High School Seniors React to 80k Advice

“That article made me angry. All this time was spent on making sure your job was helping others and no time was spent on whether it brought you joy.” I assigned high school seniors in our economics class to read Benjamin Todd’s summary essay on planning a high-impact career. Some of the students were offended by the essay. Here’s how it went.

In general, I teach career advice using the What Color is Your Parachute? framework. I really like the framework, because it provides a lot of direction for thinking about one’s own desires and how those can be corralled to serve a higher mission. This year I added two segments to the career advice, one on globalization, and another on EA. This is in the context of an Econ class, remember, so I felt justified this year in leaning in on these frameworks.

MRU has a nice little segment about how to think about a career given globalization. We started with international trade and made our way to a discussion on globalization and the elephant graph and what that means for careers. I thought this was depressing, because of the narrow number of careers in which one can expect to see wage growth. So we also discussed how much easier it is to be the best person with a set of three skills than the best person with one skill, as an example of how one can still be competitive amidst global competition. That combinatorial insight is very helpful.

Next, there is much more to a career than maximizing profit in the context of globalization. And I would be surprised if more than 10% of that class end up in jobs with the term ‘engineer’ attached, so we talked about other high-impact careers. I gave them this Benjamin Todd essay, and they came to class with a ton of pushback.

In the first ten minutes of class, before I even had said a word, they laid out a series of arguments against the EA approach to career advice. I relished this and took notes as they went. Such good material, such familiar objections! These very normal, American students from median American households in a non-coastal city sensed something deeply challenging about EA, but these are challenges which I think the community has already addressed.

Objection 1: Giving you life to others in this obsessive way will result in burnout.

Objection 2: This type of advice is for “people-pleasers”, not independent, self-sufficient people.

Objection 3: This type of advice is for only super-self-sufficient people who want to take on huge responsibilities. I might not want big responsibilities.

Objection 4: This type of advice ignores the indirect value of normal careers, like working in shipping logistics.

Objection 5: If everyone tried to have a high-impact career, then the career wouldn’t be high-impact anymore.

Against these objections is the material in the essay itself. Close reading is hard! “You can divide career aims into three categories: (i) personal priorities (ii) impartial positive impact, and (iii) other moral values.” And:

Turning to personal priorities, research suggests that people are most satisfied when they have work that’s:

  1. Meaningful

  2. Something they’re good at

  3. Engaging & with autonomy”

Properly understood, these two quotes answer Objections 1, 2, and 3. Burnout is antithetical to what should be a personal priority: personal flourishing with a healthy mind and healthy body. But I found it fascinating that several students, having no previous exposure to EA, immediately worried about burnout. I wonder if the lack of vocabulary about individual psychology sounds an internal alarm for postulants? Secondly, EA is about finding the right fit, and that does mean knowing your own strengths, weaknesses, and desire for responsibility.

A close reading together cleared up these objections.

A student, one of my quiet thoughtful ones, leaned back in his chair and responded slowly to Objection 5. “Well,” he said, “There are diminishing returns. If too many people go into a field, it’s not a neglected problem anymore.”

Then we turned to the final objection—indirect impact. This is one which I only could address because I have been in the EA community for 6 years. A low-key, not consensus, but common enough EA opinion is that “normal” jobs provide goods too, and if you are able to be exceptional at an important “normal” job or be high-impact within that career, that can be good too.

The opinions addressed, they read the next essay on three career stages.

The next day I asked each student if they disagreed with the EA advice here or had any new objections to the previous article.

I was mildly disappointed to find that they no longer resisted Ben’s advice. They loved Big EA.