26. The future of Giving to Strangers
Taking a break, PhD programs, a love letter
Welcome back to Giving to Strangers. Every issue I explore what matters in social good and offer sane, relevant donation advice. Giving to Strangers is written by me, Anya Marchenko.
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A few months ago I learned about the explore/exploit tradeoff in AI. The idea is that in order to win a video game, for example, the AI algorithm needs to spend a lot of time exploring the universe of the game and learning the ropes — opening new doors, going down dead ends. But it’s a tradeoff because exploring is antithetical to exploiting (or maximizing success in one area). Wandering around might be fun or curious, but by definition it’s not the most efficient way to get through the levels and win the game.
I find the explore/exploit tradeoff a useful framework to decide what I should be working on: should I spend my Sunday pushing on an existing project, or reading a novel? Should I spend this summer interning in a field I’m already in, or volunteering in a foreign country?
Since I started this newsletter a year ago, Giving to Strangers has been an incredible way for me to explore. But this fall, I am applying to PhD programs in Economics and Public Policy. And these applications require a lot of focused work in service of one goal — long hours honing research statements, applying to grants, understanding basic econometrics. In short, this means I need to switch gears to exploit, to keep my eyes on the prize, and try to reach the next step in my field.
So for at least this fall, I’ll be taking time away from writing this newsletter to focus on applying to graduate school. GTS has helped me find what I care about, and I hope a PhD is a path that will allow me to help understand those problems. This is by no means the end, as I’m excited to take the time to figure out how I can make this newsletter even better and more fun.
I am immensely grateful for the ways in which GTS helped me clarify my goals. I started writing in August 2020, in the middle of the pandemic and while cooped up during California’s wildfires. I felt helpless against the horribleness of the world, and wanted to channel my restlessness into a project that would soak my free brain space and feel useful.
A year later, we’re still in the pandemic, the wildfires still rage, but I feel different. I feel less helpless, more purposeful.
I think this change occurred because Giving to Strangers gave me a structured way to explore ideas. Writing about something forces you to learn about something deeper than scrolling through a few articles on the web. The things I’ve written about and studied in the last year have shaped my research interests in animal rights, political polarization, the economic lives of the poor. There’s something intimate about learning about a subject by writing about it — having to actually craft the words and put one foot in front of the other through a sentence — that makes you embody the ideas, chew over the words in your mind and process them. If you’re writing, you know when you’re faking. Through GTS I learned the humility of thinking oneself a decent writer and then putting words on paper, and those words coming out banal, flat, uninspiring.
You, and Giving to Strangers, have given me so much. Thank you for your support and readership and donations over the last year — and I’m so, so excited to see you on the other side.
During my break, I’d like to better understand how my readers are using the newsletter. To help me do so, please respond to this 3 question survey — it is anonymous, should take only 20 seconds, and will help me understand the impact of the newsletter.
Cheers and see you soon,