Last time we talked, I said that whatever project I ended up pursuing next would probably combine technology, education and politics in some way. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the last part of that. In just what way are we talking, in fact? I could combine technology, education and politics in a PhD, but the fact that we’re talking at all means I clearly have some concerns about that idea. It would be fair to say that I have some issues with the whole academic path, in fact. What’s that about and why does it matter just now?
One thing you should know about me - I'm a gambling man. Not in the casinos, pokies, sports betting sense – besides the element of risk, it’s hard to consider those things as real gambling in any meaningful way. A real gamble is a risk you take in which the odds aren’t fixed and you ultimately stand some chance of success. And I don’t gamble on anything so prosaic as money, which only ever has value as a proxy for something more interesting. No, I gamble on the shape of things – trends, ideas, on being in the right place at the right moment. I am a gambler with that most precious of resources - time.
When it comes to this sort of gambling, timing and execution are everything – something I learned and took to heart after spending a long while frankly being rubbish at both. I used to be a a great beginner of things, my growing up years strewn with grand projects forgotten or variously unfinished after quickly losing their initial appeal (right around the time they became actually difficult, I realise in hindsight). I used to believe I could change the world through sheer force of willpower and dogged bloody-mindedness. In hindsight, the most surprising fact about the business I started in my early twenties was that it lasted as long as it did. Although, even after having figured out the hard way that there’s a little more to it than that, I am still surprised by just how far you can get on those attributes alone.
Most of being good at things and making a difference is about having opportunity to practice and apply your abilities and, when you can, the discipline to actually do so reliably and consistently. Timing and execution. Call it agility, if you prefer that vocabulary. Or, as Woody Allen likes to say, 80% of life is getting it done and handing it in on time.
I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for grand projects or changing the world through sheer force of personality, but I am much more circumspect about which ones have some possibility of succeeding and just how much work is involved in seeing them through.
The question that is animating this particular series of journals is whether or not I should gamble my time on doing a PhD. And if not that, then why not and what else instead?
In my thinking about it, ’The PhD’ has morphed and enlarged into a sort of terrifying totem for the entire academic path in general. This is probably a lot of baggage to pile onto what is in truth really only a kind of a three-year-long entrance examination, but three years is still a big commitment to make to becoming accepted into a club you’re only kinda sorta sure you want to be a member of in the first place. Is there something to be genuinely uneasy about in joining the academic club, or am I just a bit Groucho about joining clubs in general? Perhaps both.
Reading Ed Catmull's book on fostering a creative culture at Pixar has been providing me with some inspiration. And by ‘inspiration’, I mean it has been providing something that has been missing in my spirit. I can only assume I decided to read it when I did because I intuited it might have answers to questions I hadn't fully formed yet.
Something in that book stood out early – as young man, Catmull loved art, but after trying it he realised he wasn't ever going to be a great artist. He had opportunity to apply his abilities and he took it. In doing so, he discovered his ability wasn’t good enough to make where it was likely to take him worthwhile. This is valuable insight to anyone with a potentially life-defining decision to make. Or, as he recounts Pixar director Andrew Stanton putting it more succinctly, ‘if you’re going to be wrong, be wrong fast.’
Having rushed up one particular hill – art – as fast as he could and then trudged down again, instead Catmull went into science, ultimately because it was a path he could see more easily.1 In other words, even though the path still wasn’t clear, he decided science was a better way to gamble with his time than art. In the end, as he says, he was always going to combine them. And he was always going to create something new, because what he was really looking for and hoping to find didn't exist anywhere yet.
Pixar would eventually be the result of that – a combination of art and science where each inspires the other to greater heights. In some sense it was always going to happen, but that doesn’t mean it was always going to happen the way it did (the book is largely the story of how and why in fact it did happen the way it did, and it’s full of big gambles, timing and execution).
Two important points.
One: if what you’re looking for doesn’t exist, you may have to bring it into being. But if the shape of the thing you’re looking for is clear enough to know it isn’t there, does it already exist in some sense? How does that work? More on this another time.
Two: the path is important. You can't just create things from a standing start. You need a run up, but you also need a run up along the right kind of path.
Am I on the right kind of path?
I have been on an 'academic' path of sorts for the last seven years or so, but I got on it in the first place because I had a deficiency. It was that no-one would take me seriously without a degree. This had become important, partly because I had been unable (unwilling?) to hold down an ever-lengthening list of jobs, but mostly because I had just fallen flat on my face in business and lost all of my own money and a couple of other people’s as well.
I had no love of the education system or its institutions, having dropped out of high school and university more than once – an aversion to school was largely what propelled me down the path of business in the first place. But a degree would go some way to mitigating a battered reputation and bestowing an aura of competence on what up till then had generously been a haphazard and eclectic CV. So I got one. Two, in fact.
I have always had a critical spirit, yet also an imaginative and optimistic one. I love teaching, and finding things out and writing about them, and to a certain extent I took to university life like a duck to water. I discovered that having degrees does do wonders for social capital, opening doors that would otherwise remain shut fast. This, it seemed to many, and to me at times, had been my true calling all along. So at a certain point it seemed obvious that I would go on to get my PhD and become an academic – that is, someone whose job description is basically teaching, researching and writing things in a critical spirit.
On the other hand, the university experience changed little of my disposition towards formal education, though it did give me better words for it. Mark Twain liked to say he never let schooling interfere with his education, and this has been something of a life motto for me. Keeping a clear distinction between school and education has gotten me through many difficult times and helped me see more clearly at times. It is banal to observe that I have met a great many educated people who have no schooling and a great many stupid people who have plenty. But it is no less true for being banal. Getting through university put this distinction under the microscope and I wasn’t at all sure how it would turn out – in the end, I think I allowed school into my life, but never into my heart.
There is in any case only a thin pretence that education and school are connected even for people to whom these things seem to matter a great deal. In many situations it seems frightfully important that one must have ‘a degree’, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much what degree you have, just that you served your time. Similarly, to be an academic it is frightfully important to have a PhD, but no-one will ever ask to read it.
In academia, like other kinds of sacralised performance, the enactment of the ritual and its incantations often matters more than thinking about the content. Saying the words matters more than what the words mean. This makes it hard to get excited about the prospect of doing a PhD. I want to do something creative and original with education, technology and politics a lot more than I want to pass a test.
It might be possible to do both, of course. Ed Catmull talks about Pixar as a fruitful combination of art and commerce – two domains that often don’t go together, but can under certain circumstances. Whether a project allows you to fulfil your own demands of it as well as someone else’s depends a lot on the constraints you have. Can I do a PhD that fulfils my own demands of interest, creativity and impact while also turning in something that passes the academic ritual? That’s where the gambling comes in. Maybe I need a PhD at some point, but do I need it yet, and under these circumstances?
For a while, I had assumed I could do the PhD that would be both the one I wanted and the one that the system requires. However, having gotten up close enough to see what that life actually looks like, I am pausing on the brink of committing to the PhD for two reasons, one pragmatic and one that has more to do with temperament.
The pragmatic reason: frankly, being a PhD student in today's climate looks like a shitty deal to me. It’s essentially a full-time job, but this is not how it is treated either financially or socially. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a scholarship that isn’t enough to live on ($26,000/yr) but which does not allow you to work. Or, without a scholarship or the financial means to support yourself for several years, you will spend so much time caught on the precarious treadmill of sessional teaching and research assistant work that you won’t have any time or energy to study. Some outfits will even charge you fees for the privilege of doing a PhD. Socially, as a student you’ll still be at the bottom of the pecking order, the most qualified member of what is still a precariat class. No matter how I look at it, I can’t make the numbers stack up. If it were a car, I wouldn't buy it. If it were dating my son or daughter, I'd tell them they could do better. Importantly, few of the potential supervisors I speak to are in any hurry to say anything to disabuse me of these notions. Still, it’s not forever, and serving the time might be ultimately worth it if it weren’t for the other reason.
The other reason: When I daydream about life as an academic, there’s always something slightly odd about it, like something from uncanny valley or a perfect world where one nagging thing is missing.
I’ve always been reluctant about the idea, but it’s taken me a little while to put my finger on the source of that reluctance. Teaching, writing, research. Sure. Spirit of critical and enquiry and all that. Good. But it all just seems so… serious. To me, teaching is about awakening curiosity and stretching the mind and the spirit in a challenging but safe environment. Research is about finding out new things, imagining new possibilities and testing them out! Whether in the classroom or in the field, it’s about the joy, the terror and the giddy excitement of trying out something you’ve never tried before – a new idea, a new technique, a new way of seeing the world. And universities are places where this stuff is someone’s job?! Sign me up.
The reality of such places is quite different though, once you see them up close. Teaching is less a grand trek into the unknown than it is a frantic parent hurriedly readying their child for their first trip away from home, making sure they’re packed and prepared for any eventuality. ‘Now have you got your social constructivism, darling? Yes I know you don’t like it, but really it’s what you make of it, dear. Did you pack all your graduate attributes? What do you mean you didn’t have time? Well no matter, I’m sure they’ll have some for you when you get there.’ Research is less a bold voyage of discovery into uncharted territory than it is doing a jigsaw with a nice cup of cocoa while your research assistant sorts painstakingly through the little blue pieces that all look the same. The only time you scream ‘Eureka! I have it!’ is when your grant comes through.
Much as I like jigsaws and helping send fresh faces out into the world with their lunchbox, I worry that I am probably not cut out to be an academic in today’s institutions, which for the most part seem to regard creativity as a dangerous distraction from the measured pursuit of outcomes.
We live in an outcomes-based society, but why the particular kinds of outcomes we have chosen to pursue are good, and who they are good for, is almost never up for public discussion. Rather, they are just given to us as a reality to accept and accommodate ourselves to. We can be critical of that reality, but critical engagement will only get us so far unless we also bring a spirit of imaginative optimism – the kind of creativity that dares to imagine possibilities other than what exists and works to bring them about.
We are too easily caught in dystopian worlds of our own making. I am far from the first person to have an idealised picture of something that fades when you get closer to the reality of it, but surely the point is to bring reality closer to your ideals than to do the opposite. As Roberto Unger has noticed, those of us who too readily dismiss proposals as ‘idealistic or utopian’ because they are too different to how things already are, have surrendered their imaginations to ‘reality’. But inside every self-proclaimed 'realist' is a dreamer who got disappointed. Deep down, such people do remember their grand dreams of better things. You can tell this because if you make a proposal that doesn’t tinker enough with things as they are, they will also dismiss this as too trivial to bother with. Every proposal is thus either not realistic enough, or more perversely, too realistic. Either way, realism is the obstacle.
Too many of us suffer from a lack of imagination, but our confusion is not surprising in a world that promises infinite choice within a narrow range of possibilities. When we assume the narrow range is all there is, we are like the fish that asks, ‘what’s water?’ I managed to get through a decade and a half of schooling with my imagination, curiosity and hope for a better world intact, and to date I regard that as my greatest achievement in life. Perhaps I’ve gone far enough down the path I’ve been on, at least for now.
My gamble is that Reality isn’t as real as it would like us all to think, and that new possibilities will emerge soon enough. In that context, a PhD may not be the best use of my time just now, though I am certainly not ruling it out for the future. I’m simply gambling that if I do need to do it at some point, then by the time I do, the shape of things will be different.
Meanwhile, it might be better to take a run up along a different path. I don't know what the next big project is, but that may be because I’m trying to combine things in a way that doesn’t exist yet.
For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have everything I need, or ready access to it. I have all the pieces laid out in front of me – even all the little blue bits that look the same – I just need to figure out how to fit them together. In short, it feels like whatever’s next is something I need to imagine my way into.
1 Catmull, E. Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, New York: Bantam Press, 2014, 13.