How do you know if a job makes a difference?
When looking for a job that “makes an impact,” you may run into quite a few positions that sound good but don’t make much of a difference in practice.
For instance, you might find a job that tackles a big global problem like climate change (great!) but because the organization uses funds inefficiently and the role involves a lot of meaningless busy work, you end up not doing much good. Or maybe a start up claims it will make a positive impact on the world, but it turns out that the real goal is to increase profits.
Given the amount of buzzwords and jargon thrown into job descriptions, how do you know if a specific role could actually make a significant difference in the world?
The SELF framework—which we explore in detail in our career guide—is a simple tool to help you assess a specific role’s potential for improving the world. Below, we’ll summarize four major factors that could influence your impact. We recommend taking the time to consider each factor carefully. Doing so could sharpen your intuition about what makes for an impactful job, even if you come up against some uncertainty along the way.
S – Significance of the problem
There’s no shortage of problems in the world, but with limited time and resources, you can often make a much bigger impact on the world by choosing to focus on the most significant problems.
There are a lot of ways to think about a problem’s scope and scale. You could think of a problem’s significance as the extent to which it causes unhappiness, suffering, or a lower quality of life. It could also incorporate the extent to which the problem goes against your values—for example, a problem that causes harm to the environment or that perpetuates social inequalities.
Some questions to help you gain a better sense include:
- In the best case scenario, how much would solving this problem improve the world? Would it save lots of lives? Reduce suffering? Create a better future?
- Who would be helped by solving this problem? How many people/animals are affected by it?
- Could solving one problem help solve adjacent problems or lead to impact in other contexts?
- How do people today currently deal with this? What do outcomes usually look like for projects in this domain?
E – Efficacy of the method or intervention
Just as problems vary in significance, solutions vary in effectiveness. And no matter how significant a problem may be, an ineffective method will do little to solve it. But what makes a method—that is, the means you’ll use to tackle the problem—especially effective?
An effective method is both efficient and scalable; it uses fewer resources per impactful output. Yet even if a method is efficient, it’s not guaranteed to be successful. For example, sometimes a big policy change is the most efficient method for improving a problem. If a policy is passed, it can have an outsized impact. However, policy change involves a lot of moving parts. It’s not guaranteed that advocating for a change will actually lead to one. It’s important, then, to consider the likelihood of a method’s success in practice. Here are just a few questions to help you think through a method’s efficacy:
- Are there studies, impact reports, or research articles available that prove this intervention works? What exactly do they prove and do they spell out explicit estimates for how well it works? What are the differences and similarities between the study and the method in practice?
- How many people are working on this method and how much impact are they able to generate?
- Are there other solutions to the same problem that use fewer resources (time, money, talent, etc.)? Do these alternatives provide a better or worse outcome?
- Have people been trying and failing at this approach for a long time? Are there examples of similar projects or approaches that have/haven’t worked before?
L – Leverage of your specific role within the problem
The significance of the problem and efficacy of the solution often have to do with the whole organization’s efforts to do good. When considering jobs, we need to also think about the specific role you would take. In other words, what does this role do within the organization and how important is that work?
A role’s leverage can be thought of as the total influence a specific position has on the impact the organization or company is trying to make. Some roles are extremely critical to accomplishing an overall goal or solving a problem, while others may not actually contribute much in practice. It’s not always clear whether a role has leverage within an organization, and it often depends on the specific situation. Some questions to help gain some intuition on a role’s leverage include:
- Would the organization still make progress without this role?
- Is this role central to what the organization does?
- How much will this role enable others to do important work?
- Does this role directly make an impact on the problem we’re solving? If not, how does it indirectly contribute to progress?
F – Fit of your strengths & interests for the job
A final important factor that influences impact is the personal fit you have for the role. In other words, how likely are you to excel in and enjoy a particular role?
Even if a role is within an impactful organization doing great work, you probably won’t be able to do a lot of good if the particular opportunity doesn’t suit your skills or preferences. For instance, a research role could look really promising on paper, but if you hate being stuck behind a computer all day, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do your best work. Three factors important to assessing your fit for a role include:
- Motivation: What kind of problems are you especially excited to work on? Is it important to see the direct impact of your efforts? Do you prefer an independent and autonomous environment or a more collaborative and communicative one? Do you prefer to focus on theoretical and abstract questions or solve more practical problems?
- Needs & circumstances: Do you have a minimum salary requirement? Are there other people in your life you need to support? What standard of living do you need to do your job well? How do you feel about changing your life circumstances to pursue an impactful opportunity? Is there a certain work-life balance that you need? Do you need a part-time or flexible schedule to accommodate other life circumstances?
- Skill: Are you especially good at this type of work? Could you become good at it? What sort of tasks do you excel at? Do you bring useful and unique skills that most people in this role don’t have?
Your potential impact
Once you have at least some idea of where a role falls on all four of the SELF factors (even if it’s a rough estimate), you can think of them as multiplying factors to determine a role’s potential impact.
Problem Significance X Solution Efficacy X Role Leverage X Personal Fit
= your potential impact
Not every factor has to be extremely high for a role to be impactful. However, if any one factor seems especially low, it’s likely that your overall impact will be too. For a deeper dive into the impact of specific opportunities, check out part 2 of our career guide.