Will high stress kill you, save your life, or neither?

Many people assume stress is obviously bad, and lots of people tell us they want to find a “low stress job”. But a new book (and TED talk with over 10 million views) by psychologist Kelly McGonigal claims that stress is only bad if you think it is, and that stress can make us stronger, smarter and happier. So are most people wrong, or is stress only bad if you have the wrong attitude towards it?

We did a survey of the literature, and found that as is often the case, the truth lies in between. Stress can be good in some circumstances, but some of McGonigal’s claims also seem overblown.

  • In summary, whether work demands have good or bad effects seems to depend on the following things:
    VariableGood (or neutral)Bad
    Type of stressIntensity of demandsChallenging but achievableMismatched with ability (either too high or too low)
    ContextControlHigh control and autonomyLow control and autonomy
    PowerHigh powerLow power
    Social SupportGood social supportSocial isolation
    How to copeMindsetReframe demands as opportunities, stress as usefulView demands as threats, stress as harmful to health
    AltruismPerforming altruistic actsFocusing on yourself

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How important is finding a career that matches your strengths?

One of the most common ideas in career advice is that finding a good career is a matter of finding the role that uniquely matches who you are. You’ll be fantastic at the career that best matches you, and terrible at other careers, so the mission should be to find the career that’s the best match.

We haven’t found much support for this idea so far. The most in-depth attempt to study “match” is Holland-types, but several meta-analyses have found no or only a very weak relationship between Holland-type match and performance (or job satisfaction). On the other hand, we’ve encountered some important general predictors of success. For instance, hundreds of studies have found that the smarter you are, the more likely you are to succeed in almost every career. With a general predictor like intelligence, more is always better – it’s not that it means you’ll do well in some jobs but worse in others depending on your “match”.

However, a new line of research into “strengths” might shift the picture. There have been two attempts – the Virtues in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths test and Strengths Finder – to determine people’s character strengths, and study the importance of leading a career in line with them.

We did a review of the literature to see whether we should incorporate them into our advice, which we summarise below.

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Rule-breaking in children predicts future success

A paper was recently released looking into which personality factors in childhood predict success in education and work. The study followed participants over a 40 year period and attempted to control for intelligence and socioeconomic background. Much of it is exactly what you would expect. But here are some quotes that are more surprising (emphases ours). Note of course that the result has not yet been replicated:

In general, we found significant relations for childhood IQ and SES [socioeconomic status] with educational attainment that is in line with the sociological and psychological models (see Blau & Duncan, 1967; Eccles, 2005). As there is much previous research on the validity of these predictors for educational success (e.g., Gottfredson, 2002; Gustafsson & Undheim, 1996; Kuncel et al., 2004), we will focus our discussion on student characteristics and behaviors.

Educational attainment was best predicted by defiance of parental authority, [lack of] sense of inferiority, and teacher-rated studiousness. The effects were still significant after including IQ and parental SES as predictors.

First, students with high rule breaking and defiance of parental authority might be more competitive in the school context and more visible in interactions in the classroom. This might lead to at least higher oral grades compared with students with lower levels of rule breaking and defiance and to more demanding and encouraging teacher behavior. Rosenbaum (2001) demonstrated that teachers used not only the students’ cognitive abilities to determine grades but also students’ noncognitive behaviors.

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The value of coordination

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 12.26.20 AM

This post is intended for people who are already familiar with our key content. If you’re new, read the basics first.

In assessing your positive impact on the world, you need to look at the additional good you do after taking into account what would have happened if you hadn’t acted. But how can you evaluate this?

One way is the “single player approach” – consider what would happen if you act and what would happen if you don’t act, holding everyone else constant, and then look at the difference between the two scenarios.

This approach worked pretty well in the early days of effective altruism, but it starts to break down once you’re part of a community of thousands of people who will change their behaviour depending on what you do.

When you’re part of a community, the counterfactuals become more complex, and doing the most good becomes much more of a coordination problem – it’s a multiplayer rather than a single player game.

In this post, I’ll list five situations where this insight can help us to become even more effective, and I’ll suggest new rules of thumb that I think might be the best guide in a multiplayer world. This is a complex topic, so the answers I give are still tentative. I’m keen to see many more people in the community start thinking about these issues,

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80,000 Hours thinks that only a small proportion of people should earn to give long term

Norman Borlaug didn’t make millions, his research just saved millions of lives.

One of the most common misconceptions that we’ve encountered about 80,000 Hours is that we’re exclusively or predominantly focused on earning to give. This blog post is to say definitively that this is not the case. Moreover, the proportion of people for whom we think earning to give is the best option has gone down over time.

To get a sense of this, I surveyed the 80,000 Hours team on the following question: “At this point in time, and on the margin, what portion of altruistically motivated graduates from a good university, who are open to pursuing any career path, should aim to earn to give in the long term?” (Please note that this is just a straw poll used as a way of addressing the misconception stated; it doesn’t represent a definitive answer to this question).

Will: 15%
Ben: 20%
Rob: 10%
Roman: 15%

Instead, we think that most people should be doing things like politics, policy, high-value research, for-profit and non-profit entrepreneurship, and direct work for highly socially valuable organizations.

The misconception persists for a few reasons: when 80,000 Hours first launched, we led with the idea of earning to give very heavily as a marketing strategy; it was true that we used to believe that at least a large proportion of people should aim to earn to give long-term;

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In some careers your parents can give you a huge boost. Should you do what they did?

Angelina-Jon-GettyWould Angelina Jolie have been as successful if her father wasn’t Jon Voight?

In our talks we often note that in the past people typically went into the same career as their parents, but today young people are free to choose from a much wider range of options that might suit them better. That’s true, and it’s a great thing. However, there are still sometimes reasons to follow in your parents’ footsteps.

New research shows that working in the same field as a successful parent can give your odds of success a huge boost. Surely some of what’s going on here is that the child of a star parent is more likely to try to enter the same field in the first place, but part must also be that they are more likely to succeed when they do so.

Some, perhaps even most, of that effect will be due to to unfair and zero-sum nepotistic advantage, and so shouldn’t be actively exploited. But part of it must also be down to nothing immoral: you will start learning about the work incidentally from a young age, you’ll happen to make useful contacts as you grow up, and your parent may even be able to offer you personal coaching.

Unfortunately, the boost seems to be largest in fields where performance is hardest to measure (it’s smaller in sport and science) or where a brand surname matters, as in politics.

Here are the results for some of the most competitive positions in society:


I recommend reading the full article which has many more details.

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New TEDx talk released!

Check out the TEDx talk video by our Executive Director and co-founder Benjamin Todd.

In it, Ben sets out what we’ve learned through our research about finding fulfilling work. Rather than following your passion, find something you’re good at that helps others. If you aim to do what’s valuable, passion for your work will emerge. And you can also make a big difference with your life.

If you like what you see, please go ahead and share the video. We’d like to get it listed on the main TED channel!

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Interview: Holden Karnofsky on the importance of personal fit

Holden Karnofsky

In January 2014, I interviewed Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell, to further discuss his views on the importance of personal fit in career choice, and how they might differ from our own. See our previous interview with Holden.

The interview was carried out on Skype and recorded. Below, we list some of the key points and excerpts from the interview. These have been edited for clarity, and were reviewed by Holden before publishing.

Summary of Holden’s key points

  • Your degree of “fit” with a role depends on your chances of ultimately excelling in the role if you work at hard at it, arising from the match between yourself and the requirements of the role.
  • Holden believes that if you want to make a difference, seeking out roles with which you have a high degree of fit should be a top priority, especially early in your career. This is because:
  • Fit is easier to judge than many other factors, such as how much immediate impact you have, which means it’s easier to improve your degree of fit over time.
  • It’s harder to change your career ‘role’ than your cause later in your career. For instance, if you become a great salesperson, it’s relatively easy to transition into an organisation that works on a different cause, but much harder to become great at some other skill. This means that early in your career it’s more important to figure out what types of roles suit you than what cause support early in your career.
  • There’s huge, robust benefits from being good at your job including (i) better career capital – “it gives you a better learning experience, better personal development, better overall status, better overall opportunities” – (ii) higher impact within your field.
  • Excelling at what you do is one of the most important rules of thumb for having more impact, partly because a lot of the world’s impact comes from extreme cases, so your chances of being an extreme case may dominate your expected impact. In particular, extreme impact often arises from innovation – spotting ideas others haven’t – and this is more likely when you’re at the top of your field.
  • Some other criteria that are important early in your career are: (i) the general status of the option (ii) the pay (iii) how much you’ll learn about yourself and your other options from taking this option.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Holden’s views on career choice for people interested in effective altruism, we recommend seeing the transcript of his conference call on career choice.

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Update: Don’t follow your passion

Some have claimed “follow your passion” is the definitive career advice of our time.

The idea behind the slogan “follow your passion” is that the best way to choose a career is to:

  1. Identify your passions through self-reflection.
  2. Identify careers that involve those passions.
  3. Try to get one of those careers.

The reason this advice works is because:

  1. Matching your career with your passions in this way is the best way to be truly satisfied with your work.
  2. If you’re satisfied with your work, you’ll be good at what you do.
  3. Being good at what you do is the best way to make the world a better place.

We mainly disagree with the first and last claims: matching your career with your passions is not a particularly good way to find satisfying work, and being good at what you do is only one factor that matters for having a social impact.

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What we can learn about career choice from the Terman study


The Terman study is the longest running longitudinal studies ever to be carried out in psychology. The study included 1,528 of the most intelligent children born between 1900 and 1925. It started in 1921, and the participants have been followed up every four to five years ever since. Data was collected on their personality, habits, life-choices, health and much more. This allows researchers to track the results of different life choices over decades.

Two of the leading researchers working on the Terman study recently released a book: The Longevity Project, which aims to uncover the factors that lead to the participants having long and healthy lives.

The book has a fascinating chapter on career choice (though I’d recommend the whole thing).

Here’s a summary of the key conclusions:

The factors leading to career success

  • Intelligence predicts success, but it’s no guarantee. All of the participants in the Terman study were very bright, but a quarter ended up in less prestigious occupations, like clerical workers and craftsmen. Only one fifth ended up ‘highly successful’ – prominent doctors or lawyers, accomplished in the arts, or leading scientists. One fifth ended up ‘unsuccessful’ within their professions.
  • The more successful, the longer they lived. The most successful men lived on average five years longer than the least. In fact, Terman’s rating of success at age 30 predicted life-span decades later.
  • This effect was not explained by greater wealth, avoiding smoking and drinking, a happier marriage, more education, or conscientiousness (although conscientiousness did explain part of the effect).
  • A stable career with a clear progression of rising responsibilities also predicted longevity, compared to a ‘drifting’ career through many different professions.
  • Continuing to work into old age was a significant predictor of longevity.
  • Overall, the findings do not suggest that avoiding stress and responsibility is a good strategy for having a healthy life. Rather, they suggest that the becoming the type of person who perseveres to achieve ambitious goals leads to both success and health.
  • This links to a broader theme in positive psychology – in Flourish, Seligman proposes that achievement is one of the five key components of a flourishing life.

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Shared values predict startup success? An interview with Saberr



As part of our ongoing research we have been looking at the best ways to go into entrepreneurship. When we talked to Matt Clifford, of Entrepreneur First about the question, he suggested talking to Saberr. Saberr are a small startup focussed on the question of predicting the success of teams in business settings, and they have already had some impressive successes.

We spoke to Alistair Shepherd by phone, one of the two original founders of Saberr, about their perspective on forming a successful entrepreneurial team. The following is a selection of highlights from the call, edited and reorganised for clarity.

Key points

According to research by Noam Wasserman most startups fail because of their team, suggesting team composition is important for entrepreneurial success.
While standard personality tests have not been shown to be very successful at predicting success in careers, Saberr have achieved some impressive, if small scale, predictive success using a model based on value alignment and behavioural diversity.

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More on What Really Matters for Finding a Job You Love

We think being satisfied in the work you do is really crucial if you want to make a difference: you won’t be motivated otherwise. This is why we’ve spent time over the past year trying to summarise the evidence-based research on job satisfaction, to help you find a job you’ll love and make a difference in. In doing this, we found something a bit surprising: the common view that you should find a career that is a good fit for your personality type doesn’t have much support in the job satisfaction literature. The evidence seems to point towards the characteristics of the job itself (things like having variety, a sense of contribution, and clearly defined tasks) being more important than your personality fit.

Of course, we don’t think that this is the end of it – that all that matters when it comes to job satisfaction are five simple factors. So we’ve spent a bit more time delving into the job satisfaction literature to get a better sense of what personal or social factors might be most important alongside this. One finding that seems to be fairly well supported is that, whilst “personality fit” might not matter that much, feeling socially supported at work on the other hand, does.

In summary:

  • Feeling like you are socially supported at work – that you are able to get help and advice from your supervisors and coworkers – correlates with increased satisfaction at work

  • This is pretty intuitive, and seems to be both due to the direct benefits of social interactions, and the fact that support from coworkers also means we’re less likely to suffer from stress

  • This suggests it may be worth explicitly focusing on finding a working environment where you feel supported e.g. having a manager who you can go to with problems, perhaps above things like “personality fit” or “being the right type of person.” It also means that organisations (like 80,000 Hours!) should make creating this environment high priority

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Does your personality matter in picking a career?

In order to work out current best practice within career advising, we looked into personality testing. Several people I have asked for advice have recommended that we consider using it.

Having investigated the leading personality tests, however, we’ve concluded that they’re not very useful in choosing your career. This is because they haven’t been shown to predict the real world outcomes that matter: (i) finding careers you will find satisfying (ii) finding careers that you will succeed in.


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Intelligence matters more than you think for career success

When you’re trying to have an impact, it’s useful to know how successful you’ll be in different careers so you can pick the right one. But how can you do this? There are a few predictors of success that have been studied by psychologists, but the results aren’t widely known. The scientific consensus is that the best way to predict someone’s career success is to assess their general mental ability (GMA), which is similar to what most people mean by “intelligence”. You might find this surprising, so I’m going to summarise the evidence backing it up. Then I’ll talk about:

  • Why GMA is so important in work – mainly because people with higher GMA learn faster.
  • Which other factors affect success – job complexity, personality, and experience.
  • What this all means for your career – choose jobs that fit your GMA and find the best ways to increase your chances of success.


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How important is fitting in at work?

For most people, having a career which is a good “fit” for their personality and interests is extremely high priority. Unsurprisingly, the notion of “person-environment fit” is fundamental to most careers advice. The general idea is that a) people have different personalities and interests, b) different types of people are suited to different working environments and c) finding the right working environment for your personality and interests is crucial to finding a job you’ll enjoy and be successful in.

However, despite several decades of research attempts, psychologists have failed to demonstrate that fit with the workplace has any substantial effect on job satisfaction or job performance. This suggests the normal approach of (i) working out your interests and personality and then (ii) finding a job to match them might be wrong – it doesn’t seem to help you find a job you enjoy or are good at!

This is surprising: it seems intuitively obvious that your fit with your work environment is important. It might be that the effect is too complex to be picked up in the existing studies, and that improved survey design would uncover a stronger connection. But we should also consider whether being a good fit with your work is less important than we first think.


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Our research on how to find a job you love

Note: this post has been superseded by our job satisfaction page and supporting research page.

Many people aren’t as satisfied as they could be with their careers. This is a big problem: not only is the person less happy, they also end up making less difference in society. The even bigger problem is that people don’t seem to know what to do about this – how to find a job that they’ll find satisfying. There’s a lot of psychology research on happiness that could be really useful, but people don’t seem to be aware of it or at least aren’t applying it. So we decided to start collecting together the research that seems most useful to job satisfaction, and explaining how it applies to your career decisions.


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Does money make you happy?

If we’re to believe the Internet, various apologists for materialism have quipped that whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop. Indeed, the happiness of others can be bought at bargain-basement prices with a donation to an effective charity. If you’re thinking of donating a substantial portion of your income, though, it’s natural to wonder how your well-being will be affected. What can research tell us about this..?


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