Be more ambitious: a rational case for dreaming big (if you want to do good)
Self-help advice often encourages people to “dream big,” “be more ambitious,” or “shoot for the moon” — is that good advice?
Not always. When asked, more than 75% of Division I basketball players thought they would play professionally, but only 2% actually made it. Whether or not the players in the survey were making a good bet, they overestimated their chances of success… by over 37 times.
This level of overconfidence is common, and means that “be more ambitious” may not always be the right advice. Some people even enjoy taking risks, which explains why they buy lottery tickets even though they lose money on average. Whether to be more ambitious depends on the domain and the person in question.
However, if your aim is to have positive impact on the world, we think we can make a rational case for setting ambitious goals.
In short, our advice is to do as much as you can to set up your life so that you can afford to fail, eliminate paths that might cause significant harm, and then aim as high as you can. As a slogan: limit downsides, then target upsides.
Table of Contents
- 1 In a nutshell: why to be more ambitious
- 2 What do we mean by being more ambitious?
- 3 Four reasons to be more ambitious
- 4 Limiting downside risks
- 5 What are the reasons against aiming high?
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 Learn more
- 8 Read next
In a nutshell: why to be more ambitious
If you want to do good, here are four reasons to be more ambitious:
- While pursuing many personal goals has diminishing value beyond a certain point, helping more people is consistently better than helping fewer. So if you’re aiming to help others, it’s (relatively) more attractive to bet on a small probability of helping a large number.
- The wide variation in how much good different career paths can do means that low-probability, high-upside scenarios can be the biggest driver of your impact.
- Aiming high has more information value, since you give yourself the chance of being positively surprised.
- Other actors are risk-averse, so you’ll face less competition.
In order to free yourself up to be ambitious, first limit downsides:
- Modify or eliminate options that might have a serious negative impact on you or the world, or prevent you from trying again.
- Make sure you have a backup plan.
- Put yourself in a better position to take risks over time by investing in your financial security, skills, and your health — both mental and physical.
What do we mean by being more ambitious?
We mean you should aim high. More concretely, we mean you should:
- Make a list of longer-term career paths you could aim towards.
- Think about how much positive impact you’d have if each path goes really well (what we call an ‘upside scenario’).
- Think about what will happen if the path goes badly. Modify or eliminate any options that might have a big negative impact — either on your life or on the world.
- Then, to choose between the remaining paths, seriously consider pursuing the one with the best outcome in the upside scenario.
To be more precise, we can define the upside scenario as the top 5% or top 10% of possible outcomes. But even when you have no idea what the probabilities are, you can still broadly target paths with high upsides. (You can also apply this rule of thumb at the level of setting goals for specific projects, though our focus here is on longer-term career paths.)
Aiming high means looking for paths that might turn out really well — even if they seem wacky, or there’s a good chance they won’t work out.
Four reasons to be more ambitious
When we advise people on their impact, they often want to feel confident they’ve done ‘some’ good with their career, rather than bet on a small chance of achieving much more. This is understandable, because it’s satisfying to know that you’ve achieved something rather than nothing.
But if your aim is to help people, rather than just feel satisfied, it could be a big mistake. By being open to long shots, ambitious people can greatly increase their expected impact — even accounting for the chance their projects fail.
Here are four reasons why people who want to do good should be more open to taking risks than the norm.
1. A small chance of achieving a lot can still be worth a great deal (and much more than in your personal life)
There are realistic ways you can make a contribution to some of the most important and neglected issues of our time.
More than that, there’s a chance you could achieve something amazing. Maybe you can start an important new charity, or run a media campaign that shifts people’s views of a crucial issue. Maybe you could even win a Nobel Prize, be elected to Congress, become prime minister, or found a ‘megaproject’ nonprofit. If you go in with, and are able to uphold, a firm commitment to doing good, any of these wild achievements could allow you to have an outsized impact.
These kinds of outcomes are all unlikely of course. But they might be more likely than you think.
And even if the chance of an amazing outcome is very low, it could still be worth betting on. Why?
From the perspective of making the world better, helping two people is twice as good as helping one.
Taking this idea further, a 10% chance of saving 200 lives is better than a 90% chance of saving 10. This follows from the idea of expected value.1
If thousands of our readers all pursued projects with a 10% chance of success, there would be hundreds of successes, even if most don’t work out.
These are toy examples, and in reality we’ll never know the probabilities or outcomes with much confidence. But it illustrates that it can be worth setting ambitious goals and betting on comparatively unlikely outcomes — if the odds and upsides are high enough.
This is much less true in your personal life. Gaining 10 new friends isn’t twice as good as gaining five, since what we most care about is feeling like we have a community of some kind. Most people would prefer $10 million with certainty compared to a 20% chance of $100 million. This is because money (and most other things) have sharply diminishing value for individuals. So in your personal life, long-shot gambles are much less attractive — aim for ‘good enough’ rather than maximising the potential upside.
Psychologically, most people are also loss-averse — losing a friend is a lot more painful than gaining one is joyful — which makes it even more important to avoid big risks.
None of this applies to actually making the world a better place, where helping twice the number of others, or helping them twice as much, really is twice as good. If you’ve saved one life already, that doesn’t make it any less valuable to save another. So do-gooders should be more open to taking risks.
This isn’t to say you should be entirely risk-neutral – some risk aversion is still appropriate, especially with respect to resources rather than impact.
This is because even at large scales, there are still diminishing returns to altruistic resources, since it’s harder to, say, spend $10 billion well than $1 billion.
So while giving up a certainty of $2 million of donations in exchange for a 20% chance of $20 million seems reasonable, giving up a 100% chance of $2 billion for a 20% chance of $10 billion doesn’t seem like obviously a good idea. (This is even more true if your gambles are correlated with other altruists, which they will be if they’re correlated to the stock market.)
It’s also important to note the argument for being less risk averse is only about upsides. There are major practical and moral reasons to be risk-averse about the chance of doing a lot of harm, which is why we say to eliminate downsides.
But in short, we think people aiming to do good have more reason to aim high than normal. In other words: ‘satisfice’ your personal goals, but be ambitious about your impact.
2. Upside scenarios can be where most of the expected impact is from
Another difference with the world of doing good is that there’s a large skew in outcomes. Most importantly, we’ve seen that in many fields, especially those like research or entrepreneurship, the most successful people are often responsible for a significant fraction of the total impact.
This means that the expected value of entering the field is significantly driven by the value of the upside scenario (adjusted for how likely it is). So, ‘having the most impact’ often boils down to ‘focus on the (non-crazy) scenario with the most upside.’
This won’t always be true, but it’s at least worth seriously thinking about what great outcomes might be possible, on the chance it is possible for you.
Speculatively, focusing on upsides might be becoming more important as technological advancement means that extreme changes are happening more and more often.
One dizzying implication of this way of thinking is that from the perspective of your impact, if one scenario is far higher impact than the others, it can sometimes be ideal to act as if it’s going to happen and basically ignore the other scenarios.
3. You might surprise yourself
If you aim high, you might be positively surprised: maybe you can actually achieve the upside scenario, and you’ve discovered an amazing path.
If, however, you discover the upside scenario is not going to happen, you can probably switch to something else without great costs.
In other words, there’s an asymmetry: by aiming high, you might find an amazing career path, while if it doesn’t work out, you’re probably in a similar situation to before.
You can read more about this in our article on exploration, where we show that you stand to learn the most from pursuing paths that might be amazing, but where you’re also really uncertain how they’ll turn out. The greater the uncertainty, the more you’ll learn by trying it.
We’ve worked with lots of people who applied to a new job way out of their comfort zone, thinking it was a long shot, and then not only went on to land the position, but also excel in it.
4. Low-probability bets are neglected
Is the world of doing good more dominated by people who are overconfident (like would-be professional basketball players) or people who are risk-averse? Our impression is that it’s the latter. If so, this means high-upside paths will be relatively neglected — perhaps especially at the very highest end.
Why do we have this impression? One reason is that many efforts to do good are done by governments and nonprofits, and their incentives make it hard for them to take low-probability, high-upside bets.
Suppose a government bureaucrat can fund a programme that has a 10% chance of an amazing outcome, like speeding up vaccines for COVID-19 in 2020. After funding five projects that don’t work, this bureaucrat will probably lose their job, even if the expected value of each project was very high. On the other hand, if the bet pays off, they’ll get few rewards — maybe a bit of praise from their colleagues, or a modest raise, if they’re lucky. These incentives make people risk-averse.
We’ve seen some empirical evidence of this. In one study, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute took a more risk-tolerant approach to funding medical research and seemed to get better results than the US National Institutes of Health — the more conservative government agency.
Carl Shulman discusses these dynamics on our podcast. Open Philanthropy also argues that in the world of philanthropy, higher-risk bets are often better.
In other words, since most people don’t aim high, as you aim higher, you face less and less competition. This means the odds of success decline more slowly than you might expect. For example, while it might be harder to found a nonprofit with a budget of $100 million than $10 million, it’s not obvious it’s 10 times harder.
Limiting downside risks
We’ve given the arguments for aiming high, but you can only set truly ambitious goals after you’ve limited the downsides, so we’ll also talk briefly about why and how to do that — setting yourself up to be more ambitious.
Why limit downsides first?
Downsides for the world
The arguments above to ‘focus on upsides’ only works when the potential for making things better is a lot higher than making them worse.
In the world of doing good, it’s sometimes possible to make things a lot worse than they were before. For example, you might launch a social programme aiming to reduce crime, only to find the evidence suggests it made crime worse. We discuss how easy it can be to accidentally make things worse in a separate article.
There are also many important reasons to avoid career paths that could do significant harm, even if you think the good will outweigh the bad, as we also cover in a separate article.
So, if you’re considering a path or project that might have a big negative impact (rather than merely fail and not achieve much), then you need to be very cautious. In general, we’d recommend simply avoiding projects like this, and then focusing on the biggest upsides among your remaining options.
If you aim high, there’s a good chance you won’t succeed.
As we’ve seen, it’s perfectly reasonable to be risk- and loss-averse about your personal life. This means it’s important to avoid risks that might make you a lot less happy, or embark on paths with unacceptable downsides, like not being able to support someone who is financially dependent on you.
You’ll also be able to have a greater long-term impact if you can”stay in the game” and keep trying until you succeed. So, there are even purely altruistic reasons to minimise any risks of outcomes that might prevent you from trying again, like damaging your mental or physical health, or ruining your reputation.
How to limit downsides
Even if you can’t easily estimate how likely risks are to materialise, you can often do a lot to limit them, freeing yourself up to focus on upsides.
We discuss how to avoid setting back your cause in our separate article on accidental harm.
Turning to your own life, over time, you can aim to set up your life to make yourself more able to take risks. Some of the most important steps you can take include:
- Building up your financial security. If you’re at constant risk of failing to make your rent, that’s a serious downside you can’t discount.
- Looking after your physical and mental health and important relationships, so that your lifestyle is sustainable.
- Building valuable career capital that gives you backup options, e.g. through building skills or finding good mentors.
When comparing different career paths, here are some tips:
- Consider ‘downside scenarios’ for each of the paths you’re considering. What might happen in the worst 10% of scenarios?
Look for risks that are really serious. First, consider ways that path or course of action might make the world much worse. Second, consider the personal risks. It’s easy to have a vague sense that you might ‘fail’ by embarking on an ambitious path, but what would failure actually be like? The personal risks to be most concerned about are those that could prevent you from trying again, or that could make your life a lot worse. You might find that when you think about what would actually happen if you failed, your life would still be fine. For example, if you apply for a grant for an ambitious project and don’t get it, you will have just lost a bit of time.
If you identify a serious risk of pursuing some option, see if you can modify the option to reduce that risk. Many entrepreneurs like Bill Gates are famous for dropping out of college, which makes them look like risk-takers. But besides the security provided by his upper middle-class background, Gates also made sure he had the option to return to Harvard if his startup failed. By modifying the option, starting Microsoft didn’t involve much risk at all. For personal risks, often the most useful step you can do here is to have a good backup plan, and this is part of our planning process.
If you can’t modify the path to reduce the risk of a significant negative impact or blow to your personal life to an acceptable level, eliminate that option and try something else.
Check with your gut. If you feel uneasy about embarking on a path even after taking the steps above, there may be a risk you haven’t realised yet. Negative emotions can be a sign to keep investigating to figure out what’s behind them.
What are the reasons against aiming high?
Here are some of the main counterarguments to the case for being more ambitious:
- Your estimate of the value of the upside option probably contains a huge amount of uncertainty, which means that on further investigation, it probably won’t be as good as it seems (“regression to the mean“). This will be even worse if you’re prone to overconfidence.
Focusing on upsides can make it feel more justified to incur big risks. This is why we emphasise first limiting downsides.
It may be demotivating. Some people find it exciting to aim high – and some like to follow leaders with an ambitious plan. But others much prefer to feel like they’re doing “some good” with confidence. If you aim high, there’s a greater chance that at the end, you look back and haven’t achieved much.
If you aim high and succeed, especially in areas like finance and politics, you may be more likely to be corrupted by your newfound power and influence. So if you’re aiming high, it’s important to set up safeguards.
For these reasons, ambition can easily be taken too far. How ambitious to be is a question of balance, and our intention here is to encourage a tilt in the direction of ambition – especially for those who are chronically under-ambitious or have imposter syndrome.
We advise people who are overconfident, as well as people who are underconfident.
The more underconfident you are, the more important it is to try to aim higher; while the most overconfident people should likely focus on more realistic plans. So which way to tilt depends on your personality.
That said, if your aim is to have an impact, our sense is that underconfidence is typically the more common mistake. Provided you’ve limited the downsides, it’s better to aim a little too high than too low.
Being more ambitious doesn’t need to involve irrationally convincing yourself that success is guaranteed. To be worth betting on, you just need to believe that:
- Success is possible
- Your downsides are limited
- The expected value of pursuing the path is high
If you’ve found a path that might be amazing, make a backup plan and give it a go. It may not work out, but it might be the best thing you ever decide to do.
- Expected value: how can we know what makes a difference when uncertain? by Benjamin Todd
- Black swan farming by Paul Graham
- Optimism for Realists: The Optimism Heuristic by Danny Hernandez
- Julia Galef argues you don’t need to be irrationally overconfident to succeed in The Scout Mindset — listen to this interview with her by Noah Smith
- Searching for outliers by Ben Kuhn
- When Should Altruists Be Financially Risk-Averse? and Should Altruists Leverage Investments? by Brian Tomasik
- Risk aversion and investment for altruists by Paul Christiano
This article is part of our advanced series. See the full series, or keep reading:
Notes and references
- Everything we do has uncertain outcomes, but if we want to make a bigger difference we should do what has the best expected outcome. This means multiplying the value of the outcome by the probability of it occurring. 200 lives saved x 10% likelihood = 20 lives saved in expectation. 10 lives saved x 90% probability = 9 lives saved in expectation. Using math in doing good might seem weird, but when we’re dealing with uncertain outcomes (which we always are), we need it to choose between actions.↩