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? We often break this down into direct, advocacy and donations.
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 give you the most job satisfaction, and will fit with the rest of your life?
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.
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:
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.
It’s also useful to split career capital into ‘narrow’ and ‘flexible’ career capital. Narrow career capital is what best accelerates you towards your top long-term options. Flexible career capital is what opens up a wide variety of high-impact options in the future. It’s often better to think of flexible career capital in terms of specific backup options that the next step gives you.
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). We recommend avoiding options with significant personal risk, and having a Plan Z to mitigate downsides.
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.