How to Identify the Best Opportunities to Make an Impact

Make a difference
If we asked ourselves — are we making a difference? Would we be satisfied with our answer or would we find it satisficing?

Most of us want to have an impact in this sense (as opposed to collision.) We want to make a contribution with our work, and we want our lives to matter. How do we go about identifying the best opportunities to do that?

Whether we are getting started on our careers, want to change the world, are wrestling with the question of what our legacy will be, or anywhere in between, our degree of impact depends on our ability to discover, assess or evaluate, and take effective action. It comes down to our ability to make good decisions.

The team at 80,000 Hours has put together a list of simple steps on how to choose:

  1. Focus mainly on taking a good next step, not figuring out a precise long-term plan.
  2. Write out your most important priorities for the decision.
  3. Brainstorm extra options. Most people consider too few.
  4. Rank your options.
  5. Write out your key uncertainties.
  6. Go and investigate your key uncertainties. Many people try to figure out their career from the armchair, when often it would be better to go and speak to people or try things.
  7. Do your final ranking. Assess your options based on your priorities, and ask yourself why you might be wrong. Don’t just go with your gut.
  8. Make your best guess.

These steps apply to decision making beyond choosing a career, although I can think of a handful decisions that impact our lives and influence our ability to make an impact more. 80,000 Hours say (for students) the problem is:

Over a third of students want making a difference to be a priority for their careers, but advice on how to put this into action is poor. Because of this, every year over half a million graduates fail to make as much difference as they could with their careers.

[see the notes and references for supporting data]

Founder Will Crouch figured that 80,000 Hours is the estimated number of hours most people spend on their career. According to 80,000 Hours:

… some careers aimed at doing good are far more effective than others.

On their framework for assessing different career options, the value of a career is regarded as depending on both its potential for impact and on the degree to which it gives the individual better opportunities to have an impact in the future.

The group emphasizes that the positive impact of choosing a certain occupation should be measured by the amount of additional good that is done as a result of this choice, not by the amount of good directly done.

It considers indirect ways of making a difference, such as earning a high salary in a conventional career and donating a portion of it, as well as direct ways, such as scientific research.

Moral philosopher Peter Singer explains that effective altruism combines both the heart and the head. Reason helps us put perspective on things, which is why many of the most significant people in effective altruism have been people who have had backgrounds in philosophy or economics or math. For example the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett.

According to Singer the four questions people ask that stand in the way of them giving are:

  1. how much of a difference they can make — going online to figure out what is going on after hearing a piece of news and connecting with peers to develop tools, setting up a site, like a group of geeks did at SxSW to help collect donations, these are all actions people can take quickly and that do make a difference (yes, even the non geeks)
  2. am I expected to abandon my career — choosing a career that makes us high earners also gives us the opportunity to give more
  3. charities aren't really all that effective — Singer points to GiveWell as a resource
  4. it's a burden to give — Singer says this is the Sisyphus problem how we're on a treadmill with our lifestyle

Being inquisitive is good, and we should channel our questions more effectively. All of which brings us back to the ability to make decisions by understanding issues, identifying opportunities, evaluating — and in many cases also expanding — our options, and then taking action.

So far, the work of 80,000 Hours has caused 188 plan changes. Not listing people with “an intention to shift plans” is an interesting choice. In business we are still using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a method to measure loyalty. NPS is based on a direct question: How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague? While this is likely useful to improve negative experiences, it is based on intention.

Here's how 80,000 Hours measure their impact.

Watch the full talk by Peter Singer below.

Go here, if you're interested in being Less Wrong and improving your reasoning and decision-making skills by learning to think rationally. Here's a good thought experiment on the nature of intention.

A resource I found valuable for decision-making is Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. See my take on aspects of the book.


[image Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]

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