Looking Back on ’21 and Forward to the Rest

[Note: Navel gazing]

Happy new year, everybody!

I published my first post here exactly six years ago today. Six years is a long time, but it doesn’t feel that long to me, because all throughout I’ve felt that I have so much more to write than I can get done. I’ve not felt inspiration running dry, nearing an end, or anything like that, but I might be closing in on the top of the S-curve.

I mean that it’s starting to look samey from year to year. Compared to my summary of 2020 a year ago, there are similar things to report. I’ve been a guest on a few podcasts — Dain Fitzgerald’s Youtube Channel in February and the Narratives Podcast with Will Jarvis in June. I’ve also, like then, had a few article links from science journalist Tom Chivers who’s popularizing my writings a lot, which I’m thankful for. New for this year, I was supposed to be on British radio in May but — the exception that proves the rule — I got bumped an hour before because of some news story breaking.

Productivity wise ’20 and ’21 have been similar as well, although 2021 represents a slight improvement. Word count per year dropped from 2018 through 2020 but has gone up a little now, from 40k to 44k words, a welcome change.

Looking at it a little more in detail we can see that I’m on a slow positive trend. The published-words-per-day measure, smoothed over 6 months, shows that productivity bottomed out around the turn of 2019/2020 and has improved since then (however, despite improvements this year can’t touch the period from fall 2017 to spring 2019, when I had a different job that enabled me to write for an hour every day over lunch).

But honestly, this year’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, and in more ways that one — and I find that writing ability and productivity goes hand in hand with mental health. I don’t know which affects which, but experience suggests it goes both ways. In other words, like the late 2019, early 2021 was slow partly because I felt like shit. January’s I Hate the Plate was inspired by domestic frustration plus some work-related struggles. Oh and then getting sick with bloody covid of course. Those two and a half weeks in bed in early April, getting short of breath by just standing up and going to the toilet took a toll. That shit sucks the life out of you.

It got better. In May there was Love Letter to an Encyclopedia which didn’t exactly go viral but wasn’t expected to; it was a labor of love and mostly just for me. In June I finally published Rereading “Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate” after writing it last year for a contest. It didn’t make the final, sadly, but I’m not too disappointed. Competition was stiff.

The year’s second book review was of Cynical Theories which I worked on mostly last fall and on and off this year. It got a few nods, including from one of the authors, but would perhaps have been more appreciated had it come earlier, when the book was actually being talked about. It was this year’s longest post at 7600 words, shorter than last year’s Variations on the Tilted Political Compass at 9100.

With the review of Cynical Theories, August’s Political Capital Flow Management and the Importance of Yutting, the satirical Abolish Secret Ballots (and perhaps also to a lesser extent Thank the Machine, Platist Politics, and A Quickie on Cancel Culture Questions) I’ve been fairly “political” this year and I don’t know what I think about that. I don’t like politics and I definitely don’t like controversy, but I don’t seem able to stay away. I guess I’m attracted to writing about what I feel needs to be clarified. It’s like finding that bird’s nest of tangled Christmas lights and feeling absolutely compelled to go to town on it. And the most strongly political is often also the most muddled and obfuscated, partly because it’s in the interest of some not to explain themselves clearly and in the interest of others to not understand them. It’s a dynamic that attracts me (because I want to disrupt and destroy their dysfunctional codependency), in a frankly somewhat self-destructive way.

On a lighter note I’m happy that July’s Cat Couplings Revisited got some positive attention, including the coveted “concept that once you’re read about you’ll see it everywhere” mention on Twitter.

My celebratory 100th post A Hundred for the 100th was enjoyable to write but not a big “hit” of course. It did get a few shares, including one that called it “delightful” on Twitter. Cliché or not, small stuff like that does make it worthwhile to do this thing that I don’t actually have time for.

Mid-life crisis

Indeed, a lot looks the same as it did a year ago. I went back to read that summary when writing this one, and most of what I said there still applies now. No reason to repeat it. That may signal that it’s time for a change, because this blog is having the equivalent of a mid-life crisis.

At the end of my first year I didn’t write a summary at all, since I only had a handful of readers. After the second year (2017) it was worth doing, as things were kinda getting started. By the end of 2018 I was on a high after having my readership balloon. A year later the high had stalled, and a year after that, which is now a year ago (follow?) I noted that I hadn’t quite gotten out of the stall.

In that post I noticed that the blog’s center of narrative gravity is no longer in the present. The past is getting bigger than the present. The same tends to happen to life itself, when you go from youth to adulthood (fewer new formative experiences, more stability and maintenance). It’s as if 2016 was the blog’s stumbling childhood, 2017 its teens — including its first exciting small successes — 2018 its pivotal early 20s, and 2019 to today it’s plodding adulthood, going into middle age.

Sounds like an appropriate time for crisis and change! What about writing a book? Going from blog to book is a natural move and I did think that already last year. In fact, it was suggested to me already in 2019 by a reliable source that a book on “popular erisology” might actually sell, but it felt too early then. I wasn’t ready. That has changed, and I feel I’m closer to ready now.

The problem from last year remains, however. On a handful of occasions I’ve sat down and made rough plans for how to put together a book, but I haven’t been able to prioritize taking it further. All the time and energy I have goes toward writing new posts and I’m just barely keeping up as it is. I feel I must publish something every month or I’ll lose my readers, and that’s about as fast as I can do it, it seems, despite constantly trying to get ahead.

Even if I don’t write a book just yet I do want to break out of the format. I want to write more ambitiously and do more research (perhaps more data-driven stuff, which I know I can do because it’s my goddamn job) instead of relying on pulling supposedly interesting observations out of my butt. There’s a limit to how valuable that can get.

I want to do more with real value, and maybe dial back the “eclectic personal blog” aspect of the whole thing (i.e. write fewer things like this). Focus is good and maybe the grab-baggery I’m cultivating is a bad thing. In my first post I said it was going to be a place to keep my thoughts, and maybe six years is enough of that. I want more — or less, depending.

There are some interesting projects going on like Progress Studies and New Science, and I find myself drawn to those initiatives and wishing there was something similar in the closely related area of improving collective reasoning by indexing, organizing and synthesizing existing understanding — what I’ve earlier called “knowledge logistics”. There’s something here in the direction of less scattered, less musing, less abstract and less personal, but it’s shapeless.

However, either writing a book or starting a more ambitious project in place of the semi-random walk I’m currently on would mean pausing (or stopping) blogging as it now looks. It would mean keeping myself motivated and focused without the intermittent reinforcement and internal sense of accomplishment I’ve learned to depend on, and I’m not sure I could do it. I haven’t been able to so far.

Can I possibly turn this into a job? Even a little?

The other option is to somehow release drastically more time. What are the chances of that? I’m a homeowner, husband and father, and there just isn’t a lot of potential time to carve out on evenings and weekends. Working less seems to be the only option. I fantasize about winding down to working at 75-80% part time and get the time off in the form of vacation days I could distribute across the year. Some would be childcare and family time but some would be for writing. I might be able get a deal like that, if finances allow it.

Warning: Whining of a privileged middle-class first-worlder incoming.

Part of the above is that I’ve stopped being motivated for work, like, at all. For years I thought that what I needed was to change jobs. I did and it didn’t work. I don’t think it any more, as in, I don’t think it would help. Most jobs (and virtually all I’m likely to get based on my perfectly ordinary career history) is going to be dull and unengaging, because most “data science” (hate the name but that’s what it’s called) stuff companies pay for is boring. Marketing and user behavior. Customer retention and churn. Logistics and operations. Yaaaaawn. Yeah I’m super passionate about ETL:s and KPI:s, sure.

For years now I’ve been pouring all my drive for self-actualization and meaningful work into blogging instead of my day job, and it shows. Career ambitions have stagnated. Working remote for almost two years hasn’t helped, and that isn’t going to revert completely (nor do I want it to, for a bunch of practical reasons). It contributes to me increasingly finding work not a legitimate way to spend 8 hours a day, but rather an annoying inconvenience standing in the way of my real vocations. My career drive has withered to the point that the only way forward I can see is to lean into it: when there’s no realistic prospect of getting excited/motivated about any likely future of the career I currently have, my only plan, day job wise, is “figure out a way do to less of it”1.

Now, barring some windfall (like my wife’s fledgling business becoming suddenly wildly and scalably successful2) I’m able to scale back on work to about the extent I’m able to make money off of blogging.

I’ve had a Patreon for a few years and it’s brought me a small amount of money, about enough to keep me in coffees. That’s been about what I expected, i.e. I’ve never thought I could make any real money writing. However, a couple of new and extra generous patrons made it so that, for a while this fall I made more than coffee money from donations, enough to make a significant dent in the loss I would incur by working less. It’s made it seem that making ES slightly more than just a time-and-money-sink hobby is a perhaps possibility.

I’ve always felt really uncomfortable asking for donations. It feels tacky, and so far my Patreon has just been an unassuming link in the menu bar. But I’ve been encouraged to push it more by one of my existing patrons who’s given me some valuable advice. So — if you’re interested in supporting my writing, however modestly, and in possibly helping me devote more time to it in the years ahead, you can do so here. Thank you in advance. I’ve also been persuaded to add a footer with a Patreon link to existing pages, despite my discomfort.

There’s also another option, all the rage about a year ago. I could transfer to Substack and possibly make some income there. How much? I don’t know. This classic article says you need 1000 “true fans” to live off creative work, and I don’t have that. Depending on exactly what it means, maybe a handful up to a few dozen, which is nice but doesn’t produce economic buoyancy.

Could I get a fifth of my Twitter followers and half of my WordPress and email followers to subscribe to a Substack newsletter for a few dollars per month? I doubt it, at least if all I produce is a single post a month, like now. But to do more I’d of course need more time — quite the catch-22! A buffer would perhaps allow me to bootstrap, but risk! Risk scares me (at least non-quantified, undomesticated, illegible risk).

To sum up, I feel it might be time from some change and there are a few options3. I’m now sure about which way to go.

  • Continue in the same way, push my Patreon a little harder and hope to be able to work a bit less eventually.
  • Tighten up, professionalize and make my writing more focused on a project and less personal and directionless (further specification needed).
  • Pause blogging and write a book.
  • Start a Substack newsletter and maybe relax standards a bit and write more and shorter, more off-the-cuff pieces (kind of filling in the space between longform blogposts and tweet threads).

I’ll put a poll on Twitter. I’m sure that will clear everything up and that I will, unlike ever before, be in complete control of my own motivation.


Notes

  1. Perhaps even more, writing this blog just for myself has made working for someone else feel increasingly alienating and intolerable. I struggle to be motivated to do things when I don’t get to do them the way I want to and in my own name. It’s draining to subsume yourself under some employer’s banner and not have your work be your own — not legally, not socially, and not psychologically. It just seems improper for an actual adult. It’s textbook alienation and this is probably the most Marxist I’ve ever sounded. If you live with your parents you’re not fully an adult. And to me it’s looking increasingly like if you’re not self-employed you’re not fully an adult either. Having a boss is like having your parents telling you what to do. Proper adults don’t have bosses. Proper adults don’t get “evaluated” on their “performance”. I realize this is completely unreasonable, by the way, but I’m just feeling it, regardless of how much my superego tells me to stop. It’s partly a result of remote work but also of mere aging; there’s just less and less basic tolerance for having to do things I’m not in charge of, and I find myself getting unreasonably irritated when asked to do/change something at work: “Can you make the text on this bigger?” — “Change it? Make it bigger? I made it exactly the way I made it on purpose, dickwad, and my aesthetic sense is far better than yours, so why don’t you fuck off, you nice, friendly coworker that I like and respect and is entirely justified in asking for this.” Shush, id. ↩︎
  2. I’m grateful that my wife’s promised me, for supporting her when finishing her PhD and starting her own business, to support me if I tried to do the same. To bad “writing” is such a shit business to be in and all ideas I have are so thoroughly unbusinesslike. ↩︎
  3. I’ve been looking into the whole “web3” stuff, where small transactions are supposed to be built into the technical infrastructure, which would perhaps make it easier to make part of a living from publishing online. I should stay on top of that and read more, but so far nothing looks very actionable. Should I try to peddle posts as NFT:s?? That seems insane. I got myself a couple of Solana domain names — everythingstudies.sol and my Twitter handle everytstudies.sol but I’m not sure of what to do with them. ↩︎

6 thoughts on “Looking Back on ’21 and Forward to the Rest

  1. Personally I’m far more likely to sub to a Substack than a Patreon. (This is mostly motivated by the way Substack lets you access additional content in the same place as regular content. IE, you don’t have to go fiddle with an extra site).

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  2. I really feel you regarding footnote [1]! (And it’s hilarious.)

    I think you’d make a great candidate for a grant from ACX (or similar people/groups) – just to be able to not have to work for, e.g. a year, and focus on whatever you’re motivated to work on.

    I find regular ‘support me on Patreon’ requests to be perfectly reasonable and I have several times encouraged writers/artists/creators I appreciate to similarly solicit support.

    I think replacing the ‘patreon’ text in your site header with the Patreon logo would be a small but real improvement. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the text before but I recognize the Patreon logo very reilably.

    I really love this video – “The art of asking” – and have already shared it with someone else whose work I financially support: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMj_P_6H69g

    “Don’t make people pay for music … Let them.”

    (But it’s fine and good to make it easy too!: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/reitXJgJXFzKpdKyd/beware-trivial-inconveniences)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I have applied for a grant kinda like that before to write a book but I got a (tentative) no because I didn’t have enough of a concrete plan. Part of that reluctance to be specific was (and is) that it feels obscene to ask for what it would actually take for me to replace a majority of my income for a year (around $50k at least, or more depending on how such a thing would work tax wise). But I’m alright with soliciting Patreon donations, hoping I might release a little more time. (I don’t know how to put the logo there, I’ll see if it’s possible, thanks.)

      I’m currently on the fence on whether to switch to Substack, not because it’s better, publishing wise, but just because monetization seems to be easier (trivial inconveniences and their elimination are indeed powerful).

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      1. Can confirm that monetization on Substack is much easier, but it’s not going to work miracles unless your readership is much bigger than it looks.

        I would encourage you to figure out your happy price for being a full time writer and letting the usual suspects (e.g. in EA) know what it is, cause there’s a non-zero chance someone pays it. I know it seems obscene to you, but if someone thinks what you are doing has value, it’s not.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Haha, yeah I’m not expecting miracles, but it feels like it might be enough of an improvement to be worth it. Not sure at this point but I’m thinking it over.

          I might write up a page on what you’re talking about, plans and intentions and what I’m trying to do. I find it such a weird notion to get a grant for ~personal blogging (and obnoxiously presumptuous to ask for it) but several people have suggested it to me. Idk. Thanks for your advice.

          EDIT: I followed a referral link and noticed the conversation with Kenny on your own blog, and it addresses things fairly accurately. It also suggests I should stop being such a wimp and get outside of my comfort zone a bit. I have the precise combination of cautiousness, perfectionism and forthrightness that forms the exact opposite of salesmanship and I might need to push myself away from that.

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