Take Your Future Impact Into Account

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 

It’s a common interview question, usually answered with a polite but vague response that aligns with whatever job you’re applying for. But if you really think about it, do you have an idea of what your career will look like in 5 years? How about 20?

Most people don’t. Instead, they take whatever opportunity sounds best at the moment without putting much thought into where it will lead. This isn’t always a bad approach. But if you want to help others, it’s important to think about what kinds of jobs and opportunities will put you in a good position to make an impact in the future. Why?

For one thing, people often hit their peak productivity in their 40’s and 50’s. This means the later years of your career are some of the most valuable. Second, if you start investing in your experience and skills early on, you will have a lot more time left to do great work.

Most importantly, you can’t help the causes or organizations you care about if you don’t contribute something they need. It takes time to gain experience and expertise. By thinking about job opportunities in the context of your entire career, you can open yourself to opportunities that make a greater impact later on.

So how do you take your future impact into account? One thing you can do is focus on opportunities that build up your “career capital.”

Career capital refers to the abilities and resources that allow you to do more with your career in the future. These could be specific skills, credentials, financial resources, knowledge, or connections. It’s obvious that these kinds of resources could help you achieve professional goals, but they can also help you achieve a larger social impact. This is because the expertise, experience, and influence you have can vastly increase your contribution to the causes you believe in. 

Though relevant at any stage, building up career capital is one of the best things you can do early on in your career. Here are a few nuances when thinking about career capital to keep in mind. 

Consider potential tradeoffs in impact 

One thing to consider when building career capital for your future impact is the potential tradeoff against your current impact. 

For example, a recent grad may choose whatever available job seems to help the most people, such as an entry-level job at a nonprofit. But because the nonprofit is focused on reducing overhead costs and doesn’t invest much of its resources into mentorship or development, it’s difficult for entry-level employees to move into higher positions. Instead, they’re reserved for external hires with a lot of experience and professional development—leaving early-career employees without the training and career capital they could have received elsewhere.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen at every nonprofit, but it does illustrate the importance of weighing career capital alongside impact. The tradeoff isn’t always zero-sum, and some roles enable you to build career capital and help others at the same time. But early on in your career, it could be a good idea to focus on whatever opportunities would give you useful skills, connections, and experience—even if it’s not world-changing to start with. This could position you to make an even bigger difference later in your career, such as by founding a life-saving non-profit.

However, if you’re already in the later stages of your career, it’s likely that you already have a significant amount of experience, training, and connections. As a result, it could make more sense to apply the experience you’ve gained so far to the most impactful opportunity you can find.

Investigate what kind of career capital will be relevant

It’s important to have a good understanding of what specific kind of career capital is critical for the path you want to pursue.

If you plan on entering a competitive, niche, or complex field (say, in academic research or senior policy work), it might be necessary to build up highly specialized career capital. This often involves gaining experience and networks in the specific domain you’re interested in. 

One caveat to keep in mind is that not all career capital is useful or worth the time it takes to build. Taking on a role that requires significant investment (either into developing your skill set or financing your education) may have a higher opportunity cost than it’s worth. While it could yield promising long-term returns, they’re not guaranteed.

If you’re not sure about your career plan or what direction you’ll take, ensuring your career capital is flexible can be more important than ensuring it’s tailored to your current plan. Flexible career capital includes skills or experiences that could be applied to several fields—like management, quantitative skills, interpersonal communication, project management, operations, connections to successful individuals, etc. 

To better understand what kind of career capital you should focus on, try to figure out what skills and qualifications are more important for the options you might pursue. For instance, does this career path require a specific educational background to get into the field? A particular skill set? Our in-depth career profiles include research on the needed skills and experience for a variety of career paths, and a bit of online research could help you answer this for others.

Sustain your motivation to help others

The people you spend time around can have a major influence on your own identity and motivation, especially if you’re working with them day in and day out. If you spend a long time building career capital in a field or job that doesn’t help others (for the sake of making a positive impact later on), it may be easy to let your values “drift” over time. 

For instance, you might start out with a strong desire to improve the world and take a corporate role to build your experience and influence. Yet as you spend years optimizing for promotions and success, you start defining yourself by the skills needed to excel in this environment. Suddenly it becomes all too easy to assume that climbing the corporate ladder is always worth it and is maybe even the best way to make a difference to begin with. Not to mention that leaving this cushy executive job could affect the lifestyle your family has grown to accustomed to… 

Moral of the story? Even if you don’t anticipate such a change, it’s easy to let our values drift if we’re swept up in the inertia of a career.

To reduce this chance, consider ways you can commit to your values and sustain motivation. For instance, you could volunteer for a cause you find important. If you’re earning a lot of money while building career capital, you can also earn to give and stay connected to the communities you’re helping by deeply engaging with your donation decisions.

Plan ahead—but don’t plan everything 

Taking your future impact into account (by building career capital) can enable you to make a much bigger impact throughout your entire career. However, it’s important to strike a balance between over- and under-planning, both of which can be mistakes. 

Career capital is all about putting yourself in the position to have more opportunities. It’s important, then, to seize opportunities that could be promising—even if they don’t quite fit your pre-planned ideas about your career. 

What’s next?

This is the fifth article in our core career advice series. In the next one, we’ll talk about finding promising opportunities in areas you can make a big difference.