Personal Endeavors vs Maximizing Social Impact, a philosophical exchange

I’m lucky enough to have some great friends, including Can Sar (who cofounded Apture) and Tony Wang (who’s getting a JD/MBA at Duke). We’ll trade emails on various topics from time to time – and I wanted to share one set of philosophical exchanges on the topics of personal endeavors and how they relate to a life focused on adding lots of value to society (which is a goal we all share). So Can starts the discussion off with a question:

Jason, one thing that I’m curious about is how you feel Gymnastics plays into this [discussion about how to lead a good life]? I know that Gymnastics is clearly not all that you are/were doing but how do you think pursuits like that play into it? I used to be against most sport as a distraction from improving the world (Soccer as opium for the masses) but now view at as one of the things that gives meaning to life and makes it worth protecting/improving but how do you feel about it from a personal perspective. I’ve been meaning to ask Jason Dunford [an Olympic swimmer we know] the same.

Great question. Before I could really answer, Tony jumped in…

Hey everyone,

I’ve been meaning to jump into this thread for a while now, but I also found Can’s question very difficult one to answer without pause for reflection. And I apologize in advance for writing a little formally (not sure why it turned out this way, probably wrote too many philosophy papers as an undergrad). Anyway, to reformulate what I think Can is asking Jason, the generalizable question is how do we justify activities that, on face value, are not about creating a positive impact in the world. The assumption is that gymnastics in Jason Shen’s case and swimming in Jason Dunford’s case look more like distractions from improving the world rather than reinforcements.

As I’ve been mulling over the question, I can think of countless pursuits of my own that appear to have no relationship whatsoever with improving the world. Hobbies like photography, cooking, and watching anime, to the reasonable person, would not count as activities that promote social good. That is not to say these activities can’t be directly linked to positive change — Ansel Adam’s work has helped the environmental movement communicate the inherent value within the American landscape just as Jamie Oliver’s cooking is currently being used to advance food policy issues around better nutrition in public schools. But for me, there is no truly defensible justification to my material pursuits that makes them noble. Though I may occasionally use the power of the lens to more powerfully communicate something in my work, or find that I form deeper relationships with people when I cook with them, these benefits are tangential to the truly selfish reasons of why I engage in these activities, which is largely for my own hedonistic leisure.

But perhaps this is an unfair comparison — after all, what I have listed are hobbies and hobbies may fall in a special category of things that are okay to have because they keep us sane and enable us to be better human beings. When I was a freshman, a friend of mine posted on her blog a metaphor that she had overheard which offers some insight as to the most effective way of giving. Imagine for a moment that there is a cup, a saucer, and a pitcher and that both the cup and the pitcher are filled with water and that the cup is on the saucer (crib notes: we have a filled cup on an empty saucer and a filled pitcher next to it). In this metaphor, the cup is supposed to represent us, the saucer is supposed to represent the world, and the pitcher is supposed to represent God (for the non-religious, the metaphor still works if you substitute God for “everything good in the world”). If you poured the contents of the cup on to the saucer, you’ll only be able to get a limited amount of water into the saucer. But, if you poured the contents of the pitcher into the cup, the contents of the cup would overflow onto the saucer, with the saucer receiving more water than if you simply poured the contents of the cup.

What this metaphor is meant to help us understand is that as individuals it is much easier for us to give back to the world when we are ourselves filled up. It is a metaphor that hints of Maslow’s hierarchy – we need to meet our own basic needs before we move up the pyramid; having hobbies and enjoying life may simply be a necessary condition beyond the basic necessities in our quest to achieve impact.

But there is an important distinction I think between my own experiences and perhaps those of the two Jason’s. For me, my hobbies may be tangential to whatever higher aspirations I may have about the change I wish to be in the world, but my work and my profession – at least in my own myopic view – are closely aligned to my pursuit of social good. But what if it were reversed? What if I spent most of my time in unrelated activities and pursued social good as a hobby? Would my choices and my actions be defensible?

I cannot answer for the two Jason’s (although we may be tempted to judge their integrity, it is rarely the case that we ever have sufficient information to make an accurate determination of another’s decision) I can say for myself that if my allocation of time, and perhaps more importantly willpower, to trying to change the world were any lower, I would not feel like I was putting in my best effort. And I try and keep myself accountable to the standards of others whose opinion of what might be a good faith effort will ensure that I put in an optimal amount of dedication to whatever pursuits we all consider to be nobler than our own self-interest.

I don’t think I provided a direct answer to Can’s original question, which was mainly directed at Jason (Shen); I too am curious as to the particular thoughts Jason has on the role gymnastics plays in his life as a person who lives by ethical principles. But perhaps the general answer is that activities that aren’t readily linked to creating positive change are in fact necessary for us to maximize impact. Discuss?




It took me a while, but I was able to write back

Tony- I didn’t think your email was too formal, but perhaps like you, I took too many philosophy classes at Stanford.

I’d like to discuss two different but related ideas here. The first is a more personal reflection on how I feel about my gymnastics career and how it fits into my (philosophical) worldview. The second is a more general conception of how personal pursuits that do not directly relate to improving the world are justified.

Firstly, I am very happy that I became a gymnast and 98% of the time, do not regret my decision to invest so heavily in time & energy in the sport. (The last 2% can be split into wishing my knee was ok, and wishing I had learned how to code instead). I tell anyone who will listen that gymnastics changed me as a person, forever. (As does anything, but you know what I mean)

To elaborate: I believe gymnastics tapped into and fostered my ability to work hard, commit to goals, overcome my fears, interact with people, deal with pressure, think audaciously, understand how my body works, and desire to strive for excellence while not making excuses.

These are things that I believe will serve me extremely well in my quest to do good in the world. Perhaps I could have also spent my time working on service oriented activities and created more impact on the world in that way. But I highly doubt that I would have had the opportunity to develop all those skills to the extent that I did. And I believe that when directed tirades activities for good, these traits/abilities are definitely a positive multiplier for end-impact. So in a sense, gymnastics served as a powerful training ground to prepare me for other difficult tasks, including those that benefit society.

But to address the second point, I refer to a quote by Howard Thurman – “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I believe in living a life that’s you could advocate for others (a sort of variation on Kant’s first categorical imperative). Would you advocate that everyone should live like Mother Teresa (or some other icon that represents total self-sacrifice for the greater good)? I would not.

This gets to a comment about leverage. You can only serve others so much on your own. At some point you need to leverage others. The optimal life that maximizes overall good is one where you balance doing good with enjoying yourself and sharing your work/message to the world so others are inspired to do likewise. (Good + Enjoyment + Promotion) * People you inspire = Aggregate Impact

To abstract even further, I ask the question: what is the point of being alive if you cannot experience pleasure & fulfillment in personal endeavors? Even if there are millions of people suffering and dying all around the world, two things are still true – everyone you know, including yourself, will experience some level of frustration, pain before dying. And that someday, our entire species, and in fact all life on Earth, will cease to exist. You have the power to significantly increase the well-being of at least one entity (yourself) while your ability to others is oftentimes very limited. You should work to help others, while not neglecting yourself.

Would love to hear all your thoughts on this. Glad we’re having this discussion.


Tony Again

Hi Jason et al.,

A couple of thoughts to chew on (since y’all are too far away for me to give food for thought):

I think we all can intuitively identify with the utilitarian theory of how to live an ethical life – as long as the activities that we engage in our somehow necessary to each of our maximal impact, then those activities themselves must be ethical. Jason, your explanation of gymnastics totally make sense to me and I can see how it is consistent with the utilitarian view of the ethical life.

However, I do have an unsettled concern regarding the second point which refers to Kant’s first categorical imperative (and points to my deeper objections to Kant). For those of you who have been lucky enough to not have been exposed to Kant’s writings, the simplified version of Kant’s first categorical imperative suggest that all of us should live our lives in a way that would be okay if everyone lived that way. The categorical imperative has perhaps more explanatory power than the utilitarian theory in explaining why we should live sustainably: the reasoning that we should live sustainably because everyone cannot live unsustainably may seem more intuitive than the reasoning that we should live sustainably because it maximizes impact. And as Jason points out, it seems intuitive that we should all live our lives in a way that we would all enjoy life.

But this line of reasoning gives me pause. Imagining a world where everyone acts equally ethical has a nice intuitive appeal – and to live life as if we lived in that world seems to provide mental comfort, but my concern is how we set the standard for ethical behavior in a world that isn’t quite so ethical. Going back to the previous example of sustainability, if we were to maximize impact, living sustainably may be an insufficient standard of ethical behavior when others are living unsustainably (why not live uber eco-friendly instead of just sustainably?). Although not everyone can be Mother Teresa, it seems odd to say that when one has the capacity to be Mother Teresa, one shouldn’t because not everyone can. If we can have more impact than others, shouldn’t we strive to maximize the positive impact we can have on the world?

Ultimately, the debate between utilitarian (maximum utility) and deontological (rules-based) ethics is a long-standing one that has partisan supporters on each side. In our case, compatibilists might argue that there really isn’t a conflict between living a life that maximizes impact (utilitarian) and living an enjoyable life that everyone could live (deontological). And I think the conflicts between the two are rare enough that in the scheme of trying to live ethically, the distinction probably doesn’t matter. But as a utilitarian, it’s hard for me to side with the deontologists when the two principles come into conflict. Put another way, it’s hard for me to think that it would be ethically obligatory to choose an enjoyable life that everyone could live when there is the opportunity to increase impact at the cost of some enjoyment.

Anyway, I should be reading the endless piles of stuff I have for class, but I enjoy these discussions (they seem to nurture the soul, which in my view, is necessary for me to achieve maximium impact. on a side note, we should make t-shirts that say MAXIMUM IMPACT, haha). Would love to have more people involved, but also happy to spar with Jason for all to view.


And then me again…
Hey Tony,

These posts are always so intellectually satisfying to write, but also consume a great deal of mental energy in the process and I haven’t had the time to put sustained focus into one until now, so I apologize for the delay in responding.

I have a good idea of where you’re coming from and your last few paragraphs touches on why I could never be a professional philosopher – not only does it typically not pay well but there are fundamental differences that are very difficult to resolve and most people don’t really care about them.

While I personally have some qualms with both consequential and denotological claims that are taken to the extreme, I personally am more of the former than the latter. Results matter more than intentions in my book.

However, given that, I would like to 1) add some nuances to how I perceive of the normative claims that consequentialism lays upon me and 2) describe how the quote by thurman “people who come alive” can still be extremely useful in generating impact even if it sounds more like the categorical imperative

In my view, we should consider consequentialism’s claims like a rubber band. On one end, there is an ideal form of behavior or lifestyle that somehow maximizes positive impact (however you define it, including taking risks to gain ability to help others, like founding a startup). On the other end, there is the most despicable form of behavior or lifestyle that produces maximum damage. Then there is your behavior – which is attached by moral rubber band to the ideal behavior.

The farther away you are from the ideal behavior (and thus the closer you are to the bad behavior) the stronger the claims have on you. Terrible people have enormously powerful moral claims put on them to improve their behavior. As their lifestyle becomes more positive, the rubber band tugs on them less. (As you can see, this version of consequentialism does not recognized a distinction between duty vs ought-to-but-don’t-have-to’s.) In this way, you can justify having hobbies or doing non-positive impact things for whatever reason – because when you are already doing a lot of good, the claims on you are weak.

The other point I want to make more directly addresses our “dispute” and that point is: thinking in a deonotological manner might actually produce more impact than focusing directly on producing maximum impact. Human beings are generally not good at doing complex calculations designed to produce a maximum. Most people, however, are good at following a few simple rules that might lead to, on average, pretty good outcomes. Heuristics are valuable.

The quote by Thurman – “Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that.” might still be extremely valuable advice from a consequentialist point of view if you believe that what makes people come alive will likely produce lots of positive impact. I do think that most people feel really alive when having positive interactions with others, performing acts of altruism, and avoiding things that cause pain and suffering. Therefore, this rule may in fact do a really good job of helping guide people towards consequentially awesome outcomes.

I’ve enjoyed this conversation a great deal and think that it might be interesting to post it on my blog (which I have redesigned and am now really excited to find content that might go on there… What do you say Tony? Mind if I post this series of philosophical “letters” to each other on the blog. Obviously you could edit them as you see fit or we could run them as is (after all, we thought it good enough to hit send right?)

Let em know!


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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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