Why I am not a pessimist and people should stop saying that I am. Because I’m not. And, also, you will never succeed at anything, ever

Now, when I write stuff like yesterday’s post, people always say, “Oh, Rahul, you’re so pessimistic. You can’t succeed if you don’t try!”

But I don’t think I am pessimistic at all. It’s just a fact. The vast, vast majority of people who want to become creative professionals are going to fail. And it’s not because of the marketplace or anything like that. It’s just the nature of the beast. The number of creatives that the world needs does not scale up linearly with population. If the population doubles, people don’t watch twice as many shows; they just have twice as many people watching the same shows (obviously, this isn’t exactly true—it’s more like 1.4 times as many people watching 1.4 times as many shows). However, the number of people who want to be actors does double. Thus, you have 2x the people competing for 1.4x the spots. Thus, as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to become a media personality (a thousand years ago, every village had its own rock star: the town skald or Homeric orator or whatever. Whereas nowadays your story-telling neighbor is just seen as a crushing bore).

So yeah, it’s a fact. Most people who want to succeed in a creative endeavor will fail. There are a hundred ways to succeed, but there are a thousand ways to fail. You can do everything right and still just not be good enough. A few days ago, an acquaintance forwarded me this article about all the non-traditional things you can do to succeed in your art. And I loved the article, but I hated the way it implied that if you’re creative and quirky and dedicated then you will succeed, because that’s just false. Articles like this never bother to find people who followed all their rules but still failed; those people are invisible, but they are legion.

And this is where people are like, “Oh, Rahul. You’re so pessimistic. Why are you so depressing about all this stuff? Why can't you just let people follow their dreams...?”

But I’m not pessimistic. I consider myself to be an optimistic, because I believe very strongly that in the future, I will continue to find ways to: a) be happy; and b) get sufficient food, shelter, and leisure time.

These are not difficult thing to achieve, but they are at the core of what life is about. Furthermore, the fact that they’re not difficult is exactly why I think I’ll achieve them. Most Americans are fairly happy and most Americans have sufficient food, shelter and leisure time. Since I’m more fortunate and capable than most Americans, I think I ought to be able to do at least as well as the average.

That, to me, is a very joyous and optimistic worldview.

On the other hand, I find it to be profoundly pessimistic and depressing when someone (and our society, in general) acts in a way that suggests they will not be happy or satisfied with their life if they are not able to achieve something that they only have a 1 in 100 shot of achieving. That’s a recipe for disaster!

So, in order to get back to the mainpoint of this blog post, I will say that I don’t think it’s stupid to enter a humanities grad program. However, I do think that people should be cognizant of the likely scenario: in ten years, you’re probably going to be applying for the same kinds of jobs that you could get right now.

But really, what’s the problem with that? Having a higher-status job isn’t the cure to all of life’s ills. If you enjoy your studies, then that feels like it’s worthwhile in and of itself.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a ton of Ph.D horror stories. It seems like they are, more often than not, quite miserable. I think comparatively more people like their MFAs. From my perspective, the MFA is great. The workload is light and the people are good. It’s been like a year-long vacation).

Why you should never, ever get an MFA

phdhoodgoldpiping           After semi-randomly going on a midnight rampage and reading a whole bunch of articles about why graduate school (in the Humanities) is a terrible idea, I decided to codify some of my pithiest thoughts on the subject.

I’ve sometimes been shocked to hear my friends tell me that their English professors encouraged them to apply to PhD programs. Honestly, to me, that seems like it should be a firing offense: it’s the academic equivalent of malpractice.

The jobs just aren’t there. When you graduate in one of the humanities, you are often super-specialized. There’ll only be like three or four job openings a year for whatever it is that you do. And there’ll be a hundred applicants for it.

Another way to think about it is this: the supply of professorships is not increasing. There was a time, during the 40s and 50s (with the GI bill) and again during the 70s (when women and minorities started entering college in greater numbers) when colleges had to increase in size very fast. The supply of professorships was HUGE. That is not the case anymore. At best, the number of professorships will stay the same. More realistically, it is going to shrink. Basically you will only get a professorship if someone dies. Now, each professor advises maybe 40 or 50 students over the course of his or her career; and only the single best student is going to advance into his (or someone else’s) chair.

In fact, most professors will never have a student who becomes a professor (while others, the ones at prestigious universities, will have several). But even in the most prestigious programs, most of the students are not going to be able to become professors.

Those odds are terrible. It’s legitimately much harder to become a professor than it is to do a lot of other things. Furthermore, between the PhD and adjuncting and post-docs, you usually put in a decade of work before you realize that you’re not going to make it. And when you don’t make it, you’ve been socialized so strongly to believe that becoming a professor is the high-point of life, that not-becoming-a-professor shatters your self-esteem. Also, when you enter the real job market, you find that people generally don’t really want to hire PhDs with little work experience aside from teaching.

What it amounts to is that getting a PhD in the humanities is, from a strict cost/benefit standpoint, almost never a good idea. And it’s definitely not something that should be encouraged.

In some ways, MFAs have it a bit easier. Our degrees are shorter—only 2-3 years—so we waste less time. Since we’re less specialized are generally qualified for almost all of the jobs that open in a given year (rather than just a tiny fraction of them). And we don’t have an expiration date. You can be ten years out of your MFA and, if you publish a book, still be competitive for a teaching job.

However, on a broader level, the job market is still incredibly gloomy. For awhile, the number of creative writing programs was growing rapidly, but I feel like that's bound to slow down shortly. And even amidst the boom, there are only 25-30 openings every year. Each gets 100+ applicants. And all of those applicants are usually published writers, with books (so they’ve already survived a pretty rigorous selection process). The vast majority of MFAs—even at top tier programs—will not get professor jobs.

Furthermore, MFAs suffer from the same problem of socialization as PhDs. When you’re here, you kind of imbibe the notion that writing is something that happens in a university. I think that makes it hard to write when you’re out there, in the world, working. I think it makes you start to feel like you’re a bit irrelevant. More and more, there doesn’t seem to be much lip-service paid to the notion that someone could work at an insurance agency and still produce good fiction. I feel like people think that if he was really good, then he’d have a professorship. So, to that extent, I think the MFA has the potential to harm peoples' ability to orient themselves to what will be the reality of their life as a fiction writer: for the rest of your life, your writing will need to be scheduled around a job--some job--that does not involve creative writing or the creative writing industry.

So yes, don’t go to graduate school.


Tomorrow: I will write about why this does not make a pessimist (and, also, the circumstances under which you might consider going to grad school)


Some of the articles that I read between 2 AM and 4 AM on a day that I think might’ve been a Sunday?

Why I Am So Super Pessimistic About Everything


I’ve heard that human beings have an optimistic bias. When we imagine the future, we tend to imagine somewhat-unlikely scenarios that make us feel good and ignore more-likely scenarios that make us feel neutral. I am pretty sure that I am not subject to this bias, because whenever I imagine the likely outcome of anything I do, I usually assume it will end in failure.

For instance, I am shopping a novel right now, and I can’t even imagine that it’ll someday get published. I am writing a novel right now, and I am pretty sure that won’t get published either. When I write a short story, I know, intuitively, that there’s at least a 25% chance it’ll get published (10 out of the 38 stories I wrote in 2011 have been accepted for publication), but that’s not how I think about it: I just assume that all my short stories will never be seen by anyone.

But this goes beyond writing. The first time my apartment flooded, I was pretty sure I was going to need to move. When I applied for MFAs, I was pretty sure I was going to get rejected from everywhere. When I was working, I kept becoming utterly convinced that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Even when I have a verbal commitment from someone on something, I am usually pretty sure that it’ll fall through, somehow, before it becomes concrete.

When someone makes a tentative commitment to do something with me, I usually assume it will never happen. When I invite people over, I assume that most of them won’t come. When I hear a timeline for something, I usually assume it will take twice as long (or never happen at all). When I suffer an ache or a pain, I assume it’s here to stay and that it will never, ever go away.

Don’t feel sorry for me. This doesn’t really negatively impact my life at all. When I envision my future, I envision something that’s almost exactly like today. And, since I tend to enjoy today, that makes me pretty happy. My pessimism isn’t a hypochondria: I don’t envision bad things happening. I just find it hard to imagine that good things will happen.

However, despite that, they keep on happening. It is crazy. I am astonished by tiny things (like, every time a group of more than eight people manages to meet at one location and move to a second location, I am shocked—I just naturally expect large groups to descend into uncertainty and paralysis). I frequently have to remind myself that, on a purely probabilistic level, I am being crazy: good things happen all the time; good things are not uncommon.

Anyway, I was thinking about why I am like this, and I realized that it all comes down to submitting. I’ve sent out well over a thousand submissions and only thirty have ended in an acceptance. And even that understates things a bit, since it’s biased by my recent success: I had entire years when I sent out more than a hundred rejections and got no good news.

When you submit stories it is, legitimately, insanely unlikely for good things to happen. The human mind isn’t capable of understanding how unlikely it is for a story to be accepted by Clarkesworld or Asimov’s or Apex or Strange Horizons or whatever. There’s only two ways for it to deal with a 1 in 300 chance of success. Either it rounds that percentage up to something manageable (from which comes the insane optimism of the many, many aspiring writers who think superstardom is right around the corner) or, like me, it rounds that number down to zero.

Now, there are many ways to believe that you have no chance of success. I think that the most common is to descend into bitterness: no one appreciates your work; you’re not writing the sort of commercial pap that sells; if only you had connections then you’d be success; etc. etc.

A certain kind of personality thrives on that bitterness: the kind of person who enjoys the melodrama of feeling persecuted. However, that wouldn’t really work for me. If I thought that I had less chance of success than other people, I’d probably just give up.

That’s the trick with defense mechanisms: you need to find one that gives you peace of mind, while still allowing you to do the things that you need to do.

So I chose a different way. My brain began to believe in a world where it’s totally normal to fail at everything, all the time. A world where it’s totally normal to do your best, day after day, and send out your best work, all full of hope, and receive nothing in return. Knowing that, my brain was like, “Well…this is just what people do; this is how people live. You do your best, because you have to do something—and, anyway, pretty much everything is just as hard as this. But expecting to succeed at it is just foolishness.”

Which, with regards to writing, is almost the truth. However, it really doesn’t make sense in relation to the other, significantly-less-competitive, aspects of the world. So…yeah…I need to fine-tune my defense mechanism a bit.