This week 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 of it, 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 Parts 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 towards 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 strategic direction in the nearer term.
The horizon you use for your longer-term plan can also change depending on circumstances. For instance, as you get older, the time remaining decreases and career capital becomes a smaller factor, reducing the importance of longer-term planning.
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 and find a personally satisfying job.
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 communities whose impact you want to increase and the roles you can pursue to help that happen.
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 part of the process — it’s by far the longest. But by the end of it, you will have one of the most important things in pursuing a high-impact career: direction.
Why to make longer-term plans
People that we speak to in our one-on-one career advising often try to make overly specific longer-term plans, and people who make none at all. Both are mistakes.
We think it’s useful to first make some hypotheses about your longer-term options to get oriented, specifying the global problems and career paths you’d like to work towards. But then spend a lot of time looking for concrete next career moves that will take you towards them, as well as other interesting next steps, even if you don’t know where they’ll lead (as we cover in Part 5).
Why is it a mistake not to have a longer-term plan at all? 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. It’s also usually motivating, even if it’s vague.
You also probably have decades ahead of you in your career, and keeping this in mind can make it easier to change course now. A common mistake we see is people undervaluing switching or thinking it’s too late because they’re not taking this long-term perspective.
And if you’re especially interested in having an impact, we think there are even more reasons to make longer-term plans.
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.
This is not to say we oppose being adaptable and opportunistic — later in the series we’ll encourage you to spend a lot of time searching for interesting next career moves opportunities as well — rather, it’s 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 article and realise you’re radically uncertain about what your longer-term plans should be. That’s fine too. As we’ll cover in the next part of this series, you can then decide to focus on exploring and/or 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 mentioned earlier, one useful type of longer-term plan is to help solve a particular global problem (or set of problems) you think is 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, ‘operations 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, you can’t fully control what’s going to happen 10+ years in the future, so tying your motivation to landing a specific position or achievement can backfire. Better to set a broad 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.
So aim higher than you are naturally inclined to. You might not realize what you can achieve.
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.
This is compounded by how no one seems to have an accurate way of predicting long-term fit, 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 high1 — 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 problems or burnout. These risks, however, can often be mitigated by having a backup plan. We come back to risk management in Part 6 of this process.
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 Part 5 of this series.
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 with it for which you might have great personal fit (as discussed in Part 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 template.
Make a rough assessment of what you think each problem (or at least your top few) most needs. You can see our 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, going back to AI safety, if you think what it 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 other 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 or government agencies. 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.
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.
Getting valuable career capital doesn’t only help you have an impact. If you aim to get career capital that’s also valued by the market, that also enables you to negotiate more for a job you find enjoyable and that pays the bills too.
This category is most relevant to people under 35, who are more uncertain about what they’ll do longer-term.
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 the abilities to invest in your mental health, self-care, productivity routines, as well as 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 other virtues.
How do you achieve these? Here are some rules of thumb for coming up with paths that build career capital over the long term:
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.
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 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.
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.
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 template.
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 towards 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
★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?”
Starting with your strengths is often the approach of standard career planning, and we think it’s a bit overrated compared to asking what the world most needs, because some needs are far more pressing than others.
However, understanding your strengths is still a valuable perspective. Your abilities and motivation matter, and a strengths-focused perspective can help you find opportunities that are a good personal fit or for which you have especially valuable career capital.
Deploying your strengths is also personally satisfying. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, once summed up his findings about what makes for a fulfilling life as: “use[ing] your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.”2
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.
(With weaknesses, you can (i) bring them up to a passable level, (ii) find a path that doesn’t need them, or (iii) find a team who are strong where you’re weak.)
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.
If you already have well developed strengths, you might be surprised at the ways they can be deployed to address unusual problems. (See the example of Julia Wise here.)
Clarifying your strengths is also a useful exercise to help you become more satisfied in your existing job by finding better ways to deploy your strengths, and to explain what you’re good at to others (e.g. if you’re applying for a job). So we’d recommend everyone try to clarify their strengths at some point, especially if they’ve already had a couple of roles 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 importanxt abilities, traits, and skills in Section 3.1.3 of your template.
It’s also useful to think more broadly, and consider your other valuable career capital, such as connections, reputation, credentials, achievements, access to capital, and influence.
Note that the main aim is to see what you have to offer — rather than to compare yourself to others just for the sake of comparison. You can stick with your initial guess, or work on your list more with our more in-depth advice on how to identify your strengths in this separate article.
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. international relations for a specific country, or a particular type of 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 a role or be able to create one for you.
If you have an unusual and specific skill set, it’s also worth bearing in mind that you might be able to recast your skills in a more general light if you want to. 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.
Finish filling in Section 3.1.3 in the accompanying template 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 we 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, and simply enjoying yourself — and joining a community can be the most efficient way to do that, since you can gain connections to hundreds of people at once.
We also think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that you become like the people you spend the most time with, so finding a great group of peers and mentors is one of the best things you can do for your personal development.
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 more often than not that means supporting others on the ground rather than doing it all yourself.3
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 (or want to be 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 template.
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.4
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? If you want to ask them something more concrete, try asking: can they list 3 ideas for longer-term paths that might help you capitalize on your strengths?
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 template 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 no matter what your career by donating to high-impact charities, advocacy, or effective volunteering.
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 only a few of your options 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?
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. For now, just list your key uncertainties and we’ll come back to investigation, making your final assessment, and other decision-making advice in Part 7 of this process.
Key factors for comparing longer-term paths
If you’d like to do more analysis of your longer-term paths now, here is some extra information on where these factors came from, how to compare your options based on these factors, and how to evaluate your personal fit.
This is a version of the general framework we introduced in Part 1, 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)?5
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 Part 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 factors (i.e. how to do step 3)
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’s especially useful in the context of longer-term paths is to consider their value on each factor within a plausible best case and worst case scenario for each path – we call these ‘upside’ and ‘downside’ scenarios.
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. It also helps you think more broadly about what future scenarios are possible.
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.6
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.7 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.8 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 template.
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-extreme 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 template. 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 from the previous part of this process, write out your biggest uncertainties about your list, now in Section 3.3 of your template.
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 part of the career planning course, 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.
Also, as with thinking about which issues are most pressing, you should feel free to take longer on this part of the process if you need to. You can always access the full course here, and take it at your own pace.
In the next part of this series, we’ll move on to what strategy you’ll take to move toward your most promising longer-term paths.
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Notes and references
Provided these ambitious options indeed have higher expected value than safe bets.↩
Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.↩
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.↩