Castles in the Sky 29
Hot Streaks and Cohort-Based Courses
Castle in the Sky is a metaphor for experiencing a new idea so powerful that it changes the way you see the world. My name is Charlie and my mission in life is to explore these experiences and empower others to find and embrace them. This weekly newsletter is where I share personal updates alongside a bit of truth, beauty, and humor to combat intellectual loneliness and existential boredom.
“Not all who wander are lost.”
New this week: I’ve updated the newsletter format and added new section break art. In this issue:
Hot Streaks: I had a productive month in March, and it allowed me to reflect on what exactly I’m doing with this Substack.
Cohort-Based Courses (CBCs): A CBC was why I started writing, and that same CBC is starting up again next week. Plus, I launched my own CBC and the first cohort was great.
Updates and Crowd Work: I talk about upcoming writing projects, share some personal updates, and ask my crowd work question.
⚡👀Also, Substack told me this issue was too long for an email, so if you don’t mind, click through to Substack and read this issue on the website or in the app—and while you’re at it, I would really appreciate a click of the 💗 to let me know you were there.
I used to do improv with this guy who was an aspiring musician. He wasn’t aspiring in the sense that he didn’t make music, but that he didn’t have fans. He made a lot of music. When I met him he was on a two-year hot streak, where he had produced like twenty instrumental albums and uploaded them to Spotify.
I didn’t know him well, but I tried to be interested and polite by asking him what the music sounded like and who were his inspirations. He couldn’t answer. So I pulled up his profile on Spotify and asked where I should start to get a good idea what he was all about. I’ll always remember he said, “anywhere man–just poke around and figure out what you like.”
This guy had twenty albums and was complaining nobody listened. I immediately decided that he was unserious. I felt that you can’t be an aspiring musician who seriously wants fans, and expect new listeners to just sift through all twenty of your albums. You need an introductory playlist or a “best of” list. This is an anecdote that has stuck with me, and frankly haunts me a bit.
March was a productive month.
Last month (March 2023), I had a bit of a hot streak myself. It was my second most prolific month since I started writing.
Below is everything I published. Because I don’t want to be the twenty album guy, I have sorted these into what I think is best, starting at the top:
A Pilgrimage for Book People: This is part travelogue, part memoir, part manifesto. It is about my Dad’s life’s work as an independent secondhand bookstore owner, and about a used book sale where people like him would gather to dig through scores of donated books and restock their shelves for the next year. Above all, this essay is a love letter to books and writing–and it is the thing I’ve written that I’m most proud of.
Get into Character: This is an homage to my Mom and an exploration of what it means “to be a character,” and why I think characters are the best kind of people.
Everything is a Mood: In this personal story, I discover I might have ADHD, seek help from a professional, and experience a sudden bout of depression (for the first time ever) as a side effect of some medication. I developed more profound empathy for people with mood disorders, a richer understanding of myself, and a much deeper understanding of what “mood” is and how we don’t give it the respect it deserves.
Castles in the Sky 27, Next Big Steps: In this newsletter edition, I talk about my daughter transitioning into the toddler classroom at school as a metaphor for my own creative journey. I also share news about a course I was teaching online called Limitless Writers.
The Individual Magic of Their Genius: In this introduction to a new feature called The Enchanter Series, I tell the story of one life-changing weekend where my good friend Andrew opened my mind to new ideas and people by teaching me about rock music.
Castles in the Sky 28, “Smorgasbord!”: This is an experiment in curating content–specifically it’s ten different things, from a TikTok to a longform essay, that I think are though-provoking or enjoyable.
Even though I’m writing a lot, I keep going back to my desire to not bet the twenty album guy, and to niche down enough that I can tell people what I’m doing.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
That I spin my wheels about “niching down” is not news to anyone who’s been reading my newsletter since the beginning. Twenty-six issues ago, when Castles in the Sky was called Thought Bananas (how’s that for a niche), I wrote about a trailer I saw and how much it inspired me, and spoke to this idea to keep exploring and trusting the process.
Twelve years ago I saw a YouTube video called Marcel the Shell with Shoes on. It was a silly little stop-motion video about a talking shell that wears shoes. Yesterday, I saw a trailer for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On The Movie. Between the first YouTube videos and this year, somebody got the idea to turn that silly YouTube stop-motion video into what seems--from the critics' quotes--to be a very moving film.
Seeing this evolution moved me. It also reminded me of something that one of my new friends from Write of Passage, Matt, said to me a couple weeks ago. I was going back and forth trying to figure out what to write about and how to brand myself--I don't remember what specifically but I was agonizing over some inconsequential detail. He reminded me of the scene from the Social Network where Justin Timberlake tells Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg to stop arguing about whether to charge for Facebook because they, "don't even know what it is yet."
I don't think Thought Bananas will ever be a trillion dollar tech platform, but the idea that I should let it breathe and see what it becomes was poignant. A silly stop-motion video about a shell with shoes on is an upcoming critical darling from A24 studios. Who knows? Maybe in twelve years I'll be the showrunner for Thought Bananas, a five season, sixty-episode show on HBO? Maybe not. The lesson is to take the pressure off and let it be.
According to science, I am “exploring.”
Every time I remember that exploring is a good thing, I see signs everywhere that it is a good idea. Last week, my friend(who is probably tired of me quoting this) said in her dynamite essay last week:
If we edit out all the eccentric, offbeat parts of ourselves to create content we think people want to consume, then we’re just creating a lukewarm manifestation of what we could be creating instead.
My problem before was that including the eccentric, offbeat parts of myself in my writing felt indulgent. I feared the day someone said, “what do you write about? What should I read?” and I became the twenty album guy, saying, “I write about everything, just poke around and figure out what you like.” But recently I stumbled across an academic article about “hot streaks” that made me realize I was thinking about this all wrong.
The authors of the article examined artists, filmmakers, and scientists for examples of “hot streaks,” which they define as a cluster of high impact work in rapid succession. They then tried to find regularity or a predictable pattern to the hot streaks. What they discovered is that there is an extremely strong, observable relationship between a period of extensive exploration, where they try new, different things, followed by a time of intense exploitation, where they take what they learned and put it to work, eventually resulting in the aforementioned “hot streaks.”
I had planned to continue writing in this exploratory manner, but now I can stop worrying that it’s too indulgent, or too unfocused. I have a scientific basis for doing so: I am not meandering through different topics, I am exploring what works.
CBC (Cohort-Based Courses) are a relatively new type of online course. Most online education is self-paced and solitary, and essentially consists of watching videos and doing worksheets on your own. CBCs are more like traditional courses, but online. In a CBC, a teacher organizes a course with a syllabus, then students attend live class sessions where the teachers lecture, and then the students work individually or in groups on class deliverables like homework or a project.
They have become very popular lately and I wrote before that I think something resembling cohort-based courses is the future of higher education, specifically that “Higher education will be a lifelong pursuit, and the most impactful offerings will be interactive, cohort-based, and time-bound.” (If you want to learn more, one of the most popular CBC instructors, Tiago Forte, has a great essay about the rise of CBCs called The Future of Education is Community.)
The best CBC is Write of Passage.
I have liked all the CBCs I’ve taken, but the best is Write of Passage. Participating in the 8th cohort last year is the reason I started publishing my writing online. From people who know more about for profit online education than I do, I’ve heard it is the “gold standard” for CBCs.
It’s hard for me to overstate the impact Write of Passage had on my life, so I wanted to share that the next cohort starts up in April 17th. I am participating, and from what I’ve seen it’s even better than the last two times I took it. You can sign up here. Heads up–it’s expensive. But if you’re sure you want to take it, I have one discount code and I’ll give it to the first person who sends me an email asking for it.
I recently taught my first CBC.
When Covid started, it pushed the university courses I teach online, so I technically taught exclusively CBCs from March 2022 through December 2021. However, I also recently taught my first CBC outside the university. It was called Limitless Writers, and my objective was to teach other people how I use a process called Reverse Outlining to improve my idea generation, reading, writing, and editing.
Nine people signed up and joined for five sessions where we worked through a few essays and writing exercises. The reviews so far are good and I learned a lot–mostly, I learned I had too much content, so I am going to try to break it out into several smaller workshops.
I developed the course as part of a community of practice led by, who I really need to thank alongside , and all the other people in it. I’m going to run the next cohort in the summer, so if you’re interested reach out or register for the course now at the presale price.
Updates and Crowd Work
While writing is great, work is tough right now.
I teach a course at a university that is really involved, but we really get to change people’s lives. Right now we’re in the “dip” or the “home stretch.” With about three weeks left, every single conversation with a student (or one of their clients–as this is a hands-on course) involves someone really struggling.
The thing is, it’s an illusion. I might talk to 7 or 8 people who are really having a tough time, but then at the end of the semester, 120+ people will tell me how much the course impacted their life, and how excited they are to tell other people about it. There is definitely a strong parallel with the writing, where I feel compelled to “solve” something, but this problem requires sitting and working slowly through the discomfort to arrive at a satisfying ending.
In addition to writing and working, I’ve been walking and lifting weights a lot, getting closer to a big surgery this summer where they’re going to break, reset, and correct both my upper and lower jaw. The recovery is supposedly a doozy, but I’m lucky that I have a lot of people around who can help out.
I have a lot of cool projects in the works.
March wasn’t just productive for finished writing. Beyond what I published, I made progress on a lot of things I am very excited about which should be published by the summertime, such as:
A few entries in the Enchanter series where I profile online and historical creators
Two different science fiction short story series
Multiple new essays and book reviews
A new series of essays building on my views from The Moral Case for Small Business
I appreciate all the feedback.
On The Moral Case for Small Business,said:
As a small business owner, I just LOVE everything about this article. The article itself is everything a small business should be. Clear, inspiring, to the point, usable, ownership driven. Every part of the article supports the articulate and inspiring conclusion that small business matters. "supporting small businesses is not just a personal choice, but a moral imperative for those with the will and the resources" - your case is made so well to back up this spiky point of view. I am 100% on board. Going to share this around.
On A Pilgrimage for Book People,said:
As someone who has always loved--and briefly worked in--used bookstores, I really enjoyed reading this. Your use of religious metaphors throughout the story really pulled it together, especially at the end. I gave you a shout-out in today's edition of Mindful Mondays :)
On Get Into Character, there were a lot of great comments, most of them talking about how cool my Mom is (what else is new?) and I especially want to thank, , , and .
Finally, Substack released the new Notes social media function which is basically simple Twitter. I published my first "Note" and had this lovely exchange with Michelle and. To be honest, this just made me feel really good--I don't have another good rationalization for putting it here.
Charlie, while I haven’t known you for too terribly long, it’s been really cool to watch you hit your stride with this newsletter. You’re a fantastic writer, of course, but there’s a newfound element of confidence/excitement/“settling in” (if that makes any sense) that’s just bursting from your writing now. I love the layout, the personal anecdotes, the allowing yourself to muse and meander a bit (I’m glad you liked that quote from my essay, too 😆). IMHO, I hope you don’t niche down. I like the takes on philosophy, on literature, on AI, on personal stories, on teaching, on writing, etc. This may be a ~cold~ take, but I’m not so sure slapping a label on our foreheads so people can better digest what we have to say is the way. I think we should think big and write big and be big. It’s hard to do that from inside a box. Keep going, Charlie, you’re crushing it!
First, funnily enough I was reading your newsletter as your comment on Circle popped up about "niche celebrities" which I don't think I had enough "hahahas" to describe how funny I thought it was. I also felt warm tingles about Pauls' comment so I was happy to see it here.
Second, I really enjoyed this newsletter and clicking into your essays that I had missed. Originally, I was going to comment that I wasn't sure how I felt about this statement, "I felt that you can’t be an aspiring musician who seriously wants fans, and expect new listeners to just sift through all twenty of your albums." But then truthfully, it was SO helpful to have a list of your latest essays. I've been catching up on people's Substacks and it was great to be like ah, here's one I missed that I think would be interesting. Which btw, your story with the ADHD medication was absolutely wild.
Another great newsletter Charlie! I've really been enjoying your essays and curation pieces and am looking forward to the next one as well.