Dec 1, 2010
Most of us want to make the world a better place. But what should we do if we want to generate the most positive impact possible? It’s definitely not an easy problem. Lots of smart, talented people with the best of intentions have tried to end war, eliminate poverty, cure disease, stop hunger, prevent animal suffering, and save the environment. As you may have noticed, we’re still working on all of those. So the track record of people trying to permanently solve the world's biggest problems isn’t that spectacular. This isn’t just a “look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here next year”-kind of thing, this is more like “behold the trail of dead and dying who line the path before you, and despair”. So how can you make your attempt to save the world turn out significantly better than the generations of others who've tried this already?
It turns out there actually are a number of things we can do to substantially increase our odds of doing the most good. Here's a brief summary of some on the most crucial considerations that one needs to take into account when soberly approaching the task of doing the most good possible (aka "saving the world").
1. Patch your moral intuition (with math!) - Human moral intuition is really useful. But it tends to fail us at precisely the wrong times -- like when a problem gets too big [“millions of people dying? *yawn*”] or when it involves uncertainty [“you can only save 60% of them? call me when you can save everyone!”]. Unfortunately, these happen to be the defining characteristics of the world’s most difficult problems. Think about it. If your standard moral intuition were enough to confront the world’s biggest challenges, they wouldn’t be the world’s biggest challenges anymore... they’d be “those problems we solved already cause they were natural for us to understand”. If you’re trying to do things that have never been done before, use all the tools available to you. That means setting aside your emotional numbness by using math to feel what your moral intuition can’t. You can also do better by acquainting yourself with some of the more common human biases. It turns out your brain isn't always right. Yes, even your brain. So knowing the ways in which it systematically gets things wrong is a good way to avoid making the most obvious errors when setting out to help save the world.
2. Identify a cause with lots of leverage - It’s noble to try and save the world, but it’s ineffective and unrealistic to try and do it all on your own. So let’s start out by joining forces with an established organization who’s already working on what you care about. Seriously, unless you’re already ridiculously rich + brilliant or ludicrously influential, going solo or further fragmenting the philanthropic world by creating US-Charity#1,238,202 is almost certainly a mistake. Now that we’re all working together here, let's keep in mind that only a few charitable organizations are truly great investments -- and the vast majority just aren’t. So maximize your leverage by investing your time and money into supporting the best non-profits with the largest expected pay-offs.
3. Don’t confuse what “feels good” with what actually helps the most - Wanna know something that feels good? I fund micro-loans on Kiva. It’s a ridiculously cheap way to feel good about helping people. It totally plays into this romantic story I have in my mind about helping business owners help themselves. And there’s lots of shiny pictures of people I can identify with. But does loaning $25 to someone on the other side of the planet really make the biggest impact possible? Definitely not. So I fund a few Kiva loans a month because it fulfills a deep-seated psychological need of mine -- a need that doesn’t go away by ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist. But once that’s out of the way, I devote the vast majority of my time and resources to contributing to other non-profits with staggeringly higher pay-offs.
4. Don’t be a “cause snob” - This one's tough. The more you begin to care about a cause, the more difficult it becomes not to be self-righteous about it. The problem doesn’t go away just because you really do have a great cause... it only gets worse. Resist the temptation to kick dirt in the faces of others who are doing something different. There are always other ways to help no matter what philanthropic cause you're involved with. And everyone starts out somewhere. 15 years ago, I was optimizing for anarchy. Things change. And even if they don't, people deserve your respect regardless of whether they want to help save the world or not. We're entitled to nothing and no one. Our fortunes will rise and fall based on our abilities, including the ability to be nice -- not the intrinsic goodness of our causes.
5. Be more effective - You know how sometimes you get stuck in motivational holes, end up sick all the time, and have trouble getting things done? That’s gonna happen to everyone, every now and then. But if it’s an everyday kind of thing for you, check out some helpful resources that can get you unstuck. This is incredibly important because the steps up until now only depended on what you believed and what your priorities were. But your beliefs and priorities won’t even get you through the day, much less help you save the world. You're gonna need to formulate goals and be able to act on them. Becoming more capable, more organized, more well-connected, and more motivated is an essential part of saving the world. Your goals aren’t going to just accomplish themselves the first time you “try”. If you want to succeed, you’ll likely have to fail a bunch first, and then try harder.
6. Spread awareness - This is a necessary meta-strategy no matter what you’re trying to accomplish. Remember, deep down, most people really do want to find a way to help others or save the world. They just might not be looking for it all the time. So tell people what you’re up to and if they want to know more, tell them that too. You shouldn’t expect everyone to join you, but you should at least give people a chance to surprise you. And there are other less obvious things you can do, like join networking groups for your cause or link to the website of your favorite cause a lot from your blog and other sites where they might not be mentioned quite so much. That way, they can consistently turn up higher in Google searches. Or post this article on Facebook. Some of your friends will be happy you shared it with them. Just saying.
7. Give money - Spreading awareness can only accomplish so much. Money is still the ultimate meta-tool for accomplishing everything. There are millions of excuses not to give, but at the end of the day, this is the highest-leverage way for you to contribute to that already high-leverage cause that you identified. And don’t feel like you’re alone in finding it difficult to give. Most people find it incredibly difficult to give money -- even to a cause they deeply support. But even if it’s a heroically difficult task, we should still aspire to achieve it... we’re trying to save the world here, remember? If this were easy, someone else (besides Petrov) would have done it already.
8. Give now (rather than later) - I’ve seen fascinating arguments that it might be possible to do more good by investing your money in the stock market for a long time and then giving all the proceeds to charity later. It’s an interesting strategy but it has a number of limitations. To name just two: 1) Not contributing to charity each year prevents you from taking advantage of the best tax planning strategy available to you. That tax-break is free money. You should take free money. Not taking the free money is implicitly agreeing that your government knows how to spend your money better than you do. Do you think your government’s judgment and preferences are superior to yours? and; 2) Non-profit organizations can have endowments and those endowments can invest in securities just like individuals. So if long term-investment in the stock market were really a superior strategy, the charity you’re intending to give your money to could do the exact same thing. They could tuck all your annual contributions away in a big fat, tax-free fund to earn market returns until they were ready to unleash a massive bundle of money just like you would have. If they aren’t doing this already, it’s probably because the problem they’re trying to solve is compounding faster than the stock market compounds interest. Diseases spread, poverty is passed down, existential risk increases. At the very least, don’t try to out-think the non-profit you support without talking to them - they probably wish you were donating now, not just later.
9. Optimize your income - Do you know how much you should be earning? Information on salaries in your industry / job market could help you negotiate a pay raise. And if you’re still in school, why not spend 2 hours to compare the salaries of the different careers you’re interested in? Careers can last decades. Degrees take 4-6 years to complete. Make sure you really want the kind of salaries you’ll be getting and you know what it will be like to work in your chosen industry. Even if you’re a few years into a degree program, changing course now is still better than regretting not having explored other options later. Saving the world is hard enough. Don’t make it harder on yourself by earning below market wages or choosing the wrong career to begin with.
10. Optimize your outlays - Cost of living can vary drastically across different tax districts, real estate markets, commuting methods, and other daily spending habits. It’s unlikely you ended up with an optimal configuration. For starters, if you don’t currently track your spending, I highly recommend you at least try out something light-weight like Mint.com so you can figure out where all your money is going. Remember, you don’t have to scrimp and sacrifice your quality of life to save money -- a lot of things can be less expensive just by planning ahead a little and avoiding those unnecessary “gotcha” fees. No matter what you want to do to improve the world, having more money to do it makes things easier.
11. Look into matching donations - If you’re gonna give money to charity anyway, you should see if you can get your employer to match your gift. I've done this before and know others who have too. Thousands of employers will match donations to qualified non-profits. When you get free money -- you should take it.
12. Have fun! - Don’t get so wrapped up trying to save the world that you sacrifice your own humanity. Having a rich, fulfilling personal life is a well-spring of passion that will only boost your ability to contribute -- not distract you. Trust me: you won’t be sucked into the veil of Maya and forget about your vow to save the world. So have a beer. Call up your best friend. Watch a movie that has absolutely no world-saving side-benefits whatsoever! You should do whatever it is that connects to that essential joy of being human and you should do it as often as you need; without apologies. Enough people sacrifice their lives without even realizing it -- don’t sacrifice your own on purpose.