Michael Ashcroft

This is my notebook, where I publish nascent ideas as part of my daily writing practice.

June 23, 2021 11:01
🌴 In my oasis delightful gardens shall grow

It's astonishing how, when you find the right metaphor, what was once confusing and opaque suddenly becomes obvious and clear. This recently happened for me about *gestures vaguely* all this online stuff.

I was introduced to the idea of an online oasis by Rob Hardy, who I consider it my very good fortune to get to know over the last few months:

An oasis is a small patch of fertile ground in a desert. It’s a refuge from a hostile world. A place where one can let their guard down. Where they can finally, if only for a brief time, be themselves. The internet is just such a desert.

The idea of cultivating an oasis on the Internet in which people can take refuge, explore and perhaps get a little lost appealed to me immediately. At first my idea was for Expanding Awareness, my new Alexander Technique blog, to be its own oasis. That was a step in the right direction, but something still didn’t feel quite right.

But last night, while talking to Rob, it all came together: everythingI publish is the oasis. All of it.

Going a level deeper, perhaps I am the oasis. That may sound a little self-aggrandising, but what I mean to point to is the perspective that everything I publish is building an interconnected little world of stories, ideas and adventures.

This has become increasingly clear as I’ve seen many people pop up across my different channels and engage with a broad range of topics I talk about, rather than sticking to specific ones. They’re wandering around and exploring my oasis.

The idea that it’s all one cohesive, continuous oasis is a powerful shift for me, but the metaphor is still slightly incomplete. It needs one small addition, which is that my oasis contains a number of gardens that I cultivate.

These gardens are unique. They have their own style and vibe, there are different types of trees. Some have water, some have projector screens and music, some have sculptures while some have mazes and playgrounds. Some have a fence around them, with keys to the gates available for purchase.

There are paths that lead from garden to garden, some obvious and signposted, others hidden and surprising. Different people may choose to gather in different gardens, guided by their own desires. They may follow different paths.

And I shall tend to the gardens, creating spaces where people can take refuge from the desert of the Internet, planting new seeds and laying down paths of interconnection.

What does this mean in practice? It means a couple of things.

It means behaving as if ‘the people in the oasis’ share that fact in common. While they may be in different gardens, they are still in the same oasis. No longer will I think of “YouTube subscribers”, “Thinking Out Loud subscribers” and “Twitter followers” as different groups. They are all already in the oasis, they just either haven’t discovered the other gardens, or they have and those gardens simply do not interest them, and this is fine. This is a non-coercive oasis.

One simple step bringing newsletter subscribers onto one master email list, segmented by garden, of course. At some point soon I will import Thinking Out Loud subscribers into ConvertKit. I have some hangups to work through here around ‘becoming or being seen to be Internet Marketing Guy’ (I am not that), but those are not dealbreakers and I can navigate my way through them. I will still do all this my way.

And I will make all this clear so that people can opt out and leave whenever they want. My oasis is not the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like and you can always leave.

This shift also liberates me from worrying about the ‘scope’ for each garden. No, it’s all one oasis. Where it’s right for there to be a path from one garden to another, I will create that path. I will make the boundaries blurry, encouraging people to leave gardens and explore the others.

Finally, I want to focus on delighting visitors to my oasis (another of Rob’s ideas) at every opportunity. That feeling when you’re wandering along a hidden path and you discover that tiny, thoughtful sculpture that speaks directly to your heart. I want those experiences to be everywhere.

I think that’s all on this for now. It may not sound like much from the insight, but from the inside it clarifies so much and gives me permission to keep playing. I’m excited to see how this grows! Who knows, maybe one day, before too long, there’ll be gardens in the real world as well, and the digital and physical will blend together cohesively.

For the record, here are the current gardens as I see them:

June 22, 2021 9:23
Stopping the habitual suppression of creative ideas

I’ve noticed an interesting tendency in myself as I’ve once again picked up regular creative output of the ‘make something every day’ kind, where my intention is to publish a new YouTube video and/or a new notebook post every day.

This tendency is my mind’s habit of discounting potential video or notebook ideas almost as if they’re unworthy of consideration.

On the face of it this might seem sensible. I mean, not every idea is good and should be broadcast to the world, right?

I’m not sure.

My first objection to this tendency is that it seems to happen almost beneath the level of conscious awareness. I may be casually mind-wandering in the shower, have a classic shower thought on something I could write about, and immediately and almost imperceptibly suppress that idea by this “nah” process.

Well, hang on, many of the times when I catch these ideas for long enough to actually make something out of them, they’re often pretty good, or contain sufficient amounts of ‘good’ for me to then craft them into something worth developing further. That alone suggests that this tendency is in some way overpowered and is acting against my own interests.

My second objection is that this entire game of making things every day is to support my desire to prolific, and being prolific requires having a vast abundance of ideas to draw upon. Sitting down for half an hour every day trying to think of things to write notebook posts about is a bad strategy if I only want to spend half an hour every day writing notebook posts.

If there is a deeper, creative part of me that is gently feeding me ideas — and there must be, because I’m increasingly confident that ‘the I that thinks’ (left hemisphere?) is not capable of original thought; it can’t create things from nothing — then I want to cultivate the ability to turn down the other parts of me that habitually interfere with it.  That was once hell of a sentence but let’s roll with it.

So in fact, this entire creative project is a frame that allows me to do that. Each time I consciously note the fact that I am having ideas that I am then almost automatically suppressing, I can assert that I welcome the idea, that I no longer wish to suppress ideas, and so change my habitual response. Bonus points, I guess, if I actually make things from those ideas.

And for completion, this post was brought to you by one of the ideas that I noticed myself almost suppressing in the shower. I welcome the ideas.

I just thought it was pretty
June 21, 2021 11:50
Greasing the creative groove

Greasing the groove is an expression from the world of strength training, apparently coined by the god of kettlebell training Pavel Tsatsouline, which means to put in consistent regular practice around a specific exercise. For example, if you had a pull up bar in a doorway at home, doing one or two pull ups every time you walk past it would be greasing the groove. This gradual, consistent practice helps you put in a lot of volume(total number of pull ups) that you would struggle to do all at once, and it conditions you to become better at pull ups in general.

I’ve noticed a similar effect around my creative output.

If I’m in a period where I’m making and publishing something every day then making and publishing something every day feels easy. I have a sense of competence, I can see my skill improving, and the idea of sitting down to write an essay or record a YouTube video seems welcoming.

The inverse is also true.

If I take some time ‘off’ making things then it’s inevitable that getting back into the creative routine will feel excruciatingly difficult. Returning to the pull up analogy, going from zero to high volume all at once is difficult, will exhaust me very quickly and may even injure me. Doing one or two pull ups every couple of hours lets me do a lot of pull ups without breaking myself (although doing high volumes of only one movement may create its own wear and tear problems, so still make sure you have a well balanced training routine).

I think this is why ‘make 100 things’ is excellent advice for people getting started on a creative journey, because it sets up a volume-based frame that clearly can’t be done all at once. If you want to write 100 newsletters, you’ll need to do that regularly and consistently enough that it doesn’t feel like too much of a chore.

But this principle is also useful to bear in mind when returning from a creative break, whether intentional or not. I just spent a couple of weeks on holiday (well, my partner was on holiday and we went somewhere, but holidays take on a different meaning when there’s no job to holiday from). But even before that I was in a bit of a creative meh zone.

And that’s okay. Upon falling off a wagon, chastising oneself for not being on the wagon is possibly the least helpful thing that can be done. Certainly it’s useful to consider the conditions that led to falling off the wagon, but ultimately the point is to get back on it.

That’s where greasing the creative groove comes back in. After a few weeks of not doing pull ups, doing pull ups again is hard. After a few weeks of not making things, making things again is hard. So grease the creative groove. Create a kind of re-start routine that reminds the nervous system (or whatever it is) how to make things again.

The flywheel analogy also works well here. Once spinning, the angular momentum of the flywheel will tend to keep it spinning. When stationary, the lack of angular momentum will tend to keep it stationary, and it takes a lot of energy to get it back up to speed.

When the flywheel is stationary, again, don’t yell at it for not spinning. Give it the consistent energy it needs to spin.

For me, greasing the creative groove looks like my single-take ad lib YouTube videos and these notebook posts. Activities like these help spin up my creative flywheel, the energy of which I need in order to make more challenging things, like long-form essays and online course materials.

June 19, 2021 17:47
Being self-directed is its own work

This might be a little self-therapy, but whatever, it’s my notebook and I can do what I want.

I just made a YouTube video on this subject, which is front of mind following a conversation with my friend Salman. I’m going the other way this time and doing some writing after having made the video

In short, the idea is that being self-directed is itself a kind of work, and one that I, at least, am not taking seriously. And by that I don’t mean “I’m not doing it”, although a compelling case could be made for that, but “I keep forgetting that this is a kind of work and as a result of this I’m being unkind to myself.”

For the entire time I was employed I was given some combination of tasks, projects, or objectives. These set the frame of my work and gave me a sense, to some degree of specificity, of what I should be doing with each day, a guide as to what was important and so where I should focus.

The important words there are “I was given”. This, on reflection, is an indication of work that needed to be done that I was not doing.

This becomes immediately clear to anyone who has been a manager (of people, not of projects, because amusingly those things don’t always go together). There are moments when your reports come to you asking what they should be doing or, if you’re a good manager, moments when you anticipate that your reports will at some point relatively soon come to you asking you what they should be doing.

And those moments do not represent easy, casual tasks that can be done with a slight hangover. These moments represent a wide situational awareness, detailed knowledge of what everyone is doing, a quick assessment of this person’s skills and inclinations, and a hundred other things. All of these things, in fact, are the true work of the manager and can easily fill up all of said manager’s time.

So when I quit my job to embark on this self-directed life, and from a management position no less, it’s remarkable that I completely forget this pretty salient piece of wisdom. Each day is now a wide open space of possibility… which is great, but also points to a pretty strong need to fill it in a useful way.

In the absence of a boss, I need to be the manager of my own life. And not only the manager, but every function of the company, too. That’s all on me now. Marketing, strategy, product, HR, finance, that exuberant external motivational speaker who comes in for away days and then is never seen again. All of them.

The point of this post is not for this to be an insightful addition to the world. It’s more like a reminder to myself, and perhaps people like me, that all of these things require focused attention. They are work. It’s not only okay to spend time on them, but vital.

After a career where I spent most of my time as the doer, or the manager of doers, I need to remember that a day reflecting on what I should be doing is probably not a wasted day. Sure, there are better and worse ways of doing this, but the point stands: if I’m tired at the end of the day and all I can point to is “well I wrote a few hundred words of something”, that’s almost certainly neglecting a couple of hours worth of ‘reflecting on the big picture, thinking about what I should be doing, worrying if I’m doing the right thing’ and so on.

And again, there are better and worse ways of doing THAT stuff as well, and I certainly intend to get better at it, because being bad at it is both exhausting and doesn’t get me anywhere.

But the larger point stands: that stuff does exist, it’s valid, and it needs to be brought back into scope of how I treat my days.

This is a stock photo of "Young Successful Manager Looking At Camera While His Colleagues Talking On The Background", which made me laugh
March 27, 2021 20:30
Fumbling for legibility in Alexander Technique

I am frustrated.

It’s a familiar frustration though, because it’s the same one that comes up again and again when I try to communicate Alexander Technique to someone new. I enjoy talking about it, but it’s just so hard.

Here’s the problem. Alexander Technique is really hard to describe, in part because it is genuinely a complex thing and, perhaps more importantly, because I suspect it literally deals with the parts of our brains that don’t have language. I’m not sure of that, but I have a strong hunch. That means that any attempts to put language on it are always like fingers pointing towards the moon.

I really want to be able to describe and teach Alexander Technique well. I didn’t know this would end up becoming my thing, but I really I want to make Alexander Technique legible and to find ways to spread it far and wide. Given what Alexander Technique deals with (and this note is not about that), I can’t help but think that these ideas would be of great benefit to the world if more widely known, grokked and applied. Literally world shaping.

Maybe I’m frustrated because Alexander Technique seems inherently illegible. But, frankly, I’m also frustrated because as I look around the profession I don’t see much evidence of a collective intention of Alexander Technique teachers seeking to make it legible. Instead, the field appears to be collapsing further and further into obscurity.

Frustration aside, it’s clear that the work to make Alexander Technique legible has not been done. There is very little useful jargon I can use and few good resources I can point to.

Where does that leave me? It leaves me wanting knowledge of this vast and largely unexamined area of human experience to be legible, seeing that it is not, and realising that it’s up to me to make it that.

I guess this note is a public recommitment to that goal. I do not want to be exclusively “the Alexander Technique guy”, but I will affirm that this is going to be a big part of who I am and will influence how my life will unfold in the years to come.

I will achieve my goal of making Alexander Technique legible and accessible to vastly more people than today. It’s just that in order to do that I’ll need to keep fumbling in the dark, dive into this frustration and… come out the other side with a brilliant diamond to offer the world.

March 26, 2021 10:41
The paradox of an untroubled life
”Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness... Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.” — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I read this quote in the book Building a Life Worth Living by Marsha Linehan, the developer of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, which is one of the most effective therapeutic modes of treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder. I say therapeutic because nutrition is strongly implicated.

I know that I tend towards the more vulnerable end of the spectrum in my writing and ‘content creation’. I’ve even mentioned on Twitter that I’ve had experience with depression, anxiety and yes, some mild to moderate traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

It’s funny, the first two of those seem fairly universal, as though everyone has either experienced them directly or know someone close to them who has. I have few qualms talking about these two.

BPD is different. At first I didn’t recognise myself in the list of traits, but worse than that were the horror stories of people who had an experience of BPD orders of magnitude worse than mine or who had been seriously hurt and made resentful by someone close to them with BPD .

That’s made me much more hesitant to share that side of things, but I’ve become much more comfortable with it as I accept that my experience is what it is and that’s okay.

So back to that Rilke quote.

It hits home because I have often been the guy that friends, family — and, increasingly, strangers — turn to for advice. I am good at seeing and navigating the inner worlds of others and, in turn, at helping them become their own navigators. This is partly why I was told I was a “high EQ manager” in the corporate world, what led me to become a coach and probably what makes me inclined to such things as Alexander Technique. There is a sensitivity there, which I have learned to contain, calibrate and direct usefully.

But it’s worth acknowledging the paradox of where that sensitivity comes from. No, I do not live untroubled among my simple and quiet words that sometimes do others good. Yes, my life has much difficulty and sadness. Were it otherwise, would I be able to find those words? I suspect not.

That paradox often gnaws at me.

How can I have the audacity to believe that I can help others while my own life is ‘not untroubled’? And, similarly, how can I be so selfish as not to help others by using the hard-earned capacities that have come from my experience?

I have learned that the best thing to do with paradoxes is to leave them unresolved — just leave them there and keep moving anyway. Trying to resolve paradoxes creates problems. Both sides can be true at once, and trying to insist that this is not the case is to miss the point, and value, of paradoxes.

Yes, my life has much difficulty and sadness. No, that does not disqualify me from helping others navigate theirs. But let me also expand on Rilke’s observation. My life is also filled with awe, love and hope. These capacities too are tools I can use for the benefit of others.

It’s not just about comfort — it’s just as much about reaching for the stars.

March 25, 2021 20:06
Revenge Productivity — and navigating its absence

You know that experience where you had a long day at work so you stay up way later than you probably should? It has a name — “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination”, based on the Chinese 報復性熬夜 (Bàofù xìng áoyè).

Revenge Bedtime Procrastination is an attempt to exert control over one part of life (the night) given the absence of control over another (the day).

I am coining its opposite: Revenge Productivity.

I have been a free agent for coming up on two months now. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect my motivation for creative output to plummet. I hoped that, given all my extra free time and headspace once liberated from the concerns of work, I would be much more creative.

Nope.

It’s taken me a while to figure out, but I think I get it now. I was creatively productive around the edges of a full time job that I didn’t enjoy all that much because I had so little time and headspace to commit to my own stuff.

I was so prolific and focused in the mornings, lunchtimes, evenings and weekends as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to the imposition of the job in my life. I was motivated by Revenge Productivity.

And then the job went away.

I didn’t realise that, even though I had a removed a major source of creative friction from my life, I had also lost a key source of motivation, however warped. What I’m navigating now is how to create new, more resilient and intrinsic sources of motivation.

I’m glad I’ve seen this. In retrospect this was inevitable — now I get to explore how to be creative in this new frame.

My janky Youtube setup in my old flat — after work mode
March 14, 2021 20:11
Different kinds of authority

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about authority and, in particular, its relationship to a non-coercive way of being.

I plan to write a long and considered essay about this, but for that to happen I need to write lots of smaller chunks along the way. This is the first.

The way I see it, there are actually two kinds of authority that are often and unknowingly conflated. This conflation has huge implications for our relationship to authority, whether external (e.g. a boss) or internal (e.g. ourselves). It’s important to disentangle these if we want to make sense of how we and others feel and behave when interacting with authority.

Despite my interest in ‘non-coercion’, I don’t think that authority is inherently bad. At the same time, I have strong anti-authoritarian tendencies when it comes to abuses within systems of power. This is not a conflict, but evidences my attitudes towards these different kinds of authority.

The clearest way I can think of for now to explain these two kinds of authority is to frame them around ‘going along with’ and ‘resisting’ each authority.

So what might it mean to ‘go along with’ authority?

Well, you can go along with the contents of authority. The CEO sets out the strategic vision for the company and everyone says “yes, I agree, let’s go that way.” Some people might call this ‘object level authority’.

You can also go along with someone’s role as an authority. The CEO is selected by the board and the staff say “yes, you are the CEO and we agree that you shall lead us”. Some people might call this ‘meta level authority’.

These also become clear when we think about what it means not to go along with authority.

Again, you can not go along with the contents of authority. The CEO sets out the strategic vision for the company and some people say “meh, that doesn’t seem wise, don’t like it.”

You can also not go along with someone’s role as an authority. The CEO is selected by the board and some staff say “no, I disagree, I do not think you should be CEO.”

Okay, the scene is set. Future writings will build on this frame.

February 24, 2021 23:22
Reflecting on Write Of Passage

Today I wrote and published a 4000 word article on how to get the most from Write Of Passage, so my writing muscles are tired.

It’s also almost 23:30, because Write Of Passage is timed to suit Americans, and I am not one of those.

But I have just enough energy in me to reflect on what it means to be an alumni mentor for the course, a year and a half after I took it. My experience with Write Of Passage, and subsequently, is a testament to what’s possible in the online education space.

All this (as he gestures around) is the result of me taking that course. Not that it’s all attributable to it, of course, I did most of the work myself. But opening my eyes to this way of being and getting me started on the journey… it did that.

I’m proud to be one of the mentors helping others on journeys of their own. It feels like I’ve come full circle. 

February 23, 2021 23:44
When the void talks back

When you first start publishing your thoughts and ideas online — particularly the more vulnerable ones — it can feel a lot like screaming into the void. 

No one is listening to you. Even if people happen to chance upon you, they will see that no one else listens to you, and that encourages them to pass you by as well.

It’s a lonely experience and it’s the failure mode that causes so many to give up. In my case, I’m eternally grateful that, this time, I stuck with it and charted a safe course through those emotional doldrums. 

Because, after some amount of time, consistency, and — dare I say — courageous expressions of authenticity and vulnerability, the void comes to life a little bit. It starts saying things.

“I hear you.” 

“Thank you for saying that.”

Those quiet signs of life, the gentle flickers of light out there in the void, they give you the energy to carry on, to turn up the brightness of your own beacon within that void.

And it turns out that, the more you write and the more you share, the more the void calls back. You come to see that, instead of an endless, dark nothingness, there is a bright and glorious universe of light, heat and love. 

It’s a vast and rich fullness of other awarenesses just like your own, looking for the others, longing to be vulnerable themselves and to hear those words.

“I hear you."

"Thank you for saying that”.