Ultimately the question of what it means to “make a difference” is a question for moral philosophy. For the purposes of our career guide, our definition of “making a difference” or “having a social impact” is as follows:
The number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them by.
We usually think of “improving lives” in terms of “increasing wellbeing”, treating everyone as equally valuable, and perhaps extending “people” to include non-humans.
We take a broad notion of wellbeing, including happiness, health and a lack of suffering, as well as broader notions of human flourishing or satisfying one’s preferences. As we explain below, we don’t think our advice usually depends on the precise definition.
Why did we choose this definition?
- Wellbeing, broadly defined, is something almost everyone cares about. People from a wide range of moral backgrounds agree that it’s good if people have have happier lives and endure less suffering.1 So focusing on wellbeing allows our advice to be relevant to a wide variety of people.
There are large differences in the impact of different actions on wellbeing (e.g. we’ve argued that some global problems are over 100 times more pressing than others). This means wellbeing is a particularly important outcome to focus on.
We have tools to compare the differences in wellbeing produced by different actions, such as cost-effectiveness analysis. This isn’t the case with other many other moral values, such as justice or beauty.
How do you measure impact in practice?
In practical terms, we think of your impact as the extent to which you contribute to solving social problems faster than they would have been solved otherwise.
This means you have a larger impact when (i) the problem is larger and (ii) you make a larger contribution to it.
How can you actually compare the scale of different social problems, given that in practice they’re extremely hard to measure?
Being difficult to measure doesn’t mean comparisons are impossible, it just means that we need to use approximate heuristics or ‘yardsticks’ instead. For instance, you can compare problems in terms of how much they increase wealth, health, the risk of exstinction, and other important goals. We explain what we mean by ‘yardsticks’ and list those that we find most useful here. You can see the rubric we use to assess the scale of different problems here.
When we’re uncertain we also use probabilities. For instance, a 90% chance of helping 100 people is roughly equivalent to a 100% chance of helping 90 people.
In practice, we recommend focusing on the problems that are most pressing according to our framework, and going into the careers where you can gain the greatest influence to solve these problems.
Why ‘faster than they would have been solved otherwise’?
The true impact of an action depends on what happens because of that action compared to what would have happened otherwise, not on what happens, period. When we work hard and see positive results, it’s often easy to neglect the fact that some portion of those results would have occurred anyway, or that someone else might have filled our role just as well as we did. There is often a gap between true impact and ‘tangible impact’—the immediate results of our actions—and understanding that gap is crucial to finding the places where you can make a real difference. We explain more here.
How important are value judgements about wellbeing in our advice?
The exact meaning of “wellbeing” is a value judgement. Most people agree about the basics (torture is bad, health is good), but some important issues are up for debate, and these can affect what “making a difference” means to you. For instance, the more highly you weigh the interests of animals compared to humans, the more you’ll care about ending factory farming compared to other causes.
Fortunately, most of our advice doesn’t depend on a particular definition of wellbeing. Different values will lead individuals to different conclusions about which problems are most pressing. However, things like acquiring career capital, building influence, and correctly weighing your options are largely independent of value judgments and useful to almost everyone. So we can help people contribute to a variety of problems, depending on their values.
Moreover, even when it comes to the question of which problems are most pressing, the main disagreements are often empirical rather than about values.
When our advice does depend on value judgements, we try to explicitly flag it so that you can make up your own mind. For instance, rather than present a single list of pressing problems, we made a tool that leads you through some of the most important judgement calls.
What about justice, human rights, the environment, and other values besides wellbeing?
Our definition of social impact is about helping people (and perhaps animals) live better lives. People sometimes wonder whether this means we don’t care about other values like justice or equality, or don’t care about helping the environment.
There are a few things to say about this:
- We do care about advancing justice, because a more just world is one in which people will live better lives i.e. advancing justice has social impact. Similarly, we care about the environment, because we need the environment so that humans and animals can live better lives.
Justice and other values may well matter independently of their effect on people. However, this isn’t our focus. We focus on increasing wellbeing, and only look to advance justice insofar as it helps with that (due to the reasons above).
That said, we don’t recommend making significant sacrifices of other values in order to increase wellbeing. Rather, we recommend people strive to have a social impact within the bounds of normal morality. For instance, we wouldn’t endorse stealing in order to donate more.
Even if you don’t care that much about wellbeing compared to these other values, you can still use our advice. You’ll just have a very different ranking of problems from us. The rest of our advice remains nearly unchanged.
Now, continue with the career guide.
Notes and references
Many people believe that they don’t have what it takes to make a difference to the world. They believe only people like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and the likes, are capable of making a difference.
The truth is, every one of us is put in this world to contribute and make a difference to the world in our own unique way. It need not be anything out of the world. It just needs to be something you do with the intention of ‘doing good’.
The following is a guide as to how small people like us can make a difference to the world.
How To Make a Difference
1. It Need Not Be an Enormous Task
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa
You already have what it takes to make the world a better place. Making a difference to the world may seem like an enormous task, but it is in fact the collective effort of everyone to make small contributions with a lot of heart.
The size of the contribution is not what matters most. The key here is to have the heart to do it.
2. Start Now
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank
There is no one best time to start to make a difference to the world. You don’t need to wait till you have the time to share some love; you don’t have to wait till you make more money to share a slice of bread. Little efforts count, and you can start making small contributions today.
3. Your Contribution is Never Too Small
“Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.” – Author Unknown
If you think that everything has been taken care of by somebody and your contribution is not going to make much of a difference, then you’re wrong. Can you imagine if everyone else starts to think the same way?
In fact, it is our responsibility to seek ways to contribute, large and small. You don’t have to be concerned you’re only capable of making small contributions. What counts is the effort.
4. The Greatest Gifts of All
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha
Happiness and love are the two greatest gifts you can give to the world. Too often, we’re too indulged in our own gratifications that we forget there are people in this world whom we can make a little happier and feel more loved.
As the saying goes, “To receive, you must first give.” The more you give, the more you’ll receive. Let us remind ourselves that in order to receive more happiness and love, let’s spread more of them first.
5. Empower Other People
“Abilities wither under criticism; they blossom under encouragement.” – Dale Carnegie
You can change the world by helping one person at a time. One of the ways to help someone is to empower the person. But how do you empower a person? Well, one of the ways is to be generous in giving praise and encouragement instead of criticism.
By praising and encouraging the person, you’d have helped him/her to accomplish what he/she is meant to be, and that would lead to more value being added to the world.
6. Seek to Make a Long-Lasting Effect
“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” – Benjamin Disraeli
This is Mr Disraeli’s version of ‘give a man a fish; you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.’
The good that we seek to do will make more of a difference when there’s a long-lasting effect rather than a temporary effect. For example, if we make contributions to build a school, it will benefit many people for years to come.
And when more people receive education, they will in turn provide more value to the world.
7. Stop Whining and Do Something
“If you have time to whine and complain about something then you have the time to do something about it.” – Anthony J. D’Angelo
All the whining and complaining in the world is not going to make a difference to the world. It will only drain you of your precious energy from doing things that do make a difference.
Instead of whining and complaining, seek to use the time more productively by engaging in activities that matter. When it comes to making a difference, nothing matters more than taking actions.
8. Lead the Way
“A good example has twice the value of good advice.” – Author Unknown
Other than doing things to make a difference, we should also seek to influence others to start doing things that make a difference. And the best way to convince other people is to lead by example.
Start doing whatever is within your ability today. Start showing more concern and love to the people around you. Start to make monthly donations to your favourite charity. Start putting more effort in your work to increase the value output.
Every effort counts, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem. Just do something, and do something good.
Do you have other suggestions on how we can make a difference to the world? Please share them in the comment section below.
Photo by The Wandering Angel