Everyone says it’s important to find a job you’re good at, but no-one tells you how to do so.
The standard advice is to think about it for weeks and weeks until you “discover your talent”. To help, career advisers give you quizzes about your interests and preferences. Others recommend you go on a gap yah, reflect deeply, imagine different options, and try to figure out what truly motivates you…then chunder everywah.
But as we saw in an earlier article, becoming really good at most things takes decades of practice. So to a large degree your abilities are built rather than “discovered”. Darwin, Lincoln, JK Rowling and Oprah all failed early in their career, then went on to completely dominate their fields. Albert Einstein’s 1895 schoolmaster’s report reads, “He will never amount to anything.”
Asking “what am I good at?” needlessly narrows your options. It’s better to ask: “what could I become good at?”
That aside, the bigger problem is that these methods don’t work. Plenty of research shows that it’s really hard to predict what you’ll be good at ahead of time, especially just by “going with your gut”, and it turns out career tests don’t work either.
Instead, the best way to find the right career for you is to go investigate – learn about and try out your options, looking outwards rather than inwards. Here we’ll explain why and how.
Reading time: 20 minutes.
The bottom line
- Your degree of personal fit in a job depends on your chances of excelling in the job, if you work at it. Personal fit is even more important than most people think, because it increases your impact, job satisfaction and career capital.
- Research shows that it’s really hard to work out what you’re going to be good at ahead of time, especially through self-reflection.
- Instead, go investigate. After an initial cut-down of your options, learn more and then try them out.
- Minimise the costs of trying out your options by doing cheap tests first (usually start by speaking to people), then trying your options in the best order (e.g. business jobs before non-profit jobs).
- Keep adapting your plan over time. Think like a scientist investigating a hypothesis.
Table of Contents
- 1 Being good at your job is more important than you think
- 2 Why self-reflection, going with your gut and career tests don’t work
- 3 What does work when finding out where you’ll excel? Trying things out.
- 4 In your early career, exploration is even more important
- 5 How to narrow down your options
- 6 How to explore: cheap tests first
- 7 How to explore: order your options well
- 8 Jess – a case study in exploring
- 9 Apply this to your own career: how to explore
- 10 Conclusion
Being good at your job is more important than you think
Everyone agrees that it’s important to find a job you’re good at. But we think it’s even more important than most people think, especially if you care about social impact.
First, the most successful people in a field account for a disproportionately large fraction of the impact. A landmark study of expert performers found that:1
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:
It’s the same spiked shape as the graphs we’ve seen several times before in this guide.
In the article on high impact jobs, we saw this in action with areas like research and advocacy. In research, for instance, the top 0.1% of papers receive 1,000 times more citations than the median.
These are areas where the outcomes are particularly skewed, 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 almost certainly due to skill, and this means that you’ll have much more impact if you choose an area where you enjoy the work and have good personal fit.
Second, even if you don’t want to contribute directly, being successful in your field gives you more career capital, which can open up high-impact options later. It also gives you influence and money, which can be used to promote good causes. Think of the example of Bono switching into advocacy for global poverty.
Third, being good at your job and gaining a sense of mastery is a vital component of being satisfied in your work. We covered this in the first article.
Fourth, as we saw earlier, the jobs that are least likely to be automated are those that involve high-level skills, and technology is increasing the rewards for being a top performer.
All this is why personal fit is one of the key factors to look for in a job. We think of “personal fit” as your chances of excelling at a job, if you work at it.
If we put together everything we’ve covered so far in the guide, this would be our formula for a perfect job:
If you’re comparing two career options, you can use these factors to make a side-by-side comparison (read more).
Personal fit is like a multiplier of everything else, and this means it’s probably more important than the other three factors. So, we’d never recommend taking a “high impact” job that you’d be bad at. But how can you figure out where you’ll have the best personal fit?
Hopefully you have some ideas for long-term options (from earlier in the guide). Now we’ll explain how to narrow them down, and find the right career for you.
(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.)
Why self-reflection, going with your gut and career tests don’t work
Note that after we wrote this article, an updated version of the meta-analysis we cite below was released. The results (in table 2) were similar except that work sample tests seem less promising (though ‘job tryout procedures’, ‘peer ratings’ and ‘job knowledge tests’ remain fairly good and are similar to work samples); and interviews seem more promising. This could suggest a somewhat greater focus on predicting your performance ahead of time by speaking to managers in the relevant path. We hope to do a more thorough review of this research in the future.
Performance is hard to predict ahead of time
When thinking about which career to take, our first instinct is often to turn inwards rather than outwards: “go with your gut” or “follow your heart”.
These approaches assume you can work out what you’re going to be good at ahead of time. But in fact, you can’t.
Here’s the best study we’ve been able to find so far on how to predict performance in different jobs. It’s a meta-analysis of selection tests used by employers, drawing on hundreds of studies performed over 85 years.2 Here are some of the results:
|Type of selection test||Correlation with job performance (r)|
|Work sample tests||0.54|
|Job knowledge tests||0.48|
|Job tryout procedure||0.44|
|Years of education||0.1|
None of the tests are very good. A correlation of 0.5 is pretty weak, so even if you try to predict using the best available techniques, you’re going to be “wrong” much of the time: candidates that look bad will often turn out good, and vice versa. Anyone who’s hired people before will tell you that’s exactly what happens, and there is some systematic evidence for this 3.
Because hiring is so expensive, employers really want to pick the best candidates and they know exactly what the job requires. If even they, using the best available tests, can’t figure out who’s going to perform best in advance, you probably don’t have much chance.
Don’t go with your gut
If you were to try to predict performance in advance, “going with your gut” isn’t the best way to do it. Research in the science of decision-making collected over several decades shows that intuitive decision-making only works in certain circumstances.
For instance, your gut instinct can tell you very rapidly if someone is angry with you. This is because our brain is biologically wired to rapidly warn us when in danger.
Your gut can also be amazingly accurate when trained. Chess masters have an astonishingly good intuition for the best moves, and this is because they’ve trained their intuition by playing lots of similar games, and built up a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
However, gut decision-making is poor when it comes to working out things like how fast a business will grow, who will win a football match, and what grades a student will receive. Earlier, we also saw that our intuition is poor at working out what will make us happy. This is all because our untrained gut instinct makes lots of mistakes, and in these situations it’s hard to train it to do better.
Career decision-making is more like these examples than being a chess grandmaster. It’s hard to train our gut instinct when:
- The results of our decisions take a long time to arrive.
- We have few opportunities to practice.
- The situation keeps changing.
This is exactly the situation with career choices: we only make a couple of major career decisions in our life, it takes years to see the results, and the job market keeps changing.
This all means your gut can give you clues about the best career. It can tell you things like “I don’t trust this person” or “I’m not excited by this project”. But you can’t simply “go with your gut”.
Why career tests also don’t work
Many career tests are built on “Holland types” or something similar. These tests classify you as one of six “Holland-types”, like “artistic” or “enterprising”. Then they recommend careers that match that type. However, we can see from the table that “Holland-type match” is very weakly correlated with performance. It’s also barely correlated with job satisfaction. So that’s why we don’t recommend traditional career tests.
What does work when finding out where you’ll excel? Trying things out.
In the table above, the tests that best predict performance are those that are closest to actually doing the work (with the interesting exception of IQ). This is probably what we should have expected.
A work sample test is simply doing some of the work, and having the results evaluated by someone experienced. Peer ratings measure what your peers think of your performance (and so can only be used for internal promotions). Job tryout procedures and job knowledge tests are what they sound like.
So if you’re choosing between several options, it’s helpful to do your research ahead of time. But eventually you need to actually try things. The closer you can get to actually doing the work, the better. For example, if you’re considering doing economics research, actually try some research and see how well you do, rather than just think about how much you enjoy studying it – studying a subject is very different from actually doing research.
This is true whether you’re at the start of your career or near the end, and whether you’re planning what to do long-term, comparing two offers, or considering quitting your job.
So, if there’s a job you’re interested in, see if there’s a way to try it out ahead of time. If you’re considering three long-term options and aren’t sure which to take, see if you can try out each of them over the coming years.
If you’re choosing which restaurant to eat at, the stakes aren’t high enough to warrant much research. But a career decision will influence decades of your life, so could easily be worth weeks or months of work.
In your early career, exploration is even more important
Early on you know relatively little about your strengths and options. Once you’ve spent a few years learning more, you’ll be able to make better decisions over the coming decades. It’s better to do this exploration early, if possible, so you can use the lessons later.
Also consider trying one or two wildcards to further broaden your experience. These are unusual options off the normal path, like living in a new country, pursuing an unusual side project or trying a sector you would have not normally have worked in (e.g. government, non-profits, social enterprise).
Many successful people did exactly that. Tony Blair worked as a rock music promoter before going into politics. As we saw, Condoleezza Rice was a classical musician before she entered politics, while Steve Jobs even spent a year in India on acid, and considered moving to Japan to become a zen monk. That’s some serious “exploration”.
Today, it’s widely accepted that many people will work in several sectors and roles across their lifetime. The typical 25 to 34-year-old changes jobs every three years,4 and changes are not uncommon later too.
Trying out lots of options can also help you avoid one of the biggest career mistakes: considering too few options. We’ve met lots of people who stumbled into paths like PhDs, medicine or law because they felt like the default at the time, but who, if they had considered more options, could easily have found something that fit them better. Pushing yourself to try out several areas will help you to avoid this mistake. Try to settle on a single goal too early, however, and you could miss a great option.
All this said, exploring can still be costly. Trying out a job can take several years, and changing job too often makes you look flaky. How can you explore, while keeping the costs low?
How to narrow down your options
You can’t try everything, so before you explore, we need to cut your long-term options down to a shortlist. How best to narrow down? Since gut decision making is unreliable, it helps to be a little systematic.
Many people turn to pro and con lists, but these have some weaknesses. First, there’s no guarantee that the pros and cons that come to mind will be the most important aspects of the decision. Second, pro and con lists don’t force you to look for disconfirming evidence or generate more options, and these are some of the most powerful ways to make better decisions. It’s easy to use lists of pros and cons to rationalise what you already believe.
Here’s the process we recommend for narrowing down. It’s based on a literature review of decision making science and what has worked well in one-on-one advising. You can also use it when you need to compare options to shortlist, or compare your current job against alternatives.
1. Make a big list of options.
Write out your initial list, including both what problem you want to focus on and what role you want e.g. economics researcher focusing on global health; marketing for a meat substitutes company, earning to give as a software engineer.
- If you couldn’t take any of the options on your first list, what would you do?
- If money were no object, what would you do?
- What do your friends advise?
- (If already with experience) how could you use your most valuable career capital?
- Can you combine your options to make the best of both worlds?
- Can you find any more opportunities through your connections?
2. Rank your options.
Start by making an initial guess of how they rank.
If you have more time, then score your options from one to five, based on:
- Personal fit
- Supportive conditions for job satisfaction
- Any other factors that are important to you.
- Career capital, if you’re considering options for the next few years (rather than your long-term aims).
Then, try to cut down to a shortlist. Eliminate the options that are worse on all factors than another (“dominated options”), and those that are very poor on one factor. You can add up all your scores to get a very rough ranking of options. If one of your results seems odd, try to understand why. For each option, ask “why might I be wrong?” and adjust your ranking. This is a very useful way to reduce bias.
3. Write out your key uncertainties
What information could most easily change your ranking? If you could get the answer to one question, which question would be most useful? Write these out. For instance, “Can I get a place on Teach for America?”, “Would I enjoy programming?” or “How pressing is global poverty compared to open science?”.
If you’re stuck, imagine you had to decide your career in just one weekend – what would you do in that time to make the right choice?
4. Do some initial research.
Can you quickly work out any of these key uncertainties? For instance, if you’re unsure whether you’d enjoy being a data scientist, can you go and talk to someone about what it’s like? Or is there something you could read, like one of our career reviews?
At this point, you might have a clear winner, in which case you can skip the next part. Most people, however, end up with a couple of alternatives that look pretty good. At that point, it’s time to explore. But how best to do that?
If you want a more detailed version of the process just above, try our decision tool:
There’s a lot more to say about how to make good decisions, some of which we cover in an upcoming article.
How to explore: cheap tests first
We often find people who want to try out economics, so they go and apply for a Master’s course. But that’s a huge investment. Instead, think about how you can learn more with the least possible effort: “cheap tests”.
The aim is to get as close as possible to actually doing the work, but with the smallest possible investment of time.
You can think of making a “ladder” of tests. For instance, if you’re interested in policy advising, here are the steps you might take:
- Read our relevant career reviews and do some Google searches to learn the basics (1-2h).
- Then the next most useful thing you can usually do is to speak to someone in the area. The right person can give you far more up-to-date and personalised information than what you’ll be able to find written down (2h).
- Speak to three more people who work in the area and read one or two books (20h). You could also consider speaking to a careers adviser who specialises in this area. During this, also find out the most effective way for you to enter the area, given your background. Bear in mind that when you’re talking to these people, they are also informally interviewing you – see our advice on preparing for interviews in a later article.
- Now look for a project that might take 1-4 weeks of work, like volunteering on a political campaign, or starting a blog on the policy area you want to focus on. If you’ve done the previous step, you’ll know what’s best.
- Only now consider taking on a 2-24 month commitment, like a short work placement, internship or graduate study. At this point, being offered a trial position with an organisation for a couple of months can actually be an advantage, because it means both parties will make an effort to quickly assess your fit.
At each point, you’d re-evaluate whether policy advising was one of your most promising options, and only continue to the next step if it was.
How to explore: order your options well
You can gain more opportunities to explore if you put your options in the right order.
1. Explore before graduate study rather than after
In the couple of years right after you graduate, people give you license to try out something more unusual – for example starting a business, living abroad or working at a non-profit. You’re not expected to have your career figured out right away.
If it doesn’t go well, you can use the “graduate school reset”: do a Masters, MBA, law degree, or PhD, then return to the traditional path.
We see lots of people rushing into graduate school or other conventional options right after they graduate, missing one of their best opportunities to explore.
In particular, it’s worth exploring before a PhD rather than after. At the end of a PhD it’s hard to leave academia. This is because going from a PhD to a post-doc, and then into a permanent academic position is very competitive, and it’s very unlikely you’ll succeed if you don’t focus 100% on research. So, if you’re unsure about academia, try out alternatives before your PhD if possible.
2. Put “reversible” options first
For instance, it’s easier to go from a position in business to a non-profit job than vice versa, so if you’re unsure between the two, take the business position first.
3. Choose options that let you experiment
An alternative approach is to take a job that lets you try out several areas by:
- Letting you work in a variety of industries. Freelance and consulting positions are especially good.
- Letting you practice many different skills. Jobs in small companies are often especially good on this front.
- Giving you the free time and energy to explore other things outside of work.
4. Try on the side
If you’re already in a job, think of ways to try out a new option on the side. Could you do a short but relevant project in your spare time, or in your existing job? At the very least, speak to lots of people in the job.
If you’re a student, try to do as many internships and summer projects as possible. Your university holidays are one of the best opportunities in your life to explore.
5. Keep building flexible career capital
If you’re unsure, keep building flexible career capital. That way, no matter how things turn out, you’ll still be in a better position in the future.
Jess – a case study in exploring
“80,000 Hours has nothing short of revolutionised the way I think about my career.”
When Jess graduated from maths and philosophy a couple of years ago, she was interested in academia and leaned towards studying philosophy of mind, but was concerned that it would have little impact.
So the year after she graduated, she spent several months working in finance. She didn’t think she’d enjoy it, and she turned out to be right, so she felt confident eliminating that option. She also spent several months working in non-profits, and reading about different research areas.
Most importantly, she spoke to loads of people, especially in the areas of academia she was most interested in. This eventually led to her being offered to study a PhD in psychology, focused on how to improve decision-making by policy makers.
During her PhD, she did an internship at a leading evidence-based policy think tank, and started writing about psychology for an online newspaper. This meant that she was exploring the ‘public intellectual’ side of being an academic, and the option of going into policy.
At the end of her PhD, she can either continue in academia, or switch into policy or writing. She could also probably go back to finance or the non-profit sector. Most importantly, she’ll have a far better idea of which options are best.
Apply this to your own career: how to explore
- Use the narrowing down process above to cut your options down to a shortlist of three to five.
- For each option in your shortlist, write out one or two cheap tests that you could do over the next three months.
- Then, if you wanted to try out your remaining top options, what would the best order be? Consider just spending several years trying out different areas.
- When you need to make your final decision, you can use the narrowing down process again.
- If you’d like to find out more about how to make good decisions and predictions, we recommend Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, and Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock.
We like to imagine we can work out what we’re good at through reflection, in a flash of insight. But that’s not how it works.
Rather, it’s more like a scientist testing a hypothesis. You have ideas about what you can become good at (hypotheses), which you can test out (experiments). Think you could be good at writing? Then start blogging. Think you’d hate consulting? At least speak to a consultant.
If you don’t already know your “calling” or your “passion”, that’s normal. It’s too hard to predict which career is right for you when you’re starting out.
Instead, go and try things. You’ll learn as you go, heading step-by-step towards a fulfilling career.
Now, once you’ve chosen an area, how can you ensure you succeed? That’s what we cover in the next article. After that, we’ll show how to fit everything together into a career plan.