The Road Not Taken

In 1993 I started grad school in social science at Caltech, after being out of school for nine years.   But going back to school wasn’t the only option I had considered.   My good friend and mentor Eric Drexler, whose book Engines of Creation had put the nanotech concept on the world’s table, was a fan of my work on "idea futures," now known as "prediction markets."  Eric is a good writer; he had helped me hone my idea futures papers writing, and he was encouraging me to write a popular book on the subject.  I didn’t have anywhere near Eric’s contacts to help me sell my book, but with Eric’s help I might have had a decent chance at writing an engaging popular book on idea futures.

But I choose to go back to school, instead of writing a book.  I was 34, near the limit of how old a student can be to be accepted and seriously considered for an academic career.  I wanted to make a break from my software career to work on my ideas full time, but I had doubts about how far I could get with just a book and no other credentials.  I was worried that there were relevant things I didn’t understand about idea futures, and I wanted to pursue other related social institution ideas. 

It turns out that there was a whole lot I didn’t understand about social science, and by going to school I managed to find a career where I can think about ideas at least half time.  But now as I finally start to write my first book, I see it will probably never be clear to me whether I made the right choice.

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  • sa

    welcome to life, sir.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Given the large number of choices one could have made in the past, it doesn’t take long to see one has made a suboptimal choice with hindsight.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I think it’s pretty clear you made the right choice. There’s nothing better for life satisfaction (once basic needs like health are shelter are taken care of), particularly as one gets older, than to be a recognized expert in something and to have a Ph.D.

  • To have chosen differently you would have had to be a different person, absent flipping a coin, and even then that would take a different personality. Cognitive dissonance should help reduce retrospective regret; when one cannot change the decision one rationalizes it.

  • Best of luck with the book! I’m looking forward to it 🙂

  • Robin,

    Good grief! So, you are feeling all jealous of your colleagues, Bryan and probably Tyler, with their hot selling books! If you had written yours years ago without what you have now or the current milieu, it probably would have been a flop. Now, you have the advice and support of these folks, plus you have had the glorious experience of having been martyred by the Pentagon for your efforts to establish prediction markets, which probably would not have happened if you had written your book back then. If you can’t use that peg to get a decent selling book now, well, you certainly would not have had one back then.

    This is a no-brainer.

  • mitchell porter

    We just need a retrodiction market to determine what Robin should have done! But how would it work?

  • Robin, what is it you have discovered as you begin writing your book that now makes you more doubtful that you’ve taken the right path? Do you have the feeling that you could have written pretty much the same thing back in 1993? Or are you just making a general point that one often never finds out whether one’s key choices in life where the right ones?

  • Nick, I wonder if I could have helped jump-start the prediction market fad 15 years earlier. Now my book will not be on that topic, but on disagreement.

  • Robin,

    I apologize for being probably too harsh. However, my bet is that starting a successful prediction market back then would have been more effective than writing about the relatively few that were about, but I could be wrong.

    Sounds like you are planning to write an overly academically serious book rather than one of these that will be vying to outsell Freakonomics. Shucks, and you could have gone all tabloid about your sufferings with the Congress and Paul Wolfowitz!