Want to Help Change the World - Try 80,000 Hours, WSJ

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AT WORK The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2021

Can Your Career Help Change the World? You Have 80,000 Hours to Try.

Many of us want jobs that contribute to the social good. Effective Altruists say some lines of work benefit humanity more than others, and those positions might surprise you


By Krithika Varagur Follow


Oct. 10, 2021 5:30 am ET

Most of us hope our jobs make a positive difference in the world. It’s one reason companies have infused their mission statements with lofty goals of improving lives and talk of broader purpose in recent years.

Some workers aren’t leaving that to chance, using an evidence-based approach to pursue careers that they believe will provide the maximum benefit to humanity.

They belong to a movement called Effective Altruism, which relies on science and data to determine how individuals can use their time, money and skills to do the most good. Conceived by two Oxford University philosophers in the late 2000s, the EA approach is drawing new attention as the pandemic prompts many workers to reassess the sense of purpose and meaning they derive from their work.

Much of Effective Altruism’s early focus was on encouraging people to pursue lucrative careers to have more money to give and demonstrating which causes went the furthest to improve human lives. (Contributing toward deworming pills against parasites, for instance, helps keep millions of sub-Saharan African children in school, Effective Altruists say.) The early archetype of an EA acolyte was an investment banker or tech executive who gave large sums toward such interventions.

Through a nonprofit called 80,000 Hours, the movement has since expanded into helping people design do-good careers tailored to their talents and skills. The London-based organization, launched in 2011 by EA co-founder Will MacAskill and Benjamin Todd, gets its name from the 80,000 hours you are likely to spend working over a 40-year career, assuming you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

Of the roughly 2,000 consultations that the group has done with career seekers during the past decade, some 500 have happened in the past year, says Mr. Todd, the group’s chief executive. The Effective Altruism Forum estimates that, based on EA surveys, several thousand people world-wide are actively engaged in the movement’s community.

Finding the right altruistic career can take time. Adam Gleave, 28 years old, worked at a hedge fund after graduating from Cambridge University, where he first encountered EA. His plan had been to make a lot of money to give away, and he donated part of his salary to the Long-Term Future Fund, a nonprofit focused on global ​challenges like advanced artificial intelligence and pandemics. But he left his job after 10 months.

‘I felt like my job wasn’t directly addressing the problems I consider to be truly important.’

— Adam Gleave, now a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley

Rather than just donating to AI issues, he​ decided he could work on them himself. After ​conversations with 80,000 Hours members, he enrolled in an AI doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he develops techniques for refining machine learning systems, like the ones that generate product and news recommendations on social media platforms.

“I only want to work on problems that directly affect our lives,” he says. He hopes to eventually see his technical ideas put into practice by companies and through government regulations, after he completes his doctorate next year.

80,000 Hours advises people to aim for the highest-impact job that addresses the social problem of their choice. High-impact work often means a high-status position—by EA’s logic, working at a startup developing large-scale solutions for climate change, for instance, would usually be more effective than becoming a social worker. Its website includes a job board for hundreds of EA-aligned postings, most of them white-collar roles, like a China-focused analyst at a Washington think tank or a gene-editing research associate at an Australian biotech firm.

The organization’s own list of priorities reflect a distinct worldview. Effective Altruists focus on the really big, and sometimes abstract, picture, including AI, climate change, great power conflict, surveillance and the governance of outer space—topics that could be plucked from agendas at Davos or the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Scarlette Lesma, 29, discovered EA online a couple of years ago, and its ideas resonated with her. She had been a program manager at a software provider for the energy industry, and had grown frustrated that she couldn’t draw a direct line from her work to the advancement of renewable energy. From attending EA meetups in London, she learned about Counterfactual Ventures, a venture capital firm that supports startups working toward a sustainable food system. Discussing EA in her interview helped her land the job, she says, and her manager there is also into the movement.

“EA principles really influence how people react day-to-day at our company,” she says. There is a strong emphasis on numbers and measurable impacts, she says, and several founders backed by the company came to it through EA connections.

Numerous Effective Altruists are entrepreneurs—an especially high-impact career choice, according to group principles. Lincoln Quirk, 35, lives in Concord, N.H., and helps run a 1,000-employee startup called Wave, which enables mobile payments to sub-Saharan Africa. By focusing on countries with some of the world’s poorest populations, he says, the company’s technology stands to have a larger possible impact.

Mr. Quirk has attended Boston-area EA meetups for several years and also recruits from them. “At least 10 of our employees came to Wave from EA circles,” he says.

Some critics of the EA approach say it overly emphasizes fields out of the scope of many workers, such as AI, and gives short shrift to professions like teaching or healthcare, which also involve directly helping people. A career based on a hard-nosed calculation of societal impact isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling, they argue.

EA backers say their recommendations focus on the best available opportunities to help improve the long-term future, and that 80,000 Hours emphasizes the importance of personal fit for a job more than it once did.

I was intrigued enough to sign up for my own 80,000 Hours consultation. I’m not precisely the nonprofit’s target audience, which Mr. Todd described as a “self-selecting group” whose priority is to change the world in certain ways. (I admitted that I had some reservations, since I believe my job as a journalist is to inform, not advocate.)

After recapping my skills and experience on a brief online form, I hopped on a free 30-minute Zoom call with 80,000 Hours adviser Habiba Islam, who works full-time at the nonprofit after several years in management consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

There’s no need to change my profession, she says, but were I to further my career along EA principles, I could look out for stories on large-scale, but lesser-known, risks to humanity, such as AI biases or potential pandemics beyond Covid-19. Or are there other looming challenges I could tackle with my platform, she asks?

I tell her I’ll think about it.