Kate wanted to make a difference, so she did the obvious thing – she went to work at a non-profit straight out of university.1 However, she quickly hit a ceiling in terms of how far she could advance.
We’ve asked leaders of effective non-profits whether it makes sense to start your career in the non-profit sector. They said you can usually advance faster in the corporate sector because you get better training, and that’s where they hire from.
Kate ended up returning to the corporate sector for several years, and would have ended up ahead if she’d done that straight away. We know lots of examples of people who feel like they wasted years of their career.
Don’t make these mistakes. First, although it’s good to make a difference right away, you also need to invest in yourself to maximize your impact in the long-term. This means building what we call “career capital”: skills, connections and credentials that put you in a better position to make a difference in the future.
Second, build career capital that’s flexible – that will be relevant in many different jobs in the future. This prevents you from getting stuck in a dead end, especially early in your career.
By building career capital and being strategic, there’s a huge amount anyone can do to put themselves in a better position to have a satisfying career and make a difference.
Watch the video below or read the full article (15 minutes).
The bottom line
Career capital is anything that puts you in a better position to make a difference in the future, including skills, connections, credentials, character and savings.
Gaining career capital is important throughout your career, but especially when you’re young and you have a lot to learn.
The earlier you are in your career, and the less certain you are about what to do in the medium-term, the more you should focus on gaining career capital that’s flexible i.e. useful in many different industries and career paths.
Some of the best ways to gain career capital early in your career include:
- Working in any organization which has, or with any people who have, a reputation for high performance e.g. top consultancy, technology or financial firms, or any work with a great mentor or team.
- Undertaking certain graduate studies, especially applied quantitative subjects like economics, computer science and applied mathematics.
- Anything that gives you a valuable transferable skill e.g. programming, data science, marketing.
- Taking opportunities which allow you to achieve impressive and socially valuable things e.g. founding an organization, doing anything you might be really good at.
You can also build career capital in any situation by taking care of yourself, building connections and learning useful skills. Find out more about career capital in any job.
Table of Contents
- 1 The bottom line
- 2 Mistake 1: Ignoring opportunities to invest in yourself, and make a greater impact later
- 3 Mistake 2: Not building flexible career capital that will be useful in the future.
- 4 Which jobs are best early career?
- 5 How can you get flexible career capital in any job?
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 Apply this to your own career
Mistake 1: Ignoring opportunities to invest in yourself, and make a greater impact later
People like to lionize the Mozarts and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world – people who achieved great success while young – and there are all sorts of awards for young leaders, like the Forbes 30 under 30. But these people are interesting precisely because they’re the exception. If you want to get your dream job, then you’ll probably need to invest in yourself first. (We covered ideas for dream jobs at the end of the previous article.)
Most people reach the peak of their impact in their middle age. Income usually peaks in the 40s, suggesting that it takes around 20 years for most people to reach their peak productivity.2 Similarly, experts only reach their peak abilities between age 30 to 60,3 and if anything, this age is increasing over time.4
|Field||Age of peak output|
|Theoretical physics, lyric poetry, pure mathematics||Around 30|
|Psychology, chemistry||Around 40|
|Novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine||Around 50|
|Business - average age of S&P500 CEOs||55|
|Politics - average age of first-term (US) president||55|
When researchers looked in more detail at these findings, they found that expert-level performance in established fields requires 10-30 years of focused practice.5 K. Anders Ericsson, the leader of this field of research who has been working on it for over 30 years, said:
I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.
Mozart and Mark succeeded while young because they started young. Mozart’s father was a famous music teacher, and trained him intensely as a toddler.
All this may sound like a bit of a downer, but consider the flip side. Lots of people come to us saying “I’m not sure I have any useful skills to contribute”. And that’s often true. If you’ve just graduated, you’ve probably spent the last four years studying Moby Dick, quantum mechanics, and Descartes, and your future job is unlikely to involve any of those things.
However, Ericsson’s research suggests that anyone can improve at most skills with focused practice. Sure, talent is probably important too – if you’re 7 ft tall it’s going to be a lot easier to learn basketball – but that doesn’t mean short people can’t still improve their game. This means even if you don’t have much to contribute now, you can become much more skilled in the future.
In our advising, we’ve seen lots of examples of people becoming far more successful, happy and capable by investing in themselves, often in surprising areas that they never thought they’d be good at. We’ll cover some examples later.
All this means there’s a good chance you can have a greater lifetime impact by investing in yourself, and doing more good later. For this reason, our advice is to always be on the lookout for opportunities to build career capital.
Although career capital is important for everyone, it’s especially important early in your career: the earlier you increase your abilities, the more time you have to make use of the increase, and the larger the total gain you’ll get. For this reason, we think building career capital should usually be higher priority than impact into your early 30s.
(Advanced: exactly how to balance helping now with investing in yourself to help later is a complex question that ultimately depends on which problems you think are most pressing – we’ve done a more in-depth analysis here.)
Key ingredients of career capital
Here are the key factors to improve to boost your career capital:
- Skills – abilities which allow you to do useful things. You can break skills down into transferable skills, knowledge and personality traits. Some especially useful transferable skills include: analysis and problem solving, the ability to learn quickly and effectively, communication, data analysis, persuasion and negotiation, and management. If you want to do good, you also need to learn all about the world’s most pressing problems.
- Connections – the ability to call on other people to help you increase your impact. To build these up, try to work with people who are or who have the potential to be successful and influential.
- Credentials – quick ways to prove your abilities and expertise to others. Note that we don’t just mean formal credentials like having a law degree, but also your achievements and reputation.
- Character – a natural inclination to do the right thing in difficult circumstances. To develop this, it’s best to surround yourself with people of good character themselves.
- Runway – savings to keep you on your feet if you were to lose your job. We recommend aiming for at least 12 months of runway, because this gives you the flexibility to make a major career change. Try to keep your cost of living low, and consider higher paid jobs while you build a buffer. It’s usually worth paying down high-interest debt before donating more than 1% per year or taking a big pay cut for greater impact.
Don’t only focus on career capital
One caveat: don’t ignore social impact while building career capital. Doing so can be unmotivating and increases your chances of giving up on helping others. Most importantly, if you want to do good in the world, there’s a huge amount to learn. Many people’s ideas about the most effective ways to help the world change greatly over time, and staying involved in social impact speeds up this learning.
Always at least find ways to stay engaged in doing good, such as donating at least 1% of your income each year, voluntary work, self-education or being part of a community. Many of our readers find it useful to join the Giving What We Can community.
Mistake 2: Not building flexible career capital that will be useful in the future.
Earlier we saw the example of Kate, who went to work at a non-profit that didn’t advance her career. We see lots of similar mistakes.
Chris completed a philosophy PhD, but was unable to get any academic positions that he was excited to pursue, and so had to retrain. He’s not the only person we’ve met who regretted doing a humanities PhD. Lots of people start a PhD and then realize they hate academia, and their PhD won’t help them much elsewhere. They end up feeling like they’ve near wasted four years.
Tara trained and worked as a pharmacist with the Red Cross. Eventually she realized that she could have a greater impact elsewhere, but all the specialized knowledge she learned in pharmacy would no longer be useful. This is common when people choose specialized courses that are only really relevant to one path.
“If I hadn't encountered 80,000 Hours' website, there's no way I'd be in the job I am today.”
These examples show it’s important not only to gain career capital, but to gain career capital that’s flexible – useful in many different types of jobs – and likely to remain useful in the future. For instance, learning marketing or management is flexible because almost all organizations need these skills; whereas becoming an expert on Kenyan microfinance is not.
Here’s the case for staying flexible.
The job market will change
Flexibility is important firstly because it’s really hard to know what the future holds. Many of the most in-demand jobs today, like being a data scientist or growth hacker, didn’t even exist ten years ago. And it seems like the pace of change is going to be even faster in the coming decades.
Thinking of becoming a legal clerk, medical technician, or real estate broker? These jobs might soon be gone. Back in 2014, experts predicted it would take 10 years for a computer to beat the top human player at the ancient Chinese game of Go. But it was achieved in March 2016.6 Under 20 years ago, driving was seen as something that would be really hard to automate. But now self-driving cars are almost as good as humans:
All told, researchers estimate about half of jobs are highly at risk of automation within the next twenty years. The most at risk jobs include many “white collar” positions as well as manual jobs.
The safest jobs are those that involve creativity, high level problem solving, and social intelligence, such as: management, marketing, social work, and engineering.
These technological changes, combined with global markets, are also increasing the rewards for being a top performer in your field. Think of Whatsapp, which has only 55 employees but over 700 million users (as of July 2016). It would have never been possible for such a small number of people to serve so many customers a few decades ago. These changes are not only limited to the technology sector; they’re happening everywhere. JK Rowling became the highest earning author of all time because Harry Potter became popular all around the world. This means the importance of building good career capital is increasing over time.
You will change
We’ve seen that it’s important to build flexible, future-proof career capital because the world is changing so fast. But that’s not all. You’re also going to change. Research shows that people’s interests change significantly, and more than they expect. Think about your hobbies ten years ago. They’re probably pretty different today (besides Pokemon).
Social problems will change
Flexibility is even more important if you care about social impact, because it allows you to focus on whichever problems turn out to be most pressing in the future. In the 1960s, the big issue was nuclear war and hardly anyone had heard about climate change, whereas today climate change is widely seen as the bigger issue.
Because the world is changing so fast, and there’s more and more research being done to identify the most pressing problems, we think there’s a good chance that significantly more pressing problems will get discovered within the next ten years. This means it’s probably better to give yourself the option to switch problem area in the future, even if it slightly reduces your impact in the short-run.
You’ll learn more about the world and yourself
You and the world will not only change, but you’ll also learn more about what suits you best. If you stay flexible, you’ll be able to act on this knowledge.
In general, the more uncertain you are about the future and your career, the more to focus on flexibility.
One consequence of this is that flexibility is usually most important at the start of your career. At this point you haven’t tried any jobs, so it’s the point when you know the least about what you want to do in the future.
If you’re really uncertain, then you could make flexible career capital your main focus. As you learn more, you can make your plan more and more targeted. (We’ll cover how to do this in a later article.)
Bear in mind, the advice “build flexible career capital” is not the same as “don’t close any doors”. Some people try to avoid committing to a specific path because they’re unsure what to do. Rather, the advice is to commit to a path in which you’ll gain career capital that’s useful in many other paths. Just pick an area, perform highly, learn transferable skills, and meet influential people. You’ll end up in a better position than if you try to do a bit of everything and don’t achieve anything.
Which jobs are best early career?
So we’ve seen what career capital is and why it’s important. But how do you get it? Here’s a list of paths that we’ve found are often good for gaining flexible career capital early on. Note down any that could be a good fit for you.
1. Work at a growing organization that has a reputation for high performance
Rob Mather is the founder of Against Malaria Foundation, which GiveWell rates as the most effective charity in the world. He started his career in sales and management consulting. He says these positions gave him the management and persuasion skills he used to make AMF so lean and efficient.
Consulting isn’t usually seen as the socially motivated choice. But if you’re really unsure what to do long-term, it can work. Consultants go into a very wide range of areas, including the public and social sector, and often reach senior positions more quickly than they would if they hadn’t started in consulting. If you’re worried about getting “sucked in” to the lifestyle, then make a commitment to your friends to leave after a certain number of years.
Consulting works because the companies make you work hard, train you up, and put you around other highly productive people. This all builds your skills and connections. These jobs are also widely recognized as competitive positions, which gives you a credential. Finally, the companies will also often help you get your next position.
There are many other positions that can provide similar benefits, both within established paths and outside. Any position where you have a good mentor or team can give you similar benefits. It’s especially good if the organization is growing quickly, because you’ll get more responsibility faster.
Here are some of the most common options that seem promising. Try to identify the ones you’d be best at, and focus on those.
Example: David wasn’t sure what to do with his life. He seriously considered pursuing a PhD in international relations, but decided against it. He worked in finance, started and sold a business, then worked for Founder’s Forum for Good, a network of entrepreneurs who want to further social change. Eventually, he hit on the idea of getting startup entrepreneurs to pledge some of their shares to charity. The network of entrepreneurs and credibility he had developed gave him access to the right people. The sales skills he had learned enabled him to convince his connections. In under a year, he has raised $70 million of legally binding pledges, and with our help is advising the entrepreneurs on the most effective places to donate.
“Overall, 80,000 Hours has been instrumental. It will increase my lifetime impact many times over.”
2. Pursue certain graduate studies
If you want to work in academic research, a think tank or law, then you’ll probably have to go to graduate school. But if you’re not confident about pursuing one of these areas, can it be worth pursuing graduate study for general career capital?
Our preliminary answer is yes, but only if it’s a program that gives you good backup options in case academia doesn’t work out. If you’re interested graduate study, click below for more information.
Weigh up graduate study options in terms of:
- Personal fit – will you be good at the subject? If you’re good at the area, it’s more likely you’ll be able to pursue work in that area later on, you’ll enjoy it more, you’ll get better grades, and you’ll do the work more quickly.
- Flexibility of the program – does it open up lots of options, both inside and outside academia? If you’re uncertain about academia, be careful about programs that mainly help you with academic careers (e.g. philosophy PhD, literature PhD). If you do a maths PhD you can transfer into economics, physics, biology, computer science and so on, but the reverse is not true. Also, some graduate programs give you better odds of landing academic positions (e.g. 90%+ economists can get research positions, whereas only about 50% of biology PhDs do).
- Relevance to your long-term plans – does it take you towards the options you’re most interested in? Lots of people are tempted to do graduate study even when it doesn’t particularly help with their longer term plans (e.g. entrepreneurs are tempted to do MBAs when you don’t need one; lots of people are tempted to do a random Master’s degree when they’re not sure what to do; some people consider doing a law degree when they’re not sure they want to be a lawyer).
Putting personal fit aside, the most attractive grad program might be an economics PhD – see why in our full career review.
Some other graduate subjects we especially recommend considering:
- Computer science
- Applied math (and anything that involves a lot of applied math)
- We suspect there are more – like certain business degrees – but we haven’t investigated them yet.
But don’t take a graduate program that you’ll hate. Rather, look for an option that has a good combination of flexibility, relevance and personal fit.
Example: Dillon couldn’t imagine studying anything except philosophy. Then he found out about the research that shows that our interests can easily change. Convinced, he decided to try out economics and computer science as minor courses, because he thought these would open up more options than philosophy. He liked them more than he expected, and now intends to do a PhD in Economics.
“If you want to make the world a better place, 80,000 Hours provides invaluable advice.”
3. Develop a valuable transferable skill that will be useful in the future
Any option that gives you a provable, useful, transferable skill can be a good move. Some further concrete options that fall into this category include:
We know lots of examples of people who started with no technology background, and within six months ended up with highly paid programming jobs they enjoy far more than their old jobs. Programming is also a growing, in-demand skill that can be used in many areas. Bootcamps are intensive, 3 month programs that aim to get you a job as soon as possible. They often have over 90% placement rates, and some are free unless you get a job. Read our interview with one of the top US bootcamps, and this interview with a free bootcamp in London. Alternatively, you could teach yourself through many of the great free online courses, such as the Odin Project. For more about this skill, see our review of software engineering.
Data science is a cross between statistics and programming. The bootcamps are a similar deal to programming, although they tend to mainly recruit science PhDs. If you’ve just done a science PhD and don’t want to continue with academia, this is a good option to consider. For more, see our full review of data science. Similarly you can learn data analysis, statistics and modeling by taking the right graduate program, as discussed above.
Learning to market toilet paper doesn’t seem like the most socially motivated option. But almost all types of organization need marketing, and demand for the skill is growing. You can learn the skill set, then transfer into an organization with a social mission. Failing that, the skill has high market value, so you could earn to give instead.
These skills can be learned by taking an entry level position at a top firm or working under a good mentor in a business. We’d especially recommend focusing on the more technology-driven marketing that’s sometimes called “growth hacking.” Some good books include SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham, and Influence by Robert Cialdini. Read more in our career review of marketing.
Example: Rather than entering law or working at a charity after graduation, Peter chose to learn computer programming and becoming a data scientist at a startup, because this allowed him to gain better career capital. Read more in his full story:
“I relied heavily on research done by 80,000 Hours to inform my decision.”
4. Do what contributes
A common mistake at this point is to think that building career capital always means doing something that gives you formal credentials, like a law degree, or doing something prestigious, like consulting.
It’s easy to focus on “hard” traits, like having a brand-name employer, because they’re concrete, but the “soft” aspects of career capital – your skills, achievements, connections and reputation – are equally important, if not more so. The very best career capital comes from impressive achievements.
This is why starting your own organization can sometimes be the best path for career capital. Although when Zuckerberg started Facebook, it was unknown and he had no training, his impressive achievements have given him better career capital than almost everyone. Even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot. So if you’re really motivated by a startup project you think is important, then seriously consider it as a route to career capital.
But you don’t need to become an entrepreneur. You can build these “soft” aspects of career capital in almost any job if you perform well. Doing great work builds your reputation, and that allows you to make connections with other high achievers. If you push yourself to do great work, then you’ll probably learn more too.
There are plenty of cases where someone has turned success in one field into success in another by using the reputation and connections they gained. For instance, Sheryl Sandberg started in consulting, then worked in the Treasury, and is now COO at Facebook.
This means it’s worth considering any area where you have good fit, even if it doesn’t seem like a good option for career capital in general, like Arnie and bodybuilding. We’ll cover how to assess personal fit in the next article.
Moreover, sometimes the best way to build career capital is just to do what’s important for the world and learn as you go. Projects that help others are more motivating, you’ll meet other people with similar aims, and you’ll learn the skills that are most needed for social impact.
So sometimes it is best to go and work at that non-profit. The key is how much you’ll learn, who you’ll meet and what you’ll achieve.
The best example of this we know might be Niel Bowerman. He really cared about climate advocacy while at university. This motivated him to improve his skills, his motivation brought him in contact with great people, and that led to impressive achievements, such as founding a think tank. Today, however, he works on other risks to the future, like pandemics rather than climate change. He was able to transfer his success into another area.
“I watched 80,000 Hours' videos online, staying up well past my bed time, and it was one of the most formative evenings of my life.”
As we saw in our article on dream jobs getting good at something that helps others – doing what contributes – is the best path to a satisfying career. It can also be a good path to building career capital too.
How can you get flexible career capital in any job?
Your career capital depends a huge amount on what you do within the job, as well as which job you have.
In particular, we find many high achievers neglect to take care of themselves. Day-to-day sleep, diet, exercise, mental health and supportive friendships – “the basics” – make a huge difference to your happiness and productivity. So if there’s anything you can do to improve these areas, it’s usually worth it. Here are some ideas to get started.
The basics, however, are just a starting point. Any job can be an opportunity to work on building connections and learning useful skills. In particular, focus first on the most widely applicable skills. There are lots of habits that can make you more productive no matter what you’re doing, which is the ultimate in flexibility. It’s simple things like writing down your top priority for the next day every evening, then doing it first thing. Check out the book Deep Work by Cal Newport for more.
Modern research shows that it’s possible to learn new skills much faster than you did at school. See the most viewed MOOC of all time. Learning how to learn is one of the most flexible skills, because it’ll help you succeed however the world changes.
For more tips, we made a list of nine ways to build career capital in any job, which you can work through in order.
You may not be sure how best to contribute today, and you may suspect that you have few valuable skills, but that’s fine.
Although we like stories of those who achieved apparently instant fame and early success, like the Forbes 30 under 30, it’s not the norm. Behind most great achievements are many years spent diligently building expertise.
We’ve seen people transform their careers by doing things like learning to program, finding the right boss, moving to a city where they can build good connections, and getting the right PhD.
If you focus on building valuable, flexible career capital, then you’ll be able to have a more impactful, satisfying career too.
Apply this to your own career
- Go over all the four paths to career capital and ways to gain career capital in any job, and note down three new ways you could gain career capital.
What’s the most valuable career capital you already have? Review each of the categories: skills, connections, credentials, character, runway. You can break skills into (i) transferable skills, (ii) knowledge, and (iii) personality traits. If you’re stuck, list out the five achievements you’re most proud of, and ask what they have in common. Identifying your most valuable career capital can give you clues about what you’ll be best at, and help you to convince employers to hire you.
Take our career quiz. Select “early career” and it’ll mainly rank options by their potential for career capital.
- To read more, check out So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport (where we learned the term “career capital”).
We’ve now explored which options to aim for long-term (end of part 2c), and in this article, how to work towards them. In the next article, we’ll explain how to narrow down your options.