Michael Ashcroft

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September 1, 2021 11:43
We must be able to talk about taboos

This one turned out quite long, but this is still a written-all-at-once first draft. I might edit it properly and turn it into an essay. I reserve the right to change my mind or articulation of anything below.

I started my career, way back in 2010, as an intern at the Royal Society, which is the UK’s national science academy. 

It was an incredible experience for many reasons. We interns were shown various treasures in the library, like the manuscript copy of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, I organised a conference where I met Naomi Klein, among others, and I swam in the choppy waters of a topic that even today is controversial: solar geoengineering.

Let me start with some science before I turn to the more important matter of what’s allowed in public discourse.

Solar geoengineering is the intentional reflection of sunlight into space to moderate some effects of global warming. At the sci-fi end of the options is the deployment of tens of thousands of tiny mirrors into space between the Earth and the Sun. But that’s expensive and probably silly.

More sensibly, we could do it by increasing the Earth’s surface albedo (reflectivity), say by painting buildings white, by covering dark landscapes with a light-coloured material or by making marine clouds brighter with special ships that turn seawater into a fine mist.

We could also inject aerosols into the stratosphere with planes or high-altitude balloons to replicate the global dimming effect of volcanic eruptions. Did you know that when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide it released reduced global temperatures by 0.5ºC for two years? It could be worse; when Krakatoa exploded in 1883 the material it released reduced global temperatures by 1.2ºC and had a century-long impact on ocean temperatures. 

Lithograph of Krakatoa exploding in 1883

All this to say, we know how it works and that it works. It would also be quite cheap, all things considered, maybe $18 billion per year per ºC of cooling. Given this, let’s assume that when people say solar geoengineering they mean stratospheric aerosol injection.

Now the obvious question: if stratospheric aerosols can definitely reduce global temperatures for cheap, why aren’t we doing it or even planning to do it. Ah yes, the downsides.

First up, it does absolutely nothing to change the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would continue to rise if we don’t reduce emissions. So while average global temperatures may be held down, other effects of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, like ocean acidification, would continue.

It’s likely that solar geoengineering would disrupt global weather patterns. We’re talking droughts in some places, flooding in others, crop failures and the like. Oh, and injecting aerosols into the stratosphere could turn the sky white

It would also disproportionately affect developing countries, which are least responsible for the emissions that have driven global warming, are least able to invest in their own resilience and have the least influence on the global stage. But this is a complex area. If you’re a small island state facing obliteration from rising sea levels, you might support measures that promise to keep sea levels down.

Finally, there’s the risk of moral hazard. Do you drive a fully insured rental car as carefully as you drive your own? Similarly, if you know you can just turn the sun down a bit, are you as motivated to decarbonise our civilisation as fast as possible? This is the risk I see talked about most often and, as you'll see below, I think often unhelpfully.

Fundamentally, solar geoengineering is a terrible idea that we shouldn’t have to even vaguely consider. Yet it seems that the impacts of global warming may actually be worse than solar geoengineering, so here we are. To let that sink in, I’ll quote my friend Andy Parker, who was my manager at the Royal Society, who is now Project Director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, and who, disclaimer, has not read or ‘approved’ of anything in this note:

“We live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.” 

I think in most places this is quoted as “deliberately dimming the <expletive> sun”, but I have it on good authority that said expletive was fucking. You’re welcome.

Alright, enough of that. Solar geoengineering is a stupid thing to do that may look quite sensible if we continue on the lacklustre path we’re currently on. Let’s turn to the actual point of this note, which is about the vital need to be able to talk about this topic, and others like it, in a sensible way.

You may have heard the terms climate mitigation and climate adaptation. Mitigation means all the things we can do to reduce new emissions into the atmosphere. This means renewable energy, reducing energy demand, flying and driving less, all that stuff. Mitigation is probably 95% of what you think of when you think about fixing global warming.

Adaptation means accepting that we are committed to some level of impact from global warming, let’s say new droughts, flooding or sea level rise, and then doing something about those impacts. This might mean building stronger coastal defences for low-lying regions or investing in more sophisticated irrigation systems. It might mean creating new insurance products for farmers, developing extreme weather warning systems or even non-coercively relocating entire communities.

Being able to talk about adaptation means being able to tolerate the paradox implied in the moral hazard. Yes, we are talking about building flood defences, but that doesn’t mean we have to invest less in mitigation efforts like renewables and energy efficiency. You can choose to sail your leaking boat back to shore while also bailing water out of it. 

I mean, in theory, anyway. In practice, talking about adaptation was frowned upon, even in academic circles. Even in 2013, there are references in the scientific literature highlighting that discussion of adaptation was, until recently taboo: 

Until recently, adaptation — a process by which societies address the consequences of climate change — was a taboo subject in the discussion of global climate policy, where it was viewed as undermining efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (see Pielke, Prins, Rayner, & Sarewitz, 2007). However, the realization that, even in the best-case scenario, emissions reductions can have little effect on social vulnerability to climate impacts over the next several decades has prompted a resurgence of interest in adaptation” — Stephanie Amaru, Netra B. Chhetri

Climate adaption is now considered mainstream, although all that means is that the truth of how significant global warming impacts have already become is now unambiguous and unavoidable. You might reasonably argue that if adaptation hadn’t been taboo for so long, we’d have talked about it more and earlier, and so benefited the millions of people around the world who now need to, you know, adapt.

And had we talked about mitigation properly earlier, we may not have needed to talk about adaptation. If we don’t talk about solar geoengineering now, we risk having to do it blind. And if it does turn out that we need to do solar geoengineering, I would prefer the science and governance implications around it to be as good as they can possibly be, because if we do have to turn down the fucking sun, I want it done as carefully as possible.

Whenever I see someone call for more climate action while also denouncing discussion of certain options, I become suspicious of their motives. “We must do everything we can, the world is on fire! Oh, but not that.” Perhaps solving climate change isn’t your top priority after all, then?

If the goal is to avoid dangerous global warming and its impacts then we need all options to be on the table. This is a both/and emergency, not an either/or emergency. Solar geoengineering is the most extreme example of this, but the principle applies as much to such things as carbon removal, carbon capture and storage and even nuclear power.

Being able to have hard conversations about hard choices means we’re more likely to have the conversations early on and thus make navigating the hard choices easier. We need to get better at talking about things that are considered, at least by some, to be taboo. The risks of not talking about something are vastly greater than the perceived fears of that thing happening if we do.

“What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. Not being open about it doesn't make it go away. And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.” — Eugene Gendlin 

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August 30, 2021 17:18
Building my kind of lifestyle business

When people think of a startup they often imagine something that needs investors who believe in a vision before there's a product or people to sell it to. Since it has no revenue it may need to exist for several months before it generates revenues, let alone a profit. And because it has investors, the expectation is that it scales quickly and to a high summit so the investors and founders can sell and make their money and sweat back. 

Photo by S Migaj on Unsplash

While on paper a lifestyle business may do all the same things as a startup — selling things to people who want them while paying its people, taxes and expenses — it doesn’t share the traits above. A lifestyle business can be profitable from day one (mine was), it doesn’t need outside investment, and it can grow slowly.

Because a lifestyle business is under the complete control of its owners, which in the case of my business is 100% me, its activities can be intentionally designed to operate however the owners want, as long it can still make money, of course.

But the word lifestyle can mean a lot of things. What kind of lifestyle? 

It’s possible to build a lifestyle business in which you work 60 hour weeks with no holidays and where your services need you to be working at the time. Coaching is a good example of this. You get paid per coaching session, but if you’re the coach then you need to be at the session.

It’s also possible to build a lifestyle business where you work fewer than ten hours a week, where those ten hours can happen whenever you want them to, and where your products sell regardless of whether or not you’re working. This is the kind of lifestyle business I want to build.

This all sounds great and obvious — very Tim Ferriss circa 2007 — so why am I talking about it? Because I need to keep renewing this commitment over and over again in the face of every opportunity that comes my way. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up building that other kind of lifestyle business.

Most of my revenue comes from the sale of my Alexander Technique course. At the moment this is basically fully self-paced for students. All I have to do is answer questions in the forum, do research and make new materials. I do plan to develop more synchronous workshops and office hours, though.

It could so easily be different. 

All those shiny cohort-based courses that sell for a few thousand $ a pop. So alluring. Much prestige. Having been a mentor for two of the big ones (Write of Passage and the Part Time YouTuber Academy), I have seen how much work is involved in those. You need a proper business, the kind with employees! You need team meetings, Slack channels and, I don’t know, internal policies, or something.

That sounds a lot like a job to me. Sure, a fun, creative, fulfilling, exciting and wholly-owned job, but a job nonetheless. I did that for ten years and I want a break.

Maybe I’ll want that one day. Actually, I probably will want that one day. But today is not that day. That’s why, whenever I encounter the siren call of much more money, I tie myself to the mast of but I don’t want to work that hard.

For now I shall build my business around the lifestyle I want, one where I can spend my days reading, thinking, writing, travelling, talking to people and, yes obviously, also working. To me, today, the sense of freedom and flexibility I get is worth sacrificing more money.

And, to be honest, I have a suspicion this approach will still lead to plenty of money, just indirectly. Money will happen serendipitously from the quiet reflection, the adventures and the new friends I’ll be able to make in all that space and time.

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August 26, 2021 10:42
Quitting my job was a no-regrets move

I want to share a mental reframe I made that gave me the push I needed to quit my job and head out on my own.

Photo by Denny Luan on Unsplash

In September 2020 I was toying with the idea of making an online Alexander Technique course. I pre-sold 50 spaces to test interest, before I had made anything, and when 50 people bought it I became more confident that there was something there. I was further comforted when they seemed to like what I ended up making.

But there’s an enormous difference between making $5k on the side and quitting your well-paid job to build and scale an online course and, hopefully, make some decent money from it. Such an enormous difference, in fact, that I grappled with whether or not I should quit for two torturous months.

Emotionally I felt ready to quit. I wasn’t enjoying my job and I was excited by the prospect of a new life, yes, but I couldn’t rationalise it. My intellect and my body were pulling in different directions. 

This resolved almost miraculously when I went through Tim Ferriss’ Fear-Setting exercise, based on the Stoic practice of negative visualisation (premeditatio malorum). The exercise goes as follows:

Page 1 - mitigate the downside

Make three lists, with 10–20 entries each.

  • Define — What are the worst things could happen?
  • Prevent — How do I prevent each from happening?
  • Repair — If the worst happens, how can i fix it?

Page 2 - explore the benefits of action

Make a list of the possible benefits if successful or partially successful.

Page 3 - cost of inaction

Make three lists of the costs of your inaction. In other words, if I avoid doing this thing what might I miss out on?

  • 6 months
  • 1 year
  • 3 years

All of this was useful and I’d recommend the exercise to anyone considering a big decision. 

One of my possible benefits of even partial success was that I would end up with some kind of online Alexander Technique course for which some people would want to pay some amount of money.

I’ve written that nebulously on purpose — who knows what it would look like or how much they would pay? It doesn’t matter, I had already proven that there was some value and some people were willing to pay something pay for it. It stood to reason that I could build something, an asset, that could be sold again and again.

Here’s the no-regrets part. There’s a scenario where I didn’t make enough money from the course to live comfortably and would have gone job hunting again. But I would still have had the course I made! The course that some people would want to buy for some amount of money! None of that would go away.

This means that I’d be returning to the job market in a different position from how I left it. Depending on the level of revenue the course could generate, I could go after different kinds of jobs! Perhaps a part time job, perhaps a comfortable 9-5pm job, perhaps an intense job at a non-profit that can’t pay high salaries. 

Even within the the conventional world of work, an entirely new landscape of flexibility opens up by having a meaningful secondary income stream. This is why a failure to be able to survive entirely independently could still have life changing impact. 

When I recognised this truth the decision was made and I resigned a few days later. 

Incidentally the course has now made about $80,000 since that initial pre-launch in September 2020, most of which was generated in the six months since I actually left work. I’m calling this a success. 

And the best thing is that the logic above still applies: I can still go and get a job if I really want to. But now I also have an asset that looks like it could generate $100k+ a year by itself. This is a nice place to be and it came from recognising that the leap I was about to take wasn’t actually as scary as it felt.

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August 25, 2021 10:49
Paying myself properly as a solopreneur

I spent ten years working in a traditional employment structure, where I received a fixed amount of money in my bank account every month. This money was unambiguously mine, since tax is already removed in the UK, so all I had to do was allocate it to my various living costs, fun money and savings. The only levers I had over my money were to redistribute my costs, reduce my costs or increase my income. 

Things are different now. My new business, which is entirely owned by me and yet is not me, generates its own revenues and has its own expenses. It has its own bank account and it needs to set aside a bunch of money to pay its own taxes. On top of that it also needs to pay me enough to live and hopefully enjoy my life. 

It gets more complicated, though, because I now pay myself a mix of salary and dividends, because tax efficiency. The money my business gives me isn’t all mine; some of it belongs to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, and I need to set that aside.

Adding one final level of complexity, my business revenue has been extremely volatile, so far at least. Most of it has come from the sale of an online course, which happened in two time-limited ‘launches’ since the beginning of April. One day in August my business bank account balance was £5k. A week later it was £30k. I can’t generate £25k a month yet, so that money has to support both my business and me for a while, possibly months.

All of this is different from how it was and my mindset around paying myself was something like “I’ll take some amount of money out of the business occasionally when I feel like I need it and put aside a bit for tax”.

This is not a good idea. Do not do this. This is a recipe for stress and general business mismanagement. I ended up not paying myself much, living more off my savings than I really needed to, and I had a general sense of scarcity and insecurity. 

The most important factor in the health of my business is me. It will do best when I feel happy, healthy and secure, so the question I should be asking is — how can I get my business to make me feel happy, healthy and secure? 

The answer to that is for my business to lavish me with a large and known amount of money on a regular basis. Instead of taking what money happens to be left in the business when I feel low on cash, which feels bad, I’ve decided to set myself, gasp, a fixed and rising monthly salary, which feels fantastic. 

My job as the only Director and employee of the business is then to make sure my business is able to keep doing this forever. If I’ve designed the business properly, me getting paid a lot means I’m consistently delivering great outcomes for my customers and clients, that my business is growing, and that I’ve kept expenses low.

And, fundamentally, if I can’t make a good living from my business then I have a bad business. Not paying myself properly is just a way to hide from this truth, since it makes the business look better on paper, while making my life worse. Paying myself properly will improve the health of my business just as much as it will my own.

Today happens to be my new pay day, so I’m thrilled to pay myself a princely £3000. That will be increasing to £4000 per month from October and £5000 per month from January, so I know I need to orient my business activities around those numbers. Doing business just became fun! 

If this method sounds vaguely familiar to some people, it’s because it comes from the book Profit First by Mike Michalowicz, which is great. I’m sold on the method and will be writing about it a lot more in future. 

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August 22, 2021 11:57
I’ve exercised a lot somehow

Many things have changed since I left the world of work to set up as a solopreneur (I’m trying to get comfortable using that word unironically). I have shoulder-length hair, I struggle to introduce myself in a pithy way, and, I’m in the best physical condition of my life.

Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

Since this is a bit of a novelty for me, it’s worth exploring how this happened, so here are two things that came together to get me fit. 

One factor behind this change is time; I have more of it and it’s more flexible, just like me. This means I can exercise whenever I feel like it. And it turns out I often feel like exercising, it’s just that the times I happen to feel like exercising don’t align with the expectations of a conventional full-time office job. 

Since I now have much more control over how I structure my days, I can go to the gym at 11am on a Monday, when it also happens to be empty, or I can go for a long walk at 3pm on a Wednesday. This is so much more appealing than trying to summon the motivation to go to the gym at 7.30pm on a weekday after a commute back from a day of sitting in an office, with everyone else who is similarly unhappy to be there.

There’s now a paradoxical sense of exercising because I want to, not because I feel I should. In fact, this was one of my biggest motivators for leaving the conventional work structure. 

Exercise always felt like a thing I had to squeeze in around the edges of my life to mitigate some of the damage of a lots-of-sitting, high-cortisol lifestyle. Moving my body is now something I want to do as a form of self-love, to see how amazing I can look and feel, and to be able to live my life in glorious high definition. 

Twitter source (it's a good thread)

But flexible time is not the only factor. I have a secret weapon, and that secret weapon is a Jeff. I never thought I needed a Jeff before, but, resources permitting, I would now recommend everyone get a Jeff.

Jeff is my physiotherapist. I have a history of unpleasant knee instability (more on that here) and I started working with Jeff after my latest knee surgery in early 2020. Jeff knows a lot about how the body is supposed to work, assessed all the ways in which my body didn’t work like that, and devised a programme that would let me improve. Even without seeing each other for months, because COVID, weekly Zoom sessions and an app meant I could do everything on my own.

I can’t stress enough how much of a difference this made, but it wasn’t because I was spending lots of money on Jeff. I’ve spent lots of money on other things that I didn’t commit to, after all.

No, it worked because Jeff coded all of my exercises into his app. Each day has something for me to do, all the sets and reps and whatever are already waiting for me. I just have to open the app and do what Jeff says. 

Not only that, but Jeff clearly understands what I should and, more importantly, what I shouldn’t be doing. I’ve always been put off by the idea of working with ‘some personal trainer at the gym’, since they don’t know much about my injuries, and being yelled at to ‘get one more rep in’ is not remotely what I need.

Jeff on his own wasn’t enough, though. I started working with him before I left my job, and I did maybe half of the workouts he put in the app. I now spend maybe two hours most days just on various mobility routines, targeted stretches, gym sessions and a ‘bulletproof knees’ routine. Ain’t nobody got time for that when you have a job, particularly when you use your free time to build your escape route

So that’s how I’ve managed to exercise a lot: change my lifestyle drastically to give me the time and space to prioritise my health and get ongoing help from a trusted expert. Not exactly an easy path, I know, but for me it was absolutely worth the struggle.

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August 20, 2021 17:09
Be original by not trying to be original

In his TEDx talk Don’t do your best, Keith Johnstone, the world-renowned expert in theatre improvisation, advises improvisers to be average. 

Photo by Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash

This is not because he wants average performances. He knows that improvisers want to be original, but when they try to be original their performances turn out mediocre. 

He gives supporting evidence for this in the form of world record breaking athletes. When do you think they broke the records? When they weren’t trying to. When they were trying to break a record, they used too much muscle tension and their performance suffered. Johnstone references the book Maximum Performance for this claim, which I haven’t read, so let’s just assume it’s true.

To be original is to create something new, something that hasn’t been done before. A new connection, a new idea, a new way of looking at or interpreting the world. 

By definition, anything we consider original was previously unknown to us. This means that originality must be accompanied by an experience of surprise.

I believe that true originality is possible. I don’t think this necessarily contradicts the widely-held view that everything is a remix. Actually, I think they fit together nicely, but I’ll talk about that some other time.

I agree with Johnstone that trying to be original interferes with any hope of creating anything original. Why? Because:

Trying is only emphasising the thing we already know. — F. M. Alexander

For something to be original means we didn’t already know it. Trying, no matter how effortful or ‘clever’, cannot create anything that surprises us. The original thing we want needs to arise, as if from somewhere else, in our awareness.

The way to be original, then, is not to try to be original. 

That doesn’t mean not to participate in activities that might produce originality, but to change the goal. Instead of striving for some kind of original outcome, we can decide to engage in an activity wholeheartedly and non-judgementally. Playfully, some might say.

It’s only by ceasing any background commentary along the lines of “this isn’t original, that wasn’t original, need to be original” that anything resembling originality might actually show up.

But there’s a trap here. The harder you try not to think of a pink elephant, the more pink elephants traipse through your attention. 

What you want to do is stop trying, but without trying to stop trying. And how do you do that? 

I recommend you start here.

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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