What being a philosophy professor taught me about starting a business


I’m about to break my own rule. Ready?

Since the dawn of time, human beings have debated whether technology is good for us…

50908322 - bearded wise man dispensing wisdom
50908322 – bearded wise man dispensing wisdom

This type of introductory statement is cringe-inducing to me and all of my professor (and former professor) friends. It’s trite; it’s predictable; it’s chock-full of vague concepts; and worst of all, it’s false for more than one reason. But no matter how many times I warn my Philosophy 101 students against using it (backing up my warnings with explicit threats to lower their grades, of course), some of them always start their papers with it anyway. Why? They do it because they think it makes them sound profound.

Well, I’m not starting my blog post with this statement because I want to sound profound (thankfully, my own wonderful professors patiently broke me of this habit long ago).

Instead, I want to discuss leveraging your past to launch your future. Although I have one foot out the door of academia’s ivory tower, my time spent building my career as a professor taught me valuable lessons about building my business.


First lesson: Don’t try to be something you are not, i.e., profound.

I’m not just picking on my students here either. There are very few people I would count as being really and truly profound. Plato and maybe Aristotle come to mind. Actually, my students are simply trying to do exactly what most of the rest of us do—fake it until we make it. If you are in business for yourself and especially if you are a babe in entrepreneur-land, like me, faking it until you make it is a way of life. But we all know the difference between playing up your experience and pretending to be something you’re not just to make a sale or grab a client. I avoid this by focusing on figuring out how I can use my skills to benefit others.

So, what are the most beneficial skills I have gained from my first career?

Resourcefulness – When I started this post, I thought it would be about the advantages of face-to-face meetings for freelancers (then I thought it would be about my struggles with technology…). I have met so many freelancers who would rather crawl over broken glass than attend a meeting. I get it. We have all sat through meetings that were a total waste of everyone’s time (believe me, academic meetings are some of the worst) and I’m definitely on the eliminate-all-meetings bandwagon. But since embarking on this new career path, I have had only a handful of meetings and—Guess what? None of them has been a total waste of time. In fact, I have discovered a new appreciation for other entrepreneurs who have been generous enough to sit down with me for a brief-ish, one-on-one conversation. They are some of the most valuable resources out there. I can’t seem to soak up enough of their insight and nothing is more inspiring than hearing about how others have overcome challenges in life and business.

There is no doubt that being a professor has made me more resourceful. Being a faculty member is more like being an independent contractor than being part of a neatly organized corporate hierarchy. I have been totally frustrated with this system at times, but it did teach me very quickly how to seek out and distinguish resources from time-sucks.

Self-discipline – On a related note, you can bet that anyone who makes it though a credible PhD program honestly and in a reasonable amount of time has more self-discipline (not to mention Grit, or whatever the most recent buzzword happens to be) than the average person. Deadlines are generally not enforced in academia, at least among those of us in the humanities. Most of the time, you are free to set your schedule and free to fail to meet your own self-imposed deadlines. It’s not unusual for a book manuscript to be accepted for publication, only to appear in print years down the road (or never at all, since the mere acceptance is often sufficient for promotion) because the author took so long returning the final draft to the editor.

In business, being able to meet deadlines is key. I thought making this adjustment would be a lot harder for me than it was. I find that having clear, specific deadlines actually makes it easier for me to perform. I still procrastinate more than I should, but now getting paid is actually linked to meeting deadlines. It’s surprisingly calming to face that kind of accountability.

Being able to engage an audience – I consider my greatest strength to be my ability to engage with an audience. There’s a good reason that communication skills are in such high demand among employers. It’s because business is all about communication. To win over clients, you have to be able to communicate your value. To scale your business, you have to be able to communicate expectations to employees. etc. And being able to engage well with various audiences is challenging.

When I first started teaching philosophy, I would prepare for class with a vision of the ideal student in mind. Naturally, my vision of the ideal student looked a lot like me. As you can imagine, class went horribly wrong that first semester. But I quickly learned that most of the students I was teaching were not mini me’s (shocker, I know). I chose readings I thought my students would understand and better relate to. I started using tons of pop culture examples because, oddly enough, I noticed that they perked up when I started poking fun at the Kardashians.

Through teaching, I came to realize that philosophical ideas could be wrapped up in complicated packages or they could be unpacked in fun ways that make them easier to digest. The same is true of non-philosophical ideas. There are certainly other ways to learn how to effectively engage with an audience. But from my experience, there’s nothing like the challenge of getting up in front of a room full of sleep-deprived undergrads, who would rather be almost anywhere than sitting in class, three times a week.

I didn’t always think this way. Not only have I transformed my vision of my ideal student, I’ve also transformed my vision of my ideal self. But I’m a work in progress. I have further to go and so do you.

If you think I could put any of my skills to work for you, please contact me. Now that you know how much I love brief-ish one-on-one conversations, you have no excuse, right?


  1. Want more volume from your choir? Consider the physics of your space.
  2. When it comes to sound, knowing a little physics can go a long way.
  3. Quick and easy physics tips to make your choir sound heavenly.
  4. Use the science of sound to make your choir sound heavenly.

As an audio contracting firm with over 30 years of experience, Crookston Audio has seen most, if not all, of the problems associated with worship service sound systems. But the most common request we hear from customers is for more volume from their choir microphones. Customers often say, “I can’t get enough level out of our choir microphones,” or “we don’t have any headroom on our choir microphones,” or “even when I turn the volume all the way up, our choir just doesn’t sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.” A pastor even once said to us, “I want the choir microphones to be able to take a whisper and turn it into a shout.”

Whenever we talk to customers looking for more volume, we explain that while sound systems amplify sound, they can’t defy the laws of physics. Or, as we told the good paster (in the nicest way possible), if he wanted a whisper to be turned into a shout, he probably should talk to God about changing the laws of physics. While we can’t make your 15-20 member ensemble sound like the 300+ voices of the Mormon Tabernacle choir, we can help your choir sound its very best.

So what do you need to know about the physics of sound to get the most out of your worship service sound system?

Don’t worry, we won’t introduce a bunch of complicated math. (Don’t get us wrong, the math is important, but you don’t need to be a math genius to run your system efficiently.) But knowing a just a little about the physics of sound will help you make your choir sound better than you could have imagined.

Let’s dig in:

Why does the microphone feedback when I turn up the volume? 

Often when you turn up the volume on your choir, the microphone produces feedback (that annoying screeching sound). Why does this happen? The answer is simple: a microphone causes feedback when it ‘hears’ the sound coming out of the loudspeaker array louder than it ‘hears’ the sound coming from the original source (for example, the singer, speaker, or musical instrument).

The key to solving this problem is to change the relationship between the microphone, the sound source, and the speakers. To avoid feedback either make the source louder or make the speakers quieter. This is often easier said than done.

Let’s look closely at each solution.

First, how do you make the source louder?

One way to make the source louder is to move the microphone closer to the source. For example, if your microphone is placed 4 feet from the choir and you move it in 2 feet, you gain 6 decibels of volume without turning a knob on the mixer. Additionally, most choir microphones have roughly a 120º cone-shaped pickup pattern so you can get the mic closer to the choir by arranging the singers in an arcing pattern. Place the nearest voices off center and the furthest voice on center around the mic. If your microphones are hanging from the ceiling, place the front row of the choir almost directly under the mic element and aim the element directly at the last row of your choir to get approximately the same source level for each section. We always err on the side of too close, as louder is always better. If you experiment with microphone placement, you will be surprised by the changes in volume you can achieve.

Another obvious way to get the source louder is to turn up the volume on the source. This can be easy or very very hard depending on the source. If you are amplifying a guitar cabinet or other electrical music source, simply turn up the instrument. If your problem is with a human voice, though, things can get a bit dicey. When we test choir microphones, we have one person stand in front of a mic and sing. If the microphone can reproduce that single voice at a high level, then we know we have things right because 20 voices are going to be much louder. However, we have seen choirs perform that we swear were lip-syncing. In this case, the choir director has to make it clear to the singers that they need to project their voices. Since we haven’t yet perfected a system that telepathically delivers a performance, your choir has to sing out.

Second, how do you make the speakers quieter?

Although it can be relatively easy to move microphones closer to the source, moving them away from speakers is a bit more complicated. In every indoor space, there is a point in the room referred to as the “critical distance.” This is the point at which sound traveling away from the speaker array remains at a constant level. This is the ideal point to place your microphones.

Typically, this “sweet spot” is at about 1/3 of the overall volume of the room. But many features about your worship space can affect the critical distance. For example, the acoustics of the space, which depends on everything from the type of flooring to what the walls are made of, will change the distance and consistency of sound traveling through the room. Also, we can change the critical distance by changing the directionality or Q of the speakers. Speakers with a high Q push the critical distance further into the room, while a more reverberant space shortens the critical distance.

To get the most volume and highest quality sound from your system, it’s a good idea to find the critical distance in your space. Don’t worry, it takes just a few easy steps: (1) get an omni-directional microphone (ideally, something like a wireless omni-directional lavaliere works best); (2) sit in the furthest seat in the house and bring the microphone up in gain just below feedback; (3) now slowly walk the microphone towards the front of the room nearer to the speaker(s). When it goes into feedback you have found the critical distance of your room, at least at the feedback frequency. Outside this point you have as much separation from the speakers as you are going to achieve in a given space. Anything inside the critical distance is going to ‘hear’ the speaker array at a progressively louder level resulting in feedback.     

Shouldn’t I simply place the microphones behind the speakers?

While it is true, to a point, that being behind the speakers is a big help in limiting what the microphone ‘hears,’ it does not change the critical distance; especially at the low end of the frequency band. Can you hear the main speaker system while standing on stage?  Of course. And so can your microphones. Ultimately, you want to get your choir microphones as close to the critical distance line as possible. In large spaces this is nearly impossible because 1/3 of the room’s volume will be well beyond the entire stage or platform. This is one of the reasons why delay speakers are used in larger spaces.  Note: This experiment can also point to a need for new speakers, which better accommodate the acoustics of your worship space.

Finally, if you turn down the volume on your speakers all the way, you will find that your feedback problem is solved. Of course, this isn’t very helpful, since then you won’t have any reinforcement. But keep in mind that you can turn up or down specific frequencies of sound to avoid feedback too. This is what we do when we equalize your sound system.

If you are lucky, the frequencies that need to be turned down are not the ones you also want to amplify. For choir microphones, pulling out frequencies below 100Hz or above 10,000Hz is not going to effect the volume of the microphone all that much; so if this is where your feedback occurs, feel free to chop away. On the other hand, if you are pulling out frequencies of 400Hz to 2,000 or 3,000Hz, you may as well be turning the microphone down. You can do this with the trim, fader, or EQ. There’s no real difference here, volume is volume.

Do you need more expensive microphones to get the results you want?

One last thing before we go. Years ago, a customer of ours wanted to purchase a set of well-regarded, but high-priced choir microphones believing all the hype about their performance virtues. We warned him that such fairy tales seldom come true. But he had his heart set on trying them, so try them we did.  The microphones sounded great but could they be made any louder than the typical $200.00 choir mic. What do you think?  Can a microphone move itself closer to the source? Can it make the source louder? Can it change the critical distance of the space? Can it turn the speaker array down? Well if you answered ‘no’ to any of the above questions, congratulations you get it.

Now you know adjusting the volume on your sound system is not just a matter of turning a knob or pushing a fader. If you are having trouble getting the volume you need or hearing a lot of feedback, when you turn up your microphones, it’s time to consider the physics of your layout. The experts at Crookston Audio are happy to come in and help you figure out the best options for your space. Contact us today!

Copyright : Ken Cook