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The Struggle of the Independent Scholar

4 min

"I want to leave academia, but I need money."

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I recently received this question from a reader, but many people in my audience are struggling with their own version of this question. It's not just for academics.

“I’m certain I want to leave academia, but I need to make money ASAP! My main goal in life is to write books, and generally continue the life of a scholar (i.e. studying, writing, and teaching). But how can I pursue the independent path when I need to make money ASAP?”

I feel you. Ultimately, producing great work is my highest goal as well, it always has been and it always will be. But after leaving a successful academic career and having my first child recently, I too struggle with the financial question.

I think the most general and honest answer is that, for people seriously committed to the vita contemplativa, the household finances are supposed to be lackluster. That's just the trade you're making. This is even true for professors, most of whom do not get paid very well relative to their IQ (hotshots in American universities are paid much better than anywhere in the world, and this is still true even for them; for the average adjunct, the IQ/income disequilibrium is utterly absurd).

For most of us in the Other Life community, I think we generally try to embrace this fact—that it's just always been a challenge for our type of person. Read ten biographies of thinkers and writers you most admire; a good handful will have lived through serious economic hardship.

But the other thing I also find among our types is that the calling is non-negotiable. It's an example of what Max Weber called substantive-ethical rationality. Weber famously cites Luther as the paradigmatic expression of this logic:

“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

In short, if you're really called to mental independence and freedom of expression, then you will take them for yourself—and figure the rest out later. If you're even capable of doing otherwise, then you probably don't have the calling. Thus, in a way, there is no significant decision problem.

The calling is the calling, then you just find a way to pay the bills. And paying the bills poorly, or just barely—or frankly, not at all—is historically just a part of this game.

Having said that, we're living through tremendous historical shifts. Obviously, there are now many, many examples of various writers and teachers leveraging independent media and making more than the average professor. I'm lucky to be one of them, although I'm still on the lower end.

It's certainly not easy, and of course, the overwhelming majority of "creators" make very little money. But nonetheless, there are many thousands of people making much more than professors doing what is essentially writing and teaching.

But the crux of the question is this: "Is it possible to leave academia and earn good money writing and teaching immediately?" It depends on many variables, but I'll tell you how I would break this down.

We run a little accelerator for independent academic-types on the internet and it's different than other programs on the market. We don't say "here's how to make a million dollars as a creator in a year."

Our main goal is to create a sustainable system for serious, long-term research and publishing that works despite economic and political vicissitudes. There exist some fairly reproducible 'best practices' whereby other independent internet writers have gotten big and made big money, sometimes quickly, so we do go over some of these cases and look at some of the principles—but the conditions for a rapid rise to financial independence are simply not always available, or appropriate, for our types. Some of our members just don't care about getting big or getting money any time soon, or even at all. They care about doing the work they are called to do, and doing it consistently over time. From there, they're content to let the chips fall where they may.

A small number of us have found financial independence from writing on the internet and parlaying that into all kinds of other things. I count myself in that group (I live a modest but middle-class life in a big city with a wife and child), but I don't oversell my success because I still feel precarious.

I'm proud of the path I've taken and the life I've built, and I don't regret leaving academia in the slightest, but "how to leave academia and get rich" is certainly not the thing I'm selling. I think the life of the independent scholar is just a difficult one, but on the other hand, maybe that's a good thing: That's why so few people write anything, at any length, that's of any interest at all!

You can't just quit an institutional career and immediately replace your income 100% if you're starting from scratch, but there is a fairly reproducible path to replacing your income over the course of a few years. If you're a young, single, underpaid adjunct or grad student, but you're talented, energetic, disciplined, and hungry, there is a low but real chance that you could do it faster—say in less than a year—although you'd need to work really hard and also catch some lightning in a bottle.

Ultimately, those called to the vita contemplativa must take our freedom by hook or by crook, understanding that household finance may never be our strong suit. There are many ways to pay the bills. When I left academia, I just said to myself, "I know there's a better way and I'll just do whatever it takes to figure it out." And that's all I've been doing, just figuring it out.

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