- It matters why you want to have an impact.
- Figuring out your mission requires you to reflect on what matters to you.
- Make your actions consistent with your values.
It matters why you want to have an impact
It’s easy to say we care about something but have our actions fall short.
What does it mean to say we value something if we’re not willing to pay the costs to achieve it?
Actions speak louder than words. In fact, economists use (to varying degrees of success) a technique called revealed preferences to elicit what you prefer or value from your behaviour, and AI researchers are exploring inverse reinforcement learning as a technique to create AI systems that are aligned with what you want.
(Not being able to pay the costs is a different thing – here we’re talking about choosing not to.)
If your goal is to help people, think seriously about what actions are going to actually help people the most, rather than make yourself feel good.
Make your actions consistent with your values
Now that you know a bit more about what you value, you can ask yourself this question.
List three ways in which your current plans for the future might not be helping you to reach your primary life goals.
Use thought experiments to come to reflective equilibrium
It’s extremely difficult to fully ascertain your values by just sitting and reflecting by yourself. Philosophers have been trying for millennia.
But it’s not completely useless. Thought experiments, which put you into imaginary situations can eliminate the many independent variables and noise from everyday situations, and allow you to learn about how you might react to scenarios you haven’t experienced before. From how you react, you can figure out what your values might be.
Taking time to think about your values will help you think more clearly about what your mission should be, and enable you to formulate more precise goals, so you can know when you are on track, and when you’re not.
Without this step (whether written down or not), you’re more likely to pursue a vague mix of the goals of the people around you.
Imagine that two friends ask you for help the night before an exam. You can only help one of them before the deadline. The first friend is a very polite person, the second is rude. If you help the first friend, they will be very grateful to you, but you know that they know almost as much as you do about the exam — they are just nervous. The second friend will be ungrateful, but your help might be the difference between them getting into university or not. Who should you help? Why?
The year is 2122. There is a picture of you, standing proudly on a mantelpiece. In the room, your granddaughter stands with one of her friends.
The friend takes a sip of her coffee, then, gesturing at your image, says:
“You talk about them a lot, and you seem so proud of them. Pardon me, I’m getting forgetful, but what is it about them that makes you so proud? I know it takes a lot to impress you – what did they do?”
How would you like your granddaughter to respond?
Pursue your goals independently
Humans are second to none in our ability to justify our actions. In fact, it’s one of the leading theories behind why we developed such big brains in the first place.
We can fairly easily convince ourselves and others of how our actions are consistent with trying to achieve a goal. This is easier the more degrees of freedom you have, such as when you have multiple goals without a clearly defined objective.
Rather than trying to accomplish many goals in one go, pursue each independently.
Balance your goals before sacrificing them
Instead of committing yourself to big tradeoffs (salary vs. impact, flexibility vs. status, etc.), be open to finding paths that satisfy all of your main criteria.
Many people imagine that “helping the world” means being Mother Teresa; they don’t realise they have options that would be fulfilling and impactful.
For example, before selling all your possessions and donating the sum, you should consider becoming a journalist and covering climate change, a scientist and creating more efficient renewables, a policy wonk and advocating for better international cooperation, etc.
In economics, this is called getting to the Pareto frontier.
Consider how your goals change as you get further along them, and don’t over-optimize on something that becomes less important if you have more of it.
For instance, money is less important, the more you have of it. (As explained in an earlier article.)