James Norris: Overcoming Childhood Struggle, Effective Altruism & Adapting to Different Cultures - E136

· Start-up,Purpose,Southeast Asia,Podcast Episodes,USA

When the person in the ring who’s fighting, I respect them enormously because I know how hard it is and not enough people are aware of that challenge for them and they don’t necessarily care because you know they’re rich or they’re successful or whatever. So, like you’re not going to empathize as much but I’ve worked with folks who are deeply depressed and highly effective and and there’s that duality of self that people don’t want to pay full attention to. So, I try not to judge. There’s no real point of it, just encourage and support everyone on their path, no matter what it is.- James Norris

All his life, James has been searching for the best ways to change himself and change the world. He started as an entrepreneur at age 6 and since has co-founded or helped build 9 businesses and 16 organizations, including the premier conference for the effective altruism movement, the world’s first global lifehacking event series, Southeast Asia’s first social innovation hackathon series, and a university for today’s Leonardo da Vincis. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin as a triple major/quadruple minor.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, James, welcome to the show.
 

James Norris: (00:31)
Hey, Jeremy, glad to be on.
 

Jeremy Au: (00:33)
I’m really excited to see you because we’ve known each other for so many years now, in Singapore, and it’s interesting to see where both of our founder journeys have taken us across the world, across the US and Southeast Asia and I’m really excited to share your thoughts and philosophy on what you’re passionate about these days.
 

James Norris: (00:52)
Yeah. Let’s do it!
 

Jeremy Au: (00:53)
Yeah. So, James, could you introduce yourself professionally to those who don’t know you yet?
 

James Norris: (00:58)
Alright, short version is – I’m a social entrepreneur and I’ve been one for about 20 years now and I focus primarily on behavior change and social change.
 

Jeremy Au: (01:07)
Well, that’s one way to say it and you’ve also founded lots of companies along the way. I’ve really explored this from multiple dimensions as a founder and as an executive as well. So, I gotta ask you, you started out in University of Texas in Austin. You were doing multiple majors in psychology, sociology, is that where your love for this started, or did it start even earlier?
 

James Norris: (01:29)
A bit earlier, since we’re focused on entrepreneurship, back to the very beginning. My first little micro business, I was six years old, so I sold candy during recess…which, pro tip to everyone listening, that’s a great business model ‘cause kids are no impulse control. They were addicted to the candy and you could double the margins and like you’re at recess, so it’s just like this, free for all, and I was only guy like selling candy during recess for first and second grade. I did not realize at the time just what a target I was being a white kid in a pretty diverse neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, with a bag of money and bag of candy. Just for context, my house got robbed five times while we’re living in that house, so, yeah, the teachers eventually told me I should maybe rethink that business, but that was the first and then I did like about six different micro businesses like that before fully got into clubs. So, I actually got started a lot with these speech and debate club and Astronomy club back in high school. So, it’s like 15/16 doing a few of those founding them. And that was fun. It’s addictive, was more interesting than school, and I also got to build some space settlement design competitions. So got to compete internationally and nationally locally to, as a kid, designs space helmets. That was really, really interesting. So that’s how I got really hooked. I think with that one. Eventually I got to proper social enterprise at about 19. I built a CPR training program and with the Red Cross, so I built the Red Cross Club and then the CPR came with it and was finally actually making a little bit of money, which is surprising for this poor kid from this neighbourhood. I didn’t really know what money was. I didn’t make much, to be completely honest, but from there at that point I just kept on going and iterating up into what you would consider proper startups and small organizations, other clubs and so on, but runs the gamut from like meet up groups all the way up to startups with millions of dollars of funding or revenue by now.
 

Jeremy Au: (03:26)
Amazing. Obviously, there’s this entrepreneurship angle that you talked about, but there’s this deep fascination with human potential that you exhibited with your choice of major in university. Was that how you fell into it or was it an accidental choice or were you more already, back then, think I want to be a coach one day and think about human potential?
 

James Norris: (03:48)
Yeah, I’ve eventually became a triple major, quadruple minor at the University of Texas at Austin, and I didn’t finish my astronomy, which was going to be astronomy or astrophysics and didn’t finish that or my economics degree, so I just didn’t do as much as I wanted, but I did have to graduate at some point. I got into that because I was obsessed with bettering myself and learning everything I could possibly learn about the world. And the majors were not as difficult as you might imagine, so philosophy is tough, but not that challenging, at least for me, at that level, psychology was also tough, but not that hard. And sociology was relatively easy and the minors are in business and ethics and EMS and interdisciplinary leadership. Things like that. But I looked at my engineering and hard sciences friends and I was envious because they were doing really hard stuff and I could see them in the lab working all night and I respected that. But I ended up doing those majors ‘cause I really was deeply obsessed with what they could teach us about the nature of being human and upgrading ourselves from within and society so that it’s just like the best thing I could have done. I did that against the advice of my dad did that against the advice of my Astronomy advisor, who she eventually predicted I’d become a teacher…somewhat right, but not quite. Every other sane person who’s like why are you doing so many majors? Just graduate, get out, get a job. So, I liked to defy norms, but I also just wanted to do what I thought was important, and I kept on going with that. So, I tried to build a university for today’s DaVinci’s today’s polymath with a guy that actually think his name is Michael Barnathan. He is the most DaVinci like person I’ve ever met. He’s a fantastic human being, so we tried to build a university like MIT or Stanford for these type of individuals and we almost got it off the grounds like we had a building that was donated. We had some students online, but, the dream still lives. One day we’ll try to build a home for these oddballs that don’t fit into square or circle, either type of pedagogical institutions. So yeah, me doing that was just I had to and I thought it was a good investment for life.
 

Jeremy Au: (06:05)
Yeah, so how did that piece around human potential emerge over time for you, because it feels like you were studying and you were showing that you were interested in this topic from pretty young and I see that you were also at the lab doing social development as well…it’s one thing to be exposed to it, it’s another thing to start collaborating on it, it’s another thing to actually be interested in it. So, when did you think you started getting interested in fostering or nurturing
 

James Norris: (06:32)
We’re going to go deep now. Hope you’re ready for that, Jeremy. So, the reason I started that first business selling candy was because we were dirt poor so we eventually filed bankruptcy. Mom and dad didn’t have the best relationship, she stayed because we needed the money from his parents. He was legally blind so my dad couldn’t really work, which is really difficult to internalize, so I started trying to work and started to try to contribute and had my first job at 14 and I just never stopped working. Work is more fun than fun. The need was like just survival and a deep understanding of injustice. Like this shouldn’t happen to kids. I have a twin sister. I have an older brother and we all suffered. My mom suffered. My dad suffered. And when you are immersed in that for so deeply, for many, many years, this is just the beginning of the story. But you start to internalize strong moral convictions that we ought to do something to change the world. So, I've been doing it ever since and still working on it. I'll do it until the day I die, although I hope to never die, I really, really am trying to back a lot of anti-aging researchers. And I’m back folks. Now I’m not a VC but I support in similar ways for innovators, social innovators trying to do substantial changes in the world. And I think with enough of us giving it a shot, we actually might have a much better future for all. So, the human potential side comes from that as a, I mean a fun fact, just in the last 100 years. If you just think about the amount of progress we’ve made as a species, where our Olympic athletes of 100 years ago, if you just watch YouTube videos of how well they perform gymnastics, for example versus today’s, or if you look at the height differences or the IQ differences, if you look at the performance differences for someone like you that I know uses Rescue Time or uses different tools for augmenting your productivity, the difference is night and day in just the last 100 years. So, I’m imagining next 100, 1000 years, 10,000 years, just how much we can evolve as a species and that’s exciting to me, so there’s the painful side, and then there’s the optimistic side that hey, if we do this right, we get to have a glorious future across many different planets, not just Earth.
 

Jeremy Au: (08:57)
Wow. Thanks for kind of opening up all of that. I got to ask, if it’s really about injustice…why is that your approach to solving that, because there’s so many ways to tackle injustice in the world. Some people are like – let’s make a tonne of cash and I’m going to be philanthropic about it; other folks are like – I’m gonna preserve and I’m gonna focus on this job, whatever it is, to take care of the people around me and my family that I wanna raise; and you’ve taken a very dynamic approach which, I think, is very unique which is about uplifting human potential. You’ve done that across multiple ventures, multiple projects/initiatives, multiple approaches. So, I was just kinda curious why that is the path that tackles the injustice you spoke about?
 

James Norris: (09:40)
That’s a good question, and we might need a few thousand hours to talk through it. We’re not going to, I think. The very short answer is I’ve been very involved in this movement called effective altruism, which is a social and philosophical movement around doing the most amount of good and that came to me like, I think, some of the early ideas when I was a teenager and I learned about cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness. I wasn’t really good at thinking through this and executing on it in my earlier ventures and projects, but as I’ve grown older over the decades now, I’ve been able to see more clearly about how to maximize good, at least, better ideas than when I was younger and dumber, but I don’t know exactly what to do to maximize good for the world, to uplift everyone. I don’t think you do. I don’t think anyone really claims to know. There’s a good book from a guy named Max Tegmark called Life 3.0, and he has twelve different utopias, different types of utopias that we might develop. He took some data and what people preferred, I like this kind of thinking. I like trying to think big and execute really directly on those sort of goals, but my approach, if you look retrospectively over my entire career, it looks like a mess. It was so many different projects. Multiple countries, have lived in Singapore for four years, I lived in Indonesia and Bali for two years, I’ve lived in all parts of the US including Silicon Valley, Seattle, DC, and so on, and I’ve worked in something like, it depends on how you define an industry, but maybe 20 different industries and areas, and that’s the polymathic streak was trying to become a polymath and like learn as much as I can, broadly, and then go deep in a few areas. I’m no DaVinci, but can try, can aspire, so I thought that was the approach back then and it has led to where I am now which is trying to solve human flourishing. That’s what I’m working on trying to optimize a human life like I’m looking at one individual at a time now. You can get into if you want, but we do a massive intervention, it’s like 2000 hours long, it’s for those who want to become the Elon Musks or Bill Gates of the world and we’re attempting to define how to do that rigorously, and I think if we do that well, with that population, then we could propagate that out to, then, millions of people who also want to obtain just a life well lived, just reduction of stress, having enough financial security to do what they want, being healthy and happy, good relationships, the kind of things that make an optimal life for them, which is going to be different for person to person. So, working at this like top of the pyramid, going down, developing an app now to hopefully advance this for more and more people. I want to see more folks trying their life goals, trying to hit them, and that would make me very happy and I suspect with more of us doing it then we have better odds of actually doing something substantially good for the world.
 

Jeremy Au: (12:33)
Effective altruism. That’s a phrase that’s resonated with some folks and doesn’t resonate with other folks. For those who don’t know what that is, is that just utilitarianism in the personal approach or how would you articulate what effective altruism is?
 

James Norris: (12:51)
That’s a common misconception. You can be a deontologist, and be an effective altruist, which is a belief in like the 10 Commandments and still believe one of the commandments, is maximize good. It does lend itself really well to consequentialist-utilitarian type of philosophies. However, it’s not critical. If you wanted to simplify, it’s more about rationality as the core and then impartiality, trying to help everyone, all sentient beings at all times, present and future. So, it’s a reframe of doing good, and I think it takes a lot of time to understand it. So, if you’re curious, please research, reach out to me, happy to talk through it. It’s like you hear something for the first time and it feels off and then you never studied it again. I think that’s usually a mistake. For me, like I resonated immediately, some of my friends and family did, some didn’t. It’s a matter of convergence. This also might be all wrong, this philosophical approach to doing change, doing good and I love is that they’re pretty humble about it. No one I know like says, okay, I’ve got the answer. That would typically get you a little bit of like incredulous responses. It’s more of like a bunch of scientists trying to hash out what we might do to maximize good. But if that’s not your cup of tea, then how do you maximize your good in your life? So, what I do with my current company is I’m trying to figure out at the image level what’s the best possible life for you, because you might value career or stability or status or happiness or whatever it is for you, and different weights and so every person’s got a very different profile for what the optimal life is.
 

Jeremy Au: (14:34)
That makes a lot of sense because I think everybody wants to make some impact in the world, a positive one, and I resonate with that question quite a bit. What are some of the common myths or misconceptions about effective altruism from your perspective?
 

James Norris: (14:48)
There’s a lot, so how long do we have? The utilitarianism one is probably a big one; that it’s mostly for a bunch of white analytical nerds from Silicon Valley. If you look at the data of the growth rates, it’s about 10 years old now. It’s a movement that was coined in 2011 and now it’s spread out to substantial amounts of other countries and LGBTQ sub communities, parents, there’s a whole set of folks that have resonated with it, so that’s a big one. There was a common kind of trope that got established a few years ago called earning to give. It’s got really popular in the press because it was so sexy to talk about. One of our ideas was I used to call it the Bill Gates strategy. So first make a ton of money and then donate it all, which he’s done a lot of good that way. It’s kind of formulated into something we say earned to give, so go to Wall Street, earn a lot of money and then give it away to philanthropy. Which is actually a possible path for some people. It’s not a bad one at all. It’s not one that we in the movement typically emphasize very much and if you look at the studies about what people believe in the community around this, it’s very different from what the people outside the community believe. They like look at that and say that’s what we think, I’m like, no, we asked, we checked, it’s not at all what most of us think. Just to be clear, you can earn to give or you can just do direct work, you can go and build a social purpose organization or you can work for one, or you can do high impact research, or you can do high impact type of advocacy and advise world governments. Just listening to a podcast today about some effective altruists who built Our World in Data, which became the number one site for COVID information last year. That’s a great example of someone doing like really high impact work. They basically just did it because it didn’t seem like the governments of the world were actually going to do a good job at it, so they just picked up the mantle and took it, and I found that incredibly impressive and admirable. There are a few myths, I could go on, but I encourage people to study it more before they judge too harshly, too quickly. Yeah, some people think that if you were in EA, you tend to become like a robot…like, no, it's such a human community. There's so much care and concern for each other and rest the world like a lot of us care about, even non-humans, so animals, caged animals or future humans and animals, the ones that aren’t even born yet, and certainly ones that aren’t in our same geographic region. So, I think because I suffered a lot myself as a kid, I started internalizing the suffering of other beings everywhere. It doesn’t matter if they were in Houston, Texas, in my community or in Texas or in the United States, or even in my hemisphere, you know it’s the whole world and the whole universe. So, I think that’s one reason I ended up getting to Asia. I think partly ‘cause I knew Asia was the future for social change like more people be in Asia than anywhere else and it is a very potent space for innovation, social innovation, especially. That’s how we eventually met.
 

Jeremy Au: (18:07)
Yeah, let’s talk about that because it’s interesting because you moved to the States and then you were working throughout Southeast Asia as a founder, especially in the impact space and then you were back in SF and now you’re back in Southeast Asia. So, it’s interesting because you’re one of the few folks who’s kind of fluent or native or agile across the Pacific Ocean, so I’m just kind of curious about, I guess, going back in time a little bit, at least, when you first moved to Southeast Asia, you started sharing a little bit about that being your motivation, could you share more about what was it like to make that move, your first move?
 

James Norris: (18:41)
Yeah, that was a bit scary. It was 2009 and I was on a trip with my mentor around the world to three countries. It was Russia and then Thailand, then Singapore and, sensibly, I was there to help him do some consulting for a spice manufacturer in Thailand. It’s mostly just a trip, I didn’t do much. He was doing all the work, but he asked me to tag along another friend of ours went and so it was the first time I really got to see a lot of the world, and I remember arriving in Singapore and he spent one night and before he headed off and I had a four-day time to explore Singapore before I was going to go back to the US and I fell in love. It was just a fantastic place. It was scary to be on your own with just a backpack and not much else. This is a month-long trip, so none of my family had done stuff like this, no one really knew where it was, I didn’t know anyone there, but that four days turned it in two weeks and I extended it. Singapore Airlines was great and let me stay longer. I went and chatted with every social innovator and entrepreneur I could find, made some friends, I gave myself a couple job offers and I took one, I was back two months later working for a Member of Parliament with her social enterprise trying to spread social innovation around Southeast Asia. So yeah, I love Singapore, was there four years, but eventually I needed to find a different culture to learn from and ended up finally going to Silicon Valley and exploring that, and now I’m currently in Bali, which is a different vibe than Singapore for sure, so all day winds and like it has a little bit more nature. I’m kind of a fan of waterfalls and beaches and so on, and mountains. I lived on a mountain for like a month or so here, but I still, I’m still contemplating where I end up. The whole world is beautiful and you can learn from everywhere.
 

Jeremy Au: (20:34)
Yeah, I think that’s the joy of the pre-pandemic world where I think it was just such a fluid place. I think every geography, Silicon Valley, Singapore, and Bali, three very distinct worlds that could easily be passed as long as you’re ambidextrous on that. What has allowed you to feel comfortable being mobile across geographies because the truth is there’s a lot of folks who move from America to Southeast Asia and then it doesn’t work out because it’s not the right fit or maybe the transplant doesn’t take root or the culture shock is there or the homesickness is there…I’m just kind of curious, what do you think differentiates between those people who feel more comfortable integrating with Southeast Asia versus those who are going to be more mobile?
 

James Norris: (21:19)
For me, I’m just an oddball and I like to be an outlier wherever I go, so that’s helpful. But, I think there’s a certain allure to Southeast Asia that many in the West really get, but they have it as a mythical sort of - this is a fantastic place to be and then you get there and you still have to go and make a life. You’ve left your friends and family behind. It’s a 12-hour time zone difference. If you’ve worked internationally, you’ll know that that’s tough. So, a lot of folks end up wanting to be back closer to home. I know for me like it would have been tough to get PR at the time and I don’t know if that’s changed a bit with the passes and so on for Singapore especially, and it’s similar here in Indonesia. Each country takes a lot of investment to actually make the move and I’ve lived in more than a dozen cities. I’ve gotten decent at it, but still, like every time you move to a new place, right? It’s an experiment to see if that’s a good fit for you. It’s like building a startup or dating or something you don’t really know ahead of time per se. You do all the research, all the thinking, and then you go and do it. You live there, and the insights I had just for Bali, for example, is it’s a little bit more risk to life than I expected, so micromorts, one in a million chance of dying, if you typically are riding a motorbike here, so your micromorts skyrocket. It’s not the same in like Singapore or other some other countries. But that’s juxtaposed with all the amazing sights. I didn’t realize how much nature was really here or that the people are so kind that there’s so many good and bad things, and you have to test that out and I’m the kind of person that makes it massive spreadsheet, does a lot of research, or if a team, doing research and then we make predictions before we go, ‘cause every move is like many hundreds of hours of time. I have met a lot of nomads that have been doing this for a life for years. I’m not that kind of guy like I typically stay in place for a year or two or so, and I do hope to find a more permanent base at some point. So, not sure what country it’ll be.
 

Jeremy Au: (23:28)
What advice do you have for people moving to Southeast Asia? So, in their head, they’re like – Southeast Asia, there’s this, like you said, myth, the mythology, right? I guess the most classic one would be, a bit dated, eat, pray, love, and then, of course, there’s all the comedies that happened in Southeast Asia after that including, I think, The Hangover Part 2. So, what advice will you give for folks to prepare or what should they be thinking about as they figure out how to root themselves and explore the region?
 

James Norris: (24:00)
The meta question I think you’re getting at, Jeremy, is how do you make good decisions and how do you make good strategic decisions? Again, that’s 1000 hour conversation. However, the potted simple version because we are bounded rational agents, we only have so much computational power, is at least sit down and write out the criteria that make a good choice for you, and then try to weight those criteria on a one to 10 scale or something and then do the math and see which of these places tend to pop up to the top and look at more than just one or two. Like if you’re obsessed with Bali, which so many of my friends are like excited when I say Bali, I don’t care, it’s just a great place to live. I’ve never posted on Instagram, none of that really matters to me whatsoever. Yes, I’ve been to the waterfalls and, yes, I’ve had amazing experiences. However, it’s just hard for me to communicate that stuff, but some people come here just for the Instagram shot, and I think that’s just crazy because life is more meaningful than that. But find out what’s meaningful to you. Write down these things. Is it quality of life, cost of living, is it access to nature, is it intellectual stimulation or so on? So, I’m getting less of that here than I have at other places and I get less of the workaholic vibe here so I remember you being really intense; I love that about you and about other folks. That’s why I like Silicon Valley. I had problems with Silicon Valley ‘cause it wasn’t really focused as much on social impact. It’s more like how do we click ads and how we make people buy things, and so there’s a lot of other good there. So I’m giving the hyperbolic sort of naïve perspective there, so I should take that back. There’s a lot of beauty, there’s a lot of beauty here and everywhere, but the trick is to write it out. Make your spreadsheets, think hard on it and, if you can, you’re doing short small experiments to try to unveil what is actually true about that place. So, can you go for a few days or a week? Can you like ask several friends who have been there? Have them actually take their video chat or camera and show you their places and then ask them the hard questions like what are the top 10 things you don’t like about where you’re going? It doesn’t trend as much on social media, but that’s the stuff that actually is important.
 

Jeremy Au: (26:16)
I love what you said about experiments and using that to learn and test. Let’s just say someone has made the decision to make the move because they’re taking up a job, right, a technology job or an impact job in Southeast Asia, so on and so forth, what would you say is important for them to do in their first 90 days to have a good time, a successful time, a better chance of having a better experience over the long term, what would you recommend they do in the first 90 days?
 

James Norris: (26:46)
Well, you probably wanna learn all the common scams in that place. I have a seven page how to Bali guide if you folks want it, they can just email me. I’ll put it online eventually, but is at least 2 pages worth of common scams. I think I have a dozen listed, that’s helpful ‘cause you will be targeted if you’re not careful. I know I got homesick when I first got to Singapore and I was staying in this, it's really nice hostel actually, very utilitarian, and I was there like trying to get my bearings the first couple weeks and I thought - why am I feeling so sad? Then I realize later much later it's just a normal kind of feeling. It was this transition this culture shock. Which, Singapore, almost everyone speaks English, which is fantastic. So, it wasn’t as intense as an “Ang Moh”, I guess…or a “Bule” is a term here, going to a country that you don’t speak the language at all? So, if you’re doing that kind of shift, that’s even bigger culture shock. So being prepared for that sort of transition in that whatever self-coping mechanisms you have, like dark chocolate or food or friends, movies, whatever does it for you. Keep in mind those kind of things are helpful and that you’re human and that even positive stresses like going to a new place that you think would be fantastic. That’s still stressful to your system and you gotta give it some time to adjust. Nothing too profound here, but I encourage people to move. I encourage them to try a few cities at the very least, if not a few countries if they can, and these might be aspirational goals, but they give you more context about how the world works about what’s important and meaningful in your life and it’s a ton of fun.
 

Jeremy Au: (28:27)
Yeah, so true, I definitely felt homesick when I was working out of Boston and New York, scrambling to build a startup and definitely felt that multiple times and, thankfully, I was old enough to know it existed, but not old enough to know how to self-regulate that. So, I gotta ask you a question, of course, is that you’ve done a lot of crazy things along the way, you’ve built, changed geographies, etc. Could you share with us a time when you were brave?
 

James Norris: (28:54)
Yeah, I actually have an Emergency Management background, was a medic, did some search and rescue, manned shelters during Katrina, Rita, Ike, bunch of hurricanes. So, it’s not that abnormal for me to do this stuff, but as a civilian now, essentially, every time I see an emergency situation, I’ll jump in and I’ve done this at least twenty times with car crashes and fires and things like that. I think the most entertaining one, in retrospect, was a little bit too dangerous. That was in my neighborhood and Alief in Houston, Texas, which is a little bit sketchy, that’s one way to put it, and there were some gunshots. And I was visiting my brother and so we got his car, went towards the gunshots. I was like. okay, well, maybe this one was hurt. And we got there and there’s this large gentleman who’s got to be 100 KGS or so and bouncing around on one foot because he’d been shot in the foot? I don’t know exactly where he was shot, but you know, I was a previous medic, I wanted to go and support, he’s a neighbour, but he was screaming his lungs off at some guy in the distance, but I didn’t see but that guy had a gun so I was like okay, maybe I shouldn’t intervene, but no one is around. Anyway, so I tried my best to like pull him off the street and not to go confront the guy that shot him. He was unarmed. You know he’s a big guy, but like it’s just not a smart thing to do and I don’t think he was thinking very clearly. He was probably in shock. Eventually, police and fire got there, but they didn’t want to touch him because they can get sued. You know, as a civilian it’s a little different. We have some laws supporting us. But yeah, in retrospect, that was a little dumb. It was still. I just find it entertaining. But yeah, a couple of those things have happened. The word brave is hard because I think a lot of the folks that do these things that you would consider brave from the outside, from the inside, is much more of an automatic response. So, I think the literature shows that pretty clearly, you’re not thinking when you jump into the building. You just go and try to help the person you see. Some people think and that’s truly brave, but the majority of folks that do stuff like this that’s admirable, I think they’ve just…the identity is someone who helps.
 

Jeremy Au: (31:02)
That’s an interesting dynamic because you’re talking about the outside in which is – this action is brave, this behaviour that we saw was brave. Then you’re talking about the inside out which was this person does not run into the fire saying “I’m BRAVE”, it’s more like an automatic thing. At the same time, I feel there’s also a lot of selfless qualification because everytime someone else says “Okay, that was very brave of you”, then they just say something like “Oh, it’s just my duty”/”It’s my responsibility”/”I just did it automatically, it wasn’t brave”. So, I was just wondering why is it that so many people self-disqualify from saying that what I did was brave or that was a brave behaviour? I’m just kind of curious what you think about that.
 

James Norris: (31:42)
I think some cultures teach modesty and humility, but some also admonished those who try to stand out and consider themselves better. So, there’s something called the tall poppy syndrome where you cut down the tallest poppy if they stand out above the crowd - those who are really successful get a huge amount of backlash. So, if you’re really rich and you did it with your own hard work and you didn’t hurt anyone in the process, people still resent you, so there’s a bit of that. I think that comes from being hairless apes. We’re essentially hairless apes that are walking around with clothes and these fancy technologies, but we haven’t gotten past our ancestral environment. So, I think it’s brave for anyone who tries to dedicate themselves to doing good. I really respect that, and I think it’s brave for people who do these emergency situations, that’s fantastic too, but like just handling a child, oh, that’s a lot of bravery right there and you’re a father. How do you manage that and not go crazy? But if you didn’t do it, then we wouldn’t have any kids, we wouldn’t have much of a future, so I guess it depends on how people want to define it.
 

Jeremy Au: (32:49)
How would you recommend people to be beyond that because very much about effective altruism is very much saying - I am going to be on top of you in this dimension either by doing good or, like you said, earning to give, etc. So, there’s a big dynamic of the person needing to rise past the criticism or the fear of that criticism. So, how would you think or what are some of the ways to think about that?
 

James Norris: (33:19)
Yeah, I deal with this with all my clients. All of them are super successful in their own rights, now. They’re often multi-millionaires or higher than that, doing ambitious projects that give them a lot of ridicule or a lot of praise, it really depends. If they fail, they get ridiculed, if they win then usually it’s admiration. But even Elon Musk, no matter how much good you do, it has a huge amount of backlash by a certain subset of folks. So, I am in the camp of let’s aim big, do the best we can based off how we define it, so our own personal values which I spend hundreds of hours through a protocol to help people figure out their values and get them clear in their mind and then clear in their action and I’m looking at those who have aligned values and actions, more so than outcomes. So, yeah, you can have the status and get their awards, that’s great, but that’s not really what I care about. I care about are your values and actions aligned? So, do you have “life congruence” as what I call it, and what percentage of your total discretionary time and money and other resources do you allocate to your values? So, that’s great, that’s how I would like to look at folks and how they’re doing as opposed to who’s like the biggest in the media or so on. But those in the media they also suffer. I work with these folks and I feel their pain and how difficult it is for them to do their work without getting criticized every day and to know that they’re putting so much on the line - their own reputations, their money, their hair, the stress of this sort of thing wears you out. You can see Obama before and after. Just look at the face. Look at the intensity of that. It’s a great job to have, to be president, but then the odds of dying if you’re a US president is something like 9% of being assassinated, I should say. That’s really high. Like there’s some substantial amount. This is just looking at historical, so it doesn’t necessarily project to the future, but those are things that people don’t really want to look at. When the person in the ring who’s fighting, I respect them enormously because I know how hard it is and not enough people are aware of that challenge for them and they don’t necessarily care because you know they’re rich or they’re successful or whatever. So, like you’re not going to empathize as much and understandable, but I’ve worked with folks who are deeply depressed and highly effective and like out there and there’s that duality of self that people don’t want to pay full attention to. So, I try not to judge. There’s no real point of it, just encourage and support everyone on their path, no matter what it is.
 

Jeremy Au: (36:02)
Wow. Thank you so much, James. That was a lot and I thank you for sharing that as well. So, wrapping things up I’d like to summarize the three big themes I heard from you. The first I really enjoyed was your personal journey. Thank you for opening up about your childhood, both the circumstances but also your behaviours that not only contribute, but also formed who you are today, and it was nice to hear those anecdotes along the way of you know how you made the shift in terms of being in emergency services and helping other folks to exploring what you like and I think those are really important for lots of folks about being self-aware about how they grow up.
Second, actually it was a fun segue into effective altruism, which, I’m sure, got a lot of people suddenly Googling for Deontology, utilitarianism, effective altruism, and all those terms you just threw out like candy just now, and I thought it was a fun way to just have a quick summary about what it is and what it’s not, and I thought was a good chat about that as well.
And, lastly, I thank you so much for sharing about the geography piece, which is about being self-aware about what the mythology and what your personal conceptions are versus the Excel sheet criteria process that you recommended folks do. But also, being thoughtful about the self-awareness about how to be successful and root yourself in a place in Southeast Asia, and I thought that would be a great advice for lots of folks who are, like you said, transiting or being nomadic or rooting themselves or building out the future in Southeast Asia.
 

James Norris: (37:41)
This is the future, and those who are listening, if you’re in this region, I envy you. There are a lot of growth potential. I see more and more of those in the west and the US coming this way.
 

Jeremy Au: (37:52)
Awesome, thank you so much, James.
 

James Norris: (37:54)
It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Jeremy.