Updated: Apr 28
If you are anything like me, one of the main things that brought you to further investigate topics of altruism and making the world a better place, comes from a place of discomfort.
As was my experience growing up in the US, at least once a week you are asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” What feels at the time to be a trivial question with a trivial answer (although we probably wouldn’t have put it in those terms), somehow morphs, as we grow, into a far more intimidating and even disorienting inquisition.
For me, it was “the Crocodile Hunter”. A five year old wants to spend his days doing the things that they have come to learn they like the best. I loved Animal Planet, and I wanted to spend my days the way Steve Irwin spent his: hugging Koalas, picking up snakes, and jumping into rivers rife with 1,500 pound carnivorous monsters from the Mesozoic Era.
Since then, my views have shifted slightly. First of all, there are some small aspects of that career plan which have begun to sound less appealing (i.e. being dinner). But, more importantly, I have come to recognize that more meaning (and potentially even more happiness) can result from a career that consists of doing more than just doing the things you like the most.
Although shedding my childhood career ambitions happened naturally as I grew, just because I had come to realize that there were greater possibilities for meaning to be found in a career, didn’t mean I was any closer to understanding where to look. Even worse, for me, as for so many people around the world (you are not alone), all of this career pondering came to a head when I reached university.
It felt as though everyone around me was yelling, ”its time to stop exploring and searching for the right path… it is time to decide!” Pick your major; do career counseling; take courses A and B and do well so you can be set up for job C; then, do job C for 40 hours a week, every week …. until you die, because that’s what you chose when everyone else around you was choosing.
Yikes. Let’s take a step back. An entirely separate article could (and should) be written dispelling some of the myths of what a career looks like, but I will say that it is important to remember that most careers trajectories are not linear, nor should they be. We humans are complex creatures and our desires and the things that bring meaning to us change as our lives change. If you are at the beginning of you working life, don’t burden yourself unnecessarily with the pressure of a life long career. You can try some things, and then go try some other things, and eventually you may find something you like enough to stick with for some time. What is important to remember though is that there is always the opportunity to change.
What they say career trajectories look like:
What they actually look like (usually):
The problem is, knowing this doesn’t necessarily help you to know where to start. My issue was that I had too many interests. In university, I started the requirements for maybe six or seven different majors before eventually deciding on a couple that I really wanted to stick with (yes I still couldn’t decide on just one).
In the working world, there are only so many hours a day to do things, thus you are largely limited to working one or two jobs at a time. So how did I end up deciding on a route forward, to at least start my career? Truthfully… I got lucky.
At the time I was working an exhausting job as a bar-back in Montreal, with too many hours and too long a commute (especially in those brutal Canadian winters). More importantly, though, I felt like my talents were being under-appreciated, under-utilized, and I wanted to start doing something that would be a path forward towards the life I had envisioned for myself, instead of just a way to pocket some $$$.
Although I didn’t know what that picture of my ideal life looked like, I knew I didn’t want to be lying on my death bed regretting the way I chose to spend my limited time on earth. I would have regretted working at a bar indefinitely, so it was time to try something new.
Cue YouTube (whoever said the internet was simply a waste of time). As your typical university student does, I found myself watching TED Talks to procrastinate from my readings when I came across a talk by a man named Benjamin Todd. The entire video is certainly worth watching, but there is one tiny part at the end that really stuck out in my mind: the simple idea that, “altruism is one thing you will never regret”.
Imagine tomorrow you woke up in a life where you were a rockstar; your name was in lights, you were beloved by millions, and after each world tour you got to head home to your mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Would you have fun? Probably! Would you truly feel fulfilled?... Maybe? Would it last?...I'm not sure.
It is impossible to say (although anxiety and depression rates amongst adults in the entertainment industry might offer clues), but what is certain is the gamble of it all.
Now imagine a different scenario. Imagine you wake up tomorrow as a social worker that has helped hundreds of would-be-homeless children find their way into the homes of loving families.
Which of these two scenarios brings a greater smile to your face? I am not guaranteeing that crafting a career devoted to helping others will bring you fulfillment in life. Quite simply there is more to life than work. However, it is hard, at least for me, to imagine the case where you would feel that such a life was a life wasted.
If you, like me, are near the beginning of your career journey, but want to explore the possibility of a career that helps better the world around you – or, if you find yourself a little ways into your working life, but feel as though something is missing: consider some of the following steps:
1. Check out 80,000 Hours
Benjamin Todd of the aforementioned Ted Talk? He is best known for being the founder of 80,000 Hours. The organization is a stark promoter of the Effective Altruism movement and researches which career paths generate the ‘most’ good. Their website has an ample amount of articles on different career paths, advice on skills cultivation, the philosophy of doing good, and even has a job board which indicates vacancies at particularly impactful philanthropic organizations.
For me personally, this was a great starting point for considering different career options, and helped guide a lot of my further research into how I could be an effective change-maker given my unique strengths and passions.
Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. If making the world a better place is your goal, let the remarkable experiences of the all those who came before you inform what that might look like.
Read books about how to build a successful career in field that interest you. Read moral philosophy, and come to better understand what being a good person means to you. Read the stories of real change-makers and learn from their personal journeys. (One of my favorite books: Dare to Matter by Jordan Kassalow. 10/10 would recommend.)
Most importantly, read about the world around you. Stay informed about the world’s most pressing problems, and don’t let anyone’s suffering go overlooked. You can’t be the one to right the world’s biggest injustices if you don’t know what they are.
3. Check out SolutionsU
Speaking of reading. SolutionsU is a journalism platform with great stories on topics such as Human Rights, the Environment, Education, Democracy, and Health, as well as the companies all over the world devoted to making an impact in those sectors. Maybe in browsing the platform you will find an organization whose mission truly speaks to you and that you feel you can be of service to. Save this, it may help you narrow down which causes are the most meaningful to you, so you can begin to look for organizations in that field, or maybe even start your own.
4. Learn Valuable Skills
It may take some time to find (or create) a job which is meaningful to you, but that shouldn’t stop you from spending time learning skills which might be beneficial when that job finally presents itself. Maybe take up coding, learn a language, study business. YouTube and websites like Kahn Academy have thousands of hours of free content to help you learn the skills that you have always wanted to, and that will make you a more effective change-maker in the future.
5. Rethink What it Means to Do Good With Your Career
I know that in considering the next steps in your life’s trajectory, you are hoping to narrow the scope of possibilities and make choosing easier. This being said, it is important to recognize that following a career path that one typically considers ‘altruistic’ or ‘philanthropic’ such as non-profit work, social work, or social entrepreneurship are not necessarily the only way (or even potentially the most effective way) to do good in your life.
Some high-income careers may not on the surface be considered altruistic, but they generate wealth that can help support the efforts of charities worldwide. (It is important however to consider the pros and cons herein. An oil executive might contribute a lot of money to charity, but those contributions might not offset the negative impact that industry has on the planet.)
Likewise, maybe a career that emphasizes flexible working hours could allot you the free time to volunteer your skills at an organization in need, or care for a family member with special needs. It is important to consider all the features of a prospective career and not focus solely on what society deems ‘valuable’.
Whatever path your career journey takes you down, the path doesn’t start somewhere down the road. It starts today. Try not to let fear of the unknown, or the immensity of possibility paralyze you. Get out there and start exploring. Start looking. And start trying things that might be interesting to you. No good was ever done while simply reading articles online.
You might try volunteering your time at an organization that interests you tomorrow. That might spark in you a passion for following that organizations mission and kickstart a career. It also might not. But… if your efforts tomorrow help improve the life of even one person, well… altruism is the one thing you will never regret.
About the Author
Gregory Light is a bartender, a traveler, a cook, a guitar player, a blackbelt, a French speaker, a cliff diver, a part-time theoretical physicist, a philosopher, a dog owner, a Star Wars lover, and probably some other things too. Notably, no one has ever seen Gregory and Batman in the same room…
He loves to rock climb, hike, and explore new trails. Most of all he loves learning more about the world by getting to know strangers as friends.
To view more of Greg's work check out his writer's page or follow him on Instagram @greggo_my_leggo.