Farewell to ARI Fellow Don Watkins

Next week, we bid a fond farewell to our colleague Don Watkins, a fellow at ARI, who’s moving on to a new chapter in his career. I’ve worked with Don for more than eleven years in my role as ARI’s senior editor and trainer. I’ve been pleased to observe, and actively foster, his growth as an Objectivist intellectual. Indeed, the arc of Don’s development is worth reflecting on. It’s a testament to the critical importance of ARI’s substantial, long-term investment in training what Ayn Rand called “new intellectuals”  — professional writers, speakers and teachers willing to challenge current trends and advocate reason, egoism, and laissez-faire capitalism.

Even before joining ARI’s staff in 2006, Don enrolled in the Objectivist Academic Center, the Institute’s online learning program. At the OAC we offer free courses and seminars to people around the world who want to develop a deeper understanding of Objectivism and its perspective on crucial intellectual and cultural issues, and then to use this knowledge in their chosen careers. We’re particularly interested in anyone who wants to become a professional intellectual. When Don started the OAC, he was already an active blogger and writer, and it was clear he had considerable raw talent. The training he received at the OAC put him further down the road toward his goal of becoming a professional intellectual.

Don has often shared the story of his first assignment in my course on philosophy. In his telling, he poured his heart into the assignment and, after many hours, felt confident in his understanding of the issue and proud of his paper — only to discover, when he received my written feedback, that there were many holes in his analysis and many assertions masquerading as arguments. But what Don didn’t know at the time is that I’m deliberately hard on our brightest, most promising students, both to try to push them to the deeper, fundamental thinking that philosophy requires and to assess their ability to digest critical but constructive feedback; Don certainly proved himself capable of doing both. Much the same thing happened in the advanced courses on writing that I and Keith Lockitch taught. One of Don’s first op-eds for ARI began as an assignment in the OAC. It’s a marker of how much knowledge and skill is required to do intellectual work that it took months for Don to transform his initial draft into a publishable op-ed.

When Don joined ARI in 2006, in addition to continuing to take courses and seminars in the OAC’s multi-year program, in which he was a top student, he began to work more and more closely with me and Yaron Brook, ARI’s executive chairman. Don and Yaron went on to co-author a column for Forbes.com, along with numerous articles, and two books, for which I was the editor, giving extensive, ongoing feedback on successive drafts. Free Market Revolution, Don and Yaron’s 2012 book, was a national bestseller that garnered well-deserved acclaim.

Along with many blog posts and op-eds, Don wrote RooseveltCare: How Social Security Is Sabotaging the Land of Self-Reliance (ARI Press, 2013), a monograph on entitlements, and he launched a related podcast series, the Debt Dialogues. Last year, he and Yaron co-authored Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality.

Don’s ambition, results-driven mindset, and embrace of feedback have enabled him to blossom as a writer and thinker. It’s been heartening to watch him grow from a student passionate about Rand’s ideas to a professional intellectual equipped to articulate an Objectivist perspective at the podium, on the air, in print — and do it so effectively.

Don’s told me how much he’s learned thanks to his time studying and working at ARI, both from the ample intellectual discussion and feedback, especially from Yaron and from his manager for the past several years, ARI’s Director of Policy, Elan Journo, and from the hard work and example of all his colleagues at ARI, who have helped make Rand’s life-affirming philosophy more prominent. I certainly know that I, Yaron and all of ARI’s staff have gained tremendously from having Don as a colleague. And although he’s leaving, Don’s moving on to work alongside a former ARI fellow and OAC alumnus, to continue to advance our shared ideals.

Don is joining the Center for Industrial Progress, which was founded by Alex Epstein. Alex, the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, was also a writer and fellow on our staff, from 2004 to 2011, during which time Yaron and I invested similar efforts in helping foster his development as a thinker, writer and speaker. Don, Alex: we wish you continued success!

I consider the existence of CIP and now its hiring of Don as two indicators among many of how the Objectivist movement is growing. This growth is crucial to the Institute’s mission of advancing Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. And crucial to this growth is ARI’s extensive, focused, long-term investment in training new intellectuals.

I know Don joins me in offering heartfelt thanks to the numerous ARI contributors who, with their generous funding across many years, have made our work — and development — possible.