Suppose you’ve researched different career paths, and now need to make a choice. You face two options:
‘Settle’: commit to the path that seems best now.
‘Explore’: try other paths with the hope of finding something even better.
What should you do?
There’s been plenty of research in decision science, computer science and psychology that can help us answer this question. In this article, we combine what can be learned from this research with our experience advising people one-on-one, and summarise some of the bottom lines.
There are good arguments that everyone should do some exploration if possible. If you also want to have a positive impact — our focus at 80,000 Hours — then the potential value of exploration is even higher.
In a nutshell
As well as building career capital and having an impact, trying a job gives you ‘information value’ about which paths will be best for you in the long term.
The paths with the highest information value are the ones that might be a lot better than your current best guess, but that you’re very unsure about, and can learn about relatively quickly.
One strategy is to choose the path with the best upside scenario, stick with it if it works out, and try something else if it doesn’t. (Though make sure you’re OK with this degree of risk and have a back-up plan.)
You can also plan to try out several paths, or ‘wildcards’ totally outside your experience, minimising the costs by carefully ordering your options. This strategy is most attractive right at the start of your career for perhaps 2–6 years.
In general, it’s most important to explore early in your career, since you have longer to use what you learn, more uncertainty, and the costs of trying lots of things are lower.
Be more ready to quit: people tend to stick in their current path too long even when it’s not working out.
Taking time to explore makes sense because you can find a career path that’s twice as good as your current best guess, it would theoretically be worth spending up to half of your career searching for that path.
It’s often possible to find a path that you enjoy a lot more, or is a lot better paid, or so on, by exploring. And if your aim is to have an impact, the potential gains are even larger. We’ve argued that some of the career paths open to you likely do hundreds of times more to help the world than others.
We can think about the value of exploration by using a concept from decision science — ‘information value’.
The information value you gain from trying a job is what you learn about which longer-term paths are best. In particular, it’s the chance that you discover a path that’s better than your current best guess.
When choosing jobs, you care about the immediate impact and satisfaction you gain from the job, and how well it sets you up to find better opportunities in the future. The latter not only consists of the career capital you gain from it, but also the information value it gives you. We could say:
Long-term impact of job = immediate impact + career capital + information value
The best next job for you is the one that delivers the most value considering all three factors, plus the personal satisfaction you gain from it.
A job could be a ‘failure’ in the sense that you didn’t have any impact and quit, but if you’re able to eliminate a long-term path, that can still be a valuable experience — you’ve just saved yourself years of wasted effort in it.
This is part of approaching your career like a scientist. Each job you take is also an experiment to help you learn about what’s best for you in the long term.
Which jobs have the highest information value?
The paths that have the most information value to try out are those that might be a lot better than your current best guess, but that you’re uncertain about, and where you could resolve some of those uncertainties at relatively low cost.
We often advise people who feel very uncertain about which paths are best for them, but are tempted to try out a corporate job, like accounting or consulting. While this might make sense based on career capital, it often doesn’t make much sense for information value — they usually don’t expect that the corporate path is their best long-term path, and they’re normally not that uncertain about it.
The temptation to do the corporate job, however, does illustrate a real tradeoff: your best job for information value might not be the best for career capital or impact.
And the costs of exploration can be higher than they seem. Some competitive careers have an ‘elevator’ structure, where once you get off the standard track, it’s hard to re-enter, and even when you can re-enter, it’s hard to make it to the top.
Academia is the most common example of this among our readers. Going from a PhD to a postdoc, and then into a permanent academic position is very competitive, and it’s unlikely you’ll succeed if you don’t focus the vast majority of your effort on research, which makes it hard to re-enter academia if you try something else after your PhD.1
The existence of elevator careers can make it expensive to simply try out lots of paths early on, since by leaving you might miss your chance of outsized success.
Exploring also delays your impact, which could be a significant cost if you think there are especially urgent opportunities to do good right now that won’t be around in the future.
But we’ve also argued that the potential gains to exploration are very large too, especially if you want to have an impact. Going from ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’ might only increase your own wellbeing a little bit, but it could mean having 10 times as much impact.
So, both the benefits and costs of exploration can be large. What should you do?
Career exploration strategies
What are some strategies and rules of thumb for exploring that make sense, balancing both the benefits of gaining information with the costs?
This question has been studied in computer science, in topics like the ‘explore-exploit’ tradeoff, and ‘optimal stopping’ (aka known the secretary problem). We discuss what we might learn from this research in-depth in our interview with Brian Christian, author of Algorithms to Live By. Below, we’ll summarise some of the bottom lines, combined with what makes sense given our experience and other arguments.
Pursue upside options: rational reasons to aim high
Generally, we can say that information value is higher:
The greater the potential long-term impact of the path
The greater your uncertainty about it
The quicker you can find out how promising it is
The first two factors favour focusing more on long shots — paths that might be outstanding but have a good chance of not working out.
Here’s a more concrete process: rank the long-term paths open to you in terms of upside — how much impact you would have in them if you performed unusually well compared to your expectations, as opposed to your best guess at how you’ll perform. (To be more precise, you could imagine how each path would look in the top 10% of scenarios.) We call the options that seem best in an ‘upside scenario’ your ‘upside path’.
The strategy is to try out one of your most promising upside paths. If you find it’s going well, then continue; otherwise if you’re not on track to hit the upside scenario, switch into the next best upside path.
This strategy is attractive because there’s an asymmetry: in the good case, you have a big impact and continue doing so for many years; if it doesn’t work out, you can switch to something else relatively quickly. The costs of spending a few months or even years trying out a path are often low relative to the huge benefits if it turns out well.
It also means that if you’re trying an elevator career, you stick with it until you’ve decided you’re not likely to have an outsized success, which is often where most of the impact comes from.
However, there’s an important caveat to keep in mind. The asymmetry argument only works if the downsides are capped.
First, you have to make sure that you’re in a sufficiently robust position — personally, professionally and financially — that an experiment not working out won’t do you considerable long-term harm. That means making sure you have a back-up plan and remain able to switch into something else if it doesn’t work out. We discuss how to do this in our planning process.
Second, if you’re focused on impact, then in certain areas — ‘fragile fields’ — it’s easy to make things much worse than you found them. If you’re doing something high-stakes in one of these fields, it’s important to try to modify your plan to reduce the chance of setting back the field before pursuing upsides. We cover this in another article on accidental harm.
The more you want to focus on exploration, the more to focus on upside options compared to your best guess.
If you’re right at the start of your career, you might want to aim at what’s best based on the top 5% of scenarios, while late in your career you’ll focus on the most likely scenarios.
Try out several paths through careful ordering
Another exploration strategy is to plan to try out several paths, and then decide later which is best. If you order your options carefully, it’s often possible to try several with minimal costs.
For instance, a common pattern is to do a gap year before college, then while at college try several internships, then do something more unusual after graduating for 1–2 years. If that goes well, you can continue, and otherwise you could try going to graduate school, which ‘resets’ you onto the standard path. For instance, you could try a random startup or nonprofit project for a few years, and then do a PhD and continue with academia, or go to law school and continue into policy.
Later in your career, if you’re genuinely unsure between two options, you can try the more ‘reversible’ one first. For instance, it’s easier to move from business to nonprofits than vice versa.
While examples of people who specialised early, like Tiger Woods, are often salient, in the book Range, David Epstein argues that these cases are the exception. Most people try several paths, and more than that, he claims that sports people who tried several sports before settling on one tend to be more successful.
This strategy is similar to the ‘secretary problem’ in computer science. We think the standard models overstate how much you should explore, but spending 5–15% of the total length of your career with exploration as a top priority seems reasonable, and that would be 2–6 years.
Compared to the upside path strategy, this strategy keeps you from committing to anything for years, so has significant costs. If you can identify an upside path now, trying it right away usually seems better.
Planning to try out several paths is most attractive when very uncertain, when you can avoid ruling out an elevator career, and when early in your career where the costs of exploration are lowest.
Try a wildcard
While trying out several paths, consider trying a wildcard.
One drawback of both of the strategies above is that your best path might well be something you haven’t even thought of yet.
This could suggest exploring and testing out options well outside your normal experience, to give yourself the chance of uncovering something totally different. That might mean living in a very different culture, or trying different sectors from those you already know (e.g. nonprofits, government, corporate).
This is similar to how many exploration algorithms have a random element. Making a random move can help avoid settling into a local optimum. While we wouldn’t recommend literally picking randomly, the fact that even computer algorithms find randomness helpful illustrates the value of considering paths well off your standard track.
Explore within your job
An alternative approach is to take a job that lets you try out several areas by:
Letting you practice many different skills. Jobs in small companies are often especially good on this front.
Letting you work in a variety of industries, such as certain types of freelancing or consulting positions.
Giving you the free time and energy to explore other things outside of work.
Be more ready to quit
A final rule of thumb to consider: if you’re on a path that’s only going so-so, you should probably try something else — if you can afford to do so.
If the path is only going so-so, it’s probably not an upside option, and so doesn’t have much information value. It’s probably also not a great fit.
Due to the status quo bias, we should expect people to continue with their current path for too long. This suggests that if you’re feeling on the fence about quitting your current path, you usually should.
This is exactly what an influential randomised study found. Steven Levitt collected tens of thousands of people who were deeply unsure whether to make a big change in their life. After offering some advice on how to make hard choices, those who remained truly undecided were given the chance to use a flip of a coin to settle the issue. 22,500 did so. Levitt then followed up two and six months later to ask people whether they had actually made the change, and how happy they were out of 10. It turned out that people who made a change on an important question gained 2.2 points of happiness out of 10.
How much to explore at different stages in your career?
It’s hard to generalise about how much to explore. If you’re following the upside option strategy, and you luck into something great early on, you might never need to try anything else. While others need to try over and over again to get a hit.
However, there are clear arguments that people should generally explore more earlier in their career:
You have the most time remaining to take advantage of new options you discover. Whereas if you find a new career path aged 60, you can only benefit for maybe 5–10 years.
You have the least information about what’s best, since you haven’t tried many jobs.
The costs of exploring are lower, young people are expected to change jobs more often, and there are low-cost opportunities to try things out, like internships, which aren’t open when older.
This justifies the common advice of being more ambitious and trying to broaden your horizons while young. The younger you are, the more to focus on information value, and the more you’re focused on information value, the more ambitious the upside paths to aim for. As you get older, you’ll focus more on ‘exploiting’ your best guess rather than exploring to find something even better.
However, you’ll keep learning about your fit and which options are best throughout your career, so information value remains important. A middle-aged person who just quit a long corporate career suddenly faces more uncertainty and lower costs to experimentation, and so might go back into exploration mode for a period.
Through trade, coordination, and economies of scale, individuals can achieve greater impact by working within a community than they could working individually – but to take full advantage of them, you need to change how you approach your career.