I recently quit my investment banking analyst job earning $180k a year to join an impact investing non-profit where I’m earning a typical junior-level nonprofit salary.
Surprisingly, it did not take me long to sign the offer letter after I received it. This wasn’t because I thoroughly thought through all the implications of such a career move during the recruiting process. This was because I felt like I could not take another day in banking in which the only guaranteed time off work was 9 pm Friday to 9 am Sunday. More importantly, I felt like staying in such a job or even moving to another standard corporate job was utterly meaningless and unfulfilling.
I didn’t always care about meaning and fulfillment. In fact, I really didn’t care about that at all through college. What I cared about then was being someone in society’s eyes, which in my mind meant attending a prestigious college and securing a respectable job in investment banking after graduating.
It’s not entirely clear to me exactly how my need to be respected and admired transitioned to something less self-obsessed. I would guess it was the gradual realization growing up that I was still worthwhile even if I didn’t garner certain accolades. This I would largely attribute to the mostly wholesome relationships and friendships in my life of which I’ve been fortunate to have been a part. Another thing is that, despite my vain focus on external perceptions, I have always had the tendency to ponder about why I existed in this world and what my purpose was.
Of course, there is no objective answer to one of the grandest questions of human existence (aside from 42). However, after I perused through multiple self-help, positive psychology, and philosophical books, a common thread I found in all of them along with the message that resonated the most with me was to contribute to something beyond myself. After this exercise, I naturally came to the conclusion that my personal purpose was to have a positive impact on the world.
Now, this is not to say that I think bankers don’t have a positive impact on the world. Honestly speaking, I don’t know if they do. Throughout my time in banking, I have talked to bankers who truly believe that they are making the world a better place by helping the biggest and most promising companies in the world provide invaluable and innovative services. I have also talked to other bankers who are motivated by their powerful role of advising the most influential executives and helping disrupt huge industries.
As someone who has viewed the most pressing problems of society, though, as those afflicting the most disadvantaged populations, I didn’t believe banking, where I was dealing with some of the most well-off people and businesses in the world, was where I could make the impact that is the most meaningful to me. The impact investing nonprofit I joined, which invests in enterprises providing water to communities in El Salvador undergoing a drinking water crisis and healthcare to the uninsured in Los Angeles, is a lot more aligned with my values.
Nevertheless, as it was difficult for me to drink the Kool-Aid in banking, I now think about whether working in impact investing is the most effective way for me to do good in the world. As I seek answers to this conundrum, I have somewhat familiarized myself with a movement called effective altruism (EA) that attempts to do exactly what its name indicates.
When I first looked into EA, I was impressed by its research-oriented and impartial approach to altruism. It advocates for unconventional ideas like going into impact areas that are currently lacking talent to maximize your personal impact and sustaining a high-earning career, even if it’s socially neutral, so that you can donate substantial amounts of money to high-impact causes. I believe its analytical approach to doing good is an asset to the global altruistic community that may have biases to causes that most emotionally appeal to them rather than to more pressing matters.
Researching EA was also how I started thinking more critically about how impactful impact investing actually was. Some of the influential voices within EA have published skeptical pieces on impact investing. In these, they suggest impact investors expecting market-rate returns are most likely funding enterprises socially-neutral investors would’ve invested in anyways. If these investors want to create actual impact, they’d have better luck investing in untapped markets like those targeted by venture capital or those serving the poorest consumers. I also subsequently read more scholarly pieces on impact investing that echoed these views.
As much as I sing praises to EA, there are certain philosophical stances prevalent in the movement that give me pause. Central to the movement is a concept called longtermism that postulates that people in the far future are just as important as the people now, so we should prioritize solving long-term existential threats that are largely ignored by people today. True to this stance, effective altruism’s most recommended career is AI safety research to prevent the potentially catastrophic damage that AI could incur in the future.
While I agree that people could have a bigger impact than they otherwise could through solving issues ignored by the rest of society, these issues have to actually occur for there to be any impact. The issue with trying to predict the long-term is that ultimately, we’re still just predicting, however evidence-based these predictions may be. I am also not convinced that there are enough people working on issues that already exist to be able to solve them in time.
I am also troubled by EA’s proclivity toward elitism that suggests those who are the most “talented” are the most equipped to solve the world’s problems. I wonder if the estimated 76% white and 71% male EA demographic plays a role in why such a stance along with a philosophy like longtermism that is somewhat removed from current reality are popular in the community. Luckily, some effective altruists are seeking to address the lack of diversity.
Ultimately, as you may be able to tell, I have the tendency to continually question everything I’m a part of and encounter to ensure I’m doing the “right” thing. Realistically though, everything in life, especially grand questions like how I could do the most good in my life, is probably more complicated than I could even fathom. It is probably more effective for me, as someone who is very early in her career, to be grateful for the opportunities and resources I have been afforded and to learn as much as I can from them. This is so that I can most effectively make the positive impact I wish to make in my life. I hope to share some of my learnings and to collaborate with like-minded people along the way.