How to Make a Real Difference with Your Career
How can you build you career around a cause you’re passionate about? It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely possible with some foresight, planning, and imagination.
Imagine it’s 7:00 am five years from now. Your alarm goes off. It’s a cold morning, and the bed is warm, but you don’t mind getting up. There’s a spring in your step as you walk to the kitchen to turn on the kettle. You’re heading to work, and despite feeling a bit sleepy, you’re glad. Your job makes the world little better every day.
What does that job look like to you? Can you imagine it?
Sure, it’s only in your imagination now, but it doesn’t have to stay there. You can have a career that makes a real difference in the world. It just might look different to what you’d think.
So what does ‘making a difference’ mean? Sometimes it’s also called ‘having a social impact’. Here’s one useful definition:
“The number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them by.”
Benjamin Todd of 80,000 Hours.
Everyone has different circumstances, and many of us need to work to make a living.
But some of us are fortunate, dissatisfied with the status quo, and motivated by a need to leave the world a better place than they found it.
Follow these five steps to see how you can build a dream career around a cause that both feels meaningful and actually makes a difference.
1. What cause should I work on?
You might choose a cause based on what feels right to you. However, it’s worth doing some research and thinking strategically. After all, you want to make the most of your valuable time and effort. Using your head and heart together, you can choose something personally meaningful that will also make a massive difference.
Meaningful vs. Effective
A study by PayScale shows the jobs people find most meaningful. If you compare this with the research from career organisation 80,000 Hours showing the career paths with the most direct impact, there’s not much crossover happening.
Of course, the jobs that feel meaningful may certainly contribute something positive to the world, but there might be less apparent jobs which have a much higher impact.
Jobs That People Find Most Meaningful
English Language and Literature Teachers, Postsecondary
Directors, Religious Activities and Education
Education Administrators, Primary and Secondary Schools
Most Potential for Direct Impact
Policy-oriented government jobs
Research into risks from artificial intelligence
Working at effective altruism organisations
Founding effective non-profits (international development)
Some of the recommended career paths from 80,000 Hours may seem counterintuitive at first, but they are backed up with substantial evidence and research. It just goes to show that your first instinct may not always be your best one.
You could work hands-on educating children in developing countries. However, you might be able to help more people over time by working in policy, advocacy or as a strategist in an effective nonprofit.
You might already have a cause dear to your heart. Fantastic! If that’s the case, you could assess whether that particular focus is the biggest, most neglected and easiest to solve in the field, or whether there might be a related but higher-impact area to target.
2. Finding A Good Fit for You
Don’t follow your passion! Wait, what?
We’ve all heard the generic ‘follow your passion’ advice so often that we internalise it. We think that we have to fulfil our dreams to have a meaningful life.
But it’s actually pretty bad advice.
Sure, passion can drive you to success in the field you choose. However, the clichèd ‘follow your bliss’ career advice can be misleading. It implies that you have to be passionate first. Often lasting passion grows over time as you learn more, and develop your expertise.
Three Predictors of Career Satisfaction
Research points to three main criteria for career satisfaction and a sense of meaning.
Surprise – passion is not one of them.
Your work matters, and it has a clear purpose.
You have control over how you work, and you can choose how you accomplish goals.
You’re progressing in your skills as you work.
Source: Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Maybe you’re a data scientist for a big technology firm, and you’ve identified ending factory farming as your real passion. Your existing expertise makes you very valuable to a company working on that problem; it’s just a case of switching industries.
Maybe you’re a VCE student with a talent for art and graphic design. You could go on to study fine art at university. You could also be a web designer at a climate change NGO, doing a brilliant site redesign that increases donations and funding.
A better approach could be to look at your existing skill set and attributes, and figure out how to apply them in a new or different way. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What activities get you consistent positive feedback? Perhaps you’re looking to adapt parts of your current job to a career path that does good.
3. Get Out There
It’s critical to try things yourself as soon as possible. According to Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, humans are awful at predicting what we’ll be good at, and what will make us happy in the future. The best way to figure out what kind of environments you’ll thrive in and what types of activities get you interested is to get as much experience as you can, and talk to other people about their experiences.
Start out by volunteering with an organisation that’s doing great work. When you meet some interesting people, or someone doing your dream job, sit down with them for fifteen minutes and do an informational interview (a process where you ask open-ended questions about someone’s career path, lessons learned, and experiences, to glean insights for your career). Add everyone you meet on LinkedIn and keep it up-to-date with all your projects and experiences.
Internships can be another excellent way of moving in the right direction. Like volunteering, this gives you valuable real-world experience and connections. It can also lead to opportunities down the line and demonstrates to anyone reading your resume in future that you’re committed to the cause.
If you’ve already got a day job or other life commitments, you could start a passion project in your spare time.
Perhaps you could launch a fundraising campaign on social media advocating for environmental issues. Not only can you raise some money for the cause, it shows you’ve got some serious hustle.
Once you’ve tried out a few organisations and positions, it’s time to investigate further training. You may use this information to make decisions about what degree to pursue if you’re at the beginning of your studies. Alternatively, perhaps you’re ready to take the next steps and change industries. In either case, you’ll need to do some research.
4. Find Out About Pathways
Have a look at the career paths for your chosen cause. You may need to complete some formal qualifications, which will differ depending on the role you’re pursuing.
A course in business administration, project management or public relations could be a stepping stone to those crucial support roles in the social sector. Alternately, you could take a course in community services, conservation and land management, or social science to get a theoretical grounding and work directly on the problems.
Tertiary education gives you more than just knowledge, however. One of the main benefits of studying is the connections and opportunities on offer; sometimes it’s much easier to land a placement through an institution than out on your own.
If you plan to work for a charity or the nonprofit sector, there are some fantastic tools online to help you pick effective ones that have the most significant impact. Worldwide, Charity Navigator evaluates charities for effectiveness; and for Australia, ChangePath does the same thing, while also recommending rewarding opportunities for volunteering depending on your interests and location. It’s worth doing some reading about the charities you’re interested in if you’re thinking of eventually working there.
A word on working in the social sector straight out of university or TAFE: it can be worth starting out in the private and commercial sectors for 3-5 years. Larger companies can provide world-class training and experience because they have the resources to do so. Then, when it’s time to make a move to the social sector, you’ll be able to contribute much more.
5. Test and Adjust
Plans are grand, but life can be a mess. Things don’t always work out the way you thought they might, and sometimes things go sideways before they go up. Don’t get so focused on future goals that you miss opportunities in the present.
So make plans – they help you get a sense of where you’re going, and figure out what steps to take next. Then be prepared for them to go flying out the window.
You never know what a chance meeting, a new project, a volunteer opportunity, or a summer research scholarship might bring you, so be ready and then take the breaks when they come.
So if you want to use your career to further a good cause, keep an open mind, try new experiences and do your research.
You might find yourself creating a massive impact in a way you would never have imagined.
Post-pandemic Employability: Filling the Digital Upskilling Gap
The issue of a growing upskilling gap was prevalent even before COVID-19 devastated entire industrie...
Australia’s Most Employable Industries Post-pandemic
Even before COVID-19 ravaged the world and shut down economies, Australia was already leaning into a...
How to Avoid Ageism on Your Over-50 Career Hunt
It’s illegal for an employer to make a decision on a prospective employee based on their age, but le...
Want to read more?
3 Benefits of Being a Working Parent
The life of a working parent isn't always easy. Family life can sometimes be difficult when dealing...
Cover Letters: A Comprehensive Guide [+ Templates and Samples]
by Adele Cochrane by Adele Cochrane This guide will teach you to write the perfect cover letter for...
How to Use a Portfolio in a Job Interview
A portfolio may consist of pages in a binder, a CD, a video, a book or even a custom-designed websit...