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Book Review: "80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good", by Benjamin Todd

“If you hate risk and worry, start early.”

Robert Kiyosaki

This book was a short but remarkably good read about how to optimize for your impact in your career. After working professionally for almost two years, I definitely get the sense that if I am going to make a significant impact on the world, it would be through my work. The amount of time you can spend dedicated to things outside of work is limited (and more so if you are married with kids), and that time is likely not quality in comparison to the hours at work (the level of exhaustion coming back, the need to multiplex between different projects, the actual hour and time of day, competing priorities with chores, etc). In addition, the impact you create at work is compounded by the social network available to you, the company’s resources, and the integration of your work with that of others. Spending an additional hour at work, if your work is meaningful, leads to greater returns than working on a project otherwise outside of work.

This book is targeted more towards people early on in their career, or to those who haven’t even started their career yet (high schoolers and undergraduates), but focuses more on those who are exceptionally able. It makes sense because you have more years ahead of you when you’re young, and because young people are more flexible, and those able and privileged enough to consider social impact in their work (which is literally the tippy-top of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs are the ones actively considering options for effictive altruism. However, the intersection of young people who are able enough to apply for and receive a Thiel Fellowship (one suggestion mentioned in the book) and those who don’t know what they wish to make of their lives may be rather thin. This may lead to unforeseen consequences; for example, the book quantifies social impact as an aggregate metric, going so far as to say a dollar will help a poor community in a third-world country moreso than a poor American city. It gave off the vibe that because the American poor are 10x wealthier than the global poor, they are not as worth helping and we should try and bring the averages closer together. I would say in purely quantitative terms, they are right – but it fails to capture qualitative benefits of directly making small impacts and how that affects your happiness and self-actualization (e.g. ladling soup at a homeless shelter, or signing up with MSF).

Otherwise, the book provides good advice, such as:

  • Optimize for flexibility: Do what you are good at so that you aren’t boxed in your career and your ability to help others, and ideally choose a profession and a career path that will give you that flexibility (e.g. majoring in Applied Mathematics, and going into the corporate world before joining a non-profit).

  • Solve for the bottlenecks: Social impact is measured in helping each person more, and helping more people. Both can be addressed in a scalable manner, especially by fixing the things that block others from making their own progress. For example, Karl Landsteiner’s work on distinguishing between blood groups, or Norman Borlaug’s work on introducing high-yield grain varieties to developing countries empowered doctors and farmers to directly save much more lives.

  • Build things with others: Most of the career options listed involve some level of management, and that’s because solutions that scale are generally multi-person solutions. It is the product manager that rallies software teams and entrepreneurs that start companies that can build a base of influence, capital, and intellectual horsepower to tackle the world’s largest problems – not one guy in a garage.

Fundamentally, the book is a solid read. There are some kernels of interesting perspectives and options that may open the door to possibilities to those without such information in the workplace or the field. However, it’s not a Bible of knowledge, and should be treated as one book of many and one method of many.