Galen Hall is the most rational person that I have ever met, and that’s saying something, as we have just finished dining together at a Raising for Effective Giving (REG) presentation on effective altruism.
Hall very kindly gave me some of his time after the event finished, and we talked about his thoughts on the REG presentation, his own beliefs around giving to others, his new job, and deconstructing emotions.
What did you think of the REG presentation?
“It was very positive. I didn’t know too much about it before I walked in. I was pretty skeptical. I tend to be a hater on things, especially when a lot of people are into it. I try to pick holes in arguments and play the black hat role. But at the dinner I found the arguments they outlined extremely compelling. There were times during the talk that I would raise objections in my head, but then they would be satisfactorily addressed later in the talk. I was extremely compelled by it on a number of different levels.
“On a philosophical level I was under the impression that they spent a lot of their money on saving as many lives as they can in the short term, and then that’s how they think they can do the greatest good per dollar. I find it very unlikely that that’s the way to do the greatest good per dollar because it has very small multiplicative benefits over time. You save some lives, and then they eventually die, your money has gone to some good use, but then it’s gone. During the talk I realized that they spend a lot of their time investing in education initiatives, which will have great long-term multiplicative effects. The teach someone to fish parable so to speak. They are also thinking outside the box with research into AI, which can have a great multiplicative effect. I found that very compelling. I also found the arguments for meta-charity work very compelling.”
Where are you on giving to charity?
“I have talked with my parents about this a lot. When I was 16 I started my own business, I started a new business when I was in college, did some heavy sports betting, and then I got into poker. So all of my life I have been successful in leveraging all of my money and earning myself more money. Basically, growing the pot at an exponential rate and leveraging all of the money I had.
“If I wanted to make an impact on charity it would be very selfish to donate money in the short term, because it would be selfish. It would make me feel good but it would also prohibit me from giving more money in the future given the pattern I had.
“Rationally if I wanted to make a great impact with my money it made sense not to donate in the short term. Now I am reaching a point in my life where I am not leveraging all of my money, so donating a dollar today does not mean I will decrease my earnings potential, so I am thinking a lot more about it now.
“Also, looking back at my life I want some sort of lasting legacy that I have done something good in the world. I am fortunate enough to have had a great education, and been born with some great abilities. I can certainly make an impact somehow and I have often wondered if I should make that impact directly by working at a non-profit, working at an NGO or going into politics. Or do I make an impact by using my talents; going and work for a hedge fund make a ton of money and donate that money. The latter feels less selfish because it doesn’t feel so good, and it’s not as enjoyable. It’s a question I have always struggled with.”
I try to make a habit out of giving, I think that’s important.
“It’s a framing situation. Most people donate to charity as the result of an impetus. Something happens that they are very moved by and they donate a sum of money that makes them feel good. It’s better for REG that people give a fixed amount of their salary and over time that will be a much bigger number that you give, and it will be more effective, and will hurt you less. It feels good to give a huge lump of money, but it’s still tough to do it, and easier to give smaller amounts over time.”
I believe you may be taking a job working in a hedge fund, are you worried about losing your freedom and working for a boss?
“It’s interesting that I will be going to work and no matter what happens I will come back with more money that I started with, and I don’t lose money. I am not worried about having a boss, I am looking forward to it. The company I am considering has incredibly intelligent people, and they are wired like poker players are. I am looking forward to having a boss that can understand me, help me understand problems and mentor me.
“In terms of losing freedom. It’s going to be an adjustment and something I have never done before. It is a downside, but there is a huge amount of upside. I don’t know how I am going to react to the trade off but we will see when we get there.”
What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
“That’s probably a long list, but a lot of them won’t sound crazy to poker players. I am very utilitarian. I am calm and rational about a lot of things that face society, and part of that is because I have been lucky to lead a life that hasn’t had a lot of traumatic stress or suffering in it, so it’s easier for me to be calm about the world’s problems and how we should allocate policy and research and funding things like that.
“Going through college, and undergrad my friends nickname for me was the Logic Robot. A lot of my distant friends think of me as one of the strangest and weirdest people they know. My closest friends think I am the most predictable person they know. It’s easy to anticipate what I will do and where I will stand on an issue. That’s good for a relationship because I am not very volatile, and I behave how people expect I will behave. Once my close friends get used to the way I deal with certain situations it’s a very easy relationship to have.”
What moves you?
“Emotions are and aren’t rational. When I was at Stanford I worked hard on improving my EQ and self-analysis. People have this sense that being hyper rational means you are detached from your emotions. The way I see it you recognize your emotions and understand their place. In poker I am always paying close attention to my emotional state and how they will affect my decisions.
“I don’t want to suppress my emotions, I want to understand them. Say you are dating someone. You have a girlfriend and you meet someone who she slept with before you met her. Rationally you have no reason to be upset, but we all know that deep inside you want to punch this guy in the face. You hate this person, it’s not rational, but it’s understandable.”
That’s a very rational answer…what moves you?
“There is this Visa commercial of an Olympic sprinter that tears his hamstring running in the Olympics. He tries to limp to the finish line and his Dad comes down from the stand to help him over the finishing line. It makes me cry…I am tearing up now explaining it to you.”
Why does it make you cry?
“I don’t know. It’s the mix of the determination and knowing that moment. The intensity of the connection between the family.”
What else moves you?
“The American underdog stories are an ingrained part of our culture. Anytime I see the underdog fighting and not giving up – that inspires me. The one thing that really nukes my anger is when I see people picking on people who can’t defend themselves. It’s funny because arrogant people don’t bother me. There are a lot of types of people that grate other people that don’t bother me. Trolls on the Internet that say bad things about you…whatever. But people who pick on people gets me into an irrational blood boiling state.
“Another blood boiler is when people willfully misrepresent data to argue something that’s not true – I lose my mind. The first day at business school when everyone is trying to make a good impression. I was in one of the classes and a teacher had an exhibit and they were using data to prove a point. They manipulated the data to prove their point, when in actuality I thought it was clear it proved the opposite of their point.
“I lost my mind. There was the barely contained anger of me pointing this out in a civil way. She wasn’t having it, and it escalated into a shouting match where she was telling me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I was just a student, and I would really struggle if I couldn’t listen…which was true. I told her she was a total idiot. I lost it completely. I was a 1/10 in handling that situation. I was angry and I went off the rails. I did not rationalize it. My goals were to attack her, show the other students how stupid she was and that I was the king of rational thinking. In that moment I completely lost the ability to rationalize my emotions, and empathize with her point of view. It was wrong of me to behave that way.”