Patrick McKenzie recently asked people to model those they respect and imagine how they'd answer, if asked, what problems they'd work on if they were optimizing for impact in the world.
I think this is a worthy question, and the responses are pretty bad, for a number of reasons, with the exception of the person answering about religion, who appears to have actually engaged their brain in response to the question rather than parrot a TechCrunch meme. It's not surprising to me this person appears to have a successful career in a field requiring insight into the broader world.
But to pick on someone who's seen similar career success, is in a position to give people advice about which problems to work on, and has a systematically bad answer (instead of a merely mistaken one, which is less interesting – what could we learn from correcting 'focus on making popcorn more delicious'? How certain are you that a low-calorie corn-based foodstuff isn't important to the future, and what would you learn from formalizing that intuition?), I think we should look at Dave McClure's answer. He's one of the most successful VCs out there and the founder of 500 Startups, so why is he so bad at this?
I'd like to say his answer isn't completely bad – I think water access policy could be better, but at the end of the day solutions might look more like 'where do we dump the extremely-high-salinity by-products of desalination when done at the scales the future needs?', not 'let's do international negotiation'. We're almost to the point where incentives will drive us to having salt dumps anyway, so I wouldn't say this is a top priority issue for personally making an impact. I hope there are good stewards managing these things, but stewardship should be notably for it's lack of massive impacts on things.
I also think his 'local issues' are things people already care a lot about and are trying to do well. Modern housing policy, for instance, is caused by insanely dedicated busy-bees imposing their will on others already. You aren't going to be able to turn that tide yourself, this area receives a ton of attention, and more attention has led to worse outcomes.
That's actually my concern with all of this list. They're all far too obviously maximized for impact already. All the trade-offs you could make have likely already happened, and some of them (like government and housing) demand consensus (as laws do), and we know that consensus doesn't exist. Do you want to be there when Dave McClure tells someone, a dedicated professional working to help homelessness every day, making less money than McClure accidentally forgets about, that if he really wanted to change everything, he'd go into your field? Do you think homelessness isn't a priority? Do you think there's some rank incompetence you can correct?
It's like he's forgotten the number one rule for firm creation: do something better than other people. That can be simple, like "provide decent pizza closer to people who live near this address". But if you're maximizing for impact, it stands to reason you'd see a relatively major gap in what is being provided versus the value that could exist in the system. That difference is literally the impact you'd be making – and obviously, you anticipate the biggest opportunities are ones that would be difficult to cash in on, which is why the solution hasn't been financed.
For what it's worth, I might answer, developing specific social and work structures for people wishing to choose what they ought to be motivated towards. We need society. We need the pushes and pulls of something, rooted in wisdom, to tell us what's important. It should be a calamity that people want fewer and fewer kids. Not long ago, even the most insanely money hungry plutocrat thought family was more important than money or convenience. But our money buys so much convenience that I fear we might be getting diverted away from wisdom, onto some other dopamine-driven local maximum where holding phones reduces people's anxiety and moving around the icons on your phone's home screen can materially improve your productivity.
Or less weirdly, I would invest in technology and culture around satisfaction. I see a lot of complacent and lonely people, starting few new firms, being reasonably wealthy but generally failing to produce or even consume interesting art. I think it'd be possible, in ten years, to get 10% more Americans not using cell phones on Saturday and spending time milling around with friends instead, with some moderate-creativity hobby, and I think this would dramatically impact the near and far term future of society.
This is something I think is very important, but critically to the format of the question, people empirically don't care. Investment in civic institutions has dropped quite a lot. I want Maker spaces to be like church – of course you'd spend at least half a day a week on it (~1/14 of your life), and ~1/10th of your money. The old institutions are hurting – I'm not sure why people suspect mega-churches are as useful as churches used to be, when it seems more like a concert than a civic forum, but those are what's stemming a pretty massive tide when you look at the numbers – and whether people know it yet, those institutions are important. It'll be a deeply sad day when we realized we were trying to use Twitch streamers to build community, when the answer – get people in a room with a common purpose – was pretty obvious all along.
As a side note, if I wanted to dabble in government intervention, I'd want to push something where there would be near-consensus and general costs but no specific cause or reason not to do it – something like limiting the size of a firm that can contract with the government to 100 employees, and just seeing what that causes. Having a massive number of small firms would have tons of intangible benefits, reduce needless bureaucracy, etc etc. But boy howdy would I not peg the US government as a path to making a big impact these days. What a strange idea that seems to motivate almost all answers I'm seeing.