I’ve been struggling to keep the newsletter going and for a good part of the last year, I couldn’t really put my finger on why.
I loved the sensation of editing, the vanity of making it look the way I wanted and license to put something out there. Few replies I get are more than plenty to fill my cup. Ideas hover between two and three thousand threads.
But – outside of living in a literal tropical paradise waking to passerines and writing every morning, I’ve had to mine the time wherever I can get it – 50 words on a short hop from Caledonian Road to City Road, 200 words in the half hour between meetings, editing and publishing when a meeting cancels, 1,500 words on a train or plane without service.
I get hung up with the avatar of products – something with integrity and consistency – that I have imaginary hecklers in my head demanding I develop features and delay shipment to make something 'expensive'.
I get distracted by verduring on Substack even though I know it’s no fun to walk barefoot on plastic grass, and the inner-child web designer in me tells me it’s not home.²
I stopped in my tracks when a long-time client, Sarah, told me that it’s not clear what the goal of the newsletter is.
I started this on Career Break with healthy savings, a world opened up naïvely early after vaccine rollout, regular calls from recruiters and contacts to follow my what’s next, testing out propositions pro-bono and through investment and an itch to turn my daily writing habit into something that would start the conversations I wanted to have more of.
And now, in the weeds of building up my practice in the downturn, I’m trying to reestablish boundaries and make time for the right things and not spread myself too thinly.³
Reframes are to newsletters as rebrands are to organisations⁴
My wife, Hana, calls the newsletter the ‘first thing I cut in a week’.
It’s the indicator species of how much downtime I get to think and tend to the garden of unfinished ideas. The newsletter isn’t a ‘fee earner’ for me.
I let sales calls, clients and homework take precedence. I love my work, but it’s often instrumental thinking that retraces my experience, occasionally realises creative metonymies in my suspension of judgement and rarely gives me the sense of my own improvement.
Here on the newsletter, I’m not exactly codifying work. I doubt many of you think of case studies as intellectual thirst traps. I subscribe to the mantra that – left to their own devices – designers make websites for other designers, and consultants write for other consultants. And most of the time it doesn’t even feel like navel gazing, because you are endowed with false positives and actively encouraged to continue.
Meaning is like a virus, it needs the wrapper of its target to enter sight-unseen, evade tissue-rejection and become an influential to how people think.
While this translation work is valuable, it’s not what I’m looking for. I’m not trying to sell you ideas, I want to make space show you what I see – the middleware – the interface between polished façade and the switchboard wires we’re stuck with.
Aimless is virtuous⁵
For me, the newsletter is permission to go on an adventure.
When I made the switch from hard sciences to humanities in college, with the sudden uptick in essay assignments, the common feedback I received was that I wrote the essay before the one the graders wanted. This was really frustrating to hear, and it gave me a coin-flip sense of whether or not something I wrote would be considered good. (I was an A-C student.) 16 years later I think I know what this means.
For me, my dominant writing habit is journalling which, going in, I have no idea what will appear on a page. My writing is a slight extension of that, putting ideas into dialogue with each other. The process of doing so is when I tease out something I didn’t expect or hit upon one of my own limitations. Rebecca Solnit says the mind works at 3 miles per hour, about the speed of walking.⁶ And similarly the percussive boléro of keys or the whip-scratch of pen exercises is something more than simply laying things out on page through copy and paste or Transformer AI.⁷ It does something to us.
I think of it a bit like mathematical derivations. It goes a bit like this: you have a certain amount of base knowledge about the relationships between different numbers and functions: how to add, multiply, exponent, differentiate etc. which allows you to change a problem that’s not easy to solve into a model that is. This is hacking in its truest form. Playful solving knowing that if one thing doesn’t work, you can just create another model. It’s a version of ‘don’t let the bad book you’re reading now turn you off from reading altogether’.
[Back to writing]
Here’s the spectrum I think of in writing, that helps me channel what this is:
- Direct Experience – deep honesty of going through something without judgement or trying to put the experience in a box. The reader needs to work to make sense of it, because there are few markers to aid them. In a sense, the reader is given a journey of their own and their own sense of ownership when they go through it.
- Thinking Ponds – putting ideas in dialogue and seeing what happens, parsing with no reservations and few judgements. It's like the derivation, pulling experiences together with some existing models.
- Narrativising – retracing your steps through an experience to create a kind of montage through a model, lens or judgement for curation. Something from an outline. The essays my graders want, original thought, grounded by evidence and source texts. A kind of erudition ('removing rudeness').
- Translating – taking something from one domain and putting it in a new one – in an innovative sense.
- Compressing – making something simpler – the tl;dr, the transformer AI,⁷ the derivative essay.
- Discursive Capture – hacking without basis and inherited assumptions unchecked. Regurgitating points-of-view in tautology without introspection or truly connecting with the meaning of what's written. Also called the Bullshit Pyramid.⁸
This newsletter is the closest thing I have to personal development and seeing the craft of my thinking improve.
It is that license to throw ideas into the cauldron of #2, Thinking Ponds, and harvest the unadulterated solution. It is the realm of hypotheticals, desire, wishes, possibly-trues, anticipation and expectancy.
A feature of turning 34 last year was no longer feeling young and not yet feeling old. Not feeling self-conscious, under pressure to perform or front and being able to feel whole in my own joy, whether that be shitty guitar riffs or sketches. The writing’s just like that. Thanks for being here on this journey. Especially those of you who support monetarily!
With a little tailwind, I’ve got fun plans for the newsletter this year. Something more like this.
- Or, all the non-reasons that masquerade as reasons.
- A pretty old idea from the 1990s that still holds true, that you don't really have a relationship to people online until you bring them to your own website (home). Parking a presence on any other platform is a precarious position that can be taken away – by a change in the mechanics, algorithm, shadow banning, mass boycott, etc. In better words, do you have an alternative if you were to lose access to your distribution tomorrow? I have these same suspicions with Substack given their designs for a social graph that could put publications at risk. Consider Permission Marketing, if you'd like to learn more.
- Raised as a boy, I find it really difficult to find language express my needs and boundaries, and this easy-to-follow handbook has been a revelation, Set Boundaries, Find Peace.
- The almost-reasons.
- The reasons.
- Here's the article I wish I wrote on Transformer AI – the 'T' in ChatGPT 3 and 4, by Ted Chiang, 'ChatGPT is a blurry JPEG of the Web'. Tl;dr he describes the technology as lossy compression for text, in the way MP3s are for music. How the developers don't fully understand how it works. How the tech doesn't grasp some basic rules like adding one to a number. Begs the question, is compressing information, knowledge? It's like fake erudition – forcibly stripping the 'rudeness' of knowledge without the process of wisdom-making. I riff on this in the nex paragraph about derivations.
- There was a meme going around Tumblr circa 2009–10 that described how the casualisation of journalism into gig economy roles meant that the quality of articles dropped into a pyramid of few, high quality primary sources and layers of secondary and tertiary interpretations and commentaries pretending to be insight. This is like people wanting to be seen with (to have read) Il nome della rosa, or more recently, Anti-fragile – when they clearly have not. Sean Blanda does a good job of describing this effect in his article, 'The Bullshit Industrial Complex'.
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