Many winding roads: an EA origin story

by tomstocker 29th Jan 20155 comments


Thank you Peter for suggesting this. This is my first post, and I've not blogged successfully. Feedback in the forms of evaluation/appreciation/coaching are all very welcome, either to or on the comments section (e.g. am I doing too much / is it too long etc).

I have wanted to hear people's 'testimonies' for a long time (what I've heard this kind of thing called in evangelical religious movements - activist and political movements I've been around have called it something like 'getting involved'). I think these are important as you're able to see why people are here, and you're able to see how other people you're talking might be better encouraged to join in.

It is however, a bit strange to give a testimony to an audience of x>1, as "EA" feels like such an all encompassing thing to come to and usually I'd be selective depending on who's in front of me. I've tried to do this post by communicating all the possible stories that could have contributed to my journey from a little altruistic and ineffective, to quite altruistic and a little effective. My hope in writing this is that readers get insight into how to help people move themselves further along the altruism scale. I see the desire to be effective as a function of genuine altruism - as opposed to thinking of yourself as altruistically motivated - and knowledge, and the knowledge is already here in abundance, so that's the focus.

Section 1: The threads

These are the stories I tell myself about why I care / how I learnt about how to approach altruism etc.


Depression in teenage years, surrounded by posh and rich while being posh and poor, while having a few very good friends that were extremely disadvantaged seemed to create an anti-authoritarian or anti-cultural sentiment against the rich. This lead to questioning of power structures, cultural norms, who appropriated wealth, whether things could change and what I could do about it. This questioning lead me to leftists, democracy and human rights activists, the environmental movement around climate camp, economics, and eventually, GWWC. As soon as I befriended other people that seemed to care, I became happy. It was a non-trivial depression that I think came from false-guilt and a deep sense of isolation. It could also just have been random biology.


Not knowing really what to do with my life in school, as I was an intellectual jack of all trades, I sought advice. People said I would make a great doctor, and I couldn't think of anything better. Through the application process I was socialised to convince myself that I wanted to help society (although I did before hand, this process brought out this desire into a place of greater prominence).

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

Severe pain in early 20s: after fairly routine knee surgeries for what was thought to be juvenile arthritis, I developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, and deteriorated over 6 months without a diagnosis to the point where I was in big, incessant pain and relied on a wheelchair. This made me reflect on:

a). how society, people I thought were friends etc. just couldn't handle the thought of someone young being in a wheelchair, and couldn't be bothered to empathise or think through their failure to acknowledge the importance pain has on a life. This revealed very starkly a collective blind spot to suffering. I've thought about this. It appears like cowardice, but I think its a moral cheating mechanism - hear no evil/see no evil then I don't have to act, so my subconscious which is to some extent directed by conscious choices and feelings relating to how much you think others matter, is going to block out the evil where possible. I thought from this that people would also have similar responses to others in pain or other societal problems.

b). if I'm suffering to this extent, and there are 6.x bn people on the planet, there must be a very large category of people suffering to a much worse extent. This generated deep wells of compassion and motivation.

"Spiritual journey"

I formed atheist/agnostic views at a young age through poor role models and logic. However, while in big pain, became interested in meditation. I meditated regularly for 18 months and developed a strange and wonderful set of subjective experiences. These included intense feelings about the value and sanctity of life, and periods of feeling overwhelmed by compassion and overwhelmed by the suffering of the world, and by the large scale neglect of the global poor. This helped with motivation. The meditation also facilitated a calm, inquiring approach, and reduced my horrendous ego. Unfortunately, I got freaked out by some other experiences, and gave up practicing, and the horrendous ego is back with vengeance - I'm only now starting to develop a practice again after 4-5 years because the ego has become a limiting factor in my attempts to improve the condition of humanity.

Meeting fantastic people

With a fair amount of free time studying medicine at a low-intensity university (Manchester), I went out to try and learn about the problems in the world. One way of doing this was documentary night. The person running it was a book-seller activist involved in many causes in effective ways that moved groups along without putting him in the limelight. This person gave me an activist mentoring and he ended up as my best man. There were other fantastic people that coached and pointed me in the right direction along the way, but Adie and my wife Abbie stand out among them.

After becoming an 'EA', discovering the EA community was just fantastic, and the living examples of Toby etc. boosted the altruism component of my life no end through social proofing / inspiration (even though I haven't interacted with other EAs that much yet).

Trial and error

Since 2006 I've thrown my all into a very wide range of projects. I started off doing things like working with an autistic child, mentoring asylum seeker children in maths and English, and going to talks to challenge powerful people. Then community work, then non-violent direct action, then gallivanting around the world volunteering for interesting organisations like: 

Multi-faceted poverty alleviation for the extreme poor (Bangladesh)

Challenging house demolitions as a means to advocate for peace (Israel)

Advocacy for an end to the occupation and reconciliation of fractured palestinian communities (Palestine - this one involved an arrest and beating in response to a reasonable question)

Encouraging women to stand up in the face of violence for a better government (Zimbabwe)

Then trying out different things in professional life: public health analyst in Ghana, Comms guy at WaterAid, NHS manager, healthcare productivity consultant, and now upstart at a medical regulator.


I did a back of the envelope calculation of being a doctor in terms of years of healthy life. I was disappointed. I thought it would be worth the gamble of doing PPE at Oxford, with the view of changing the hearts and minds of the elite and learning about how to do management/policy/politics as a gamble that there would be a much better way of spending my life on others. Economics helped me think about effectiveness, and slowly won me round to accepting the market as a pretty powerful and necessary thing, which stopped me thinking about poverty in terms of community or state eradication of markets, and opened up a whole new way of thinking about effectiveness (it was there before, but only partial rather than a central thing).

Empowerment through small victories

One notable example was a fantastic opportunity to save lives after a cyclone in Bangladesh destroyed the water and waste systems and cholera had just started to pick up pace, which I took with both hands. This was very empowering as I organised the whole thing myself - procurement, partnership, negotiation, leveraging local government finances, raising finances from friends etc. and it was made very easy for me because there were great local people that responded quickly to my requests for help in defining the problems and delivering the solutions.

Other potential but less prominent sources of inspiration to make effective action for others a priority

Books like Peter Singer's Ben Goldacre's etc. etc.

Historical movements like Anarchism, Communism, Civil Women's and Human rights, Utilitarianism, Christianity, anti-colonial struggles, (international) public health. 

Big name examples like Tutu, Ghandi, Gates, Mandela, John Templeton, Buddha, Dalai Lama, Amilcar Cabral...

Cultural things like WW2 liberation songs.

Section 2: Current things I'm working on (probably too much in here)

Here are my current projects. There up here for suggestions and challenge, and so that the introduction is complete enough that people can help signpost/get in touch.

Current priorities:

Reforming my organistation, as a first step to reforming regulation or the control of social harms (the first part of this feels increasingly like a bad strategy)

Supporting my family

Currently allocating time to:

The medical improvement project: understanding how to improve the performance of clinical practice, including the speeding up of evidence generation and translation to practice (might write a book related to this)

The suffering identification project: how to find which individuals are experiencing the most intense suffering (might write a book related to this)

The commissioning project: how to move commissioning towards optimal for NHS services in the UK

Supporting others making a difference or to start doing so

The character improvement project: how to be a better person, especially to those immediately around me

Productivity improvements: doing the things on the list better, and challenging the time allocated to each

Doing up our house

Starting the adoption process and growing our family


Earning and giving project: how to make more money and give it away to help people

Policy and governance project: how to improve the way policy is done and how public services are governed

Keeping an eye out for surprising opportunities to serve