Designing for love

1

I’m on top of Bellevue Hill, in Sydney. I’m looking for the perfect spot to sit and watch the harbour. There’s a young woman nearby. She’s in a good spot. It looks like the best spot. I’m annoyed. I’ll have to wait for her to stand up and leave. So that I can take her seat.  

Melbourne has more distributed beauty. It’s a grid on a swamp, with wide avenues and a few creeks. Bridges are functional, theatres part of our urban fabric. Instead of exclusive vantage points, it’s full of hollow spaces, generously sized. In most places, just a few more people would make things even better. It is, in other words, a city designed for love. 

2

When the pandemic hit, AirBNB chose to let people go. ‘Fair enough’, you might say, financial constraints, etc. Yet they treated staff like family, using emotional bonding for productivity. People there lost more than a job.  

What is it like, when your ‘family’ treats you as expendable? I wonder if those laid-off staff saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and what kind of revenge they’re planning. 

3

In many languages, the mode of address depends on the relationship. In French, it’s the difference between polite and formal address, ‘tu’ or ‘vous’. Most languages have similar complexities. This feature has a radical implication. I’m not the same person in all contexts.

4

In our late capitalist world, companies and industry sectors have taken on the function of kin relationships, for members of the middle class at least. You’re a lawyer, an accountant, a teacher. This defines a set of expected behaviours, values, and relationships. It’s an identity.

5

Kierkegaard warns against the risk of living sub specie eternitatis:give in to the sirens of abstraction, and let existence pass by. I try to live in the first person. Which often leaves me confused. So many people refer to ‘the mainstream’, ‘general opinion’, or otherwise agreed rankings, with perfect assurance. I find it hard enough to know the shape of my own brain.

6

‘So, what do you do?’ I’ve always dreaded that question. I listen to people with complex ideas. I help them clarify their vision. I edit their texts. This is my craft and function. Expressing it is not that hard. But the system is diffuse. It’s a bunch of emerging projects. And that confuses people.

On the surface, the question is about craft or function. But often, it’s in fact about the surrounding system. Not what you do, but where you work. What collective is your primary place of professional belonging. What collective outcomes you support.   

For many people, there’s a simple overlap. My partner is head of English at Kilvington Grammar school. Function, location. Doctors, nurses, childcare workers, product designers, developers, project managers, hairdressers, lawyers, salespeople, and a whole lot of others are able to give similarly straightforward answers. They’ve got a recognizable function, within a recognizable collective – school, hospital, company, shop, or salon.

Not so for me. It’s often awkward, but it’s good for the brain too. For a while, I was coaching young business students. When they shared hesitation about their career direction – they all did – I would ask them an either/or question, variation of the following. ‘Would you rather work as accountant for a film production company, or in-house media for PWC?’ They studied business, and it was the first time anyone asked them the question. 

7

The good story matches plot with character. This is also the core of Ignatian spirituality. It’s virtue, leadership, ikigai. It’s all about telos. How will your existence manifest humanity?

For this, stories have the greatest importance. We learn from characters, never direct experience. Without the frameworks offered by stories, how could we discern any coherence in the shapeless chaos of ‘real life’?

All of us are immersed in storytelling, constantly. This is the fabric of our common morality. This is also where we can build character. By attentional effort, we choose a balance of stories, and through this, we shape the world we live in. Sometimes, we do this deliberately.

8

Are we, humans, like tigers, eagles, and killer whales, an apex predator ruling over our element? Or like chimpanzee, parrots and octopus, both predator and prey, capable yet vulnerable, somewhere in-between?

From cancel to propel culture

Moses Naim, in his book The End of Power, describes a contemporary phenomenon he calls ‘the Gulliver Effect’. In the contemporary landscape of power, a large number of small actors have the possibility to prevent all sorts of things from happening – but there is no actor powerful enough to take resolute action.

I’ve come to understand ‘cancel culture’ as one component of the Gulliver Effect. It may rightly be seen as the downtrodden rising up against oppression, using the tools at their disposal for justice, speaking truth to power. This may well offer a needed emotional outlet to some who deserve it, and rightly condemn abuses of power. Yet the effect is not generalized empowerment, or a greater capacity to coordinate change.

Anger is a consuming passion. Cancelling mobs have a fascinating power. All eyes are glued on social media. Making those channels prime real estate for advertisement. And so, with every cancel storm, shareholders cash in. Behind the shouts of popular anger, can you hear the background chuckle of Zuckerberg, pension funds managers and wealthy boomers. 

It’s not just about money flows: it’s energy spent. It takes effort, and time, to organize a social movement, articulate an alternative worldview, or build a work of art. Anger will drain much of that energy. And then, to soothe the angst, we spend our cash on Uber Eats and Netflix subscriptions. Besides, polarised minds are ill-prepared for the creative efforts of inventing a new world. It’s too much complexity to hold. So, by leaning into the anger, we may well leave a wide empty playing field for large corporates. Once again, I can hear the chuckle of Sillicon Valley tycoons and wealthy boomers in the background.  

So here is a proposal, to counter the Gulliver effect. What if we were to deliberately stop engaging in those anger games, engineered to the benefit of wealthy boomers and billionaires. What if we were to use that energy to create new worlds instead? Easier said than done – well, here is a possible first step. What if, instead of ‘cancel culture’, we were to build a ‘propel’ culture. What if we were to use our brains and hearts and bodies not to destroy what we hate and despise, but praise and uplift what we love and admire?   

This is – in fact – what I propose to do over the coming months or so. Shift the tone to gratitude, identify people I admire, projects I find promising, books and ideas I find inspiring and admirable – and articulate what it is about them that I like. As an act of resistance against engineered malaise.

Never reward blind effort

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

When I taught English at University, back in France, we would have a meeting at the end of each term to discuss borderline students. ‘Oh, but they’re working really hard’, one of my colleagues would say, to justify lifting the mark. And I would reply ‘Well, if they’re working hard and that’s the result, all the more reason to fail them.’

Embarrassed laughter, and the mark would eventually be lifted. Yet I made my point seriously. Is it ethical to reward effort, irrespective of consequences? Or should we fight our bias towards action, and properly value the art of doing nothing, and feeling satisfied by it?

By contrast, when I was working in government policy, I once heard a precious piece of wisdom from a colleague. ‘When you’re doing work,’ they said, ‘there’s three types of things you can achieve. You can contribute to the goal. You can sit and do nothing. Or you can flap around and stand in the way. So, if you think maybe you’re not able to contribute, better go surf the web.’

Should we be fully rational, encourage doing nothing, and punish misdirected effort? At least, this might help us shift our collective mindset, and better appreciate the worth of anything that saves energy.

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.

 

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #11

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.

25 december

I’m obstinate. Tonight, I wanted to watch the first episode of Glee, season 4. The internet was horrible, I had to restart and reconnect dozens of time – but I did it, and I watched it. Today, I decided I would explore the centre of Changsha – and I did. One time, I lost half of a novel I had written. I wrote it again. I have this quality in me, this tenacity, that I will just go and redo as many times as needs to when I have decided something. I think it’s what has led me so far. I may not always decide to do something – I reserve my energy and my decisions for what’s important. But when it’s decided, I do not let go. I decided that I would stand up to X and I did. As I did to Y. I decided I would bounce back after not defending my PhD, and I did.

I have this extreme focused pugnacity. I should know to rely on this more, and take that as a reassurance: if I want it, I will do everything I can for it to happen. But the question is, do I really want it?

On goal setting

There is a structural weakness to goal setting practices. For if you can articulate a goal from the start, then go through the motions, and hit the mark, you’re probably using a borrowed framework. You’re playing someone else’s game.

Sure, you might win, with luck and discipline. Like there’s always a winning horse in a race. But that’s not my gig. Instead, I try acting first, clumsily, messing with the concrete –  hoping the goal will reveal itself afterwards, retrospectively. I find it more human.

Corona thoughts – on risk-taking and courage

When I attended the Asialink Leadership program in 2012, I had one important self-discovery: that I was able and willing to operate in very uncertain environments, with no clear short-term reward in sight. What, in career terms, is known as ‘taking risks’. And that it was not the norm.

It came as a surprise. I had been working almost exclusively for the public sector, this program was my first opportunity to spend significant time with ‘people in business’: I had always thought they were the bold ones, and I was meek. Not so: as it turned, they were extremely risk-averse, and their professional life was one of very limited freedom.

Later, I started evolving around start-up and innovation circles. Now, ‘risk appetite’ was hailed as an essential quality: fail often, fail fast, fail forward. I fit in better, but started experiencing myself as too cautious for my way to deal with risk. I would carefully consider options before moving forward, try and assess risk, and only then move ahead – often saying ‘this might go bad, but it might not: let’s do it’. I went against the grain. By default, risk taking came with denial. It seemed impossible to know the risks, acknowledge them, and still go ahead. As if courage would never manifest.

As Covid-19 strikes, our perception of risk might change very deeply.

I originally drafted this note when reading Naomi Klein’s This changes everything, where she follows intricacies of environmental damage and its ethical and political implications. In this field and context, risk-aversion becomes a desirable trait. It may be worth stopping the oil rig before we trigger disastrous chain reactions for an ecosystem – or the whole planet, even if we’re not entirely certain how big the risk is. Just as it is desirable to stop a pandemic early, and for that, know that things might go bad, quickly.

As these various messages about risk fritter in my mind, I have started to wonder if our common language is not confusing two different types of risk: the willingness to lose personal comfort and safety for personal gain, and the willingness to sacrifice the comfort and safety of others. Many entrepreneurs are willing to take personal risks – re-mortgaging their house to fund a new venture, or take on high levels of personal debt – but may neglect to consider how their decisions, if they fail, could harm others. While corporate actors, some of them, are willing to jeopardize the future of the planet to protect their own personal sense of safety. As for public servants, and politicians, they would rather avoid all risks, personal and common. But they face budget limits in how much risk prevention is possible – and often end up developing costly process to reduce the short-term risk of embarrassment, and leave themselves and us exposed to the more unlikely – yet more serious – devastating catastrophes that fall just outside of their remit.

And so, we might ask: is it wise to dig a well of debt, and curb our civil liberties, to tackle what is no longer a risk but a present emergency? Is it indeed serving our interests? Or should we rather, today, focus instead on preventing greater harm in a more distant future? But to do this, we must be willing to see the risk, and make a considered decision through courage and determination, not a rush of panic.

On Wrath

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Late on Tuesday, I found myself looking at Facebook. A friend had shared an article on a new proposal from our immigration minister, to give white South African farmers exposed to violence at home a fast-track to an Australian visa. The same minister had previously opposed increasing visa numbers because of the burden on Australia’s welfare system and the risk to Australia’s jobs. At 11h30, I shared the piece on Facebook with a flaming quote: “For a moment, I thought that our present government had something against refugees, and I felt ethically challenged. But as it turns out, I was wrong this whole time – they’ve got nothing against refugees, just brown people. Now that’s a government I can proudly stand behind!” At 1am, I still couldn’t sleep – I was excited by my act of righteous boldness, curious to see reactions, ready to go and overthrow the government. What happened in the end? Nothing more than a few likes and comments – I deprived myself of time I could have used more productively, literally burning it in the fires of wrath.

My first long piece of writing explored wrath: it was a verse tragedy called The Sirens about the death of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles. The Illiad is the a cornerstone of the Western canon. Achilles, Greece’s foremost warrior, incensed by some internal slight with another general, is overtaken by wrath and refuses to fight. His lover Patroclus goes in his stead and is killed on the battlefield ,shifting Achilles wrath against the Trojans. The version I wrote opens and closes with Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, and her choir of sirens, calling her son to rejoin her in the shapeless ocean. At the beginning, Achilles, tired of the war, dreams of dissolving back into the maternal waters with his lover. The guile of Greek generals sends Patroclus to the battlefield – he’s not the son of a Goddess, and could only stand on equal footing with demi-God Achilles through the glory of heroic battle. The death of Patroclus prompts a change in Achilles: the only way that he now can unite with his lover is by rejecting murky death by water, and instead, join him on the funreal pyre of heroes.

Wrath is the fiery twin of depression. It is a form of moral perfectionism, an allergy to the corrupt world. It is a mask of strength hiding internal weakness. It is not a last resort resistance to evil, but violence let loose. Wrath is possession: alienated freedom. And so wrath is always a form of self-destruction. Every time we give in to wrath, we reproduce on a small scale the acts of a suicide bomber.

But wait – I hear you say – is not God himself wrathful? Here may be the crux of it. In wrath, all human doubt and frailty vanishes. We know what is right, and if we just let the powers of wrath take possession of our bodies and souls, we feel that we could bring order to the world. Is this not a sacrifice worth making? So wrath is ultimate temptation, inviting us to be like God: the most harmful and seductive form of hybris.

On Greed

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

As I read through the notes I took for this post over the past two weeks, this is what I noticed. There is a lot about the current state of the world, capitalism, economic systems, theory, change. Nothing about myself. Lust evoked shame – greed, abstraction and righteousness.

I could write pages about the systemic greed of our society. Capitalism, consumer culture, negative externalities. Reagan, Thatcher, Trump. Boomers in McMansions, SUVs and cruise-ships, burning away gas, oil and coal, destroying ecosystems for their immediate enjoyment. No fair go for future generations. I could write about the people who produced and promoted single-use plastic bags and forks and cups – disposable pens, razors, printers – and the piles of waste that their fortune was built on. I could mention the start-up world, where success begins at 9 zeros. The slave merchants of past centuries. Colonists over the globe, destroying cultures and land everywhere. All this unpunished, for greed.

I could write about this conversation, last year, on a Facebook thread with a guy contending that ‘everyone’ should put aside four million dollars for retirement: that’s how much you need to secure adequate returns, and you couldn’t possibly start eating up your capital, because what if you lived up to 100? I could reflect on greed as a sin of old age, often based in fear. Then I could look for causal chains, how individualism, consumerism and the loss of intergenerational solidarity nurtures greed. If all incentives are for each of us to look after themselves, the result is irrational collective behaviour, Tragedy of the Commons, and its pending catastrophe.

I could write more about all of this, but would I understand anything about greed as a sin? What if, instead, I wrote about myself. How I live a very comfortable life in a very wealthy country, yet hardly give anything to charity, and only part with money for my own future self through super – and even then, with difficulty. How I know very well that animal farming and large-scale fishing are wrecking our environment, yet struggle to wean myself off meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. How I pass by homeless people every day, yet would rather spend my dollars on cakes and coffee for myself than share it with them.

I do try to moderate my appetite – because I know greed to be dangerous, and because I see the connection between simpler needs and more freedom. But as soon as I got a larger income, a few years back, I started upgrading. The better jam, the better yoghurt, the better peanut butter. The box of fresh vegetables and fruit delivered once a week. The regular coffee outside. The books bought online, rather than borrowed from the library. And when I needed to travel, ubers and taxis, my own airBNB, and the better airline. Because I was working hard, and therefore should be compensated with greater comfort.

Greed is about refusing death, greed is about infinite growth, greed is about placing the self above others. But greed is also that insidious voice in our head, whispering ‘you’re worth it’, and hoarding objects in our cupboards, cash in our bank accounts, consumable experiences in our memories – and piles of waste all over the place.

 

On reducing noise

I profoundly dislike the word busy. It conjures up images of scared chickens aimlessly running around the garden. “Busy’s just a polite way to say disorganised,” I often quip. Beside, since I imbibed Seneca’s On the brevity of life in year 12, I would not want to be caught dead describing myself as “busy”.

That being said, I like to be productive and engaged in multiple activities. Sometimes, deadlines overlap. I have identified that I can comfortably juggle three key areas of focus, but start bugging if the number goes beyond three. I have – also – learnt how to deal with this limitation. When too many things pile up, see whether one can be completed soon, and tackle it first. Reduce the noise.

I had to do that today. I am confirming my PhD next Wednesday; the following day, I’m flying to Sweden, and need to present a full proposal for my new role on the Monday. Meanwhile, I have to organise meetings and accommodation in Europe and Asia, and deal with the many little administrative tasks that pop up when you start a new job, ask for leave from a course of study, or travel internationally. Did I mention a podcast session yesterday, a Hackathon tomorrow, and a prototype language peer-learning event next week? Oof!

That was all too much for my little brain. And when it saturates, creativity reduces. So, this afternoon, I ticked off the PhD box, and took advantage of the brain fritter to tackle my admin and email backlog. Tomorrow, I’ll be guided by somebody through the steps of a Hackathon, recharge my extraverted energy, and on Wednesday, I’ll have only three things to focus on. Problem solved, back to manageable.