Outside the Ivory Tower

ivory towerWhat follows are some seemingly disconnected paragraphs related to a range of First World problems (things that people who work in coalmines or steel mills don’t have the time, energy or resources to pontificate about). Bear with me and you will see that some overarching themes will emerge – perhaps along the lines of: tangible vs. intangible, concrete vs. abstract, limitations vs. opportunities, relevance vs. obscurity, expectations vs. reality, thinking vs. acting.

It was quite by accident that I recently stumbled upon the amazing work of compatriot Priv Bradoo. Although very young (I think in her early 30’s), she has accomplished incredible things in the arenas of science, business, entrepreneurship and environmentalism, like discovering a new gene for brain repair and founding a start-up dedicated to recycling e-waste. Of course, she no longer works from little ol’ New Zealand, but is based in the U.S. where there is actually money and markets for things such as tangibly changing the world.

In a public talk she gave recently, she said that she used to aspire to being a neuroscience professor but serendipity intervened and she soon realized that she would need to work outside of academia and delve into the worlds of business and entrepreneurship to create the kind of large scale impact she desired. In order to do this, she had to let go of the notion that business people were ‘losers,’ and that she was going to the dark side. She urges people to consider empowerment (based on the tenets of entrepreneurship, such as innovation, creativity, action, proactivity, failure) over employment, citing the latter as paid servitude.

Enter Sarah Kendzior, a recovering academic in the United States who holds a PhD in anthropology. Despite the dismal job prospects for people in that field, she has managed to carve out a living for herself outside of academia through journalism, consulting, speaking, and researching. She empowered herself by giving up on an academic career (she didn’t have the financial resources to support herself when, and if, she found a tenure-track position) and realized that she can have much more relevance, influence and impact outside of the walls of the ivory tower. She writes about the sad state of affairs in her homeland for having or seeking paid servitude:

When you continually board sinking ships, you stop having hope. In a collapsed economy, this is an advantage. The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

transitionRealize that nowadays, everyone is in transition—even if they think they are secure. Ignore people who say that things will “work out eventually,” especially baby boomers who have no idea of the grim prospects for people in their 20s and 30s. Things often do not work out and there is no reason for you to suffer on false promises. I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.

Does Molly Wizenberg care about other people’s expectations? I came across her food blog, Orangette one day when I was procrastinating and discovered that she gave up a PhD program in anthropology: she couldn’t see where she was going with it or how it would lead to gainful employment. The two most important things to her were food and writing, so she combined the two into soft-core food porn for the Internet to which I have a mild addiction (the food writing, not the Internet itself). Because she is passionate about what she does, is a skillful writer, a clever marketer and of course an experienced and knowledgeable cook, she has attracted a large audience. Other bonuses include: two book deals, her husband (he emailed her because he liked her blog), and together they have opened two restaurants in Seattle and recently had a baby. She is making things and selling them (food and words, not the baby). They are tangible. They are commercial. They make money. There is a demand for these things. (Side note: Molly went to top tier universities, and her father was a doctor, so probably there was no potential homelessness or crippling student loans to worry about if no-one liked her work).

Finally, I have been reading a memoir about a glamorous former New York writer (Kristin Kimball) who falls in love with a dashing and charming farmer. Together, they founded and run a farm that feeds hundreds of people. In the following lines, she reflects on how her view of work has changed as she became an experienced farmer:

As I patched the barn with scrap lumber, pig-tight but ugly, I was forced to confront my own prejudice. I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. I thought the physical world – the trades – was the place you ended up if you weren’t bright or ambitious enough to handle a white-collar job. Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did, though it amazes me now. I ordered books from the library about construction, plumbing, and electricity, and discovered that reading them was like trying to learn in a foreign language, the simplest things – the names of unknown tools or hardware, the names for parts of structures – creating dead ends that required answers, more research. There’s no better cure for snobbery than a good ass kicking.

So, there you have it. I guess that now I am at the end, all these words put together into sentences construct some kind of meaning – to which I now interpret broadly as being about thinking, acting, and working outside of the box; as exploring the road less travelled and flipping the bird to society’s and other people’s expectations.

2 Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: From PhD to Life: Transition Q & A with Sarah Kendzior ← anthropology & etc.

  2. Seoul Doll,
    I’m enjoying reading your past posts; they get more confounding as I go along. This one in particular reached a pretty fuzzy level of blur, and your wrap-it-all-up thought at the end needed a little tweaking. So, here’s goes:

    Those few examples are pretty consistent with discovering one’s self, even though one has done a pretty tidy job of convincing one’s self otherwise, and behaving contrary to knowing one’s self. Especially in the realm of higher education, where one can become trapped in the high altitudes of academic assumptivness.

    Just a thought…


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