How to choose a career to change the world
Updated: Jul 8, 2022
Our team is currently attending two important Effective Altruism events in Oxford and London, so we have received a lot of information aimed at students and young professionals on how to better guide their professional careers. We have also offered advice to several university students from different countries on the subject of career choice. So career choice is a topic that is very present in our minds right now. We wanted to synthesize some of that career choice advice into a brief article.
In a previous article, we elaborated our theoretical framework to choose the most important causes of our time. For many, especially younger people, several questions arise when they learn about the urgent issues mentioned there, such as:
"These global issues are huge, how can I help promote solutions to these causes in my daily life, or using my academic or professional career?”
"Which disciplines are the most important to collaborate with the greatest causes of our time?"
In this article, we'll lay out several useful rules of thumb and advice to guide us in finding a particularly effective area of study or professional career to change the world.
A career with meaning and positive impact
Many of us ask ourselves in moments of change or deep reflection throughout our lives "was my effort useful, or in vain?". For this reason, many self-help books suggest that we imagine ourselves at the end of our lives, reflecting on our past on those things that we would regret if we continue with our current life path. And the same procedure can be performed for smaller projects.
Another widely used method is to imagine that you only have a year or a few months to live. What would you do in that time?
Thinking about these scenarios can often help you get your priorities in order. What is the most important thing you can do with your time? It can be extremely useful and valuable to write it down so that you can use it in the future to guide your life plans.
If we follow the reasoning of these exercises, and for many other reasons (ethical, personal, social, etc.), we will realize that the best jobs are those with social meaning. Those that have the goal of improving the lives of others considerably.
Also, jobs with the social purpose of helping others are more rewarding in the long run. Thus, we also help ourselves by helping others.
Therefore, when guiding your professional life, ask yourself: "what does the world need the most?" "What can I contribute to the world that would alleviate a big social problem?"
When reflecting on this topic, many people think of careers like being a firefighter or a doctor, which help people directly. However, these contributions can take many more indirect forms, as there is a high potential for impact by contributing to longer-term causes, such as high-impact research in scientific or technological disciplines. Careers in public policy where you can promote important ethical causes that until now have not been sufficiently taken into account can also be of high impact. These are just a few examples, as there are many careers that can have a great positive impact on the world if we take the right approach.
Explore different options
Many times we choose our academic or professional career without giving it too much thought, or because of the influence of a particular person in our lives. This is problematic, since when choosing a career and directing our life to a specific path, we go from a larger range of options to a smaller one. However, we cannot do everything well in one life either. At some point, we have to decide to do something, and do it well.
Therefore, reflecting and planning our future can be one of the most effective actions when it comes to improving our own lives and when it comes to being able to positively affect the lives of others.
It is said that we spend around 80,000 hours working throughout our lives. If we work eight hours a day, this means that we basically spend a third of our lives working. And if we take away from this the eight hours that we sleep, as well as the time we use to satisfy our basic needs, it means that we spend more than half of our conscious and active time working.
This is a very substantial amount of time, so we believe that spending about 1% of that time, or about 800 hours (equivalent to several months or even years of active reflection and action), deciding what is the best career for us to improve the world is actually very reasonable and wise, since there are professional career options that can have a much greater positive impact on the world than others. [i]
Usually, when we are pondering what to do, we are advised to "follow our passion" or "do what we love". However, introspective reflection has its limits. A young person who is still orienting his life often might not what they want, and often there are many career options that they have not even considered. Most passions are awakened and developed with time and experience throughout life.
Following such reasoning, many people try to explore their passions by imagining ideal scenarios and then gauging the emotional reactions these imaginary scenarios provoke. For example, "Do I see myself as a doctor?" "Do I see myself as a politician?" This exercise is useful, but it has its limits.
When it comes to making the right decisions, simply imagining situations can lead us to idealize certain jobs. Since reflection does not show us the work that is done on a day-to-day basis. It also doesn’t show us if we would be good at it. For this, we need real practical experience.
However, a paradox arises here: how do I get work experience before having the work experience itself? To attempt to solve the paradox, we propose an immersion test in the real working experience.
The ladder test
We think that a multi-stage test, starting from small investments of time to bigger ones, is good to filter for career choices. This is what we call "the ladder test” [ii], and it consists of the following:
We can start with a vocational test, like the one used by many students before choosing a university career. In a matter of half an hour, it could help us see which disciplines or careers might fit us best.
We should try and filter by those careers that would have the biggest positive impact in the world. These careers usually tackle issues that are important, tractable, and neglected.
After this, it is useful to get more information about several of these options by researching them on the internet, to get a more realistic idea of what each race entails. This shouldn't take too long, and in a few hours we might have an idea of what each career might entail.
After this, we can talk to someone who can guide us, such as a university professor in that discipline, or someone working in that industry, to see if the tasks that they perform in their daily lives could be a good fit for us.
Once we have discarded some possible options that do not fit us, it is good to read articles and books about the discipline, to see what arouses passion and motivation in us.
Finally, you have the actual experience of becoming an intern, volunteer, or worker for a few weeks or months in those positions or areas related to what interests you the most. This will give you a very useful practical experience and will let you realize if such a career is really the right one for you.
At this point, you should have a good idea of what jobs you would and wouldn't like. In addition, the practical experience will also open doors for you, be it establishing new contacts, giving you new experiences, and adding experience to your resume. Spending time like this is an incredibly important investment in your future.