Getting the most bang for your charitable buck

I just received a mailer from Effective Altruism, via which I do a monthly donation to charity. The mailer asked me to rate from 1 to 10, with 1 being least likely and 10 being most, how likely I would be to recommend Effective Altruism to a friend. I gave it a 10.

And since we’re all friends here on… I recommend Effective Altruism if you’re looking to make your charitable dollar do as much as it can.

Effective Altruism is an organisation that’s, in their own words: about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

I first learned about them through a book called Doing Good Better (loved it; it absolutely changed the way I thought about giving – especially the part talking about the careers we ought to pick for maximum societal impact: should we pick the higher-paying career where we have little opportunity to positively impact society, e.g. an investment banker; or the lower-paying career where we can make a positive, direct impact on society, e.g. a social worker, or even doctor? The book argues that it is the former that we can do more good, if we direct the funds we earn to charitable causes).

Its basic premise is this: all charitable interventions should be scientifically tested to determine how effective they are, and money should only flow to those that are more effective.

The more good an intervention does for a given amount of money, the more effective it is deemed to be.

How much “good” an intervention does is determined by the amount of QALYs and WALYs. This is a very interesting concept that I’d not heard of before reading coming across Effective Altruism.

A QALY stands for “quality-adjusted life year”, defined as (from Wikipedia):

[A QALY] is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions. One QALY equates to one year in perfect health.

A WALY, on the other hand, stands for “well-being adjusted life year” (from US Institutes of Health website):

[A WALY] is a measure that combines life extension and health improvement in a single score, reflecting preferences around different types of health gain.

In essence, the amount of good relates to how much life and life improvement it brings. The benefit of of using QALYs and WALYs is that they are fungible, and are therefore able to act as very versatile measures of charitable intervention.  A little like good old money.

For example, if you want to take up a new job, it’s extremely convenient to start thinking about the benefits in terms of money, even when some of the benefits are non-monetary. If you get more vacation time, how much more is an extra day of vacation worth to you? If the working hours are less, and you are planning to spend this extra time with your kids, how much more is this worth to you? And so on.

It helps us make apples-to-apples comparisons between two very disparate things, like deworming vs. microfinance.

Effective Altruism thus looks at the quality of all interventions, and aims to focus funds toward interventions that are the most effective. And though it may not be perfect, I find that it gives me peace of mind.

It allowed me to finally get past paralysis by analysis, making me comfortable with giving more money than before.

I still do give to random strangers on the street because it feels good; but for regular and systematic giving, the kind that I think will do far more good, this will be my avenue of choice.

And to those who ask: Is this “too scientific”? Shouldn’t giving be from the heart?

My answer is: No to the first question; and yes to the second.

The science and experimentation behind Effective Altruism helps to ensure accountability – charities that are deemed ineffective tend to be ineffective for very good reasons, and every dollar given to an ineffective charity is one less dollar given to a more effective one. Why should less effective charities, even those with the best of intentions, take money away from those that can do more good?

To be honest, I did have some concerns about how newer interventions or charities would be handled by them – many charities and interventions start out less effective than the most effective ones and need to be given a chance to grow and show their worth, and may eventually become as effective than the most effective ones or even more so. However, Effective Altruism does take care of some of that by having a dedicated allocation of their fund that looks at just these “promising charities”, which introduces a little bit of randomness into their portfolio of current strong performers.

On giving from the heart, to be honest I never really found a “logical” reason for giving, nor have I looked for one. Giving to me has always just been something we should do to be thankful we have what we have, that we are who we are.

Anticipation, proactivity, and the Invisibles

Just read an article via Slashdot on this thing called “Tab Warming” that the Mozilla team is testing for the Firefox Web Browser.

I won’t go into the details, but in essence what Tab Warming does is that it anticipates whether or not you’ll click on a link, and if it does it “paints” the page in the background saving you milliseconds of loading time when you eventually click on it.

Despite the seemingly very small difference in absolute time, (I mean, really, milliseconds?) it has the potential to be the difference between somebody thinking about the page loading versus somebody not thinking about the page loading at all and purely on the content of the page.

And that’s huge. Isn’t the ultimate aim of interface usability to become invisible, after all?

This reminded me of how the best people I’ve worked with are those who pretty much do this all the time: they anticipate what I may need, and even before I’d mentioned it they’re bringing it up and telling me it’s already done.

And to me, despite my never thinking about them (because I don’t have to!), they’re the ultimate stars in our work lives.

To the invisibles: Thank you.

Doing the right thing poorly

I was halfway through reading the book Flying Without a Net by Thomas J. when I came across the following brilliant insight: in order to improve a particular skill, we have to first start by recognising that however we are performing that skill may not be the best way of doing so, and that to improve some changes may need to be made.

In short, to do the right thing well we may have to start first with doing the right thing poorly.

DeLong used the story of Tiger Woods to illustrate this idea very well:

Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, by twelve strokes. It was such an overwhelming victory that Augusta National redesigned its course to increase the odds that Woods would not repeat the feat. Yet after woods won the tournament, his coach, Butch Harmon, told him that, while he had played superb golf for four days he had a problem with his swing. He suggested that Woods needed to rebuild his wing from the ground up. Harmon admitted that woods could win sporadically without a change but would never challenge the greats like Jack Nicklaus.

I remember that incident well. Back in the late 90’s, Woods was a rising superstar. Being young and extremely dominant in the sport of golf he single-handedly made golf “cool” — and like many other younger golf fans, I started watching golf because of him.

When Harmon made those comments, many sports journalists were critical. Changing a winning formula? You got to be kidding!

I, too, felt that change was the last thing Woods needed.

In the months that followed it seemed as if the changes that Woods was making did more harm than good, and I wondered when he was going to say, in effect, “screw it!”, and get back to playing great golf again.

But he didn’t.

He soldiered on and went on to win a great many more tournaments, becoming even better than before. (Until his relatively recent marital problems, which has had a detrimental effect on his performance and career.)

Here’s the diagram that DeLong shared in the book:

We start from the top left-hand quadrant. This is our comfort zone; it’s whatever we’ve been doing and things we’re probably already pretty good at doing. In the context of work, it’s going to be whatever we’ve been doing to get to wherever we are at.

Sometimes, the outcomes from doing these “wrong” things aren’t that bad. But in this context, we’re really looking at peak performance. Often, we know that the outcome may not be optimal, and we suffer anxiety because we fear we’re losing our edge.

In order to get to the quadrant of “doing the right thing well”, i.e. the top-right, we have to move down to doing the right thing poorly. This is where it takes “courage and vulnerability”. When we first start changing the things we do, we’re probably not going to be particularly great at it.

We’re going to need to ignore the naysayers and just grind it out, continually practising our new behaviours. Eventually, all that practice will lead us to start performing these right things well.

The problem many of us have is that when we’re doing the wrong thing well, and getting results that may not necessarily be considered “poor”, changing isn’t always easy. The courage and drive to want to get into the next level of performance needs to be stronger than the anxieties we may face to maintain the status quo, especially since short-term results are likely to be poorer.

I did some analysis on my life through my writings from the early 2000’s till present, both personal and public, to see if I had encountered this anxiety-regression-progression movement, and I found that I had.

Whenever I’m trying something radically new like starting my national service in the army,  studying overseas, starting my Master’s degree, changing jobs, getting married, or having a child, I’m always in a state of high anxiety.

During this period I’m constantly asking myself if this is the life I want, wondering what’s going to happen, or second-guessing my job or university choice. What follows though, if I lean into these challenges or life changes, are often periods of my greatest personal and professional growth.

The things I fear the most often turn out to be the very things that shape who I become.

(PS: If you’re interested in Woods, read also this article on swing changes that Tiger Woods had made over the years. The “Harmon” change wasn’t the only one.)

The difficulties of doing “deep work”

These past two weeks I’ve been on leave, staying at home and being a dad to my 2-year-old son.

He’s got quite a standard schedule: the wife and I bring him out in the morning to let him “see the world”, have breakfast, and/or visit the grandparents etc.; he comes back around noon, takes a snack, sometimes a full lunch, then goes to bed for his afternoon nap.

Depending on how tired we manage to get him before his nap, he’ll wake up between 5-6pm. Sometimes though, he surprises us and wakes up at 3pm or earlier. It’s happened enough times for us to unconsciously be in a constant state of high alert throughout his nap, hearing out for his cries.

(I wonder if it’s something akin to gambling addiction, where the release of dopamine is increased when winning is intermittent or unpredictable. Just in this case, it’s more of the opposite in that we’re always in fear that the boy wakes up before schedule!)

What I realised was that during this “high alert” phase, I’ve always found it hard to do anything that requires more than a cursory time commitment, anything that would not be considered “deep work”.

Deep work – the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Deep work requires a commitment of uninterrupted time. Going into a cognitively demanding task and then being interrupted halfway through often means that whatever you’d done up till then is wasted, or at least any progress made set back considerably.

I remember once making good progress on a machine learning project I was doing for work. Suddenly the boy cried and I had no choice but to stop. When I resumed my programming in the night, I found it almost impossible to resume where I left off. What made so much sense just 8 hours earlier made little sense now, and getting back up to speed was a slow and painful process.

What this means is that when I’m in the midst of “expected interruption” I’m gravitating toward activities that are not subject to such a regression. For example:

  • Instead of reading complex works of non-fiction, I’m reading “lighter” books that I can easily dive in and out of, especially great are those where the chapters are short or where stand-alone ideas are wrapped up within a couple of pages.
  • Instead of practicing my technical data science skills or actually writing code, which tends to require a heavy commitment of uninterrupted time, I’m practicing typing on, where within seconds I’m racing against my typing peers and getting an instant hit of dopamine since I win so much but not all the time (see: above link on “gambling addiction”!)
  • Instead of setting my goals for the new year and how I’m planning to achieve them, I’m thinking about what I feel like having for dinner and how to cook it.

Though I always knew this problem also existed at work, I’m now more aware of the impact it might have.

For those of us constantly barraged by “urgent minutiae” or unscheduled projects (i.e. pretty much all of us I bet), the lack of a system or structured approach toward addressing interruptions could lead us to a lifetime of firefighting at the expense of actually doing the impactful, deep work we were brought on board to do.

Personally, these are the things I do to prevent myself from drowning in urgent minutiae:

  • Relagating of e-mails to an hourly or two-hourly affair, which helps you avoid being interrupted mid-thought or while putting the finishing touches on your magnum opus.
  • Scheduling of a “meeting with yourself”, which blocks your calendar and allows you to work, guilt-free, on your most important tasks.
  • Addressing anything that takes 2 minutes or less immediately, which frees the mind of unnecessary clutter, something I picked up while implementing the wonderful Getting Things Done methodology.
  • Focusing on your highest priority tasks while ignoring everything else for the day, which is dangerous but oftentimes necessary.

(PS: To date I haven’t quite found a “hack” for myself at home, though. My kid doesn’t respect my calendar, nor does he bother with e-mails, and he’s just about impossible to ignore.)

(PPS: Above definition of “deep work” found on Cal Newport’s website, whom I *think* coined the term. The term itself came into my consciousness after it was first mentioned to me by S on my team at work.)

Feeling good about one’s work

I was just “thinking about things” when this thought came into my head: To feel good about one’s work, there are two sides of validation: the internal and the external.

  • External validation: somebody tells you, “you’ve done well. This is excellent!”
  • Internal validation: you tell yourself, “you’ve done well; you’d set out to do something well and you did it.”

This past year I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on my work. Still, something was missing.

“This is great work,” they’d say, and I’d smile.

Was it really? I’d think, feeling less than satisfied, tinged with impostor syndrome.

Luckily the opposite was true, too.

The work my team and I do are quite regularly behind-the-scenes “enablement” work. Nobody but us knows; no rah-rah; no fanfare.

They’d say nothing, even after I’d done something I thought was remarkable.

Still, this is awesome! I’d think.

And I’d be satisfied. Almost happy.

Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.

Please let me know if you have any questions

“Please let me know if you have any questions,” wrote I in an email I was drafting.

It has long been my signature email sign-off, but this time I was feeling a little reflective and reconsidered writing that line.

What did it really mean? 

But try as I might I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it made no sense. So I deleted it.

Then I re-read the e-mail.

Ugh. No, it didn’t seem right.

So I put it back in.

The thing is though, I couldn’t reconcile this fact: if the recipients had any questions I’m pretty sure they would have not hesitated hitting “Reply” and asking me those questions. Would having left that line out stopped the questions from coming?

Surely not.

Still, I added the line back in because it “sounded better”, and from then on just accepted that I’d never know and simply kept that line in without too much thought.

Then just today I came across this passage from the book Simply Said by Jay Sullivan:

When you write at the end of an email “Let me know if you have any questions,” you are writing that line for a certain tone. Clearly, the reader will let you know if she has any questions, regardless of whether you make that offer. You add that line because it seems like a pleasant, conversational way to end the message. You include it to set the right tone, just the way you start the message with some basic pleasantry like, “I hope all is well” or “Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.” Because email can seem so abrupt, it’s important to make sure we soften the tone of our messages.

I now feel extremely validated.

Turns out I’m just naturally inclined to be a pleasant, courteous person.