To catch the bug, learn from the spider

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Software is a precarious, multi-layered bricolage, always evolving. If something in the new code conflicts with the old, the system crashes. We call this a bug.

The metaphor applies to all human systems. To solve a new problem or satisfy a new demand, we build new technology, we propose new norms, we create new narratives. Those come in conflict with existing ones, and the system stalls.

What’s hard is not fixing it. It’s finding where the problem is.

Jordan Peterson, in his ‘9th rule for life’, writes that women are often frustrated by men in conversations. Men want to fix the problem, efficiently and quickly. ‘It might be easier for my male readers to understand why this does not work, however,’ adds Peterson, ’if they could realize and then remember that before a problem can be solved, it must be formulated precisely. Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to – even questioned – to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved.’

Climate change’ is not a clearly formulated problem. We have a carbon emission governance problem. We have an energy grid stability problem. We have a material greed problem. We have a free-rider problem. Only, by formulating each of those problems, and their interaction, can we start solving them.

To catch our bugs, let’s learn from the spider. Patiently lay traps, follow the process, then sit still, like a hunter waiting. And maybe we can save our society from collapse.

Innovation calls for gentleness

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The placenta is a unique adaptive organ among mammals. Its role is to keep peace between the mother’s immune system and the foetus by dampening the mother’s immune response.

This description of the placenta, which I read in David Quanmen’s The tangled tree, made me reflect on this aspect of innovation. That every new idea begins its life as non-self, in the mind of its originator, and in any circle where it spreads.

For innovation to take, therefore, you must reduce immune response from the ego. You must temper the knee-jerk reaction that says ‘this is not for me and I will get rid of it’. You must create conditions calm enough, peaceful enough, that an idea can enter and modify you. 

Innovation requires blurring the barriers of the self. With this comes a sense of vulnerability. Any threat of aggression, therefore, or whatever prompts a lifting of the shield, will reduce the likelihood of new ideas emerging.

As a facilitator, my primary goal is calm. I reduce energy, because innovation threatens the self, and therefore demands gentleness. The same applies to my editorial work. Soften the message, reduce the sense of threat, keep egos asleep.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #11

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.

25 december

I’m obstinate. Tonight, I wanted to watch the first episode of Glee, season 4. The internet was horrible, I had to restart and reconnect dozens of time – but I did it, and I watched it. Today, I decided I would explore the centre of Changsha – and I did. One time, I lost half of a novel I had written. I wrote it again. I have this quality in me, this tenacity, that I will just go and redo as many times as needs to when I have decided something. I think it’s what has led me so far. I may not always decide to do something – I reserve my energy and my decisions for what’s important. But when it’s decided, I do not let go. I decided that I would stand up to X and I did. As I did to Y. I decided I would bounce back after not defending my PhD, and I did.

I have this extreme focused pugnacity. I should know to rely on this more, and take that as a reassurance: if I want it, I will do everything I can for it to happen. But the question is, do I really want it?

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]

The sad truth is

Never trust somebody who starts a sentence with ‘the sad truth is’.

The context

Four years ago, friends and I founded a cultural non-profit organisation called Marco Polo Project. A few months ago, after attending an Asia-leadership event full of cynical corporate workers, I posted a rant on my Facebook wall: ‘What does it say about our current intellectual environment that the first question asked about Marco Polo project is typically not ‘what’s your pedagogical model’, ‘who do you publish’ or ‘why did you develop this’ but ‘who funds it’ or ‘how do you make money’?

Somebody replied: ‘The sad truth is, though, that finanical returns/alternative sources of funding are unfortunately essential for making projects (and the pedagogical models they employ) sustainable.’

Irritated, and amused, I replied: ‘That’s the sad truth. The happy truth is – we haven’t really had financial returns in the first four years, and we’ve survived so far – not growing exponentially, but able to do the job, and regularly trial new things.’

The contention

People will often present statistical probability based on their own ethical outlook under the veil of ‘truth’, and on that premise, disguise ethical decisions as facts. This is dangerous, and should be resisted.

The argument

  1. We live in a world that encourages us to think of our own existence in statistical form. Yet our lives are strictly personal, and probabilities translate existentially to binary alternatives. To take a radical exemple, if you’re having an operation with a 40% survival outlook, by the end of it, you won’t be 40% alive – you will either be dead, or survive. The fact that expected chances of survival are given to you as 40% may lead your decision to have the operation or not, but does not tell you with any level of certainty what your future will be.
  2. ‘Sustainable’ is the biggest keyword in social enterprise and non-profit worlds – even in education. Yet who said cultural ventures need to be sustainable? Maybe writing books and making art is not meant to be ‘a sustainable activity’. Based on historical observation, art seems to flourish in times and spaces where there is abundance, and when abundance ebbs, it dies out. For culture to flourish, we need to create situations of abundance. And maybe the ebb is OK.
  3. That people work for rewards is probably a general truth. Yet what rewards people pursue varies considerably. I did not and do not pursue direct financial rewards through Marco Polo Project. I do seek other types of rewards, and received them. The first was social access – I’ve been invited to join two leadership programs, met with a considerable number of people, and gained their respect. As an educated migrant whose skills and diplomas are non-directly transferable, this is a significant gain. Rather than pay for a degree so that I could run a project, I ran a project so that I am now getting paid to do a degree. The invested cost of running Marco Polo Project was less than a Masters’ in, say, cultural management. The time required arguably identical. The result, I am in a better position to apply for a job in cultural management now. And in the meantime, there’s been a side benefit: I’ve built an organisation, educated language learners, shared Chinese literature, and brought people together.
  4. Everybody recognises that good timing is part of business acumen. Yet few mention patience as a key business virtue. Timing acumen has two logical consequences – either you develop a venture based on what is most likely to succeed now – or you select your own pace of growth waiting for a time when the environment is ripe. Part of patience includes a capacity to be thrifty, and last longer on the same resources. Let’s think more about these old virtues – thrift, temperance, patience – as essential to business success, especially for social entrepreneurs.

The proposition

In a heavily mediated world, where online and offline conversations, comments, arguments are omnipresent, we are in a position to set the discourse. The better story-teller may win the game. So let’s reset – it’s not about ‘the sad truth’, but ‘the happy truth’. And no, I’m not interested in your depressed vision.

(Photograph by Bizarria)