Looking back at my 35 year old self – #13

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.

27 december

Am I leaving my life as a tourist? And am I just watching myself live? Or am I looking for impact? I am not extraordinarily busy, actually, I have lots of time to explore. It is unclear what my profession is, or how I make money – partly, I rely on various subsidies, rent from a place I bought, my partner’s income. And I live off the remains of an exam I passed years ago in what is now a foreign country.

Yet there is still new places to visit and understand better – this short trip – Guangzhou, Changsha, soon Wuhan.

It is an odd characteristic of intellectual life – or writers. We remember Stendhal, La Bruyere, Marx, and others, for just a few books they wrote, or ideas they spread. Their ‘professional’ life is irrelevant, retrospectively. Yet we have equated the worth of a person so much with their means of gaining income, that it takes a lot of effort to resist.

28 december

I’ve always enjoyed repeating, since reading that book by Kierkegaard. Today, I returned to Shamian island, and walked again in areas of central Guangzhou that I saw yesterday. The theme of these few days in Guangzhou might actually be – repeating!

On non-profits

‘So, if you run a non-profit, does it mean you can’t run activities to generate revenue,’ someone with a business background asked me. And here I was, explaining how non-profit status has nothing to do with income generation, but how you share the spoils. No return on capital, but talent can be rewarded. You cannot offer dividends. You can pay salaries, even bonuses. You can develop commercial activities.

I’ve run a non-profit for the last five years, and developed a keen interest in the philosophical underpinnings of company structures. Accounting, or the art of categorizing assets. Governance, or the art of collective decision-making. Incentive systems, or the art of eliciting and sustaining activities that benefit the group.

As I learnt more, I realised how ignorant I was – indeed most of us are – about companies, how they run, what they are. How imprecise our use of words. Income, profit, revenue, benefit, trade, hover together in a golden cloud, while charities and nonprofits merge in mysterious shade. And by effect of sheer confusion, the non-profit sector itself may begin to question: if there is no profit, how can there be value?