From insight to impact: How to live a life that matters

Career choice is one of the most important decisions of your life, largely determining what kind of impact you will have on the world. Choose wisely!

Deciding what to do with your working life is hard anyways. Yet, studies such as the «GemeinwohlAtlas» or the Deloitte Millenial survey show that current generations are no longer content with merely selling the hours of their lives away at a decent rate. They want to have an impact as well. But what does it mean to have an impactful career? Isn’t this just another fuzzy feel-good buzzword?
It doesn’t have to be. The 21st century ideology of effective altruism offers concrete research, tools and answers. The movement originating from Oxford advocates using our lives to not only do good, but to do the most good we can. Simply put, it’s the marriage of rationality and empathy, or as the author A.J. Jacobs likes to put it, it’s «Moneyball for doing good», respectively, «the lovechild of Mother Teresa and Mr. Spock.» And, while there is no best way to do good in general, evidence can guide you into specific high-impact areas fitting your individual abilities.

Why should we do good?

Given some of the more uncharming stereotypes that exist about HSG students, we may want to clarify why doing good is at least equally important as doing well. Firstly, there is still an incredible amount of preventable suffering going on in the world. Secondly, we are in an extremely good position to have a positive impact on others, wherefore we also bear a unique responsibility to do so. Thirdly, doing good gives meaning to our lives.
The vast majority of unnecessary suffering is not covered in the news cycle. For example, every year Malaria kills more than 700 000 people, AIDS kills about one million, tobacco kills about 6 million, air pollution kills another 7 million and cardiovascular diseases kill more than 17 million people. Yet, even that pales in comparison to the estimated 200 million land animals, which are killed for meat every single day and, unfortunately, often had to experience preventable physiological and psychological cruelties.
Whether you get off on this label or not, when looking at the big picture, you are most definitely part of a privileged elite. Firstly, humanity has never been more prosperous than it is now. Before the industrial revolution all lives, even those of kings or queens, were «nasty, brutish and short.» Secondly, it’s worth remembering that even in our current time only 6.7 percent of the world population hold a college degree. Thirdly, we tend to forget how skewed the income distribution between countries is. As soon as you start working you’ll be part of the top 1 percent. In fact, if you earn an average graduate salary of 100 000 CHF per year, you are within the richest 0.2 percent of the current world population.
Most preventable suffering may be happening geographically, temporally or genetically removed from us, yet, moral responsibility cannot be contingent on whether or not something appears in our Facebookfeed, but rather whether or not we would be able to do something about it. As Uncle Ben said to Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility. The privileged that only indulge in self-congratulation and conspicuous consumption, thereby forgetting to assume the responsibilities of their role, betray their civilization.
Finally, helping others is simply one of the factors that lead to a fulfilling career. Based on all the evidence available the six main components of job satisfaction are: work that’s engaging, work that helps others, work you’re good at, supportive colleagues, absence of major negatives (e.g. long commute) and work that fits with the rest of your personal life.

Why and how should we
do good effectively?

If your time budget were unlimited, you could spend your attention on every possible pet issue that might have a positive net utility. Want to make banning Powerpoint presentations in Switzerland your career goal? Great, go ahead. Your choices are almost unlimited. However, time is not, and spending it always has opportunity costs. Hence, you need to prioritize. Your career choice is essentially a gigantic trolley problem. You could choose a (legal) path that statistically kills people (e.g. tobacco advertising), you could choose one that saves five people or one that saves 500 people.
Of course, the real world is much more complex than that. Nevertheless, we can roughly prioritize between issue areas by evaluating three dimensions: Scope (how much well-being is at stake), neglectedness (how much efforts are already invested in solving the issue) and tractability (how solvable is the problem).
«80 000 Hours», an effective altruist organization focusing on career advice, has researched different causes based on this framework. It estimates that the following issues are some of the most impactful to work on: Nuclear security, biosecurity, factory farming, improving institutional decision-making, global priorities research, promoting effective altruism and risks from artificial intelligence.

What does this mean
for your career plan?

Robert Wiblin, the director of research at «80 000 Hours», notes that the impact of a job does not always align with our intuitions about it: «For example, while most doctors say they chose their career for altruistic reasons, the impact of an extra doctor, especially in the developed world, is quite limited. We estimate a doctor adds four healthy human life years per year of work. This can easily be exceeded by even modest donations to effective charities.» Asked for concrete advice Wiblin invites students to have a look at their fairly comprehensive career guide. «It really depends on the individual’s skills. To someone with a background in International Affairs we could highly recommend looking into the emerging field of artificial intelligence policy or nuclear security. Whereas for someone whose strengths lie in quantitative finance it would probably make more sense to have an impact through donating a large fraction of their salary to effective charities.»
Luckily, at HSG you can also count on the support of an excellent career service center. The CSC conducts more than 1000 individual career counseling sessions every year. Gerd Winandi-Martin, the head of the CSC, says: «Values are an important part of career choices», and he also offers, «whatever field you want to get into we can help you gain career-relevant, industry-specific skills and knowledge.»
Finally, there is even an effective altruist student group at HSG. Noémie Zurlinden, the president of EA@HSG, explains: «Our goal is to build a local EA-community, where people can meet regularly to discuss different EA-related topics, including career choice», and she adds, «our next get-together ist on October 26th.»
Nobody will ever be a perfect altruist. Still, helping others and doing so effectively should be two important criteria in all of our careers. Life is just a brief intermezzo between eternities of non-existence. We might as well try to make it matter.

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