Ilya Somin on Academia and Doing What You Enjoy

April 26th, 2012

In preparation for a talk Ilya is giving to aspiring law profs, he quotes from Chuck Yeager’s autobiography:

If you love the hell out of what you’re doing, you’re usually pretty good at it, and you end up making your own breaks….

I wasn’t a deep, sophisticated person, but I lived by a basic principle: I only did what I enjoyed.

Ilya opines:

Some professors will tell younger scholars that if you want to get ahead, you should write on “hot” subjects or those that are ideologically congenial to other academics and hiring committees. But, as Yeager recognized, most people do their best work when they focus on issues that actually interest them. Yeager became the greatest test pilot of his time in part because he loved flying jet fighters more than anything else in the world. If you want to be a top scholar, it helps to write about things you “love the hell out of.”

You don’t have to love your work as much Yeager did to be successful. But it’s generally better for your career to do good work on issues that you really care about than weaker work on issues that are more trendy or ideologically safer. And if you don’t get ahead as much as you would like, at least you will have spent your time doing something interesting, so it won’t be a total waste.

I couldn’t agree more with Ilya. In fact, it is because of Ilya–one of my main mentors in this academic game–that I approached the hiring process the way I did. Many professors (most of them really) told me that if I–a white male libertarian with a George Mason J.D.–wanted to get a job teaching, I would have to focus on a subject that is not subject to political constraints, and would be in high demand (such as tax, corporate law, trusts and estates, whatever). Classes that every school has a need for, and schools may not mind hiring me for.

Ilya gave me different advice. He told me to do what I love. He told me that in order for me to be a productive scholar, I would need to write about what I enjoy. He told me that it would be foolish to suppress what I believe for all those years (until tenure I suppose), because sooner or later you lose your identity. Not to mention writing in some area you don’t like is painful, and comes at the expense of keeping up to date in areas that interest you.

I am very, very glad I took Ilya’s advice.

Now, if only Somin would take my advice about his pathetic sport loyalties.