A lot of people tell me they are interested in teaching, researching, writing, and exploring ideas for a living but they see the backwards, warped incentives baked into academia and want no part of it. They feel stuck.
“But I can’t teach without certification”, or, “But I don’t know how to do what I want without becoming a professor.” Fortunately, these fears are unfounded and opportunity abounds. Unfortunately, if these fears loom large you might already be too schooled into a permission-based approval-seeking mindset to seize on the opportunity. Anyone can do it, but years of being rewarded for the opposite of enterprise will make it a monumental task.
There are countless examples of professional intellectuals outside the stale, subsidized halls of academia. Maria Popova, Alain de Botton, Steve Patterson, Dan Carlin, Nassim Taleb, and academic escapees like Thaddeus Russell and Tom Woods, to name just a few. Whatever you think of their work, they have created successful careers around the ideas they love, free from the suffocating mediocrity of educrats. And whether or not you like their conclusions, the quality and quantity of their work and their relationship to their audiences are orders of magnitude better than it would be if they were Academics. Incentives matter.
So how can you do it?
It’s the simplest, hardest thing in the world. Work.
Create. Produce. Ship. Repeat.
Yes, research, read, study, dive in to ideas. That’s a given. Every wannabe intellectual does that. To make a real career out of it requires constant, consistent action. Write articles and books, make podcasts and videos, share and build an audience on social media, curate an email list, and create a findable brand around your ideas and work. Just keep producing. Relentlessly.
There is massive demand for interesting ideas and those who can find and communicate them well. There is a huge market for what you’re peddling. But if you see yourself as the deserving recipient of charity so you can read and write an article once in a while, you’re going to get nowhere in the real world.
Follow comedians. They have a similar product. They are selling their particular batch of ideas and insights and the particular way they communicate them to create a laugh. Substitute “a-ha” for “laugh” and the professional intellectual is the same. Do aspiring comedians sit around and say, “Well I really want to do comedy, but I don’t want to sit through years of comedy certification school and jump through all the hoops, so I guess I can’t”? It’s as absurd as thinking academia necessary to be an intellectual.
Comedians just keep doing open mic nights. Then low-pay shows or contests. Then more. They build a following of friends. Then locals. Then they travel a bit. They share their stuff with their followers. They make videos. They grind. They refine their jokes. They write more. Produce, share; produce, share. It’s not a complicated formula.
Of course, your ideas have to be valuable to others. And you have to produce and share them. Maybe that explains why many seek the corrosive comfort of ill-gotten income in the higher ed bureaucracy.
If you want to spread ideas for a living, open your eyes to the world around you. Don’t see roadblocks (“I don’t know how to edit video”, “I’m not savvy on websites and SEO”). Those are good for you. They’re keeping out those too lazy or fearful to learn (learning is often hardest for the most schooled) or partner with those who can. That means more opportunity for you. The world is wide open and it’s waiting for your ideas and your voice.
What have you created today?
PS – I’ve been speaking here about getting your income from your intellectual endeavors. This isn’t the only, or best, way to be an intellectual outside of academia. You can earn a living doing anything others value and still have plenty of time to research, write, and share ideas. Most people who do earn their living from their ideas began doing it on the side, and many of the best thinkers I know don’t earn their bread exclusively from their erudition.