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.
This week, we’ll help you clarify these terms to get a sense of what you’re aiming for.
Find the full career planning series here.
This week’s goal
You’ll reflect on what you think positive impact means and write down a definition, plus learn about our framework for what to look for in a career to have more positive impact. This will give you a foundation to make progress in later weeks.
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 parts of this series.
What is ‘positive impact’?
We find it useful to divide ultimate career goals into:
- Positive impact (considered ‘impartially’)
- Personal fulfillment
- Fulfillment of other moral values
This course 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).
Read more about the nuances of this definition.
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 — then 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 like that to explicitly consider what impact they might have from an impartial perspective.
Having a definition of positive impact in mind helps to clarify your goals, and you’ll use your understanding of what impartial positive impact is in the next part of this series when you 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 your template, 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 long-run 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 by others?
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?
- 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.
The factors above can be defined so that they multiply together, 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 in this course, 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 work on a more pressing problem
- Finding a better intervention to address a problem
- Finding a way to get more leverage on a problem
- Finding a job with which you have better personal fit, or improving your skills and career capital to be better at your current job
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?
We looked at the research on job satisfaction in psychology. In short, the main components of a satisfying job are:
- A sense of meaning or helping others
- A sense of achievement
- Engaging work with autonomy
- Supportive colleagues
- 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.
Moreover, building good career capital in a role you’re good at will, so long as the career capital also has some value in the job market, give you the negotiating power to find roles with engaging work, supportive colleagues, and basic conditions.
Satisfaction in your role is usually needed for greater impact as well. You’ll be unlikely to stick with and excel in 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 (more on potential conflicts).
So, we 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 imagining 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 had been worthwhile?
Based on everything you’ve just thought about, write out your top 3–6 personal priorities in Section 1.2 of your template, 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 this process, 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 (e.g. some jobs in the fossil fuel industry), 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 more later in this series why to eliminate harmful options, and talk about 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 template, write down any other moral considerations you want to keep in mind, beyond having a positive impact in an impartial sense.
You examined career goals in three categories and considered what to look for within each one:
- 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 each of these based on your individual aims and values.
Next we’ll dive into how to build a high-impact career.
Read next: Clarify your views of which global problems are most pressing
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