On passing the ball

As a teenager, I was not good at sport. I was neither strong nor particularly well coordinated. I didn’t see the point either. My family didn’t care, and the French schools I attended did not attach much value to physical prowess.

There were moments of shame and embarrassment when I was picked last for soccer or basketball team, or was first out on races and jumping contests. I could cope with it. I made it to the top bracket in some disciplines: 60m race, 400m race, disk throwing. They taught me that I had potential, if I could only play to my strengths. They were not popular, unfortunately, and we rarely practiced them.

Things changed in Grade 11, when we spent a term practicing volleyball. Fandom for a Japanese anime made me first interested in the game. I enjoyed its rhythmic structure. Each team is allowed three hits of the ball. Typically, the second is a pass to the front player, who jumps and smashes it over the net into the others’ camp.

I discovered I was very good at this middle touch. I was aware of the movements around me, precise enough in placing the ball, and happy to let a team-mate hit and score. My reputation as a good ‘passer’ quickly spread, and after a month, I was picked first in team selection.

I have not become a sports person. I neither watch, nor practice. There are many reasons for it. One of them is boorish worship of the last step. Score a goal, and you get all attention; passing the ball is hardly celebrated. Middle players are deploying complex strategies, interpreting complex patterns of movement in real time, building the ground for the final hit. Success is impossible without them. But kickers get the crown.

When good collective action, strategic passes and subtle decisions in the mid-field are discussed, replayed, and celebrated more than goal-scoring, then – maybe – I will start watching.

On lifespans

Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.

The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.

It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.

What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people?  Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.

On meeting people

When preparing for a meeting, whether it’s a potential business connection or a date, it is tempting to think: what is it that I want from my counterpart? And what is it that I need to show them or tell them to get it? But presence has a funny way of surprising us, if we let her. And a simple conversation may reveal unexpected alignments and life-changing common paths ahead.

If we let her. This requires more than listening for the right cue to drop our set piece, meanwhile asking polite questions to build rapport. What shared experiences will trigger trust? Family? Geography? Similar taste in food or wine? Or a seemingly worthless but oh-so-worth-it choice of study major? There is no knowing in advance. Closeness will come in a flash, but first, there may be long, disjointed exchanges.

Often, lacking faith in the powers of genuine curiosity, we fall back on safer patterns. Let’s get to business. This is what I want. What’s your bottom line? What’s in it for you? What’s your price? The transaction might occur; the magic doesn’t. Goods, money, services, bodily fluids are exchanged: the parties can leave. But nothing new to the world has appeared. And frustration lingers.

Marketing will be the end of me

I just wrote on my facebook page that ‘I absolutely, entirely and completely hate marketing.’

There was a context to the statement. On the 5th of October, I’m co-organising an event at a Melbourne artistic centre, with a partner university. I am supposed to make a flier for this event, but had to postpone this morning, because I need to clarify the exact requirements of one partner, and wait for the logo of another. I’m not in touch with the marketing department of either organisations, but only intermediaries. Result, I am annoyed, in the dark, and cannot start this piece of work (hence time to write this blog post).

This is certainly not the first time I got annoyed at a marketing department. The basic premise is very sound: of course, partners put effort into a joint event, and should be fully acknowledged. However the practical details are where the devil hides – Should there be a logo? How big should it be? Where can I place it? Where do I get the right version? Is there a colour scheme? A font? A standard sentence I have to put in? In the same font, or a smaller font? Is there an approval process? Who approves? How long does it take? Multiply this by the number of partners involved, and you start understanding the problem, especially when you’re running on a piece of thread, like many cultural organisations do.

At a deeper level, I believe the problem is cultural. The tone used for all marketing matters, in my experience, is typically threatening and hostile. Things are generally ‘requested’, but the actual power relationship is left unclear, as much as the consequence of disobedience. Will the partner pull off because they’re not on the flier as they wish? Will they never work together again, no matter how good the event? Or will I somehow harm my contact person within the partner organisation if I do not handle marketing properly? Maybe marketing studies showed that leaving the consequence of disobedience to sheer imagination was a good and cost-effective compliance strategy?

As a result of this hostile ‘requesting’ culture, I have come to repeatedly experience partnerships which started from mutual shared goals and values as ones of mutual mistrust. Will I acknowledge partnerships? Will they hold their end of the deal? Is there a secret plot to undermine and threaten each other? This is poison.

Friends working in the non-profit and cultural sector – I have questions for you:

a) Have you ever had a bad experience with the marketing department or requests of a partner organisation?

b) Would you agree that strict marketing standards, multi-layered approval processes, and general marketing hostility, when you’re running joint events on a piece of thread, add a much unwanted burden to everyone’s life?

c) Is there any place that already lists ‘annoying partners’ – organisations that are difficult to work with, because they not only impose bizarre marketing requirements, but also use hostile bureaucratese?

d) Should we league to change the culture – and start from a basic expectation that established organisations should not make life difficult for small non-profits, and prioritise support to mutually beneficient events, rather than imposing hostile approval systems and marketing standards?

Space sharing, time sharing: future of work, or existing models?

Our current (but changing) mindset is to think of work in the following way. Full-time work, dedicated work space, and regular daytime week hours are correlated. Work occurs Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in a particular dedicated space and for a particular organisation. Anything  outside these spatial and temporal boundaries is either non-work or not-really-work.

We seem to be moving towards a model where work is more often part-time, with flexible hours, for multiple organisations, and occurring at different locations. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Let’s look at these very common professions – to quote a few:

  • Doctors and nurses may work more during the day, but 24 hour and week-end presence is required from some at least.
  • Teachers spend about one third of the time in front of a class, and two thirds preparing classes or correcting papers – which occurs in all sorts of settings, including offices, cafes, public transport or bed.
  • Cleaners typically work when others are not around, and pretty much everywhere.
  • Hospitality workers are flexible – a typical ‘daytime’ restaurant will open from 10h30am to 11pm – but start at 6 or 7am if they serve breakfast. 
  • Drivers – whether of trains, buses, trams, taxis, planes or trucks – work 5am to 12pm, and sometimes round the clock. A number of people in the transport industry will be around to support them.

When we think of new models for work – whether it’s part-time allocation, flexible work hours, or work outside the office – let’s not forget that these very common professions have been doing exactly that for years. These are by no means marginal phenomena, and maybe there’s something we can learn from them.

Please, feel free to share reflections here!

Acknowledging weakness

I’m now evolving more and more in a world of (social) entrepreneurs. After years in academia, I enjoy its optimism, energy, and let’s-do-it attitude. But I also find it – sometimes – harsh and heartless.

The main element I stumble upon is a contradiction between rhetorics and attitude regarding failure and weakness. Everyone acknowledges that failure is part of success and setting a new risky venture demands not only time and intelligence, but also consistent emotional strength. Yet most people I come across in this world – more particularly their online persona – seem to wear a constant plastered smile on, as if real hardships happened only to others, but they were somehow exempt for the rule. Success is duly celebrated and broadcast, but failures, mess-ups or radical moments of doubt are hidden under the carpet.

I believe that fully acknowledging weakness and failures – your own, and that of others – is an important form of entrepreneurial wisdom, and essential to developing a healthy culture. From the classics, I learnt to suspect hubris. At the very least, sharing stories of rejection and mistakes, or simply reflecting on hopelessness and dark days, would not only allow us and those around us to better accept and survive them, but also – maybe – avoid the worst of them.

I’ve been thinking of designing a ‘share your failure’ event – and as I wrote this post, launched a message on the Hub Yammer group to test interest among the community. We’ll see what the response is. I’m curious.

The cost of low-trust: low efficiency

Last night I was invited at a dinner with Chinese people – entrepreneurs, angel investors, a TV producer. Too many conversations entangled for me to perform at my best – but my seat neighbour, fortunately, was considerate enough to speak slowly, repeat, and listen to my broken Mandarin.

At some stage – after much baijiu toasting and spicy thin sliced beef, our conversation rolled on Chinese workers’ efficiency. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I did hear, and observe, that Chinese workers are not efficient – but is there a cause?’ – ‘No trust’, replied my seat neighbour.

We then started pulling it apart – though my limited language skills, unfortunately, did not allow us to go quite as far as I would have wanted. If two people are joining in a business deal, or a work agreement, but there is no trust between them, then haggling will start: ‘you pay me first – you do the job first – no you first.’ This haggling, in and of itself, is a loss of time. And because it is not guaranteed that the pay will come – why do the job well? And because it is not guaranteed that the job will be done, why set aside the money to pay, or why offer good pay?

I proposed a piece of theory that I developed earlier: trust is the most fundamental element in any professional relationship. In a trusting environment, staff and partners are selected based on their competence – because everyone, a priori, can be trusted. In a low-trust environment, trustworthiness trumps competence: I’d rather have someone do the job slowly to a low standard, rather than pay for a competent person to do nothing, or worse. And trustworthiness comes with personal connection, habit, long-established networks. Hence nepotism and guanxi plays, and hence a perception that, ultimately, who you know matters more than what you know.

Lack of trust extends outside of the workplace, to doctors, teachers, politicians and the media – none of these, according to my seat neighbour – and others who since had joined our conversation – would be trusted here. This is not just a China story. We should take it as a warning, but also see the need and opportunity: Australia has built a relatively high level of trust. What happened? Is it replicable? And is there something we can do to help Chinese businesses, groups or councils increase the level of trust, and – to some extent – mitigate the negative consequences of this situation?

I will be thinking about this question further – and would very much welcome your thoughts!

Trust, unilateral decisions and fait accompli.

I announced a series of posts on trust – here is the second. The setting hasn’t changed – we’re still in a bar on Qingdao Lu. This time I will focus on a recent interaction with a friend, to better understand how trust is grown, or eroded. The phenomenon I describe is minor, but I believe, on a very small scale, it represents very clearly what often happens on a larger scale – and therefore presents a very valuable case study.

Few days ago, I had lunch with a friend at the 32 Qingdao Lu café. We discussed a collaborative project, and I told him about my psychological difficulties in China, how I struggled with my energy levels, and what I learnt I should avoid – mostly loud environments and spaces that foster aggressive or competitive behaviour. I was happy to share this and receive support. I really value this friend, but a sense of alienation from him had been weighing on me. We mostly met in settings I was uncomfortable in, and so didn’t have a chance to connect at the level that matters to both of us. The lunch was productive: we clarified ideas and set goals. Then after lunch, we both focused on our respective tasks. I had planned – and announced – a long afternoon preparing for coming meetings in Beijing and Shanghai. He was going to proof-read a book.

I was quietly reading about online literature when, out of the blue, the friend announced he’d invited ‘that girl and her American friend’ to come join us. The goal was not for them to sit and proof-read with us. We’d previously chatted about flirting in straight and gay contexts, and mentioned ‘that girl’ then. I was annoyed. Not only did I have work to do: my energy still wasn’t very high – I had spent the previous afternoon locked in my room to recover some – and flirty straight environments neither energize nor comfort me. I superficially knew the two girls, I found it weird to sit at the next table and ignore them, probably wouldn’t much enjoy the type of interaction that was about to take place, so I packed up my stuff and left, annoyed at what just happened.

Today, I lost a small measure of trust in that friend. It’s not a big measure and repairing it shouldn’t be difficult. But this loss has a cost. It’s interfering with our prospects of collaboration. I like working with him, but if he drains my energy by generating environments I dislike and leave, then I might have to focus on more efficient partnerships – and avoid his invitations. It’s interfering more broadly with my other projects – should I look for another place to work and concentrate, if this café changed its vibe. And I have to think more about sharing information with him in the future – should I introduce him to the various environments or circles of contacts I am building here, or keep him out of the loop to maximize my own energy levels. In other words, it’s added a cognitive load for me, and might lose both of us opportunities.

I wrote before that ‘trust implies a belief that other people will not simply walk over you to push their own agenda without prior warning’. In that case, it’s precisely what didn’t happen – my friend invited two girls over, without consulting me, while knowing I had other plans and may not enjoy the sudden change from a work to social space. My friend imposed his own desire on our shared environment, with no regard for my desires or prior consultation.

This new plan was not presented as a possibility for me to discuss or approve, but a fait accompli – the girls had been invited and were on their way. It was too late, or too complex for my tired mind at the time, to negotiate an alternative. I could either submit or leave. In other words, what only minutes ago was a collaborative environment – two people exchanging ideas to reach a common goal – had suddenly changed nature. At some point in time, our shared space had become open to the first initiative. I didn’t make a move, and I lost the ground. But there had been no warning sign that the race was on.

Such behaviour is by no means rare. Many people may find it surprising I even noticed. What made me lose a measure of trust in this friend is the sudden, unilateral change I experienced from a collaborative to a competitive environment. I believe this is a crucial part of how trust is grown: by explicit disclosure of the rules that apply at any moment in a relationship, and in shared settings. Sudden shifts in these rules, cunning tricks, or simple disregard for unspoken conventions, may win battles and even wars – but they will not grow trust, nor the wealth of ideas, opportunities and material goods that, often, come along with higher levels of trust.

I don’t like noisy places – reflections on trust, mood, and sensivity.

Last night, I had a bad experience.

I discovered a great bar on Qingdao Lu, not far from where I live. I started going there every day, spending hours reading or talking to the barman. The place has been around for over 17 years, and is a favourite with local writers, artists and musicians. They play jazzy Chinese music from the 60s, the barman’s a painter, and the waitress is working on a novel.

Once I brought an Aussie friend here. He found out the room upstairs had a KTV machine, and organised a singing party last night. I was glad: I’d brought these wonderful people new customers, and found my friend a nice venue for his party. Connecting people has always been one of my greatest joys.

The singing party started very nicely: friendly conversations, most of them in Chinese, some light singing, and a civilised mood. Then another crowd arrived: a Chinese girl dressed in a leopard print dress and pink shoes, and her stern long-haired friend. They spoke English only – showing no concern for those in our group who didn’t understand it well. They selected vulgar pop songs. And they messed up the sound system, pushing up the volume and upsetting the balance.

The warm local jazzy vibe was gone, replaced by the blaring atmosphere of expat bars and night-clubs. Conversations were lost among ‘I can’t hear you’s’. My brain was cluttered by a mild competitive tension in the air, the very loud music, and the bad singing of long-hair side-kick. Deciding the mood was never coming back, I picked up my hat, and left, angered and disappointed by that sudden turn of events.

Since I fled that obnoxious party, I’ve been feeling a deep sense of melancholy. This bar had become a replacement home here in Nanjing, and the people in the crowd are some of my closest friends. This should have been the safe space where I can relax and I enjoy – instead, it brought me profound discomfort, and only the mildest mitigation. No wonder I feel sad: I find myself homeless and friendless now. I’m mourning.

Of course, this is all the result of high natural sensitivity. Some of it will pass. But the feeling of pain last night, and sadness today, are nonetheless real. I did experience physical aggression on my ears. I did experience a clear shift from a safe supportive space to competitive indifference. And I’ve lost a measure of trust in the people who were there with me.

Lack of trust has been a recurring focus of my reflections during this trip – and I will write more about the question. I think this recent emotional experience is a good place to start. I said I lost a measure of trust in the people who were there with me last night. Trust, at one level, is the belief that a person has a clear intention to minimize your pain and maximize your well-being, in the short and long run. In other words, trust implies a belief that other people will not simply walk over you to push their own agenda without prior warning. Trust implies a sense of shared interest – whereby maintaining the relationship matters more than satisfying the desires, passions or appetites of the parties present.

Why did I lose trust last night? I was enjoying myself, when the panther lady changed important elements – the language in the group, the type of music played, the sound intensity – without any prior consultation. I changed behaviour – became passive – then I expressed discomfort – no solution was offered. The place had become hostile. Therefore I left.

I hear the butch voices that say ‘don’t be so soft’ or ‘why do you care so much’. Everyone fight for themselves and the loudest roar will take the prize – fine, I can roar as loud as anyone – but if I have to roar, and fight back – what energy remains to meet and connect people, advise friends, build networks? And why should I bother, if the result is I just to build uncomfortable settings for myself? In other words, I believe that competitive behaviours, authoritarian decisions and loud environments will result in a loss. The sensitive ones – who may well be the smart ones and the caring ones too – the ones that bring people together and make them joyful – these will walk away.

The feeling doesn’t really matter. I’m solid, and I’ll smile again soon. What worries me more is how much got eroded last night – how long before it grows back. And more importantly, how much is eroded every day by similar blunt attitudes and environments.

So there it is, the cause for my sadness: I mourn the things that might have been last night, the connections not made, the tender discussions not had, all that got lost in the noise, trampled under pink shoes and the vulgar swinging of a leopard-print dress. The projects aborted. And that layer of trust I lost.

Good students, heritage speakers and adventurers: a typology of advanced Mandarin learners

I’ve been learning Chinese for about five years now, and I’ve become reasonably fluent in the language. But I walked along an atypical path: I studied by myself or with language partners for most of the journey – never followed a curriculum, never had recurring mistakes identified and corrected. I’m not alone though. The path leading to Chinese fluency – or indeed, fluency in any language – varies greatly from one advanced learner to another, and at some stages at least, most advanced learners have studied or practiced outside institutions.

Nanjing University runs a placement test for all its international students, but then has the great intelligence to let people switch around classes for two weeks until they find an appropriate one. My early days were focused on choosing the right level and teaching style – and part of the process involved observing other students, to see where I fitted. This is how I developed a typology for Chinese learners in advanced classes – building on my previous discussions with fellow sinophiles.

The first is the good student: European-American or East Asian, she majors in Chinese at university, or studied through school and still takes a formal language classes. She’s got an extensive knowledge of characters and a wide vocabulary, she can write characters by hand, knows about chengyus, and often read classic texts. But she’s young, and brings a ‘student attitude’ to class – passive expectations and exam stress. And if her Mandarin skills are high, especially reading and writing, she may not have spent a lot of time interacting with Chinese people, and therefore lacks confidence when speaking or expressing an opinion.

Heritage speakers form a second group. They speak Hokkien, Cantonese, or some other dialect at home – even Mandarin sometimes. They identify as Chinese, like Chinese pop culture and practice the language watching films or singing KTV. Most of them attended Sunday Chinese school in their childhood, and picked up some extra skills on trips to their families. They can understand almost everything, and speak semi-fluently, sometimes with a strong accent. But they struggle with characters, if they can read them at all. The tech-savvy ones you recognise easily: they spend half the class bent over their phone or ipad, using pleco to convert hanzis into pinyin and vice-versa.

The final group is made up of ‘adventurers’: these people came to China with little or no language skills, on a scholarship, international internship, or just on a whim. There they met people, got a job, fell in love – and along the way, they picked up some language skills. Or they have Chinese friends at home, even a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend, and learnt a number of characters on the go. They can speak and listen reasonably well, though tones are probably quite messy. Some can read, even quite well; few can hand-write. They bring high levels of self-motivation and confidence, but make numerous mistakes, and have multiple holes to fill, including basic structures.

These three groups have different learning needs and learning styles; yet they come together in advanced classes, where teachers don’t make much effort – if any – to specifically develop activities targeting the strengths and weaknesses of each group. I say – what a wasted opportunity. So I would like to start thinking of ways that differentiated learning could increase the results of advanced learner classes, and find ways for students in each of these groups to best improve their own language skills, and help other students by reflecting on their Mandarin journey.

Any tips or suggestion – please write a note in the comment section!