Academic Interloper (Gets Cranky)

Post-it Question by Jenny Blake

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Identify one of your biggest challenges at the moment (ie I don’t feel passionate about my work) and turn it into a question (ie How can I do work I’m passionate about?) Write it on a post-it and put it up on your bathroom mirror or the back of your front door. After 48-hours, journal what answers came up for you and be sure to evaluate them.

Bonus: tweet or blog a photo of your post-it.

(Author: Jenny Blake)

A few weeks ago, I met a very serious person who should probably be an ally. But she said something to me in jest that got me. She said, “You don’t have a business! You have a lot of very expensive hobbies.” Which, since I’ve never managed to turn one single thing into income in the last five years, was a little too close to be dismissed.

The older I get, the less energy I have to dissipate on busy work. I care deeply and passionately about making meaning in the world, about telling stories, about clarity of communication, authenticity, heartfelt connection, and liberty of spirit. I love teaching, I love writing, I love conversations. I love talking to people and finding that nugget that they need to move forward right now. I love questions, books, ideas, documentaries, and possibility. But I want to teach towards liberation. I can’t spend any more of my life energy on distraction, obfuscation, and short-term thinking. I want to help people come to right relationship with the world, not because it is a moral imperative but because it is the point of being human. I want to help people find ways to be well, with themselves and their loved ones. I want to teach people to question their assumptions and find ways of being that express honesty, while being kind and compassionate with the parts of the world around them.

What I want is peace in the world. What I want is love, for all beings. What I want is to find myself a gentle and compassionate voice in a world filled with suffering. To demand that I love what I do is clear: my work must help the world crack open. That part of the question draws me in, makes me feel hopeful and necessary.

To ask how it can also provide me with a living is another question entirely, which immediately pulls me into a space of feeling inadequate and like a failure. I said to one of my friends the other day (while this was percolating in my mind), “Sometimes I feel like my work is like the natural world. It is valuable, but it doesn’t make anything that can be traded economically. I can’t get money for it, so in our world, it is worthless.” And even with all the education and Practice I’ve gone through, I can’t rid myself of that story.

My work is worthless. This, the best expression of my Self “has no monetary value” = “is worthless”.

… therefore… (the completion of this thought is left as an exercise to the reader)

How do I disentangle my self-worth from what the world reflects back to me? How do I find strength in the work that I do, even when The Market deems it not worth paying for? Or at least, when I can’t find The Market in which such ideas and skills can be traded for money?


There was a time, I believe, when people made things and they traded their things for other things. Some small number of people could be supported by the tribe in such strange activities as healing, praying, storytelling, and music-making. But most people made things. Or grew things. Or cleaned things. Most livelihoods were taken up with “things”. At least, I have this inkling. And so, I thought, it is a legitimate use of a life, this thing-making. I honour the hands, and the work of the hands. We can’t all be thinkers, writers, and meaning-makers. Somebody has to make things. And via this inkling, most of the last five years of my life have been taken up with a hands-on exploration of “things”, the making of. I have baked bread, cookies, and pies, raised bees and chickens and vegetables, built furniture, knitted sweaters and socks, sewed pajamas, shirts, and even pants. I have tried several dozen forms of organizational schemes to get all these things (and projects) under control, tidied up, completed, and put to bed. I examined supply chains, resources, energy, transportation, and even chopped wood (frequently) and carried water (when the power is out). And in the end, I’ve come to some conclusions:

  1. We, who do not need to work with our hands, take our things for granted.
  2. “Things” are worth far, far more than their prices would have us believe.
  3. Since we have automated thing-making, there are just too many things in the world.
  4. We use our things to meet needs that they were never designed to meet.
  5. We are so fixated on our things that we are, in fact, failing to get many of those needs met.
    BUT, most importantly…
  6. I’m much better at making meaning than I am at making things.

I wanted desperately to find some other person in this quest, some person who contentedly could make the thousands of bars of soap necessary to turn soap-making into a business. In the process, I made some fine soap, and stopped wanting to ever ever make soap again. Same with spice blends, baking, harvesting vegetables several weeks in a row, making more and more jam, doing dishes, laundry, and woodworking. I’ve made five (and one-half) pairs of socks, a couple of sweaters, some scarves, hats, and mitts, and I’m pretty much done with knitting. Rendering the beeswax was the final step: I have gone too far down the supply chain in this experiment. I’m done now. I will NOT be pressing my own oil from my own (organic) canola, even if it is impossible to obtain non-GMO oil by any other means. There is rye growing in my front yard for beer, but it is somebody else’s undertaking. I’m done studying how far we’re removed from the system by reconstructing it from first principles. I’ve got my answer, and it is: pretty freaking far. I’m not going to be able to earn a living  by removing myself from the system, and I’m not going to do it by being a lone homesteader. I can’t. I don’t have it in me.

The ONLY thing that I have continued to do without ever getting (soul-crushingly) bored is think, read, write, and converse. It is the thing I do when I’m not being paid. It is what I do when I’m supposed to be making “things”, or doing other activities that can be rewarded with money. It is what distracts me when I’m supposed to be reading something amusing or watching a movie. I have gone to conferences even when I had no academic affiliation. (1)

The problem for “earning a living at it” is… I just. can’t do all. this thinking. about. one. thing. at a time. (2) For several years I solved this problem by working in one field and going to school in another, but you can only do that while raising children for so long before you a) burn out, b) forget what your kids look like and c) run out of money. I am, as a result of that strategy, ridiculously over-educated, nigh-unemployably-so. And yet somehow, I also lack the professional credentials to actually DO anything. I have, for example, an education degree that didn’t come with a teaching license. Adult Ed. University and College teaching. It worked once, but now you need a graduate degree or two to turn that into a job, and there’s only one university within striking distance anyway. What is the hardest part of Being Me is this: I can’t stick with a project for the dozen years or so that it takes to get a Ph.D. and tenure, which as far as I know is the only job where thinking about the world and then teaching other people about it is actually in the job description. I don’t have it in me. I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. When I was trying (SO HARD) to do a Ph.D., I came home in tears and said to my husband, “I can’t do this. I don’t have any time to THINK.”

Which brings me full circle to the original question. I don’t know how to make a living doing what I love, but I’ve already tried just about everything else, and none of those were particularly effective, either. So I’m down to:

  1. Do what I love.
  2. Do it again.
  3. Write about it AND
  4. Completely disentangle myself from the money economy, which is a problem, because that’s where the books and conferences and plane tickets and the workshops are OR
  5. Find the market in which money DOES exist. Surely somebody, somewhere needs all this thinking? Surely we don’t send our children to school for decades to learn to do something that has no value whatsoever? Surely they weren’t (gasp) lying to me???

That’s all I got. Back where I started. No idea. What’s all that thinking good for, anyway? Apparently, not for figuring out how to earn a living, although I can do a pretty sophisticated analysis of WHY I can’t earn a living at this.

That’s it. In my next life, I’m totally going to be a cat.

  1. Which is how I came by the title Academic Interloper. It’s what I put in place of my affiliation at the last conference I crashed. Seriously. I went to a philosophy conference for kicks. And it was GREAT!
  2. That is the sound of me struggling, trying to put myself back into whatever box I have currently determined is the appropriate way of investigating the world. Or at least, is the way that will be rewarded with jobs and money.

9 responses to “Academic Interloper (Gets Cranky)”

  1. Sweetie,

    I can’t do what you do, but I can tell you that the theory “You must make a living to be happy” or any variant on that nonsense is rubbish. Yes, some way there must be a way to take care of the basics of Maslow’s needs, but food, clothing and shelter aren’t a life.

    None of my skills, especially those that I love, will ever make me rich in a financial way. Hell, the most successful show I have ever done only pulled in $7K.

    I don’t do theatre, massage, knitting, dance, singing, reading, cooking, etc because someone will pay me great gobs of cash. I do them because they make my soul take flight.

    There is no need beyond your own good thoughts for any approval of the world.

  2. The worst of it is that I am (we are?) hoping to make an income — if not a living — from thinking and writing just as that is becoming more and more difficult to do so. Or, if it’s not really more difficult to do so, the how of it is certainly most mysterious.

    Nevertheless, I say just keep writing.

    Also, I want to know more about this one: We use our things to meet needs that they were never designed to meet.

    • It is mysterious, indeed. The good thing about keeping writing is now that I’ve uncorked that particular bottle, the genie is out. I’d probably have a hard time stopping at this point.

      The bad thing is that the more I do, the less I’m willing to conform for the sake of the almighty dollar… and there’s a huge part of all corporate “pen for hire” that comes down to (unintentionally) misleading people about what all of this is going to do for them… whatever it is.

      I kind of liked writing software manuals, though. In a weird way. Just the facts, ma’am. Technical stuff. No real ethics involved (except when I was working on a course that was being deliberately designed by the managers to provide excuses to fire people… oh, wait. ethics, there, too. Sigh.)

  3. Money is a powerful tool, but rather a blunt instrument. I like to think that people with lots of it and nothing else in their toolbox are a bit like like cavemen with clubs (although clubs, when it comes down to it, may be so much more useful). You, on the other hand, have a workshop of tools. And not only do you have the tools, but you know what to do with them and can figure out how to fashion new ones. Of thoughts, things, and money, my bets are on the first for survival and meaning-making. Please keep thinking/writing/living/loving/struggling/doing and sharing. It is inspiring. Why weigh that down with 30 coins of silver?

    • On a practical (relatively) note – are you familiar with science writing and blogging. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science ( I could imagine you doing something similar. He has some great interviews where he talks about how he got into blogging and into paid blogging (althought I can’t seem to find them at the moment!)

    • I think that the answer might be to very seriously question the idea of “making a living”. There is an enormous amount of real work that used to be done in the Love economy that we now wind up purchasing back with dollars. I’m thinking of child care, cooking, elder care, and other truly necessary parts of being wholly human that we have to hire in because of a lack of true community. Also, the ways of living in which we essentially buy back our own hours by purchasing convenience (foods, for example) are huge contributors to the increase in cost of simply meeting our “needs”. Colin Beavan had a wonderful comment on this in his chapter about waste (I think) and finding himself purchasing convenience to just get it all over with, (or something – it was several months ago that I read this). Then he realized that what it was that he was just trying to get over with was… life! Great book, BTW. Much more substantial than I had been led to suspect by the review. Probably the best of its genre (my year of…) that I’ve read.

      • I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now – chewing my cud. There’s something that makes me both very sad and incredibly angry at the depth of the roots of the money economy and all the things that have been replaced with dollars. The thing that brought this into focus for me (along with your post) is a woman I know who has a business as a coach to women in male-dominated fields. Her compassion, her insights, her encouragement are all valuable and amazing. But really expensive! And while I’m willing to pay for quality, 2 things get left out of the equation. First – for her, where does friendship begin and end? Do I have any right to call her up just to chat because I think we’d be good friends and I’ve enjoyed chatting with her at various meetings we’ve run into each other, or really do I need to step back, respect her business, and make an appoinment and become a client? It suddenly gets very cold. And second – the money obscures the fact that she probably gets as much out of working with interesting, passionate, successful women as they get out of her coaching. So why do they end up paying her to share insights and experiences and she ends up with lots of money but a very blurry boundary between friends and clients? And somehow, I think both sides lose out if it all depends on cash flow. It comes back to this lack of true community you mention along with the way money has replaced many things that belong in the Love economy you describe. I’m not 100% naive (maybe 99.99%), and I do realize we need money, but still….it makes me sad. Anyway, back to the pastures….

  4. Find yourself alone in a strange city with no job, two young children, no family, and a resume 10 years out of date. You find out what you can do to make a living pretty darn quickly (and I don’t mean prostitution or drug trafficking!).

    It’s actually a liberating and empowering experience. Nearly unbearably stressful at first, but . . . really. It’s “get rid of your self-doubt or die”.

    • I kind of did that. (only with the fortune of having a good partner, but he was in grad school for a LOOONG time.) I’m kind of hoping that someday there’s more to life than having to keep doing that, because as much as I learned a lot by it, a lot of what I learned was very stressful and left me looking over my shoulder for the other shoe to drop for the last 10 years.

      On the plus side, I found something to enjoy in almost every job that I did, except the one doing drafting… and I probably would have liked the drafting if it had been in a different office. Phones, painting, teaching, corporate training, software development, sales… You’re right about the self-doubt part. It’s left me with a patchwork quilt of a resume, but a good feeling of resilience.