Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Career advice from "Doing Good Better", by William MacAskill

I reviewed the book here, but skipped MacAskill’s section on how to choose a career, because it got a bit lengthy already.

His career advice is unusual:

Taken literally, however, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice. Finding a career that’s the right “fit” for you is crucial to finding a career, but believing you must find some preordained “passion” and then pursue jobs that match it is all wrong. […] First, and most simply, most people don’t have passions that fit the world of work. […] Second, your interests change. […] This takes us to our third point against passion, which is that the best predictors of job satisfaction are features of the job itself, rather than facts about personal passion.

I think you don’t actually have to optimize for altruistism to find the following good advice:

This means it’s best to take an empirical approach, trying out different types of work and using your track record to predict how well you’ll perform in the future. At the start of your career, be open-minded about where you’ll eventually be able to perform best.

Exploration value provides a reason in favor of working in the for-profit sector for a year or two: you might discover that the opportunities there suit you well. People embarking on their careers often neglect these considerations. People often tend to think of choosing a career as an all-or-nothing proposition: a one-off life decision that you make at age twenty-one and that you can’t change later. A way to combat this mistake is to think of career decisions like an entrepreneur would think about starting a company.

I think he takes his advocacy of thinking through the long-run and general equilibrium effects of one’s career choice a bit to far, though. He discusses the choice of a PPE student at Oxford who’s deciding if she should enter politics. But the amount of assumptions and simplifications that go into that analysis make me doubtful if much is learned and reminds of me fermitizing.

MacAskill has taken this focus on career guidance further with his organization 80,000hours. Among other things they publish career reviews. (Luckily they have a positive take on economics PhDs).

Related posts: