Looking back at my 35 year old self – #4

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [I wrote this section in French – and translated it afterwards]. 

17 december

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

***

Three years ago, after coming back from China, I found myself crying after a dinner with colleagues, terrified by their laziness and dumbness. So, I shouldn’t feel sad not to work there anymore. It is probably unjust that, as I work and do more, I am paid so much less than I used to be – but the happiness I’m finding replaces what I used to derived from a salary. 

I was thinking, on the way back from the cinema, that I never really looked to get materially richer – but wished to offer my family the glory that comes from fulfilling your duty, social concerns, or cultural success. As I read the Brothers Karamazov, I was fascinated by the character of Aliocha – whom I later heard being described as an idiot. I have aspired, for a long time, to a certain naivety – irony, can one aspire to naivety? Telling myself that money would come somehow. 

And that may be through love: my father, or Philip, will support me if things go badly. And when I’m old, will people still love me then? Bah, maybe, and if not, well, I can still derive happiness from looking back at the beautiful things I did. 

But then, the hard part is succeeding in those. I was thinking today about ambition – and I am ambitious, for sure – and what people call success. ‘What did you achieve’, someone could ask, but the answer, as Alain used to teach, depends on perspective. For some I have known here, shagging sexy Chinese women counts as an ‘achievement’. For me, it’s  about deepening married love. One is not necessarily more noble or better than the other. In the same way, linguistically, I have not succeeded in ‘passing’ an exam – but the dice were skewed from the start, since I was responsible for assessing my own level. 

That’s the difficulty where I find myself, but also the freedom I gave myself: I operate in a world where I define the criteria for success. And I believe that, since I passed the competitive exam for Ecole Normale, then agregation – having succeeed at the most difficult competitive exams of the country where I grew up – but then, becoming a bit vague and lost as to what I wanted to do – and finally, deciding to migrate, convert, start a completely new initiative. Am I succeeding, or is it that, since I did not defend my PhD, I am fleeing away from academic failure? 

One thing is clear at least, which I remember very clearly: that I used to envy Alexis, at times, for daring the career he chose; and that I envied Alain that he lived off his scripts, more than I ever envied anyone at the Sorbonne, teaching at Henri IV, or directing a department at ENS. Creative freedom, that is what I have aspired too for a long time. And I shouldn’t, therefore, count as a failure that I have been touching to it these days, quite the contrary. 

Of course, it’s difficult. There is the difficulty of being paid little, and the frustration that comes with that. There is the difficulty of having little money to pay anyone I might need for help. There is complete uncertainty towards the future. And then there is, more radically, the difficulty of freedom, this fear not to be on the right road, because there is no road, because there are only the possible paths on the ocean, and new islands to discover. 

Values cards project – integrity

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: When I hear integrity, to me, it’s connected to consistency. It’s got to do with continuity over time. You’re the same independently of whatever happens outside.

B: There’s a very strong moral component to the word, but it doesn’t have to do with keeping a conformist kind of moral code. You can have integrity and be well integrated, but the idea is that you’re not quite in line with what’s usually done in the context around you. So, it has to do with a certain form of courage. You’re not in direct relation to the established order.

A: I would associate it with originality. It’s about respecting your own shape, and refusing to change so that you can fit in the box. And this has to do with real originality. I’m always remembering an essay by Pessoa that I read as a teenager, something with a Greek name, Epi-something, where he says that, when push comes to shove, the only thing about an artist with actual value is how original they are.

B: I see that as an individual form of value, integrity. It’s not about your relation to the group – like, you follow the norms of the group, as in a cult – but rather facing up to the group. There’s something antagonistic about it. It’s me against the world.

A: Then there’s a form of congruence with non-violent communication. And that would also mean that there’s a form of courage to non-violent communication. I state what I see, what I feel, what I need, and I make a proposal, based on a description of the world as it appears to me, rather than conforming to the madness of other people.

B: We might think it’s a form of power, or a strength, when you can adapt to another person. And it is. But this sense of integrity as a form of courage, it means it may be that it’s your capacity to clearly state your feelings or requests that is the biggest form of respect for another person, and ultimately the best way to influence them.

A: You can have integrity and be a psychopath, but you can’t have integrity and do things against your moral code. So, it’s about the capacity to judge what’s inside, from the outside.

B: Giving up on moral effort, then, that’s a lack of integrity. And that’s the distinction between the respectable bureaucrat and the opportunistic consultant.

A: Well, some of the people I despise the most for that are consultants, who just get in, do something and leave, in pure mercenary fashion, with no sense of continuity or mission.

B: But there’s a fine distinction between both. Maybe the consultant, because they’re independent, it allows them to have more integrity, because they see it and they say it like it is. It’s their job. Or it could be about all sorts of second-order things that the consultant wants to achieve. So, the question becomes about the end justifying the means.

A: So maybe, is it that Integrity can only appear retrospectively? And then, this would take us to a complex dialectic, something hard to figure out, including for yourself. Am I living in line with a principle that I wasn’t sure I had, or am I somehow losing my own shape? Because, we constantly have to give up on certain things so that we can hold on to others. And integrity then is about what we choose to hold on to.

B: It’s one of those things that asks for a lot of attention: do I have integrity?

A: Or if integrity is some form of incorruptible probity, maybe it’s a proof of flexibility then that you can identify it a posteriori? Like, it’s only retrospectively that you can figure out what remained incorrupted in someone.

B: Maybe integrity aligns with moral invention then. It’s about the quest for a new moral code, or a superior moral code, or a more truthful one. Which will only manifest in retrospect. It’s connected, yes, to the creation of a new moral code, that derives from an older one, or differs from it, and can manifest in new situations. It’s a form of anti-puritanism, or even moral entrepreneurship.

A: So, that’s interesting, is integrity about respect for a relatively closed and defined moral code, independently of context? Or is it the continuous and constant invention of a moral code, in relation to the changing context?

B: The more distance between established moral and your own code of ethics, the more opposition there is, and the more integrity you display when you continue pushing your own code of ethics forward. The danger is, you might feel like pure opposition is a way to ‘gain points’, and you might fall into some sort of addition to refusal or rejection. An ‘I’m pure, they’re dirty’ kind of thing. That’s something I feel sometimes with American liberals, and that seems like a kind of dangerous integrity.

A: Maybe then, there’s a creative integrity, which is like an embodiment of the spirit, where the spirit respects its own shape, even as it comes in contact with the resistance of the real. And that’s in opposition the form of integrity which simply refuses any contact with the dirty concrete.

B: Well, morals is the set of rules you’re imposing on yourself for the good of others, and that only comes in the first person. There’s something moralizing about puritanism, but that’s not integrity. Integrity is something that only exists in the first person, and is not something you can demand of others, or even properly judge.

Values cards project – independence

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: Let’s start with this: freedom – or autonomy – is not so much about the absence of rules, but power, more specifically the power to make decisions. So, there’s a difference between freedom and independence.

B: Another angle would be to look at financial independence. What it is is, it’s the power to be autonomous, that is, I choose who to depend on. And so, if we look at independence, it’s always relative, never absolute. Absolute independence, it’s not realistic. It’s always about who you choose to depend on.

A: So, that’s more about chosen dependence, or interdependence. When we think of things that way, we just recognize the fact that absolute independence is only possible in theory.

B: It’s also about not obeying orders, the capacity to say no, the capacity to maintain your principles. If I see a competent person, and they haven’t developed an independent position for themselves, I start to doubt their integrity. It even seems dangerous to me.

A: Well, when a newspaper claims that they’re independent, the word seems interchangeable with integrity. We’re independent, therefore we tell the truth. But that’s never told explicitly. For a paper, integrity is implicit, while independence is explicit.

B: Then, from another perspective, if you’re independent but you don’t have integrity, you’re making a moral mistake. The optimal situation, so that you don’t have to make compromises, it’s independence. And if you don’t strive towards that, it’s the beginning of a moral flaw.

A: I also associate independence, then, with a type of craft or technical excellence. When I was hanging out in the startup space, I saw those two profiles – I had two friends actually like that. One who cofounded a crowdfunding platform, but could also code and do UX work, and he had this kind of strong independence. While another friend was a business developer, she set up an international incubator, and she was really sharp, but all she could do was build relationships – nothing really specific or marketable, with clear measures of success. And I always had the impression that she was less independent, she needed to care about other people more. There was this frustration, and this kind of anxiety about her, I think for that reason.

B: Well, that’s how I sometimes think of myself. I’m a good salesperson, but do I have excellent craft? I’m not sure.

A: Maybe that’s what trading is about: it’s keeping the belief that both parties need you. And so, it’s not an independent role. Is it that the merchant, then, is structurally less independent than the craftsperson?

B: Well, I like that new concept of ‘bullshit jobs’, and my theory is, if you can describe you job in one sentence, it’s not a bullshit job. Otherwise it is. I wonder what this means for a coach?

A: Maybe one way to look at it is this. A physio puts your body back in place. And a coach does that with your brain. Except coaching had a lot from people who came in as consultants, or wanted to be consultants, and started to hype everything up, they were making claims about what we could achieve. And often, those claims weren’t true. It’s actually difficult to reach that point of stability and say ‘that’s what I can do for you. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and that something is already not bad.’

B: So maybe, this has to do with independence. You’re more valuable when you don’t promise people the moon, but you give them an unmbrella, and when it’s raining, that’s what you need. It comes with a form of integrity. You’re not dependent on people’s delusions.

A: Are we saying then that there’s a link between independence and truth or realism?

B: There’s that, but also that financial element we started with. You’re independent when you’ve got money set aside. And if you’ve got an expensive lifestyle, that reduces your independent.

A: So, we must limit our needs to increase our independence. And the token of freedom is not more income, but fewer expenses. The possibility to keep your needs down.

B: I like that. Independence as the capacity to say no to anything. Or better, the decision to say yes to certain things, so you can continue to say no to anything.

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.