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How can I be of best use to the world?
January 30, 2014 10:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to change careers and my goal is to be doing "that what is most effective towards helping the world". I asked in a previous question "What is the cause with the most leverage" and since then effective altruism seemed to be the best solution for making a difference on the biggest scale. But if I wanted to help that cause it seems like there's no better way to do it than to make a ton of money. Other than earn a ton of money, I suppose I could try to work for an organization like LifeYouCanSave. But would I be necessarily of greatest help doing that i.e suppose they have all the help they need other than people to donate. I'm not looking for importance or anything. If somehow standing on a corner counting how many red cars go by is the best thing I can be doing for the world, then so be it. I just want to know that I'm being useful.
posted by defmute to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The truth is, there are a LOT of things that help the world and I don't think it's possible to conclusively quantify which one is "the best" in some kind of absolute sense.

So I think the best thing you can do is the thing YOU are the best at, and the thing that you won't get burned out on doing as easily. I remember when I was thinking about graduate school, I thought, "well, I could make way more of a difference to the world if I studied biology. But I'm not naturally good at biology so I guess I'll do this other thing instead." And then years later I talked to someone who was a biologist, and he said, "Yeah, I really regret that I didn't go to school for what you did. I know that I could have made more of an impact that way, but biology was what I was good at."

It's pretty crazy and it made me realize that you can waste so much time second-guessing yourself, it's better at a certain point to just put that question aside and do your best with what you are good at. My two cents.
posted by cairdeas at 10:59 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]

I think under ideal conditions, teachers are well placed to make a lifelong difference for young people. But, it's policy that shapes the landscape in which they work. Same for medical people, who save lives, when their system lets them.

Researchers contribute to our pool of knowledge, often in the hopes their results might catch the ear of politicians, who are mostly listening to voters, who attend to media and other cultural products (also good at shaping young and old minds in other, most matters), or lobbyists, who are more or less influential depending on how deep their clients' pockets are. (Watch all the seasons of the Wire, good education on circles of influence.) City builders make communities possible (or impossible, as the case may be).

The baker who makes my favourite ham and cheese croissant gives me pleasure and the strength to face hard mornings. I appreciate the driver who won't move the bus until all the people waiting in -30 cold make it on. I'm glad for my doctor's receptionist, who fits me into a last-minute spot any time I need it.

You can make a difference any way you can imagine, any chance you have. I agree with cairdeas, do what you can where you can. If you can be happy doing it, all the better.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:09 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]

Using your particular skills ethically and sharing what you earn to support a cause is probably the best compromise you can make. It's not necessarily non-profit work either. Starting a profitable business where you provide good employment and act ethically is a LOT better than running a crappy non-profit that diverts action from needed help.

I don't think this can be reduced to numbers. There's considering the biggest impact you can make, but it needs to be also a size you can handle and a cause that makes you wake up in the morning and feel passionate about changing.

Working for a charity isn't necessarily an act of charity in itself. I know scummy people at non-profits and incredibly helpful people at businesses.

Acting ethically at work and life is just as much a worthy challenge in a for-profit or non-profit cause.

Your question might be easier to answer if you could say what speciality or skills or field you're particularly interested in - accounting? wetlands conservation? etc.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:21 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]

Forget about "helping the world" and help the community that you live in. That's what will be most effective.
posted by thelonius at 11:24 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” - Howard Thurman

You can do good for the world in many different roles and many different fields. In my opinion, you'll be most effective if you focus on what you're good at and what you're highly motivated to do.
posted by slidell at 11:25 PM on January 30 [8 favorites]

Go join the Coast Guard. Go rescue people for a living.
posted by 99percentfake at 11:34 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]

"World" can mean a lot of different things.

If you want to work for the literal physical world- environmentalism and biological science seems a safe bet.

If you want to work for human happiness- religious leadership, counseling, suicide hotline.

If you want to work for the future- NASA, robotics, astronomy.

If you want to work with youth- schools, camps, hostels, labor and delivery.

If you want to work towards word peace- communications, art, peace core, traveling and exchange programs, journalism.

If you want to save human lives- medicine, paramedic, pharmacist, nurse, CPR certified lifeguard etc.
posted by quincunx at 11:35 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

Work to stop global warming and/or destruction of remaining large intact ecosystems. Better infrastructure, more reuse of resources, less primary resource extraction: we need a whole new way to meet our needs as a species.

I'm not kidding when I say that is The Big Problem. I don't think many non-scientists realise how truly fucked we are and how hard it's going to be to save even a little bit of what we have.
posted by fshgrl at 11:38 PM on January 30 [6 favorites]

There is also a passage in the Talmud, which says, "You are not responsible for completing the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." And, possibly referring to this, Ruth Messinger said the following: "The numbers are overwhelming, but we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed."
posted by cairdeas at 11:41 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]

Right now you are a solution looking for a problem.

What about thinking about it the other way around -- what do you think the biggest problem is in the world right now? Think about what you most desperately wish were different.

Dig deep and research so that you know specifically which aspect of which problem is most important to you, and then dig deep and research which people/organizations/movements are working right now to solve that problem. What do those people/organizations/movements need help with? Do they need X kind of labor, Y kind of skills? Sometimes they'll even spell it out for you on their websites! This doesn't have have to be a deep question.

If you can give them help they want/need now, do it. If you can't (because you don't have the skills yet, for example), then learn how to help them in the way they want/need, and then do it.
posted by rue72 at 11:57 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

The baker who makes my favourite ham and cheese croissant gives me pleasure and the strength to face hard mornings.

We need bakers and portrait painters and all manner of folk.

Find a livable job. And then chip in some of your wages into a good cause, like what fshgrl mentioned. And chip in time volunteering and building community and letters to the editor and policy makers.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:03 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]

You know, given your previous interest in the effectiveness of altruism, depending on your personality, you might be awesome at development/fundraising. You can make a BIG difference when you are the person who brings in the major donors for an organization that spends its money well in the service of something important. It's a valuable skill, both in terms of remuneration and the difference you can make.

But that aside, I second rue72's thought - what do you think needs addressing? I've spent my entire career in the nonprofit sector and the people who believe that what they are doing is important and addresses a real need in the world are the people who stay in for the long haul, resist burnout, and wind up with the skills and ability to make a difference in what matters to them. Furthermore, if you understand what matters to YOU, you'll be able to figure out where you can contribute to that, and whether your time is best spent with a nonprofit, or doing something in the private sector and volunteering your time/money, or whether it just requires a shift in how you approach your daily life. I think all of those are valid and necessary ways to make a difference.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 5:52 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]

I always feel obligated to vote that people who want to Help become foster parents. With the right training (most of which you'll need to seek out on your own) and a decent agency caseworker you can really change things for kids who come from hard places.

When I had two children the money we got from the state for caring for them was enough to allow me to work part time and then still have money left for therapeutic horseback riding lessons and karate class and going to museums and I had the time and energy to be there for the kids.

Just a thought!
posted by Saminal at 5:53 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]

Two big things

1. Eat (more) vegetarian... this reduces waste, and spares animals suffering.

2. Be consistently happy let it show from the heart... this impacts your surroundings much more than you would think.

And the secret #3 is:

3. Pick your most natural talent (it can be Anything) and figure out how you can put that talent towards serving others. Coaching soccer, baking, re-grouting bathrooms, whatever. Develop and perfect that talent with the intention of using it to benefit others.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:17 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

I know this is marked answered, but I want to point out that if you were to go and make a ton of money, it would change you. And you'd have to participate in grossly oppressive systems in order to do so, even aside from the effects on your character. (Even if you ignore, for example, critiques of the Gates Foundation's actual effects, consider the environmental and legal effects of Microsoft.)

How would you go and make a ton of money, for one thing? You'd have to spend all your time around people who not only don't share your values but who actively want to get rich for the sake of getting rich. This will, I promise you, reset your norms. (I'm an anarchist, I work in a basically liberal area and even that relatively minor difference has changed my unconscious assumptions in all kinds of ways that I only realize when I'm back among people who share my values.) You'll get used to all kinds of expenditures that are the norm in your profession - nicer clothes, servants because you'll have to work so many hours, expensive deli, etc. And you'll drift further and further from the lifeways of regular working people - you'll stop worrying so much about access to healthcare, living in a safe neighborhood, being able to afford home maintenance, etc - you think you won't but you will. I have good insurance through work, for instance, and I am constantly forgetting the effect of bad/no insurance and only being reminded of it because of the lives of my friends. Even if you try to keep your head on straight, your norms will shift and you'll forget certain things.

More, you'll be treated as wise and important merely by virtue of having money, and eventually you'll start to believe it. You'll start to believe that you - by virtue of being rich - should be able to make decisions about how the poor live. You'll believe that you can from the outside make better decisions about their daily life than they can. (Consider housing projects designed by left architects and what a disaster many of them turned out to be. On a personal level, I have friends who are social workers and I have friends who are social workers' clients, and believe you me, I am not very impressed by the "help" given to poor people of color by well-meaning upper middle class white folks - and no one in this scenario is even rich!!!!)

It's easy to think that you could go into, like, banking and make a lot of money and give a lot away. I don't know anyone who does this, and I do know a few people with a lot of money - most of them keep it. The people I know who give the most money tend to make middle-low to medium salaries and tend either to be enmeshed in activist communities outside of work or to do work that is itself in line with their values.

I'm not saying that no one ever succeeds at getting rich and giving away a lot of money, but I am saying that the odds against this plan working are pretty great.

If I were going to give one piece of advice based on twenty-five years of varying degrees of involvement with left causes, I would say that people need to organize themselves and determine what they need. "Improvements" pushed on working people from the outside tend not to achieve their aims because they don't take real, lived circumstances into account. Whatever you do, don't do it from the outside, and don't put your ideas onto other people.
posted by Frowner at 6:51 AM on January 31 [5 favorites]

Say what you will about the oppressive nature of Microsoft and its environmental and legal effects, the software produced by Microsoft has changed the world. How many of those non-profits and scientists wind up munge their data in Excel, present their stories in PowerPoint, and use artifacts generated in these tools to create change?

Even a mundane job plugging away at software can be just fine in terms of changing the world. Sure making more money changes you, but you can still use that money for good. I hate to be a Microsoft apologist, but their employees raised one billion dollars over 30 years of their formal charitable giving campaign. Because employees choose the charities and Microsoft matches donations, Microsoft is one of the largest supporters of some surprising charities, including Planned Parenthood and ACLU in Washington state.

For the most part it doesn't matter what you do, where you work, or how much money you make. Unless you are actively exploiting people under your own volition you can make the world a better place. If you have little money - vote, volunteer, call/write government officials and advocate for change. Even something small like taking 10 minutes to call the city to fix a heaved sidewalk will make a huge difference for somebody in a wheelchair. If you have lots of money - pay your nannies and cleaners a living wage and you will likely support a struggling family overseas. A high earning woman can go to career day and encourage girls to educate themselves out of the pink collar ghetto.

It's the aggregation of small actions of many people that makes the most difference. Don't worry about maximizing your own personal impact.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:56 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

There is a good argument for making a ton of money and using it to set up a foundation.
posted by Miko at 10:04 AM on January 31

Another thing - we can only act on the best knowledge we have, but the outcomes of our efforts are merely probable, and rely on others' actions. And sometimes when we think we're doing something good, we wind up causing problems somewhere else down the line, maybe in the future, or some place we fail to look. I think it's a mistake to only focus on the ends and not the means. That said, yes, there are important challenges, and the question is, what can *you* do to help solve them (to the best you can tell).

It's important to get some joy out of the work you do - not every minute, but some kind of satisfaction - or else burnout is a real danger.

On bakeries, again. I once lived not far from a lower-income residential area, with nothing, not a grocery store within a subway stop. An intrepid entrepreneur opened up a little bakery, and used it to hold the most delightful events, for music, poetry and the like. It became a place for people to meet, get to know each other, and start to feel they could care about the neighborhood. That sort of thing is how communities begin. With momentum, those seeds can grow into other kinds of connection and action, which you might think of as more 'important', but which could not have begun without a little place to go. (Green programs, education, etc.) Social change can be indirect and complicated, and it's unpredictable. History tells us that. I think there's a strong case to be made for developing and taking pleasure in contributing the best of what you have to offer, if you have the opportunity.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:21 AM on January 31

Hey. So I am a utilitarian (I noticed your tag) and an effective altruist, which means I have a bit of a different perspective from most of the others in this thread. I'm focused really sharply on what makes the biggest impact on the people in the most dire need -- not on what makes us feel good or tugs at our heartstrings the most -- so I'll answer from that perspective.

I can understand not wanting to earn as much money as possible then giving it to, say, malaria or de-worming charities. Personally I think that's probably the most effective thing you can do (yes, there's a risk you'll get rich and greedy and stop giving, but I think there's a much bigger risk that most of the other commonly suggested ways of saving the world will not be very impactful either). But for me, the idea of getting a well-paid corporate job and becoming a philanthropist just doesn't appeal very much, so it's not on the table (though lots of other people are increasingly choosing this route, and apparently it's working well for them).

But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. How about just getting a normal job -- whatever aligns with your interests and passions -- and giving 10% of what you earn to effective charities saving the lives of kids dying of malaria and diarrhea and so on. If you're particularly good at a certain skill, perhaps consider getting a job working for an effective charity, like an aid organisation or climate change lobby group. (I say "if you're particularly good", because I think when many people say join an aid organisation to change the world, they're forgetting about the concept of replaceability. That's the notion that, if you don't take the paid job, some other highly skilled person would, so you're not really helping unless you're better than average at it).

What about volunteer work? Effective altruists sometimes point out that it's usually more effective to work longer hours and donate the money, than to be a volunteer (the wages you earn in an OECD countries go a really, really long way when they're used to buy life-saving medicines in poor countries, far outstripping the good you can do by knitting socks or whatever). But even if it's often not the most optimal strategy you can find, volunteering can be incredibly impactful if you do it for the right organisation. And it's often fun to do (unlike working in order to donate money). How about becoming a volunteer or activist on global poverty and/or climate change issues in your country, helping to reframe the debate and work towards systemic change?

So in summary, maybe a hybrid strategy? A satisfying job that pays a decent wage (possibly in the charity or climate change sector) + charity + volunteering?
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:47 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

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