We think there’s less tension between the two than is often supposed. Finding work you excel at and that helps others is fulfilling, and many of our readers say they’ve become happier in the process. Moreover, you’ll have a greater impact if you do what you love and what fits with your personal life, because you’ll have a greater chance of excelling in the long term. So enjoying your work and having an impact are often mutually supportive goals.
This said, sometimes conflicts do arise. For instance, the higher-impact path may involve working harder than would be ideal for your happiness, or it can involve taking the risk of trying out several paths that don’t go anywhere. How to handle these conflicts is a difficult issue.
We may live in a uniquely important time in history, with the opportunity to influence the development of new technologies that could impact the long-term future and reduce existential risks. We also have many other opportunities to help others a great deal with comparatively little cost to ourselves. This motivates some of our readers to make impartially doing good the main focus of their careers. Some philosophers, such as Peter Singer, have argued that we have a moral obligation to do so.
However, most of our readers see ‘making a difference’ in the way we’ve outlined as one among several important career goals, which may include other moral aims, supporting a family, or furthering other personal projects.
Whatever your views on this topic, we think it’s important to take seriously the risk of burning out if one engages in too much self-sacrifice. Even if your only career goal were to make a difference, you should probably be aiming to contribute sustainably over your entire 40-year career. This means it’s important to cultivate self-compassion and take a path in which you’ll be motivated for the long term.
What’s more, one of the biggest ways to have more impact is to inspire others to contribute, and this is much easier when you’re enjoying your life and career because you do what you love.
One technique that can be helpful is setting a target for how much energy you want to invest in personal vs. altruistic goals. For instance, our co-founder Ben sees making a difference as the top goal for his career and forgoes 10% of his income. However, with the remaining 90% of his income, and most of his remaining non-work time, he does whatever makes him most personally happy. It’s not obvious this is the best tradeoff, but having an explicit decision means he doesn’t have to waste attention and emotional energy reassessing this choice every day, and can focus on the big picture.
This article is part of our advanced series. See the full series, or keep reading: