Why some people go out of their way to do good in the world

There is a stage in life that some people manage to reach. Maslow describes it as “self-transcendence”.[1] It comes after all our deficiencies and growth needs have been met. Having built a strong safety net protects us from falling back into survival mode. In turn, this frees up our brainpower and allows us to focus on bigger goals.

Our next challenge then becomes how to extend this safety over our families, communities, species, all of biological life, our planet, and whatever else we identify with.

How a few known individuals went about this, each in their own way:

  • Mother Teresa dedicated her life to caring for the dying in Kolkata. 
  • Bill Gates focuses on eradicating infectious diseases. 
  • Aubrey de Grey dedicates his time to cure aging. 
  • Elon Musk is all in on making life multiplanetary.

What would you work on if all your needs were taken care of? What is a worthy goal that we rarely hear about?

I’d also like to know what having all their needs met does for sociopaths. My hypothesis is that it reduces the level of sociopathic behavior.

The purpose of religion

I was told that my grandma was never a believer during her youth but I remember in her old age she was as religious as most older people in the area. In the younger generations, there was hardly a believer to be found. I remember wondering how the church would survive when our generations become adults.

As a child, I had a feeling that religion brings comfort to people who fear death. Over the years I refined this into the following hypothesis:

As children, our parents/caregivers are the alpha and omega for us. They know everything, are almighty, can solve all our problems – all we need to do is ask/cry. As we grow older and our horizons expand, we realize that our parents are just slightly more advanced humans. Eventually, we reach their level and even surpass them. In our minds though, we still keep this innately built-in position for an “almighty” caregiver. When our parents lose this position in our eyes, we find ourselves “all alone” in this scary world. There are really two ways of dealing with it. Either you become self-relying or you fill the void by finding a replacement caregiver – an almighty someone/something to continue watching over you. Whether you create one yourself or go along with any of the well-established gods depends on your environment and experience.

In old age, we become frail and reliant on others. It feels familiar, almost like we’ve been through this before… It sure would be nice to have almighty parents again. Some people find religion to keep them strong during the long good-bye from this world.

Where else do we often find religion? In prison, in war, during disease – generally in situations when we desperately need someone to come and save us – as our parents used to when they were almighty.

How to keep an ideator happy

This was originally written as my contribution to the “system for happiness” brainstorming session.

Constant pursuit of goals and desires (dopamine)

Always, always (always!) without exceptions have well-defined desires and goals that fit into 3 categories:

  • Short term – things to look forward to today, tomorrow, this week
  • Mid-term – things to look forward to within the next 3 weeks
  • Long-term – things that are not within reach yet, possibly due to timing or work/effort that needs to be put in before the goal becomes attainable

Every category should have several goals defined at any given time. The short-term category is for goals that you come up with on the spot and go execute on a whim or schedule for later that day (go see a friend, research a new idea, watch a movie, stuff that makes you happy, and is easily within the reach. The more the goal is in the future, the bigger it is. Long term goals are more likely your desires. They might be stuff like building a home, starting a family, creating a billion-dollar company.

When you go to bed at night, let the last 30 minutes of your brainpower be reserved for your goals. Think about strategies to achieve them, think about new goals worthy of your time. How will you start working on them? When you wake up in the morning, stay in bed for a while (if you can) and keep planning out your goals – let goals be the first thing your fresh mind works on.

After a while, your brain gets rewired to focus on progress. With a full schedule of things to look forward to there is literally no time for worries, fear, negative feelings of any kind. Those, when they creep in, are seen as distractions that must be dealt with swiftly so that you can get back to your plans. Whenever you have some brainpower to spare, your mind will default to planning out and setting goals.

Filter rigorously

Don’t confuse your goals with desires. Desires are like GPS coordinates. Goals are the concrete steps that need to be taken on the way to the final destination.

Define your desires, arrange them by importance, and set your goals so that each brings you closer to the most desired final outcomes.

You don’t have to execute on every idea that you get. You don’t have time to work on everything that your imagination can come up with. Donate your ideas to people who would appreciate them and keep working on those that are most important to you.

Dopamine detox

Chasing dopamine is addictive. A cool new idea is always more exciting/rewarding than working on something that was cool when you started but has since turned into serious work. A constant pursuit of dopamine through ideas can result in a ton of half-finished projects which never get completed. The faster you can come up with cool new ideas and jump between them, the more your brain adapts (gets desensitized) to the constant supply of the resulting dopamine, and the more you will need to keep the supply up.

Any serious project turns into hard work as soon as the novelty wears off. By focusing only on projects that bring pleasure at the present moment you sabotage your upside potential and feed into the dopamine addiction.

In contrast, doing things you don’t enjoy sensitizes your brain to any small quantities of dopamine it can get, to help you cope with the hardship. Thereafter you find more pleasure in little things.

So set your priorities, and plow through hard work on the way to reaching your goals. Structure your path so that the goals are realistic and attainable. That way you will get bursts of dopamine each step of the way.

Be stubborn about your goals but flexible about your methods. Now go get them.

Running an online community

Everyone has a problem they are struggling with. Most (if not all) problems can be solved with specific knowledge. You have some knowledge. Whom can you help with it?

If you were to take this up a notch, you could help many people simultaneously by forming a community around your area of expertise and attracting other professionals to help you, help others.

Here are some guidelines to get you started:

  1. You are the facilitator of engagement in your community. To get people talking, you have to seed the place with amazing, engaging content. Soon enough people will start responding and eventually start talking to each other. Then you can support the debates from the sidelines and make sure things are going in the right direction.
  1. Know your audience. Tailor your communication to the people you are addressing.
    • Think hard about who they are and what would get them to respond.
    • Appeal to qualified people that know and care about the topic.
  1. Is your content engagement-worthy? Give people a reason to engage. 
    • Think about the questions and answers you are seeding. How can you formulate the info so as to maximize the likelihood of people responding? They should feel the need to reply.
    • Hard/demanding questions discourage participation. Ideally, the barrier to entry would be set by what others have covered so far. Start with simple answers, then let them grow progressively more complex with each new contribution. 
  1. Make the call to action a part of your contributions. Tell people how you would like them to respond. Should they comment, contribute, give feedback? Ask nicely and directly. Make it simple.
  1. Reply to everyone with the highest possible quality of contribution.
    • When appropriate, aim to keep the conversation going but don’t waste people’s time. Frame your replies so that they invite further engagement from the reader.
    • Don’t be lazy with the reply. If you have to force it then maybe don’t do it at all.
    • You might not be able to respond to everyone, but when you do, help a single person with your full dedication. It will make a difference to them and the information will remain online for others to find and benefit from. Your reply will influence other visitor’s desire to be a part of the community. Make it count.
    • If there is nothing to reply to, acknowledge the comment by liking it (unless it’s really unlikeable).
  1. Find a way to have fun in the conversation. Be contagiously positive.
  1. Show people that you have a genuine interest in their world (point of view, insight, knowledge). Ask open-ended questions. Go deeper into sub-questions.
    • Show people, you remember them. At a future time, reference something from the previous conversation and show them that they didn’t waste their time on you.
  1. Bring something of value for people to engage with.
    • Be mindful of what your audience is interested in.
    • People will appreciate being educated, inspired, and entertained.
    • People generally have a need to feel understood. They like to talk about themselves, their families, their work, hobbies, future plans. Help them open up and feel understood.
  1. Show people that you are safe to engage with. Responding to you feels like reaching out to shake your hand. Don’t leave them hanging.
    • Acknowledge what they are saying.
    • Encourage people and find a way to make them feel good for engaging in the conversation.
  1. Be brief. “A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.” – Unknown
  1. Show that you’re human.
    • If you don’t know, it’s ok to say so. You are not expected to know everything.
    • Own your flaws, admit to weaknesses (less flattering situations, emotions, etc).
  1. Keep your community clean and on target.
    • Make sure everyone knows the rules right from the start.
    • Detect spam/abuse and deal with it swiftly.
  1. Deliver consistently. Show up every day and dedicate your time to the community. People need to know when they can expect to hear from you.

Share your ideas, not your plans

If you keep a notebook of your ideas, chances are you are a serial ideator.

We write down our ideas so as not to forget them and hopefully work on them someday. The problem is that soon enough our idea-collections outgrow our capacity to execute on them. Most of the ideas would never see the light of day. That’s a pity and a waste for the world. Here I propose a solution.

Share your ideas publicly

If you sit on an idea for long enough, someone else is bound to come up with it. While not all ideas are shareable at the time of conception (trade secrets), we will actually never execute on most of them. If you can’t dedicate the next few years of your life to making it happen, why not share it with the world and let someone else try?

By sharing the surplus of ideas a few things can happen:

  • The value perception of our top 3 ideas increases and so does our motivation/responsibility to work on them. This helps us set priorities.
  • Our shared ideas hopefully get executed by others which makes the world a slightly better, more advanced place.
  • We get feedback on our shared ideas and possibly improve them through creative contributions from others.
  • By sharing rather than hoarding ideas we pay it forward and help instill intellectual collaboration among people.
  • For what it’s worth, shared ideas are credited to the ideator via the CC BY license.

For me the Brainstorming platform is one of those top 3 ideas. This is where people can share and upgrade each other’s ideas. Together we can advance the frontiers of science and make our technologies catch up with our ambitions.

The flow state for creative work

There are various ways people get into the state of flow. Here is what works best for me.


  1. A clear goal and desire to see it happen; Out of all the things on your to-do list, single out the one most important task – this is what you will be focusing on the next morning. Arrange the rest of your list by importance as well.
  2. Before falling asleep, plan/think about the best way to achieve your most important task. Start tomorrow today.
  3. Well rested and fed brain; Get a great night’s sleep. Create perfect conditions for uninterrupted sleep – if necessary soundproof your bedroom, ideal temperature, to avoid toilet trips don’t drink anything 2 hours before bedtime. While working, do keep a bottle of water next to you and take sips all day long to keep yourself hydrated. Also, consider nutrients like omega 3 and multi-vitamins/minerals so that your brain gets access to everything it could possibly need.
  4. Optimal work environment; Prepare your workspace so that it will be free of interruptions in the morning. If you work from home where there are children, pets, spouses, who would interrupt you – consider working elsewhere (nature, hotel, garden shed, etc.).
  5. No distractions; Your smartphone is the enemy (the night before and the following morning). Don’t touch it even if the world comes to an end. Set it to mute. Don’t check your messages, emails, news, or anything.
  6. Assuming that you will be working on the computer in the morning, close all your browser tabs, applications, etc. There should be nothing left over from prior work. You will be starting with a clean slate.
  7. Keep your mind on a leash; In the morning remember that for you there is nothing more important in the world than the task you set out to work on. Anything competing for your attention should be avoided by any means necessary. Your mind will constantly try to sneak in some rewards (hits of dopamine/serotonin) by wanting to check social media, email, news, etc. Don’t let it. Allow only one way to get the reward – do your most important task. Don’t even talk to your friends/family/delivery guy until you have put in a few hours of uninterrupted work. On your flow day, you don’t exist for the world. Everything other than the task at hand will have to wait.

Flow day

You will be alternating between periods of intense focus and controlled mind wandering (taking breaks). Today you are an intellectual athlete. The task you are working on is equivalent to training for the olympics. During the breaks, you will be doing simple activities on auto-pilot while your creative mind continues to run in the background. If you are lucky, your brain will make valuable connections/revelations during these breaks.

Breaks consist of activities that don’t require your attention. You have done them many times so your brain is perfectly capable of doing them on auto-pilot. Here is a list:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Preparing breakfast
  • Taking a shower
  • Doing light training
  • Going for a walk
  • Driving (not recommended unless it’s at the end of the day on your way to training)

As soon as you are ready to get out of bed jump right into the task. Work like your life depends on it. When you feel it’s time to take the first break is when you brush your teeth. Keep thinking about the task and get back to it as soon as you’re done brushing.

The state of flow kicks in somewhere around this time. Don’t think about it. Keep your mind on the task.

Whenever you need a break, go for one of the tasks from the above list (breakfast, quick/short light workout, shower, etc). Don’t touch your phone/email/social media until well in the afternoon. Once you do, your flow day is pretty much coming to an end.

Completing the most important task will give you great momentum. Use it. Launch your mind right into the next one on the list. When switching tasks, do it without a break in between so as not to risk falling out of the flow. During breaks, your subconscious mind is contemplating the active task.

Depending on how long you’ve been doing this, your flows can last from an hour to a full day. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t sustain it for long yet. Keep practicing and improving with each round. Also, you don’t have to do it every day and not necessarily for many hours. Don’t force it, otherwise, you risk turning it into a dreaded chore.

If you feel like taking a nap, go for it. As soon as you wake up, launch right back into the task.

Winding down

When you are mentally too tired to continue, call it a day and go for a physical workout. Your brain might still surprise you with some unexpected ideas. Take notes. If after the workout and shower you still can’t wind down, go for a walk, see your friends and family, meditate, watch a lecture on youtube, etc.

At the end of the day, cross the completed tasks off your list. Completion of a good flow session should feel like winning a medal. Congratulate yourself. Really do it!

When you need a boost

This is meant to help you get back on track during less productive periods. It’s not to be done during a flow session.

  • Find role models, hopefully, they have put out some motivational speeches.
  • Find cool productivity books/videos.
  • Research the related fields to better equip yourself for the upcoming tasks.
  • When the wind in your sails gets low, remind yourself why you are on your mission.
  • Take a few days off. Prevent yourself from doing any work during the off days. Get really bored and build up the hunger for a new flow day – then do what matters again, not something easier with faster reward/gratification.
  • Compose a master list of your ideas. Keep adding to it. Reading such a list can ignite a state of flow. Alternatively, compose lists of things (other people’s thoughts, ideas, etc) that could serve the same purpose.
  • Just take the first step towards your goal, even when you don’t feel ready. Often this is enough to jumpstart the flow.
  • Sometimes changing your work environment goes a long way in reigniting your flow


If the flow state failed to start or you couldn’t sustain it, chances are:

  • 80% you checked your phone or opened a distractive website/app. Don’t do it.
  • 10% you let some other distraction sneak by your guard. Be more vigilant.
  • 10% you weren’t hungry enough for progress. You have to really want the completion of the task. If the task is mundane but a necessary component of a higher goal, understand that the sooner you get it done the further on the way to achieving the goal you will be. Adopt the “Bring it on!” attitude.

Birth of the Brainstorming project

As things stand right now, no matter how successful and happy you are, your time will end. If you are young you might just not realize it yet. Humanity will eventually conquer our current major problems — including biological mortality. Will this be within our lifetime? There are ways of shifting the odds in our favor. Here is my attempt to contribute.

The problem

Every generation comes into this world with zero knowledge. We spend a few decades learning, a few decades creating, and then we run out of life.

Why I’m driven by this problem

As a child, first faced with the concept of mortality, I was soothed to believe that only people who want to die, actually do so. I eventually figured out that there were design flaws we needed to fix before this becomes a reality. Being young, I thought there would be plenty of time to become a scientist.

Life, however, had non-academic plans for me. It turned out I was good at ideation and strategic planning. Early success allowed me to spend my time building random projects for the sake of happiness. Years later, it dawned on me, as the philosopher Confucius put it: “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

The solution

With my background now mismatched to my mission, I asked myself; “How can my specific knowledge be useful towards a goal which is outside my area of expertise?” The question turned out to be the answer. The Brainstorming project was created as a way for anyone to contribute to their fields of passion, regardless of their expertise. The platform is designed to harness our collective intelligence and unleash it on specific problems. It is built on three premises:

  • Intellectual synergy; Good ideas can be made brilliant through collaboration.
  • Intellectual diversity; Different minds look at problems from different perspectives. What may be obvious to one person, can spark a revelation in another brain that is wired just a little differently.
  • Intellectual flexibility; Passion drives progress even where knowledge has yet to catch up. As the model example, look at Elon Musk changing lanes from a self-taught computer programmer to a successful rocket engineer.

So the brainstorming platform brings the right people together; matches them by passion rather than just expertise, helps them bridge the different paradigms, and keeps the destructive human behaviors at bay. The focus is on having the thought process move from mini-breakthrough to breakthrough.

The platform is based on the hypothesis that focused collective ideation gives rise to an emergent property – creative superpower. Focusing our collective creativity on one problem at a time should increase our efficiency at solving hard problems. This should put humanity on a faster path to making our technologies catch up with our ambitions.

My use case scenario

Just as Youtube is a general-purpose video sharing platform geared toward everyone interested in sharing or viewing videos, is a general-purpose brainstorming platform geared toward creative people interested in collaborative problem-solving. Within the sea of mixed content, there are some concerted efforts to do good for the world. A Youtube example of such an effort is the Team Trees campaign where people came together to combat climate change. Analogous to this, is how I personally intend to use the Brainstorming platform. To be clear, the platform itself is general purpose — designed to cater for any ideas people feel passionate about. For me, this is longevity.

My currently small team of researchers is dedicated to helping solve every person’s ultimate problem — the inevitability of aging and death. In line with the “law of the hammer” our tool of choice is the Brainstorming platform. We identify worthy directions within our field of interest and work on getting the right people to collaborate on solutions.

Prioritizing the problems

Why focus on longevity? Let’s put it this way – if we don’t fix climate change within our generation, the next one will have a more difficult world to live in and still be working on solving the problem. However, if we don’t fix aging within our generation — the entire generation will be gone, forever. To you and me, this is the end of the road. If we are to work on future problems, we have to solve this one first.

When we manage to deal with aging, people will be able to keep on creating without a reset every 60–70 years. Imagine what the world would be like if Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, and the rest of their calibre were still here, healthy and sharp. Eventually, one generation will be the last with an expiration date. Why not us? We just have to come together like our lives depend on it.

Good news! They do.