Our top 3 lessons on how not to waste your career on things that don’t change the world


Do you want this **** to happen to you? I got hit six times with a four-five boy You think you’re tough? This, is Scared Straight. It was a government program that received billions of dollars of funding, and was made into an award-winning documentary. And the winner is Scared Straight The idea was to take kids who committed crimes, show them life in jail, And scare them onto the straight and narrow. The only problem? It made kids more likely to commit crimes. This was shown by 3 meta-analyses. One study even estimated that every $1 spent on the program caused $200 of harm to society. Now it turns out that the kids who went through the program did indeed commit fewer crimes afterwards so everyone involved thought the program was working but similar kids who didn’t go through the program committed even fewer,
so the overall effect was to make crime more likely. Hi, I’m Ben, from 80,000 Hours. That’s our book. And we do research to help people find satisfying careers with positive social impact One of the questions we’re most interested in is the question of which problems to work on Should we try to reduce juvenile crime or climate change? Improve health or education? If lots of approaches to solving these problems
just don’t work, like Scared Straight,
it could be easy to end up working on an area where we just don’t have much impact. so we teamed up with some academics at Oxford
and used research by a billion dollar foundation to come up with an approach you can use to
compare different problems you might work on and decide which are highest impact. We came up with three key questions to ask
yourself. And this video is just quick summary, The first question: is it large in scale? The BBC forgot to ask themselves this question
when they took on this problem: How can we keep Britain’s lights on? …unplug your mobile-phone charger when it’s
not in use. People recommend lots of ways to save energy
like this, So a Cambridge physics professor decided to
put the problem of phone chargers to the test. My name’s David MacKay, I’m a physicist. I started measuring everything First, I plugged in a phone charger, and it
didn’t even register on this power meter. And then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Finally, a reading of 0.1 watts! From this he worked out that if no chargers
were ever left plugged in ever again, it would save at most 0.01% of Britain’s personal
energy use. McKay said it was like… trying to bail out
the titanic with a tea strainer. Rather than promoting what intuitively seemed
important, if the BBC had done just a basic analysis
of the scale of the phone charger problem, they would have realized it just… doesn’t
really matter. Instead they could have focussed on many far
more pressing issues like lack of home insulation.
Home insulation cuts personal energy use by about 10%,
making it as an issue 1,000 times bigger in scale. So the first question to ask yourself is,
is the problem big in scale? You’re probably gonna need numbers to help
you compare your options, even if they’re rough. Break it down by asking:
If this problem were solved, How many people would be helped? How much would they be helped by? And what would the long-term benefits be? Second question, is the problem neglected? When I was younger I was most interested in
climate change. This is me at a rally. Now I only ended up getting involved with
climate change because lots of people were talking about it and I found it interesting And it is an important issue,
but I didn’t ever consider other big challenges that might be even more neglected. I rate the chance of a widespread epidemic,
far worse than Ebola, in my lifetime, as well over 50% When we looked into it, pandemics seemed like they could be a risk on a similar scale to
climate change, but they receive under 10% as much funding and far less attention. This matters due to what economics calls diminishing
returns: All else equal, the more people working on
a problem, the more the best opportunities get taken anyway,
and the harder it is for you to have an impact. This means that the areas that are popular
– those you’ll naturally stumble across – are often gonna be the lower impact ones. Instead, ask yourself:
Is the problem neglected? Is it being unfairly overlooked because, say,
it affects the world’s poorest people? It’s a low probability event, like a pandemic? Or just few people know about it? It may well be the world’s highest-impact
problem, is something you’ve never even considered working on. Third question – is the problem solvable? It wouldn’t have been a film without the fine
work that they are doing, in an attempt, and I might add an effective attempt… It turns out that Scared Straight is not unusual. David Anderson, an expert on evidence-based
policy estimated that: “Of social programs that have been rigorously
evaluated, perhaps 75% or more turn out to produce small
or no effects, and in some cases negative effects. This actually means that if you pick a social
programme to work on, without looking at the evidence behind it,
Then there’s a good chance of just having very little impact. Instead ask yourself:
Is the problem solvable? Is there an approach to fixing it with rigorous
evidence behind it? Like how lots of studies show malaria nets
prevent malaria. Or maybe you can test out a new but promising
approach that might be even more effective? Or maybe you know an approach to solving a
problem that has a small chance of working but if it did would have a massive impact? Like research into a key question, or a political
campaign… If the answer to all of these is no,
then it’s probably better to find another problem to work on. So that’s it. These three questions will help you choose
between the problems you encounter, and avoid working on something ineffective. You can think of them – scale, neglectedness
and solvability – as three dimensions on a graph. You probably won’t find opportunities that
score brilliantly on all three. Rather, look for what does best overall. A problem that’s really big & neglected, could
be worth tackling even if it seems hard to solve. One more thing – there’s no point working
on a problem in a role that you’ll find boring, or be bad at. So you also need to consider your chances
of success in the area, what we call your personal fit
and it’s where your interest in the area comes in We cover it and other important factors elsewhere in the career guide. So, what are the world’s most urgent problems? What are the biggest issues that no one is
talking about, and possible to solve? Continue on to find out some of our answers
– why ending diarrhoea might save as many lives as world peace,
how artificial intelligence might be even more important,
and what you can do with your own career to help make the most urgent changes happen.

25 thoughts on “Our top 3 lessons on how not to waste your career on things that don’t change the world”

  1. Guys, everything is good except music and its timing.
    Music is rather irritating during the description of crucial points (2:56– 3:08, 4:15–4:29, 5:10–5:30)
    It's better to have no music than to have bad music, so use some beta-watchers. I'm sure that I'm definitely no the only one who is like this.
    It's very likely that there are other ways to improve this video, but I'm not pro in this domain, so, that's all I could say.

  2. trade, trade is the most urgent and neglected problem. so neglected that no one even understands how it is a problem when they hear someone says it is, it's built so strongly into our cultures that we view it as nothing but natural.
    but i invite you to investigate it, i propose to start from here:
    https://www.tromsite.com/2016/03/money-game-beyond/

  3. Firstly, thanks for the great work you do at 80000Hours.

    You give the impression that individuals committing to fight climate change may be ineffective because of the huge effort already being exerted in this area, or to put another way, climate change isn't being neglected, so why bother. That's ironic because you understood the message which the late (and great) Professor David MacKay so eloquently delivered, but still, fail to comprehend both the size of the problem and scale of solution required.

    Don't be offended, you are not the only one. Over the past thirty years policies implemented have been about as effective as unplugging phone chargers – just look at the graph:
    https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/wp-content/plugins/sio-bluemoon/graphs/mlo_full_record.png

    Using your three yardsticks to determine if altruism in the fight against climate change can be effective:
    Yes – the scale of the problem is incomprehensibly large.
    Yes – the patheticness of policies implemented so far screams of neglect.
    Yes – It is solvable, but not if those who want to make a difference are discouraged from taking on the challenge.

    Please don't dissuade NEW climate crusaders, because the old ones are failing miserably.

  4. Hi Ben, thanks for this important video. I like the questions being asked, and am planning to host an educational workshop including the 80000 hours approach. I'm not sure these three are enough to decide what to do though. There are three more factors: One is related to personal values, which are tapped by the 'what you like' part, but really act as a filter for many issues. E.g. if I don't care about the environment, then I will skip on everything related and the top ten or three might slide. One is related to the ratio of impact/time times effort, which plays to the intended dedication and availability of personal resources. The marketing of the 80000 approach seems to assume that I want to put my life to this one cause and I'm a pioneer, but only a small part of the population are mono-maniac; many citizens want to contribute and support several causes, but not dedicate their entire career or most of the free time to these. The third is related to an insight of what my fellow citizens are doing: If solitary knowledge production is your thing, your decision matrix might be enough, but if you rely on building support and momentum to induce a small changes within people on a large scale, then it makes no sense for everybody to pick a neglected area or niche and nobody to cooperate, promoting an ongoing issue to gather more support / impact on it can be an equally if you have metrics (the scale question caters a bit to it). And one critique: solvability is less obvious if you are making progress that contributes only a small piece of the puzzle; yet it may be qualitatively essential for later development or solution of a WICKED problem. So, if you see a solution that is a great criterion to confirm likeliness of success, but if you don't (but still want to do your thing) you may be in the right spot anyway but have less certainty about it…which seems like a decision impasse.

  5. The statement that the Scared Straight Program actually caused more delinquency and crime suffers from an analytical error. The kids selected for the program probably had a higher propensity to commit crime in the first place, thus the authorities selected them for Scared Straight. You cannot properly claim causation .

  6. Well done, Ben! These questions are a fantastic place to start when conceiving an idea for a startup. They're questions many entrepreneurs should ask in light of innovating or inventing meaningful things.

  7. the biggest problem with humanity is AWARENESS…….everybody is walking this Earth like Zombies…….Collective ENLIGHTENMENT beyond the duality of mind is need for the very survival of our human existence……

  8. Finally the comment section is opened. ☺ Just wanted to say thank you so much, Benjamin Todd, and the 80000 Hours.

    I support you and I like the way you think, speak (both here and, especially, in TEDx-that brought me here), and the way you deliver ideas.
    I subscribed the newsletter, received it, and would like to contact you.

    Last but not least:
    Keep going.
    Keep going.
    Keep going, and may God continues to bless you and us all in making this world a better place.

    Peace,
    M
    💙

  9. Great video Ben. When I apply these ideas I have to modify some of the questions e.g. how many humans helped, because they are anthropocentric. For use by people with broader concern the rephrasing may be to ask how a local population of a species, for example gibbons or green turtles, could be helped numerically and in spatial range. For me projects that promote human Family Planning achieve multiple goals (less poverty, and also making room for other species) at the same time, so those stand out as good choices.

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