Marco Polo Project – The European dream

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

When you try to build something new, you’ll often be misunderstood. This is common wisdom, yet rarely presented when people share their sense of failure. I clearly remember how, on two distinct occasions, well-intentioned mentors took the wind off my sails. Those are among the bitterest memories of building Marco Polo Project. 

First scene. I’m sitting in my mentor’s office, bright sun outside, whale songs playing on the computer. They’re offering to send introductions for me, and ask ‘help me write this email. Why did you start Marco Polo Project?’ I pause for a while. I’m a reflective extravert and at the time, didn’t have enough questions of the sort. After a moment, I reply: ‘Well, ultimately, it’s about world peace’. I was hoping for a follow up question, a chance to clarify what I meant, and why everything had been so difficult. I get laughter instead. ‘Well, what about we say it’s about bringing Australia and Asia closer together’. I nod, embarrassed, and they send their email. That introduction fell flat. I never asked for that mentor’s advice again.

Second scene. I’m sitting at a café table with my mentor. They’ve been helping me build a business case. I followed their lead, and did my homework. But something was missing – a sense of scope and purpose. On the third meeting, this is where our conversation went. ‘So, what will your project bring to Australia?’ I reply ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t care about Australia.’ The French accent probably made it sound more callous than it was. Yet indeed – this was always a global project, incidentally benefiting Melbourne. This mentor and I never really spoke afterwards.

Looking back, I fell into the common trap of assuming others share my experience of life. I grew up in Strasbourg. The European dream has always been a personal matter of civic pride. When I fell in love with an Australian and chose to migrate, I decided I would carry that European dream to the southern hemisphere. On my first visit, I experienced Melbourne as the cultural capital of a globalised world, where the traditions of Europe and Asia, colonial and indigenous histories, could come together. It had just been appointed as a UNESCO city of Literature, it could be the epicentre of global cultural integration. Here was a place where the European dream of cultural and political harmony could extend to the rest of the world. Marco Polo Project was a vehicle for that vision.

The European Union was explicitly developed as a peace project, a reaction to the Second World War. One of its achievements has been cultural and linguistic integration – mutual linguistic and cultural understanding, a sense of shared history, and of common destiny, among countries that only recently were sending armies against each other. Marco Polo Project was directly guided by the spirit of Europe, which I breathed in from as far as I can remember. It carried an aspiration to extend this peace-building project beyond Europe, through collaborative translation and cultural dialogue, and weave together distinct histories and narrative threads across the continents. It was naïve to believe that the vision would be readily shared – even understood – by people whose worldview was rooted in remote Australia. 

Sometimes, though, we reach our goals in unexpected ways. In 2016, I got a message from an old friend. They were looking for an atypical profile to serve as Chief Editor with the Global Challenges Foundation, in Stockholm, to work on global catastrophic risk. ‘Would you like to help us avoid the end of the world?’ Marco Polo Project was the reason for seeking me out. The peace-making vision I carried from the start had been finally recognised.

I said yes. Beyond personal validation I got precious experience, a good income, new networks, and prestige from this role. Yet for Marco Polo Project, a period of tension started. I would not be capable of taking on the new role, and continue to carry the organisation forward. We sought – and found – a new CEO to take over. With this handover, strategic clarity was crucial. I could no longer rely on my third eye to drive decision-making. Yet the direction was unclear. Should we accept that Australia was not ready for a natively global organisation, and focus on local matters – leaving Europe to look after the state of the world? Or should we take it as a sign that our global ambition was, in fact, at the core of our mission, and never to be compromised?

We didn’t give a proper answer to those questions. Rather, we skirted around. We focused our projects on Melbourne, more narrowly, as a space of experiment, and the direct environment where we would seek impact. Meanwhile, we welcomed opportunities to trial global partnerships – Translation Clubs in Mexico, Japan and Oregon, for instance – and kept our narrative global. We’re still misunderstood, often, but we’re more able to find allies, and ignore the rest.

Values cards project – peace

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: Wow. Peace. It’s so simple, but it’s so difficult.

B: OK, let me start here. A few years back, I was meeting with that woman who used to run a leadership program I attended in Melbourne. I was asking her for help with Marco Polo Project. I was looking for a mentor, and I was asking if she could help me find one. And so, she was asking me – I mean, she was about to send an introduction email to someone – she was asking me, why did you work on Marco Polo Project? And I responded, well, at the core of it, it’s about world peace. And she scoffed, and she said, well, they won’t be taking that seriously. So, we came up with something about intercultural understanding. But that felt like a cop out.

A: And that prospective mentor.

B: We had only one conversation, and it, well, it really didn’t get anywhere. You know, it felt like we were not at the same level of abstraction, so we couldn’t really talk. We were not really, sharing the same world, in a way. But yes, peace, it’s too vast, too complex, too abstract, or taken-for-granted, and so, it’s like you’re not allowed to say that’s what you’re working towards. It doesn’t sound serious.

A: Well yes, when you start talking about peace, you see that ironic smile. I wonder why.

B: It feels like you’re saying you want to join a cult, like you’re talking about the Hare Krishnas or something.

A: Well, there’s something hippie about the word. When you say you care about peace, even when you talk about it, you’re taking a stance right against cynicism. And since cynicism claims to be the only way you can prove your intelligence these days, it’s not surprising.

B: So, question now, would you say that it might be because peace feels like someone else’s responsibility.

A: And yet, you look at people like Monbiot, you look at what Design for Social Impact Leadership is doing, or School of Slow Media, they’ll say, when it comes to peace, there’s no ‘them’, there’s just ‘us’.

B: So, that may be one way to think about it. OK, when we say ‘the government this’, ‘the government that’, the government feels like something external. ‘The government’, that’s them, not us. I mean, when you’re an expat, that’s how it is. There’s no way to join the government, or even influence it. There’s no connection with the government, emotional, intellectual, or just, de facto. But in a democracy, it’s dangerous to speak about the government that way. Though sure, it’s also very convenient to believe that it’s a distant thing out there, and it’s got nothing to do with you.

A: What about we thought about it this way. That peace is odd when we think of it as a noun, as its own thing. Because peace is more like an adjective. It’s a quality that applies to all sorts of other things. Peace is not an objective in itself, that would be weird, but it applies to a whole range of other activities. You can even go to war to get peace.

B: Well, have you seen this documentary? GateKeeper. It’s about the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. It’s a series of interviews with the six directors of security in Israel. And one of the things they say is, actually, that you can’t do peace using war-like processes.

A: So, this would mean, depending on how we do politics, we’ll be going either towards conflict, or towards peace?

B: It’s also maybe that collaboration is harder to learn than competition. When you’re a child, and you’re playing, you learn to make war. You won’t see many children playing peace.

A: I wonder there, is it just because peace is boring? Dead boring. And because to keep the peace, you must make sure that resources are not all accumulating in the one place, and that requires effort?

B: Or maybe it depends on the size of the group. Two people at peace, that’s boring, but when we reach three, four, five, that becomes interesting.

A: What about fair play then? Maybe peace is about having the same rules accepted by all, and accepting defeat.

B: So then, is peace about common laws, and a sense of order? Should we say that peace is just a mechanism that ensures those common laws are accepted and acceptable by all? 

A: How does it work in a company? There’s a number of rules that are imposed, and you go with it because you get paid. But the rules are rarely something you can discuss. There are few mechanisms to change them if they’re not working, or very few. Unless there’s a good boss who decides to step in.

B: So, should we say that there’s a connection between peace and obedience? That would mean, sometimes, obedience is the better choice, because it keeps everything stable. Then we could say that rebellion and blind obedience are like the two poles, two vices in opposition. While deliberate obedience, is the virtue that marks a point of balance between them.

A: Or it’s about choosing consensus, so that the group can stay together.

Values cards project – inner peace

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: Oof! I have an epidermic reaction to that word! It’s that thing life coaches will say, find your inner peace. What’s the assumption? That you should look for some sort of interior peace when things are moving too fast around you? Is this about a kind of peace that you can have complete control over, when there’s too much you can’t control? Like a kind of internal kingdom detached from the external world? Or is it just what you get when you go through Buddhist meditation practice, yoga, something spiritual? And so then I’m thinking, OK, but what is it useful for?

B: I’d say, when I hear about inner peace, it’s like you’re not dominated by your neuroses or your own contradictions. There’s an alignment between passions and desires, what you feel and what you want. And so, you’re free to act. You’re not limited by some uncontrolled desire, or a neurotic block, or a value conflict, or whatever. So, yes, your whole capacity to act, your whole capacity to create, depends on inner peace.

A: So, OK, what makes it a value?

B: Maybe it’s because inner peace is a sign of something. Ignatius says this when he talks about ways to discern between the good and the evil spirit. The voice of the good spirit is like the sound of water dripping on a sponge. That sense of inner peace, that calm, it’s telling you that whatever you’re sensing is right. If you’re feeling all agitated, it means you should hold off. So, inner peace is a value, because it’s telling you that you’re in the right path.

A: Is it about wisdom then? There was this image in Confucius, that wisdom is like a mountain, and intelligence like a river. I wonder then, if there’s something about wisdom that’s about calm, or inner peace.

B: Well maybe. I mean, maybe one way to think about it that peace is about finding satisfaction in something that repeats. There can be a lot happening when you’re at peace, but it’s all cyclical, it’s all stuff that repeats. While conflict is heading towards resolution, transformation. So, there’s something about inner peace that tells you the system is working, and the sign of it that you’ve got a sense of happy calm when you’re in the middle of it.

A: OK, but then what about this thing of inner peace as detachment from external influence then? This whole inner peace thing, I don’t know, it’s just pop Buddhism to me.