Reflecting on my practice – the limits of social enterprise

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.

One of the most important things I learned from my father is that our economic system does not reward work based on social utility.

I’ve been working around social innovation circles for about ten years now. Repeatedly, I have come across a fervent statement that people working on social good have an unhealthy relationship to money, that we must not demonise money, that we must reconcile profit and purpose.

That discourse has always irked me for its short-sightedness.

Even in a narrow for-profit framework, the question is not just how much return you get on your effort, but risk and time-horizon. When you focus on social good, impact is added to the list. And this is where things get confused.

In a Lunchclub conversation last year, I heard from an architect about the second and third order consequences of the Sydney Opera House. Its construction used a range of new technologies, that were trialled then, and gave birth to new industries. Once built, it served as an icon, prompting tourism, and a sense of civic pride. Such positive externalities are retrospectively visible, if not clearly measurable. They benefit the collective – but cannot be directly listed on the developer’s bottom line.

If impact is truly what matters, then economic returns are ill-suited to measure and guide it. And if impact is not what matters, then pretending is hypocrisy. 

Any discourse on balancing income and social good says: favour the venture that will yield a predictable income in the short-term, over the one that might result in large scale impact. It therefore creates a norm that discourages radical risk-taking intended to benefit the collective.

Not to mention, balancing profit and purpose creates a vested interest in the current paradigm. If you rush to monetise your social impact in the current economy, your long-term interests become tied to the present logic. Or as the Gospel says, where your treasure is, there also your heart is.

Is social enterprise, then, nothing but a desperate attempt at saving capitalism? And by promoting it, are we not distracting driven, ambitious, promising young people from more important work – tying them down to the present system, and preventing them from embracing a more radical approach – one that * could * prove much more impactful?

Values cards project – acceptance

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: So, when I think of acceptance I think, is it a virtue? If it’s about the capacity to accept any type of difference, then we’re in the field of pop philosophy. It sounds like accepting everything and detaching from the world, Buddha style. But then, how do you manage that kind of society?

What you might end up with is a group of ‘perfect beings’, and the rest. That’s what you see with the Cathares in France, and you see the same thing in Thailand. Thai Buddhism, the ‘Little Vehicle’: it’s about personal practice, with a clear distinction between the perfect and the non-perfect. It’s very different from Chinese, Korean or Japanese Buddhism, where the goal is to reduce the suffering of other people – and so, it’s also about playing a role in the community.

B: Yes, there’s this kind of extreme realism in Asia. While monotheism is more a project of self-transformation.

A: I also think that acceptance sounds a bit like nihilism. When you of an extreme level of acceptance, it’s actually not something you would want. You don’t give a shit because nothing matters. It’s harder to spread high level enlightenment than nihilism – and so, when you try to promote acceptance, you might just promote nihilism

B: Another way to think of acceptance is to frame it as politeness, where you ‘round up the angles’. I do that with a colleague: you don’t give up on your own internal shape, you just present it in a way that reduces conflict. That’s politeness, it’s both self-acceptance – you know your own shape – and self-transformation – you transform some of the outer layer, or you angle in a way that avoids conflict. In fact, acceptance might even be a preamble to resolve conflict. It allows you to communicate better, because you’re not in denial, and you can tell it like it is. It’s also the underlying principle of non-violence communication. Before you can express you feelings and needs, you must be able to accept them.

A : In Japan, we say that people can ‘read the air’, but in fact, it’s more about the capacity to understand the prevailing norms. It’s about information sensing. Japan is a very unified and uniform society, so things work even if people don’t understand each other. Now if you look at the US, you have to make everything explicit, because there are no more unified norms.

B: When I think about acceptance, I also think about tolerance, in its physical sense: tolerance as strength, what makes it so that a bridge does not collapse when a big trucks goes over. It’s about the capacity not to break down when there is something unforeseen or undesirable.

A: I like that. But acceptance is not the same as tolerance. It doesn’t stay in a place of discomfort.

B: Yes. It’s like there is a form of realism in acceptance – and so, it ties back with prudence. Once I’ve accepted that there are trucks outside my door, I accept this as being reality. Then I can change strategies to change it, or I can accept this new situation and change myself, or I can sell my house and move elsewhere – change the context.  So I wonder if a way of understanding this more was to ask, what would be the opposite of acceptance? Is it belief? Idealism? And so, is acceptance like a cousin of realism, which is a form of prudence?

A: Well, here’s another example: Islam in France. France has this ‘state atheism’. Islam is challenging the atheistic vision of the world – but that’s also because this French idealism is projected onto Islam. A more realistic way to approach this would be to say that there are different value systems, and a significant part of the population has one that’s different. Then the question becomes, how can we adapt our society within the system collapsing?

B: Yes. It goes back to Buddhism right? We suffer because there’s a gap between our expectations and reality, and that’s not useful. Then acceptance is a way to reduce suffering.

Prudence – week 9

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This week, I reflected on prudence and priorities.

While practicing fortitude, I let most of my regular planning slip off – to simply focus on the present and exercise. On the first of returning to the practice of the virtue, I carried with me some of that wisdom, and deliberately restrained the range of my activities. I was in Adelaide for a conference. My default approach would be to move around the city through the day, looking for good food and memories. Instead, I limited the scope of my movements to a small set of streets in the East End, while working on a paper due the next day. I prioritised rest and work over exploration – and was immensely satisfied.

There is a lot of hype around the abundance mindset – if only we could think beyond scarcity, what would then be possible! Sure – but prudence also demands that we recognise where scarcity exists, and how we might best deal with it. In the opening speech of the LCNAU conference, a local MP came to speak and invited language teachers to do more this and more that – sure, but if we must do more of and more of, without ever doing less of – then we shall burn out, and give up. Instead, I anchored my talk in this idea: by understanding the new digital tools available for Chinese language education, could we figure out what we might be able to do less of?

Prudence combines active decision-making, and the subtle art of going with the flow. At the LCNAU conference, for two days, I followed natural affinities, spent fun times with people I got along with and had further chats with a few people I already knew, and might want to work with on existing projects. There were a number of experts in indigenous language education. I had been keen to meet some of them to discuss potential new projects – yet, on this occasion, didn’t. Was it a missed opportunity, something I should mourn over and resent myself for? Or should I rather think of it as a small step forward, and a wise way to approach each thing in its time?

I flew to the Philippines on Wednesday, 7h45 minutes on the plane. I normally would have fallen for the big Hollywood pictures, but noticed, increasingly, that they do not nurture me. Since I was heading to Manilla for a ‘mindful media’ program, I thought I should apply prudence to my choice of cinematic fiction on the plane. I read, and watched the two Chinese movies on offer instead of War for the Planet of the Apes – which triggering long, cathartic flows of tears, and had the added benefit of allowing me to practice my Mandarin.

There’s a thing I would like to call the ‘if only’ mindset: when a place or a person appeals to us – if only that one annoying characteristic could change. Manila, certainly, calls for this – if only the traffic was better. Maybe, but cities, and individuals, are systems of interconnected parts, and who knows if what people rave on about – the friendliness and resilience of the people – is not somehow connected to the crazy traffic. This is not to say that we should never aim for change, and accept everything as it is – but rather, that we should appreciate places (and people) as they are, in the moment, appreciate that the most irritating aspects could be directly connected to what we most love about them – and when we wish for change, be very very careful what we specifically wish for.

Friday was the beginning of the School of Slow Media Remix program – three days of Mindful media training. We finished the design of one activity the previous night at 11pm, some were not even entirely completed that night – and yet, it was a brilliant success, deeply transformative, and moving. I cried at times, while participants mapped out their ‘story universe’ on the floor of Pineapple Lab, and later, when Samuel presented the principles of Slow Media. Participants were moved as well, it seemed – and, as far as I could see, teams were bonding fast. Things do not need to be perfect in order to work – in fact, sometimes, cracks and imprecisions in the run sheet allow for on-the-moment creative insights, and make a facilitated program alive, and fertile. Consciously delaying completion goes against our perfectionism and anxiety, but may be the condition for truly great things to come to the world.



On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

Purple is for education, no culture


In October last year, I was living in Nanjing, and I organised a translation night at a local cafe, with the Nanjing University graduate student English club. The local branch of an Australia-China Youth Association partnered with us. Their role was to bring in Westerners – their people told me they would have no problem bringing in 10 or 15 people. But on the night, only one Polish girl turned up. Furious organisers from the Nanjing University graduate student English club requested apologies – which I managed to deliver. They had brought 25 people, expecting interactions with foreigners, why did I promise ten, and only one came? There was not too much harm in the end, but some disappointment.

I later debriefed with the president of the partner Australian Youth association, and another Australian friend. ‘What time was your event?’ one of them asked. ‘6h30 to 10pm’, I replied. Both Australians had a smirk: ‘Now that makes sense. People just won’t come at that time. It’s a Saturday evening, at 6h30 they’re preparing dinner, then they’re having dinner, and then they’re going out for a drink.’ The tone was condescending, but I stood my ground. ‘People won’t come at that time? Well,’ I replied, ‘twenty five Chinese people came. We might have to deal with a cultural issue here.’ Yet I wasn’t really surprised – neither by the touch of unconscious racism, nor by the poor rate of showing up among Westerners. When I organise events in Melbourne, Aussies rarely come – while Chinese people do turn up.

On the night, in Nanjing, I ended up chatting with three people who’d come as observers. As I found out, one was the head of the Nanjing University Business club, one was the head of the international club, and the third was a friend of theirs, managing editor of a Shanghai-based online magazine specialising in digital media. They’d heard of our event, and were interested.

I went out for dinner with them – a local street restaurant, serving the best barbecue fish in town. Another friend was with us, highly educated Chinese woman writing a Master’s thesis about the reception of European modernism in China. Our conversation was warm, smart and friendly – the Chinese internet, the Chinese video games industry. Then we spent a long time comparing the power structures of the communist party with those of the Catholic Church, alternating between English and Mandarin. I became good friends with these three guys – and as it turned out, through one of them, I found myself one handshake away from Mohammed Yunus, and connected with a group of Guangzhou based innovators and IT entrepreneurs. I think these people will do stuff – and I built the foundations for ongoing relationships with them. How did I achieve that? I rocked up at an event, and I demonstrated a respect for culture.


The Victorian government organised a trade mission through China, which culminated in a Shanghai event at the Pudong Shangri-La. Hamer scholars were invited alongside alumni of Australian Universities to meet the delegates and a few Victorian ministers.

The formal part of the ceremony started with a moving speech by a very wealthy Chinese investor who told us about his time of studies in Melbourne, where he discovered the full value of education and curiosity – which he called ‘the Australia spirit’. In his reply, our Premier expressed his own version of ‘the Australian spirit’, by quoting at length how much income Victoria derived from education exports, in full dollar value. Was I the only one to wince and experience a tinge of shame?

The overall event organisation was chaotic, unsurprisingly, given the large attendance. There was a table plan for the dinner, and coloured laniards for each profession. I tried explaining I worked in the cultural sector, and was there a colour for that? But the Chinese hostess replied, pointing to a pile of laniards: ‘purple is for education, no culture’. I later wandered across the tables, and bumped into one of the organisers. ‘I’m trying to find a table with people working in the cultural sector’, I said. ‘Good luck’, she replied, and left.

I ended up sitting alongside a very nice young Chinese woman, who worked in a bank, but considered a career shift to language teaching ‘I’m a Christian, I like to help other people’. Other people were boozing up on Yarra Valley bottles, while an ad about ‘Dairy Victoria’ rotated on the centre screen. I left early to get back to Nanjing, slightly bitter – with a sense of lost opportunity and misalignment.


In December, I went on a ‘great trip down south’, to Guangzhou via Wuhan and Changsha. I had never heard of Changsha before, and Wuhan was just a name on the map. I learnt it used to be the centre of ‘Chu’ culture, one of the three great cultures of Ancient China; the Dao De Jing manuscript had been found nearby; it is called ‘the Chinese Chicago’; ten million people live there.

I visited the Hubei Museum, and was confronted headfirst to thousands of years of history – and a tradition I was entirely ignorant about. I would normally count myself as well-educated. Yet in this museum, for the first time in many many years, I felt a very deep and almost shameful sense of ignorance.


There’s a quote I really like by Sergio Pitol, a Mexican diplomat and writer, back-slapping Americans: “in my country, it’s not respectable to be ignorant”.