’ve determined which problem you’d like to solve, it’s much easier to try and identify which paths might suit you best.

2. People often fail to explore different issues because they become focused on one problem, such as climate change or AI. They believe, in my view correctly, that these are among the world’s most crucial issues, but then stop looking for alternatives.

This approach can be limiting. This is particularly true for those skilled in operations, fundraising, or policy-making since these skills are applicable across many issues. Others may have strengths that are especially well suited to a particularly pressing problem. If you’re a little flexible with your cause selection, you’ll increase your chances of finding very impactful work.

For example, Gregory Lewis, who has written articles for 80,000 Hours on biorisk, thinks AI risk is probably the most pressing problem in the world. But his reasoning didn’t stop there. In part because he has a background as a doctor, he concluded that he’s best suited to working on preventing catastrophic pandemics.

3. Some people defer too much to other people and organisations like 80,000 Hours who work on cause prioritisation full time.

This came up recently on our podcast. Lennart Heim, who researches compute governance to reduce risks from AI, initially underestimated the value of his expertise in hardware because he assumed that if it were significant, someone else would already be working on the topic. He later realised that important issues can go unnoticed, and he took the initiative to work on it himself.

There are other cause areas — like US-China relations and improving information security — that 80,000 Hours prioritises now much more now than we once did. People with skills in these areas might’ve undervalued their ability to contribute if they had simply deferred to us before we recognised the importance of these areas.

Another way this can go wrong is that some people work on problems they haven’t investigated, leading to low motivation and burnout. I’ve advised people who got jobs working in an area just because they heard it’s important, but once they were there, they found it hard to buy into the organisation’s approach to having an impact.

So, how much time should you invest in your cause prioritisation investigation? That’s a tricky question, but we have a blog post that offers some guidance.

If you’re grappling with some of these questions, we recommend that you apply for advising! We’re here to give personalised advice to help our advisees increase their positive impact.

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