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On Autogaslighting

This is a post from the Techne newsletter. For some background on Iota, a platform for accessible technical training built around small modules, check out last week's post.

Since August, I've been doing an informal survey of books about starting a business. (That's a fancy way of saying I've started a number of these books without finishing them.) As someone with a terminal degree in the humanities, I think I'm supposed to look down on this form of writing, and, well, that's fair. But I've always had the omnivorous reading habits of a raccoon sifting through a garbage can. Sometimes you find filet mignon, and sometimes you gnaw on an old fish bone, but it's always a pleasurable experience finding something new.

The last two finished works in my reading app are Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which self-describes as "a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex," and My House of Horrors, a translated Chinese web novel in which a young man fights ghosts by hitting them with a magic hammer. So business books really click with everything else.

I've noticed two major themes in these business books that are somewhat in tension. Because business-type people are into branding, these ideas tend to go by many different names. The first you might call "iteration" or "rapid prototyping." Essentially, this is the insight that, because you don't really know what people want or what will be successful, you should get something out the door quickly so you can gather feedback, and then you can tweak your business based on what you're learning. This idea has many names, from the early (and amusing!) syncdev to lean and agile, but they're all premised on the idea that you shouldn't do a whole big pile of work on your own. Instead, you should create the smallest thing to elicit guiding feedback, and then follow where that feedback leads.

A second big idea, which I think is much older than modern business books, is what I've come to think of as autogaslighting. Fundamentally, in this approach, you convince yourself that you're going to succeed so hard that it happens. Alternatively, you imagine a fully-realized vision of how the world should be, and then the vision comes about, either because others have subscribed to your vision, because the vision supplies you with direction and motivation, or, in the extreme case, because the universe, karma, or a higher power responds to your energy. Many or most self-help genres are essentially flavors of autogaslighting, including positive thinking, self-hypnosis, and visualization.

Just looking at the Amazon best seller list for self-help (sorry New York Times), I see:

Business books tend to draw water from this self-help well at least a little. Almost every list of books on starting a business seems to include Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, which advocates for "autosuggestion" and being stubborn about your vision. (Other themes of Think and Grow Rich are how great Think and Grow Rich is and how people should create think and grow rich groups so they can, you guessed it, think and grow rich.)

When starting something new, there's a tension between creating something that other people know or say they want, and following a vision for how you think the world should be. There are failure states on both sides. On the extreme end of the iteration or prototyping side, we see trend chasing, superficiality, or pandering. TikTok could perhaps be considered an advanced engine for memetic prototyping, one in which the feedback loop of creation, exposure, response, and redirection is incredibly, and I would say pathologically, tight. TikTok, and other algorithmically-driven social media such as Twitter, tends to produce material that is popular and even addictive, but not substantive or—and I'll just say it—good.

Failed visionaries—autogaslighteers who don't illuminate more than the inside of their own heads—have different failure states. Apparently, in math and physics, cranks who think they've discovered a universal theory of everything are a hazard of the profession. And, in your life, you may have a friend who has such a great idea for an app that they don't even want to tell you about it in case you steal it, or an uncle who has drawn all the threads of the Kennedy assassination together and will now present his findings to the guests of your wedding. When you go into your garret and work alone on something for five (or fifty) years, you will emerge either a genius or a crank. And there are a lot more cranks than geniuses in the world.

This is where I should probably say that, to create something worthwhile, we should walk between these extremes. Some of the business books I've…surveyed…could be said to advocate for specific forms of compromise. One of these is Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, a book on social media marketing that hangs its hat on the metaphor of hitting your customers repeatedly in the face (yep). Apparently, you pepper your customers with engaging stuff like any social media user (jabs?), and then, bam, you hit them with the thing you actually want them to do (right hook?) Broadly, this is an approach that reconciles pushing your vision with catching the tailwind of larger trends and conversations. But while making compromises might be the most reasonable approach when starting new things, my heart's not in taking a middle path.

I think many or most of us know where we stand on a spectrum between trend-chaser and denizen of the garret. My own personality lies a little more on the stubborn side, which is why I've spent the past weeks hacking out a (broken and probably over-elaborate) web application. But, goddamn it, I have a vision! Of course, I've been speaking with others throughout this process, and I've given myself a deadline for getting an offering out into the world. This newsletter is a compromise, in the sense that I'm getting the vision for the business out there. Frankly, I could do an even better job of gaslighting myself, and thus be drawn more quickly toward my inevitable successes. But I'll just have to get where I'm going on the little gaslight I've got in the tank.


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This Week on Iota

This week I've been hammering away on the Iota web application. (Not with an anti-ghost hammer, though.) Don't get too excited if you visit, as many of the public-facing pages are still nonfunctional. But its brokenness is a goad.

Functionality added this week:

Next big feature is creating a sequence of iotas, representing a flexible path through learning on a topic—fundamentally, a bunch of smaller lessons strung together into a curriculum, with a cover page, table of contents, and so on. After that, I'll start adding curriculum, and split my time between writing curriculum and working on the platform.

At any time, reply to one of these newsletters or email patrick@iotaschool.com with your thoughts. Thanks, and see you next week!

Patrick Smyth
Chief Learner at Iota

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