For the last year, I’ve been working to improve my relationship with food, and with myself more generally. Little did I suspect this journey would also completely transform how I approach marketing.
But let’s start at the beginning. For the better part of fifteen years, food has been my drug of choice, and my kryptonite. It's my go-to strategy on those days when I want to escape, or when I need to soothe some emotional wound. Some people drink, others numb with TV or social media. My vice was, and still sometimes is, copious quantities of unhealthy food.
This pattern has wreaked havoc in my life. I gained weight all through my twenties, and my self-worth and self-image plummeted, remaining in the gutter for years. And the negative ripple effects spread into everything, from business and productivity to friendships and romance. My relationship to food left me feeling broken, fatalistic, and hopeless.
Over the years, I tried anything and everything to “fix myself.” I did the diets, the challenges, the accountability programs. Every new cure I stumbled across would work for a few weeks, giving me a brief glimpse of hope, before I inevitably backslid into binging and self-loathing.
I couldn’t see it at the time, but all of these attempts had one thing in common. They always started from a belief that I needed an external intervention, because left to my own devices, I could not be trusted to take care of myself.
In early 2021 I hired Michael Ashcroft as a coach. Michael does some fairly traditional coaching in the Co-Active style, but he also brings his background in Alexander Technique into his sessions, along with a bit of Zen and Daoist philosophy for good measure.
At the time, I was beating myself up for failing to complete a masochistic challenge called 75Hard, wherein you have to workout twice a day, once outdoors, for 75 days straight. No days off. No compromises. I’d made it to day 43 before falling off the wagon, and I felt myself backsliding into old patterns around food. So when I first started working with Michael, I was considering restarting that challenge. I felt like I needed something, anything, to feel back in control of my life.
But like any good coach, Michael didn’t automatically buy into the stories I was telling myself. And in one of our first sessions, he asked a question that has been resonating through my life ever since.
What if you didn’t need a fancy external system, or to put tons of pressure on yourself, to eat well? What if you just trusted yourself?
At first, that question pissed me off a bit. All available evidence pointed to me not being trustworthy with food. Part of me was sure if I let myself off the hook, I would embark on a rampage of gluttony, the likes of which I’d never recover from. But there was another part of me that was like, “wait a minute, what if he’s right?”
And just like that, I had been non-coercion-pilled.
Philosophically, non-coercion is based on a radical idea—that deep down, at your core, you are already trustworthy. You can trust yourself to make the right decision, the healthy decision, the moral decision, without the need for external pressure or coercion. You are enough as you are, and you already have the wisdom to navigate a complex world inside of you. If you slow down, and stop trying to brute force your way through things, you can access that source of wisdom whenever you want.
Like I said, it's radical idea, and if you pull on that thread hard enough, it begins to unravel a good deal of how individuals and institutions in the West operate. And it usually points directly back to Daoism and other Eastern spiritual traditions. But that's an article for another day.
For me, this one question—what if I trusted myself—put me on the path towards intuitive eating. I started learning how to listen to my body. I took a leap of faith into an uncertain world where my food decisions weren't already made for me by an external authority. And I began rebuilding trust with myself, day by day. And look, I still struggle with food from time to time. But with each passing month that I approach this pattern non-coercively, it gets a little better. The more I trust myself, the more its grip loosens, and the rest of my life opens up.
And that brings us, finally, to the subject of marketing. Because it turns out, once I'd embraced non-coercion in one area, it began to spill over into every other context of my life, including my business, and my quest to create true fans.
There’s a technique in copywriting known as “twisting the knife.” I first picked it up from Ramit Sethi, but it goes back decades to the early titans of direct response marketing.
Basically, you make the strategic decision to amplify someone’s pain. You jab your rhetorical blade someplace tender, someplace that’s already harboring an emotional wound, then you twist it and twist it good. You vividly describe their pains and insecurities so they can really feel them. You walk your prospect through the nightmarish consequences if they don’t fix the problem your product solves. And voila, they're in an emotional state that's more conducive to making a purchase right now, because they want to relieve the pain caused by your knife twist.
In the marketing landscape, there are dozens of tools like this, all designed to heighten someone's emotional state, and either nudge or bludgeon them towards making a purchase as quickly as possible. Whether that's knife twisting, adding artificial scarcity or urgency, or making emotional promises that are too good to be true, the marketing industry has emotional coercion down to a science.
Today, all of this stuff feels gross to me. But back when my relationship to myself was rooted in coercion, I had few qualms with tools like this. I used brute force and emotional manipulation against myself all the time. It was my primary tool for getting myself to do things I thought I should do. So it never felt particularly wrong to use it on anyone else.
It's funny, because I've always believed in following the golden rule in marketing, and not treating others in ways you wouldn't want to be treated yourself. But when my relationship to myself was shitty and rooted in distrust, following that rule wasn't worth a whole lot. It's yet another example of how wounded people can perpetuate harm in the world without even realizing it, often while thinking they're doing good.
As you might have already guessed, once I started embracing non-coercion in the context of food, and feeling just how nurturing it is to live that way, so too did my relationship to marketing begin to change.
The questions driving me now are, what if we took the tools of emotional coercion off the table? What if we simply trusted people to make the best decision for themselves?
I haven’t shared this much, but the long-term vision for Ungated goes well beyond helping people make 1,000 True Fans a reality. What I’m really after is to help usher in a renaissance on the internet. A new golden age, if you will.
Maybe it’s just me, but most of what I encounter online these days leaves me disheartened. So much of the creative work I see feels like a cheap copy of a copy, ripped from some soulless playbook. Every human is a unique tapestry of experiences and beliefs and stories, yet little of that diversity or vibrance makes it to the web. What’s worse is that many online cultures feel increasingly captured in cycles of distrust and nihilism and cynicism and zero sum thinking.
Humanity has a fuck ton of potential. Both individually and collectively, we’re capable of astounding feats of imagination and creation. But the internet as it exists right now is stifling that potential. It’s slowly turning us into the worst versions of ourselves.
I wrote a piece awhile back about bridging the trust gap. Here’s a key excerpt.
Humanity’s best attributes—connection, curiosity, generosity, empathy—come out to play when we trust each other. At a fundamental level, trust is the emotional glue that makes widespread collaboration and flourishing possible. To shape the internet into the place we all want it to be—an open, generous, life-sustaining web of connection—trust has to be at the very center of how we operate.
And that brings us back around to non-coercion, and how we choose to market and sell to one another.
Truth be told, I’m still figuring out what Non-Coercive Marketing looks like as a practical philosophy. As far as I can tell, this is uncharted territory, as 98% of what I find in the marketing world is deeply rooted in coercion and distrust.
So from here on out, my plan is to run experiments (in public, of course) and start iterating my way into marketing that feels positive sum, nurturing, and aligned with the world as I believe it can be.
But here’s what I can tell you. Non-Coercive Marketing is a leap of faith that requires you to trust yourself, and trust others. It’s about putting work into the world that is uniquely reflective of who you are, and what you stand for. It’s about creating invitations for the people who resonate, and who want to go deeper. It’s about trusting that if you’re visible in the world, the right people will find you, and be thrilled to accept your invitation.
And with that, I would like to extend my own invitation. If, like me, you believe we’re all capable of more, and that humanity’s best years lie ahead, what I’m building at Ungated is for you. Doing creative work on the internet is only one piece of a larger puzzle, but it’s a meaningful piece. Care to join me in walking this path?