The 80,000 Hours Podcast is about “the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them”, and in this episode we tackle that question in the most direct way possible.

Last year we published a summary of all our key ideas, which links to many of our other articles, and which we are aiming to keep updated as our opinions shift.

All of us added something to it, but the single biggest contributor was our CEO and today’s guest, Ben Todd, who founded 80,000 Hours along with Will MacAskill back in 2012.

This key ideas page is the most read on the site. By itself it can teach you a large fraction of the most important things we’ve discovered since we started investigating high impact careers.

But it’s perhaps more accurate to think of it as a mini-book, as it weighs in at over 20,000 words.

Fortunately it’s designed to be highly modular and it’s easy to work through it over multiple sessions, scanning over the articles it links to on each topic.

Perhaps though, you’d prefer to absorb our most essential ideas in conversation form, in which case this episode is for you.

If you want to have a big impact with your career, and you say you’re only going to read one article from us, we recommend you read our key ideas page.

And likewise, if you’re only going to listen to one of our podcast episodes, it should be this one. We have fun and set a strong pace, running through:

  • The most common misunderstandings of our advice
  • A high level overview of what 80,000 Hours generally recommends
  • Our key moral positions
  • What are the most pressing problems to work on and why?
  • Which careers effectively contribute to solving these problems?
  • Central aspects of career strategy like how to weigh up career capital, personal fit, and exploration
  • As well as plenty more.

One benefit of this podcast over the article is that we can more easily communicate uncertainty, and dive into the things we’re least sure about, or didn’t yet cover within the article.

Note though that our what’s in the article is more precisely stated, our advice is going to keep shifting, and we’re aiming to keep the key ideas page current as our thinking evolves over time. This episode was recorded in November 2019, so if you notice a conflict between the page and this episode in the future, go with the page!

Update: As of Sept 2021, you can now see this more recent introduction to the key ideas of 80,000 Hours and our story on the Superdatascience podcast, which is especially good for people with STEM backgrounds. You can also see another introduction on Clearer Thinking, which is a bit more in-depth.

Interested in applying this thinking to your career?

If you found this interesting, and are thinking through how considerations like these might affect your career choices, our team might be able to speak with you one-on-one. We can help you consider your options, make connections with others working on similar issues, and possibly even help you find jobs or funding opportunities.

Apply to speak with our team

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

Highlights

Don't focus too much on our rankings

People really focus a lot on our particular ranking of things, but these are really just ways to help you brainstorm things that might be high impact. Then you need to then run it through our full decision process.

Consider your individual circumstances, your personal fit, other options that might be really promising but aren’t on our list, and to actually come to your individual decision. We’re not providing a kind of, all considered, ‘these are the best careers for everyone’ list.

That’s unfortunately not possible.

The best move for career capital might seem unusual

There’s been a couple of misunderstandings we think we’ve been coming across recently and the one that’s most on our mind at the minute is just how people think about career capital and in particular a lot of people getting the idea from our content that typically the best thing to do is to work in consulting early career or some other prestigious corporate job like that rather than trying to do something more directly relevant to a pressing problem.

Another option is we’ve seen people who just have great direct impact options right away. They could do something like go and work at a top think tank on AI policy or they’re thinking, “Maybe I should go and work at PwC first to get better career capital”. And it just seems better to push on in policy because even just from a career capital point of view that’s giving you a lot of other options in addition to being closer to having an impact.

One example we came across recently was a bit of an unusual one, but it was someone who had the realistic possibility of becoming a magician and maybe landing a major TV show in India and they were choosing between that or otherwise consulting. And it actually seemed to us like the magician case was more exciting because it would mean that, well firstly that’s kind of more of an impressive level of achievement. You might stand out more, but also, you’re learning all about media, building up an audience and you’re also doing this in the context of a really important country.

So those kinds of things seem like you might well get better career capital from actually becoming a magician rather than consultant. Whereas I think most people’s reading our advice would be like, in general, a consultant is the thing that we’d want people to focus on.

High level overview of what 80,000 Hours generally recommends

So the first question we encourage people to think about is the question of which global problems are most pressing and then which ones you want to work on. Once you’ve got that, then it’s about coming up with career options that might help you especially effectively address those problems. So that’s like figuring out key bottlenecks facing those issues and how you might resolve them. And then from there you want to be trying to get a short list of promising long-term options together. So that’s the kind of idea generation phase. Then we have a strategy section, which is then more about how do you narrow those down?

And so a really big question there is just which one’s the best personal fit for you? Another big question is whether it’s more effective to first gain career capital? Will that accelerate your career more or should you just enter directly into one of these long-term paths? And then finally there’s the section on decision making. How would you actually figure out, once you’ve got a short list, what your next step should be? And so the key thing is to try to identify your key uncertainties about these different options, investigate them, and then we recommend that generally people take what we call that upside option, which is the option that would be the highest impact if you performed towards the top end of your expectations.

That said, doing that while having clear backup plans. And then finally we roughly recommend that people review their career about once a year or whenever they face a major decision point, and a little bit less often if you’re more confident and a little bit more often if you’re early career or you’re more uncertain about what to do. And then the rest of the time, just focus on doing as well as you can in the option that you’ve chosen.

Consider doing a series of cheap tests to gain information

It’s easy to focus a bit too much on analysis rather than concretely gaining information. Sometimes you come across people who’ve been racking their brains analyzing these options, whereas they could’ve just gone and found out something that would have immediately made the decision more obvious.

One example recently was, we came across an academic who was considering whether to do a sabbatical for a year in another location, and they thought about it a bunch, but they hadn’t considered just going to visit that place for a week, which would have probably made it a lot more clear whether they would actually want to spend a whole year there.

We also sometimes see the opposite mistake, where someone has just quit their job and then they’re going to think full time about their career. That often seems a bit risky unless you’ve got a very clear plan worked out for what you’re going to do with this time and how you’re going to make sure you have answers at the end.

In general, we’d encourage people to do a series of cheap tests or cheap ways to gain information which go in ascending order of cost. Often initially the most useful thing is just to go and talk to people about the job, and that’s the most useful information to gain. Then later you can go onto more involved things spending a week in the location, the sabbatical example, or doing some kind of trial work, applying to the job.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show


As of summer 2021, you can also two more recent podcast interviews with Ben about the key ideas series:

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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