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How to Find a Fulfilling Career and Change the World, According to Oxford Researchers
I recently learned that half of all workers find no meaning in their job, and that just 13% of people say they enjoy their line of work. If you contrast those facts with research showing that 74% of people want a job where they feel like they’re making a difference, we’re presented with a grim picture of the labor market. We want to do work that is impactful, but most of us are slogging away each day on tasks that feel mundane and unsatisfying.
Many recent graduates probably listened to an inspirational speaker at their commencement, who implored them to go out and change the world by working a meaningful job with passion and vigor. The part the speakers leave out is how the graduates are supposed to find jobs that allow them to do that.
Into the void steps the website 80,000 Hours, which is like your college’s guidance counselor’s office — if it was tech savvy, stats driven, and run by Oxford University PhDs. The mission of the site is to help people find meaningful careers, and they have a uniquely effective way of going about it.
An Overview of 80,000 Hours
The name 80,000 Hours refers to the total amount of time the average nine-to-five employee will spend at work; it’s supposed to evoke feelings of both inspiration and concern. On the one hand, that’s a lot of time with which to make an impact on the world if you find the right career. On the other, the number makes you realize that your career is a finite resource. It’s a huge chunk of your life you won’t get back if you waste thousands of hours doing something you hate.
Through five years of research alongside academics at Oxford, the 80,000 Hours team has determined that “to have a fulfilling career, you should do something you’re good at that makes the world a better place.” 80,000 Hours sets themselves apart because they don’t just toss out platitudes. They really try to teach people how to get jobs they will love, and they do it in an easy to follow, thoroughly convincing, and highly motivating way.
The crux of the 80,000 Hours website is their massive, thought-provoking, and well-researched career guide. Rather than having participants take an aptitude test and spitting back a list of choices, the guide aims to help people in a more holistic fashion. It encourages people to think outside the box, stating right off the bat that people should not “aim for a highly paid, easy job, or expect to discover their passion in a flash of insight.”
The guide contains 12 parts, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety – but there are a few main messages that stood out to me.
You Don’t Have to Work in Healthcare to Be Virtuous
When I think about the most meaningful jobs, I instinctively think about doctors and nurses. They have a direct impact on the health of the population every day, after all, literally improving or even saving people’s lives.
The 80,000 Hours guide helped me widen my perspective. While people working in healthcare are certainly helping people in a tangible way, they don’t have a monopoly on generating meaning and impact. There are many and various roles that can have far reaching positive effects.
For example, consider the case of working on a political campaign. If you’re instrumental in helping an altruistic and intelligent individual get elected, you could be making a huge difference. As 80,000 hours puts it, “Imagine one candidate wanted to spend 0.2% more of GDP on foreign aid. That would be about $144 billion extra foreign aid over their four-year term.” That’s a massive lever you can pull to potentially save lives, no medical degree required.
My brother, a doctor, often tells me that most of the big healthcare problems in the U.S. are actually political problems. That’s a fact well worth considering as you navigate your career.
I was able to talk with Rob Wiblin, director of research at 80,000 Hours, and he emphasized just how important political roles can be. “Lately, we’ve been suggesting that a lot of people study a Master in Public Policy at places like Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.,” Rob told me. “Many of the problems we care most about are best tackled through public policy, international relations and so on, so we’d like to see more people develop the skills necessary to get top jobs in Congress.”
You Should Still Try to Do What You Like
The 80,000 Hours team warns against blindly following your passion, as most young people don’t have enough experience to really know what they want. But, that doesn’t mean you should try to get any old job at any old company. There are all sorts of creative ways to do good in the world, and you’ll have the biggest impact if you find a role that suits your particular skill set.
If you love computer programming, you can try to design software for a company that’s making mobile health apps tailored to users in developing countries.
If you’re an operations specialist, you can do the integral work of coordinating supply chains so that charities can do more effective work.
Even event planners can be game changers, as it’s often through popular and well-run events that worthy causes can get recognition and funding.
I asked Rob what field he would go into if he were job hunting in 2018. He told me he would take on the heady challenge of improving artificial intelligence. “I would try to study machine learning,” he said. “Then I could positively shape the development of AI and ensure that when used its goals align with human values.”
As it says in the 80,000 Hours guide, “If you focus on the approaches that are best suited to the problems you want to solve and where you have the best personal fit, you can do even more good.” Basically, there is something for everyone if you take the time to look.
The Power of Earning to Give
Another interesting point in the guide is about the power of donations: Virtually anyone in any job, no matter how mundane, can make a positive impact if they donate a portion of their salary — and that money can make a surprisingly powerful difference in poorer countries.
GiveWell estimates that you can save someone from dying of malaria with a donation of $2,000. If you donate that amount every year and you work 40 years, that’s 40 lives saved! Meanwhile, according to the research at 80,000 Hours, a typical doctor working in clinical medicine will save five lives over the course of a career. Knowing that, the power of simple donations looks all the more impressive.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who derive joy from their job, or you feel stuck in a certain role for the time being. That in no way inhibits you from making a big impact on people’s lives and global problems through charitable giving.
That being said, Rob made it clear that if they want to tackle the problems 80,000 Hours is focused on, most will do more good if they view earning to give as a secondary option. As he told me, “It has been harder to get talented people into roles that move the needle on these problems than it has been to get people to offer to donate money to pay their salary. For this and some other reasons, we now recommend people explore a range of other options like research and policy before deciding to earn to give.”
The 80,000 Hours career guide is heavy on math and rationality, but it also contains simple thought experiments that pack a punch. At the end, it asks you to think about what you might regret as you look back on your life. Will it be that you worked hard and did your best to help others over the course of your career, even at the expense of a fancy house or an expensive car? Highly unlikely.
It’s these sorts of thought experiments that can help people summon the courage to take chances with their careers.
The team at 80,000 Hours is on a mission to help people find a way to make a living without sacrificing their values, and I hope more people use their resources. Be sure to check out their podcast if you’re interested in learning more about how smart people from all over the world are trying to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
Happy job hunting!