📚 Overcoming the bullshit job fallacy

First Published: 2023-02-17

Earn to Give, and finding purpose in IT


As a student studying computer science in his third semester, I've had my fair share of setbacks and subsequent doubts regarding my career choice. I won't go into detail on the challenges I face, since I've already aired out my frustrations with college in a different article. What I want to do today is dispel a lie I tend to tell myself whenever things get tough. The lie goes something like this: "You won't make any positive impact on society as a programmer/sysadmin. Become a >insert social job here< instead, that job makes sense and helps people." Let me, for your amusement, list some of the jobs I've considered in such times of adversity: Nurse, prison guard, mortician, roofer, plumber. Don't get me wrong, every one of these jobs has self-evident purpose and wouldn't be pointless to pursue. But taking into account my large sunk cost in IT and my overall better fitness to this technical field, it quickly becomes a silly daydream.

Bullshit Jobs

The idea of a bullshit job, in it's most narrow definition, is a job that is completely superfluous and achieves nothing. Think receptionists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, diversity managers and most middle management. Problems arise when you extrapolate and extend the idea to encompass any job that contributes nothing to society at large. Such an exaggeration quickly turns into a fruitless critique of modernity and capitalism. Sure, the entire field of marketing has a large net-negative impact on society, but they do achieve something. It would be equally ridiculous to dismiss the entire IT industry just because facebook spies on it's users. If you find yourself in a job with net negative impact, as opposed to a net zero impact, you don't have a bullshit job, you have a bullshit employer.

Earn to Give

Now let me introduce you to the concept of Earn to Give. I've stumbled upon it on 80000hours, but in hindsight I'm a bit embarrassed to not have thought of this much sooner. The idea acknowledges that each social worker has some positive social impact, but notes that a high paying job can yield an even higher net-positive impact. This gives an alternative path to meaningful contribution for those of us who are better suited to a job that happens to pay well. Practitioners will consistently donate a large portion, often 10% or more, of their net income to charity.
Let's face it: As a programmer or sysadmin I'll likely be payed a handsome check and since I'm already donating about 5% of my net-income each month as a student it will be trivial to scale up.

At this point I'd like to encourage you to throw a couple of bucks to maintainers of open source software you use, especially if their product would be hard for you to replace. Additionally, I find the following nonprofits to be particularly valuable:

I hope you found this insightful and that, should you face similar challenges, you at least come up with better excuses for your lack of perseverance.

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