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Smart, (young), ambitious and clueless -- what to do to maximize goodness?

6 Post author: Caesium 14 July 2011 04:06PM

You're smart, want to help the world and are willing to work hard. You have no serious ties such as children or a marriage that would prevent you from making serious changes to your life, and you are willing to place others needs ahead of your own hedonistic desires. Given this, what should you do?

Should you aim to get involved personally with causes you feel passionately about? You can have greater control over your contribution if you do this, but can you achieve the most good in this way? Should you operate at a meta-level, such as by trying to convince other people to change their charitable giving, attempting to influence government policy, or by raising awareness of existential risks, or should you try and directly tackle the problems facing the world -- such as by donating money yourself, or by tackling open problems in friendly AI?

Once you've figured out what to do, you still have to find a way to support yourself, and fund any organizations or projects you wish to support. You could work for an existing organization active in the area that you are interested in - bearing in mind that ones contribution will only be the benefit of hiring you rather than the next-best guy. Or you could work in a completely unrelated job, and work part-time on the cause you are interested in; this is a route followed by many open source developers, e.g. the prolific Fabrice Bellard. Alternatively, you could aim to earn as much money as possible, and use this money to fund causes or projects you are interested in; this is the route followed by Jeff Hawkins, who founded Palm, Inc. in order to fund AI and neuroscience research, as well as notable philantropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

The problem is a simple one: how should one lead ones life in order to maximize the positive impact it has on others? There is an ample amount of data to draw from, such as charity rankings by GiveWell, salary data and personal experience. If rationality has any real-world benefits, then a discussion amongst rationalists should make it possible for substantially better decisions to be made than would otherwise be the case.

References

Existential Risk Reduction Careers Network

Thiel Fellows

Income and happiness (Wikipedia)

Cost effectiveness of aid (GiveWell)

Comments (40)

Comment author: [deleted] 14 July 2011 08:17:41PM 7 points [-]

If I were to try to give an ambitious young aspiring rationalist advice, I would say Step 1 is that it's important to be aware of how your mind works.

And since I'm advising you to be aware of how your mind works, I would say the first thing to be aware of is how your mind works when you are focusing on being aware of how your mind works. For instance, when you spend time thinking about how to do things, are you aware of the fact that while you do that you are training yourself to spend time thinking about things?

Depending on your circumstances, it's entirely possible this is a good thing (if you think you don't spend ENOUGH time thinking about things) or a bad thing (if you think you spend TOO MUCH time thinking about things). But either way, being aware that your mind is trainable feels like an exceptionally important fact to be aware of.

I would say Step 2 is that since you want to "maximize the positive impact your life has on others." I would try thinking of that as a procedure and doing it repeatedly to try training it. So today, go and positively impact someone else's life. Then tomorrow, go and positively impact someone ELSE's life, and try to do it a little better than you did the previous day. Or try to cause a positive impact on more people's lives. I do want to note that if you pick the same person every day, you'll may realize you've trained yourself to positively impact THEIR life, and not everyone's. This is fine, and if you do this, good for you, but this isn't what you said you wanted.

Now, at some point, you may find yourself stuck. After all, training for continual improvement is difficult. Maybe you've figured out how to make 100 different people happy at the soup kitchen every day, and you've done that for months and you think "You know, I feel like I could be EVEN MORE useful... but I'm not sure of how." Then that would be a good time to come back for advice. But right now I would recommend seizing the day and grabbing the low hanging positive impact fruit.

As a possible example of low hanging fruit if you need a sample idea for a task that might work for basic positive impact training 101, I recommend giving blood/plasma platelets. It works well as an introductory to helping people for several reasons.

1: It saves lives. 2: There are snacks. 3: Sometimes, there are prizes. 4: It can be added to almost any positive impact program. If for instance, you decide to work on raising millions of dollars for the SIAI... You can generally do that, and give blood/plasma/platelets as well. It just doesn't take much time or effort either, and you can even spend time in the donation center thinking about how you can boost your positive impact higher. In fact, if the center has Wi-fi, you could even be posting in this thread and continuing the discussion.

Comment author: Caesium 14 July 2011 08:57:11PM 3 points [-]

Thanks, this sounds like good advice -- I've been concentrating a lot on what external actions I should take, and not on what actions I can take to change myself, but those are at least as important.

I've shunned clich├ęd things like volunteering at a soup kitchen since they seem to me to be quite low impact activities compared to things such as the SIAI, but they might have a larger impact on my self identity than donations to charities, which I've neglected to consider.

Comment author: Caesium 14 July 2011 04:55:47PM *  7 points [-]

Well, I'm new here, but I thought I might as well just try it. As far as I can tell, a large segment of LessWrong readers are highly interested in philanthropy, especially existential risk reduction. Given this, there seems to have been surprisingly little discussion as to how to best lead ones life to maximize its positive impact.

Whilst there has been some discussion with regard to selecting between charities, I have seen almost no discussion on choosing between careers, or on how to structure ones life more generally. If the type of rationality taught on this site is to be widely applicable, then it should be able to be applied to such situations successfully.

Whilst obviously these choices are highly individual, I nevertheless think that a group effort should be able to shed some light on the problem. In particular, the standard to beat is quite low -- most people have only very limited knowledge of the careers they go into, and make their decision with only limited analysis. It is even rarer for people to seriously consider what actions they can do to maximise the impact they have on the world, although many people choose careers nominally in order to help people.

Whilst I don't want this post to be about myself, here are a few details about myself: I'm just about to enter university (the university is generally considered to be somewhere amongst the top 10 in the world, and is certainly in the top 4 in my country, the UK) to read Mathematics. I believe that, given my aptitudes, I am best able to make a positive impact on the world by attempting to maximize the money I earn, and donating that. I am undecided between existential risk reduction and more ordinary causes. I don't subscribe to any formal moral system, but my feelings are quite closely aligned with preference utilitarianism. I'm unsure on how much money I should donate, but feel that in the long term I should certainly aim to donate any money I earn whose consumption would not serve to further increase my happiness. If anyone wants more details about my personal situation, feel free to PM me.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 14 July 2011 06:16:36PM *  7 points [-]

I believe that, given my aptitudes, I am best able to make a positive impact on the world by attempting to maximize the money I earn, and donating that.

I'm curious how you came to that belief. For example one possible way might be something like:

For maximum efficiency, altruists should divide up into "donors" and "doers". We need X donors to support each doer. In order to decide whether I should be a donor or doer, I should compare my (expected) ratio of money-making ability to [whatever ability is needed to be a doer] with others, and aim to be a donor if my ratio is among the top X/(X+1) fraction of all altruists.

Or is it more like:

It seems that currently there are many people wanting to be "doers" but few wanting to be "donors", as a result of which the marginal utility of my becoming a donor is higher than the marginal utility of becoming a doer (even if in a first-best world I would be a doer instead).

Or perhaps:

Eliezer's plan of building FAI in a basement with a dozen or so geniuses is basically sound. I'm pretty sure I'm not qualified to be one of those FAI builders or their support staff, so I should be a donor instead.

Or something else? (I'm not sure if you've given the question that much thought, or if you just went with instinct, but if it's the former, explaining your thought process might help others make the same decision.)

Comment author: Caesium 14 July 2011 08:31:42PM 4 points [-]

I believe that, given my aptitudes, I am best able to make a positive impact on the world by attempting to maximize the money I earn, and donating that. I'm curious how you came to that belief.

I arrived at the belief primarily instinctively, and am not particularly confident in it; I'd be happy to revise it on the basis of any more data I receive.

My rational is, roughly, that most adequately funded philanthropic organisations have no difficulties attracting talent, and sot the number of "doers" is determined primarily by demand-side factors. Therefore, by becoming a doer, I would be preventing another would-be doer from attaining a job. Whilst it's possible that this person would go on and contribute in other ways, such as by being a donor, I think it's very likely that they would not (most people seem to be strongly attracted to personally making a difference.)

Therefore, were my becoming a "doer" to have a positive impact, I would have to do such a better job than the person who has been displaced by me, that it would outweigh the loss of donations that I would otherwise have made. Whilst it would probably would be true that I would be more capable than the person who has lost out on getting a job because of me (supply growing should result in the least-capable losing out most), I don't believe that I have any major advantage over other people.

Whilst there seems to be no shortage of talented people looking for non-profit jobs, there is always a shortage of money, and my donating would be unlikely decrease anyone else's donations. So, I feel this is the more effective option.

I think I'm partly also influenced by a heuristic I sometimes use, that of avoiding what seems to be the easy option out. Most people seem to want to be intimately involved with the causes they help, yet there seems to be little justification for this, so I feel compelled to do the opposite. However, it occurs to me that I might in fact be attracted to the status and other benefits of high-paying jobs, so this may be just a rationalization.

I'm much less confident of this conclusion now than when I began writing this comment, which I think is probably a good thing. I'd be interested to hear arguments from people who've come to opposing conclusions to me.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 15 July 2011 07:21:56AM *  2 points [-]

Whilst there seems to be no shortage of talented people looking for non-profit jobs, there is always a shortage of money, and my donating would be unlikely decrease anyone else's donations. So, I feel this is the more effective option.

That's probably a safe assumption to make in most charitable fields, but not in existential risk reduction. For example, there are not enough qualified candidates for the position of FAI programmer, or to lead the project that Nesov recently suggested.

Compare the following hypothetical scenarios:

  1. There are qualified candidates for an FAI team ready to go, just waiting for sufficient financial resources.
  2. SIAI gets a $1 billion donation tomorrow, but has nobody to hire.

Which is easier to remedy? I suspect 1, because people like Peter Thiel can probably be persuaded to donate significantly more money if only they thought FAI had a more realistic chance of success.

Come to think of it, your main comparative advantage is that you're young. There are plenty of people in the world who can be donors, but not too many who have realized, at an age like yours, that they should think strategically about how to change the future. Having such a realization can be compared to winning the lottery. It may be that you should aim to be a donor after all, but to do so without thinking very carefully about whether you can specialize in an area that the future will really need, would be to throw away the winning ticket instead of cashing it.

(ETA: The above assumes that the main thing that a young person can do that others can't (or can't do as well) is to become a specialist that the future will need badly. But perhaps there are others?)

Comment author: Wei_Dai 15 July 2011 07:36:53AM 6 points [-]

I have seen almost no discussion on choosing between careers, or on how to structure ones life more generally

Not sure if you've already seen them, but here are a few posts that might be relevant:

Comment author: Maurus 14 July 2011 08:47:39PM *  2 points [-]

On Marginal Revolution there was, about a year ago, similar discussion

Lots of concrete ideas, some of them even practical...

Comment author: Maurus 14 July 2011 09:16:58PM 2 points [-]

IMHO, better question would be: how can dumb, unambitious and completely ordinary person help the world?

Imagine average person, with average intelligence (this means, by standards of this site, dumber then bag of hammers) and average ability, willpower and dedication. Someone who will not sacrifice or unnecessarily endanger his life, someone who will not spend the rest of his life in Africa helping the lepers, someone who will not live on bread and water to give everything to worthy cause, someone who will not give up even six pack of beer and bag of donuts to save life of starving African child :-(

But nevertheless someone who wants to make the world a better place. Any ideas?

Comment author: Vaniver 14 July 2011 11:55:52PM 5 points [-]

Put them in a capitalist system where they have to bargain fairly for goods and services that satisfy their desires. The rest will take care of itself.

Comment author: Desrtopa 15 July 2011 12:16:46AM 2 points [-]

The fact that so many problems already fail to be taken care of by this system indicates otherwise. It's entirely practical to operate in a capitalist system without producing wealth. As long as you produce profits, you don't have to concern yourself with the possibility that negative externalities are rendering your operations wealth negative.

Comment author: Vaniver 15 July 2011 12:25:54AM *  2 points [-]

I am presuming that the individual in question "wants" to make the world a better place in that they get warm fuzzies if their neighbors think better of them and get offended when you ask them about trade-offs- because they're really not willing to trade off all that much. I'm also comparing capitalist systems to non-capitalist systems, where interactions between people are much more zero-sum (but not entirely so). Making almost all interactions positive-sum does an amazing amount to improve the world and works with average people.

[edit] Now, you could argue that those gains already exist (in the developed world) and that if they want to make the world a better place than it is now, they can't just institute capitalism again. I would argue in turn that the developed world has strayed pretty far from capitalism and a lot could be done to bring it back, and that they also have the option of moving to the developing world and making it more capitalist.

Comment author: Desrtopa 15 July 2011 04:01:16AM 0 points [-]

I would argue in turn that the developed world has strayed pretty far from capitalism and a lot could be done to bring it back

In what respects would you say that the developed world has strayed from capitalism that it suffers for?

I'm extremely skeptical of the idea that "almost all" interactions in capitalist systems tend to be positive sum. Of course, my area of study (environmental science) is one where examples of negative sum interactions crop up on a continual basis, so I may be biased by exposure, but I think economists tend to be more optimistic about the positive influence of free markets than evidence warrants.

Comment author: Torben 16 July 2011 03:18:45PM 1 point [-]

China should be the best example of what even moderate levels of capitalism can do.

The Communist bloc aren't know for their environmentally-friendly outcomes or even policies.

Comment author: Desrtopa 16 July 2011 04:16:55PM *  -1 points [-]

They're not, but I never said that Communism does well, only that Capitalism doesn't do as well as it's given credit for.

Comment author: AlexM 16 July 2011 07:40:39PM -1 points [-]

If China is moderate capitalism, one shudders how would extreme one looks like...

Comment author: Torben 17 July 2011 09:43:17AM *  -1 points [-]

Well, moderate as in they don't have rule of law etc. What I meant to say was that even this level of capitalism has worked wonders in dragging hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Contrary to decades of Western foreign aid.

Comment author: wedrifid 15 July 2011 05:44:11PM 1 point [-]

Put [dumb unambitious folks] in a capitalist system where they have to bargain fairly for goods and services that satisfy their desires.

This is a good strategy.

The rest will take care of itself.

But here is where I disagree. It is up to the smart, ambitious and motivated to direct and harness the capitalist system and the dumb people's desires in such a way that they can achieve their own desires. Including those that happen to be altruistic.

Comment author: Torben 16 July 2011 03:20:21PM *  1 point [-]

It is up to the smart, ambitious and motivated to direct and harness the capitalist system and the dumb people's desires in such a way that they can achieve their own desires. Including those that happen to be altruistic.

You ignore that smart etc. people have to be able to distinguish between fuzzies and reality. Without a marketplace to weed out poor performers, this is wishful thinking.

I live in Europe...

Comment author: wedrifid 16 July 2011 03:26:39PM -1 points [-]

You ignore that smart etc. people have to be able to distinguish between fuzzies and reality. Without a marketplace to weed out poor performers, this is wishful thinking.

I'm not sure what position you are arguing against but I am sure it is not mine.

I live in Europe...

I live in Australia but am visiting Berkeley. I am not sure why this is relevant either.

Comment author: Torben 16 July 2011 03:45:16PM *  3 points [-]

I'm sorry me message didn't come across clearly. I can see it's not phrased well.

I'm immensely skeptical of the notion that clever people are needed to tell dumb people what to do to achieve what they want; to "harness the capitalist system". Mostly because so-called smart people have multiple other flaws that mainly stem from their not participating in or acknowledging the marketplace.

Many (public/social) intellectuals have such poor understanding of basic issues of economics, psychology and evolution that their prescribed cures worsen the ailment.

Which is why I mentioned Europe, a moribound continent which doesn't seem to understand that it has to produce stuff to consume stuff and which appears to value appearances and 'ethical policies' over facing economic reality.

Save for problems regarding the tragedy of the commons, I see little hope for centralized harnessing by clever people. I see socialism as the economic variant of creationism: the notion that good, complex things cannot arise without central planning.

Caveat lector: I'm reading Atlas Shrugged right now.

Comment author: AlexM 16 July 2011 07:34:54PM 1 point [-]

I'm immensely skeptical of the notion that clever people are needed to tell dumb people what to do to achieve what they want

Every system ever devised consists of smart people telling the dumb ones what to do. Even in feudal society with hereditary rule, the thicker-than-brick kings were manipulated by smart barons and courtiers :-P

Caveat lector: I'm reading Atlas Shrugged right now.

Generalization from fictional evidence

Comment author: Torben 17 July 2011 09:41:48AM *  3 points [-]

Every system ever devised consists of smart people telling the dumb ones what to do. Even in feudal society with hereditary rule, the thicker-than-brick kings were manipulated by smart barons and courtiers :-P

I'd venture capitalism less so than other systems. At least dumb people to some extent get what they want in capitalism. But of course, this is one aspect of nature that's very difficult to remedy and I worry that the cure is worse than the ailment

Caveat lector: I'm reading Atlas Shrugged right now.

Generalization from fictional evidence

I meant it as an explanation of my current dismal perspective, not as evidence of anything. Sorry if it didn't come across right.

Comment author: wedrifid 16 July 2011 04:01:01PM 0 points [-]

I'm immensely skeptical of the notion that clever people are needed to tell dumb people what to do to achieve what they want; to "harness the capitalist system".

You 'harness the capitalist system' by participating in it, selling stuff, acquiring resources and exchanging those resources to achieve your goals. (And those goals can be selfish, altruistic or as arbitrary and nonsensical as you please.)

I see little hope for centralized harnessing by clever people

That is the position that I was "sure was not mine".

I say the marketplace and the economic engine behind it are out there, ready and waiting to be exploited by anyone with the ambition and competence to do so. It is a tool which can be used to translate whatever comparative advantage you have into the most efficient goal-maximisation that you can manage.

Comment author: Torben 16 July 2011 04:06:57PM 0 points [-]

Sorry for jumping to conclusions.

I took "harness the capitalist system and the dumb people's desires in such a way that they can achieve their own desires" as a paternalistic statement.

Comment author: wedrifid 16 July 2011 04:13:04PM *  1 point [-]

I took "harness the capitalist system and the dumb people's desires in such a way that they can achieve their own desires" as a paternalistic statement.

Nope, just Machiavellian. ;)

Comment author: wedrifid 15 July 2011 05:09:30PM 0 points [-]

IMHO, better question would be: how can dumb, unambitious and completely ordinary person help the world?

Probably not. Caesium was asking the question because it is relevant to himself. He isn't dumb unambitious and completely ordinary person.

Comment author: Vaniver 14 July 2011 06:40:57PM -1 points [-]

The use of "you" in this post is more than a little tiresome. It's not until your fourth paragraph that you use the word 'one,' and I find it somewhat amusing that's the sentence you switched during. Are you not willing to explicitly delegate others to service, or you think it sounds better if you passively include yourself?

Are you actually willing to work hard? Perhaps you could prove it by cleaning up the issue tracker.

Comment author: Caesium 14 July 2011 08:37:37PM 4 points [-]

I'm willing to work hard, but I'd prefer to demonstrate that by completing a task that would have a benefit besides a gain in social status amongst people on the Internet, such as by completing relevant academic work and gaining internships in fields I'm interested in.

Comment author: jsteinhardt 14 July 2011 07:49:39PM 2 points [-]

I'm not sure what this would accomplish from his perspective. Cleaning up the issue tracker is (probably) not the best use of his time, unless I'm missing something.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 15 July 2011 09:30:43AM 1 point [-]

"Make as much money as possible" could probably use some unpacking.

For example, if you go for maximum possibility of a big win, you could also be increasing the odds of making little or nothing. Acceptable?

A more complex question is what's the most money you could make in some way which would have a high probability of making the world a better place?

Comment author: Caesium 15 July 2011 08:06:07PM 0 points [-]

It's acceptable provided that I can accurately measure the outcome. So, I would be willing to e.g. participate in a business venture with payoff (if succesful) of x and known probability p of succeeding provided p*x is better than any other options I have; however, if p is highly uncertain, then I'm wary of it -- I don't trust my judgement, I think it's too easy to be overconfident. I think I could develop a better attitude about risk, however.

Comment author: VManuel 14 July 2011 05:45:00PM 1 point [-]

I think you're on the right track, Caesium. I've arrived at 41 years with a dynamic 25-year plan ahead of me, and I would suggest that you spend some time spreading yourself among very different activities and causes for at least four years, then consolidate your time into what you enjoy most. You will find that not all charitable organizations are equal, and there will be some causes (whether charitable or not) that really grab you by the short hairs and demand your attention. Think of it rather like the second run at your school life - you start with as wide a net as possible, gradually close in on what you're good at or you enjoy, then focus on what works best for you. The benefit of your schooling will allow you the luxury of choosing your path in life, but make certain that you've at least taken a peek down the others before you go too far. Lastly, I believe the desire to make money for the purpose of donating it is fairly recent. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation was created at Melinda's behest well after Bill had achieved more wealth than any nerd imagined. I'm definitely not knocking it, as I myself donate to PBS and am on the board of several charitable organizations. The goal of making money to donate money is a trend that I believe speaks very well of the future of humanity as a whole.

Comment author: Vaniver 15 July 2011 12:08:26AM 3 points [-]

Lastly, I believe the desire to make money for the purpose of donating it is fairly recent.

I suppose, but "America" recent rather than "Internet" recent. Carnegie's Dictum is relevant, as is Wesley's sermon The Use of Money, delivered in 1744. Those are just the two that I'm familiar with off the top of my head; it would not surprise me to see prominent figures from earlier with similar plans.

Comment author: Multiheaded 15 July 2011 07:47:27PM 0 points [-]

Me, I seriously have to make my brains a little more reliable before even considering a real career. To be honest, my concentration and willpower are so horrible, I failed two education routes after a year in each, and have now chosen the third (philosophy) pretty much because it sounds nice. Okay, well, I do feel some inclination for this field (and maybe even dream of cutting through some of the cognitive cobwebs stretching throughout it), but first I've got to find proper treatment and medication for my encephalopathy, as well as figure out techinques for dealing with its daily effects.

I keep telling myself that a more practical knowledge base, a well-paying job suiting my needs, and donating to SIAI on a regular basis would be the best for me, but that's just not what I'm like.