One in Two Thousand: Olivia Larsen ’17

October 5, 2016 by Christian Ruhl, Managing Editor

Marshall Borrus/Contributing Photographer.

Marshall Borrus/Contributing Photographer.

I got to know Olivia last year at Oxford, partly through highly competitive games of croquet on the lawn of the Williams House. In fact, “highly competitive” describes most of Olivia’s pursuits well. She went on as many sunrise hikes as Scott Lewis; she  works to bring effective altruism to the College; she even optimizes the comedy of her leggings. 

Ryan Gosling Pants. You’re wearing Ryan Gosling pants?

Yes, these are my favorite pants. They are leggings that have different images of Ryan Gosling kind of collaged onto them. I saw them at a store and I knew they had to be mine. They are my favorite pants both because they are comfy and fun and also because they get me lots of attention [laughs].

So you were abroad all of last year. Tell me about that. 

I went to Oxford last year, and it was really fun. It was really great to kind of have the Williams community and the Exeter community as well. And I made some really good friends there and made some really great friendships in the Williams house as well. I’d say one of the most fun things was taking a class called Medical Law and Ethics with this really excited professor who would sit on a bouncy ball in class and there would be three of us and him in the tutorial. He’d be bouncing on the ball just so excited about what medical law and ethics we were gonna talk about today. It definitely made every Sunday night exciting when I could kinda scream at my friends about who was being morally indistinguishable from a murderer and who wasn’t.

So I assume you are.

I perceive myself to be that.

What sort of clubs are you involved in at the College?

The club that I’m most excited about this year is Effective Altruism at Williams. That’s one that my friend and I just started this year and are just ramping up. Effective altruism is a philosophical movement which asks the question “How can we make the biggest difference in the world with society’s limited resources?” We try to answer that question by doing a lot of research into the different charities that exist, the ways in which it’s cheapest to make an impact in someone’s life and then do that with our resources. [Many] people in America are in the top one percent of the world in terms of income and so kind of recognizing that opportunity to share that is something that effective altruism is excited about.

Did you know about effective altruism before Oxford?

So I knew about effective altruism earlier, but Oxford is kind of the heart of effective altruism. A lot of the organizations are headquartered there. So I got to be a lot more involved there, which was really fun and I ended this summer working at one of the effective altruist organizations called Give Well, which does research into which charities are the best in the world.

That’s cool. And what did you do there exactly?

I was a research analyst, so I was doing research into different types of interventions and ways to help people and seeing which ones were effective, evidence-backed and cost effective. It was really fun and I liked it a lot, especially the people. It was really cool. One time there was a social after work, and it was a talent show. All the interns decided that our talent would be having a donut-eating competition. So we got a bunch of mini donuts and spread them out on the conference room table [laughs] and everybody watched as we all put our hands behind our backs and had to eat as many donuts as we could without using our hands. And, I was not planning on winning. I was like, “I’m so dainty, I’m not gonna win, I’m just gonna do a respectable job.” But then I got in the moment and I couldn’t help myself. I was devouring them as fast as I could. In the time that I was chewing, I was using my forehead to drag the donuts that were kind of close to me even closer to me. So while other people had to spend their precious time looking for the donut they wanted to eat next, I already had mine right in the queue.

So  you were using your forehead to drag the donuts while you were using your mouth to eat donuts?

Exactly. I was chewing the donut as I was dragging them closer to me so that the next donut I ate would be very accessible.

Wow. A one-woman assembly line — or  disassembly line?

Definitely. I get really competitive in the heat of the moment and so right as we were about to start, the cofounder of the company that I worked at and that I really loved kind of bet against me. And, just instinctually I just gave him the finger. [Laughs]

You’ve pledged to give away a fraction of your lifetime earnings, is that right?

Yes! So there’s an organization called Giving What We Can, which allows you to pledge to give 10 percent of your lifetime earnings to whatever charities you think are the most effective at helping the world. As a student, actually, you only have to commit to give one percent, because you’re probably not actually making money, but I’m still trying to do 10 percent now, as a habit.

You’re known for sunrise hikes.

Yes! So sophomore year I decided to go on every sunrise hike. The summer after freshman year, I went hiking in the Grand Canyon, and I hiked this really beautiful trail and the whole time I was just giddy. I loved it so much. It was really hot, because it was in Arizona — as the Grand Canyon usually is [laughs] and it was really hot and there was this beautiful turquoise water. So you’d hike for a while and you’d come to a beautiful waterfall and play in it and, then you’d be cold and wet, and then you’d hike for a while and then… It was so fun! And I kind of really loved hiking after that. And I wanted to keep that commitment and remember that so I decided to do every sunrise hike. I went on the first one and I said, “Oh hi, Scott Lewis! I’m Olivia, I’m gonna be doing every sunrise hike” and he said, “Okay, like, we’ll see. I’ll remember your name in a month if you’re still coming.” And the next couple of times he didn’t remember my name but then by the month mark he was like, “Oh, Olivia! You’re doing it.” I didn’t actually make every sunrise hike. I made as many sunrise hikes as Scott Lewis did; we both missed two. I missed one because of a late night, because of homework. And then I missed another because I set my alarm for one hour later. So I was all dressed up, in my hiking gear, ready to go, and thought, “it’s lighter than usual” and I looked at my watch and I just was crestfallen, I had forgotten the time.

Describe yourself in three words

Sparkly. Dedicated. Outgoing — actually, no, extrovert.

What’s the difference?

Extrovert is more how I get my energy, like “always wants to be around people,” whereas outgoing seems to be more like, “Oh I’m so fun and nice, I wanna talk to everybody and they wanna talk to me,” so it’s slightly less braggadocious.


Oh, I love croquet. In Oxford, we’d play croquet, and I joined maybe two or three competitions. Every time, we got knocked out in the first round, but it was a delight. And I’m bad at it, but it’s a fun game because it’s really, really vengeful. So if somebody is messing around with you or just doing better than you, you can sacrifice some of your utility in getting shots in just to make it a lot harder for them, and that’s a lot of fun [laughs]. Also, I love board games. I even took a class on board and video games sophomore year. It was called “Creating Games” and it involved playing and analyzing board and video games and then making our own, which was really, really fun. I was in a group, and we made one that was called “the cemetery.” It was a team game. One person was blindfolded and the other person couldn’t hear, and you had to kind of navigate through a maze on the screen that had a mystery. It was really fun.

Your future memoir title is Everything I Ate Today Was Beige?

Yes. One day, I was thinking about my day, and I realized everything I had eaten that day was beige, and I realized that was a representative little quip about the shambles that my life is always in.

What will be the most prominent feature of your memoirs?

You gotta get the title first, and everything else will fall into place.

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