Values cards project – Order

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: In Art of Hosting, there’s an interesting model where we place order in-between chaos and control. You’ve actually got four ‘states’ that things can be in: there’s destruction, chaos, order and control. Most businesses like to operate somewhere between order and control, but creative organisations must find a way to work between chaos and order, without self-destroying. I find that the model explains a lot, about organisations, and about politics. If you look at the Yellow Vests in France, here’s a possible grid of interpretation. That democracy needs a minimal amount of order to work. If there’s not a proposal that makes sense in relation to some sort of order, then there is no politics. But with that movement, it’s not about creation, it’s not even about destroying something, it’s just pure shapelessness. And this shows – many people believe they’re doing politics, when they’re actually just flapping around.

B: I’ve always found that it’s a clear sign of stupidity when you say that you should destroy structures to be free. But then, it depends on your implicit model of what the world is. I see two categories of people: you believe that the world is essentially constraining, and so freedom is destroying that constraint. Or you think the world is chaotic, and freedom is about giving shape to something – the creative impulse is about creating order from chaos. I think that’s where my interest for China comes from, there you find the idea that chaos is more dreadful than too much order.

A: I think the distinction between order and control is an important one. And for the categories of people you spoke about, the first set would probably see control as a form of oppression.

B: Another thing I thought about is, when you say ‘order’, we have that expression, ‘to give an order to someone’. When there is order, it means some people can give orders, and we know that those orders will be executed. That’s what happens in a military organisation. And any type of strategic thinking, it’s about asking, what orders will be obeyed or not?

A: I’m looking at Wiktionary now, and there’s 26 different definitions for order. It’s a very polysemic word. Maybe we need to invent a new word for that meaning I spoke about, in Art of Hosting. A word that describes the type of structure where freedom is possible?

B: For people who think of order as a value, they must appreciate a measure of rigidity. They put that over freedom. What if it’s like that, order has to do with a certain organisation of meaning. And rigidity is… there are elements you can lean on. It’s like a skeleton, if you want to stand up, you need something to be rigid somewhere. Without a bone structure, you’re just a blob on the floor.

A: Then, there’s a set of people that seem to have this epidermic reaction to hierarchy, and they’re all about delegated or distributed leadership. I wonder if it has to do with what we’re saying?

B: I’m more interested in hierarchy as a way to get protected against abuse.

A: What about we see it like this? Structure is static, it’s about the way the parts are arranged. While order is dynamic, it’s about things moving in a predictable way, because people obey.

B: Well, if you look at something like ‘the order of doctors’, there’s a status quo there, so there is some rigidity.

A: Maybe it’s maintaining status quo is essential for a living organism to survive. Homeostasy. You need something to stay the same so that other things around it can change.

B: Looking back at those two categories I spoke about, maybe there’s a common way to see things, but different fears. Some are more afraid to be turned into stone, others are more afraid of falling apart.

A: It’s like, in zombie movies. They’re all about human society. All zombie films are about that, what makes our society hang together, and how fast can it be destroyed? And what are the primary instincts that come out when things start falling apart? I Think I would survive better in an environment where things are out of control, and everything need to be rebuilt, than one where there is so much control I could only just survive, but nothing more.

B: I think, my experience was, I grew up in a very chaotic family. So, I’ve got this belief that chaos is the fundamental structure of the world. I always expect chaos.

A: While I grew up in a very functional middle class family, but I experienced chaos when I lived in Africa and in South East Asia. There’s an exoticism to it, but when I’m in chaos, I can feel that I’m not in my natural environment.

B: That’s interesting, because I see the world as just equally chaotic everywhere.

A: While I sense a clear difference between chaotic places, and non-chaotic places.

On the writer as a project manager

In my Linkedin header, I identify as a writer and educator. I never studied business, or anything resembling business – yet over the past ten years or so, I realised I have done a pretty decent job at project management. Though the skills required are not exceptionally original, I certainly saw that not everybody did well at it. I’ve reflected quite a bit on this unexpected skill, and came to realise that project managers and writers have a lot in common.

1) Situation A to situation B

A fiction plot takes a protagonist, or a set of characters, from situation A to situation B. That is exactly what project management is about: where are we at, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?

2) Who’s doing what?

The most central element of project planning is breaking down a big vision into a set of tasks, and assigning them to different people, trying to match task with character. This is what writers also do. And as for communication, writers have to figure out not just action and characters, but also voice and point of view: at all times, be very clear who’s doing what, what they know, what they see, and how they would describe whatever is happening.

3) Writing is a skills

Project management requires producing a large number documents – beside the project plan itself, there is web-copy, collaterals, team briefings, minutes, and endless emails and text messages. Writers are, generally, rather good at writing. And we make a pretty decent job of producing all of these business documents. Generally, we even manage to get our point across rather well.

What should we get from this? 

Teams and businesses are often looking for an ‘admin’ person, or a ‘business manager’. The best match may very well be a writer, someone who will listen to the story, and turn that into clear, structured written material. So if you’re looking for a new staff member to support project management, admin and strategic support – get a writer in there.


Values cards project – structure

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 find it strange that structure is listed as a value. Something can be well structured, or badly structured, but structure in itself, how is it a value?

B: Well, when I think of structure, I think about a hippie share house, you know, where under cover of freedom, everyone can impose their desire on everyone else – and it’s just a matter of arbitrary power. If you want real freedom, you need a minimum of order.

A: That’s a basic principle in the art of hosting. You set up boundaries, and so the structure matters. There’s a hippie vibe to the movement, but it’s not chaos. I’m thinking of those political and social movements that are not structured, the Yellow Vests, Occupy. There’s commentators saying that this is the real voice of the people – but it’s only chaos. The guy with the strongest voice is heard, the guy with the best Facebook video is heard. It’s surprising, actually, how people do not understand the system around them, how democracy works, how it favors a caste of people who know the system, or have the resources to understand it more efficiently. And they believe that in total chaos something good and new can emerge.

B: That’s where I like to call myself a conservative. If something’s been around for a while, you know that you can live with it, or you would be dead already. There’s something like that about structures, a conservative wisdom: better the devil you know. That’s one of the points I think I have an attraction for Asia – the social structures – I see them as a façade, something that’s very good at protecting the individual.

A: I’ll agree with you on that one. It’s much more oppressive to pretend that something artificial is natural than to set a structure that is explicitly artificial, and ask everyone to follow. Foreign businesses in Japan are a good example of liberating the surface to control the essence of the work. By contrast, in traditional Japanese companies, there’s a lot of control over the ritual, but that’s a way to give staff members autonomy. If you’re happy to play the game, and if you don’t see it as useless, then you can get all sorts of things done. If you’re a western consultant, you think all these structures and rituals are not rational and you destroy them – but you miss their social function in the organisation of work – and everything falls apart.

B: There may be something there about human passion. Fear. I think we’re all terrified of chaos, and we can’t do things together without addressing this fear of chaos. That’s why we put structures in place. I’ve seen this in churches. The ones where the ritual is very structured, where there’s a stable form, they’re also the most open theologically. While the loose happy clappy ones have a much more dogmatic message. Same with the monarch. I think people need a symbol of cohesion that is not purely rational, this allows for greater freedom, and that’s exactly what the Queen does.

A: Well, you would see this in France, where the president is supposed to be above parties, but is actually supporting one party. This can be extremely dangerous.

And so yes, as we said, I think we have a sort of aversion for chaos. Apart from certain dysfunctional people who might like chaos, and seem dysfunctional because they are likely to create chaos. And that would be how structure becomes a value. Not in itself, but as a protection against chaos.

Corona thoughts – obsessive cleanliness

I never understood obsessive cleanliness, but always knew that it’s a thing. When I was growing up, I had two cousins who were ‘maniaque’, as the French used to say: “you could eat on the floor in their place.” The rest of us mocked them, slightly – and I never quite understood them. Why spend so much time on something so pointless.

Covid-19 taught me something in that regard. I have read descriptions of the virus surviving on surfaces for hours, entire days even. And noticed myself, going out of my apartment, relating to the built environment differently. I touched a doorknob, pressed on the elevator button. There might be germs, and they might kill me. I even bought an antiviral aerosol, and found myself spraying doorknobs, table surfaces and phone screen. Was this the way my cousins had related to their homes the whole time?

I wonder, then, how Covid-19 will impact our desire to control, and our capacity to let go. For isn’t obsessive cleanliness a desire to control: through bleach and mop, make the surrounding world an extension of the self, by destroying any trace of ‘pollution’.  The virus is an alien presence, threatening our sense of continuity with the world. Will we let it take over surfaces, textiles, and doorknobs, and accept its destructive potential – or will we not give up on controlling it, and bleach it out of our self-isolated existences?

On hoovering

I can’t work if the floor is dirty. Flakes of paper and flecks of dust on the carpet impair my concentration.

I work from home on most of my projects. I enjoy it, and feel productive. The commute from bedroom to study never includes passive-aggressive proximity with another commuter. I avoid all office politics, fridge wars and mug rage. But my office doubles as a home. Therefore, it gets dirty faster – and I don’t have an invisible night cleaner to fix it for me.

The floor is the weakest point. My house has dark blue-grey carper, where breadcrumbs and paper stand out sharply. But cleaning the floor is many steps more complicated than wiping the breakfast table. I have to go to the bathroom, grab the vacuum cleaner from the corner, plug it in the living room, and hoover the floor.

Today, after an early stretch, I felt a block. I gathered my notebooks into my back and headed out to nearby Stellini Cafe for a short productive stint on planning two coming meetings. After a 45 minute burst of efficiency,  I didn’t linger. The table was small, there was no Wifi, and I had things to draft in Google Docs.

As soon as I got back in, my energy vanished. I knew the floor was the cause.

Often, irrational needs keep us from moving ahead. Often, we refuse to acknowledge our own irrational needs, and try either to negate them, or rationalise them. Meanwhile, we don’t accomplish much. There is no deep rationality why specks of dust and breadcrumbs on the floor prevent me from focusing on stuff. But I can take it as how things are – an arbitrary fact about my own mind. It takes only five minutes to clean, and doubles up as a work out. So – why am I regularly not doing it?

On categories

When I lived in Paris, I had a friend who worked in auction houses. He taught me this: “There’s a collector for everything. My art is to place an object in the category most appealing to collectors.” Is this chest of drawers an heirloom from a Belgian celebrity baron, or a rare piece of Art Nouveau furniture? Is this a letter about the first World War, or a rare autograph from a famous pacifist?

We carry categories in our heads, by which we make decisions. Breakfast food, lunch food, snack food. Person I could work with, person I could sleep with. There’s a collector in all of us. Some are simply more overt about it, or their collections are more immediately visible. What is yours? Dates, shirts, food photographs, or vintage teddy bears?

Our world is a complex web of relationships and comparisons: things, people, we rarely let them ‘be’: we sort and filter Or if we do let someone or something ‘exist’, it’s only because we decided that they should belong to that category, ‘things that are unique’.

As these networks intersect, constant struggles occur, to debate where things and people fit, and how they relate. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, useful, useless, familiar, foreign. It is a rhetorical battlefield with clear practical stakes, where strategies differ. Confrontation is one: my things are better than yours; another one is stealth: the things I want, let’s hide their true value from others; seduction is a third: the things you want are things I have.

On clutter

I imagined this personal initiative: the ‘cubic metre project’. When I migrated to Australia, my belongings fit in a 1m3 box. Over seven years, clutter has accumulated. My apartment is 50 m2, with tall ceilings about 3.5m high. That’s 175 m3 in total Enough for two people and parties, not for junk. So, could I get rid of 1m3 in a day?

It was less difficult than I thought.

First stop around the bin. In a minute, I got rid of a bulging ‘bag of bags’, full of useless plastic and air. Second stop, my study. A few months ago, I went through my bookshelves, and selected about 40 books  to donate. They were still sitting in a pile. I slid them inside an old shopping trolley. They’re now ready for the op shop. Third stop, a quick run through perishables. Curry paste from 2014, sweet soy sauce from 2012, almond cordial from 2010, I bid thee farewell. They joined a broken suitcase, a useless plastic jug, and worn out pillow cases in the bin downstairs.

“Decluttering” is a popular trend. People have read the book, ‘minimal aesthetic’ equates happiness. Many resist, of which I am: are things really that evil? Or maybe, we just don’t want to painfully sort through piles of emotionally loaded mementoes, papers, books, photos, or even clothes. But often, half the problem can be solved in an hour. The same wisdom applies to houses as computer hard drives. If it feels clogged, clear the trash.




On mess

One of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners opens inside a house, with a woman cleaning, and wondering where all the dust comes from. As I look at the brown fluffy stuff on the pales of my fan, I ask myself the same question.

Cleaning trains our patience, and our sense of wonder. No matter what, dirt always returns, It’s a thin layer of grit in the corner of the shower or at the base of the tap; it’s a spot on the kitchen pavement; it’s crumbs on the table.

I find its younger brother, mess, more perplexing somehow. I put things in the right place, yet the minute I turn around, they’re all over my apartment. Papers, books, pens, glasses and cups seem to take a life of their own, and occupy as much space as they possibly can, like bodies organise themselves inside an elevator according to some personal space algorithm, maximising spread.

It’s even worse on my computer. Folders mingle, files double up, and the desktop image (a cloudy picture of the Nanjing Lake) disappears under layers of pdf, excel and word icons. I spent half a day tidying during the break. But mess has not been vanquished, only tamed for a while. The first creepers are already there.

Why have I not been trained in properly dealing with mess? All I can remember is a moral injunction to ‘just keep things tidy’ and a faux-philosophical invitation to ‘just let it be’. Never, I believe, was I simply trained to accept that things clutter as a part of any process, and that regular sorting, filing, reordering, is no more than good hygiene. That it’s not through some personal failure that my things get messy, nor a sign that I should respect mess as a product of nature. That I can calmly tackle it as it grows, and prune it back, like a weed; and celebrate its appearance as a sure sign that I’ve been standing on fertile soil.


The sublime and the beautiful

Phil and I had a long walk yesterday, from Carrum to Dandenong, along the Dandenong Creek. The landscape reminded me of Camargue – wetlands, hills on the horizon, long, geometrical lines. A manmade mix of earth and water. Reflections of trees, bird songs, water smells. I kept saying ‘this is so beautiful, this is so relaxing – who needs to go to the bush?’ Philip appreciated the walk, but didn’t quite take my point.
However, he did mention a Taize monk he had met in South Australia, who went in ecstasy over the Barossa valley – and how, at the time, he had found that odd. So we had a little conversation on French aesthetics.
We ended up thinking that the French don’t have a strong taste for the sublime – for nature at its wildest, ready to crunch you, for the landscape, immense, imposing itself on your eyes. That we are more atuned to the midler beauty of a garden, a manmade environment, orderly, which is obviously controlled – restrained. And the slight disruption that comes on this order – a bird flying obliquely over the parallel lines of a canal and its banks.
There is something Japanese in that French love for order. The French garden, with its clipped trees, low squares, and flowers arranged in colour patterns, is not too much unlike the zen arrangement of rocks.
And Victoria, the garden State, may appeal to the French taste in that respect much more than other, wilder, looser States of Australia. Not in vain did I once call it ‘Provence down Under.’