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The Whippet #85: On guardian spirits

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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Good morning!

I read a great but bit-heavy-for-the-Whippet article on role models and gender (linked here, but it's not my main point here). In response to the piece, some friends and I tried to name role models and realised we don't really connect to the idea at all:

F: My only role models are people I know for fairly specific things: "this person has a good approach to navigating the academic job market" and so on. There are plenty of people whose opinions I respect, but that's different to wanting to emulate them
C: Maybe I don't know what a role model is. A person I want to be like?
F: Based on how I've most often seen the word used, I would say it means: footballers

I don't really feel comfortable with the idea of calling anyone a role model. (Or, also, maybe I don't know what one is.)

Guardian Spirits

But then I came across Austin Kleon's old blog post about guardian spirits. Every time he starts a new notebook/journal, he chooses a new guardian spirit to watch over it from inside the front cover. (Emily Dickinson on the left, a robot drawn by his 4-year-old kid on the right.)

I like that better.

Firstly, a guardian spirit only needs to watch over one area of your life. You could have one for your garden, one for trying to be a good friend, one for work.

Secondly, it doesn't need to be someone you want to emulate, just someone who's energy you want to bring into whatever you're doing. It would be a bit worrying to have that robot as a role model, but makes perfect sense to try and bring some of its freewheeling vibe to your writing. If you get easily stressed and off-kilter at work, you could choose someone with a very calm, saintly demeanour, even if you don't want to be all beatific all the time.

(If anyone wants to tell me who/what they'd choose for a guardian spirit and why, I'm interested! You can reply to this email / write to

Desert roads leading to Dubai

by photographer Irenaeus Herok
Twitter | Insta

How to survive solitary confinement

I like to read things like this, keep it in my pocket, so I worry less about what if it happens.

The recommendation is more or less - you'll go crazy anyway, so go crazy with intention, to protect your brain.

The human brain does very badly in social isolation - we're not built for it, and people start hallucinating and dissociating very quickly when it's complete. It's actual torture, but people don't expect it to be because it sounds so low-key.

So the people in this article - both people who've survived solitary, and psychologists - suggest using a lot of visualisation. Imagine yourself in a much bigger space than you are, get to know it. Have a "workspace" where you train, maybe practice a sport in your mind. Every day, regularly, like you were outside and had a proper life. Imagine meeting a friend and having conversations with them.

Part of what makes you go crazy in isolation is the lack of external cues and structures, so it has to be structured visualisations, not just panicked uncontrolled daydreaming.

From someone who survived 7 years in almost total solitary confinement (again, this is torture, it is amazing he came out of it relatively okay):

"He he used to kill time for hours working out detailed visualizations of himself in a vivid alternate reality, where he could inhabit open spaces and converse with people.

“I might imagine myself at a park and come upon a person sitting on a bench,” he says. “I would ask if she or he minded if I sat down. I’d say something like, ‘Great weather today.’ The other person would respond something like, ‘It is indeed. I hope it continues until the [football game].’ ‘I know what you mean. In another couple of weeks it’s going to be cold as a witch’s tit in Wisconsin.’ As we conversed, I would watch joggers, bicyclists, and skateboarders pass by. The conversation might go on for half an hour or so. When I opened my eyes and stood, I would feel refreshed and even invigorated.”

There you go, now you're prepared.

Method acting

from this interview.

And just, wow, yep. It's like how the kind of person who says "I'm just being honest, I tell it like it is, and if people don't like the truth, too bad" never seems to have anything positive to say. If they genuinely saw and were willing to name truths others aren't, they'd be noticing and praising all the little ways people go out of their way to help each other, making invisible labour visible. They would be complimenting other men on how they look/dress because their honesty wouldn't be held back by fear of how it might look.

The full truth includes a lot of good things and bad things - if someone's only naming bad things then it's not about honesty.

Click to watch this guy get out of his carrier

I promise you it's worth it. Link again. (It's a maned wolf, mostly found in Brazil.)

Price-fixing is illegal, but incompetence-fixing isn't

Price-fixing is when all the, for example, cabbage farmers get together and say "we're not selling cabbages for less than $18 a cabbage". Normally, if cabbages were that expensive, someone would drop their prices and all the customers would go to them. But if no one is selling cabbages for less than $18, cause they all made a secret agreement, the customer doesn't have a choice.

So that is super illegal.

In Australia, and I imagine elsewhere, the problem we have seems to be a secret agreement to be just terrible and useless within certain industries. If you hire a courier and they deliver the package to a random house three suburbs away, what are you gonna do about? Every courier company here does that.

Plus the classic "we attempted delivery" notification, which they clearly mean in some abstract metaphysical way because they definitely don't physically arrive at your house and go through any of the traditional and established methods of making contact with the occupant, such as knocking. Again: every courier company in Australia does this regularly.

Our internet providers are the same.

I'm sure every country has their own subsection of services or objects that it's literally impossible to find someone to do competently in return for money.

I also think it's spreading - what call centre these days is adequately staffed? - and probably part of what's leading to millennial burnout. I definitely spend a way higher % of time than I used to getting some bureaucratic mistake or other sorted. I don't mean "send this latte back it's not hot enough", I mean "my super fund [401k] automatically signed me up for life insurance I don't want or need, and is demanding I fill out three forms if I want them to stop charging me for it".

Unsolicited Advice

SStop saying "I wouldn't have expected you to like that!"

Sometimes you find out a friend/co-worker/niece has an interest that is outside your understanding of their regular set of interests. This can be surprising, which is normal, which is why the reaction is so normal.

But learn to bite your tongue on this one because it is massively annoying (as you probably know, since it's probably happened to you).

a) it implies that you've pigeon-holed them (which you probably have, because we all do, but again we should have the good grace to keep our bad habit to ourself)

b) it implies often some weird ideas (like, that you think bodybuilders don't normally read books, or some other stereotype)

c) related, if you have some gender or racial bias (which again, we probably all do because we're raised in a culture), this is a time it's really gonna accidentally show itself which you don't want. "I didn't realise you were into maths!" "Why is that surprising?" "Because... uh..." yeah, not great). Again, good time to bite your tongue and analyse privately later.

d) it shuts conversations down instead of opening them up. If someone's said that to you, you know it leaves you not really sure what to say in response. "Well... I do?" You feel like you have to justify your interest or explain how it does actually fit into your character stereotype or whatever.

The thing you can say instead is: basically anything. "Oh neat!" "What do you like about it?", you can probably say actually nothing, since if they're talking about something they just did or like, they can just keep talking about that without being interrupted.

This is such an easy win, seriously, you can become a slightly better person just by stopping this one impulse.

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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