It is a whirlwind of excitement, to be the center of attention, to be a hero, if only for a fleeting moment in one’s life. The cameras go away, but the nod of acknowledgement from the neighbours, the new reputation at family gatherings, the gradual shift in perception from the outside world, re-appraising you as someone with courage, strength; persists.
I was mid-hike, when I stopped to listen to the sound of the rapids, crouched on an embankment. I saw a toddler waddle over to the edge, curiosity piqued by the bubbling water underneath. Before I could shout to stay back, she slipped and slid down the trail of wet mud, into the swirling water. Seeing her face crumple as she went, without hesitation or thought, I found myself following her, running down the mud-trail, and launching into the water.
The details will be inexact — there was no feeling of falling, only of being underwater. The water thundered in my ears as I allowed myself to be whisked into the rapids. Minutes later, the girl was found, rescued, and I stumbled onto the bank, bleeding from cut rock, but heart pumping from the adrenaline. The mother ran over and grabbed the child, someone called Buzzfeed, and the rest is history.
I never thought I could be a hero, in the classical, Superman sense. I did my work, paid the bills, and had a job that paid generously — as I thought of it, my life was a happy, stable equilibrium, left best undisturbed. But I had jumped in headfirst, and now my mind was awhirl from the adrenaline and my heart bursting with purpose. Undoubtedly, my day job was meaningful — I impacted people and made products, and millions of people’s lives were marginally simpler, quicker, and more efficient as a result.
But I wanted to be a hero — I wanted to save lives.
Fast forward 5 years, we are bequeathed with a pandemic. The meaning of being a hero is transformed. Just stay home, and wear a mask. Do that, and you will reduce the death toll. You have the opportunity to save lives. Passively sitting at home, vegetating infront of a screen didn’t feel heroic in the slightest — but probabilities didn’t lie, and statistically, a rigid adherence to protocols meant saving the most lives. Everyone was a hero that year.
But there was no pumping adrenaline — there was bitterness, burnout, and confusion. It was painful to see 5000 deaths everyday, but it was equally painful to see 5999, and 8500, and as the numbers climbed, the pain and empathy didn’t scale proportionally — death meant sad, and emotions don’t do maths.
And so I learnt about the distinction between System 1 and System 2 thinking —System 1, intuitive and affect-based, is associated with emergency reflex responses, like jumping in rapids to save a life.
System 2 is rational, and deliberate, requiring concentration, computation, and explicit decision-making, like masking up in public spaces to potentially save additional lives. While System 1 can’t scale up grief proportionate to the increasing death count, System 2 can make the moral appraisal to recognise this is bad, and spur action.
It seemed as though, if I wanted to consistently, reliably, and impactfully be heroic, I would have to use System 2 thinking — a more thoughtful approach to figuring out how to do good sustainably and scalably.
Tech companies deploy swaths of software engineers to optimise algorithmic performance — how can software function at peak performance, using as few computational resources as possible? Answering this saves them billions of dollars.
And capitalists ask — how can we allocate people’s savings across different assets to maximise returns? Answering this makes them billions of dollars.
And EAs ask — how can we diagnose the biggest problems facing humanity so that we can most efficiently and presciently deploy resources to maximise good for its current and future generations? Answering this can save billions of lives.
I discovered, the principles of EA — or effective altruism — align closely with my superheroic vision of scalable good. That there is an entire movement devoted to doing good, better. Time and money are two levers that a person alone can use to drive social welfare. Money, by strategically donating to maximise impact. Or time, by working in a high-priority field, one that requires doing research, building infrastructure, and developing principled solutions, to save maximum lives across space and time — to collectively combat the potential causes of existential risk to humanity.
I had a friend at work, Clara, who would fill our 8am bus-rides to the office with endless unprompted existential chatter. One day, she asked if we would rather do something massively impactful and have no one know, or make the world think we had done something massively impactful, without actually having done anything.
In a wonderfully wholesome moment, the entirety of the group opted for the former. Everyone wanted to be a superhero — the true, authentic, incognito kind.
EA is a movement, but it is also a body of knowledge, and a community. EA democratises superheroism — enabling anyone to save the world in whatever way is most fulfilling, by providing tools, frameworks, and guiding questions to get started.
Mike Alsford said in Heroes & Villians: “To be heroic does not have to mean possessing the ability to stand against the evils of the world, either well or successfully, but just that one is willing to stand.”
Everyone can be a hero — they just have to be willing to stand.