Part 6: 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 underutilised talent in all of fiction. It was a 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. 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.

In contrast, Nobel Prize winner Karl Landsteiner discovered blood groups, enabling hundreds of millions of life-saving operations. He would have never been able to carry out that many surgeries himself.

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. It can be fulfilling to help indirectly as well, so 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 work on (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 approach.

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

The bottom line

  • Once you’ve chosen a problem, as we covered in the previous article, 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. Don’t do something you won’t enjoy in order to have more impact.
  • Ultimately, look for the best option on a combination of (i) how pressing the problem is (ii) how large your contribution will be (iii) your degree of personal fit.

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.

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.

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 organisations 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 organisations, and make a large contribution indirectly.

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.

Consider the story of Julia and Jeff, a couple from Boston with two children. 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 organisations 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 (as we saw earlier) 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, 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.

Earlier, we also 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 for example.

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 organisations 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, Matt, 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 other outlets.

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 the most 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. For example, 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 is 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 previously, 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?

To learn about how to best earn to give – including recommendations of which jobs to take – see this article:

How to earn to give

Which charities are most effective?

As we’ve seen, many social interventions have no proven impact, and many other charities are poorly run black boxes. So if you give to the wrong organisation, you won’t achieve much.

On the other hand, so long as there’s at least one highly effective organisation 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.

We’ve already covered GiveWell’s top recommended charity, Against Malaria Foundation, as an example of an effective organisation. Learn more about which charities are most effective to donate to.

Approach 2: Advocacy

One alternative to earning to give 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. Take Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, sparking a protest which led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Parks was a seamstress in her day job, but in her spare time she was very involved with the civil rights movement. After she was arrested, she and the NAACP worked hard and worked strategically, staying up all night creating thousands of fliers to launch a total boycott of buses in a city of 40,000 African Americans, whilst simultaneously pushing forward with legal action. This led to major progress for civil rights.

There are also many examples you don’t hear about, like Viktor Zhdanov, who was 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 programme. However, the programme already existed before he was brought on board. In fact, he initially turned down the job. The programme 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.

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, there’s reason to think that advocacy is typically better 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 (and subsequently donate). There’s a lot less competition to spread good ideas, for the reasons we just discussed. So we expect that it would be possible for many people to influence more money than they could donate.

Advocacy is also an area where the most successful efforts do far more than the typical efforts in the field. 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.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in advocacy – including recommendations of specific types of jobs – see our full article:

How to become an advocate

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.

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

On the applied side, we saw lots of examples of high impact medical research earlier in this guide.

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’s a good opportunity.

In fact, the more fundamental the research, the harder it is to commercialise, so, all else equal, we’d expect fundamental research to be more neglected than applied research, and therefore (all else equal) higher impact. On the other hand, applied issues can be more urgent – applied breakthroughs like the telescope can let us make fundamental breakthroughs faster – so it’s hard to say whether applied or fundamental research is more pressing on average.

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 top 10% 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 earlier, Dr. Nalin helped to save millions of lives with a simple innovation: giving patients with diarrhoea water mixed with salt and sugar.

Which research areas are high impact?

See our full guide to doing high-impact research, both within and outside academia:

How to go into research

Example: 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 Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh. He studied for a PhD in comparative genomics, but ultimately decided to pursue academic project management. He became a 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 earlier in the guide we saw that clinical 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. We also saw that neglected areas are higher-impact due to diminishing returns.

Another problem is that many want to work at organisations 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 Dr Landsteiner trying to work really hard to perform more surgeries rather than discovering blood groups.

However, there are plenty of other situations when working directly is the most effective thing to do. There are many great 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 (they are “talent constrained”), then it can be the best option. You can find lists of recommended organisations within each of our problem profiles.

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.

Entrepreneurship – both non-profit and for-profit

If an effective organisation doesn’t exist within the area, then you could help found one. This was our thinking with 80,000 Hours: we knew no-one else was systematically doing this research.

Here’s another area where this might be true. As of the last decade, several very large foundations have been created that want to fund charities that carry out evidence-based health interventions, such as the Gates Foundation, CIFF, and the Open Philanthropy Project (which is partnered with GiveWell). However, these foundations are short of projects that meet their criteria. If you could build expertise in getting health interventions efficiently implemented, you could raise tens of millions in funding from these foundations, and have far more impact than earning to give.

This is what Joey and Kate are doing. They left college early to focus on fundraising for charities like Against Malaria Foundation. However, they realised it would be even higher impact to try to set up something new. They spent six months reviewing a list of health interventions, and found one that looked effective, was simple to roll out, but didn’t have a charity focusing on it.

They settled on text reminders for vaccinations in India, which have been shown in four randomised controlled trials to make it significantly more likely for people to get vaccinated. They’re now setting up this organisation and already have raised $200,000 from the Open Philanthropy Project.

However, you don’t need to be the leader of an organisation. 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.

Finally, 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 several times larger than all aid spending. If they can slightly accelerate the roll out of cheaper ways to transfer money, it’ll have a big impact.

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 commercialise, 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’s Tesla sells fancy electric cars to rich people, which isn’t very high impact. But the real mission of the company is to develop cheaper batteries that will make it much easier to transition to a green economy, and eventually electrify all of transport. Musk also created SpaceX, which makes money by selling cheap rockets to NASA, but the real mission of the company is to speed up the colonisation of space, and make humanity more likely to survive a disaster on Earth.

How can you find a good direct work position?

If you want to find a job:

  1. Decide which problems you think are most pressing.
  2. Identify the best organisations within these areas, especially those that are especially limited by talent rather than funding. You can look in our problem reviews for recommended organisations, and then see this longer list .
  3. Find the positions where you’d be the best fit.

Here are some jobs we’d especially recommend working towards:

Find jobs

What about if you want to found an organisation?

One mistake people make is trying to work out which organisations are needed from their armchair, or by choosing an issue that they’ve happened to come across in their own lives. Instead, go and learn about big, neglected social problems. Take a job in the area, do further study and speak to lots of people working on the problem, to find out what the world really needs. You need to get near the edge of an area before you’ll spot the ideas others haven’t, and have the connections you’ll need to execute.

Which is the right approach for you?

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 contribution to pressing problems.

Hopefully that has given you some new ideas for jobs you could take. Now, how do you narrow these options down to find the best one?

The first thing to note is that these four approaches are not exclusive, and you can do more than one at the same time. For instance, a teacher helps their students (direct impact), but could also develop new educational techniques (research) or tell their 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. This means, you’ll want to look for the positions that offer the best balance of ways to contribute directly, through advocacy and through donations. In our career reviews, we assess each path on these three ways of contributing.

The second point is 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. We highlight which skills are most needed within each area in our problem profiles.

Third, 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 career. For instance, 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.

Just as we saw with choosing a problem, this means the most effective approach for you will be something you enjoy, that motivates you, and is a good fit for your skills. We sometimes come across people tempted to do a job they’d hate in order to have more impact. That’s likely a bad idea, since they’ll just burn out. Their example could also discourage others from doing good.

An outstanding charity worker will likely do more good than a mediocre engineer earning to give, and the reverse is also true.

On the other hand, as we’ve seen, people often underestimate how easily they can become interested in new jobs.

We explain more about the importance of personal fit and how to work out which career is best for you in a later article.

If you already have expertise in an area, then that should also be factored in. We have more specific advice broken down by area here, as well as in the career reviews and problem profiles.

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 revolutionise 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.

Apply this to your own career

Before we move on, make an initial short list of high impact careers you could work towards in the long-run. The following steps may help:

  1. Decide which two to five problems you think are most pressing.
  2. Find the relevant problem profiles, read the list of career ideas in each profile, and note any that could be a good fit for you.
  3. Go through the four approaches we covered in this chapter, and list out any other options that could be a good fit for you.

The aim at this point is just to come up with more options. We’ll explain how to further narrow down in an upcoming article.

If you’re early in your career, try our career quiz
It’s a six-question quiz that filters our recommended list of careers based on your answers.

If you already have experience, read our advice by area

Recap of the guide so far

Earlier, we saw that an enjoyable and fulfilling job:

  1. Helps others.
  2. Is something you’re good at.
  3. Has the right supportive conditions (e.g. engaging work, fit with the rest of your life).

We’ve now also seen that to find a job which really helps others:

  1. Work out which problems are most pressing – those that are big in scale, neglected and solvable – as we covered here.
  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. From among those options, do something you enjoy where you have the chance to excel. We’ll explain how to work out where you have the best personal fit later on.

Should you sacrifice to do more good?

People often ask us whether they should sacrifice what they enjoy in order to have a greater impact. But, as you can see above, doing good involves less sacrifice than it first seems. A personally satisfying job involves helping others, because that’s fulfilling. And a high impact job will also be personally satisfying, because if you don’t like your job you won’t be good at it and you’ll burn out. So there’s a lot of overlap.

We’ve also seen there are lots of ways to have a big impact with little, if any, sacrifice. So it makes sense to focus on those efforts first.

That’s not to say there’s no trade-off at all. It’s unlikely that the very best career for you personally is also the one that most benefits the world. Ultimately, you’ll have to make a value judgement about how to weigh helping others against your own interests. However, the trade-off is much less than it first seems.

How can I put myself in the best position to get a high impact job?

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.

In the next article, we’ll look at how to build career capital and best position yourself for long-term success.

Part 7: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 Uiberall 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.