CAREER GUIDE: PART 7
Assessing Counterfactual Impact
8 MINUTE READ
In this chapter we’ll start discussing how to think about the impact you would have in specific roles or organizations. Assuming you have some idea about the cause areas you’re interested in, you might know or look for specific organizations or openings that could benefit that cause area.
Usually, people think about a role’s impact directly: They look at the work being done and try to quantify the impact of the results. Sometimes this is (relatively) straightforward, like a doctor who’s work mostly consists of life-saving operations and can count the number of lives she has saved. Sometimes, it’s incredibly difficult to quantify, like a case of someone doing basic science where the impact would unfold over many decades, and attributing credit for progress in the field can be difficult.
In some cases, this direct analysis can be useful and give us a broad understanding of the impact of a role or organization. It’s also a good way to notice when specific roles or cause areas have very little impact and are unlikely to be good choices as a path that would lead to meaningful contributions.
In other cases, Analyzing direct impact can be misleading. When you’re thinking about the impact you would have by taking a role, ask yourself “What would happen if I didn’t take this role?” Would someone else fill the same role and do as good a job as you would? Would they be worse than you? Would the position go unfilled and none of the important work would get done?
The correct way to assess the impact of taking a role is comparing it to the counterfactual: How much more good would be done if I get the role compared to a world where I don’t apply?
What If I Wouldn’t Take This Role?
This leads us down a bit of a rabbit hole: We don’t really know what would happen if you wouldn’t take the role. The next person in line could turn out to be a complete failure who would do more harm than good or they could turn out to be incredible. To be fair, we also don’t really know exactly how things will turn out if you do take a specific role.
There is inherent uncertainty in questions like “Would I do more good than the next person in line for the role?” This means that we need to consider which tools we have to try and quantify the actual counterfactual impact we would have. Sometimes, rather than trying to quantify the counterfactual impact, we can do something easier: We can look for opportunities where we have good reasons to believe that we would have significant counterfactual impact. You can try thinking of someone asking you “What if you didn’t take this role?” Let’s look for cases where we’d have a good reason to believe that significantly less overall impact would be done.
Below are three significant examples where this happens. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are examples that tend to show up in many situations where we think a role has a large counterfactual impact.
The Position Would Not Be Filled
The first, and simplest, example is if there’s a good chance nobody else would fill this role. This can happen if an organization is trying to hire for the role for a long time (and maybe it would be filled eventually but only much later). Even if there’s a chance that the role would be filled, that means there’s also some chance that it won’t, and that means that by taking the role - you’d be reducing that risk.
It can also happen if there just aren’t many people who have the necessary skills. It could be that you’re a specialist in a field without many people or if you have a relatively rare combination of skills or personality traits. In some cases, most people who have the necessary skills aren’t willing to do this job. For instance, many roles that require people to live in places without proper infrastructure can go very long without being filled.
Another similar situation is founding an organization: In many cases, there isn’t another organization that would do this work otherwise.
You Would Do More Good At That Role
In some cases, you have a reason to believe that you would be able to have much more impact than the ‘counterfactual next best employee’ would. This can be because you have unusually high abilities, skills or experience. It can also be because you bring in specific career capital that isn’t usually available to people in this role (this can be knowledge of another field, connections to relevant people, etc.)
There are many cases where this occurs in areas where an important role requires specific qualifications or skills, and qualified people tend to not want to fill that role. This is true for many operations roles (which require management skills that are hard to come by). This is a case where a role might go unfilled or be filled by less qualified people - and so your counterfactual impact might be quite high.
This is sometimes very difficult to judge: You don’t usually have an objective view on your own abilities (though the bias can be in both directions), and neither do people close to you. Sometimes being able to pinpoint what are the specific unique skills \ abilities that you have can help clarify whether these are actually unique or not. In some cases, a candid conversation with someone working in that space can be very helpful in determining what is needed to be unusually successful in it.
A specific and important way in which you can have an unusually high impact in a role is if you bring a skill, knowledge, or mindset that is unique and could improve the role’s effectiveness. This could be knowledge of a relevant related field, quantitative skills for roles where they are rare, or even an Effective Altruism mindset. In some cases, the person who would do the role might be just as skilled as you, but wouldn’t have this perspective or advantage, which might be critical in order to have as high an impact as possible. Naturally, if you want to perform a role somewhat differently than it is currently being done, you need to make sure that you would have some amount of flexibility in your position.
You Have Impact On An Exceptionally Impactful Organization
Some very large organizations have a huge impact, either through their core work or through other means. These can be small but very impactful nonprofits or large corporations with budgets for societal improvement. They can be organizations whose mission is to improve the world or ones where their actions affect many people in a meaningful way.
In smaller organizations, you may have an outsized impact just by being a member of a small team. Depending on the company culture, even junior employees can have meaningful influence on an organization that’s small enough. This becomes even more true in cases where a small organization experiences significant growth and your role and influence may grow with it.
In larger organizations your ability to affect change as a part of such an organization depends heavily on the organization’s culture and your own skills. It will usually require leadership and management abilities. The upside is that in many cases, there are decisions that aren’t critical to the core issues of the organization, and can be influenced by anyone who cares enough. In some cases, this is a way for people to have influence over surprisingly large budgets and important decisions.
How To Think About All Of This
We could continue the logical steps that lead us to using counterfactual impact further: If you take a role and perform it a little better than it would be performed otherwise, what happens to the person who you replaced? Could they also then take on another role and perform it a little better than someone else? Maybe your choice to take a role has little counterfactual impact when we only look at your specific role, but has a larger impact if we also consider the impact of those you replace and the roles they take.
This quickly becomes impossible to estimate, even roughly. The real-world impact will usually be somewhere between the countertual impact of your own role (which we discussed throughout this chapter and tends to be lower than the real impact) and the direct impact (which tends to be higher). In most cases, it’s very unclear which one is closer to being correct.
Moreover, when you try to ask whether you are exceptionally good at a role or skill, your answer is heavily influenced by your own confidence level and biases. We’ve seen many cases where exceptionally skilled individuals insist that they are ‘only slightly above average’ (and the opposite as well).
Our recommendation is to strongly prefer roles where you have a specific reason to expect your counterfactual impact to be high (such as the ones detailed above), and try to avoid roles where you have a specific reason to expect an unusually low counterfactual impact (such as extremely competitive fields). Where those considerations don’t take effect, the direct impact of a role is a good enough estimate and you’re likely to have more impact taking a role that has more direct impact, even if the counterfactual impact is unclear.