Values cards project – trust

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: In French, we have a set of three words: ‘confiance, méfiance, defiance’. I like this philosopher, Andre Comte sponville, he discusses that, and that’s how he describes it. Confiance (or trust) is a belief that things will work out well. Mefiance (or wariness) is belief under condition, so in a way, it’s like a form of knowledge. Defiance (or mistrust) is a belief that things will work out badly. And so, mefiance, that form of confidence that involves a measure of wariness, is actually close to a virtue.

B: it’s a form of prudence.

A: Yes, while defiance, or mistrust, is a lack of virtue. In Japanese, there’s two different words for trust. There is ‘Shinlai’, which means to believe and take as a foundation, and ‘shiyo’, which means to believe and to use – for instance, that’s the word bankers use to talk about trust.

B: My friend was pointing at another way to think about it, when we were working together on a program about trust. We trust people on two different accounts: because of their competence and because of their intention. So we wonder, ‘do you have my best interest at heart’, but also, ‘are you competent enough that you can actually carry out what you say you will.’ And if you don’t have both, you might cause a lot of harm.

A: I like that. It makes me think, there’s this thing we call the trust equation, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It says that trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy. Another way to look at it, it’s ethos, logos, and pathos. And that’s how you build trust as a consultant, for instance.

B: I like those kinds of equations. And I wonder then, is it possible to trust somebody for some things, but not everything? How does that work?

A: Yes, well, trust always has to do with what you don’t know, right? It’s about belief, not experience. You can’t have trust in things that you properly know, that’s not properly trust, that’s knowledge. It’s only when there is a measure of unknown that you start to talk about trust. So, people talk about the conditions required for it, but there is no specific or universal criteria. It’s more about a feeling…

B: One thing I like to think about is, how trust allows you to build something from nothing. I mean, money, creativity, any type of collective endeavor, it’s all about trust.

A: And if you think of it this way, Edelman publishes a trust index every year, and you see that the countries with the greatest level of trust are all wealthy countries. Actually, there’s one exception, which is the USA, where people don’t trust each other but they trust contracts. That’s another story, but otherwise, yes, you have this direct correlation between trust and wealth.

B: And that’s, that’s interesting, because whenever you think about trust, there is always that element of unknown. There is always a leap of faith. And so, this is directly connected to courage: you cannot trust unless you make that decision, and it’s always, yes, somehow, embracing a measure of unknown. While mistrust, not wariness, not prudence, not caution, but mistrust, it’s always a lack of courage. I mean, when you remain in the situation, but mistrust. Because not everything or everyone should be trusted, and sometimes, you sense that things will go badly, and you pull out.

A: It’s interesting if you look at Japan. There’s rules everywhere, and the principle is that something bad is going to happen. So, the rules stem from a spirit of mistrust. But then, you have a very high level of interpersonal trust among people. And I wonder if the two go together? Maybe, the rules create conditions where trust is boosted by the fear of getting a bad rep. You know that other people won’t be doing anything bad, they won’t break the rules, because they’re afraid of the consequences. And so, you can trust them. Maybe that’s how it works.

B: I like that, the collective structures that makes interpersonal trust possible. That’s, I wonder if that’s how blockchain works. They say things like, instead of trusting institutions, you trust the code, the mathematics. But there’s this element of blockchain that everything is transparent, and the way the code works, it’s not, you can trust the code, because other people are watching it, and if people try to mess up with the figures, they’ll be found out. So, there’s an element here that’s like what you describe in the way Japan works, with rules and interpersonal trust. You can trust others because there are collective rules in place.

A: So, that’s interesting, because if you look at institutions, or many companies, there’s people you can trust and people you can’t. It’s like, you place your trust in a certain person, and hopefully, the person in charge is someone you can trust. And because you know they’re in charge, because they’re accountable, you can trust an institution. While in Blockchain, nobody’s responsible. It’s the same thing in a Teal style organization, people don’t want to be responsible, and so what you find is, you trust the process, not the people. I’ve been wondering actually what it does to the people who work in those kinds of systems, to their personal sense of virtue, when there is no personal accountability.

B: Do you mean, whether they’re still responsible people?

A: Yes, when trust is no longer about the people, but the process, how does that affect us, as people?

Values cards project – integrity

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear integrity, to me, it’s connected to consistency. It’s got to do with continuity over time. You’re the same independently of whatever happens outside.

B: There’s a very strong moral component to the word, but it doesn’t have to do with keeping a conformist kind of moral code. You can have integrity and be well integrated, but the idea is that you’re not quite in line with what’s usually done in the context around you. So, it has to do with a certain form of courage. You’re not in direct relation to the established order.

A: I would associate it with originality. It’s about respecting your own shape, and refusing to change so that you can fit in the box. And this has to do with real originality. I’m always remembering an essay by Pessoa that I read as a teenager, something with a Greek name, Epi-something, where he says that, when push comes to shove, the only thing about an artist with actual value is how original they are.

B: I see that as an individual form of value, integrity. It’s not about your relation to the group – like, you follow the norms of the group, as in a cult – but rather facing up to the group. There’s something antagonistic about it. It’s me against the world.

A: Then there’s a form of congruence with non-violent communication. And that would also mean that there’s a form of courage to non-violent communication. I state what I see, what I feel, what I need, and I make a proposal, based on a description of the world as it appears to me, rather than conforming to the madness of other people.

B: We might think it’s a form of power, or a strength, when you can adapt to another person. And it is. But this sense of integrity as a form of courage, it means it may be that it’s your capacity to clearly state your feelings or requests that is the biggest form of respect for another person, and ultimately the best way to influence them.

A: You can have integrity and be a psychopath, but you can’t have integrity and do things against your moral code. So, it’s about the capacity to judge what’s inside, from the outside.

B: Giving up on moral effort, then, that’s a lack of integrity. And that’s the distinction between the respectable bureaucrat and the opportunistic consultant.

A: Well, some of the people I despise the most for that are consultants, who just get in, do something and leave, in pure mercenary fashion, with no sense of continuity or mission.

B: But there’s a fine distinction between both. Maybe the consultant, because they’re independent, it allows them to have more integrity, because they see it and they say it like it is. It’s their job. Or it could be about all sorts of second-order things that the consultant wants to achieve. So, the question becomes about the end justifying the means.

A: So maybe, is it that Integrity can only appear retrospectively? And then, this would take us to a complex dialectic, something hard to figure out, including for yourself. Am I living in line with a principle that I wasn’t sure I had, or am I somehow losing my own shape? Because, we constantly have to give up on certain things so that we can hold on to others. And integrity then is about what we choose to hold on to.

B: It’s one of those things that asks for a lot of attention: do I have integrity?

A: Or if integrity is some form of incorruptible probity, maybe it’s a proof of flexibility then that you can identify it a posteriori? Like, it’s only retrospectively that you can figure out what remained incorrupted in someone.

B: Maybe integrity aligns with moral invention then. It’s about the quest for a new moral code, or a superior moral code, or a more truthful one. Which will only manifest in retrospect. It’s connected, yes, to the creation of a new moral code, that derives from an older one, or differs from it, and can manifest in new situations. It’s a form of anti-puritanism, or even moral entrepreneurship.

A: So, that’s interesting, is integrity about respect for a relatively closed and defined moral code, independently of context? Or is it the continuous and constant invention of a moral code, in relation to the changing context?

B: The more distance between established moral and your own code of ethics, the more opposition there is, and the more integrity you display when you continue pushing your own code of ethics forward. The danger is, you might feel like pure opposition is a way to ‘gain points’, and you might fall into some sort of addition to refusal or rejection. An ‘I’m pure, they’re dirty’ kind of thing. That’s something I feel sometimes with American liberals, and that seems like a kind of dangerous integrity.

A: Maybe then, there’s a creative integrity, which is like an embodiment of the spirit, where the spirit respects its own shape, even as it comes in contact with the resistance of the real. And that’s in opposition the form of integrity which simply refuses any contact with the dirty concrete.

B: Well, morals is the set of rules you’re imposing on yourself for the good of others, and that only comes in the first person. There’s something moralizing about puritanism, but that’s not integrity. Integrity is something that only exists in the first person, and is not something you can demand of others, or even properly judge.

Values cards project – leadership

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I remember, my Australian friends were shocked when I said that there was no word for ‘leadership’ in French.

B: Well, it’s one of those words that just bring together all sorts of different ideas under the one label. But then, the word ‘motivation’ didn’t exist 500 years ago, and people were still probably ‘motivated’. So, the fact that there isn’t a word for leadership in French might not mean very much.

A: I mean, how do you translate ‘leadership’ in French? The best equivalent I found was ‘meneur’, but then it sounds like you’re a gang leader. So, I wonder if it’s about not having the word or concept, or that we don’t value the concept in the same way?

B: What about, leadership is one of those things you recognise when you see it, but you can’t really define it. And maybe that’s because it’s about actions rather than intrinsic qualities. Leadership only manifests in certain circumstances. It’s a cliché, but there is no leader without followers, right?

A: True, I mean, there’s an illusion, from the word itself, that leadership somehow emanates from the person, rather than their position. It’s kind of an intrinsic something. And I think that’s a very American way of looking at things, very protestant.

B: In business, it’s one of those bullshit concepts – I mean, there’s a whole leadership industry, and a lot of it is just about trainers and coaches making money. I know you hate that kind of stuff. And then, all this focus on individual leadership, it hides an important part of the puzzle, which is about, how do you create the structures of an organization where effective collaboration is possible?

A: If I look at it with a less critical eye, I think, there’s something about leadership that… it implies that an organization is not a mechanical structure, but it’s alive somehow. Followers are not exactly like cogs, more like cattle. So, there is something, it’s like shepherds and sheep. And what that’s about is again, the leader as somehow on a different plane of reality, the leader as a superior being.

B: Coming back to the French context, we have this power structure, this class system, this network of grandes ecoles, and that’s what defines leadership. It’s the same thing in French companies, you have the engineers and Grandes Ecoles alumni at the top, leading. It’s like, their diploma gives them a kind of aura, and that’s why the rest of the company follows.

A: It seems like, the way we describe it, leadership is all about vertical relationships. I wonder then, could we say then that leadership is not a useful concept to think about collaboration. That’s, leadership will not help us think about better ways to relate with peers and equals? Or maybe, it’s saying something else, it’s saying that everything in a group starts with a person, so you need that one person to start the movement, and that’s what leadership is about?

B: Well, there is a problem still, that it’s about that mysterious intrinsic quality, and it makes you believe that leadership is that thing inside, that individual something, that creates whatever leadership is about, rather than the context. While I think… in an ideal company, there may not even be the need for leadership. That doesn’t mean all you have is process, but rather, if leadership is about making decisions and acting – and sometimes this demands courage – the role of an organization, of the structures in place, is to make it so that decisions call for as little courage as possible to be made. So, we have the effect of leadership, without need for that quality. I even wonder if we might be creating deliberately difficult situations precisely so that we can see leadership emerge, like a kind of masochism?

A: I like that, but then would you say, it’s possible that thinking in terms of leadership calls to mind a mafia-style model, and instead of complex and costly systems of organization, you just rely on that strong-man figure? And so, there’s something about keeping dysfunctional structures in place that’s about letting all that macho-stuff play out?

B: I don’t know, I think…. I think it might be cultural. It we look at a traditional Japanese organization, the problem is, there is an aspiration to consensus, but it’s not explicit why there is this aspiration. There’s very strong peer pressure not to make any mistakes. There’s a fear of being blamed. Then you’re, exiled from the village, and you die. So that’s why there is a whole system in place, so that people can avoid responsibility. In Japan, the director of a department will spend their whole day doing nothing. Their main role is to apologize if there is a problem. And it’s true that they do nothing, that’s what a good director does, they just maintain personal connections internally. But that’s essential, because it allows the younger or the more junior staff to do the job, and take risks. Because the director is responsible, and if things go wrong, they know the director will apologize. So, the staff don’t have to fear anything. And that’s leadership too.

A: I like that, because then, we can say that the features of a good leader is whatever makes sense in whatever structure. Or even, that the traits of the good leader come forward through the structure, because of the structure. So, the good leader may be the shepherd, or the macho warrior, but the good leader might also be the one who stays calm, and leads by inaction. We recognize the leader by their silence, they make room for others. Ha, and when I think of it, it may be particularly difficult, particularly for, say, more American models of leadership, to focus on that deliberate inaction.

Values cards project – independence

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: Let’s start with this: freedom – or autonomy – is not so much about the absence of rules, but power, more specifically the power to make decisions. So, there’s a difference between freedom and independence.

B: Another angle would be to look at financial independence. What it is is, it’s the power to be autonomous, that is, I choose who to depend on. And so, if we look at independence, it’s always relative, never absolute. Absolute independence, it’s not realistic. It’s always about who you choose to depend on.

A: So, that’s more about chosen dependence, or interdependence. When we think of things that way, we just recognize the fact that absolute independence is only possible in theory.

B: It’s also about not obeying orders, the capacity to say no, the capacity to maintain your principles. If I see a competent person, and they haven’t developed an independent position for themselves, I start to doubt their integrity. It even seems dangerous to me.

A: Well, when a newspaper claims that they’re independent, the word seems interchangeable with integrity. We’re independent, therefore we tell the truth. But that’s never told explicitly. For a paper, integrity is implicit, while independence is explicit.

B: Then, from another perspective, if you’re independent but you don’t have integrity, you’re making a moral mistake. The optimal situation, so that you don’t have to make compromises, it’s independence. And if you don’t strive towards that, it’s the beginning of a moral flaw.

A: I also associate independence, then, with a type of craft or technical excellence. When I was hanging out in the startup space, I saw those two profiles – I had two friends actually like that. One who cofounded a crowdfunding platform, but could also code and do UX work, and he had this kind of strong independence. While another friend was a business developer, she set up an international incubator, and she was really sharp, but all she could do was build relationships – nothing really specific or marketable, with clear measures of success. And I always had the impression that she was less independent, she needed to care about other people more. There was this frustration, and this kind of anxiety about her, I think for that reason.

B: Well, that’s how I sometimes think of myself. I’m a good salesperson, but do I have excellent craft? I’m not sure.

A: Maybe that’s what trading is about: it’s keeping the belief that both parties need you. And so, it’s not an independent role. Is it that the merchant, then, is structurally less independent than the craftsperson?

B: Well, I like that new concept of ‘bullshit jobs’, and my theory is, if you can describe you job in one sentence, it’s not a bullshit job. Otherwise it is. I wonder what this means for a coach?

A: Maybe one way to look at it is this. A physio puts your body back in place. And a coach does that with your brain. Except coaching had a lot from people who came in as consultants, or wanted to be consultants, and started to hype everything up, they were making claims about what we could achieve. And often, those claims weren’t true. It’s actually difficult to reach that point of stability and say ‘that’s what I can do for you. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and that something is already not bad.’

B: So maybe, this has to do with independence. You’re more valuable when you don’t promise people the moon, but you give them an unmbrella, and when it’s raining, that’s what you need. It comes with a form of integrity. You’re not dependent on people’s delusions.

A: Are we saying then that there’s a link between independence and truth or realism?

B: There’s that, but also that financial element we started with. You’re independent when you’ve got money set aside. And if you’ve got an expensive lifestyle, that reduces your independent.

A: So, we must limit our needs to increase our independence. And the token of freedom is not more income, but fewer expenses. The possibility to keep your needs down.

B: I like that. Independence as the capacity to say no to anything. Or better, the decision to say yes to certain things, so you can continue to say no to anything.

Values cards project – power

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I think about power, the first thing that comes to mind is, I’ve wondered about the word empowerment. It’s not a word that exists in French. But I’m interested in this idea, this word, that the question of power has to do with, it’s not only who has it, but how it might be given to someone. The word, empowerment, it’s often used in the context of racial difference or disability. And the idea here is that some people have less power, for whatever reason, and they should be given that power somehow.

B: So, that’s interesting, because it’s more about equality. While when I think of power, I tend to think of it as being conceptually related to liberty.

A: Well, if you look at the sustainable development goals, it’s about building a society where nobody’s left behind. And if you think of it in relation to power, it’s not just about you deciding for yourself, but that everyone has access to conditions where they can make use of their power. Maybe there’s something there. That ideological void we’re facing now, left and right, particularly on the left. We’re heading out of Marxism, so what on the horizon for left-wing thinking? We need to find new concepts, and maybe that will be power, empowerment, governance.

B: So you’re saying, we need reflections on power, how it is distributed, what conditions we need so that we can exercise it?

A: Maybe. Also, power is more difficult in a world that’s full of complex systems, and all our daily lives depend on those systems. This complexity stands in the way of political initiative, because you can’t really take initiative, everything is part of a system.

B: Well, one of the big problems today, when you talk about governance, it’s the void of power – not just ideology, but power. Do you know Moses Naim? He was a Minister in Venezuela, and he wrote a book called ‘The end of power’. He writes about something he calls the Gulliver Effect. That it’s harder today to get anything done, because all sorts of little groups are able to block you. Nobody’s got enough power to get anything done, only to veto you. And so, nothing changes.

A: What that makes me think about is the structures of the EU, and other international institutions. We’ve attempted to develop this globalized economy, as a way to support peace. The idea is that once we’re interdependent, there will not be war. But then, those visions are just a big system, that’s not really working well. And so you’re torn between two visions: the machine exerting power, or then a nationalist vision that defends choice, liberty. That’s Marine Le Pen, and nationalist ideology.

B: Maybe, we need to consider the limits of democracy. It only works up to a certain level. It’s very good for local, but not when you look at the bigger issues.

A: I wonder. Are there any global issues that could be properly handled at the national levels? I think there isn’t anyone, not environment, not immigration.

B: I don’t think there is, but we wish there was. And that’s what’s behind this nationalist ideology.

A: Another direction I’d like to take is, our relationship to power has a lot of influence on the way that authority works in the family. In France, we have this vertical relationship to power, and it’s the same in the family. I see that with my kids: when there’s a bit of tension, I just use that kind of vertical authority.

B:  Well, it feels to me like, in Southern European societies, it’s more about a family network, and a more matriarchal type of power. There’s formal power, sure, but also there is informal power, norms to follow, and the women are mediating that.

A: Well, in Japan, women are not allowed to work, but the husband gives his salary to his wife at the beginning of the month, and she makes all the decisions for the house. The husband just receives some pocket money, but he makes no decision on children’s education, or how to manage the household finances.

B: It’s something I’ve always wondered. Whether there is some ‘hidden power’ given to women in those circumstances, or not. My grand-mother used to repeat ‘I am a slave, I am a slave to your grandfather’. But meanwhile, my impression was that she ruled the house. And I always wonder, whether that litany she repeated was a way to hide her real power – like you do things to avoid the evil eye – or whether that was her actual perception.

A: Well, if you look at Confucius, he says everyone must play their role. It’s not about individual freedom, and it applies to everyone, the husband and the wife, the children and the parents. It’s not like one has power and the other doesn’t. Rather, power happens someone in the form of their relationship, if they play their role properly.

B: And in the same way, without a network of norms, and without a common language, there is no power anymore. There is no way for anyone to manifest their freedom.

A: So maybe power is about convincing people that what you want, or what the collective wants, is also what they want?

B: There’s two questions we might look at here. First, we can look at who’s got power in the group? And then, does the group itself have power, and is it able to transform the world in depth, and in the long-term?

A: If we go back to the question of family then, what’s the purpose of family? In traditional family forms, women have a structuring role, like a glue, and their role is to make sure that the members to hold together. While the men bring in the resources so the family can continue to exist as an organization. At least that’s how it is in my model.

B: Well, that’s not how I see it. I have this image of the family which is not primarily nuclear, but extended, like a network. And the goal here is to maintain a comparative advantage for the members of the group. What that requires is a form of stability, and sharing resources among the members, so that they can do better than other families, or people who have no family.

A: A thing there is that power always depends on size. China, Google or the Catholic church are more powerful than Switzerland or a small hedge fund, even if they’re very well run, more effective, faster, or more profitable. They may be more profitable, but they won’t be more powerful, until they grow big.

B: What about we think of power as about continuity over time? Maybe that’s what a family is about: its goal is just its own continuity over time?

A: That would apply if you look at successful families, like Hermes. The brand was started by protestant upper bourgeoisie, and it’s still in their hands. So here’s a successful family, they succeeded financially, and as a family.

B: Could we say that in a small business, there is more freedom? And there’s a sort of continuity between nuclear family and small business. While a larger structure requires more effort to maintain itself and coordinate, understand how things work. But it’s also more solid, and more welcoming to diversity. While a small business or a nuclear family works very well if people are benevolent and intelligent, but it’s catastrophic otherwise.

A: Maybe we can look at this, that in American companies, there is great apparent freedom, but de facto autonomy is very limited, because there is so much process involved. While in a Japanese organization, there’s a lot of formalities, but much more real freedom than appears on the surface. And so what this is about is that without trust, you just can’t execute, or operate. That the purpose of rituals that are about forgiveness, they have to do with maintaining trust. And without that trust, there is no way for power to work.

B: That’s exactly what I say about Italian style apologies. You apologize not because you feel guilty, but to show that you respect the established order, and that you broke it. You assert that you want to continue existing in the same world. And that’s another condition for power – that people belong to the same world.

On ethical mediocrity

I don’t think I could ever say that I got ahead not playing by the rules. I’m embarrassed about it. It’s a source of ongoing shame for me that I’ve been incapable of cheating properly, with bold disregard for authority, as if I was missing that part of the brain which rebels seem to have. Sometimes, I even experience this as a painful sense of lost opportunities. Regret for a path I didn’t dare take.

I often wish I was cooler, lighter, more whimsical and flexible. That I was more able to find short-cuts and save effort, more efficient, winning, driven by a desire to get there first, and shape the world to my will as I bend established agreements. Instead, I feel held back by a deep sense of dull obedience, a bovine desire to lift heavy weights, covered under faux-contempt for those who just want to ‘get there first’ (I actually admire them. I even probably envy them for it). I often feel, still now, like a boring A-student, alienating others around him by excessive seriousness – or naïve like a little child, ready to fall victim to all sorts of manipulations and mockeries.

My step-father used to tell me that I was not actually smart. I had culture, yes, but I wasn’t shrewd in the least, and I’d never be good at life, because life requires shrewdness, which is true intelligence, not culture. I tried hard not to believe it, but some of it rubbed on me. Later, when I joined preparatory classes, my father would criticize me for working too much, not spending time out, drinking, flirting. I passed exams alright, but my street-smarts remained very limited. Even now, I know a lot of things, but I’m not always sure what to do with them, or how ‘people’ would receive what I might articulate.

Sometimes, I wish I was more of a trickster. I wish I had the brains and guts to play tricks on people, use deception to get my way, find the path of least resistance, surf the waves. Instead, I often feel pedestrian, heavy, gullible. Somehow, and in spite of superficial rebelliousness, I think I have a deep trust that there is a proper way to do things, and that’s how they should be done. People have called me creative and original. It’s been a surprise every time. I’ve grown to accept these adjectives as part of the way people see me, but deep inside, I feel plain, obedient, and dull, if sometimes shaken up by eruptions of raw energy. This is one of my defining inner paradoxes.

This sense of dullness applies to my private life. It’s August 2004, and I’m standing outside the Roman Baths in Cologne. It’s the first time I’ve dared to get inside a gay sauna. I feel very proud of myself: I looked, but I didn’t touch. I was expecting, who knows, some deep and meaningful conversation. When that didn’t happen, I was not even able to have sex. Worse, I felt proud of it. I’d been with my partner for over three years – and remained entirely faithful. There were opportunities, but I passed them by.

Until about the age of twenty-five, when I should have ‘sewn my wild oats’, I stuck to strict faithfulness. I craved a stable structure, simple morals, and rebelled against what I perceived as looseness around me. No cheating allowed, brainless puritan. Later, and quite deliberately, I decided to change. I slowly trained myself to build more ‘flexible’ personal ethics. I succeeded to some extent, but sometimes wonder if I didn’t lose on both fronts, and moved from rigid youth to shapeless middle-age.

I don’t think I could ever say that I got ahead not playing by the rules, yet I can’t honestly say that I never took a short-cut either. At school, I did, occasionally, look on my neighbor’s paper for an exam, and change an answer based on that. I never properly stole anything in a shop, but when a pack of chewing gum accidentally missed the scan at the self-check out, I bagged it. During a short stint working for government, when I had to declare my own working hours, I would sometimes add a few minutes at the end of each day, rounding it up to the closest five or ten, and ‘cheated’ about a few dollars from the system for work I didn’t really do. And I did agonize over it.

In the end, it’s like I’ve achieved nothing more than a form of ethical mediocrity. I am still far from the great trickster, the gangster, robber, ruthless figure confidently defying the law that I sometimes wish I could be, but neither am I close to the shining angel of virtue, clod in white purity. I’m not sure if I deliberately adopted this stance, or just let myself slip into it.

I wonder: to what extent would such a pattern of personal behavior, a ‘grey’ relationship to morals, embarrassed tolerance for minor faults, translate into valid ethical leadership? Does that acknowledged mediocrity make me somehow more genuine or human, helping me relate? Because ultimately, most people are neither angel nor demon, and live in fear of excess in any direction? Or have I given up on the possibility of greatness, and the capacity to inspire and influence that goes with greatness?

I also wonder about the trajectory of my own ethical growth, from rigid to flexible, and whether I gained some wisdom from my own lapsing, giving in to minor shortcomings, trading purity for experience? Maybe, whatever material opportunities I didn’t seize, in my younger years, through moral rigidity, are somewhat made up for by an increased capacity to reflect on my own ethics? Can you grow character and bend the rules? Can you grow character and remain flawless? Or is there a necessary choice, and is maturity reached only through compromise, accepting and embracing one’s own short-comings?

Values cards project – Order

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: In Art of Hosting, there’s an interesting model where we place order in-between chaos and control. You’ve actually got four ‘states’ that things can be in: there’s destruction, chaos, order and control. Most businesses like to operate somewhere between order and control, but creative organisations must find a way to work between chaos and order, without self-destroying. I find that the model explains a lot, about organisations, and about politics. If you look at the Yellow Vests in France, here’s a possible grid of interpretation. That democracy needs a minimal amount of order to work. If there’s not a proposal that makes sense in relation to some sort of order, then there is no politics. But with that movement, it’s not about creation, it’s not even about destroying something, it’s just pure shapelessness. And this shows – many people believe they’re doing politics, when they’re actually just flapping around.

B: I’ve always found that it’s a clear sign of stupidity when you say that you should destroy structures to be free. But then, it depends on your implicit model of what the world is. I see two categories of people: you believe that the world is essentially constraining, and so freedom is destroying that constraint. Or you think the world is chaotic, and freedom is about giving shape to something – the creative impulse is about creating order from chaos. I think that’s where my interest for China comes from, there you find the idea that chaos is more dreadful than too much order.

A: I think the distinction between order and control is an important one. And for the categories of people you spoke about, the first set would probably see control as a form of oppression.

B: Another thing I thought about is, when you say ‘order’, we have that expression, ‘to give an order to someone’. When there is order, it means some people can give orders, and we know that those orders will be executed. That’s what happens in a military organisation. And any type of strategic thinking, it’s about asking, what orders will be obeyed or not?

A: I’m looking at Wiktionary now, and there’s 26 different definitions for order. It’s a very polysemic word. Maybe we need to invent a new word for that meaning I spoke about, in Art of Hosting. A word that describes the type of structure where freedom is possible?

B: For people who think of order as a value, they must appreciate a measure of rigidity. They put that over freedom. What if it’s like that, order has to do with a certain organisation of meaning. And rigidity is… there are elements you can lean on. It’s like a skeleton, if you want to stand up, you need something to be rigid somewhere. Without a bone structure, you’re just a blob on the floor.

A: Then, there’s a set of people that seem to have this epidermic reaction to hierarchy, and they’re all about delegated or distributed leadership. I wonder if it has to do with what we’re saying?

B: I’m more interested in hierarchy as a way to get protected against abuse.

A: What about we see it like this? Structure is static, it’s about the way the parts are arranged. While order is dynamic, it’s about things moving in a predictable way, because people obey.

B: Well, if you look at something like ‘the order of doctors’, there’s a status quo there, so there is some rigidity.

A: Maybe it’s maintaining status quo is essential for a living organism to survive. Homeostasy. You need something to stay the same so that other things around it can change.

B: Looking back at those two categories I spoke about, maybe there’s a common way to see things, but different fears. Some are more afraid to be turned into stone, others are more afraid of falling apart.

A: It’s like, in zombie movies. They’re all about human society. All zombie films are about that, what makes our society hang together, and how fast can it be destroyed? And what are the primary instincts that come out when things start falling apart? I Think I would survive better in an environment where things are out of control, and everything need to be rebuilt, than one where there is so much control I could only just survive, but nothing more.

B: I think, my experience was, I grew up in a very chaotic family. So, I’ve got this belief that chaos is the fundamental structure of the world. I always expect chaos.

A: While I grew up in a very functional middle class family, but I experienced chaos when I lived in Africa and in South East Asia. There’s an exoticism to it, but when I’m in chaos, I can feel that I’m not in my natural environment.

B: That’s interesting, because I see the world as just equally chaotic everywhere.

A: While I sense a clear difference between chaotic places, and non-chaotic places.

Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.

Values cards project – winning

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I think about why I do things, it’s always about reflection or connection. It’s about understanding, self-transformation, meeting new people. It’s not about success or competition. In fact, that’s a thing I meditated on during my spiritual exercises. That’s in the Principle and Foundation, that we should become indifferent to success or failure.

B: There’s this way of viewing the world, that uses ‘win/lose’ as an axis. If you’re using that model, typically, winning is about earning money, and losing is about money too. But life is much more complex than that. There’s a vast number of things that we’re involved in. While if you look at the idea of ‘winning’ (or losing), it implies that we’ve got a set of agreed rules, and we play by them. So, if you have ‘winning’ as a value, it means you see life as a game with clear rules to follow. While the way that I would see it is that life is a multitude of games with different rules, and we’re all playing a number of them at the same time. So, to see life in terms of winning and losing, properly, that would mean we understand all the rules of all the games. And that seems a bit excessive for me.

A: Also, when you talk about ‘winning’, it means someone else is losing, and I’m not sure that’s how society works, or how it should work. It’s not the goal we should go towards at least. I mean, we can we should all be winners, but then the concept doesn’t mean anything anymore. So, what’s a system that would allow everyone to benefit, and we’re not talking about winning?

B: In the 2000’s, there was a lot of talk about winners and losers. There was all this talk about personal responsibility, particularly in the USA. And it was like the goal of the government was to create conditions where more people can ‘win’ – but is that what the government is about? Or is it about helping the ‘losers’? Or is it something completely different?

A: When I hear somebody think in terms of ‘win/lose’, I always get an impression that they’ve got a kind of satisfied stupidity. It’s this American vision of personal responsibility, you’re the master of your own destiny, all that stuff, and if you do what you should, then you’re going to win.

B: This, or it’s like we project team sports and its artificial environment on the social world, which is much more complex. There’s a lot of sports metaphors for performance in coaching. But business is really not like an 11-player soccer game. Whatever works in sport, that doesn’t quite extend to social life or business.

A: So, what we were saying is, if ‘winning’ is a value for you, then it means you take life as a game, and so that’s a sign you might lack of seriousness. Or maybe that’s about you choosing not to take life seriously, so that it’s more bearable?

B: Well, that’s the philosopher stance, right, to live a sad life with truth rather than a happy life with lies. To see life as a game so that it’s more bearable, that’s running away from from wisdom.

A: We have those discussions about distraction as an existential risk – that’s in Pascal, and that’s Kierkegaard, who talks about the danger of living for what’s ‘interesting’, rather than, say, living a life that’s morally right, a serious life. But then, there’s a passage by Descartes against that. It’s in the Passions of the soul, and it’s a passage I really like. He says that happiness is positive in itself, while sadness is harmful to you. So, we might genuinely wonder whether it’s better to be wrongly happy than to be rightly sad.

B: OK, so then, is it about winning and the idea of a game being opposed to the serious approach to life?

A: Well, what’s a game? It’s a pursuit or an activity without a clear objective other than itself. The goal of the game is to play the game. It’s about immediate pleasure, something that has no consequences outside the game. While a more serious approach to life sees the goal as important. Maybe that lack of seriousness is about an incapacity to set an objective, or a refusal to pay attention to the consequences of what we do. Maybe that’s a form of laziness.

B: The game is a game, it has not goal outside itself. So, we might as well just play, since nothing really matters. Carnivals are about that. You don’t pretend that things are more serious than they are. It’s all feathers and music. And there’s an existential wisdom to that approach – and to games also. Maybe precisely that thing about happiness as better than sadness. While if you take everything seriously, maybe that’s a sign that you don’t have very good judgement. If you take everything seriously, you might end up neglecting what’s really important – and that’s another form of intellectual laziness. It’s even dangerous – more dangerous than frivolity. That kind of serious approach is how you find yourself believing that the end justifies the means.

A: Maybe we can think of it as associated with Calvinism, since we’ve been talking about this American approach. If there is predestination, then nothing you can’t do anything that will lead you to salvation – it’s all outside of your reach. That means, life is not actually that serious, there’s nothing at stake, it’s all decided for you anyway. You can wait, you can look for signs of predestination, but ultimately, there’s nothing at stake. And so, you might as well play life as a game, and try to win.

Middle class migration: the unheard story

The typical Australia migration story is one of hardship overcome. Poor, working class people leave their home-country behind to find a better life in Australia: Greeks, Italians, Maltese share a similar storyline. The first years were difficult, but with hard-work, the situation got better, and now the children call Australia home, and can assert their position in society, thanks to the labours of their elders. Refugees, though their stories at home is more tragic, are not drastically different: Sudanese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Serbians, Croatians, left conflict and war behind. Even the better off among them often lost their assets back home, and started from scratch. Minus the language barrier, cultural differences and various forms of racism, the ten-pound poms, Victorian gold-diggers, Irish settlers and original convicts share a similar narrative.

I don’t, and neither do most of my migrant friends in Melbourne today. We’re middle-class migrants, lifestyle migrants, love migrants, cosmopolitan migrants. Whether we came from Europe, China, Malaysia, Singapore or the US, we did not flee. There is always a reason to leave – we came for freedom, for love, or what we think will be a better life. But this is not a story of leaving hardship. If we want migrants to find a proper place in our imaginary fabric, those stories need to come together, and be heard.