Life is short. Most of us must work to support ourselves. How can we design our careers so that we can have the most positive impact on the world?

The Effective Altruism movement came up on my radar recently. (Maybe through my various research about the concept of the Social Contract?) Effective Altruism tries to be clear about the measurable positive impacts of one’s job, acts of service or charitable giving, that is, the positive impacts that can be objectively tracked. This helps people decide how to get the “biggest bang for their altruism buck” (my term). If you need a verbal on Effective Altruism this, see Peter Singer’s TED talk on the subject.

One of the best platforms for putting Effective Altruism in action is the 80,000 Hours program out of Oxford, UK. I’ve been working it through their materials for myself and sharing it with a lot of my clients. The 80,000 hours in the organization’s name refers to the typical amount of time (80,000 hours) someone spends working over a lifetime. Life is short. Most of us must work to support ourselves. How can we design our careers so that we can have the most positive impact we can on the world?

The 9-topic 80,000 Hours program is well designed. It begins with a clear overview of research findings on what makes a satisfying career and then gets deep into what careers are most likely to (1) actually make people feel good about their lives and (2) actually help other people. The program is perfect for a 20-something just starting out, or for an any-time-in-life career assessment. I found it perfect as a gut check after my years in the would-be effective altruism trenches.

Recommendation #1:  Sign up to get an 80,000 hours post in your inbox once a week for 9 weeks. Read, watch, reflect and see if there an action that comes up. Use the videos if you’re a visual / auditory / interpersonal learner.

But wait!

If you are more of a “pathological giver” than an effective altruist, pick up Give and Take by Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant. Get your highlighters out for Chapter 6 (“The Art of Motivation Maintenance: Why Some Givers Burn Out and Others are on Fire”) and Chapter 7 (“Chump Change: Overcoming the Doormat Effect”).

I learned many new and interesting things about the giving = burnout equation from Give and Take. The bottom line is that it is not making a choice between being “selfless” (focused on helping others to your own detriment) or being “selfish” that matters. The key is being, as the research says, “otherish.” Otherish is an unfortunate term. But, the meaning is important. You balance a high concern for others and a high concern for yourself.

A finding that hit home is that burnout is not caused by giving too much, as much as it comes from giving a lot and not getting any concrete or positive feedback about it. For example, college students volunteering to do university fundraising calls to alumni avoided burnout and became more productive when they heard from students for whom they had helped raise money for scholarships. In another case, radiologists were more accurate in interpreting x-rays when they could see the face of the person who had the scan.

Also, it turns out that 100 hours per year seems to be an optimum (“otherish”) amount of time for volunteering (about 2 hours per week) that promotes happiness and avoids burnout. And, you will get a better sense of accomplishment if you “chunk” your volunteering time into larger blocks (like one day or one afternoon) versus “sprinkling” it over days and weeks.

As Grant notes, “Otherish givers may appear less altruistic than selfless givers, but their resilience against burnout enables them to contribute more.”

Recommendation #2: Spend a minute and imagine times when you have been selfish, selfless, and otherish. Notice how these different ways of being feel in your body. Try to get a palpable sense of it. See if you can navigate through your day in an otherish way. Notice the pulls toward meeting others needs and your needs. Consciously lean into both directions and try to find a balance that is energizing.

These days more than ever, it’s important to be clear about what you are for as much as what you are against.  The 80,000 Hours and Give and Take materials can help you figure out what you should be doing, and how to do it in a personally sustainable way.

Be well! — Thomas Doherty

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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