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I think I built a Liberal Arts college on the internet

6 min

I've spent the past 2 years building a business.

I think it's succeeding, although I am not sure if my life is succeeding.

Before we get to the gore, let's start with the good.

In the past 2 years, the operation has grossed $189,305, if you combine the course system ($126,254) with the Pro membership ($63,051).

I'm most proud to say I've paid other lecturers a huge chunk of that. I've paid other lecturers about $63,000, or about $12,000 per lecturer on average. It's a bizarre fact that I pay lecturers substantially more than the average adjunct professor commands from any university in the world.

I pretty much fucked around and accidentally built a 21st-century, internet-native Liberal Arts college.

It helps disaffected academics and more academically-inclined creators grow their audience, collaborator network, and monetization power. And for less advanced people who are nonetheless passionate about maintaining an active intellectual life, it provides a variety of support structures for doing so, and opportunities for learning from the more advanced members.

I never set out to be a businessman, and I still don't plan to be one.

I just figured that if I could build a standalone business enough to replace my professor salary, then from there I could just do research and write books and spin off auxiliary content full-time in a leisurely, creative lifestyle.

This has always been the goal, it still is, and I really think I'm getting there—even writing this is only possible because I think I'm getting there...

But it's way harder than I expected and the truth is I've become completely consumed with the business side. Once I found basic success, I felt like I had to take it really seriously and do the best possible job.

So my personal lifestyle and creative output have been lackluster and occasionally pathetic. I mean, I've published a ton of stuff, but I'm doing so many different things that everything I've produced has felt pretty rushed and chaotic. I don't feel very present in much that I do, I just jump around tabs and files and Zoom rooms trying to stay on top of my various projects.

Even experimental side-projects are mushrooming into viable things I need to give real attention. Like even is now making real revenue. This could very well be its own significant and badass business quickly, if I chose to focus on it. But I don't feel particularly focused on anything, even though I work all day, pretty much every day.

Basically, I'm too good at business relative to my interest in building businesses.

And now I have a pretty badass business, much more real and more important than many startups that raise capital on a sexy concept alone.

So now I'm screwed, because that means I have to keep running it. And make the website look good, and stuff like that.

I like having ideas, launching businesses around ideas, and bringing them to profitability (winning Level 1). And I'm pretty good at this, evidently. But I really don't want to be the guy whose job it is to win Level 2. I don’t like playing Level 2, it's way harder and more toilsome, and it militates against what I most want to be doing, which requires copious leisure. Leisure isn't just time not working. It's a distinct state.

The past year has been playing Level 2.

The final boss of Level 2 is hiring people to replace yourself.

That's where I'm at now. I'm close enough to winning that I can at least think about all this stuff from a bird's eye view. A few months ago I wouldn't have even been able to think these thoughts, let alone write them down, let alone take the extra few hours of pondering and editing and clicking publish.

On net, I probably spend more time engaged in free thinking and creating now than I did as a professor, but one has to grind much harder to be a winner in the business world. I don't even care about the business world, but once I start playing a game, I want to be a winner in that game. I don't need to be a top 1% winner, but I can't help but want to be at least a top 5% winner. If I'm going to do it, then why not try to win? But managing these things and keeping my effort reflective of my real ultimate goals has turned out to be extremely stressful. A lot of existential anxiety as well.

Academia is certainly competitive but the link between effort and reward is much more mediated, so business and academia bring different kinds of psychological torture.

One of the most stressful things about business is there's no form of external confirmation. There are forms of confirmation, all the classic business metrics, but these are endogenous to the business system. These metrics are only guides if you assume the business is good, beautiful, and true. The hardest questions are outside the system. Do people really want this, and do I really want to be the one providing it? How big could this be, and do I even care about making it bigger? The numbers make it look like people want this, but many factors determine those numbers, which?

Building a business is way harder than I expected. Or rather, it might be more accurate to say that I dislike it more intensely than I expected. It consumes me worse than my institutional career consumed me. I only read a couple books in 2020, I get wretchedly irritable way too often, I gained a few pounds over the pandemic. But when you're fighting for a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can see the end of the tunnel and you like the end of the tunnel, a really hard year or two is sufferable. In academia, it was too easy to see the future, one pretty much knows where one will be if one continues to succeed, and the upside has hard constraints. In building a business, the outcome is terrifyingly open but the upside has no hard ceiling.

So I think it's been worth it to focus on building a business, but I'm definitely approaching the end of my rope. So that's why I'm pretty much spending all of our modest revenue on hiring a small team, even though it's probably too early from a purely quantitative standpoint. I'm basically going down to a very meagre personal salary, which alone won't be sustainable, which means we'll have to grow a little bit faster than our historical average to do this much more than about 6 months.

If we succeed, then in about 6 months I'll be paying two people full-time and I'll be almost exclusively writing, making content, and occasionally teaching.

But it's totally possible it doesn't work. Things are complicated now, many things are only wagers. I can't hold it all in my head any more. I think I have a good model of the inter-related parts, and I think the numbers show it's all going according to plan, but I just feel out of my depth and overwhelmed.

If I can't get there, maybe I'll just go back to Level 1 and acquiesce to a life of modest means. No amount of money is worth the kind of work I've been doing for the past year, at least not for me anyway. If it brings enough economic security to secure superior leisure within a few years, then it will have been worth it, but no amount of money is worth this kind business work becoming the main thing I do with the rest of my life. I’m sure it can be a very meaningful life, it's just not the life for me.

We'll see what happens. I'm hopeful we'll get through this bottleneck, continue to grow this awesome business, and I'll extract myself from most of the day-to-day operations. But it's far from certain, so only time can tell.

PS: You may have noticed that I've split my personal mailing list—which you're reading now via—from all of the stuff (all the courses, and events, and the membership community). Having these two things intertwined was an exigency, but it got messy fast. My personal media operations—under the Other Life brand—constitute the true canon of Justin Murphy Thought. is a company I'm proud to have founded, and of which I will remain an active member, but to paraphrase what I wrote in The Time to Withdraw, "I just need some space."


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