Related Books: Anything You Want, The LEAN Startup, Running Lean, Scaling Lean, The 7-Day Startup
Buy the book on Amazon here / See all my lessons from books and smart people HERE.
The Short Summary of “80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good” by Benjamin Todd
Choosing a career path is one of the most important decisions we all make in our lives, and our choices can massively impact the our own lives and other people. Yet, what aspects we consider important vary wildly from person to person. The authors of this book argue that the potential to make a positive impact in the world should be emphasised strongly when making career choices.
You have about 80,000 hours in your career: 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 40 years. This means your choice of career is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.
Quick overview of the book:
- What makes for a dream job?
- Can one person make a difference?
- What are the world’s most pressing problems?
- In which career can you help the most people?
- Which jobs put you in the best position for the future?
- How to find the right career for you.
- How to make your career plan.
- How to find a job.
- Why community is key.
The six key ingredients of a dream job. They don’t include income, and they aren’t as simple as “following your passion”. These are the dream job ingredients:
- Work you’re good at,
- Work that helps others,
- Engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow (freedom, variety, clear tasks, feedback),
- Supportive colleagues,
- No major negatives like long hours or unfair pay,
- Work that fits your personal life.
You can develop passion while doing work that you will find enjoyable and meaningful. The key is to get good at something that helps other people.
Research shows that although self-reflection is useful, it only goes so far. We’re bad at predicting what will make us most happy, and we don’t even realize how bad we are.
We’re even bad at remembering how satisfying different experiences were. One well-established mistake is that we tend to judge an experience mainly by its ending. If you missed your flight on the last day of an enjoyable holiday, you’ll probably remember the holiday as bad. This means we can’t just trust our intuitions and even memories. Rather, we need a more systematic way of working out which job is best for us.
Going from an income of $40,000 to $80,000 is only associated with an increase in life satisfaction from about 6.5/10 to 7/10. That’s a lot of extra income for a small increase. But that’s optimistic. If we look at day-to-day happiness, income is even less important. “Positive affect” is whether people reported feeling happy yesterday. The left shows the fraction of people who said “yes”. This line goes flat at around $50,000, showing that beyond this point income had no relationship with day-to-day happiness.
The average college graduate in the United States earns $68,000 per year over his or her life, while the average Ivy League graduate earns over $100,000. The upshot is that if you’re a college graduate in the US (or a similar country), you’ll likely end up well into the range where more income has almost no effect on your happiness.
Having a very undemanding job is bad – it’s boring. Having demands that exceed your abilities is bad too: they cause harmful stress. The sweet spot is where the demands placed on you match your abilities – that’s a fulfilling challenge.
Instead of seeking to avoid stress, seek out a supportive context and meaningful work, and then challenge yourself.
Professor Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, summarized the key ingredients of wellbeing as:
- Positive emotion – feeling happy day-to-day.
- Engagement – having challenging, absorbing tasks.
- Relationships – having supportive friends and family.
- Meaning – having a purpose higher than yourself.
- Achievement – being good at something.
Why are computer games engaging while office admin isn’t? Researchers have identified four factors, which are also key components of a good job:
- The freedom to decide how to perform your work.
- Clear tasks, with a clearly defined start and end.
- Variety in the types of task.
- Feedback, so you know how well you’re doing.
There’s a growing body of evidence that helping others is a key ingredient for life satisfaction. A randomized study showed that performing a random act of kindness makes the giver happier. A global survey found that people who donate to charity are as satisfied with their lives as those who earn twice as much.
Being good at your work gives you a sense of achievement, one of the five ingredients of life satisfaction mentioned above. It also gives you the power to negotiate for the other components of a fulfilling job, such as the ability to work on meaningful projects, undertake engaging tasks and earn fair pay.
Skill ultimately trumps interest. Even if you love art, if you pursue it as a career but aren’t good at it, you’ll end up doing boring graphic design for companies you don’t care about.
Research shows that perhaps the most important factor is whether you can get help from your colleagues when you run into problems.
In fact, people who are disagreeable and different from yourself can be the people who’ll give you the most useful feedback, provided they care about your interests. This is because they’ll tell it like it is. In his book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Professor Adam Grant calls these people “disagreeable givers”.
Combine our list of dream job traits with your own thoughts to determine the four to eight factors that are most important to you in a dream job. When you’re comparing your options in the future, you can use this list of factors to work out which is best. Don’t expect to find an option that’s best on every dimension, rather, focus on finding the option that’s best on balance.
Many successful people are passionate, but often their passion developed alongside their success, rather than coming first. Steve Jobs started out passionate about Zen Buddhism. He went into technology as a way to make some quick cash. But as he became successful, his passion grew, until he became the most famous advocate of “doing what you love”.
People seldom have a single passion. In reality our interests change often, and more than we expect.
Think back to what you were most interested in five years ago, and you’ll probably find that it’s pretty different from what you’re interested in today. And as we saw above, we’re bad at knowing what really makes us happy.
If you make it your mission to help others, then people will want to help you succeed.
People with a “giving mindset” end up among the most successful. This is both because they get more help, and because they’re more motivated by a sense of purpose.
As a college graduate in a developed country today, you have an enormous opportunity to help others through your career. Ultimately, this is the real reason to focus on helping others – the fact that it’ll make you more personally fulfilled is just a bonus.
Imagine you just found out you’re going to die in ten years. What would you spend your time doing? Can you make any of our six factors more specific? E.g. what kinds of people do you most like to work with?
When people talk about “positive impact”, “the good you do” or the “difference you make”, what does it actually mean? Ultimately this is a philosophical question, but here’s our answer: social impact. We define it as: The number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them. This means that there are two ways you can have more social impact: helping more people, or helping the same number of people to a greater extent.
In our research, we’ve discovered that any college graduate in the developed world can have a significant social impact with little personal sacrifice, and without changing job. Here’s one way: Take whatever job you find most personally fulfilling. Then give 10% of your income to the world’s poorest people. Today, you can give to the world’s poorest people through GiveDirectly (givedirectly.org
), a charity that provides one-off cash transfers to the poorest people in East Africa via mobile phone.
The poor in Kenya have an average individual income of about $200 per year, while the average US college graduate has an annual individual income of about $68,000. This means your money will go about 340 times as far if given to the Kenyan rather than spent on yourself.
If someone earning that average level of income were to donate 10%, it would be enough to double the annual income of 34 people living in extreme poverty each year, likely having a major positive impact on hundreds of people over your career. And if you’re not quite ready yet, Giving What We Can allows you to pledge 2% for one year, to see how it goes before making any long-term commitment. Take the pledge here: http://80k.link/GWC
In a scientific experiment, it was found that in 122 of 136 countries, if you answered “yes” to the question “did you donate to charity last month?”, your life satisfaction was higher by an amount associated with a doubling of income.
We estimate that by becoming a doctor, you could save four lives over an entire career. Through donating to Against Malaria Foundation, you can match this impact in just two years.
If you earn $53,000 per year and don’t have kids, then globally speaking, you are the 1%. There’s no reason to be embarrassed by this fact, but it does mean that it’s important to consider how you can use your good fortune to help those without your advantages.
What if you don’t want to give money? Just as we happen to be rich by virtue of where we were born, we also happen to have political influence for the same reason. Several studies have used statistical models to estimate the chances of a single vote determining the US presidential election. If you live in a state that’s strongly in favor of one candidate, then it’s almost zero. But if you live in a state that’s contested, it’s between one in ten million and one in one million. That’s quite a bit higher than winning the lottery. And remember, the US Federal Government is big. Really big. Let’s imagine one candidate wanted to spend 0.2% more of GDP on foreign aid. That would be about $320bn extra foreign aid over their four year term. A 1 in 10 million chance of that is $32,000 dollars. The figures are similar in other rich countries – smaller countries have less at stake, but each vote counts for more. So voting could be the most important hour you’ll spend that year.
Seek out problems that are unfairly neglected by others. The more neglected the problem, the more chance there is of finding low-hanging fruit: great opportunities to have a social impact that haven’t already been taken, and won’t be quickly taken by someone else.
The four ways to have a social impact are earning to give, advocacy, research, and direct work.
When working out where to donate, a good starting point is GiveWell’s top recommended charities. GiveWell is the leading non-profit evaluator in the US and does a huge amount of research to find highly effective organizations.
Consider the following options: 1) Earn to give yourself. 2) Earn to give yourself, and persuade a friend to earn to give as well. The second path does more good – in fact probably about twice as much – and this illustrates the power of advocacy.
Direct work can be for-profit as well as non-profit. For instance, Send Wave enables African migrant workers to transfer money to their families through a mobile app for fees of 3%, rather than 10% fees with Western Union. So for every $1 of revenue they make, they make some of the poorest people in the world several dollars richer. They’ve already had an impact equivalent to donating millions of dollars, and they’re growing fast.
A small percentage of the workers in any given domain is typically responsible for the bulk of the work. Generally, the top 10% of the most prolific elite can be credited with around 50% of all contributions, whereas the bottom 50% of the least productive workers can claim only 15% of the total work, and the most productive contributor is usually about 100 times more prolific than the least.
[Note: Fore more on this, see Richard Koch’s book “The 80/20 Principle”, or Google “Pareto’s Law”.]
Kate wanted to make a difference, so she did the obvious thing – she went to work at a non-profit straight out of university. However, she quickly hit a ceiling in terms of how far she could advance. Kate ended up returning to the corporate sector for several years, and would have ended up ahead if she’d done that straight away. We know lots of examples of people who feel like they wasted years of their career. Don’t make these mistakes. Although it’s good to make a difference right away, you also need to invest in yourself to maximize your impact in the long-term, and find a job you’re good at. This means building what we call “career capital”: skills, connections and credentials that put you in a better position to make a difference in the future. Furthermore, it’s important to build career capital that’s flexible – that will be relevant in many different jobs in the future.
If you want to increase your social impact, you face a choice: try to make a difference right away, or invest in yourself to make a greater impact in the long-term. Which is best? This is a complex question, but we think many people should focus on investing in themselves early in their career to be able to have a greater impact later on.
People like to lionize the Mozarts and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world – people who achieved great success while young – and there are all sorts of awards for young leaders, like the Forbes 30 under 30. But these stories are interesting precisely because they’re the exception.
Age of peak output in various fields:
- Theoretical physics, lyric poetry, pure mathematics; around 30,
- Psychology, chemistry; around 40,
- Novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine; around 50,
- Business; 55 is the average age of S&P500 CEOs,
- Politics; 55 is the average age of first-term (US) presidents.
When researchers looked in more detail at these findings, they found that expert-level performance in established fields requires 10-30 years of focused practice. K. Anders Ericsson, the leader of this field of research who has been working on it for over 30 years, said: I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.
Career capital is especially important early in your career: the earlier you increase your abilities, the more time you have to make use of the increase, and the larger the total gain you’ll get. So, early career, the ideal is to find a job that offers both impact and career capital, but if forced to choose between the two, lean towards career capital.
Consider connections – who will you work with and meet in this job? Your connections are how you’ll find opportunities, spread ideas and start new projects. The people you spend time with also shape your character. For both reasons, it’s both important to make connections who are influential and who care about social impact.
Flexibility is important firstly because it’s really hard to know what the future holds. Many of the most in-demand jobs today, like being a data scientist or growth hacker, didn’t even exist ten years ago. And it seems like the pace of change is going to be even faster in the coming decades.
The safest jobs are those that involve creativity, high-level problem-solving, and social intelligence, such as: management, marketing, social work, and engineering.
Which jobs are best early in your career?
- Work at a growing organization that has a reputation for high performance. If you’re really uncertain, management consulting, especially strategy consulting, can be a good option. These firms often invest heavily in training, and you meet lots of other high-performers, while exploring lots of industries. Management consultants exit into almost all sectors.
- Work in a small but rapidly growing company with a good boss. You’ll get to try out lots of areas, learn quickly and advance rapidly.
- Anywhere you can work with a high-achieving mentor.
Any option that gives you a provable, useful, transferable skill can be a good move, for example intensive programming bootcamps.
Learning how to learn is the ultimate skill because it’ll help you learn everything else. To get started, see Barbara Oakley’s work, including her Coursera course, Learning How to Learn.
Asking “what am I good at?” needlessly narrows your options. It’s better to ask: “what could I become good at?”
The best way to find the right career for you is to go investigate – learn about and try out your options, looking outwards rather than inwards.
Explore before graduate study rather than after In the two years after you graduate, you have license to try out something unusual. It’s an especially good opportunity because if it doesn’t go well, you can use the “graduate school reset”: do a Masters, MBA or PhD, then return to the traditional path.
Put “reversible” options first. It’s easier to go from a position in business to a non-profit job than vice versa, so if you’re unsure between the two, take the business position first.
Choose options that let you experiment. Take a job that lets you try out several areas by letting you work in a variety of industries – freelance and consulting positions are especially good. Jobs in small companies will often let you practice many different skills.
Keep a Plan A (best case), a Plan B (your backup) and a Plan Z – your temporary fallback. This is what you’ll do if everything goes wrong to buy yourself time to get back on your feet. It might mean sleeping on a friend’s sofa while paying the bills through tutoring or working at a café; living off savings; or going back to your old job. It could even mean something more adventurous like going to teach English in Asia – a surprisingly in-demand, uncompetitive job that lets you learn about a new culture. Having a Plan Z makes it easier to take risks. If you think about it, Plan Z probably isn’t so bad. You’ll still have food, friends, a soft bed, and a room at the perfect temperature – better conditions than most people have faced in all history. Knowing the downside makes it less scary, and having a back-up plan makes it more likely you’ll cope.
[Note: For more on this, se Tim Ferriss’ fear setting exercises in Tools of Titans.]
Your plan should change as you learn more, but it’s easy to get stuck on the path you’re already on. Not changing course when a better option exists is one of the most common decision-making mistakes identified by psychologists, and is called the “sunk cost fallacy” or “status quo bias”. To help avoid this mistake, you need to keep reviewing your plan. Here are a few ideas:
- Schedule in a time to review your career in six months or a year. We have a short career review tool on our website to make that easy (link: 80000hours.org/annual-career-review)
- Work through the questions by yourself, and then try to justify your thoughts to a friend or mentor. Other people are better able to spot the sunk cost bias, and having to justify your thinking to someone else has been shown to reduce your degree of bias.
- Set check-in points. Make a list of signs that would tell you you’re on the wrong path, and commit to reassessing if those occur. For example, publishing lots of papers in top journals is key to success in academic careers, so you could commit to reassessing the academic path if you don’t publish a certain number of papers by the end of your PhD.
The author of the bestselling career advice book of all time, Dick Bolles, estimates that the chance of landing a job from just sending your resume to a company is around 1 in 1,000. This is because once an opportunity is on a job board, it’ll be flooded with applicants. Moreover, the positions on job boards need to be standardized and are mainly at large companies, so they don’t include many of the best positions.
The best opportunities are less competitive because they are hidden away, often at small but rapidly growing companies, and personalized to you. You need a different way to find them.
The key is to find leads in the way that employers most like. Employers prefer to hire people they already know, or failing that, to hire through referrals – an introduction from someone they know.
When asking for more introductions, prepare a one-sentence, specific description of the types of opportunities you’d like to find. A good example is something like: “an entry-level marketing position at a technology startup in education”. Two bad examples are: “a job in software” or “a job that fits my skills”. Being clear and specific makes it easier for people to come up with ideas, so lean towards too narrow rather than too broad.
To find out who your connections know, use LinkedIn. Say you want to work at Airbnb. Go to LinkedIn and search “Airbnb”. It’ll show a list of all your contacts who work at Airbnb, followed by connections of connections who work at Airbnb. Pick the person with the most mutual connections and get in touch.
Your university can probably give you a list of alumni who are willing to help in each industry. There are probably some good groups you can join and conferences to attend. Otherwise you can resort to cold-emailing.
Trial period If the employer is on the fence, you can offer to do a two to four-week trial period, perhaps at reduced pay or as an intern. Say that you’re keen to work there and feel confident that you’ll work out. Make it clear that if the employer isn’t happy at the end, you’ll leave gracefully. Only bring this out if the employer is on the fence, or it can seem like you’re underselling yourself.
When you meet an employer, ask lots of questions to understand their challenges. Discuss how you might be able to contribute to solving these challenges. This is exactly what great salespeople do. A survey of research on sales in SPIN Selling by Neil Rackman, concluded “there is a clear statistical association between the use of questions and the success of the interaction.”
If you can show the employer you can solve their problems, you’re most of the way there, and you can ignore most of the interview advice out there.
Prepare your three key selling points ahead of meetings. These are the messages you’ll try to get in during the discussion. For instance:
- I have done this work successfully before,
- I am really excited about this company,
- I have suggestions for what I could work on.
Writing these out ahead of time makes it more likely you’ll mention what’s most important, and three points is about the limit of what your audience will remember.
Focus on what’s most impressive. What sounds better: “I advised Obama on energy policy” or “I advised Obama on energy policy, and have worked as a high school teacher the last three years”? Many people fill up their CVs with everything they’ve done, but it’s usually better to pick your one or two most impressive achievements and focus on those.
Prepare concrete facts and stories to back up your three key messages. For instance, if you’re applying to be a web engineer, rather than “I’m a hard-worker”, try “I have a friend who runs an organization that was about to get some press coverage. He needed to build a website in 24 hours, so we pulled an all-nighter to build it. The next day we got 1,000 sign-ups.” Rather than say “I really want to work in this industry”, tell the story of what led you to apply. Stories and concrete details are far more memorable than abstract claims.
Work out how to sum up what you have to offer in a sentence. Steve Jobs didn’t sell millions of iPods by saying they’re 30% better than mp3 players, but rather with the slogan “1,000 songs in your pocket”. Having a short, vivid summary makes it easy for other people to promote you on your behalf. For instance “He’s the guy who advised Obama on climate policy and wants a research position.”
Prepare answers to the most likely questions. Write them out, then practice saying them out loud. The following three questions normally come up:
- Tell me about yourself – this is an opportunity to tell the story of why you want this position and mention one or two achievements,
- Why do you want this position?
- What are your questions for us?
Then usually the interviewer will add some behavioral questions about the traits they care most about. These usually start “tell me about a time you…”, then are finished with things like: “exhibited leadership”, “had to work as a team”, “had to deal with a difficult situation or person”, “you failed”, “you succeeded”.
Practice the meeting, from start to finish. Meet with a friend and have them ask you five interview questions, then practice responding quickly. If you don’t have a friend to help, then say your answers out loud and mentally rehearse how you want it to go. Ask yourself what’s most likely to go wrong, and what you’ll do if that happens.
Learn. After each interview, jot down what went well, what could have gone better, and what you’ll do differently next time.
Negotiation begins after you have an offer, that is, once the employer has said they’d like to hire you. Most people are so happy to get a job, or awkward about the idea of negotiating, that they never try. But ten minutes of negotiation could mean major benefits over the next couple of years. So, actually consider doing it.
For instance, you could ask the employer to match your donations to charity. You could also negotiate to work on a certain team, have more flexible hours, work remotely, or learn certain skills. All of these could make a big difference to your day-to-day happiness and career capital.
Negotiation is not always appropriate. Don’t do it if you’ve landed a highly standardized offer, like a Civil Service position – they won’t be able to change the contract. Also don’t do it if you’re only narrowly better than the other candidates or have no alternatives.
Negotiation should be tried in most cases once you have an offer. Hiring someone takes months and consumes lots of management time. Once an employer has made an offer, they’ve invested many thousands of dollars in the process. The top candidate is often significantly better than the next best. This means it’s unlikely that they’ll let the top candidate get away for, say, a 5% increase in costs. It’s even more unlikely that they’ll retract their initial offer because you tried to negotiate. Stay polite, and the worst case is likely that they’ll stick to their original offer.
Negotiation should be most strongly considered when you have more than one good offer, because then you have a strong fallback position.
How to negotiate: Explain the value you’ll give the employer, and why it’s justified to give you the benefits you want. The idea is to look for objective metrics and win-win solutions – can you give up something the employer cares about in exchange for something you care about? For instance: I’m going to redesign your sign-up process, increasing the conversion rate by 1%, which is worth millions of dollars to you, so I’d like to be given donation-matching up to $50,000. This is something I value, and the company can claim tax benefits on the donations.
“Other people with my level of experience in this industry are usually paid $50,000 and can work at home two days per week. But I’d prefer to work with you. Can you match the other companies? I’m really motivated to learn sales skills, so I’d like to work alongside person X. This will make me much more effective in the role in six months.”
If you become a valued member of a community, you’ll gain hundreds of connections at once, because once one person vouches for you, they can introduce you to everyone else. That means it’s like networking but a hundred times more effective. In fact, getting involved in a good community is perhaps the single biggest thing you can do to help your career.
There are lots of great communities out there, but there’s one we want to highlight in particular: the effective altruism community, where everyone shares the same goal: to help others as much as possible. If you help someone else to have a greater impact, then you increase your own impact too, so you both succeed.
If you’re new, read Doing Good Better Doing Good Better is a book by our co-founder Will MacAskill about effective altruism. Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, said it “should be required reading for anyone interested in making the world better” so you know it’s got to be good. Then, if you’ve already read the book, join the effective altruism monthly newsletter.
Start now by joining our LinkedIn group. You can ask questions about your career, see high-impact job openings, and find people in the industries you want to enter by searching the group: www.linkedin.com/groups/5057625
Imagine that you’re at the end of your 80,000 hour career. You’re on your deathbed looking back. What are some things you might regret? Perhaps you drifted into whatever seemed like the easiest option, or did what your parents did. Maybe you even made a lot of money doing something you were interested in, and had a nice house and car. But you still wonder: what was it all for? Now imagine instead that you worked really hard throughout your life, and ended up saving the lives of a hundred children. Can you really imagine regretting that? To have a truly fulfilling life, we need to turn outwards rather than inwards. Rather than asking, “what would most make me passionate?”, ask “how can I best contribute to the world?”.
The entire guide, in brief; To have a good career, focus on the following, roughly in this order:
- Explore to find the best options, rather than “going with your gut” or narrowing down too early. Make this your key focus until you become more confident about the best options.
- Take the best opportunities to invest in your career capital to become as badass as you can be.
- Especially look for career capital that’s flexible when you’re uncertain.
- Help others by focusing on the most pressing social problems rather than those you stumble into – those that are big in scale, neglected and solvable.
- To make the largest contribution to those problems, consider earning to give, research and advocacy, as well as direct work. Keep adapting your plan to find the best personal fit.
- Rather than expect to discover your “passion” right away, think like a scientist testing a hypothesis.
- Work with a community. By working together, in our lifetimes, we can end extreme global poverty and factory farming, we can prevent climate change and safeguard the future, and we can do this while having interesting, fulfilling lives too. So let’s do it. You have 80,000 hours in your career. Don’t waste them.
If you’ve found this guide useful, and know someone else in the midst of planning their career, we’ve created a simple tool to give them a free copy: 80000hours.org/gift
. Or, if you’d like to share the guide more broadly, you can do so here: 80000hours.org/share