Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 2, on the Difficulty of Doing Development

For most of January, I worked in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Many people have asked me about my reflections on it and how my life changes after it, so I’ve written up my reflections here in Part 1 and this post.

Tech in the World has a stated mission: “to expose top computer science students to underserved needs in developing communities and the various ways technology can be applied to address these global issues.” Certainly there is something more underlying that mission; why expose computer science students to developing nations? So that those students will work there and help make an impact on an area of the world that is impoverished and could greatly improve in quality of life.

So if you want a final assessment on Tech in the World and whether it is achieving this ultimate goal, you will ask the question, “Andrew, how do your future plans change after doing development work in Tanzania?” For some reason, I found this question quite hard to answer the first few times I was asked, but then simplified the question by envisioning two (among many possible) post-graduate futures for myself. The first has me working as a technologist and problem solver in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people I admire and learn from, and solving a problem interesting both technically and in terms of the “business” questions surrounding the value my company can provide, my long-term strategy to achieving my mission, etc. Ideally, I am riding an innovation “wave” in a slow but important industry that is just beginning to accelerate, such as government, education, or energy. Let’s call this future “Comfortable Future.”

The second future has me in Tanzania doing (and rising in) software, global health, investment, or really any type of work that improves the state of human and economic development in the country (see Part 1 for concrete examples of development problems to be solved). I may be working within an institution like Ifakara Health Institute or starting my own, and of course I’ll be living in Tanzania with both my favorite and least favorite aspects of its culture, climate, and daily facts of life (such as electricity outages). Let’s call this future “Uncertain Future.”

Which future looks better as I close my eyes to imagine each? If “Uncertain Future” means graduating and immediately pursuing work akin to my Tech in the World experience prolonged for several years, everything else constant, then I would prefer “Comfortable Future.” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my Tech in the World experience—given the same choice back in the fall with the hindsight I have now, I would certainly still have gone. Rather, I initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of being one of the very few Harvard (math and CS) graduates, technologists, people from the United States, and people from my friend group to dedicate several years of my life struggling to solve problems in Tanzania’s pole pole culture, being almost alone in my decision to go there in the first place. After trying to break down this discomfort in terms of my values of personal growth and world welfare (note how this has evolved from previously named “memorable achievement”), I can imagine changes to the “Uncertain Future” scenario that would make me prefer it over “Comfortable Future.” I think that these changes actually illustrate some of the reasons that many peers and I hesitate about doing development work despite knowing about the significant problems to which they could contribute.

I would prefer “Uncertain Future” over “Comfortable Future”…

1. If I were no longer personally growing in “Comfortable Future.”

For example, if I found that in 20 years, I had learned all I cared to learn about Silicon Valley—developing my software and hardware engineering expertise, having extensive experience leading a company or two in different industries, seeing a wide variety of problems, learning to work with all types of people (within Silicon Valley, that is), and building relationships and community with shakers and movers—then I would prefer the new challenge and growth opportunity offered by “Uncertain Future.” My desire for personal growth is like the American obsession with expansion of the frontier during manifest destiny, always pushing boundaries into the unknown and untested parts of me and improving (aka colonizing) those parts. This scenario is pretty conceivable.

2. If a bunch of people I admired and wanted to learn from decided to start working in “Uncertain Future.”

Even if this happened right after graduation, I think I would go for “Uncertain Future” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately (based on the anecdotal evidence of my friends and network at Harvard and MIT), I see a much higher concentration of people I admire and can learn from following “Comfortable Future” instead of “Uncertain Future.” These “people I admire” include several highly visionary, charismatic or empathic, and/or brilliant friends I have met in college or while working, as well as leaders who inspire the entire communities I come from—Silicon Valley and Harvard. (From Silicon Valley, such leaders include leaders of recent visionary enterprises like Google, Microsoft, Khan Academy, Udacity, Palantir, Dropbox, Asana, Cloudera, OpenGov, as well as Silicon Valley legends like Xerox PARC, investors like Peter Thiel, and innovators like Elon Musk. From Harvard, such leaders mainly include academics like Amartya Sen, Niall Ferguson, Steve Pinker, Doug Melton, Joe Blitzstein, Ed Glaeser, and Paul Farmer.) This higher concentration of people I admire mainly doing work in entrepreneurship, technology, academia, and (to a much lesser extent) finance and consulting doesn’t seem to be spilling over to work in international development, and I sense this is a chicken and egg problem in which the people who I think I could learn from are not in development because they themselves want to be surrounded by people they admire, and of course not many of them are willing to go do work in Tanzania without having their circle of mentors and high-achieving peers around them. There are many exceptions to this generalization: of course many of the leaders I mentioned and my inspirational friends and co-workers do impact world welfare via philanthropy and charity, whether they are my roommate Ben Kuhn (who runs Harvard Effective Altruism), tech giants like Dustin Moskovitz (who started Good Ventures with his wife Cari Tuna), former Bridgewater analysts like Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld (who founded GiveWell), and of course Bill and Melinda Gates through their grant-making foundation. But I can point to fewer people I want to learn from who have actually done development work themselves beyond making or optimizing donations (not to trivialize donations, which are incredibly important), and even fewer who are doing it at the time I graduate. (A few exceptions I know of include Dimagi and some of the leaders at MIT’s D-Lab). If more of these greats were to start doing development work, I would happily join them so that I would be learning from people better than I and personally growing while achieving world welfare. (If you are an effective altruist pointing out that you might have more comparative advantage making lots of money and donating it instead of doing the development work yourself, please see my thoughts on that below [1].)

3. If there were more social and economic support for “Uncertain Future.”

By social and economic support, I mean that I have close friends (and perhaps a significant other) nearby who are positive, curious, and compassionate people; and some source of income that meets a modest standard of living but enables me to freely pursue interests and projects without feeling my agency restricted. I think both of these are quite possible (i.e. I can make new friends, try to convince old friends to join me, and make a reasonable income), but the point I want to make is that when I first pictured working by myself post-graduation, I briefly (and irrationally) pictured the lack of social and economic support I have just talked about (i.e. not having friends and not living with enough money), even though the lack of friends would be solved by Tanzanians’ friendliness and the lower income solved by lower cost of living. I believe many people who have not been to Tanzania will seriously picture a lack of social and economic support when you ask them to imagine doing work there, and this might cause the gut discomfort with “Uncertain Future.”

4. If my comparative advantage were strongly in favor of “Uncertain Future.”

This is where my world welfare value comes in (notice that the first three concerned personal growth). You might think that, on the world welfare criterion, “Uncertain Future” of improving the health of an impoverished nation clearly wins over “Comfortable Future” of solving a problem in the wealthy United States. For me, seeing the developing world completely without sickness is more important to me than seeing everyone in the United States with a proper education. But the other question I must ask myself for the world welfare criterion is about my comparative advantage—i.e. on which problem does my choice to work on it (versus not working on it) make the biggest difference? For a person with a problem solving, getting-things-done, people, and narrowly technical skillset (in data analysis and software engineering), I can see that I still have some comparative advantage in “Comfortable Future” (although I think I would be replaceable in the “Comfortable Future” setting). My comparative advantage in “Uncertain Future” highly depends on the problem I am working on. If I am trying to solve one of Tanzania’s bigger problems in electricity infrastructure or drinkable running water, I lack any technical comparative advantage but could still contribute as a generalist in terms of enterprise strategy, attracting technical talent, or executing on projects. If I were building applications for mobile phones, then I would have technical as well as other comparative advantage. The reason I think “Uncertain Future” is not winning significantly on this criterion is because the problems I would have lots of comparative advantage on in Tanzania (e.g. problems involving data and software) do not impact world welfare much more than similar projects out in Silicon Valley (e.g. I could work on online education here in the United States, with implications for the rest of the world), and the problems that have high welfare impact in Tanzania (such as electricity or water infrastructure) are not ones I have comparative advantage in.

Back to the Question

So how does this answer the original question of how my future plans change after Tech in the World? I think conditions 1-4 will happen at some point in my lifetime, perhaps within the next 25 years, and at that point I will prefer “Uncertain Future” to “Comfortable Future.” Tech in the World has helped me consider the possibility of “Uncertain Future” at all and characterize what is holding me (and I believe, many of my peers) back from doing impactful work in development problems ranging from providing drinkable running water to teaching more effectively in schools.

Because of Tech in the World, I am significantly more likely to do more impactful work in the developing world in the future.

Footnotes

[1] One note on the effective altruist argument that, depending on who you are, your comparative advantage in maximizing world welfare might be to make a lot of money and donate it instead of doing the development work. I used to buy this argument strongly for myself, but being in Tanzania has made me reconsider this (although I can’t generalize to other nations). The claim that I should spend my time making a lot of money and donating it instead of doing development work myself (whether medical work, broader health research, technology development, or education) assumes that my donations cause multiple people to go in my stead, who combined are more effective than I alone would have been. Then (depending on which kind of people I want) I would guess that spending my time increasing the incentives to do development work and breaking down the barriers mentioned in this blog post (e.g. by starting a scalable version of a program like Tech in the World) is a more effective way to cause people with medical, health research, development economics, technological, and pedagogical background to do development work. (This assumes you want to solve problems that need people with these kinds of technical expertise and motivation.) Effective altruists—what do you think about the problem of getting more people into development work?

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Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 1, on Development

Now we’re back in school—what a change of scenery to be submerged in the Boston snow after four weeks in 90-degree Tanzanian weather! It’s helpful to take a step back from the rush of school (yes, including getting used to being surrounded by hundreds of peers) and think about my experience in Tanzania. In this series of blog posts, I’ll talk about the big things I learned, and then (the harder and more interesting question of) what changes in my life and my plans now.

The order of certain technological developments in Tanzania (at least Dar es Salaam) is different than those same developments in the United States. Cell phones are very popular now, and the order of developments in Tanzania has been widespread 3G and cell phones (even though only 20 percent of the country has electricity), then accessible personal computers, then widespread electricity and Ethernet/WiFi. Compare this to the almost opposite order in the United States. It’s interesting to think that many Tanzanians quite likely will never even use personal computers as their main devices for communication and other needs like transferring cash (see M-Pesa), instead defaulting to their phones (as Dave Morin has emphasized before). There are already many entrepreneurs and problem solvers, many of them local Tanzanians at incubators like TANZICT, who are taking this to heart and developing applications for the old Nokia mobile phones (not smartphones). Here is a likely opportunity to influence Tanzania’s technological development in the next 10 years.

Beyond the technological view on development, there is a lot of room to improve the general quality of life. In the next 20 years, it seems certain that Tanzania will need drinkable running water, cheap and well-distributed anti-malarial treatment (especially in rural areas), and a public transit system (since the traffic congestion is terrible enough that it is possible to waste 3 hours to drive 20 km to get to the airport). I am not as certain about the future of other possible improvements to standards that we have in the United States—such as a “modern” education system focused on teaching students how to think instead of the current pattern of taking tools/skills (e.g. Java) from the West and trying to adapt them to the students. Compared with the needs to stay hydrated, stay healthy, and get to places, the need for education is less well-defined; it’s clear that the purposes of the first three are critical to life, but the purpose of education—whether vocational training or cultivation of good citizens—is something that is still not even settled in the United States and thus could lead to a completely different form of “modern” education than the system in the United States today. Even just a hundred years ago, the United States and major European powers all had different purposes for education, which manifested in university systems that looked completely different:

[Speaking about 1890-1940:] Universities had long existed in Europe, where they took several forms: the classical studies of British universities, the scientific training of French grand ecoles, and the graduate and research institutes of Germany. The modern university of the New World, however, was a different creature than its European counterpart, for it served a far broader clientele of students and the state, yet increasingly strove to be a research center. [1]

I am very interested to see how the education system in Tanzania develops just as I am learning that different countries have potential to develop in completely different ways (which relates to cultural differences such as the lack of private space and ownership). Just as Tanzania is skipping personal computers to using mobile phones, and just as Estonia skipped from no internet infrastructure following Soviet collapse to using the internet to vote, do tax returns, and issue prescriptions, I expect the Tanzanian education system to skip to some of the cutting-edge work in education—including the use of online resources like Udacity—by virtue of not having an inertial university and secondary education system. And I’m especially excited about the creative solutions to be devised in Tanzania because it’s pretty clear that the rest of the world hasn’t exactly solved education yet. As my friend Jacob Cole pointed out, creative businesses like Habari Mazao (a website that Tanzanian consumers and farmers can visit to get fair prices for crops), which emerged from the first Tanzania-MIT Tele-Hackathon, would never have been thought of in the United States.

It seems that comparatively studying development, both in the economic and social sense, could be fruitful for shedding light on how to predict the trajectory of a country like Tanzania, which we couldn’t just say is where the United States was in the past, partly because Tanzania is starting from a different place in time and culture, and partly because she is surrounded by modernized countries that have already developed (but not finished) their own solutions to problems like education, energy and the environment, and effective governance. Studying comparative development might help one think about this problem and give useful case studies, but I am afraid that the lack of sufficiently many data points regarding development of different nations would lead to unhelpful generalizations. Who knows? I’ll have to take a look.

Action Items from Part 1, on Development

  • Look into research and classes surrounding economic development at Harvard.

References

  1. The Shaping of Higher Education: The Formative Years in the United States, 1890 to 1940. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. The Journal of Economic Perspectives , Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1999) , pp. 37-62. Published by: American Economic Association. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2647136.

What do Tanzanians perceive as American culture?

Before I answer this, I will preface my answer by saying that it is not representative of Tanzania in general, but based on the opinions of the biased sample of Tanzanians we have spoken with on our trip. The people in this sample all live in Dar es Salaam, one of the wealthiest and most urban areas of Tanzania; are all well-educated relative to the general Tanzanian population (either in college or graduated); are all young (age less than 35); all speak English quite well; and are all working in or studying technology. I think you have to meet Tanzanians in and out of sample to know how different this sample is from the general population. For example, this sample has (mostly consistent) electricity in their homes or dorms (only 20 percent of the country has electricity), has seen and spoken with foreigners in English before (mostly Indians and whites), has not experienced malaria extensively, and knows who Mark Zuckerberg is. Compare that to the Maasai pastoralists who live in small villages on the circumference of the massive Ngorongoro crater in northern Tanzania; electricity is so sparse that a Maasai person who wants to charge her mobile phone has to walk 2-3 hours to someone with a generator. The person with the generator actually makes a business out of charging phones.

Now onto the actual question. The question first arose when we (the Tech in the World team) were getting dinner at a burger place called Heineken. While we were waiting 1 hour for our burgers (see Pole pole), we noticed three large TV screens surrounding us on three sides with American music videos and TV shows. On the screen with the music videos, we saw Miley Cyrus’s “23,” Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber,” Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s “California Gurls,” Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” and Fat Joe and Lil Wayne’s “Make it Rain“. The TV shows included Cops and MTV’s Exposed. Immediately we began to realize (with some horror) how these music videos and TV shows must influence Tanzanians’ perception of American culture. Rappers tossing around $100 bills, shows about nothing besides dating and crime, and guys and scantily clad girls partying all the time and everywhere—on the beach in California, in the Bahamas, in the Wild West, and at school. Even from this single data point at Heineken, it seemed possible that these music videos and shows might be some Tanzanians’ only information about the United States, and that made me wonder about what Tanzanians really thought about our culture. (Studying how the Soviet Union dramatically distorted its subjects’ perception of the United States as a land economically worse off by restricting information flow has impressed upon me the importance of thinking about who has incentives to bias information flow in certain ways.)

I’ve started asking a few of our Tanzanian friends, including our mentor Isaac, our Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) contact Ashery, and some of the DIT students about American culture. Isa (a student) told me that while many Tanzanians might only see the partying and spending parts of American culture that are depicted in the media, those who are more educated (e.g. university students) tend to have a more nuanced idea that American culture is not just about money and girls. More interestingly, Ashery told me that many of the older generations (above the age of 26) are reacting negatively to a young generation (younger than 18) that is adopting the partying and spending elements of American culture in its clothing, values, and language (many young Tanzanians, including students, love mimicking Rick Ross’s claim that “he’s a boss”). This has led to an association of the word “American” with decadence and riches among older generations. According to Ashery, poorer Tanzanians often ask American tourists for money due to a perception that Americans have so much money that they can afford to “make it rain” in rap videos.

I find this interesting because I don’t think this perception of American culture is specific to Tanzania. My perception is that many other countries—even economic powerhouse China—simultaneously glorify (if you’re young) and vilify (if you’re older) the lavish lifestyle depicted in American music and TV. Even within the United States, I could anticipate many Americans have not interacted enough with other parts of the country to understand them beyond their depictions on TV, and I bet this fuels some of the political division in our country right now—a TV and the Internet are a much easier and cheaper way to get information about different cultures of Americans than multiple trips to the other side of the country! (As a quick proxy for that statistic, Gallup says that only 52 percent of Americans rode a plane in 2012, while 99 percent of American households owned a TV and 67 percent of Americans watched TV regularly during dinner in 2013.)

So far on this trip, I’ve been focusing my writing on new things I know about Tanzania, but this is the first time I’ve considered what Tanzanians know about Americans. This leads me to two questions. First, from the perspective of a social planner seeking to maximize some notion of global welfare, how “important” is it that people in Tanzania understand Americans and their culture as it actually is, and vice versa (and in general, for all cultures in the world)? For example, perhaps an optimal social planner would want to reallocate people who are currently working in global health in Tanzania to establishing cultural understanding through an exchange program, changing the depictions in the media, and other solutions. Secondly, if we agreed that cross-cultural understanding as defined in the first question is important enough that a social planner should reallocate people to work on it, what would be some good solutions (I listed some potential ones already)?

More Tidbits about Tanzanian Culture

Earlier this month, I posted on the Tech in the World blog about what the team and I learned about Tanzanian culture in our first week here in the country. Our team is learning more about Tanzanian culture everyday! Here are more tidbits, many taken from a conversation with our Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) contact Ashery:

  • The average marriage age 25 for men and 22 for women.
  • Younger Tanzanians really like to listen to hip-hop and their own, smoother version of R&B called bongo-flava (see this song by Diamond, one of the most popular bongo-flava artists here). In fact, artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes have performed here. Apparently many students at DIT like Rick Ross.
  • I asked Ashery about Tanzanians who are admired by the general Tanzanian public. Ashery said that Julius Nyerere, the country’s founder, ranks pretty highly on that list because he managed to instill in the citizens a pride about their identities as Tanzanians, rather than as members of different tribes (there are more than 260 tribes) and different religions (40 percent Muslim, 35 percent Christian, and 20 percent Animism). One way he accomplished this was by including each group in his government (it just happens that presidents have alternated between Muslim and Christian for the last few terms) and his socialist message for equality. According to Ashery, this has been important to avoid the tribal infighting—political and violent—that has occurred in neighboring countries like Kenya (during election time) and Rwanda. Ashery (who is Christian) got really excited when he was saying this, pointing to his friend Abdul (who is Muslim) and saying that in Tanzania, different people coexist peacefully. Maybe Julius Nyerere has a biography worth reading.
  • Presidents Clinton, Bush (Jr.), and Obama have all visited Tanzania, and the citizens of Dar es Salaam got so excited that many of them left work to see the presidents.
  • David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has threatened to withhold aid from countries that criminalize same-sex marriage and other activities, which include Tanzania. Tanzania reacted strongly and is in fact relatively intolerant of homosexuality, as evidenced by Pew Global Attitudes survey that found that 95 percent of Tanzanian residents believe homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept (the seventh-highest rate of non-acceptance in 45 countries surveyed). Ashery said that there has been much debate about this.

That’s all for now!

Shocker

I lie on my bed with my Macbook in front of me, writing a reflection on my first week in Tanzania. Feeling uncomfortable, I toss off my bednet, get off the bed and sit in a nearby chair, bringing my laptop over. I touch one of the ridges of my laptop. Ouch. Did that hurt? I can’t really tell, and touch it again. Is that how the ridge normally feels? It’s a bit sharp. Confused, I ask my roommate Erik to join me in touching the laptop. He (being the electrical engineering major) immediately pulls my Macbook charger out of the laptop and recoils upon touching the tip. “Static shock!” he says. “Really?” I say.

We begin to diagnose the problem. My charger is connected to a 6-outlet power strip and international adapter that we bought yesterday in a Tanzanian supermarket, which is connected to the wall. One of these is broken. Suspecting the Tanzanian-made power strip, we start testing all the outlets on the power strip and even substituting in one of our own power strips. But with each touch of the charger’s tip, we get shocked in greater disbelief. I begin to suspect my charger itself. Indeed, after plugging Ruth’s Macbook charger into the power strip, the shock is gone. So much for my Mag “Safe” Power Adapter; it probably suffered under the strain of Tanzanian humidity and the 240V outlets.

The shocking is entertaining though, so we bring another Tech in the World Fellow—Ramya—over to join in our discovery. Plugging my charger back in, I offer her the charger tip. She takes it in her hand, but… nothing. In confusion, I touch it but feel nothing! Erik finally touches it and recoils. Ramya and I look quizzically at Erik (who seems to be doubting his own senses), but he continues touching, and recoiling from, the charger tip. Ramya and I try again and again but just can’t figure out how to shock ourselves. Erik suddenly says, “Take off your shoes.” I kick off my flip flops and feel the cool tile floor, touching the tip again. Ouch!

Bajajis and Personal Ownership

This is the first in a series of short stories I am posting about my time in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Stay tuned!

Bajajis (also known as tuk-tuks or rickshaws in India) are phenomenally nimble three-wheeled taxis. Ramya tells me that the tuk-tuk drivers in India are daring and skilled at navigating very chaotic traffic at high speeds. In Tanzania, these bajajis are our cheapest way to get around, so naturally they are the first type of transportation we try.

We’re going out to dinner at a beach restaurant; Google Maps says it’s 2 kilometers away. We wave over a bajaji and, in our broken Swahili, ask the driver to take the six of us to the restaurant:

Me: Mbalamwezi? Elfu tatu? [Name of the restaurant. Three thousand schillings.]

Driver: Four thousand [Tanzanian schillings]. Six of you.

Me: [Thumbs up.] [To other TITW students:] Let’s go.

We cram into the bajaji, three of us in the back seat and three of us sitting on the others’ laps. Already we get the premonition of this safety hazard leading to a road accident; our combined weight seems to precariously tip the bajaji from left to right as the driver begins to move. But the driver assuages our fears as he drives swiftly ahead—our forward velocity seems to straighten out our wobbliness (I know I’m in a safe spot in the bajaji anyway, since I am squished underneath Ruth and won’t go flying out the window).

We continue swiftly until we hit traffic, and the two-lane roads give us no option but to sit and wait. At least that’s my thought as I peek out from behind Ruth at the crowded street. But the innovative bajaji driver sees an “opening” on the pedestrian sidewalk to our left (the “sidewalk” is a 10-foot wide dirt strip on either side of the road). Seven men and women walk towards us on the sidewalk 200 meters away, but the daring bajaji driver decides to plow ahead on the sidewalk, passing the sitting cars to our right. He accelerates swiftly left and immediately we drop onto the sidewalk (which is not quite level with the road). The ride on the rocky, unpaved sidewalk is precarious—our heavy bajaji, stuffed with six people, tips ominously from left to right between a sewage ditch and other vehicles, including these big dala dalas. Each of us holds in the simultaneous excitement and terror we feel (with the exception of a few shrieks) as we swing from side to side, narrowly miss the oncoming pedestrians, and turn back into an opening in our original lane.

As exhilarating as driving on the sidewalk is, it feels safe to be back in the correct driving lane. But we hit slow traffic again. This time, our driver sees a new opening right about 10 feet wide, right in between the two directions of traffic. We swerve into this “lane” as cars brush by us on both sides as quickly as 40 mph. Our lane is so narrow that I can touch the dala dalas on our left as we pass them.

Our roller coaster ride ends as we see the beach restaurant on our right. As we continue to use bajajis as our main mode of transportation, I wonder how much more dangerous it really is to ride a bajaji here than it is to take a taxi in the United States. The notion of personal space is relaxed here (in fact, it is considered rude here to stand too far away from someone you’re greeting), and personal space on the road has been no exception. I have a hunch that the probability of getting into an accident in a bajaji here is not significantly different from the probability for taxis in the US, but that many of my US friends would perceive the difference to be pretty high upon reading this story or watching a video of a bajaji ride because of the close quarters in which Tanzanians drive and live.

Just as my US friends would perceive a bajaji to be much less safe than it actually is because of their discomfort with lack of personal space, I think that I and many of my friends overestimate our personal need for our own space, possessions, and privacy in the US relative to how much we actually need to be satisfied. An American culture that supports having your own car, house, and computer doesn’t help; examples of my desire for privacy this past year included the need for a single in my dorm, the need to have my own laptop (which I realized I didn’t actually need for most of my life while using a school computer), and the need to do yoga in my private space of my room (instead of at the gym). Yet living in Tanzania has showed me that I can live without “personal” everything and not lose much in the way of my values of personal growth and achievement. I’ve acclimatized to intimate working conditions, public transportation (including the people packed onto dala dalas—imagine 30 people fitting into this Toyota passenger bus), and dependence on the environment outside my possession and my fellow students for everything from food to sunscreen, power adapters, and money. I’m curious to exchange personal space and possessions for other things that may achieve my values better when I return to life in the US.

My Character Foil: Levin from Anna Karenina

Former president and dissident of Czechoslovaka Vaclav Havel points out in his essay “Power of the Powerless” how “absurd” it was that most Czechs and Slovaks lived under Czechoslovakia’s repressive Communist regime in the 1970s and 80s according to the mantra, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (Havel 1978). One great point he makes is that most of the conformists living this “absurd,” submissive way of life are content to do so—and are completely confounded by why some of their former friends have alternatively chosen to “live in the truth” by performing dissident music and writing dissident literature at the cost of being jailed by the state—because these conformists have never experienced an alternative way of living, and thus could only judge the “absurdity” of their submission if they stepped outside the way they currently live. (See here for more background and full text.)

Taking this lesson outside the context of repression in Czechoslovakia, it seems quite possible that if I were living another way of life B, I would spot many “absurd” aspects of my current way of life A, where I’m defining an absurd aspect to be an aspect in A that is much less preferred than the corresponding one in B—for example, if I were swimming in B as an alternative to basketball in A, and having seen basketball from the swimming point of view and vice versa, I were to prefer swimming to basketball. My intuition for why this is true is that people often need help from outside lenses to see aspects of themselves in their true form. One example is the surprise many people experience after hearing their voices recorded on a recorder for the first time. “Do I really sound like that to the world?” Additional vibrations within our body that are picked up by the inner ear when we speak or sing automatically bias our lens of our own sound. Another example is people not being able to see mistakes in their form/technique in sports without a coach, videocamera, or other pair of eyes. Phoebe running in Friends is a fun example of running form, and since my dorm room has a view of people running on the Charles River, I can confirm that many people (including myself, until my girlfriend corrected me) would run differently if they knew what they looked like. Other great examples of needing other lenses include people’s many psychological biases and the usefulness and often surprising nature of feedback in the workplace or from friends.

So given that our lenses of ourselves are imperfect, how can we spot our “absurdities”? My friend Ben points out that regularly getting feedback from those around you is one way. Another way seems to be to carefully study other people and (as objectively as possible) figure out how you compare to them along certain dimensions; this relies on how self-aware you are.

But consider the way Havel suggests. Intuitively, it seems that living out the alternative life yourself (i.e. trying swimming for a time) is a more robust way for you to judge how much you prefer one way of living versus another (instead of guessing at how much you’d prefer swimming by seeing that someone else does it every morning and enjoys it, but seeing nothing else). Unfortunately, real-world constraints (e.g. time, financial resources, relationship obligations) might prevent us from even being able to try the alternative life to test how much your prefer it. Here is where characters from literature (hence the title) might be one solution.

Perhaps the next best thing to living out the alternative life yourself is seeing it lived out in a literary character about whom you can observe every detail, including his thoughts, motivation, close relationships, past life, and personality, as well as the internal and external consequences of his way of living. (At least the genre of the realist 19th century novel, according to my English professor Phil Fisher, permits such intimate knowledge of the characters, more intimate than you might have of your closest friends.) Authors often use foils to bring out contrasts between different characters—why not use literary characters as foils for ourselves? Luckily, I found exactly such a foil in Levin while reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

What makes Levin a good foil for me is that we share enough attributes that I can empathize with him, but differ on the other attributes enough that I can make many comparisons between my life and his. (You’ll have to read Anna Karenina for a full appreciation of Levin’s character, or you can see a summary here if you don’t have time and just want an overview or refresher of Levin.) What follows is the beginning of my unedited freewrite about how Levin is a foil for me and my learnings from that. See here for more.

Freewrite

The story of Levin is at times comical, idyllic, and most relatable for me in the novel. He comes to Moscow wanting to propose to Kitty, the daughter of his schoolmate. He envisions a wife to fill his home as his mother did for his father when he was a child (he still lives in his childhood home, so we see the role of tradition for him). (Cf. my initial motivations for dating Kanjun—I saw that we grew together and learned from each other, making our time together high-quality.) He is attracted to Kitty (and the other Scherbatsky sisters) by the sisters’ refined and “mysterious” aristocratic habits. He is nervous, out of place in Moscow—and moreover his mood is tied to Kitty’s every move (e.g. during skating)—I can empathize with the discomfort he experiences changing environments (especially his independent rural life to the socialite urban life—does the reverse discomfort hold?) and to a much lesser degree his caprice (responding to Kitty’s moves). Then he proposes, is rejected for a rival Vronsky, spends the rest of the evening sadly, and leaves. He returns to the comfort of his home base in the country side – his maid, books, land, peasants, huting, solicitude. He can crafts plans for his agriculture in solicitude and bounce his ideas off his perhaps not-so-educated maid Agafea (akin to Casaubon and Bulstrode in Middlemarch in their isolation having the power to dream up plans without any external check). Sometimes I feel that I in my room, or in quiet working spaces, might be akin to Levin in his comfortable home base. Kanjun tells me that Boston, maybe Chicago, maybe Palo Alto (but not SF) is my home base (where I am most comfortable/confident), but even in crowded, loud social spaces in Boston (or anywhere), I feel less at home. And sometimes in my room I can see the slowness and danger of trynig to plan things all by myself (leading to possible error of not having others check me), although thinking on one’s own is good to (a) learn how to think and (b) develop independent perspective. So perhaps strike a better balance between planning/thinking/learning independently vs. with others – do the first as I’m doing now, but then actually talk to others/profs, see how other people solve problems and do things, etc. to see other ways of doing after my own…

References

1. Havel, Vaclav. “Power of the Powerless.” 1978.

Autonomy and Purpose as Motivators

Dan Pink in his book Drive lays out 3 factors in motivating people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. While I’m not generally a fan of high-level theory that oversimplifies and (in its abstractness) provides little enlightenment, I have found that breaking down motivation problems into these 3 factors has made my thinking clearer and helped me solve motivation problems (in both myself and friends). I guess I’ve come to appreciate this theory much more after using it in practice.

Here’s another example of this theory in practice, thanks to my global health class teaching assistant Jan-Walter de Neve (this video presents his brother’s research). Paying taxes is not a very motivating process right now, but giving the taxpayer more autonomy (by allowing her some say in where her money goes, even if she only gets to recommend rather than actually make the final choice in where it goes) and purpose (by showing her the government budget and thus giving her context for the purpose of her taxpaying) increases how motivated the taxpayer is in the process. Watch the video to learn more!

Mid-Semester Reflections

After finishing off papers and midterms this past week, I took a few days to reflect on how my values have changed since I first articulated them here. On first thought, my stated values have not changed. I still try to make choices to optimize values of personal growth (rephrased from “self-enrichment”) and achievement, and looking ahead now, it seems that my values could stay this way forever (with the likely added on value of deep relationships)! But a few things bug me about this (although I wouldn’t call them strong claims):

    • Other people live by different values and seem equally contented to prefer their own to any other values. I’ve twice asked each of 10 friends, “What are your values?”—once a year ago and once now. None of their answers have changed, although their values vary as widely as intellectual stimulation and power and they have all undergone the formative experiences of college. What bothers me is not that my friends and I all differ from each other in values (for this may simply reflect differing utility preferences), but that none of us differs from our past selves despite being exposed to changing friend groups, life experiences in different countries, or personal crises.
    • This excerpt from Anna Karenina (which I was reading right before this reflection) hit home the point that there may be some bias (beyond rational justification) in preferring your values to alternate ones (because you chose your values for a good reason, right?):

      [Oblonsky and Levin] were fond of one another in spite of the difference of their characters and tastes, as friends are fond of one another who have been together in early youth. But in spite of this, each of them—as is often the way with men who have selected careers of different kinds—though in discussion he would even justify the other’s career, in his heart despised it. It seemed to each of them that the life he led himself was the only real life, and the life led by his friend was a mere phantasm (1.5.26).

    • Many great people in the past led their lives with values completely different from personal growth and achievement. Gandhi espoused love while Winston Churchill always seemed to follow courage. Although the difference in values might again be due to differences in utility functions, why have I never considered these other values to optimize?

These three things suggest some bias in my methodology for initially choosing values a year ago. (Important aside: The function that values play in my decision-making is purely heuristic. My goal is to optimize my utility function, not necessarily my values. Values are variables such as personal growth that I’ve noticed are positively correlated with my utility preferences, so they become useful when I make decisions, because instead of thinking, “I should read Anna Karenina right now because that is a maximum of my utility function somewhere random in my search space of possible decisions,” I can say, “I should read Anna Karenina right now because that optimizes a combination of my personal growth and achievement, of which in general I know I prefer to have more instead of less.” In other words, for me, choosing certain concepts to be values solely serves the purpose of helping me search my decision space more efficiently.)

Keeping that purpose in mind, what’s the bias in my methodology for choosing values? I first chose values that summer after freshman year by straightforwardly reflecting on my past and thinking about the times in my life which I preferred the most. Then I looked for commonalities between these times, and set these commonalities (such as personal growth) to be the values I would strive for in the present. My choices for “preferred” times in life were probably influenced by faults in memory, what my friends and family implied that I prefer, and the limited range of my own experiences and others’ that I witnessed. Looking back, this has obvious flaws:

    • I will only ever optimize values I’ve experienced a lot, and those values will probably be those I’ve optimized. So personal growth and achievement will never change. Claiming that these 2 values are better heuristics than other values when I haven’t tried the others is like trying out 2 slot machines in an entire casino of slot machines giving out different payoffs and saying, “These 2 that I’ve picked surely reward the most!” This is like exploitation-only in the exploration-exploitation tradeoff from reinforcement learning.
    • Even when it is possible for my values to diverge from these 2 (because I do witness and see the merits of other values in my friendships, and often make spontaneous choices that deviate from growth and achievement), my existing values are solidified by my local environment. Being surrounded by Harvard student culture reinforces values of growth and achievement through constant interactions at meals, in classes, and in the daily disorder of students walking around and bumping into each other. This local world reinforces values not only through direct conversation, but also the activities people choose and even their clothes (e.g. the many suits you’d see around Harvard are associated with achievement).

So I wish to look beyond the limitations of my own faulty memory, personal life experience, local world, and even this 21st century era for value exploration. That’s why I’m beginning to look at values of “great” people in history by studying the lives they lived, to (1) draw on them for my own value exploration and (2) compare their values with the values of people in my local world today as a case study of the variance of values across time period and local worlds. This is my plan in particular until the end of January (I selected the people below based on diversity of values, my personal curiosity, and availability of literature or Harvard expertise on them):

    • Overview the lives of Einstein, Tolstoy, Truman, John Rockefeller, Catherine the Great, Gandhi, Darwin, Hitler, and Ayn Rand via biographical and autobiographical material, as well as interviews with Harvard professors and researchers (e.g. Janet Browne is a foremost expert on Darwin). (EDIT: I added Hitler and Ayn Rand based on excellent suggestions by Ben Kuhn and Josephine Chen to consider people with less “admirable” values or utility functions.)
    • Conduct 10 interviews with a sample of students and professors from Harvard to similarly overview their lives and understand their values and these values’ origins. List so far: Ben Kuhn.
    • Post weekly reflections condensing the content of these studies and my takeaways.
    • Write a final blog post at January’s end that includes (a) my updated values and (b) comparisons/contrasts of the values of the “great” people and Harvard students/professors, both within these groups and between them.

Thoughts? If you think you can do better, want to help, have suggestions for people to study, or happen to be at Harvard and want to be interviewed yourself, please comment and/or message me here!

Parallel between NGO-Donor and Startup-Investor Relationships

From what I hear, one reason that startups fail is that their visions don’t line up with their investors’. A vision disconnect between the people who are the startup and the people feeding money to the startup leads to an end to funding, replacing some founders, or some other kind of nasty outcome.

The disconnect’s origins make perfect sense. A team of founders and a team of investors both spend lots of time developing their own hypotheses (about business opportunities or the direction of technology or a specific industry), and by the time startup meets investor to raise funding, there is often little overlap. Founders spend their time executing the details of specific visions, while investors meet with many companies and hypothesize broad visions; it’s easy to see why the two sides’ hypotheses don’t often overlap. Unfortunately for the startup, whether the investor funds the startup is exactly the same question as whether the two sides’ visions overlap!

Let me give an example. One of my friends (let’s call him Adam) is building a company that makes data visualization software for wealth managers. Adam told me about his first interaction with one of his prospective investors:

He got really excited when I first explained my company to him, especially when I told him about the partnerships we’ve landed. Then he started asking me these weird questions that had nothing to do with the company. “Are you guys incorporating social?” he asked. “Not in the near future… that doesn’t really fit in our product,” I said. “OK… how about mobile?” “No… not yet.” “Local?” “I don’t think our product has synergies with location either…” After each “no,” he looked more and more disappointed, and I was confused about his questions and dwindling enthusiasm, until I realized it was because he really wanted to invest but my company didn’t fit into any of the theses of his firm – social, mobile, and local!

So Adam didn’t get money because his vision for data visualization for finance didn’t overlap with an investor’s vision for social, mobile, and local.

Interestingly, there is a very parallel relationship in the global health world between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors. Just like startups, non-profit global health NGOs need to raise money to fund their worldwide personnel, materials (any medicines or malaria bed nets, for example), administrative costs, transportation, and any physical capital. So they turn to (often international) private donors to raise money. But just like investors, these donors have their own personal visions for what kind of health solutions they want to see.

One example I picked up in my global health class is the influence of neoliberal philosophy on donors in the 1970s. (Take this interpretation of global health solutions with a grain of salt, but consider it.) According to Professor Salmaan Keshavjee at Harvard Medical School, the economic crisis in the 1970s led to blaming government regulation as the crisis’s cause, and a “justification” to revive a decades-old philosophy of neoliberalism – which argued for the free market’s ability to distribute resources and questioned efficiency of most government intervention. This neoliberal spirit manifested itself not only in the election of conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also in the shifting policies of global health leaders like the World Bank president Robert McNamara. For health policy, the neoliberal current was the call for free market instead of public sector solutions to distribute health care. The example of people like McNamara set the tone for pro-neoliberal donors.

One instance of this is the influence of international donors in swaying the Ugandan health care system to implement user fees. User fee programs required citizens to pay for medicine, a reversal of medicine previously freely offered by the government. As you can imagine, in a poor country like Uganda, user fees had the effect of substantially reducing access to healthcare, and many families ended up unable to pay to maintain even their basic health. User fee programs were part of this broader neoliberal philosophy that called for free market rather than public sector health care solutions. Even though Uganda’s national health care system worried about the risk of such programs on citizens, it had to implement them because the alternative was to have no money at all, and some Ugandans were worse off because of it.

What are the lessons between the NGO-donor relationship and startup-investor relationship? One key takeaway is that so long as both sides’ priorities are matched, such situations don’t have to occur. The next question, then, is whether or not there exist enough donors with priorities closely aligned with those of NGOs and developing nations (I’m going to focus on the problem for these actors because they seem to be the worst off). And based on the dreadful state of health in many developing nations despite billions of dollars of funding, my guess is that not enough of these vision-aligned donors exist. If that’s true, how can we create more of these? Building potential donors’ awareness and empathy to win them over to the priorities of health organizations on the ground (rather than the donors’ intellectual priorities) might be the answer.