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.
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.
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.