A Few Principles for Intellectual Freedom
I have a lot of respect for James Lovelock. He’s an independent scientist, and there are plenty of reasons to find him inspiring.
Just some things I respect about him:
- He came up with the Gaia hypothesis , which proposed that the Earth is a organic, self-regulating system. This was heavily criticized from all sides at the time, but Lovelock continued to push the idea and it eventually entered mainstream thought.
- He’s done original work in an impressive number of fields, including medicine, space exploration (at NASA), climate science, and nuclear research.
- As an lone scientist, he was the first to identify CFCs in the atmosphere and near-singlehandedly bring down an empire that was damaging the ozone layer.
- He’s 98 years old and, as far as I know, still inventing things and still doing science.
I just finished his book A Rough Ride to the Future, which is a mix of autobiography, theory, and interesting visions of the future.
Part of the book is autobiographical, and — in this essay — I want to look at the sacrifices and choices that Lovelock made in order to pursue his life as an lone, independent scientist and inventor.
Lovelock’s “lab” for 30+ years was simply the basement of his modest suburban home.
“Unusually for suburb dwellers in the USA, Sandy [his wife] and I had no car, and we walked daily the four miles to and from the shopping centre, bringing back the groceries in our rucksacks. For the few longer urban journeys we called taxis. There was no hardship to this way of life, and so low the density of housing in this suburb that our daily walks to the shops had the quality of a country stroll, rich in wildlife and birdsong. We were motivated by a wish to stay healthy and enjoy an affordable life.”
This is his life at ninety-five. Wow.
There’s a lot to like about this freedom — no bosses, no paperwork, no annoying bureaucracy to deal with. However, it does come with a downside — you don’t get paid to work.
Yet, Lovelock managed without any grants or other charity:
“There is nothing quirky about this way of life, but it does differ from that of most professionals because the bulk of my income went towards the science I did rather than to improve the standard of living enjoyed by me and my wife. I aimed towards maximum economy and saw no point whatever in buying expensive equipment, because I knew that such apparatus (even when said to be the latest) was probably ten years out of date.”
Elsewhere, he adds:
“I soon found that the life of a lone scientist-inventor is like that of an artist or composer of music. Income is essential not merely for living but also to sustain a laboratory, and this can be quite expensive. It is therefore necessary to work for at least three providers simultaneously and do your real work in your spare time. To work for a single provider, no matter how generous, is merely to become again a bought man, an employee, and this is not independence. I stabilized with about five providers for whom I answered questions when asked. Even with five customers or providers, life is quite easy and leaves ample time to think about one’s own work…”
What’s more, lone scientists are less sheltered from the effects of their actions. However, you can see this as a good thing because you learn faster this way — your way of life forces you to face, and grow from, your failures:
: “…being a loner gives a wonderful freedom to make mistakes and then learn from them; only very rarely do corporate scientists have this freedom, and the most dreadful blunders are too often made by large organizations whose members are unable to admit their errors. Worse is the human tendency of the team or tribe to cover up the blunder and protect the member who made it. Loners soon find that there is no one to cover up their mistakes; it takes a few years before we realize that this is the price of freedom, but for some of us, a price well worth paying.”
So here’s another price of freedom — in a non-economic sense.
Finding Some Principles
So now — for fun — let’s try to abstract some principles from the above. This might be valuable if you’re looking to add more freedom — or time to do what’s important — to your life.
One problem with employment is that it’s really, really hard to say no to your boss. If there’s work you don’t want to do — or are against ethically — most people won’t say no. It’s too terrifying to risk losing your sole source of income.
Lovelock found stability with around five separate sources of income. What this means is you can say “FU” to any one of the sources with only a 20% drop in income (assuming they pay you equally).
My wife and I do something similar. Between us, we have 5–6 sources of income. I write, but I also occasionally do freelance translation work. We also started a small business recently, and my wife has a few part-time jobs that she does 1–2x a week.
As a side thought, in one of Jared Diamond’s books he mentions that, when studying a traditional societies, he found that they would plant their crops in several locations that were spaced far apart. An economist would call this inefficient, but what this does is shield you from disaster (all your crops dying out at once) in exchange for a drop in efficiency.
(Another side-side thought because I can’t resist. The most “optimal” thing to do may actually be to be mediocre because being over-specialized for today may mean that you are under-specialized for the future… See the link for more. It blew my mind.)
You also see that Lovelock lives a quiet, frugal life with his wife.
I’ve written about this before, but learning how to stay small & live frugally is a valuable skill because increased spending tends to suffer from lifestyle creep — you buy, own and consume more stuff but there’s only a minimal effect on your long-term quality of life.
By resisting lifestyle creep, Lovelock was able to divert these resources towards his research. This let him invent and do science without the backing of a bureaucracy, state funding, annoying boss, etc.
Also, staying small means that you can labor for fewer hours and still have plenty of time to focus on your “real work.”
I’ve never mentioned this before, but my wife and I actually live in a one-room apartment here in Japan. Aside from the minor “step on each other toes” situation, I don’t find this way of life difficult at all. We’ll probably move somewhere larger eventually, but I don’t believe that our quality of life will improve much from a larger place.
(Another side thought: As someone who tends to obsess about whatever he does in life — video games, the gym, reading, writing, etc. — I’ve come to realize that resisting the desire to optimize is a skill. Doing too much of something can be worse than not doing enough — which is related to this idea of staying small.)
A few more principles because this is getting long:
- Being skilled helps. Lovelock could pull this off because there was a market for his inventions and his skills were valued. This is a lot harder if you have no skills and a degree in history or something and can’t do contract work that transforms into currency.
- Let your mistakes hurt you. I think our natural tendency is to protect ourselves from our own mistakes, but if your goals dictate it, it might be worth it to put yourself in a situation where your goals hurt you. You’ll learn faster in the process. (If you like Nassim Taleb, this is idea a big part of his new book.)
- Will you still do it at ninety-five? I know this gets thrown around a lot, but one way to test if you like what you do is to take all the other incentives — money, status, etc. — out of the equation and see if you’d still do something. Lovelock could have retired long ago, but he’s still doing this stuff at almost 100 years of age. Much respect.
Hope you enjoyed that.
I haven’t mentioned this anywhere before, but it’s a long-time dream of mine to eventually do some work as a independent scholar of some sort. It’s just a fuzzy notion that’s 10–20 years down the road (yes, yes, I know I’ve written about not liking but long-term goals but… come on :P), but this is probably another reason why I found Lovelock’s book so compelling.
Thanks for reading!
Note: This piece was originally published as a thank you to patrons on my Patreon page. I republish the occasional article to give non-patrons a look at what’s going on behind the scenes!