Tom Woods recently posted a question on his website regarding how you pursue, at a later age, a career in Austrian style economics and more generally the liberty movement.
It got me thinking because I had recently just done this exact thing…
I worked in finance for several years then opened an insurance agency with two friends. After 8 yrs and a lot of personal study I felt called to do something supporting liberty leaning organizations and the cause of freedom.
So at 34, I sat down for a couple beers and a pizza with my wife and asked her a simple question, “If I wasn’t working at [RADIO EDIT], what would you see me doing?” then I just sat back and listened for 40 minutes as she told me many really interesting things… she said I’m a good speaker and writer, I’m great with clients, I teach well, she actually said she thought I’d be a great stay-at-home-dad 🙂 but curiously not once did she say she saw me selling insurance policies for the next 30 years.
So when I told her what I was thinking, she was definitely behind me, but when I said I wasn’t quite sure what to do she immediately responded that I needed to go back to school. I mentioned it would take a few months to arrange things at work and she said no, I needed to get into classes right now. This was August of 2012, so I had already missed the deadlines for our local university but she insisted that if I was going to do this I sign up for SOMETHING at our local community college. To dip my toes in the water, re-stretch the intellectual muscles, awaken the student skills that had lain dormant for 15 yrs.
The first sign that I had made the right choice came quickly. The first day, my first class, of my first semester back to school in over a decade, I’m sitting in a macroeconomics principles course and who greets me? A crazed libertarian George Mason University economics PhD with a huge chip on his shoulder and a mission to alter the worldview of the kids sitting in front of him (he also happened to be one the harder college professors I have ever had, pushing me to know my material inside and out).
The second sign came later that day when I was getting into my car after the first day of classes ended (macro, micro and college algebra), I popped into my phone and opened my podcasting app, it was a Monday after all which meant a new EconTalk (yeah!). I took a look at the queue and hit the link with barely a glance at the title. I proceeded to enjoy a great conversation about 20-century philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. What’s most important here is what happened at the end, with the interview wrapped up I heard, “I’m Russ Roberts and we’ve been talking with Dr. David Schmidtz, the director of the new Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at The University of Arizona”.
I was three blocks from the U of A when I heard these words… I had just heard that in Tucson AZ, the bastion of Arizonan Progressivism, that there was an academic think tank and research center committed to researching a mainline, classical liberal worldview, the ideas of freedom and voluntary market exchange.
I connected with this group and then started connecting with others. My academic pursuits gave me, if nothing else, an excuse. I started writing, I started a website (www.yipeedog.com, since changed to the current one), I started a twitter feed (@yipeedog), I started sending out applications to liberty focused seminars and workshops.
I spent the fall learning and speaking with that macro professor from George Mason, I began developing some personal relationships, I focused on researching WHO and WHAT I should know.
By spring the efforts to sow began to show signs of sprouting. I was contacted by a national organization and invited to their annual supporters retreat, I had successfully been readmitted into the university and was able to start taking classes, I’d developed some rapport with the Freedom Center where I was able to begin volunteering. This past summer the development continued as I was accepted to attend both a seminar with the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies Free Society Symposium (Cato University wait-listed me, grrrrrrr…).
Don’t be afraid of being the oldest one in the room. The faculty will make you feel totally at home (not mentioning names here but if you don’t mind a beverage or three they may make you feel VERY welcome) and you SHOULD attend intro level seminars before advanced topics. Yes, someone was negligent in NOT getting you in touch with FEE/IHS/etc in high school and college, and you may have watched/listened to EVERY podcast/video that these educational groups have put online (this may mean sitting through a live Ben Powell sweatshops lecture that you’ve watched online 3 times already). STILL do the introductory seminars if you can. Be there with everyone, like you should have been had you found these groups in college. Become an “alumni” like every one else does, don’t push this too fast, take your time.
In your mid-thirties you’re gonna feel like every day is an eternity and you just want to get down to business, you want to get your hands dirty in the day-to-day of promoting these ideas you have come to be passionate about and that you are bursting to start shouting from roofs. You just want to help and why won’t anybody put you to some productive use??
Be humble, be patient, become a student again. I promise you, things will move faster than you think, if you’re good someone will find you. You do have things you need to learn, connections you need to make, relationships you need to develop, possibly a certification you need to add.
You will need to be entrepreneurial; you will need to be an opportunity seeker. You will need to find problems without solutions and then see if you are the guy to fix them. You have to be your own advocate; at 35 no one will (or should) be treating you like an 18 year old to be shepherded through a collegiate and graduate studies program.
But here’s the crux of entrepreneurship, and of freedom in general, it’s dead frightening. George Bernard Shaw once stated, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” The unknown can be terrifying. And the truth is, even with everything I’ve told you, I still don’t exactly know what I’m doing 🙂
What I do know, is that the opportunities and relationships I have created in the past year are sign posts on my way to success.
I’ve been an entrepreneur for years, the danger and risks do bother me, but I’ve developed a confidence in my judgment and work ethic. I have a faith that consistent application of hard work, combined with a critical eye for results and a willingness to modify trajectories when prudent, end up in good results.
Sometimes the hard part is that I don’t know exactly what those “good results” will be, but that’s the free market right? That’s what you’re saying you want to support and commit to proselytizing for, right? Emergent systems that arise out of innumerable peoples’ individual best understandings of their own circumstances, strengths, desires, interests and needs? That’s the deal, right?
The question then isn’t what job you want or what exact result you want to achieve, but what is the first best step in the direction you want to go? Is it a big step or a little step? I barely think it can matter as long as you take an intentional step and keep taking them every day… I think there’s a What About Bob? reference here somewhere, “Baby steps to liberty, baby steps to liberty…”
With that in mind, here are some practical suggestions for baby steps:
- Are you in contact with liberty leaning organizations in your area?
- Are you volunteering with any libertarian or classical liberal causes about which you feel strongly? (May I suggest school choice if nothing else has caught your eye yet?)
- Are you producing any liberty supporting writing? Twitter, blogging, letters to the editor, guest commentaries, etc.
- Who do you listen to or read that might let you know about opportunities to support?
- Are you connected at your local colleges/universities? Are you taking any classes yet? Don’t be afraid to be an undergraduate again; “Non-Traditional Students” are the coolest!
- Start researching liberty-focused student seminars for next summer and then apply early in the spring. I mentioned FEE and IHS above, but you can also check out the Independent Institute, Cato Institute, Mises Institute and others.
- Are you supporting liberty leaning organizations? Are you a donor? Have you given $1 or more to a group like Mercatus, Acton, CEI, Reason Foundation, etc.
- Look into non-application events like Freedom Fest, Libertopia, PorcFest, any of the Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty events. These are prime places to make connections and learn what is going on and how you can help.
- Move to New Hampshire! 😉
- Are you having friendly coffee chats? Follow me here because this may be the most important one. You live in a place, a place where there are people, if you’re not a total jerk some of those people are even your “friends”, those friends have other friends. That’s a huge network of potential opportunity mining but you have to re-configure the system to look for what you want. The best place to start learning about how you can help is to start talking to the people right where you live, about what you can do to help where you already are. Grabbing coffee once or twice a week with people you are close with and people you want to be closer with, is the number one best way to learn how to talk to people about liberty, let people know what you are about, find out what is going on and generally start re-wiring your social network to work towards your new goals. Start setting up coffee dates!
Finally, just a note of encouragement. We need lots more people around the world committing to liberty as a life goal. So please pursue this idea you have! However, the truth is, we need a certain number fighting the front lines of this ideological war and then a huge network of productive, well-informed citizenry and support staff just behind the front lines.
Do you know what is one of the biggest opportunities for employment within liberty leaning organizations? Fundraising.
The technical term is “Development”, because that department develops supporters and donors, then by use of those resources the organization develops programs and institutional capacity in order to pursue the group’s mission and vision.
Do you simply want to do anything that assists the liberty movement? Great! Go into development. Learn client relationship building, hone your follow up skills, become a refined communicator of the importance of these principles, become a closer, then find an organization who needs resources to get their message out and go get them for that organization.
Do you want to do something that might fit into your existing professional background? If you’re a lawyer for instance, have you ever offered pro bono time to Institute for Justice or F.I.R.E.?
If you want to do something totally different, just look at my list of specifics above and then be prepared to volunteer, to give your time at first. Liberty leaning organizations are not jobs programs, they employ people because that is the efficient way to produce the product they are trying to get out into the world (basic economics right?). That means you must bring value to the table first, that may mean you have to go uncompensated while you prove that value, but you won’t be overlooked if you are excellent and hardworking. These groups can’t afford to, and don’t, ignore great people.
If you’re great, you’ll get there. That means simply… be great.
Don’t do this halfway, be super fantastic. Find a niche that you think is under-served within freedom promoting organizations, and serve it.
Serving the liberty leaning movement may actual mean staying and being the best [FILL IN YOUR JOB HERE] you can be. The really courageous people in the liberty movement aren’t people like me or others that want to talk and write about this stuff for a living. The courageous one is my wife; the one who said “Sure. You can break off from your business partnership and I’ll quit my job to help you run a couple of specialty insurance programs from our house (while I’m pregnant) so you can go off and play with your libertarian friends, go to school, travel to summer seminars, write your political commentary and mess around on Twitter. Sounds like a super plan!”
The truth is that for every 1 person at a think tank or in academics we need about 500 people like my wife, making sure the lights stay on, the kids get fed and the bills get paid. People that work during the day and then run study groups at night, who use their vacations to attend liberty retreats and seminars, that invest their money making sure the lights stay on at their favorite freedom focused think tank.
This is a blast for me and it will be for you too, but never forget the people that it takes to make that life of writing, speaking and research possible. Whether in economics, philosophy, law or any other related field, a career of study happens because of the beliefs, passions and donations of productive, working men and women around the country and world.
There truly are a million ways to support liberty, voluntarism and freedom. You’ve got a unique set of skills, opportunities and interests, and the only thing I can really recommend in the end is just to think carefully and then take a step. You can’t know where it will lead, and you actually don’t need to.
I’ve always liked this quote, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” ~ Lao Tzu
In some ways, it means just get going and enjoy the journey. So whatever your next steps are, have fun and good luck!