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This is a linkpost for Brian Tomasik's posts on personal effectiveness.

Why I Prefer Public Conversations

First written: 27 Jul 2012. Last nontrivial update: 3 Feb 2017.


Public conversations are a public good, and their positive externalities deserve to be kept in mind.

When people read your content, they're not reading other things, and this tradeoff pushes us toward favoring quality over quantity, although popularity mechanisms can partly take care of the quality-assessment process for us.

Turn Discussions into Blog Posts

First written: 18 Feb 2013. Last nontrivial update: 18 May 2018.


If you come up with interesting insights or detailed arguments in the course of Facebook discussions, you might consider summarizing those ideas and saving them in a standalone article for others to read. This would be a more concise and shareable way to preserve your thoughts than just linking to a long discussion thread.

Is It Better to Blog or Formally Publish?

First written: 16 Apr 2014. Last nontrivial update: 11 Sep 2018.


This piece reviews some benefits and costs of formal academic publishing as well as publishing in a popular online newspaper or magazine. If what you want to write is not original, then consider adding the content to Wikipedia rather than reinventing wheels. Of course, there will be pieces (like this one) for which you judge that it's not worth the effort to publish formally, and in that case, publishing on your own website or blog is still an excellent choice.

Update, 2015: Currently I incline against publishing in academia most of the time, since I find that it takes a lot of effort to write papers in the style that a journal demands, while the payoff from having a journal publication isn't necessarily that big unless you're trying to get tenure. However, if you can get funding by being a grad student, the cost-benefit calculation changes and may make academic publishing a good idea.

Further reading: In Wiblin (2018), Will MacAskill offers a number of insights regarding the strengths and weaknesses of academic publishing. Click "Show full transcript" and then Ctrl+f for the text "so many biases in what gets published" to start reading that discussion. Here's one helpful passage:

My impression with intellectual research outside of academia is that you can make a ton more progress more quickly if you’re focused on something that academics aren’t focused on. So, like the question of, “What charity does the most good with your money?” Academics aren’t going to work on that question. If you want the state of the art, just don’t do that within academia. Then there’s questions that academics do work on, and often you get very high quality research on like meta-ethics, for example. When there’s an area that is suitable for academics to work on, then the highest quality thought, it seems to me, is actually going to be found within there.

Personal and Social Tolerance

First written: 20 Aug 2013. Last nontrivial update: 10 Mar 2014.


Hatred-based violence is a significant social problem today, and it may be among the most worrying dangers for a future civilization. I think there's value of information to exploring approaches for promoting tolerance and reducing aggressive impulses, both at the level of personal actions and at the level of political/social/religious ideologies. With this high-level context, I go on to discuss some ways of thinking about anger that I find useful for myself, although I don't claim these are necessarily solutions to the bigger-picture social issue of interpersonal hostility. I find that imagining yourself as someone else is one of the most powerful ways to feel tolerance, with the side effects of making yourself more rational and often more persuasive.

Why Honesty is a Good Policy

First published: 2013 Sep 07. Last nontrivial update: 2018 Sep 12.


I personally value honesty on emotional grounds, such as the tendency of honesty to build strong intimacy with others. But I also think honesty is an essential policy for altruists to adopt in their outward-facing work. Some of the reasons include improved credibility, capacity to make promises, protection against lie detectors and surveillance, common-sense heuristics, concession to other value systems, and guarding against overconfidence. While it seems clear that outright lying to advance an altruistic cause is almost never wise, there remain shades of gray in deciding when and how much omission of facts can be justified.

Education Matters for Altruism

First written: 23 Sep. 2013; last update: 9 May 2019

Learning is an extremely important activity for altruists, and by this I mean not just discipline-specific study of issues in activism and cost-effectiveness analysis but also big-picture insights about the world at large, drawn from many academic and non-academic perspectives. Learning can seem suboptimal and not helpful in the short run, but used properly, it can pay off more than most financial or single-domain-focused investments. It's important for young activists not to neglect learning in order to just "do more to help now." That said, the reverse is also true: They shouldn't only learn, because doing is an important part of learning, and staying connected with some shorter-term projects can prevent you from drifting away permanently from the reality of the suffering whose prevention ultimately makes the learning worthwhile.

Staying Altruistic for the Long Term

First written: 17 Apr 2010. Last nontrivial update: 23 Jan 2014.


What we find important can be fickle and more dependent on environmental cues than we might think. As a result, we may want to embed ourselves in physical and social environments that can best foster our altrustic work. While productivity is important, we also need to keep our lives balanced, both for our long-term sustainability and because of the benefits of learning about many fields. Sometimes we do selfish things, and it's better to admit this and move on than distort our beliefs to try to justify it.

Macro- vs. Micro-Optimization

First written: 10 May 2010. Last nontrivial update: 19 Feb 2018.


Optimizing big-picture variables in our actions may have much higher returns than spending the same effort on smaller, recurrent dilemmas. "Work smarter, not harder" and "Don't sweat the small stuff" are two relevant maxims. Doing things you enjoy needn't be contrary to doing things that are productive, and in fact, you may find that doing what you enjoy most within certain constraints is the best way to be productive.

Is Utilitarianism Too Demanding?

Posted on 13th August 2015

A common objection to utilitarianism is that the philosophy is too demanding. For instance, it might seem that we should donate all our money to those in need or devote every waking hour toward helping others. This claim is based on a misunderstanding of human willpower and decision-making. The finitude of our ability to make sacrifices for others provides all the explanation needed about why utilitarianism is not excessively demanding.

Random Ideas and Suggestions

First written: 2009 - 2012. Last nontrivial update: 2019 Nov 19.


I suggest a few small, random ideas: Adding informational tidbits that you find to relevant Wikipedia entries, asking for donations for Christmas gifts, giving or receiving feedback earlier rather than later, using a freelancing site for tasks that can be outsourced, and backing up Google/Facebook data.

The Value of Wikipedia Contributions in Social Sciences

First written: 26 Nov 2013. Last nontrivial update: 13 Dec 2015.


Improving society's wisdom, especially in comparison with its technological power, seems fairly robustly positive. Spreading knowledge of important findings—particularly in the social sciences, philosophy, and so on—is valuable, and one of the best channels for doing this is Wikipedia. While I wouldn't say that contributing to Wikipedia as a first-order priority is necessarily altruistically optimal except for very important topics, I would encourage people to add relevant material when they happen to come across it or if they already have deep knowledge of it such that adding it has low cost. If you plan to write a factual piece, consider whether you could add the material to Wikipedia instead of or in addition to reinventing the wheel. It's not clear what the sign is of Wikipedia articles that accelerate technology growth, so I tentatively recommend pushing on fields of knowledge that enhance reflectiveness and cooperation relatively more than technology.

Note: I created a list of ideas for Wikipedia articles to create, improve, or refine in case you want to jump-start your imagination. That said, I find it's generally easier to start with a paper I'm reading or a topic I want to learn about and then find what Wikipedia article can most appropriately include that information.

In What Ways Is Writing Valuable?

First published: 2017 Jul 08. Last nontrivial update: 2019 Jul 14.


This piece enumerates some means by which writing (and other media) can make a positive impact on the world, such as expanding humanity's knowledge and boosting more important ideas into broader awareness. Thinking about the meta-level question of how writing makes an impact might help to clarify in what circumstances object-level writing is valuable. I discuss the question of whether preserving and making accessible existing content is a more leveraged way to have an impact than generating new content.





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