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.

De l’audace, toujours de l’audace: on creative work and risk

‘De l’audace, toujours de l’audace’ said French revolutionary Danton. His statue figures at the Odeon corner, not far from where I studied in Paris, and I often repeated his words to myself as I passed it. It’s one French trait I have carried with me to Australia, and I have tried to reflect on this part of my heritage.

I recently joined a reflective dinner at Hub Melbourne, where the conversation skimmed over the usual topic of corporate drain vs unpaid creative work, and how to reconcile both. I proposed a different interpretation of the facts, saying that creative work is not ‘underpaid’, but carries a very high level of risk. I was apparently the only one to really believe in that line – and yet I had some evidence to support me. The richest woman in Britain, as far as I know, made her money writing Harry Potter. She took a risk – and won. Many writers fail and remain poor, not because the world ignores their value, not even because they dramatically lack talent – but through the multitude of factors that make any risky venture succeed or fail, and which the classics called luck or fortune. Making large amounts of money from a book, a work of art, or any creative production, is partly talent, partly hardwork, partly good judgement, and partly simple fortune – like making good money from a cycle of the spice trade, on a rough sea.

The point I’m making here does not deny that there may be multiple cases of exploitation, whereby a publishing or producing body absorbs most of the benefits and transfers all risk to the creative agent, but doesn’t share benefits in the same proportion, or keeps them willingly misinformed about the nature of the agreement. More should be said about a fair distribution of risk and benefits across actors in the creative industries – but I believe the inherent risky nature of creative work is a premise that all discussions in this area should integrate. And the recurring ‘pay the writer’ issue could be reframed, at least partly, within the framework of insurance and mutual (financial and personal) risk sharing across the profession.

This is an ongoing theme of reflection for me, and I’ll be coming back to it in further posts – meanwhile, please feel free to comment or disagree – I’m putting this forward as a proposal – it may be quite off the mark.

Educating global leaders? Let’s give them Humanities!

On the Hub Melbourne yammer network, a friend recently posted the following note: “Am currently at a collaboratory meeting to recreate management and leadership education. These are the 3 questions today ; 1. How does the future leader look like ? 2. What is a globally responsible leader ? 3. Can we teach how to become a globally responsible leader.”

I found it inspiring, and suggested the following: “A good education base for future global leaders will be found in classics, history, philosophy and humanities, rather than ‘business and economics’. Management and leadership theories – or economics and ‘social sciences’ more broadly – tend to come in flashy new clothes. They decay more quickly than solid Aristotle, Plutarch and Montesquieu. In a fast-changing world, you don’t want fast-aging leadership education. Close-reading texts of ancient wisdom will teach future global leaders how to find meaning in complex, ambiguous settings; and reflecting on the distance between past and contemporary value systems will prepare them for accepting diverse, sometimes conflicting, world-views – and negotiate their way forward.”

I wanted to share this reply here, and reflect further on the topic. Everyone likes pushing their own agenda. I was trained in the Humanities – and find myself now more and more among people with a background in business, management and economics. Diversity benefits groups: people solidly trained in arts and classics are rare both in corporate and small business worlds, and their presence is likely to make for better decisions. I also do believe that the practice of translation and close-reading, which I learnt in France, is precious when working as an innovator. Translation is a good bullshit detector, and finding good ideas and people requires a solid capacity to filter out the dross. Innovation is also typically nothing but an old idea adapted to a new settings – who knows whether Medieval monastery rules, immigration models in old Athens, or Teutonic lending systems don’t hold the key to some future and precious model for social innovation in Australia.