I think we need more people who are willing to devote 10–20 years of their lives to a single project that they believe has a huge potential for impact. Animals need you to find something important that needs to be done, and then to devote years of your life to figuring it out.
So are you ready for that?
Good Things Take Time
“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
This is a simple saying with a profound meaning for how we should approach creating an impact for animals, especially for us modern-day people with too many things to do and too little time to do them in. James Clear put a spin on it when he wrote that Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, But They Were Laying Bricks Every Hour.
What do you get when you do a million things all at once and never stick to anything for more than a few days or weeks? You may get random piles of bricks all over the place, but you most certainly won’t get Rome.
Alan Turing spent his whole life studying mathematics, cryptography, and electronics in order to come up with the insights into computing that he did. Jane Goodall began her work studying chimpanzees back in 1960, and almost sixty years later continues her work by spending nearly all of her time advocating for chimps. Peter Singer, best known in the animal rights movement for his 1975 book Animal Liberation, has dedicated his whole career to moral philosophy and its applications.
With billions of people in the world working on millions of distinct things, each of us can choose to dedicate ourselves to an important topic and give it the time it deserves. (Don’t worry—other people are going to work on other important things. You don’t have to do it all.)
So which topic are you going to devote yourself to? How long are you willing to persevere in order to make it a success?
Are you chasing a hundred little things, or one big thing?
An Abundance of Good Ideas
The thing is, there are plenty of good ideas out there. In fact, there are tons of great ideas—profound, game-changing ideas that have the potential to make a big difference for animals.
The problem? We don’t have enough people who are willing to push through years of hard work to bring those ideas to life. It makes sense—bringing something to life is hard. Having ideas is easy.
As humans, we like ideas. We like coming up with them, talking about them, debating them, chewing on them. Ideas are fun. They’re sexy. They’re addictive. And you can think of them from the comfort of your couch while drinking a beer and hanging out with friends.
But ideas alone don’t create change. Ideas need to be brought into existence through the slow, difficult, beautiful process of actualizing them.
The idea of juicy, savory, realistic plant-based burgers is great—that’s a really good idea with the potential to get a lot of non-vegans to switch to eating plant-based. But unless someone is spending 10–20 years developing that burger, marketing the burger, building the factories, fighting the competition, crafting a new market, and so on, then the burger idea isn’t going to come to life.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are on that quest right now, and it’s taken them about 10 years each to get to where they currently are (since 2009 and 2011 respectively). They’ve both broken through into fairly significant success (at least in terms of distribution and media coverage), but both companies have massive potential for more growth and bigger impact. Ten years of hard work got them where they are—it’ll take another 10, or 20, or 50, for them to get a taste of what their real potential is.
So what’s your idea that’s worth spending decades on? If you find yourself saying “someone should do this”, is that person you?
Real change for animals takes a specific plan, and that plan is going to need to be carried out every day for years—decades.
Are you ready to do that?
“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world,” so the quote goes. (Purportedly by Einstein, but quotes are so hard to verify.)
First, you invest. Then you earn a little interest on your investments, which then gets added back to the investment. But now the amount of your investment is a bit bigger, so next time you earn a little bit more interest, which gets added back again. And so on, and so on, so that Benjamin Franklin’s investment of $4,500 for the city of Boston in 1790 became $4.5 million by 1990, two hundred years later.
What many people don’t realize is that compound interest is the perfect metaphor for investing in projects, as well.
The website and app HappyCow was started in 1999 by Eric Brent (just one year after Google was founded, incidentally). These days, we know that HappyCow is the go-to resource for people looking for vegan and vegetarian restaurants—but it required twenty years of work (twenty years of investing in HappyCow as a project) to get to where it is today, and at any point Eric could have thrown in the towel and shut it down. With each bit of investment though, it became a more valuable resource. And as it became more valuable, more people used it, and Eric learned more about how to make it better. That’s how projects compound over time into something greater.
Mercy For Animals was also founded in 1999 and confined its work mostly to Ohio for the first several years of its existence, a much smaller domain than the half dozen countries it works in now. Similarly, PETA has been in existence since 1980 and spent much effort over its first ten years on a single case (contrasted with the dozens of campaigns it has running at any given point now). With each year of effort, both organizations grew their networks, grew their influence, and gained a bit of “interest” from their previous investments in the work.
Investing in the same project over time is just that—it’s an investment. And if you devote years of hard work to a big, important project, that investment will pay off. (Yay for compounding!)
Imperfect Solutions That Get Better Over Time
I think people are sometimes afraid of being failures (or of their projects failing), but that’s the wrong way to look at it.
First, every pursuit is a learning experience. You always have the opportunity to learn something you didn’t know before and use it in the future to improve your work. That’s hugely valuable.
Each organization and each person can only accomplish so much in this vast ecosystem of society that we live in. Life is hard—it requires a lot of work to learn new things, build new structures and institutions, or change existing ones. In order to achieve mastery of a domain (or truly creative synthesis of multiple domains), you need to put in a lot of focused work. Angela Duckworth found that grit is correlated with success—and grit basically means “sticking with something for a long time”. When you stick with something for a long time, you’re going to learn a lot. With each thing you learn, you’re able to build something better the next time.
Hence, your own 20-year project.
Second, nothing is ever perfect. Absolutely nothing. Frankly, the concept of a “perfect solution” doesn’t even make sense. The whole world is constantly in a state of breaking and repair, of trying and trying again, of getting it slightly wrong a million times and fixing it.
Nearly everything starts out bad, and then slowly—painstakingly, over the course of years of work—it gets better, bit by bit. This, in a nutshell, is the story of life—there are no perfect solutions, and nothing is ever finished. We create imperfect solutions and then try to improve them with time. Things do get better because of our efforts, but we’re never done.
It’s actually been really hard for me to accept that nothing is ever going to stop needing repairs. For example, Google is an amazing search engine—and it continues to be because a bunch of people at Google are constantly fixing it and improving it. Google is never going to be a “perfect” product, because perfection doesn’t exist. There are simply a series of problems (often big, fuzzy, ill-defined problems) and solutions to those problems (which are always imperfect in some way). And even when we do our best, things go wrong and we have to figure out how to move forward.
Think about some of the most successful companies or people. Think about Google, or Facebook, or Apple. On the animal rights side of things, think about PETA or Mercy For Animals or Beyond Meat. None of these companies or organizations started off great. They all started off with people, ideas, prototypes, and the magnificent art of “not getting it right”. They all got many, many things wrong. And they’re still getting things wrong.
Stuff breaks at major software companies all the time. Successful animal rights organizations are constantly struggling to raise money, or to create a better strategy, or to hold onto good people, or to expand into a new country, or to get better project management software, or whatever.
Everything is slightly broken all the time. (Or, you know, majorly broken.) Everything has limits to what it can do. Everything has bugs and faults.
Build it anyways. That’s how life works. We’re in the business of imperfect solutions to difficult problems.
When It Breaks, Start Anew
As a recent example, despite hundreds of years of construction and repairs (and all the blood, sweat and tears that went into those efforts), the Notre Dame cathedral recently caught fire and sustained a huge amount of damage. What do we do when calamity strikes? We accept it, and then we plan for bigger and better things.
This can be a source of inspiration for you, because it takes a little bit of the pressure off of us to create perfect solutions. (Remember: there is no such thing.) Once you accept that imperfection is part of the process, you’re free to create things and then improve them from there.
And—bringing it back to the 20-year project—if you’ve found something that’s important and worth devoting a lot of your time and energy to, then you have a long time to create better versions. Compared to your future versions, your first version is always going to suck. Try your hardest, enjoy your efforts, acknowledge the faults, and build the better next version.
Why twenty years?
Honestly, it’s an arbitrary number that sounds like “quite a long time”.
Okay, well maybe not totally arbitrary. There’s the popular 10,000 hour rule about mastery (which is just a rough heuristic and can be doubted, like any theory of success or mastery), which can translate to 10–20 years of work, depending on how many hours you spend each day on your craft or your pursuit. Mastery is necessary to push us forward in new and important ways, and the only way to get there is through the long process of trying, learning, experimenting, practicing, and building.
But also—twenty years sounds like a long time. (Ten years also suffices. But twenty is better.)
There are a lot of domains we can look at to see how truly great things take a long time to create. Compound interest is a good example of this. Large amounts of sustainable growth don’t happen overnight, but rather accumulate over the course of decades. Great companies start with humble beginnings and gain prominence over the course of years. Organizations and businesses take decades (sometimes even fifty or a hundred years!) to spread globally and achieve household name recognition. Doctors spend decades mastering their craft, as do writers and engineers and programmers.
Even the overall story of humanity is one of gradual compounding of progress over the course of tens, hundreds, and thousands of years. To create computers, we needed electricity. To first harness electricity (through the use of generators—which someone had to figure out), we needed to know that electricity existed, and we needed to figure out its basic properties. All of these developments rested on top of the knowledge of language, the knowledge of how to extract and refine metals from the earth, etc.
As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Who are those Giants? Normal people who devote large chunks of their lives to figuring out difficult problems and building important things.
Let’s look at a bit of math really quickly. Let’s say that each of us has a certain probability of being able to execute an idea really well. Let’s also say that ideas generally get better over time as you try to bring them to life, although this probably isn’t true in a lot of cases.
If there’s only a 0.1 probability of you or I executing an idea really well (in other words, only 1 out of every 10 projects is very successful), then that’s a pretty small likelihood of helping animals if we’re the only ones trying to bring ideas to life.
But if there are 100 of us working on ideas, or 1,000, or 10,000, then suddenly we’re going to have dozens of great ideas brought to life. (10,000 people working on ideas with a 0.1 probability of success is 1,000 successful ideas. That’s what we need!)
In Support of Good Ideas
Good ideas are important, and I don’t want you to think I’m bashing the value of good ideas or saying that discussion and ideation aren’t important.
What I am saying, though, is that we currently live in an age where ideas are easier than ever and our attention spans are shorter than ever. That means we probably need to correct course in the other direction: erring on the side of doing, erring on the side of spending too long on single ideas rather than not long enough, and erring on the side of being too singularly focused rather than too broadly focused.
Amazing ideas are often created slowly (rather than discovered) during the process of bringing a mediocre idea to life. Once you start slamming your idea into reality, you’re going to notice some things and have the opportunity to improve your idea as you go.
Alright, let’s talk about some of the nuance in this idea.
First, not everyone can focus exclusively on their own specific thing to the detriment of all else—then we would all be off by ourselves without any help or support from others. But, I believe that we’re currently underinvesting in the power of creating new things. And we can do both! Many great things start as side projects. There’s room for all of us to be leaders and followers, innovators and supporters, trail-blazers and trail repairers.
Second, I’m a big, big believer in the power of thinking critically and rationally, and I think that continuous learning is one of the most important habits to develop. I don’t think we should throw deep thought out the window, not at all! I also don’t think we should devalue learning. But once again, I think we’re currently underinvesting in taking action on long-term projects. With today’s ubiquitous access to the internet, getting information is easy—trying new things is not. Getting excited about new ideas is easy—sticking to the same idea for 10 years is not. Some of the most important learning happens while doing—so get to doing!
Now It’s Up To You
So what are you going to do now?
Is there something that you think is incredibly important, that you’d love to see someone do? Is that someone you?
Have you ever poured 10 years of your life into creating something specific that you wanted to see exist? I want to challenge you to have the courage to create what you want to see in the world. Create the thing that only you can.
Because the idea of the thing isn’t enough. No one else is going to build it for you.
It needs you to bring it into existence.
Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.
We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.
- To make better decisions, ask “how” you made past decisions (whether good or bad).
- The opportunity cost of a decision is the value you’re losing out on by not making a different decision instead.
- A counterfactual is a “what if?” question about the potential consequences of different decisions.
Two of the most important skills we can develop are learning how to think and how to make decisions. Much of life boils down to what decisions we make and why, and so improving our ability to think about making decisions can affect everything else we do.
In this article, we’re talking about one powerful tool for clearer thinking when it comes to decision-making: counterfactuals.
A Brief Aside—To learn from your past, ask how you made decisions
Since we’re talking about making decisions…
I learned from Safi Bahcall that it’s very powerful to ask how you make prior good or bad decisions, rather than focusing too much on the decision itself. The example that Safi uses is chess. Let’s say you lose a game, and you think that the loss was because of one bad move towards the end—maybe you moved your queen into a trap and it got taken. Instead of focusing on the specific move (moving the queen into the trap), ask how you came to the decision to move the queen to that position. By asking “how?”, you can uncover your current patterns of thinking and improve them. By improving how you think, you’ll make better decisions in many other situations: not just “queen trap” situations.
Let’s try this out really quickly.
Pick one particularly good or bad decision you’ve made in the last year—maybe you developed a new habit of working out daily. How did you make the decision to start working out daily? Was it a conscious choice with a plan, or did your friend convince you to go with them? In the former case, you might see that you have a process that can help you build more good habits. In the latter case, you might realize that it wasn’t your doing at all, but the influence of your environment. In each case, you can learn more about how you made that decision and what it means for future decisions you’ll make.
Perhaps something going wrong in your life wasn’t your fault, and you made all of the decisions correctly. Perhaps something going right in your life was actually a matter of luck, and the decision you made wasn’t the best. Analyzing the “how” can help you understand.
Alright, let’s get back to the main point.
Part One—Opportunity Cost
The main question here is, “If I didn’t do this thing, what else could I do instead?”
Let’s say you have to make a decision, such as whether or not you want to play in your local community soccer league. You might frame the question like this: “Do I want to play in the league, or not?”
But there’s a very big, hidden, loaded word in that question… “not”.
Playing in the league looks pretty straightforward, and you can pretty much guess the results. You’ll play some soccer a few nights a week, make some new friends, get some exercise, etc.
But not playing in the league…well, that could look like literally anything else. There are an infinite number of things that not playing the league could be.
For example, you could use that same time to join a tennis league. Or, you could use that time to start a business, or write a novel. You could watch TV during all of that time. You could build wooden birdhouses. You could study for law school.
All of these are ways that you could spend your time if you didn’t join the soccer league. Choosing to play in the league means choosing to not do any of those other things. You’re saying “yes” to one thing, and no to everything else.
That’s part one of counterfactuals: realizing all of the other things you could be doing with your time. All the things you could be doing instead are together called the opportunity cost. It basically means all of the stuff you’re missing out on. (FOMO times infinity.)
Next time you’re considering spending money or—more importantly—time on something, make sure to think about what you could do with that money or time instead.
The main questions here is, “What would happen if this thing didn’t happen, or hadn’t happened?”
This question is more directly in line with what people mean when they say “counterfactual”, and it refers to imagining how the world might look now if a particular event hadn’t happened in the past, or similarly how the world might look in the future if a particular event weren’t going to happen in the present.
When we choose to do something, we’re choosing not to do the infinite number of other things we could have done. When something happens, everything else that might’ve happened doesn’t.
So what would’ve happened if we had chosen to do something else? What would’ve happened if one of those other infinite things had happened?
Enough talking in the abstract—let’s get concrete.
Counterfactuals in the Past: Animal Liberation
We’re going to stay away from the Hitler counterfactual, because many others have fought about that and there’s much you can read on it. We’ll turn to something more directly related to animal rights, because it’s more interesting and useful for us.
Let’s look at the publication and popularization of the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, the work that some people say set off the modern animal rights movement. Whether or not that’s true, it was at the very least quite influential.
What would have happened if Peter Singer had never written or published it?
The first option is that someone else would have written a similar book that would have had a similar impact. Perhaps it wasn’t the unique skills of Peter Singer that helped stir up the modern movement for animals, but just the fact that someone wrote a clear argument for animal rights in a time and place when there was already a little momentum in that direction. After all, Donald Watson and others had already founded The Vegan Society back in 1944, thirty-one years before Singer’s book. Ruth Harrison published an impactful book called Animal Machines in 1964 which documented the brutality of factory farms, and in 1965 Brigid Brophy published an article titled “The Rights of Animals”. In fact, Peter Singer himself wrote a review for a 1970 book called Animals, Men, and Morals which he said was “a manifesto for the Animal Liberation movement.” Perhaps the time was simply ripe for another reawakening of the movement for animals, and Peter Singer happens to be remembered as one of the main catalysts.
Another option is that the movement would actually have suffered a major hit without the publication of Animal Liberation. Maybe no one else would have done as good of a job as Singer, or perhaps his position and privilege as a white male philosopher helped with the spread and acclaim of the book in ways that others wouldn’t have had the benefit of. Perhaps Ingrid Newkirk wouldn’t have founded PETA without reading Singer’s book, and perhaps without PETA a whole collection of other individuals would have never gotten involved in animal rights, and many other organizations wouldn’t exist.
Let’s now hypothesize about another scenario, and one that might seem counterintuitive to you (but is maybe one of the most important counterfactuals to think about). What if Peter Singer’s book actually set the animal rights movement up for a series of long, difficult decades in which very little progress was made compared to what could have been? We all know that the number of animals killed for food has only gone up, and up, and up over the last 40 years. What if Animal Liberation inspired 40 years of ineffective activism, work that didn’t really end up doing any good for animals? What if, without the publication of the book, someone else’s book would have set the foundation for a completely different kind of animal rights movement, one that by now would have already achieved legal personhood for animals and the abolition of eating meat?
Although it might be hard to imagine, it could be the case that the efforts of well-intentioned people end up having a negative effect in the long run. Not only do we need to ask this difficult question about the work of others, in order to learn, but we also need to ask it about ourselves, in order to choose better paths forward. If we ask, “How might this actually harm more animals in the long run?”, then our answers will hopefully help us refine our strategy and end up with a better plan that mitigates those risks.
With counterfactuals, you have to be ready to hypothesize anything—especially the answers that you might not want to hear. Only through a careful consideration of alternatives can you select a path going forward.
Working through this process doesn’t mean that you need to consider each alternative as equally likely—some outcomes are surely going to be much more likely than others. (If Peter Singer hadn’t published Animal Liberation, perhaps all vegans and vegetarians would have vanished off the face of the earth over the next 40 years. But probably not.) It’s the consideration of the other outcomes that is the important aspect here, and the sincere effort to understand how the world might look if other decisions had been (or will be) taken.
Let’s jump back to the present and look at some very real decisions we have to make today when advocating for animals.
Counterfactuals in the Present: China
If you’re reading this, you’re probably an animal advocate. You probably also don’t live in China.
But why don’t you? Over 50% of the animals killed for food are killed in China (mostly fish), while only 2% are in the US, with similarly low percentages for most other Western countries. If you want to do the most good in the world, and you’re currently not living in China, it probably makes sense to imagine the counterfactual of living in China.
You may very well still come to the conclusion that it doesn’t make sense for you to live in China, for some good reasons: you aren’t native to China; you don’t speak the language; free speech and activism are more restricted; you have a job in the US; the internet allows you to work internationally in certain ways no matter where you live; etc. But, if you aren’t simply rationalizing your current choices—in other words, making up seemingly logical, palatable reasons for something when the true reasons are much different and perhaps not logically defensible—then you might also see a lot of good evidence for moving to China. Perhaps in your current life trajectory, you can impact X animals, and if you moved to China you could impact 100X. It’s a possibility—and that’s the value of the counterfactual, to help you consider that possibility.
(Here are two ways to flip these questions around and consider different angles of the counterfactual: What wouldn’t happen if I moved to China that is (or could be) happening right now? What isn’t happening right now that could be if I moved?)
Counterfactuals in the Present: Chickens and Fish
Let’s look at one more example, one that has actually drawn a lot of attention in the last decade or so of the movement.
For many years, a lot of animal advocacy focused on helping animals who humans more easily feel moral responsibility toward: cows, pigs, dogs, chimps, elephants, foxes, etc. During that time period, and perhaps unknown to most activists at the time, the consumption of chickens and fish increased significantly. Today there are many more animals killed for food each year than several decades ago—and the vast majority of them are chickens and fish.
Let’s look at some data.
First, notice how tonnes of “Poultry” meat on the bottom has grown quickly (by a multiple of more than 10), while the other categories haven’t seen the same growth.
And once we look at the number of land animals being killed (the above is weight), the picture is even more bleak. Chickens don’t weigh very much compared to cows and pigs, which means that equal weights of chicken flesh and cow flesh mean very different numbers of chickens and cows killed.
The graph for farmed fish looks similar. (And wild caught fish numbers have increased over this time period as well.) Fish, too, are much smaller on average than cows and pigs, which translates to a massive number of them being killed.
Is this how the course of history had to go to lead us to the present? Or is there another way?
Imagine, for example, that the animal rights movement had started by looking at the greatest numbers of animals killed, realized it was mostly fish, and then chickens, and advocated from that perspective. Is it possible that we could have prevented the meteoric rise in numbers of animals killed? Could we have stopped literally trillions of fish from being killed by humans, and billions of chickens from being born into factory farms? Perhaps by starting with chickens and fish, we could have more quickly expanded humanity’s moral circle to include individuals who humans don’t currently have much empathy toward.
Maybe. But maybe not.
We could imagine a scenario in which the animal rights movement did start with chicken and fish advocacy, but where those efforts had almost no effect on society because of humanity’s current lack of empathy toward them. What if others didn’t start joining the movement because they didn’t understand why we should care about chickens and fish? What if the vibrant ecosystem of organizations and activists that exists today never developed because it was harder for people to relate to the asks being made?
It could be the case that on the journey to expand humanity’s moral circle, it’s better to focus on the easier areas and then push on to the harder ones incrementally. It could also be the case that it’s better to target the furthest reasonable point and push for that, in the hopes that acceleration will be faster if people know where they’re going.
How you decide to answer these kinds of questions also probably determines how you assess counterfactuals. If you think we expand humanity’s moral circle one step at a time, then perhaps the world couldn’t be drastically better by advocating for fish and chickens earlier on. If you think we can push multiple steps at a time, then maybe you think the world would be much better off if we had advocated for them earlier. Perhaps you think neither option is optimal, and that a different approach (such as educating the population on speciesism) would have been the best path.
Using Counterfactuals to Make Progress
How do we make progress on these huge questions that involve the entire global infrastructure of modern society? This is a topic for another post (or 1,000 posts), but in short I think we can turn to these three strategies for the time being:
- Looking to past movements; studying the structure of modern society and creating models of it; immersing ourselves in the existing knowledge about relevant fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, and law; looking at and attempting to reason about the potential impact of current advocacy tactics; and running our own experiments.
- Using tools like counterfactuals to hone our reasoning; fostering constructive debate and disagreement between thoughtful individuals; seeking diverse sources of information and ideas; and having a toolbox of questions that help to diagnose potential logical flaws.
- Learning what differentiates good and bad experiments; committing to pursuing promising ideas for extended periods of time; helping others commit to pursuing other promising ideas; and sharing results and information with other advocates.
The combination of these three strategies can help provide a direction even in the face of astronomical uncertainty—and asking “what if?” is a big part of the process.
Counterfactuals are important because they force us to imagine more possible scenarios than we might at first. By asking “what if?”, we can make better decisions by having a more full picture of the possibilities.
A good counterfactual analysis will include both (a) what could happen in the future if a different decision were made in the present, and (b) what won’t happen in the future if you stop doing what you’re doing now.
Similarly, if we’re considering the past, we might ask: How might history have gone differently if a different decision were made?
But at the end of the day, a counterfactual is simply asking: what if?
There are a lot of great websites out there for learning how to make better decisions, how to avoid common human biases, and how to think more rationally. Here are some of my favorites.