What I Would Have Done Differently

I received the following inquiry recently:
I find it fascinating that you have maintained a career in public service while pursuing your intellectual endeavors on the side. With the Internet full of articles and courses about "How to turn your blog into a business!", I love it that you have shown us a model that anyone can follow: write from love - work for your money.
However, I know you have written about some of the challenges of that model in "What I Learned Using Paypal." 
I am 32 and am very interested in anything that you have to say on the topic.
Do you have any distilled, pure-gold wisdom for those of us earlier on the path? What would you have done differently? Etc
When I was 32 it was 1992 and I was at the start of my academic career. This is a later start than most people, but I had to deal with things first. I had recently written what for me was a defining essay on connectionism and networks and then a few very angry papers on related topics.

It had been 11 years since I had a full time job and would be another 3 years before I would land at Assiniboine Community College. I was using the computer to write by then (had been since 1985 or so, and had been working on computers since 1979) and was already doing some internet-related stuff (mostly around MUDs).

So I didn't think at the time that I would be able to do anything for money, let alone write. If you are 32 and have a job, career prospects, or anything similar, then you're ahead of where I was at that age. Yes, I could write, and write pretty well, and yes, the opportunities came eventually.

For example, I remember one time in 1998 or so I was invited by the Washington Post to write a column for their weekend magazine called 'Stalking Logical Fallacies' based on a couple of entries in Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies. I wrote the first one and they paid me $US 500 and asked me to continue sending them.

I never did. I've often wondered why. It's not like I didn't need the money. I remember disliking the idea that each column would be about two logical fallacies, not just one. It didn't have the right sort of symmetry to me. I've always been like that: if the least sort of thing doesn't feel right, I don't do it. Maybe that's something I should have changed.

There was plenty of time in the late 1990s to make my name writing for newspapers and magazines and I could have been successful at it. I kept writing, of course. But I never felt this urgent desire to get published, let alone be paid. I don't like working with publishers - I still don't - because they don't like my work the way it is; they want to make changes, they want me to get permission to use quotes, they want me to format it just so.

Each request feels like a personal affront, a betrayal. I remember once I gave a talk called My Digital Identity that I thought was pretty good. I was asked to prepare the talk as a paper for a journal, which I did. I then received feedback from the editor saying that it was quite inadequate, that it didn't have a proper literature review or experimental method, and that it would have to be extensively revised before it could be considered. It felt like a punch in the gut. If they didn't want the paper, they should never have asked.

Could I have learned to be less sensitive. It's hard to say. I think that people who want to make money writing and producing content have to have a much greater tolerance for rejection than I have. I don't know whether that tolerance is something you can grow or whether it's something you just have.

So there's that. And I love writing for free, on my own blog, where nobody tells me what to do. Stuff like this would never be published. I wish that I had started earlier - UseNet existed back in the 1980s and I could have spent a lot more time reading and writing - as it was I spent a lot of time chatting and coding.

Those are trade-offs. I spent a lot of time writing useless code. I wrote a Star Trek game in Basic. I created an entire MUD clan system in LPC. I returned to Star Trek in Borland Turbo C. I wrote an LMS for Assiniboine. I've been coding my website for two decades. Every minute I'm coding I'm not writing, which means I'm not getting paid (nobody pays me to write software - heh). But I'm learning. Would I spend less time coding? Maybe, if getting paid for writing was more important to me. But I think I'd miss the deep experience of chasing bugs at three a.m.

But I did end up spending a lot of time reading and writing; this began with my Assiniboine job and I had the space to start contributing to mailing lists (one thing I would not change is the amount of time I spent on my job working on my own stuff - if I did only what I was told, I would not have a career). My blog began as a place to save my mailing list posts, because I believed the mailing list posts might one day be lost (I was right; most of these archives don't exist any more).

I'm not sure how much I've written that is lost forever. Tons of email - there will never be a "Correspondence of Stephen Downes" because most of it vanished into the ether. I regret that (even given that 99 percent of my email is junk). But of the stuff that was not email, most of it exists, either as paper in my basement, or on my website. I've saved all my class notes (which by the end of university I was writing as essays composed in class just for fun, because there was enough time to listen to the lecture, make sense of what was being said, and write it as an article - today we call that 'liveblogging' and it's definitely a skill worth cultivating).

My career was created through the interventions of a few people in my life: Carrie MacWilliams, who recommended me for a tutoring position with Athabsaca (and Mary Richardson, who cultivated me through sever years of doing that); Jeff McLaughlin, who recommended I apply to Assiniboine (I don't like applying for jobs but he convinced me); Rik Hall, who found something worth sharing in my posts to the WWWDev mailing list and insisted I contribute to NAWeb; Rory McGreal and Terry Anderson, who moved me back into academia, first at the University of Alberta, then at NRC;  James Morrison, who was always happy to have another contribution from me and who encouraged me to start recording (and transcribing) my talks; and Maxim Jean Louis, who has encouraged me to contribute to Contact North.

Honestly, I would have been happy living in my cabin in the north writing code, teaching a few courses, and spending my evenings at Ernie's bar in Eaglesham. I'd write some philosophy papers, read Wittgenstein late into the evening, and go walking with my cat.

I write this thinking I should say something like "maybe I should have been more ambitious", but I'm not sure I regard ambition as an unequivocal good. I've tried ambition various times in the past; I was graduate student president for a couple of years and tried to parlay that into a political career, but I lost the nomination because I didn't sell any memberships (I only lost by seven votes, though). More recently, I tried my hand at management, and lasted almost three years, but management is pretty political and I am not (as it turns out) a very political person.

So although I have a number of pieces of writing and publications I could have sold, the vast majority of them are things that people asked me to do, often involving the conversion of work I had already done for free into a formal publication. My presentations are the same way - I don't go out asking to deliver keynotes here and there, instead, people write me and ask if I could. Only in the last few years have I really thought about being paid for this, and even now, the objective is mostly to make sure I don't lose money giving talks.

What do I take away from all this?

Well, I think you have to be a certain sort of person to make a living writing articles (and giving talks), even if you're good at it. You have to be willing to sell yourself in a way that I have never been - 'sell yourself' in the sense of marketing and advertising, and 'sell yourself' in the sense of being a pen for hire, willing to bend to what other people want. I would probably have earned a lot more money had I been either of those.

Ah - but are these things I would have changed? My career is nowhere near over (though my time at NRC probably is, if for no other reason than retirement) but I still really don't feel like selling myself. I know that what I'm supposed to do is work my network for contacts so I can land good gigs, but I don't really remember people very well (apologies to all those I have forgotten or will forget) and I don't feel comfortable taking advantage of connections in that way.

It's always a trade-off. If I weren't so narrowly focused and self-absorbed, and if I weren't so sensitive and averse to rejection, I could probably have marketed myself better and been a lot more successful. But then I would not have had anything worthwhile to say, because I would have been just like all those others. And I would lose my freedom and my self, which I couldn't bear.

So, no, I wouldn't have done anything differently.

I think about Wittgenstein a lot and spend no small amount of time comparing myself to him, even though we're very different people. The inner struggles related to worth and worthlessness he felt (so well documented in Ray Monk's biography) feel very familiar to me. No doubt Wittgenstein could have been more successful had he ever finished more than one book or paid more attention to making money. But none of that would have mattered to him. And no person in the 20th century was more successful, by any standard.

My best (and only) nugget of wisdom to pass on is this: you have to be yourself, no matter who you are. Your strengths, your weaknesses, your abilities, your handicaps - all these are yours, and you have to embrace them. Yes, you can (and you should) work to improve yourself, but the only standard that really matters will be the one you set for yourself (and you will find that you're very fickle, and will change the standard at a whim). But however you do, accept that, and move on. I spend a part of every day telling myself to accept the foolish things I did the day before (or years past).

And, importantly, your standard will change. I remember in 1980 having no money and no food in my one-room apartment and having my mother give me $100 out of her unemployment money just to help me survive. My standard of 'making it' at that time was to have a steady job, a home without cockroaches, and maybe some friends. I expect a bit more out of my life now - but every insect-free day with food on the plate means I'm ahead of the game, and I'll never forget that.

And, maybe - be generous. Help people in need. Share what you know. Be kind to animals. Do this not expecting some sort of return, but because you know what it is to be a living being that strives and struggles and hopes and dreams. Not because you would want others to do the same for you, but because they are you.


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