From cancel to propel culture

Moses Naim, in his book The End of Power, describes a contemporary phenomenon he calls ‘the Gulliver Effect’. In the contemporary landscape of power, a large number of small actors have the possibility to prevent all sorts of things from happening – but there is no actor powerful enough to take resolute action.

I’ve come to understand ‘cancel culture’ as one component of the Gulliver Effect. It may rightly be seen as the downtrodden rising up against oppression, using the tools at their disposal for justice, speaking truth to power. This may well offer a needed emotional outlet to some who deserve it, and rightly condemn abuses of power. Yet the effect is not generalized empowerment, or a greater capacity to coordinate change.

Anger is a consuming passion. Cancelling mobs have a fascinating power. All eyes are glued on social media. Making those channels prime real estate for advertisement. And so, with every cancel storm, shareholders cash in. Behind the shouts of popular anger, can you hear the background chuckle of Zuckerberg, pension funds managers and wealthy boomers. 

It’s not just about money flows: it’s energy spent. It takes effort, and time, to organize a social movement, articulate an alternative worldview, or build a work of art. Anger will drain much of that energy. And then, to soothe the angst, we spend our cash on Uber Eats and Netflix subscriptions. Besides, polarised minds are ill-prepared for the creative efforts of inventing a new world. It’s too much complexity to hold. So, by leaning into the anger, we may well leave a wide empty playing field for large corporates. Once again, I can hear the chuckle of Sillicon Valley tycoons and wealthy boomers in the background.  

So here is a proposal, to counter the Gulliver effect. What if we were to deliberately stop engaging in those anger games, engineered to the benefit of wealthy boomers and billionaires. What if we were to use that energy to create new worlds instead? Easier said than done – well, here is a possible first step. What if, instead of ‘cancel culture’, we were to build a ‘propel’ culture. What if we were to use our brains and hearts and bodies not to destroy what we hate and despise, but praise and uplift what we love and admire?   

This is – in fact – what I propose to do over the coming months or so. Shift the tone to gratitude, identify people I admire, projects I find promising, books and ideas I find inspiring and admirable – and articulate what it is about them that I like. As an act of resistance against engineered malaise.

Tim Ferris Questionnaire – self-portrait

A portrait of the artist at the airpiort

A few years ago, I worked with someone who was obsessed with Tim Ferris. American business podcasters are not on my list of people to follow –  this was my introduction to them. I didn’t quite get the fascination, but I did find a few interesting things. Including, a set of standard interview questions that Tim Ferris uses with his guests. At the time, I tried answering them for myself as a sort of exercise in self-reflection. I enjoyed it – and would very much recommend it! Here is the set of questions and answers.

When you think of the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind and why?

For me, that’s Oedipus. He had it all, then it turns out he’d been sleeping with his mum the whole time, after killing his dad and taking his throne. He’s a reminder that there’s no way to tell failure from success, until you die. If I look again, I would bring up the people who left something behind, whose work continued after their death, through generations inspired by them, teachers, ancestors: those are the successful one. So, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, Aristotle, Ignatius – and my great-grand-parents. 

What is something you believe that other people think is insane?

That no one is ever wrong. It’s just that you just haven’t figured out yet in what exact way they’re right. But if you try hard enough, you will see that their ‘wrong’ is just part of an iceberg: below the surface, there’s an entire worldview. Exploring that worldview, that’s how you grow. Unsurprisingly, I tend to get irritated by the whole debating paradigm. Trying to prove the other person wrong, throw counter arguments or worse, challenge opinions with facts. In my world, that’s a sign of little intelligence. So, this is my take on ‘there’s something to be learned from everyone’. Of course, it takes a lot of time and listening, but then again, isn’t listening more important than speaking. Many people must think that’s insane, judging by the way they hold themselves in conversations.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift?  

Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti. I first got it as a gift, actually. I’ve read it maybe ten times now. I rank it as the richest, most intelligent book about the behaviour of human collectives. It’s based on extensive ethnographic readings, and is therefore remarkable by its concreteness. I became engrossed in it when I was doing research on collective nouns, and it’s inspired my work on community building. It’s also one of those interesting books, in terms of its reception: though Canetti did get a Nobel Prize, and it was hugely popular in Germany, it never really made it across the Atlantic.

What is your favorite documentary or movie?

Ce Jour La, a Swiss movie by Portuguese film-maker Raul Ruiz. It’s a sort of surreal tale: this young woman, funnily mad, is the heiress of a beef stock empire. She’s about to receive her inheritance, but the family want it for themselves – so they send a serial killer, evaded from the asylum, to kill her. Except, they develop this strange romance, and he ends up killing all the family members, as they check on progress. It’s darkly comic (I rarely laughed so much), set in Switzerland, and I have a fondness for the country. It’s the height of democracy, it’s wealthy, well-kept, beautiful – and quite unknown. If you want something more mainstream (i.e. American), that would be Full Metal Jacket, The Shining – and Legally Blonde.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last 6 months?

I bought a book by Dan Brown on my Kindle. I love reading, but when the money goes low, I become hesitant. It causes me almost physical pain – a blockage. (I got a few others too – but Dan Brown was the liberating one – I tend to be really bad at relaxing, so, I pat myself on the back when I do it).

What are your morning rituals? What do the first 60 minutes of your day look like?

I’ve embraced my inner chaos. I sometimes wake up at 4am, sometimes at 10h30. I’ve tried to structure my life so that it’s possible, and it’s done me a lot of good. I’m perplexed when I see people praise episodic fasting and interval training, and all sorts of acknowledgements that we’re cyclical being, yet they’re got this firm discipline for sleep, or for the morning. Then, it’s coffee – black or with condensed milk. Not too much food, on the sweet side, but light – fruit, yoghurt, maybe some toasted pita bread with jam. I’m in a dance routine phase, might pass. 

What obsessions do you explore on the evenings or weekends?

I read detective novels set in exotic locations. White-man-in-Asia types an embarrassing favorite.

What topic would you speak about if you were asked to give a TED talk on something outside of your main area of expertise?

‘You cannot uncook an egg, and other lifeskills I learned in the kitchen’. As a writer, as an intellectual, I don’t do much with my hands. Words you can edit as much as you want, leave them, return, reshape. But cooking not so much: there is a timing, a rhythm, and a linear irreversibility: once you’ve mixed a dough, try taking out the eggs or flour. It’s taught me a lot about the resistance of the real – and I find it exhilarating. So, I throw myself in cooking sprees, somewhat unprepared, a bit like improv’ theatre.

What is the best or most worthwhile investment you’ve made? Could be an investment of money, time, energy, or other resource? How did you decide to make the investment?

Learning Ancient Greek as a kid. I was obsessed by a cartoon called The Knights of the Zodiac (I think the proper English name is Prince Seiya), and from then, I developed an obsession Greek mythology. I guess it’s a gay thing too – the Greeks were acceptable homosexual role models against ambient homophobia. So, in year 8, when I had the chance to add an Ancient language to my course, I picked up Ancient Greek. That choice completely defined my intellectual fabric and later trajectory. For one, it  made it simply possible for me to join Ecole Normale Superieure. It gave me a connection to the deep past. It taught me the art of philology – which is deep listening applied to text. Later, it allowed me to learn modern Greek and embrace my Mediterranean heritage. All and all – joining that Ancient Greek class may be the most defining choice I ever made.

Do you have a quote you live your life by, or think of often

Heraclitus, fragment 28. ‘If you don’t hope for the without-hope, you will never find it, since it is unfindable, and shapeless.’ I had a great moment when I encountered Taleb’s books. I also found that again in Kierkegaard. And Pascal’s wager. Acknowledge the limits of human reason, and the need to go ‘beyond’. I like to think about risk, but then hope and jump. It’s a celebration of imagination. And a retort to the nay-sayers and status quo warriors out there.

What is the worst advice you see or hear being dispensed in your world?

That you should find a way to monetise. Our entire paradigm is flawed. Focus on small-scale things. How is your business going to make money? What matters is your personal bottom line – partner, family, investment, wherever you get it from. What matters is your impact. Sustainability for non-profits, I think it’s criminal. Tying back to the previous question – it is a complete denial of hope.

Billboard

‘You’re not original, you’re just ignorant.’ Having read a lot, and studied – I think a lot is already there if you read Aristotle carefully. That’s also why I dislike debating. You know, there’s a quote I often bring up, it’s by a Mexican writer called Sergio Pitol, who was also a diplomat, and he writes – talking about Americans – ‘In my culture, it is not respectable to be ignorant’. My anglo-friends twitch a little when I share that. My Chinese, Latin and Indian friends relate.

Favorite failure

I wrote a PhD back in France. Three weeks before it was due, I was not allowed to defend. It ‘went beyond disciplinary boundaries’. This set me up to go out of academia.

I later realised I was short-circuiting systems by holding them to their own logic, and revealing their contradictions. Because I survived this big thing, I’ve learned to mistrust institutions, and trust in my own resilience.  

What is something weird or unsettling that happens to you

I’ve got a very vivid imagination: I went through spiritual exercises, you focus – and I had those completely over the top visions, like I was on mushrooms or something.

I’m afraid of ghosts. I used to believe it was universal, but apparently it’s not. I will sometimes experience creepy presences. In my apartment, staircases often, empty streets. Like The Shining, it’s a blessing and a curse. I try to live with it.

What have you changed your mind about

I used to believe I wanted to be a ‘writer’, and I had this whole construct around it, publishers, recognition. Then, well – I had a coach who said ‘just write’, and I did that. I can do it whenever I want, and it might get picked up, or it might not. My new fantasy is that an AI might read my texts, so I put everything online. I don’t think it matters, because – I just don’t know, I have no control over it. Emily Dickinson became a sensation – others were forgotten. It’s entirely out of my control. Writing is one thing I control, so I do just that.

What do you believe is true, even though you can’t prove it.

You know what? The Gospel. Virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the lot!  

Marco Polo Project – a moral beacon

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

It’s a vivid memory. I’m wearing a light blue shirt, and I’m walking back to my desk from the photocopy room, with a bunch of papers in my hands, and a cup of tea. I still work for the Victorian State government at this stage, part-time in the policy and strategy group. But this is no longer the core of my professional identity. The words keep echoing inside my head. ‘I founded a charity, I founded a charity’. And I smile, proud, amused at my own pride, before settling back in my cubicle.

Marco Polo Project was a crazy dream, yet I seemed to pull it off. I gathered volunteers, developers, authors, translators, and a touch of funding, or at least freebies – and not all of it purely through madness and French charm. The thing was completely not sustainable, of course, but I had faith we would make it work. The vision was good, it was on trend, it served a purpose. ‘How do you make money then?’ asked an old white man once at a Chinese education conference. I gave him the cold treatment. ‘If we do something useful, surely we can figure it out. If we don’t do anything useful, why should we make money?’ That man didn’t like me very much. I was probably just a little too frontal when challenging his assumptions about value.

I had a more complex relationship with the social enterprise set. Received wisdom in those circles is that an organization which wants to ‘do good’ in the world should aim to generate its own revenue, rather than rely on government grants or donations. There is a pragmatic element to that encouragement. Grant allocation mechanisms are opaque and change regularly. Build relationships with your end users, if you want cost-effective, long-term funding reliability. Why not? I’ve always intuited, however, a more sinister moral element, which I never aligned with. That one should ultimately work with the system, that an organization needs money, and therefore, that we must focus on things that do good and (reliably) make money (within the system as it is), leaving the rest aside. I may be too Catholic to believe in capitalism, or simply too radical: I preferred hacking the system.

I set up Marco Polo Project as a charity for strategic reasons. If we believe (as I do) that our financial reward system is entirely detached from morality – that there is no clear overlap between what we’re willing to pay for and what society needs, and so that the most useful work is probably the one that is hardest to monetise, precisely because it is unlikely to be done by anyone looking for money as a reward – then, better take profit out of the equation altogether. If the true deep goal is social good, or education, or anything other than profit, then money should be a matter of indifference, by design. For otherwise, how can we deal with perverse incentives? If we get paid when people face a problem, will we create the conditions that get us out of the help mindset? If we make money by selling classes or courses, will we develop maximally cost-effective learning models, and drive those inside institutions? No, anything other than a charity comes with levels of cognitive dissonance too dangerous for my own risk appetite.  

Now, there is two types of charity work, as I see it. The first is remedial. People and social systems are imperfect, accidents happen, and when people fall through the cracks, we shouldn’t leave them to suffer and die. It’s extremely respectable, and not my vocation. The second is about building public goods, improving society as a whole, and reducing the chances of anyone falling through the cracks to begin with. This is where I have chosen to focus my energy.

But wait, is this not the role of government? Well, government has two limitations. The first is accountability. Governments live on public trust (as do schools and universities). When failure is a dangerous option, innovation is hard. A charity like ours offers a safe space for experimentation. More fundamentally, government bodies are accountable to their constituents. Yet today’s major problems are multilateral. Including everything to do with cultural shifts, hybrid communities and language education. Also, everything involving the Internet. Without adequate structures to fund globally distributed public goods – whether quality public education in digital formats, or open-source models for cost-effective community building – charities have a role to play.  

Then, there is the challenge of adequately measuring outcomes and impact. Public money calls for visible markers of success. Understandably, for public trust is at stake. And those visible markers of success need to be somewhat simple and relatable. Yet if the goal is to design a good facilitation model, bums-on-seats is certainly not the right success criterion, nor is the results of a random happy sheet survey. The pressure to succeed along inadequate dimensions limits the freedom to experiment. Not to mention, how do you properly measure long-term social health, or educational impact, as part of a short-term project? Short of a full-on latitudinal study, it’s all storytelling, intuition, and a leap of faith.

Hence, hacking the system. Certainly, this approach did not lead us to sustainability. But it was never the goal. Was it a wise approach? Well, let’s put it this way. Is there another organisation, born around the same time as Marco Polo Project, with a similar ambition, who took a different approach, and did better? I’m not seeing anyone, and we’re still alive, only just. So maybe, just maybe, we’ve been doing something right.

Marco Polo Project – loneliness, entrepreneurship

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

It’s a warm late afternoon of mid-January. I’m walking along the Yarra river, down from Crown Casino. I’ve lived in Australia for about a month, and I’m heading to dinner with friends of my partner. I don’t feel very connected with those people. There’s a certain cliquey narrow-mindedness, an emotional cool, that puts me off. My people are back home. I’ve got no one in Melbourne. The sadness rises inside my chest. There’s an Indian guy sitting on the steps, in the warm evening sunlight. He smiles to himself. For a moment, I start to fantasize. Maybe this guy will be my friend. The movie plays in my head. He stands up, our eyes meet, there’s a nod of recognition. Do you feel out of place here too? We smile, we laugh, we head off on a walk. I call my partner ‘hey, I won’t be going to that dinner tonight, I’m eating out with my new friend’. Indian guy stands up, but he doesn’t smile, or look my way. He walks straight inside the casino. And the fantasy comes to an end.

Migration is an exercise in loneliness. Friends and support networks are distant. Things don’t make sense. Well-meaning locals try to support you, but their emotional language doesn’t translate. That loneliness is professional too. Native cultural capital has no currency. The daily rules and routines of work are confusing. Jokes and allusions fall flat.

Migration is hard, for sure. It’s also liberating, like a jump into the unknown. You shed old rules and models, and you figure out new ones. A friend of mine likes to use the word ‘migrapreneur’ – he couldn’t find an engineering job, and made himself a gig advocating migrant entrepreneurship. I can relate. Since I had to learn new codes, I thought, I might as well go wild, and build something new, and crazy. Building an organization to better engage with China is how I tried to make sense of living in Australia. 

It paid off. I met new friends directly through Marco Polo Project, and many more indirectly. Running that organization took me to cool co-working spaces, endless networking events, and Nanjing on a scholarship. I presented at the Shanghai Maker’s fair in 2013 with an Italian designer who was on the committee for Shanghai’s maker space Xin Chejian. Then I got introduced to the founder of the first co-working space in Guangzhou. I contributed to trendy digital magazines in Australia and China, met a prospective PhD supervisor through those channels, and then got a scholarship. My research itself involved a range of interviews with people I met around the world through Marco Polo Project. Meanwhile, I gathered a number of the cool people I met through Marco Polo Project to join in the 2015 China Australia Millennial Project forum in Sydney. Through that gig, I got invited to join the THNK leadership program in Amsterdam, and later recruited to the Global Challenges Foundation in Stockholm. Good pick: for one of their publications, I was able to organize an interview with the Wunderkind of Chinese sci-fi Liu Cixin, through Marco Polo contacts. Eventually, I got awarded a Multicultural Honour Roll listing in Melbourne, and the title of New Australian of the Year. So, yes, the work certainly paid off.

I did what I could to give back. My experience of loneliness is not unique. Could Marco Polo Project somehow contribute to reducing the edge? Our events have brought people together, and offered them a chance to make meaning of their own lives and surroundings. Translation Club has birthed and cemented new multicultural friendships. Our interns have gotten jobs after supporting us. And people around the world, partners and supporters working on similarly whacky projects, got a little kick of ‘why not continue’ by watching us do what we do.

All this surely spells a success story. Yet the story comes with limits. How do you migrate well, if you don’t create a China-focused organization? I don’t have a clue. What I did requires a certain frame of mind, and a certain level of financial comfort as well – savings and a supportive partner with a full-time job. Not to mention, a lot of public resources went into my French education. I do my best to make the most of what I have been given, and it’s probably worthy, but it’s not easily replicable at scale. So, my capacity to serve as an example, or even empathise directly with the challenges of migrants, remains limited. It’s tempting to play role model, but as an outlier, I’m not sure that I qualify.  

Marco Polo Project – designing new practices

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

‘Lots of people talk about engaging with China. You’re one of the few who’s actually doing something about it.’ I received this affirmation from a business manager at the Sydney University China Centre in 2013, after speaking at an Australia China Youth Association event. A number of others have praised my work with Marco Polo Project in similar ways over the years. For a while, this caused me confusion, since my core skillset is about arranging words together. I’m too dim-witted to raise a question in reply to a compliment, so I was left to find the meaning of the statement on my own. Here is what I made of it.

Back then, there was a lot of money flowing to China-stuff, and associated opportunities. I benefited too. There were a lot of public events, roundtables and conferences, with recurring injunctions and recriminations: ‘We must do more of this. We must do less of this.’ As for the details of implementation, what precisely we should do more of and less of, this was not a matter for the future leaders of Australia-China engagement to define.

Major changes in global macro-structures require new micro-structures. Seating arrangements matter when people don’t share the same language, as does acoustics, and turn-taking rules. Good intercultural networking calls for clear instructions. Loose ‘discuss and mingle’ models only shift the burden on the more culturally intelligent participants. Online, sharp editorial choices are needed – or smart algorithms – to break the filter bubble. Established ways of doing things will only replicate existing structures and dynamics. New formats must be designed, and put to the test, then packaged, and shared.

Self-appointed ‘big picture thinkers’ stay well clear of those details, and the efforts involved. After all, public funding and other official accolades are mainly focused on outcomes. I’m an earthy guy at heart, and ill-suited to business as usual. I don’t put much credit in standard outcome frameworks. I like getting my hands dirty, and play in the mud of outputs. Or if I’m not, I look for impact at the nth degree. I guess that’s what they meant by ‘do something’.   

I was reflecting with an Indonesian friend, a few weeks back, on institutional failure to meet the core social needs of migrant populations and international students. For their well-being, as well as for professional success, newcomers need to form supportive, trusting relationships – personal and professional. Which means, at the very least, a chance to follow up on initial conversations. Migrants and international students must also find ways to integrate all the new things they learn about their new context to their existing understanding of the world, and their identity. Yet most events – networking and otherwise – are marketed as opportunities to ‘meet new people’ and ‘learn new things’, and designed in line with that goal.

You know the joke. A man is looking for his keys under a streetlight. ‘Is this where you dropped them?’ asks a supportive passer-by. ‘No, but it’s pitch dark where I did, so I’m looking over here.’ I always think of this when I attend an intercultural get together. I still remember a Facebook conversation on the topic. I was back from yet another disappointing event at some university, with boring speeches and no meaningful encounter. Yet there were prawns and scallops on the buffet table. I wrote a post about it. ‘Why do the people running those events spend so much on food, and nothing on experience?’ It sparked a lively discussion. It led me to finally realise – and accept – that improving participant experience must fall outside what most people consider even possible. Pretentious food and poor design may well not be matters of malice, cowardice, or laziness. Just a lack of imagination. This is where design comes into play. It’s not just about prototyping to figure out what could work: it’s offering something concrete, as a way to shift perceptions of where action is needed, possible, and fruitful. And this is what Marco Polo Project has done over the years. 

We have developed a broad range of new formats and resources. Some have achieved their final form. After numerous iterations, starting in 2012, we landed on Translation Club, a collaborative translation event to build deep intercultural empathy and trigger insights of cultural self-awareness, with low facilitation overheads. Using design-thinking as a template, we developed Design for Diversity, a one day program to train better intercultural collaboration in creative problem solving. Our Marco Polo Manual documents a number of micro-structures, components of facilitated events and programs trialled over the years. We’re still iterating on Culture Flip, a card game to support better language exchange by playing on conversational archetypes, and a few more tools and formats for better networking.

The doing certainly worked, yet we failed at one point in the process. We neglected the work of convincing. We fell short of producing sexy media to document our workshops, anchor assumptions in scientific articles, or get big names to vouch for us. And so, we stayed small. Maybe my new Dr. title will bring about an added layer of legitimacy? Or maybe now is time for scientific retrofitting? Time to make our assumptions explicit, articulate our practice to new trends in language learning, social health and psychology, and make academic sense of our efforts. Then we can focus on sharing the models, in hope to see them scale.

Marco Polo Project – Language learning, translation, and self-awareness 

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

Marco Polo Project offered an original take on language learning, inadvertently.  

In France, where I was educated, language learning is omnipresent, and widely understood to be about intellectual self-development. From Middle School onwards, I was trained in classical philology – or reflective translation exercises. I learned about the shape of my own brain by measuring the gap between my default French language categories, and those expressed in Greek, Latin, English and German texts I translated into French. Later, in my English Bachelor’s, translation – intended for the same purpose – was a solid percentage of the final mark.

I made a wrong assumption that this was universal. It was a major blind spot, to which I attribute much of our later struggles.

There is an extraverted bias to language learning in Australia, and most English-speaking countries, as I discovered. You learn a language to ‘talk to people’, not understand others, let alone understand yourself. This is often presented as a self-evident need, and personal driver for language learning. In this paradigm, translation is pushed aside as irrelevant – even standing in the way of ‘thinking in the target language’, and performing adequately.

I have been known to say that I don’t speak to random people in French or English, so why would I suddenly want to do that in Chinese? Besides, with the progress of translation technology, mastering the art of smooth transactional interactions has become somewhat obsolete. While deep reflective self-knowledge has a value of its own, which it will retain, irrespective of technological developments.

This, of course, is a somewhat elitist view, showing my intellectual bias. And this bias coloured the direction we took. At some level, Marco Polo Project is, indeed, for the happy few. We cater to Chinese language nerds, who chose to pursue a difficult academic endeavour, and find joy in reading etymological dictionaries. It’s a narrow subculture, but an important one. Those language nerds make up the living tissue of global diplomatic engagement with China. If we can support greater self-awareness among this crowd, well, a lot of good is likely to ensue.

Yet Marco Polo Project is also an attempt at democratising self-awareness, and make the wisdom of classical philology more broadly accessible. From the start, the project has been not about ‘learning to speak Chinese’, but embracing hybrid identities at scale, and birthing a global world where China and Asia play a critical role. In this model, learning Chinese (or other languages) has never been about ‘engaging with China’, as if China was a stable, remote entity, existing sub specie aeternitatis. Rather, it is about becoming a global citizen in a world increasingly shaped by a rising and evolving China. It is more broadly about learning to navigate increasingly complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments, where cultural assumptions and default categories must be challenged. This applies across all sorts of domains – whether migration, future of work and entrepreneurship, or adapting to the challenge of shifting our economies and societies to more ecologically-conscious paradigms.

This second ambition – to generalise self-awareness, and learn to deal with shifting and contradictory mental models – is not about a narrow subculture. It is about the future of education, and it needs to scale. So, we led systematic experiments in low-cost, context-independent models.

This combination of elitism and large-scale scalability has brought a measure of confusion, in our messaging and strategy. We’re targeting a niche group of intellectuals, yet also proposing a radical paradigm-shift in language education. We’re engaging a narrow subculture, yet hoping to be the seed of a new global community. Contradictions of the sort often trigger the richest creative questions, over the long-term. How to create a model dense enough that it can serve as a magnet for an elite of China nerds –  yet inherently open enough to scale globally? This is the challenge we’re working on. In the short-term though, this contradiction breeds confusion, and is certainly not conducive to a clear business models and other narrow measures of success.

Marco Polo Project – The European dream

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

When you try to build something new, you’ll often be misunderstood. This is common wisdom, yet rarely presented when people share their sense of failure. I clearly remember how, on two distinct occasions, well-intentioned mentors took the wind off my sails. Those are among the bitterest memories of building Marco Polo Project. 

First scene. I’m sitting in my mentor’s office, bright sun outside, whale songs playing on the computer. They’re offering to send introductions for me, and ask ‘help me write this email. Why did you start Marco Polo Project?’ I pause for a while. I’m a reflective extravert and at the time, didn’t have enough questions of the sort. After a moment, I reply: ‘Well, ultimately, it’s about world peace’. I was hoping for a follow up question, a chance to clarify what I meant, and why everything had been so difficult. I get laughter instead. ‘Well, what about we say it’s about bringing Australia and Asia closer together’. I nod, embarrassed, and they send their email. That introduction fell flat. I never asked for that mentor’s advice again.

Second scene. I’m sitting at a café table with my mentor. They’ve been helping me build a business case. I followed their lead, and did my homework. But something was missing – a sense of scope and purpose. On the third meeting, this is where our conversation went. ‘So, what will your project bring to Australia?’ I reply ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t care about Australia.’ The French accent probably made it sound more callous than it was. Yet indeed – this was always a global project, incidentally benefiting Melbourne. This mentor and I never really spoke afterwards.

Looking back, I fell into the common trap of assuming others share my experience of life. I grew up in Strasbourg. The European dream has always been a personal matter of civic pride. When I fell in love with an Australian and chose to migrate, I decided I would carry that European dream to the southern hemisphere. On my first visit, I experienced Melbourne as the cultural capital of a globalised world, where the traditions of Europe and Asia, colonial and indigenous histories, could come together. It had just been appointed as a UNESCO city of Literature, it could be the epicentre of global cultural integration. Here was a place where the European dream of cultural and political harmony could extend to the rest of the world. Marco Polo Project was a vehicle for that vision.

The European Union was explicitly developed as a peace project, a reaction to the Second World War. One of its achievements has been cultural and linguistic integration – mutual linguistic and cultural understanding, a sense of shared history, and of common destiny, among countries that only recently were sending armies against each other. Marco Polo Project was directly guided by the spirit of Europe, which I breathed in from as far as I can remember. It carried an aspiration to extend this peace-building project beyond Europe, through collaborative translation and cultural dialogue, and weave together distinct histories and narrative threads across the continents. It was naïve to believe that the vision would be readily shared – even understood – by people whose worldview was rooted in remote Australia. 

Sometimes, though, we reach our goals in unexpected ways. In 2016, I got a message from an old friend. They were looking for an atypical profile to serve as Chief Editor with the Global Challenges Foundation, in Stockholm, to work on global catastrophic risk. ‘Would you like to help us avoid the end of the world?’ Marco Polo Project was the reason for seeking me out. The peace-making vision I carried from the start had been finally recognised.

I said yes. Beyond personal validation I got precious experience, a good income, new networks, and prestige from this role. Yet for Marco Polo Project, a period of tension started. I would not be capable of taking on the new role, and continue to carry the organisation forward. We sought – and found – a new CEO to take over. With this handover, strategic clarity was crucial. I could no longer rely on my third eye to drive decision-making. Yet the direction was unclear. Should we accept that Australia was not ready for a natively global organisation, and focus on local matters – leaving Europe to look after the state of the world? Or should we take it as a sign that our global ambition was, in fact, at the core of our mission, and never to be compromised?

We didn’t give a proper answer to those questions. Rather, we skirted around. We focused our projects on Melbourne, more narrowly, as a space of experiment, and the direct environment where we would seek impact. Meanwhile, we welcomed opportunities to trial global partnerships – Translation Clubs in Mexico, Japan and Oregon, for instance – and kept our narrative global. We’re still misunderstood, often, but we’re more able to find allies, and ignore the rest.

Marco Polo Project – Follow the creative impulse

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

Marco Polo Project was born in Tianjin, on a beautiful night of insomnia, in December 2010.

Earlier that year, I passed the second level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, and received a scholarship to spend three weeks in Tianjin. It was my first time attending formal education in Chinese. On day one, I learned that Chinese people like dragons and the colour red.

Back then, I was working for the Victorian State, exploring e-government. Wikis, open data, gamified tools for bug reporting were the next stage in citizen engagement and service delivery. My partner had a blog, documenting daily projects, with fans in the US and invitations to Writers’ Festivals. I was excited by the possibilities offered by the Internet to share stories, ideas and practices around the world – create some sort of new cosmopolitan identity, and collaborative abundance. Those were the glory days of the sharing economy, when Facebook was about friends, Google about knowledge, and a different type of world seemed possible. I was also fascinated by the discourses of a burgeoning ‘online China’ that my language skills were still too limited to let me access. What was happening there? I wanted to know, but my classroom experience gave me no clue.

That night, in the hotel attached to Tianjin Normal University, right next to the Balitai roundabout, I had a vision. What if we could gather a curated selection of texts from Chinese writers, cultural analysts and intellectuals publishing online, and offer them to the people learning Chinese around the world for collaborative translation. I imagined a thorough division of labour. Advanced learners and Chinese natives would scour the Chinese Internet for texts to share. They would propose a first version of the translation, discussing options in a comment section. Less advanced learners could read the translated texts, in bilingual format or English only, as a way to better understand China. There would be mutual support, a point system, and badges for various accomplishments, forming a grand online community. I went to the bathroom to keep my roommate asleep, took extensive notes, and got back to bed a few hours later, shaking with excitement.

Daniel Ednie-Lockett was the first believer. We met in 2009 through a Chinese language MeetUp. He ran a small company that took international students on local tours as a way to promote cultural integration, and would soon evolve into a language exchange network. It’s late December 2010, and we’re sitting at a café on Little Lonsdale Street. I share the vision with him. He jots down a few notes on a napkin. ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work,’ he said, ‘but it’s cheap enough to try’. With a thousand dollars or so, we could build a prototype. I was willing to lose that money. Dan introduced me to people who could help, I put an ad online, and gathered a first team. Three months later, we had a functional website running live, with a small selection of texts.

Human-centered design teaches you to look for a need – a problem to solve – through a systematic process, then go on to prototype a solution. There is certainly wisdom to that approach. Yet sometimes, the desire to create something comes first. This was the case for me, with Marco Polo Project. My creative impulse had a force of its own. I would not stop until I brought it to life. I believe this kind of creative imagination plays a bigger role than we acknowledge in entrepreneurship, as it does in creative ventures.

Yet the force of imagination comes with a downside. The vision may be clear, but it floats, disconnected from the world. Perspective only comes retrospectively. So, when things don’t work out, and compromises must be made, it is unclear where to hold on, and where to let go. Particularly, reaching a joint agreement on where to pivot is critically difficult.

By 2017, our website had fallen into disarray. With no business model or investment, the code was developed on the cheap. It was breaking apart. China blocked its online blogs and magazines one by one. Hardly anyone contributed to our translations any more. So, we decided to shift offline entirely, archive the magazine, and redirect our address to a new website focused on our workshop design activities. It made sense at the time, and has taken us where we are. Yet a bitterness remains. Something of that original creative impulse remains un-satisfied, and I often wonder if we should have simply kept on course.

I wish, in the early years, I had met someone who listened to me closely, took the time to sit down and ask ‘what exactly do you want’, work with me on the vision, and help me make the right decision. Either I met no such person, or I wasn’t able to recognize them. There was a lot of rush, narrow-mindedness, self-evidence and complex egos. I guess the texts in this series are a retrospective attempt at making sense, then – and figure out what I had attempted to do, in the hope that it will be useful for the future.

Looking back at Marco Polo Project

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. It started as a digital platform for collaborative translation of new Chinese writing, then pivoted towards workshop design, to support people who negotiate hybrid identities across languages and cultures. I handed Marco Polo Project over to a new CEO in 2019, hoping to see the organisation thrive. COVID put a spanner in the wheels.

We speak a lot about learning from failure. Yet in all the forums I have been to, failures are only shared if they can be reframed instantly as ‘actually a success’. I would like to take a different path in those reflections, and explore what we tried to achieve, where we succeeded, and where we didn’t. Where we made errors of judgement, let ourselves be carried away, or underestimated obstacles.

When I started writing this series, Marco Polo Project was on the verge of closing down. An unexpected grant from the City of Melbourne gave us a new lease on life. We were not able to deliver but redirected the funds to our long-term partner transcollaborate.

For now, the organisation is on ice, but not dead yet. I hope, by taking time to reflect on where we struggled and failed, to create conditions where we might eventually return to active life. Or at least, gain a little more clarity on what we’ve been trying to do all this time.

Corona thoughts – On n’a pas que de l’amour

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1.

From business closures and frustrated dreams to the deaths of dear ones, and general loss of trust in institutions, what will be the emotional impact of COVID-19?

2.

I grew up listening to a French rock band called ‘Rita Mitsouko’. They were quirky punks, with funky clothes and philosophical lyrics. One of their songs accompanied my teenage years. It went: ‘On n’a pas que de l’amour, ça non, on n’a pas que de l’amour à vendre, ah ouais, y a de la haine.’ For non French speakers out there, the translation goes something like ‘we don’t have only love, oh no, we don’t have only love for sale, oh yes, there is hatred’. Later in the song (still in translation), it goes ‘hatred needs to spread as well, of yes, without brakes… we have to put it somewhere after all’.

That song came up in one of my feeds during a phase of deep lockdown, and triggered reflection. I holds some wisdom in its lyrics (wow, I grew up on good music, haha).

3.

I’ve been working in start-up and innovative environments for about eight years now. In my experience, those tend to be toxically optimistic. Founders look ahead, and have little capacity to process ‘the dark stuff’. Meditators invite to focus on the positive. Others would rather negativity stay away from the workplace, thank you very much.

Over the years, I have accumulated quite a bit of negative feelings, which positive psychology certainly doesn’t help me deal with. So, I had to figure out how to handle my own shadows, and all the weight of darkness I took on by proxy.

4.

As part of lockdown 2.0, I tried a little personal project: learn to rest and relax. Part of it, involved a return to meditation. One of the tracks I listened to, ‘deep healing’, invited me to breathe in negative feelings, then breathe them out. This way, they would no longer saturate my body. The process worked for me, but as I let those negative feelings out, I couldn’t help wondering. Where did they go? Who would look after them?

5.

I found one rather sinister answer. The founder of 8Chan was born with brittle bone disease, and grew up accumulating resentment. He created a space for hatred to grow. If all hatred goes to the same place, it ends up concentrated, and explodes arbitrarily. Service providers have reacted, blocking the site – but it just popped up back elsewhere.

6.

All the negative emotions triggered by the pandemic and government response, where will they go? Our world is saturated. Positivity, technological development, new ideas, none of this is enough. The dark side encroaches.

One proposal is to look for more space, by flying off to Mars, reducing the global population, or expanding the built and digital environments. But can we get out of our predicament simply by creating more storage space for emotional junk? And is there a risk that we just create vulnerable points, ready to explode?

I wonder though, is there an alternative? Could we create an ecological model for hatred management – one where we learn to digest it, decompose it, recycle what we can – and safely lock away whatever hard nugget remains?

7.

If you’re curious – here is a link to the song!