011 - Help Me Build a Candle in the Darkness
In This Episode:
- How my views on critical thinking have changed sinced I produced the Critical Thinker podcast in 2010, and where the Argument Matrix podcast is going.
- Why I'm jealous of martial arts studios, and I brainstorm what a walk-in critical thinking studio might look like.
- I describe an online critical thinking studio, a structured Argument Ninja training program.
- I give a detailed breakdown of how my online business is doing, where I'm making my money, and how much time I have left before the cash runs out
- I describe how you can help make the Argument Ninja training program a reality.
- I make you an offer that you won't want to miss.
"The public education system does a horrible job at teaching critical thinking skills. Why? Because it was never designed for that. Despite what they’ll say in their mission statements and learning objectives, that’s not their job. Public schooling does serve a number of important social functions, I’m not anti-schooling — but nurturing our capacity for independent critical thought is not one of them."
"I’m driving around and I come across one of these martial arts academies just around the corner from where I live. The sign says “Florin’s Ultimate Martial Arts Academy: MMA, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo”. It’s a big school, there’s people coming in and out of the doors. And I ask myself, why couldn’t that sign say “Florin’s Ultimate Critical Thinker Academy”? Or “Martial Arts for the Mind: Get a Black Belt in Thinking”? Or “Argument Ninja Academy”?
Why is that such a crazy idea? Is it a crazy idea?"
References and Links
- The Support page for the Critical Thinker Academy (where you can become a Sustaining Member and lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
- The Support page for the Argument Ninja podcast (where you can become a Sustaining Membe and lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
- My Patreon support page (where you can lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
Subscribe to the Podcast
Play or download the mp3 file for this episode
This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 011.
Hi everyone, this is Kevin deLaplante and I’m happy to see that we’re 11 episodes into the podcast. That’s something to celebrate, especially when you know that the majority of podcasts don’t get past five or six episodes before they shut down. It’s good to celebrate your wins, even small wins, so I’d just like to say thanks to everyone for listening and spending time with me, I really do appreciate it.
I was also thinking that maybe every ten episodes or so I should I take a step back and remind myself and you listeners about what I’m trying to do with the show, and the context for the show.That context is inevitably going to change over time, so I think it’s good (for me at least) to check in every now and then.
And also wanted to update you on how I’m doing, personally and business-wise. I like to be as transparent as possible, and it’s just a fact that this show, and all my projects, are dependent on the success of my online business. So if that’s not going well, or if financial or personal realities are putting pressure on me to change the way I’m doing things, that’s something I think you should know about too.
So this’ll be a different kind of episode.
In the first half of the show I’m going to talk about how my thinking about critical thinking has changed over the past six years, from the time I was producing the Critical Thinker podcast back in 2010, to now, and why I started the Argument Ninja podcast.
I’m also going to talk about why, as a critical thinking educator, I’m totally jealous of martial arts studios.
From there, I’m going to brainstorm a question. Why couldn’t there be critical thinking studios? What would a walk-in critical thinking studio look like?
That brainstorming exercise will lead to a proposal for a new online training program, a virtual critical thinking studio. A premium Argument Ninja training program that is structured, hands-on, and demanding.
That’s all in the first half of the show. In the second half of the show I’m going to open up and talk about how I’m doing personally and professionally, where my business income comes from, and what it’ll take to make this Argument Ninja training program a reality.
And finally, I’m going to show you how you can help to make this program a reality.
At the end of this episode I’m going make you an offer that you won’t want to miss.
But it’s a time-limited offer. And I’ll explain why it has to be a time-limited offer.
So, thanks in advance for listening, and let’s get started.
One of the benefits of producing a podcast like this one is that it forces me to think and to write, and to do this on a regular basis. The first episode aired in the middle of July, 2016, it’s now the end of October. Most of this is outlined and scripted, to keep me on track, and when I do the word count on it, I’ve actually written 47,000 words since the show started.
If it was all collected in manuscript form, double-spaced, 12 point font, 1 inch margins, it would add up to almost 200 pages. That’s a lot! That’s longer than most Master’s theses, and as long as some doctoral theses. If I was still a grad student I would have been very happy to have written this much in three and half months.
This was one of the reasons I started the show. I wanted some structure that would push me to write on a regular basis, about topics that I had been thinking about but hadn’t written about before.
Some of you know that I produced a podcast back in 2010, the Critical Thinker Podcast, and I used it in a very similar way, to help me think through some ideas and get them out of my head.
Back then I was preoccupied with foundational issues in critical thinking. What is critical thinking? Why is it important? What are the different skills and aptitudes that are required to be an effective critical thinker? Things like that.
What came out of that period was a framework that I developed that I called the 5 Pillars of Critical Thinking. In the order in which I covered them, they were logic, argumentation, rhetoric, background knowledge, and character.What I argued in the podcast was that critical thinking demanded input from all of these areas, and that successful critical thinking involved these factors working together, mutually supporting one another.
So I was pushing a multi-dimensional view of critical thinking that included standard topics in logic and argumentation, but also placed a big emphasis on the importance of various kinds of background knowledge and a commitment to life-long learning, and a big emphasis on the importance of nurturing the right kinds of attitudes and values — a critical thinking mindset — and how all these work together when critical thinking is successful.
I produced videos on these topics, and those videos are now part of the course offerings over at the Critical Thinker Academy.
I started the Argument Ninja podcast this year because over the intervening years the questions that have been gnawing away in my head have changed, and I needed a way to think through these new questions and test-drive some solutions.
These new questions, the questions that motivated this show, are not so much about critical thinking in the abstract as they about the possibility of critical thinking in the real world, in the public and private spaces that we live in, that we occupy, 95% of the time.
And those questions, I have to confess, are way more discouraging than the ones I was considering six years ago.
Like, is there any role for critical thinking in the real world, in the world outside the classroom?
That’s a horrible question to consider for someone who has spent most of his adult life as a critical thinking educator and advocate.
But I’ve been pushed to take questions like this seriously from several different directions.
One comes from the fact that over the past six years I’ve spent a lot more time learning about the science of human nature and the psychology of human reasoning.
And the take-away message of this research is that most of our behavior, most of the time, is determined by cognitive mechanisms that we’re not consciously aware of, and don’t have conscious control over.
So it raises the possibility that the kind of conscious, deliberative reasoning that is emphasized so much in traditional critical thinking education, even if it’s learned well, may have very little influence on how we actually form most of our beliefs and make most of our decisions. I take this as a challenge to common sense views of rational agency.
I’ve also spent a lot of time over the past few years learning about persuasion and reading the persuasion literature. And the take-away message there is that these unconscious cognitive mechanisms that govern our behavior also make us highly vulnerable to influence and manipulation, and that there are many different groups and industries devoted to doing just this.
On top of all this, I’ve become more sensitive to how critical thinking depends on a shared background of different kinds of literacy. I talked about these in the last episode. Media literacy, information literacy, argument literacy, scientific literacy, numerical literacy, and even basic reading and writing literacy, are all important for the kind of critical thinking that we aspire to.
So I’ve also been looking into research that studies and measures literacy rates in the population, and how that influences critical judgment. And the message here is not encouraging either.
Literacy rates in the general population are low, and certainly low compared to the baseline for what is needed for genuine critical thinking.
And why are they low? I’m sure there are lots of reasons, but I’m convinced that one of them is that public education doesn’t really aim for the kind of literacy that is most needed for critical thinking.
As I mentioned again last episode, there’s a difference between educating for citizenship and educating for independent critical thinking. Public education is primarily about the former, not the latter.
So, to sum up: the message seems to be that we’re systematically mistaken about the role that reason plays in our daily lives; our behavior is influenced all the time by forces about which we have no conscious awareness; we’re constantly being pushed and pulled in different directions by an army of influencers who are adept at pulling these invisible strings; and the general population isn’t educated in the background knowledge or literacy skills to make effective use of the critical thinking capacities that they have, even if they wanted to.
So you can see how discouraging this situation might be for someone who is invested in the idea that democracies work best when citizens are informed and able to engage in critical conversations on issues that matter to people. This picture of human nature makes it hard to imagine how this vision of democracy could ever be realized.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that I’m thinking about this now, one week before the US election that will decide whether Hillary or Trump becomes President, at the height of the political madness that reads like a case study in the systematic irrationality that I’ve been describing here.
But the election didn’t bring me here. I’ve been moving toward this more sobering perspective for quite a while. In fact, a lot of the new material I produced at the Critical Thinker Academy over the past six years was in response to this new perspective.
For example, I did a whole collection of videos on reasoning with probabilities. Why? Because so many cognitive biases involve reasoning about probability and uncertainty. Learning some probability theory is supposed to have a debiasing effect on at least some of these cognitive biases. So my goal here was to promote a certain kind of literacy — probability literacy — that could help people to think more critically about issues involving chance and uncertainty.
Another thing I did was produce two courses on argumentative essay writing. The first one was called “How to Write a Good Argumentative Essay”, and the second one, which is more extensive, I called “A Structural Approach To Successful Essay Writing”.
Both of these are intended to help teach argument literacy, and what real critical engagement with an issue actually looks like.
The second course also spends a lot of time talking about basic reading and writing literacy, and the importance of this kind of literacy for critical thinking.
So, from the outside it might have looked like I was producing courses with the more narrow aim of helping students with their academic writing, but what I was really doing was producing courses that promoted the kinds of literacy that I think are necessary for genuine critical thinking.
In this period I also started a whole new program on science literacy, that I called “Critical Thinking About Science: New Foundations for Science Literacy”, which you can also find at the Critical Thinker Academy site.
In these videos I laid out an argument for why most people, even people with advanced science degrees, are still scientifically illiterate, for purposes of critical thinking about science. And why the public school science curriculum isn’t really aimed at developing science literacy.
And then I outlined a five-part curriculum for what I consider to be genuine science literacy, which includes units on the vocabulary of science, the logic of science, the methods of science, the landscape of science, and the ethics of science.
If I had financial support for this project I would be working on it right now. I could have happily spent five years developing this curriculum.
But by this time I had come to the point where I had made a decision to leave my academic job to work on this stuff full-time. So financial support issues came into play in a big way, and I had to make some choices about how I was going to go forward without a regular salary to support me and my family.
So I had to put the science literacy project on hold, which is too bad because as a philosopher of science it was right in my wheelhouse and I really was prepared to dedicate thousands of hours to it.
My next project was a whole new video course on cognitive biases, debiasing and critical thinking. That’s the “Upgrade Your Mindware” course that is available at the Critical Thinker Academy.
Why? Again, because I was trying to produce something that would be relevant to this new understanding of human nature and the psychology of human reasoning, this new environment that has been forcing me to reassess what it means to be a rational agent and a critical thinker in the real world.
One of the side benefits of this project, I’m happy to say, is that it got me invitations to do some paid speaking on the topic of cognitive biases and critical thinking, for a variety of professional groups, and that whole experience has been really valuable to me. That’s a clue that you’re on to something, when people are willing to pay you to talk about it.
But now we come to the Argument Ninja podcast.
What am I doing with this Argument Ninja theme, and the martial arts themes that have been running through the show? How does it connect to this new perspective on critical thinking that I’ve just spent the last ten minutes describing?
The short answer is that, for me, the martial arts theme has been a very rich source of new ideas and new ways of thinking about this problem.
I’ve been attracted to it for a long time, but at an intuitive level more than anything else. I didn’t have anything systematic worked out in my head before starting the podcast.
And I confess that one of the reasons I’m attracted to the martial arts theme is based on jealousy. I haven’t talked about this on the podcast yet, but as a teacher and a philosopher, I’m totally jealous of martial arts schools.
Jealous about what? Jealous of their popularity, and of the way they’ve managed to serve an important public need outside of traditional educational institutions.
Think about this. I’m currently living in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada. Ottawa is a decent sized city. When I drive around I see martial arts studios everywhere. You might notice this too, depending on where you live.
Google maps shows about 60 martial arts studios in the Ottawa area. 60! I trained at some of them when I was younger. I did a couple of years of karate with Douvris martial arts, I did a couple years of judo at a judo place. In the states I did taekwondo at the school where my kids trained. I’ve always enjoyed my experience in these kinds of studios.
And just think about what most of these schools are offering, outside of the traditional public school system.
First of all, you see all different kinds of styles showing up. It’s quite diverse. There are kung fu styles I didn’t used to see. Mixed martial arts has really popularized jiu-jitsu and muay thai, there’s a lot of interest in this kind of combo training. And a lot of these schools offer fitness training and self-defense classes alongside the traditional martial arts training. Some of the programs have competition teams, some have special weapons classes and weapons competitions. Most of the bigger schools offer programs for different age ranges. Little tykes, kids, youth, adult, sometimes senior classes.
And many programs explicitly offer training that emphasizes character development and leadership skills. This isn’t something that you would expect to see if you weren’t familiar with the culture of martial arts, but as I’ve said before on the podcast, almost every form of organized martial arts has a philosophical core that is important to the identity of the discipline and that teachers promote not just as a system of combat, but as a way of life.
In the schools where I trained, instructors would devote some regular class time to talk about concepts like respect, or perseverance, or courtesy, or integrity.They’d give the basic definition of the concept and we would discuss examples, both inside the dojo and outside, at home or at school or in your workplace. And students would have to know these principles as part of their testing, as a condition for advancement. And the rules of the dojo required that you to practice them, demonstrate them. To test for your black belt you might have to write an essay on some aspect of the philosophy of martial arts training.
Let me just say this again. These schools are providing training in ethics, in decision-making skills, in personal development, in leadership, as an essential part of a martial arts program — a program ostensibly dedicated to the art of combat.
I just find this remarkable.
And it’s all done outside of any state-controlled educational system. And it’s largely decentralized. Yes, if you’re officially a taekwondo school you’re expected to train in the style of that school, and there are international organizations and years of tradition that stipulate what that style should look like. But still, if I want to open a martial arts school I can open a martial arts school. My school’s reputation and the market will decide if I’m successful or not.
Now think about this from my perspective, as a critical thinking educator. The public education system does a horrible job at teaching critical thinking skills. Why? Because it was never designed for that. Despite what they’ll say in their mission statements and learning objectives, that’s not their job.Public schooling does serve a number of important social functions, I’m not anti-schooling — but nurturing our capacity for independent critical thought is not one of them.
If it was, why doesn’t the school system teach logic and argumentation anywhere in the curriculum? Why doesn’t it teach cognitive biases and human reasoning? Why doesn’t it teach genuine science literacy?
It doesn’t because that’s not the primary social function of public schooling.
I know this sounds like a criticism but really, it’s not intended to be. The problem lays with us, with the people who send our kids to school thinking that the state will automatically provide for every valuable form of education.
We have to realize that education is alway for something. State-supported education is designed to serve the state’s interests. An educated workforce is vital to a state’s interests, but in modern industrial technological societies, that interest is defined largely in terms of economic productivity, technological innovation, and vital social services. Public education is organized to serve that end.
That’s the top-level incentive structure that filters back down into professional school curricular, university curricula, high school curricula and even elementary school curricula. Curricula are altered, programs are cut, new ones are added, because of changes in the top-down incentive structure.
Just to give an example, why is it important, from a public education perspective, that Johnny learn how to read, or write, or do basic arithmetic? Every education administrator will tell you, it’s because if Johnny graduates and can’t do these things he won’t be able to get a job, a good job. The labor force needs these basic skills, and Johnny’s ability to participate in the economy will be handicapped if he doesn’t have them.
Which is all true. But what they will not say (at least not at first) is that if Johnny graduates and can’t do these things, his capacity for independent critical thought will be drastically impaired. If you point that out to them they’ll agree with you, but that’s not the first thing that comes to their mind. The economic answer is the one that first comes to mind, and there’s a reason for that.
I could give many examples like this, but you get the point.
The upshot for me, as a critical thinking educator, is that it’s unreasonable to hope that some educational reform movement will come along and make education for critical thinking a priority all of a sudden. That’s not going to happen anytime soon.
However, it’s not pointless to think that individuals and private organizations can’t come together to offer educational services that the public sector doesn’t provide, or doesn’t provide well.
After all, isn’t this what those 60 martial arts school in my city are offering? Individuals and private organizations coming together to offer educational opportunities that the public sector doesn’t provide.
So, getting back to my jealousy, I’m driving around and I come across one of these martial arts academies just around the corner from where I live. The sign says “Florin’s Ultimate Martial Arts Academy: MMA, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo”. It’s a big school, there’s people coming in and out of the doors.
And I ask myself, why couldn’t that sign say “Florin’s Ultimate Critical Thinker Academy”? Or “Martial Arts for the Mind: Get a Black Belt in Thinking”? Or “Argument Ninja Academy”?
Why is that such a crazy idea? Is it a crazy idea?
Imagine a brochure for one of these full-service martial arts academies that offer martial arts classes, fitness classes, self-defense classes, specialty programs, the works. But this one is a full-service critical thinking academy. Critical thinking classes for kids, teens, adults.
I imagine a basic foundations program, that introduces the elements of critical thinking. Critical thinking principles, an introduction to logic and argumentation, an introduction to the psychology of belief and human reasoning, an introduction to persuasion methods, something on learning how to learn. And then you’d have lectures and exercises and training resources and group activities, and you’d progress through a sequence and master more complex skills as you advance.
And you’d need some equivalent of grappling, or sparring, somewhere in the program. Some way of stress-testing your critical thinking skills against real people. Try to make a case for a position and let a small group of peers kick it around, poke holes in it, force you to defend it.
Then with the foundations under your belt you could take more specialized classes. An argument master class, a persuasion master class. A special topics class: reasoning about ethics; reasoning about probability and uncertainty; reasoning about decisions and decision-making; critical thinking about propaganda and power.
Maybe in my school I do my thing, and in Florin’s school around the corner, he does his thing. Maybe he’s an expert in areas that I’m not, so it would make sense for him to offer special classes in those areas.
What if there were a bunch of independent schools like this in the city?
I know this is a fantasy, but sometimes you need to let yourself fantasize to see if there’s a viable idea hidden somewhere.
One obvious objection is that there’s no evidence that there’s a market for this. No one is lining up to say “take my money, I want a critical thinking studio in my neighborhood”.
Maybe so. But markets don’t just always appear on their own. Sometimes they’re created.
Maybe it’s true that there’ll never be a market for this like there is for martial arts schools. Martial arts addresses very basic human needs. Health and fitness. Confidence and self-defense. We see action stars in movies and tv, we see boxing and MMA on tv, that people want to emulate. Martial arts training appeals to fantasies of power and self-mastery.
What fantasies would a critical thinking studio appeal to?
Well, actually, I can think of some.
Some people are attracted to intelligence, verbal dexterity, confidence in one’s ability to express oneself and defend a point of view. There’s a market for what some in the media have called “competence porn”. These are tv shows or stories centered around characters who are conspicuously good at their job, when their job involves thinking and problem-solving of some kind. CSI shows, lawyer shows, eccentric super-detectives like Sherlock Holmes, or the medical version, House; problem-solving heroes like Matt Damon in The Martian.
Then there are icons of wisdom. Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Yoda in Star Wars. You won’t be surprised to learn that as a kid I had a poster of Yoda on my bedroom wall, not Luke Skywalker.
And there are icons of uncomfortable truth, of unmasking, of revelation. Morpheus in The Matrix movies offers Neo a choice, to see the world as it truly is, or to return to a state of ignorance, of slavery.
Critical thinking has a similar power to unmask, to pierce through the veil of appearances to reveal an underlying reality, that some people find very attractive, even if the reality that is exposed is disturbing.
Maybe there’s a bigger market than we think. And maybe there’s not, I don’t know.
But I do know that even if this is a niche market, a small community, if you’ve been listening to this show for the past ten episodes, you’re probably a member of that community.
Maybe that’s enough to get something started.
Now, let me tell you what my concrete plans are.
I’m not under any illusion that I can open up a brick-and-mortar critical thinking studio in my neighborhood. I think that would be a cool experiment to try, but it would take a ton of time and resources that I just don’t have. There’s a richer, more successful version of me who would love to try this out, though.
Here’s what I would like to do. I would like set up a version of this Argument Ninja Academy that I just described, online. A virtual critical thinking studio, separate from the Critical Thinker Academy.
I’m very proud of what I’ve managed to produce at the Critical Thinker Academy. There’s over 20 hours of video content. A bunch of other resources. For a motivated learner, it’s a gold mine of information. If I was twenty years old and stumbled upon this site I have died.
And I get emails that tell me the site is valuable. Some of them urge me to raise my prices. Like this one that I received just a couple of days ago. I’ll read part of it.
“Hello Kevin. No disrespect here. But what you offer is beyond valuable. I was honestly shocked at the prices at which you were offering such eye opening information. But from one entrepreneur to another I believe you need to charge more for what your selling. Don't sell yourself short. What you providing is worth way more than what your charging for it.”
And then the writer goes on to offer some suggestions for building a more exclusive program that offers more structure and more hands-on access to me, something I could charge a higher price for.
This is very much what I’m talking about here.
But to build the program that I want I need a different platform. I need the features of a true learning management system, an LMS.
I need a system that offers lots of opportunities for practice, real assessment tools, a structured sequence where you can’t advance a level unless you can demonstrate a certain level of mastery of the content and the skills. There needs to be an exclusive community component. There needs to be proper assessments, tracking of student progress and certificates of completion. Ideally I’d love some gamification features, like points and badges and levels. If I could structure it all under a martial arts theme that would be cool, with belt colors and all that, but what’s important is the content and the progression.
It should be harder to advance upward as you move along, the way it is in martial arts programs. It should be a real achievement to complete the program, it should really mean something. And that means the farther along you go, the more hands-on I have to be, or other instructors have to be.
And for those who want to become instructors, there should be a track for that.
I know this sounds like me dreaming, but all of this is doable, with enough time and effort.
I’m already working with a cloud-based LMS company that has all these features, and planning out the content sequences.
Of course it’ll take time. Some of the material I’ve made already I can reuse, but some of it will have to be brand new material, designed specifically for this program.
I’ll start with blocking out lecture sequence just in text form, like short book chapters. And I’ll build the quizzes and assignments and assessments based on that content, and just go from there.
In fact, I’m planning on turning these sequences into separate ebooks. I bunch of you have asked me whether I’ll be writing a book soon, and the answer is yes — this is the way I’m going to write it. When this is all done, I’ll have enough material for a big book, or several smaller books.
And this is where this podcast will continue to play a central role in the development of this program. I’ll continue to use the podcast as a way of working out solutions to problems as they come up, and discovering new ways to present a concept or an idea.
So that’s what I would like to do. I hope you’re as excited about the prospect of a virtual critical thinking studio as I am.
This really could be a candle in the darkness.
But now I have to talk about personal realities and financial realities. I need to talk about these because my ability to work on this project depends on these realities.
I work alone, from home. I haven’t received a salary paycheck since May of 2015, when I quit my job at Iowa State University and moved back to Ottawa.
I live with my wife and my 15 year old son. Our daughter is 21 years old and she’s still living in Iowa. I’m financially responsible for almost everything to do with the immediate family, including rent and utilities on the house we’re living in, tuition for my son’s high school, which is a private high school for students with learning disabilities, and insurance, food, gas and car maintenance, you name it. My wife does some fiber arts teaching but we’re in a situation right now where we’re also caring for aging parents, and that limits her ability to work full time.
Our monthly living expenses total somewhere between 5 and 6 thousand dollars. This is before anything is put away for savings or retirement.
The revenue from my online business activities has been slowly increasing over time, but it’s never totaled more than 3500 dollars, and often it’s less.
That’s not terrible. That’s like, 40,000 dollars a year, if I maintained that rate. But it’s nowhere near enough to cover our expenses. Every month there’s a two to three thousand dollar deficit that I have to make up for.
Where does that two to three thousand dollars come from? Brace yourself. It’s coming out of my retirement savings plan.
I know, the financial planners out there are groaning. But hear me out, it’s not as unreasonable as it looks.
For 16 years I accumulated savings in a retirement plan while I was working at Iowa State. That totaled about a quarter of a million dollars by the time I quit in 2015. The plan is very flexible, it doesn’t lock all that money away until I’m 65. Once I left my job I could access most of it.
But the US government would take a hefty chunk of any early withdrawals. Like 20 to 30 percent.
Still, that’s a reasonable nest-egg, and it gave me some flexibility and time to build up my business. Sometimes the price of freedom is high, but it’s a price I would pay all over again.
I had the cash on hand to cut ties with my job, move my family back to Canada, rent a house, pay for my son’s high school tuition, pay for the first year and board of my daughter’s college tuition, and get settled.
And I did this without going into debt. We still have no debt, not even credit card debt.
And we figured we could live on our remaining cash reserves for a couple of years before it ran out.
Entrepreneurs sometimes call this time period where you can finance your life without relying on your business income your “runway”. You reach lift-off when your business can pay your bills, when you’re earning a living wage. Until then you’re still just approaching take-off, and you need tarmac in front of you to keep going.
Any money I make in the business has the effect of extending the runway. But if you can’t achieve lift-off before the tarmac runs out, you crash. Or you shut down the plane before you get to the end.
Well, some unexpected expenses have come up, as they often do. For example, this summer I had to make a payment of 16,000 dollars to the US government for unpaid taxes based on my total income earned last year.
At any rate, I’m in a situation now where the end of the tarmac is in sight, and it’s putting pressure on me to make some decisions.
I won’t keep you in suspense. At the current rate, if things stay the way they are and I’m still down two to three thousand dollars a month, I’ll run out of tarmac around March/April of next year. It’s the beginning of November now, so by next spring, if nothing changes, we’ll be broke.
Now, obviously I’m not going to let that happen. If that’s the trajectory and I have no options, I’ll just stop what I’m doing and look for a different job. It would be the most crushing disappointment of my life, but as a provider you do what you have to do, right?
But there are options, I’m not despairing yet. I’m hoping that you can be a part of the solution, but bear with me.
Let me tell you bit more about where the different parts of my income come from, so you have an idea of what my options are.
One source of income comes from course sales on Udemy, which is a video training marketplace. A second source is course sales on the Critical Thinker Academy site.
Let’s start with Udemy.
I’ve got three courses on Udemy. I’ve got a big critical thinking course that bundles a bunch of tutorial modules together, my cognitive biases course, and my structured approach to essay writing course.
Revenue from these courses varies a lot from month to month. Udemy is a discount-driven business, so most of the purchases are during discount sales where the purchase price is somewhere between 10 and 20 dollars, and unless I’m driving the traffic to Udemy, I only get half of that, Udemy takes the rest.
So on a course priced at 95 dollars, discounted to 10 dollars during a sale, I get 5 bucks for a one-time purchase. But Udemy has millions of customers in its ecosystem, and they’re very good at targeted marketing, so there’s the potential to earn a lot if your course is popular. But it is very much a numbers game.
My monthly revenue from Udemy ranges anywhere between 700 dollars a month to 1100 dollars a month, more if Udemy is doing a big site-wide promotion like on Black Friday week in November, or Back to School sales in August.
My revenue from Udemy has been higher in the past, but Udemy’s business model has changed a lot over the past three years, and my courses got kicked off the rankings when I set them to “free” as part of an experiment I tried a couple of years ago. When I set them back to “paid” I found that Udemy wasn’t promoting them anymore, and it’s taken a long time to rebuild the revenue because so much depends on Udemy’s own promotion efforts.
The way you make real money on Udemy is if you have a bunch of courses, each generating monthly income. It also helps if you pick topics that are in demand by people in the Udemy marketplace. Tech and business courses do very well, humanities courses do quite poorly by comparison. My Critical Thinker course on Udemy is one of the top humanities courses on Udemy, but in general it’s hard to make real money in this niche without having a lot of courses on the platform. The instructors who are doing well on Udemy usually have more than 10 courses, and some have dozens of courses.
I decided last spring that I had to add new courses to Udemy, to help build this revenue stream. I figured if I added just three or four new courses that were popular I could be earning 5000-6000 a month just from those. And that would solve my revenue problem.
The problem is that my courses take quite a bit of time to produce, I can’t dash them off in a couple of weeks.
I spent a couple of solid months building my cognitive biases course, which had about 40 lectures in it and ran for about 2.5 hours.
This summer I started working on a new course that I knew I would enjoy teaching, and that I thought the Udemy audience would enjoy. It’s a course on the philosophy of mind, cognitive science, computers and artificial intelligence. It’s about the arguments for and against the possibility that computers could become conscious, that the brain operates in some way like a computer, that it might be possible one day to upload a person’s mind into a computer or a robot brain, and so on.
I’ve done six videos in this series so far, totaling about an hour of video time, and I realize that I’m just getting started really. If you’re a Patreon supporter or have been following along on the Critical Thinker Academy Facebook page, you’ll have seen these videos.
But, I also started this podcast this summer. So I’ve been working back and forth between the podcast and this new course, which has slowed down the production of the course.
So, one option for me is stop the podcast right now, stop everything to do with the Argument Ninja program, and just put my head down and work on new videos for courses that I can market on Udemy and on my own site. In four months I could have a lot accomplished.
I don’t want to do that, obviously, because I’m really into this Argument Ninja stuff, but I have to take this option seriously.
Let’s move on. I also get revenue from course sales on the Critical Thinker Academy.
In the past I’ve run the Academy as a membership site, I’ve run it as pay-per-course site, I’ve run it as a one-time payment, lifetime access site, and I’ve run it as a free site with a voluntary Patreon crowdfunding model.
Currently I have about two thirds of the content behind a paywall and the remaining third is available for free. Anyone who signs up gets added to my mailing list and that’s been a pretty effective tool for growing the list, which is valuable to me.
But I’ve always been conflicted over the pricing and the business model, as you can tell.
My current site-bundle option is really very cheap, only 49 dollars. And my recurring membership rate is a pay-what-you-want model that starts at $3 a month.
Just focusing on one-time payments on course sales, the site generates between 500 and 1000 dollars in sales on a monthly basis.
So, when you add up one-time course sales on the Academy site and on Udemy, that generates between 1200 and 2200 dollars a month.
Another option for me is to increase the price of the one-time course sales, as my friendly emailer suggested.
One complication is that I have to keep an eye on the differential between the price that I’m offering on my site and the prices on Udemy. If I’m charging way more than people are paying for mostly the same content on Udemy, that’s an issue.
But I want to talk about my other revenue sources, and in particular the recurring revenue sources.
I have a recurring membership option on the Academy site, which I call a Sustaining Membership. I just added this within the past month and half. You can choose a monthly support pledge, starting at $3 a month, and for that recurring payment you get access to everything on the Critical Thinker Academy site.
Over the past month or I’ve added about 20 Sustaining Members, who are pledging about 90 dollars a month in total.
Now, I’ve also been running a Patreon campaign for a while, so that’s another source of recurring revenue. Patreon is a third party platform that lets fans support the work of independent creators by pledging small monthly amounts. It’s very popular with YouTube creators and podcasters.
On Patreon I currently have about 126 active Patrons, and their monthly pledges add up to about 630 dollars. They get the same deal as the Sustaining Members on my site, they all get access to the full content at the Critical Thinker Academy for any recurring pledge of $3 a month or more.
So, altogether, my recurring income is about 720 dollars a month right now. But the Sustaining Memberships are slowly growing, since they’re promoted right on my site when people land there.
When you add this to the one-time course sales, that’s where you get a figure that’s between 2000 and 3000 dollars a month.
I have one other source of monthly income. Google adsense sales from my YouTube videos. Every time someone clicks on an ad, that’s a couple of cents. My Google income is between 130-150 dollars a month, and that’s been pretty steady. So if you add that to the recurring income, it’s pushing 1000 dollars a month.
The final source of income I have is sporadic. It comes from paid, invited speaking gigs, or paid webinars. I don’t do a whole lot of this, but I’d be happy to do a bit more.
Webinars are about 300 dollars an hour. Invited speaking rates depend on the resources of the organization that is inviting me, but 1200 to 1500 dollars is common for a keynote presentation at a professional meeting, with all the expenses paid, including travel and hotel. That’s not a lot for professional speaking, but it’s quite a bit more than you get for academic speaking, unless you’re an academic superstar.
I’ve been doing two or three keynotes a year. It helps. For those months I’m making closer to four or five thousand dollars, which is getting closer to my break-even number.
But it’s not regular recurring income. So another revenue strategy could be amp up my efforts to market myself as a speaker. With the speaking circuit, the more you do it the more you get new offers by word of mouth, so it is possible.
But it’s one thing to enjoy speaking; it’s quite another to enjoy a LOT of speaking. It’s easy to get burned out on travel, it can be exhausting, and the prep time for these talks is often significant, unless you’re doing the same talk over and over.
For these reasons I’ve chosen to focus on the online component of my business. And for the past few months I’ve been focusing on recurring income, giving people reasons to become Sustaining Members or Patreon supporters.
The recurring income has grown, but very slowly.
My option here is basically to promote this option more vigorously. Public television does those pledge drives a couple of times a year, to remind people of what they’re supporting when they support public television.
Well, you can think of this podcast episode as part of my pledge drive.
Here are the facts, as I see them. The only way that I can work on the virtual critical thinking studio, the Argument Ninja training program, that I outlined earlier in this podcast, is if my monthly recurring income shoots up. That means a significant increase in new Sustaining Memberships at the Academy, or new Patreon supporters.
That increase would extend my runway, long enough to allow me to continue working on the podcast, develop content for the new training program, and let me finish the new video courses, like the course I’m working on now on philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence, and put them up on Udemy where they can start earning me money.
My new Udemy courses alone will solve the money problem, if I have the time to develop them. It’s time that I need, and it’s time that I’m running out of.
So I’d like to offer another incentive.
I will be raising the prices on my one-time course purchases, and I will likely be moving more of the free courses behind the paywall.
But if you pledge $3 a month or more, as a Sustaining Member of the Critical Thinker Academy, or as a Patreon supporter, you’ll get full access to all of the video content and resources at the Critical Thinker Academy.
That includes access to all the new courses I’m producing, including the philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence course that I’m in the middle of right now.
And here’s the big one. If you maintain your sustaining membership, it will reserve a seat for you in the new Argument Ninja training program, locked in at the same low monthly rate. I will also invite you to test out the beta versions of the program.
When this program is actually launched, it will be a premium program and I will charge a premium price for new students. Much higher than what you would be paying for a Sustaining Membership right now.
Now, I’m going to put a time limit on this offer, because I need to know if there’s enough support for this sooner rather than later. If I don’t have enough support for this, this is not a viable strategy for me moving forward. I need to know that I won’t go broke in April.
How much is “enough” support? I need evidence that I can hit a thousand sustaining members before the year runs out. A thousand supporters at 3 dollars a month is 3000 dollars, and together with my other revenue streams, that’s a viable plan. That would stop the bleeding and give me time to really work on this project.
So, this offer, to lock in your recurring monthly support pledge for the new Argument Ninja training program, will only apply to current active memberships and memberships that begin before the end of November, 2016. Once December 1st rolls around I’ll know whether there’s enough support to continue this. If it looks promising, I’ll extend the window through December.
If it doesn’t look viable, I’ll very likely choose to drop the whole thing, drop the podcast, and focus my time on finishing the video courses I’m working on and producing new courses for the Udemy marketplace and the Academy site.
I don’t want to do that, but that’s probably the way I’ll go if this doesn’t work out.
So, there are three places you can sign up for a recurring membership.
You can go to criticalthinkeracademy.com, and in the top navigation bar click on “Support” and look for the monthly subscription/sustaining member option.
You can also go to argumentninja.com, and look for the “thanks and support” page in the top navigation bar. You’ll see the same sign-up options there.
The third way is through Patreon. Got to patreon.com/kevindelaplante, and sign up to become a Patron.
Now, in all these options, the base is $3 a month. That’s enough to get all the membership rewards, but if you’ve got the means, there are options to pledge higher monthly amounts, and I’m not going to discourage you from doing that!
But don’t overreach. I have a number of people who pledge 10 or 15 dollars a month and then after a month or two feel pressure to adjust their pledge downward because they’re worried about the balance in their bank accounts. Better to set it to something that you know won’t make you anxious and just forget it.
Thanks for listening. Take care, and I’ll talk to you again soon.