- First learn about more of your options, then start testing how well you suit them.
- You can partly figure out your fit through reflection and desk research.
- But you’ll learn a lot more through running cheap tests and reflecting on how they go.
You don’t need to plan your whole life before it starts
You are probably used to people asking you what you want to do with your life, hoping to be impressed by a well defined and suitably ambitious career plan.
But this isn’t realistic — we don’t all have one of these up our sleeves.
And when you think about it, it’s not clear that we should.
Don’t settle before you learn about your options
- You’ve probably settled too soon if you’re doubling down on a long term path without having tried a few different things out.
- Generally, we’re pretty terrible at predicting what will make us happy, or what we’ll be best at.
- We can predict a bit better once we have had some experience. So we shouldn’t expect to be able to guess at our ideal career before we have actually practised some options.
- You probably haven’t been told about your ideal job in school. There are so many highly impactful and fulfilling jobs that don’t involve becoming a doctor or engineer.
- In fact, your most impactful options probably aren’t conventional.
- You should spend some time looking around at the range of impactful careers, so you know you aren’t missing out.
If you want some more ideas, you can filter our list of career paths by skill:
After making yourself aware of your options, the next step is testing out your personal fit. In other words, what are your strengths & weaknesses, likes & dislikes, skills & anti-skills, and how well do they suit different roles?
Personal Fitand why does it matter?
The careers service 80,000 Hours defines
Personal Fit as “How productive you’d be in the job in the long-term relative to the average productivity of other people who are likely to take the job”.
Personal Fit for a role matters because (unless you are a particularly original entrepreneur) if you weren’t doing your job, someone else would be.
So if you want the world to be different, and different for the better, because of your work, you should find a role that you are particularly skilled at, and particularly excited about.
Why exploring is worth your time
The idea of spending years of your life exploring your career options before you make any big commitments might sound like a drag, or a waste of time.
Here are two good reasons why exploring early on is worth it:
Going to university to study with a career in mind, or taking a first job in that field, just is experimentation.
When someone switches career plans because they hated their finance degree, or didn’t enjoy medicine as much as they hoped, they have changed their mind on something they believed before. Their belief “I will enjoy learning about finance” or “I am well suited to a career in medicine” has been disproved. But this took more time and effort than it needed to.
If you can set up cheap tests which don’t take as long, you can save valuable time.
Before university, during, and directly after, are the lowest cost times to experiment in your life.
We don’t want you to panic on hearing that — you can switch career at almost any age.
But during these times, you probably have less commitments outside of your own interests, no dependents, no mortgage to pay.
Plus, gaining new knowledge is more valuable the longer you have to use it.
exploration, exploitation trade-off is a dilemma we frequently face in choosing between options. Should you choose what you know and get something close to what you expect (‘exploit’) or choose something you aren’t sure about and possibly learn more (‘explore’)? This happens all the time in everyday life — favourite restaurant, or the new one?; current job, or hunt around?; normal route home, or try another?; and many more. You sacrifice one to have the other — it’s a trade-off. Which of these you should choose depends on how costly the information about the consequences is to gain, how long you’ll be able to take advantage of it, and how large the benefit to you is.
Start exploring like a philosopher
Testing out your personal fit involves testing your enjoyment and your skill for a certain job or type of job.
Typical career advice often asks you to arrive at your interests and skill from looking inside yourself, or observing your own past actions.
This is an important part of the picture – but shouldn’t be overemphasised.
As a very broad general rule, try limiting yourself to 10 hours of abstract planning and researching before starting investigating. You can come back and revise your plan after that.
- What kind of activities give you energy or keep you motivated? Work that one person experiences as a state of flow, another might find a grind. It is easy to consider careers from the outside (What would I look like with this job? How much money would I make? Would I be respected in this role?) without asking the key question- what would it be like to take this job?
- If you don’t know the answers to these questions, the next step is to explore, putting yourself in different positions and seeing how it feels.
- In the meantime, you could do an energy audit - go through your calendar for the last week, and highlight the activities you did that you found particularly energising and exciting.
- If you already spend a lot of time doing something just because you’re interested in it, and it’s something that could be productive, valuable to others and teaches you something, it could be worth exploring how you could do that more.
- For example, some people are just obsessed with programming at age 16, and could already develop some income-generating or otherwise interesting side projects.
- So pay attention to things you become obsessed with, and explore lots of productive things (e.g. invest in learning a lot and side projects) so you have a greater chance of finding a good fit.
- Thinking in terms of broad aptitudes. Are you a skilled communicator? Are you good at solving hard problems after intense periods of focus? Are you especially organised, or innovative? Are you good at getting others to get things done together?
Then explore like a scientist
Running cheap tests to learn more about yourself, your skills and your interests, is less emphasised in most career advice.
But tests are great – they give you more information than just looking into yourself can. They also open up opportunities for you to be surprised by something you enjoy more or less than you thought.
Imagine that you are testing whether you would suit being a journalist. You might be wondering whether you would be a skilled journalist, and whether you would enjoy the job. Let’s make that an actual hypothesis:
Hypothesis: I am well suited to being a journalist. I’m good at journalistic writing, and I enjoy it.
An expensive test of this hypothesis would be to get a degree in journalism, get a job as a journalist, work in the industry for a few years, and then reflect back on your prediction. You might have very good evidence now (such as feedback from experts in the field, and lots of personal experience). But it cost you a lot of time and money.
Some examples of cheaper tests that you can start today include:
- Planning for and writing a blog, publishing frequently, and sticking to deadlines.
- You can test how people interact with the blog to get an idea of your skill,
- And whether your enjoyed writing it to get an idea of your enjoyment of this kind of work.
- Writing for a student publication — insisting on feedback.
Cheap tests might not tell you as much, but they can let you cross off options and move on faster than expensive tests. In the long run, you’ll need both, but if you are just starting out on planning your career, try beginning with a few cheap tests.
How to learn more from an experiment
- A hypothesis could be something like "when working on this project, my energy (measured from 1-5) will be on average 1 point lower at the end of the day than at the start".
- You should aim to make your hypothesis measurable, so that you can be sure whether it has been proven true or false.
- You can build up proven and disproven hypotheses, and start to get a more accurate image of what kind of jobs you excel at, and remain energized in.
- Sometimes, when you are just beginning to explore your options, formulating hypotheses explicitly might restrict what you learn. At this point, it can be better to just spend some time reflecting on your experience.
- An example of a reflection on testing fit.
- Scheduling some time on your calendar which is exclusively for reflecting on your test is great for this. It makes sure you actually do it, and it allows you to be more present throughout the experience because you don't have to be critical throughout — you know you've set time aside for being critical next Sunday.
Examples of cheap experiments
- It’s a lot cheaper to have a 30 minute conversation than spending 2 years trying to get an internship and then a job.
- You can set one up by emailing someone and asking to get their advice on entering the field, a so-called informational interview.
Cold emails and twitter are a godsend for people who have high potential, but lack the opportunity to realize it. A few emails or tweets to a person you don’t know can literally change your life (they changed mine for sure!) If you can demonstrate that you have high potential and/or can be useful to somebody, you should just email/tweet them and let them know about it. If you’re thinking “well, I’m not impressive enough” you’re likely wrong. - Alexey Guzey
A Guide to Cold Emailing
Cold emailing is harder than most communication for two reasons. You have no relationship with your audience yet, and you lack non-verbal feedback, so you can't modify your approach in real time. As a result, most cold emails fail. But they can work well.
- Run a student society - running something is much better than just being on the committee.
- Get volunteer experience - email an academic you admire (or their grad students) and offer to help with their research.
- Get a part-time job or an internship - There are many places you can look for this, but a great one would be EA Internships. They only choose internships which are directly impactful, or give you career capital in impactful fields. Most are for undergrads, but many will consider high schoolers.
- Practice your writing - read widely and take good notes (e.g. to ‘Build a Second Brain’), or summarise some important concepts in a field of interest.
- Learn coding - There’s lots of great free courses e.g. Codecademy and it’s a widely useful skill.
- Start a microbusiness - try to come up with some small product or service people will pay for. Read The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau for more on how.
Next in this series
You can be financially secure in an impactful career
Money stops being a key driver of your happiness pretty quickly (see nerdy aside below) We call this fall-back plan your crash pad . Crafting a crash pad plan which you are comfortable with would empower you to climb higher and take riskier bets, knowing that if you fall, you'll be okay.