The most important things in the world


#1

My tenuous Beeminder-related lead-in here is that Beeminder is all about making sure that your actions align with your fundamental life goals.

Richard Hamming famously asked, what are the important problems in your field and why aren’t you working on them? For that matter, what is the most important field to pursue and why aren’t you pursuing it? Or what is the most important issue for humanity right now and what are you doing about it?

I’ve been worrying about Trump lately and wondering if I should be doing more. My feeling is that the biggest problem with Trump is his rejection of climate science. Don’t guffaw, I mean in terms of impact to humanity. The other stuff is mostly about ruining America. Even scary/facepalmy stuff like Trump not understanding the game-theoretic significance of the nuclear weapons taboo has a better worst-case scenario than climate change.

So now I’m trying to take a step back and think about what I should care about most. I started making a list of humanity’s Most Important Issues but it got too long so maybe we can just talk about what we’re dedicating our lives to?

My answer is that I’m making a tool to make brilliant people more effective at their own goals. I’m also thinking a bit too much about this Trump thing and how I can help without distracting from where I have real leverage, namely Beeminder.


#2

Wow and here I’m just sitting around working for the man. :feelsbad: :smiley:


#3

I might be taking the name of this forum category too seriously! :slight_smile:

(It’s the “Life” category, for those just tuning in, or if I pointed you here from outside Beeminderland.)


#4

I’m not sure if I ever had grand aspirations to dedicate my life to improving the world in some way; I certainly don’t now. I find I spend less time worrying about things outside my zone of control, like Trump and national politics in general.

So for me the thing I care about most is living my life in a way that leads to my happiness and contentment, and of those around me. I’m thinking of happiness in more or less a classical Greek sense, valuing gaining knowledge and intellectually stimulating work leading to a sense of accomplishment more than accumulating things.

Working for the man as a computer programmer fits with this pretty well. It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent a lot of time working from e-commerce companies, given that making it easier for people to spend money getting consumer goods isn’t the best way to improve the world, but it is adding value. What I’m really doing is working in teams to on interesting problems, mentoring other people, and making it easier for other people to get their jobs done, and I value all those highly.


#5

I actually think I’m doing pretty well on this right now, though I’m also failing to make a real living doing it and suspect those facts aren’t unconnected.

I kinda think I am! The problem I’m working on can approximately be summed up as “Given that software is eating the world, how can we make the end result not just be shit?” (um, pun not intended but I’m going to leave it there anyway). I’m trying to make techniques for improving software quality mainstream.

It’d be going a lot better if I weren’t bad at business.

Probably politics. Lack of money and/or people skills and/or ability to cope with hating myself.

I’d like it to be political research into how to make better collective decisions, but the theory is so divorced from the practice that they’re not even on speaking terms and resort to sending eachother pointed barbs via the kids.

Climate change and/or global poverty (the two are hard to separate). I donate 10% of what I invoice to charity, split equally between Give Directly and Cool Earth.

I’d like to give more money to political lobbying to help with this and/or investing in renewables and desalination tech but I have failed to do the research to date.


#6

I got myself a B.A. in philosophy largely because of this question: what should I do?

While I’m tempted to dive into a fun discussion of ethics, consequentialism, and the like (and in fact deleted a couple of paragraphs of such), I’m going to limit this post to my personal experience.

My first career was very much geared towards doing the most good-- I was a full time activist on environmental, consumer protection, and money in politics issues throughout most of my twenties, into my thirties. It felt righteous and good, but it also made me miserable and I burnt out hard. Reasons included:

  • The expectation of insane hours for low pay, because the work was important.
  • I love policy but hate politics. Sausage making is indeed ugly.
  • Failure and/or lack of progress hurts ALOT when the stakes are so much higher than your own personal advancement. And like with most things, there are more losses than wins.
  • Even when I was working on issues I believed in 60-80 hours/week, I still spent a lot of time wondering if I was “doing the most good”.

Now, I work 35-40 hours per week in higher ed. It’s not evil by any stretch, but it’s certainly not righteous in the same way that being a climate change organizer is. But I’m not miserable and guilty all the time. And I have a family now, which really zeroed in my focus.

I dunno, I’m not sure if this is what you were curious about, but I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s easy to think that, say, climate change is the biggest problem so we should all be working on climate change. And sure, that’s undeniable, in a sense, but it leaves out a whole lot. Lately, I’m of the mind that you’ve got to start by finding things to do that don’t make you miserable, and that do some good (or at least aren’t actively, unequivocably doing harm) and try to worry less about doing “the most” good. But then again, that’s a position that meshes well with what I’m doing now, so take it with a grain of salt…

This is a good topic for smart people with a penchant for self improvement (i.e. the Beeminder user base), so, y’know, thanks!


#7

@mwalla, that was perfect! Can I see the paragraphs on meta-ethics and consequentialism? You can preface it with a big “PHILOSOPHY NERDS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT”. Kind of like what we do in blog posts like this one.


#8

I like that post, and it definitely highlights the value of the graphs. But I’ve done my own graphs before, and the vizualisation of a good ‘streak’ is a nice carrot, but it’s not a good stick- hence beeminder!

As to PHILOSOPHY NERDS ONLY-- The main reason I deleted the paragraphs is that they weren’t very good… but, I’ll see if I can take another crack at it sometime soon, because philosophy is fun!


#9

From my perch, with ten or so years experience watching the effects of ‘intervention’ in a foreign country (i.e. Afghanistan) at the receiving end, I find aid (in)effectiveness a really important one to work on. We spend so much on foreign countries, yet it is spent so inefficiently that even small improvements would offer significant human benefits to hundreds of thousands.

I also think figuring out the (coming) education crisis is something that we could start working on.

Of course, climate change and the tremendous changes afoot across the planet are also important, though I find it harder to see where best to intervene.

For all these things, I find it often more useful to see solutions in terms of stopping doing things that are actively harming people/other things, rather than in trying to come up with amazing new solutions. A do no harm philosophy requires less of us (barring moral courage, perhaps) and thus maybe is more feasible?


#10

I also think figuring out the (coming) education crisis is something that we could start working on.

I used to have a Beeminder goal that got me through a course on Coursera that I would probably not have gone through otherwise. So in some way @dreev is actually working on this he just doesn’t know it.

That said education is a double edged sword. The Haber–Bosch process is a chemical breakthrough in how we make ammonia, which is hugely important in food production as fertilizer, but it was also how Germany got a lot the ingredients to make weapons doing WWI.

More complex: whomever could have made Hitler a good enough artists to get into the Vienna arts school would have done the world a huge favour, whereas whomever thought him public speaking did more aggregate harm to the world, no matter what he did afterwards.

On average through I think the world would be worse of if it was deprived of Beeminder because @dreev would go into politics, since it is not that likely that @dreev would be able to do anything serious to prevent Trump from getting elected (I also don’t think Trump will be nearly as bad as most people fear, politicians change a lot when they get into office).

Personally I am not really doing anything to make the world a better place.


#11

+1ing Effective Altruism. I give 10% (at least) of my income to highly effective charities, and have pledged to do so until I retire. I feel it’s almost the least I could do; it means that in the base case, one could save tens of lives (and potentially thousands of animal lives) without making much of a sacrifice.


#12

I’m a PhD student right now toiling in the literature mines, but I have my eye on some major goals. Literature gets dismissed all the time as being ‘irrelevant’ but everyone I know has been fundamentally shaped as a person by the literature (construed broadly) that they experienced at formative ages. Except that everything about how literature happens in schools seems designed to prevent students from gaining any personal benefit from it whatsoever.

Literature can also ameliorate the instinctive “us vs them” process of mental categorization by expanding our definition of “us”, and can serve as proof that it is possible to think differently. Default approaches to teaching literature also dull all of this potential. So, I think rebuilding our relationship to the literary canon is one of the most important problems.

(I happen to be specializing as a “Digital Humanist,” meaning I use undergraduate CS techniques on large corpora of texts, awe my profs, and rake in big research grants, but I actually don’t feel strongly that computational research is a critical challenge in the field.)

Anyway, I’m working on it. Check in in 15, 20 years; I should be an associate or full prof with some monographs under my belt, starting to kick up a really big fuss.


#13

These responses are so good. Thanks especially @henryaj for linking to Giving What We Can. There’s also Founder’s Pledge.

@oulfis, are you beeminding progress on your PhD? It makes me so happy to hear about that, like with @strickvl and @byorgey. We highlighted Brent in our last press roundup and would love to have more blog posts about things like that, if anyone’s interested.

PS: I see from this other thread that that’s an emphatic yes from @oulfis. Melt!


#14

(I’ll be writing up my PhD tools in a long-ish blogpost coming somewhat-soon. BM to have a prominent role).


#15

If it would make sense to crosspost it on the Beeminder blog, or post an excerpt there, or whatever you think would make sense… Beeminder blog readers would eat that up – including the less Beeminder-related parts.


#16

(I’m extremely keen to learn from your example… Coursework and comps are well-defined hoops to jump through, but independence looms!)


#17

My blog will be posted out on Monday afternoon EST. Nothing too long/in-depth, though. Just some examples of how I used BM in my PHD work, and what I found to be the useful parts of that.


#18

Here you go.


#19

The question of “What can I do for the world and how should I do it?” hangs over me a lot of days. Although thinking about the Circle of Concern/Circle of Influence model helps me get away from idle anxiety, but can also compound the frustration.

In the end, I think I’m probably still going to prioritize pursuing my own idiosyncratic goals, and fulfilling social obligations (to my family, friends, and large community). Then, it’s a question of how I can also align those efforts – or at least balance it – with contributing to something really meaningful for the good world.

Like a lot of other people, I’m still clumsily trying to figure out the first part, the “me” side, let alone the part about hard problems and global utility.

I think 80,000 hours is great resources for those in career transition who are looking to better align their efforts/interests with something that will have positive impact.

Even though the folks who started this are acquaintances I respect, I avoided their guides for a long time. I thought it was just going to end up telling me that I should just go work the highest paying full time job at the nearest, richest STEM MegaCorp. I thought it would just tell me to work there for the rest of my life, and donate as much as possible.

But it was wrong for me to presume that. All the advice I’ve seen there and from the EA folks in general is about maximizing your contribution along with your sense of career and personal fulfillment. 80,000 hours doesn’t focus entirely on people following traditional career paths, either. They have analysis that applies to entrepreneurs and social organizers, too.

So that’s one thing to look at.

In another approach, we can start with the problem and ask: okay, what kind of things could we really use in the world that could give us a fighting chance of solving this problem?

Bret Victor wrote an amazing article trying to analyze what a technologist can do about climate change.

I don’t have enough expertise to know how much he’s gotten right, but gosh darn it if this isn’t the kind of approach we should be trying more often, for other challenges.

I think a key thing here is if we’re going to do things that have a big impact, we probably can’t do it alone. Even if we find a way to do something meaningful all by ourselves, for the really hard problems, we’ll still need to coordinate with others to address the problem systematically. But in most cases, there’ll at least be some team or community involved. At the very least we’ll incorporate ideas that originally came from others.

And that part scares me sometimes, because it opens the door for me, personally, not being qualified. Even if I know I have some kind of comparative advantage, I still worry about being able to use it to move in the right direction.

I think trying to help shape the most important things in the world entails a fair amount of risk. And that’s part of the reason a lot of otherwise good people don’t really think about what they can do very much. I don’t lose respect for people who just want to do their best in their own lives for the time being. That is plenty hard enough.

I’d say acknowledging how hard it can be is part of the work as well. Maybe acknowledging our limitations might be a co-requisite to understanding the details of the problem itself. I find it helps me take things more seriously, and it helps me better discern where the border of concern vs. influence lies, and how I can go about expanding my own influence, or help others do the same.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’m still working this out myself, piece by piece and error by error – and probably will be for the rest of my life.