Thinking Out Loud No. 22

Making sense of COVID-19 and working with the garage door up

Hi friends

While the rest of Europe has effectively shut down, life here in London continues pretty much as usual, only with more hand washing and talking about COVID-19 as though it were a meteorological phenomenon.

But it's only a matter of time before our government decides to let go of British exceptionalism and follow suit, which is to say I expect to be working from home a lot before too long. I hope things are as good as they can be wherever you are.

With that, this week I discuss:

  • COVID-19 and embodied sense-making

  • working with the garage door up

I hope you enjoy. Until next week.

COVID-19 and embodied sense-making

We live in interesting times, don't we? Our mental models of the world keep collapsing and we're forced to rebuild them ever more frequently and extensively. It feels... weird.

I'd like to acknowledge that there is a place inside you that processes change, even if it does so in the background. While we all have our coping mechanisms when confronted with disruption, there is an awareness in us that knows – and perhaps fears – that the world after COVID-19 probably won't look like the world before it. Therein lies the root of so much anxiety.

So if you feel weird. That's okay. Feeling weird is part of the process. It's a rare thing for the attention of so many people around the world to be occupied by the same subject, but it means that we all feel weird in similar ways right now.

That feeling of weird connects us while revealing the fragility of our lonely individuality. I don't mean this to sound negative, but just as a reflection that it's not possible for another person to join us inside our heads. If I injure myself, the pain is mine alone. Other people can support me from the outside – and I can accept it gratefully – but I am still the only one having the experience.

It's the same with that feeling of weird that many of us are experiencing around COVID-19. We can and should support each other during this time, share our experience as best we can, and hopefully strengthen the bonds between us. And yet the crucial act of turning inwards and embracing that feeling of weird is something that falls to each of us to do for ourselves – alone, like the feeling of pain or the experience of turquoise.

This is one perspective on what might be termed 'embodied sense-making'. We can make sense of the world rationally, through logic, facts and analysis, but that feeling of weird may remain until the requisite shifts happen in our bodies. Our bodies need to make their own sense of the world.

Back in edition 14, I talked about how rituals normally give us the space to do this.

The world around us is always changing, but our minds don't seem to like that. Instead, we operate as if change is something that happens between discrete states:

  • state

  • change

  • state

  • change

  • state


Rituals, then, provide a safe and familiar external structure in which the world is allowed to dissolve and rebuild. They give us the opportunity, or perhaps the excuse, to engage with the process of change from one state to another.

That feeling of weird is a response to change. Rituals take that feeling and guide it, through the influence of culture, tradition and community, into a settled state on the other side. While we can choose to go into it if we want, but we don't need to.

With the change around COVID-19 we lack familiar structures like rituals to guide us or tell us everything will be okay. All we know is that things are changing, we don't know what's going to happen, and it could be bad. It's like being on a rollercoaster in the dark and you’re not sure the thing was put together properly.

Instead, we're left with that feeling, which is actually a kind of clinging to the old state. We’ll have to let go eventually when the world is too different, the cognitive dissonance too great, and that moment can really hurt.

I suggest another approach: start to let go now and see what's it's like to occupy the undefined space between the two states. What does the direct experience of change feel like when you don't know what the end state will be?

How to do this? Just notice and honour that feeling of weird without pushing it away. Allow it to be there while you get on with the day to day management of things, or maybe even embrace it with a broad feeling of love and acceptance. You can't talk that feeling into or out of anything – it transforms itself – you just need to get out of the way.

I have come to trust that this self-transforming thing usually knows better than 'I' do. It does things in its own way and at its own pace. My body needs to do its own sense-making while the thinking part of me does it cognitively.

I'm looking forward to seeing where it ends up, but for now, my intention is to be open to the rollercoaster that the next few months will bring, even if it’s not always fun.

Work with the garage door up

This passage about sharing your process has been doing the rounds on Twitter :

Work with the garage door up

One of my favorite ways that creative people communicate is by “working with their garage door up,” to steal Robin Sloan’s phrase. This is the opposite of the Twitter account which mostly posts announcements of finished work: it’s Screenshot Saturday; it’s giving a lecture about the problems you’re pondering in the shower; it’s thinking out loud about the ways in which your project doesn’t work at all. It’s so much of Twitch. I want to see the process. I want to see you trim the artichoke. I want to see you choose the color palette.

I love this kind of communication personally, but I suspect it also creates more invested, interesting followings over the long term. That effect’s probably related to Working on niche, personally-meaningful projects brings weirder, more serendipitous inbounds. It’s also a way to avoid the problems described in Pitching out corrupts within.

Andy Matuschak

Given that this newsletter is literally called Thinking Out Loud – and I never hesitate to say that I have no idea what I'm doing – it's probably no surprise that I'm a fan of this approach.

There’s something magical that happens when I push publish before I’m ready, share an incomplete thought, or talk about where I’m currently blocked. It frees me from perfectionist tendencies, it helps move me forward and, perhaps most interestingly, people often seem more interested in the work-in-process than the finished article.

With this in mind, how open is your garage door?

Media of the week


Pandemic board game (won!).

A couple of weeks ago, some friends and I played a couple of rounds of Pandemic. It was a nice bit of meta-levity in response to what’s going on with COVID-19, though things felt a lot less serious at the time.

All I want to say here is this – in spite of everything that’s going on, remember to have some fun where you can and take care of yourselves.

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