Ask Yourself What Would Happen if You Didn’t Do This Work

When reflecting on pivotal moments in your past, it’s natural to spend some time thinking about the what if’s… What if I had moved to a different city instead of staying put? Would I be happier? What might have happened if I studied something different? How would my life look differently today?

This process is sometimes called “counterfactual thinking.” We imagine the alternative (or, counter) option to the one we actually chose (i.e. the factual one). It may seem like a recipe for unnecessary regret, but if done proactively, thinking about counterfactual outcomes before making a decision can be incredibly useful.

For example, you might envision life after studying journalism and compare it to what the future could look like if you studied political science instead. You can’t fully know the answer to such a hypothetical question, but you can pull on information you do know to make inferences about how the decision might work out. 

In the context of personal decisions like what to study, this process helps us gain clarity on what option we’d prefer for our lives. But in the context of decisions that affect others, this process helps us understand which decisions will lead to a meaningful difference in the world. Below, we’ll cover how to consider your counterfactual impact—that is, the difference between the outcomes of this action and the outcomes of what would have happened if you didn’t take it—in deciding what jobs to pursue.

How counterfactuals influence your social impact

Let’s imagine that you’ve decided to spend some spare time volunteering. Without putting a ton of thought into all your options, you decide to volunteer in the children’s ward at a hospital. It’s a popular volunteering activity—so popular that you have to wait a few weeks for an opening. Eventually you get off the waitlist and spend a day greeting children and helping out.

In some sense, it’s reasonable to say that you supported dozens of children at the hospital. But because so many other people also applied to volunteer, someone else would have done the same work whether or not you showed up. The long line of volunteers ensures that the spot will always be filled. 

This is great news for the hospital! But unfortunately, this means that the counterfactual impact of your efforts—that is, the difference between the outcomes of this action and the outcomes of what would have happened otherwise—may be nothing at all. With a full roster of volunteers, the children are helped either way. And your admirable choice to volunteer doesn’t make an additional difference in the world. 

To try to steer clear of this situation, you could think about the counterfactual impact of your actions ahead of time. Comparing two imagined versions of the world—one where you did this work and one where you didn’t—can clarify which actions will make a real difference. Instead of volunteering at the children’s hospital, you can deploy this sort of strategic forethought to make a different choice. For instance, you could volunteer to help patients and groups that receive less volunteers or you could explore volunteer opportunities in a completely different cause area, some of which are incredibly neglected.

What happens if I don’t take the job?

This same line of thinking also applies to career decisions. Even when a job sounds impactful and promising, you should also take some time to think about the counterfactual of not taking the job.

Let’s say, for example, you’re considering a career in medicine. It’s true that, in many cases, medicine can be an extremely rewarding and impactful career path. But when taking the counterfactuals into account, a doctor’s real impact gets a little more complicated—especially if you’re in a high-income region. 

In the United States, for example, there’s a large gap between the number of medical school graduates and training residencies. This leaves thousands of graduates without a clear path to becoming a doctor. The low number of applicants accepted to medical school is another bottleneck, making it an extremely competitive field. 

All these factors mean that your counterfactual impact—the difference between becoming a doctor and what would have happened if you didn’t—could lower your real impact on the world. If you don’t become a doctor in the U.S., it’s possible that another equally qualified candidate would take your place. If so, the difference between becoming a doctor or not isn’t that there’s one less doctor. It is only the difference between the quality of care you’d provide relative to the next-best candidate that would have been accepted to medical school. If you have no reason to believe you’d be better than the average medical student, the only difference in outcomes could be who gets to do the helping… not how many patients receive help.

At first glance, this can all seem disappointing. Thinking about our counterfactual impact can really throw a wrench in our plans to help others. After all, how can anyone be sure their efforts are actually helping? Will someone always be there to take your place?

Fortunately, it’s probably not as bad as it seems.

Yes, only looking at your direct impact can be misleading. If you neglect to ask, “What if someone else would have become a doctor in my place?” you’re likely to overestimate your potential impact. This is because another qualified doctor could improve most, if not all, of the same lives as you would have. 

On the other hand, if you only look at the difference between you and the hypothetical next best person to take your place, you’re likely to underestimate your impact. This is because you’d neglect to ask, “What would that person do instead if they didn’t take my place?” Maybe they would go on to do great things in a different job or field.

If we continue with this line of thought, it’s easy to see how counterfactual impact involves a whole chain of actions and decisions—not just your own, but others as well. This makes it nearly impossible to calculate with precision. 

So how should you think about all this? 

You can never fully know exactly what would happen if you didn’t do something. The goal, though, isn’t to literally calculate the full counterfactual. It’s to utilize this insight to identify promising opportunities and avoid pitfalls. 

One actionable takeaway to apply to your own career planning is to always look out for situations where you could have a greater counterfactual impact. Here are a few examples:

  • Look for opportunities where you have some comparative advantage that makes you an especially good fit for the job. This could be a small thing like a deep familiarity with an issue or region, a unique skill that others wouldn’t bring to the job, or anything that you could bring to the table that others might not.
  • Prioritize neglected cause areas, job opportunities, and organizations to increase the chances that others wouldn’t easily take your place.
  • Try to find roles and opportunities that address the key bottleneck in a cause area. What kinds of roles are especially difficult to fill? Is this field lacking a particular type of talent or specific skill set?
  • Think about who your replacement would likely be if you didn’t take a job. For example, if an opportunity would allow you to influence budgets, would the person who took your place influence the budgets in the same impact-focused way as you might?
  • Prioritize roles where you could have some additional influence or leverage in the organization. If so, you might be able to positively influence the organization’s goals and projects in a way that some other person might not.
  • Consider the opportunity cost of your actions to understand what benefits you might gain from not pursuing a job.

Summing it up

Even if there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to increase your counterfactual impact now, it’s always a good idea to keep in mind when thinking about future opportunities. People tend to overlook it altogether—never asking themselves if someone else would do the same impactful work if they didn’t.

Because it can have real implications for what happens in the world, counterfactual impact is worth thinking about carefully—especially if you’re deciding between two pretty good options. But because it’s not something we can fully calculate, estimates of your counterfactual impact should also be used with the appropriate caution, uncertainty, and modesty.

What’s next?

This is the fourth article in our core career advice series. In the next one, we’ll talk about the importance of gaining career capital to make a greater impact in the future.