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Five Winters in Cambridge
What I did during graduate school
“So now I was in a PhD program…yet planning to be an artist, yet also genuinely in love with Lisp hacking...In other words, like many a grad student, I was working energetically on multiple projects that were not my thesis.”
This post will be self-indulgent.
But it’s been a hectic few years and it’s worth consolidating everything into one post before I continue onto other projects post-grad school. I’ve been working as hard as I can to catch up to where I think I “should” have been considering how much time I squandered in my teens and early twenties. Plus this post is a way for me to share a bunch of links for readers who might be interested.
The essay “What I Worked On” by Paul Graham is characteristically excellent.
That quote above jumped out at me when I first read it back in February 2021.
At that point, I was about two-and-a-half years into my psychology PhD program at the University of Cambridge.
I had more or less decided that I was going to exit academia after I finished my degree and find something else to do.
I submitted my PhD a few days ago. Next step is my defense, scheduled for later this month.
The reason PG’s quote struck me is that I too have occupied my time at grad school with side projects throughout the past four years.
As I enter one final winter in Cambridge, I’ve reflected on these endeavors.
So here’s what I did during grad school:
Coined the term “luxury beliefs”
It started out as a Twitter thread
It got some traction, and an editor at the NY Post asked me to write a short essay on it
Then Quillette asked if I could write a long-form piece about it
If my first book does well, then I’ll write a second book about luxury beliefs, class, and status signaling
Launched a newsletter in January 2020, the precursor to this Substack
By March of 2022 it had amassed 14K subs, and Substack reached out about switching to their platform
We settled on a 6-figure advance for the first year. Today this newsletter has 25K~ total (free and premium) subs
Signed a 6-figure advance with Simon & Schuster; completed my memoir manuscript (87K words; 300~ pages)
In 2018, I signed with a literary agent after he read my NYT op-ed. But no publishers were interested in a memoir from a 28-year-old male with no public presence (at the time, I didn’t have an Instagram and my Twitter account had 300~ followers)
By early 2020, my Twitter had amassed 17K followers and my agent clinched a good deal with S&S
These three projects—developing the luxury beliefs concept, launching a newsletter, signing a book deal for my memoir + writing the rough draft—transpired over the course of slightly more than a year. Roughly encompassing ages 29 to 30.
This appears to be a unique period in the lifespan.
Tanner Greer has written:
“The sweet spot for original intellectual work is a person's thirties...understand you are working against time. Figure out the most important intellectual problem you think you can help solve and spend your thirties doing that.”
The reason the thirties are the sweet spot for interesting and/or original work is that you still have relatively youthful levels of energy, curiosity, and ability (fluid intelligence). But you have also accrued some real-life experience and built a base of knowledge (crystallized intelligence) from which to draw.
The basic pattern holds for top painters, writers, and composers: Most (though not all) do their best work in their thirties and forties.
An article in the Washington Post reports a study about age and achievement:
“On average, Nobel Prize-winning writers produce their best work at age 45. Painters peak at age 42. And classical composers produce their most popular works at age 39.”
The esteemed psychologist Dean Simonton has found similar results.
His research indicates that great scientists produce their first milestone work at about age thirty and contribute their most important work at around age 40—presumably a culmination of the work they did throughout their thirties.
Though Simonton was looking specifically at the scientific elite, the general age-achievement pattern likely holds for any smart, hardworking, and ambitious person.
I consider the projects I worked on in grad school (luxury beliefs, newsletter, book, PhD) as my age thirty milestone.
1 chapter (in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook on the Psychology of Morality)
1 commentary (Behavioral and Brain Sciences)
These academic articles make up the bulk of my PhD thesis (60K~ words)
Writing, jobs, offers, etc:
PhD life is already somewhat isolating, but when you have to walk on eggshells as a result of the tense political climate, this feeling can be even more pronounced. But when I wrote an op-ed challenging the university’s decision to disinvite Jordan Peterson, people began reaching out to me and connecting me with other free thinkers around campus. Being intellectually honest and bold can pay off.
5 approaches from literary agents
3 approaches from major book publishers (Penguin, Macmillan, and HarperCollins)
Twitter account with 100K followers
Appointed as a Founding Faculty Fellow and joined the board of advisors at UATX
Signed with Peterson Academy to film a series of lectures on the psychology of social status
And a bunch of others
My experience at Cambridge has, for the most part, been superb.
I attended formals and May Balls. I traveled to Italy, Denmark, France, Sweden, and many other countries in Europe and Asia. I reunited with old friends and met new ones. I got in the best shape I’ve ever been. I joined my college’s rowing team. I met my girlfriend, who has changed my outlook more than anyone.
These years at Cambridge have supplied a firm intellectual foundation, a bevy of relationships, and a collection of enchanting memories, all of which I will draw on for the remainder of my life.
I don’t think I would appreciate these experiences nearly as much had I not endured everything I did beforehand. But that’s a topic for another day.