Joy Sun: Should you donate differently?

Speaker

Joy Sun is a veteran aid worker and COO at http://www.givedirectly.org

Summary

As an experienced aid worked, Joy often felt the urge to give money directly to the poor (rather than through programs). However, she believed that her programs would benefit them more: by spending money for the poor rather than letting the poor spend money. Recent research shows that this is not true – when people are allowed to spend money themselves, pregnant women will buy food for stronger babies, businessmen will invest directly in their business and increase their income. Studies showed people didn’t spend more on alcohol, or slack off and work less. People prioritised their own needs well, and usually got a direct benefit.

It begs the question: are aid workers worth the extra cost? Are the poor better at spending their money than we are at choosing what they want? As an example, in India a program gave livestock to the ‘ultra-poor’, and 30% then sold their livestock for cash. To add to the inefficiency, for every $100 spent on livestock, another $99 was spent in administration of the program.

New technology allows us to send money directly to the poor. This payment amount could allow people to send money directly to the poor. Joy’s latest program will firstly verify how poor a person is, then sell them a cheap cellphone and donate $1000 per family directly to them. It avoids issues of corruption, and allows people to invest in themselves.

Aid efficiency tends to have a very low threshold of success- we tell ourselves that it is successful if we do some good. Or that we are better off giving than not giving. This increases the amount lost to plane tickets, reports, studies. The new bar should be “can we choose how to spend this money better than the recipients?”.

Direct money cannot eradicate disease or build up institutions, but could be a more efficient way to improve the lives of individuals. Joy believes in aid, but isn’t convinced that most of it is more efficient than directly giving to the poor. She hopes some day it will be.

My Thoughts

Very thought-provoking. As someone who could donate more, but is cynical of the agencies delivering programs, the idea of direct payments is intriguing. I am also curious how this aid impacts those who do not receive it: are whole villages targeted, and if so does it simply cause inflation? Or does involvement in this aid pick winners? I admit my ignorance of economics in this area. I would also be concerned about the verification process – giving money is a concept that is open to fraud, and donators should feel confident that it is being given to those who need it.

Nonetheless, I agree with her that it is a very good way to bypass inefficient organisations and government corruption.

Derek Sivers: How to start a movement

Speaker

Derek Sivers is best known for being the founder and former president of CD Baby, an online CD store for independent musicians.

Summary

Derek shows a video of a crowd forming around a single shirtless dancer (the leader). He dances alone for a while, then someone else comes forward. They dance together for a while, and are embraced as equals. Then a couple more come over and start dancing, and soon a large crowd forms around them.

So what can we learn from this?

  • As a leader, you must encourage your first followers. Embrace them as equals and treat them well.
  • The first follower is the one who turns someone from a shirtless nut into a leader. The leader will get the credit, but the followers are brave for getting it started.
  • Once a group is formed, the rest will start flocking towards it. Suddenly it isn’t weird or risky – if they’re quick they can still be part of the ‘in’ crowd, rather than feeling left behind.
  • For this reason, an early follower is a special kind of leadership.
  • If you see a single person with a good idea, be that first follower.

My Thoughts

Fun short talk, with some nonetheless useful messages. Nearly half of the video is the opening and ads that accompanied older TEDs.

Pia Mancini: How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era

Speaker

Using software to inspire public debate and enable voter engagement, Pia Mancini hopes to upgrade modern democracy in Argentina and beyond.

Summary

Democracy as a system is rooted in thinking and constraints from 500 years ago. Every few years it represents a few to make decisions on behalf of everyone else. It has high thresholds of entry: you need either a lot of resources or to devote your life to politics. The language is also complicated, so we can choose the authorities but are left out of how the decisions are made. The political system is 200 years old, and expects us to be passive recipients of the monologue. This attitude itself alienates citizens – giving them no opportunities to intervene except by protest’. People want their seat at the table.

The current generation has been good at using technology to organise protests, that have overthrown totalitarian governments and changed unpopular laws. However we have not yet used the technology to change the system itself. If the internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the internet era? Pia asks what institutions we need to build for the 21st century, and doesn’t know the answer.

Pia and some friends in Argentina were left thinking about how we can use technology to solve current political problems, rather than relying on the tools of the past. She developed an open source app ‘DemocracyOS’, which translates issues into easy-to-understand language and allows people to informally vote on them. They could compare citizen’s votes with the votes of their representatives to see the discrepancies. When she tried to get politicians on board with the idea of a 2 way conversation with voters, she failed. Reflecting, she says she was naieve to expect the political elite to go along with this – the problems are cultural and not purely technical.

Pia took a leap of faith and ran a politcal party in Buenos Aires, with the idea that they would always vote along the same lines as the voters from DemocracyOS. To change the system, they needed a seat at the table, which meant playing by the political rules. While they did not win a seat, they did pick up 1.2% of the vote and have used their influence to have 3 bills to be voted on by DemocracyOS. Congress would not be bound by the vote, but they are at least showing willingness to consider the results.

My Thoughts

It’s a brave product, but asking everyone to vote on a smartphone app has some issues of representation. It makes things expensive for the poor – effectively dealing them out of the issues. It also may not be trusted – security concerns could undermine the authority of the product. And a vote could still be hijacked by a small but committed group. It also may not be the best way to make complex, or unpopular but necessary decisions – eg reducing spending in some areas.

However, as time goes on and if such a product became ubiquitous, I think it could be a good system. Certainly on pure ‘conscience’ or social issues it could work. I still think for some more complicated issues it should be experts picking which way to go (which still isn’t done properly by the current system).

Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Speaker

As an undergrad, Killingsworth studied economics and engineering, and worked for a few years as a software product manager. He now studies happiness.

Summary

Most people want to be happier, and will seek better jobs, cars, houses because they believe it will make them happier. The paradox of happiness is that once these things are achieved, people do not feel any happier. Scientific studies recently have focussed on happiness itself. While they found education and income can have an effect, it tends to be small. Happiness seems to be about the moment-to-moment interactions rather than lifetime achievements, so Matt devised an iPhone app that would survey people about their happiness at random points of the day. By tracking people’s instantaneous happiness over the day, and asking what they’re doing, who they’re with at the time, we can understand what causes happiness. This gave 650,000 surveys from 15,000 people, from a wide variety of countries, occupations, marital statuses, ages, and incomes.

People possess the ability for their mind to wander – to think about something other than what they are currently doing. This is good for planning and thinking during menial tasks – but is it good for happiness? Perhaps if you think about something pleasant while doing something unpleasant your happiness should increase? To answer this, one of Matt’s survey questions was “are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”, and whether they were thinking about something pleasant or unpleasant. The data showed that when people’s minds wandered, they were significantly less happy. This was true regardless of what they were doing – even during a less enjoyable activity (commuting). As for what they were thinking about, people thinking pleasantly were slightly less happy than people focussed on the moment. People thinking about unpleasant things were 24 percentage points less than those who weren’t mind wandering. So mind-wanderers are less happy. He also saw that people mind-wandered before being unhappy, showing it is causative.

How often do we mind-wander? About 47% of the time – it is very frequent. So it is a frequently occurring variable in people’s unhappiness.

My Thoughts

Focus focus focus. I enjoy scientific studies, and appreciate the detail Matt went to to draw his conclusions. He argues convincingly that mind-wandering makes people unhappy, regardless of what they are doing or thinking about. However, are these thoughts nonetheless important? Especially when stressing or thinking about unhappy things, is it better to think about and resolve the issues? My thoughts are probably not – usually a mind-wander is unlikely to solve a serious problem, though there are ‘Eureka’ moments littered throughout history (where a new theory comes while taking a bath, or drinking).

After seeing this talk, I will try to focus on the moment more. It has benefits for time management as well – to do a single task rather than trying to conquer multiples at once.

Jeff Iliff: One more reason to get a good night’s sleep

Speaker

Jeff Iliff is a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University, previously doing research into brain cleansing mechanisms at University of Rochester Medical Centre.

Summary

We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, but it is not clear why the body needs it. 2,000 years ago it was proposed by Galen that the brain sent fluids around the body, and these were returned during sleep to rejuvenate the brain. The idea is ludicrous today, but Jeff still suggests brain activity could account for our need of sleep. The brain uses 25% of our energy but takes only 2% of our mass. The first major issue in any body organ is nutrient intake – which is satisfied by the circulatory system and the network of blood vessels surrounding the brain. The second issue is waste disposal, which in most organs is done through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system transports waste from the cells to bloodstream, however it does not exist in our heads so cannot be used by the brain. So how does the brain dispose of waste? This was where Jeff started tackling the problem.

The brain is surrounded by cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). Waste is dumped into CSF, which is then transported to the blood. To help this, CSF is pumped along the outside of blood vessels – to clean and penetrate deeper into the brain wherever blood vessels are. However, this action only happens while we sleep. As we sleep the brain cells contract, to open up spaces between them and let the CSF flow more easily. Ironically, this idea of fluid rushing through the brain is similar to Galen’s ideas thousands of years ago.

What sorts of wastes need to be cleaned? One is Amyloid Beta – which is made all the time, but an inability to clear them away is thought to be a factor in getting Alzheimers disease. Studies have found that a decrease in sleep is associated with an increase in Amyloid Beta in the brain.

While we sleep, our brain never rests. It is busily cleaning this important machine, and possibly preventing serious issues later. By understanding these housekeeping functions today, we may be able to prevent serious diseases of the mind tomorrow.

My Thoughts

Interesting talk and interesting research. I learnt a bit about brain activity, sleep and Alzheimers all at once. He summed up a lot in less than 12 minutes.

Susan Colantuono: The career advice you probably didn’t get

Speaker

Susan Colantuono is the CEO and founder of Leading Women. She is the author of No Ceiling, No Walls: What women haven’t been told about leadership, which takes a close look at the conventional wisdom keeping women from rising from middle management.

Summary

Women now occupy 50% of middle management positions, but less than a third of that portion in upper management. Leadership skills are required at all levels of management – defined by using your own skills and engaging with others to help the organisation achieve its goals. However in the highest positions, the most important skill is ‘Business, strategic, and financial acumen’ – or the ability to understand the business, and people’s roles. This is the skill that is missing in the advice given to women – not because they are incapable of achieving it but because it isn’t recognised as a skill they are advised to acquire.

As an example, Susan was discussing with some executives what they look for in people with executive potential: they recognise personal success & work ethic, and they recognise people skills. When asked about high level strategy and business understanding they say “That’s a given”. When Susan asks women how many have heard that this skill is important, very few have had that advice. Most advice given to women relates to developing negotiating skills, personal branding, networking and self confidence. This is good advice for reaching middle management positions, but is not enough to reach executive level. Additionally, performance & talent systems focus on personal achievement & leadership, and are not directing people to develop business or strategic skills.

Men are doing a better job of developing business skills through mentoring and networking – being sponsored by someone at the top. In one case, an executive mentored a man and a woman – helping the man learn the business and helping the woman develop self-confidence. At the time he didn’t realise he was treating them differently.

Actions that can be taken from these findings: For women to develop they need to demonstrate financial acumen. Even for people not at middle management yet, by weaving financial or strategic information into project reports it can really impress those above. For executives, these findings should cause concern – it shows a lack of strategic alignment if their middle managers do not understand the skills expected of them to advance. Additionally, boards should demand proportional succession pools to fill future executive positions, with CEOs and HR prepared to help high potential employees get the skills needed. By recognising and acting on this, we can close the gender gap at the top.

My Thoughts

Very worthwhile topic and wonderful result – to identify what is missing in middle managers to help them become executives. Although I am not a woman, personally I will take the advice to develop high level strategic skills in the workplace.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that the only thing missing is the advice to develop business, strategic and financial skills. I would have thought that people aiming for executive positions should be capable of recognising they need these skills. It is possible that executives do not see women as having these skills – similar to the example in Susan’s talk who mentored his men and women differently. In this case the women can’t just learn the skills, they need to take the chance to show them off as much as possible as well.

Regardless, an enjoyable and useful talk.

Jarrett J. Krosoczka: Why lunch ladies are heroes

Speaker

Jarrett J. Krosoczka is the author/illustrator of countless children’s books and graphic novels, including Good Night, Monkey Boy, Baghead and the Lunch Lady series (http://www.lunchladycomics.com/)

Summary

Jarrett, an author and illustrator, went back to his old primary school to attend an event when he noticed that Jeannie, a lunch lady who used to serve him was still working. He approached her and had an eye opening conversation about Jeannie’s children and grandchildren. Lunch ladies don’t actually live at the school, as he once believed.

Jarrett was inspired to create the Lunch Lady graphic novel series. There was a positive reception from the kids but also from lunch ladies who were grateful for the message behind it. The role of the lunch lady in popular culture has not been a popular one and Jarrett was doing something about it. The popularity of the series led to the creation of School Lunch hero day, where kids got creative about how to thank the people who serve them food.

That is the lesson of this talk: It’s important to say thank you. Cafeteria workers, who collectively serve 5 billion school lunches every year certainly deserve appreciation for their work. “A thank you can change the life of the person who receives it, and it changes the life of the person who expresses it.”

My Thoughts

The message of this ted talk was fairly straightforward (be sure to communicate your appreciation), but used an interesting an unique anecdote. This is isn’t a ted talk that I’m planning on rewatching in few months, but nevertheless it was a good reminder.