Summary: everything we’ve learned about career planning in 1200 words
0. It’s really worth thinking about your career. You have 80,000 hours of working time in your life. If you can increase the impact or happiness you gain from that time by just 1%, it would be worth spending 800 hours doing that — about five months of full-time work. This holds when it comes to your happiness, but the decision is even more vital from an ethical perspective: we think some of your options are likely hundreds of times higher impact than others. (If you’re not able to change your career right now, see here.)
1. Clarify your ultimate career goals: what does a successful career look like for you? You can divide your career aims into three categories: (i) impartial positive impact, (ii) personal priorities, and (iii) other moral values. We’d encourage you to make your own definition of each.
We define ‘impartial positive impact’ as helping the most people live better lives in the long term, treating everyone’s interests as equal.
You can analyse the impact of a career opportunity in terms of how pressing the problem is that you’d address, how effective the opportunity is at tackling the problem, and your personal fit with the opportunity, which depends on your abilities and ‘career capital’ (skills, connections, and reputation). The goal is to maximise the product of these three factors over your career.
Turning to personal priorities, research suggests that people are most satisfied when they have work that (i) is meaningful, (ii) they’re good at, (iii) is engaging, (iv) is done with supportive colleagues, and (v) has good enough basic conditions and fit with their personal life (e.g. non-crazy hours). Because most people reach their peak productivity age 40–60, you need your work to be personally satisfying enough to stick with it for the long haul. (More)
2. Think hard about which global problem you work on — it might be the most important career choice you make. People don’t usually try to make comparisons between e.g. the impact of working on education vs. climate change — the standard advice is just to do whichever you’re most passionate about. We disagree. Because some global problems are far bigger and more neglected than others, we think that making an informed and thoughtful decision about which problem to work on is probably the most important choice you’ll make.
Aim to identify the issues that seem most important, neglected, and tractable given your view of the world, your research, and the views of experts you trust. If that’s us, our problem profiles page will be a good starting point. (More)
3. Have some ideas for longer-term career paths. Most people unwittingly go from job search to job search and don’t think much about where each job might lead. Being opportunistic can be useful, but having a big positive impact often requires doing something unusual and developing strong skills, which can take 10+ years to learn. This probably requires some planning.
But don’t get obsessed with analysing longer-term plans — many successful people didn’t predict what they ended up doing. The aim is simply to have some hypotheses in mind when comparing your next steps.
To find longer-term career options, you’ve probably heard that you should figure out what your strengths are and where to apply them. That’s a useful approach, but we think it’s even more important to ask what the world most needs and how you might help. More specifically:
- What is most needed to tackle the problems you think are most pressing?
- Which careers give you the best skills and influence that you can later apply to pressing problems?
- Which communities are having the most impact, and how might you help them?
Finally: The returns of aiming high are usually bigger than the costs if it doesn’t work out (switching to something else), so it’s worth thinking broadly and ambitiously. (More)
4. Pick a strategic focus, depending on your career stage. Early on, when you’re very uncertain, you should focus on career exploration to try out potentially great longer-term paths, and/or opportunistically gain transferable career capital.
When you’re clearer about your plans, consider taking a bet on the longer-term career path that offers the biggest upside by gaining whatever career capital will most advance you in that path.
Later career, when you already have a lot of career capital, use it to opportunistically address the greatest needs within the most pressing problems.
In a line: explore, build your strengths, and use them to solve pressing problems. (More)
5. Work backwards and forwards to find your next career move. To come up with ideas for specific jobs/education/side projects, work backwards from your longer-term paths by asking how to advance in them most quickly. But also work forwards, by looking for specific job opportunities that seem exciting/impactful/will help you grow, even if you’re not sure where they’ll lead.
Generate a long list of options — most people consider too few. Then compare them systematically in terms of: (i) career capital that advances you in your top longer-term paths, (ii) transferable career capital, (iii) immediate impact, (iv) your personal fit, and (v) information value you’ll gain from testing them out (vi) any other important priorities. (More)
6. Have a back-up plan. If you’re being ambitious enough, your ‘plan A’ probably has a good chance of not working out. Write out ‘plan Bs’ — promising alternatives you can switch into — so that you’re ready to try again if that happens.
To avoid unacceptable risks, write out a ‘plan Z’ — how you’ll get back on your feet if things go very wrong (e.g. move in with family). (More)
7. Approach your uncertainties like a scientist. Career decision-making involves so much uncertainty it’s easy to feel paralysed. Instead, make some best guess hypotheses about which option is best, then identify key uncertainties: which questions can you answer that would most change your best guess?
Then investigate those key uncertainties. Start with the least costly ways to learn more (e.g. reading online), and then take more expensive steps if you’re still uncertain (e.g. doing a three-month trial project) — i.e. a ‘ladder of tests’. Often the most useful thing you can do to investigate is speak to people in the area.
Before committing to a career decision, ask why you might be wrong, and check with your gut. There’s little reason to think you’ll have accurate intuitions about which careers are highest impact, but gut feelings can warn you something is wrong — so try to understand the messages behind them.
You’ll never know the best option with uncertainty, but once your best guess stops changing, it’s probably time to try it for a few years. Bear in mind you can set a review point to reassess your plan when you’ll next gain significant information, or by default every 1-2 years. (More)
You may not have made the perfect decision, and it may not turn out as you hope, but the best anyone can do is to think carefully about their plan, try to put it into action, and update it as they go. If you’ve done everything above, you’ve probably done more to plan your career than 99% of people. Now, all that’s left is to enjoy and make the most of the next few years.
That’s the end of the summary – if you’d like to explore more, keep reading.