Like many of you, I have struggled with this. It is a complex decision with a lot of uncertainty. For the interim, I found 80,000 hours advice helpful. Their career guide said something to the effect of because I am young, I should TRY multiple fields of work before making a decision.

I actually changed my career plans senior year because of the strong argument EA makes for earning to give. Still, I wonder if earning to give is all it's cracked out to be. Macklemore told his son:

Don't try to change the world, find something that you love, And do it every day

Do that for the rest of your life, And eventually, the world will change

The following is taken from an article with a self-centered perspective. It still applies to the EA career dilemma:

What’s more, as the years pass, you will almost surely develop deep expertise at whatever it is you’ve been doing. At that point, even if few people in any one location place high value on what you do, you may find that your services become extremely valuable economically. That’s because technology has steadily extended the geographic reach of those who are best at what they do. If even a tiny fraction of a sufficiently large group of buyers cares about your service, you may be worth a fortune. There is, of course, no guarantee that you’ll become the best at what you choose to do, or that even if you do you’ll find practical ways to extend your reach enough to earn a big paycheck.

I usually don't care for high risk, high reward scenarios, but I wonder if following your passion through direct work is one of those scenarios. I know with certainty that I could increase my income by at least 8M simply by returning to a career in software or corporate management. I even have some good memories of this sort of work, so it's not like they're terrible jobs. Still, I think there is a point missing in this discussion. Among those who had a large effect on the world, were they pursuing their passion or earning to give?

Moreover, the significant psychological benefit to yourself surely has many ripple effects that increase your impact outside of your career. Maybe that's just wishful thinking.

No offense, but I am most interested in people who have experience with earning to give (>30% of income) and/or following their passion for altruism through direct work.




Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:12 AM

Don't try to change the world, find something that you love, And do it every day

Do that for the rest of your life, And eventually, the world will change

Taken literally, this is clearly untrue. If I love surfing, and go do that, I'm hardly going to change the world in a significant way.

However, it's gesturing at something true: it's really good to be good at your job. You'll have more impact, better career capital, and be happier. And one component of being good at your job is to find something you're intrinsically motivated by (i.e. love doing for its own sake). So, finding something that's intrinsically motivating is important for a high impact career.

We write about this here:

This is why we only recommend people pursue earning to give if they have high personal fit with the career.

Also bear in mind that if you're very interested in effective altruism, I think earning to give has become a little overrated, mainly for these reasons:

I'm doing earning to give as a data scientist working in a marketing agency. I wouldn't say marketing or data science is my passion, but I do get to directly contribute to my favorite charities by making a lot of donations.

Also, another aspect that is forgotten in this conversation is that it isn't an either-or. My job is 30-50 hours of work each week (depending on the week and the amount of client requests we get). But my productive capacity is much closer to 60 hours a week, so each week I have 10-30 hours of free time that I can use to work pro bono for various EA orgs, which definitely is my passion.

We should avoid the temptation to think it's an all-or-nothing between direct work now until retirement and earning-to-give from now until retirement. (Not saying that was exactly your view.)

Here's one example of something in between these extremes. One can work at for-profit jobs as a means of skilling up such that your talents can be used for direct work projects during non-work hours and/or later on in one's career. And meanwhile one can earn-to-give in the short term, remaining agnostic about the long-term path.

Peter Hurford has an interesting profile making similar points, here. I love the term 'exploration value':

You can also do some direct work while also doing ETG. :)

I did earning to give for 18 months in a job that I thought I would really enjoy but after 12 months realised I didn't. I'm now doing a PhD.

I think personal fit is pretty important, but at the end of the day it's still just another thing to consider, and not the be all end all. I think its a pretty valid point that you will perform better in a role that you enjoy and thus advance further and have more impact, but if you're really trying to maximise impact there are limits to that (e.g. Hurford's example about surfing, unless surfing to give can be a thing).

So you should probably pick a job that you enjoy, but it's unlikely that the career where you will have the greatest marginal impact is also the career that you most enjoy. If it is, you're very lucky indeed. Otherwise, I would suggest finding some kind of balance.

I've been earning to give for a few years.

I'm not quite sure what the relevance of the second quote is supposed to be; it seems to argue for developing expertise in an area and is agnostic on whether that area should be 'direct' or 'indirect', since it's self-centred in the first place. A hint in what you're getting at might be in your title; you conflate 'follow your passion' with 'direct work'. I submit that while probably more people are passionate about charity work than, say, working in finance, there are far more people who are passionate about neither.

Also, even if you are passionate about an area now, whether you will remain passionate for long enough to develop the expertise described is still in question; this seems like an end-of-history illusion*. This makes the message of the first quote dubious to me; what happens when what you love changes? Which is one of the reasons 80k recommends against 'following your passion' as good career advice for young people especially.

With all that said, if you are an excellent fit for an area (you're good at it, you enjoy it) and it happens to be an area which fits neatly into high-impact direct work or high-donation earning-to-give, then I'd generally recommend people do that. While their passions are likely to change, their current favoured areas are probably a better guide to what they will like in 15 years than picking at random. And that's what I'm doing. But those are the easy cases ;) Everyone else has to think a bit harder unfortunately, and that's where 80k comes in.

"The end-of-history illusion is a psychological illusion in which individuals of all ages believe that they have experienced significant personal growth and changes in tastes up to the present moment, but will not substantially grow or mature in the future.[1] Despite recognizing that their perceptions have evolved, individuals predict that their perceptions will remain roughly the same in the future."

Regarding the second quote, pretend you're debating between a job you love and a job that pays double. The quote is saying that if you really love the job, you may wind up being paid comparably anyway, because people who are passionate about their work tend to be the best, and tend to be paid way more than average.

@cdc482 I share your concerns, suspect many others to as well, and appreciate the honesty of this post.

I think a lot of whether it's worth taking higher-risk-higher-reward paths toward doing good depends on a lot of specifics. Specifics such as those covered in 80K's framework (

In particular, the question about earning vs. working on the front lines has to do with what sort of needs your cause has, and your would-be 'role impact'. Is the cause more funding-constrained, research-constrained, talent-constrained in other ways? If the constraints involve certain talents, do you have, and/or could you (further) cultivate the needed talents? Also, do you have solid backup options if the risky plan doesn't work out?

I'll tell my own EA story a bit in case you can relate. In my case, I'm relatively set---but not dead-set---on making animal advocacy my primary cause for the majority of my life. I'm earning-to-give-and-skill-up as a software developer, at least in the short term, for the following reasons:

  • because I understand the animal protection movement to be more funding-constrained than starving for very particular talents that I currently have;
  • to skill up on tech talents that can be potentially useful to any movement;
  • to give myself a solid for-profit career option in the event that I tried something else;
  • given the high 'exploration value' of seeing about doing tech entrepreneurship somewhere down the line;
  • to give myself time to assess whether there are better causes than animal protection (x-risk is an enticing cause and I still want to think/learn more about issues like tractability, the importance of values-spreading, etc.).

Here is a provocative piece that challenges people to think outside of the box of merely earning-to-give long term: