Marco Polo Project – Follow the creative impulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back at Marco Polo Project

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. It started as a digital platform for collaborative translation of new Chinese writing, then pivoted towards workshop design, to support people who negotiate hybrid identities across languages and cultures. I handed Marco Polo Project over to a new CEO in 2019, hoping to see the organisation thrive. COVID put a spanner in the wheels.

We speak a lot about learning from failure. Yet in all the forums I have been to, failures are only shared if they can be reframed instantly as ‘actually a success’. I would like to take a different path in those reflections, and explore what we tried to achieve, where we succeeded, and where we didn’t. Where we made errors of judgement, let ourselves be carried away, or underestimated obstacles.

When I started writing this series, Marco Polo Project was on the verge of closing down. An unexpected grant from the City of Melbourne gave us a new lease on life. We were not able to deliver but redirected the funds to our long-term partner transcollaborate.

For now, the organisation is on ice, but not dead yet. I hope, by taking time to reflect on where we struggled and failed, to create conditions where we might eventually return to active life. Or at least, gain a little more clarity on what we’ve been trying to do all this time.

On failing and losing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 skipping a beat

At seventeen, I started singing in choirs, and continued until I was twenty-five. In a choir, individual voices only contribute if they blend harmoniously with others, in pitch, colour, and rhythm. It has been a precious school of humility.

It has been a school of pragmatism as well. I have a high tenor voice, and was able on its account to get into better and better choirs, eventually singing alongside professionals in the making. But I’m not a good sight reader. At early rehearsals, I would often get lost. There, I learnt an important lesson. When you lose track, the worst possible attitude is to follow your own skewed rhythm. Collective activities have a cyclical nature. Stop, look for the right moment, and jump back in.

Through practice, I integrated this. I could stop anytime I needed, without compromising the whole edifice. Skip a beat, and get on with the music. My focus should not be so much on never making a mistake, but on rejoining the group with minimal disturbance. Different skill, different mindset.

Earlier this week, I got out of sync with my writing. After a late dinner, I postponed editing and publishing to the following day. This continued, with a nagging sense that I should catch up, do double load. Yesterday, rather than edit and share my Friday reflection, I caught myself writing two new pages in my notebook, and publishing nothing. Something was wrong.

I reverted to choral wisdom. I tripped, and must give up on strict dailiness. No need for shame and self-doubt, think about it pragmatically. Time passes, people move on. Rather than stick to my new skewed rhythm, and jar with dynamics around me, I stopped, I breathed, I jump again. Back in the beat.

 

Acknowledging weakness

I’m now evolving more and more in a world of (social) entrepreneurs. After years in academia, I enjoy its optimism, energy, and let’s-do-it attitude. But I also find it – sometimes – harsh and heartless.

The main element I stumble upon is a contradiction between rhetorics and attitude regarding failure and weakness. Everyone acknowledges that failure is part of success and setting a new risky venture demands not only time and intelligence, but also consistent emotional strength. Yet most people I come across in this world – more particularly their online persona – seem to wear a constant plastered smile on, as if real hardships happened only to others, but they were somehow exempt for the rule. Success is duly celebrated and broadcast, but failures, mess-ups or radical moments of doubt are hidden under the carpet.

I believe that fully acknowledging weakness and failures – your own, and that of others – is an important form of entrepreneurial wisdom, and essential to developing a healthy culture. From the classics, I learnt to suspect hubris. At the very least, sharing stories of rejection and mistakes, or simply reflecting on hopelessness and dark days, would not only allow us and those around us to better accept and survive them, but also – maybe – avoid the worst of them.

I’ve been thinking of designing a ‘share your failure’ event – and as I wrote this post, launched a message on the Hub Yammer group to test interest among the community. We’ll see what the response is. I’m curious.