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How can we optimise for a meaningful life?

How can we optimise for a meaningful life?
In this episode, we're joined by Neel Nanda to discuss life optimisations, career choices, how to live in alignment with your own values and how to treat your relationships more intentionally.

In this episode, we're joined by Neel Nanda to discuss life optimisations, career choices, how to live in alignment with your own values and how to treat your relationships more intentionally. We discuss some of the principles behind how we can do the most good with our lives, while also being fulfilled and enjoying the journey.

Here are some of the highlights from our discussion:

It’s easy to get cynical and naïve about wanting to make the world a better place. The Effective Altruism community provides more concrete plans and presenting these plans is a good antidote to the cynicism.

Effective altruism movement breaks down into two parts. The intellectual project of wanting to make the world a better place. How do I do this and what does that mean. And secondly, the practical project of actually doing something about. EA is not a single group, it’s a philosophy and a community of groups.

The key novel idea is that of effectiveness. People are on board with altruism but it’s not natural for people to think hard about effectiveness and calculation. There’s a big spread in how much good different things can do and you need to choose and make trade offs in order to make the largest impact.

It’s hard to quantify small effects but certain decisions are more quantifiable. The 100x multiplier is a good example. It would take about $30,000 dollars to double the income of the average person in America but that same money could double the salaries of 100 people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Doing good is a marathon not a sprint. If you’re trying to aggressively optimise every last thing, you’re probably going to burn out within a couple of months which means over the course of your life, you’re probably not going to do much good.

Effective altruists take the approach that they don’t try to say which cause is the most important but instead focus on the cause which will have the most good. Figuring out the right cause is hard. Effective altruism tries to look to those groups that are disenfranchised from society because the people who can argue for themselves will invariably get more resources and so the people who can’t argue for themselves are going to lack everything that they need. The three largest of these groups are the world’s poorest people, non-human animals and future people.

Effective altruism is also about looking for big deals. When you only have so much time, attention and resources, you want to focus on things that have the most leverage.

We should try to think about how we can 80/20 doing good. This involves focussing on the big things that really matter. Our lives are a collection of resources and the decisions we make determine how we allocate those resources and impact the world. Money, time, energy, productive labour – these are all resources – and we should think about how we are using these resources and where certain allocations could have more effect.

“Courage is not about being afraid. It’s about being afraid and going ahead anyway. Similarly caring isn’t about being overwhelmed by emotion, it’s about not feeling a strong emotional drive and doing it anyway”.

We often think of motivation as one block but we should separate it into drive and values. Drive is what keeps you motivated day to day and values are the underlying foundations that you strive to achieve.

Careers are really important and have a significant effect on how much impact you will have on the world. It’s useful to see it as an opportunity rather than a chore and if you care about effective altruism, then it would be worth figuring out the most important problems and thinking about which careers would have the most important impact.

There are two mistakes that people make with their career – either not thinking about it ever or getting too overwhelmed and stressed about it. Your career is going to be approximately 80,000 hours. Therefore, not to think about it is naïve but, equally, to get overwhelmed is unnecessary because you’ve got a lot of time to change if things don’t work out.


80000 Hours Key Ideas

Misconceptions about EA

Map of local EA groups

Neel's Blog

Neel's Top Posts

Neel's Post on Excitement & Motivation

If you want to read more about the ideas behind EA, Neel suggested these two books:

Doing Good Better

The Precipice

This episode is kindly supported by Brilliant, the best way to learn maths, science, and computer science online. Brilliant focuses on helping you learn how to think, rather than just memorising methods and facts. Sign up at — the first 100 people get 20% off an annual subscription.

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