I am currently in the process of putting together a talk for aspiring law professors, as part of an Institute for Humane Studies program. One of the questions that I expect to get asked is how to decide what subjects to write on. I think the best answer is given in Chuck Yeager’s autobiography, which I recently read:
If you love the hell out of what you’re doing, you’re usually pretty good at it, and you end up making your own breaks….
I wasn’t a deep, sophisticated person, but I lived by a basic principle: I only did what I enjoyed.
Some professors will tell younger scholars that if you want to get ahead, you should write on “hot” subjects or those that are ideologically congenial to other academics and hiring committees. But, as Yeager recognized, most people do their best work when they focus on issues that actually interest them. Yeager became the greatest test pilot of his time in part because he loved flying jet fighters more than anything else in the world. If you want to be a top scholar, it helps to write about things you “love the hell out of.”
You don’t have to love your work as much Yeager did to be successful. But it’s generally better for your career to do good work on issues that you really care about than weaker work on issues that are more trendy or ideologically safer. And if you don’t get ahead as much as you would like, at least you will have spent your time doing something interesting, so it won’t be a total waste.
UPDATE: I suppose I should emphasize that I am not suggesting that how much you love the subjects you write about is the only determinant of how successful you are, or even always the main one. Obviously, other factors – talent, experience, luck – matter too. The point, however, is that choosing subjects you love often greatly increases your chances of becoming a successful academic, even though it certainly doesn’t guarantee success. I would also add that if you love two or three different subjects about equally, it makes sense from a career standpoint to choose the one that is most likely to be well-received by other academics.
I think Yeager was making a similar point about his own career. Obviously, his love of flying wasn’t the only cause of his extraordinary success. But it was an important factor.