People in the tech world like to talk about doing great things. But what does that actually mean for your career? If you’re serious about making a positive impact on the world, should you go work for a startup? A nonprofit? Or none of the above?
80,000 Hours is an organization aiming to help with those decisions. It’s a nonprofit in the current class of startups incubated by Y Combinator, but it was founded back in 2011 by Ben Todd (the organization’s executive director) and Will MacAskill (its president).
MacAskill is an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University, and he said that when they met, Todd was a student wrestling with many of these questions. They ended up forming a discussion group and giving lectures on the topic, then eventually creating 80,000 Hours to spread their ideas. (The name refers to the number of hours in your career)
Part of their work involves one-on-one career coaching, but the focus has shifted toward articles and other content on the 80,000 Hours site — which, after all, can reach a broader audience. Todd said the content should get more interactive and personalized through things like quizzes, but for now, there’s already a career guide and plenty of articles. (Update: Here’s one of those quizzes, which suggested that I look into think tank research.) 80,000 Hours is also working to build a community around that content.
The point isn’t to just direct everyone to the same type of career, but rather to make sure they’ve got the right framework for making their decisions — that they’re asking themselves the right questions.
The advice, by the way, can be pretty counter-intuitive. For example, it pushes back against what Todd calls “the paradigm career advice of our time,” namely following your passion.
In contrast, 80,000 Hours tells readers, “Don’t follow your passion” — which is pretty surprising. Isn’t following your passion supposed to make you more motivated, and therefore more successful?
Todd countered that passion is “not anywhere close to a guarantee of being successful or having an impact.” He also noted that most people say their passion is in areas like sports and the arts, which offer very limited career opportunities.
Most importantly, he said that research suggests that following your passion “gets things backwards.” Instead, you should focus on “getting good at something that’s meaningful, and then passion develops from that later on.”
MacAskill (who wrote a book about “effective altruism”) was also skeptical of another seemingly obvious track — going to work for a nonprofit, especially as your first job out of college. He didn’t dismiss all such organizations, but he said only a small number of them have a real impact. In addition, working for a nonprofit might limit your ability to do good later on, if the organization doesn’t have the resources to help you develop your professional skills.
So why is 80,000 Hours a nonprofit itself? MacAskill said it’s necessary to avoid conflicts of interest and feeling pressured to “give the sorts of recommendations that make us money.”
“We’d be open to the idea of moving to a for-profit model if we think we could overcome that difficulty,” he added. Either way, the key is being “laser-focused on having the biggest social impact,” both for individual readers, and for 80,000 Hours itself.