We took 10 years of research and what we’ve learned from advising 1,000+ people on how to build high-impact careers, compressed that into an eight-week course to create your career plan, and then compressed that into this three-page summary of the main points.

(It’s especially aimed at people who want a career that’s both satisfying and has a significant positive impact, but much of the advice applies to all career decisions.)

1. Use these factors to clarify what a successful career looks like.

You can divide career aims into three categories: (i) impartial positive impact, (ii) personal priorities, and (iii) other moral values. We’d encourage you to make your own definition of each.

We define ‘impartial positive impact’ as what helps the most people1 live better lives in the long term, treating everyone’s interests as equal.

You can analyse the impact of a career opportunity in terms of:

  1. How pressing the problem is that you’d work on
  2. How much of a contribution you could make in tackling the problem
  3. Your personal fit with the opportunity, which depends on your abilities and ‘career capital’ (skills, connections, and reputation)

You’ll have more impact by maximising the product of these three factors over your career.

Because most people reach their peak productivity between ages 40 and 60, you need your work to be personally satisfying enough to stick with it for the long haul.

Turning to personal priorities, research suggests that people are most satisfied when they have work that’s: meaningful, engaging, something they’re good at, and something they can do with autonomy and alongside supportive colleagues. It also needs to have good enough basic conditions and fit with their personal life (e.g. non-crazy hours).

Striving to increase your impact already involves finding work that’s meaningful, a good fit, and builds useful career capital. If you can also build career capital that’s valued by the market, then you can negotiate for the other factors, and find a career that’s both personally satisfying and impactful.

Finally, turning to your other moral values, we think striving for a high-impact career can and should go along with cultivating a good character, respecting the rights and values of others, honouring special commitments to particular people or religious values if you have them, and otherwise living in line with your ethical values overall. (Read more.)

2. Think hard about which global problems you work on — it might be the most important choice you make.

People don’t usually try to make comparisons between the impact of, say, working on education vs working on climate change — the standard advice is just to do whichever you’re most passionate about.

We disagree. Because some global problems are far bigger and more neglected than others, we think that making an informed and thoughtful decision about which problems to work on is probably the most important choice you’ll make in terms of your impact.

You don’t need to figure out which problems to focus on right away, but over time you want to hone in on the issues that seem most important, neglected, and tractable given your worldview, your research, and the views of others you trust. If that’s us, our problem profiles page will be a good starting point. (Read more.)

3. You can’t predict where you’ll end up, but you should have some hypotheses about the best longer-term career paths.

Most people go from job to job and don’t think much about where each might lead. Being opportunistic can be useful, but having a big positive impact often requires doing something unusual and developing strong skills, which can take 10+ years. This probably requires some planning.

But don’t get obsessed with analysing longer-term plans — many successful people didn’t predict where they’d end up; the world will change, and you will change. The aim is simply to have some hypotheses in mind, which you’ll ‘test’ with your next job.

To find the most promising longer-term paths, the most common advice is to figure out what your strengths are and look for jobs that match them. That’s a useful approach, but we think it’s even more important to ask what the world needs most and how you might help. More specifically, use these questions to generate options:

  1. Which problems do you think are most pressing, and what roles do they most need?
  2. Which careers give you the best skills and influence that you can later apply to pressing problems, and ensure you can negotiate for a personally satisfying job?
  3. Which communities are having the most impact, and how might you help them? Teaming up with others aiming to have an impact is one of the most powerful steps you can take.

The returns of aiming high are usually bigger than the costs of switching to something else if it doesn’t work out, so it’s worth thinking broadly and ambitiously. (Read more.) (And if nothing seems that promising, see our article on how to make a difference in your current job.)

4. Career strategy has three basic steps: explore, take bets on paths that build your strengths, and then use your strengths to solve pressing problems.

Early on, when you know the least about the best careers, think of your career as a series of experiments designed to help you learn about yourself and test out potentially great longer-term paths. Meanwhile, you can opportunistically gain transferable career capital that will be useful in many different possible paths.

Once you get clearer about the best longer-term options, don’t try to ‘keep your options open.’ Rather, take a bet on the longer-term path that offers the biggest potential upside in terms of impact, career capital, and satisfaction. This usually involves focusing on gaining whatever career capital will let you advance most quickly in that path. You should also, however, cap the downside by making sure you have some backup options if it doesn’t work out.

Later in your career, when you already have a lot of career capital, you can use it to opportunistically address the greatest needs within the most pressing problems, and to negotiate for jobs that you find personally satisfying. (Read more.)

5. Work both backwards and forwards to find your next career move.

Once you have ideas for longer-term paths, get very specific about concrete jobs, education, or side projects you might pursue, since these vary hugely even within a broad path.

You can work backwards from your longer-term paths by asking how to advance in them most quickly — for example, by looking at how others made it.

But you could also work forwards, by looking for specific job opportunities that seem exciting, impactful, or will help you grow, even if you’re not sure where they’ll lead. One of the most useful steps is often to simply apply to lots of interesting jobs.

Start by generating a long list of options — most people consider too few. Then compare them systematically in terms of the following factors, weighing both an upside and downside scenario: (i) career capital that advances you in your top longer-term paths, (ii) transferable career capital, (iii) immediate impact, (iv) your personal fit, (v) information value you’ll gain from testing them out, and (vi) any other personal priorities. (Read more.)

6. Have a plan B and a plan Z.

If you’re being ambitious enough, your ‘plan A’ probably has a good chance of not working out, so write out several ‘plan Bs’ — promising alternatives you can switch into — so that you’re ready to try again if that happens.

To avoid unacceptable risks, write out a ‘plan Z’ — how you’ll get back on your feet if things go very wrong. For example, you could plan to move in with family if need be. (Read more.)

7. Approach your uncertainties like a scientist.
Career decision making involves so much uncertainty that it’s easy to feel paralysed. Instead, make some hypotheses about which option is best, then identify key uncertainties: what information would most change your best guess?

Then, investigate those key uncertainties. Start with the least costly ways to learn more (like reading online) and then take more expensive steps (such as doing a trial project) if you’re still uncertain. We call this a ‘ladder of tests.’ Often the most useful thing you can do is to speak to people in the area.

Before committing to a career decision, ask why you might be wrong, and check with your gut. There’s little reason to think you’ll have accurate intuitions about which careers are the highest impact, but gut feelings can warn you something is wrong, so try to understand what has prompted them.

You’ll never know the best option with certainty, but once your best guess stops changing, it’s probably time to carry out a bigger experiment and try it for a few years. Set a review point to reassess your plan based on the results — this could be when you’ll next gain useful information, or by default every 1–2 years. (Read more.)

If you do everything above, you’ll probably have done more to plan your career than 99% of people. You may not have made the perfect decision, and it may not turn out as you hope, but the best anyone can do is to think carefully about their plan, try to put it into action, and update it as they go. So you can feel satisfied you’re doing the best you can.

What’s next?

If you’re ready to start career planning, sign up for our free eight-week course. At the end, you’ll have a written, in-depth plan for your career, along with next steps for putting it into action.

We’ll also send you monthly updates on our research and updates on high-impact job opportunities. You can unsubscribe from either in one click.

Or see all the articles at once by checking out the web version of the process

Notes and references

  1. We often say “helping people” for simplicity and brevity, but we don’t mean just humans — we mean anyone with experience that matters morally — e.g. nonhuman animals that can suffer or feel happiness, even conscious machines if they ever exist. Read more about how we define impact.