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.

A seeming opposition opening up its arms

A compass-tool is sometimes called a business matrix. While I'm not a fan of the corporate affiliation, I like the word matrix ('womb') as it accidentally suggests its generative potential. Compasses can sometimes seem like these reductive Cartesian grids that will never capture the complexity of your project or life struggle or desires, but that's missing the point. They give a limited view, but that is only reductive if it would need to represent something. We're now using it generatively, as a lens to bring attention to a tension point and try to massage it open. Rather than mapping your desires, like the Political Compass, a Life-compass works through them.

A compass of compasses, also check the XP reader below for Youth Mode

When we recognise the desires and the tension we can read a dramatic journey in a compass. From the Dystopia (for me: boring Map-life) to the Trap (Compass-life but escapist) to the Unlikely Ally (the sly strategic Map-person) to the Utopia (a committed Compass-life).

A drama-filter to keep in mind when reading a Life-compass


Extra compasses

So that's how compasses help me. What about others? I asked my studiomates to make a compass for something they are trying to navigate. Use the tactics above to read the desires and drama in them:

Kirsten – "Modes of artistic production (towards closure)"


Ben – "recently thought about things"

Emma – "a compass is very useful when you know where you want to go"

Gijs – "how to do my project in the style of Compass-life"

If you've made it this far you may have already secretly tried making a compass yourself, or at least you may feel an urge to try and orient yourself in your life. If so, send us a photo, curious to see.

This month we have another XP reader special summer edition for you all, with texts related to our compasses, about closure, public sounds, ambitions, work ethic, and a 10y anniversary revisit of normcore.

Next to all those abstract life struggles and passions, this is what is actually happening in our lives:


- Spent most of June in full-on code mode, working on a website for a big commission
- Drew a fold-out 2023 calendar + retrospectively logged main activities
- Went to the second session of Shimmer's reading group where we discussed a chapter by Byung-Chul Han on Rituals of Closure (forwarding the text via XP reader)
- Made but did not yet share the website for —Where was I?, so here you go

Good Times Bad Times will be broadcasting casual chats and tunes like old times on Friday the 14th of July from 17:00 onwards. Come pop by for a 🍻 or tune in:

⁃ tickets are on sale for Naive Yearly, a symposium exploring the poetic web. I will be speaking there about coding in situ, good times bad times will be broadcasting the after party and friends of XP Elliott and Tiana will also be talking.
⁃ I wil be giving a workshop at the Hackers and Designers Summer Camp this year on Coding in Situ. There is an open day to visit the camp so come by for countryside-hacker vibes.
⁃ I’m making a solar-powered computer that will be a little summer companion for my travels.
⁃ I’ve recently become a member of Varia, a collective in Rotterdam focusing on everyday technology.

Emma This month I am working on various small client jobs that are neither fully fulfilling my creative desires nor my bank account… So I‘m using the remaining time to figure out next steps. I honestly have no idea where I want to go at the moment - which I guess explains the struggle with the compass prompt. I hope July will give me direction.

Jack has just got back from Topoló his ears still ringing from the bells. Lots to process over the next months. He is now working, together with Ben on the spatial design for a space at Nieuwe Instituut.

- working on, yes, a compass commission about post-growth futures
- finishing the design of a family project. It's a book my father is making about the generation that I'm a part of, next to my brother and 24 cousins.
- waving the Critical Inquiry Lab second years goodbye on their graduation (all passed, congrats!)

Now I'm looking forward to a 🏊‍♂️ in the 🌊 and wishing you the same! 


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