Causes, Part 1

Hey all,

Hope you’re doing well :). I’ve been thinking a lot about “causes” recently. I haven’t been able to visualize a structure for how I want to organize this post, so in the interests of actually writing it, I’ve decided to just start putting words to virtual paper. We begin!

I like causes. I like to ask people about them: “So, do you have a cause? Something that you’re working towards? It can be outside of work or associated with work or whatever.” I’ll usually prompt people: “My cause is probably women in science.”

A lot of people aren’t sure about this question. A lot of people come up with reasonable answers to this question; things that sound like they’re voicing an answer for the first time but that this is an idea that they believe in. There are answers that fit my expectations and a few that I never would have thought about, and I immensely enjoy all of them. People have said “climate change,” and go on to detail the work they’ve done in that area. “Social change,” and describe their PhD work. “Healing.” “Family.” “Faith.”

(Mine, for the record, is “women in science” on the side and “discovery of the underlying rules of human behavior” on the main, which I outline in one of my posts. It gets kind of complicated though, and it veers into controversial topics if I’m not careful, so I usually use the most straightforward option as an example.)

I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to people with all of these answers, and all of them have been incredibly open and considerate in their responses. It might be a Cambridge thing—something very special that I’ve found here more than anywhere else at any rate, and I think that this environment in particular encourages it. I’ll disagree with someone on religion or another topic, and ask a question about it, and people will ruminate and provide an explanation, taking no offense and thinking their argument through. People have an immense amount of patience with me, and interest in stretching their minds, and it’s always so non-defensive and respectful it makes my mind boggle.

I’ll start with the “climate change” answer.

Two weeks ago I went to a lecture on positive investment in sustainability, which is the opposite of the divestment movement—basically how you invest money to result in a more sustainable (climate-wise) future. I was invited by my lovely friend Stephanie, who is part of an organization called Positive Investment Cambridge (PIC). PIC has, according to the speaker, made amazing inroads on positive investment in Cambridge and is providing an example to many other institutions across the nation. (The phrasing here reflects the fact that I knew nothing about PIC before I came to this lecture, not that I doubt my sources.) The lecturer gave a very well-delivered and optimistic lecture on the progress that had been made and future steps. The questions from the audience were meaningful and more pessimistic, likely because they too were working from the trenches and it’s easy to be discouraged when you’re in the midst of something.

What I liked best was the discussions at the pub afterward. (I’m getting better at this. I actually got on my bike and left the lecture after it finished, then reconsidered and turned myself back around to go to the pub with everyone else. I’ve learned that people don’t actually care when you say: “I’m leaving now,” and then “Whoops, I changed my mind.” It’s not too late to change your mind.)

I talked with a few people at the pub. (Incidentally, the pub was where Watson and Crick first presented their findings on DNA. How did I not know this? Also, where they stole Rosalind Franklin’s findings~). The first person I sort of false-started with, because he was pursuing the same form of information-gathering that I do. I’ve written about this before, but I have a conversation style that’s often aimed at extracting as many opinions as I can that I couldn’t have generated in my own head. He was a professor in a university in London, and obviously knew quite a bit about this topic and its relation to sustainability in companies, so I was asking him questions about what he knew. At some early point though he asked me: “so what are your opinions on this?” I said I didn’t really have any yet given that I didn’t know enough. “Surely, you must.” I still didn’t. When a conversational lead opened up, I did try to tell him about what I did know and what I was interested in—my “discovery” cause, specifically, which I find one of the most interesting bits about myself. He was not interested, and was making those moves which indicate: “can I stop talking with you now?” Humorously, this conversation had one of the most easily-comprehensible subtexts I’ve ever experienced: I knew exactly what was going on in his head, because I’ve gotten stuck on the other side of these conversations many times myself :). It’s funny, which events and conversations we treasure. When I get into a good conversation with someone, it often feels like it has a huge component of luck. Some people are amazing across the board, and their qualities appear very early on in conversation. With other people I’m wandering around the vast conversational landscape and hit upon a gold mine, and suddenly I’m hearing about a specific topic they care deeply about and is foreign to my worldview. And then there are people where I’m sure they must have something interesting to tell me, and I can’t find it. Depending on how physically mobile I am in the social situation, sometimes I have to sit there and dig for a long time at this person instead of trying someone else. And it’s the most depressing when you’ve invested a lot of time in someone and you still can’t find anything you want to hear about. Perhaps I’ve missed it (deep topics are hard to reach, after all) or perhaps I just didn’t happen to be in a mindscape to appreciate it. Conversations can be so touch-and-go, and I always feel incredibly lucky when I discover depths I didn’t expect in someone. Says something about my expectations, I think, and time, and this particular trait of pursuit-of-knowledge.

(Ha, I knew I’d tangent. This is often a blog about social situations, though, and the thoughts so often circle back around.)

I settled in at a table eventually. Met an incredibly charismatic guy on my left, involved myself in a relatively easy conversation on academics with a group of my right, in-depth quizzed a newly-joined undergraduate on PIC across from me. That’s a funny thing, too—if you want to learn baseline information, it’s often best to ask people below you on the power scale. (I feed into this myself—if it makes me feel powerful to talk to someone, I’m much more likely to engage. This is a weird way to put it, of course. There’s only about a three year difference maximum between me and whatever undergraduate I meet. It’s just that academia is such a hierarchy… the first question you ask someone after their name and what they’re studying is where they are in the process (undergrad, masters, grad student, postdoc). You act accordingly.) This power difference is maybe why I appreciate talking to people older than me so much—because they’re taking the time to give me knowledge and they don’t have to. I also value them especially because they have more big-picture, wiser things to say because they’ve had the time and experience to assimilate knowledge. Age isn’t a complete correlate of information-value—I associate people across a wide range of ages as “approximately the same age as me” given the content of our conversations—but it’s a decent correlate. Sometimes you’ll hit that sweet spot when they’re old enough to know loads, and young enough to still consider you a friend and not a mentee.

After being briefed on the basic info, I asked the charismatic guy—who seemed to be a relative leader in this organization—how much time he devoted to Positive Investment Cambridge (PIC). Everyone I’d talked to so far had been deeply invested in the organization and its goals, and I’m currently very interested in understanding how much time and effort people devote to their causes. “Oh, not much,” he said. “In an optimum world, I’d like to devote maybe 30 minutes to PIC every day. But maybe an hour or two a week, depending on the week.”

And that’s the crazy thing, isn’t it? If we aren’t so lucky as to study our “cause” at work, it becomes a side hobby, and none of us have much time for side hobbies.

(I test participants for my experiment at work, and I frequently ask them questions during the breaks to keep the both of us entertained (my labmate Joey says: “even if your results don’t work out, Monica, you’ll have conducted the craziest social experiment”). One question I like asking (it’s a Thursday question, when I’ve already had time to get to know the participant Monday through Wednesday) is: “What would you do if you had infinite time and money?” Some of the answers are quite interesting: some people want to buy things, or go into space, or travel, or not change anything at all. I would keep all of the elements in my life the same, but redistribute my time according to how much weight I place on my interests. The question is: how much weight per interest? Because it seems to me that a valid strategy might be investing most in those items which give you the maximum value per time unit (like PIC, which is impacting the world). And yet that is not how I operate.)

He asked me if I were interested in joining PIC, and I made an “uh…” face and he laughed and immediately moved on. (Charismatic guy, really. I’d love to know what makes up charisma, because you definitely know it when you see it.) But there was definitely some brain whirring going on behind the “uh” face, because I don’t see why I shouldn’t join PIC. It’s a cause I care about, and I see this organization as making real contributions that I find meaningful. I think I’d hate the work: I really dislike work that primarily involves trying to convince other humans of things they don’t already believe and have no incentive to change their minds for, especially if there are complex network connections involved. But finding something hard isn’t really a good reason not to do it.

It comes down to time investment, then. I am so lucky that my most valuable resource is time. Given that we all have to work (… unless your most valuable resource really, really is not money), we all have to play (… I’ve given up. There’s a certain amount of my life I simply have to devote to mindless consumption), we all have to do administrative things, and we all have to do living things, I think we only have enough room for one side-cause if we have the willpower leftover for that. And I could pick any side-cause really, but it’s easiest to pick one that fits into my work. I see it with the PIC people too: mostly social sciences people, some scientists. If you’re going to spend the time to become an expert in one domain, you might as well have some overlap with whatever else you’re doing.

It does beg the question though: are there some causes that are more valuable than others? The answer must be yes. There are always problems that are more long-term than others, that impact more people, that will cause more unhappiness, that will cost more money. It’s great that everyone cares about different things (and enjoys doing different things, which is why we can stay invested in the long-term), because then we can work on a bunch of problems in parallel. But there are some causes which definitely have a higher-priority weight than others if we use “human quality of life” as the metric we’re trying to maximize. (And yes, I know that “quality of life” is a basket case of philosophical conundrums, but one point at a time :)).

Should those problems have more people working on them than others? Yes, in proportion to the weight we place on them. Should those problems receive more funding and attention than others? Yes. Who should decide the weights on each of these problems? (Some mathematical algorithm.) Who actually decides the weights on each of these problems? As far as I can tell, how loudly and convincingly people can get other people to care about their respective cause, in an incredibly messy graph of people who are densely inter-connected and have way too many motivations and subtleties to understand.

(You know who some of the people I admire most are? People who have made it their job to sort through all the chaos that is human interpersonal communication to work towards causes that are unequivocally “right” (…high benefit to humanity as a whole, high costs to large subsets of individuals if not accomplished). I’d hate doing these jobs so much, but it really needs to be done. How can I support them?)

Some peoples’ work really is more worthy than others. Not that it matters much, because most of us spend most of our time doing non-relevant-to-larger-humanity-picture things anyway, so when anyone is doing anything worthy we want to encourage them in their behavior. Moreover, practically it’s not like I’m a paragon of influence, and not many of us know how to influence the world as an individual.

(The professor who got bored of talking to me earlier: “why would you want to do anything as an individual? Join a group of people like PIC. Things don’t get accomplished as an individual.” I don’t know why I feel like figuring out what to invest in has to be done as an individual. I think a lot of it has to do with how I was raised. First, in a Western society, and especially as an American, which prizes individual freedom of choice. Second, in a family which emphasized being really, really invested and knowledgeable before you support any cause. Third, science training, which is intensely independent and further reinforces self-reliance. This background combined with my personal traits seem to have created a personality which doesn’t even consider un-exhaustively-examined group membership as an option when I’m explicitly presented with an option? The fact that I’m an all-or-none kind of person in my hobbies seems to support this. Though I very much agree with his general point—groups of people are wonderful, especially when tasks are allocated well between group members. I just feel like I need to know enough to be confident that everyone’s tasks, including my own, are well allocated to achieve the goal.)

We live in an imperfect world, and there’s no one we could agree on to tell us what is perfect, anyway. But we have all of these people with some version of “right” in their heads, pushing hard to influence other people so that the world can be made more right, and I deeply admire people who do this work. (Well, I admire those people who also have causes that I believe in. “Right” might be relative, and in some cases it’s not. I’m happy to debate causes that are ambiguously “right” or “wrong” (because what do I know—other people are experts!), but there are some things that we all agree should happen, mostly involving hurting others, that just haven’t happened yet.)

The funniest thing of all to me is that this is all human-centric. These problems are not universe problems, or solar-system problems. They’re not even really planet-problems, because while we care about climate change, the rhetoric is more about future and current generations of humans. We can care about animals, but as a species we’ve done a spectacular job of wiping most of the scary ones out, decreasing biological diversity, changing the biosphere. And we haven’t even been here all that long. The vast majority of our problems are human-centered, human-created, and human-impact. Just one species wandering along, destroying other species along the way, but mostly interacting with itself. It’s the most reassuring thing I can think of, really. No matter what happens—if we blow up the world, nuclear-bomb everyone, wipe out everything—that’s the worst that we could do. It’s contained to this world, and only matters to us, and we’ll be gone.

It’s so lovely being human, wired to care so deeply about the things we do, driven to find satisfaction in finding meaning. So happy to be human, and a very lucky human within our world.

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