January 25, 2013 7:51 pm

The Diary: Gideon Rachman

The FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator seeks out a Buddhist monk on the ‘Secrets of Success’ on his first night in Davos
An illustration of a cable car©James Ferguson

On my first night in Davos, I sought out the company of a Buddhist monk. Matthieu Ricard is a familiar figure in the corridors of the World Economic Forum. There are not many delegates striding around in flowing crimson and orange robes. He was booked to appear as a speaker at a dinner on “Secrets of Success”. A hint that the answer might be spiritual came in the accompanying quote – “It matters not how long we live, but how.”

The drill at these dinners is that you show up at the relevant hotel and plonk yourself down at the table of a speaker you would like to meet. At Ricard’s table, I got chatting to a young Australian woman who said she now lived in Denmark and appeared to adore the country. “What do you do, there?” I asked. There was a pause. “I’m the crown princess,” she replied. I felt myself blushing as red as Ricard’s robes. If only I had glanced down at her delegate badge, which, I now saw, said quite clearly – “Crown Princess Mary”. “I never really know how to answer that question,” said the princess compassionately. After an appalled silence, I blundered on – “Well, I guess that might explain why you are so positive on Denmark?” “Yes,” she agreed, “I couldn’t really say, ‘I hate the place,’ could I? But it really is a wonderful country.” Subsequent research revealed that the Crown Princess was brought up in Tasmania and met the heir to the Danish throne during the Sydney Olympics.

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Gideon Rachman

I must admit that I had a low ulterior motive in going to the “Success” dinner. I had hoped that I might witness a hideous festival of hypocrisy, full of ruthless millionaires crying into their merlot about their lack of spiritual fulfilment. Judged by that criterion, I’m afraid the “Success” dinner was a bit of a failure. The conversation was really interesting and there were only occasional flashes of ludicrous self-indulgence. The first speaker was Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist based at New York University, who argued that there is a distinction between success and happiness. But although the achievement of an ambition usually does not bring lasting fulfilment, humans may still be hard-wired to strive for success, relative to their peers. He was followed by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel economics laureate, who made an interesting distinction between being happy with your life, as you live it – and happy with your life, looking back on it. Clayton Christensen, a famous professor at the Harvard Business School, argued that just as the successful strategy for a business is often not the one they start out with, so personal success and happiness often emerge through a process of adaptation to circumstance. As for Ricard, he argued that “fame, power and money” are mirages and that comparing yourself to others is a sure route to unhappiness. True happiness lies in helping others, he remarked, waving away the fish course. “You don’t eat fish?” I asked. “They are all my friends,” he replied, in an accent, which is still faintly French, after more than 40 years living in the Himalayas. I was intrigued to find out why a Buddhist monk should also be a Davos devotee? His motives, it turns out, are quite straightforward. He lives in Nepal and runs a number of humanitarian projects across the region.

Davos is a great networking opportunity for NGOs, from the Gates Foundation to Ricard’s Karuna-Shechen. On closer investigation, it turned out that Ricard is no simple monk. He has a PhD in cellular biology and is also the son of the noted conservative philosopher, the late Jean-Francois Revel – which might explain why he is completely relaxed debating with Nobel prize-winners.

. . .

Despite all the wisdom imparted at that dinner, I fear that I still may be trapped in the social-climbing mentality that I now recognise leads only to prolonged misery. How else to explain my pleasure when I received an email inviting to me “a very special Davos party with a secret performance from a “legendary musician?” The host is Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur portrayed in the film, The Social Network. As far as I can recall, in the movie his partying featured drugs, under-age sex and police raids. My expectation levels were ratcheted up another notch by the promise on the email that, “printed invitations will be delivered by hand, tomorrow”. Exciting! On the other hand, a suspicious number of rather unglamorous people of my acquaintance also seem to have received the Sean Parker email. Maybe it is all a giant hoax? I will know by the weekend, when the party is meant to take place. And if it all ends in disappointment and snow-based humiliation, then I can always take up Buddhism and seek an alternative and less shallow path to fulfilment.

. . .

On the train up to Davos, I gloomily reviewed the list of interviews I have arranged at the World Economic Forum: the prime minister of Guinea, the Indonesian candidate to be the head of the World Trade Organisation, the chairman of AngloGold Ashanti mines, the head of cyber-security at Huawei – or had I managed to palm that last one off on a colleague? If the list sounds fairly random, that is because it is. In the weeks running up to Davos, I (in common with many other journalists) am bombarded by PR people trying to arrange meetings for the clients or organisations that they represent. Sometimes – in a moment of weakness or optimism – I will agree to some unpromising sounding rendezvous and then curse as, days later, I find myself trudging through the snow to a distant hotel to meet somebody, who, it frequently turns out, doesn’t much want to meet me either. On the other hand, the PR fixers are usually very happy. Just how happy became evident when, after agreeing to interview someone, I received a triumphant email from the PR guy I’d been corresponding with, saying – “Rachman, signed, sealed and delivered.” I assumed this was probably not intended for me and, indeed, a minute later came a sheepish message asking me to disregard the previous email. I suppose it’s only fair, if I do exactly that. As I discovered at the “Success” dinner, anybody can put their foot in it.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

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