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A modern list of things to do before 30

I’m still in my late 20s, and these lists pop up from time to time. I find most of the lists out there to be offensive, either by their disaggregating by gender in an old-fashioned way or by otherwise seeming to be written by those in their 50s.

Yes, I disagree with the idea of these lists at all (who wants to be told what to do in a cookie-cutter way?), but I felt it would still be a fun exercise to think about what a modern update might look like.

Do you have any suggestions for things to put on the list?

1. Code
2. Be unemployed (unless you do 1)
3. Have a meme go viral
4. Try an app relating to “the quantified self”. (Whether to track spending, sleep, etc.)
5. Make a mistake publicly on the internet where it will live on forever
6. Realize everyone else does, too, or if they don’t they aren’t doing anything worthwhile
7. Go somewhere. Could be a different country, even just a different part of the country. My friend Casey puts it: “TRAVEL YOUR ASS OFF. You don’t have your entire life to have an utter lack of responsibility if you’re planning to have kids.”
8. Learn about behavioural economics and the mistakes you might make, such as how you may be affected by projection bias. You can easily waste a lot of time being upset about things that won’t matter in time or going the wrong direction because of mistaken beliefs
9. Remember that xkcd comic strip about the value of becoming more efficient at a task? When you’re young, you stand to benefit for a lot longer from any positive improvements you can make. So figure out how to eat well, what kind of things make you happy, etc. Invest a lot of time in learning, not necessarily formally
10. Crowdsource something (or crowdfund – did you know there are even sites now where you can crowdfund your personal travel? Don’t know how well they work….)
11. Outsource something. Learn what you can or can’t accomplish this way
12. Speak with people. It can sometimes help you more than anything else. Relatedly, hang out with amazing people who are better than you
13. Give back. You are what you repeatedly do. If you don’t exercise your other-regarding preferences they will wither
14. One last related point, courtesy of my friend Adam: “Spend time doing what you want to do later: everything you do now determines what you are good (or better) at later. If you spend all your time doing nothing, you will only be good at nothing when you want to be able to do something.”

Thoughts? I feel that with increasing inequality, using your youth well is all the more important, something I bet Tyler Cowen would agree with.


What you should value and how to obtain it are two separate issues

Eric Herboso mentioned recently that GiveWell doesn’t value non-human animal lives much.

What a controversial subject! I know people who value animal lives at 0% of human lives; I know people who would say that all animals are equal. Whether you value an animal life at 0.002 of a human life, as in Eric’s example, 0, or 1 makes a huge difference to which kinds of programs you think one ought support.

This really highlights what I’ve always said about how there are two separate issues that those in the non-profit business all-too-often conflate: what is the most effective way at obtaining an outcome, and how to value outcomes.

When advocating for particular causes, people often shove under the rug the fact they’re saying anything about the second one. It might be clear which outcomes are under discussion (e.g. DALYs/QALYs), but there should still be more discussion of why these are the right ones. If we can’t even agree on the value placed on non-human animal lives, there is no way we can agree on what we should do, and this is just one issue among many on which we might disagree. (For example, do we value education at all, or just health?)

I’m not saying that people’s values are sacrosanct; there could theoretically be value in arguing with someone over what they should value. But let’s transparently separate the two issues. AidGrade, for its part, has been simply presenting outcomes. People with a wide range of beliefs can thus use the results. I would be all for weighting these results in some more complicated function, but arguing for a particular function is an entirely different enterprise.


Disrupt peer review

A great thought from my friend Gautam Rao: “Academic papers should have reviews and ratings like products on Amazon. Peer review shouldn’t be a one time thing.”

I’d really like to see this happen. Citations could cover this in theory but they don’t in practice. Anyone want to do this?

P.S. Gautam is on the job market this year! Check him out!


A change: NY, NY!

I’m happy to share that I will be joining NYU for a post-doc with the Development Research Institute there. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to interact with such a fantastic group of people and will hopefully have the chance to focus a bit more on research and pushing papers out the door.

This is the institute associated with Bill Easterly and Aid Watch, but it’s entirely independent of my work with AidGrade and you shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. They haven’t been focusing on aid recently, and neither they nor I thinks traditional aid is a large part of the picture; I have always used a broad definition of aid. I’m excited about the opportunity and anticipate some great conversations. Let me know if you’re in the city!


How to give under risk

Part 2 of a series on risk; see part 1 here

A subtle point that I have made elsewhere is that the less sure we are of the outcomes of a development program, the more we should diversify. This is the reason we diversify our investments for ourselves, after all, so why don’t we diversify our investments for others?

Again, I stress that this is a very minor point, because any individual does not need to diversify if, across many individuals, there is already a lot of diversification. Still, it’s worth mentioning because the risk and uncertainty that underlies development programs’ expected outcomes is often glossed over.

A minor criticism of GiveWell (in addition to previous more substantive comments here) relates to this. They recommend only three charities, as they rightly see that there are opportunity costs to giving – we have limited funds to give, so we had better give them to the most effective charities. But, under risk, the most effective option is a diverse bundle. Again, I don’t think this is a major issue, since across individuals there is ample diversification. I just would prefer more honesty about it because I think it really does give the wrong impression about how much we know.

What is more important as an issue, and very neglected in the literature, is the diversity of effects a particular program might have. This comic explains it well. As the world develops more and more, you can easily imagine that the mean effect for a number of programs might go to zero. We need to start paying more attention to the distribution. Here, too, is where meta-analysis can help.