What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

On friendships in a global world

The rise of China, the rise of Asia, call for new personal and collective histories. In that effort, writers have a major role to play. We speak about ‘bringing cultures together’, but this expression is incredibly vague. Who’s ever interacted directly with a ‘culture’? No, we read books, listen to music, look at various artefacts, navigate foreign cities, and engage with individuals. So, the better way to phrase it would be, we must create conditions where friendships can be formed between people who do not belong to the same culture.

Friendship might begin out of pleasure or utility: that’s Aristotle. It grows as we come to appreciate the character of the other person. Friends come together because of shared activities: it is the foundation of cultural and economic activities. Friendship holds a city together. It is also the fabric of our ethical lives, and our political existence. But it goes beyond the boundaries of a city, those close networks of regular physical encounter. It exists also between cities, supporting trade, nurtured by a network of diplomats and merchants who know each other, trust each other, and enjoy each other’s company. Who share something together: that very network, that very connection between their main place of residence, and the communities that live there.

As the world becomes more global, that network is becoming broader and broader. We need new ways for the people belonging to those different worlds to come together.

Here is the crux: friendship exists on the basis of a shared virtue framework, anchored in common practices, and common judgements of what is good or bad – or shared criteria to assess it. How can friendship begin, and grow, between people who do not share this common framework, or a common vocabulary? That is the difficulty, but flip it around, and you find opportunity.  Friendship is political at heart, and therefore building new friendships is – genuinely – the way to change political structures. For with it comes a new vocabulary, a new understanding of virtue, new norms – and new collectives. Friendship is the most potent political antidote to tyranny – the Greeks knew that very well. As did the French revolutionaries, who proposed to list not only family relationships, but friendships on their registry, and declared ‘who has no friend shall be banished from the Republic’.

The root of society, this is what I propose here, is not family but friendship. Connection between families. Like a web. So, when studying abroad, when travelling, the injunction to ‘make friends with locals’ is not benign. This is how radical change might come about.

This network of friendship is, in turn, an ecosystem for trust. It is a way to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma: tragedies of the common have this element in common, that people fail to collaborate effectively, maximise their own interest at the expense of others. Not so with friends, we work together to find balance. Climate change, ecosystem collapse: a proper understanding of friendship – could – help us find a way forward. Because we need to build new collectives, united by new shared understandings of what is good, and communicating this through new language. And then, as we face a period of fast change, we will need the warm emotional support of friendship, simply to get through.

The proposal then is – could we build a friendship school for the 21st century? What would this look like? Please share ideas in comments, or reach out if you’d like to discuss!

On ethical mediocrity

I don’t think I could ever say that I got ahead not playing by the rules. I’m embarrassed about it. It’s a source of ongoing shame for me that I’ve been incapable of cheating properly, with bold disregard for authority, as if I was missing that part of the brain which rebels seem to have. Sometimes, I even experience this as a painful sense of lost opportunities. Regret for a path I didn’t dare take.

I often wish I was cooler, lighter, more whimsical and flexible. That I was more able to find short-cuts and save effort, more efficient, winning, driven by a desire to get there first, and shape the world to my will as I bend established agreements. Instead, I feel held back by a deep sense of dull obedience, a bovine desire to lift heavy weights, covered under faux-contempt for those who just want to ‘get there first’ (I actually admire them. I even probably envy them for it). I often feel, still now, like a boring A-student, alienating others around him by excessive seriousness – or naïve like a little child, ready to fall victim to all sorts of manipulations and mockeries.

My step-father used to tell me that I was not actually smart. I had culture, yes, but I wasn’t shrewd in the least, and I’d never be good at life, because life requires shrewdness, which is true intelligence, not culture. I tried hard not to believe it, but some of it rubbed on me. Later, when I joined preparatory classes, my father would criticize me for working too much, not spending time out, drinking, flirting. I passed exams alright, but my street-smarts remained very limited. Even now, I know a lot of things, but I’m not always sure what to do with them, or how ‘people’ would receive what I might articulate.

Sometimes, I wish I was more of a trickster. I wish I had the brains and guts to play tricks on people, use deception to get my way, find the path of least resistance, surf the waves. Instead, I often feel pedestrian, heavy, gullible. Somehow, and in spite of superficial rebelliousness, I think I have a deep trust that there is a proper way to do things, and that’s how they should be done. People have called me creative and original. It’s been a surprise every time. I’ve grown to accept these adjectives as part of the way people see me, but deep inside, I feel plain, obedient, and dull, if sometimes shaken up by eruptions of raw energy. This is one of my defining inner paradoxes.

This sense of dullness applies to my private life. It’s August 2004, and I’m standing outside the Roman Baths in Cologne. It’s the first time I’ve dared to get inside a gay sauna. I feel very proud of myself: I looked, but I didn’t touch. I was expecting, who knows, some deep and meaningful conversation. When that didn’t happen, I was not even able to have sex. Worse, I felt proud of it. I’d been with my partner for over three years – and remained entirely faithful. There were opportunities, but I passed them by.

Until about the age of twenty-five, when I should have ‘sewn my wild oats’, I stuck to strict faithfulness. I craved a stable structure, simple morals, and rebelled against what I perceived as looseness around me. No cheating allowed, brainless puritan. Later, and quite deliberately, I decided to change. I slowly trained myself to build more ‘flexible’ personal ethics. I succeeded to some extent, but sometimes wonder if I didn’t lose on both fronts, and moved from rigid youth to shapeless middle-age.

I don’t think I could ever say that I got ahead not playing by the rules, yet I can’t honestly say that I never took a short-cut either. At school, I did, occasionally, look on my neighbor’s paper for an exam, and change an answer based on that. I never properly stole anything in a shop, but when a pack of chewing gum accidentally missed the scan at the self-check out, I bagged it. During a short stint working for government, when I had to declare my own working hours, I would sometimes add a few minutes at the end of each day, rounding it up to the closest five or ten, and ‘cheated’ about a few dollars from the system for work I didn’t really do. And I did agonize over it.

In the end, it’s like I’ve achieved nothing more than a form of ethical mediocrity. I am still far from the great trickster, the gangster, robber, ruthless figure confidently defying the law that I sometimes wish I could be, but neither am I close to the shining angel of virtue, clod in white purity. I’m not sure if I deliberately adopted this stance, or just let myself slip into it.

I wonder: to what extent would such a pattern of personal behavior, a ‘grey’ relationship to morals, embarrassed tolerance for minor faults, translate into valid ethical leadership? Does that acknowledged mediocrity make me somehow more genuine or human, helping me relate? Because ultimately, most people are neither angel nor demon, and live in fear of excess in any direction? Or have I given up on the possibility of greatness, and the capacity to inspire and influence that goes with greatness?

I also wonder about the trajectory of my own ethical growth, from rigid to flexible, and whether I gained some wisdom from my own lapsing, giving in to minor shortcomings, trading purity for experience? Maybe, whatever material opportunities I didn’t seize, in my younger years, through moral rigidity, are somewhat made up for by an increased capacity to reflect on my own ethics? Can you grow character and bend the rules? Can you grow character and remain flawless? Or is there a necessary choice, and is maturity reached only through compromise, accepting and embracing one’s own short-comings?

Values cards project – learning

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: I remember, when I was working for the government, I had this colleague who refused to do professional development. She said ‘I’ve had enough with university, I won’t sacrifice my fun’. Our business manager was trying to get her to sign up for some training, for her performance review or something, and I remember, she said she wouldn’t do it, and I was so judgmental of her!

B: Maybe we can look at learning as either a means or an end? When it’s connected with curiosity, it’s an end in itself. That’s what curiosity is, learning without a goal.

A: Well, that colleague didn’t have much of it. But then you have this other thing people say, they say ‘I have to keep learning, when I stop learning I’ll change jobs’. And I’ve always found that’s a very self-centered thing. What about the value you’re adding when you’re able to do things at your peak, because you’re not stretching all the time?

B: If you’re managing someone, it’s always more useful to treat them as an end in themselves. But if it’s about yourself, I think it’s actually more respectful – to the group – to think of yourself as a tool for the task, not the task as a tool so you can learn something. Otherwise, you just take work as entertainment.

A: Yes! There’s this book by Kierkegaard that I love, Stages on life’s way. He talks about three stages that people go through – or three different ways that we can experience life: aesthetic, ethical, religious. That thing of ‘I have to keep learning or I’ll move on’, it’s typical of an aesthetic approach to life, it’s work as hedonism. And Maybe that’s a thing in the way that many startups operate, where you’re joining to learn something, rather than do the job.

B: Well, it’s easier to relate to your job aesthetically when you’re in a tech startup than if you’re a cleaner.

A: So then, the question we could ask is, how can we move towards an ethical stage and continue learning. Not as an end in itself, for pleasure or entertainment, but so we can do the job better, or prepare for the future. Learning as a form of responsibility.

B: There’s a thing you see when you work in professional development, it’s the workshop hoppers. Those people who just go from workshop to workshop, but it’s never quite clear why they’re trying to learn something.

A: Maybe they’re bored at work, and learning is part of their lifestyle? It’s so different from the way we’re looking to develop our learning program in that startup I’m joining. It’s all about finding ways for everyone to really get how everything works, in depth: understand the tech, the business model, the goal, the context and the culture.

B: Well, that’s the opposite of typical corporate learning, where it always goes outwards. It’s about learning new things and bringing them in. When you look at it, there’s two problems that companies face, and they’re very different. There’s the technical skills, and mindset, or adaptability.

A: That’s the capacity to make use of your skills in context, right? I’ve been doing work on that.

B: Yep. But then there’s this American thing to say that ‘everything is a skill’. Adaptability, that’s a skill. Making use of your skills, that’s a skill. And so you have the impression that everything is a ‘technical skill’, and that’s rather confusing. There’s other things you can learn, but you need a different model to learn them. And I don’t think we’re doing that yet.

 

On carelessness

Last year, on a trip to Cambodia, I bougt a gong at the Phnom Penh Russian market. It was a small round piece of golden metal, with a rope to hold it from the top. It came with a small wooden stick, one end thick padding of wrapped fabric, to hit the gong with, and make a sweet echoing sound. I bought the gong for events and workshops, to keep time, and indicate the end of a sequence, in a soft, yet compelling manner.

It’s a precious work tool, though one I rarely use – only for larger events, three, four times a year, and hopefully, soon, more. Most of the time, it lay on the ground of my study, under a metal bookshelf. Rarely used, but, at certain times, important. In June, my partner asked me whether he could lend it to a friend, who needed one for a play. I agreed – indicating I would be using it on August 27, for a workshop that I’m facilitating tomorrow.

On Monday, I wrote to the friend, asking to get my gong back for my coming event. She was unable to find it. Thoughtfully, she ordered another one for me – but it hasn’t arrived on time.

This lost gong has made me strangely sad, and brought up a wave of negative feelings – anger, resentment. “If people are losing your tools, they’re not valuing your work. Why bother then?” Sing the dark sirens of despair. And I listen to them, curious. Why is this affecting me?

Losing a lent object is a clear case of carelessness. And of course, on the surface, easy to forgive. I got distracted, I placed it somewhere, it was so long ago, then other things happened, moved, covered it, and now I can’t remember where it is. My world is such a whirlwind, I got overwhelmed, I didn’t anticipate, now I turn, and there is chaos. Who could blame this?

Yet I can’t help but wonder – if something belongs to someone else, would we not take extra care of it? And I wonder, gentleness, approachability, patience, all virtues I try to cultivate – could they be the root cause of my disappointment? If you fear me, you won’t lose my things – hey, you won’t even ask to borrow them. The same holds for trust and generosity. If I openly share what I have, with no bond, no pending sanction for loss or damage – then how can I expect that you will pay particular attention to them? When other people around, institutions, groups, constantly dangle swords over your head. And so, when we make things easy, opening up too much, do we simply foster carelessness? And, through that attitude, expose ourselves to the risk of resentment? Should we become harsher then, lend not, and keep what’s ours under good guard, as an armour against sadness and anger?

Maybe the greatest danger to communities and the warm bonds of trust is not frontal, frank hostility – but more sinister carelessness, lack of attention, distraction. Yet – how often we slip, and how much easier, and common, to be careless, than hostile. So, maybe, this is also what we should most actively try to forgive – because only so can we maintain a social environment that will actually nourish and support us. And, maybe, there is a case for harshness, as a way to prevent carelessness, and better hold each other.

[… then an hour after I wrote this, the postman delivered a new gong, just on time – and offers yet another opportunity to reflect]

On conditional and absolute needs

In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.

Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.

More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.

Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’

We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.

On strategy

We spend a lot of time looking for ways to reach our goals; but spend remarkably little considering what these goals should be. This applies to people and organisations.

Solving the ‘how’ question is a process most of us have mastered. I want a new phone, which one should I choose? I want to see the latest James Bond, where should I go? I want a partner, how do I get one? But often, even with a brain well-trained to find convenience and a good deal, we procrastinate, ponder options, and never act; or follow a course of action, eventually get what we want, and feel no satisfaction.

Corporate strategy is a sexy domain. It is the black box of executive decision-making: setting direction, asking the big questions. Yet the term and practice blur the distinction between the Big What – why are we together and what is it that we do – and the small what – how do we succeed and what do we do next?

The same applies to personal strategy, we blur these two levels. The Machiavellian quest for power, status, wealth – how do I get to my goal – overlaps with the Socratic, Cartesian, Freudian quest for purpose: what should I want, is it what I want, and do I really want it? And so we believe, because we’re making plans and considering options, that we’re deploying wisdom.

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.

From resources to character

Language can bug you badly.

There’s one thing I could never take my head around: it’s that newspeak habit of talking about ‘resources’ rather than ‘people’ or ‘time’. ‘We’re under-resourced’ is a lamentation I hear frequently, but really, what does it mean? Is it that whatever project is conducted does not have enough people on it? Is it that managerial models are heavy, so that a given goal takes longer to reach than it should? Is it that every person in the team has, literally, so much to do on a daily basis that they cannot physically keep up, things don’t get done, and the whole fabric collapses? Or is it a polite way to say ‘disorganised’ and ‘a bit lazy’.

My Asian friends are not tender with Australians. As a Hong Kong friend once said: ‘Australian, you know, they’re bit lazy sometime’. More polite mainland friends will talk about how ‘relaxed’ everyone is, with an ironic snarl. Even as a Frenchman, I’m often appalled at how slow things can be here.

And so, I started thinking back on my reading of the French moralists, at a time before corporate newspeak, and when people could be held accountable in other ways. What if ‘resources’ was not the problem? What if the problem was character, accountability? And what if we tried systematically calling things by their concrete name – and replace ‘resources’ with ‘people’ or ‘time’ whenever possible. Maybe this would bring up better thinking.

Is this an invitation – or a sales pitch?

Today, I declined an invitation.

The whole thing was a bit awkward: a Chinese lawyer made contact on linked-in a few months ago, and exchanged a couple of messages with me. He’s trying to bring together recently arrived investors from China with a range of Mandarin-speaking Australians to better understand the new country, form contacts, and integrate. I felt honoured that I was invited – but, ultimately, not extremely surprised. After all, I’ve been working in that space for a while now, and by some standards, probably did a decent job.

Unfortunately, when his assistant sent me the details for that event, it came with a hefty price-tag attached. Mind you – it’s held at a high-class venue, and the price tag may just be cost-recovery for them. Still, the whole package is beyond what I can reasonably afford. I tried to negotiate a discount – was offered one, but still beyond budget – and therefore declined.

I can have dinners any time, and I’ll probably get to meet these people somehow, but two things annoyed me with this little interaction.

First was the awkward back and forth, trying to negotiate a free seat. See, I was naive, and accepted an invitation before checking I wouldn’t have to pay. Then I found myself having to negotiate my way in – or out. It may be just a matter of cross-cultural misunderstanding, but when I accepted the first ‘invitation’ I did not expect I would have to fork in.

Words are deceptive, I know, and I should be warned. Asialink organise regular events for their alumni: last year, I went a few times, and it was a fantastic opportunity to meet people, exchange views, reconnect. This year, they started charging, and I stopped attending. The first time I received an ‘invitation’ from them, after coming back from China, I enthused – but scrolling down, discovered I would have to decline. Their functions have better food than I can afford to pay for.

Beyond the superficial annoyance at linguistic confusion, I am more deeply annoyed at the trend towards systematic ‘pay for service’. I guess it doesn’t fit in well with my current situation. Over the past three years, I have devoted many hours to cultural and educational work, and I have had numerous conversations, in Australia, China, and around the world, to build meaningful cross-cultural engagement. But the only way I was able to do that was on a volunteer basis – because cultural business models have been thrown upside down by the internet, because government cut funding for culture, because administrative silos excluded us from many pockets of funding, and because I haven’t been able to secure another stable source of income compatible with running Marco Polo Project.

I’m not sure how much the $50 or $100 that these various groups and organisations are charging for entrance contribute to their bottom line – if they’re the sign of tighter times – greedy managers – or just an ideological fad. But they certainly don’t fit in with my current circumstances. I hope the tide turns, but I fear a future where noone is invited anywhere anymore, because the logic of cost-recovery dominates everything. Our ecosystem will be the poorer for that.