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.

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.


When I ask people how they’re doing – especially work colleagues, but others too – many reply “busy”. I never quite understood what the word meant, but for a long while, I assumed it was an actual description of their objective circumstances: so many demands on their time that they cannot stop to think, more work than any human could possibly handle, various pressures, etc. And I developed a certain guilt, because I so rarely feel “busy” – never for more than a few hours anyway. I am a perpetual slacker, who lets others take the burden and goes off on a stroll? Should I make myself more busy?

Yesterday, at a friend’s birthday party, I heard the ‘b’ word mentioned again from another work colleague I don’t know very much. I decided it was time to ask, and I did “what does busy mean, I’ve never actually understood the word.” She had an interesting answer “when you’ve got so much to do that you don’t have time to answer emails, and feel a bit dizzy.” “Oh, I’ve never been in that state, or at least never for more than two or three hours.” She called me lucky – slightly peeved, or jealous? And left.

I reflected. When I was in high school, and then in preparatory class, I always finished my essays and assignments on time, even a day early. I may have been the only one. People saw me as a strange oddity. The feeling was mutual. We had three weeks to finish a paper, the paper took between 15 and 20 hours to finish. Surely, the right time to start was not the evening before. Yet half the class did, and a good third only got to it a few days in advance. I could see that I was the odd one out, and yet I thought – if you started on time, you wouldn’t rush at the end.

I’ve now realised it’s the same with ‘busy’. Surely these ‘busy’ people are in the state not because they do more than me, but because they live with a backlog of things to do – just like people (the same busy people?) live with a constant negative credit balance, and only use their income to pay off their debt. But when they finish something, they don’t do some extra time to scale down their backlog, they just mop around. New deadlines arrive, and pile up. So that’s what ‘busy’ means: I have a debt of things to do that’s running after me, yet I never get on to it. I over-committed in the past, and never took the pain to renegociate my load. People are waiting for me to do things, and I’m holding them back.

But it’s not only that. “Busy” people will make you believe (maybe they actually believe) that holding back others makes them important. There’s a dark side to ‘busy’ people, so let’s be suspicious of them – and let’s not pity them too much. Let’s laugh at their scuttling around; and if something’s important, let’s keep the “busy” people away from it.