Conference Call on Altruistic Career Choice - January 2014

This content was written by Holden Karnofsky in February 2014, to summarize the contents of a conference call that had been held in January.

We're sometimes asked for thoughts on what people should do - in terms of career path - in order to accomplish as much good as possible. It's a question that would seem to have overlap with our work, since we work to identify the problems most worth working on (from a philanthropist's perspective) and since the question of "How can I do as much good as possible with my talents and my time?" is analogous to the question of "How can I do as much good as possible with my donations?"

However, there are some important differences between the two questions. Dollars are relatively fungible: your $10 has the same value to a nonprofit as someone else's $10 (we've been learning that this isn't as true as it appears at first glance, but it's somewhat true). By contrast, human capital is highly specialized: "what should you do?" depends heavily on "what skills and what options do you have?" This makes it harder to dispense generalized advice for careers than it is for donations.

Still, we've had a fair amount of reflection and discussion concerning the careers question, and I recently decided to conduct a conference call on the matter, as a way of offering to share my thoughts with others (tailored to their own situations and questions) and get some more food for thought for myself. I offered the call via a post to the Effective Altruism Facebook group, and 80,000 Hours - a group dedicated to working on this question - advertised the call to its own list. I took questions in advance, gave an opening statement that summarized my general thoughts after reading the questions, and then went through most of the individual questions I received.

With permission from all the people who spoke on the call, we're now making a lightly edited transcript of the call available.

In brief:

  • I make no claim to expertise regarding altruistic career choice, and I haven't put nearly the amount of time into thinking about it that the staff of 80,000 Hours (which is devoted to this question) has. My thoughts are based mostly on discussions I've had with people over the years, on my own career path, and on my thoughts on the current state of effective altruism.
  • Most of the conference call participants were in a fairly early/exploratory career stage, and seemed to be coming from the mindset of "I could succeed at many possible things; there's no obvious best fit; I'm trying to pick the highest-impact path." That's a very particular profile, and my advice was tailored to that profile. I would have given very different advice to people fitting a different profile.
  • The question of "Where should I 'give' my time/talents?" can be broken down into "How should I develop my time/talents into something that has great value?" and "How should I select the right organization/cause/area to apply that value to?" For relatively early-career people such as the call participants, I believe the former question deserves more focus (though not entirely to the exclusion of the second question). As such, I encouraged people to place a lot of weight on questions like "What can I succeed at?" and "How can I improve my abilities, knowledge, network, and overall degree of success?" I believe that different people are cut out to succeed in very different things and in very different ways, and that greater success means dramatically better options for having impact.
  • I think many people would benefit from considering a broader array of possible career paths than is normally considered; from keeping options open and learning as they go; from going outside their comfort zone and challenging themselves to gain new skills; and from generally focusing, early on, on personal development and learning.
  • With that said, while exploration and considering different options is good, I also think many people underestimate how much they can gain from simply doing outstanding work (greatly exceeding the expectations of all those they work with) where they are.
  • I shared more specific thoughts (regarding overrated and underrated career paths, good things to major in, etc.) on the call.

Lightly edited transcript of Jan. 23, 2014 conference call on altruistic career choice