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The worst that can happen is nothing

If you’re genuinely seeking the truth and you put something crappy into the world, nothing happens. There is no punishment for crappy content. It’s one of the simplest and most profound facts of conducting creative intellectual work on the internet. If you make something good or important, there’s some probability above zero that good things will happen to you. If you make something genuinely stupid, useless, or “cringe” — people ignore it and then forget it.

The fear of some imaginary punishment for failure blocks many unique intellectual trajectories from ever taking off. In almost every case, the fear is completely within the person’s own mind: “If I make content and it’s crappy, people will think I am dumb.” But the truth is they won’t, because “people” will never see it. “People” don’t read or watch anything for more than 3 seconds if they judge it to be crappy. If it’s truly crappy, people won’t pay enough attention to formulate the thought, “this is crappy.” And they certainly won’t bother to share it with disapproval, because crappy content is not worth attacking! Ironically, if someone shares your work to tell others that it’s crappy, this almost certainly means there is at least something good and important hiding within it.

If you search for “Based Deleuze” on Twitter, the overwhelming majority of tweets are making fun of it in some way. Yet it has sold well for a modest fringe philosophy book; I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback privately; it’s on Libgen and Aaaaarg (pirate sites); and many of the people who find it so crappy seem to be actually reading it and sharing their takes with others. Do you know how few people actually read theory books, let alone meme about them? It turns out that people calling your content crappy starts to happen right when you're finally getting real traction.

Having your weaker content ignored and forgotten is not a punishment or cost of failure, it is literally the absence of punishments and costs. As soon as you realize there is no punishment for bad content, your list of content ideas will expand dramatically and suddenly. Your motivation for trying them will increase. Some will be good, most will be bad, but when you experience the results first-hand (instead of taking my word for it), then you’ll really be off to the races.

Abjection

If you would like to become a philosopher or any type of serious intellectual you must acquaint yourself with the concept of abjection. To be a philosopher one must be abject, and the reason a lot of people don't understand anything about this concept is because most contemporary philosophers want to be respected; they want to be in good standing in society. They want to be accepted. Whereas what we should try to be is abjected.

If you want to think what other people are unable or unwilling to think, and you want to express it in any way that has any impact at all, then you should expect to be mercilessly, brutally rejected — abjected — and pretty much thrown out of every possible social standing that is available to people. It's just part of the game, folks, it always has been. I think what we're seeing now with what is called political correctness or cancel culture is, in some sense, just the catching up of digital culture to this basic, essential reality, which has always obtained. If you want to say anything that's meaningfully and interestingly and importantly importantly true. You should expect to be rejected.

The great saints have always been abject; great criminals, for instance, have always been abject. the criminal and the saint essentially converge. The true intellectual and the artist and the true political militant, all of these figures tend to converge in a tendency towards abjection — a kind of complete, utter incommensurability, a kind of impossibility of being integrated into contemporary status quo institutions. And that sounds kind of sexy and impressive and cool, but in practice it's not. In practice, in any particular status quo environment and any particular epoch, to be a true intellectual or artist or saint or whatever... is to suffer, it's to be alone. It's to be isolated. It's for people to hate you, pretty much.

You become anti-fragile, one might even say. All of the ways in which people usually punish you and try to constrain your behavior... Not only are you robust to them, you're unaffected by them. They don't bother you, they motivate you. They make you feel even more energized and more emboldened because when someone is disgusted by you or is mean to you, if you can actually feel encouragement through that, if you hack your systems and your circuitry in a way that you actually feel positive affect because you realize in this longer term historical way that sort of abjection is positively correlated with radical truth-seeking... if you're able to experience that positive affect from it, then all of a sudden you enter into this new type of non-linear psychological-productive dynamic where the more people hate you the more able to produce, the more insights you're able to glean, the deeper you're able to go into your abject search for whatever form of truth you're after.

Not making progress or losing motivation?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was recently hired on a monthly retainer to do some intellectual consulting. Basically, a very smart person just needed to some help getting a project off the ground — what they needed was a combination of substantive feedback, informal support, tactical guidance, and tips and tricks on the social and technological practicalities of undertaking long-term intellectual projects in today’s day and age. I’ve also been doing some advising and mentoring for a few different people by the hour, since I've opened up my calendar to anyone who wants to hire my time. I wrote a few weeks ago that I would condense some of my recurring insights/suggestions for posting here.

When people say they’re not making progress, or they’re losing motivation, these “symptoms” often point to a common problem. It’s also a common problem one observes in undergraduate and graduate students alike. The problem is that the goal/purpose or research question is too broad or ambitious. In fact, this is possibly the single most common problem people run into when trying to setup a research agenda of any kind.

So here is some advice I recently gave to a client, on this problem. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the audio from the relevant part of our conversation. I’m posting it here on the expectation that at least a few others might find it useful.

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Your aspirations are probably too large for whatever you are trying to do. It's great to have huge aspirations for the long-run, but it's terrible to have huge aspirations for particular projects. I think this might explain a few different features of your current blockages because on the one hand, one problem with having a goal that's too big and too far out... well, there are a bunch of problems with that. One is everything you do is going to feel painfully inadequate. That's one major problem because the goal is so big and far off that you're not actually going to get satisfaction from any of the little problems you may actually be able to solve in your lifetime. So that's one major problem. And then, because you're not getting satisfaction from what you can solve, you don't even feel like working on what you can solve because the motivational equation isn't there because it doesn't satisfy you because the way you're thinking about your goal.

That's one thing I think. So the first thing I said is the motivational problem (that you're not satisfied by any particular problem you solve) but then there's also the substantive problem that you're actually not able to make heads or tails of very much because you're throwing your net too wide in other words.

So you're like, “I want [insert crazy big goal, i.e. to solve nuclear fusion] right now,” so I better get ready to advance eight different fields at once and you actually might not be making progress — not only for the motivational problem, but also maybe because the knowledge or the insight just isn't there yet. And you're not going to be able to fast forward through force of will, you know, no matter how intelligent or willful you are. You're not going to be able to force multiple fields to advance at a rate that they're just not able to advance, and so you're going to be trying to connect all these dots but you run the risk of not actually connecting any dots because you're just trying to connect them too widely.

It seems like this might be happening to you and if you're getting demoralized about it, I think that's about as much proof as you need, to think that something like this is going wrong. Something about the basic coordinates of how you were conceiving the larger puzzle and your particular goal in it all.

My sense is that something about your basic view of the problem and your potential contribution needs to be recalibrated in a way that is more practical, more possible, so that it fills you with a sense of concrete, achievable possibility. You want to feel on a daily basis, or maybe not daily basis, but at least weekly basis, you want to feel like you're making tangible progress. It should feel exciting… It should be hard work and there should be days of struggle with no progress, that's fine. But maybe only days of that. Maybe if you're unlucky, a week or two of getting absolutely nowhere and just scratching your head. But on most weeks, and even most days, you want to feel like at the very least you are advancing one tiny step by tiny step, in a way that you can feel and that should feel gratifying and motivating. If you’re not, just reframe the problem more modestly, break off increasingly small ways of chipping away at your grand vision.

You might feel like smaller questions or goals are lame, but first of all they’re not, and second of all the lamest thing ever is doing nothing, which is what you’re currently doing (because your goals are too big.) Humility and modesty are virtues; practice them until you’re on a track of daily work that at least makes sense to you. If you can achieve that by being more humble, then you’ll be proud of your incremental progress and then — ironically — you’ll feel more in touch with your big aspirations than you do now.

So to summarize, I would say tinker with your perception of the problem and your goal and tinker with how you see yourself fitting into it and keep tinkering with it until you get to a certain level of abstraction in which you feel like you're making constant progress, even if it's minuscule and struggling progress. Keep recalibrating until you get that feeling, because without that feeling you're probably never going to get anywhere. As long as you keep recalibrating, there is nothing that can stop you from eventually iterating onto a framing of the problem that suits you — a framing that interests you personally and of which you capable. There certainly exists some such framing for anyone genuinely dedicated to working on some big topic, so the only thing that could prevent you from completing a meaningful project is if you fixated on one particular framing that overwhelms you. Humility has always been a secret weapon of the great.

If there's anything I can help you with, feel free to Perhaps I can tell you something useful in a post like this one, or a video like this. If you're working on your own project and would like direct support from me and others, you might consider joining my monthly seminar — it's exactly what you get from a graduate-school seminar, except that you can afford it, and you don't get a degree!

Progress report for first book project

I launched a pre-order form for Based Deleuze a little more than a month ago (June 20, 2019). I committed to publishing a short book of about 20k words by September 20 at the latest.

I currently have 15.9k words, so the writing itself has been proceeding smoothly. That’s great, but the financial viability of the project comes down to its total earnings and the total amount of time it will have required from me.

Let’s start with the time costs. I’ve always tracked my time, but since leaving academia I’ve been doing so with extra rigor. This is because my time-use data will be crucial for evaluating the return-on-investment of all the particular activities and projects within the Other Life ecosystem. Without this information, it would be nearly impossible to iterate my system toward long-term financial viability.

So far I’ve spent 52 hours and 22 minutes working on this project, including the product design and setup. This number is slightly biased downward, however, because I did have somewhere around 3k words worth of notes and fragments on my hard drive before starting the project. It’s also worth noting that I already spent a large amount of time reading toward this, over many years before now. Obviously, if I wanted to produce such a book on something I hadn’t already read a lot about, the time costs would be far greater. So extrapolations from this data assume future projects where I can again draw on pre-established reserves of my own past reading and ideas. Fortunately those reserves are large (one of the reasons I felt like I’d have a fighting chance defecting).

You might be curious to know where that 52 hours has gone, exactly. Here is the breakdown. I use the free time-tracking browser-extension by Toggl, and conveniently there is an R package connecting to the Toggl API, which allowed me to rapidly produce the table and graph below.

Task ~Time
writing 29h
citations/notes 8hr
reading 5hr
online audience research/outreach 4hr
product design/landing page 4hr
newsletter & patreon post introducing the pre-order 2hr
customer service 1hr
ebook tablet mockup 16min

Visually, it's easy to see that just sitting down and writing has been the lion’s share of the work. I should say, by the way, that these time estimates reflect only focused work. So "writing" means writing, not all the time I spent at the café where I went to "write."

Finally, we need to know how much the book is on track to earn. It’s currently guaranteed to sell a bare minimum of 96 copies for a total of $537.50. The graph below shows my royalties.

If I see zero additional pre-orders, then I’m currently getting paid about $10/hour, though that would probably become more like $6/hour given the work that remains to be done. Data from other projects I’ve seen around suggests that I’m likely to come somewhere near doubling this in the few days after the final publication. If we figure the book earns $1000 total, and the book will take me 80 hours all in, then my writing for this book will have earned me about $13/hour.

If your first thought is “that’s pretty bad,” then you are just a sad person! I am quite content with this midterm data, for a few reasons. A big question I’m eager to see the answer to is: How many sales can I expect, on average, each month after the publication hype is over? Even if it’s only 2 additional copies each month, on average, if I live to be 90 then that’s another $6,840 the book will have earned. Then I will have made about $98/hour for my fringe theoretical writing this summer. That’s pretty close to my current market worth, and more than I was making as an academic.

Another reason why I’m more than happy with the results so far is that it’s my first time producing a rather new kind of book, in a whole new kind of market. I don’t want to overhype my pioneer cred, but I’m the first academic I know who has quit a comfortable academic position expressly to convert all my work to independent web-based equivalents. Given the novelty and uncertainty factors, I have been very realistically braced for my first few experiments to fail or underachieve. Thus, from my point of view, these numbers are looking good as far as I’m concerned.

Also, presumably I’m going to learn a lot from this process, and I am connecting with more readers than I was connected with before, so it’s almost certain that future projects will do better than this one (on average). Especially if I deliver an excellent book that people find valuable, and they tell people, etc. "Growth mindset," baby.

Executive summary: So far, so good, in my opinion. There are tons of people right now, this minute, working for $13/hour or less. I consider it an early success to have established this as my guaranteed lowest-possible floor on my very first book — while writing exactly what I please, from wherever I want…

And of course, if you haven't already, pre-order Based Deleuze here.

Can you do a PhD if you have ADHD?

I received this question recently from a reader. Here is how I replied. I also made this video if you’d prefer to hear my thoughts that way. This post and the video are not exactly the same.

First of all, I'm only slightly “on the spectrum,” if that’s even a thing in this context. I don’t pretend to know anything about clinical psychology. For instance, I’m not even sure if ADHD is maybe one of those made-up conditions that just medicalizes common difficulties, and then everyone seeks a diagnosis for it. I’m sure Scott Alexander has a post on it somewhere, but I haven’t looked because I’m too lazy and would not want to lose an opportunity to opine (how’s that for an epistemic status?). So if ADHD is just another one of these dubious fabrications of the DSM, then what follows will just be my answer to the question “Can you do a PhD if you are easily distracted and/or struggle to do what you’re told and/or procrastinate badly?” I have struggled with enough ADHD symptoms to know at least a thing or two about them — i.e., I follow the ADHD subreddit and frequently recognize myself in it — but I must admit they’ve never been a major debilitating problem for me… So if you have it bad, then I would not expect my input to help you necessarily. It should be obvious none of this is clinical advice. These are just some personal reflections based on my experience.

I think I've learned to hack my rhythms pretty well. Within a big hard goal (getting a PhD), if you find things that make you enthusiastic, you can trick yourself into being really productive by not doing the things you're supposed to, but doing what makes you enthusiastic instead. I have no idea if this makes sense clinically, but that's the best way I can summarize my method. So in grad school I was constantly slacking on my assignments and required readings, and instead I allowed myself to read and work on whatever I felt like — and the reason this worked (none of my profs would remember me as ever slacking on assignments or readings) was that, since I felt like I was fucking off on my responsibilities, it felt fun. Therefore, I could do like probably 5x more and/or better than what the other students could do by just obeying orders. The trick is cultivating interests and enthusiasms that are just proximate enough to what you’re supposed to be doing, that something within the 5x output of your boondoggles can be wrangled into an impressive completion of the assignment or comment on the assigned readings. (I went to a good but mid-tier public research university; at elite schools this hyperactivity quotient will not be as impressive, relatively, because the median student works way harder than at middle-tier universities; so my strategy might be uniquely effective at mid-tier schools, where there is a big gap between median student performance and what the Ivy-trained profs would like to see). If you can do this strategy, you also have a good chance of cultivating a particularly original trajectory, for obvious reasons. You also benefit from the informal social powers that come from being genuinely interested in your work; you seem more authentically engaged, you’ll speak more energetically, and seem more intense and sophisticated than the other students just obeying orders. Of course, it’s risky, because if you go too far out into orbit, you might just become a crank who all the profs and students roll their eyes at. Which one of these two types was I? Which one am I? The jury is still out on that one, but I was one of the only students in my cohort to get a permanent research-based academic appointment. So I did something right.

In short, you allow the ADHD tendencies to do whatever work they will let you do, and then just fake everything else. But as you go, you organize all your fragmented ADHD enthusiasms into a larger narrative that makes sense out of the work you have been doing. Given that the big challenge of a PhD is precisely this — crafting an original narrative about who you are and what you are working on, why it’s important and why someone should hire you, etc. — I actually think think this hacked ADHD strategy can be a strange advantage. Because you are forced to get good at spinning your absurd distractions into an impressive finished project, from the very beginning, whereas the more conscientious students don’t have to work that muscle until they get ready for the job market. Your very first term paper will already be an audacious feat of self-serving dissimulation, as you’ll be forced to furnish a display of coherent intelligence with nothing more at your disposal than a few months’ worth of chaotic digressions. By the time you’re done with the PhD, you’ll probably have way more practice than the other students.

Another thing I should mention is that my PhD was in the social sciences, and my strategic advice would presumably apply way less in the hard sciences. To be fair, I was trained in the harder wings of the social sciences, by hard social scientists. But still. A Phd in the social sciences or humanities is not rocket science. You have to read tons, or at least be able to talk about books you're supposed to have read, and you need to ultimately write a ~150-400 paged thing with a beginning, middle, and an end. But the truth is, it really doesn't have to be very good, and nobody will ever read it. Mind you, I have supervised PhD students as well. Of course, succeeding in academia is a whole different game than simply completing a PhD; getting an academic job is much, much harder, but doing a PhD in the social science is not very hard so long as you basically like to read anything and can force yourself to write anything in a semi-disciplined way for a few months in a row, a few separate times. This point is crucial for understanding the viability of my strategy. Nobody really cares what your dissertation is about, so long as you can produce a long document that makes decent sense and cites certain people. So as long as you can convert your distracted enthusiasms into text, there will exist some way for you to rearrange that text into a passable dissertation.

I suppose I have many more dubious bits of highly conditional advice on grad school and academia questions, if you want to try me.

How I'm Successfully Digitizing Another Professorial Function: Paid Intellectual Consulting

As loyal readers will know, I'm on a mission to transition all of my traditional professorial functions into their digital equivalents — to constitute a financially successful and radically independent model of the intellectual life outside of all currently existing institutions.

I am occasionally asked for advice on different types of intellectual projects. Sometimes it's: "Can you read this and give me your thoughts?" Sometimes I'm asked about how to succeed in academia/grad school, and sometimes people ask me practical stuff about blogging and workflows, etc. I've always been happy to help, but when I was a career academic it would take me several weeks at best before I could respond to anyone. Ironically, now that I'm not a career academic, these kinds of requests have been increasing — I suppose because I seem more available or closer to the ground or something. Anyway, now I really do have time to help, advise, or collaborate on different things, except now I have to hustle to build a financially sustainable model.

The obvious solution is to invite payment for various types of requests. I initially had no idea how this would work out — I was quite prepared for people to say “no nevermind, and screw you, exploitative asshole.” In fact, the opposite happened. People have seemed relieved to receive the offer: I think people feel guilty asking for dedicated attention from someone they don't know, and for that reason they don't ask for everything they would like to. Every time I've invited payment so far, almost everyone was immediately warm to the idea. Of course some people don't follow through, but that's the case in all things. Nobody got upset or or objected or anything like that. And a few people have taken me up on it, so now I’m happy to report that I have a small handful of... I don’t even know what to call them. I guess I could call some of them digital students. Others are similar to me in age and intelligence, so I would never call them students. "Intellectual consulting clients" is clunky, but gets the point across.

Suddenly, this work is earning me an income roughly equal to what I'm getting from Patreon. I was not anticipating this, but it's an interesting and satisfying kind of work, so I'm quite open to developing it further. It's forcing me to make explicit a lot of my experiences and observations about intellectual processes and internet production processes. Without realizing it, in the past two years, I have probably rushed my way into the upper percentiles of knowledge about a whole new niche, which in some sense doesn't even exist yet (hence my difficulty naming it above). I'm not going to bother coining some fancy phrase right now, because I don't want or need to — this would feel like taking the bait of going the self-help-guru route, promoting myself with some kind of trademarked self-improvement concept. I'm not interested in doing any of that, but I am interested in developing the knowledge and sharing it and helping people, if people ask me for it. If you want to book time with me, there's now a way to do that. Feel free.

One of my ultimate goals is to break historical ground by achieving a new kind of model: a model for a serious, independent, disinterested, financially sustainable, and life-long intellectual career. Many before me have achieved a few of these things outside of academia, but nobody has yet achieved them all in such a way as to establish and leave behind a self-conscious and reproducible model. But to truly achieve this goal, in a way that is different and better and truly groundbreaking, relative to all the people who have already made decent little fortunes selling information products — my value proposition cannot be yet another variation on "I will teach you how I made $1 million on the Internet," (namely, by promising others they can make $1 million on the Internet, by promising others...). Most of the people who come closest to succeeding as full-time internet intellectuals are typically trafficking in something with the structure of a multilevel marketing scheme. I'm not even knocking that hustle necessarily, but it's not a true intellectual life, and it can't be, because the insights and energies of the author are subordinated to an instrumental objective that stands over and above their thinking and speaking, which they are never ultimately honest about.

I will only succeed in truly breaking ground if I'm able to achieve financial sustainability and long-term cultural impact through my capacities and commitments to transparent, disinterested research and expression. That's perhaps the key criteria dividing authentic independent intellectuals from self-help gurus.

If it happens that anyone sees me as a valuable or reliable personal guide or support of any kind, then of course I am happy to make this one item in my portfolio of efforts. It is essentially just the ancient teaching function, which has always been rightfully linked with the research function.

If I'm being honest, I guess through trial and error and strategizing, I really have learned a lot over the past few years about how to win competitive institutional games while also sustaining a radically uncompromised voice; how to not mind mobs of haters; how to game institutional and public perceptions; how to use a variety of web technologies for the optimization of intellectual production; how to convert previously institutionalized academic functions into stuff that people want to pay for; and how to automate most of it. It's only now that people are asking me for advice on these various things, which is actually teaching me how much I know, and how little of it is currently available anywhere. It's a privilege really, to be asked for advice, so I'm reflecting a lot, and archiving my reflections as I go. I will probably share some of these reflections here and there, moving forward.

Anyway, for now, this stuff is not my primary focus, so I'm not investing a lot of energy thinking about how to brand or package or offer this kind of stuff.

I am more or less working on a "pay what you want" model, within reason of course. On the low end, I have an undergraduate student with severe mental health challenges who has asked for some dedicated guidance. I've agreed to give them 30 minute sessions here and there for just 15 bucks a pop. On the higher end, I'm working with one person who has a high-paying job but really wants to make serious intellectual contributions. To them I give regularly structured support and feedback, reading all their work, and we have multiple calls a month, typically on advanced topics, so we have iterated toward a more intensive retainer model for $500 a month.

Frankly, I would only need a couple more clients on the higher-end to fully replace my former income as an academic. I'm only in my first few months with my higher-end client and he seems quite happy. And I'm delighted to learn for myself that I'm quite good at providing this kind of support.

My monthly seminar is kind of a distributed, social way of providing the same kind of support but to larger numbers of people, on a much cheaper basis — just 25 bucks a month, per person. With two-hour sessions, and the 6-person-per-session cap I've set, that turns out to be $75 an hour for me (though not accounting for the costs of acquisition, etc.)

I just wanted to set down these reflections now, while all of this is still new to me.

If you think there's something I can help you with, there's no harm in just . My current method for doing this is just to consider the idea, or request and I'll bounce back to you a proposal for some way of doing it that is worth my time and that you can afford. There may or may not exist an equilibrium there, and if not then no hard feelings either way!

Sometime in the next few months, I'll try to post some of the common questions I receive, and some of the general answers I tend to give, in these consulting sessions.

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