Find the full career planning series here.
The most important sections in each article are marked with ★’s.
This week’s goal
This week you will think about which issues in the world might most need more attention.
The goal is to generate a list of 5–15 global issues, roughly in order of priority, and write them down in your template. 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 course.
You also don’t need to be certain about your ranking — in fact, you shouldn’t be after only a week’s worth of investigation. But a best guess is all you need to get started thinking about what to do next.
★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 help you think through what the world most needs given your moral views — we’ll provide some materials for reflecting on your views later.
There are 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 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 two things do not perfectly line up.
When we step back and ask which gaps seem like they most need filling right now — based on our own 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, unless you’re near the end of your career, you don’t need to pick a single issue to focus on 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.
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 career steps later in this planning process, we’ll focus more on specific interventions.
★How to compare problems
Which global problems are most pressing for more people to work on?
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 the most pressing problems that is more likely to fit your personal values and worldview, and would give 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 optional section 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 difference (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.
So make sure you think about which problems you think are most pressing in general, not yet taking your personal fit into account — that comes later.
As you read on, you can write down your ideas for pressing problems in Sections 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 of your template.
★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.
If you think our moral views are similar enough to your own, and you think we have good judgement, you could use our views on the world’s most pressing problems to inform your own.
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.
Moreover, there are many issues that might be even more pressing by our own lights than the ones we focus on the most. We’d like to see a significant minority of readers exploring and learning about potentially promising issues to take low-hanging fruit and maybe discover a new focus area. This is another reason why we’d encourage you to make a long list of possible focus areas.
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.)
Indeed, many who broadly share our effective altruism-style approach to doing good focus far more on ‘neartermist’ areas than we do. For instance, see the focus areas of Open Philanthropy, and this explanation of their allocation.
All that said, our list of the most pressing issues represents our best guess at which problems can most benefit from more people working on them, in order to make the world a better place.
Would you like to add any issues from our lists to your own? See our views here.
Optional: Create your own ranking from scratch
You might want to create your own ranking of which problems are most pressing, according to your values and beliefs about the world.
This is a lot of work but can be really worthwhile, especially because it can give you more of an inside understanding of different global issues. As we said, you can also do some of your own research and do some deferring to others’ reasoning.
Remember also that it’s important to keep reflecting and learning more about global problems as you progress in your career. This is not only because which problems are most pressing could change, but because it’s nearly impossible to settle such a complex question in one go, so you’ll want to keep updating your views over time.
Reflect on your values and worldview
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.
One starting point is what you think of the ideas we talk about in the ‘Big picture’ section of our key ideas page, such as impartial concern for welfare and moral uncertainty.
You can then check out the further reading we link to there, as well as see the final section of our article on personal development.
More practically, we find that our readers often divide into two broad worldviews, so another approach is to ask how confident you are in each of these pictures, and consider what they imply.
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 template — you’ll find the prompt in the appendix, as this section is optional.
Now think through the implications. Given your understanding of the world, what do these views 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 template.
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
We often use the importance, neglectedness, and tractability framework (INT) as a rough guide to comparing problems. (For a popular explanation of INT see this article and video in our 2017 career guide or Prospecting for Gold by Owen Cotton-Barratt.)
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.
There are also other useful approaches, such as trying to directly make cost-effectiveness estimates of marginal effort on different issues.
If you want, you can reflect on frameworks you want to use in the appendix of your template.
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.
Here are some approaches you could take:
- Check out our discussions of the most pressing global issues, not forgetting our longer list of ideas, and see if that sparks something.
- Check out other people’s write-ups of issues — e.g. Open Philanthropy’s.
- Use these three heuristics for finding an underappreciated issue.
- 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 template.
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 parts of this process, 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.
Applying best practices from forecasting can also be helpful. See a reading list on how to improve your decision making (scroll down to ‘Here is some further reading we recommend’).
Write down your prioritised list of pressing global issues in the appendix of your template. 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 Project from 2015.
Want help thinking through global problems?
Our one-on-one team can help you think about what your values and beliefs imply about which problems are most pressing, as well as help you sort through your options for tackling them. It’s free.
Apply to speak with us
We’ll remind you about this again at the end of the planning process, which would be another great time to apply.
★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 if you can, in Section 2.1.3 of your template.
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 template. We will return to them later in this course.
Now that you have your initial 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 many ways, this is the most important part of the course: 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, because some issues are so much more pressing than others. It’s also something many people never do.
For that reason, you should also aim to keep thinking about which global issues are most pressing throughout your career. You’ve already done a lot, and it’s enough to get started on the rest of your plan, but continuing to have an open mind here can allow you to increase your impact a lot as you learn more with time and experience.
Likewise, if you feel like you need more time to think about these issues, you can always take the course at your own pace by accessing all of the articles on the web version.
Once you’re ready to move on, we’ll dive into what you can do to help solve the problems you’ve identified.
Read next: Generate ideas for longer-term paths
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