Goodbye academia, hello Substack
The Intrinsic Perspective goes paid
Today I am resigning my professorship at Tufts University, where I have worked for the last four years. And I must admit up front: leaving academia is a scary thing. I grew up in academia. I became a person in academia. When I die, I’ll die an academic, going on to that final qual in the sky.
Not many regrets, as I’ve had a very lucky career for someone who is 34. I got to help develop aspects of the leading scientific theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory. I’ve walked the wooded paths of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as a visiting scholar, been a Forbes 30 Under 30 in science, and bounced between prestigious institutions, from Columbia University to Tufts. Far more importantly, I feel I’ve made some actual intellectual contributions (which is all a scientist can ever ask), particularly my work on formalizing emergence mathematically, my research on how to falsify theories of consciousness, and outlining the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis of dreaming. My scientific work on these subjects has been profiled in outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian, WIRED, New Scientist, Discover Magazine, Psychology Today, Nautilus, Chemistry World, among plenty of others.
Despite this, I’ve come to believe I can do more original and meaningful intellectual work outside of academia. For, to be honest, when I look back at my career and the things I’m most proud of, I did the majority in spite of the strictures of academia, not because of them. I did it in time squirreled away from bosses and administrators. And I’m tired of being a squirrel.
While one might assume a record like mine would ensure some sort of success in academia, that’s not how things work. Rather, my academic prospects are actually somewhat lackluster. It’s likely I will never get a tenured position at a top-tier university.
There’s a couple reasons for this. First, I work in interdisciplinary areas where there’s not much grant money—sometimes none at all. Second, being a successful professor now-a-days means not just crafting your research so it will receive big governmental grants, but also being involved with the student body in all sorts of ways, doing extracurricular activities, volunteering, taking on a bunch of busywork like organizing special editions of journals, citation-maxing, paper-maxing, not to mention sitting on the right committees, advancing all the right political causes, etc. And I just. . . don’t do any of that stuff. Not only that, but I have this pesky writing habit to contend with. A tenure committee will never say “Oh, you wrote a novel and a bunch of popular essays, wow, that’s a huge plus for our Biology department.” To them, this looks like the behavior of a maniac. Everything I write here is bad for my academic career. Every time a book manuscript of mine is delivered to a publisher, it’s bad for my academic career. I’ve never once had anyone in any administrative, hiring, or grant-giving capacity show anything but hesitation about these things.
All to say: I’ve always felt I was playing a game that only partially synched up with contemporary academia. To me, my job is coming up with interesting hypotheses and perspectives, from the average post on The Intrinsic Perspective, to technical papers in scientific journals, to entire books, and I don’t see any distinction between these forms, or even between the subjects covered. But only a tiny portion of my effort registers in academia.
So, where would it register?
At this point, I’m afraid I’ve made it seem like taking The Intrinsic Perspective paid is merely a life raft to escape academia. This could not be further from the truth. Despite all its problems, I would normally stay safely employed in academia, continuing to write merely as a hobby on the side, splitting my attention and taking the inevitable career hit. But Substack has changed what I thought possible. Even when I write books (two now) I feel I’m joining the end of a queue of massive titans, and all I can do is offer up my own meager version of what has been done before, and done better. I don’t feel this way here.
Of course, we are not reinventing the wheel on Substack, let’s not overstate. There have been many great essayists throughout history, from Plutarch to Montaigne to Didion. But online newsletters like The Intrinsic Perspective (TIP) are entries into a literary genre at most two decades old—and in terms of the genre’s momentum, perhaps only a couple years old. In a field like writing where nothing ever changes, this new frictionless format is actually quite radical. I cannot lie, I find the idea of working in a developing genre, especially one so potentially impactful, quite attractive—already essays here have been mentioned in places like Current Affairs, Slate, POLITICO, Berfrois, and more.
Going paid allows me to scale up TIP into something unmissable and extremely worth your while. I want to show what happens when this form is not considered a lark, or some vestigial way for already-famous names to make a buck, but taken deadly seriously as an emerging genre, a literary outlet for essays and original intellectual work—exactly the sort of things I’ve been striving for here on TIP and can now put my full effort behind.
So I’m making this my living. Subscriptions will be $7 a month, or $70 a year. If you subscribe, you receive:
Access to the full content, as 50% will now be locked, including the Desiderata series. I still plan on putting out free work consistently, so don’t fret if you can’t pay, TIP will remain worth staying signed up for. You’ll just see less of it.
In addition to access to all content, there will be other perks, like the ability to opt-in to a private Substack chat, some free posts will allow comments only from paid subscribers, and I’ll occasionally ask for your links, suggestions, etc., for inclusion to share in the Desiderata series. As TIP develops, more perks will be added, like an annual paid-subscriber-only essay contest.
Beyond the primary benefit of allowing TIP to be all it can be, another reason I’m doing this is my belief that, now we have the technology to do so, creating a class of independent audience-supported scholars and writers and thinkers is likely very healthy for our culture. If you happen to really want to support this experimental career of mine, there’s a $700 a year Patron option that has only the minor perk of receiving a free signed and dedicated 1st edition copy of my next book when it comes out in 2023—please choose this option only if you have the resources and want to truly feel like an old-timey aristocratic patron (monocle not included).
The money from paying subscribers does more than just buy groceries. Going paid allows me to make TIP my main job, which means the quality of the pieces will increase, since they’ll have more of my attention for planning, research, and editing. I’d like to occasionally work with a research assistant on posts that include graphs, figures, or data analysis. And Alexander Naughton, the amazing illustrator who draws his unique artistic reaction to every draft, deserves to earn something equivalent to his talents.
I am, of course, extremely nervous I won’t be able to make a living doing this. I grew up sleeping through New England winters in a bedroom without heat. For years the bath faucet ran only cold, so I used to get clean for my public high school in thin inches of water heated up in pots on the stove. I care nothing for riches, but poverty has always been a fear of mine. I think I will eventually make enough here to replace my salary from Tufts, but even if you don’t financially support TIP, please know I appreciate you staying on the free list and engaging with and sharing content. It helps.
I’ll up my schedule in some interesting ways this year, but, at minimum, if I write at least an essay a week as I’ve been doing, and continue this for 20 years, I will have written more than 1,000 essays in my life. The more I think on it, the more this seems a worthy goal. If I could accomplish 1,000 good essays, perhaps even a few great ones, touching at various points on every topic of my age about which I have something worthwhile to say, I could die with dignity. With a mind finally, after all that time, spent and at rest.
I hope you choose to accompany me on this journey. Thank you all.
This is only the beginning.
Congrats, Erik! I just hit that "upgrade" button. Your essays are part of what inspired me to start a Substack in the first place, and many of what I now consider best practices (cadence, aesthetic) I learned from you. I'm proud to support you.
There are two reasons in particular I'm excited you're taking this leap. First, academia melts people's brains, and we need more people thinking outside of it. The ceiling for even the greatest scientists is pretty low inside academia because they'll spend most of their time getting grants and figuring out how to get papers into journals. And many great scientists won't succeed because success requires near-Machiavellian levels of careerism and will to power. I want to see what smart people like you do when they're free of those structural constraints.
And second, I find something very wholesome about the mini-Medici patronage model of Substack. Most of us have very little power over anything beyond our immediate spheres, and most of the money we spend is basically extracted from us by force. I don't *want* to support my landlord, but I must, because the apartment next door is even worse. But supporting someone on Substack is different: this person does more of what I think is good because I choose to give them a couple bucks. In a just society, I think all commerce would feel more like that.
Anyway, I wish you the very best. I think you'll have massive success, and it will be a huge inspiration to other writers like me.
This will be the first Substack publication I buy a paid subscription for. Partly because it’s extremely aligned with my interests, but mostly because I think it’s *worth* paying for.
I’m excited about this genre too, and you have been a true inspiration to me. For what it’s worth I think you are doing an excellent job at creating valuable essays and sharing important, thought provoking ideas.
My question for you is: what do you think about the outlook on the science of consciousness? I see this as THE problem of our era, and a true tragedy if there are not sufficient incentives for the relatively small number of scientists actually interested in working on it.
(Also, just so you know: in real life, I am a data scientist / consultant. Feel free to hit me up about doing some data analysis for TIP -- I think that would be extremely fun ;))