4 ways to make an impact

Ideas from 80,000 hours book on direct and indirect ways of making an impact.

4 ways to make an impact
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

When it comes to making an impact, I always thought about direct ways of making an impact. For example, teaching, volunteering, etc. But after reading the 80,000 Hours book, I learned many more ways to make an impact that are far more effective than direct work. In this post, I am going to share the four approaches to making an impact that I learned from this book.

First, let’s define what making impact means. There are many problems in this world. We will consider anything that can potentially make other people's or animals’ lives better. We want to consider two scales: how much we made their lives better and how many of them were affected.

Approach 1: Earning to give

Think about Bill Gates. He donates a lot of his earnings to various charities. Could he have made more impact if he had chosen to work as a volunteer in a non-profit rather than building Microsoft? Probably not.

Now, you don’t have to earn as much as Bill Gates to make a more meaningful impact. An average US college graduate earns over $60,000 in a year. Even 10% of this amount can save almost 100 lives if donated to the Against Malaria Foundations. There are even more effective charities than that. According to the book, this saves more lives than an average medical doctor in the US can in his/her entire medical career by direct work (hard to believe, but they have research to back this claim).

Many non-profit organizers in the world lack money. A lot of times, they don’t have trouble finding volunteers to conduct their operations, but rather have trouble paying the costs of running effective campaigns.

In most cases, it makes more sense to go for a high-paying job and donate more rather than trying to work in a non-profit directly. Especially, if you have the relevant expertise for those high-paying jobs/businesses. This way also gives you the freedom to switch your donations to a different charity when the problem priorities change over time.

Approach 2: Advocacy

Giving donations is an effective way to make impact, but giving and convincing others to give is even better. For example, with this blog, even if I convince 2 people to donate, I will have made more impact than just donating.

The book mentions some popular examples where advocacy has led to massive changes: Rosa Parks and Viktor Zhdanov. The ideas spread very quickly, and a lot of problems in the world have something to do with awareness. Advocacy is often neglected because there are usually no commercial benefits, and it is hard to challenge the status quo. This is why, it can make more impact than the first approach, where everyone is anyway excited about making more money.

You don’t need to start a movement to make an impact. Typical jobs that make an impact through advocacy include journalism, government advisory positions, or in media (e.g., movies and TV stars). But, in general, almost every job has some advocacy potential as long as you can share ideas more effectively. To do that, growing to the top of your field is a good approach to making a better impact through advocacy.

Approach 3: Research

The book has one of the best examples of this: Alan Turing. His research on creating code-breaking machines during World War 2 saved millions of lives. Furthermore, the computers we use today are based on his theoretical research. A significant impact compared to what one can do by direct work.

Only about 0.1% of the population are academics. This is because research is hard to do. The impact of research overall is huge in our lives, and because only a small number of people are doing research, the impact of each of them is large as well.

In my opinion, research has a large impact, but it is sometimes also responsible for bad things. Especially for non-applied research. For example, Dr. Albert Einstein’s work is responsible for nuclear energy but also shares some blame for nuclear bombs. The impact of applied research is smaller but mostly observed quickly, whereas the impact of non-applied research can take years to show up.

Anyway, you don’t have to be a researcher to make an impact through this approach. You can make an impact by helping others do research as well. For example, by assisting a researcher or being a project manager, or getting involved in making decisions on grants, etc. This approach has less to do with who does the research rather than it gets done.  

Approach 4: Direct work

Compared to the other approaches, this is the least effective approach. But it still makes an impact if done right.

The major problem with direct work is that it is not neglected. Many people focus on direct work to help society. So, the key here is to evaluate problems to work on. The book suggests three metrics to evaluate which problem to work on: Scale, Neglectedness, and Solvability. Work on problems that are bigger, more neglected, and easily solvable with our current knowledge.

Starting non-profits also falls under this approach and should follow the same guidelines for selecting problems. Also, it doesn’t have to be a non-profit. Charging money for services in some cases can lead to better services (because you get better feedback, and they are easier to scale) and overall make a better impact.

In conclusion, there are many approaches to making an impact. They can be combined in many careers. For example, one can be a research scientist in a large company and make an impact through research, advocacy, and earning to give approaches. In most cases, indirect approaches can make more impact than direct work. Till now, I also thought that teaching is a better way to make an impact than doing research. This made me reevaluate my career options after my Ph.D. In the next post, I will share my process of evaluating career options.

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