Although I sometimes make a comment that makes people think I’m hard hearted, like, “Oh, you don’t want kids? Great! More resources for my kids,” in reality I am a big softy. If you tell me an emotional story, I’ll probably cry, especially if your face morphs in a way that suggests pain. This is why 5 years ago when Hulu played some commercial about daily giving to poor kids, instead of muting the ad, I thought, “It’s not the kids’ fault they’re born in countries with no wifi and their parents keep having more and more kids. There but for the grace of God go I.” I looked through the website which showed brief profiles of hundreds of pathetic kids and chose about 10 that looked the most promising- one was deaf and some might have had minor health issues but they seemed like they could all go on to be high functioning members of society. Some even still had parents who were probably simply overwhelmed by an avalanche of random other worries. They varied in age from 4 to 17 and were from South America, Africa, and Asia. For the next few years, I gave about $20 a day to this program, ultimately giving thousands of dollars.
A few times a year, the charity would send me a bundle of handmade cards and photographs of my kids. These cards would say stuff varying from, “My favorite class is gym. I often baby-sit my 6 brothers and sisters,” to “My best class is maths where I got an 85%,” to “I was an orphan living in a police station until you gave me $2 a day. My favorite class is soccer.” As the cards accumulated holiday after holiday, I realized that this was a total waste of my money. There was no discernible progress occurring. I did not feel like I was making an impact. I didn’t feel the kids felt I was making an impact- they probably viewed their dutiful cards to me as some quarterly chore like filling out performance reviews for someone you knew was completely useless but was impossible to fire. Instead of feeling good about giving, I felt like this random cause was a laziness/guilt tax.
Thousands of dollars later, I eventually got around to canceling my sponsorship. Why was it that giving to this charity felt like a tax I was paying rather than a gift I was giving? Why didn’t I feel good about a great cause, a sponsorship I had initiated with only altruistic intentions? For a long time, I wondered if it was because I was just an ungenerous person who would rather spend thousands on the furniture-scratching cat at her side than on deserving human beings across the world. But I’m not ungenerous- I objectively donate a lot of money to various causes. Why was it that this charity made me feel nothing? Now I think I’m beginning to understand the answer.
Part of the answer is that I can’t give what cost me nothing. This money I was sending to these kids was nothing to me. I could easily afford $20 a day- I almost never bought groceries because most of my food came from my company where I spent 90% of my waking hours. The moment I gave them my bank information and this charity stopped being a deliberate decision, it became something that cost me nothing. When you choose which brand to buy at the store, you’re making a deliberate decision that costs you some brain cycles. You choose the organic, all natural cleaner because it’s better for the environment and in case your cat rolls around in it she won’t get poisoned licking herself clean. I feel good about this action, the extra thought and effort I put into it, and this extra cost to my autopilot shopping experience matters more to me than the cost to my wallet. I don’t value something if it costs me nothing, and if I never have to think about it, then it costs me nothing.
The main project that has been costing me time lately has been fund-raising for PGSS, a nerd camp I attended in high school that went defunct in 2008 when Pennsylvania lost all its money due to financial chaos caused by evil high frequency traders.
When Joel first told me about this program, he said, “I LOVED it.”
“Did you have sex?”
“It’s great for other reasons too- when you drive up to the dorm the TA’s all greet you by name: they’ve memorized all the faces off the face book” (this was a pre-Facebook use of the term face book). Joel went on to describe how the classes were actually really hard, how the team projects were real work, how the other kids were awesome, how you get an Erdos number of 2 (or 3?) if you work on the math team project with that one ancient professor. The best part was this program was totally free! What would normally cost >$4000 per student was all free. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to CTY the summer I’d wanted to go- my dad said he was always sorry about that. I had subsidized meals from school and we were pathetically poor compared to my suburban peers. Most of Pennsylvania is not hugely rich. Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has lots of rural areas where kids don’t get to take AP classes or spend a few grand on a summer program, which meant we would be behind other kids when it came to applying to colleges, which was the ultimate goal we had been toiling towards for 12 years. PGSS was selective- it took 60-90 kids across the different districts in Pennsylvania, most of them the top kid in their high school, and brought them all together for a great summer.
Part of me had wondered if, when I left Pittsburgh, no one from Pennsylvania would hold a candle to the new people I’d meet at MIT, but that didn’t happen: apparently human intelligence is not distributed like that. The smartest people I know from Pennsylvania are still the smartest people I know, and most of them went to PGSS. Whenever I go to a party with a lot of high powered, super educated people, I run into someone from PGSS. This nerd camp is how I know all the smartest people from Pennsylvania! Well, all the ones who were high school juniors before 2008.
When I first heard about the Pennsylvania Governor’s Schools being shut down, I thought it was such a waste. I donated my $4K, the cost of sending 1 student to PGSS, figured I’d done my part, and then sat back. After not even getting any acknowledgment of my donation, I was mad and wondering how incompetent the people running this revival were. Who doesn’t even send a thank you note? And $4K is nothing to sneeze at! After all, I’m only a few years out of college. There are people who’ve been out of this program for 20 years and are richer than me! Why am I the one donating $4K when some 46 year old should be spearheading the effort with $30K or something? What’s the point of a program where 80% of the kids who go to PGSS go on to MIT, Stanford, CMU, Caltech, and Ivies, where half the people have Ph.D.’s and/or M.D.’s and/or J.D.’s (some of them all 3 degrees), and they can’t even raise enough money to get the program back? I only have 2 B.S.’s and both are completely useless! Are these brain surgeons and rocket scientists and patent lawyers too busy floating on their yachts to cut a check?
I forgot about Save PGSS and went on to donate to MIT and some other charities (a charity event is how I got this photo with Mr. Damon- he begged to be photographed with me, a real MIT Good Will Hunting genius, and I can never reject my fans). Then a few weeks ago when I was in California, there was word of a SF PGSS reunion. I brought tim rogers to pose as a 17 year old math prodigy and intended to shake hands with a few tech founders with one hand while stuffing cherry tomatoes into my mouth with my other hand before zipping away in my rented Nissan GTR, the front of which bottomed out even easier than the Tesla roadster. I couldn’t drive in the city with that thing without repeatedly asking tim if he was sure there weren’t really steep hills en route that would require my swerving into the other lane to avoid scraping the bottom of the car against the road.
At this reunion, I learned that the PGSS revival effort was basically Jeremy, a few alums, and his mom tracking down all the alumni and doing a million annoying tasks. I felt so humbled by how much Jeremy’s mom was doing for this program, a program that I had benefited from. I thought about all the ways PGSS has benefited me. For one thing, it was a great thing to put on my college application. In fact, my team project was mentioned in the application notes (everyone my year got to view their admissions notes).
I made friends that are still my best friends, people whose judgment I trusted. I think it was one of my first real confirmations that me and my dad weren’t the smartest people on Earth (thankfully one of many such confirmations). I mean, I had suspected we weren’t the smartest people who ever existed since we had, like, cars and computers and other technologies that I wouldn’t have come up with, and plus there were all these otherwise inexplicable books. But there was almost no one whose judgment I actually trusted. It was such a relief to make friends who you knew you could rely on, and to realize that you weren’t the smartest person on Earth, otherwise you’d be the one that would have to advance civilization (trust me, you don’t want to rely on me for this).
And everyone was really nice! Sometimes high school kids are mean, but every single person at PGSS was really nice to everyone else. After just one summer together, I became closer to these people than people I’d seen every day for years during high school. mitri has helped me move into every place I’ve lived since college. I’ve spent weeks at Tony’s lake house and he journeyed all the way to the Village from the Upper East Side to cut my cat’s nails. Ray let me drive his Miata even though it became clear that my understanding of manual transmission was more theoretical than practical and more nonexistent than theoretical. It’s not like PGSS happened for a summer and then was over. It touched the rest of my life. I’m still friends with these people and so proud we’re all getting more and more awesome as time passes. Everyone is either in the upper echelons of academia, working at a top company, starting their own companies- is there any other high school summer alumni base that can claim this level of achievement? I feel so proud to number among these illustrious ranks!
After hearing about Jeremy’s experiences, I said I wanted to help and added this page to his PGSS Alumni website to start thanking supporters. I want to donate a lot to the revival of this program.
Because I realized the way giving feels good to me is if I can push through the indifference zone, then through the pain zone, all the way through to the pleasure zone on the other side. After a bunch of charity events and decisions regarding allocating my wealth, I learned this about charity: if I’m in the indifference zone and it costs me nothing to donate, then it’s a waste of my money because it’ll be a laziness/guilt tax rather than a joyful gift. If I’m in the pain zone and regretting having given this much money, then it’s a waste of money because I won’t give again- I just don’t care about the program enough to have it be worth that much money to me. If I can get past the pain zone and still want to donate money, then that’s when I know I really care about the program. That’s when donating feels really good. PGSS allows top students learn and work on science projects together for free, selected on merit, regardless of socioeconomic background. What’s more inspiring than that?
I also realized that if I’m donating money to MIT, which I paid for, then it doesn’t make sense for me not to donate to PGSS, which was absolutely free. PGSS is one of the things that has touched my life in a big way- I can’t imagine life without the friends I made there. And life isn’t about what you get, life is about what you give! What’s the point of anything any of us are doing if we’re not giving back to the world?
I pledge to match up to $20K any pledges that come as a result of people reading this blog. Go here to pledge or email me or leave a comment. Your pledge will not be collected unless we raise enough to restart the program and you can make it conditional on random things like if enough other engineers/CEOs/doctors/people from your city also pledge as much as you pledge. Big donors will have honors showered upon them! For the first person to pledge more than $1K, I will blog about your greatness or topic of your choice, the only topic of censure being something too sensitive to high frequency trading strategies, although I may consider it for outstanding donations. Imagine- you could be getting investment advice from me! That’s easily worth billions.