Marco Polo Project – loneliness, entrepreneurship

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

It’s a warm late afternoon of mid-January. I’m walking along the Yarra river, down from Crown Casino. I’ve lived in Australia for about a month, and I’m heading to dinner with friends of my partner. I don’t feel very connected with those people. There’s a certain cliquey narrow-mindedness, an emotional cool, that puts me off. My people are back home. I’ve got no one in Melbourne. The sadness rises inside my chest. There’s an Indian guy sitting on the steps, in the warm evening sunlight. He smiles to himself. For a moment, I start to fantasize. Maybe this guy will be my friend. The movie plays in my head. He stands up, our eyes meet, there’s a nod of recognition. Do you feel out of place here too? We smile, we laugh, we head off on a walk. I call my partner ‘hey, I won’t be going to that dinner tonight, I’m eating out with my new friend’. Indian guy stands up, but he doesn’t smile, or look my way. He walks straight inside the casino. And the fantasy comes to an end.

Migration is an exercise in loneliness. Friends and support networks are distant. Things don’t make sense. Well-meaning locals try to support you, but their emotional language doesn’t translate. That loneliness is professional too. Native cultural capital has no currency. The daily rules and routines of work are confusing. Jokes and allusions fall flat.

Migration is hard, for sure. It’s also liberating, like a jump into the unknown. You shed old rules and models, and you figure out new ones. A friend of mine likes to use the word ‘migrapreneur’ – he couldn’t find an engineering job, and made himself a gig advocating migrant entrepreneurship. I can relate. Since I had to learn new codes, I thought, I might as well go wild, and build something new, and crazy. Building an organization to better engage with China is how I tried to make sense of living in Australia. 

It paid off. I met new friends directly through Marco Polo Project, and many more indirectly. Running that organization took me to cool co-working spaces, endless networking events, and Nanjing on a scholarship. I presented at the Shanghai Maker’s fair in 2013 with an Italian designer who was on the committee for Shanghai’s maker space Xin Chejian. Then I got introduced to the founder of the first co-working space in Guangzhou. I contributed to trendy digital magazines in Australia and China, met a prospective PhD supervisor through those channels, and then got a scholarship. My research itself involved a range of interviews with people I met around the world through Marco Polo Project. Meanwhile, I gathered a number of the cool people I met through Marco Polo Project to join in the 2015 China Australia Millennial Project forum in Sydney. Through that gig, I got invited to join the THNK leadership program in Amsterdam, and later recruited to the Global Challenges Foundation in Stockholm. Good pick: for one of their publications, I was able to organize an interview with the Wunderkind of Chinese sci-fi Liu Cixin, through Marco Polo contacts. Eventually, I got awarded a Multicultural Honour Roll listing in Melbourne, and the title of New Australian of the Year. So, yes, the work certainly paid off.

I did what I could to give back. My experience of loneliness is not unique. Could Marco Polo Project somehow contribute to reducing the edge? Our events have brought people together, and offered them a chance to make meaning of their own lives and surroundings. Translation Club has birthed and cemented new multicultural friendships. Our interns have gotten jobs after supporting us. And people around the world, partners and supporters working on similarly whacky projects, got a little kick of ‘why not continue’ by watching us do what we do.

All this surely spells a success story. Yet the story comes with limits. How do you migrate well, if you don’t create a China-focused organization? I don’t have a clue. What I did requires a certain frame of mind, and a certain level of financial comfort as well – savings and a supportive partner with a full-time job. Not to mention, a lot of public resources went into my French education. I do my best to make the most of what I have been given, and it’s probably worthy, but it’s not easily replicable at scale. So, my capacity to serve as an example, or even empathise directly with the challenges of migrants, remains limited. It’s tempting to play role model, but as an outlier, I’m not sure that I qualify.  

Marco Polo Project – Follow the creative impulse

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

Marco Polo Project was born in Tianjin, on a beautiful night of insomnia, in December 2010.

Earlier that year, I passed the second level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, and received a scholarship to spend three weeks in Tianjin. It was my first time attending formal education in Chinese. On day one, I learned that Chinese people like dragons and the colour red.

Back then, I was working for the Victorian State, exploring e-government. Wikis, open data, gamified tools for bug reporting were the next stage in citizen engagement and service delivery. My partner had a blog, documenting daily projects, with fans in the US and invitations to Writers’ Festivals. I was excited by the possibilities offered by the Internet to share stories, ideas and practices around the world – create some sort of new cosmopolitan identity, and collaborative abundance. Those were the glory days of the sharing economy, when Facebook was about friends, Google about knowledge, and a different type of world seemed possible. I was also fascinated by the discourses of a burgeoning ‘online China’ that my language skills were still too limited to let me access. What was happening there? I wanted to know, but my classroom experience gave me no clue.

That night, in the hotel attached to Tianjin Normal University, right next to the Balitai roundabout, I had a vision. What if we could gather a curated selection of texts from Chinese writers, cultural analysts and intellectuals publishing online, and offer them to the people learning Chinese around the world for collaborative translation. I imagined a thorough division of labour. Advanced learners and Chinese natives would scour the Chinese Internet for texts to share. They would propose a first version of the translation, discussing options in a comment section. Less advanced learners could read the translated texts, in bilingual format or English only, as a way to better understand China. There would be mutual support, a point system, and badges for various accomplishments, forming a grand online community. I went to the bathroom to keep my roommate asleep, took extensive notes, and got back to bed a few hours later, shaking with excitement.

Daniel Ednie-Lockett was the first believer. We met in 2009 through a Chinese language MeetUp. He ran a small company that took international students on local tours as a way to promote cultural integration, and would soon evolve into a language exchange network. It’s late December 2010, and we’re sitting at a café on Little Lonsdale Street. I share the vision with him. He jots down a few notes on a napkin. ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work,’ he said, ‘but it’s cheap enough to try’. With a thousand dollars or so, we could build a prototype. I was willing to lose that money. Dan introduced me to people who could help, I put an ad online, and gathered a first team. Three months later, we had a functional website running live, with a small selection of texts.

Human-centered design teaches you to look for a need – a problem to solve – through a systematic process, then go on to prototype a solution. There is certainly wisdom to that approach. Yet sometimes, the desire to create something comes first. This was the case for me, with Marco Polo Project. My creative impulse had a force of its own. I would not stop until I brought it to life. I believe this kind of creative imagination plays a bigger role than we acknowledge in entrepreneurship, as it does in creative ventures.

Yet the force of imagination comes with a downside. The vision may be clear, but it floats, disconnected from the world. Perspective only comes retrospectively. So, when things don’t work out, and compromises must be made, it is unclear where to hold on, and where to let go. Particularly, reaching a joint agreement on where to pivot is critically difficult.

By 2017, our website had fallen into disarray. With no business model or investment, the code was developed on the cheap. It was breaking apart. China blocked its online blogs and magazines one by one. Hardly anyone contributed to our translations any more. So, we decided to shift offline entirely, archive the magazine, and redirect our address to a new website focused on our workshop design activities. It made sense at the time, and has taken us where we are. Yet a bitterness remains. Something of that original creative impulse remains un-satisfied, and I often wonder if we should have simply kept on course.

I wish, in the early years, I had met someone who listened to me closely, took the time to sit down and ask ‘what exactly do you want’, work with me on the vision, and help me make the right decision. Either I met no such person, or I wasn’t able to recognize them. There was a lot of rush, narrow-mindedness, self-evidence and complex egos. I guess the texts in this series are a retrospective attempt at making sense, then – and figure out what I had attempted to do, in the hope that it will be useful for the future.

Reflecting on my practice – what to ask a start-up founder

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.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

On failing and losing

Things go wrong when you try new stuff. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately. It’s made me aware of a conceptual distinction I hadn’t really ticked on before.

We make a serious category mistake when we use the verbs ‘lose’ and ‘fail’ indifferently.

Loss marks a dissipation of substance. What I had, I no longer have. Maybe someone else does? Or it might have simply disappeared. All things solid vanish into thin air.

Failure is a return to the original chaos. It’s a stumble, and a fall to the earth. I resolved on a course of action, but the result was not what I projected. Gravity triumphs over shape.

‘I lost’ implies scarcity. There was only so much substance around. Through my negligence, weakness, or hesitation, I let someone else grab it all. Now, there is no longer anything for me. I must wait for another opportunity.

‘I failed’ implies abundance. I chose one course of action among infinite options. I am not satisfied with the results. I stopped, and am now back to a state of maximal density. I must wait for momentum to get out of stasis.

Those words define two versions of the blank slate. Loss offers open space to dance around freely. Failure offers fertile clay to play with and mould. Loss is about ownership. I get my substance from the outside. I am what I have. Fail is about action. I get my substance from the inside. I am what I do.

The parallel stops here, however. The nouns present an interesting contrast. If I lose, I’m a loser: someone incapable of holding to substance. I only become a failure by failing someone else – including my own past self. I’m a failure when I am no longer part of anybody’s course of action. Everyone has given up on me, even myself, and I remain stuck.

Stating ‘I failed’, therefore, is a way to regain agency. It shifts my relationship to failure. By merely saying it, I am no longer a failure – only my project, my actions, my past self are. With this distance, momentum returns, and the possibility to try a different course. ‘I failed’ is a celebration of life.

‘It failed’ is a gift to the world. This is what science and experiments are all about: see not what worked, but what failed. I only know that ‘y’ is a better path than ‘x’ by comparison. Those who never failed have nothing to teach.   

How, then, do we create environments, where people are encourage to say ‘I failed’? And by doing so, regain dignity and agency? Why are we so reluctant to fail?

Maybe we’re afraid of the real and its chaotic possibilities. Pure shapelessness is the stuff of horror. Or maybe we’re afraid of our peers. For with cultures that celebrate failure comes the risk of a supporter, peer or colleague stating of my project – it failed – and regain their sense of agency by making me their failure, and pushing me back into chaos.

Values cards project – happiness

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: There is a song by a Belgian singer, Angele, that’s about happiness, and it says: ‘Il n’existe pas sans son contraire.’ I like that song, and I’ve been thinking, it’s probably difficult to recognise happiness, while unhapiness, that’s something you can recognise.

B: Maybe it’s that, one way to define happiness is just as an absence of suffering. So, there is no proper definition, we just look for its opposite.

A: You know the buzzword in startups, ‘chief happiness officer’. I hate it, it makes it sound like happiness is something that the company will try to sell you. Maybe you know this guy? Arnaud C**. That’s his whole platform. Pure platitude.

B: What if we tried to see it from a different angle? I like to think of happiness as a well-functioning immune system. Like a form of Nietschean ‘Great Health’, it works like a kind of armor, it’s, somewhat artificial, and protective.

A: What about this? We could say that most of the things we think about are things that will happen in the future. And they will only happen if we believe that they will. So, happiness is about our approach the world, the way we choose to encounter things. And there are different forms of approach, some more positive, some more negative. But if you somehow anchor yourself in the present, then there is a form of happiness that’s directly connected to this sense of a better future. And so, yes, maybe happiness is just something that derives from hope?

B: Maybe we can tie this with etymology. ‘Hap’ – or ‘heur’ in French – it has to do with what happens, what unfolds. And so maybe, thinking about hope, happiness is a certain way to perceive our environment as conducive to something positive, and that will naturally unfold into the future. If we think of it this way, we can make sense of injunctions, like Gide says, that it is our duty to make ourselves happy. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the world that sees the possibility of future good. And that relationship is experienced in the present as happiness.

A: So maybe, this also tells me something about cynicism and suspicion. When I reject what I would call ‘happiness in a can’, those happiness recipes and tricks and chief happiness officers, maybe that has to do with my own sophistication. I’m saying, this wouldn’t work for me, therefore it’s intrinsically wrong. Or it there is some truth to it, it would work, but only for less sophisticated people. But when I think like that, I fall into the pit of snobbism.

B: I like this image of ‘happiness in a can’. If we come back to the idea of happiness as an immune system, maybe that kind of happiness you describe is like an over-reactive immune system, and that’s dangerous, for individuals and for the collective. It’s like an allergic reaction, it can kill you. Or like drugs, it helps in the short term, but it’s harmful in the long run. Because, that kind of artificial happiness, It disconnects you from the real.

A: Or maybe it’s just that this ‘in a can’ feature, this pre-formatted message, it negates a characteristic of happiness, that it’s always experienced on a personal level, not as an abstract universal.

B: Is it then that this ‘happiness in a can’ presents happiness as a means, not an end in itself?

A: Yes, while wisdom traditions, like the Greeks, take happiness, eudemonia, as an end in itself, as a form of healthy relationship with the world.

B: But could it be that happiness is precisely the means to this healthy, fair, harmonious relationship with the world?

A: I think, happiness is a personal thing, it’s experienced individually, not collectively. It’s impossible for a collective to pursue personal goals. So, we cannot pursue happiness as a group. It doesn’t make sense.

B: Well, that would be particularly true if, as we said in the beginning, happiness is hard to define. Because if an end, or a goal, is hard to define, it is also difficult to pursue. And so, we could shift things a little and say the collective goal is to pursue the absence of unhappiness, but that’s way more depressing.

A: Doesn’t Aristotle write about happiness as a type of satisfaction that directly derives from the pursuit an activity? So maybe, we should think of happiness as an aristocratic type of virtue. That’s what you see today in startups, and all this talk about, your work should make you happy. You can get that kind of happiness if you’ve got slaves who do the dirty work. It’s probably not so easy to feel happiness from your activity when you’re a cleaner or a delivery person. And so –the practice of virtue that leads to happiness, that takes time, and it calls for certain conditions. So, there’s something dangerous about this discourse that says we should pursue happiness, and if we’re not feeling happy, we’re doing something wrong. I think, it’s hiding something, it’s not in touch with the real.

 

Entrepreneurial portraits

B** is living her best life. She promotes love and acceptance, because fear robs us of our lives. She was appointed on boards by the time she was twenty, and she’s doing things differently there. She travels the world, and people come in their tens of thousands to listen to her. She is a perfect model – and she dreams of a future where every single girl could have the same life she has.

T** is a successful social entrepreneur. He works for himself and generates revenue from an education venture that teaches design thinking. He has now reached an apex in his success. And ss the Zuckerbergs and Jobs of tech celebrate their millionth customer or their first billion in valuation, T** does something much better and meaningful: he’s invited to teach a course on social enterprise ‘with codes and all’.

On dispensability

There is one fundamental opposition between measures of success in bureaucratic and entrepreneurial organisations. It hinges around one key dimension: dispensability. The successful bureaucrat – whether in government or corporate organisations – is the one who, through networks, experience and knowledge, has become indispensable to the system, and therefore will thrive as long as the collective endures. The successful entrepreneur – by contrast – is the one who, through strategic clarity, systems development and effective delegation, can step out of the organisation, either towards early retirement, or another venture. Therefore, there is a built-in incentive for bureaucrats to guarantee the survival  ineffective project. While the word ‘founder’, like ancestor, shapes an identity that tends towards its own obsolescence.

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.