Luck All the Way Down

April 26, 2019

At 4:30 AM this morning, I put the final touches on the Intern Playbook site and queued the launch email to be sent at 7:30 AM. It's now 9:15 AM, which means that the launch happened over an hour and a half ago. So how has it been going?

I have no idea. I haven't looked at any of my emails and my phone is still on airplane mode since I woke up an hour ago. Perhaps the website is down because of a massive influx of people trying to purchase the course. Or perhaps no one cares about the course and nothing has happened. Or you know, something in between because not everything has to be so extreme.

This level of uncertainty is kind of fun because it will be really interesting noticing my response to the results. One second before checking my inbox, I'll be perfectly content sitting in my friend's apartment with my belly full and a roof over my head while witnessing a gorgeous, sunny day in San Francisco. One second after checking my inbox, I imagine I'll feel lots of excitement or disappointment — but absolutely nothing will have changed. I'll still be exactly where I was under the same exact conditions. If the launch goes well, great. If it's a total disaster, that's also totally fine.

I am ridiculously fortunate to be able to devote myself entirely to a project for three months and know that I'll still be fine regardless of the outcome due to my savings. Most people in the world simply don't have that luxury, and today's post is actually about that disparity.

I've accomplished many things in the past that many people would describe as major successes. Getting into Princeton. Working at Google. Making a viral video with millions of views. What separates me from all the other people who are "less successful"?

The answer seems quite clear to me: The only difference is luck.

I didn't choose for my mom to have breast cancer and as a result, have me and my siblings move to America to live with my grandparents. Had she been healthy, I probably would've stayed in Korea, gone through mandatory military service, and not know English well enough to write this post.

I didn't choose to be in a family where learning was valued, nor did I choose to have the genetic and environmental makeup that made me good at learning and enjoy it. I could just as easily have hated school and have not seen the point of developing my knowledge and skills.

And yes, I've worked hard for all my achievements, but that's just another stroke of luck — whether or not I felt driven and had the capacity to work hard are also things I didn't choose. I was born with a particular genetic configuration in a particular environment, and due to countless interactions and random occurrences, I happen to be the person I am now.

It's luck all the way down. Reality is simply unfolding, and I happen to find myself to be in a corner where I don't have to fear for my safety or worry about what I'm going to eat tonight.

A corollary of this perspective is that nothing is ever really "deserved": Since everything happens due to chance, no one "deserves" their success, and no one "deserves" their failures. And when I see this clearly, one feeling naturally arises. I want to give.

Since I lucked into the incredible circumstances of my life, it only makes sense that I use some of the blessings I've received and redistribute it to those who are less fortunate. And I want to do this in a way where I can start doing good now rather than waiting until some future event like becoming a billionaire. So here's my commitment: I pledge to give away at least 10% of my income for the rest of my life.

The Giving What We Can organization has an official pledge you can take to give away at least 10% to effective charities, but my version will be slightly different as I will be devoting much of my giving to my family to start with. This is a story for another time, but my parents no longer have any savings and I'm the only person in a position to help them. My plan for now is to provide for my parents up to $10,000 a year and donate any remaining portions of the 10% to effective charities.

When I think about committing to give away 10% (and eventually, hopefully more) of my income for the rest of my life, fear and greed simultaneously arise: What if I give too much away and I don't have enough for myself? What if I make so much money that 10% ends up being a large sum? Wouldn't I rather keep that amount? But when those thoughts settle, it's quite clear that this is a way that I want to open my heart to the world.

I've only been able to gather the courage and clarity of mind to do this thanks to some incredibly wonderful people, and I wanted to call some of them out and let them know how they've inspired me:

  • David Hendon: Every time I come visit you, I enjoy seeing how you're always trying to live more aligned with your values. I loved hearing about your recent practice of giving whenever you see a problem in the world.
  • Pranav Gokhale: Our conversations around effective altruism and seeing you make a pledge made me realize, "Oh, I can do this, too." It was powerful seeing someone I know and trust go through with it.
  • Christopher Triolo: You've inspired me for a long time through many of your actions, whether it's reducing animal suffering by going vegan or making career decisions based on how you can do the most good in the world.
  • Zain Shah: Seeing the extent to which you were willing to go in order to support your family helped me make peace with supporting mine.
  • Kelly Shon: When we met up in Korea several years ago, I was really surprised and touched when you mentioned that one of your major motivations for doing well professionally was to be able to give more. That really stayed with me.
  • Capella Yee: Our conversation last night about this was exactly the nudge I needed to make this commitment. Much love.

Also, shoutouts to Peter Singer, the professor whose class and book on ethics changed my life and to Sam Harris, who inspired me with his conversation with William MacAskill and his immediate commitment to donate 10% of his earnings.

Now that I've finished this piece, I'm going to go check my email and see how Intern Playbook is going. While I don't know whether the launch has been successful or not, I do know this: the more I receive, the more I can give.

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