The sad truth is

Never trust somebody who starts a sentence with ‘the sad truth is’.

The context

Four years ago, friends and I founded a cultural non-profit organisation called Marco Polo Project. A few months ago, after attending an Asia-leadership event full of cynical corporate workers, I posted a rant on my Facebook wall: ‘What does it say about our current intellectual environment that the first question asked about Marco Polo project is typically not ‘what’s your pedagogical model’, ‘who do you publish’ or ‘why did you develop this’ but ‘who funds it’ or ‘how do you make money’?

Somebody replied: ‘The sad truth is, though, that finanical returns/alternative sources of funding are unfortunately essential for making projects (and the pedagogical models they employ) sustainable.’

Irritated, and amused, I replied: ‘That’s the sad truth. The happy truth is – we haven’t really had financial returns in the first four years, and we’ve survived so far – not growing exponentially, but able to do the job, and regularly trial new things.’

The contention

People will often present statistical probability based on their own ethical outlook under the veil of ‘truth’, and on that premise, disguise ethical decisions as facts. This is dangerous, and should be resisted.

The argument

  1. We live in a world that encourages us to think of our own existence in statistical form. Yet our lives are strictly personal, and probabilities translate existentially to binary alternatives. To take a radical exemple, if you’re having an operation with a 40% survival outlook, by the end of it, you won’t be 40% alive – you will either be dead, or survive. The fact that expected chances of survival are given to you as 40% may lead your decision to have the operation or not, but does not tell you with any level of certainty what your future will be.
  2. ‘Sustainable’ is the biggest keyword in social enterprise and non-profit worlds – even in education. Yet who said cultural ventures need to be sustainable? Maybe writing books and making art is not meant to be ‘a sustainable activity’. Based on historical observation, art seems to flourish in times and spaces where there is abundance, and when abundance ebbs, it dies out. For culture to flourish, we need to create situations of abundance. And maybe the ebb is OK.
  3. That people work for rewards is probably a general truth. Yet what rewards people pursue varies considerably. I did not and do not pursue direct financial rewards through Marco Polo Project. I do seek other types of rewards, and received them. The first was social access – I’ve been invited to join two leadership programs, met with a considerable number of people, and gained their respect. As an educated migrant whose skills and diplomas are non-directly transferable, this is a significant gain. Rather than pay for a degree so that I could run a project, I ran a project so that I am now getting paid to do a degree. The invested cost of running Marco Polo Project was less than a Masters’ in, say, cultural management. The time required arguably identical. The result, I am in a better position to apply for a job in cultural management now. And in the meantime, there’s been a side benefit: I’ve built an organisation, educated language learners, shared Chinese literature, and brought people together.
  4. Everybody recognises that good timing is part of business acumen. Yet few mention patience as a key business virtue. Timing acumen has two logical consequences – either you develop a venture based on what is most likely to succeed now – or you select your own pace of growth waiting for a time when the environment is ripe. Part of patience includes a capacity to be thrifty, and last longer on the same resources. Let’s think more about these old virtues – thrift, temperance, patience – as essential to business success, especially for social entrepreneurs.

The proposition

In a heavily mediated world, where online and offline conversations, comments, arguments are omnipresent, we are in a position to set the discourse. The better story-teller may win the game. So let’s reset – it’s not about ‘the sad truth’, but ‘the happy truth’. And no, I’m not interested in your depressed vision.

(Photograph by Bizarria)

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