There are many strategic considerations when planning a career. In our key ideas series, we cover how much to focus on career capital and exploration, how to manage risk, how to balance personal and altruistic goals, how to avoid accidentally making things worse, and several others — all from the perspective of people focused on having a positive impact.
How can we sum up all these ideas?
In general, the picture is one where there are high stakes (some paths might be much better than others) but also high uncertainty (it’s hard to predict what you’ll be best at or what the most pressing priorities will be in the future). What are some principles to navigate this landscape?
People often feel a lot of pressure to figure out their best path right away. But this isn’t possible. It’s hard to predict where you’ll have the best fit, especially over the long term, and if you’re just starting out, you know very little about what jobs are like and what your strengths are.
Moreover, even if you could find the best path now, it might change over time. The problems that are most pressing now could become less pressing in the future if they receive more attention, and new issues could be discovered. Likewise, you might find new opportunities to make progress you haven’t anticipated now. And even your personal preferences are likely to change (often more than people expect).
But at the same time, in order to aim high, it’s normally best to have some kind of longer-term plan.
To strike the balance, make a best guess at your longer-term path, but be iterative about how you pursue it — approach your career like a scientist testing a hypothesis.
In practical terms:
- Research your options
- Make your best guess about the best longer-term path for you
- Try it for a couple of years
- Update your best guess
For your long-term path, you can either aim to:
- Directly tackle a pressing problem (e.g. become a global priorities researcher), or
- Build a type of career capital that will give you leverage on many different problems (e.g. get good at management).
The more likely it is you think you will find a problem that’s more pressing than your current best guess during your career, the more attractive the second type of path is, so this is another way to manage uncertainty. But we’d encourage you to consider both types of path.
If you’re super uncertain, you can skip having a long-term plan at all. It’s possible to build a good career by opportunistically building career capital and still have an impact. You may not be able to predict where you end up, but if each step adds to your skills, you’ll still be putting yourself in a better and better position over time.
Cap your downsides, then seek upsides
Another theme is that it’s often better to aim higher.
More precisely, focus on options with high upsides — options that might turn out really well even if there’s a chance they don’t.
This is for a couple of reasons:
- As a proxy for expected value. When there’s so much variation in outcomes, a lot of the expected impact comes from the upside scenarios. For instance, we showed data about how the top performers in many careers have much more impact than typical. Although it can be hard to estimate the probability of these upside scenarios, by at least picking paths where big upsides are possible, you’re giving yourself some chance of finding them.
Information value. In our article on exploration, we argue that you stand to learn more valuable information from options with high upsides. If you try one and it goes well, you’ve discovered a great path. If it’s middling, you can try something else.
Neglectedness. Most people and institutions are risk-averse, but individuals shouldn’t be risk-averse about impact. This means that if you are able to tolerate some risk, you may be able to take opportunities others are neglecting. This is one reason why we favour a hits-based approach to finding solutions, but you can also take a hits-based approach to finding a career.
We advise people who are both underconfident and overconfident, but underconfidence usually seems like the greater danger. If you aim too low, you could miss out on most of your impact. We’ve seen lots of people think they weren’t a good enough fit for a competitive job, and then go on to land it, and succeed in it.
That said, you might also face serious risks. It’ll probably take several tries to have a ‘hit,’ which means you need to make sure you stay in the game. That means not taking options that might set you back in the long term, such as by damaging your mental or physical health, or ruining your reputation.
We also saw that from a personal point of view, it makes sense to be risk-averse, which means you should be very careful about basically unacceptable downsides, like not being able to support someone financially dependent on you.
And we saw that in the world of doing good, it’s possible to make things a lot worse than they were before. This is different from, say, the world of startups or investing, when normally the worst-case scenario is that you lose your original investment, and the risk is naturally capped.
It’s important to minimise these downsides before seeking upsides.
You might not be able to easily estimate their probability, but it’s often still possible to ‘cap’ them. Sometimes it’s possible to modify the option to avoid the downside (e.g. resolving to stop working if you notice warning signs about your mental health), and if you can’t modify it, rule out that option and try something else. Either way, make sure you have a backup plan so you can try something else promising if it doesn’t work out. We lead you through all these steps in our career planning process.
You can also increase your ability to withstand downsides over time by building career capital, giving yourself better backup options, or increasing your runway.
Three key career stages
Your strategic priorities will also change over time. Roughly, careers follow three stages:
- Explore: take low-cost ways to learn about and test out promising longer-term paths, until you feel ready to bet on one for a few years. (This stage is typically the top priority for age 18–24.)
Invest: take a bet on a longer-term path that could go really well (seeking upsides), usually by building the career capital that will most accelerate you in it. But in case it doesn’t work out, have a backup plan (capping downsides). (Age 25–35.)
Do good: use the career capital you’ve built to support the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems at the time. (Age 36 and up.)
In reality, you’ll be pursuing all three priorities throughout your career; these stages are just about what to emphasise.
The stages can also last different amounts of time. You might find a path worth betting on straight after university, and if it goes well, never look back. In that case, you can skip the exploration stage. Other people might need to try many times 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 a few years.
On the other hand, a 20-year-old who comes across a great opportunity to have an impact might focus on doing good right away. For instance, Kuhan realised that his position as a student at Stanford gave him a great platform to spread awareness of important ideas. He helped to start the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative, which has helped hundreds of people learn about existential risks.
You’ll need to make a judgement about which stage is the best fit for you right now.
People who feel uncertain about their career often try to ‘keep their options open’ and avoid committing to anything, which can be counterproductive. This can look like staying in exploration mode for too long, or it can mean staying in options you know you don’t want to do long-term to build ‘career capital’ (e.g. professional services, consulting), even when those paths aren’t likely to take you towards your top longer-term paths.
Instead, try the approaches we’ve covered:
- Research your options to try to reduce your uncertainty, and make the best guess you can.
- Commit to trying out and building career capital within some longer-term paths that might be good, even if you’re unsure about them.
- Try something for a few years and then update your plan based on what you’ve learned.
It’s unpleasant to face this uncertainty, but taking these steps will give you the best chance of managing it, and finding the best available path for you.
Why some of your options probably have 100x the impact of others, and how 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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