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.

Values cards project – dignity

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: There’s this idiom we use, we speak about ‘human dignity’, but it’s just a set phrase. In Japanese, there’s two different terms. There’s ‘son-ke’, which is respect for whatever is above you, and it implies a hierarchy, it’s tied to the notion of a status. And there’s ‘son-cho’, which is about universal respect, and that’s tied to that concept of human dignity. What son-cho’s about is that every person deserves a certain form of respect, there are things you just can’t do to them. Like you can’t lynch a criminal.

B: So there’s something about dignity that’s unconditional?

A: Yes. It’s also connected to the word ‘respect’. ‘Le respect de la dignité’, it’s a set phrase in France. But then, when you hear the way that it’s used, often the person who’s asking for that dignity to be respected, I’m getting the impression that they’re asking for conditional respect, not unconditional. I mean, they seem to want respect in for a competence they don’t have. Like, they’re smart, or they deserve something, when that’s just not the case. So, it’s associated with a kind of entitlement.

B: Well, that reminds me of this thing that happened to me. There’s an organisation here called Leadership ***, and they run programs for migrant community leaders. I saw that pop up in my feed one day, and thought I might apply. I got shortlisted and went to their session for shortlisted appliances. And then I had a shock. I was the only white person in the room, and there was this woman talking to us, and she was saying things like, ‘so, there’s 45 of you shortlisted, but we only have 30 places in the programs, so you must understand that not everyone will get in. Duh. But if you’re from Africa, we’ve got a program that’s for African community leaders, so you might also get into that.’ And she was using – I don’t know, there was a tone, and the way she was talking to us, it was like we were complete idiots. And I was thinking, wow, we’ve been selected as community leaders, and that’s how they’re treating us. I actually, I almost ran off. They needed you to be there at certain dates for the program, and they said ‘and we expect you to be there at all those dates’, and I raised my hand and said I was travelling on those dates for my work, so was it worth me doing the second interview? And she seemed annoyed, but said, then probably not. And after I left, I realised, it was the first time in my life I got condescended to. As a middle class white man, it never happened to me before. And that time I understood what it feels like, and I told all my women friends and my Chinese friends, it’s horrible! But so yes, I guess that’s what condescension is about, it’s refusing a certain unconditional dignity. It’s saying, if you want a relationship, it’s gonna be based on a strict hierarchy, and you’re starting on a lower rung.

A: Wow, that sounds tough. I mean, when I hear that, I wonder if dignity is actually about unconditional equality? One thing we might look at is how each culture handles its minorities. When you look at France, we have a hierarchical relationship with black people from Africa, and for Muslim populations, it’s rejection. In Japan, there’s a hierarchy where white people are at the top, but you might still be rejected as a foreigner. It’s a rejection on principle. It’s like you’re excluded from a club, and you won’t ever get in, no matter what you do. That’s actually what racism is about. It’s a hierarchy that’s based just on status, not actions. While dignity, that’s about the capacity to develop a relationship on the basis of radical equality. And so, when you there’s somebody that gives you this unconditional dignity, but they still disagree with your actions, then that disagreement has a real weight.

 

On relative and absolute love

We can love people absolutely or relatively.

Relative love has preferences. I would rather be with x than y. As a basis for this preference, we list a person’s objective traits – personality, intelligence, fame, beauty – and make a decision who to spend our time with on this basis. There is something repellent about it.

With absolute love, the person appears  in complete independence. The relationship is unique, neither better nor worse than any other, but a world of its own. That love is not tied to characteristics which, were they to change, would lead you to drop in the rankings. Absolute love therefore, whether from God or a fellow human, is always a gift of absolute freedom.

 

The wog is always further south

As a migrant to Australia, I discovered a new word: ‘wog’. The word, I learned, refers to “Southern Europeans” or “south eastern Europeans”. In Australia, that’s Italians and Greeks mainly, and potentially the Lebanese, Spaniards, Croatians, Serbians and Macedonians.

On the Wikipedia page about wogs, there is an English quote saying, “The wogs begin at Calais”. The border of civilisation ends with us. I noted the same thing through my early years.

People in northern France, where I grew up, thought of the Southern French as lazy oily garlicky dark-skinned sloths who parade around in convertible cars.

My father’s family comes from this oily southern France, but civilisation, in their eyes, ends just a bit further. They’re reliable, but the Italians, though pleasant, are unreliable, lazy, flashy, etc.

My grandmother, on my mother’s, is from northern Italy. Emilia-Romagna: fat, rich, middle-class Italy, where they put egg in the pasta, and pork in everything. I remember telling her I was going to Naples, and she would say “oh, Naples, oh, this is different. This is a different place altogether. We’re from Parma.” She was the daughter of a metal worker, cast away from Italy for his involvement in anarchist movement. But she had an extreme snobbism and superiority, towards the South Italian ‘wogs’

One of my dearest friends in Paris is Herakles, from the island of Zakinthos or Zante. This was a Venetian seaport, like Corfu, and never a part of the Ottoman Empire. One day, we were walking along the port, and pointing out at the sea, he would tell me: this is Peloponnesus, they were Turkish out there. He went to Athens for university, and his friend from the island, they would call the locals “barbarians”, and mock their Turkish sounding music.

So prejudice will make us perceive whoever lives across the border as somehow the first barbarians – and ‘us’ as the bulwarks of civilisation.

Values cards project – learning

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, when I was working for the government, I had this colleague who refused to do professional development. She said ‘I’ve had enough with university, I won’t sacrifice my fun’. Our business manager was trying to get her to sign up for some training, for her performance review or something, and I remember, she said she wouldn’t do it, and I was so judgmental of her!

B: Maybe we can look at learning as either a means or an end? When it’s connected with curiosity, it’s an end in itself. That’s what curiosity is, learning without a goal.

A: Well, that colleague didn’t have much of it. But then you have this other thing people say, they say ‘I have to keep learning, when I stop learning I’ll change jobs’. And I’ve always found that’s a very self-centered thing. What about the value you’re adding when you’re able to do things at your peak, because you’re not stretching all the time?

B: If you’re managing someone, it’s always more useful to treat them as an end in themselves. But if it’s about yourself, I think it’s actually more respectful – to the group – to think of yourself as a tool for the task, not the task as a tool so you can learn something. Otherwise, you just take work as entertainment.

A: Yes! There’s this book by Kierkegaard that I love, Stages on life’s way. He talks about three stages that people go through – or three different ways that we can experience life: aesthetic, ethical, religious. That thing of ‘I have to keep learning or I’ll move on’, it’s typical of an aesthetic approach to life, it’s work as hedonism. And Maybe that’s a thing in the way that many startups operate, where you’re joining to learn something, rather than do the job.

B: Well, it’s easier to relate to your job aesthetically when you’re in a tech startup than if you’re a cleaner.

A: So then, the question we could ask is, how can we move towards an ethical stage and continue learning. Not as an end in itself, for pleasure or entertainment, but so we can do the job better, or prepare for the future. Learning as a form of responsibility.

B: There’s a thing you see when you work in professional development, it’s the workshop hoppers. Those people who just go from workshop to workshop, but it’s never quite clear why they’re trying to learn something.

A: Maybe they’re bored at work, and learning is part of their lifestyle? It’s so different from the way we’re looking to develop our learning program in that startup I’m joining. It’s all about finding ways for everyone to really get how everything works, in depth: understand the tech, the business model, the goal, the context and the culture.

B: Well, that’s the opposite of typical corporate learning, where it always goes outwards. It’s about learning new things and bringing them in. When you look at it, there’s two problems that companies face, and they’re very different. There’s the technical skills, and mindset, or adaptability.

A: That’s the capacity to make use of your skills in context, right? I’ve been doing work on that.

B: Yep. But then there’s this American thing to say that ‘everything is a skill’. Adaptability, that’s a skill. Making use of your skills, that’s a skill. And so you have the impression that everything is a ‘technical skill’, and that’s rather confusing. There’s other things you can learn, but you need a different model to learn them. And I don’t think we’re doing that yet.

 

Looking to be normal

My appetite for knowledge has been driven by an incapacity to be normal, and a constant injunction to be so. I tried to learn, using books and my brain, how to be normal. The more I tried, the more I failed. I skipped from country to country, language to language, discipline to discipline, looking for that common ground of normality.

I learned how to morph into various cultural norms, but found no normal. Instead, the bookshop and the library became like massage parlours: an intellectual stretching exercise, increasing my flexibility, rather than revealing any common truth. This may not be just a matter of my personal fabric, but the common experience of our generation.

The knowledge hero

There is a particular type of hero out there. Let’s call them the knowledge hero. You’ve come across them if you’ve ever watched a feature documentary. It’s the voice of the narrator telling you ‘I was on a Welsh River, and I caught an enormous salmon that year. I was immensely proud. But I think it’s the last anyone’s ever caught around there. I kept going back, but nobody caught anything. And that’s what got me thinking: what was happening to the fish in the sea? That’s what I decided to find out.’

It’s a simple proposition: a single person – a man preferably – identifies a pattern in the world that they think is not right. It’s a change they dislike, or it’s a phenomenon they’re concerned about. Or maybe they’re just curious about something. It’s motivating enough, somehow, for them to go on a large, concerted and coordinated series of efforts to find out what the truth is.

That same character, is the common protagonist of detective novels: about a third of the books sold out there. Many romance and adventure books also contain an element of truth discovery. It’s about finding out what really happens, who the real problem is. See, we like to paint ourselves as adventurous pleasure seekers, or cynical money-makers, but we seem to be, first and foremost, a truth-driven species. And a man on a mission to figure out the real cause for something, and share it with the world, is a definite hero to us, in America, France, or Japan. Why is that? Because knowledge is power, knowledge allows you to make informed decisions on future behaviour, change the way that you behave, and from there, change the world around you.

Values cards project – peace

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: Wow. Peace. It’s so simple, but it’s so difficult.

B: OK, let me start here. A few years back, I was meeting with that woman who used to run a leadership program I attended in Melbourne. I was asking her for help with Marco Polo Project. I was looking for a mentor, and I was asking if she could help me find one. And so, she was asking me – I mean, she was about to send an introduction email to someone – she was asking me, why did you work on Marco Polo Project? And I responded, well, at the core of it, it’s about world peace. And she scoffed, and she said, well, they won’t be taking that seriously. So, we came up with something about intercultural understanding. But that felt like a cop out.

A: And that prospective mentor.

B: We had only one conversation, and it, well, it really didn’t get anywhere. You know, it felt like we were not at the same level of abstraction, so we couldn’t really talk. We were not really, sharing the same world, in a way. But yes, peace, it’s too vast, too complex, too abstract, or taken-for-granted, and so, it’s like you’re not allowed to say that’s what you’re working towards. It doesn’t sound serious.

A: Well yes, when you start talking about peace, you see that ironic smile. I wonder why.

B: It feels like you’re saying you want to join a cult, like you’re talking about the Hare Krishnas or something.

A: Well, there’s something hippie about the word. When you say you care about peace, even when you talk about it, you’re taking a stance right against cynicism. And since cynicism claims to be the only way you can prove your intelligence these days, it’s not surprising.

B: So, question now, would you say that it might be because peace feels like someone else’s responsibility.

A: And yet, you look at people like Monbiot, you look at what Design for Social Impact Leadership is doing, or School of Slow Media, they’ll say, when it comes to peace, there’s no ‘them’, there’s just ‘us’.

B: So, that may be one way to think about it. OK, when we say ‘the government this’, ‘the government that’, the government feels like something external. ‘The government’, that’s them, not us. I mean, when you’re an expat, that’s how it is. There’s no way to join the government, or even influence it. There’s no connection with the government, emotional, intellectual, or just, de facto. But in a democracy, it’s dangerous to speak about the government that way. Though sure, it’s also very convenient to believe that it’s a distant thing out there, and it’s got nothing to do with you.

A: What about we thought about it this way. That peace is odd when we think of it as a noun, as its own thing. Because peace is more like an adjective. It’s a quality that applies to all sorts of other things. Peace is not an objective in itself, that would be weird, but it applies to a whole range of other activities. You can even go to war to get peace.

B: Well, have you seen this documentary? GateKeeper. It’s about the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. It’s a series of interviews with the six directors of security in Israel. And one of the things they say is, actually, that you can’t do peace using war-like processes.

A: So, this would mean, depending on how we do politics, we’ll be going either towards conflict, or towards peace?

B: It’s also maybe that collaboration is harder to learn than competition. When you’re a child, and you’re playing, you learn to make war. You won’t see many children playing peace.

A: I wonder there, is it just because peace is boring? Dead boring. And because to keep the peace, you must make sure that resources are not all accumulating in the one place, and that requires effort?

B: Or maybe it depends on the size of the group. Two people at peace, that’s boring, but when we reach three, four, five, that becomes interesting.

A: What about fair play then? Maybe peace is about having the same rules accepted by all, and accepting defeat.

B: So then, is peace about common laws, and a sense of order? Should we say that peace is just a mechanism that ensures those common laws are accepted and acceptable by all? 

A: How does it work in a company? There’s a number of rules that are imposed, and you go with it because you get paid. But the rules are rarely something you can discuss. There are few mechanisms to change them if they’re not working, or very few. Unless there’s a good boss who decides to step in.

B: So, should we say that there’s a connection between peace and obedience? That would mean, sometimes, obedience is the better choice, because it keeps everything stable. Then we could say that rebellion and blind obedience are like the two poles, two vices in opposition. While deliberate obedience, is the virtue that marks a point of balance between them.

A: Or it’s about choosing consensus, so that the group can stay together.

Entrepreneurial portraits

B** is living her best life. She promotes love and acceptance, because fear robs us of our lives. She was appointed on boards by the time she was twenty, and she’s doing things differently there. She travels the world, and people come in their tens of thousands to listen to her. She is a perfect model – and she dreams of a future where every single girl could have the same life she has.

T** is a successful social entrepreneur. He works for himself and generates revenue from an education venture that teaches design thinking. He has now reached an apex in his success. And ss the Zuckerbergs and Jobs of tech celebrate their millionth customer or their first billion in valuation, T** does something much better and meaningful: he’s invited to teach a course on social enterprise ‘with codes and all’.