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Counterfactual impact is another important concept that could potentially change how you assess an impactful opportunity. It refers to the additional benefit (or harm) caused by an action compared to what would have happened if you hadn’t done it. In other words, we need to ask, what if?
Let’s say you’ve made the exciting decision to use your career to improve the world. With a deep interest in biological and life sciences, you think becoming a doctor might be the best path. You’re confident that you have all the right skills to thrive – plus, you will get to directly help others in a tangible way, saving lives and improving people’s well-being. All this sounds great, but then you come across some troubling statistics…
Despite the shortage of physicians in the U.S. (where you’d be applying to schools), there’s a large gap between the number of medical school graduates and training residencies – leaving thousands of graduates without a clear path to become a doctor. The low number of applicants accepted to medical school is another bottleneck, making it an extremely competitive field.
Realizing this, you start to question your ability to make an impact. If you don’t apply, will some other qualified applicant become a doctor in your place? Would you being a doctor make any difference in the world? Or would that other, next best candidate, do just as much (or nearly as much) good as you could?
Soon, you find yourself down a rabbit hole of counterfactual considerations. If someone else would take your place, it seems you wouldn’t make much of a difference at all. But wait, if this is true for medicine, could it be true for several fields? Can anyone actually make a difference in the world that wouldn’t have happened regardless?!
Fortunately, it’s probably not as bad as it seems. It is true that only looking at direct impact can be misleading. If you neglect to ask, ‘what if someone else would have become a doctor in my place?’ you’re likely to overestimate your potential impact. This is because that replacement doctor might save or improve just as many lives as you would have – meaning it’s possible that no net difference is made in the world.
On the other hand, you’re likely to underestimate your impact if you only look at the difference between you and the hypothetical next best person to take your place – what we’ll call your “replacement impact.” This is because you’d neglect to ask, ‘what would that person do instead if they didn’t take my place?’ Maybe they would go on to do great things in a different job or field. This means that you taking the job actually enabled someone else to make a bigger impact.
If we continue with this line of thought, it’s easy to see how counterfactual impact involves a whole chain of actions and decisions – not just your own, but others as well. This means it is nearly impossible to calculate exactly. As a result, your actual impact will fall somewhere between your direct impact and your replacement impact.
Direct impact: the value your work contributes to a specific problem or goal without taking counterfactual considerations into account. This is usually an overestimation of your impact because someone else might have done the same work in your place.
Replacement Impact: the difference between your impact and the impact of the next person that could replace you. This is usually an underestimation because it doesn’t take into account what that next person might have done instead (e.g. take a different, impactful job offer).
Actual impact: the difference between a world in which you did take this role and a world in which you didn’t – taking into account the whole chain of counterfactual possibilities. This can be thought of as your true counterfactual impact. However, because we can’t know all the residual effects of not taking a job, it’s impossible to know what the actual counterfactual impact would be. Your actual impact usually falls somewhere between your direct impact and your replacement impact.
One way to increase our chances of making a significant actual impact is to look for reasons that could raise the counterfactual end of the range. In other words, how might you be even better than the next best candidate? What factors or circumstances would enable you to do more good than someone else? Below, we’ll explore some of the common scenarios where this could be the case.
You are uniquely suited for the job
If you have a good personal fit for a role, you could have a bigger direct impact than someone with an okay fit. But chances are, a lot of people could be a good fit for the role – and as a result, they could do just as good of a job as you.
To have a bigger counterfactual impact, we need to look for any reasons that you might be uniquely suited for the role. Distinct from a good fit, a “unique” fit means you have some comparative advantage over the next best person or could bring something to the job that someone else wouldn’t. If this is the case, you would be able to do more good in the role.
Many factors could contribute to a unique personal fit. Maybe you have a rare combination of skills, a deep familiarity with the problem or region, or some past experience that lends you an unusual perspective. It could also be because you bring in specific career capital that isn’t usually available to people in this position (this can be knowledge of another field, connections to relevant people, etc.) 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 the space can be very helpful in determining what is needed to be unusually successful in it.
Taking a role that’s difficult to fill
Sometimes, there aren’t enough people willing or able to work on a certain problem. Other times, there’s a general shortage of some type of role within a particular discipline or field. When a position is especially difficult to fill, it’s unlikely that another equally qualified candidate could be quickly found.
Take operations roles, for example. Many impactful organizations have a hard time filling operations positions. Although they are essential to a company or organization’s success, these roles aren’t always perceived as a high-impact option. A lot of skilled people assume they are replaceable or less prestigious due to the broad range of skills required for success. But in reality, these skills (such as systems thinking, prioritization, high-level organization, etc.) are hard to come by. This misconception could lead to fewer qualified people applying to operations roles – which could slow or limit an organization’s progress. In this case, those who are willing and able to take an impactful operations role can be confident that they’d have a larger counterfactual impact.
It’s not always obvious that a role is especially difficult to fill, but this generally depends on two factors: the field’s neglectedness (are there already a lot of people doing this sort of work or not enough?) and the specifics of the role (do certain things about the role, like its salary, location, prestige, demands, make it challenging to find the right fit?)
Taking a role that might go unfilled – or even one that would take a long time to find the right person – means that you would contribute to progress that might not have happened otherwise. If you do find a position that's both impactful and hard to fill, it could be a unique opportunity to do good that is worth seriously considering.
You have some influence over an impactful organization
Many big, impactful organizations (whether charities or corporations) have a lot of resources, and usually, there’s some flexibility as to how they are used. If a role provides the opportunity to influence these funds, budgets, projects or talent, it could both increase your leverage and your counterfactual impact. This is because someone else in the position may not utilize these resources to do as much good as you might due to personal preferences or other priorities besides making the largest positive impact.
So what might this “influence” look like? Sometimes, a role can help shift some of the organization’s direct work: like a journalist at a large-scale publication pitching articles on pressing issues or an engineer at a large tech company influencing impact-driven projects, such as Microsoft’s AI for Health initiatives. Other times, a role could provide the opportunity to influence charitable budgets, shifting funds to more significant problems. Alternatively, a role could influence the organization’s processes — like altering corporate giving programs to be more data-driven or pushing for a more sustainable approach.
Your ability to effect change within a large organization heavily depends on the organization’s culture and your own abilities – namely, leadership and people skills. The upside is that many decisions (or at least those that aren’t critical to the core issues of the organization) can be influenced by anyone who cares enough. If a role does lend you some wider influence over resources, and you’re motivated to do the most good possible, you could play a part in ensuring that these resources go towards pressing problems and effective solutions.
How to think about all this
Thinking about counterfactual scenarios for too long can get a bit dizzying. To put it all together, let’s think back to our initial example. As you reconsider your medical ambitions, you worry that your counterfactual impact would be very low as a doctor. One option is to pursue an alternative career path similar to medicine that could enable you to have a bigger impact. But if you are already strongly committed to becoming a physician, perhaps there’s some reason you could be uniquely suited for the role or would bring something to it that another candidate might not. After learning that only 1-2% of med school graduates plan on working in small and rural communities, you decide to focus your medical ambitions in an area with high demand. You also make a commitment to donate a portion of your salary to highly impactful charities. It’s not likely that everyone applying to med school will make these same choices. As a result, you could potentially make a bigger actual impact than you thought.
To sum it up: the actual impact you can make will usually fall somewhere between the replacement impact of your own role (which tends to be lower than the actual impact) and the direct impact (which tends to be higher than your actual impact). If you have opportunities where you have a specific reason to expect a high counterfactual impact, we recommend you strongly prefer those. Otherwise, you can consider the direct impact estimates we made using the SELF framework— unless you have a specific reason to think your counterfactual impact might be unusually low (such as in extremely competitive fields).
Next up, we’ll look at a more real-life scenario of how the SELF framework and counterfactual considerations come into play when deciding between impactful roles.