Helping solve a more pressing problem. Many global issues should get more attention, but as individuals we should look for the biggest gaps in existing efforts. To do that, you can compare issues in terms of scale, neglectedness and tractability. It turns out that some issues receive hundreds of times less attention relative to how big and solvable they seem. This means which issues you choose to work on is likely the biggest driver of your impact. We have a list of global issues we think are particularly pressing right now.
Finding a more effective solution. Many social interventions don’t have much effect when rigorously measured, but some are enormously effective. This means that by finding a more effective solution, you can often make 10 or 100 times as much progress with a given unit of resources. To do this, we advocate a ‘hits based’ approach of using rules of thumb to find solutions that have a chance of being among the most effective in an area, even if they also have a good chance of not working. This often means supporting research, policy change, or movement building.
Finding a path with more leverage. Your ‘leverage’ is how many resources (e.g. money, attention, skill) you’re able to mobilise toward the solution. To get more leverage, we often encourage people to work in government & policy; pursue careers where they can build a platform to mobilise others (e.g. media); to work in research; or to build valuable skills and use them to help people or organisations that have a lot of leverage. Most people only reach their peak productivity between the ages of 40-60, so we also encourage people to invest in their skills, connections, reputation etc. to have more leverage in the future. (See our list of especially promising ‘priority paths’ for specific careers in these categories).
Finding work that fits you better. The most productive in a field often have far more output than the average, and excelling in almost any field gives you more connections, resources and reputation, which give you leverage in the future. So, once you have identified some promising options, we’d encourage you to choose between them based on your expected fit.
Career strategy: Your most impactful career is the one that’s best on the balance of these four factors over its course — but how do you actually find the best path?
Careers often follow these three (overlapping) stages:
Explore: take low cost ways to learn about and test out promising longer-term paths, until you feel ready to bet on one for a few years. If some paths will have much more impact than others, it’s worth exploring more to make sure you don’t miss a great one. (This stage is typically the top priority age 18-24.)
Invest: take a bet on a longer-term path that could go really well, usually by building the career capital that will most accelerate you in it. Your longer-term path could either aim to effectively address a specific problem, or give you leverage that can be used to address many issues. It’s normally better to aim a little too high than too low, though make sure you have a backup plan in case it doesn’t work out. And if it’s not working out, most people delay switching too long. (Ages 24 – 35.)
Deploy: use the career capital you’ve built to support the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems at the time. (Age 35 onwards.)
In doing the above, be iterative: make your best guess at which issues & roles to aim at longer-term, try something for a couple of years while building skills, then update your guesses, and do it again.
And seek community. Finding a great community gives you hundreds of connections at once, and two people working together can have more than twice the impact than one person alone. We helped to build the effective altruism community to help you (and ourselves!) find like-minded people.
Focusing your career on tackling the world’s most pressing problems is not for everyone and is certainly not easy. If you’re not able to change jobs right now, you can still have a lot of impact by donating to, politically supporting, or enabling others to work on the problems you think are most pressing, while also investing in yourself.
If you do change career, look for work you enjoy and that meets your other needs. If a path feels like a struggle, it’s probably not sustainable or inspiring to others, and so probably not ideal even for your impact.
Fortunately, we think the steps we recommend – building career capital, exploring, contributing to meaningful problems – align with what’s personally rewarding for a lot of people. And so while there may be some tradeoffs, we think the steps we suggest are also a route to a career that’s satisfying and fulfilling, as well as one that addresses some of the biggest issues of our time.
Example: Sophie Rose
Sophie was on a path to become a doctor, but came across our podcast about why pandemics were a big and neglected risk (back in 2017!) and decided to change the problem she focused on from child health to global pandemics. She spoke to us one-on-one, and we helped her find funding for a masters in epidemiology to build career capital in the area.
When COVID-19 broke out, she found a neglected solution: human challenge trials, which can greatly speed up the development of vaccines. And she found a way to get leverage by co-founding 1DaySooner, a non-profit that signed up thousands of volunteers for human challenge trials in order to speed up government approval — potentially enabling many academic labs to go ahead with studies. A challenge trial started in London in early 2021.
Finally, although she would have enjoyed being a doctor, this path has also been a good fit for her skills and personality, and she’s finding it meaningful. She now plans to double down on what she’s learned and build career capital to help prevent a pandemic even worse than COVID-19.
We think ‘making a difference’ is best understood as the number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them by, regardless of who they are or when they’re living. In this article we try to summarise 2,400 years of philosophical thought to explain why.