Advice on Choosing a Career

by on June 9, 2016 at 7:20 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

One branch of the effective altruism movement emphasizes the rigorous evaluation of charities. A second branch is focused on a different but related aspect, career choice. Choosing a career to benefit others actually strikes me as a bit of a downer–get out the sackcloth and ashes, repent, renounce your sins and all that.

The 80,000 hours research charity, co-founded by William MacAskill, can be a bit preachy but they have assembled and reviewed a large amount of research on careers–not just on what makes a career useful but also what makes it enjoyable. Young people spend surprisingly little time thinking about a career. There’s a lot more advice about choosing and getting into a college than there is serious advice about choosing a major let alone figuring out a practical plan towards a career.

The 80,000 hours career guide, offers quite a bit of practical, scientifically-based advice and it’s not the usual join the Peace Corp kind of thing.

Here’s two lovely hard-headed graphs that skewer common wisdom and give a taste of their approach:



If you know a young person nearing college, the career guide is well worth a few hours of their time.

1 The Engineer June 9, 2016 at 7:24 am

Parents need to help their children choose their major and early career. Young people don’t have the wisdom to make these choices on their own. This is why so many children follow in their parents career footsteps, because that is where the parents have the most expertise, and many children share the traits of their parents, traits that are often suited to certain careers.

2 Stuart June 9, 2016 at 11:04 am

Many parents think the job market dynamics they faced still hold true for their children. As a millennial, I was often told by baby boomers that the path to a good job was just to study hard and get a college degree. The job market is constantly changing, and many parents aren’t very tuned into this. I think a more useful resource is people in their 20s and early 30s who have more recent experience, or hearing from those who study job market changes in general.

3 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 11:09 am

“I was often told by baby boomers that the path to a good job was just to study hard and get a college degree.”

Study hard, get good grades and graduate with a valuable college degree is the more valuable advice.

Someone that studies really hard, but is struggling to get C’s would be better off avoiding a college degree and instead going after vocational training or sales. Getting good grades in a non-marketable degree is the classic “follow your passion” mistake that is pointed out above.

4 dan1111 June 9, 2016 at 11:19 am

Of course some people follow their passion and become successful writers, artists, history professors, etc. But these people are a small minority in very competitive fields. Part of the problem is too many people (and their parents) thinking too highly of their own abilities/chances.

5 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 11:54 am

“Of course some people follow their passion and become successful writers, artists, history professors, etc. But these people are a small minority in very competitive fields.”

Exactly. For those in the 99th percentile, “follow your passion” is probably going to lead to a certain amount of success. But telling a 15 year old at the 50th percentile to “follow your passion” is pretty useless advice. I don’t think there interests should be ignored and they certainly shouldn’t be pushed towards something they hate. However, the correct advice needs to include a thoughtful look at the likely outcome for the specific person.

6 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 11:55 am

“their interests”

7 Dan Lavatan June 9, 2016 at 9:28 pm

More importantly, they might well do something else first. Michael Crichton was a successful doctor before writing novels. Grisham was an attorney and state rep. Better to do something else for a few decades to have something to write about.

8 bellisaurius June 9, 2016 at 12:09 pm

“The job market is constantly changing, and many parents aren’t very tuned into this.”

Every time I think about the kids talents and what sort of things I can polish and bring out (or cut back on), I keep on feeling that I’m fighting the last war. Every idea is based on my own paths and what every one else (who, not surprisingly are at a similar point in their lives) is thinking and saying.

9 Hasdrubal June 9, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Part of it is that life is a PVP game: You don’t get a job or advance in your career by achieving certain predetermined goals, you get there by outcompeting other people. So, what used to be enough of an advantage to secure a good job is not necessarily true any more because everyone else is now doing that.

On the other hand, outside of fields with licensing requirements that only allow certain degrees, I haven’t seen any positions that require a specific degree since 2005. Most positions require _a_ four year degree to get past HR, but even when I was looking at finance and investment banking positions, they would accept anyone with a degree in some quantitative field. On top of that, the most common complaint I’ve heard about the millenial generation is that they can’t get a degree _in their field._ But guess what? Most of the rest of us didn’t, either, unless we leveraged a college internship into a career.

Of course, add all caveats about anecdotal evidence. I haven’t read any credible research on whether perceptions match reality for millenials.

10 Bill June 9, 2016 at 7:24 am

This is very interesting.

How often do you hear academics and teachers saying I love the subject matter, and I love to teach. It gives me great pleasure to help someone learn.

And, then I read Alex’s comment:

“Choosing a career to benefit others actually strikes me as a bit of a downer–get out the sackcloth and ashes, repent, renounce your sins and all that.”

Alex, are you doing teaching for the money? Job security with tenure?

11 dan1111 June 9, 2016 at 7:31 am

The statement also seems to contradict the slogan of this blog.

12 reese June 9, 2016 at 9:07 am

““Choosing a career to benefit others…”

All careers benefit others.

The butcher, baker, candlestick-maker, and trash-collector all benefit others. It is called economic exchange and is basic economics. If you contribute nothing to others… you get nothing in return to exist upon (except for charity or familial support).

Talk here of careers-benefiiting- others is really about cultural fashions, social signaling, social status and pretension.

Young people must find their own path in a bewildering world; bad advice and non-availability of relevant information will be the norm for their career choice. Most will eventually settle into “tolerable” work situations. A small minority will find personal fulfillment in their primary occupations.

13 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 9:20 am

We also think most jobs benefit others if they are willing to pay for them. But if you read the career guide I think you’ll find a lot of evidence that some careers benefit people much more than others (like 10-100x). For example, entrepreneurs/innovators don’t capture much of the benefit of what they do, so it’s probably an under-rated path. And there are certainly some harmful jobs out there too:

14 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

That list is offensive… Wow!

15 Ray Lopez June 9, 2016 at 10:40 am

For sure. Look at #2 of the ‘bad jobs’: “Factory farming – Animal agriculture, especially management or innovation in factory farming or slaughterhouse work…” – not true. But for chicken farmers like me (working in the Philippines), you, reader, would not eat fowl protein. Now I try and keep antibiotics out of the chickens for three days before slaughter, but frankly, my chickens are in such demand it’s really hard to get the help to enforce this rule. That said, I’m in good company: a test for India showed something like 40% of poultry had traces of antibiotics in their flesh (harmless, except in making humans resistant to antibiotics long term). And at least I try.

And BTW, so-called “CornishX 45 day chickens” (takes about a month for them to grow to marketable size) are genetic freaks that don’t enjoy much of anything except eating and pooping, though I do see the roosters sometimes having fun sparring with each other. But the idea of these Cx birds in a free range is laughable.

16 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 10:52 am

Ray, here’s more of our view on factory farming: While it creates some benefits to people, we think they are far outweighed by the harm done.

17 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 10:55 am

Robert, I would take down that list. It significantly harms your credibility and it’s unrelated to your purported mission.

18 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 11:00 am

Lord Acton – drop me an email to discuss what you didn’t like about it – rob [at] 80000hours [dot] org. If I’m convinced some are wrong we can simply replace them with others.

19 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 11:12 am

Sorry, I prefer anonymity.

But 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10 are very bad. 7 seems to be based on real ignorance of the financial crisis and what caused it. 10 is the opposite of ethical and efficient.

20 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 11:17 am

5 is an argument for restrictions on speech, because you don’t like what some people are saying.

6 is an argument that the other guy is better and we should just let him run things. It can’t possibly be true in general, and can almost never be true if you have any self interest.

2 and 9 are just statements about the kind of things you like – your generalization to others is not warranted.

21 anon June 9, 2016 at 12:28 pm

The problem as I see it is that while “factory farming” is a cause, it is also a category error. If I raise organic kelp in a factory, I am factory farming.

22 Daniel Weber June 9, 2016 at 12:57 pm

Does the world need more grantmakers? Aren’t there already a lot of them?

23 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 1:05 pm

I think the left would generally argue that you’re being unfair with 1, 3, and 8 too. I might not like those things, but I would agree that you’re being unfair. Those jobs give customers what they want, “to be high,” “to feel like they’re making an effort,” and “to feel like they’re making an effort,” respectively.

Poor patent trolls. I can’t think of anyone who loves them…

24 Harun June 9, 2016 at 2:37 pm

How about Grant takers? Every government agency hires people who write grant proposals for more money. I can’t believe that you need someone full-time unless its just a way to mine resources.

Fire departments have these positions for example. Don’t they already get funded?

It seems like gaming the system.

25 Anodyne June 9, 2016 at 4:16 pm

Some of the list may have readily identifiable companies. For example #1 payday lenders. Sunlight on their ownership and practices could make the world a less miserable place, without the bogeyman of “oh no we can’t restrict credit cuz they won’t have anywhere else to go and turn to vice without our 300% APR racket”.

26 Dan Lavatan June 9, 2016 at 9:57 pm

I’m not sure about offensiveness, but the list tells me the author’s have poor judgement. Runaway AI isn’t a realistic problem, and if it becomes one, there is nothing anyone could do about it since almost nobody involved with the profession would cooperate. I’d ask Alex to withdraw his recommendation, but given his lack of knowledge when it comes to aviation safety makes me think it would be asking too much of him.

27 Cliff June 9, 2016 at 11:55 pm

“Runaway AI isn’t a realistic problem”

What a horrible comment. Just ignore all the smart people in the field who agree it is a problem, because your gut tells you it’s not. Why defer to expertise?

28 Andrew M June 9, 2016 at 9:49 am

Not sure about that list. Consider e.g. #10, tax minimisation for the super-rich. You are helping someone: the rich dude. There’s some personal satisfaction from seeing a happy customer.

In terms of unpleasant jobs, writing parking tickets for a living is pretty low. You’re faced with a stream of abuse from people who aren’t your customer; and the person who is your customer is rarely grateful.

29 dan1111 June 9, 2016 at 10:42 am

Beyond that, acting like it’s immoral for people to pay the minimum tax they are legally required to pay is annoying.

Factory farms provide meat efficiently at low cost, which benefits people, especially the poor. Cruelty to animals is a serious issue, but acting like these farms only cause harm is one-sided. Also, it’s not clear to me why factory farms would contribute to global warming more than other methods of raising livestock.

Weapons research is ambiguous unless you are a pacifist. If you think some war (or even military strength to prevent war) is justified then weapons development can have benefit.

Contributing to systemic risk in the financial system is really vague, and it’s probably hard to identify ahead of time which specific actions are causing harm.

30 Jeff R. June 9, 2016 at 10:49 am

Agreed on #10. It rests on the assumption that additional government spending would have a higher positive value than whatever the rich guy would choose to spend or invest in. Big assumption, especially when you consider how much the Pentagon spends on weapons research, which is an occupation they put on their list just a few spots higher!

31 jeff June 9, 2016 at 11:19 am

completely agree — and i’m a median income guy! hadn’t seen this on the site before, definitely lowers my opinion of them, and i had read the book and purchased it for younger family members.

not to mention the people interested in this site probably aren’t headed into the factory farming fields, so now you’re just shitting on someone who probably has lower educational attainment/opportunity, who may be doing the best they can ethically given the constraints they face

32 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 12:38 pm

@Jeff and those who are interested, here are more of my (personal) thoughts on taxation of the very rich: There are a lot of open questions here. But I’m inclined to think taxing the very rich more is, even on the margin, a good thing. The US government does a bunch of dunderheaded things, but also many positive things too.

Re why be negative about factory farming – we are simply being straightforward about our views of what activities do the most damage per person. And while our readers are unlikely to go into factory farming, reading that might prompt people to work on meat substitute research, and so on.

In any case I suggested ten harmful jobs, and you disagree with some of them! Almost everyone disagrees with a few – that’s to be expected. The world is a complex place and debate about these things moves us forward.

33 Picador June 9, 2016 at 10:30 am

I can understand why they chose to leave these off the list, but I would say that a lot of employment by the state — for example, in “intelligence” or military agencies — is more objectively harmful to global society than some of the professions listed. I mean, patent trolls create a drain on the global economy that is dwarfed by the drain created by military imperialism.

34 Ray Lopez June 9, 2016 at 10:41 am

Patent trolls are like distant shrapnel to a solder in an armored car. Annoying, but not that harmful. I’ve worked with corporate clients and know.

35 Ray Lopez June 9, 2016 at 10:42 am

Oops, at Picador–I misread your last statement, I agree military imperialism >> patent trolls.

36 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 11:31 am”

That seems less like a list of the 10 most harmful and more like a list of the ones disliked by a certain subsection of the Left. I suppose the list is successful as a form of talking points, but it’s ridiculous to claim that’s any thing like the 10 most harmful jobs.

Hey you, Lumberjack?


You are scum, buddy. The lowest of the low.

37 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 12:00 pm

We are always looking to improve our advice, so if you’d like to make the case for replacing some on that list with others that you think are more harmful (given our criteria given at the start of the post), I’m always keen to hear your arguments. My email is rob [at] 80000hours [dot] org.

38 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 5:55 pm

Do you think it would help if we added a trigger warning to the start of the post, to the effect that lumberjacks shouldn’t read the post, so that we can avoid hurting their feelings?

39 Lord Action June 10, 2016 at 9:32 am

You should just take it down. Your material is otherwise not bad. This article seriously detracts from it.

You can get all aggravated and think “everyone else is just wrong and the people I hate on are evil” or you can get back to focusing on the purpose of your site.

40 Ray Lopez June 9, 2016 at 2:53 pm

@Rob, who wants to shut down factory farms and have us eat beans (which I like, like TC, but in moderation): Robin’s site says: “Animals in factory farms experience real and intense suffering.” – anthromomorphism. Chickens are more like reptiles. They actually will squack and run with their head removed. “Become vegetarian or vegan, and promote reducing meat consumption to your friends and colleagues.” – vegans have health problems. For example the woman who died on Everest last week trying to prove vegans have endurance. Sex also suffers.

Look, I believe in animal rights–the right to peacefully coexist on a dinner plate along side of the mashed potatoes and steamed veggies–but seriously, market pressures force producers like me to use antibiotics and factory processes. It’s what the consumer demands.

41 Careless June 9, 2016 at 5:02 pm

full liberalisation of sugar markets would save $4.7 billion a year, of which $1.6 billion would go to Brazilian sugar farmers.

Erm… spending less can’t put more money in producer’s pockets.

42 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Removing sugar protectionism would result in a transfer from US sugar producers to a combination of foreign sugar producers and US sugar consumers.

43 Careless June 9, 2016 at 8:12 pm

Regardless, the $4.7 billion that isn’t spent cannot possibly wind up in the pockets of people selling sugar.

44 The Original D June 9, 2016 at 1:13 pm

Repo men?

45 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 1:43 pm

Repo men make lending to high credit risks possible. They help the poor.

46 bellisaurius June 9, 2016 at 12:11 pm

I think he’s just saying that it doesn’t come across as preachy, and from a predictable point of view.

47 jim jones June 9, 2016 at 7:25 am

I have never had a “career”. People just kind of ask me to solve problems for them.

48 Bill June 9, 2016 at 7:31 am

Agree. You can see evidence of career change and/or job change in Linked-in data and biographic profiles over time, particularly as technology changes in a field.

49 dan1111 June 9, 2016 at 7:47 am

I like how you left it unclear whether you actually do anything in response to the asking 🙂

50 robert June 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm

So you’re a lawyer then?

51 Bill June 9, 2016 at 1:38 pm

He’s probably a spouse. We solve problems for our other all the time.

52 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 7:41 am

Thanks so much for the recommendation Alex! 🙂 I hope people here find our research useful.

“Choosing a career to benefit others actually strikes me as a bit of a downer–get out the sackcloth and ashes, repent, renounce your sins and all that.”

Hah, I can see how someone might think that – we did a bit as well to start with. But as our page on job satisfaction points out, feeling like what you do benefits others is among the most important things necessary to feel happy with your work:

Of course it’s not the only thing – you also need to think about whether the work itself is engaging, whether you like your colleagues, and so on. But we don’t see that much of a trade-off between doing work you love and doing work that benefits other people. I can’t think of anyone we’ve advised who ended up doing something they found a downer – in fact most are having a great time and enjoying the challenge of improving the world.

53 Stuart June 9, 2016 at 11:10 am


54 MikeJa June 9, 2016 at 7:46 am

The rise of “follow your passion” could easily be language changing. Maybe it was “do what you love” in the 80s?

55 Picador June 9, 2016 at 11:19 am

I had the same thought. I feel as though that chart is a bit contrived.

56 Zeitgeisty June 9, 2016 at 7:55 am

There are people try to invent or discover problems so that they can have a fulfilling career trying to solve them.

Instead, these people should get regular jobs and find fulfillment in the context of their family and community.

57 rayward June 9, 2016 at 8:02 am

Economics is the perfect major because it occupies the middle way between the altruistic (solving unemployment, economic growth, etc.) and the selfish (banking). I was an economics major and never regretted the choice; I’m Episcopalean, so I would be drawn to the middle way. On the other hand, in my time “banking” really was banking, a career that had no appeal to me; hence, off to law school for me. That was decades ago and times have changed. I attended a high school graduation party this past weekend held at the home of today’s version of a “banker”, who had both a law degree and an MBA. If I could do it over again, I think I will have what the “banker” is having. His is the perfect combination of the altruistic and the selfish.

58 Rob WIblin June 9, 2016 at 8:12 am

Hey Rayward – you can read our take on an Economics PhD here: It’s pretty positive – we think it’s an excellent flexible option for the future.

59 rayward June 9, 2016 at 8:33 am

If only I were a little younger – a lot younger. My Godson will be attending Chicago in the Fall; hence, the high school graduation party. I gave him a (used) copy of A Theory of Justice. I also gave him the link to Will Wilkinson’s recent essay in which he described the great Rawls’ book as “supply side”, so as not to be accused of trying to mislead the young man into a lifetime of regret as an altruist (or worse, a liberal). Anyway, I suspect my Godson will pursue a middle way, maybe even have what that “banker” is having.

60 Floccina June 9, 2016 at 8:31 am

Choose a high demand occupation, then you can call some of the shots and follow your passions on the side.

61 Floccina June 9, 2016 at 8:41 am

If you are in the top .001% in athleticism, art, music or intelligence it is good to follow your passion even if the the demand is low, for the rest of us get into a highly demanded area. One day I realised that I have been able to get to the top 10% of people (overall not just people in the area) in a few things but that in most areas that is not valuable at all, so I program computers where it is. I am probably below average programmer but way better that the average person could ever be.

62 Slocum June 9, 2016 at 9:49 am

Same here, actually. Though, that said, software does have the desirable creativity/flow/engagement properties (as well as being highly paid). But I understand that I’m in a fortunate minority to have such a profession. Most people don’t and can’t simply because most jobs aren’t like that. But there are other sources of meaning and satisfaction in work that are (at least potentially) much more universal that, and I don’t think most kids know about those either. I’m reminded of — of all things — of a Virginia Postrel essay about the appeal of Star Trek:

For many viewers, it turns out, Star Trek represents the ideal workplace. “I was most attracted to the competence of the characters,” said a Tennessee businessman. “It would be nice to live in a world or even work in an office where everyone was dedicated to their jobs and to each other and good at their work.”

In retrospect, this escapist appeal makes sense. In Star Trek, the work is meaningful; the colleagues are smart, hard-working, competent and respectful; the leaders are capable and fair; and everyone has an important contribution to make. Star Trek features what law student Cindy McNew described as “a close-knit group of colleagues whose abilities complement one another and who don’t seem to take out their animosities or ambitions on each other.” Deep friendships develop from teamwork and high-stakes problem-solving. It’s the workplace as we wish it were — and as it too rarely is.

Being a valued member of a well-run, well-functioning, affable team can be a joy regardless of whether or not the work itself is inherently creative, engaging, and glamorous.

63 Todd K June 9, 2016 at 10:08 am

“Star Trek features what law student Cindy McNew described as “a close-knit group of colleagues whose abilities complement one another and who don’t seem to take out their animosities or ambitions on each other.”

True. The crew took out their animosities on each other only during breaks on the set when the cameras weren’t rolling.

64 albatross June 10, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Most of the people we see in Star Trek are the elite explorers, military, scientists, politicians, etc. It’s quite possible that the average Federation citizen has a much less demanding and interesting job than the folks on Starfleet’s flagship. Probably the real dummies and layabouts never leave home to begin with.

65 Harun June 9, 2016 at 2:45 pm

I tell my kids to avoid industries where you compete with idiots or where your job performance relies on idiots.

Examples: restaurant business, importing consumer products from China (my field), labor intensive manufacturing, construction, etc.

Let’s say you’re an author and you write a good book. Essentially, its all up to your skill.

Compare to a product designer where the factory must be a low cost supplier in China where they refuse to quality control the welding.

Or you have to compete against a super rich guy who doesn’t mind losing money. (restaurants.)

66 Slocum June 9, 2016 at 8:48 am

Yep, and the fact that it’s currently a high-demand profession is an indication that you’ll be helping people by choosing it — that you along with others who are attracted to the field will benefit society by bringing more supply online — satisfying unmet demand and reducing the cost.

67 Slocum June 9, 2016 at 8:32 am

“Choosing a career to benefit others actually strikes me as a bit of a downer–get out the sackcloth and ashes, repent, renounce your sins and all that.”

I think people typically look at that in a completely backwards way (and it looks like there’s a lot of that in the career guide, too). People think they’re being altruistic when they decide to ‘follow their passion’ whereas, in fact, they’re being selfish. You’re passionate about art? That’s nice, dear. But is another artist what your fellow citizens want and need? Is your art (added to a world already awash in it) what they’re likely to want to spend their scarce, hard-earned dollars on? Saying that you don’t care about money doesn’t make you noble — it’s just a way of saying you don’t much give a damn what your fellow humans actually value.

And all the advice about looking for a job that’s challenging and engaging, that provides opportunity for creativity and flow, that is in ‘helping professions’? Terrible advice in general. Why? Because while jobs like that do exist, of course, they’re in a distinct minority. Think of what you spend most of your money on. Do most of the jobs involved in providing those goods and services have all those lovely challenging, engaging, creative characteristics? Or are they mostly mundane and routine? I think it’s pretty clear that it’s the latter.

68 Floccina June 9, 2016 at 9:19 am

Terrific point.

69 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 9:33 am

Agreed, this was very good. People make mistakes about what is actually likely to benefit others.

70 albatross June 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm

I would say it’s actually an extremely hard thing to determine what jobs do the most good for others. If you’re dealing with a market, you can kind-of price in the costs and benefits (modulo externalities). But if you’re just looking at your occupation in isolation, I don’t know how you’d even begin to work out the 3rd-order effects (for good and ill) of your job.

71 Brian June 9, 2016 at 10:49 am

This nice little video titled “Don’t Follow Your Passion” by tv personality Mike Rowe is making the rounds and seems right on point here:

72 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 10:56 am

Rowe deserves a Nobel Prize.

73 Rich Berger June 9, 2016 at 11:22 am

Yes and a lot shorter and pithier.

74 Slocum June 9, 2016 at 11:56 am

Excellent. I have only a couple of reservations. One is that you don’t have to suck at something you’re passionate about to for it to be a bad idea to chase the dream. To me, the sad thing about ‘American Idol’ and the music business generally is that there are so many people who are genuinely talented but still never manage to make a living. Following your passion isn’t just a bad idea when you suck — it’s often a bad idea even when you don’t And the other reservation is his focus only on the trades. Nothing wrong with them, but there are also plenty of while collar jobs that have the same kind of lucrative-but-not-sexy characteristic (often it’s the case, that they’re lucrative precisely because they’re not sexy).

75 Just Another MR Commentor June 9, 2016 at 12:03 pm

You need to be passionate for any white collar job it’s a hyper competitive world

76 Slocum June 9, 2016 at 12:57 pm

I don’t agree. One simple measure of passion would be — do you love this job so much that you’d do it for fun, for free, in your spare time? There are some jobs where the answer for many is yes. In those fields (music, art, photography, writing, software), you’d better be passionate — at least when you start — or you’re probably going to have trouble competing. But there are lots of other white-collar jobs where the answer is ‘hell no!’. Who, exactly, is passionate about middle-management? Could you imagine a patent attorney doing patent searches at home in his spare time just for fun? Or an actuary doing risk calculations as a hobby? But a lack of passion doesn’t mean it’s not possible to be an ambitious, reliable, hard-working professional.

77 Just Another MR Commentor June 9, 2016 at 1:02 pm

For those jobs you may be right but I think more and more companies are looking for people who are at least able to convincingly project “passion”. A good chunk of STEM type careers absolutely demand passion. Actuary is a career I would advise virtually any young person who can do well in basic first and second year math courses. On the other hand unless you’re deeply passionate run the fuck away from anything engineering or physical science related

78 Just Another MR Commentor June 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Although note there’s a massive glut of people trying to become actuaries these days so I know a bunch of people who went in that direction done of them made it but some passed a few exams but could never get their foot in the door. Unless you’re in the top 10% in ability there really is no good career advice because everything is glutted. People might as well just “follow their passion” at this point

79 Just Another MR Commentor June 9, 2016 at 12:02 pm

No he’s wrong. It’s true you shouldn’t go into something you aren’t good at but today every profession outside of maybe minimum wage service sector jobs is hyper competitive. If you’re not also pretty passionate about your field you have zero chance of getting anywhere. Maybe his advice is good for a fill employment world but not today’s competitive world.

80 John L. June 9, 2016 at 1:32 pm

Nothing says “altruism” as running ater the dough. OK, then.
“Saying that you don’t care about money doesn’t make you noble t’s just a way of saying you don’t much give a damn what your fellow humans actually value.”
At least, fellow humans with a lot of money to spend on you. The reason cosmetic surgery may be a gold mine is not because African kids value drinkable water less than bored rich widows value face-lifts.

81 Slocum June 9, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Of course, a high salary isn’t a perfectly reliable guide. Sometimes a high salaries results from cronyism and rent-seeking rather than providing value. This, BTW, is why ‘physician’ is such a poor choice for an American who wants to ‘make a difference’. The number of MD-training slots is strictly controlled by the guild. If you manage to grab a slot, you’ve only displaced another highly-qualified candidate, and the number of additional working physicians is exactly zero. Also — in general, if you want to help the poor, it’s probably much better to earn a salary that lets you donate generously and enables the poor buy they most want and need. Chances are that they’d prefer that choice over whatever personal service you’ve decided to provide them at a discount.

82 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 3:17 pm

The more your pay comes directly from a satisfied customer, the more reliable a guide it is to your contribution to the world.

Jobs where the pay is indirect (doctor) or comes from confiscation (government employee, weapons researcher) aren’t necessarily doing harm, but pay is no longer a reliable guide to the good they do.

83 Thomas June 9, 2016 at 4:13 pm

Whether it’s the rich choosing plastic surgery and yachts, the middle class choosing backyards and spprting events, or the poor choosing malt liquor and NASCAR, every sensibility other than John’s middle-upper class NPR aesthetic is reprehensible.

84 Thiago Ribeiro June 9, 2016 at 9:19 pm

So if you are paid directly for the Butt Lift, you can say it is worth more than a few hundreds of African kids… How many Einsteins, a professor hence a moocher, is LeBron James worth? I ask myself, sometimes, What happened to America?

85 Thiago Ribeiro June 9, 2016 at 9:28 pm

“Whether it’s the rich choosing plastic surgery and yachts, the middle class choosing backyards and spprting events, or the poor choosing malt liquor and NASCAR, every sensibility other than John’s middle-upper class NPR aesthetic is reprehensible.”
Yeah, valuing butt lifts over African kids is all about standing to the pinko NPR aesthetic… and making the world a better place of course. Seriously, maybe there is a medication that can help you.

86 Lord Action June 10, 2016 at 9:36 am

I was very clear to say indirect or questionably moral sources for pay doesn’t mean the thing you’re getting paid for is bad. It means you can’t look to pay to answer the question.

Reading comprehension, guys. Come on…

87 Thiago Ribeiro June 10, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Well, then we just can’t make comparisons. After all, so many sources of payment are indirect or questionably moral (better than unquestionably immoral, I guess)…
“I was very clear to say indirect or questionably moral sources for pay doesn’t mean the thing you’re getting paid for is bad”
Why not? If direct and unquestionably moral sources don’t want to pay for it, it must be bad, right?

88 Lord Action June 10, 2016 at 1:39 pm

Huh? Really?

Direct from the benefiting customer => pay is a reliable guide to value.

Not direct from the benefiting customer => pay is not a reliable guide to value.

89 Thomas June 9, 2016 at 4:10 pm

Oh the plight of a liberal with anti-market bias and little natural talent; whatever ballet or history lecture you are selling, the rich prefer face lifts and the poor prefer NASCAR.

90 Thiago Ribeiro June 9, 2016 at 9:35 pm

They can prefer whatever they want, and I would rather let them have their way most times. Saying it is a great contribution to Manking to give it to them, however, is ridiculous. It may make sense saying those things if you are paid by the rich to say them, like Hillary Clinton and most of America’s (or Brazil’s, by the way) political class, but come on.

91 Daniel Klein June 9, 2016 at 8:57 am

Great post, I shared it with my 14 year old.

“follow your bliss” is even more extreme:

92 BenK June 9, 2016 at 9:16 am

Choose to help others. Especially in ways they care enough about to pay for.

93 Jeff R. June 9, 2016 at 9:18 am

80,0000 hours’ career advice: “Most importantly, focus on getting good at something that helps others.”

I’m a little bothered by the way that’s phrased. It makes it sound like unless you become a nurse, a teacher or a Habitat for Humanity program administrator, you’ll be wasting your life. This being an economics blog, I would remind people of the importance of price signals and say that if you want to know what really helps other people, look at what kinds of services they’re willing to pay the most money for and then get good at providing it (contingent upon your particular abilities and comparative advantages). Mutually beneficial exchange should be considered, in general, a superior alternative to simply “helping others,” which seems to imply that most of the benefits of some activity accrue largely to one party rather than to both.

94 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 9:21 am

Keep reading and check out what we recommend specifically, and you’ll see we largely agree with you! 🙂

95 Lord Action June 9, 2016 at 9:36 am

Maybe it’s not great to lead with something so misleading? If you really mean “Focus on something a lot of people are willing to pay a lot of money for, because that’s the best evidence we have that it’s good for others and there are lots of benefits to choices like that,” well, maybe you should just say that.

96 Jeff R. June 9, 2016 at 10:08 am

Feel free to edit my eloquently-worded comment into the site somewhere, then!


97 Jeff R. June 9, 2016 at 9:29 am

Also, the “helps others” standard ignores concepts of utility maximization and value creation. Led Zeppelin’s music probably didn’t “help” many people; doesn’t that mean Jimmy Page & Co. made a poor career choice? Get serious. I’d trade about 10,000 teachers for one Led Zeppelin album.

98 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 9:33 am

Led Zeppelin definitely helped people based on our definition of social impact! Here’s more from us on the social value of art and entertainment:

99 Hadur June 9, 2016 at 9:57 am

The members of Led Zeppelin made a terrible career choice and got very lucky. We hear much of Led Zeppelin – we hear nothing of the millions of other people who tried to become Led Zeppelin, failed, and now live in poverty.

100 Jeff R. June 9, 2016 at 10:07 am

Your comment assumes their success was based on luck. Naturally, I have to disagree and say talent was the bigger factor.

101 sort_of_knowledgable June 9, 2016 at 10:55 pm

If only one in a million people are able to play as well as them, there would still be over a thousand people as good. Both talent and luck are necessary.

102 jb June 9, 2016 at 10:20 am

Most people who tried to become Led Zeppelin and failed went back to their day jobs and are either Middle Class or were until something unrelated to their failed rock ambitions derailed them.

Those who still live in poverty either made other bad choices or enjoy living the life of marginal rock bands. I know at least several people in all 3 failed-rocker categories.

103 Bernard Yomtov June 9, 2016 at 9:29 am

I love that second graph.

104 anon June 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

It would be funny if the whole website was a con, and just told everyone to become a PhD Economist.

(Data science is neat and interesting, but I thought a little fringe for a main recommendation.)

105 enoriverbend June 9, 2016 at 10:40 am

The quiz on career recommendations impressed me more than some of the rest. The recommended professions for me included two that I have done for a living (data science, software engineering) and another that I sometimes think I should have done instead (economics PhD). Don’t know if the rest of you had a similar experience.

On the other hand, their text on problems and on the 10 worst jobs just seemed like the classic intersection of leftist academics with leftist nonprofit thinking. (Factory farms are evil, clearing land for farms is evil, etc.)

106 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 10:49 am

For those who want to try the career quiz for themselves, it’s here:
I wrote the most harmful jobs posts, and am an economist by training. I took a pretty standard neo-classical and behavioural economics view of things. Do the leftist academics you read also criticise people who slow down entrepreneurship (“4. Patent trolls”), attack protectionism (“5. Lobbying for rent-seeking businesses or industries”), or say most non-profits are bad to work for (“8. Fundraising for a charity that achieves nothing), or defend “Financial arbitrage”? Maybe you read better ones than I do.

107 enoriverbend June 9, 2016 at 11:28 am

Well, everybody hates patent trolls (everyone who knows what that phrase means, anyway). And almost everyone *says* that they hate rent-seeking lobbyists, but in practice they only seem to hate the ones belonging to the other tribe.

108 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 11:59 am

“but in practice they only seem to hate the ones belonging to the other tribe.”


109 Rob Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 12:30 pm

I guess we are among the niche of leftist academics who recommend economics PhDs, data science, earning to give in quant trading and tech entrepreneurship as excellent careers for doing good. There are dozens of us. Dozens!

110 Dain June 9, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Are people active in a nurses union doing harm? That’ll be a tough sell.

111 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 4:29 pm

“I guess we are among the niche of leftist academics who recommend economics PhDs”

Well sure. I’m pretty sure Paul Krugman’s firmly part of that group and he’s an iconic American Progressive.

“data science, earning to give in quant trading and tech entrepreneurship as excellent careers for doing good.”

Don’t all academics support data science? I think the only portion on that list that most Progressives might have a problem with are the quant trading.

I appreciate your responses, but it’s pretty clear that your list is mood affiliation first and

112 JWatts June 9, 2016 at 4:39 pm

… a informational list second.

The list is probably useful as a discussion point. But I suspect it’s more a case of motivated reasoning. It looks like the list was created and then the justification for why a specific job was on the list was written afterwards.

113 wiki June 9, 2016 at 10:16 am

For a group that flatters itself for being hard-headed, some of the harmful jobs are pure ideological fantasy. For example, they say weapons researchers are bad because any new innovation will be quickly disseminated anyway so better not to innovate in the first place. Umm… Prisoner’s Dilemma?

They can’t simultaneously believe that weapons rapidly disseminate and also believe that if you don’t innovate, your enemies won’t quickly one up you. The power to wage war is not about being permanently ahead but about being ahead just when you decide to make war or to defend yourself in one. Just assuming that no innovation is good is exactly the kind of pig-headed stupidity that cost the world millions of lives and the US thousands. (Just consider the isolationist “benefits” of USA pre WW2. Didn’t stop weapons innovation did it? And in the end bad American products — such as Panther vs. Sherman — cost American lives while advanced German and Soviet weapons convinced them to prepare and fight a war.) If you think in today’s world that Russia, China, and all the small powers aren’t going to do anything to make your life miserable, think again.

114 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 10:31 am

NATO can already defend itself perfectly well. And we mention an arms race – if you tool up, other places feel a need to tool up in self defense and you get a positive feedback loop. It can be a stable equilibrium for nobody to wage war. Game theory doesn’t end with the prisoner’s dilemma – check out the peace-war game:

115 Robert Wiblin June 9, 2016 at 10:35 am

“They can’t simultaneously believe that weapons rapidly disseminate and also believe that if you don’t innovate, your enemies won’t quickly one up you.”

Hold on, isn’t this wrong? If innovations rapidly disseminate, then you can simply copy your enemies (through espionage or whatever) and never fall much behind. It’s if innovations *don’t* disseminate quickly that it’s possible to fall significantly behind. Maybe I’ve misunderstood your point.

116 Hazel Meade June 9, 2016 at 10:57 am

The comment someone made to me from a guy who had “followed his passion” and studied Japanese culture in college, was “do something you ENJOY, which you can make money from, and then use the money to follow your passion”.

Don’t pick a subject you hate just for the money, and don’t get a degree in a field with weak job prospects just because your love the subject, either. Find a topic which is both enjoyable and lucrative.

For him, that subject was programming, and he went back and took a few courses in C++, and became a software developer.

117 bellisaurius June 9, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Yup, life is a multivariate optimization problem.

118 jb June 9, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Exactly. That is why Careers is a vastly superior game to The Game of Life.

So much time spent optimizing between fame, love, and money. So little retention of what I ended up choosing.

119 ex-PFC Wintergreen June 9, 2016 at 12:35 pm

I have found Cal Newport’s book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, to be a particularly thoughtful approach to the misguided notion of ‘follow your passion.’ His thesis is that passion comes from competency, which is developed over a long period of time. The master can find far more enjoyment in work than the novice.

120 Lauren June 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm

“Young people spend surprisingly little time thinking about a career.”

This is just not true. I am doing college advising at an R-1 institution. My background is humanities and it is depressing how few people want to major in any humanities field because they don’t think it will help them get a job. Aside from the fact that this is entirely not true, it is sad how many incoming college students are SO career-minded that they’ve lost sight of what even interests them. This is partially because of the STEM-focus of most public universities these days, but also because millenials ARE thinking about their futures much more than we give them credit for. If only universities would step back and see how beneficial humanities are to making flexible, smart workers who are prepared for a diverse set of careers after the influx of STEM degrees oversaturates the market.

121 Just Another MR Commentor June 9, 2016 at 1:13 pm

Yeah the idiots around here have always been completely delusional when it comes to many things careers being one of them. There’s this idea that all these kids want to be musicians and actors. Engineering programs are jammed packed at many schools and those degrees prepare you for basically nothing without EXTENSIVE self-learning and side projects. It’s harder than ever to get into professional schools. Yet there’s this retarded idea based on knee jerk prejudices that all these kids just want to be on American Idol

122 Anon June 9, 2016 at 6:10 pm

I agree that people spend lots of time thinking about their career. At least I did. But my cousin has a better programming career than I do and he majored in philosophy, whereas I majored in CS. I think Taylor Swift pretty much hit the target when she said you can daydream, but you cannot plan your future. That was about relationships but I think it applies to careers also. I think the main selling point of a humanities degree is not that it helps your career but that many employers just care if you have a four-year degree and the right skills. So it might not really matter what you major in, and maybe you should relax.

123 M June 10, 2016 at 5:09 pm

I’d guess there have been biiig changes in students after the 2008 recession.

And also after the end of the illusion of cheap mortgages offsetting the combined effects on property prices from employment centralization into urban areas and the current era of mass immigration.

And after the acceleration of the costs of student debt.

The whole “Young people today chase their passion and don’t really worry too much about what job they’ll get” may have been true around 15 years ago, back when my cohort were hitting college, when no one worried too much about house prices and student debt, not today. It’s the last “war” (or the last peace rather).

This is very palpable when I talk to the generation who’ve just been fresh out of school. They’re keenly aware that they won’t be able to even live in the communities they grew up in, if they’re urban Westerners, and very keenly aware that they can’t work in the communities they grew up in, if they’re small town, without a *very* remunerative education. And people respond to incentives.

Of course, we’re still feeling the effects of the turn of the century attitudes though, so it’s understandable that some still haven’t cottoned on.

124 Hasdrubal June 9, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Looking at the second graph, I’m thinking a lot of kids (probably adults as well) confuse “passion” with “entertainment.” I wouldn’t call someone who can sing all of their favorite musician’s songs passionate about music if that’s all they know. If they were really passionate about music, I would expect them to actively involve themselves with music, like learning to play the instruments they enjoy listening to, learning the theory and history behind the actual notes and rhythms their favorite artists use, etc. Same for sports: Sure, you like to play football and watch it on TV, but if you haven’t gone beyond what your coaches and the announcers teach you to find out about how the game works “under the hood,” or if you don’t practice and work on improving yourself for a significant amount of time on your own outside of structured practices, you aren’t passionate about it.

If you’re a passive consumer of something, you aren’t passionate about it, it’s simply your preferred entertainment. If you’re actively involving yourself in it, and getting beyond just the accessed features, that’s a passion. So, I think “follow your passion” probably holds true, but that’s because the vast majority of people really aren’t passionate about anything. The people who are passionate about it are the 1% who will put in the incredibly hard work for an incredibly long time to do what it takes to beat out everyone else who is trying to do the same thing.

125 sansfoy June 9, 2016 at 1:45 pm

On the other hand, I made mid-six figures last year in art/sport/culture/recreation. It took me many years to get to that point, and one of the main reasons is that I simply outlasted most of my competition. It was essentially an unpaid second job from high school until I was in my late 30s.

126 DB June 9, 2016 at 5:01 pm

You don’t need to be in the top 10% of the IQ distribution curve to be an accountant, nurse, plumber or teacher. You can get by just from being okay.

Not sure if this applies to engineering and computer programming as well.

127 CH June 9, 2016 at 6:09 pm

This raises an interesting point – what is the purpose of an economy? Is it here to serve us, or are we here to serve it? What this post says is clearly the latter. Forget your interests, passions, hobbies and aptitudes, and spend the vast majority of your waking hours slaving away to be “productive” doing something you have no interest in so you can make the monthly nut. I also love it when folks shit all over people who study creative endeavors like writing, music or art. Because they didn’t spend all their lives trying to conform to the ever-shifting needs of the abstract collectivist notion called “the economy” they deserve to starve, I guess. Here’s the thing: those things are what humans *like* to do. It’s what we’ve been designed by evolution to love, not statistical analysis or Excel speadhseets.

Yes, I get that there’s a number of unpleasant tasks that need doing to keep us all fed, keep the lights on, and so forth. But it seems we should at least try to imagine an economy based around human needs, rather than needs of corporations to make as much profit as humanly possible. What’s the use of having all this productivity, all this stuff, all this power over nature, if the vast majority of people have to spend their entire lives doing things they would rather not be? Shouldn’t we be *more* able to pursue our interests given our capabilities? This sort of smug “That’s just the way it is, suck it up!” Babbitry is a pathetic reflection of the kind of society we’ve made for ourselves. Conservatives seem to instinctively hate anyone who’s spirit isn’t broken.

One of the most noble goals of socialism was to have an economy where we can pursue our passions instead of being told what to do all day long. Even the ancients recognized that as slavery, regardless of how much you get money you get paid to do it.

128 Massimo Heitor June 9, 2016 at 6:25 pm

Steer your career towards an optimal mix of work you like, and work the rest of the worlds wants and offers realistic career opportunities.

If you veer too far away from either, and choose work that the world doesn’t want or work that you loathe doing, that generally is a recipe for disaster.

129 Daniel Jelski June 9, 2016 at 6:51 pm

You should read my book: Your Future Job: Building a Career in the New Normal. It’s addressed to high school juniors & seniors, and to high school grads, whether or not they decide to go to college. And to their parents. It discusses many of the issues in this post. Available on Amazon in print or Kindle (print is better).

130 Steve June 10, 2016 at 6:59 am
131 William Johnson June 11, 2016 at 11:01 am

“…can be a bit preachy”. Unlike economists?

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