We define “making a difference” or “having a social impact” as follows:
The number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them by.
We think of “improving lives” in terms of “increasing flourishing”. We think everyone is equally valuable, and we think it’s reasonable to extend “people” to include non-humans.
The role of value judgements
The exact meaning of “flourishing lives” is a value judgement. Most people agree about the basics (torture is bad, health is good), but some important issues are up for debate, and these can affect what the phrase “making a difference” means to you. For instance, the more highly you weigh the interests of animals compared to humans, the more you’ll care about ending factory farming compared to other causes.
Fortunately, most of our advice doesn’t depend on a particular definition of flourishing lives. Different values will lead individuals to different conclusions about which problems are most pressing. However, things like acquiring career capital, maintaining career flexibility, building influence, and correctly weighing your options are largely independent of value judgments and useful to almost everyone. So we can help people contribute to a variety of problems, depending on their values.
Moreover, even when it comes to the question of which problems are most pressing, the main disagreements are often empirical rather than about values.
When our advice does depend on value judgements, we try to explicitly flag it so that you can make up your own mind. For instance, rather than present a single list of pressing problems, we made a quiz that leads you through some of the most important judgement calls.
How do you measure impact in practice?
In practical terms, we think of your impact as the extent to which you contribute to solving social problems faster than they would have been solved otherwise.
This means you have a larger impact when (i) the problem is larger and (ii) you make a larger contribution to it.
How can you actually compare the scale of different social problems, given that in practice they’re extremely hard to measure?
Being difficult to measure doesn’t mean comparisons are impossible, it just means that we need to use approximate heuristics or ‘yardsticks’ instead. For instance, you can compare problems in terms of how much they increase wealth, health, long-run security, and other important goals. We explain what we mean by ‘yardsticks’ and list those that we find most useful here. You can see the rubric we use to assess the scale of different problems here.
When we’re uncertain we also use probabilities. For instance, a 90% chance of helping 100 people is roughly equivalent to a 100% chance of helping 90 people.
Why ‘faster than they would have been solved otherwise’?
The true impact of an action depends on what happens because of that action, not on what happens, period. When we work hard and see positive results, it’s often easy to neglect the fact that some portion of those results would have occurred anyway, or that someone else might have filled our role just as well as we did. There is often a gap between true impact and ‘tangible impact’—the immediate results of our actions—and understanding that gap is crucial to finding the places where you can make a real difference. We explain more here.
What about justice and the environment?
Our definition of social impact is about helping people (and perhaps animals) live better lives. People sometimes wonder whether this means we don’t care about other values like justice or equality, or don’t care about helping the environment.
There are a few things to say about this:
- We do care about advancing justice, because a more just world is one in which people will live better lives i.e. advancing justice has social impact. Similarly, we care about the environment, because we need the environment so that humans and animals can live better lives.
Justice and other values may well matter independently of their effect on people. However, this isn’t our focus. We focus on helping people live flourishing lives, and only look to advance justice insofar as it helps with that. We chose flourishing as the key thing to focus on because it’s something that almost everyone thinks is important, while there’s also a huge difference in the effect of different careers on the amount of flourishing in the world. This means everyone should agree it’s a really important thing to focus on.
Even if you don’t care that much about flourishing compared to these other values, you can still use our advice. You’ll just have a very different ranking of problems from us. The rest of our advice remains nearly unchanged.