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.

On the writer as a project manager

In my Linkedin header, I identify as a writer and educator. I never studied business, or anything resembling business – yet over the past ten years or so, I realised I have done a pretty decent job at project management. Though the skills required are not exceptionally original, I certainly saw that not everybody did well at it. I’ve reflected quite a bit on this unexpected skill, and came to realise that project managers and writers have a lot in common.

1) Situation A to situation B

A fiction plot takes a protagonist, or a set of characters, from situation A to situation B. That is exactly what project management is about: where are we at, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?

2) Who’s doing what?

The most central element of project planning is breaking down a big vision into a set of tasks, and assigning them to different people, trying to match task with character. This is what writers also do. And as for communication, writers have to figure out not just action and characters, but also voice and point of view: at all times, be very clear who’s doing what, what they know, what they see, and how they would describe whatever is happening.

3) Writing is a skills

Project management requires producing a large number documents – beside the project plan itself, there is web-copy, collaterals, team briefings, minutes, and endless emails and text messages. Writers are, generally, rather good at writing. And we make a pretty decent job of producing all of these business documents. Generally, we even manage to get our point across rather well.

What should we get from this? 

Teams and businesses are often looking for an ‘admin’ person, or a ‘business manager’. The best match may very well be a writer, someone who will listen to the story, and turn that into clear, structured written material. So if you’re looking for a new staff member to support project management, admin and strategic support – get a writer in there.


Corona thoughts – uncertainty

Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.

The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.

For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?

Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and  generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.

On pedestrian traffic

On my way to the train station, I bumped into someone. I was in the Collins 231 Arcade, heading out towards Collins Street past the Dymocks Bookstore pit. There were two women walking ahead, at a slow pace. I went for a left side overtake just as one of them also swerved to the left, and I crashed into her jutting handbag. Her arm rose up in reflex, look of shock, vague apology, then both of resumed our walk on misaligned rhtyhms.

I take the shortcut through Collins 231 every time I go to Flinders Street Station. The back streets and alleys, Howey Place, Manchester Lane, Degraves Street, are more pleasant than crowded Swanston Street. They’re also more narrow, and traffic is more susceptible to the speed of other pedestrians.

Sidewalks have ambiguous status. People walk along them, alone or in small groups, going somewhere or wandering, at very different speeds. The fast walker faces all sorts of obstacles on their way: trees, terraces, kiosks; queues, window-shoppers, buskers and their audience; two-way traffic with no rules of priority; groups of gaping tourists, or couples leisurely strolling abreast of each other, with half a person’s empty space between them.

I often overtake. When the crowd is too dense, I walk on the road. Walking unimpeded brings a fundamental feeling of freedom that I’m not ready to give up. Others may see freedom as the right to walk slowly, stand on the sidewalk, or carry their extensive personal space with them even in dense urban centres.

We could all have it our way if there was just a bit more space. In fact, to the eye, there is; but hey – this beautiful broad stretch of road in the middle of the street, it’s not ours to use. Cars need their space too, don’t they.

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants must catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.

On discharges

Elias Canetti’s Mass and Power may be the most insightful book ever written on collective dynamics. In the opening chapters, he describes how individuals, who show a natural tendency to avoid each other, come together to form what he calls ‘masses’.

“The most important process that occurs within a mass is discharge,” Canetti writes. “Before it occurs, the mass does not exist properly; only the discharge really constitutes it. Discharge is the moment when all those who belong to the mass get rid of their differences and feel equal.”

Our societies are intricate webs of differences, classes, ethnicities, customs, accents. Each of us has integrated gestures and phrases that assert our individual stance, and keep us distinct from others. These very distinctions determine our unique position and limit our freedom. They restrict our capacity to move anywhere, anytime, forming new connections at will. They weigh upon us.

The emotional moment of collective discharge that occurs in a mass blows away such limiting distinctions, and for a moment, redefines all participants as equals. For a moment, everything seems possible. This might occur during concerts, political demonstrations, religious ceremonies, or more banal rituals of collective production and consumption.

The relief experienced is high. These are desirable experiences. The danger, however, is that masses are inherently unstable. They break down easily, leaving a fleeting sense of loss behind them. Unless the one thing happens that will prevent their dissolution: to grow, to grow, to grow.


On skipping a beat

At seventeen, I started singing in choirs, and continued until I was twenty-five. In a choir, individual voices only contribute if they blend harmoniously with others, in pitch, colour, and rhythm. It has been a precious school of humility.

It has been a school of pragmatism as well. I have a high tenor voice, and was able on its account to get into better and better choirs, eventually singing alongside professionals in the making. But I’m not a good sight reader. At early rehearsals, I would often get lost. There, I learnt an important lesson. When you lose track, the worst possible attitude is to follow your own skewed rhythm. Collective activities have a cyclical nature. Stop, look for the right moment, and jump back in.

Through practice, I integrated this. I could stop anytime I needed, without compromising the whole edifice. Skip a beat, and get on with the music. My focus should not be so much on never making a mistake, but on rejoining the group with minimal disturbance. Different skill, different mindset.

Earlier this week, I got out of sync with my writing. After a late dinner, I postponed editing and publishing to the following day. This continued, with a nagging sense that I should catch up, do double load. Yesterday, rather than edit and share my Friday reflection, I caught myself writing two new pages in my notebook, and publishing nothing. Something was wrong.

I reverted to choral wisdom. I tripped, and must give up on strict dailiness. No need for shame and self-doubt, think about it pragmatically. Time passes, people move on. Rather than stick to my new skewed rhythm, and jar with dynamics around me, I stopped, I breathed, I jump again. Back in the beat.


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.