Open Thinkering


Tag: pandemic

Directions of travel

Past and future (Tim Urban, 'Wait but why'

I achieved everything I wanted to by the age of 32. Written down like that it sounds ridiculous even to me, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Escaped the place I grew up, married a wonderful woman, had two healthy kids (boy and girl), achieved a doctorate, and became a homeowner. Everything else is a bonus.

It does, however, beg the question of what to do with the rest of one’s life. After all, almost a decade later, to say that I’ve started two businesses, led two reasonably-sized initiatives for open-source organisations, and survived a pandemic sounds like a lot but doesn’t feel like it.

As the saying goes, you don’t need to go looking for trouble, it has a way of finding you all by itself. So, to some extent, there’s not much point in planning things in too much detail. Especially at the moment. Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht.

That being said, in my experience it’s all about directions of travel. Am I happy with the direction I’m headed? Some days looking at what’s on my plate doesn’t exactly make me excited. But does what I’m doing build to provide some kind of forward motion? Yes, I think it does.

Life must be lived forward, but only makes sense when looked at backwards. There are times in life where you don’t realise that you’re at a crossroads until you start walking down one path rather than another. The insight, however, comes, when you realise that it’s all crossroads.

Image by Tim Urban, Wait But Why

Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht

Dithered black-and-white image of bubbles.

Earlier this week, a friend and former colleague asked on a Slack channel for resources to help plan the next five years. Along with others, I suggested the ikigai method, but then this morning explored further and came across this resource. It’s seems pretty good.

Planning for the future is something that I should be doing both personally and professionally. It’s something I’m used to doing. Something I help clients do.

I made a start but then kind of ran of steam. I wondered why. When I talked to a friend about it we agreed that it’s difficult to make plans when everything’s so uncertain. But then not to make plans makes us feel like we’re bobbing along a river, carried along by whichever way the currents take us.

Later, I read an article that came my way via a newsletter. I stopped planning. We need to give ourselves some space and not dive right back into the way things were. As the author says, we need to recharge.

I think the real problem is that life is still exhausting because the pandemic was and remains exhausting in so many invisible ways — and we still haven’t given ourselves space to even begin to recover. Instead, we’re just softly boiling over, emptying and evaporating whatever stores of energy and patience and grace remain.


So the first step is recognizing that you, too, need rest. Don’t just want it, don’t just fantasize about it, don’t just talk about it and then deny it, but need it, require it, in order to keep going. The second step is advocating for the structures that make it possible — on a personal, professional, and societal level — so that others can ask and receive rest too.

Source: Culture Study

My wife’s currently working full-time through the summer months on a contract that’s allowed her to change careers. It’s a wonderful opportunity, but she’s not worked full-time since before our 14 year-old son was born, and (as a former teacher) she’s never worked through the summer.

Although it’s disrupted our routines, what her contract has allowed me to do is to gently take my foot off the accelerator pedal for a moment. It’s not time to put it back down again for a few weeks yet.

English translation of title: “Man Plans, and God Laughs”. Image from an original by Karen Bailey.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives

Fiery sunset

My experience of the pandemic is so bound up with my experience of therapy that I assumed my experience was relatively unique and therefore not particularly worth sharing. However, a tweet that I stumbled across last week made me rethink that assumption:

A younger Doug might have been fired up by this to think about the literal and metaphorical mountains I could conquer. However, if there’s one thing that therapy and the pandemic has taught me, it’s to reflect on what I actually do and who I actually am, rather than conjure castles in the sky.

Yesterday, an article that was going to end up as link fodder for Thought Shrapnel got me thinking about this a bit further. What if this is actually a pivotal moment in time? What if we’ve collectively poked a hole in reality, looked through, and now have to decide whether we want to ‘stick’ or ‘twist’? What would that mean for me individually, for the society I live in, for us as a species?

In a much-shared article for The Atlantic entitled I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society. I’m Just Not Sure I Want To, Tim Kreider explains eloquently what many of us have experienced over the last few months:

“For the last year,” a friend recently wrote to me, “a lot of us have been enjoying unaccustomed courtesy and understanding from the world.” When people asked how you were doing, no one expected you to say “Fine.” Instead, they asked, “How are you holding up?” and you’d answer, “Well, you know.” (That “you know” encompassed a lot that was left unspoken: deteriorating mental health, physical atrophy, creeping alcoholism, unraveling marriages, touch starvation, suicidal ideation, collapse-of-democracy anxiety, Hadean boredom and loneliness, solitary rages and despair.) You could admit that you’d accomplished nothing today, this week, all year. Having gotten through another day was a perfectly respectable achievement. I considered it a pass-fail year, and anything you had to do to get through it—indulging inappropriate crushes, strictly temporary addictions, really bad TV—was an acceptable cost of psychological survival. Being “unable to deal” was a legitimate excuse for failing to answer emails, missing deadlines, or declining invitations. Everyone recognized that the situation was simply too much to be borne without occasionally going to pieces. This has, in fact, always been the case; we were just finally allowed to admit it.

The world has felt like a kinder place over the last year, partly because people have let their guard down knowing that we’re all in the same boat. For me personally, that’s made it easier for me to slowly take off the ‘mask’, which my therapist explained I tend to use as a protective mechanism. The pandemic has silver linings, it would appear.

There’s another paragraph in Kreider’s article that I also want to share because it captures something important that I haven’t seen or heard people discuss. We marinate in the juices of a society that tells us hustling is the way to ‘make it’ in life and that this is something to be encouraged or emulated. But… is it?

When I was younger, I had more incentive to thwart my own sloth and return to the productive world; I had ambitions yet to achieve. But I’ve since achieved a lot of those ambitions, and in the past year, they have all evaporated, as if they’d never happened. I know from experience that I can, with great effort and discipline, claw my way back to a baseline. Let’s say I do—I get off the couch, turn off the TV, start writing again, apply for teaching jobs, get another book contract. What Couch Guy wants to know is: What’s my reward for all of that? What’s the big payoff? Will it be as good as lying on the couch watching TV?

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this out loud, but at forty, I’ve achieved most of what I set out to achieve in life. I have little desire for riches or fame. I’ve got a wonderful wife and two lovely children. We’re financially stable, live in a nice place, and are in reasonably good health. I have a terminal degree that allows me to change my honorific. I’ve travelled to lots of amazing places.

As I keep telling my children, the amount of money, power, and prestige that society bestows upon people is only tenuously related (at best) to the importance of the thing they spend their time doing. I’m pretty sure I’ve told them the story of the fisherman and the businessman several times at this point. None of this is to besmirch ambition, but rather to encourage them to steer a healthy path between hedonism and delayed gratification.

To quote Kreider again:

More and more people have noticed that some of the basic American axioms—that hard work is a virtue, productivity is an end in itself—are horseshit. I’m remembering those science-fiction stories in which someone accidentally sees behind the facade of their blissful false reality to the grim dystopia they actually inhabit.

I’m not sure these are ‘American’ axioms so much as a Protestant work ethic that permeates western culture. Either way, the shiny false consciousness encouraged by our advertising-fuelled culture turns out to be paper-thin when you expose it to any kind of scrutiny.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” wrote Annie Dillard. Like many people, I spend my lives moving between various screens for work, rest, or play. The pandemic has exposed as a lie the story I tell myself that I’d be reading academic philosophy if other things didn’t get in the way. I’ve had plenty of time to do that recently, and instead I play video games and write introspective blog posts.

Is that a bad thing? Perhaps I’m just dormant?

¯\_ (ツ)_/¯

Photo taken by me in Iceland in December 2019, just before the pandemic.