Misconceptions about careers that "make a difference"

Originally posted on Cafe.com

When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted a career that "made a difference." The problem was, I didn’t really know what that meant, or how to find one.

Ironically, my very first job ended up being at 80,000 Hours, an organization that provides career advice for people who want to make a difference in their job. Yes, I was advising people on how to find more meaning at work, despite the fact that I’d struggled with this myself. But advising other people can often be easier than navigating your own career. Through all the conversations I had with like-minded people, I learned a great deal. I realized that I had a lot of misconceptions about what it meant to "make a difference" at the outset, and that the misconceptions were holding me back. I suspect many other people have similar misconceptions.

Misconception #1: "Making a difference" isn't for everyone

When we think of "making a difference," we tend to envisage becoming a doctor, going to Africa or perhaps talking to people on a couch about their problems. This image, among other things, gave me the impression that doing good with your career was really only for a specific type of person—the kind of person who campaigned and volunteered, and who had the appropriate skills to work for a charity or be a social worker. This “kind of person” wasn’t really me. I think many others have a similar feeling—I met quite a few people who cared about making a difference in the world, but had resigned themselves to the fact that it “just wasn’t really for them.”

Through researching and advising people at 80,000 Hours, I learned that making a difference with your career can be a lot broader than charity or social work. What really matters is that you’re contributing something to a cause bigger than yourself—not that you have an ethical-sounding job title. 

Most conventionally “ethical” careers are very hands-on: helping people directly. But it’s also possible to make a big difference in more indirect, less obvious ways. For example, you might decide to work in the corporate sector early on in your career to gain useful skills like management, operations, or marketing, which can later be applied to a wider cause. You might decide to go into politics or journalism to build  a platform to promote valuable ideas—influencing others can be an incredibly effective form of altruism. You could become an entrepreneur and provide a product or service that improves peoples’ lives somehow. Or you might even go into a high-paying city job, like consulting or finance, and donate a large proportion of your income to effective charities

I’ve come to believe that pretty much any skill set can be leveraged to make a difference in the world.

Misconception #2: Doing good means making personal sacrifices

When I started thinking about careers, one of my biggest sources of distress was the feeling that there was tension between what I’d enjoy doing and what would actually make a difference. I studied mathematics and philosophy at college, and I’d been considering a Ph.D. in philosophy, which seemed really interesting to me, though not necessarily all that practical. I knew other people who had similar feelings of conflict. One friend was interested in finance, but also wanted to make a difference in the world—and was concerned he wouldn't have any impact. 

We were all worried that in trying to do good, we’d have to sacrifice doing what we loved. But I’m not worried about this anymore—I don’t believe having an ethical career means making personal sacrifices. Why? A few reasons:

To begin with, I was thinking too narrowly about what careers I’d enjoy. I was thinking about what I’d enjoyed in the past, but neglecting to think about all the jobs out there I’d never even tried. Studies of job satisfaction suggest many people are unhappy at work because they're looking for the wrong things: focusing too much on things like intrinsic interest and pay at the expense of other factors like mental challenge and variety on a day-to-day basis. So if you find yourself thinking, “I could only enjoy doing [insert interesting but not practically useful thing here]” it might be worth broadening your search a bit.

I was also thinking too narrowly about which careers made a difference. As I explained above, I thought that ethical careers were pretty much limited to charity work, social work, and medicine. As I realized that my options were much broader than that, it seemed much more likely I could find one I’d also find satisfying.

Finally, I hadn’t thought about how making a difference affects your happiness, and vice versa. In fact, it seems like there’s a pretty close relationship between doing good and being happy, which goes both ways. Doing good makes you happy: psychology studies suggest that helping others is one of the most reliable ways to boost your own mood. Other research finds that a “sense of contribution” is one of the most important factors in job satisfaction. Flipping this around, it also seems that happy people are more productive, thus more likely to be successful and do more good—in any given career path.

Misconception #3: It's hard for one person to make that much difference in the world

Finally, I think I’d just become a bit disillusioned—I wasn’t really sure if there was anything I could do to actually make a difference in the world.

Getting involved with 80,000 Hours changed my perspective, because suddenly I was surrounded by many more people who were actively trying to do as much good as possible with their working lives. I became aware of more historical figures who had done incredible things in unconventional ways: an example that’s always stuck with me is Norman Borlaug, a plant science researcher who is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation by developing a disease-resistant strain of wheat.

I was also introduced to Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours’ “sister” organization, which focuses on finding the most cost-effective charities. Through their research, I discovered that I can actually help huge numbers of people with little cost to myself:you can deworm a child for under a dollar, giving him a year of healthy life, for example.

This is because I happen to be born with a lot of resources, globally speaking. If you earn at least $28,000—the typical income in the US—you earn more than 95 percent of the world's population. An extra $1 doesn't make much difference to me, but it can be the difference between going to school or not for a child in the developing world.

I do sometimes still worry how much I can do as one person, in the grand scale of things—I think this is natural. But I also see making a difference as an incredible opportunity and challenge. My position in the world is privileged, and the fact that I can do even a small amount to improve others' lives at a small cost to myself is incredible.

© 2014 Jess Whittlestone, as first published on Cafe