So you’ve decided to use your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. Now what should you actually do to make it happen?
This article organises all our advice on career planning into a series of concrete steps and questions to work through, starting with longer-term goals, and working towards actionable next steps.
It’s not an easy (or a short) process. But you have 80,000 hours of working time in your life. If you’re lucky enough to have options for how to spend that time, it’s worth really thinking about how to spend it best – both for your own wellbeing and for the world in general.
If you can increase the positive impact or happiness you gain from your career by 1%, that would be worth spending 800 hours on, which is about 5 months of full-time work. We think this process can help you increase the positive impact of your career more than that — perhaps much more — in much less time.
The process is a series of questions and prompts designed to check you’ve asked the most important questions, covered potential blindspots, and considered plenty of options.
The aim is to have written out answers to the following key aspects of a career plan, each of which is the focus of one section:
What a high-impact and fulfilling career looks like for you
The global problems you think are most pressing
A shortlist of longer-term career paths you might take to address those problems
Your strategic priorities (e.g. should you focus on building skills or opportunistically using the skills you have?)
A shortlist of ideas for your next career step
Alternatives and backup options
Your key uncertainties and how to investigate your plan
The next actions you’ll take to get started
To make each key decision, the basic process is to generate a long list of options, clarify your priorities, narrow down options, and identify & investigate key uncertainties.
You’ll find prompts for these topics in an accompanying worksheet, which we invite you to fill out as you go.
This process has evolved over the years, informed by a combination of what we’ve learned about social impact, what we’ve learned from academic research on decision-making, and what the 1000+ people we’ve worked with one-on-one have found helpful.1
Steering your career towards better options could mean helping hundreds of times more people, or making hundreds of times more progress on solving the world’s most pressing problems, while doing work that’s also satisfying and fulfilling.
Finding these options, however, requires stepping back and asking the big questions. This is not an easy task, and you may find it complex and overwhelming at times. But it is worthwhile to try.
But if you are fortunate enough to be able to make helping to solve pressing global problems one of your main career goals, and have the freedom to consider different options, we think you’ll find this process useful.
The process is designed to be helpful no matter how old you are or what your career stage, and we try to point out which parts are most important for people at different stages. It also doesn’t assume you agree with our views of which problems are most pressing or that you want to enter one of our ‘priority paths.’
Options for how to use this process
Some notes on how to fill out the process:
Feel free to spend as long on each section as seems useful, given how much time you have available. You might find that taking a rough pass through it in a few hours is best, or you might find it useful to spend far longer.
Discuss it with friends and mentors as you go. This often makes the process much faster and easier, and they can provide emotional support too.
The most important sections are marked with ★s — you can save time by skipping or skimming the others.
Given these notes, here are some examples of how you might use this process:
Set aside a weekend to do a quick pass through everything, and identify some key sections to work on more — then discuss with friends. (An even shorter version would be to try to fill in as much of the worksheet as possible right away, and then send it to people for feedback.)
Set aside an afternoon each week to read one section and fill out the corresponding part of the worksheet. Do follow-ups during the rest of the week, and repeat until you’re done.
Do the above, but also discuss your ideas each week with a friend who is also planning their career (you might enjoy swapping worksheets and commenting on each other’s).
Don’t try to fill out the worksheet, but discuss each section with a friend each week, or schedule a time to discuss your overall plans over dinner.
Keep in mind
Some of the questions that follow are difficult. You might find there are no fully satisfactory answers. But best guesses (which can be revised over time) are much better than not thinking about these questions at all, so when in doubt just write something down.
Approach your uncertainties like a scientist. Make some best guess hypotheses about which options are best, identify key uncertainties, and then investigate them. Test out ideas empirically where you can. Don’t aim for certainty, but just to make your best guess. In fact you can think of much of your career as a series of experiments: you can try something for 6–24 months and then review your plan, improving your best guesses over time.
We often ask you to think about things from several different angles. This is because much career planning is about finding a balance, like between shooting for what the world most needs and using your strengths, or between careful planning and opportunism. We’ll introduce several of these pairs to ensure you’ve considered everything.
At 80,000 Hours, we focus on social impact — but you will have other goals. Although we try to provide space in the process for these other personal priorities, we’re not providing a complete picture of career planning — you’ll need to balance what we cover with your personal priorities.
Seek support on the emotional aspects of changing your career. Your career may be a big part of your life and identity. The questions we pose might bring up fears about the future, insecurities, guilt about not doing more, or other worries. That’s okay and normal. However, the emotional side of career choice is not our expertise, so we’d encourage you to seek support on this from friends or other resources. That said, you might also find some of our tips on general self-development and happiness useful here.
You can’t control the lot you’ve been given, and you can’t determine the results of your efforts. The best you can do is to spend time thinking about your strategy, work toward your best guess goals, and improve over time. You can plant seeds and water them, but then you need to wait for the harvest. If you follow the steps in the process, then even if the results are not as hoped, or you don’t achieve as much as other people, you’re doing the best you can, which is all anyone can ask.
1. What does a fulfilling, high-impact career look like for you?
You might be able to use your career to greatly help hundreds of people, reduce the chance of global disasters, or have a big positive impact in another way — while doing work that’s also personally fulfilling.
But working out how to do this is tricky, not least because it’s hard to agree on what the terms ‘help people’, ‘positive impact’, and ‘personally fulfilling’ actually mean — let alone craft goals that will help you achieve these things.
In this section, we’ll help you clarify these terms to get a sense of what you’re aiming for.
Goal of this section
In this section, we give an indication of what ‘impartial positive impact’ means, and introduce a framework for what to look for in a career with positive impact. The goal is to set you up to make progress in later sections.
You will also write out your top priorities for your own personal fulfillment, as well as any other moral values you hold, so that you can keep them in mind when comparing your options in future sections.
What is ‘positive impact’?
We find it useful to divide ultimate career aims into:
Positive impact (considered ‘impartially’)
Fulfillment of other moral values
This article is mainly about the first aim: having more positive impact with your career (though we’ll go over the other two briefly in a moment).
So: What do we mean by ‘impartial positive impact’?
Roughly speaking, we mean increasing wellbeing in the long term (the ‘positive impact’ part), and treating everyone’s interests as equal, no matter their gender, background, where they live, or even when they live (that’s the ‘impartial’ part).
In practice, people rarely — if ever — only care about impartial positive impact, regardless of definition. But most people agree that if we can help others a great deal — especially with little cost to ourselves — that’s a good thing to do. And this holds even if we don’t know these others personally.
As it turns out, you might well have the opportunity to have a huge amount of impact — perhaps equivalent to saving hundreds of lives, or playing a role to avert risks to the entire future of humanity.
This is especially true if you’re a college graduate or student in a rich country with multiple options to choose between, and this is why we’re keen for more people to explicitly consider what impact they might have from an impartial perspective.
Having a definition in mind helps to clarify your goals, and you’ll use your understanding of what impartial positive impact is in the next section when we assess which global issues are most important.
Do you agree with our way of defining impartial positive impact? We want this process to be usable by anyone, so if you disagree, or you want to work with a refined version of it that you think better fits what’s really important, we encourage you to write it out at the top of the attached worksheet, in Section 1.1.
If you do agree with our definition and think it makes sense as-is, feel free to copy it, or leave the question blank.
Bear in mind that it’s easy to get bogged down in philosophical questions that don’t drive real decisions, and a vague definition is usually enough at this point.
Later, we’ll help you to identify and investigate key uncertainties about your options. If those include philosophical issues, then more thinking could be warranted — but we find people’s more specific decisions usually turn on other matters.
What to look for in a high-impact career
We argue on our key ideas page that the positive impact you have in a job — given a wide range of definitions of ‘positive impact’ — is roughly given by the answers to the following three questions:
Problem the work addresses: How pressing is it? a. How large or important is the problem? b. How neglected is it? c. How solvable is it?
Opportunity: How effective is the specific opportunity for addressing the problem? a. How effective is the intervention that you’d be working on? b. How many resources might this opportunity ‘leverage’ toward this intervention?2
Personal fit: How well are you able to take advantage of the opportunity? a. How likely are you to excel based on your skills, experience, and other ‘career capital’? b. How well does it match your strengths? c. Will you be motivated in the long run?
For instance, if you work as a software engineer at a green energy company, then the problem your work addresses is climate change. Your job gives you an opportunity to deliver an intervention — replacing current energy sources with green energy. The mechanism for leverage in this opportunity is developing new green energy sources that others can then invest in. And your personal fit is how well you’ll perform in the job over the long haul.
The answers to these questions — especially those that relate to how pressing a problem is — will depend on your moral views and other aspects of your ‘worldview’ — like the extent to which you are inclined to take bets on more speculative opportunities.3
The factors above can be defined so that they multiply together4, such that:
Expected impact = pressingness of problem x effectiveness of opportunity x personal fit
This means that insofar as you’re focused on impact, your long-term goal is to maximise the product of these three factors over the remainder of your career. (Later, we’ll provide adapted versions of this framework for different contexts.)
In practical terms, this means you can have more impact by doing any of the following:
Switching to working on a more pressing problem
Finding a better intervention to address a problem
Finding a way to get more leverage on a problem
Finding jobs with better personal fit, or improving your skills and career capital to increase your fit
We think you can likely improve on these factors several fold over the course of your career, which would mean you can increase your impact several fold or much more.
Early in your career, this usually involves experimenting to find the best role that you might be able to become good at, and then building skills and career capital relevant to later roles.
Later in your career, you’ll focus more and more on using the career capital you already have to find further high-leverage ways to solve pressing problems.
What does a personally fulfilling career look like for you?
Sufficient ‘basic conditions’ such as fair pay and non-crazy working hours
We believe that pursuing an impactful career is one route to a personally fulfilling career, and that personal satisfaction and positive impact are mutually reinforcing goals.
If you strive to have an impact — i.e. to find something you’re good at that contributes to pressing problems — you’re giving yourself the chance of meaningful achievements, helping satisfy the first two conditions above.5
Moreover, building good career capital in a role you’re good at will also give you the negotiating power to find roles with engaging work, supportive colleagues, and basic conditions.
The reverse is also true. You’ll be unlikely to stick with and excel within any path in the long term if you don’t enjoy it and it doesn’t fit with the rest of your life. Since most people reach their peak output between the ages of 40 and 50, this could mean giving up most of your impact. So, what you find personally satisfying is an important aspect of your personal fit with a role, and therefore your expected impact in it.
However, when it comes to specific decisions, potential impact and satisfaction will not always perfectly align, meaning you’ll have to make tradeoffs. For that reason, it’s helpful to clarify the factors that are important for your overall wellbeing in your job, so that you can keep them in mind. (If you find yourself with an especially difficult tradeoff, we have more thoughts on how to wrestle with that.)
So, we’ll want you to write down what criteria you will look for in a personally fulfilling job.
These could be the factors we listed above, but made more specific given your preferences. For instance:
Engaging work: What specific types of work have given you the most sense of ‘flow’ in the past?
Supportive colleagues: What kinds of people do you most want to work with?
Basic conditions: How many hours are you willing to work? Which locations would you consider working in? What’s the minimum amount you want to earn (though people often focus too much on money)? Do you have any other dealbreakers?
They could also be factors that are missing from the above list, such as how much you’re willing to risk doing something unconventional that might not work out.
Optional: further prompts about what a satisfying job could look like
If you’d like to think more broadly about what a satisfying job could look like, here are some questions to consider:
If money were no object, what would you do?
What would your ideal job look like?
When imaging your ideal job, it’s easy to think in terms of achievements, such as earning a certain amount of money, or having a certain job title. But achievements like these often fail to make people happy, and even if they do, that happiness doesn’t last. So in addition to thinking about the above, try to go deeper:
What are you hoping to get from the achievements you imagine?
What kinds of things do you find intrinsically rewarding?
What would your ideal ‘ordinary Tuesday’ look like, hour by hour?
Imagine you’re near the end of your life looking back. What would you feel was worthwhile?
Based on everything you’ve just thought about, write out your top 3–6 personal priorities in Section 1.2 of your worksheet, especially any that will not already be furthered by aiming to have an impact.
Other moral considerations
So far we’ve covered impartial impact and your personal fulfillment, but you might feel you have other moral commitments. For instance, do you think you have a special obligation to help your hometown, or that you have religious obligations?
This will not be the main focus of the process outlined in this article, which is focused on helping you have a larger positive impact on the lives of others, considering everyone’s interests equally (i.e. ‘impartially’).
However, we want to make room for the consideration of other values you might hold, so that you can keep them in mind throughout.
As one example, we don’t generally recommend taking a job that seems seriously wrong from a common sense perspective, even if it seems like in your specific case it would lead to a greater positive impact. This is largely because such schemes rarely work out well, even just from the perspective of impact. But another reason is that they generally conflict with common sense moral considerations. We discuss moral uncertainty and moderation more on the key ideas page. Fortunately such situations are rare, so — in our view — which career is morally best overall usually comes down to which seems to have the highest impact.
So in Section 1.3 of your worksheet, write down any other moral considerations you want to keep in mind, beyond having a positive impact in an impartial sense.
We broke career aims into three kinds, and discussed what to look for within each category:
Positive impact: pressing problem, effective opportunity, your personal fit, and career capital
Personal fulfillment: engaging work, a sense of purpose, supportive colleagues, basic conditions, and any other personal priorities you might have
Other moral considerations: any other moral aims beyond positive impact that you might think are important in choosing a career
You then further clarified these based on your individual aims and values.
Now let’s dive into how to build a high-impact career.
2. Clarify your views of which global problems are the most pressing
Goal of this section
In this section, you will think about which issues in the world might most need more attention, and where you might best help.
The goal is to generate a list of 5–15 global issues, roughly in order of priority, and write them down in your worksheet. For example: nuclear security, the possibility of extreme climate change, pandemics, or economic growth. You will also write down a list of key uncertainties about the list you generate.
You don’t necessarily need to have good opportunities to help tackle the problems you identify at this stage. We will discuss your options, taking into account your skillset and other factors, later on in the process.
★Why compare global problems
If you want to have an impact, and give everyone’s needs equal consideration, it makes sense to ask what the world most needs, and then figure out how you might best help with that.
We’ll never have a complete answer to this question, but we think it’s worth some serious thought.
Different people will also have different answers due to having different moral views. Here we’ll be talking about what the world most needs given your moral views — and we’ll provide some materials for reflecting on your views later.
There are also a great many global problems that could use more attention, and they all interact. If society were perfectly optimised for a flourishing civilisation, how would people and resources be spread across different global issues?
We might think of the distribution of people and resources across issues as an ideal ‘world portfolio’.
None of us have control of the actual world portfolio, so as individuals, the best we can do is to try to find a way to use our strengths to address one of its biggest gaps, and help the world take a small step towards the ideal.6
Unfortunately, the world portfolio is nowhere near efficient: some issues are far bigger than others, and some receive many more resources — and these do not perfectly line up.
When we step back and ask which gaps seem like they most need filling right now — based on our moral views — we think some are over 100 times more pressing than others. Moreover, these others include many of the issues people typically work on.
By this we mean one person working on a top issue — e.g. the risk of an even bigger pandemic than COVID-19 — would (in expectation) have the impact of over 100 people working on a more typical issue — e.g. education in the developed world or animal shelters.
Given these huge differences, we suspect that when it comes to your long-term impact, your choice of issue is ultimately the most important decision you face.
So, we encourage everyone to spend substantial time reflecting on and learning about different global issues at some point in their career. If you could do just one part of this career planning process, reflecting on which problem to focus on and switching your focus based on that reflection probably gets you the largest gains in expected impact.
This is especially true later in your career, since the older you are, the more likely it is you should try to contribute right away.
So why are we suggesting you make a list of issues, rather than picking the single most pressing?
Importantly, you don’t need to pick a single issue to focus on in your career right now.
First, it usually makes sense to consider jobs in a range of problem areas. One reason is that it can be best to pursue progress in an area that you think is less pressing on average, if you find an unusually good opportunity or you’re an unusually good fit for it. We want to make sure your list is long enough to pick up these alternatives.
Second, depending on your situation, it can make sense to focus for a time on gaining transferable career capital — skills, connections, reputation, etc. — and decide which issue to focus on later.
For instance, someone who could become a successful journalist and then use that position to write about whatever issues are most pressing in 10 or 20 years’ time should consider mostly focusing on growing their skills and potential audience for now.
This means that if you’re earlier in your career, or more uncertain about which issue to focus on, you may be able to partially delay your decision of what issue to focus on until you have more information, and plan based on a longer and rougher list of ideas.7
That said, we think it’s usually worth spending at least some time learning about which global problems are most pressing as early as you can, because your answers can sometimes have a big effect on which longer-term paths and next steps you should pursue.
Moreover, we think the most mainstream issues are unlikely to be where you can have the most impact, because they’re generally less neglected, and more work on an issue often faces ‘diminishing marginal returns’.
If you don’t think explicitly about problem selection, then you’re likely to end up focusing on more conventional issues, since they’ll be what you’re most likely to come across. But these are unlikely to be your highest-impact options.
We encourage you to create a ranked list of around 10 issues that you think are particularly pressing, which you’ll use later in this process to generate ideas for longer-term paths and next steps.
People also often ask us why we focus on comparing global problems instead of specific interventions, since ultimately we care about effective solutions rather than problems.
The answer is that which interventions seem best changes quickly. Rather than betting on one narrow intervention (e.g. research into aligning recommender systems), we think it’s often better (especially early in your career) to aim at a promising cluster of interventions (e.g. AI technical safety), or perhaps a role that would allow you to contribute to a wide variety of narrow interventions (e.g. science journalist). That’ll help ensure you build knowledge, connections, etc. that will be relevant in the future (read more). When it comes to your next steps later in the process, we’ll focus more on specific interventions.
★How to compare problems
Which global problems should you focus on solving?
Ultimately, you want to identify the biggest gaps in the world portfolio — where additional effort will go as far as possible toward making the world a better place.
One starting point we recommend is comparing issues in terms of their importance, neglectedness, and tractability.
How do you do this in practice?
One approach is to do a lot of research and come up with your own views. This would result in a list of most pressing problems that is more likely to fit your personal values and worldview, and gives you a chance of discovering a new area or avoiding mistakes others are making. It also means you’ll better understand why work in the areas you identify is important, which can help you spot better concrete opportunities. Thinking through these questions is hard, but work to compare global problems is still in its infancy, so it’s easier to get to the forefront of thinking and make original contributions than it might at first seem. We have more advice on doing this research in the accordion below.
Another approach is to defer in part to views of others you trust. Not everyone has the time and research skills to figure out such a difficult question. If you can find a group of people who (i) roughly share your view of what it means to make a difference8 (ii) have good judgement, and (iii) understand that you’re trying to have a big impact, then going with a weighted combination of their views is probably a pretty good approach. And remember that taking an average of views is usually more accurate than the judgement of any individual.
When combining the views of others, weigh their confidence, how trustworthy each advisor is, and how pressing they think each issue is. For example, if one advisor thinks that climate change is a much more pressing issue than international peace, and another thinks that international peace is a bit more pressing than climate change, the combined average is that climate change is somewhat more pressing. A common mistake is to merely tally votes, and conclude in a case like this that climate change and international peace are equally pressing issues.
It’s often difficult to figure out who to trust on complex questions like these. Often the best you can do is look at their reasoning and their track record, as well as what kinds of considerations they are taking into account and whether you are convinced by them. (More on the art of deferring.)
To put this into action, think about who you most trust in this area, and prioritise the average of their views on what issues they think are most pressing for more people to work on.
The ideal is usually to do a combination of deferring and doing your own investigation. Deferring to others who have done more research is fine, as long as you understand the view you’re deferring to and why. You can then use their views as a starting point for doing some of your own investigation, to come to a view you understand and endorse.
Whatever approach you choose, think broadly. You want your list to be broad enough to ensure you’ll have enough options for paths and next steps later, and also to ensure you consider new potential issues too.
To help make your list broader, you can break it into:
The 2–5 issues you think are likely most pressing, in order
A further 5–10 issues you think might be even better but which you are very uncertain about
When thinking about your career, it will be important to consider your personal fit for working on each issue — you might be more motivated to work on one rather than another, or have more relevant career capital, especially later in your career.
But we prefer to start with what problems are pressing in general, then try to generate ideas for specific longer-term roles and next steps, and then assess your personal fit with those rather than the problem area more broadly. This is in part because it’s really important not to eliminate an area too early, as we’ll discuss more below.
As you read on, you can write down your ideas for pressing problems in Sections 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 of your worksheet.
★Which global issues do we think are most pressing?
We’ve spent some time investigating which issues seem most pressing, especially from a ‘longtermist’ perspective — one focused on improving the very long-term future.
One clarification to make here is that we don’t think everyone should focus on the issues we rate as most pressing. Even if you agree with our ranking, you might find a better opportunity or one with better fit in another problem area.
Why might you disagree with our views? There are many ways our ranking could be wrong, but we think the issue that’s most contentious is our focus on longtermism. Most people don’t focus on the long-term future as much, and instead hold one of the other worldviews discussed in the optional “How to do your own investigation” section below, which often results in focusing on more common sense issues such as poverty and education. (As one example, see this list of global issues from the United Nations.)
Which global issues you think are most pressing depends on what you think most matters morally, as well as what the world is like — empirical judgements — and how we can come to best understand it — epistemic judgements.
We’d encourage you to spend time thinking about your overall moral values and worldview at some point, and ideally before making a long-term commitment to a path. There’s a vast amount we could theoretically discuss here, including many fundamental debates in moral philosophy.
Neartermism — Work on high-return and generally evidence-backed and common sense ways to benefit those most in need today. This often leads people to focus on global health and development, or if they take animals to be ‘moral patients’, then ending factory farming. Neartermists may also prioritise global priorities research to determine what is most likely to benefit those in need in the present.
This list of views is not meant to be exhaustive. Some others include:
Mainstream economics — estimate costs and benefits of different actions in dollars, while moderately discounting those that occur in the future
A justice-focused approach that centers on rectifying the worst injustices in the world
An environmentalist worldview that either takes the environment to be an unusually pressing priority (perhaps for longtermist reasons), or that takes the natural world to have intrinsic value beyond its value for sentient beings, or both
A socialist view that holds that the biggest priority is reforming political and economic systems
How much confidence do you have in each of these views? Write your thoughts in your worksheet — you’ll find the prompt in the appendix, as this section is optional.
Now think through the implications of any you’re confident in. Given your understanding of the world, what do they imply you should do? This is hard, but doing even a partial job here is more than many people do, and is essential for informing your list of potential top global problems. Again, you can add your thoughts in the appendix of your worksheet.
We think that when fully thought through, indeed all these views can end up prioritising issues that even their proponents don’t usually focus on. For example, we think people with all moral views have more reason to focus on reducing existential risks than they normally realise.
Learn about frameworks for comparing global problems
There are many other relevant considerations and approaches that are not naturally captured by INT. Unfortunately, we’re not aware of a great write-up that captures all relevant considerations, though we mention some additional ones in our problem framework article. You can also find some listed here.
If you want, you can reflect on frameworks you want to use in the appendix of your worksheet.
Generate ideas for top problems
After you’ve clarified your best guess worldview and thought about what it might imply — as well as thought about frameworks you might use to compare problems — you can start generating ideas for top problems.
Have you come across issues in your life that others might be missing but that seem like they might be important? They may be worth looking into.
Who do you know who has an interesting perspective, or is doing unconventional work that might have an impact? Hanging around with people like that is often a great way to find something new.
Have you stumbled across an interesting project or issue that hardly anyone else is pursuing? That could be well worth looking into.
Write your ideas in the appendix of your worksheet.
Narrow down (some)
You can then start doing your own comparisons of ideas from your long list, given your worldview and the frameworks you’ve learned about.
It’s also often helpful to apply all our normal advice on decision making, which we talk about in more detail in later sections, e.g. for making a shortlist of longer-term career options. In short: once you generate a long list of options, identify key uncertainties, and work out what research you might do to resolve those uncertainties. Then do it, reassess, and repeat.
Write down your prioritised list of pressing global issues in the appendix of your worksheet. Aim for a relatively long list of 5–15. You’ll consider uncertainties about this list in a moment.
If you want something a bit less time-intensive than this process, in 2016 we created this problem ‘quiz’ which asks a couple of questions that seem to be particularly important to us in determining where to focus. The tool then ranks our writeups of different problems based on your answers. The ranking is out of date, but we still think the questions are important. You can also see another similar effort by the Global Priorities Institute from 2015.
★Make your list and write down key uncertainties
From what you’ve learned — either from looking at the research of others or doing your own investigation, or both — which global issues do you think are the most pressing for more people to work on?
Write down your best guess of the top 5–15 most pressing issues, in order, in Section 2.1.3 of your worksheet.
Now: What are your biggest uncertainties about this ranking?
Here are some prompts to help you think of the most important uncertainties:
What could you learn that would most change your ranking?
What did you feel most uncertain about in making your ranking?
If you could get the answer to one question, which question would be most useful?
Add your uncertainties in Section 2.1.4 of your worksheet. We will return to them later.
Now that you have your list of the global issues you think are most pressing, you will be able to use it to help figure out what you should focus on in your career.
In some ways, this was the most important section: We think that getting clearer on what global problems are most pressing likely does the most to help you do more good with your career, and it’s something many people never do.
Now we’ll dive into what you can do to help solve the problems you’ve identified.
3. Generate ideas for longer-term paths
Goal of this section
This section covers how you might actually be able to help solve pressing global problems, and what your ideal role might look like over the longer term.
At the end, you should have a shortlist of longer-term paths — ideas for what you might aim toward doing in the next 5–20 years.
We’ll also use these to inform your career strategy and next career steps in Sections 4 and 5.
It’s possible to pick a great next career step without having a longer-term plan, but we think everyone would ideally have some kind of longer-term plan too. Having something you’re aiming toward can keep you from drifting away from what you think is most impactful over the years (even if you later decide to change your plan due to learning more), and give you a strategic direction in the nearer term.
As you get older, your horizon will decrease — someone aged 45 might have a 5-year plan, whereas it might be worth someone aged 25 thinking about where they might end up over the next 20 years.
This is why we call it a longer-term plan rather than a long-term plan: it’s what you plan to do beyond your next career move, however long that horizon is.
What’s coming up:
We start with some discussion of longer-term planning, including why to make longer-term plans at all and why to aim high.
We cover four approaches to coming up with lots of ideas for longer-term roles:
Aim at top problems: Generate ideas for roles that tackle the problems you think are most pressing
Develop transferable career capital: Generate ideas for roles that build ‘transferable career capital’ — skills, connections, or other resources that you will be able to use to tackle a variety of pressing problems
Capitalise on your strengths: Clarify your strengths, skills, and other career capital, and use them to generate more options
Coordinate with others in a community: Consider roles to help communities you might join have more impact
We talk about some of our ideas for unusually high-impact roles.
Finally, we’ll help you narrow down your longer-term paths into a shortlist and write out your key uncertainties.
This is a lot, so you may want to budget extra time for this section. But by the end of it, you will have one of the most important things in pursuing a high-impact career: direction.
When and why to make longer-term plans
We often see people in our advising who try too hard to make overly specific longer-term plans or make none at all. Both are mistakes.
We find it useful to first make some hypotheses about your longer-term plans to get oriented, specifying the global problems and career paths you’d like to work towards in the longer-term. But then also spend a lot of time looking for concrete next career moves that will take you towards them, as well as other interesting opportunities, even if you don’t know where they’ll lead (as we cover in section 5).
Why make longer-term plans? Some of the arguments are just the normal arguments for setting goals — having a vision for what you might achieve helps you spot opportunities and know whether you’re making progress, and it’s usually motivating, even if it’s vague.
But we think if you’re especially interested in having an impact, there are even more reasons to make longer-term plans than the normal ones.
One is that we think some roles are much higher-impact than others but also tend to be unusual, and involve uncommon skills — such as synthetic biology, nonprofit operations or machine learning. This means it seems unlikely that most people will end up in one of these unusually high-impact opportunities by accident.
That’s not to say we oppose being adaptable and opportunistic. In fact, later in the process we’ll encourage you to spend a lot of time searching for interesting next career moves opportunities as well. It’s more that you should do both.
If you’re under 35, then there’s another argument for longer-term planning. Most people reach their peak productivity between the ages of 40 and 50, having built up career capital over decades. If you can keep an eye on how this career capital might compound, you’ll have a greater chance of reaching a higher peak at that time.
In our experience, however, many people never get around to this kind of planning — it’s easier to go from opportunity to opportunity without stepping back and reflecting on the longer view. This often leads people to take options that are pretty good, but to miss some of the best ones.
You might work through this section and realise you’re radically uncertain about what your longer-term plans should be. That’s fine too. As we’ll cover in section 4, you can then decide to focus on exploring and opportunistically gaining flexible career capital. But let’s check first.
What should a longer-term plan look like?
The challenge of longer-term planning is to find goals that are narrow enough to provide direction and motivation, but broad enough that they’re sufficiently stable over time and let you stay open to opportunity.
As we talked about earlier, one useful type of longer-term plan is to help solve a particular global problem (or set of problems) you think is/are particularly pressing.
Another useful goal is a vision for how you intend to contribute to those problems — i.e. some kind of broad role like being ‘a writer who specialises in topics around decision making’ or ‘an AI scientist’.
A longer-term path is generally determined by a combination of problems and roles that might match your strengths. Here are some examples of role-problem pairs at the level of breadth we find helpful for longer-term planning:
Work in operations management in an organisation focused on advocacy for novel technologies to help mitigate climate change. Stay there while it’s growing, and otherwise seek roles at other organisations in the sector.
Become a nuclear policy wonk and look for opportunities to improve policy in the area.
Become a writer focused on the intersection of decision making and catastrophic risks.
For the roles, essentially what defines them is some kind of career capital or strength that builds up over the years, letting you become increasingly impactful over time.
For example, ‘people management for organisations working on climate change’ is a useful category of longer-term role because managers continue to improve their craft and knowledge of both management and solutions to climate change over decades.
Your longer-term paths are also ideally not defined by a specific goal that you reach once and for all. Besides the risk of making you think too narrowly, we can’t fully control what’s going to happen 10+ years in the future, so tying our motivation to landing a specific position or achievement can backfire. Better to set a general aim that gives you a helpful direction.
It’s okay to have specific positions and steps in mind — they can sometimes help make your vision more vivid and can be motivating — as long as you aren’t married to them. Overall you want to think of your longer-term path not as a detailed plan, but more like a guiding vision, which helps you clarify your direction and which provides motivation.
★Why to aim high, think broadly, and not rule out potential paths too early
Some people are overconfident in their abilities, while others are underconfident. You can ask friends which way you tend to err, and try to correct.
Of the two, however, underconfidence seems the greater danger, especially when it comes to longer-term roles.
We know many people now in exciting positions who wouldn’t have applied because they thought they’d never get it, and had to be actively encouraged.
We also often see people rule out potentially great options (since they don’t immediately seem like a natural match for their current skills) who we think are underestimating their long-term potential.
Another reason to aim high is that a lot of your expected impact likely comes from scenarios where things go unusually well in an unusually good opportunity, and so if you don’t at least give yourself the chance to surprise yourself, you’ll be giving up much of your potential impact.
Moreover, if you try a potentially-great longer-term path and it doesn’t work out, you’ll probably find out fairly soon and can try something else (while improving your skills in the meantime). But if it’s successful, you can stick with it for years, continuing to have a big impact. So there’s an asymmetry, which works in favour of aiming high and testing out the most promising options, especially early in your career. More on this argument here.
Also, no one seems to have an accurate way of predicting their long-term fit with potential paths and opportunities, which means you really could perform better than you expect.
Anecdotally, while people often seem overambitious about what they can achieve in a year, they often underestimate what they can achieve over several decades as their skills build up.
One way to see this is to remember that you’re part of a broader set of efforts to make the world a better place with millions of other people. From that perspective, it’s good if everyone aims high10 — even though many projects won’t work out, many will, and so there will be progress on average. Once you’ve accounted for the chance your path won’t work out, there’s no additional reason to avoid risk.
That said, aiming high is not without personal risks, such as financial ruin or burnout. These risks, however, can often be mitigated by having a backup plan, and we’d encourage you to do that. It can also be helpful to be part of a community that can help you find other options if your Plan A doesn’t work out. We come back to risk management in Section 6.
In addition to aiming high, we think people should ‘aim broad’ — considering a wider range of longer-term paths than is typical.
One of the main lessons of research into ‘heuristics and biases’ seems to be that our bias is to stick to the status quo, what’s socially desirable, and to think too narrowly. This suggests that we should strive to consider more options than first come to mind, especially ones that seem more unconventional.
People also seem to underestimate the extent to which they develop new interests over time, suggesting you could eventually become interested in a wider range of areas.
This is one reason why ‘following your passion’ can be misleading — your passions can change based on what you do.
Finally, there will be a huge variety of specific jobs and organisations within each broad path. A path might not seem like a good fit in general, but if you find an unusually good opportunity, it could still be worth taking. So, be cautious about ruling out a longer-term path based on personal fit at least until you’ve considered specific next steps in Section 5.
The next couple of sections cover four ways to generate options for longer-term roles. We think all these ways of generating options are valuable — so do all of them if you have the time. If you don’t, we think the first and second ways are most important, followed by the third.
Generating lots of options and thinking creatively about them is perhaps the most important step in making a good decision, and that’s why we recommend you devote so much time to it.
★Aim at top problems
We find promising longer-term roles often fall into two categories.
The first, which we cover in this section, is taking a bet on a way to address a specific need in a pressing problem area.
This will usually involve choosing both a specific intervention and a way to gain leverage on it for which you might have great personal fit (as discussed in Section 1).
For example, for AI safety, you might aim to become knowledgeable about forecasting, which may allow you to improve the forecasting methods of key institutions working on AI, allowing them to make better decisions (that’s the intervention), by advising them about how to better use their resources for training (giving you some leverage).
Note that your ‘leverage’ can be either your ability to contribute your own skilled labour or money, and/or that of others you’re able to influence. The more resources a role ultimately lets you dedicate to an issue, the higher leverage it is. We give examples of pathways to higher leverage below.
We talk below about some longer-term roles we’re excited about. But first, try to generate some ideas on your own.
To generate options in this category:
Take your long list of pressing global problems from Section 2.1.3 of your worksheet.
Make a rough assessment of what you think each problem most needs. We aim to provide suggestions on this in our individual problem profiles. If you’re doing your own investigation, try asking people who work in the area. You can use these frameworks for prioritising. This might involve looking for unusually effective interventions, or identifying key bottlenecks.
Generate ideas for career paths that might help with those needs. In particular, look for paths that might offer the most leverage and be the best personal fit for you in the long term. We list some categories of paths that might fit this description right below. If your views of global priorities overlaps with ours, our list of promising careers below will hopefully be helpful here.
If you aren’t able to generate many options using this process, consider expanding your list of global problems or ways of addressing those problems.
For instance, if you think what AI safety most needs is a solution to the ‘alignment problem’, which you think would benefit most from high-quality research, you could consider ways to further that research — e.g. becoming a researcher yourself, working at an organisation doing such research to make it more productive, or working in an AI company and helping to promote a culture of safety. If you can’t think of roles that might let you contribute to AI safety, consider a wider range of problems.
Let’s elaborate a bit on step 3: the main broad categories of longer-term roles that can offer a lot of leverage include:
Direct work — Find the best organisations addressing the problem, and think about (or ask) what they need. These are usually nonprofits, but could also be for-profit organisations with a social mission. This could mean working in management, operations, or outreach, or using many other skills.
Research and expertise — Try to make progress on whichever research questions are most important for solving the problem you want to focus on. This usually means seeking a PhD and aiming to work in academia, but there are also research options in nonprofits, think tanks, and companies.
Targeted advocacy — Spread ideas in a focused way to the people who could most use them to do good. This could be done alongside another job, especially one that gives you access to influential people.
Government and policy — Take a job in a relevant area of government, a think tank, or party politics, and then try to improve policy or otherwise enable governments to better manage the issue.
It’s also worth considering these two other categories, though they can be more risky and difficult:
Entrepreneurship — Help found a new organisation addressing a key need in the problem area you’re prioritising.
Mass advocacy — Make people more aware of the issue and how it can be solved, or encourage them to take action. This often means working in the media or a campaigning nonprofit.
Can you think of one or more career paths within each of these categories that might allow you to help solve the global problems you want to work on? Write them down in Section 3.1.1 of your worksheet.
The second strategy is to build transferable career capital, i.e. to bet on a way of becoming far more productive or influential in the future — often by capitalising on your strengths — in a way that can be used to address whatever problems turn out to be most pressing at that time.
For instance, become a journalist, data scientist, or top civil servant and use those skills to address the issues that come up over time. ‘Earning to give’ is also in this category.
This category is most relevant to people under 35.
What does outstanding transferable career capital look like for longer-term paths?
Some elements to aim towards include:
Impressive achievements (e.g. through publishing papers in top journals, being given an unusual amount of responsibility early in your career, etc.)
Connections with people who are influential, skilled, and want to have an impact
A public platform that can be used for advocacy (e.g. a blog)
Provable transferable skills and knowledge (e.g. management, data analysis)
Self-development and ‘meta’ skills, such as ability to invest in your mental health, self-care, productivity routines, and ability to think well and make good decisions.
A reputation for competence or widely recognised credentials (e.g. building a website, producing open source materials, having a degree from a top school, working at a respected organisation)
Anything that gives you earning power for donations (e.g. skills in finance or algorithm design)
Your character, including cultivating your commitment to doing good, trustworthiness and self-control.
How do you achieve these? Here are some rules of thumb for coming up with paths that build career capital over the long term:
Seriously consider any options where you might be unusually successful (i.e. where you have the best personal fit), even if it isn’t immediately obvious how it will be useful for making an impact, since this makes you more likely to gain impressive achievements and connections.
Consider options that will let you work with great people and/or mentors. We become more like the people we spend the most time with almost automatically, and our explicit learning is much faster if we can get feedback and support, so working with great people — no matter what sector you’re in — is one of the best ways to build your career capital. It’s especially useful to work with people who care deeply about doing good, or have skills and influence that are relevant to doing good.
Consider joining an industry or organisation that is growing unusually quickly and/or where you might gain an unusual amount of responsibility unusually quickly (like startups).
Consider paths that let you build connections and influence over many years, such as politics, policy, or media.
Do something that lets you practice and get mentorship in a generally useful skill where you can keep improving your skills for 10+ years (like management and operations).
Likewise, consider any paths where you think you might learn a lot and do useful self-development.
You can see some ideas for concrete roles that we’ve found are good for career capital given our list of priority problems on the key ideas page.
In the spirit of being ambitious, you can tie all these suggestions together and ask: How might I be ten times as productive, or have ten times as much influence, or be ten times better at making decisions, in under ten years from now? How might I put myself in the best possible position to help solve pressing global problems?
Do these prompts give you any more ideas for roles to pursue? If so, write them down in Section 3.1.2 of your worksheet.
A common mistake is to overweight ‘hard’ factors, like concrete credentials, and to underweight ‘soft’ factors, like mentorship or personal development, which are harder to assess but often more important.
If you do aim toward building transferable career capital over the longer term, one risk is that you might drift away from doing good over time. After all, you’ll mostly be focused on building things like your network or skills, and you might lose touch with the issues you want to eventually use them to address. So we’d encourage you to find a way to keep thinking about impact while building career capital. For instance, you might:
Hang out with other people interested in social impact (e.g. members of the effective altruism community), attend conferences about the issues you want to work on, and keep in touch with friends who share this aim
Donate 1% of your income (or more if you like) so you can practice thinking about which charities are the highest impact and feel like you’re contributing
Do high-impact side projects alongside your main job
We list some next steps to consider based on these rules of thumb in the key ideas page section on career capital. Our lists of potential high-impact career paths in the next section also consider career capital.
★Roles we think are unusually promising given our views on global problems
To help give you some ideas, we’ve compiled the following lists based on our own analysis of what problems we think are most pressing and which roles typically enable people to best help solve them (in both the above categories):
Rather than starting from what the world needs and asking how you might fit in, you could also try asking, “What do I have to offer, and how might that be useful?”
In other words, clarify your strengths and think of ways to apply them.
For example, if you find you’re particularly creative and good at building systems, that might suggest you should try to move toward a role in operations management.
We started with what the world most needs because we think that perspective is more important and often overlooked, but it’s worth considering both — clearly your abilities and motivation matter.
Standard career planning often focuses on identifying strengths and ways to apply them, and we agree that successful careers often involve capitalising on strengths. (With weaknesses, you can (i) bring them up to a passable level, (ii) find a path that doesn’t need them, or (iii) or find a team who complements you.)
Moreover, with some creativity, many strengths can be applied to pressing problems.
This method also becomes more important the older you are and the more career capital you already have. If you’re still an undergraduate, you may only have a fuzzy idea of what your strengths are (and what they might be in the future). That’s fine — they tend to get a lot clearer in your first couple of jobs.
Clarifying your strengths is also a useful exercise to help you (i) predict personal fit when narrowing down your options, (ii) explain what you’re good at to others (e.g. if you’re applying for a job), and (iii) design a more fulfilling role once you’re already in a job. So we’d recommend everyone try to clarify their strengths at some point, especially if they’ve already had a couple of jobs and so have more data to work with.
One key question to help you reflect is: What doesn’t feel like work to you, but is considered work by other people?
Start by making an initial guess at your 3–6 most important abilities, traits, and skills in Section 3.1.3 of your worksheet.
It’s also useful to think more broadly, and consider your other valuable career capital and resources, such as connections, reputation, credentials, achievements, access to capital, and influence.
The main aim is to identify what you’re best at — not to compare yourself to others.
Once you’ve identified your top five or so strengths, ask yourself: How might you be able to use these strengths to help solve the problems you think are most pressing?
However, in those articles we need to stick to fairly general-purpose advice, given our broad audience and limited research capacity. If you have already developed a relatively specific skill set (e.g. Indonesian international relations, or a particular type of M&A law), you’ll need to speak to people within the problem areas you want to focus on about how your experience might be applied, and discuss with relevant organisations whether they might have or be able to create a role for you.
If you have an unusually specific skill set, it’s also worth bearing in mind that you might be able to recast your skills in a more general light. For instance, if you’ve worked in a narrow area of law, you probably also have analytical skills, attention to detail, connections with wealthy people, and so on, which could be useful in many other roles.
Alternatively, it might be best to continue with what you’re doing and contribute by donating, volunteering, or advocacy, as covered below.
Finish filling in Section 3.1.3 in the accompanying worksheet with ideas for longer-term paths given your strengths and other resources.
Coordinate with others in a community
We can have far more impact if we work with others who are also aiming to do good — because they can work as a team, 10 people coordinating can often achieve more than 10 times as much as each individual could.
We’ve also mentioned how important it is to surround yourself with great people for learning, connections, self-development etc., and joining a community can be the most efficient way to do that, as well as to ‘network’, since you can gain connections to hundreds of people at once.
The importance of community is why we help foster the effective altruism community, a group of people who seek out the very best ways of doing good and who use evidence and careful reasoning to do so. We’re not saying everyone needs to join the effective altruism community, but we’ve met some amazing people through it, and would be excited to welcome more people to join our efforts. Learn more about how to get involved.
There are many other communities that can be worth joining. Some of these communities are tight-knit, whereas others are more of a loose collection of professionals. What matters is that they’re connected as a network and have means of coordinating. Here are some examples our readers have found useful:
Communities associated with specific problem areas, e.g. biosecurity, animal advocacy, or global development (which you can usually find online or through professional networks)
The Silicon Valley startup community
The London, Brussels, and DC policy worlds (or equivalent in your country)
The communities around academic fields, e.g. economics
Other communities focused on social impact, e.g. social enterprise or impact investing
Not all these communities are focused on doing good. However, you can still meet and learn from talented people by getting involved with them, as well as potentially find collaboration partners, all of which can be useful in pursuing a high-impact career.
Ask yourself which communities you would most like to be more involved with. You might choose based on which ones seem to be making progress on the problems you’re most focused on, or which might help you develop the skills and connections you need.
Once you choose which communities to work with, you can bring a community-focused perspective to planning your career.
Rather than ask yourself, “What’s the highest-impact thing I could do?” (implicitly holding what other people are doing fixed), instead ask: “How could I enable the most good to be done in my community?” This lens works especially well with communities that are focused on social impact, but can to some extent be applied to other communities as well.
This perspective opens up new opportunities for impact based on coordination — for example, you could help to create shared infrastructure for your community (e.g. a job board), helping other members to achieve more.
People sometimes feel like they need to be the ones who change the world with their own hands to really be making a difference. But the truth is we need to work as a team, even if that team is humanity as a whole, and that more often than not means supporting others on the ground rather than doing it all yourself.11
Also keep in mind that if other people are coordinating with you, then what you do will likely affect how other people act as well. (In technical terms: you should do ‘game theory’ rather than ‘marginal analysis’.)
All this leads to taking a ‘portfolio approach’. To find the best longer-term option for you, consider:
What might be the ideal portfolio of effort within the community? (I.e. What would ideally be getting done, including efforts to improve coordination and infrastructure?)
Where are the biggest gaps in that portfolio? (I.e. What are the most important things that currently aren’t getting done?)
Ask yourself these questions for the communities you’re part of, and see if doing so suggests any new longer-term options.
If it does, write them down in Section 3.1.4 of your worksheet.
For the effective altruism community, we try to identify the biggest gaps through an annual survey — here are the results from 2019.
To be clear, we don’t think this portfolio approach supersedes the other frameworks we’ve covered for generating longer-term options. In reality, you won’t be perfectly coordinating, so it’s best to consider a mixture of perspectives.12
Yet more ways to generate options
Not considering enough options is one of the most common decision-making mistakes, so here are even more questions to help you come up with ideas:
Elimination: If you couldn’t do any of your top options, what would you do instead?
Good luck: What would you do if you knew you would have a high chance of success?
Dream job: What would make you most personally happy? How might that be adjusted to have an impact?
Ask your friends and connections: What do they think might be ideal for you?
Combinations: Are there any ways your top options could be combined to get the best of both worlds? (E.g. For being an academic historian and working on ensuring safe and beneficial AI — could you become a historian of technological progress?)
Do these questions bring any new options to mind? If so, add them to your worksheet in Section 3.1.5.
If you don’t have any ideas you’re excited about
If you’ve worked through the above and still have no ideas for longer-term options that might help you gain career capital or have an impact, don’t worry.
Later, we’ll show how you can focus on exploring and opportunistically taking good next steps, putting you in a better position to make a plan in the future.
Finally, it’s important to remember that if you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty well educated by global standards, and living in a developed country. If so, you can most likely have a huge impact by any ordinary standards.
Politically supporting policies that help address the most pressing problems.
Advocacy — i.e. telling others about important issues. If you can tell one other person about a high-impact job and they take it, that has roughly as much impact as taking it yourself (and is much quicker for you!).
Volunteering and side projects. (If you’re interested in effective altruism, see this list of ways to volunteer. Running a local group part time can also be a way to have a positive impact.)
Of all the potential career paths you’ve considered so far, which should you focus on? You don’t need to work out a single best option yet, but it is useful to narrow down your list to the 3–6 longer-term paths you think are most promising.
If you’re lucky, it might be obvious which longer-term paths are best — perhaps because few are focused on problems you think are much more pressing vs. the others, or are clearly a better fit.
If not, you’ll want to do a more thorough comparison. We cover one way to do that here.
Steps for doing an in-depth comparison
In brief, the process we recommend is:
Clarify the factors you’re going to use to compare your longer-term options. Below we suggest using targeted impact, transferable career capital, long-term personal fit, and fit with your personal priorities. The aim is to cover the most important factors, without making the list of factors too long, so that you can focus on what matters most.
Combine the lists you’ve already made of longer-term options into one long list.
Make a rough ranking of your options based on the factors you identified in Step 1. We have more advice on doing this right below.
Identify key uncertainties. To do this, ask: What information could most easily change the rough ranking I just made? For example, if you learned that some of your top options for longer-term paths had worse (or better) backup options than you thought, would that change your ranking?
Go and investigate your key uncertainties — then make a shortlist. People often get caught in initial armchair analysis, but a thorough comparison of options will probably be an iterative process, involving speaking to people and taking action and learning as you go. Since this longer-term path is something you might work on for decades, it could be worth a lot of research, especially before making big commitments (e.g. going to medical school). For now, just list your key uncertainties and we’ll come back to investigation, making your final assessment, and other decision-making advice in Section 7.
But how do you do Step 1 — i.e. come up with factors for comparing your options?
Key factors for comparing longer-term paths
This is a version of the general framework we introduced right at the start, adapted for longer-term paths:
Targeted impact: How pressing are the problem(s) this path specifically addresses compared to others, and how much will it let you contribute to solving them (by getting leverage over resources you can put toward an effective intervention)?13
Long-term transferable career capital: How much will this path generally set you up to contribute to future pressing problems?
Long-term fit: What are your chances of outsized success in the long term? Does the role match your strengths? Will you be sustainably motivated and happy in the role? (If you’re working within a community, also consider your fit compared to other community members.)
Other personal priorities: Will you be happy in this role and does it fit with your personal life and other values (briefly discussed in Section 1)?
You can treat these as rough rules of thumb, where your goal is to find the options that seem best overall based on these factors. You probably won’t find something that’s great in every way — rather, look for the best overall balance.
Feel free to add more factors or reframe them — just don’t make your list too long. If you’re comparing based on more than about eight factors, it’ll be hard to focus on what matters most (not to mention it will be more work).
If you want to think about your ranking more quantitatively, the first two factors are effectively different routes to long-term impact, and added together, they multiply with your fit to give your overall expected impact.
How to assess paths based on your chosen factors
One simple option is to score your intuitively most promising paths from 1 to 5 on each factor. This might help you spot that some are clearly better than others. There’s also some evidence that ‘structuring’ complex decisions like this can be more accurate than simply going with your gut.
One problem with this approach is that our intuitions are also bad at assessing differences in scale. People we advise are often inclined to classify options as ‘high-impact’ or ‘low-impact’, rather than to think about how some options might be ten times better than others or more. A path that’s outstanding on one dimension could easily be better than another one that’s better on all of the others.
For example, suppose you’re comparing taking a corporate job to working at a startup nonprofit. You think the corporate job will give you somewhat better career capital, be more compatible with your personal life, and be a better long-term fit. On the other hand, you think the nonprofit might have a lot of impact over the next 5–10 years, while the corporate job will have comparatively little. It’s tempting to say the corporate job is better because it’s better on more of the dimensions, but if the nonprofit job is better enough with regard to targeted direct impact, it might well be better overall.
To help avoid this mistake, one way to assess options that we think is especially useful in the context of longer-term paths is to consider the plausible best and worst case scenarios for each path.
Options with unusually high but uncertain upsides are good targets to test out (as argued earlier). Whereas if an option has an unusually large downside risk, you may want to eliminate it (or otherwise find a way to further test or reduce the downside).
Upside/downside analysis can also give you a rough proxy of expected value, which will often be dominated by the value of upside and downside scenarios.
Another method is to try to quantify the value of different paths. These estimates will be extremely rough, but might help you identify very big differences in scale.14
How to assess your long-term fit
Your likelihood of long-term success in a path is very hard to predict. It’s important not to rule out potentially impactful longer-term paths just because you’re not already good at them. Instead, think about what you might become good at. You may well have more options here than it seems at first.
On the other hand, reaching high performance in almost any role takes at least five years, and usually more than 10. It’s much harder than doing well at school. So if you can’t imagine persisting with something for that long, it’s unlikely to be your top option in terms of fit. If you’re unsure, it might be worth trying out and then reassessing.
Here are some questions you can use to assess your fit for a potential path:
Try to make a rough estimate of your chances of success.15 To do this, look at your track record in similar work and try to project it forward. For instance, if you placed in the top 25% of your class in graduate school, you could roughly forecast being in the top 50% of academia.16 To get a better sense of your long-term potential, look at your rate of improvement rather than recent performance. Also, if you can, ask people experienced in the field for their assessment of your prospects.
Does it match your strengths? One way to gauge this is to look for activities that don’t feel like work to you, but do for most people. You can also draw on the list of strengths you made in Section 3.1.3 of your worksheet.
Do you feel excited to pursue it? Gut-level motivation isn’t a reliable predictor of success, but if you don’t feel motivated, it’ll be challenging to exert yourself at the level required for high performance in most jobs. So, a lack of excitement should perhaps give you pause.
Will you enjoy it? In order to stick with it for the long term, the path would ideally be reasonably enjoyable and fit with the rest of your life (e.g. if you want a family, you’ll need a job with non-crazy working hours).
Research key uncertainties. In what ways are you unsure about how good a fit you are for this longer-term path? Can you learn more and settle those uncertainties? We cover investigating key uncertainties in Section 7.
Do tests. There’s often a way to learn about or test your fit for a path empirically. For instance, you can apply for jobs in the area and see how you do. Or you might be able to take an internship, or even just work in the path for a couple of years.
★Make your shortlist and write down key uncertainties
Once you’ve narrowed down your longer-term paths using the process above, you have your shortlist of potentially promising options.
Write them down in Section 3.2 of your worksheet. Again, we think it makes sense to aim for 3–6, though it depends on your situation.
Next, as you did with your list of pressing problems, write out your biggest uncertainties about your list, now in Section 3.3 of your worksheet.
These could be questions that were brought up by any of the exercises you went through above, or anything else you feel unsure about and which you think might meaningfully change your ranking if you learn more.
In this section, you generated:
A long list of potential longer-term paths, using several different methods
A best guess at your 2–6 most important strengths
A shortlist of your potentially most promising options
A list of key uncertainties about your ranking
Make sure you have these all written down.
Remember, your shortlist doesn’t need to be perfect — you’ll keep improving your plans throughout this process, and throughout your career.
Having this shortlist of longer-term paths is way more than most people do. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back for all the hard work you’ve done.
When you’re ready, we’ll move on to what strategy you’ll take to move toward them.
4. Clarify your strategic focus
Goal of this section
Now that you have some ideas for longer-term paths, we can assess your strategy for how you’ll get there — that is, what factors and rules of thumb you’ll use to assess what next career steps you should take.
What do we mean by a ‘next career step’? We have in mind roles or education opportunities (like going to grad school) that you could take for the few months or few years right in front of you. In other words, we are turning to what your next substantial career phase should be.
By the end of this section, you will have determined your strategic focus — your rough guide to how to choose among next career steps at this stage in your career — as well as identified any other important strategic priorities to keep in mind.
★Factors for comparing your next career steps
In finding a next career step, you want to employ a combination of methods: both looking for unusually good opportunities that happen to be right in front of you, and working backward from potentially great longer-term paths.
Before you carry out any comparisons, let’s talk about the kinds of things you’ll be looking for in your next career steps based on what we covered in Section 1:
Immediate impact potential — How much will this next step allow you to contribute to solving a pressing problem (in expectation)? This depends on how pressing the problem is that it would allow you to address, the effectiveness of the intervention the next step allows you to help implement, how much leverage it allows you to bring to bear, and your personal fit for the role (also below).
Specialist career capital potential — How much will this step advance you towards your best-guess longer-term paths?
Transferable career capital potential — What opportunities will this step give you to gain transferable skills, impressive credentials, useful connections or otherwise invest in your self-development, which will put you in a generally better position to contribute to pressing problems? This also helps determine how good your backup options will be. We covered some key elements of transferable career capital earlier.
Personal fit — What are your chances of outsized success in this path? Relatedly, will you be sustainably motivated and happy, and does it match your strengths? The better your fit, the greater your expected impact and the career capital you will gain. (If you’re working with a community, also consider fit relative to other community members.)
Information value — How much will you learn about yourself, the world, and your longer-term options, so as to help you uncover even better longer-term paths than your current top options (or further narrow them down)? The steps with the highest information value often involve trying out options that might be very good but about which you are very uncertain.
Fit with other personal priorities — Will this next step fit with the priorities you clarified earlier, in Section 1 (e.g. family life)?
We generated these factors by splitting out the framework for the value of a career we introduced at the very start:
Short-term impact — given by the immediate impact potential of the potential next step multiplied by your personal fit with it
Contribution to long-term impact — given by the step’s potential for valuable career capital multiplied by your personal fit for it, and the step’s information value (i.e. the extent to which this next step might inform your future choices)
Other personal values — any other personal priorities, plus again personal fit, since being skilled at your job is also good from a personal point of view
This means that if we were to turn the above factors into a formula, it would be something like:
Expected value of next step = (immediate impact potential + career capital potential + fit with other personal priorities) x personal fit + information value.
★Pick a strategic focus
Which of the factors above should you focus the most on? This depends on your career stage, degree of uncertainty, and which problems you think are most pressing.
One way to boil down what factors to prioritise is to decide which of the following ‘strategic focuses’ is the best fit for you right now:
Betting on one of your longer-term paths (with a backup plan): If you’ve found a promising longer-term path, you could try to advance as quickly as possible in it. This could either involve specialising to meet a specific need in a particular problem area, or be a way of gaining transferable career capital. Your longer-term paths should be ambitious, so there will be a good chance they don’t work out, which is why it’s important to have a backup plan — which we cover in Section 6.
Exploring: If you’re not confident enough yet to take a bet on a particular longer-term path — which is more likely the case if you’re early career — instead plan to try out the most promising longer-term paths to learn more about which is best (in other words, focus on ‘information value’). Aim to try out your options in the right order so that you can try out several. Also consider options that will let you learn more about your worldview, which global problems are most pressing, your strengths, and the world in general.
Career capital opportunism: If you’re really unsure about your longer-term plan and are early career, aim to find your best next step for transferable career capital, while you continue to research your longer-term paths on the side.
Impact opportunism: If you’re later in your career and already have a lot of career capital, focus on using it to have an immediate impact (by looking for effective opportunities to use your career capital to solve pressing problems). This strategy can also make sense if you’re early in your career if you’re lucky enough to come across an unusually good opportunity for immediate impact. If so, you can take it and come back to your longer-term plan later.
If you’re in high school or early college, you’ll probably want to focus on exploring, as well as taking any promising career capital opportunities that come your way (often you can do both at once — like by taking an internship).17
Before you think about going to graduate school might be a particularly good opportunity to try something a bit different, because after graduate school it’s fairly easy to return to a traditional path — what we’ve called the ‘graduate reset’.
One common mistake that people who are uncertain about longer-term paths make is to take an option that when they reflect, they’re confident they don’t want in the longer term (e.g. doing an investment banking internship when you don’t want to work in finance). Often these seem like good ways of getting transferrable career capital, but aren’t the best opportunities available.
After exploring several paths, it usually becomes a bit clearer where to focus. We then encourage people to identify a best-guess role to aim towards in the longer term. Ideally, this is a role that might be an excellent fit and would have a big impact if it goes well.
At that point, the top priority becomes building the career capital that’s most useful in this role, so that you can increase your impact as time goes on (e.g. knowledge of information security).
Within your longer-term options, the more uncertain you are about which problems and interventions are the most pressing, the more you’ll want to focus on something that builds transferable career capital rather than specialising to meet a particular need — though it can still be better to specialise if the rewards are great enough.
If you’re uncertain about which roles are best for you (rather than about which global problems are most pressing), then stay in explorer mode instead.
Later career (after age 35–50 depending on the field), you will have hopefully already built some valuable career capital. You can mainly focus on finding great opportunities to have an impact, using the career capital you’ve already built to contribute. For example, maybe you have management experience, and so could advise effective nonprofits (or start one). Or maybe you’re an academic, in which case you could turn your research towards the topics you think are the highest impact, or aim to advise governments on policy relevant to your research.
One other factor is how urgent you think it is to work on the most pressing problems. The greater the urgency, the more to focus on immediately having an impact (opportunism) and the less to focus on exploring and career capital.
Keep in mind you will always want to be doing a bit of each strategic focus — always exploring a bit, always keeping an eye out for opportunities that seem especially good — it’s just your emphasis that changes.
It can also make sense to focus on any of the strategic focus options at different ages — the ages we gave are just rough averages.
Which strategic focus is the best fit for your situation right now? Write it down on your worksheet, along with why you chose it.
In this section, we discussed what factors are important for assessing your next career steps, and distilled four options for your strategic focus.
Which of these strategic focuses seems like the best fit for your situation right now and why
Make sure you wrote down your answers in your worksheet. These strategic priorities will help you determine what to do next.
5. Determine your best-guess next career step
Goal of this section
Now that you’ve clarified your longer-term options and career strategy, you can use them to find the best next career move for you. These will usually be jobs, though they could also be education, side projects, or self-study.
It’s useful to get really concrete at this stage, because specific opportunities often vary so much within a path. For instance, even if career path A is better than path B on average, the best opportunities within B can be much better than many of the opportunities within A. While we’re keen for people to have longer-term plans, it’s often worth spending as much or even more time searching for concrete next steps, even if they don’t neatly fit in to your longer-term plans.
First you’ll generate a long list of promising next career steps. Then we’ll help you narrow down your options into a shortlist. You’ll make your final best-guess decisions in Section 7.
Two ways to generate ideas for next career steps
The first broad method we want to introduce for coming up with potential next steps is to start with where you want to end up — your longer-term plan — and work backwards. The aim is to work out how to get towards your longer-term vision as efficiently as possible.
The second method is to start with your current situation and skills, and then to work forwards — to look for great opportunities right in front of you.
One nice thing about the second approach is that you can still build a great career over time by taking steps that put you in a generally better position, even if you don’t know how it’s all going to work out. This can be reassuring if you feel very unsure about your longer-term plans.
But we think the ‘working backward’ approach is more often overlooked, and can be very useful if you’ve been able to develop a rough guess at your best options for longer-term plans. So we’ll start there.
★Work backward from your longer-term paths
For this method, the key question is: For the shortlist of longer-term paths that you drew up in Section 3, which next steps would most accelerate you in them? (If you don’t have these, or are pursuing the opportunism strategy, you can skip to the next section.)
Here are some questions to help you reflect:
What career capital would most help you advance in your top longer-term paths? We try to assess this for some different career paths in our career reviews. Bear in mind that while doing something generally prestigious can work, more direct routes often get you more relevant career capital faster.
One way to do the above is to look at the biographies of people who have succeeded in your longer-term paths, especially those who advanced unusually quickly, or from an unconventional background. What did they do? Can you map out the main routes into your top roles?
What tests could you do that might let you eliminate each of your longer-term path ideas as a promising option? For instance, might you have a low-stakes way to try something for a couple of months? Should you enter one of the paths and see if you make it past the next hurdle (e.g. apply for graduate school to gain information about starting a research career)?
If you could be well on your way to your ideal longer-term path in two years (or even right away), what would you need to do? Sometimes it’s possible to find shortcuts.
Do these prompts give you any ideas? Write them down in Section 5.1.1 of your worksheet.
If you’ve chosen an ambitious longer-term goal, then you might also be very unsure how to get there. It’s still possible to generate good guesses here by doing the kind of research covered above, but can be difficult and time consuming. This is especially true if you’re aiming for something more unconventional that people haven’t written much about.
In that case, you might try doing a bit of research, but ultimately focus more on the second approach, which we’ll go into now.
An argument for directly pursuing longer-term paths
People often feel like they need to ‘build more skills’ before they can do something high impact, especially by taking a job like consulting, working in large tech companies, or professional services. While that is sometimes the best next step, we think you should also consider aiming directly at your longer-term role — for example applying for an internship at an organisation you might want to eventually work for, or at a related organisation. This is because:
You’ll gain career capital that’s highly relevant to at least one very promising way of having an impact in the long term.
It’ll usually be a reasonable way to gain some transferable career capital too, especially transferable career capital relevant to having an impact — such as meeting others interested in big global issues. In short, if you want to have a big impact, the best way to learn is often just to try.
You’ll be testing out one of your top longer-term paths, gaining information value. (While if you work in professional services, but don’t want to do that long term, you’re not testing out an option you actually want.)
You might have a significant impact in the coming years (whereas if you work somewhere purely to gain skills, you normally won’t).
If you care about social impact, you’ll probably be more motivated in a path that feels more tied to your goals, which might make you more likely to succeed.
Of course, if you can find a great way to get transferable career capital, that could well be worth taking. Overall, we’d encourage you to consider both next steps that let you directly advance in high-impact longer-term paths, as well as next steps that let you gain generally useful skills.
★Work forward from your current situation
The second approach is to start with the immediate opportunities in front of you, generate lots of options, and then pick a great next step — even if you’re not sure where it’ll lead.
If you look at successful careers, they often involved a lot of working forward rather than backwards.
This is partly because the best longer-term roles are very unpredictable, and one way to deal with this is to take steps that let you learn, build skills, and contribute, and let a great career gradually emerge — rather than trying to plan it ahead of time.
It’s also likely partly because working backward requires having at least rough longer-term plans, which as you know if you’ve been working through this article, is a lot of work.
Working forward is also an important perspective because specific jobs often vary widely in how promising they are, even if they fit within a broad path.
For instance, you might think that biorisk policy is the best area for you to aim for in the longer term, but if you come across an unusually good opportunity in nuclear advocacy — say a job with an unusual amount of responsibility, or where you get to work with a great mentor — that could easily be worth taking. Not only does it let you have an immediate impact, it will likely give you good transferable career capital.
The process of pursuing specific jobs also gives you a lot of information. Opportunities often only emerge once you actively start looking. We often come across people agonising about whether one longer-term path is better than another, whereas if they’d simply made lots of applications, it would have become obvious which path to pursue, because one offer would have clearly stood out from the rest.
Finally, working forward gives more space for your intuitions. If you feel very excited about a next career step, it’s probably worth considering even if you don’t see how it fits into your longer-term plan. Your intuition might have picked up a positive feature of a next step, such as it being highly motivating for you, or giving you an opportunity to work with someone who’d inspire you. If you feel excited about an option, put it on your list and try to understand why.18
For all these reasons, it’s useful to work forward, and it can even be your main approach to career strategy. That said, (i) the ideal is to use both approaches to generate options and (ii) our impression is that most people work forward by default, even when they could work backward too, which we think neglects an important strategy.
Here are some ways to ‘work forward’ to generate ideas for next steps. You don’t have to do all of them — perhaps pick 3–5 prompts that seem most promising, and write down your answers in Section 5.1.2 of your worksheet.
Check out the jobs listed on our job board — do any of them seem interesting? We think the board has many promising options, though bear in mind that many of the best jobs are never advertised, so it’s also important to do the following step.
Speak to your friends, people working on interesting problems, and people you admire (e.g. professors or other mentors), and ask what opportunities they know about. The best opportunities are usually found through people you know.
Look out for ‘open doors’: interesting opportunities you come across which might not be around in the future.
See the list of jobs that are often good for career capital for people who want to enter our recommended careers on the key ideas page.
What problems and options are you feeling excited about right now? What next steps might they suggest?
Given the career capital you already have, how could you use it that would most help contribute to a pressing problem in the next few years? (This is especially relevant mid- and late-career). In Section 3, we covered some steps for clarifying your strengths and applying them. You could also consult this article for ideas of what to do with your existing experience.
Is there something you could do that you think you’d be unusually good at, or that would let you achieve something particularly impactful or impressive? Just optimising for fit and impact often sets you up well in the long term.
If you were just going to focus on learning as much as possible about what to do in the longer term, what would you do now? This could involve trying out something you don’t know much about, or making sure you have space for research and reflection, or spending time with people who have lots of ideas.
Remember to write down any ideas these prompts give you.
Add options by getting creative
Now that we have a starting point, here are some questions to give you even more ideas. Sometimes with a bit of creativity you can design a new option that is far better than what first came to mind.
Elimination: If you couldn’t pursue any of your current ideas for next career steps, what would you do?
Combination: Take your current list of next steps, and see if there’s any way to combine them to get the best of both worlds. E.g. if you’re considering starting a new project, but think it’s likely to not work, can you pursue it as a side project initially, and then go full time later? That will give you information value while minimising costs.
Modification: Can you change any of your options to remove their downsides or make them even better? E.g. suppose you think working at a nonprofit would have a greater impact than working in a for-profit company, but would be worse for career capital. Is there a way to get more career capital in the nonprofit position (e.g. ask to work on a certain team or project, or do self-development on the side)?
Add any ideas this gave you to Section 5.1.3 of your worksheet.
★Narrow down your next steps and write down key uncertainties
Now you have a long list of ideas, you can try to identify which next steps may be best based on your strategic focus and other factors.
Here’s a process we recommend for narrowing down your list of potential next steps:
Roughly rank the options on your long list based on the factors you think are most important. We generally suggest considering the factors listed at the top of Section 4.
Are there any other factors you want to consider? Write whatever factors you decide are important in Section 5.2.1 of your worksheet.
You can use the strategic focus you identified in Section 4 to decide which factors are most important for you right now.
Narrow down your options based especially on those factors. If you want to do a more detailed analysis, it can be helpful to roughly score your options from 1 to 5 based on each factor, or do an upside/downside analysis as covered in Section 3.
Identify the key uncertainties in your ranking: What information could most easily change your ranking? For instance, finding out that you’d be accepted to a certain programme, or that you’d enjoy a certain kind of work. Focus most on uncertainties that change which options you rate most highly.
Later, you’ll go and investigate your key uncertainties, and make a best guess at your top option. This most often involves talking to people about their work and what they think you should do, and making applications. For now, just list your key uncertainties — we’ll come back to investigation in Section 7.
For now, just make a shortlist of the top ~5 options from the list you made in Step 1, and keep your list of uncertainties on hand. You may be able to pursue and investigate several next steps, and make your final decision about what to do later after getting concrete offers and other information.
Write your shortlist of next steps in Section 5.2.2 of your worksheet, and add your uncertainties in Section 5.2.3.
Probably eliminate options that might make things worse
When aiming to do good, it’s unfortunately easy to make things worse rather than better. We talk more about how it’s easy to accidentally make things worse here.
Any course of action involves some chance of negative outcomes. The point is not to avoid this risk altogether, and in some cases it may be justified to incur a downside risk if the potential upsides are high enough.
However, we think there are, normally, good practical reasons to eliminate options that might pose significant downside risks (or not pursue them unless you can mitigate that risk).
Having a significant negative impact often causes further indirect damage. For instance, it could harm your reputation, making it harder to do good in the future. You could even harm the reputation of the entire field (especially if it’s a smaller one), making it harder for others to contribute as well. Because of this, even major proponents of utilitarian ethics agree people generally shouldn’t do things that seem common sense bad in the name of the greater good.
Most people believe that it’s morally more important to avoid doing harm than it is to do a corresponding amount of good. Even if you don’t believe this, there’s reason to put some weight on it being true due to moral uncertainty.
If you pursue an option that others think is harmful (even if you don’t think it is), you may be causing a unilateralist’s curse. You’d also be failing to act collaboratively, which might make it harder to work with others in the future.
If the harms might be very large but are hard to estimate, whether to proceed will depend on a speculative estimate. As a practical strategy, it may be better to try to avoid such estimates altogether. (Exposing yourself to uncertain positive ‘tails’ is good; the opposite is true for uncertain negative tails.)
You can see some advice on mitigating these risks here. At the very least, if you want to pursue an option you think might have a risk of setting back the field, we’d suggest talking to several people in the field about your idea and taking their views seriously.
You have your (provisional) Plan A
Your top option on your shortlist is your best guess at what you should do next in your career. This is the first part of your ‘Plan A’ (we discuss your ‘B’ and ‘Z’ plans below).
The second part of your Plan A is a set of longer-term options drawn from your shortlist that fit with your top choice for your next career step.
If you don’t have any longer-term options that fit with your best-guess next career step, either use that as a reason to revisit your longer-term options list or your choice of top next step, or leave the second part of your Plan A blank (for example if you’re pursuing one of the ‘opportunism’ strategies discussed in Section 4).
Write down your Plan A in your worksheet in Section 5.3.
Your Plan A is ‘provisional’ at this point because you’ll investigate your key uncertainties, and perhaps adjust your plans, in Section 7.
In this section you brainstormed potential next career steps, created a shortlist, and made a best guess as to what to do as your Plan A.
Make sure you have written down:
A long list of potential next career steps
A rough ranking of these steps based on your strategic focus and other priorities
A shortlist based on your ranking
A Plan A — your best guess next career step and the longer-term options that are compatible with it
Your key uncertainties about which next steps are best
6. Plan to adapt
Goal of this section
Your career plan is likely to change because careers involve a huge amount of uncertainty. You’ll learn a lot over time, both about the world and about your own preferences and skills.
You’ll also change (probably more than you expect), and the world will change — new opportunities will arise, and the top options today may get worse.
All in all, you need to be prepared to adapt.
One way to deal with this, as covered, is to take next steps that let you learn and build transferable career capital, so you’re in a better position no matter what happens.
Another way to deal with the uncertainty is to make contingency plans for risks — both personal and concerning your impact — which is what we cover here.
The goal of this section is for you to:
Develop backup plans
Set points in the future at which you’ll review and update your plan
★Your backup plans
One of the most important features of your career plan is your backup plan. If you pursue a next step (or a longer-term path) and it doesn’t work out, what will you do instead?
If you picked a sufficiently ambitious longer-term path earlier, then there will be a good chance it doesn’t work out. That’s fine (and means you were being appropriately ambitious), but it’s important to figure out what you might do if that happens.
You might already have some backup options in mind, in which case you can just quickly list one or two ideas in Section 6 of your worksheet, and then skip ahead.
If you want to think about your backup options in more detail, we find the ‘A/B/Z’ plans framework useful, which we adapted from Reid Hoffman’s book on career advice, The Start-up of You.
Plan A — This is your best-guess next career step and the longer-term paths from your shortlist that it could help you work toward. For instance, it could be to do an economics PhD with the aim of becoming a researcher in economic history, an advisor on macro-economic policy, or working for a nonprofit.
Plan B — These are promising alternatives to your Plan A that you can switch into if Plan A doesn’t work out. For instance, if you don’t get into a good PhD programme after a masters, you could plan to apply to roles in policy.
Plan Z options — What you’ll do if everything goes wrong — e.g. move back in with your parents, live on your savings, go back to your old job.
Your Plan B
Use the following questions to help you work out what your Plan B should be:
Why is your Plan A most likely not to work out? What will you do in this situation? For instance, if you’re already in a job and applying to masters programmes, one possibility is that you don’t get into the programmes you want. In that case, your Plan B might be to stay in your job another year and to assess later, or to try to apply in another discipline.
List any promising nearby alternatives to Plan A, for example other promising longer-term paths or different entry routes to the same paths, using the lists you made in Sections 3 and 5, which you might be able to switch into.
Check out the nearby alternatives and ‘exit options’ for your Plan A that we have in our career reviews and profiles on priority paths if parts of your Plan A are covered.
Remember again to consider how you order your next steps. For instance, if you leave academia after earning your PhD, it’s hard to return. This means that as long as you think academia might in fact be your best longer-term option, it usually makes sense to stay on the academic path as your next step.
Add your Plan B options to your Section 6.1 worksheet.
Your Plan Z
You may face setbacks greater than e.g. not getting into the programme you want, so we recommend you also specify a ‘Plan Z’. Your Plan Z is what you’ll do if you face a serious setback.
Thinking about your Plan Z can not only help you avoid unacceptable personal outcomes, but it can help you get more comfortable with taking risks — knowing you’ll ultimately be okay makes it easier to be ambitious.
Your Plan Z can be very short if you’re comfortable with the risk you’re taking, or are in a secure position.
If you want to think about your Plan Z in more depth, here are some questions to consider:
If you pursue your Plan A, what might the worst realistic scenario be, and how might it actually pan out in the long term? Thinking this through might be unpleasant, but many people find that naming their fears makes them a little less overwhelming.
How can you reduce the chances of one of these scenarios happening?
If one of these scenarios does happen, what will you do to cope? Some common options include: taking a temporary job you’re confident you can get to pay the bills, moving in with your family, living off savings, or taking a job that you find relatively undemanding.
Is your Plan Z tolerable? Even if there’s a low chance you’ll need it, if your Plan Z isn’t tolerable you might consider modifying your Plan A to build more career capital, which should improve your Plan Z in the future (e.g. taking a job that lets you save more money). If your Plan Z is tolerable, great — hopefully realizing that will make it easier to wholeheartedly pursue your Plan A.
Write out your Plan Z in Section 6.2 of your worksheet.
In this section you:
Created a Plan B and a Plan Z you’re comfortable with
Wrote down key uncertainties about your backup plans
7. Get feedback, investigate key uncertainties, and make a judgement call
Goal of this section
The goal of this section is to help you make an overall judgement call about your plan after taking stock of, prioritising, and (perhaps) investigating your key uncertainties, so that you are ready to put it into action.
★Step back, reflect, and make your final list of key uncertainties
Career planning involves so much uncertainty it’s easy to feel paralysed. To tackle your uncertainty, approach your investigation like a scientist. Make hypotheses, investigate them empirically, and update.
You’ve listed key uncertainties throughout the process. Now we’re going to gather them all up, check whether you’ve missed any, prioritize which to investigate, and work out what investigation to do.
Gather up uncertainties from earlier
You have accumulated key uncertainties through this process, including about:
Which global problems are most pressing (and your values and worldview)
Your best potential longer-term paths
Your strategic focus and other priorities
What your best next career steps should be
What your backup options should be
Copy and paste them into Section 7.1.1 of your worksheet.
If you’d like to think about your key uncertainties from the top down, here are some ways to reflect on your whole plan, check you haven’t missed any, and start resolving some.
Get some overall feedback
Often what the people we advise find most helpful at this point is to show their plan to others — other people can help spot assumptions you’re making that may seem obvious to you but really aren’t.
One exercise is to make a copy of your worksheet and send it to a couple of friends or advisors for comments.
This not only helps to identify further key uncertainties, but they can probably help you start answering some uncertainties too.
Try to get feedback from people who understand your aim to have an impact, and can be supportive while they challenge your thinking. A ‘career-planning partner’ can be great if you can find someone to trade career plans with — you can critique each other’s plans and help each other generate more options, plus provide moral support. Our advisors may be able to help too.
How do you reach out to people? It depends on your relationship — but if the person is someone you don’t know as well or with whom you have a more formal relationship, these tips may be helpful. In these cases, it’s better to send one or two specific questions rather than your whole plan.
It can often be easier to reach out to people if you’re both part of a community focused on making a positive difference, because then they know helping you will help them further your shared goals.
If you get some negative feedback, don’t respond hastily. If your plan is unconventional — which is likely if you’re targeting something neglected — probably not everyone is going to agree with it. Try to understand the reasons behind their negative reaction, and decide whether to adjust. If the reasons are unclear, perhaps wait to see if others have a similar reaction or if it’s an isolated example.
You can adjust your list of uncertainties in Section 7.1.1 of your worksheet in light of what you learn.
Optional: Change frame
Perhaps the biggest challenge in decision making is that we tend to think too narrowly. For that reason, much decision-making advice is essentially about how to view your decision from a different perspective.
Here are a couple of perspectives you can take about your plan to help you see it in a new way.
Why are you most likely to be wrong about your plan? To make this more vivid, imagine that your plan has failed — what went wrong? (Do a ‘premortem’ on it.) These ‘negative’ frames are some of the most useful ways to reduce any overconfidence bias and spot problems with your plans.
What would a kind, wise friend advise you to do? It’s often easier to see the mistakes that other people are making because you have more distance from the situation. This prompt tries to help you gain this distance about yourself.
Change the timeframe with 10/10/10. Imagine you’ve already made the decision. How do you feel 10 minutes later? How do you feel about it in 10 months’ time? Imagine it’s 10 years in the future. How do you feel about it looking back?
Do any of these prompts help you to resolve a key uncertainty or spot a new one? If so, again adjust the list you made in Section 7.1.1 of the worksheet accordingly.
Ask yourself how you feel about your plan
Now that you’ve done a lot of explicit thinking, it’s a good moment to listen to your gut.
Bring the different aspects of your plan to mind. Is there something you feel uneasy about or that feels aversive? Does something feel ‘off’? It’s okay if this is vague.
How do you feel about your plan in general? Anxious / excited / sad / frustrated / calm / guilty etc.?
Your intuition is good at evaluating things like what you’re excited by and which people are good to work with, which are important inputs into the decision.
An uneasy gut reaction may also be a sign you’ve uncovered a problem with the plan that hasn’t yet made it into your consciousness. Emotions contain signals about what to pay attention to, although they’re not always accurate.
If you have a negative emotion or gut reaction, try to understand what it’s about.
Then, consider whether you should change your plan or investigate further. You might find your intuition has picked up a mistake that you can fix. The ideal is for your analysis, emotions, and intuitions to all line up.
Alternatively, you might realise it’s best to push ahead anyway — it’s normal to be, say, worried about the future, even if you’ve done all the steps worth taking to mitigate the risks. And sometimes your gut can stay caught up on something that it shouldn’t — as we know from the study of neuroses and biases.
If you’ve investigated what your gut feeling is about and you don’t endorse the concern, acknowledge your feeling and try to let it go.
If you think the concern is a good one, see if you can mitigate it by adjusting your plan.
If you can’t identify what’s behind the feeling, it might be best to push ahead in the meantime and keep checking in on it until it becomes clear what it’s about.
Again, adjust your list of uncertainties in Section 7.1.1 of your worksheet in light of what you learned.
★Prioritise your key uncertainties
Now you can make an overall ranking of your key uncertainties, including both those you identified throughout this process and any you just uncovered. Base your ranking on:
How easy the uncertainties seem to be to resolve
How much difference resolving them would make to your career plan
In other words, the most important key uncertainties should be the questions you can answer that would most change your plan.
Write them down in rank order in Section 7.2 of your worksheet. Feel free to leave off any that seem like they definitely won’t be worth investigating.
★Make a plan to investigate
Now that you know what your top uncertainties are, you have a choice:
Investigate to reduce some of your top uncertainties, and then revise your plan in light of what you learn.
Attempt to put your plan into action now (bearing in mind you can update your plan later).
In reality, these two options overlap. Often one of the most useful things you can do is to just apply to lots of jobs, and talk to lots of people. These steps both help to put your plan into action, while giving you valuable information about your fit. We often see people agonise over a choice between different paths, when if they’d made lots of applications, the best path would have become obvious.
However, it’s still useful to roughly divide into ‘investigation mode’ and ‘action mode’. Focus more on action if your key uncertainties are relatively minor or will be hard to make progress on. Likewise, sometimes your key uncertainties are best resolved just by trying to put your plan into action and seeing how it turns out — you can always revise your plan in 6-24 months depending on what happens.
Otherwise, since your career involves such much time, it’s most likely worth further investigating your plan.
How to investigate your key uncertainties
The most useful step is often to talk to people. The right person can give you more up-to-date and personalised information than what you’ll be able to find in a book or online. People we advise are often surprised at how willing people are to help. See some email scripts for informational interviews and asking for advice. (Though, bear in mind that when you’re talking to these people, they are probably also informally interviewing you — see our advice on preparing for interviews in a later article.)
Look for ways to test your uncertainties. For instance, simply applying to lots of jobs is often one of the best ways to learn about your fit (and can double as pursuing your next steps).
Make sure to start with the lowest-cost ways to gain information.
We like to think in terms of a ‘ladder’ of tests, from least to most costly. For example, one such ladder might look like this:
First read our relevant career reviews and do some Google searches to learn the basics (1–2h).
Then speak to someone in the area (2h).
Then speak to three more people who work in the area and read one or two books (20h). You could also consider speaking to a career advisor who specialises in this area.
Then look for a project that might take 1–4 weeks of work, like applying to jobs, volunteering in a related role, 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 then consider taking on a 2–24 month commitment, like a work placement, internship, or graduate study. At this point, being offered a trial position with an organisation for a couple of months can also be an advantage, because it means both parties will make an effort to quickly assess your fit.
Make a list of ways you’ll investigate your highest priority uncertainties in Section 7.3 of your worksheet.
How long to spend investigating
There’s no hard and fast rule for how long you should investigate your key uncertainties. While we think that the stakes are high, and most people don’t research their career enough, if you’re reading this article, you might well be biased towards over-analysing.
One good indicator that you’ve done enough research is that your best guesses have stopped changing. If you’ve done the cheapest and most informative investigations first, and you’ve stopped changing your plan, then you’ve probably taken the low-hanging fruit and it’s time to act.
One poor indicator is a feeling of confidence. Some uncertainties will not be possible to resolve in the time you have, and you will have to act despite not feeling confident it’s the best move.
It’s also worth considering the stakes of the decision. If a choice concerns what you’ll do over many years, involves large differences between options, or is difficult to reverse, then it’s worth more investigation.19
For instance, medical school is roughly a seven-year commitment, so it could easily be worth spending months researching that decision.
If needed, adjust your plan
After you’ve investigated some, you might want to update your plan.
In reality, this is not a single step — you might go through several loops of investigation and updating.
You might also start to put your plan into action, and then later realise you need to revise it.
We cover taking action in the next section for simplicity, but in reality you might jump back and forth between acting and adjusting your plan several times.
We mention investigating your uncertainties again in the next section as a type of ‘next action’, so you can move on to that section before finishing the investigations you want to do, and you’ll be prompted again to dive into them.
★Make a judgement call
Eventually, you will need to make a judgement call about the key elements of your plan. This can be difficult. As we noted, it may not be possible to feel confident in your answers. So the aim isn’t to feel confident. Rather, it’s to make a reasonable decision given the information and time available.
If you’ve already completed the steps we cover throughout the process, you’ve already put most of the best decision-making advice into practice. You have:
Broadened your options
Clarified your strategic priorities
Tried to narrow down systematically, such as by scoring them on your criteria
Sought feedback from others
Asked why you might be wrong
Investigated your key uncertainties
Considered backup options
Eventually, you just have to make a decision. If you’ve done just half of what we’ve covered, you’ve done a lot, and are likely making the best decision you can.
So make a judgement call for now. In Section 7.4 of your worksheet, write out your best guess for your career plan, including:
A list of problems you might help solve
Your strategic priorities
A Plan A, consisting in a best-guess next step and some top longer-term options it might help you work toward
Your options for Plan B, i.e. promising alternatives to Plan A
A Plan Z
If you’re still hesitating, we have one final step that should help give you a bit of peace of mind: setting review points. Remember that your career is a series of experiments, and you don’t have to figure it all out right away.
★Set review points
It’s easy to constantly second-guess your plan, but that’s probably not the best way to live. You should spend most of your time focused on succeeding within, learning from, and enjoying whatever you’re currently doing.
A way to avoid both issues is to set an explicit review point — a trigger to reassess your plan:
One option is to pick a timeframe, typically 6–24 months (shorter when you’re more uncertain and learning a lot; longer when you’re more settled). Around the new year is often a nice time, and we have an annual career review tool for this purpose.
Another option is to consider when you’ll next gain significant information about your career, and reassess then. For instance, if you’re transitioning careers, decide to review if a year passes and you haven’t yet found a new role, or if you’re on the tenure clock as an academic, you could decide to review halfway through.
Whatever point you choose, it can be useful to set a concrete intention to review at that point in Section 7.5 of your worksheet — and to set yourself some kind of reminder, for example in your calendar.
What to do when you hit your review point
If you’ve had a significant positive update in favour of the path you’re currently on, then probably stick with it; whereas if you’ve had a significant negative update, seriously consider switching.
If you’ve learned about any new options that might be significantly better than your current focus, consider switching — otherwise continue.
If you do decide to change your plan, you can restart this planning process. Don’t worry, it’ll be a lot quicker the next time around, since you’ll be able to only focus on what’s changed since last time.
Recap: your plan is done
In this section you checked your plan, gathered and investigated key uncertainties, and set points in the future at which you’ll review.
You should now have written down:
A list of global problems you want to help solve with your career
A Plan A — a best-guess next career step and some promising longer-term paths to aim toward with it
A Plan B — your next-best backup option — and perhaps a Plan Z
A strategic focus and priorities to guide your decision making
Points to review your plan in the future
Check that you’ve also received some feedback (or are waiting on feedback from someone) and have investigated your key uncertainties (unless you decided to skip doing that for now). Once you have all that, your plan is done. Congratulations!
Thinking through these questions is hard, and most people never get around to it, despite their huge importance.
If you’ve invested the time, you’re doing the best you can, and will most likely be on track to do far more good with your career.
Take a moment to pause and feel satisfied.
Next we turn to putting your plan into action.
8. Put your plan into action
Once your plan is ready, it’s time to focus on execution.
How to execute successfully is not our main focus at 80,000 Hours, but there are a lot of other great resources that can help you.
In the meantime, here are the most essential steps to get you started.
★Define next actions
To put your plan into practice, you’ll want to pursue your most promising next career moves from Section 5.2.2 of your worksheet — especially your Plan A.
Most of your effort will go into your best-guess next career move, but it often makes sense to pursue several initially, and then pick one once you have concrete offers.
To get into your next career moves, what do you need to do? Email a professor? Set up a meeting? Start a side project? Read a book? Make a demo?
(You may also have more steps for investigating uncertainties from Section 7 that you haven’t done yet. You can also add these to your list of next actions.)
Convert your answers into very concrete, small next actions.
Write out what you’re going to do and when you’ll do it. Setting ‘implementation intentions’ makes it significantly more likely that you’ll follow through.
Starting small can make it easier to get started and begin a success spiral. Every time you take one small step, take a second to feel good about it. Get momentum, and keep going.
There are lots of great tips out there for achieving your goals. One framework we like is ‘WOOP’.
Another thing that can really help you keep taking steps toward your goals is getting an accountability buddy to help you.
See more tips on staying motivated and being productive here.
Write down a list of next actions and when you’ll do them in Section 8.1 of your worksheet. Put reminders in your calendar.
One key point is to ensure that you make enough applications. A typical job application process has a success rate of a couple of percent, so to ensure you’ll get a job, you’ll usually need to aim to pursue at least 30 realistic options.
To avoid both underconfidence and overconfidence, some of your applications should be for ‘stretch’ options, and some should be ‘safe’ options.
Doing lots of applications, while often unpleasant, is also one of the most useful things you can do to gain information about which options you have a good fit with. If you’re not getting rejected often, then you may not be being ambitious enough.
That said, there is also a lot you can do to increase the chances of an application being successful. The key point here is to find ways to prove you can do the work, and to find jobs through connections rather than open applications if possible. See more in the full article.
The most useful steps in figuring out your plans, finding jobs, and following through usually involve meeting people and teaming up with others who want to have an impact.
We are also a part of the effective altruism community, a group of people who want to use evidence and reasoning to maximise the positive impact of their careers and other resources. If you’d like to get involved, find out more.
We list a few other communities to consider in Section 3.
Succeed in your role
Once you’ve started a job, internship, or graduate programme as part of your plan, how can you increase your chances of success, and enjoy your career as you go?
Again this is not our main focus at 80,00 Hours, but we have a few resources that might help:
Our relevant career reviews, some of which have a section on how to succeed in the relevant path
We don’t have the capacity to talk to everyone who applies, but if you’re interested please let us know. We may be able to help you think through your options, and/or connect you to specialists, specific job opportunities, and funding.
We estimate the survey to take 15–20 minutes, and all questions are optional.
Notes and references
This article is the most comprehensive collation of advice on how to plan a high-impact career we’ve written or know about. It’s based on all our research into social impact careers, and what we’ve learned from the academic research on decision-making, and what has seemed helpful in our experience advising over 1000 people one-on-one. We’ve used elements of this material since 2013, though it first appeared in roughly this form in our workshops in 2016 and 2017 career guide (which have been used by thousands of people). This version contains a number of additions and improvements compared to the version in the career guide, which are listed here.↩
The ‘leverage’ an opportunity gives you is how many resources it enables you to direct towards an intervention. This could be the value of your own labour, money influenced or donated, or the value of other people’s time. For instance, if by working in advocacy you cause two people to start working on an issue, you’re having twice as much leverage as you would causing one person to do so (assuming they’re equally skilled). Note this definition is slightly different from GiveWell’s, which excludes the value of your own labour or other resources, while we include it. Also note that leverage should be assessed relative to the ‘counterfactual’ scenario in which you don’t take the opportunity.↩
Your worldview is made up of big-picture moral views (i.e. what matters), epistemic views (i.e. how to work out what is true) and empirical views (i.e. what is true).↩
This is true by definition if we define the terms such that: ‘problem effectiveness’ = value per unit of resources invested in typical interventions, ‘opportunity effectiveness’ = effectiveness of specific intervention vs. average intervention, multiplied by the opportunity’s ‘leverage’ = amount of resources typically in path, and ‘personal fit’ = the size of your contribution compared to the average in the path.
In practice, you don’t need to use these precise definitions — you can treat them as rough rules of thumb that partially overlap, and it’s still useful. In particular, with personal fit, we prefer to focus on framings like ‘chance of going well’ or ‘does it match your strengths’, since it’s demotivating and difficult to compare yourself directly to others in the field. That said, we think it’s useful to bear in mind that the factors multiply more than they add. One way to see this is that if an option does very badly on any of the three factors, then it’ll usually have little impact over all.↩
Though keep in mind that many jobs that have a big impact from an impartial perspective might not intuitively feel like they do — e.g. if the impact is indirect or delayed.↩
Likewise, as we’ll cover later, if you’re working within a community, then your aim should be to fill a gap in the ‘community portfolio’ where you have a ‘comparative advantage’.↩
We’d still encourage you to stay involved with social impact in some way, in order to stay motivated and keep learning about how to do it, but it wouldn’t be where the bulk of your attention goes. Some ways to do this include: reading about issues, attending conferences, having friends who care about impact, donating a small percentage, say 1%, of your income (and thinking carefully about how best to do that), and doing side projects aimed at impact.↩
Or can give you advice based on your own moral views.↩
Provided these ambitious options indeed have higher expected value than safe bets.↩
Indeed, that’s the strategy we take here at 80,000 Hours.↩
The approaches converge if applied perfectly, but it’s easy to overlook certain opportunities to coordinate without thinking explicitly about it, so we think it’s generally better to just consider both perspectives.↩
For example, if a path addresses the risk of catastrophic climate change, how pressing do you think that problem is vs. others? And how effective do you think the intervention is that the relevant role helps you pursue — e.g, investment in green tech? And how many resources will the role help you bring to that intervention — e.g, if it’s a grantmaking position, it’s likely higher leverage in this sense than a principal investigator position would be, because you’re able to incentivize several more principal investigators to take on projects than would otherwise do so.↩
More comments on defining the quantitative framework:
It’s hard to compare the targeted strategy with the transferable one. Roughly, for the targeted one we can ask:
1. How pressing is the problem the path will help you address, and how effective is the intervention for solving it? 2. How many resources will you be able to leverage toward the intervention in this path?
For the transferable strategy, we can ask:
1. How pressing will the most pressing problems be that you can address in the future compared to your current best guess? 2. How much more general-purpose leverage will this give you in the future?
If you want to think about this quantitatively, you can try to ballpark your leverage in dollars, and then multiply it by the efficiency of the area to get a rough estimate of expected value. Read more on how to do this.
This will also take account of your personal fit in each.
(If you want to estimate personal fit separately, you can think of your fit as your expected performance compared to average — that way it multiplies with how promising the path is on average to give your expected impact. This way of thinking about personal fit can be hard to estimate and demotivating, so we usually prefer to think of it more intuitively.)↩
If the outcome of a choice of career path is dominated by ‘tail’ scenarios (unusually good or bad outcomes), which we think it often is, then you can approximate the expected impact of a path by looking at the probability of the tail scenarios happening and how good/bad they are.↩
If we suppose that the 50% with the best fit continue to academia, then you’d be in the top half. In reality, your prospects would be a little worse than this, since some of your past performance might be due to luck or other factors that don’t project forward. (Likewise, past failures might also have been due to luck or other factors that don’t project forward, so your prospects are a bit better than they’d naively suggest.) In other words, past performance doesn’t perfectly predict future performance.↩
In general, if some careers have much higher impact than others, and it’s possible to learn about this with moderate costs, then gaining information could greatly increase your impact and could be a top priority.
It’s more likely to be a top priority early on in particular because:
1. The longer you have in your career the more valuable it is to discover new options, since you have more time to make use of your findings. 2. Early in your career you know the least about your fit and which opportunities are best, making learning more important. 3. It seems easier for young people to switch jobs a lot, and there are options to try out careers that are not available to older people (e.g. internships).
Reasons not to prioritise exploring:
1. Some careers (e.g. some areas of finance) have an ‘up and out’ structure, and so if you leave, it’ll be hard to re-enter. If you’re in one of these, the costs of exploring can be high. 2. If you pursue ambitious longer-term paths, then you’re already exploring by default, since you’re testing out a path with a high value of information. It’s unclear how much you need to optimise for exploring independently. 3. If you think it’s very urgent to work on your top priority problems, it may be better to commit earlier. 4. If you’ve already discovered a longer-term path that’s going ahead of expectations, it may be best to just stick with it.↩
You shouldn’t blindly trust your intuitions either. They are likely easily swayed by irrelevant factors, or impulses you wouldn’t want to follow on reflection (e.g. the desire to be seen as high-status), which is why it’s important to try to understand them rather than merely follow them. Hopefully your intuition will also get more reliable over the course of your career as you have more opportunities to practice making choices and seeing how things turn out. It seems possible to develop ‘taste’ in identifying interesting problems, good people to work with, neglected but high-leverage opportunities, and so on.↩
More technically, you should stop investigating when the expected value of information is smaller than the cost of the tests.↩