Diminishing Returns and Life
By Arnold Kling
Tyler Cowen recently solicited topics, and I peeked. Here was one:
More “meta” stuff — how to read, how to think, how to write, etc. Tyler’s tricks on being a prolific, successful academic.
My tip is to pay attention to the law of diminishing returns. For example, the number of authors who write two books that are worth reading is at least two orders of magnitude less than the number who write one book worth reading. Most of the time, you should assume that if you’ve read one book by a given author then you do not need to read another. Too many people follow the opposite strategy–reading more books by authors they like.
Staying in the same organization for more than few years also puts you on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns. Working in an organization is a learning experience. But, as with going to college, there comes a time when you need to stop taking their courses and proceed to graduate.
The law of diminishing returns probably applies to blogging and to reading blogs, but I’d rather not think about that.
My tip on becoming a successful academic is to be careful how you define success. Any tenured professor has a great life by most standards. However, the default sentiment in academia is bitter jealousy. The folks at lower-tier schools think they belong at top-20 schools, the folks at other top-20 schools think they belong at Harvard, and the folks at Harvard think that they deserve more recognition than the other folks at Harvard.
Once you get on the ego treadmill, not only do you become bitter, but you have to start viewing others not for their intrinsic qualities but for their usefulness as stepping stones. If you can stay off of the ego treadmill, then success becomes more a matter of being near friends and living in an area with the type of amenities you prefer.