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.


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.


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.

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.

On power, justice and commonsense

Power may not be just, justice may not be powerful. In the end, power may triumph. But it is essential that we keep them separate in our minds, if we must keep our spiritual freedom.

In a piece about the current dire state of Chinese universities, Muran identifies a root cause to all forms of anti-intellectualism: what he calls authoritarianism or, in Chinese, 权力注意. This doctrine, he says, takes power as its only touchstone and only point of focus. Under its impulse, the sole purpose of the human spirit is to justify power.

Westerners easily criticize Chinese authoritarianism, brandishing human rights, free press, democratic elections, etc. Yet the Middle Kingdom does not have a monopoly on anti-intellectualism. But in our countries, it takes a different color. What people want is what we give them, as market-democracy proposes. And shouldn’t we trust the wisdom of crowds? So truth and beauty submit to the power of the masses.

Democratic traditions, for all the joys of equality, easily suffer the lack of an aristocratic spirit, pointing its finger at beauty, justice, truth. These ideals are too different from what is, and sometimes too sharp on the tongue for the taste of many. And so, we point the finger down: we stay grounded. Our spirits are no longer invited to run free, but will now serve the power of commonsense. Gravity rules. And it imposes its dumb earnestness or – in chaotic times – the tidal waves of murderous opinion.

(January 2 2016)

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.