One of the little pleasures I allow myself lately is reading business books. I love them. I love their cheerful optimism, their simple beliefs and motivational rhetoric. While kicking around campus, I would never have been seen dead reading Power Within by Tony Robbins, Key Person of Influence by Daniel Priestly or, my current read, You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. But away from campus I can enjoy them away from the judgement of my betters.
Please don’t think that I enjoy them ironically, either: they are really interesting on a number of levels. For one, they are maybe the best reflection of our current culture, in that they assume only that you are male, white and have access to credit. I like to think of the big ones that all business people read – the Stephen Coveys, the Tim Ferrises, the Tony Robbinses – and whether one day they will be a new Deuteronomy, a retelling of the laws of our society.
One of the best books in the genre is Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Work Week, in which we are introduced to the idea that true wealth is not accumulated and spent in money, but in time and, implicitly, freedom. Ferris introduces us to his comically larger-than-lifestyle through anecdotes about ballroom dancing in Argentina and kickboxing in China, and his formula for living our dreams is refreshingly simple:
- Earn money in dollars and spend it in pesos. Or baht. Or lek. You get the idea
- Have a business that runs without you, online and remotely. Take a small profit on every automated sale and outsource as much as you can.
- Take several mini-retirements throughout your working life, rather than waiting for it all at the end. This last is particularly attractive to me, as I come from the area of lowest life expectancy in Europe.
Can this kind of life work for academics? Can we see a future where researchers are unbound from the university, free to wander around the world, picking up a few thousand dollars of work every few months?
Yeah, to put it mildly, that seems like looking on the bright side of things. But something like this – something decidedly less romantic – could be the reality for many researchers, postdocs and PhDs. There are more of us than the university system needs, that much is clear, and therefore we are faced with the grind of unemployment, ad hoc contracts and being one CV in four hundred for every junior lecturer job everywhere. So what can we do? We either go get a ‘real’ job, something nice and disheartening so we can feel really resentful in 30 years’ time, or we try and create something new for ourselves.
In my latest career path direction, I’ve started my own business doing something that I love and I believe in. I’m making no money. I’m living on Pot Noodles. But I’m free. If I want, I can spend all morning with my son before he goes to nursery. I can go to the shops. I can write blogs. I could be on a beach somewhere. And there’s not the existential dread that comes with addressing the same things at the same time of year every year. Will I still be talking like this in a year, if I’m bankrupt and homeless? Quite possibly. I’m convinced that I’ll be able to turn a profit and create a better life for myself and my family, but to be honest, this is a better life than I had at £30k a year working 9 to 5 (in reality 7:30 to 19:30, like everyone else).
Am I saying anything useful here? It’s not for everyone, but if you are not risk averse, or if you reckon that you’ve only got 54 or so years on this planet (if you’re fae the Calton) you might want to give the life of the entrepreneur a fair go. Leaving behind the safety of the university is not as daunting as it may seem. If you want to continue in research and writing, why not market your skills on Piirus.ac.uk and learn more about academic consultancy. If you’re good at writing grant applications, perhaps you could work on these for universities? Have a go at being a digital academic and put your work online via blogs and Twitter. Read Daniel Priestly’s Key Person of Influence and see if you can see yourself being the best person in the world at what you do. Freedom and mobility is good for you. Can you make it work?
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