As I think back on my allies in making my transition from teenager to independent adult and beyond, I can distinguish two phases.
In the first phase, my main ally was my family. They only did one thing, but a very important one: they supported me while I was at university, until my first degree. So far so good.
In the second phase, starting at age 21-22, I found allies in a string of university professors that encouraged me to try out some out-of-the-box thinking, and helped me to create a context in which that could happen. It all started when I was still an undergraduate. My Industrial Organization teacher, Sebastiano Brusco, asked me if I already had a supervisor for my thesis. Actually yes, I had been speaking to one of the teachers. “Do what you want - he said - but if you want to it with me, I would be interested. I would put you to work on environmental economics, which I am becoming interested in.” I could not pass on that. Environmental economics was almost unheard of in a peripheral university in 1987! So we did the thesis together. As the work came to a close, he asked me what I was going to do once I graduated. I said I wanted to go into journalism (I worked as a part-time journalist during university). “Do what you want - he said - but I think you would be making a mistake if you did not go into research. When you are through with your army service look me up, I think I can find you something to do.” I did, and ended up a researcher in environmental economics. Later, Sebastiano and three of his former students (me included) started a small research company in that area that still exists. Later still, when I decided I needed to go back to school, Sebastiano helped me look for a scholarship and recommended I do a certain M.Sc. course at University College London.
Much later, after a long foray into, uh, rock music, I decided to go back to economic research. My old teachers, whom I had stayed in touch with, invited me to a seminar held by an American historian-mathematician-statistician (!) called David Lane. At first I was extremely scepical: I just could not even understand his terminology. Ontological uncertainty? Agent-artifact space? Scaffolding structures? But I was intrigued enough to look it up, and so I came into contact with the radically interdisciplinary approach to science associated with the Santa Fe Institute (whence David comes). David did not mind me nosing around his stuff, and told me I was welcome to go along to his Ph.D. courses, though I was not enrolled. For a while I tried to put David’s thinking into practice with my own work as an independent economist. That went reasonably well, but it was clear that I needed a more structured way of thinking: I needed theory. And I conceived this completely crazy idea that you can design emergent social dynamics in online communities. “Designing emergence” is almost a contradiction in terms, a little like “whitening black” or “cooling heat”, but I was able to come up with a research strategy that sounds promising enough: it entails creating a software for augmenting online community management that I call Dragon Trainer. So I talked to David, and he went: “Great! I am not sure you can do this at all, but let’s try anyway”. He offered me to bake my idea into in some research projects he had in mind; we did so, our bids for funding were successful, and we managed to fund my scholarship.
Thanks to an old classmate of mine turned professor himself, Giovanni Ponti, I found an University willing to take me on as a Ph.D. student without insisting in me doing yet another master in Economics (no more sitting in a classroom for me, thanks). Since Dragon Trainer requires doing a lot of network anaysis, Giovanni hooked me up with one of Europe’s most prominent network scientists, Fernando Vega-Redondo. I attended Fernando’s Ph.D. course on complex social networks, and he amazed me by asking me to collaborate on yet another research project, that builds on a simple, but groundbreaking idea derived from my “designing emergence” framework!
I am not an academic, and probably never will be. I started to follow that career path in the 90s, but then discarded it. But, along my journey, academia has been a very useful place for me to find space and help to think radically, beyond day-by-day work. The pattern has been to approach first-rate academics with specific and ambitious requests: I found out that they enjoy the intellectual kick they get from hanging out with people different from their own departmental tribes; and that they will help if they can.