Michael Ashcroft

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

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”. 

February 22, 2021 12:26
Where do words come from when writing?

There’s something really peculiar about writing, which is that I have no idea where the words actually come from. Yes, even these ones. These ones too.

As I’m writing, I don’t find myself consciously crafting ideas or sentence fragments. Instead, different options sort of just ‘show up’ in my awareness, I catch them and then I write them down. Once written down I seem to contrast the words against an internal felt sense, a sort of “how close is this to what you meant?” This process iterates until I have a finished draft in front of me.

I know what the other kind of writing is like, where each word is a painful, conscious slog. It’s like the difference between ‘overtaking’ and ‘mirror, signal, turn the steering wheel, change gear, accelerate, mirror, signal the other way, turn the steering wheel, stop signalling, slow down a bit.’

That second part was laborious wasn’t it? Exactly. That’s what it’s like to write when I’m not able to access this felt sense, which is usually when I’m forced to write about something I don’t intrinsically want to write about.

I use the term ‘felt sense’ intentionally, because of course I am referring to Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing , the self-inquiry method that gets one ‘conversing’ regularly with this internal felt sense. It very quickly becomes clear that there is a wisdom in the body that knows things outside of conscious awareness. Exploring the felt sense is something like “huh, now that I have realised what the felt sense was telling me, I sort of knew it, but I am surprised I hadn’t really seen it before. It now seems like new options are available to me.”

But this isn’t the time to talk about Gendlin. Instead I wanted to write down somewhere that yes, I do use the felt sense when I write. More than that, I think my writing is infinitely superior when I tap into the felt sense and allow 'it' (me? other me?) to take the reins. And even more than that, I suspect this approach is teachable. 

I might play with this with my Write of Passage writing group. I’ll need to show them the felt sense and I’ll probably need to make the metaphors and language a little more accessible, but fundamentally it’s the same thing: “how to write using the felt sense”.

But diverging back to the more woo end of things… who is it that writes, if not ‘me’? 

And as I write that, my felt sense smiles. Wild.

February 21, 2021 15:48
Making money online by teaching people how to make money online

So you want to quit your job and make money online?

Oh, it looks like there are loads of people out there who want to make money online, why don’t I make products to teach them how! Buy my ebook teaching you how to teach people to teach people to teach people to…

Troll physics infinite energy!

Hmm.

I’m being unfair, of course — most people who make money online don’t do this. But it’s definitely an alluring trap if, at first, you’re short of other ideas.

I’m increasingly aware of the trap at the moment, because I’ve just done something that many people want to do: build a following online, create (at least one) scalable online product that people will pay for, and quit my corporate job.

Yay!

And in the process of doing all that, I have learned a great many things that others would benefit from knowing, whether it’s specific strategies and tactics for building those things around a job, or my own experiences in navigating tricky emotions and ‘general life stuff’. I even coach people who are doing this! 

I certainly could teach many of the things I have learned — and, having done it and knowing how hard it is, I really want to — but at what point will people start accusing me of becoming someone who is caught up in that perpetual motion machine? Would it be a fair criticism, and what can I do to minimise it if it were?

Aside from repeatedly making clear that I have multiple other revenue streams that could support me on their own — that I wouldn’t have to make money like that, if I didn’t choose to — one powerful thing I can do is give away my knowledge for free. I’m already thinking about the kind of ‘content’ to put on my different ‘content channels’ (urgh). For example:

  1. These notebook posts are high velocity, low fidelity idea prototypes. Probably they will get read by very few people, or by only the people most committed to seeing what it’s like inside my brain.
  2. Thinking Out Loud, my main newsletter, is for sharing somewhat polished, but not necessarily complete, ideas that are usually based on my current experience, particularly those ideas that I think will be most valuable to others. Medium velocity and medium fidelity intermediate packets.
  3. The essays on my website will be the most polished and refined elucidation of well-developed ideas that I can bring together in one piece of writing: “my ultimate guide to” style prose on intellectually sophisticated topics. This is because there is no audience here (no RSS feed, etc). People will find these essays if they go looking, and that is already a high bar. Low velocity, high fidelity finished products.
  4. Then there is YouTube. Points 1-3 above are sort of a linear progression of idea refinement and testing, but YouTube doesn’t sit neatly in any of these. If I think about how I use YouTube, it’s often on in the background while I do other things, and it’s not that intellectually complex. As soon as something gets to the level of “I should probably take notes”, I switch to something else, because I’m rarely in a state of mind or context with YouTube were I would want to take notes (though of course I could dedicate time and attention for more sincere viewing of lectures).

Given all this, I would expect that YouTube would be a great place to do the “how to quit your job” style content. The ideas are easy to listen to in the background, they’re motivating, they can be repackaged and remixed easily, and they rarely require notes. It’s the kind of thing that can be absorbed over repeated viewing, and this is how I learn a great many things on YouTube — by osmosis. 

The problem is that, long term, YouTube is likely to become my highest surface-area social platform. Once I get past 10k subscribers (this will probably happen some time in 2021, I am on 711 now), the algorithm will increasingly show me to new people who have never heard of me, and I’ll need to be increasingly legible to them. These people will not have been ‘onboarded’ into understanding who I am and what I’m about. 

Also, pragmatically speaking, if I do want YouTube to become a meaningful revenue stream one day (and I do), then it makes sense to target the material there around topics that i) have a large and active audience on YouTube and ii) are valuable for advertisers.

The risk becomes that, for people who find me on YouTube, they won’t know that I also have an Alexander Technique course and do coaching and help run the Carbon Removal Centre and sell whatever else that isn’t “how to quit your job like I did” type content, and I will become easily stereotyped, and therefore ultimately misunderstood and easily dismissed.

I’m playing a long game here, and my long game is more to be heard saying important things than to make lots of money. At the same time, I will need to make enough money to remain enjoyably self-directed myself and — actually — getting more dissatisfied people out of jobs they are meh about and into a fully alive, self-directed state is also part of my long game (for reasons I will discuss another time).

Maybe, in writing this, my paradox has resolved itself. 

I need to create a channel that isn’t just how to quit your job, but is actually / also how and why to create a life that unlocks within you your inherent creativity and playfulness, which I believe will lead to the best long term, shared outcomes. Seriously, this is how to fix climate change and a long list of social challenges. It’s the “golden age” stuff that Visa talks about.

Another way to phrase this is to transform Non-Player Characters into Player Characters. Which is not to say that everyone with a job is a NPC while everyone self-employed is a PC — it’s much more complex than that obviously, and this is a rich seam for further thinking.

This is a much more compelling vision, and certainly one I can orient much of my emerging creative output around. Cool.

February 20, 2021 11:23
Navigating the vulnerability hangover

My style of writing seems to be to look at my own experiences and extract some kind of wisdom or generalisable principles that I can share usefully.

This often leads me to personal places, although I rarely feel that uncomfortable. I think I’ve been playing with my own fear dials for long enough that I know roughly where the line is.

Sometimes I move closer to “this might be too much” , but I sit with the feeling and I’ve never regretted writing and publishing what I find in that space (although I wouldn’t publish everything).

Yesterday I published a note and associated YouTube video on my burnout experience. Yes, that time I dissociated. As before, I sat with the discomfort and I don’t regret publishing them, but I do have a vulnerability hangover.

The vulnerability hangover is a consistent sensation that happens whenever I share emotionally raw topics, like during coach training, Alexander Technique teacher training, writing, making videos, and even talking to friends. There’s a tension that builds up as I’m about to share the thing, then I share it and there’s a relief. After that there is an energy crash and I sort of want to withdraw a bit and nap.

My sense is that it's appropriate for this to happen and I've learned to watch and lean into it. It’s just my system recalibrating to the fact that it was probably okay to share that thing, actually, and perhaps my world is safer than I thought it was. 

The immediate tiredness is probably a release of long-standing muscle tension associated with that held emotional and psychological pattern. Again, I think this is a good thing, because it leads to an ease and lightness as my body gets more and more relaxed.

“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” – F.M.Alexander

Listening to the wisdom of the body and using that felt sense to navigate my inner and outer worlds really is a powerful way to be. The vulnerability hangover is just part of that process.

February 19, 2021 20:38
I wouldn’t start from here — recovering from burnout

There are a few variations of this apparently Irish joke, but for the sake of argument I’ll use this version from Wordreference.

A traveller stops to ask a farmer the way to a small village. The farmer thinks for a while and then says "If you want to go there I would not start from here.

This is why I quit my last job, because I realised I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go from where I was. I had to get somewhere else, somewhere that would allow me to start.

Basically, I burned out a couple of jobs ago. I had been working too much for too long.

And I don’t mean a slow and gradual loss of interest and capacity to perform well, although that also happened. No, one morning I woke up and, looking back, had a pretty severe dissociative episode. 

I didn’t see emails to respond to when I looked at my laptop screen, I saw blurry shapes and colours. I seemed to have no meaningful theory of mind, either. Other people surely didn’t have their own subjective experience, they were Non-Player Characters — just like me.

There were a few things going on in my life at the time that contributed to this — and that I won’t go into — but my job was probably the primary factor that, at the very least, amplified the other issues.

I only took a week off and then I was back at work, but I was not okay. 

Over the coming months I somehow managed to claw my way back to about 50-70% of my previous high capacity, but then stayed there. After a year and a half after the episode in that same job, and after trying and failing to get back to where I was, an opportunity came up for me to go somewhere else. So I did, hoping a change of scene would help.

It did not. 

I mean, I was doing fine. The sort of fine that is okay for coasting and occasionally impressing people at the right moments. But that’s not what I wanted and it dawned on me: “I shouldn’t start from here”.

That’s why I quit not only my job, but the entire frame it represented. I built my escape route from that entire system on the side, because I knew I needed to explore an entirely new way of being.

That’s what I’m doing now. 

And now I’m here, and you know what? I think I would start from here.