Michael Ashcroft

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

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. 

February 18, 2021 14:36
Not caring lets us perform better

There’s a common trap that gets in the way of our natural abilities. That trap is to care too much about achieving an outcome.

This is something I experienced in my Alexander Technique lessons with Peter Nobes. He would throw me a ball and, like most humans who have ever played catch, it became important that I catch the ball. That led me to try to catch the ball, which looked like me coordinating myself somewhat awkwardly, probably dropping the ball, and looking sheepish and apologising when I did.

Contrast this to the other way I learned to catch a ball, which was to i) have a clear intention that I wanted to catch the ball, ii) not care if I did or didn’t, iii) watch as my hand reached out perfectly accurately and effortlessly on its own such that the ball just landed in it.

The second way is probably familiar to most people, but as a sort of rare, chance and fleeting “wow, I was really in the zone” experience. 

What’s happening here is captured well in the Inner Game series of books by W. Timothy Gallwey. He describes two ‘selves’ within each of us: 

  • Self 1: the explicit, thinking part that tries to catch the ball
  • Self 2: the implicit, non-thinking part that actually catches the ball

The more Self 1 cares about achieving a goal, the more it interferes with the natural functioning of Self 2. This is why, counterintuitively, the less you care about something, the more easily, effortlessly and effectively it can be achieved.

This entire concept can be played with in all areas of life, and it’s interesting to see the areas where people are okay with it. Catching a ball with one other person, without an audience, in a non-competitive environment and as part of a training exercise seems to be fine. Not ‘caring’ about getting the girl of our dreams or delivering a great presentation at work, on the other and, can seem crazy, even though exactly the same principle applies.

Here I have to point out the difference between ‘not caring’ and ‘not intending’, because they are often conflated in day to day language.

Caring is as described above, and comes with a sense of the outcome being important, that it (or we) would bad if the outcome weren’t achieved. There is a physical tension associated with it.

Intending is the activation energy required to take a specific action. I can intend to catch the ball (or not) as it flies towards me, while not caring whether or not I actually catch it. 

In this frame, the ideal combination to minimise or remove self-interference is to have a strong and unambiguous intention while caring as little as possible. The worst combination for our performance is to have a weak and ambiguous intention while caring strongly about achieving a particular outcome.

Now I will bring in playfulness, which I define as an attitude whereby we engage in an activity for its own sake. That sounds a lot like having clear intentions while not caring about achieving specific outcomes. Even in competition, it’s possible to maintain a position of “I want to win, but I don’t mind if I don’t”. That mental posture often brings about a sense of ease and lightness that unlock greater levels of performance that actually make winning more likely.

There’s a trap here, of course. 

Thinking “it is important that I not care so that I play better” is caring. This is the trap that most people are stuck in. They know they are stuck, but their most powerful and practiced tool is to care and try, but all they end up doing is care and try in the opposite direction. This is the same exact thing that they are trying to escape.

Getting out of that trap is a discussion for another time. But you can read about it over in Expanding Awareness.

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I made a video from this

February 17, 2021 23:25
Starting a regular writing and publishing habit

The more comfortable I get being an 'online creator', the more I appreciate the different stages of production that each bit of 'content' represents (I don't like the word, but I'm not sure there is a better one yet).

I have a few channels for my writing now, and each one has a different vibe to it.

There are the two newsletters, where there are either c. 670 people or c. 1025 people, depending on the newsletter. These people get the newsletters in their inbox, which feels like a bit of an intrusion and so I'm grateful to them for letting me in. This context also makes me write in a certain kind of way. While I've managed to strike quite a conversational and exploratory tone — which I like and my subscribers seem to appreciate — I still find myself wanting more of a 'workshop' feel.

I also have Twitter, which is great for rapid fire ideas with very little thought behind them, just to see what lands. It's fun, and it is possible to go deep there, but it doesn't lend itself to considered prose.

And I have the 'essays' section of this website (I'm not sure what I think of "essays" — I might change it to blog or articles, essays feels a bit much). These are, in theory, highly polished pieces that are towards the end of my creative process, artefacts that try to capture and articulate the best of my thinking on a given topic. This is and should be a high bar.

As someone who aims to be a world class writer, I want to establish a consistent daily writing practice, where at the end of each session I have something that could in theory be shared, even if short and not completely thought through. These are the little things that will eventually become big things.

I could just do this in a private notebook, but there is something sensationally valuable about writing something with the intention of hitting publish and knowing that it could be read (hello). Having a place to put these things also encourages actually writing the things.

This is that place.

Hello world.

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Oh, today I made and published a YouTube video. I've been getting stuck in thinking I need to make polished things, but I don't, actually. The long game I need to play for now is to get my Alexander Technique course in a good place, so YouTube needs to be low effort for a while.