Inviters, Read This

By Os Keyes

This is a short-ish writeup of some thoughts I’ve been having recently about how I want to conduct myself around speaking opportunities in 2020. To summarise:

  1. For a range of reasons I’m not going to be accepting any more speaking opportunities or guest lectures this year;
  2. For people who have already asked me - don’t worry, this does not mean I’m backing out passive-aggressively, I will still do your thing;
  3. This doesn’t mean you should stop asking me if you were thinking of asking me to talk this year!

In more detail:

Why no more talks?

I’ve given kind of a lot of talks in a range of interesting and high-powered places over the last 3 years. I’m extremely grateful to all of the brilliant and kind people who have invited me, and the range of audiences who have welcomed me - I never expected to be “good at” anything, much less academia. But I’m saying no, uniformly, to any more talks over the next 12 months.

There are a range of reasons; some are professional and practical, and some are personal and practical. The professional reasons can be summarised as “I am incredibly fucking tired”; going to give talks is a lot of work because I hate giving the same presentation twice, which means that every time someone invites me, I want to be able to show them a new project. And, frequently, I do - I take some idea I’ve been working on and prototype it through a talk.

Except: when you do talks regularly, and you prototype new ideas every time, what you get is a load of powerpoint presentations that could be papers - but practically, never will be, because the time you’d use for turning them into papers is taken up by writing more powerpoint presentations. This isn’t sustainable; I do the work I do because I would like to believe the injustices I surface are important to address. An audience at a talk is much narrower and less enabled to springboard off what I say than the audience for a paper. I need to spend more time writing, and less time speaking, and those two things are tradeoffs against each other. So this year is going to be about writing and tuning up the work I have done, rather than starting new things.

More important though are the personal reasons. All of us are deeply flawed people, but right now it feels like I’m a lot more flawed than most. The writing and reading and talking chunk of the academy; that I’m good at. But particularly recently, I’m not exactly shining at the interpersonal - at creating spaces that people are comfortable entering as well as interested in entering. And the fact of the matter is I have kind of a profile at this point, which I never expected, inside and outside my institution.

Given my need to suck less as a human being, and this profile - well, stepping back gives me more capacity to work on me, and work on repair. But it also avoids accruing more power and more of a reputation that I do not believe I deserve at the moment. Structures need good foundations, and so until I’ve iterated on my own, I am uncomfortable stepping up on stage - doing so is an implicit claim that people should emulate me, in whatever way, and I’m not okay with that right now.

This profile also creates a weird tension where people who do seek to emulate me are setting themselves up for failure. If a first-year PhD student sees my speaking schedule, say, last year, they end up worrying they’re falling behind if they aren’t speaking at Harvard and Oxford and etc etc within 24 months. What they don’t see is the sheer, flukey luck of the chain of coincidences that led to those opportunities; the network of people I am lucky enough to have to draw on; the fact that, in purely practical terms, I make more money than them and so prototyping talks or easing the financial burden at the institutional side for talks is more viable. I do not want to be setting expectations I cannot meet; I also do not want to be setting expectations other people can’t.

So: this year is going to be about writing and thinking and improving. Not about speaking.

But what about my talks?

If I have already agreed to give a talk at your institution - I think there are a couple of guest lectures, but that’s about it? - or expressed interest, I am still doing that talk. I do not want to go back on my word. But that’s it; if you were planning on contacting me about talks, I’m not going to be replying with a yes.

But! You should absolutely still reach out to me if you need a speaker. I am lucky enough to be in a community of people much, much smarter than me, studying pretty much all the things I do, but often without the same easy access and privilege for speaking (and the CV line that comes with it). If you were thinking of asking me to talk on a topic, please drop me a note and I am happy to recommend someone else who will, frankly, probably do an even better job :).