Invent yourself and think through your impact – graduation ceremony speech

I was lucky enough to be chosen to be the student speaker for my graduation ceremony. Unsurprisingly, I decided to talk about some key ideas emerging from the effective altruist movement, in which I have recently started working.

It was a challenging event to write for, because I am too cynical to be sentimental or outright wrong, but nor did I think it would be productive to spurn the social norms surrounding this kind of tradition altogether. I’ll let you judge whether I did a good job of riding the line.

The speech is below the fold. The personal content comes first; if you would like to skip that, click here.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Most of us graduating at this ceremony arrived at the Australian National University a few years ago expecting to learn some useful skills. But we also hoped for more than that. We came to discover the ideas that we really cared about. To find mentors we could learn from, and to meet friends whose respect we would want to earn.

There is a cliché I’ve heard many times over the years – “be true to yourself”. I have always felt that that skipped over the most difficult question. Who on Earth is this self that I should be true to?

I recently saw a piece of graffiti that resonated with me much more. It read – ‘Life isn’t about finding yourself; life is about inventing yourself.’ Who we become is neither predetermined, nor an accident, but a result of the choices that we make. The fields that we study. The people we spend time with. The books that we read.

University has given us the space to invent ourselves in a way that is much more difficult in the rest of life. In high school before it, and in the workplace after it, the pressure to fit in is much stronger than it is here on campus.

That space is usually well used. All of the close friends I have made over the last six years, are leaving the ANU different people than the ones who arrived.

Many, like me, changed their degrees. Those that didn’t, still changed the aspirations they had for their lives.

A number arrived with strong personal, political, or religious convictions – and by the time they left, were convinced of something else entirely. Others, perhaps the bravest among them, are leaving stripped bare of convictions.

None failed to go through at least one, but more often several, existential crises. Most, myself included, found themselves in emotional free-fall right about the moment they walked out of their final exam. There is nothing like being cast out of the comfortable and respectable limbo of undergraduate education to set you reflecting on what the Hell life is all about. If you’re going through that at the moment, I wish you the best of luck working it out. Just be sure to let me know if you do!

I would like to be able to tell you that I arrived here young and naïve, and then I learned this, and then I learnt that, and now I am leaving enlightened, with a clear idea of what to do with myself. But, you’re not interviewing me for a job, so I won’t pretend. My uncertainty has only multiplied the more I have learned.

That said, I can share a few key ideas I have stumbled upon while here to which I keep returning.

The first is the importance of carefully choosing how to dedicate our time, and not becoming too attached to whichever ideas we encounter first.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that young graduates, like us, will work around 80,000 hours over the course of their careers. That’s a lot of time. Enough for it to be worth taking years, if necessary, to make sure we are on the right path. But, it’s not so much time that we can carelessly throw any away.

Like many first year students, I arrived at ANU full of enthusiasm to make the world a better place. I wanted to be an activist on things like fair trade, free speech and climate change. After reading more widely, I stopped believing that ‘fair trade’ was doing any good at all. On reflection, I realised that while free speech was important, agitating for more freedom in Australia was far from the most pressing issue facing humanity. Climate change on the other hand was a plausible candidate for the most pressing issue facing humanity, but it’s almost impossible to tell how much difference you’re making to that problem. And with millions of others already motivated to work on it, how much will one extra person contribute?

At the same time, while here, I encountered many new and intriguing suggestions for what I should do with myself instead. Conservatively, it looks like spending one dollar promoting vegetarianism saves some poor animal from spending 120 days locked in a factory farm. That sounds like good value! Then there are organisations that work to prevent disasters, like pandemic diseases, that could kill billions, potentially putting human civilization as a whole at risk. Maybe I should go research that? But what about that charity delivering vaccinations in rural Mozambique that rigorously demonstrated it could prevent an infant dying for about $700. What kind of person can, in good conscience, turn down saving a life for just $700?

Which of these, if any, should I dedicate my life to? I don’t know. But I am sure it matters a lot to work it out. One of these approaches could be 10 or 100 times more effective at improving the world than the others. And all of them are probably a thousand times more effective than the dubious causes that grabbed my attention when I was sixteen.

Now that we are out of university, we will have less time, and face less pressure, to question our direction in life. But the space of things that we can attempt is so vast, and the difference in how much they achieve so great, that we cannot afford to let that happen.

The second realisation is that what it appears you are achieving can be very misleading. The reason, I’m sorry to say, is that in many cases people are substitutable. I’ll demonstrate with an example.

Surgeons are often credited with saving lives. But, while in a direct sense they do, that doesn’t mean that they are really causing more lives to be saved. After all, if any individual surgeon had decided to study say, accounting, instead, another student roughly as good would have been admitted to study surgery in their place. In their absence, most of the operations they performed would have been successfully performed by someone else. The first surgeon may just have displaced another surgeon. (Update: Our research suggests they do have a significant if not amazing impact.)

The secret to having a big impact on the world is to find something valuable you can do that won’t happen if you don’t do it. Because most jobs have multiple applicants, the impact you make through paid employment may not be as great as it first seems.

If this sounds dispiriting, it shouldn’t be. Not all jobs are like that. And even if the one you love is, don’t worry. You can always just give money. The same problem doesn’t apply to donations, because one person giving more doesn’t mean anyone else will give less.

It’s counterintuitive, but that surgeon who struggled to save lives by performing surgery, might easily save hundreds, or even thousands of lives, by giving away 10% of their income to fund vaccinations that otherwise wouldn’t occur.

Whatever you decide to do with the lives ahead of you, I urge you to think deeply, and quantitatively, about what you are accomplishing. The good that one educated person can do for others, if they focus on it, is clearly huge.

Stanley Kubrick once said something that struck me as frightening, but beautiful.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent – but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

If we make the right decisions, humanity has the potential to eliminate much of the suffering in this world and replace it with wonderful things instead. Contributing to that effort should supply anybody here with plenty of light.

Thank you.

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  • Vladimir Nesov

    It sounds like you’ve got across the message that one shouldn’t be deceived by direct impact and expect more of donations, but didn’t provide enough warning against inefficient charities.

  • Michael Vassar

    I’m very skeptical of the claim that marginal charitable dollars increase net numbers of vaccinations etc with high efficiency.  Too many dollars are available from Gates and other foundations that try to be efficient and lack anywhere near that level of marginal efficacy.  Why think you can do much better than they can?  If they are so far short of optimal, isn’t it most efficient to try to help them to be optimal given their existing effort and funds?

    • Robert Wiblin

      Yes, Village Reach is no longer recommended by GiveWell, so that is a bit dated. And I also think meta-charity is likely to be more effective than paying for vaccines (at a first cut: http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/blog/2012-10-27/estimating-the-effectiveness-of-dcp2 , http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/blog/2012-11-01/estimating-the-effectiveness-of-dcp2-post-2), but explaining that would have complicated something that most people already struggle to understand. I chose the simplest cause available to avoid distracting folks.

      • Guest

         This confuses me. Are you saying that the $700 figure is outdated, or that is was always wrong. If the former, Michael’s point still applies. If the latter, what were the factors that made it so difficult to estimate?

      • David Barry

        GiveWell recently detailed its re-evaluation of VillageReach’s work in Mozambique, which is what led to the $700/life saved figure.  http://blog.givewell.org/2012/07/26/rethinking-villagereachs-pilot-project/

        It was difficult to estimate because, roughly, it is hard to isolate the charity’s impact from that of the local government.  

  • John Maxwell IV

    Congrats on being the student speaker!

  • Nicholas Gruen

    Wonderful speech Robert. Congratulations on it. 

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