A dialogue on keep trying to find your path in the world of VUCA. (2022-01-21)
Youtube video – https://youtu.be/ioku0ZoH2ss
Hello, Welcome to another episode of this leadership podcast, talkw1. My name is Wan. I’m your host for this episode. In this episode, we have a guest from Europe. He is a husband, father, painter, writer, train-the-trainer, workshop facilitator and his latest book is “Resourceful Exformation”. Please join our hands to welcome our guest today, Francis Laleman. Welcome, Francis!
Hello Siew Onn. Good evening. I’m so excited to be with you today.
Yes, me too! Would you like to share a thing about yourself that I have not shared with the audience and listeners?
Oh yes, that’s so much. Yeah, yeah, what’s the word? What people usually do not know or are very scared of, is when they hear, when they hear that originally I was a Sanskrit teacher. I’ve been teaching Sanskrit and I studied when I was young and then I specialise in Buddhist Sanskrit. And then this brought me to India. And so I arrived in India. So after my studies, this is half a lifetime ago.
Many years ago!
So yeah, half a lifetime. In my perspective, maybe in yours, a whole lifetime. I don’t know Siew Onn. This brought me to India and so I stayed on in India for quite a while. And so you introduce me as a European. But actually I feel like half Indian.
So, I immediately picked up right, so Oh European native in India many years. I presume more than 10 years.
And studying a subject that’s so foreign to me, like, like, I will say, like, like, crypto language for Sanskrit.
You can call it crypto language. Take care of what you say, Siew Onn. Of course many Indians would not agree with this. I say Sanskrit is a holy language, given to the people by whatever is up there.
Yes, yes, yes, yes.
But it is a “crypto” language in a certain way, Yes, because I think, historically the language was reserved to the priesthood. And so it was used in order for it to be not understood by other people,
Of course, this didn’t last long because people listen and you should never underestimate people. People take matters into their own hands, and so after a few centuries, Sanskrit became a common, first mostly courtly language. And Sanskrit and unspoken languages grew into each other, making one big mess.
Yes, yes, I, I think, I think, I would like to appreciate your sharing about the history of Sanskrit and also the sensitivity on this topic. I sense that you have been with this language, Sanskrit and Buddhism for a long time. Is there a story that you can share with us?
Yeah, yeah, you know Siew Onn, I am a product of my generation and of my cultural background. So when I started studying Sanskrit that was at university, at university in Europe and and I read Buddhist texts at a university in Europe. So all this was purely academic and very soon, you know I felt that this cannot be it. These things should not be merely academic. They can be academic, but not just merely that. And if they’re academic, let others be academics. I wanted to have a real experience. So I thought, what can I do? So I went to India and I became a vagrant.
Yes, I spent, I spent many months now, almost half a year as a homeless wanderer sleeping on railway platforms and sleeping in the fields. And the idea was that I would walk in the footsteps of the historical Buddha. I had the Buddhist, the Buddhist tripitaka texts and I would visit all the places where the Buddha had worked, had preached and shared ideas and I would walk in his footsteps and I tried to embody what I had studied. This was a long time ago, and most of it happened in Bihar, which particularly then, and maybe even now, but I will, I want to go deep into this, but truly, then it was like it was wild territory. There was no law and order. It was ungovernable and everyone I met tried to disavow me. Don’t go to Bihar, it is dangerous. Don’t go there. But I was very stubborn and I went anyway. Yeah, I have come across quite a bit of adventures.
You know, the worst of it is being caught and held for ransom by a local police officer in a village near the Nepalese border. All of a sudden pointed his gun at me and took me with him and told me You will have to make someone pay 10,000 rupees if you want to get away from here alive. Well, yeah, and the more amazing thing is that I was planning to travel for a long time, and this was before bank cards and all this was just I had like staple together, money hidden in my underwear. I have hundreds of US dollars with me. He looked at those and he said there was no value to him. He wanted rupees, which I didn’t have. So he kept me in a cage. Like one would keep a dog. Yeah, and then after sometime, after 3 or 4 days, he fed me just a bowl of rice and some water, but he had not counted on the fact that I could read his name because all police officers in India have the name plaque, here in Nagari script with their names.
I addressed him by his name and I said, Mister, you do realise that I intent to leave from this place alive, and the first thing I will do is I will go straight to Patna, which was the capital of Bihar and I will go straight to the Minister and I will report you as a criminal!
And then I said if you want to avoid this, you’ll have to kill me. And then the day after he let me go
Wow, what a story! So I think from this short story, I think I will get a glimpse of you. You value real experience a lot. So you even risk, you are willing to put your personal safety into pursuing this real experience.
Yes, yes, and this is exactly being seriously serious now. I think we have been put on this earth to live through experiences. And we can. We can read books and I love to read books. I have thousands of books in my home in Belgium. And I left them deliberately, deliberately. When I came to Singapore, I just selected like 50 or so and put them in a box. They’re on their way out here, but I have thousands of them. We can study books as much as we want, and we can study articles and we can, but we learn most through the experience of life. And we need to experience life from as many perspectives as we can. You see, I was brought up in a middle class, kind of European kids, and I took everything for granted, just like everybody. You know the fact that I had a home and a warm nest and a house and garden to play in and not to have a television, which I didn’t have. But I took so many things for granted, you know. And we need to get rid of this, the idea of taking things because taking things for granted means that we settle in some kind of a situation of privilege, and before we know what happened, this status of privilege will bring along a sense of entitlement. And then we feel entitled to look around us and judge the world from our privileged position. This is what happened. What has happened for many centuries during colonialism and what still happens in the Big White Empire. And this is, this is what still happens in, in the corporate world and in the hierarchies of … But we need to break this down. We need to disengage, to become unattached to our perspective that we have and we need to be open and ready and eager and keen to live for other experiences. Like when I was a vagrant, I learned much more than I could have learned, if I would have chosen the path of my peers in university and I would have gone straight from Asian studies to business school. And I didn’t go to business school, I became a vagrant and later I became a Buddhist monk. Still later I did, I did thousands of things. I did a whole series of things to earn my living, even for some time owned a record shop. Vinyl records of Jazz music.
Amazing! Initially, I would like to say you have taken an unconventional path, and I felt that it doesn’t show my appreciation. I felt that you have lived an authentic life based on your ideals.
I wonder what is behind this authentic life?
Yeah, I. I hesitate a little bit, Siew Onn. I won’t fully agree with the word, authentic life. Oh, because if you open a dictionary and what does the word authentic really mean? True to yourself?
But I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who that “yourself” is. How can I be authentic? I can only explore. I change. The world changes. Corporate life changes. Politics change. Look at the pandemic. Everything changes. How could I remain the same? I changed as well. So this is my hesitation with the word “authentic”, but taken this as something that I hesitate about it. I don’t know what word we should use instead, you know, let’s take that word for you have given it. But your question was, where does it come from? Um, I don’t know. It came very easy, early in my life. I think it had to do with the fact that I was the youngest, of a series of siblings and I belong to the Baby Boom. You know I’m a boomer. It’s a horrible word for my 13 year old daughter. My father is a boomer. So we had large families. You know, in Post War Europe, people had many kids. In my family, there were 5 kids. I was the youngest, and when I looked around with my peers in school, I was like the smallest family of 7 children and 9 children and 11 children. It didn’t help much because the white races. It’s only 3. So all these kids, it didn’t help much. But whatever I think, it had to do with this, and so I grew up in a family where everybody was grown up, but me. So I had to sort of struggle to get through my childhood. I was sucked into, into conversations and discussions about politics and May 68, you know, peace and love and everything that happened. Kennedy being shot and these are all the anti-Vietnam War and these are all memories that I have the discussions that happened, you know, and I would hide under the table because I was a small kid and then I would hide under the table when the family was having all these discussions and I would look for my mom shoes. I would recognize her shoes and would hurtle myself and nobody would notice that I was away. So very early on, I built this habit of going my own way. And so yeah, you can call it a rebellious adolescence, but the mere fact that you know, when everybody, but literally everybody with brains in the school where I was, a convent school, a boarding school, a privileged school. Everybody would go to university and study machines and law and economics. And you know, like good stuff, you know for careers, you know.
I chose Sanskrit. Why I did that? I knew nothing of Sanskrit. Nothing. I just wanted to study something that nobody else did. There you go.
Oh, I will tell you another thing, Siew Onn. That will interest you. First, I had chosen Chinese Mandarin. And then I went to register for University. And then I came to this window and then the person behind the window said, Okay, what do you want to enrol in? And I said I want to enrol in the first year of what is now called Bachelor of Chinese studies. And she said, this is weird and you are the third — one today, choosing this weird kind of subject. And I said the third — one. Give me back at least. What else can I do? I will take Sanskrit. This is how it happened, almost.
Wow, I think my mind is actually expanding now. I experienced some expansion and there’s a word or a phrase that comes to my mind and I would like to share with you. The word is “finding your path”. Or the phrase.
Yeah, we are finding, finding our paths. And the thing is, this is what we need to do in life. You know we need to find our paths. And what really sucks, Siew Onn is that we will never find our path. We can only try to find it, but that we never will. Because like we change every time. Most of the paths change and then and then, all of a sudden there’s a fork and hence agility. You are active in the agile movement. So am I. This is, this is the idea of being agile. We have to, we cannot set our path towards that goal and that destination. We have to, we have to be, we have to “bend” like, like the bamboo forest in the wind. We have to be like bamboo, you know.
Yes, yes, yes,
Like a stalk of bamboo is very hard. You can cut it down. Use it as construction material, strong and hard. And yet it bends in a strong … It bends and you know what’s better? Even when it bends in a storm, it sings and it plays the drums.
Yes, and after the bending, it actually knows where to go back to.
Actually, I’m curious, since you have “bended” many times since, I think you have, from Sanskrit, Buddhism, and I believe you also learn the different topics.
What helps you to know when to “bend”?
Oh, this is a very difficult question, and because I don’t know. I don’t. This is, I think, where we have to become intuitively skilled. You know when you and I, we know the acronym name SPINE. Yeah, by the way, how beautiful is this “SPINE” also? But what we have there in our back and this is all for it’s like bamboo, right? And yet it ends, and sometimes when you bend too much it cracks. So SPINE stands for intuitive development. So we need to be intuitively skilled, and I think for this question that you are asking me, I will choose to not answer with words. Because that is what intuition is. It’s not answering. It’s something that befalls you. It’s you could think, and I have thought you know that it came from inside me. But now I hesitate. I think it might as well be something that befalls us, and it gives you like this thing. That you need to bend or turn another way like I’ve done recently with my family right? We lived in this big house with 20,000 books in a vibrant, cosmopolitan little city in Europe and we were happy and everything went well, but it befell on us it was time for a real change. And so here we are in Asia now. Not in the India that everyone had thought I would end up in.
Yes, yes, yes.
Again, you know. Everyone I talk to, Francis will end up in India for sure, but here I am in Southeast Asia.
Not only you “bend”, you make a sharp turn. Before we continue, I want to share with you the acronym “SPINE”. so “S” is referring to spiritual development, “P” is physical development, “I” is intellectual development, “N” is intuitive development and last one, “E” is emotional development.
And I’m actually very excited and at the same time, nervous. Because intuition is something, it’s not like uh, I have control. Like I can’t control when intuition comes and goes, right!
So I’m just curious what’s your relationship with this intuition?
Now I love that question because indeed these things are so contradictory. Well, not all of them, maybe, but particularly these. Apparently contradictory to what you expect from business leaders.
Yeah, because you can’t control it. So this is not for managers. If you’re a manager, you will want to manage everything, but this cannot be managed. And as I told you, intuition, I think now professionally I will tell you this. I will whisper it. (In whisper)I think that intuition comes from outside. So we can’t control it. It’s like a typhoon. It comes, it goes. When we arrived in Singapore, I was here on this balcony. You know with a stay-at-home order. There was nothing to do and I stood on this balcony and I watched the thunderstorms come by and go unpredictably. Intuition is like this thunderstorm comes by and then all of a sudden it rains on you. Hey I’m getting it. I’m getting wet. What is this? It must be tuition and then rarely, very rarely you get struck by lightning.
Yes, yes, yes.
Oh look, this is it. But you cannot control it, so it cannot be trained. It cannot be thought of. It can not be learned, I think what we can do with intuition is we can sort of get skilled in being open to it. We have to develop a receptiveness. We have to be receptive. It’s like, like in the agile manifesto or a bit like in the agile manifesto. We have to be receptive to change. And I’m making my own thing of it, but whatever the idea is there, you know it’s about being receptive. It’s about using our senses to to read, to be able to read signals that come by and to be able to to decode the “code”. It’s like code, you know.
Yes, yes. I want to share what comes to my mind. We started with your story, finding your path. And at this junction, it is not only about finding your path, it is also about working with unknowns and uncertainties. And it seems to me that you have trust in intuition.
I just wonder, going forward, right, we know this path may not be very clear, right? I mean, I’m talking about COVID-19 in this path. And I’m just wondering, in your own sense-making, what help you to find your path going forward because of the uncertainties and unknowns?
What would help me? I think the only thing that we could count on. No, it is not a thing. They are only concepts. A phenomenon that we can count on, in order to find this ongoing path, an ever changing path, is a set of values that are deeply ingrained into ourselves, you know, and they can only be humanists. They can only be about human beings. Then at the end and our relationship with our environment. And I’m thinking of them. Of course, the core thing is what, but in English literature is so weirdly called loving kindness. It’s because the actual word from a Buddhist context is “karaniya metta”.
It used to be translated as compassion, but of course it’s not just compassion. It’s more like an embracing kind of warm empathy and “Karaniya” means that needs to be done. So it means it’s a practice. It’s the practice of a value. And as long as we practice this value we will be open and receptive, and because it has to do with empathy and it has to with listening, and this is why, Siew Onn, I want to whisper at you. This is why I am so much in love with clean language. Because it is a tool that helps us not judge, not feeling anything but just be open and receptive and listen and by listening help the other to give shape to her emotions, feelings, shape. Catwalk across by models means some modelling. It’s actually giving shape to something. Yeah, so this is the only thing we can do. And for me, this is the core of our being, the practice of loving kindness. And to my utter humble shame, I have to tell you that I’m not so good at this. Every day, we have to try again, and again, and again, you know.
Yes, yes, yes. I think I get the gist from what you share. Like you say that you are finding the path, actually imply that there is no fixed formula. There’s nothing like a written book. And it’s trying, that is the essence. And we human beings, like some of us, understand what loving kindness is. And it’s not like, you take a pill or you attend a course. And then, well, you have it (loving kindness)
Exactly. That’s it, It’s so hard to define these things that they, so, so difficult to be called in words.
Yes, yes, yes. I think we talk quite a bit, really. I think we talk from your story. And your finding, your mission in finding your path and you talk about your relationship with uncertainties and unknowns. And lastly, you talk about, for the moment, the importance of being loving and kind. I’m curious what keeps you going? I mean in this journey, I mean it has been, I think a while.
Yeah. Siew Onn, when we, when we practice the thing we discussed, we are open and receptive and then you feel, you sense, and you really embody the needs and the suffering that exists in all the phenomena around us. You know, it can be the planet. It can be a small little plant. You know when we lived in Europe, I used to garden on the street. I’m a gardener. And I used to tend the plants on the street. You know the plants that by themselves would shoot up and grow up from between the pavement stones. These little plants and they volunteer to be there and then some maintenance crew would come by and just pull them all. These little plants that have done so much. They haphazardly arrived there and they found their way and they found a way of existence and some people have these neat, neat gardens and you know what’s real. People pull out plants that have volunteered to be there, to put in plants that never choose to be there. Same happens in organisations, you know, in companies we pull out people who volunteered to be there or we refuse them, in order to put in people who actually never really chose to thrive in this environment, but we may be attracted to others. Kind of material reasons like salary or I don’t know. So why are we telling this? Oh yes, because when we are receptive, we feel, we feel the suffering. World is full of suffering. I don’t have to tell you this. You, yeah, and this is what keeps us going.
Yes, you can sense beyond the facade, the difficulties we have, and you say that we’re suffering.
And there was a time when I worked mostly in corporates. And there is even there, you know, and particularly there the main driver is that you feel that there is so much suffering that people don’t do … Can you imagine I was asked to give workshops, teaching people how to talk to one another? You’re such a basic human thing that all of us practice day by day. When people come into a corporate structure. We need a course in communication. Can you believe this?
What kind of suffering must be behind it?
Yes, yes, I think that itself may be a topic for another book. I sense that you, kind of like having a compass. I think the compass that you say is loving kindness, is like a compass for you and compels you or some kind of magic for you to keep on finding your path. And before the end of our conversation,
Oh, we are ending it … Ok, if you want to … That’s a change. A sudden change came to me and I have to elaborate …
Yes, I think in terms of timing, I felt that maybe I would like to offer a question that we know that we are going through more uncertainties and unknowns, and since you have lived your way for a period of time. Do you have something to share with all of us who are trying to, I would say, work with these uncertainties and unknowns?
Yeah, I will humbly try to answer your question. Who am I? But, I think okay… Much more trouble is ahead, as you say. We are living in dire times, but then, on the other hand, also between parentheses … Maybe the world has never been as nice place, as good place as now. I don’t know. Who are we to know? We didn’t live all the time, so we didn’t experience it. But anyway, we will need… We will need the skill of adaptation and agility and if you ask me, the most persistent thing that is in the way is … Let me call it our pretence. All of us, we pretend so much. And you know this. I particularly experienced in a corporate sphere where … You know where the pretence is in hierarchy and people have … people dress up very strictly in order to go to work, perhaps mistakenly believing that quality is in appearances. Perhaps? Who am I? I don’t know, but I see that people are like straight jackets in a certain direction very often. Into what we easily call a career path. Of course these career paths are dependent on career goals and then we live a life with this career path as an existing condition. Like, so many managers and leaders … So many people you know have built their lives materially on the credit of a future that they think is guaranteed. In their career, and they become indebted materially, indebted to banks and owners. Because.. So I think this is just an example of this kind of pretence. So my message would be to everybody drop it, drop it. I know today when we go out, of course, please wear a mask, but figuratively speaking, drop the mask, stop suffering from the imperatives of these career highways that are predestined towards success. Drop it and be natural. I don’t say be yourself. Because who are we? I don’t even know who, but look at how you know the age that I prefer. When I observe human beings are like preschoolers, look like little toddlers. They behave before they have been ever bullied or punished or admonished. Before that, a toddler by nature is open to whatever comes, to whatever happens. And something hurts, they cry. And something funny happens, they laugh. That is the state that we need to try to achieve in our adult lives, and then they show me happiness. That is leadership. This is taking leadership of your own life. It’s becoming a toddler. Then it is when you are a toddler. You will automatically love everyone around you to be a toddler like you.
Well, what an amazing message to be a toddler again! Is it a good time to pause our conversation?
If you want to …
Thank you. Thank you for the story and your messages.