- Published 30 Jan 2020
- Updated 31 Jan 2020
This profile is part of the "People of Giving What We Can" series by Alexandra Heller.
What are you currently up to in life?
I work in banking, specifically in treasury and trade solutions. My team helps corporations with their supply chain financing needs. After 11 years in Singapore, I recently relocated to London. I was really thrilled the visa clearance came just in time for me to attend EA Global — in fact, I went straight to EA Global within hours of landing in London.
What was EA Global like?
This was my first time! It was incredibly inspiring to meet people from so many different walks of life. I spoke to folks in academia, earning to give, fieldwork, movement building, and from different cause areas. I tried to focus on cause areas I don’t normally gravitate toward. I have a somewhat marked pre-existing bias towards extreme poverty and climate justice (I think those are interrelated), so I tried to prioritize meeting folks working on other areas like nuclear policy and AI safety. I have to say I was mildly intimidated because I don’t have an academic background and I felt not as competent when discussing many topics, but people were very friendly.
Why did you join Giving What We Can?
Taking the pledge was a long journey; it didn’t come naturally or easily to me. It took me nearly 3 years to actually sign up after I first discovered it. I came upon Giving What We Can through my involvement in the Zen Buddhism community.
In Buddhism, the concept of giving or generosity (dāna in Pali) is very important. It’s one of the ten perfections that practitioners try to cultivate. We are to continually ask: “How can I give?” which includes giving of our wealth, but also our time, resources and careers. However, I always felt I was donating in a rather ad hoc and reactive way, typically following news of some calamity. It didn’t seem wholehearted. I was looking for motivational resources when I came across the Giving What We Can website. The message was so simple: “Give 10% of income.” It was a no-brainer. I first tried giving $100 consistently per month, and then gradually increased that when I realized it wasn’t so difficult. I’m now at 11.5% of income.
Giving has made little difference to my quality of life. If I can save so many lives with no noticeable change in my own, I should probably do it. Besides, for all my involvement in social justice issues, if I don’t share the biggest source of my privilege — my wealth — how can I claim to profess solidarity?
Which organizations do you give to?
I give an additional 1.5% to mindfulness communities. I think Zen is very relevant today, when a lot of things can keep us busy but don’t necessarily translate to meaning or connection.
There is some discussion within Effective Altruism about expanding moral concern as a high-impact cause area, which resonates strongly with me. My Zen community is deeply engaged in social justice issues. One of our five mindfulness trainings is the practice of “True Happiness.” We try to contemplate how the happiness or suffering of other beings is also our own happiness and suffering. Real happiness needs to include all of us without exception.
What are the issues in the world that you care most deeply about?
I feel frustrated with the frequent lack of understanding in developed nations of just how much worse other parts of the world have it. I especially find apathy for climate change shocking, given the contribution of rich nations to this chaos. As the global affluent, I think we have a responsibility to redress extreme poverty and climate injustice.
In the last year, I have also been increasingly concerned about catastrophic threats like nuclear conflict or pandemics. They’re massively neglected, and all it takes is one catastrophe to cause immense suffering.
Do you ever find it difficult to give?
Absolutely. I make my contribution annually, not monthly. So it’s a one-time massive payment when I do my finances for the year. Every time, I hesitate. I don’t have too many material aspirations, but I do think it would be nice to save up more for a house or further studies. However, I always feel really good once I’ve made my donation — like I’ve done something I can be truly proud of.
Also, it’s useful to remind myself: had my salary been 10% lower in a parallel universe, would I even have known the difference? Would I have been 10% less happy? I doubt it.
Do you try to effect change in any other way?
Mostly through community building. I was involved in the EA community in Singapore shortly after they had started it. It was so new, it sometimes felt like just a bunch of outsiders hanging out at bars and discussing fascinating topics. But it’s been heartening to see the community grow there over the years.
I focused mainly on spreading awareness of the Giving What We Can pledge and engaging with kindred organizations by introducing them to key ideas like cost-effectiveness.
What do you hope for?
First, I hope that extreme suffering and catastrophic risks are curbed (that’s going to take us a while). Second, I hope we consciously steer ourselves as a civilization away from things that feel worthwhile but are superficial. All our incentive structures today push us to chase material affluence or professional status — but those turn out to be artificial sweeteners. More intelligence won’t help us here, because it doesn’t guarantee wisdom. Thirdly, once we’ve done [the first two], we can dig in and explore reality. I have a strong affinity towards the virtue ethics schools. Once we’ve reduced catastrophic risk, once we’ve removed extreme poverty, I think we will realize what really drives us is the quest for meaning and understanding.
Have any books or documentaries or articles or studies significantly changed the way you see giving?
I can’t remember who said it, but I remember reading a Zen aphorism once that went, “Money does not belong to you. Money belongs to society.” And I had a lovely “aha” moment that’s stuck since. I’d recommend Zen writing to anyone, especially books by Thich Nhat Hahn. My favorites are The Sun, My Heart and the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names.”
I have a deep admiration for the Stoics, in particular the exhortations by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca to look deeply and honestly at ourselves. We can’t control most of reality, but we can direct our minds to respond wisely and help where we can.
This year, I was captivated by The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure, classics of Samurai literature. Those warriors were intense, to put it mildly. But boy did they have perspective. Their writing is replete with near-constant reminders of death, how transient this life is, and our immense potential for pursuing meaning. “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world,” as Miyamoto Musashi enjoins.
How do you see earning to give versus other ways of making an impact?
Earning to give to charity is the easiest step we can each take right away. Whatever else we’re doing, we can save lives right away with very little impact on ourselves. Some of us may be inspired and go on to pursue direct work in a high-impact cause area, and that’s fantastic. But for many, that’s likely not going to happen. So it’s absolutely important to continue promoting a culture of giving. We may not do everything we set out to, but we can each do what we can.