I just finished the excellent, Good Work if You Can Get It, by Jason Brennan. An insider’s account into academia, the book shares what it takes to become a professor, backed by statistics.
What jumped out at me from the book was how surprisingly narrow the path to becoming a professor at a good school actually is:
Of all the people who start a PhD program, about half will graduate. … [O]nly about 12.8% of all PhD graduates in the United States can ever hope to land a tenure-track job. … Of the 20% or so people who get a long-term job, around 6% will get a (somewhat) research-focused tenure-track job.
Cal Newport made a similar point in our recent podcast conversation about his path to becoming an author:
Let’s say you want to write non-fiction. There are a few things to know:
1. You don’t write the book first. … That already goes against most people’s understanding. …
2. You have to have the agent first. People don’t like that. … But it’s easier to get an agent than to get a book deal, so if you can’t get an agent there’s probably a problem there.
3. For a first-time author, it has to be a topic that a lot of people are going to buy and you have to be the right person to write that book. …
When I got that information, I realized that the only way I could get into the publishing industry at the age of twenty was, “What if I write a book for college kids?” There’s a big market. … There’s a pitch to be made that these books should be written by someone who is in college, and I was a good student at a good school.
It was this very narrow lane. One of the very few lanes I could have possibly gotten a book deal in.
Narrow paths to success aren’t limited to authors and academics, however. Legendary investor and entrepreneur Paul Graham argues the same:
What Creates a Narrow Path for Success?
The narrow path to success in many fields is a fact many of us don’t want to face. Instead, we want stories of rare misfits who manage to beat the odds.
But to beat the odds, you first have to understand the game you’re playing.
Why is success so narrow? I can see three explanations, none mutually exclusive:
1. Elite achievement is really, really hard.
Beating the top 1% isn’t just harder than beating the average—it’s different.
To do better than average, effort OR talent OR strategy is often enough. To be in the top strata of many fields requires flipping all those ORs to ANDs.
What is meant by “success” is ambiguous. Sometimes you’re competing against the average. A programmer or accountant needs to be good enough to earn a living. A livable income as an author means being in the top 1% of people who have ever written books. Fundamentally different games to play.
2. Skills are narrow, not wide. Substitutes to the real thing don’t matter as much as you’d think.
If success depends on skill, and skills are largely narrow (which they are), then the path to success is similarly narrow.
Many domains have obstacles to doing the real thing. These can be structural (it’s hard to do the real work when you’re excluded from where it’s being done). These can be psychological (real stuff is scary and hard; it’s more comfortable to do something fake instead).
Specific results don’t come from general efforts. The smaller the target, the more carefully you need to aim.
3. Signaling filters create conformity. Stacked sequentially, they become a straight-jacket.
What authors, academics and start-up entrepreneurs have in common is that you need other people to believe in you. Hiring committees decide who gets tenure. Editors decide who gets published. Investors need to believe you’ll make them money.
Now, suppose gatekeepers filter using a few hard-to-fake signals of quality. Knowing they will do this, however, candidates rush to develop those signals. This, in turn, makes those signals even more reliable. (This is why a Nobel Prize signals more than winning 1st place at a science fair—more competition makes it more reliable.)
This creates a feedback cycle where candidates get judged on narrower criteria than they might otherwise.
Add to this the need for gatekeepers to justify their picks (to bosses, colleagues), throw in a little risk-aversion, and those credentials go from useful to mandatory. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,” but turned into an iron rule of advancement.
Noticing this truth isn’t to justify it. You and I may agree that we’d be better off in a world where eclectic candidates can rise more readily, where competition isn’t as cutthroat or where skills generalize more widely. But given the tightrope ahead, how should you walk it?
How to Walk the Tightrope
The best advice is to learn the path early and hew to it closely. Ask people who’ve walked it before. Notice what matters to people calling the shots.
Be creative in your work, not the path. If you have an idea to pitch—write it into a business plan, not slam poetry.
Ironically, more creative work tends to have more conformist paths. Creative work can rarely be measured by a universal yardstick. Thus gatekeepers lean more on signals instead. Artists, academics and authors may be in the business of original ideas, but their paths forward are more constrained than most.
I got an email from a would-be author upset at Cal Newport’s advice. Why do I have to do it that way? Surely if I write a great book, publishers will consider it even if it’s more typical to get an agent and proposal first?
This is optimistic. As Brennan notes, the last time their department offered a tenure-track position they got five hundred applications. The average time reading each? Twenty seconds.
The existence of exceptions isn’t a good reason to ignore the rule. If your brilliance doesn’t shine through at a glance, few will gaze deeper.
What if You’ve Lost Your Way?
What if you’ve already strayed from the perfect path? What should you do?
The first step is to ask yourself if you’re willing to get back on track. Watch out for sunk costs. Just because you’ve walked far in the wrong direction doesn’t mean you should keep going.
If you’re able, you may just need a course correction. Grad student who has been neglecting research? There’s still time to fix it. Would-be author who already wrote the book—back up a step, find an agent and write a proposal instead. Start-up in a bad market? Time to pivot.
For others, they may be better off picking a new destination entirely. This can be hard to hear. The student who dreams of being a professor may be disappointed that grads from her department never find teaching jobs. Plan to turn before your path heads off a cliff.
The best time to realize you’ve gone down the wrong path is before you begin. The second best time is today.
The Path is Narrow, The Possibilities are Vast
We overestimate how much we can hit a specific target with a general effort. But we underestimate how many targets there are to aim at.
You’re never starting from scratch. Wherever you are, there are many possibilities within reach. All that’s required is to recognize the path ahead and stick to it.
Getting a book deal is narrow. But there’s self-publishing, blogs, newsletters and writing for magazines. Becoming a tenured research professor is narrow. But there’s jobs in industry, teaching, consulting and beyond. The path to the pinnacle of each is precise, but there’s an entire mountain range to choose from.
The path may be narrower than you think. But the destinations are more numerous than you can imagine.