Do Good Now, or Why Public Service People Should Take Public Service Jobs

A lot of college students who want to save the world end up taking jobs in investment banking or management consulting, and some have asked me for my thoughts on the issue.  I'm not arguing in this article that there is anything wrong with those career choices, but I do think that it is wrong for someone who is primarily interested in public service and who is not passionate about banking or consulting to take one of those jobs.

Do Good Now

I think that a lot of people have the idea that they want to make a big change, so they do something to get money / skills now so that they can have social impact later.  I think that this is very bad because if everyone who wanted to do good just did it now rather than later, I think the world would be a much better place.  

There are obviously exceptions to the efficacy of the "don't sell out" rule (eg, Gates), but I don't think that it's rational to plan one's career expecting to be an exception.

It Ain't All About the Benjamins

One reason that people try to make money rather than working in public service is the thought that donating money is more important than contributing time.  I'm not convinced.  Money certainly is important, but smart people working on cool new ideas is also very important.  There are a lot of organizations out there that are trying to give away money to innovative ideas that could yield scalable social impact that struggle to find organizations that meet their criteria.

One of the reasons for this is that a lot of the problems out there are really really hard!  All of the big issues out there are, fundamentally, unsolved problems.  If issues like good governance, pandemics, the environment, conflict, human rights, or education could be solved by throwing a few million dollars at them, then they would be solved already.

Given that we need new ideas and that people with money don't know how to spend it on these issues, I don't think that someone should feel bad about working on public service rather than making money to donate to some organization.

I am also skeptical when I see someone say that they are making money to do good if they don't donate most of their paycheck in the mean time.

What Skills?

Another slight problem that I have seen with people deferring social change related careers with the idea of developing skills for later nonprofit work is that it's a very nebulous idea.

I tend to think that a good way to figure out what skills you need to run a nonprofit is by running a nonprofit.  I have heard a nontrivial amount of people come out of investment banking and management consulting saying that they got very good at spreadsheets and slide decks, which might not be the most important thing to spend a couple of years learning.  That's not to say that people don't have good experiences and learn important things, but I think it's important to be concrete about precisely what skills you want to develop by doing something.

I'm skeptical if someone tells me they're doing something to gain "skills" if they can't tell me exactly what those skills are.

Go to Sleep at Night

A side benefit of doing something that directly aligns with your values is that you will probably feel more comfortable about it.  People might also think that you have a cooler job at cocktail parties.

Some of my friends went into management consulting with the goal of developing skills, and all of them that I have known felt burnt out in less than a year.  They have been much happier (and much more able to sustain doing good work over the long term) after they transitioned to a job that they could connect more directly with.  Again, if you find management consulting to be really interesting and the thought of working on it exhilirates you, then go ahead and do it!  But if it's just a stepping stone to you, I suspect that you would be able to skip directly to the thing you want to do if you look hard enough (especially if you're skilled enough to get into a big management consulting organization) and that you would be happier doing good now.

An Aside on Utilitarianism

"But Sam," you might say, "you're a utilitarian!  A good end should justify a non-do-good-now means!"  Philosophically, I agree with that sentiment, and if you were able to prove to me that you were rational and non-self-interested and that you would remain as such, and if you were able to prove to me that you had good information that deferring social change until later would have a better outcome, then that would make sense.

However, as a utilitarian, I am forced to accept that humans are really bad at making rational decisions (whether those decisions are self interested or not) and that humans usually use really bad information to justify doing bad things in the short term.  As such, I think that the probability that doing something objectionable in the short term will yield long term gains is sufficiently low that a utilitarian calculus should optimize for doing good now.  

There is also empirical evidence indicating that adopting this stance on a personal level is correct: people who behave altruistically are happier and more well liked than self-interested people, which makes do-gooders more able to achieve their goals in the long term.