by Josh Pairkh
The best way to change the world is often by picking the right job and doing it well. This is true for many of the most effective people in history, whether the philanthropy of Bill Gates, William Wilberforce’s political campaigning, or Alan Turing laying the foundations for modern computing. Biblically, we see Paul making tents to fund his evangelism, Esther using her royal position to save the Jewish people, and Nehemiah’s place as cupbearer to the King allowing his restoration of Jerusalem. It is also true that many people alive today have a disproportionate ability to improve the world through their career, whether in today’s unparalleled wealth distribution or through the opportunity to make progress by researching the big issues facing humanity – such as climate change. This means that many more of us can change the world beyond those lucky enough to be in positions of extraordinary influence.
So how are we to decide how to use our career to meet the “most strategic Kingdom need”, in the words of pastor and theologian Tim Keller? I want to argue that a major part of the answer is to rely on the career advice offered by the Effective Altruism movement, particularly from the organisation 80,000 Hours.
80,000 Hours are a remarkable organisation who produce evidence-based career advice in order to help you have a bigger impact. This research crosses psychology, economics, philosophy, and perhaps most importantly, industry-specific research to establish the nature and impact of different careers. This leads them to offer recommendations which may seem counterintuitive- such as research work on Artificial Intelligence, biosecurity or; government policy work; or maybe “earning to give” in sectors such as financial services. In contrast, 80,000 Hours tends to recommend against pursuing careers in typical charity work or doing a philosophy PhD. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have an impact through other careers, but 80,000 Hours offers a useful decision-making tool to help improve career choices.
There are a couple of reasons why I believe we should really value 80,000 Hours’ advice. The first reason is that I believe God wants us to use our brains and the evidence available to us when making important decisions, such as which career to take. It is not enough just to read the Bible when making these decisions. Even the conservative theologian Michael Horton suggests that “the Scriptures are not a handbook for decision making… [which may leave] many questions” to answer about the best career choice. This is more obvious when considering the changing nature of work due to technological and economic shifts, and the many new jobs created since Biblical times. Expanding this to prayer and the advice of friends, as Keller suggests, may not be enough. There may be additional value to prayer, such as helping to form our character, but specific career choices are rarely found through prayer alone. Equally, while friends and family will know your interests and skills well, they may have cultural biases or just be fallible reasoners, and give you worse advice as a result. They are unlikely to know about the potential impact of careers in a wide variety of different industries, for instance.
Similarly, it is unwise to just “follow your passion”, as contemporary secular culture often encourages. Writer and academic Cal Newport has argued this is misleading advice for career decisions, based on psychological and economic research. For one, we may not have a pre-existing passion to follow: one study suggests that only 5% of students have a pre-existing passion relevant to career choice. Equally, following your passion may not be enough to ensure success or satisfaction; career satisfaction depends on so much more, from being good at one’s job, to having greater autonomy, a good commute and a nice boss. As a result, Newport suggests that ‘following your passion’ might even be “downright dangerous” for some people. Career satisfaction might be based on other factors and 80,000 Hours have researched carefully how you might solve this problem and others. We might prevent bad outcomes by listening to this advice.
The second reason is that in other areas of big life decisions, we are more than willing to use reason and evidence to help us make the right decision. I think the comparison between praying for healing and taking medicine to cure illnesses is a good analogy. There is nothing wrong with praying for healing; in fact, I consider this an important practice in Christian life.. But the benefits of praying for healing do not contradict the usefulness of taking medicine and using health services- instead, the two can complement each other. If a friend stopped using medicine and chose to rely solely only on prayer, you would probably think this is irresponsible. There is substantial evidence behind different medicines which are tried and tested means to cure illnesses. Similarly, we read the weather forecast and don’t just pray to stay dry; and we read a recipe to avoid putting in too much garlic. Just as we ought to use evidence in these instances, so ought we to extend this to career choice and vocation. Like medicine or a good recipe book, the 80,000 Hours careers resource can help us make better decisions.
One might respond that these are completely different issues; that making decisions about taking medicine and picking a career are too different to be comparable. Sometimes people refer to ‘vocation’ (i.e., God’s calling on our lives) as a purely spiritual thing, discerned solely through prayer and the Bible. However this view seems to make too little of the gift of reason and evidence which we have available to us to help make career decisions and assumes an unlikely clear division between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. Instead, we ought to have a broader view of vocation, which looks to use our careers to serve others as much as we can through the many gifts God has given us.