Making the Most of Your 80,000 Hours in the Office

How one organisation is helping others to maximize their social impact through their careers.

by Olwen Smith, September 27, 2017
80,000 Hours

There are 80,000 hours in the average career. Ever wondered how you can make the most out of them? 80,000 Hours is here to help. Using a research-driven approach founded on the effective altruism model, this non-profit helps people work out how to find a high-impact career. We caught up with founder and CEO, Benjamin Todd, to learn more. 

How would you describe what 80,000 Hours does?

We’re a non-profit that carries out research into how to have a large social impact with your career. We use this research to provide a free online career guide and one-on-one advice.

Our guide helps people work out how to find a high-impact career. It takes a research-driven approach to addressing questions like:

  • What are the most urgent problems in the world you should work on?
  • What skills are most valuable to develop?
  • Can you have more impact in non-profits, academia, policy, philanthropy, or something else?

Our aim is to help a generation of young people have a positivie impact on the world.

Can you tell us about how 80,000 Hours started?

I met Will MacAskill in Oxford when we were students at Oxford. Will co-founded Giving What We Can, which encourages people to donate at least 10% of their income to effective charities.

We wanted to know what we could do through our work as well as our finances to have a better social impact. When we struggled to find good advice, we started doing our own research. Based on this research, we started giving talks. After the talks, people would tell us they going to pursue a totally different job, which was pretty incredible. Some of them asked us to start an organisation, which inspired me to begin building 80,000 Hours full-time in July 2012 right after I graduated. Now we have 7 full-time staff, and over 1 million readers per year.

How does 80,000 Hours fit into the wider Effective Altruism community?

We, along with several other groups, helped to start the effective altruism movement. We helped to coin the term in 2012 when we founded the Centre for Effective Altruism in partnership with Giving What We Can.

Effective altruism is about trying to use empirical evidence and reason to work out how we can use our time and money to help other people as effectively as possible. That means trying to rigorously answer questions like: “is it more effective to work on health, education or animal welfare?”; “how can we compare charities in terms of impact?”; “can individuals contribute more through political advocacy, for-profit work, or philanthropy?”. Very little existing work has been done, so there’s a lot of fascinating research going on.

There’s also a global community of thousands of people who try to put the ideas into practice. There are conferences and groups all around the world. Collectively, they’ve pledged billions of dollars to charity, founded new non-profits, taken on neglected research, and many other interesting projects.

What, if any, do you think are the most pertinent critiques of the Effective Altruism community?

Most critiques of the community misunderstand what it’s about. Effective altruism is often presented as being about donating 10% of your income to evidence-backed global health charities, like Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated malaria bednets. Most thoughtful criticism argues against doing this vision of effective altruism. For instance, it might say we should focus more on systemic solutions to poverty instead.

But this misses the point. Many people involved in effective altruism don’t contribute through donating – rather they do research, advocacy, policy work or work directly in non-profits. And even when it comes to donating, many of us (me included) don’t give to charities that distribute medicine in the third world.

We’re interested in even more neglected issues, like the risk of another pandemic like the Spanish Flu, or the risk that someone engineers an even more deadly pandemic. We’re also interested in funding research or advocacy, since it might offer more upside per dollar. You can see some options for other places to donate here.

What, then, are some good criticisms? People in the effective altruism community are young and inexperienced. We’re probably making a lot of mistakes in terms of what we focus on, and in how we go about building the community. For instance, I’ve argued that people in the community are too focused on doing what individually seems best, rather than thinking about how we can best work together as a team.

What would success look like over the next 2 years for 80,000 Hours?

We’d like every graduate who cares about social impact to read our career guide, and to inspire many people to work on the world’s most urgent and neglected problems.

What are the main challenges you face in realising this aim?

As we improve our written advice, our online reach grows 2-3 fold each year, so if we just keep doing that, we’ll eventually reach millions of people.

Perhaps the greater challenge is helping people convert their interest into action. Right now, we’re experimenting with our in-person community (one-on-one advice, events, networks) to find a good solution to that challenge.

When offering impact career advice, how do you compare financial and non-financial factors? For instance, how would you go about determining whether somebody should to earn to give through investment banking or start a social enterprise?

We talk about four broad types of high-impact career: direct work, research, advocacy and earning to give. Earning to give means taking a higher-earning career and donating the extra money to effective charities, and it often gets overlooked as an option.

Earning to give can be a high-impact path for some people. Suppose you’re really interested in programming. The average software engineer at Google gets paid around $250,000 per year, while many non-profit CEOs only earn about $65,000, so the Google engineer could live on far more, and still donate enough to fund several non-profit workers.

However, some projects need people more than money, so in those cases it can be more effective to work directly. It also depends on your personal fit – which option would you be most successful within?

If you wanted to analyse the impact of earning to give relative to direct work in more depth, then you’d want to consider questions like:

  1. How much could I donate?
  2. How much could I boost the organisation if I worked there?
  3. How effective is the best charity I could donate to compared to the best charity I could work at?

You’d also want to consider which option would get you the best “career capital” – skills, connections and credentials that will put you in a better position to make a difference in the future. Early in your career, this is probably a bigger factor. 

Since the conception of 80,000 Hours, what changes, if any, have you noticed in the way young people approach their careers?

It’s only been 5 years, so I don’t think there have been any fundamental changes!

How about more recently, since Brexit?

After Trump and Brexit, it seems like there’s more interest among young people in taking positive action, and a lot of people are asking how to do political activism in a way that actually changes people’s minds. I hope we can help people translate this into action.

What less obvious advice would you offer young people looking to create a positive social impact through their work?

We cover a lot in our guide, for example:

  • The most urgent global problems are the most neglected, so they’re probably not what you’re currently working on.
  • To find a good job, rather than go and “network”, join a community.
  • Following your passion isn’t the best way to find a fulfilling job.

What are a few things people should read/watch/look at to learn more about your work, the ideas around it or anything else you think we should know more about?

All the key findings of our research are in our career guide. If you join our newsletter at the following link, you can get a free ebook version of the guide:

 You can also read more about effective altruism in Will’s book, Doing Good Better.

Or in this short article.

We also have plenty of resources available on our website.


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