Thinking Out Loud No. 25
Constructive hypocrisy, the Resonance Engine, and emergent structure
|Michael Ashcroft||Jul 19, 2020||3|
Yes, I can confirm: I am, in fact, alive.
I sent Thinking Out Loud No. 24 on 26 April, so it’s been a while. I call this out because it represents an intrinsic part of the public creative journey. I talk about that in my essay on constructive hypocrisy below.
And since there are also many (maybe 100) of you for whom this is your first edition of Thinking Out Loud, I also want to describe the unique role it plays for me as my Resonance Engine. As a newsletter that isn’t strictly about anything, why do I think it may be the most valuable writing vehicle I’ll ever have? And why do I think you should have one too?
§1 – New content alert!
Before I dive into those, I want to share that:
I published a new essay on my blog, called “How to be Superman”, where I discuss a wonderful clip of Christopher Reeve transforming from Clark Kent to Superman. I wrote this one with the help of the effervescent Ellen Fishbein, my writing coach.
I was recently invited onto two podcasts to talk about Alexander Technique, so if you’re interested then you can check them out. Here is Do Explain #14 with Christofer Lövgren and here is Mostly Harmless #4 with Allan Steele.
§2 – Writing online creates constructive hypocrisy
I suspect that some of you follow me because I’m “one of those people who does a newsletter.” Perhaps you’re interested in writing online yourself, and perhaps you also want to work with the garage door up.
That’s great, and I encourage it wholeheartedly. But fair warning: if you do embark on this journey, expect it to be uncomfortable — even turbulent at times.
It’s coming up on a year since I completed Write of Passage and it remains one of the most transformative things I’ve ever done. Here are some quick metrics:
I’ve grown my Twitter audience from about 400 to 2600 and made loads of new friends. More importantly, these are intelligent, engaged, kind and nurturing people.
I’ve published nine ‘evergreen’ blog posts that I reference regularly. This one, Let The Others Find You, captures an approach to being, both online and off, that has changed how I view sharing my own ‘uniqueness’ (hint: it’s a good thing).
I launched a second newsletter, Expanding Awareness, on the Alexander Technique, which is now approaching 400 subscribers. I’ve had taster Zoom sessions with dozens of people around the world, who have so far donated hundreds of dollars under a generosity model.
And, of course, people are inviting me on to podcasts, which is a whole world of fun that I never saw coming.
All of the above is great, so what’s the problem? Where’s the mess, the turbulence? To answer that, let’s talk about hypocrisy and how, when used properly, it can be a helpful and supportive tool for growth.
What is hypocrisy? Here’s definition #2 from Wiktionary:
The claim or pretense of having beliefs, standards, qualities, behaviours, virtues, motivations, etc. which one does not really have.
Or put another way, it’s saying one thing and then doing another.
A common piece of advice in the productivity world is to make public commitments about goals to increase discipline (I’m not convinced I agree). Although not the intention, this is implicitly what writing a newsletter does. If I say that I will — or that it’s desirable to — write on a schedule, about certain topics, or using certain methods (hello second brain), that’s equivalent to making public commitments. I create performance indicators that I can be measured against.
Hypocrisy is what happens if I then don’t meet those commitments. Writing online, particularly for a defined audience (👋), consistently highlights any divergence between what I said I would do and what I then, in fact, do.
In Neal Stephenson’s book Diamond Age, the character Finkle-McGraw characterises a particularly negative view of hypocrisy:
“In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung (world view), a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception — he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy.”
This is a particularly harsh perspective that assumes that hypocrisy is intentionally deceptive: the hypocrite never even intends to live in alignment with what they espouse.
Looking at myself as a hypocrite in this light is uncomfortable and, as I’ve come to realise, unhelpful. It actively puts me off wanting to resolve the dissonance behind it. There’s a judgemental feeling of “I’m bad” attached to it, and it just so happens that one of my automatic responses to “I’m bad” is “avoid” or “distract” (other coping mechanisms are also available).
But Finkle-McGraw goes on:
“Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”
This is a softer exploration of hypocrisy: it’s not devious, it’s just difficult to live up to high standards on a consistent basis.
These two perspectives can be hard to separate in the moment. When I make the observation “I haven’t sent the newsletter regularly, even though I said I would”, it’s easy to judge myself as having been guilty of some kind of moral failing, neglecting the fact that I’ve still achieved many other things.
But Finkle-McGraw goes on to point out that the dissonance caused by my own hypocrisy can be used to keep me on track. By noting that I am not doing what I said I would do, I have information. It’s the secondary judgement of that information as “bad” that makes me suffer — and it’s my habitual responses to suffering that lead me to wander even further from my stated goal. Hello, vicious circle.
“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code".”
“Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved — the missteps we make along the way — are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”
This is constructive hypocrisy: the use of information about my actual position relative to my intended position in order to trigger behaviour needed to bring these two things closer together.
Writing online creates a structure that will almost inevitably cause me to fail in public (👋) and make me resolve the ensuing, now virtuous, struggle. It even makes me process the resolution in public in a way that helps both me and my audience grow (👋 getting meta now).
It’s important, then, to be able to switch to constructive hypocrisy instead of falling victim to its more pernicious sibling. To do this I notice that there were two routes available — a choice to be made — when observing the initial hypocrisy: judgemental (“I haven’t done the thing, and therefore I’m bad”) and non-judgemental (“I haven’t done the thing, how interesting”). It’s non-judgemental noting that gives me access to this engine of growth.
So next time I notice that hypocrisy, I’ll pretend I’m a telepathic alien field anthropologist who has third-party access to my thoughts: “Oh, how fascinating, the subject appears not to have met his goal. I shall make a note of this in my log.”
§3 – The Resonance Engine
In Write of Passage, David Perell talks about how publishing online creates a ‘Serendipity Vehicle’.
By making it easy for people to find you online, you’ll create a vehicle for serendipity. Call on your vehicle when you want to manufacture serendipity, and you need some activation energy.
The idea here is that by consistently putting myself out there, I increase the likelihood that other people will stumble on my work, and some of those people may have opportunities for me that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to access. This is already pretty evident in my own experience.
I extended that idea for myself with my aforementioned article Let the others find you, noting that the way I put myself out there will attract different kinds of people to me. The more I am able to share of myself — perhaps the more authentic I can be — the more that the people who do find me will be people I’ll get on with and want to know.
Now I want to introduce my idea of a Resonance Engine (yes, I can create jargon with capital letters too), because I’ve come to realise that this is what Thinking Out Loud — the newsletter with the most non-specific name possible — actually is.
Consider two kinds of resonance that I just invented:
Interpersonal resonance. This is what happens when I write something that you like. My essay on Total Work in No. 24 has been hugely resonant with many of you, so now I know that there’s appetite for more writing along these lines.
Intrapersonal resonance. This is what happens when I write something that I like. For example, I wrote in No. 8 about how a lifetime of recurrent knee dislocations has shaped my identity and so learned that I enjoy writing in this more raw, vulnerable style.
The Resonance Engine allows for the discovery of these things. Writing regularly (even if with a two month hiatus) allows me to find intrapersonal resonance. Writing regularly in public, via a newsletter where people can (and do!) hit reply, allows me to find interpersonal resonance.
This recently happened with Alexander Technique. After a few editions where I wrote about it a lot — and found great interpersonal and intrapersonal resonance — I realised that I didn’t want Thinking Out Loud to become a newsletter about Alexander Technique. I decided to spin that out into Expanding Awareness, which is where I’ve been focusing my attention for the last couple of months.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that act of spinning something out of Thinking Out Loud crystallised its role for me. This newsletter is where I explore new ideas in a quest for both interpersonal and intrapersonal resonance. When I find it, I continue to write about it here. Then, if it gets too big, I take it somewhere else.
By repeating this process the Resonance Engine is free to continue its never-ending and insatiable quest for more resonance, staying lean and flexible to new ideas and perspectives. It also preserves the ‘working with the garage door up’ mindset. Nothing in here is done, finished or to be considered the final work. It’s all, quite literally, thinking out loud — in search of resonance.
§4- Personal Monopolies aren’t chosen, they emerge
I drew this on paper with a pen and colouring pencils when I realised in a flash of insight that not everything needs software.
Many people who want to write online seem to get stuck in the “what should I write about?” stage. There’s a misconception that it’s important to have a niche in advance of starting.
This is a trap. Rather than brainstorming thematic ideas, just write about anything that’s interesting to you. Hell, the broader the better. Do you think I could have planned to become ‘that non-doing guy’ on Twitter and have a newsletter on the Alexander Technique? Not even a little bit. It sort of just happened.
Rather than aiming to write within a theme, write to be prolific. Abandon hopes to create structure from the top down and watch in surprise as structure emerges from the bottom up.
By the way, I tested this graphic for resonance on Twitter already. Turns out it was resonant.
If you enjoyed this newsletter and think someone else might too then please feel encouraged to forward it on. And if you were sent this email by someone else, then welcome! You can subscribe here or check out my latest blog posts.