Can this man convince you to completely change what you want to do with your life?

Publication date
Wednesday, 19 Dec 2018

If you were capable of doing a job which could help more people than any other job in the world, why wouldn’t you do it?

“Basically the reason most people aren’t working on the world’s most pressing problems is because they haven’t thought about it,” says Rob Wiblin.

So, think about it.

That’s Rob’s mission: to figure out which careers empower you to help the largest number of people in the biggest way. In Rob's mind this is both an exciting opportunity and, for those fortunate people in society who have the means, a moral responsibility.

After graduating from an ANU Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Economics (Honours) six years ago, Rob became interested in the effective altruism movement, and is now Director of Research and podcast host at 80,000 Hours, a non-profit organisation affiliated with Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.

80,000 Hours is dedicated to providing advice to people wanting a fulfilling career with a large social impact. When the founders, who were both researching moral philosophy, first presented their ideas in a lecture at Oxford, a quarter of attendees subsequently decided to completely change what they planned to do with their lives. They just had to be prompted to think about it.

The organisation’s name refers to the average number of working hours you’ll have in your career. When you see it all added up, they suggest, it’s a sum which should give you pause for thought for two reasons: it's a lot of time, so people should think seriously about how they can best use it; but it's also a small amount of time relative to the world's problems, so you have to prioritise carefully.

80,000 Hours maintains a list of the so-called 'priority paths' they think give the right person the best chance of improving the lives of the largest number of people to the greatest degree:

  • AI policy and strategy
  • AI safety technical research
  • Grant-maker focused on top problem areas
  • Work in effective altruist organisations
  • Operations management in organisations focused on global catastrophic risks and effective altruism
  • Global priorities research
  • Biorisk strategy and research
  • China specialists
  • Earning to give in quantitative trading
  • Decision-making psychology research and implementation

“Most grads are not going to be able to get these kinds of positions right away, because they’re just too high up,” Rob says. But that doesn’t mean you should stumble into a more immediately achievable career.

“Instead, look at two or three of these priority paths that you’re interested in doing later in your career, and then ask, ‘What can I do now that will specifically help me with these?’

“For example, working in the public service could be a very good first option if you’re interested in working in, say, technology policy or becoming a China specialist in the future.”

Thinking about having a high-impact path can start when you’re choosing what to study, Rob says.

“Undergraduates tend to have a narrow focus and don’t consider enough options. Everyone should write out at least ten things they could do as a career and consider each of them seriously. Everyone should also be thoughtfully choosing majors, or research topics, rather than just being pushed along by inertia.”

A good first step when thinking about what to pursue in your career, Rob says, is working out which problems you’re most interested in solving, rather than thinking about how much money you can earn.

“A lot of people are focused on prestigious careers and making money as a default. The evidence that these things make you happy, especially making money, is pretty weak.

“With some caveats, most ANU graduates are going to end up earning enough that they will be satisfied. There’s pretty good evidence that working in a job you feel is contributing to society has a larger impact on overall life satisfaction, and that once people are financially comfortable, they really enjoy helping other people.

“The people we’re talking to are typically among the most privileged in the world. They’ve got great talents, very good education, they don’t expect to go hungry, and they have the potential to solve really massive problems. They have the potential to prevent war between US and China, tackle climate change, or produce wonderful inventions that save many lives, and they can do this without any overall sacrifice of their own welfare. Given that, having a career focused on social impact is clearly something most people should consider.”

Rob also advises students to use the time they have available to them at university to explore which roles have the best personal fit for them.

“If you’re starting an undergrad degree, you’ve got three, four, or possibly five summers when you can do internships. At low personal cost you can get precious information about what job is a good personal fit for you, what kind of environments you can thrive in, and what your strengths are in the workplace. That information can be very helpful.

“Do internships in places that are quite different to what you’re used to. Have a go at working in the government, get involved in a political campaign, journalism, or a research project. Find a supervisor and write something over the summer. Don’t get prematurely locked into one particular path.”

When Rob finished his degree in 2012, he gave the graduation address to his classmates. He admitted to being “in emotional free-fall” the moment he finished his final university exam.

“There is nothing like being cast out of the comfortable and respectable limbo of undergraduate education to set you reflecting on what the hell life is all about,” he said.

Absent any answers to what life is all about, it’s at least worth reflecting on how to spend yours. Right?

Spend your summer reading the 80,000 Hours career guide or researching how a science degree from ANU can help you make an impact.