I have become one of those people who eats a weird diet.
Right now I am doing strict keto, which means I eat less than 20g of carbohydrate per day. I also exclude all nuts, cow dairy, alcohol and caffeine. Not only does this make ordering any drink at a pub difficult ("I'll have an overpriced sparkling water, please"), it also requires a lot of thought, planning and not allowing myself to have things I enjoy.
So why do I do it? I do it because I just really, finally want to feel consistently good.
It took me a long time to realise that many people feel the same most of the time. They wake up and go "hmm, yes, these are indeed my qualia, off we go then."
This is not how things are for me. It seems like my moods, energy levels, ability to focus, emotions and even the contents of my thoughts are highly sensitive to environmental and internal conditions in one way or another. They all bounce around a lot.
When I drink even a single shot of coffee I get a 20 minute rush of euphoria and hyper focus, then I get sweaty and scattered, then comes the crushing anxiety and then I get a few hours of low-mood fatigue. For alcohol, the 'feel good' curve now seems to come after the 'feel bad' curve, so I just feel tired, sick and withdrawn before I get any of the fun stuff that alcohol promises.
In the winter here in the UK we don't get many daylight hours, and those that we do get are often hidden behind thick grey clouds for weeks on end. I'm sensitive to this and experience what I assume is Seasonal Affective Disorder. My life is reliably most subjectively terrible around January and February, but if I fly south to somewhere sunny then my entire life outlook shifts within 24 hours.
And, finally, even when I eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and sleep at sensible times, there seem to be random days when things are great and random days when they are not. I assume nutrition and sunlight are implicated here, but I'm still experimenting.
These sensitivities have actually increased with age, but I think they were always there and my youth just hid them somewhat. All this means is that I have developed a strong tendency to tinker with my environment, with what I put into and with what I do with my body.
Keto is annoying, restrictive and means I have to deny myself certain pleasures (like cake). But is it more annoying than seeing my life drift by in a distant, anxious, low-energy haze? No it is not.
I am extremely aware of my qualia and I know that my qualia are malleable. My belief is that the default qualia mode should be clear, happy, exploratory and energetic; if it's not then there is some kind of dysfunction in the system. If that dysfunction can be resolved, say by eating a nutritious, non-harmful diet, by moving a lot, by being in the sun a lot, by sleeping consistently well, then those qualia will emerge.
I confess that having to do so much work to notice, decipher and resolve the dysfunction is frustrating, but it is what it is. I shall keep going. I want those good qualia.
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Anjunabeats is a record label that, according to Wikipedia, specialises in electronic, trance, progressive trance and progressive house music.
I listen to an enormous amount of Anjunabeats. I have been to at least 20 club nights, concerts and events put on by their artists and have introduced many of my friends to them. Literally two days ago I went to the live event for their 450th weekly radio show (needless proof).
So it's probably about time that I explain why I love them.
Their music just works for me.
Sometimes you hear a piece of music for the first time and it just clicks. You realise that this is what you've been longing for, that this is what was missing from your life.
This was my experience when I discovered Above & Beyond, the band that created the Anjunabeats label, at Glastonbury festival in 2014. I hadn't heard of them, but was convinced to go by a new friend, and I'll be forever grateful to him for that (thanks, Kev).
Above & Beyond were the last official set of the festival, at something like 10pm on day five — the Sunday — and I was ruined. Absolutely, thoroughly used up and totally worn out, although not quite ready to loudly proclaim "Wow! What a Ride!"" (with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson).
I had been dancing until dawn the previous Thursday, Friday and Saturday (well, Sunday morning). Since Glastonbury is always the week after the summer solstice, and since the UK is surprisingly far north, it got dark around 10.30pm and light at 4.30am. I was not sleeping much or well.
And that was a rainy year, so my 200k+ fellow revellers and I had turned Worthy Farm into a swamp with sticky mud inches deep. The only place that it was ever possible to sit down was inside my own tent, and I wasn't there much.
I thought it worth stressing all that to give you a sense of just how broken I was. And yet, when Above & Beyond came on and I heard their music, all the pain and tiredness went away. Charles Darwin, of all people, captures it well:
“Attention, if sudden and close, graduates into surprise; and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement" — Charles Darwin
It's been seven years since I first felt that stupefied amazement and I still experience it regularly when I listen to their music. It just makes me feel so good.
The song that really grabbed me was "Hello". You can watch the video here. I love that the energy of the video matches how the track makes me feel. The way to listen to these tracks is to let them take you to where they want to go. See what associations come up in your mind, notice what feelings emerge, and let them get more powerful.
They treat their music like art.
Listening to someone wax lyrical about why their favourite music is the best music is unlikely to be convincing, so I'll give a concrete example that supports my argument here.
Consider their regular Anjunabeats Volume X albums, where X is a number. You know how most albums are a sequential list of tracks that are generally disconnected from each other? Well, all the tracks on the Anjunabeats Volumes are mixed together, flowing seamlessly from one to the next. You can tell how much an electronic music artist cares about their music by the quality of their transitions, and these are always... hmm, sublime is the only word I'm willing to settle for.
Not only that, but these albums are shaped. Each one is a journey. They start softly, perhaps even a little melancholically, and then surge unapologetically towards euphoria.
If you want to see what I mean, I recommend Volume 11, which is where I started. It's in two parts on YouTube for some reason, or it's all on Spotify. Listen in order!
They are prolific.
Sometimes you discover a new artist, get all excited, go look up their other works and realise they have maybe one other album. Sadness ensues.
Not so with Anjunabeats. Because it's a well-curated label with dozens of talented artists that share a specific set of vibes, there is an essentially endless amount of music to fall into.
I'm currently enjoying and playing with the idea of an online oasis, a place on the Internet that you can discover and take refuge in from the noise outside. Well, that's what discovering Anjunabeats was like for me. A musical oasis with many gardens and paths, some well sign-posted, others more hidden, and almost all leading somewhere delightful.
They sign a large number of talented artists.
Related to their prolificness, the label accommodates a vast list of artists, of course some very well known within the scene who date back to the early years of the label, but many new ones as well.
It strikes me that they are always on the lookout for up and coming names and giving them opportunities to rise through the ranks, so to speak. This suggests a collaborative sentiment and willingness to innovate, both of which are important to me. It also means that I get to be delighted more often and experience the joy of discovering someone new I really like.
They spread a positive message of love, appreciation and connection.
Above & Beyond have a weekly 'radio' show called Above & Beyond Group Therapy, based on an album by the same name.
That might give you a hint as to the general vibe of their music. If you want to feel feels, if you want to do some emotional processing in an environment that validates that your feelings are okay, go to an Above & Beyond concert.
It's common for them to write messages up on a screen behind them, where everyone can see.:
It's a huge relief to enter such a space. While the music can be heavy and intense, it's never aggressive. If someone bumps into you while dancing they apologise and maybe give you a hug. The fans are generally lovely people, although of course some bad eggs are always present at events like these.
Going to an Anjunabeats event can often feel like finding the others. In fact, so many people seem to make friends through Anjunabeats that there's a name for the people you know who are also very into Anjunabeats: Anjunafamily.
Is it cheesy? Hell yes. Is it also awesome? Hell yes.
All this and more is why I love Anjunabeats.
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This is how I seem to work.
I can write a note like this, with 500 - 1000 words, in about 45 minutes and then it’s done. I mean, done enough that I can publish and feel satisfied.
It’s both a blessing and a curse that my first drafts are largely immediately publishable. A blessing, because that means I have sufficient writing skill to be able to do that, and a curse, because it means I’m stuck at a local maximum of never editing my work.
If I look around my life more broadly, this is not just constrained to my writing of little notes. It seems the phenomenon of “I can either do it all at once or not at all” shows up in quite a few places, so I tend to struggle with bigger, more complex projects. It’s common for me to start many things and make good progress on them. Yay, great. But then I stop, put my work somewhere and experience aversion whenever it occurs to me that I could go back to it.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “Hmm, Michael, I don’t know much about ADHD, but this sounds suspiciously like ADHD”. Maybe, I don’t know. I often think there’s something, but I’ve also never really resonated enough with the image I have in my head of what ADHD is.
Have you noticed how the last five paragraphs started with the letter I? Neither had I until just now. That’s the kind of thing one might otherwise edit out if they were fond of editing, but no, I shall leave it.
Whether it’s ADHD or something else, it’s there, and I’m keen to find ways to navigate through or around it. All at once or not at all is surprisingly effective in many circumstances, but it relies on being able to capture a spark of creativity in the moment and make a thing with it. I would like to be able to chip away effectively, relentlessly, and patiently at something until one day a vast and epic creation appears before my eyes.
Writing is a good playground for this. I know I can put decent words on a page without much difficulty, but I struggle with longer form writing. Anything that requires planning, structuring, restructuring, writing, rewriting, editing and polishing, that’s where my existing methods break down, so that’s where I need to go.
Write of Passage is coming up. It’s a little embarrassing, as an alumni mentor, to admit that I suck at this crucial aspect of writing. I’m going to lean into it though and use Write of Passage to give myself permission to write longer pieces.
Perhaps a way forward is this. I won’t allow myself to publish my first draft of anything that I intend to be an essay. It’s fine for notes — these are designed to be high velocity anyway — but essays are where the craft and art of my writing will be cultivated.
Then, once I’ve proven to myself that I can maintain focus on a single project over time, I can expand my ambition. I’d like to be able to spend a few weeks really diving into a topic and then compile my explorations into a solid essay. And then to repeat that, over and over again. If I could become that person, wow, that would be exciting.
And to close, I remind myself that the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has been under construction since 1882 and is still not finished. It's a masterpiece, though, and I'm grateful for the people who have worked on it consistently for so long. I take inspiration from them, their vision and their persistence.
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.
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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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.
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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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.
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.
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?
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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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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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.
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.
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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In his TEDx talk Don’t do your best, Keith Johnstone, the world-renowned expert in theatre improvisation, advises improvisers to be average.
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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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: