How to become an avout?
November 21, 2008 4:39 AM   Subscribe

So I've recently read Anathem. And I rather liked it. In particular I was inspired by avout, and am wondering how to restructure my life to be more like them. Details and slight spoilers inside.

Anathem features central characters called the Avout - a group of people who live a monk-like simple life, locked away from the world studying science and philosophy.

They use only very little and tightly controlled technology. There's a strong focus on very long term thinking - for example, groups like this have stayed more or less the same for thousands of years.

I feel inspired, in that this sounds like quite a nice life, and it fits in with my existing interest in both science, the simplicify, and buddhism.

How can I adjust my life to be more like this? How do I find like-minded people and deal with the tedious need to earn money? I don't think the lifestyle exactly as portrayed in the book is possible or desirable, but moving in that direction seems like a good idea.

Academia is an obvious option, but I don't like it as a solution due to (my research suggests) the chronic lack of job security, politics, the fact you need to be particularly smart...
posted by curious_yellow to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this will be helpful at all, but there's a foundation called the Long Now foundation whose work apparently helped to inspire Anathem. Perhaps they have some projects that you could get involved in?
posted by cider at 5:19 AM on November 21, 2008

There isn't a chronic lack of job security in academia -- quite the opposite. It's quite difficult to GET a job, but if you get a job and earn tenure, you have have better job security than in almost any other field.
posted by proj at 5:34 AM on November 21, 2008

Academia has the job security, as proj mentions, but none of the other parts of this. Academics aren't monks; they are fully engaged in society, live and work independently, and all that.

You are looking more for communal or even monastic/religious living situations (well, and probably some cults, too, but I wouldn't recommend that approach). And the hitch, of course, is that these demand a lot of sacrifice and hard work, in exchange for being a full member of the collective. (And the smaller the group, the more intense the politics. Wasn't it Sartre who said "Hell is other people?" The most intense expression of that comes in insular environments where there is little privacy.)

There have been quite a few memoirs written about communal living experiments and the like -- you might find them interesting in terms of exploring whether this is the right idea for you.

And many secular and religious communal living places welcome visitors for a week or so, as a way of taking a taste and seeing if it is an environment that resonates for you.
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on November 21, 2008

I'm going to assume that you have the qualifications, abilities and desire to proceed. Without one of these, what you are after is going to be much harder.

There are three traditional options for a research-type career:

- Academe: great job security, middle to upper-middle pay & benefits, great intellectual freedom, poor funding with no stability, at least one-third time spent teaching, academic advancement possibilities rather limited (full prof max.). The only option for basic research or any philosophical field.

- Government: good job security, middle to upper-middle pay & benefits, moderate intellectual freedom, moderate but stable funding, time often spent completely on research, advancement takes you out of research into management (similar to becoming one of the Wardens in the novel). Most jobs are moderately applied science or some engineering, to service a governmental need. Pure research careers are possible, but limited in number.

- Big Industry: moderate job security, upper-middle to lower-upper pay and benefits, low intellectual freedom, sometimes generous but often unstable funding (project based), varying time spent on research, advancement takes one into management. Applied science or engineering are typical.

There are a few non-traditional routes as well:

- Small business or consultancy: no job security, wildly varying pay, ultimate intellectual freedom, no funding, time spent as business demands, advancement means growing the company and selling product/services. Requires something of a Renaissance person, and you need a product and contacts. Applied science or engineering are typical.

- Wealthy patron: there are still people who go the lone genius route. It requires a great big brain, skills at self-promotion and either independent wealth or an ability to ignore personal poverty. Richard Stallman is probably one of the most famous examples of the type, but they exist in every discipline.

Unfortunately every scientist (or philosopher) deals with non-science crap regularly, daily. The flavour of crap one has to ingest is up to personal preference. It's not possible to live an entirely monk-like existence, but you'd probably come closest in one a government national lab (in the US) or in a university setting. It's possible to arrive at such a place on every career path, however, if that's what you're after.
posted by bonehead at 6:47 AM on November 21, 2008

cider: I've spotted the Long Now foundation - they aren't doing anything I'd be interested in contributing to on first glance, but I am likely to join and investigate further.

proj: I'm aware of tenure - my understanding is that it does exist, but is so difficult to get that you might as well discount it.

Forktine: Monastic living is part of it. However I was not optimistic about that part as I will be surprised if communities focused on what I'm interested in exist. Plus I don't think that part is likely to work well without a strong religious structure.
posted by curious_yellow at 6:48 AM on November 21, 2008

Addendum, in terms of timeframes for research planning and projects:

Academe: tied to the 2- to 4-year student and grant cycles. Planning past 4 years isn't very practical.

Government: Planning horizons are 2-5 years, and can be longer. Depends on the project and what you can pry out of your manager.

Industry: Strong focus on quarterly and year-on-year results, but projects can last for as long as resources are available.

Consultancies: Often develop a long-term relationship with a few clients, providing advice and services. Planning driven by client needs, usually on shorter cycles (months to a couple of years).

Lone wolves: Their whole lifespan.
posted by bonehead at 6:58 AM on November 21, 2008

bonehead: I'm currently working on proceeding in a small way - I already have an computing degree, and am 5 years into a part-time physics degree with the goal of getting work more focused in this area. The most realistic option appears to be something related but not directly using the skills.

All my local sources on academia say poor pay and little-no chance of long-term employment (short-term contracts, difficult to find, widely scattered across the world, etc). I'm ignoring the poor pay situation, but the other aspects I'm less enthusiastic about.

Plus, while I know I have the ability to survive as an undergrad, I've not yet tested whether I can survive academically at a higher level.

I'm particularly interested in finding a healthy balance of technology and connection with the rest of the world - for example, while it's tempting to totally opt out on news and current events, I can see it having practical downsides in the long term.
posted by curious_yellow at 7:04 AM on November 21, 2008

I'm aware of tenure - my understanding is that it does exist, but is so difficult to get that you might as well discount it.

All my local sources on academia say poor pay and little-no chance of long-term employment (short-term contracts, difficult to find, widely scattered across the world, etc). I'm ignoring the poor pay situation, but the other aspects I'm less enthusiastic about.

This is not correct. Certainly, if you're not qualified or if you're only looking at adjunct jobs, academia looks pretty sucky. (The life of an adjunct is pretty much as you describe in your second paragraph.) But in general, life in academia is very good. And after tenure, it's also very secure. It's a little trickier in the current economy---there are somewhat fewer jobs than in the past, especially at public institutions---but really, this is a very strange view of academia.

To get tenure (the following is US-centric): (1) get a Ph.D. (1a) pick up some teaching experience in graduate school. (2) Apply for tenure-track jobs. (2a) Get one. This certainly is possible if you're qualified and competent. (3 - liberal arts version) Be an excellent good teacher and good researcher, with multiple publications, in your first 6 years in your tenure-track job. Oh, and do a bit of service. (3 - research I version) Don't be a loser in the classroom, and be a prolific researcher, in your first 6 years in your tenure-track job. Oh, and do a bit of service. (4) Go up for and receive tenure.

Pay is decent---not like industry, but I make about 60K a year and just received tenure, as a mathematician at a liberal arts college.

posted by leahwrenn at 7:21 AM on November 21, 2008

Look into the employment benefits offered at your local universities. Often working for them as full time support staff gets you free classes. Then try to find a nice simple job (Janitor? Admin?) and take one or so classes every semester in whatever interests you, with no goal for a degree. The support job covers simple life expenses (let's say a one room bachelor apartment, beans 'n rice, yak butter and a bit of tea) and membership in whatever passes for meditation classes. If you can make a go of this, use your good job at the university to help likeminded souls find the same deal, and say, scale up to pooling your income into a shared dwelling where you can practice zen calm, while doing menial labor (ie seeing if any of the names of god are contained within the several thousand students you process each semester, or getting the campus really clean, sweeper style, while doing your mindful meditation).

The idea is to live as a perpetual student, while still being able to tap into lesson plans so you can best get at new material. If you feel the itch to actually teach what you’re learning, there’s always tutoring your fellow students, something that’s much more humble than aiming for a cushy spot in ivory tower land.
posted by Phalene at 8:32 AM on November 21, 2008

The idea is to live as a perpetual student

If one prefers a monastic life of self-cultivation, I suppose. The problem with this is that it rapidly becomes a stultifying existence: students don't get to do their own research, and a constant diet of course work is pablum for the mind. The real work is done in research projects, first accessible as a graduate student (honours theses are tasters).

Indeed, unless one persues summer jobs in research, the average student has a poor idea what a real research job is like. They are very different from school work.
posted by bonehead at 8:48 AM on November 21, 2008

Reading your second comment, my practical suggestions are:

If you have an experimental, hands-on, practical turn of mind, consider a career in observational astronomy. Working at the Keck observatory or the CFH telescope would be very much like what you want. Being in the field in any dicipline is a monastic existence. Read Dian Fossey's biography for an extreme example. Remote locations, bad food, peeing in garbage bags, entertaining stories about being stalked by large carnivores---all these can be yours in the life of field scientist!

If you prefer the life of the mind, the monk-like career of choice in physics is cosmologist, but that requires a big, veiny brain (pulsation optional).

There are many shadings between the two. The good news for you is that the comp sci degree is a very big plus, which ever branch of physics looks interesting to you.
posted by bonehead at 8:59 AM on November 21, 2008

The problem with academia that you don't mention is the fact that your learning will be tied up with your job. Don't like the direction your research is headed? You can't just drop it and try something else, because you'd be, um, fired. So make a clean break between work and life, and then work as little as possible at some part time job. I'm assuming, of course, that what you're interested in studying does not take a huge amount of money, it just takes a lot of time. The process I'm describing is called dropping out.

Oh, and I think you will find it very difficult to disconnect from society completely, is that really what you want to do? Or are you just reacting to being around people too much? If you don't like being around people a lot, or find it draining, then you're what is known as an introvert, and that's just fine. But even introverts need a social outlet, and interactions with humans every once and a while. Otherwise you'll suffer from anomie, which results from just swimming around in your own energy/thoughts/head too much. You need ways of taking in new information from outside whatever your focusing on, and social interaction is good for that too.
posted by symbollocks at 9:06 AM on November 21, 2008

You might also want to check out "The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse. Very similar book to the one described above. Hesse actually explores the differences between a life lived in secluded study and one lived in "society". I'm only about 100pp in so I can't tell you what the answer is but it might give you some insights. Also I beleive "A Canticle for Liebowitz" is also a similarly themed book. Sorry for lack of links, I just signed up and am too lazy to figure them out right now.
posted by Busmick at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2008

I've recently read A Canticle for Liebowitz and heartily endorse this as a quality book.

It both further convinces me that I want to move my life in that direction, and that a complete move to "reclusive monk" levels is further than I want to go.
posted by curious_yellow at 11:14 AM on November 21, 2008

I dont think you can put on the trappings of a monk or get a group together and pretend to live in some kind of western tech monastic subculture. If monastic living interests you then you can probably examine this through volunteering at a temple or performing other lay duties that intersect with your faith.

Honestly, your needs arent very specific. I think you should investigate some intentional communities and see if you can fit into their mold instead of trying to start your own, especially one modeled after a work of fiction. A lot of people are going to see you as the equivalent of trying to start your own Hogwarts or Jedi Academy. The number of guys who seriously want to live like an avout can probably be counted on one hand.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:03 PM on November 21, 2008

To be completely honest, I think there is a lot to appreciate and love about the kind of living depicted in Anathem. There are a lot of communities where people do quite similar things in the name of religion, so why not in the name of science?

Unfortunately, I don't think there are communities with the exact mix of what you describe. The closest I think you'll get is something like Esalen if you want to integrate with an existing society, or maybe a monastery that is a little more secular. There are plenty of the latter out there, although a great many of these individuals live their lives mostly silent and of course are not dedicated to the same purpose. On one hand this is a great environment to work in if you want to make breakthroughs or lead your life a certain way; on the other hand I'd argue that in Anathem the society and common ideals (as well as "institutional memory") are some of the most important things.

You also have to consider that in Anathem, the Decenarian, Hundreder, and Thousander maths operate on a wholly different timescale. For us here in the real world, I can see 1/5/10/25/50.

I would be incredibly surprised if there weren't at least two or three hundred people out there interested in a similar idea. I don't think it would be a difficult prospect to round up the interest and collect some money and buy some property somewhere to engage in precisely this enterprise. From a sociological perspective, though, I wonder if the people interested in math (and potentially technology) have the kind of patience these days to integrate into that kind of lifestyle. Definitely there are some rare examples out there, but the things that drive the pursuit of religion and the pursuit of knowledge might be somewhat different. We might also argue that without the stricter view of the later present-day Anathem with strict separation between "normal" society and mathic society, the Ita, the Saecular Power (and its funding), etc, all this might not be possible. We cannot ignore that the intellects in Anathem are pretty hyper-advanced (perhaps by rearing as opposed to genetics) compared to most of us today, though, and also that the separation between "knowledge" and "technology" is very different compared to today's society.

posted by arimathea at 7:14 PM on November 21, 2008

@damn_dirty_ape I don't want to take it directly, that does seem a bit silly, what I'm trying to find is ways to sensibly mix that sort of spirit and the real world.

It's more the study side and the quiet life that interests me than the communal living part.

@arimathea I think working out what you can reasonably translate into this world is the interesting part.

For example, it may be unrealistic to live in a math entirely cut off from the world, but I could certainly stop buying the papers and have my phone cut off.

I hadn't heard of Esalen, it's an interesting idea.

I think the problem of organising communal living without the structure of a religion behind it is part of the problem. And, obviously, getting the resources to get it all started :)
posted by curious_yellow at 3:27 PM on November 30, 2008

« Older How to choose a conference phone   |   How to write a fan letter Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.