Marco Polo Project – a moral beacon

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 vivid memory. I’m wearing a light blue shirt, and I’m walking back to my desk from the photocopy room, with a bunch of papers in my hands, and a cup of tea. I still work for the Victorian State government at this stage, part-time in the policy and strategy group. But this is no longer the core of my professional identity. The words keep echoing inside my head. ‘I founded a charity, I founded a charity’. And I smile, proud, amused at my own pride, before settling back in my cubicle.

Marco Polo Project was a crazy dream, yet I seemed to pull it off. I gathered volunteers, developers, authors, translators, and a touch of funding, or at least freebies – and not all of it purely through madness and French charm. The thing was completely not sustainable, of course, but I had faith we would make it work. The vision was good, it was on trend, it served a purpose. ‘How do you make money then?’ asked an old white man once at a Chinese education conference. I gave him the cold treatment. ‘If we do something useful, surely we can figure it out. If we don’t do anything useful, why should we make money?’ That man didn’t like me very much. I was probably just a little too frontal when challenging his assumptions about value.

I had a more complex relationship with the social enterprise set. Received wisdom in those circles is that an organization which wants to ‘do good’ in the world should aim to generate its own revenue, rather than rely on government grants or donations. There is a pragmatic element to that encouragement. Grant allocation mechanisms are opaque and change regularly. Build relationships with your end users, if you want cost-effective, long-term funding reliability. Why not? I’ve always intuited, however, a more sinister moral element, which I never aligned with. That one should ultimately work with the system, that an organization needs money, and therefore, that we must focus on things that do good and (reliably) make money (within the system as it is), leaving the rest aside. I may be too Catholic to believe in capitalism, or simply too radical: I preferred hacking the system.

I set up Marco Polo Project as a charity for strategic reasons. If we believe (as I do) that our financial reward system is entirely detached from morality – that there is no clear overlap between what we’re willing to pay for and what society needs, and so that the most useful work is probably the one that is hardest to monetise, precisely because it is unlikely to be done by anyone looking for money as a reward – then, better take profit out of the equation altogether. If the true deep goal is social good, or education, or anything other than profit, then money should be a matter of indifference, by design. For otherwise, how can we deal with perverse incentives? If we get paid when people face a problem, will we create the conditions that get us out of the help mindset? If we make money by selling classes or courses, will we develop maximally cost-effective learning models, and drive those inside institutions? No, anything other than a charity comes with levels of cognitive dissonance too dangerous for my own risk appetite.  

Now, there is two types of charity work, as I see it. The first is remedial. People and social systems are imperfect, accidents happen, and when people fall through the cracks, we shouldn’t leave them to suffer and die. It’s extremely respectable, and not my vocation. The second is about building public goods, improving society as a whole, and reducing the chances of anyone falling through the cracks to begin with. This is where I have chosen to focus my energy.

But wait, is this not the role of government? Well, government has two limitations. The first is accountability. Governments live on public trust (as do schools and universities). When failure is a dangerous option, innovation is hard. A charity like ours offers a safe space for experimentation. More fundamentally, government bodies are accountable to their constituents. Yet today’s major problems are multilateral. Including everything to do with cultural shifts, hybrid communities and language education. Also, everything involving the Internet. Without adequate structures to fund globally distributed public goods – whether quality public education in digital formats, or open-source models for cost-effective community building – charities have a role to play.  

Then, there is the challenge of adequately measuring outcomes and impact. Public money calls for visible markers of success. Understandably, for public trust is at stake. And those visible markers of success need to be somewhat simple and relatable. Yet if the goal is to design a good facilitation model, bums-on-seats is certainly not the right success criterion, nor is the results of a random happy sheet survey. The pressure to succeed along inadequate dimensions limits the freedom to experiment. Not to mention, how do you properly measure long-term social health, or educational impact, as part of a short-term project? Short of a full-on latitudinal study, it’s all storytelling, intuition, and a leap of faith.

Hence, hacking the system. Certainly, this approach did not lead us to sustainability. But it was never the goal. Was it a wise approach? Well, let’s put it this way. Is there another organisation, born around the same time as Marco Polo Project, with a similar ambition, who took a different approach, and did better? I’m not seeing anyone, and we’re still alive, only just. So maybe, just maybe, we’ve been doing something right.

On privilege and socially meaningful work

I shared a Facebook update today, that I wanted to reflect on further. I was putting forward my latest pet hate: people earnestly saying it’s a privilege to work on climate, ecosystem protection, or other social issues. We’ve heard them, at conferences or on social media, counting their blessings.

Fuck that! Working on climate and social cohesion is not a privilege, it’s a duty, and all the more so the more privilege we have otherwise. Secondary pet hate: people acknowledging their own privilege on a stage, as if that made them heroes, and exempted them from the need to do much about it. My own philosophy: privilege prompts a question, what do you do with it? And the worst thing you can do about it is squander it to calm down your own guilt.

Now, getting paid to work on those important issues, so there’s no conflict of duties? For instance, between environmental and social responsibility, and feeding a child or parent, or even one’s own personal security – sure, that’s important. It’s unfair to place excessive moral pressure on people to fulfil their duty – and preferable to reduce ethical tension, by directing social resources towards what is collectively useful. I.e. pay people who work for the common good. But what this means is, being paid to work on climate, or for holding the social fabric together, has nothing to do with privilege. It’s fair payment for socially useful work, a minimal standard we should aspire to, and fight for.

Why does this earnest naming of privilege anger me? Because it blurs concepts: as if a job focused on the common good was some title of nobility (that’s what privilege is, access to special laws attached to social status). This is a dangerous narrative, implying that whoever didn’t get one of those jobs, but simply contributes everyday, outside their job title – in short, whoever is not materially rewarded for their contribution to climate or social cohesion – is a more commoner, un roturier, hardly worthy of attention, praise, or reward. Even a sucker for doing the work. Good way to build a movement hey!

Worse: it creates an odd zero-sum game competition for a handful of ‘ethical jobs’ that come with bragging rights – distracting attention from the challenges at stake, and leaving it to whoever can give out material rewards to set the agenda and direct collective efforts.

Now, is this really how we hope to solve climate change, and hold the social fabric together?

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.

 

Corona thoughts – Consistency

Whenever working on a project with others, my biggest source of frustration has always been that silly game where people give themselves a fake deadline on purpose. ‘This must be done by the 20th’ meaning ‘by the 23st, or ‘by the 27th’ or who knows when. What I find more precisely irritating is the self-evident statements that often accompany late delivery, ‘well of course, the deadline was never realistic, it was just a way to get myself going.’ I find this inconsistent relationship to time and language not only confusing and frustrating, but also dangerous. Because it erodes trust – or predictability – and therefore increases the cognitive burden of getting anything done: attention needed to get the task done, and attention needed to figure out what is real and what is a  just a motivational decoy.

The same applies, I believe, to current self-isolation measures. When Australia first imposed a rule on gatherings, with a strict limit of two people, I was outraged. Surely, my partner and I meeting a friend in the park, sitting at a distance, or inviting them over for dinner, will not cause Corona-doomsday. But then I listened more, and started understanding things differently. It wasn’t about us. From one account, 99 of 400 people who were supposed to strictly quarantine had been found by the police out of home. From another account, people were planning to continue with their home-party plans, only maybe reduce the frequency, or the number of guests. From yet another account, the same self-evident statement came out directly: ‘Of course it’s excessive, but if you say 500, or 100, people don’t listen, so you have to be strict, and maybe people will start to do something.’ 

I perceive a direct correlation between the complacent impulse that leads to semi-consciously setting artificial deadlines, and the present erosion of civil liberties. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu proposes that we can recognise the nature of a political regime from their dominant emotional driver. Aristocracy relies on a sense of honour, tyranny works on fear, Republics depends on virtue. Freedom and discipline always walk hand in hand. Now, I wonder if an added element may account for this: that a Republic is more complex than a tyranny. Republican freedom entails a large amount of personal variation, hence greater variation and complexity. Without self-regulation through virtue, without a commitment to simple consistency, the system might edge towards chaos. Fear then steps in, and lays the ground for tyranny. In other words, freedom demands attention. And so, not so much staying home to protect the weak among us, but ensuring consistency between language and action is a gift of freedom to those who surround us.

Cardinal virtues – a project for 2017

prudence-2 temperance-2fortitude-2 justice-2

This is a sharp memory from my grade Ten French class. We were studying French moralist writers of the 17th century, and our teacher explained one of the fundamental religious debates of the time: the respective role of Grace and Virtues on our salvation. It was the height of religious wars in Europe, and the question of Grace was at the core of a theological opposition between Protestants and Catholics, echoed in France in a polemic between two Catholic factions, the Jesuits and the Jansenists (represented by Pascal). According to Jesuit views – inspired by Renaissance Humanism – God offers his supernatural grace to all humans; it is our duty to meet Him halfway, and use our free-will to deliberately cultivate virtues and accomplish good works. This goes directly against the belief of Jansenists – as well as most Protestant theology – who take a more pessimistic view of mankind: our sinful nature is such that only the Grace of God has efficacy to grant us salvation. All attempts at cultivating moral virtues and conducting good works carry the risk of fostering pride and delusion.

autocollant-sticker-voiture-croix-camargue-moto

What exactly do we mean when we talk of virtues? For over twenty years, I’ve worn a symbol of my father’s home region around my neck, the ‘guardian cross’, blending a heart, an anchor and a cross. The symbol represents Faith, Hope and Love – three virtues that Paul’s Epistles identify as defining Christianism, and known together as theological virtues. Today, in our post-Christian world, the word virtue evokes at worst a conceited bigot, at best a coy individual, looking for shelter from a corrupting world. But it was not always this way: in its original meaning, virtue has the same root as ‘virile’, and refers to the character of a good citizen – in a famous reflection on the dominant affect in various, Montesquieu associates Virtue to Republican rule. Through the works of Sts Ambrosius, Augustine and Thomas,Catholic theology considers not three, but seven fundamental virtues. Four cardinal virtues, identified in the works of Aristotle, and therefore common to Christians and Pagans, complement Faith, Hope and Love: known as Cardinal Virtues, they are Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. On a recent public profile I wrote – ‘I like to listen and look for common ground’. My exploration of Cardinal Virtues in 2017 will both allow me to reconnect with my own Catholic heritage, and reflect on universal forms of good behaviour – what makes a good citizen in a range of tradition, and how to cultivate one’s own character.

writing-on-stone

Last year, I started a daily blogging project – a daily page of handwriting which I posted online after light editing. After three months, this was interrupted by a demanding new role with the Global Challenges Foundation. The project I was in charge of setting up has now found its shape, systems are in place, and I’ve been able to reduce the extent of my engagement. This allows me to resume daily writing meditation. So this is what I propose for 2017. I will associate a virtue to each season: Prudence and Summer, Temperance and Autumn, Justice and Winter, Fortitude and Spring. Every day, I will reflect on the season’s virtue, decide a way to practice it over the course of the day, and write about the experience in the evening in a diary. At the end of each week, I will write a short blog post summarising what I did and learnt. Marking the end of each season, I will take a full week to reflect, and compose a deeper written meditation. The project will blend writing and practice – and hopefully, lead both to personal transformation and valuable intellectual insights.

I look forward to this year exploring virtues – and hope we can all learn from this.

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.