Monday, December 30, 2013

Pursuing a Dream

Today I am a fool. Today I am happy. Today I am stressed and depressed. Today, for the first time in ages, I have hope for my own future.

Today I decided, after months of frustration, countless tears, too many fits of rage, and the worst apathetic bouts of self-loathing and depression I've ever had that I will withdraw from my PhD program at Stanford University.

This is a stupid decision, because I have no job lined up, and no particular prospects for a job. I'm leaving another year and a half of guaranteed funding on the table, and the security that comes with a Stanford degree. Granted, I already have a Master's from Stanford, but a PhD opens more doors, I'm told. The problem for me is that getting a PhD also closes doors. Heck, working on getting a PhD has closed too many doors for me already.

What I'm going to do is this: I'm going to stream video games on Twitch. I have no regular viewers, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of others who are trying to do exactly this. It's a rough-and-tumble, competitive world (but no more so than the academy), and there is no guarantee of success. And, frankly, success is not a six-figure income and a cushy 35-hour work week. Success as a streamer means hard work for, if I'm lucky, a living wage.

That said, there are other things I can do, too. I have designed, in principal, three games that I simply haven't had time to make. As with streaming, there is no guarantee that any of those three games will sell, and it will be a lot of work to build each of them (one is a board game, which is feasible; the other two are computer games, which means I need to learn to code). I am also a writer - or I used to be - and I believe my streaming could easily turn into a book if I do it right. Would such a book sell? Maybe, maybe not. Finally, I used to be something of a musician. I stopped practicing regularly when I became a PhD student, but somewhere in my brain is enough musical skill to gig at least semi-regularly. Can I make a living, or a part of one, playing music? Maybe, maybe not.

So why give up the prospect of a cushy professorship for an uncertain career as an entertainer and artist? Because being a PhD student has made me miserable, and because I would rather be true to myself and take a chance at pursuing my actual passions than pursue a path which I know ends in unhappiness and cynicism. I am at heart a joyful person, but I have not felt joyful in years. Today, for the first time in I don't know how long, I feel some semblance of that joy.

But I'm also afraid. Realistically, the next few months (or years) will be trying, and expensive. I'm giving up a fairly stable existence for a highly uncertain one, and that's terrifying. And on top of that, because I'm going to pursue my dreams, if I fail the failure will hurt all the more. But I'd rather fail in pursuing my dreams than succeed in denying them. I know what the latter feels like, and it sucks. The cold logic of practicality, the harsh reality of 70 hour work week after 70 hour work week, all doing work for which I have no passion, with no end in sight. Why choose that? I'd rather work 100 hours a week on something I care about than even 30 on something I don't.

And, you know what, I will succeed. It will hurt, letting down all of my friends and family who wanted me to get a PhD. It will be hard streaming with 2 or 3 - or 0 - people watching. It will upset me when I write a blog post or post a YouTube video that gets no views. I will despair when no one buys my first board game, when my first computer game languishes unsold and unsellable. But in time I will succeed, because I will work hard, I will have a passion for what I do, and I will do a good job. I will bring something new and different to the world of casting, and I will do it with joy.

Writing all this is a little surreal. I guess I've let "PhD student" become a part of my identity. Cutting it away is strange, scary. Even if it's a part of my identity that has caused me no end of stress, frustration, and sadness, it's hard to let go. Perhaps that's why I've waited so long to take this step: I've been afraid to lose a part of who I am. Now, as I start to shed the burden of being a PhD student, I can see that I'm gaining so much more. And I also see that I have learned valuable things at Stanford. I'm a more systematic and rigorous thinker. I'm a more careful writer. I'm more skeptical, more aware of the nature of evidence, more scientific. All of those things will serve me as I take on a new identity, an identity that, deep down, is the truest I've ever tried on.

I am not a researcher. I am a gamer, a writer, a musician, and a designer. It's time for me to live my life. Oh friends, not these tones. Let us sing yet more joyfully.


  1. I knew someone very gifted who did get his PhD but said finishing a PhD is like recovering from a protracted disease. Sounds like you just chose to get better.

    Meanwhile, "need to learn to code"? Have you tried it? It is not for everyone, but I suspect in your case it will change your life. And computers do not care what paper you have chased.

  2. Congratulations! And best wishes for the future.
    Warning! I taught myself computer programming years and years ago and it can be very addictive. Just do it.

  3. Thank you both for your kind words. I know just enough Python to be dangerous at the moment, but have lots to learn before I can write proper software of any kind. However, I have greatly enjoyed coding in the limited time I've been able to spend on it.

  4. I finished my doctorate in 2011 and have had several doors open since. I don't think these opportunities would have come to me without the advanced degree. Therefore, I'm now very happy with where my career has taken me, and have yet to experience the misery you describe.

    That said, many paths lead to happiness and your journey is yours alone to take! Best wishes for you and your future.

  5. Hi there! I found you from Dan Meyer's blog and applaud the decision you've described above. I'd like to offer one thought, though. You should not consider "learning to program" as a prerequisite for creating games, especially where you are. The most serious need for game development is *design* not development. Especially in the near term, I would encourage you to find similar-minded people who have the programming chops but don't have the *idea* for a great, compelling game. I think that will give you a much shorter runway to a potentially better product. In the long run, if you like the idea of programming, there are lots of benefits to just being able to hack away and create something exactly the way you want but game programming is not a casual endeavor (as I'm sure you appreciate).

    Like I said, just a thought to consider... best wishes regardless!!

  6. I want to watch your stream and try your games.

  7. My channel on can be found at :)