I left my job in November after 4 years with the company. I’ve spent the past 6 weeks travelling, spending time with friends and family, reading and reflecting on what I want to do next. I’m still figuring out the latter, but there are a few things I know for sure:
- I want to work on solving one of the biggest problems facing society
- I want to care enough about the problem to feel comfortable spending (at least) the next 10 years of my life working on it
- I want to want to feel that I’m uniquely well-positioned to make an impact
- I want to build something that is sustainable and likely to outlive me
- I don’t want to do it alone
What to Work On
A Big Problem I Care Deeply About
There are many problems (or trends) that satisfy my first two requirements. This is a partial list, in no particular order:
- Climate change
- Automation / AI
- Poverty / homelessness
- Remote work
- Political polarization
- Human relationships
- Continuous learning
- Waste reduction
- Capital allocation
A Problem I Can Realistically (Help) Solve
This is where things get tricky. I don’t consider myself an expert in any one particular area—I’m more of a generalist. I studied math and finance as an undergraduate and biostatistics as a graduate student. I’ve worked as a financial advisor, a data scientist at a large management consultancy, and an education executive and product manager at a small, scrappy startup. I’ve built open source software that makes the R programming language more accessible to beginners and an iPhone app that helps people become more conscious about how they spend their money. There was even a three month period where I spent my mornings picking bottles out of dumpsters in Hong Kong because the government lacked a formal glass recycling program.
Perhaps the only common thread is that I love solving new problems and being a beginner. I live for what Jeff Bezos calls “Day One”. Regardless, I’d like to work on something that leverages some of my existing skills/experience in areas like data science and/or software development.
A Sustainable Solution
I don’t know yet how my fourth requirement will manifest itself. Ultimately, whether I build a standalone product, a for-profit company, or a nonprofit, it will be in service of my first three requirements. Solving the right problem and doing it well is the priority.
Building a Team
Finally, I recognize that making progress toward one of society’s biggest problems will require a team of people working in harmony toward a shared vision. This is particularly true in my case given my lack of experience/expertise on any of the problems listed above. I hope to surround myself with smart, motivated people who will compliment my strengths and weaknesses.
I will continue to read, write, think, and discuss ideas as much as possible over the next few weeks with the goal of narrowing down the list of potential problems to just one that I feel best satisfies all five requirements. As part of this process, I want to better understand the problems, what’s been/being done, where the biggest opportunities are for improvement, and where I might realistically have an impact.
Deciding what to work on is both a challenge and a privilege.
I feel a powerful sense of responsibility to current and future generations to spend my time on things that will materially and sustainably improve their quality of life. There are many problems that need to be solved, but a much smaller subset of those that I feel I can meaningfully address given my interests and skills.
I also feel enormously privileged to have this choice. Most people don’t have much flexibility in how they spend their time. Even in the US—one of the richest countries in the world as measured by GDP per capita—78% of full-time workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, which leaves little room for career exploration, let alone taking time off from work to think and strategize. Through a combination of luck (e.g. being born into an upper middle class household with two loving and supportive parents) and effort (e.g. aggressively paying down debt and saving money over the past decade), I’ve found myself in this position and I’m determined not to take it for granted.