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The M”bius Forum:

I sincerely hope the M”bius conference will become an HBS institution. Everything was just great, and the organizing team did an amazing job putting it all together. I was so interested that even hearing Dean Clarke telling for the third time his story of

“the-section-who-ripped-apart-the-Honda-case-in-front-of-the-CEO” was a delight. Once again, I was sorry that he only had one great teaching experience in his career, but he really can feel better now that the conference proved to be a huge success.

What was the conference about? The debate took different forms – work/family, business/ethics, leadership/spirituality, money/faith… – but I believe it was dealing with only one issue: how to live a multi-dimensional life.

If you think about it, we spend most of our time living in one-dimensional value systems. Be it the grades in pre-school, the sport results or the MBA rankings, there is a natural tendency to compress complexity on a single and simple scale. It’s more or less the same at HBS: did you get a I in Finance, who will be Baker scholar, what is the best consulting firm, which firm pays more? Even Negotiation teaches us to project multiple issue deals onto a linear grading scale.

I believe this simplification to be useful but inappropriate, like the drunken guy looking for his keys under the streetlight, not because they are there, but because there is light. Using a one-dimensional system is like walking the circumference of a circle in search of the center. Life is not like that. It is tremendously complex and it is unlikely that simplifying it gives it justice. Worst, I’m not sure it leads to better integrative decisions. Projecting manager responsibilities unto the mere shareholder returns dimension ignores the very nature of leadership. Similarly, if success in life were only about wealth maximization, I’m sure psychology would be a devastated profession.

Very often, several forces fight for the allocation of our time. To put it simply, let’s say passion (internal desire) and drive (perceived social expectation). It works like a compass: you have the natural north, but any magnet can attract the needle. If you are not aware of the conflicting forces at play, you’ll end up following the random resultant of the two magnetic fields, with a high probability of getting lost. If, like this guy I know, you dream of becoming an architect but are driven to become an investment banker, you’ll probably finish with a collection of architecture books in your cozy I-Banker office, indulging nostalgically upon what your life could have been.

My personal opinion is that our first responsibility is to acknowledge the existence of such multi-dimensional value systems. According to statistics, it is virtually impossible to really raise a child and to have a traditional career. Deciding to follow one value system in priority is a personal choice and there is no good or bad decision as long as it is a conscious one. I believe we never suffer from a choice, just from the absence of it. Ignoring the existence of multiple value systems can only lead to situations where one loses the control of his or her life, and surrenders the responsibility of the decisions to external circumstances.

Recognizing the importance of those complex evaluation systems is critical to a meaningful life, because it is probably at least composed of 3 usually conflicting dimensions: work, family and personal passion.

Once you are clear on your own conflicting value set, your responsibility is to decide how to balance the different aspects of yourself in a given situation or in a more dynamic perspective. Because being conscious of the conflict does not mean solving it, quite the contrary. To my mind, this is the secret of healthy multi-dimensional lives: because tensions are never resolved, they led to creative solutions that reinvent themselves as time goes by. Refusing cookie-cutter answers and forcing yourself to reassess each situation on different scales is a way to claim control over your life in all its rich complexity.

You are probably sceptical. It’s very nice, you may be thinking, but how do you make comparisons then? I don’t know. Would you rather betray your work for your family, your family for yourself, or yourself for your job? I don’t know. Who got it right: the poor but happy family man, or the wealthy but divorced business tycoon? I don’t know. But rather than illustrating the weakness of the system, I believe my ignorance shows its force. What is comparison anyway, if it’s not the game of placing people or things on a predefined and external scale of value? The multi-dimensional value system doesn’t allow that. Because it denies judgement, it frees every person to become self-referred and to invent his or her own life in accordance with the dynamic conflict of his or her own inner values.

The M”bius strip is a three-dimensional object with just one two-dimensional face, and as such is a wonderful symbol of this forum. Because a non-judgmental and mutually understanding dialogue between different value systems is exactly what we need to give our lives all the dimensions they deserve.

April 22, 2002
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