Looking back at my 35 year old self – #4

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [I wrote this section in French – and translated it afterwards]. 

17 december

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

***

Three years ago, after coming back from China, I found myself crying after a dinner with colleagues, terrified by their laziness and dumbness. So, I shouldn’t feel sad not to work there anymore. It is probably unjust that, as I work and do more, I am paid so much less than I used to be – but the happiness I’m finding replaces what I used to derived from a salary. 

I was thinking, on the way back from the cinema, that I never really looked to get materially richer – but wished to offer my family the glory that comes from fulfilling your duty, social concerns, or cultural success. As I read the Brothers Karamazov, I was fascinated by the character of Aliocha – whom I later heard being described as an idiot. I have aspired, for a long time, to a certain naivety – irony, can one aspire to naivety? Telling myself that money would come somehow. 

And that may be through love: my father, or Philip, will support me if things go badly. And when I’m old, will people still love me then? Bah, maybe, and if not, well, I can still derive happiness from looking back at the beautiful things I did. 

But then, the hard part is succeeding in those. I was thinking today about ambition – and I am ambitious, for sure – and what people call success. ‘What did you achieve’, someone could ask, but the answer, as Alain used to teach, depends on perspective. For some I have known here, shagging sexy Chinese women counts as an ‘achievement’. For me, it’s  about deepening married love. One is not necessarily more noble or better than the other. In the same way, linguistically, I have not succeeded in ‘passing’ an exam – but the dice were skewed from the start, since I was responsible for assessing my own level. 

That’s the difficulty where I find myself, but also the freedom I gave myself: I operate in a world where I define the criteria for success. And I believe that, since I passed the competitive exam for Ecole Normale, then agregation – having succeeed at the most difficult competitive exams of the country where I grew up – but then, becoming a bit vague and lost as to what I wanted to do – and finally, deciding to migrate, convert, start a completely new initiative. Am I succeeding, or is it that, since I did not defend my PhD, I am fleeing away from academic failure? 

One thing is clear at least, which I remember very clearly: that I used to envy Alexis, at times, for daring the career he chose; and that I envied Alain that he lived off his scripts, more than I ever envied anyone at the Sorbonne, teaching at Henri IV, or directing a department at ENS. Creative freedom, that is what I have aspired too for a long time. And I shouldn’t, therefore, count as a failure that I have been touching to it these days, quite the contrary. 

Of course, it’s difficult. There is the difficulty of being paid little, and the frustration that comes with that. There is the difficulty of having little money to pay anyone I might need for help. There is complete uncertainty towards the future. And then there is, more radically, the difficulty of freedom, this fear not to be on the right road, because there is no road, because there are only the possible paths on the ocean, and new islands to discover. 

Values cards project – Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On soft and hard skills

At the age of sixteen, when I decided to go for an arts, languages and literature stream in high school, I knew what I got myself into. I was a confident child, and told fellow students opting for safer business, maths and science options: ‘You can have a great career in arts and literature, as long as you’re excellent.’

This perceived need for excellence aligned with my understanding of job opportunities: writing, publishing, academia or the media were desirable; high school teaching was an OK fallback. Nothing else.

Last week, a friend from France  posted a list of the ’25 skills that can get you hired in 2016′. He had none of them, he joked, and so should stay independent – he runs a small publishing house. The list included coding, algorithm design and IT systems management. Virtual marketing, business intelligence and corporate governance appeared in between.

Today, another friend circulated a list of ‘the 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The picture was very different. Complex problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence: these are the very skills I learnt through long hours of history, classics and philosophy. What a strange cognitive dissonance though. You need soft skills to thrive in the current Industrial Revolution, but they won’t give you a job. Hard skills drive employability.

Luckily, like my publisher friend, I’m not actively looking for ‘a position’ right now. Still, I wonder. Do recruiters really believe that an algorithm designer is by default emotionally intelligence, or can pick it up along with people management over a few PD sessions, but an emotionally intelligent critical thinker couldn’t possibly put an algorithm together once they become part of a team, even with a bit of training? Or should I simply understand that the best way to thrive is not to get a job.