1

How to Assess the Impact of a Career

by Ben Todd, originally on the 80,000 Hours Blog

 o 

The sole purpose of 80,000 Hours is to help you work out in which career you can make the most difference.[1]

At first sight, it’s hard to know where to begin. Or what this even means.

Indeed, many people don’t think it’s even possible to work this out! We don’t agree. However, we think that if you don’t try to weigh up your options, you’ll end up doing far less for the world than you could otherwise be doing.

How, then, do we go about helping you decide in which career can you make the most difference? It’s not an easy question, but it is a fascinating one that has a great deal of importance to the world.

What factors are the most important?

After talking one-on-one with around 100 people about their careers, asking people who have made a big impact, and thinking through what matters, we’ve developed a simple framework for assessing the value of different careers.

We expect this framework will develop significantly and become more precise over time as we come to gain a better grasp over which factors matter. It just represents our best guess at which key factors are most important, organised in a way that we’ve found relatively easy to understand and evaluate separately.

In summary, we find it useful to judge careers on two key factors:

  • Immediate Impact
  • Building career capital

We break immediate impact down further into: the size of your contribution multiplied by the effectiveness of the cause you work on.

We break career capital down into: skills, network and CV points.

In the rest of this post, I’ll go over these factors in more detail.

1) Immediate Impact

This is the immediate scope you have to make the world a better place through this career over the next couple of years.

We break this down into the multiple of two further factors: Impact = Contribution x Cause Effectiveness

a) Contribution

In some careers, you have more ability to contribute to important problems than others. Simply put, Presidents are more influential than sandwich makers. There are many ways to contribute to a cause, including:

  • Gaining a public platform and using it to spread an important idea
  • Gaining a network and using it to spread an idea or carry out a project
  • Donating money
  • Influencing budgets in existing organizations or by building a new organization
  • In addition, there’s the direct contribution you make through your work

It’s often useful to assess careers on how much contribution you’ll be able to make along each of these dimensions.

b) Cause effectiveness

To make a big difference, you’ll want to work on the problems where your contribution will go as far as possible. These are problems which are both important - worth doing something about - and tractable - it’s possible to do something about them. We call these effective causes.

The relation seems to be multiplicative. If your contribution increases by 10x, then so does your impact. Likewise with the effectiveness of your cause.

2) Building Career Capital

This is the extent to which the career path builds your general ability to take high impact opportunities in the future.

For most people, it is very hard to figure out what projects they will be working on beyond 3 – 5 years, and so we don’t find it very useful to try to evaluate the impact of these projects. Rather, we prefer to evaluate individuals’ general potential to have an impact. We call this career capital.

Your long-term general potential is often more important than your immediate impact. Most careers only peak after around 20 years[2] - you’ll be having more impact when you manage the charity rather than intern for it. Developing your career capital may be preferable to acting directly because your knowledge of which cause is most important are very likely to change.

We break down career capital into the quality of your network, skills and CV.

a) Network

Getting a job often depends on who you know. So if you know more influential people, you may have more valuable employment options. Your network can also help you to have a direct impact: it’s easier to lobby the government if you know a senator.

b) Skills

Your skills will also determine who is willing to hire you. Moreover, your skills are what you’ll use, in addition to your network, to make a difference. Because of literature on expert performance[3], we believe it is possible to develop competency in many areas with training.With training, we think it’s possible to increase your ability to get stuff done a great deal So  skill development appears very important.

c) CV Points

People will assess your job application based on your work experience and qualifications. Some jobs are prerequisites for further jobs. For instance, you won’t be considered for a career as a lawyer unless you have the right qualifications, even if you know all you need to know. Some careers or qualifications are useful as a means of signaling your ability to others. For instance, it is harder to get into finance if you have not graduated from an elite school, regardless of your true skill. These are important factors.

So in which careers can you make the most difference?

We’ve argued that keeping your options open is very important for effective altruists - probably at least comparable to your immediate impact. This suggests that building career capital, which seems to be the main way to improve your options, is at least as important as your immediate impact.

or many effective altruists, especially those at the start of their career, Sowe favor first focusing on the careers that are best for building your career, and then factoring in immediate impact.

By applying this framework in light of detailed information about various careers we have formulated the following provisional thoughts about career impact:

  • If you’re looking to build career capital, consider entrepreneurship, consulting or an economics PhD.
  • If you’re looking to pursue earning to give, consider high-end finance, tech entrepreneurship, law, consulting and medicine. These careers are all high-earning in part due to being highly demanding. Our impression is that software engineering, being an actuary and dentistry are somewhat less demanding but also highly paid.
  • If you’d like to make an impact more directly, consider party politics, founding effective non-profits, working inside international organizations, government or foundations to improve them, and doing valuable academic research.
  • If you’d like to advocate for effective causes, consider party politics, journalism, and working in international organizations, policy-oriented civil service or foundations.
  • Some career paths that look promising overall are: tech entrepreneurship, consulting, party politics, founding effective non-profits and working in international organizations.
  • Some paths we think are promising but are largely neglected by 80,000 Hours members and would like to learn more about are: party politics, working in international organizations, being a program manager at a foundation, journalism, policy-oriented civil service and marketing.[4]

Although the background information on these careers cannot be presented in this short essay, it is largely available on our website, 80000hours.org.

Footnotes

[1] This article was initially posted in July 2013 on the 80,000 Hours blog (www.80000hours.org/blog/238-how-to-assess-the-impact-of-a-career). The list of top careers was taken from Ben Todd’s post In which career can you make the most difference?, posted in February 2014 (www.80000hours.org/blog/314-in-which-career-can-you-make-the-most-difference)

[2] “Age and Outstanding Achievement”, D. Simonton, 1988, Psychological Bulletin, Vol 104, No. 2, 251-267 http://resources.emartin.net/blog/docs/AgeAchievement.pdf

[3] See a summary in this article: “Expert Performance,” Ericsson and Charness, 1994, American Psychologist http://stuff.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/course/6/6.055/readings/ericsson-charness-am-psychologist.pdf

[4] Our full evaluation of these careers is available at www.80000hours.org/blog/314-in-which-career-can-you-make-the-most-difference 

 

Comments (0)

There doesn't seem to be anything here.