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 a separate article.
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.
We suggest a process in this short article. You can use it to fill out the corresponding section in the appendix of your template.
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.
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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