Find Areas Where You Can Make a Big Difference

There are a lot of important problems worth tackling, but with just one career (and thus, limited time and effort) you can’t help every cause at once. So how do you decide what to work on?

It’s natural to focus on a cause that you feel a personal connection to. Maybe you’ve witnessed or experienced a social issue up close, or maybe you’ve always felt passionate about a particular cause. 

Sometimes, this sort of connection can be a real benefit. It could provide you with a deeper understanding of a problem (especially if it’s specific to a region or culture you know well). It could also feel motivating to see the direct impact of your efforts on those around you.

But often, if you only consider causes you’re familiar with, you might overlook bigger opportunities to make a difference. That’s why, if you’re not already committed to working on a specific cause, we recommend taking a more strategic approach to figuring out where you could contribute most.

What is strategic cause selection?

Strategic cause selection is an approach to deciding what to work on. It embraces the view that comparing potential causes to work on, we should make the decision based on how much of a difference we can make. Usually this means evaluating a cause based on factors like how many people or animals this problem affects or how much can be done to effectively solve the problem.

Asking these sorts of questions can provide a more zoomed out and evidence-based understanding of a cause. In return, we can view causes more strategically and try to prevent our own biases from significantly influencing the decision.

If you apply this sort of thinking to donations, a natural conclusion is that you should donate to people living in extreme poverty rather than those who are more well-off (even if they’re more familiar or nearer to you). It’s not that one group is more important than the other. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! When you believe all people are equally important—regardless of their nationality or connection to you—it makes sense to allocate resources to those who need it most. And oftentimes, when the need is greater, the same amount of resources can make a much greater difference. 

To take a more concrete example, consider the impact of two charities working on different causes: improving health in low-income countries and improving education in the U.S. According to Charity evaluator GiveWell, one of the top global health charities can save a child’s life from malaria for about $4,500. In comparison, some of the top charities in U.S. education are much more expensive—costing upwards of $10,000 to fund just a year’s worth of academic support for one child. This means that you would spend over twice as much to improve a child’s academic performance than you would to prevent a child’s death. That’s a pretty significant difference in real world outcomes! 

While global health and U.S. education are both meaningful causes, it’s clear there’s a vast difference in impact depending on where we put our resources. This is why, if you’re still looking for a cause to focus on, strategic cause selection can be so helpful. It enables us to see where our efforts and resources could help the most, without letting external factors (that don’t align with our values) influence our choices. 

Explore promising causes

Taking a strategic approach to what you work on doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on a cause you’re excited about. It’s great to be personally motivated and interested in your work!

Instead, this approach can help us avoid “falling in love” with the first cause we’re interested in. Or committing ourselves to something that wouldn’t make much of a difference in the world. 

The bottom line? Work on something that’s aligned with your values and aligned with the world’s biggest needs.

You don’t always need to choose a cause to work on before seeking job opportunities, but it’s a good idea to gain a sense of what cause areas could be especially promising. Below, we’ll explore some broad cause areas where you could potentially make a big difference.

Global health & development

Global Health & Development is all about improving the well-being of people worldwide. People who work in this area may tackle a range of challenges, such as infectious diseases, poverty alleviation, maternal and child health, access to healthcare, and the overall improvement of living conditions.

Although economic disparity and poor health are prevalent in every country, there’s enormous inequality in how poverty and disease are concentrated across the world. Unfortunately, the most severe issues tend to affect those living in low-and-middle-income countries.

For instance, millions of people worldwide suffer from awful—yet preventable—diseases. About one in ten people live in extreme poverty, which is less than $2.15 a day. Hundreds of thousands of children die every year from illnesses that can be prevented.

The good thing is, there are several extensively studied, cost-effective interventions to tackle these problems. A few examples include direct cash transfers, dissemination of bed-nets to prevent malaria and deworming treatments.

If you’re motivated to improve the lives of the world’s most marginalized people, working in Global Health & Development could be a great way to make a huge impact on the world.

Animal welfare

Every year, 75 billion land animals and over 1 trillion fish are slaughtered for food. There’s good evidence that at least some of these animals can feel pain, and unfortunately, the lives of the vast majority of them are miserable. Over 90% of the world’s farmed animals are kept in factory farms where animals spend their entire lives in intensely crowded and inhumane conditions. 

Work in animal welfare includes activities such as advocating for animal welfare policy, researching alternative proteins, and fundraising for effective animal advocacy organizations.

If you’ve never considered working in animal welfare before, there’s a case for working on animal welfare even if you value the well-being of humans more than other animals. Because there are such incredibly cost-effective opportunities to prevent large amounts of animal suffering, you may be able to help millions more animals than humans for the same amount of resources. 

That said, it’s at least worth thinking carefully about the tough moral questions that come up with helping nonhuman animals. 

If you’re motivated to help reduce a massive amount of animal suffering, working in this area could be right for you.

Climate change

Probably the most well-known out of these cause areas, climate change is likely to cause increasing amounts of extreme weather events, famines, and have global catastrophic consequences. Given the magnitude of the effects, both mitigation and adaptation to the effects of climate change may be significant in reducing human suffering in the foreseeable future.

There are all sorts of efforts and interventions people might use to tackle climate change. Some of these include shifting to renewable energy sources, researching and developing sustainable technologies, advocating for policy change, and reducing CO2 from animal agriculture.

A lot of different organizations are currently working on both mitigation of climate change and adaptation to its effects. Unsurprisingly, some are much more effective than others. The amount of attention and funding that climate change receives also means that not all jobs working on climate change are truly impactful—so it’s wise to assess each opportunity and take your counterfactual impact into consideration.

That said, working on climate change could be a very promising way to make a meaningful impact on the world. 

Global catastrophic risks

Widespread pandemics. Nuclear war. Advanced technologies gone wrong. All of these are examples of global catastrophic risks (GCRs). While rare, these potentially global-scale risks could cause enormous harm. 

As you might imagine, work in this area looks a bit different than work in other causes. While most work by governments and industry tends to be reactive, people who work on GCRs take a more proactive approach. In other words, they try to prepare for and prevent potential disasters that are too large to passively accept as risks. A few examples include:

  • Advocating for international agreements on nuclear disarmament
  • Conducting research on advanced artificial intelligence safety measures
  • Promoting global efforts to enhance biosecurity and biosafety standards

Preparing for unprecedented events has enormous challenges—and it’s difficult to know exactly what will be effective. However, this work also provides the opportunity to impact the world on a truly global scale.

Because most governments, institutions and individuals struggle to prioritize risks that are less familiar, work in this area can be quite neglected, meaning there’s not a lot of resources or attention dedicated to it. As a result, global catastrophic risks could potentially be an incredibly promising area to work in. 

Broad societal improvements

There are many institutions and processes that have a huge long-term influence on people’s welfare—from governmental systems to research methods to international organizations. While efforts to improve them could prove difficult, they could have an incredible impact on people’s lives.

In practice, “broad societal improvements” is really a set of smaller cause areas that should be looked at separately. For example, enacting election reform, improving the incentives that affect scientific publishing, and trying to find ways to combat fake news are all very different pursuits. Though, just like with global catastrophic risks, many of these areas are relatively neglected. And even if the chance of success is small, this sort of work can be very worthwhile. 

Because work in this area is so wide-ranging, we recommend learning more about some promising interventions in the space. A few places to start include:

Mental health

Around one in nine people live with a diagnosable mental health disorder, but the vast majority of people do not receive the help they need. The reasons for this are varied: high costs, lack of availability, prohibitive government/local policy, or even the stigma around mental health.

Fortunately, there are several promising interventions that aim to increase the availability of help. Some of these include:

  • Using technology to widen the accessibility of different treatments
  • Working with governments to improve policy and make effective treatments easier to come by
  • Extending psychological support and treatments to a wider range of people, particularly in lower-income countries

Because mental health is a relatively neglected area (meaning, it doesn’t currently receive a ton of funding or attention), there are also a lot of promising opportunities to make a difference. If you’re motivated to improve the everyday quality of life for people around the world, using your career to improve global mental health could be a promising area to work on. 

Here are some helpful resources to dive deeper into mental health:

What’s next?

This is the sixth article in our core career advice series. In the next one, we’ll talk about practical next steps to finding a more impactful career.