What can a student do to reduce global suffering? Part II

If you haven’t read the first post in this short series, then stop right there and read this first.

Time: our most valuable asset. When you have it, you don’t realise it, and when you realise it, it’s too late. As a young person, you have a brilliant opportunity: time is on your side.

Changing your diet and eating healthily now might make you feel better both physically and mentally for the next 50 years, whereas making this change in 30 years time gives you only 20 years to enjoy the benefits.

This illustrates a good point: changes made now can have a large impact because there will be many future years for that change to have an effect. Young people have lots of time ahead of them for positive effects to take hold. Moreover, young people tend to have fewer responsibilities and a greater affinity for risk-taking, so high-risk high-reward (altruistic reward, perhaps) paths can be trialed without serious repercussions. Students and young people are in a disproportionately good position to start thinking about doing the most good they can do.

UK income by age and gender

Here are 3 more ways to make an evidence-based large positive impact on those most in need:

4. Work hard at your studies

While it may not at first seem like this is an effective altruistic thing to do, improving your expected lifetime earnings, life satisfaction, and knowledge will allow you to donate significantly more (and more effectively) in the future.

Graduates with a 2:2 or Third class degree may earn nearly £8,000 p.a. less than their peers who go into the job market with a First or 2:1, a gap of £300,000 over their working lives - Adzuna.
That extra hour per week put into effective studying could facilitate an extra six figure donation to the most effective charities over your lifetime.

5. Make contacts

Networking - it used to bug me that someone can get a job over someone more suitable and skilled due to knowing someone in the company/organisation/group. I have come to realise that networking is a skill in itself.

Networking will improve chances of successful employment (and therefore potential future donations) and also give you an idea as to what career you would like to follow/to see if you would be a good fit for success in that field. Additionally, if you don’t get along with the people in your potential career, then that career is probably not a good fit for you, therefore you probably wouldn’t succeed in it.

6. Try out different career options

As a young person, you likely have less to lose than someone more senior in their career. Having few personal and professional responsibilities, it is a good time to try a few different career paths. You can do this by taking , for example, internships, summer placements, research projects, casual work, using your free time for writing, coding, or whatever else you think might be a viable and effective career choice.

Research suggests that the age-old advice of “follow your passion” to find a job that you love is not the best advice. Those who take a more pragmatic approach have higher job satisfaction. Don’t try to find the job you are good at, instead work on becoming good at a career that has a large positive impact on the world, and you will likely develop a passion for it, and if you don’t, you can move on to something else.

Think back to what you were most interested in five years ago, and you’ll probably find that it’s pretty different from what you’re interested in today... We’re bad at knowing what really makes us happy. - 80,000 Hours.

Two take-away messages:

Think long term.

Maximise your total lifetime impact, not just your impact over the next week, month, or year. A lifetime of doing \(x\) amount of good per year is much better than doing \(5x\) for one year and nothing for the rest of your life. Initiate a sustainable and regular donation to a few effective causes. This will have a far larger impact than donating a larger lump sum to an average charity.

Don’t do something because it seems like it will help, do something because there is clear evidence that it will help.

Not only that, do the things that the evidence says helps people most effectively. Anything less and you might be ridding people of help that you could have helped had you put your money towards the more effective opportunity.

Humans are bad at thinking rationally and are influenced hugely by cognitive biases. These make us arrive at the wrong conclusion about things that may seem obvious. Instead, we should follow a pragmatic approach and ask ourselves not ‘does this sound like it helps people?’, but ‘is there strong evidence and reason to think that this helps people more than anything else I could do?


The final post in this series will be coming up next week!

p.s. For those making big career decisions, I cannot recommend the 80,000hours career guide enough.

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