Part 2c: Why the ideas you’ve heard for doing good with your career aren’t the best

Superman was an idiot to fight crime

Why Superman was wrong to fight crime – comic from SMBC.

Many people think of Superman as a hero. But he may be the greatest example of underutilized talent in all of fiction. It was a huge blunder to spend his life fighting crime one case at a time; if he’d thought a little more creatively, he could have done far more good. How about delivering vaccines to everyone in the world at superspeed? That would have eradicated most infectious disease, saving hundreds of millions of lives.

Here we’ll argue that a lot of people who want to “make a difference” with their career fall into the same trap as Superman. Idealistic college graduates imagine becoming doctors or teachers – careers that help people directly. But these may not be the best fit for their particular skills. And like Superman fighting crime, these paths can often only help a limited number of people at once. Nobel Prize winner Karl Landsteiner discovered blood groups, enabling hundreds of millions of life saving operations. Had he just focused on being a good surgeon, he would have performed a few thousand surgeries at most.

At the same time, many graduates feel unfulfilled in their careers because they don’t have a job that directly helps people. But there’s no need for this – by being more open-minded and creative about how to do good, more people can find a career that both uses their unique skills and helps others.

Below we’ll introduce four ways to use your career to help tackle the social problems you want to help solve (which we identified in the previous article). The four ways are earning to give, advocacy, and research, as well as direct work. We’ll make concrete recommendations on how to pursue each path, drawing on five years of research, and we’ll help you to decide which is most effective for you.

If you think broadly and focus on the most effective approaches, you can find a career that’s both enjoyable and has a far greater positive impact on the world.

Watch this video or read the full article (15 minutes).

The bottom line

  • Once you’ve chosen a problem, as we covered in part 2b, the next step is to work out how best to contribute to solving it.
  • Consider indirect approaches such as research, advocacy and earning to give, as well as direct work. You might be able to find a path that offers more influence, or that’s a better fit for you.
  • Then focus on the approaches that are most needed in your problem area. Some problems are best solved through changing policy. Others most need research, while others require funding, and so on.
  • Finally, because the most successful people in a field achieve far more than the typical person, choose something where you have the potential to excel.

Approach 1: Earning to give

Would Bill Gates have done more good if he’d worked at a small non-profit? We don’t normally think of software engineering as a path to doing good, but Gates has saved the lives of millions of children by funding vaccines. That’s a huge amount of good, even if you’re not keen on Microsoft.

We often meet people who are interested in a higher earning job, like software engineering, but are worried they won’t make a difference. Part of the reason is that we don’t usually think of earning more money as a path for people who want to do good. However, there are many effective organizations that have no problem finding enthusiastic staff, but don’t have the funds to hire. People who are a good fit for a higher earning option can donate to these organizations, and make a large contribution indirectly.

And earning to give is not just for people who want to work in high paying industries. Anyone who aims to earn more in order to give more is on this path.

Julia and Jeff live in Boston and have two kids. Julia switched from non-profit admin work to social work at a prison. Jeff used to work as research technician. He decided to train up to become a software engineer, and eventually got a job at Google. The couple were able to earn more than twice as much, so started to donate about half their income to charity each year.

Jeff and Julia have tried to find the best way to make a difference

Quartz: Jeff and Julia have tried to find the best way to make a difference

By doing this, they probably have had more impact than they could by working directly in a non-profit. Compare Jeff’s impact to that of the CEO of a non-profit:

 Google software engineerNon-profit CEO
Salary$250,000$65,000
Donations$125,000$0
Money to live on$125,000$65,000
Direct impact
of work
PositiveVery positive

Jeff can live on about two times as much as he would have earned in the non-profit sector, and still donate enough to fund the salaries of about two non-profit CEOs.7 On top of this, he may also have some positive direct impact too, since Google has developed valuable innovations like Google Maps and Gmail; and he thinks he’s happier in his work because he enjoys engineering.

Moreover, Jeff and Julia can switch their donations to whichever organizations are most in need of funds at any given time based on their research, whereas it’s harder to change where you work. This flexibility is particularly valuable because we don’t know which problems will be most pressing in the future.

This opportunity exists because we happen to live in a world with huge income inequality – it’s possible to earn several times as much as a teacher or non-profit worker, and vastly more than the world’s poorest people. At the same time, earning to give is neglected. Hardly anyone donates more than a few percent of their income,1 so if you are willing to do so, you can have an amazing impact in a very wide range of jobs.

In part 2a of our guide we saw that any college graduate in a developed country can have a major impact by giving 10% to an effective charity. The average graduate earns $68,000 per year over their life, and 10% of that could save almost 100 lives if given to the Against Malaria Foundation.

If you could just earn 10% more, and donate the extra, then that’s twice as much impact again. And if you think there are better organizations to fund than Against Malaria Foundation – perhaps working on different problems, or research or advocacy – the impact is even higher.

Since we introduced the concept of “earning to give” in 2011, hundreds of people have taken it up and stuck with it. Most give around 30% of their income, and some more than 50%. Collectively, they’ll donate tens of millions of dollars to high impact charities in the coming years. In doing so, they are funding passionate people who want to contribute directly, but who otherwise wouldn’t have the resources.

One of the people we advised in 2011 has donated over $1m while still in his 20s, and was featured in the New York Times. He finds his job more enjoyable too. Another quit his job as a software engineer and founded a startup. He has pledged all of his income above minimum wage to charity. If his startup’s current valuation is accurate, then he’ll give millions of dollars to charity in the next decade. His startup also reduces paperwork for doctors, and so it has direct impact too.

“Without 80,000 Hours' research, I wouldn't have started this company; and without their community, I wouldn't have made it this far.”

Read Ben's story

Ben portrait photo

Should you earn to give?

Earning to give has been our most memorable and controversial idea, attracting media coverage in the BBC, Washington Post, Daily Mail and many others.

For this reason, many people think it’s our top recommendation. But it’s not: it depends on your situation.

We think earning to give is an option worth considering when:

  • You’re a good fit for a higher earning option. Don’t become a consultant if you’d hate it – you’ll be more likely to burn out and put your career in a worse long-term position, and you won’t earn that much anyway. Even if you only care about your impact, it’s important to be good at your job.
  • You want to gain skills in a higher earning option (for use in more direct work later on), and earning to give could help you to stay engaged with social impact while you do so. (In the next article we explain why it’s important to gain “career capital”.)
  • You’re very uncertain about which problems are most pressing. Earning to give provides maximum flexibility because you can easily change where you donate, or even save the money and give later.

Common objections to earning to give

Can people actually stick with it? Won’t they end up being influenced by their peers to spend the money on luxuries rather than donating? We were worried this would happen when we first introduced the idea, but it hasn’t. Hundreds of people are pursuing earning to give and while some have left because they thought they could do more good elsewhere, no-one we know has simply given up their plans to donate. In part, this is because many people pursuing earning to give made public pledges of their intentions to donate, often through Giving What We Can. The existence of a community that earns to give also makes it much easier to stick with today.

Don’t many high earning jobs cause harm? We don’t recommend taking a job that does a lot of harm in order to donate the money. Here are 10 jobs we recommend avoiding. In practice, most people who earn to give work in the fields of technology, asset management, medicine or consulting, and we think these positions do a small amount of good, or are neutral. For instance, many (but not all) financial traders make profits at the expense of other traders, so they’re moving money around, mostly from rich people to other rich people. Of course, there are some people who cause harm in these industries, but that’s true of any industry.

More broadly, there are lots of ways to earn more money, and we doubt all of these are harmful. What about medicine, engineering or private tutoring? There’s also the option to make the industry better from the inside. If you’re socially motivated and you replace someone who doesn’t care about the harm they do, that may well be better for the world.

What if I wouldn’t be motivated doing a high earning job? In that case, don’t do one. We only recommend earning to give if it’s a good fit. Just bear in mind, as we covered in part 1, that you can become interested in more jobs than you might think.

Couldn’t I have more impact doing something else? There’s a good chance that you could, as we cover later in the article.

(To go into the ethics of earning to give in more depth, see this paper we published.)

What’s the best way to earn to give?

Here’s a list of some of the best options we’ve found so far. Might any be a good fit for you? Skip this section if not interested in earning to give.

These two paths are among the highest earning and build your skills, although they are very competitive.

Some other promising options taken by plenty of people we’ve advised include:

In all of these, you could earn far more than the average for a college graduate, while also putting your career in a better position for the future.

Law, investment banking and medicine are other obvious high earning options, but we think they’re a bit worse than the ones above based on their weaker combination of flexibility, growth of the area and direct impact.

We also think the following have promise and are a little easier to enter:

If you don’t have a college degree, programming or sales can be good options. Some trades are also highly paid. For instance, the top 10% of plumbers earn over $89,000 per year,2 more than what the average college graduate earns.

There are many paths we haven’t reviewed yet. Someone can earn to give in any career so long as they’re earning more than they would have otherwise in order to donate more. Remember the example of Julia working as a social worker.

Look out for matching schemes

Some companies match charitable donations 1:1, or even more. By choosing an employer that does this, you may be able to double your donations with no effort. Here’s how to find which companies have matching schemes.

Which charities are most effective?

Many social interventions have no proven impact (as we saw in the previous article in the guide), and many other charities are poorly run and non-transparent. So if you give to the wrong organization, you won’t achieve much.

On the other hand, so long as there’s at least one highly effective organization to fund, then earning to give can be high impact. You don’t even need to limit yourself to funding charities – you could fund research, political advocacy or for-good for-profits instead.

When working out where to donate, a good starting point is GiveWell’s top recommended charities. GiveWell is the leading non-profit evaluator in the US and does a huge amount of research to find highly effective organizations. They currently recommended Against Malaria Foundation, which we mentioned earlier.

If you’re giving a large amount of money, or don’t want to focus on international development, then it can be worth doing your own research. Choose which problem areas you want to focus on, then find the best organizations within those areas, and give to those that have the greatest need for more funding.

For more, check out:

Should you give now or later?

Is it more effective to invest money now (or pay down debt), so you can give more in the future, or to start giving right away? We explain here.

Bill Gates has had a huge humanitarian impact through philanthropy, which we think more than makes up for the blue screen of death.

Bill Gates has had a huge humanitarian impact through philanthropy, saving the lives of more children than the population of Scotland, which we think more than makes up for the blue screen of death.

Approach 2: Advocacy

Even though you can have a large impact in many jobs through earning to give, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most effective path. One alternative is advocacy – the promotion of solutions to pressing problems. Advocacy can also be pursued in a wide range of careers, and can be even higher impact than earning to give.

Consider the following options:

  1. Earn to give yourself.
  2. Earn to give yourself, and persuade a friend to earn to give as well.

The second path does more good – in fact probably about twice as much – and this illustrates the power of advocacy.

Many of the highest impact people in history have been advocates of one kind or another. You may not have heard of him, but Viktor Zhdanov is one of the highest impact people of the twentieth century.

Viktor Zhdanov

Viktor Zhdanov lobbied the WHO to start the smallpox eradication campaign, bringing eradication forward by many years.

In the twentieth century, smallpox killed around 400 million people, far more than died in all wars and political famines. Credit for the elimination often goes to D.A. Henderson, who was in charge of the World Health Organization’s elimination program. However, the program already existed before he was brought on board. In fact, he initially turned down the job. The program would probably have eventually succeeded even if Henderson hadn’t accepted the position.

Zhdanov single-handedly lobbied that WHO to start the elimination campaign in the first place. Without his involvement, it would not have happened until much later, and possibly not at all.

So why has advocacy been so effective in the past?

First, ideas can spread quickly, so advocacy is a way for a small group of people to have a large effect on a problem. A small team can launch a social movement, lobby a government, start a campaign that influences public opinion, or just persuade their friends to take up a cause. In each case, they can have a lasting impact on the problem that goes far beyond what they could achieve directly.

Second, advocacy is neglected. This is because there’s usually no commercial incentive to spread socially important ideas. Instead, advocacy is mainly pursued by people willing to dedicate their careers to making the world a better place, a relatively small fraction of the population.

Advocacy is also neglected because it’s uncomfortable to stand up to the status quo, and it’s often difficult to see the effect of your efforts, which makes it less motivating than doing good directly. Zhdanov was more important to the elimination effort than Henderson, but Henderson got the credit. For these reasons, advocacy can be a high impact path for those who are willing to step up.

In fact, people can usually have a greater impact through advocacy than earning to give. One reason for this is that everyone wants more money so there’s a lot of competition, which places a limit on how much you can easily earn. There’s a lot less competition to spread good ideas, for the reasons we just discussed.

Advocacy is also an area where the most successful do far more than the typical person. The most successful advocates influence millions of people, while others might struggle to persuade more than a few friends. This means if you’re a good fit for advocacy, it’s often the best thing you can do, and you’re likely to achieve far more by doing it yourself than you could by funding someone to engage in advocacy on your behalf.

Rosa Parks.

Many of the highest impact people in history were advocates of some kind, and you can become an advocate in any job. Rosa Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress before making a stand for civil rights.

What’s the best way to become an advocate?

As with giving money, you can advocate for solutions to pressing problems in any job. Go over the problems you think are most pressing and then look for small behaviours or ideas you could promote that would make a difference if they spread, like voting in an election, giving to a certain charity, or taking a certain career path (don’t just raise “awarah-ness”). Often it’s best to lead by example, helping to set expectations, rather than being pushy.

Taking a stable job and doing advocacy part time can be effective because you don’t need to worry about funding your advocacy, which helps you to stay independent and take bigger risks. You’ll also be seen as more impartial.

Dillon’s story: While studying Economics, Dillon set up a local group at Tufts University promoting 80,000 Hours, causing a whole group of students to think about how to have a greater impact with their careers. (Yes, we think improving impact-based career advice is one of the most pressing problems — we’d be hypocrites to work on it otherwise!)

“If you want to make the world a better place, 80,000 Hours provides invaluable advice.”

Read Dillon's story

Dillon portrait photo

You’ll be in a better position to advocate for pressing problems if you’re successful in your field, because you’ll be more credible and make more influential connections. So sometimes the best path for advocacy is just to enter the field where you have the greatest chances of success. We discuss how to do this in an upcoming article.

But what about if you want to focus more directly on advocacy? Here are some options that are promising if you’re a good fit, placed roughly in order of influence. Could any be a good fit for you? Skip this section if you’re not interested in advocacy.

Did Bono make a difference?

Ultimately, Bono might have made up for the negative impact of his singing voice by becoming a major advocate for the global poor.

1. Political positions

Like it or not, politicians have a huge influence. At the same time, relatively few people try to become or advise politicians, which means each person involved potentially has a large influence. So, we need the most able and altruistic people possible in these positions.

For these reasons, if party politics is a serious option for you, and you’re a good fit, then it’s likely to be the highest impact path. You can read more in our research on party politics. Also bear in mind that, if you don’t want to be on the front lines yourself, there are plenty of advisory positions that also seem highly influential, such as being a staffer or researcher.

There are also other promising policy and government positions that offer influence and political networks:

  • Think tank positions, which are a decent general purpose move into policy.
  • Civil service, especially if you can get into more prestigious positions (e.g. the Fast Stream in the UK), or positions especially relevant to the problems you think are most pressing (e.g. International development or the Defence department if you’re focused on biosecurity).
  • Lobbyists (we haven’t reviewed this path yet).

Owen’s story: Owen was doing research in pure math, which he thought would have little impact. Instead he transferred into global priorities research. He became the first employee of the Global Priorities Project, which advises policymakers about which global problems are most pressing, and which has already advised high levels of the UK government.

“80,000 Hours is unique in seriously thinking through the effects of your career on the world.”

Read Owen's story

Owen portrait photo

2. Positions with a public platform

Some jobs let you reach a large number of people, such as:

  1. Journalism. A typical article at a major media company has 10,000 – 100,000 views, so there’s a lot of scope to reach people with new ideas. Vox.com regularly writes about Game of Thrones to drive traffic, but they also write articles about effective philanthropy. Last year, they were responsible for almost 10,000 views to GiveWell’s site, already bringing them 200 new donors who have collectively donated over $100,000.3 Journalists can also build a large network.

  2. Public intellectual. If you can get an academic position, then you could focus it on advocacy rather than research. Due to the status given to academics at top universities, it’s relatively easy to build a following and get media attention. We have an upcoming career review on this path.

Pursuing fame in arts and entertainment is another option, but we don’t usually recommend it because the odds of success are extremely low. However, we expect there are other positions in the media that are promising, such as working in TV producing news, documentaries and comedy that draw attention to important issues.

3. Managers and grant makers at influential organizations

Some jobs give you a say over large budgets. These jobs are often unglamorous and not widely known compared to their influence.

One path we’ve reviewed is being a grant maker in a large charitable foundation. Program officers usually oversee budgets of about $10 million per year. If you could introduce new ways to spend this money slightly more effectively, it could easily have a greater impact than earning to give or working directly.

We think these paths might also fall into this category, but we haven’t reviewed them in-depth yet:

4. Professional positions that let you meet lots of influential people

We’ve reviewed:

These positions can make it easier to do advocacy on the side, though it’s not the main reason to take them.

Law and top medical positions also fit in this category, but are less flexible than consulting. Similarly, there are professional services and executive search, which are less competitive but also less prestigious than consulting.

There are probably more good paths in this category which we haven’t reviewed yet, like being a philanthropic adviser or a teacher of talented students.

Approach 3: Research

People often pan academics as Ivory Tower intellectuals whose writing has no impact. And we agree there are many problems with academia that mean researchers achieve less than they could. However, we still think research is often high impact, both within academia and outside.

Along with advocates, many of the highest impact people in history have been researchers. Consider Alan Turing. He was a mathematician who developed code breaking machines that allowed the Allies to be far more effective against Nazi U-boats in WW2. Some historians estimate this enabled D-day to happen a year earlier than it would have otherwise.4 Since WW2 resulted in 10 million deaths per year, Turing may have saved about 10 million lives.

And he invented the computer.

Alan Turing aged 16

Turing was instrumental in developing the computer. Sadly he was prosecuted for being a homosexual, perhaps contributing to his suicide in 1954.

We saw lots of examples of high impact medical research in part 2a of this guide.

Turing’s example also shows that research can be theoretical but high impact. Much of his work concerned the abstract mathematics of computing, which wasn’t initially practically relevant, but became important over time.

Of course, not everyone will be an Alan Turing, and not every discovery gets adopted. Nevertheless, we think research on average is effective, and frequently better than working directly on a problem. Why?

First, when new ideas are discovered they can be spread incredibly cheaply, so it’s a way that a single career can change a field. Moreover, new ideas accumulate over time, so research contributes to a significant fraction of long-run progress.

However, only a relatively small fraction of people are engaged in research. Only 0.1% of the population are academics,5 and the proportion was much smaller throughout history. If a small number of people account for a large fraction of progress, then on average each person’s efforts are significant.

Second, this is exactly what we’d expect from economic theory. Most researchers don’t get rich, even if their discoveries are extremely valuable. Turing made no money from the discovery of the computer, whereas today it’s a multibillion dollar industry. This is because the benefits of research come a long time in the future, and can’t usually be protected by patents. This means there’s little commercial incentive to do research relative to its importance. So if you do care more about social impact than profit, then it represents a serious opportunity.

Moreover, the more fundamental the research, the harder it is to commercialize, so it’s likely that undertaking fundamental research is often higher impact than undertaking research with immediate practical relevance.

Like advocacy, research is especially promising when you’re a good fit, because the best researchers achieve much more than the median. Most papers only have 1 citation, whereas the top 0.1% of papers have over 1,000 citations. And when we did a case study on biomedical research, remarks like this were typical:

“One good person can cover the ground of five, and I’m not exaggerating.”

If you might be a good researcher in a pressing problem area, then it’s likely to be the highest impact path for you.

Remember Dr Nalin, who helped to invent oral rehydration therapy?

As we saw, Dr. Nalin helped to save millions of lives with a simple innovation: giving patients with diarrhea water mixed with salt and sugar.

How can you have the most impact in research?

If you’re interested in pursuing research, learn more here:

How to go into research

Hauke’s Story: Hauke became unsatisfied with his potential for impact in academia during a neuroscience PhD. He applied to almost all our top recommended career paths, and was offered a position by Giving What We Can. He now leads their efforts to research the cost-effectiveness of different charities.

“Seriously, keep reading this career guide. It's damn, damn good.”

Read Hauke's story

Hauke portrait photo

Don’t forget supporting positions

Becoming an academic administrator doesn’t sound like a high impact career, but that’s exactly why it is. Research requires administrators, managers, grant makers, and communicators to make progress. Many of these roles require very able people who understand the research, but because they’re not glamorous or highly paid, it can be hard to attract the right people. For this reason, if a role like this is a good fit for you, then it can be promising. What ultimately matters is not who does the research, but that it gets done.

A hero of ours is Sean O’hEigeartaigh. He studied for a PhD in comparative genomics, but ultimately decided to pursue academic project management. He became manager at the Future of Humanity Institute, which undertakes neglected research into emerging catastrophic risks, like engineered pandemics. He did a heroic amount of work behind the scenes to keep things running as funding rapidly grew. When there was an opportunity to start a new group in Cambridge, he used what he’d learned to lead efforts there too – at one point managing both groups. The field would have moved much more slowly without his management. Learn more in this interview with Sean.

If you’re interested in these positions, the best path is usually to pursue a PhD, pick a field, then apply to research groups.

Approach 4: Direct work

If you do want to help directly, how can you do that most effectively?

The problem with many direct work positions is that they’re not neglected. For instance, in part 2a of this guide, we saw that doctors in rich countries don’t usually have a large impact because there are already many doctors in these countries, so the most important and impactful procedures are going to get done anyway. It’s more effective to focus on an approach that’s more neglected.

Another problem is that many want to work at organizations that are more constrained by funding than by the number of people enthusiastic to work there. This means if you don’t take the job, it would be easy to find someone else who’s almost as good. Think of a lawyer who volunteers at a soup kitchen. It may be motivating for them, but it’s hardly the most effective thing they could do. Donating one or two hours of salary could pay for several better trained people to do the work instead. Or they could do pro bono legal work, and contribute in a way that makes use of their valuable skills.

Other direct work positions limit your potential influence. Think of Superman fighting criminals one by one. Or think of Dr Landsteiner trying to work really hard to perform more surgeries rather than discovering blood groups.

Soup Kitchen

Don’t end up like a top lawyer working in a soup kitchen – it would be far more effective to donate a few hours worth of salary.

However, there are plenty of other situations when working directly is the most effective thing to do. There are many teams working on innovative, neglected solutions to pressing problems. If you’re a good fit for one of these, and they’re finding it hard to hire (“talent constrained”), then it can be the best option. We list some organizations below.

If an effective organization doesn’t exist, then you could help found one. If you make sure an effective organization exists that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, then that has a huge impact.

However, you don’t need to be the leader of an organization. As with research management, operations roles are both vital and difficult, but because these positions are unglamorous, it’s often hard to attract the right people.

Direct work can be for-profit as well as non-profit. For instance, Send Wave enables African migrant workers to transfer money to their families through a mobile app for fees of 3%, rather than 10% fees with Western Union. So for every $1 of revenue they make, they make some of the poorest people in the world several dollars richer. They’ve already had an impact equivalent to donating millions of dollars, and they’re growing fast. The total size of the market is hundreds of billions of dollars, and larger than all aid spending.

Lincoln Quirk is making a difference through for-profit entrepreneurship

Lincoln founded a for-profit company whose product benefits the world’s poorest people.

If you’re providing a service directly to beneficiaries, a for-profit is likely to be more effective because you get better feedback on whether your service is useful, and you can scale up more quickly. (We’ll be collecting more advice on doing good in for-profits in our tech entrepreneurship review.) Non-profits are best when they’re doing something that’s very hard to commercialize, such as research, advocacy, helping the extreme poor, and the provision of public goods like a clean environment, or services like education that take a long-time to pay off.

However, sometimes it’s even possible to use for-profits to do socially important research and provide public goods. Elon Musk used Tesla to develop better battery technology to fight climate change, and SpaceX to develop cheaper rockets, which will speed up the colonization of space, and make humanity more likely to survive a disaster on Earth.

How can you find a good direct work position?

  1. Decide which problems you think are most pressing.
  2. Identify the best organizations within these areas, especially those that are especially limited by talent rather than funding. Our problem reviews include lists of organizations, and cover the biggest skill shortages in each area.
  3. Find the positions where you’d be the best fit.

Here are organizations we’d especially highlight based on our research so far. If you’re a good fit for any of these, they could be a great option.

You can use these approaches in any career, and more than one at a time

The four approaches explored above – earning to give, advocacy, research and direct work – are not exclusive, and you can do more than one at the same time. For instance, you could become a teacher and try to develop new educational techniques (research) or tell your students about pressing problems (advocacy). We know a teacher who did private tutoring in order to donate more (earning to give). As we’ve seen, often your impact is more about how you use your position than the position itself.

Get personalised recommendations for high impact career paths

We’ve assessed careers on direct impact, earnings and advocacy potential. Our career quiz takes the top recommended career paths and filters them with a couple of questions. If you select “late career”, it’ll filter paths by impact rather than skill building.

Take the career quiz

Which approach fits the problem?

We’ve now seen that by thinking broadly – considering earning to give, advocacy, and research as well as direct work – you can find many more ways to make a big difference with your career.

Hopefully that has given you some new ideas for jobs you could take. Now, how do we start to narrow these options down to find the most effective approaches?

The first thing is to note that there is no single best approach for every problem. Rather, focus on the approaches that are most needed by the problems you want to solve. For instance, breast cancer doesn’t need more social advocacy to promote awareness, because almost everyone is aware that breast cancer is a problem. Instead, it probably needs more skilled researchers to develop better treatments. If you just focus on raising awareness, then your efforts won’t go as far.

Here are some of the key considerations for choosing an approach that fits the problem:

Global Priotities Project: how to help the world flowchart
An excerpt from the Global Priorities Project’s “how to help the world” flow chart. Note that advocacy is split into “movement building” (getting more people to dedicated their career to promoting a cause) and “political or social activism” (aiming to change policy or public opinion).

In addition, you could choose to fund one of these methods rather than do it yourself. This depends on how much the organizations in the area struggle with fundraising compared to hiring, and also on how good you’d be at each path. (See more on how to compare funding gaps to talent gaps.)

Worked example: Global health.

  • OK with indirect methods? Yes
  • Is it a young movement? No.
  • Promising leads for new solutions? Maybe, so research into new health interventions could be promising. You could either do research yourself, fund it or support it as an administrator.
  • Legal or social solutions feasible? Maybe, so campaigning for greater aid spending, more donations, trade reforms, migration reform, and so on seems promising.
  • If legal or social solutions aren’t available then direct work will be more promising. For example founding new non-profit global-health organizations implementing existing evidence-backed interventions.

To help with your problem area, in each of our problem profiles, we assess the most pressing bottlenecks within each problem.

Do something where you have the chance to excel

Throughout this article, there is a vital general principle to bear in mind: the most successful people in a field have far more impact than the typical person in the field. This means the most effective approach for you will be one which is a good fit with your skills and motivation.

A landmark study of expert performers found:6

A small percentage of the workers in any given domain is responsible for the bulk of the work. Generally, the top 10% of the most prolific elite can be credited with around 50% of all contributions, whereas the bottom 50% of the least productive workers can claim only 15% of the total work, and the most productive contributor is usually about 100 times more prolific than the least.

So if you were to plot degree of success on a graph, it would look like this:

Log-normal distribution of careers by effectiveness

It’s the same shape as the graphs we saw in the previous two articles.

As we’ve seen, areas like research and advocacy are particularly extreme, but a major study still found that the best people in almost any field have significantly more output than the typical person. The more complex the domain, the more significant the effect, so it’s especially noticeable in professional jobs like management, sales, and medicine.

Now, some of these differences are just due to luck: even if everyone were an equally good fit, there could still be big differences in outcomes just because some people happen to get lucky while others don’t. However, some component is due to skill, and this means that you’ll probably have much more impact if you choose an area where you enjoy the work and have good personal fit.

Again, this means the normal “do gooding” career paths are often not best. There’s no point becoming a teacher or a doctor if you’d be terrible at it. On the other hand, you can have an impact in almost any field by becoming a top performer. Top performers make important innovations that drive forward progress. Moreover, success is almost any field can be turned into positive impact by using your position to advocate for important causes or donating the money you earn. Think back to Bill Gates who turned success in software into a humanitarian impact.

If you’re not sure what you’re good at, that’s no problem. Excelling at anything takes lots of practice, so you may just need more time to develop your skills. Second, it takes time to explore and work out where you have the best fit, as we’ll explain in the article after next.

(Advanced aside: if you’re working as part of a community, then your comparative advantage compared to other people in the community is also important. Read more.)

Conclusion: in which job can you help the most people?

There are many more paths to helping others in your career than we normally talk about. Bill Gates started as a software engineer, and saved millions of lives through earning to give. Rosa Parks was a seamstress, and helped to trigger the civil rights movement in America through advocacy. Alan Turing was a mathematician, and helped to end WW2 through research, as well as inventing the computer. Elon Musk is a businessman, but is helping to revolutionize the car and space industries to reduce risks to humanity’s future.

Most people aren’t Bill Gates, but even at a normal graduate salary, anyone can have an astonishing impact through earning to give, literally saving hundreds of lives. And it’s often possible to do even more through advocacy, research or direct work.

Moreover, if you focus on the approaches that are best suited to the problems you want to solve and where you have the best personal fit, you can do even more good again.

In this way, even if you don’t want to be a doctor or a teacher, it’s possible to do far more good with your career than is normally thought.

Three steps to a high impact career

We can now put together everything we’ve learned in our career guide so far to set out three steps to a high impact career:

  1. Work out which problems are most pressing – those that are big in scale, neglected and solvable – as we covered in part 2b.
  2. Choose the most effective approaches. Think broadly by considering research, advocacy and earning to give as well as direct work, and choose the best approach for the problem. That’s what we covered in this article.
  3. Within those approaches, find a position with excellent personal fit and job satisfaction – something where you have the chance to excel, the work is engaging, your colleagues are supportive, it meets your basic needs and it fits with the rest of your life. Otherwise you’ll burn out and have much less impact. We’ll explain how to work out where you have the best personal fit in part 4.

If you do this, you’ll be doing what contributes, and have all the ingredients of a personally fulfilling career too. In this way, there’s less trade-off between doing what’s best for the world and doing what’s best for you than there first seems.

Apply this to your own career

Before we move on, let’s make an initial short list of high impact careers you could work towards in the long-run.

  1. What 2-5 problems do you think are most pressing?
  2. Which of earning to give, advocacy, research and direct work are most needed, and what specific positions could you take within each?
  3. From those, what’s your initial guess at where you’d have the best chance of excelling? Aim to narrow down to a list of 5-15 options.

We’ll explain how to further narrow down in an upcoming article.

How can I put myself in a position to get these high impact jobs?

You probably can’t just walk into your dream job right away. Instead you’ll need to build your skills, connections and credentials – what we call career capital – and put yourself in a better position for the long-term. Especially early on in your career, it’s best to focus on both impact and career capital.

Read on to find out how to best position yourself for long-term success.

Part 3:Which jobs put you in the best position for the future?

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Notes and references

  1. “...those with income between $100,000 and $200,000 contribute, on average, 2.6 percent of their income, which is lower compared to those with income either below $100,000 (3.6 percent) or above $200,000 (3.1 percent)”
    Charitable Giving in America: Some Facts and Figures. Rates of charitable giving in the US are among the highest in the world.
  2. The median annual wage for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters was $50,620 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,680, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $89,720.
    BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, Archived link, retrieved 13-June-2016.
  3. GiveWell Metrics Report 2015
  4. This BBC article quotes a number of historians (archived link, retrieved 13-June-2016), concluding:
    If Turing and his group had not weakened the U-boats' hold on the North Atlantic, the 1944 Allied invasion of Europe - the D-Day landings - could have been delayed, perhaps by about a year or even longer, since the North Atlantic was the route that ammunition, fuel, food and troops had to travel in order to reach Britain from America.
  5. The number of academics and graduate students in the world
  6. Simonton, Dean K. "Age and outstanding achievement: What do we know after a century of research?." Psychological bulletin 104.2 (1988): 251. Pdf
  7. The 2012 Watkins Uiberal Report found that (LINK): The median salary for executive directors/CEOs is between $50,000 and $75,000. CEO salaries correlate with organizational budget size. For small organizations, the median salary is between $30,000 and $50,000. Among medium-sized organizations, 36% of CEOs have salaries between $50,000 and $75,000, while 50.5% earn more than $75,000 and 13.5% earn less than $50,000. Among large organizations, 14.2% pay salaries of $100,000 or less; 38.1% pay between $101,000 and $150,000; and 47.7% pay more than $150,000. Note that this is significantly lower than the median figures reported by the prominent Charity Navigator Annual Survey. This is because Charity Navigator focuses on “mid to large” US charities, which pay substantially higher salaries.