This is not a topic discussion but, rather, the story of how I found and became involved with the effective altruism movement. A similar but arguably better version is entitled “What You Really Learn in England” and can be found in the “Essays” section.
I first found EA when I was applying to colleges way back in late December and early January of 2012-2013. Amusingly enough, I was already accepted to Tulane and had a hefty $27,000 a year tuition break for some honors something, but I wasn’t sure I’d end up here so I continued to churn out applications anyway. I’m glad I did, because the application for one of my for-shits applications to George Washington University asked me a fairly mundane question that would change my life, at least for these past 11 months following that incident.
It asked me to name my role model. It’s a pretty normal question, I know, but I suppose I’d never really deified anyone enough to call them that. Loath to default to “my mother,” I remembered some guy vaguely from an ethics course I took with the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) that donated a large percentage of his income to charity and who everyone thought was kind of crazy. At the time of reading, so did I, but I guess he’d struck me as a sufficient enough role model that I’d try to find his real name via the internet, expecting digging around for my old class notes would be more difficult. So I intelligently Googled something to the effect of “guy who donates big percentage of income to charity” and up popped a Wikipedia article on Peter Singer, a moral philosopher from Oxford who, true to my Google search, donates a big percentage of his income to charity.
I’m honestly still not sure if he’s the person I’d read about in that article in 2011 – and should probably scrape around for that article when I’m home for the holidays – but he sure served his purpose. We have fairly synced ideologies except that his are far more developed along some line of logic whereas mine are/were based on piecemeal knowledge and intuition. Regardless, my interest piqued past a mere name on an application and I read through his page until I came across Giving What We Can, “an international society for the promotion of poverty relief inspired by Singer’s arguments” according to his article. I went to their website and, seeing the “Chat (Online)” bar at the bottom, start to talk with someone I would later get to know as my taskmaster and guide named Stephanie Crampin, an associate director at the time for GWWC and PhD student at Oxford.
The rest is history. I offered up my remote services and she gave me a couple of tasks which I have sometimes been able to complete. I wrote a couple of blog posts, one of which involved an interview with a researcher for Berkeley-based meta-analysis organization AidGrade while touring UC Berkeley that April, my first in-person encounter with, catch this, a real, live effective altruist. I got to know more people through formal email introductions and Facebook chats and, slowly but surely, began to be comfortable navigating the cluster of websites and memes attached to EA.
Or so I thought. I saw a post for a conference called the Effective Altruism Summit on the EA Facebook page and applied with little hope of success, only to go bonkers when my application was, indeed, accepted. For a week in July I stayed at Leverage Research headquarters, a large mansion in the Oakland hills that usually houses 17 zany psychological researchers… or something. Leverage is still a bit of mystery for those not working there. The conference showed me a side of the movement I’d never seen, the techy, rationality end associated with the Silicon Valley-ers who predominate there. I plunged head first into lectures on friendly artificial intelligence (AI), existential risk (x-risk), and anti-aging research. I took classes on the mind, rationality, and psychology as the key to unlocking human potential to address the direst of world problems. Much of what they discussed was low probability of occurrence or success but highly detrimental implications, a far cry from the tried and true crusade to help the absolute poor and factory farmed animals we so often see in “poverty porn.” By the end I wasn’t sure if I was on mental overdrive – as the youngest and undoubtedly least experienced – or ecstatic with the immensity of it all, but I left more confused than I came. Guess it really is true that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
I’ve managed to stay in touch with a couple of people from the conference and reach out to others now and again, but I’ll admit that my long-lasting networking may be subpar. What I did get out of it was a thick notebook of things I know I should be using to increase productivity yet irrationally rationalize not doing, and a lot of contacts willing to help me in the project I’m pursuing now: bringing EA to New Orleans.