A job, academia, dillettante

The last couple of months I’ve been reconsidering what I’m doing with my life. One concrete evidence of my confusion is that I have too many tabs open in my browsers and compulsively download too many books – I do this in lieu of actually reading or acting on the stuff, and then I berate myself when I fail to do so. It’s my old mental companion “knowing about what I could do is the same as actually doing it” – which means that as soon as I get an idea, it feels “done” and I move on to the next thing. On top of this, I’m lacking compatriots to do stuff with; I don’t have a network of people who seem interested in what I’m interested in, which adds to me desperately striking out into the void of the Internet to find something to attach myself to.

This is of course completely unproductive and sure-fire way of burning myself out. You don’t get full by reading a recipe book, you actually need to assemble the ingredients and cook and eat the food. I don’t know why I’m falling into this trap again and again, but I do.

The bikeshedding is real though. As an example, I just now spent half an hour learning how to change the look and colour of my zsh terminal prompt because the default look annoyed me when I tried downloading the Hugo theme “Creative portfolio” to try it out as the main page of monocultured.com. It’s a nested doll of procrastination, since I’m uncertain what I ought to put on the homepage to begin with, let alone what kind of homepage I want, etc. Why on earth do I feel that I need a portfolio homepage when I’m doing very little freelance or artistic work, other than for my own amusement?

Depressed people do need human company. For some reason, human company helps. In fact, it is the single thing that helps the most. But not the kind of company a sad person needs. What a depressed person needs is simply to talk to people, not about their problems or their negative thoughts or their depression, but about anything else – music, animals, science.

Noah Smith: A few thoughts on depression

Anywho. One of the avenues of changing shit up that I’m thinking about is going back to school and getting a doctorate. And then I remember all the complaints my academic friends make about being overworked, under-funded and forced to publish, and realise that perhaps I’m not cut out for that millieu.

The sad result is that, as a community, we have developed a collective blind-spot around a depressing reality: even at top conferences, the median published paper contains no truth or insight. Any attempts to highlight or remedy the situation are met with harsh resistance from those who benefit from the current state of affairs. The devil himself could not have designed a better impediment to humanity’s progression.

Jacob Buckman: Please commit more blatant academic fraud

This speaks to the weird incentives that appear whenever there’s a scarcity of resources, and even just my experiences as a guest tutor at Chalmers arkitektur & UMA gave me enough insight into the backstabbing skullduggery required for academic success that it scared me off. I know my limits, and I’m not Machiavellian enough to succeed in highly competetive settings.

But perhaps I should study something which might play to my strengths, instead of my ambitions? Design research seems to be an interesting field where you can actually make a living while doing stuff on the border of journalism and academia.

But even if I find something which seems like a good idea – let’s say that I get it into my head that Cultural Geography is a fine thing to study and master – I’ll need to keep at it, lest I again get distracted by my distracted stupid brain. Observe how good people are at fooling themselves into thinking a goal is achieved by using something else as a proxy:

I know it’s meaningless, but I see those rings every time I lift my wrist and it’s dagger to heart to see them incomplete. Most of the time it’s easy to fill them, but when I’m on a four hour train, there are fewer opportunities to stand. So here’s what I do: at one minute before the hour, I stand up for two minutes so I get “standing” credit for both hours. I can then sit easy for another 118 minutes before rousing myself once more.

Buttondown.com, Adrian: If You Can’t Win, Cheat

In the post above Adrian lists non-obvious activities as “gamification”, and in my case I’d list “downloading massive amounts of books” and “keeping track of the latest memes” as at least tangentially related – both allow me to demonstrate (superficial) knowledge, or appearance of knowledge, to my friends and family, accruing kudos and cementing my position on some demented “keeping-up-with-shit” scoreboard.

Life should contain novelty – experiences you haven’t encountered before, preferably teaching you something you didn’t already know. If there isn’t a sufficient supply of novelty (relative to the speed at which you generalize), you’ll get bored.

Lesswrong.org, Eliezer Yudkowsky: 31 Laws of Fun

I think the above listicle is supposed to be applied to games – or challenges for characters more broadly – but to me it reads in parts as an outline of a philosophy for an enjoyable life.

The pandemic made me realize that I do not care about working anymore. The software I build is useless. Time flies real fast and I have to focus on my passions (which are not monetizable). Unfortunately, I require shelter, calories and hobby materials. Thus the need for some kind of job.

Hacker News, lmueongoqx: What tech job would let me get away with the least real work possible?

Contrary to what I expected on a US-centric highly competetive venture capital message board, many of the comments on the post above were sympathetic to the poster. I don’t think I’m qualified enough to find a job and lifestyle which would allow me to have this approach – at heart, I still feel poor even though I’m not, really – but the clarity with which the poster pursues an answer is inspiring. A similar thought struck me the other day as we started to rewatch the 2013 series Hannibal: The reason why the titular character is so impressive is in part because he’s so clear on his objectives (reprehensible as they are) and acts controlled and rationallly to achieve them. I’m sure there are better role-models than cannibalistic serial killers, but still. Let’s consider Raos writing on The Loser as a category to aspire to:

The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot. […]They mortgage their lives away, and hope to die before their money runs out. The good news is that Losers have two ways out, which we’ll get to later: turning Sociopath or turning into bare-minimum performers. The Losers destined for cluelessness do not have a choice.

Venkatesh Rao: The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”