The Hard Problem of Conscientiousness

James Simpkin's Micro-Liberations
3 min readApr 16, 2021

Recently, a few of the online course makers I follow have been writing and vlogging about their experiences pursuing a viable and self-supporting intellectual life online. These commentaries made me want to solidify some vague thoughts that have been circling in my head for a while now, particularly as I recently formally submitted my PhD thesis and I’m thinking about what to do next.

While those I follow are doing well and producing some really interesting thinking and courses, I suspect I’m just not smart enough, charismatic or hard-working enough to do my own version? I’m not fishing for compliments here, a healthy self-appreciation for one’s own strengths and weaknesses is a good thing. I think having an overarching structure directing me helps me focus, whereas I would struggle with ‘being my own boss’, so to speak.

I’m not sure that I’m cut out for a career in academia, either. I just don’t think that I could work hard enough to make it; I’m too easily distracted. I enjoy writing, but it takes me a lot of mental effort; whereas some of my lecturer friends can knock out deeply thought-through scholarly economic treaties like writing a tweet. One of my most depressing thoughts is what if you could decant the consciousness of a smart person into my neural architecture, would they suddenly feel like they had just suffered a brain injury or drank 10 pints of ale?

Ever since I first went to uni as an undergraduate I’ve had a deeply romantic view of academic life; I loved being in an environment where people were interested in discussing ideas; to wistfully wander around campus daydreaming about this or that theory; to find a cosy nook in the library and read. Yet, drawing on Rimbaud, in recent years I’ve tried to systematically disabuse myself of any romantic notions I might have about academia, ‘to purge my mind of all human hope. On all joy, to strangle it, I pounced with the strength of a wild beast’. Apart from my own potential lack of ability, I suppose the biggest apprehension I have about the academic world seems to be the amount of bureaucracy that appears to get in the way of writing and teaching.

I do enjoy my job as a Further Education college teacher (like Mark Fisher! For readers outside of the UK, I imagine Further Education is like a cross between Junior and Senior High and Community College but with more of a vocational leaning). What I like most is when a student thanks you for helping them understand something clearly, or just when the ice breaks and you get to know a class and you can have a laugh and a chat about their interests. Yet I do feel a little lonely in terms of being able to have philosophical/political discussions as all my colleagues teach practical subjects.

So, what should I do? I think in the short term I’ll continue teaching at college but try and get some hourly-paid lecturing at a local university, dip my toe and see what I think of it. Then, in my free time and holidays, I’ll try to gradually build up my blogging and vlogging, perhaps eventually starting a Patreon?