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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!

Deleuze’s Troublesome Inheritance (Excerpt from Based Deleuze)

Now that the book is a little more than 75% done, I figure I should start posting some excerpts. Did you know Deleuze’s parents were both fascists? Good son that he was, though, he never disavowed them. Very naughty, today’s Antifa would say, but very based. Not because fascism is cool — Deleuze was unambiguously anti-fascist, as am I — but because honoring your mother and father is far more important than signaling games. Your mother and father are immanent, molecular parts of your life, whereas public signaling games have only to do with molar institutions. Verbal statements can significantly and advantageously affect interpersonal relationships (what Deleuze and Guattari mean in their discourses on collective “enunciation”), but as soon as you start making statements for the purpose of manipulating public consequences — you're captured. So it would never make sense to throw your father under the bus, even if he is a literal fascist, just to show some random journalist you’re on her team. Get it? Probably not! That’s why I’m writing Based Deleuze.

I’ll also paste here the current table of contents, as of today.

Current Table of Contents

  1. Bearing One’s Cross
  2. A Troublesome Inheritance
  3. From Christ to the Bourgeoisie
  4. Becoming Imperceptible
  5. HBDeleuze
  6. Accelerate the Process
  7. Becoming Minority
  8. Deleuzo-Petersonianism
  9. Autocracy, Capital, Bureaucracy

Excerpt from A Troublesome Inheritance

Let us consider a psycho-biographical approach to understanding the ideological valence of Deleuze’s thought. Political ideologies are known to be heritable — probably somewhere between 30% and 60% heritable (Hatemi et al. 2014) — so an author’s family background must provide at least some hints about an author’s ideological center of gravity. Most attitudes show a higher correlation with parental attitudes later in life, suggesting that individuals early in life experiment by deviating from their inherited center of gravity, before eventually settling their viewpoints somewhere closer to that center of gravity.

According to the joint biography of Deleuze and Guattari by Françoise Dosse (2011), both of Deleuze's parents were ideologically conservative. Louis Deleuze was an engineer and small-business owner, before he closed-up shop to become an employee of a large aerospace engineering firm. Louis disliked the Popular Front, the left-wing coalition that came to power in 1936, instead favoring a relatively small paramilitary party known as the Croix-de-Feu. Originally consisting of World War I veterans, this faction was financially supported by French millionaire and benefactor of Mussolini, Françoise Coty. The party had a Catholic bent because the Catholic Church prohibited Catholics from supporting the monarchist Action Française. The Croix-de-Feu was essentially a French equivalent of the Nazi party in Germany and the National Fascist Party in Italy, although this tendency in France was much weaker (the party enjoyed only about a million members at the height of its popularity).

After the Popular Front came to power, Louis and his wife, Odette, were horrified by the empowerment of working-class people. The Popular Front passed policies such as mandatory paid vacations for all workers. Gilles recalls Louis and Odette disgusted to find working-class people on the beaches of Deauville, where the Deleuze family vacationed in Normandy. “My mother, who was surely the best of women, said that it was impossible to go to a beach with people like that on it (Dosse 2011, 89)." Notice that Deleuze does not disavow his mother or her disgust, prefacing his recollection with an emphatic endorsement of the woman.

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To be clear, I don’t argue that Deleuze was sympathetic to fascism, but his writings and interviews are filled with ideologically devilish statements such as this one. Why? Nobody really knows. Now that I'm about half-way done with the book, I'm more convinced than ever that I have the answer. If you haven’t already, pre-order now. You know you want to!

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.

The Patchwork Intellectual

Patchwork intellectuals do not protest or endorse technological acceleration; they ride the waves of destruction wrought by disintermediation. They fall forward, sacrificing the twin pillars of security and prestige (which are now only shells) for advanced experiences of the socio-technical frontier. The comparative advantage of their new knowledge is its immanence, and its tractability. They furnish something like tour-guide materials for others still anchored in institutions; they relay what's coming down the pike, in the only way possible: by being subjected to it. They have multiple, typically modest income streams linked to their tour-guide functions, entertainer functions, educator functions, and still other functions. One's mission, one's identity, one's product(s), and one's platforms are patchy. The various functions are not hidden from each other, but they are modular, ready to be inflated or deflated as temperament and market demand. They do not reflect an alienating division but the opposite, an efficient and fluid reflection of the multiples we really are…

Communism Is Pay-What-You-Want Pricing and Nothing Else

Money is a trap, but how? For many years I believed that radical intellectuals and political revolutionaries (interchangeable terms, I thought) should simply eschew instrumental calculations altogether. As my understanding of intelligence developed, I eventually realized that — though there is a crucial intuition there — this position makes no sense. For starters, I realized I was really tapping into a self-mystified kind of virtue signaling. Anti-conscientious non-instrumentalism is merely a 'fast life strategy,' with a variety of instrumental payoffs, if done correctly. Second, my encounter with Nick Land changed my reading of Deleuze, and that changed a bunch of other things. When I first saw Land's contention that, essentially, commerce is the liberatory vector in Deleuze and Guattari, I honestly thought it was outlandish. Surely these are anti-capitalists, who see money as an apparatus for capturing and oppressing human vitality — at least that's how I remembered it, after reading their books over the course of a few years, a few years back. But the more I revisited their texts, and read their joint biography Intersecting Lives, the more I had to admit that it made sense.

I realized that if I bit this bullet, it would solve a whole slew of other puzzles elsewhere in my personal Bayesian network. It would require the updating of many, many other nodes — something humans have good reason to avoid, given the significant computational and sociological costs — but my estimate of the long-term truth gains of such an update seemed increasingly worthwhile. The tricky confounder here is that what also increased over this period was my own personal need for money, as I knew that some kind of break with academia was increasingly likely. Was I updating because of increasing evidence that monied operations could be consistent with a revolutionary life, or was I "selling out" of the true path precisely because of the factors that make people sell out (getting older, wanting kids, needing more money, etc.)? I was on the fence about this for a while.

Incidentally, one realization that pushed me off the fence was how my communist comrades at the time thought about money. The more I told comrades about my belief that money is evil, the more I realized that almost all of them disagreed. Almost all of my comrades dreamed of big projects requiring money, which would also make money to sustain themselves. They weren't avoiding such projects for fear of money's capture, they just didn't know how to get or make the money required. Once it became clear to me that I could hardly find any other communists who shared my cultivated disdain for money — it really clicked that this principled disdain could never contribute to building communism.

It then dawned on me that this hyper-allergy to monied success I had cultivated since college must have been some kind of weird self-mutilating virtue signal, where I refused myself money-making activity to win friends and status with my pure distance from anything exploitative. I say "self-mutilating" because when I would listen to comrades talk about big monied projects they'd like to undertake, all I could think to myself is, I'm pretty sure we could do that if we put our minds to it — I mean, I am pretty sure I could do it if I put my mind to it, therefore we certainly could — so why are we not just doing this? The answer I ultimately got — implicitly, as far as I could tell, anyway — was that if some people can't do it, then nobody should, even if its one of our own and even if the results are communized. (Or if someone wants to make money then sure, they can, but if their ability to do this alone exceeds the average ability of the individuals in the group then it would have to remain a totally individual side-project; it could have nothing to do with a larger group project. Presumably because the able individual's superior abilities would be too visible, it would just be unbearably awkward.)

If communist activists oppose money out of principle, then I might very well continue to refuse monied projects in solidarity, in the construction of genuine anti-instrumental relations and a revolutionary counter-community. I am still partially convinced that something like this is necessary and desirable, and if I can find the right people then I would still lean toward this. But if activists oppose monied success because they lack the ability, and I believe I have the ability, then constraining my own money-making capacities would not be solidarity but useless self-mutilation at an altar of resentment. Obviously, I am not saying this of every single communist — there is a lot of variation and many solid people with real integrity in communist circles — I am only saying that, over time, this was the underlying reality that generally seemed to demonstrate itself in those circles.

All of these insights converged: I must submit to my fate of becoming filthy rich (should it please God). I would open myself to making money, but I promised myself that I would still need to make sense of and integrate my long-running anti-instrumental intuitions. If the path was not in militant univariate maximization of disinterestedness per se, then what was the best ethical principle for proceeding?

I am not sure, given I've only recently come around to making money on an open market, but I have been struck to find so quickly a candidate for a seemingly ideal principle. Somehow there is already in common parlance a commercial principle that seems to meet the highest ethical bar of a militantly communist or anti-capitalist commitment, namely that nobody should be denied anything, no matter what. The same principle can be uniquely effective in nonetheless extracting the most money from those who have the most money (as in "progressive taxation"). This principle can even be more profitable than naïvely capitalistic practice, at least under certain conditions. This ethically dense but simple principle is known as the pay what you want (PWYW) pricing model: one offers a good or service and allows anyone to take it, asking them to pay any amount of their choosing. For instance, I have used this model in my little experimental Book Assistant micro-service.

It is particularly fascinating and exciting to learn that the conditions under which PWYW is most profitable just happen to be the conditions that characterize the business model of the 21st century intellectual. Chao, Fernandez, and Nahata (2015) find that PWYW is most likely to be profitable when marginal cost is low, markets are small, and behavioral considerations loom large. By the pressure of increasingly unlivable bureaucratization, the radical intellectual (who naturally and sinfully prefers insulation from markets, if available) is forced to discover communist entrepreneurship as praxis — and destiny.

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