Doing good better

Dr Lucia Gannon | 16 Mar 2017 | 0 Comment(s)

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Making a difference in the world does not depend on one’s career path, writes Dr Lucia Gannon

Your career consumes at least 80,000 hours over your lifetime. This makes you one of the lucky ones. Most people, globally speaking, will never have a job or the opportunity to choose a career.

If you earn the equivalent of US$28,000 per year, you are in the richest 5 per cent of the world’s population. Earning the equivalent of US$53,000 puts you in the top 1 per cent, according to William MacAskill in his book Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference.  Most of us fall into one of these categories. 

Many people chose medicine as a career because they believed it would allow them to improve the lives of others and perhaps make the world a better place. 

Dr Greg Lewis, a doctor and researcher, has estimated that the average doctor in the UK will save approximately four lives throughout their career. This is based on a calculation that one doctor is responsible for an extra 120 years of healthy life. A standard conversion rate (used by the World Bank) equates 30 years of additional life to one life saved.

Knowing this, how many of us would still choose to spend our lives working as a doctor? Are there other careers that have greater social impact, that do not require as much personal sacrifice and provide greater job satisfaction? How would we know which one to choose?

Choosing a career is a complicated process nowadays. Third-level institutions offer a plethora of seductive degrees and diplomas for school leavers, but little information on the career paths available post-graduation.

Graduates or those wishing to change careers find themselves consulting the many self-help books that contain such platitudes as ‘follow your passion’ or ‘do something you love and you will never work a day in your life’. 

But what if you only ever wanted to be a soccer player or a pop star? While it is true that successful people are usually passionate about what they do, the corollary does not necessarily apply, unless you are another Ronaldo or Lady Gaga.  How are mere mortals with no outstanding talent or passion to decide on a career that will be satisfying and have social impact?

These are the questions that Benjamin Todd and a team of academics from Harvard University asked themselves before writing a book on the subject titled 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career that Does Good. The authors conducted a review of two decades of literature on job satisfaction. Their advice and analysis is aimed primarily at school-leavers and college graduates but also contains many pearls of wisdom for those of us heading towards or already past our ‘age of peak output’. Apparently, for medics, this occurs at 50 years, along with novelists, philosophers and historians. 

According to the authors, work that is engaging, helps others, is a personal fit, involves supportive colleagues and has no major negatives, will help us achieve these goals. Many careers afford these opportunities. Economists, government policy advisors, politicians and journalists are some examples. Academics and researchers, working on some of the world’s most pressing problems such as poverty, climate change and health in the developing world, have also got huge potential to do good. 

But while school-leavers and graduates may have these options open to them, what about those of us who have already reached age of maximum output? Is it too late for us to increase our impact? They would say not. And there is no need to change career or head to the developing world or learn any particular new skills in order to do it.

‘Earning to give’ is a concept promoted by the effective altruism community (see www.effectivealtruism.org).  Each year, thousands of people add value, meaning and social impact to their work by pledging 10 per cent of their income to effective charities. 

The leading independent charity evaluator, GiveWell, provides an evidence-based list of effective charities that will use donations to alter the lives of those less fortunate.  The charity GiveDirectly can double the annual salary of the world’s poorest family with a donation of as little as US$1,000.  A donation of US$3,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation saves one life. Therefore, the total impact of a doctor’s career could be matched by a few years of donations to effective charities. 

It is never too late to increase the social impact of your career.  If I had access to this research 30 years ago, I may or may not have chosen to be a doctor. This is immaterial. On a global scale, I am in the enviable position of potentially impacting many lives both directly and indirectly with very little self-sacrifice. 

This, indeed, makes me one of the lucky ones.

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