TLDR: Get good at something that lets you effectively contribute to neglected global problems.
You can have more positive impact over the course of your career by aiming to:
Help 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. In particular, our generation may see the rise of transformative technologies, which could lead to existential risks and make now a crucial moment in history — but our current institutions are doing little to address these issues. We have a list of global issues we think are particularly pressing for more people to work on right now.
Find 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 to your chosen problem, you can often make 10 or 100 times as much progress per year of work. To find these solutions, we advocate a ‘hits-based approach’: find rules of thumb that increase the chance of the solution being among the most effective in an area, even if it also has a good chance of not working. This often means working on research, policy change, or movement building.
Find 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 on the most pressing problems, we often encourage people to work in government and policy; to pursue careers where they can mobilise others (e.g. media); to help people or organisations that have a lot of leverage; or to use their strengths to contribute indirectly through donations or community building. 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 career paths.
Find work that fits you better. The most productive people in a field often have far more output than the average. Plus, excelling in almost any field gives you more connections, resources and reputation, which give you leverage. So, once you have identified some promising options, choose between them based on your expected fit.
Career strategy: Your most impactful career is the one that’s best on the product of these four factors over its course — and it’s often possible to find a path that’s 10 times better on one or more of these dimensions while being just as personally satisfying.
But how do you actually find the best possible path? Think like a scientist: make some best guesses at the most promising long-term paths, identify key uncertainties, then update your guesses every 1–3 years. Over time, especially focus on the following three (overlapping) stages:
Explore: learn about and test out promising longer-term paths, until you feel ready to bet on one for a few years. It’s hard to predict where you’ll have the best fit, but some paths are much higher-impact than others, so it’s worth exploring to make sure you don’t miss a great one. (This is typically the key focus for people ages 18–24.)
Invest: take a bet on a longer-term path by building the career capital that will most accelerate you in it. It’s normally better to aim a little too high than too low — but make sure you have a backup plan, so you can try another path if it doesn’t work out. (Ages 25–35.)
Deploy: use the career capital you’ve built to support the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems at the time. (Age 36 onwards.)
While doing this, 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 enabling others, politically supporting, or donating to work on the problems you think are most pressing, while also investing in your career capital.
If you do change careers, 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, and 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 these steps are a route to a career that’s satisfying and fulfilling, as well as one that addresses some of the biggest issues of our time.
She heard our podcast with Beth Cameron about why a global pandemic is a realistic possibility (back in 2017!), though the issue was neglected compared to conventional medicine. So she decided to try to switch which problem she focused on.
She spoke to us one-on-one, and we helped her find funding for a master’s in epidemiology to build career capital in the area.
When COVID-19 broke out, she was able to zero in on a neglected but potentially high-impact solution: human challenge trials, which can greatly speed up the development of vaccines.
She increased her leverage by co-founding 1DaySooner with a grant from others in our community. 1DaySooner is a nonprofit that signed up 30,000 volunteers for human challenge trials in order to speed up government vaccine approval — potentially enabling many academic labs to go ahead with studies. A challenge trial started in London in early 2021, setting a precedent that will hopefully make our response much faster if another pandemic breaks out.
Although Sophie would likely also have enjoyed being a doctor, this path has also been a good fit for her skills and because she thinks she’s having a greater impact, she finds it meaningful. She now plans to double down on what she’s learned, and work on preventing the (unfortunately realistic) possibility of a future 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 — 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.