What does it take to live a meaningful life? When everything is said and done, what will truly have mattered? Is it the accomplishments we achieved, the recognition we received, the legacy we left behind? Or is there something inherently meaningful in the lives we lead, the experiences we cherish, the people we love?
These were the sorts of questions that this Tuesday’s Veritas Forum at MIT brought to the fore. I’m several years out of my timeas an organizer of the annual discussion, but I’m happy to report that it’s still one of the best opportunities to have deep and engaging conversations about the important big picture questions of life.
As one of the presenters this year, Meghan Sullivan of Notre Dame, shared, Aristotle first distinguished activities which are worthwhile because of their purpose, or telos, from those which are fundamentally worthwhile in themselves. In modern parlance, we might talk about activities that are focused on the destination and those that are focused on the journey.
Sullivan gave the classic and clearly relevant example of college: We can derive telic value from the degree that we earn and corresponding training that we receive, and we can derive atelic value through the experience itself, the classes that we take and the friendships we form.
She went on to say that our telic purposes often feel threatened when we zoom out to the bigger picture and consider the vastness of the universe in both space and time, as we so often are encouraged to do in these sort of contexts. How insignificant do our entire <100 year lives seem on that scale? Even just considering the billions of humans on this planet, whatever we accomplish will affect only a tiny fraction of the world.
This can often lead straight into nihilism, the belief that there is no meaning to any of our actions. This is exactly where the book of Ecclesiastes begins:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, ESV
That very distress can also strike us when we imagine what people will think of us after we’re dead. This is why we so often hear the retort that someone is on the “wrong side of history” — that attack cuts to this hope to be remembered well.
As you can probably guess from the title, I think this zoomed-out mindset is exactly where we go wrong. To cut straight to my thesis, our lives were simply not meant for that scale of scrutiny, and attempting to evaluate them in that fashion is like trying to measure a little kid’s height with a telescope.
Before laying out my argument, I’d like to bring up another excellent example of this sort of thinking, courtesy of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:
I’m torn when reading this comic. On the one hand, it’s an awesome pitch for the pro-social opportunities that a career in data science affords, and I think a fairly accurate one at that. Don’t we all love it when we find ourselves in possession of exactly the skills that someone says the world needs?
But at the same time, this knock-off Superman is completely wrong about the ethics of do-gooding. The key is to notice all of the times he references the amount of good one could do in a relative sense. While maintaining our suspension of disbelief in superpowers, we could totally interpret any of the facts he mentions in the opposite light:
The Metropolis metropolitan area has thirty times as many people. Every time I stopped a mugger, it provided as much overall security as when you stop thirty.And because a larger society lends its citizens an even greater degree of anonymity, that means even more than thirty times as many opportunities to prevent crime. Business is great these days.
The more people and technology, the less the value of any individual hero. That’s why we all formed leagues in the 60s and 70s. These days, your organization needs at least forty heros, plus assistants, accounting, I.T., and so on. The support network is great; it frees us superheros to focus on the work that we’re best at while avoiding lawsuits like in The Incredibles.
Do you know the most efficient superhero todayhow much more effective we are today because we’ve learned best practices and put them into place, in terms of lives saved per dollar?
After all, why should we care about something like “overall security”? You could have pointed out that Country is such-and-such many times bigger than Metropolis, and it would be exactly as relevant to the conversation. The correct objective for individual do-gooders should and has always been “How many net lives did you save or improve?”, without adding “per capita.”
In the same light, it’s ridiculous to compare yourself to someone with a different set of superpowers. Speedsheet’s powers were useless before computerized spreadsheets were invented, and might very well become obsolete in the near future as the ability to analyze data gets more and more democratized. Don’t disparage her time in the spotlight! There’s plenty of good to be done by everyone.
There is one objective which does diminish as the population grows, though, and that’s prestige. Being the most famous person in a small town feels a lot better than having just as much total fame in a large city. As Lupe Fiasco put it,
So just take me home where the mood is mellow
And the roses are thrown, M&M’s are yellow
And the light bulbs around my mirror don’t flicker
Everybody gets a nice autograph picture
One for you and one for your sister
Who had to work tonight but is an avid listener
Every song’s her favorite song and mics don’t feedback
All the reviewers say “You need to go and see that”
And everybody claps cause everybody is pleased
And then they all take the stage and start performing for me
Lupe Fiasco, Superstar
It matters to Lupe that “everybody” in his crowd is pleased, no matter how many people are in it. And that’s because prestige can really afford no competitors, any more than Robert Angier and Alfred Bolden can stand the other performing better magic tricks in The Prestige.
In exactly the same way, discount Superman is really complaining that it’s no longer prestigious to be a superhero in a bigger world where you can’t even be the best. His claimed utilitarianism is really just for show. He never actually cared about saving people’s lives or preventing crime; he just cared about being famous for saving lives and preventing crime.
Back in the real world, I noticed a similar dynamic at work in Singapore’s food culture. There, the rumors have it, some of the best food comes from hole-in-the-wall places where a chef (or “hawker”) has perfected their recipe and served it at the same location over generations. You really have to go to the source and wait in line for hours, they say, and sometimes they only serve customers at weird times like 10pm to 3am.
When I first heard about this practice, I was surprised and honestly a bit skeptical. Why don’t these chefs write down their recipes and teach others how to make them? Why not franchise more shops, offering more people a chance to taste that great food and, well, make more money in the process? Wouldn’t that be a win-win for everyone?
Well, in some cases, that’s just about as likely as the magicians in The Prestige training others to perform their tricks and taking a commission. It just feels viscerally good to be the only shop in town that can make that particular dish just right, to have a ridiculously long line out your shop’s door at 2am, to see just how otherwise miserable people are willing to make themselves to taste your food. If you franchise more stores or raise your prices, you lose out on that experience of being the talk of the town.
So how do we avoid the temptation of optimizing for prestige rather than directly doing good? How can we make ourselves more like Norman Borlaug?
(Wait, you haven’t heard of Norman Borlaug? That just goes to show how uncorrelated prestige and true value are…)
For many of us, this starts with explicitly rejecting the jealous motivation of prestige. In my own journey, I needed to grow up from the motivation of dominating my peers at math competitions to find my purpose in serving, not just showing people that I was smarter than them.
Similarly, if you’re in the academic world, perhaps you need to take some time off, maybe an internship or a sabbatical, to get away from adding pages and pages to our CVs, a process that MIT Professor Cullen Buie has called “building our own ivory tower of Babel.”
As a blogger, I’ve also needed to allow myself to take some time off when I don’t have anything good to write. After all, I’m not writing because I have a reputation to uphold, so if I’m going to write something, it had better be worth your time to read.
The next step is simply to temper our expectations. I know it’s always tempting to hope that some decision that we make will have lasting effects on generations to come. But whatever our circumstances, the vast majority of us are not in a position to do anything that consequential, and sometimes hoping to have that sort of influence can also hold back our successors who are forced to deal with the decisions we’ve made in new contexts.
Instead, we should focus on doing direct good as much as possible for people alive today, and value people in the future proportionately lower. This is especially true since our most direct interaction with those who are born after we die will be when they hear or read about us in whatever medium of communication is popular then, an interaction that is almost entirely mediated by prestige.
I’ve written before that college is a microcosm of life, and I think this message has held up in that context as well. By revisiting my community every year for the first five years, I got to see first-hand how the influence I and the others in my class had faded.
The longest-lasting change that I could cleanly trace back to my own actions was an application form for an Off-Campus Alley living arrangement, the rules of which I developed. The core tension was that the OCA had more beds than a typical dorm room, yet all of its occupants could previously be “chosen” by just one person early in the pick order, leading to the first few people feeling immense pressure to claim it for them and all of their friends. In order to bring this influence more in line with other typical room picks (mostly doubles, some singles and triples), I proposed a system where groups of people would submit bids for the rooms, with the bid going to the group with the best possible sum of the better half (rounded up) of their pick positions.
Unfortunately, even that protocol didn’t completely correctly get passed down. When we first used this rule, the OCA had five beds, so the top three picks counted. But in the room picks for the 2017-2018 year, Avery had a different OCA which had 8-11 beds, and they still only counted the top three picks, seemingly copy-pasting the previous year’s form without consulting the documentation around it.
And then, in 2018-2019, the opening of a new dorm led to the closing of every house’s Off-Campus Alleys across the campus. In all, my efforts to establish a more just system in the room picks process had effects for only about 6-7 years, and in at least the last one of those, only partially.
I can totally see why people tend to favor long-term impact over short-term impact, permanent solutions over temporary solutions, and so on. If you could do some amount of good through devising a better public policy, say, then the total good coming out of that policy will be much higher than just the first year’s worth of value, even essentially unbounded.
The catch is exactly what happened with my OCA form: the future will be different from the present in ways we can’t currently predict. This is why economists account for future value with an exponentially decreasing coefficient. The logic is sound: Say there is a fixed probability p that any solution today will stop working within any given year. Then the probability that it is still working n years in the future is (1 – p)^n, an exponential decay.
If we want to add up all of the expected total value that comes from changing systems, rather than a potentially unbounded total, the geometric series puts a cap on that value. If the value in the first year is V, with that same probability of failure of p, the total will be just V/p. You can think of 1/p as the “expected lifetime” of the solution, essentially a measure of the rate of change.
Moreover, oftentimes we don’t really control p. Building systems that are more robust to possibly different futures is of course preferable, but sometimes these shocks to the system are external or hard to predict. Instead, then, we should focus on maximizing that present-day value V. Especially if p is not particularly small, it’ll end up contributing a substantial fraction of the total value.
Whether we’re avoiding the wireheading of optimizing for prestige or simply trying to maximize our own total effectiveness, this is the case for caring about doing good in the present, not about what the future will think. Just do good today; it’s okay if they don’t remember you for it.