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.
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.