Everyone I know who is happy is working well at something they consider important. Abraham Maslow
I had the opportunity to speak to about 150 10th graders at one of the more selective high schools in Hanoi earlier this week. I chose to speak to them not about overseas study in general or study in the USA or another country in particular but about finding their ikigai, which is related to quality and quantity of life, what to study at university, and which career(s) to pursue after that.
Ikigai, of course, is a Japanese concept that refers to reason for being, the thing that gets you up in the morning, the passion the drives your life. While a seemingly simple concept to define and illustrate, it is not always so easy to find. For students who are 15 or 16 years-old, it is the right time to begin exploring.
I asked them some questions that get at the heart of the matter to help them think more concretely:
- What are you good at?
- What do you think you might be good at but are not sure yet?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What do you have a passion for?
While I didn’t have a projector because the presentation took place outside, I described ikigai as being at the center of what I like to call an existential sweet spot.
I also shared some relevant quotes about time (The key question to keep asking is, ‘Are you spending your time on the right things?’ Because time is all you have. Randy Pausch, 1960-2008), how to follow your heart and live your life (Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005 Commencement Speech), and how to be happy in life (the “grand essentials of happiness” from George Washington Burnap).
To underscore my point about the value of time as the most precious commodity in life, I helped put the finiteness of life in perspective. “Let’s say you live until the age of 80, which is five years older than Viet Nam’s current life expectancy. You’ve already lived 19% of your life. What will you do with the remaining 81%?”
Then I introduced the concept of psychological flow, which is related to ikigai. It was developed by the Hungarian psychologist, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defined it as a “highly focused mental state” and “effortless concentration and enjoyment”. He said: The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. I also like this definition from the Wikipedia entry about flow: Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
In order to make the abstract concrete, we discussed examples of flow, including writing, composing music, writing code, playing chess, cooking, dancing, painting, solving a difficult math problem, etc.
I concluded with a quote attributed to Confucius: We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one. Sadly, some people never come to this realization. High school is the ideal time for young people to become aware of life possibilities and constraints.
Finally, I had the students answer the following questions – in English or Vietnamese. Some shared their answers with the group.
- What is your passion?
- When do you experience psychological flow?
- What do you hope for?
Looking out into the audience, I noticed that quite a few students were actually listening, a sign of interest and curiosity. As for the others? Hopefully, they get it sooner rather than later. Young people naturally think of life as never-ending while those of us who are older and/or experienced death at an early age know that the clock is ticking.
Have you found your ikigai?
“The key question to keep asking is, ‘Are you spending your time on the right things?’ Because time is all you have.” (Randy Pausch, 1960-2008)