Benjamin Todd: To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion at TEDxYouth@Tallinn (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of 80,000 Hours’ co-founder Benjamin Todd’s TEDx Talk presentation: To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion at TEDxYouth@Tallinn conference. For more details about the speaker, read the bio here.

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Benjamin Todd – CEO and co-founder, 80,000 Hours

When I graduated from University, I didn’t know what career I wanted to choose. I had a lot of interests, but which interest should I pursue and try and turn into a job?

So, back then, I was really interested in martial arts. Here is me. But I didn’t want to turn that into a career; here’s my face.

I was really interested in — and I was studying philosophy, but one of the philosophers I most enjoyed reading, late at night, in my dorm room, recently said: “Philosophy is a bunch of empty ideas”. And there’s no jobs in philosophy, anyway. So that was out.

Being a slightly weird kid, I was really interested in investing and finance, and I had even taken a portion of the small savings I had and invested them into gold when I was a teenager.

Now, I knew that following the finance root would be a really well-paid career, but I was wondering, like, maybe I wouldn’t make as much difference as I could in that, it wouldn’t help society. So in the end it wouldn’t really be that fulfilling.

So I was left with the question: How could I choose a fulfilling career? And maybe many of you have asked yourself the same question. And I thought about this question, I realized I didn’t even know how to go about choosing a career. And I, you know, read books, I went to careers advisors, I just couldn’t really find information I really needed: what would I be good at in the end? What skills should I learn now? Which areas is there a great social need where I can make a difference?

These unanswered questions led me to, kind of, delay the decision by a few years. Instead of actually settling on a career, I founded an organization dedicated to researching the question of which career to choose. And this organization is called 80,000 Hours. That’s the number of hours you have in your working life, that’s a long time. So, it’s worth really doing some serious research and trying to work out how best to use them.

We help you do some of this research and we publish all of our findings as part of a free online careers guide, 80000hours.org. Here’s some of the team today, surrounded by laptops and whiteboards, as normal.

So, you might at this point be thinking to yourself: “Well, you hardly look like you’re above the legal age to drink, what could you tell me about choosing a career?” Well, it’s true that one of the main things we’ve discovered is that we have a lot to learn. Choosing a career is a complex problem and not enough serious research has been done into how best to do it.

But we have spent the last three years doing research with academics of University of Oxford and most importantly we’ve coached hundreds of people on how to make real career decisions. All this research and thinking has led us to the conclusion that careers advice today focuses on the wrong thing.

Throughout most of history people basically did what their parents did. Some people in the 1980s thought: “The greed is good” and they focused on making money.

But our generation grew up with some different careers advice and that’s that you should follow your passion. You can see that use of this phrase increased dramatically from the mid-nineties. But today I think we need to move beyond “follow your passion” as the careers advice to focus on, and instead of asking what our own interests and passions are, we should be focusing much more on what we can do for other people and to make the world a better place.

OK, so let’s go back to my decision: How would “follow your passion” apply to me? I think what “follow your passion” tells you to do is three things: The first is to identify your greatest interests; second, find careers that match those interests; thirdly, pursue those careers, no matter what. Finding a fulfilling career is just a matter of having the courage to pursue your passion.

In my case, I was interested in martial arts and philosophy, remember? So, which career should I pick? Any ideas? I should obviously become a shaolin monk, Buddhism and martial arts, together.

OK, so, what’s the theory behind this advice? You get passion match, then you really enjoy your work, you’re really motivated. So you’re more likely to be successful. And if you are successful doing something you’re passionate about, then you have a fulfilling career. And, spelled out like that, this really does sound like pretty reasonable advice, right? I can get maybe — behind that.

But let’s just think about it in a bit more depth. Turns out if you follow your passion, you’re probably going to fail. Why do I say that? Let’s look at the data.

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A survey of 500 Canadian students found that their greatest passions were ice-hockey and dance. 90% of them, they were passionate about sports, arts, music, something like that. But if we look at census data we can see that only 3% of jobs are in art, sport and music. So it just has to be the case that even if only one in 10 people followed their passion, still the majority would fail to be successful. So this first step just doesn’t work.

I think the second step is also not reliable, in that even if you match your passion with your work and you’re successful, you can still quite easily fail to have a fulfilling career, that’s because you might not find the work meaningful. This was a bit like me deciding not to go into finance. I thought, while I was interested in it, maybe I could be successful, but I wouldn’t make a difference. So maybe it would still end up not being fulfilling. So I think the second step doesn’t work either.

Now, at this point you probably — you might be thinking: “OK, sure, passion isn’t the only thing that matters, if I follow my passion, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, but maybe at least makes me more likely to succeed and to have a fulfilling career. As career advice, this is the best we can do.” But I think that is wrong as well.

Picture to yourself now the most assertive person you know, who’ s really passionate about selling and persuading and they’re really extroverted. Surely someone like that should go and, go and become an advertising accounts manager, like a Mad Men, or they should become a car salesman, or something like that, something which involves selling and being extroverted and talking to people.

Well, it turns out that would be a really bad decision: Analysis of the Terman study showed that really passionate sales people, really persuasive, assertive types who went into those kinds of sales jobs, actually ended up more likely to burn out and in fact died younger than normal people who take those jobs. Following their passion actually made them more likely to die.

And more generally, researchers have tried to show for decades that there’s a strong relationship between interest match and how successful and happy people end up in their work. But so far they failed to show a strong connection between the two. I think this isn’t because your interests just don’t matter, but it’s just that when it comes to real career decisions, your interests are just not a decisive factor, other things matter much more, like what your skills are and what your mindset is.

Indeed, we think our interests matter a lot more than they do, because we really underestimate how much they change. Just think about your own interests five or 10 years ago and how different they are from today. I mean, back then, you were probably this tall and you’re probably interested in completely different things. Five or 10 years’ time you will be interested in totally different things again. All this means that your present interests are just not a solid basis on which to choose a career.

  1. So, if we’re not going to focus on interests, what should we focus on? If you’re not just going to follow your passion, what should you do instead?

If I had to sum up careers advice as a single slogan, here’s what I would choose: “Do what’s valuable”. By this, I mean, focus on getting good at something that genuinely helps others and makes the world a better place. That’s the secret to a fulfilling career.

Now, obviously doing what’s valuable is going to be better for the world. You’re going to do more good like that. But people have always thought for millennia that helping others is the secret to being personally fulfilled and happy. I’ve just got a couple of quotes here.

Just read out the first one: “A man’s true wealth is the good he does in this world.” Today we actually have hard data to back this up. Professor of Psychology Martin Seligman in his 2011 book, Flourish, aimed to sum up the last couple of decades of empirical research into what really causes people to be satisfied and happy in their lives. And two of the key ingredients he identifies just are doing what’s valuable. The first of these is achievement, or sometimes called mastery; and this means getting really good at something, working hard and getting good at something.

The second is meaning, also called purpose. And this means striving to do something greater than just make yourself happy. So it means making the world a better place.

Put the two together, get good at something that makes the world a better place; do what’s valuable.

I think, doing what’s valuable has lots of other personal benefits as well. For instance, even if you work in a charity, the people who have the greatest impact, do the most valuable things, find it easiest to raise funding, and therefore to pay their bills; and that’s important too.

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And I have at least found in my own experience that if you focus on helping others, then lots of people want you to succeed. So it’s actually easier to be successful as an altruist, compared to just being in it for yourself.

So, it now turns out that actually the advice “Follow your passion” just gets things backwards. Rather than start from what we happen to be passionate about now and then hope that success and a fulfilling career will follow, instead it’s much more true to say that we should focus on doing what’s valuable and then that will lead to passion and a fulfilling career.

I’ve definitely found this in my own experience, if when I was 16, you had given me this careers test, would you like to give careers guidance to people, I would have clicked the “Hate it” button. I was pretty shy and into science and the idea of giving careers advice to people was not appealing at all.

But now I spend all of my time thinking about careers advice and am absolutely obsessed and fascinated by it. Focusing on doing what’s valuable has given me clear, concrete, meaningful goals and that’s made my life a lot better. There’s no more endless reflection on which of my interests represents my true calling, which doesn’t exist anyway.

So, how can you actually do what’s valuable in your careers, what practical steps should you follow? And this is what we spend most of our time trying to work out at 80,000 Hours. I’m just going to give you a super-quick summary of three things we’d say that you can do.

The first of these is to explore. Learn what you can about the world and test yourself out in different things. If you want to do what’s valuable, you have to discover that out there in the world. You can’t figure it out just by thinking about your own interests.

Secondly, get some — go after some skills and try and get good at them, and these skills that are really in demand and can be used in many different areas. I might pick computer programming as an example for the next decade. This bit is where your passions do come in, thinking about your passions does come in. Because what you’re passionate about now can give you clues about what you can get really good at in the future, so that’s worth thinking about, but they’re not the only thing that matters.

And then when you get those skills, go and find the biggest, most pressing social problems you can and apply your skills to solving them. Don’t just pick a problem that is important, try and find one that’s been unfairly neglected by other people, because that’s where you’ll have the greatest impact.

And finally, don’t think that in order to do what’s valuable you have to become a doctor and personally go to Africa and help people with your own two hands. Big social problems can be, and often are, solved by research, by developing new technology, by spreading big ideas in the ads. The key is to work out where your skills can fit in to have the greatest impact.

I think the idea that we should focus on doing what’s valuable is actually really intuitive one. I want you now just to imagine that you are on your deathbed and you are looking back at your 80,000 hours career, rather than just about to start it, and picture to yourselves two ways that could have gone.

In the first you say to yourself: “I was good at what I did, I enjoyed what I did, I made lot of money, now I have two houses and a yacht. But what was it all for?”

In the second you say to yourself: ” I absolutely worked my ass off at a charity, and it often wasn’t easy, but through my efforts I was able to prevent the deaths of 100 children due to malaria. But what was it all for?”

The first scenario happens all the time. But the second scenario is almost unimaginable: Of course, that was a worthwhile career.

Altruism is one thing you’ll never regret. If we really want to be fulfilled in our own careers, we have to stop focusing so much on our own interests and instead ask what we can do for other people. Imagine a world in which that was the thought on everyone’s minds.

So, to find the work you love, don’t just follow your passion, rather do what’s valuable.

Explore, build skills, solve big pressing problems, and from that fulfillment and a passionate career will emerge.

You’ve got 80,000 hours in your career. Don’t waste them. Do what’s valuable.