Practical Altruism

I’ve spent most of the past week reading books, scouring the web, thinking, tinkering, and talking with people. While I don’t yet have a definitive path forward, things are beginning to take shape.

After explaining to a friend what I’ve been up to, he recommended I check out the effective altruism movement. According to

Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

But it’s no use answering the question unless you act on it. Effective altruism is about following through. It’s about being generous with your time and your money to do the most good you can.

This really resonated with me and reaffirmed my desire to work on important problems. The Introduction to Effective Altruism provides a helpful framework for selecting a problem:

Working on a cause is likely to be high impact to the extent that it is:

  • Great in scale (it affects many people’s lives, by a great amount)
  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing the problem)
  • Highly solvable (additional resources will do a great deal to address it)

After a few days of going deeper on some of the areas I mentioned in my last post, I began to feel the weight of my decision to tackle really big problems. The more I dug into topics like climate change, extreme poverty, and philanthropy, the more anxious I felt about picking the “right” problem. I felt that maybe I was straying too far from what I already know—too far to have much of an impact.

The effective altruism article does speak to “personal fit” later on, but it’s almost a footnote:

When you donate to a charity, your personal attributes don’t affect the value of your donation. But when it comes to choosing a career, your personal fit with a job is very important. This doesn’t mean that you should just follow the standard career advice, and “follow your passion”. Passion is much less important than you might think. But it is important to find a job that you excel at…

To me, the notion of personal fit is so important that it deserves a fourth spot in the list above. It doesn’t matter how great the scale, how neglected the problem, or how solvable it is if it’s not something that aligns with the skills and interests of the person working on it. As with any good startup pitch, it’s critical to have a good answer to the question of “Why me?” (in addition to “Why now?”).

Later in the week, I read Paul Graham’s 2012 essay How to Get Startup Ideas. I recommend reading the entire essay, but the following excerpt sums it up nicely:

The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not “think up” but “notice.” At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences “organic” startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.

That may not have been what you wanted to hear. You may have expected recipes for coming up with startup ideas, and instead I’m telling you that the key is to have a mind that’s prepared in the right way. But disappointing though it may be, this is the truth. And it is a recipe of a sort, just one that in the worst case takes a year rather than a weekend.

If you’re not at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you can get to one. For example, anyone reasonably smart can probably get to an edge of programming (e.g. building mobile apps) in a year. Since a successful startup will consume at least 3-5 years of your life, a year’s preparation would be a reasonable investment. Especially if you’re also looking for a cofounder.

This is exactly what I needed to hear. It confirmed a sense that I was rushing into tackling problems that fall far outside my previous experience, and that a better strategy would be to gradually educate myself on these topics, and to allow related business ideas to reveal themselves naturally over time.

It also caused me to revisit some ideas closer to my existing skills and interests, which I had previously written off as “not big enough.” There’s a middle ground between tinkering with silly side projects and eliminating extreme poverty.

Going forward, I’m planning to pursue “practical altruism”, which I’ll define as answering one simple question: how can we use our previous experiences, unique skills and interests to help others the most?