[Update: Much of this turned out to be prescient, in fact so prescient that a lot below has been transcended by the creation of IndieThinkers.org. So I'm not really helping many people personally and directly anymore, but rather building scalable systems for doing so.]
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.
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 running it by me. 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.