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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 tomjwstocker@gmail.com 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





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:29 PM

Thanks for writing this! Your journey seems unusual and interesting in comparison to other narratives I've heard.

I'm especially interested in your experience with volunteering and activism. I read a lot on this forum about giving money to other organizations which help and not very much about how we can help people directly. I'd love to hear more about what you think the impact of your volunteer activities and professional work are and where you think good ones are available to others.

Theory of constraints is a good one to use to think about this. What's the objective, and how much is money or people or ideas or skills or whatever a constraint? How do we overcome that constraint? We're looking for opportunities where money is a constraint, and there seem to be such good opportunities here that its worth devoting time to capturing money to send it in their direction.

I'll set out a response by trying to paint a picture of where my thinking is with activism/volunteering and professional efforts. Ruthie, please let me know which bits might be useful/new ground worthy of a separate article / further exploration with numbers and I'll put more thought into it before writing another post after checking what Ben Todd thinks about this stuff.

I'm currently agnostic re: which is going to pay off in the most qualys - earning to give or trying to help solve really difficult massive problems like medical research that have really really big payoffs. Comes down to how much you can influence the probability of changing the outcomes through giving vs. acting and what the difference in the outcomes are. The probability thing is relatively easy with marginal giving, but particularly difficult with acting on big complex high stakes problems. I'm convinced that giving is more effective than easy problems that can be solved with simple non-skilled volunteering interventions that are not leveraged - although there's an avenue of research around ripple effects and social proofing that I'd be interested in seeing the results of to better inform this opinion.

Response 1: activism

I would be reluctant to engage in activism unless there are a particular set of circumstances that are ameanable to it - a good local example is the closure of Didcot power station, a coal-fired powerstation at the furthest point from the sea. Activists simply climbed up the chimney, meaning it couldn't be used. This was low cost for the activist but imposed very high financial costs on the energy provider. The question is whether closing a powerstation is a worthy goal - being effective seems to tend to be more about supporting creative endeavours like medical treatments rather than putting an end to destructive endeavours like burning coal/ending colonialism, and so is perhaps less ameanable to activism

Activism is a technology that is costly in terms of people's time, will, career capital and safety but not money. The technology can do three things: 1). Impose financial and reputational costs to power-holders making or sticking by certain decisions. This is usually either done by exposing things they've done through the media, or encouraging people to withdraw the support they need (e.g. strike action), or directly obstructing them (e.g. lying in the road in front of a nuclear weapons facility). There is a more subtle and harder version of non-violent direct action (see Gene Sharp for analysis of activism in this sense) that aims to help recognise those in power that their actions are wrong and to change through public debate (cynically, this often involves encouraging people to die without fighting back to make the point) e.g. Ghandi, Mandela, MLK. This is rarely done and seems to require a huge personal skill and degree of control over the movement, but it is quite successful done when it is. 2).Educate / raise awareness and contribute to public debate (e.g. a mass die-in where a cyclist has been run over by a lorry driver to try and make the point that we as a society should drive more carefully in the presence of cyclists) 3). To inspire action and pick up people along the way, teach/indoctrinate, encourage, and enlist in the cause / set of causes tackled by that activist community (often linked to a leftist ideology of some type like left-libertarianism, socialism, anarchism, panafricanism, or democracy).

It often has methods of movement control including sub-culture and norms, and an in-out identity framework. More interesting are where the movements are radically pro-democracy, and some of these have developed fantastic consensus style decision making structures or cultures of democracy (ANC, climate camp etc.) that have to some extent protected against some of the dangers of these kinds of movements (e.g. inclusive and tolerant liberation movement in Eritrea > worst place in the world to be a journalist with widespread institutional discrimination under the same leader over a long time period - Afwerki)

Response 2: Volunteering I don't think this helps much compared to other avenues, at least what I tried- in terms of the volunteering I did (work with the homeless, mentoring kids, community building project), there are a few potential sources of value: 1 - personal leadership: you're able to encourage people in a positive moral direction and occasionally help them think through big decisions about what they want to do with their lives. (mentoring kids is good with this - potentially massive payoff if you mentor the next Norman Borlaug at an early age - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug) 2 - some benefits through relationships or the product of your volunteering. Some examples

  • making people laugh (1 minute of laughter for 2 hours of volunteering) 3 - facilitating better interactions at a community level, increasing a few people's social capital. -improved relationships between the client and their support network or family (lumpy improvements that come from developing relationships over long time periods. Working with the homeless/people with addiction is good for this)
  • help the client come to terms with themselves, encourage them to walk a better path, and bring a sense of meaning back into their lives (again, very lumpy and unpredictable, opportunities arising through very hard work over a long time period with a small number of people) -signposting to services that could save or drastically improve their lives, or make their conditions more bearable (homeless work is good for this)

Working to support an autistic child was particularly ineffective, except that there were marginal improvements in the lives of their family for short periods.

Response 3: professional opportunities There is a lot of slack in the public and NGO sectors. Particularly for people with good mathematical / modelling / statistical / management / political / people / conceptual skills. By coming to work in these environments with an attitude of effectiveness, you will be able to spot vaste swathes of areas of opportunity to improve things. I don't know if this holds true for places that are the most effective e.g. AmF / SCI - a 10% increase in their efficiency means a lot more than a 40% increase in a typical charities efficiency, so that would be where to try it. The public sector is interesting, as there are policy spaces that are ameanable to change, but its very hard to spot where they are from the outside - even if you've read around and researched the area, so you have to go and see for yourself inside an institution / working in a policy area, and find out where all the dead bodies are, what's been tried, what's worked and what hasn't. The issue with this is that your ability to influence has a direct relationship to your length of tenure / seniority.

You seem to have lots of life experience which at least I lack. I'd be interested in learning about your own lessons learned in your career of activism. I haven't known many individuals with a physical disability. I'm sad to hear it was difficult to get along with others when they found it too awkward to hang out with such a young person in a wheelchair. As a teenager, I had problems with my legs that were interfering with my athletics and my ability to walk. I got better, as I just got orthopedics for my flat feet, but there was a time when doctors were unsure of the problem, and though I might need surgery to correct my growth.

At that time, I was thinking about what life might be like with a disability. However, your experience really takes the cake. Your ability to not only find compassion, but act on it, amid your own struggles was touching. Your tenacity, perseverance, and most of all, your pursuit of broader perspectives so you can learn and improve how effective your altruism is, is inspiring.

Than you Evan, kind words! To be honest, I genuinely think that the pain and lifting the curtain on human psychology were key ingredients to me approaching morality systematically.

But maybe I'm wrong in that - I was expecting to find a load of people that had been through traumatic experiences in the EA community (and maybe there are) but that doesn't seem to be it, seems to be mainly people that think well and challenge themselves. It could be that I was going to be an EA of some ilk anyway but I doubt it - I'm not nearly as calm and logical as all the other EAs I've met! (Why I need to speak to you all regularly and get feedback)

I've been through what I might call some of my own trauma. However, I'm not so willing to be public about it. So, more power to you for your courage!