Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Stephen Wolfram on entrepreneurship, uncertainty, and postacademic lives

I came upon the Waggle Labs blog today*, and saw a quote by Stephen Wolfram that struck me as touching on postacademic life, and one of the challenges of making the transition from an academic career to another career:

A lot of what goes into starting companies is turning nothing into something. Starting with a blank slate, and just inventing all kinds of stuff.

You’ll never know if it’s ultimately correct. You just have to use your judgement, make decisions, and move on.

To some people, that’s pretty scary. Not to have any answers to look up in the back of the book.

As a brilliant mathematician, entrepreneur, and author, Wolfram is someone well worth listening to on this subject. Having now spent more of my professional life outside of academia than inside– or rather, since I’ve still got an academic affiliation, more of my of my life being paid by corporations or nonprofits than educational institutions– it strikes me that one of the defining characteristics of academic careers is the amazing, and in many ways reassuring, clarity of their career structures.

[To the tune of Ike & Tina Turner, “River Deep, Mountain High,” from the album “Soul Sisters”.]

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In academia, what constitutes success, and how to get it, are clear: the right graduate school, a couple early articles in high-profile journals, the first book with a good press, and you’re on your way. (This clarity only makes it more mystifying– and scary– when this system goes haywire, even though it happens to lots of us.) Likewise, the reputation of the institution that pays you, the number of good reviews and prizes your books get, and the number of fellowships and awards you get, all determine how successful you are. Of course, when you’re in the system, the calculus feels much more elaborate, but those are the essential components.

Outside academia, on the other hand, career ladders are falling apart. Paths to advancement aren’t clearly-marked, because career paths themselves aren’t as well-defined, both because companies have become more complex, and because smart people don’t necessarily want to move up ladders. (The career ladder within academia has been eaten away by the parallel system of adjuncts, but that’s a different story.) The press loves stories of twentysomething billionaires, which gently calls into question whether the rest of us are ever going to get anywhere.

If career ladders in the corporate world are shaky, in small companies and startups, the situation is even worse: to use Wolfram’s metaphor, not only are there no answers to look up, there’s no book– not even an outdated one. Wolfram makes me realize that it’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with the idea that, if I wanted to, I could start my own futures group and make it work, in part because doing so would require doing without even the few milestones and standards the nonprofit world uses to measure success.

Of course, not having enough of a reputation and resume to attract attention, business, grants, collaborators, etc. has also been a factor. But whatever (purely hypothetical!**) model I pursued on my own would have to be radically different from the Institute to be worth trying at all– but that also means that it would be very risky, almost certainly incomplete, and it wouldn’t be clear if I was really succeeding or not for a long time. Unlike experiments, work rarely produces clear results; and the belief that the marketplace generates clear signals (profit or loss, success of failure) is misplaced. Great products fail; mediocre services triumph; things take off for unexpected reasons; enterprises die of mysterious causes.

If (as Quine and Kuhn put it) theories are overdetermined, organizational strategies are underdetermined. If this weren’t so, you wouldn’t need futurists.

* Starting with Global Knowledge’s GK3 conference, which used a conference social networking platform called CrowdVine, which partners with a social badge-making company called Pathable, which was spun out of Waggle Labs, which has a blog.

** Just in case my bosses are reading….

1 Comment

  1. A strange path, but very cool that you found Pathable and that quote. We loved working with them and loved that quote as well.
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    TITLE: Stephen Wolfram on entrepreneurship, uncertainty, …
    URL: http://www.blogbookmarker.com/tags/academia
    IP: 67.228.47.154
    BLOG NAME: academia
    DATE: 12/28/2007 02:00:15 AM
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