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.

 

Corona thoughts: Wasting time

One person I used to work with was often talking about how ‘some people are just wasting his time’ and you should ‘not waste people’s time’. On Grindr, ‘time-wasters’ are certainly not liked. Social media may be just ‘a waste of time’.

Well, now we’re spending a lot of time at home, and on social media. I’m retreating away from ‘productive work’ to thinking and writing. Are we all wasting our time?

I never understood that expression. If I try to follow the underlying logic, time is wasted when the outcome doesn’t match expectations. But then, isn’t the outcome of any social interaction, in part at least, that interaction itself? And if that is so, how can time ever be wasted? Maybe I simply don’t believe in the capitalist motto that time is money? Or maybe, there is presumption in the expression ‘wasting time’ – pride, in the mistaken belief that we know what our goals are and should be, and that we can therefore assess, in the moment, what was and wasn’t valuable.

To try and understand wasting time better, we could look for its opposite, ‘saving time’. Here again, I don’t understand. ‘Saving time’ is about finding techniques and processes that allow you to do the same task, to the same level of quality, in less time. Years ago, I used to tutor high school students. One of the mothers always asked me to do things ‘quickly’. I never quite believed it was possible. You might get an essay ready more quickly – in fact, there have been times when I half wrote that student’s essays. But some was lost in the process: including, how much did that student actually learn?

When I worked on developing educational models, my goal was never to ‘save people time’. What I did focus on, though, was how to try and make learning somewhat easier to access. Save, not time, but effort. And more open-ended: instead of saving time towards a pre-defined goal, increase the potential goals, or benefits, or the time spent learning. Because goals may change, particularly when one learns, and what seemed like wasted time then, may end up highly profitable . Happy times are a sure gain. And maybe, so is learning to deal with a measure of frustration.

A paradox of language learning

Communicating in a foreign language is a difficult task. This is an emotional difficulty – fear of social embarrassment – and a cognitive difficulty – mental exhaustion. Both are largely tied to the high level of ambiguity that characterises exchanges between second language and native speakers.

To succeed, it is crucial for learners to build resilience in situations of high ambiguity. However, most language learning models focus on increasing fluency – how to understand and communicate better – rather than increasing the capacity to cope with ambiguous settings. In other words, education is focused on teaching students how to fail less often in their communicative and interpretive efforts; learning how to better deal with failure is only incidental.

What if we reverted this proposition, and designed language learning activities optimised for dealing with communicative failure, with particular attention to the emotional dimensions of the experience? This is what much of my work with Marco Polo Project was guided by!

On originality

One sign of ignorance is the preference of originality over custom and radical solutions over traditional authority, says historian Robert Conquest as quoted by Roger Scrutton in “The Uses of Pessimism”.

I  have always been suspicious of people who claim originality without first demonstrating their knowledge of tradition. By the same token, I don’t have much respect for those who push aside the thoughts of an authority figure. “Aristotle was wrong, I will show you why,’ is an argument I sometimes encountered in academic papers: rarely the sign of high intelligence.

Does this mean we should simply reject original thought as a sign of self-important ignorance? Not so. I like to quip about Catholicism that it teaches you to think deeper. Always assume the Pope is right. If you feel that the Pope is wrong, then think harder, until you find a way of interpreting the Pope that feels right. In other words, disagreement with a figure of authority is not an invitation to push them aside, but strengthen your mind by closely testing the surface of their argument, embrace its fractal complexity, until – at some level – you find a way of agreeing with them. And if it never happens, maybe you can let them stand where they are, and go find somebody else to test your thinking with.

My philosophy teacher once gave me this precious lesson. How can I learn to write better, I asked him. He paused and looked at me: ‘I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anybody right now. If you want to write better, you must copy. Take a well-written book, take a notebook, and copy, by hand, sentence by sentence. It takes time, but I guarantee you’ll write better.’ I’ve been grateful ever since that, when I was nineteen, I was not encouraged to follow my own thoughts and ideas, but patiently copy. Twenty years on, I feel the work is paying off.

Chinese lowlights – internet and hardware

Internet has been the lowlight of my time in China. Unreliable, slow, and expensive. At home, I used a 3G stick from China Unicom: 300 yuan for nine gigabytes, three nationally, six locally. The first one went quickly – I bought a second from a small shop, which turned out to be registered in another province, and so ran out after three gigabytes of usage only. Neither anger nor diplomacy got any result from the shop ladies, so I bought a third stick, which has lasted me till now. Overall, the connection was highly unstable and slow, with or without VPN. As for cafes (or even youth hostels), WIFI quality was a regular source of frustration – it varied from place to place and from day to day, without any clear explanation. Bad internet connection affected my mood and productivity considerably. I run online projects, I have collaborators in Australia: if I can’t get online, I can’t work. As time passed, my patience wore off, and in the last month, I have seen myself give up a few times before midday, after spending long periods of time re-loading pages in between timeouts.

Hardware issues made the matter worse. I bought a MacBook Air in October 2012 – it came highly recommended, and indeed, I found it amazingly practical to use. Then in October 2013, while I was visiting a friend in Tianjin, just before a week of back-to-back meetings in Beijing, my computer crashed: a flashing folder with a question mark appeared on the screen when I tried turning it on. The SanLiTun store delivered harsh news, my flash-drive needed changing – all data was lost. More annoying, they didn’t have a spare part. After much insistence, I got them to order the piece in a Shanghai store, and set up an external boot-disk, so I could use my computer in the mean time. Planning an appointment in Shanghai was another ordeal – their complicated and all-in-Mandarin online appointment system didn’t work, and the phone assistant refused to help. But in the end, I got my computer fixed, and an apology from the manager for the bad experience over the phone. All important data was on dropbox and google docs, and I got over the annoyance.

Then four days ago, as I was browsing the net at a friend’s house, my screen froze. The flashing folder was back. I went to the Shanghai Apple store this morning, and got the same harsh news: my flash-drive died.  They were decent enough to recognise that after three months, this was an embarrassment. ‘SSD drives never break’, said the guy from the Genius Bar. But they didn’t have a spare part for me, so I’ll have to get the thing fixed in Melbourne. Fortunately, I bought a warranty extension in October – so won’t have to pay extra. And fortunately, I did regular back ups on time-machine, so won’t lose much data. But the Shanghai people weren’t able to properly order the piece for me in Australia – though they did say they would try to send an email – which means possibly more back and forth trips to the Apple store in Chadstone.

These IT issues have been a constant drain of energy throughout my stay in China. It’s hard enough to deal with everyday interactions in Mandarin, get used to a new country, make a new set of social contacts, all this while preparing two collaborative international projects and studying the language at an advanced level. Now imagine the same thing with your tech cyclically breaking down, and no reliable service to fix it. I guess Apple was alright, in the context of China. Their phone service is a nightmare, their repair did last for only three months, and they’ve got a short stock of crucial spare parts. More generally, multiple details in attitude and expression, which could be summed up as ‘cultural differences’, added to the sense of frustration. But I did manage to get a temporary boot disk, and the technicians in store were polite, understanding, and helpful to an extent.

More importantly, though these IT issues were a great drain on my usual productivity, they were a great learning lesson on three fronts:

* I learnt to let stuff go. In general, I’m a reliable planner: I give myself a list of things to do, and then I do it all. For the last month, I slowed down, both socially and professionally. There’s emails I may never send, blog posts I’ll never write, New Year’s greetings I’ve missed, articles I will not translate. That’s OK, when I get back to Melbourne, ‘where things work and people smile’, I’ll take stock of my losses, and start afresh.

* The frustration of unreliable tech gave me direct emotional insight into the multiple frustrations that people in China live through every day. It explains the tired faces and the cynical words, both among locals and expats. The frustration extends beyond tech – it’s everywhere in a society where service and infrastructure is unreliable. I’ve come back to my reflections on trust – as I learnt, you can’t even trust an Apple computer to work here, or a repair from a genuine Apple store to last over three months. Gradually, you trust everything and everyone less.

* Finally, my interactions with Apple were a great opportunity to reflect on culturally hybrid spaces, and the particular challenges they pose to globalising economies. At every step, my relationship with technicians and customer service people was distorted through a number of lenses – my attempt at adopting a ‘Chinese’ mode, their attempt at servicing a ‘Westerner’, and our common struggle to fit these cross-cultural efforts within the framework of Apple’s generic service processes.

I came here to learn the language and the culture. These tech issues were very painful, and they did harm projects I was trying to set up from here. But they might have made my learning better – so that ultimately, I’m not unhappy that I had to face them. A four month stay abroad will have highlights and lowlights. And I believe the wisdom of a true cross-cultural learner is to take both of them in. Learning is not always pleasant in the moment it happens. Sometimes, what you learn is even slightly grim. But you’re still that little bit wiser, and better ready to face the future.