Personal Endeavors vs Maximizing Social Impact, a philosophical exchange (1 of 4)

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?

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