3 key career stages
If you want to have an impact, the aim is to find a job that has the potential to make a big contribution to a pressing problem, and that’s a good fit for you. But how can you find a job like that?
In the strategy section of our key ideas series, we discuss the value of exploration and career capital, as well as many other ideas, like why to be more ambitious. Here we sum them up into a simple career strategy.
Table of Contents
Three career stages
How to find a great job in a sentence: get good at something that lets you effectively contribute to pressing global problems.
First, make some best guesses about which longer-term roles seem best to aim towards, both in terms of impact and career capital. We’ve compiled a list of high-impact options to help you get started, as well as advice on comparing them. Your answer will only be a guess because it’s so hard to predict where you’ll succeed in the long term (and your views about which problems to focus on might change). We advocate taking an iterative approach, updating your best guess every 1–3 years.
Once you have some best-guess longer-term roles, you can roughly follow these three stages:
- Explore: take low-cost ways to learn about and test out promising longer-term roles, until you feel ready to bet on one for a few years. Exploration is most likely to be the top priority ages 18–24.
Invest: take a bet on a longer-term path that could go really well (i.e. seek upsides), by building the career capital that will most accelerate you in your chosen path. In case it doesn’t work out, have a backup plan (i.e. limit downsides). (Age 25–35.)
Deploy: use the strengths and career capital you’ve built to help implement the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems at the time. (Age 36 and up.)
These stages are just about what’s most common to emphasise at each age range. In reality, it’s always valuable to gain information about which paths are best, invest in your career capital, and try to have an impact right away — and you might try to serve any of these priorities at any stage in your career.
The stages last different amounts of time for different people. You find an opportunity to have a big impact early in your career, and focus on that for a while. For example, Kuhan realised that their position as a student at Stanford gave them a great platform to spread important ideas. They helped to start the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative, which has helped hundreds of people learn about existential risks. Kuhan skipped straight to deployment — which worked out well for them — but most people probably need to try many different things before they find a path that works.
Your emphasis might also move back and forth over time. For instance, a 40-year-old who decides to make a dramatic career change might go back into exploration mode for several years. It all depends on your specific situation.
What career stage are you in?
Besides your age, here are some questions to help you decide where to focus:
- How uncertain are you about which roles are the best fit? The more uncertain you are, the more you should focus on exploration. But don’t wait too long before taking a bet (a common mistake). You just need to find a role that’s worth betting on, rather than one you’re confident in. If you have a good backup plan, the downsides of taking a gamble are low, and just trying a path is often the best way to learn about your fit with it.
Are you learning a lot? It’s often worth staying in investment mode as long as you’re learning and becoming more productive.
How urgent are opportunities to contribute? Taking time to invest needs to be weighted against the urgency of contributing to your chosen problems. If there are opportunities to have a big impact today that are much better than those you expect to find in the future, that can push you into deployment mode right away. This could be due to the time being unusually pivotal (e.g. a pandemic is starting) or because you’ve found an unusually good opportunity you might not have in the future (e.g. Kuhan from above).
How uncertain are you about which global problems will be the most pressing in the future? The more uncertain you are about which global problems will be most pressing in the future, the more you should focus on finding roles that can be applied to many problems (e.g. manager, journalist, civil servant), rather than narrow or specialist roles (e.g. expert in market stabilisation for developing economies). Similarly, the more uncertain you are, the more you should focus on building transferable rather than specialist career capital when investing. The same arguments apply if you’re uncertain about what your personal preferences will be in the future.
Why not to “keep your options open”
People who feel uncertain about their career often try to “keep their options open.” There’s truth in this advice (as we’ll cover), but when people try to “keep their options open” in practice, it often ends up being counterproductive. In particular, it often leads people to:
- Delay thinking about which paths are actually best, rather than doing more research to reduce their uncertainty.
- Stay in paths they know they don’t want to do long term “to build career capital” — even when those paths aren’t likely the best route towards their top longer-term paths. (We often see people doing this with roles in professional services and consulting.)
- Pursue a middle-of-the-road path, rather than commit to something that might be great in terms of career capital or impact (while bearing in mind they could change paths if it doesn’t work).
Of course, all else equal, it’s better to have more options rather than fewer. And there can be cases where you’re just really uncertain between two options, and there’s a way to keep both open while you gain information. For example, if path A would let you switch into path B, but it would be hard to move from path B to path A, that’s a good reason to start with path A (and then switch into B if it doesn’t work out).
But for most purposes, we think other rules of thumb are better to follow than “keeping options open.”
In particular, we usually find it’s more productive to try: limit your downsides and then aim high. This usually involves making a backup plan and eliminating options with big negative risks, and then seeking something that might be really great. This framework encourages you to commit to trying out paths that are more ambitious or unusual, while still managing risk with a backup plan. On this framework, “keeping options open” is just one way to limit your downsides, but a backup plan is usually sufficient for most people. We discuss this approach in our article about how to be more ambitious.
Another better rule of thumb is to try to gain the best career capital you can — that usually does more to increase your options in the future than trying to “not close doors” and “keep options open,” since it involves committing to building valuable skills.
In sum, we recommend the following three steps as a more productive way to approach career strategy than “keeping your options open”:
- First, if you’re uncertain about what’s best longer term, try to research your options to reduce that uncertainty and make a best guess.
- Then try out high-upside paths, whether those upsides are in terms of impact or career capital (but with a backup plan to limit downsides).
- Finally, you don’t need to have it all figured out right away: update your plan every few years with what you’ve learned.
It can be unpleasant to face this uncertainty, but these steps will give you the best chance of managing it, and of finding the best possible path for you.
Now read the final article in the key ideas series, which sums up the most important ideas we’ve covered, and why you might be able to find a career with perhaps 100 times as much impact.
Then, you can explore all our best resources on career planning, and start generating (and narrowing down) the concrete options that might fit you best.
Read next: Why some of your career options probably have 100x the impact of others
Why some of your options probably have 100x the impact of others (and why this means you might be able to find a career that’s both higher-impact and more satisfying than your current default).
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