How can you compare two career options in terms of how satisfying and high-impact they’ll be?
It can seem near impossible to make comparisons like this, and it’s true that it’s hard. But we think it’s still possible to make a lot of progress.
In this article, we show how to break the comparison down into four factors. These form our career framework – the key ingredients of a fulfilling and high-impact career.
Why we chose these factors is more fully explained in our career guide. We’ve used this framework to analyse hundreds of real career decisions, and think it captures most of the important factors. However, it’s a work-in-progress, and we could see ourselves changing the emphasis of the framework over time.
Compare your options in terms of:
- Role impact – which option gives you the greatest opportunity to have a social impact?
- Career capital – which option will put you in the best position for the future?
- Personal fit – in which option will you have the best chance of excelling?
- Supportive conditions – which option will you most enjoy, and will fit with the rest of your life?
- Other personal factors.
Table of Contents
- 1 Summary
- 2 How can we compare different careers?
- 3 Further breaking down the factors
- 4 How to use the framework to compare options
- 5 Advanced: Factoring risk into the equation
- 6 Worksheet
How can we compare different careers?
Let’s start by considering your impact only in the short-term. We can break it into two components:
- Role impact – the extent to which the role gives you opportunities to have a large social impact.
- Personal fit – the extent to which you will be able to take advantage of these opportunities, which largely boils down to how good you’ll be in the role.
We think these two factors roughly multiply, i.e. if you’re twice as good at the role, then your overall impact will be twice as high.
This applies whatever you think social impact consists of, though we explain our views here. Later in this article, we’ll show how to break each of these factors down into sub-factors.
We also care about your long-run potential to make an impact. The impact of your current job on the long-term can also be broken down into two factors:
- Career capital – the extent to which the role gives you opportunities to put yourself in a better position to make an impact in the future.
- Personal fit – the extent to which you will be able to take advantage of these opportunities.
So far we’ve only discussed social impact, but what about your personal satisfaction? We know that job satisfaction is important for your long-run social impact, because if you don’t enjoy your job you’re more likely to burn out.
As we argue in our article on fulfilling work, if you find work that you’re good at and that helps others, then you’ll already be a long way towards a fulfilling career. Gaining career capital is also important for your personal success and growth.
However, there are some other ingredients of job satisfaction that aren’t fully covered by the factors already listed. These include having engaging work that absorbs your attention, working with people you like, the job meeting your basic needs (with regards to salary, working hours etc.) and it fitting with the rest of your life. To cover these, we list “supportive conditions” as a separate factor, and include all of these matters under it.
If we factor the role-impact and personal fit components out of job satisfaction, then we can write the whole set of factors as follows:
How should you weigh these factors?
Here are some tips for balancing the different factors against each other:
- If you are still early in your career, then it’s best to place greater importance on career capital than on role impact, as you’re likely to be able to find plenty of good opportunities to invest in yourself. If you’re late in your career, place less importance on career capital and more on making an impact now. That said, the amount of weight to put on career capital can also depend on which problems you want to work on. See more.
- The more uncertain you are about the long-run, the more you should prioritise flexible career capital over narrow career capital. Flexible career capital is career capital that’s useful in many different roles.
- The more altruistically-minded you are, the less weight you’ll need to place on job satisfaction relative to the other factors.
- Bear in mind that personal fit is potentially the most important factor because it can improve everything else.
The value of exploration
Career decisions are highly uncertain, and so often the most valuable thing you can do is learn more about your options. That way, you’ll be able to make better decisions in the long-run.
Sometimes this means that it can be worth taking an option just as an experiment. For this reason, in the past we sometimes added “exploration value” to the framework. Today, we think this is a little confusing, so we took it out (instead we factored into our advice on finding the right career). However, we still think the idea is right – often the most important thing is to try out lots of options.
Further breaking down the factors
Here are some questions to consider when assessing each factor. We don’t give all our reasoning for this break-down – it’s available in the main career guide articles.
We think that the key to personal fit is your chances of excelling in the area. But how can you work out what those are?
Start by trying to work out the typical odds of a person succeeding in this area – the base rate. Then ask whether you’re more or less likely to succeed than average. (This is called “reference class forecasting”.)
In deciding whether you’re more likely to succeed than average, consider all forms of evidence, but weight the evidence by its strength. Lots of weak evidence (e.g. someone’s opinion) can add up to strong evidence. (This is called “Bayesian updating”.)
Here are some key questions to consider:
- Predictors: What are the best predictors of success in this field? Do any apply to you?
- Track record: What’s the most similar work you’ve done before? How well did you perform? How quickly did you improve?
- Interest: If you totally failed for a year or two, could you easily imagine persisting? Could you develop an interest in this area?
- Edge: Does this path make use of your most valuable career capital? I.e. does it play to your special edge?
The aim is to use reference class forecasting with Bayesian updating for all of the following factors. You can learn more about this approach to decision-making in these resources.
We usually break this down into the following questions (with impact potential proportional to the product of the two):
1) How pressing is the problem? This can be further broken down into:
- Is it big in scale?
- Is it neglected by others?
- How possible is it to make progress?
We have a detailed rubric for assessing these three.
2) How large a contribution can you make to the problem? This can be further broken down into:
- Contribution through your direct work
- Contribution through your donations
- Contribution through using your position for advocacy
Some other rules of thumb to consider are:
- Will you have flexibility over which problems you work on?
- Have people who’ve had a lot of impact pursued this route in the past?
- Do people neglect this path for bad reasons?
- Do you have a theory of how you can use this route to achieve much more than normal?
Here’s a list of our four types of influential career.
This can be broken down into:
- Skills – What will you learn in this job? You can break skills down into transferable skills, knowledge and personality traits. You’ll learn fastest in jobs where you receive good mentorship.
- Connections – Who will you work with and meet in this job? It’s important to make connections who are both influential and who care about social impact.
- Credentials – Will this job act as a good signal to future collaborators or employers? Note that we don’t just mean formal credentials like having a law degree, but also your achievements and reputation. If you’re a writer, it’s the quality of your blog. If you’re a coder, it’s your GitHub.
- Runway – How much money will you save in this job? Your runway is how long you could comfortably live with no income. We recommend aiming for at least six months of runway to maintain your financial security. Having 12-18 months of runway is even more useful because it gives you the flexibility to make a major career change.
And don’t forget to consider:
- How good will this career capital be for taking you towards your medium-term goals?
- How flexible is the career capital? Will it be useful in many future jobs?
This can be broken down into:
- (Impact and personal fit – already covered above)
- Engaging work – Will you get freedom to decide how to work, clear tasks, clear feedback and variety in what you do?
- Colleagues – Will you like them and will they support you?
- Basic needs – Will you earn enough money, will the hours be manageable, and will the commute be reasonable?
- Fit with rest of life – Will you be able to improve your personal relationships, and uphold any other important personal priorities?
Read more about job satisfaction.
How to use the framework to compare options
When it comes to figuring out which job is best for you, we’re in favour of investigating and experimenting with different options, rather than trying to figure it all out ahead of time. And often the most important step is simply to consider more options.
However, you’re likely to have limited time to investigate, so you’ll need some way to do an initial elimination of options. Similarly, if your investigations are not conclusive, then ultimately you’ll need to make an in-depth assessment of each option on your short list. In both cases, our career framework can help.
Use the framework as part of our full process for choosing between career options, as covered in this article and our decision-making tool. You also need to try to generate more options, resolve uncertainties, and so on. Ultimately you need to do a loop: assess -> learn more -> assess -> learn more, until you converge on an answer.
You’ll want to start by doing an initial ranking using your intuition. Then, assess your options based on:
- Personal fit
- Role impact
- Career capital
- Job satisfaction
- Other personal factors not included in the above.
If you’re just doing an initial cut-down, eliminate anything that does really badly on one of the factors, or is dominated by an alternative (i.e. does worse or equal on all the factors).
If you’re doing a more detailed assessment, it’s usually helpful to score your options from one to five on each of these factors. You might find that this reveals a clear winner. If not, it can still help you to think more deeply about your options and get feedback from others – show them your scores and ask them if you’ve made a mistake.
Bear in mind that you’ll want to focus your assessment on the factors that are most decisive for your particular decision. This might mean cutting down the list and making it more specific.
You can also add all your scores together and rank your options based on that. There are reasons to think that this will be more accurate than just going with your intuition to decide which option is best. That said, don’t just blindly go with the total score. If your intuition is telling you that the result is wrong, try to figure out why. In some situations, your gut instinct can be more accurate than conscious reasoning (e.g. when it comes to social situations) while in others analytical thinking is more accurate.
To improve accuracy, look at each score in turn and ask yourself “why might this be wrong?” or try to justify it to a friend. There’s lots more to say about how to make more rational decisions. We cover some materials here.
Advanced: Factoring risk into the equation
If you’re dealing with risky options, then rather than scoring each factor with a single figure, you might find it more helpful to give them a range.
The simplest approach is to consider both the upside – best realistic scenario – and downside – worst realistic scenario – assessed for each factor. This is very approximate, but it’s often a good start when dealing with highly uncertain situations.
That way, you can start to compare your options both in terms of risk and upside, which can give you a clearer idea of the trade-offs, given your personal level of risk tolerance. (If you want to be more precise, you could give a 90% confidence interval.)
How much risk should you take? From a personal point of view, avoid risk. In particular, be very careful about scenarios that could cause a long-term impairment to your happiness (e.g. burning out and getting depressed; going bankrupt).
However, you should still think about the long-term, as well as your short-term role impact. If an option could permanently damage your career capital (e.g. ruining your reputation), then it’ll dramatically cut down your options in the future. So as a practical matter, it probably pays to be risk-averse about career capital.
That said, it’s easy to be too scared of risks, and they can usually be mitigated with a good plan Z. We talk about how to do that in the career planning article.
We’ve made a table you can use to score each of your options.
You can see an example (filled in by Peter) here.
“I relied heavily on research done by 80,000 Hours to inform my decision.”