Compasses are my passion. Here's why.


Hi readers, it's Gijs and Compasses are my Passion.

We haven't been all together at XP for the whole of June (Jack was in Topolò, Ben went to the UK), and as you may remember (from the Confidance newsletter) I feel most connected when we share things that concern and excite us. So I felt an urge to have a newsletter that may tease out some things we feel passionate about.


Where am I? When I write this in my journal it usually refers not to my physical location but something more vague. Where I find myself in a particular project, emotionally, or where in my plans for the week, month, year. 

We're in week 27 now. Halfway. Summer break for me is often like stepping back from a painting to decide on the next brush stroke. Just a bit more complex and existential because the painting is your life.

So for this XP newsletter I thought to share with you my favourite navigational tool (and artistic research method) for finding out where you are and where you want to be heading.

A compass through the waves



The passion seed was already there in my twenties. When people would ask me what my plans were – for the coming year, a holiday or my future – I would often respond with the same metaphor: I prefer a compass over a map. Instead of navigating a year, holiday, or life with a fixed destination in mind, I wanted the freedom to wander, and every so often, check my inner compass for what direction to go next.

A/B list comparing Map-life and Compass-life

It felt like a brave claim, countering my tendency to control; Compass-life was a way to capture a mode of embracing the unpredictable, responding to what I encounter, and perhaps sometimes also a way to postpone making clear what I actually wanted or committing to long-term plans.

After a while it started to feel a bit naive – should I not just grow up and pick up that Map? – but I hadn't yet learned that there was a tool I could use for Compass-life that was actually called a compass. (Probably that's also why I still pictured the choice as just a map versus compass binary.)



When encountering a binary, you can do a few things:

  • Blur the border, until it turns into a spectrum
  • 'A bit of both' style oscillation so things can't be pinned down
  • Balance, for instance finding a golden mean

But my favourite tactics are those going beyond the apparent opposition by dissecting an extra dimension.

You may know the Political Compass. It's a proposal (with a great website) to think politics beyond the left-right dimension, adding a y-axis from Authoritarian to Libertarian. This allows for distinguishing, say, Stalin from anarchists on the left, and Bolsonaro from libertarian wild west entrepreneurs on the right. (Even by just looking at their gardens) For now, it's an example of a navigational tool that moves beyond one-dimensional binaries.

A compass of thinking tools

I use such compasses quite a lot. In fact, you can find them on my homepagegarden site, in essays (like this one), classes, and on every other page of my sketchbook – I'm even working on a compass right now as a contribution to a publication.

I usually call it a quadrant or 2x2, but when writing this newsletter I realised that I use them mostly to function as a compass. I like how they help me navigate through seemingly conflicting desires and values, and open up a possibility space.

However, not all compasses actually function as a compass. The Political Compass doesn't, for one. To be useful for Compass-life it needs to be calibrated in a specific way.



A physical compass is a grounding tool: it's calibrated to align with the magnetic field of the earth. A Life-compass needs to align with another force deep below: the field of your desire.

I know, you wouldn't say so, they look quite boring, more to do with maths than passions. Despite their aesthetic suggestion that all four quadrants carry equal weight, there is actually a clear direction in a good Life-compass. The axes give voice to deep wishes, better imagined as Cupid's arrows ➳ pointed at a longed-for objects of desire. 

Although 'compass' doesn't share its etymological root with 'compassion', let's imagine it does, since a good one brings you in close proximity with your passions.



But to really get the drama in the compass (and new insights out of it), the desires need to be in tension. Think of how I want to live Compass-life, but not when it's escapist. This tension creates the question, like what is the synthesis of playful and committed?

Oh that feeling of a synthetic resolution, a space of possibility clearing between its spreading arms.