Yesterday on my flight to D.C. there were some kids from highschools from all around going to compete in a national computing competition. I never saw kids so excited, optimistic, and full of confidence. It took me back to when I was in high school, (of the robotic car I made, or the 3-d calculator I programmed), and the big dreams I had then!
Our nation has always had a unique message. It doesn’t matter who you are or what circumstances you came from, you are free, everyone is equal, and if you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. This is a bold message that as far as I know is not taught elsewhere. All growing up my teachers in school, my Sunday school teachers–everyone–instilled in us this great confidence that we were meant to succeed, we would succeed, and each one of us would be great. I remember watching the movie Gattaca when I was in middle school and watching Vincent overcome the odds to pursue his career in space, and hoping someday maybe I would be able to travel in space. I also remember the strong message that succeeding in life is about working smarter not harder, and that America has built its wealth on great ideas and innovation. Accordingly I had the idea that working hard alone cannot make you successful because the extra money gained from the extra work takes away from you time and your ability to enjoy life. I have always believed that happiness comes from doing what you love, and doing it in a way that no one has ever done before, so you can succeed without sacrificing your happiness to do it.
As far as I can tell, Japan does not have a similar message. They seem to be focused on another message, which is to be fair to others because you are not more important than anyone else. It is a rationing mentality that goes along with a fundamental belief here that wealth can only be obtained by hard work. Then it follows that the total potential wealth of the society is limited by how hard the society is willing to work. Then no one should be paid more money than anyone else except in the proportion that they work harder. Another way of saying it is that once effort is held constant, all else should be equally rationed. And if someone does somehow succeed, it is because society supported them in their success. Hence with any amount of success comes an equal burden of responsibility to give back to society. And what is the only proper way to give back to society after succeeding? Work harder. I think this approach to life has effectively helped Japan build a strong powerful economy with many gorgeous skyscrapers, clean streets, fancy electronics, and an amazing rail system. They also look out for each other incredibly well. It is no wonder they have been incredible at pulling together to help each other out in the aftermath of the devastating quake and tsunami. It is an impressive country. Yet there is no escape from hard work. Being a success is to contribute to society in a large way, and contribution can only come from hard work. It seems like everyone around me gets more satisfaction in their lives from working more. They tell their friends with a smile about how much work requires from them, how little they have been home, and how they are so busy with their work lives and their social lives. Hard work was also the chief metric at the big four firm I worked at in the U.S., which naturally leads people to working longer and longer days.
It’s easy to see the personal conflict I feel with the way others are always pushing me to work harder, as I fundamentally believe that hard work can just as easily take away happiness as it can add to it. I am genuinely impressed with the mindset of working hard, and given I have always been a little on the lazy side (or so my teachers all tell me), and can be very introverted (or so my friends tell me), it is probably good for me to be around people who love working hard. But I do not want to live my life that way, and I think if I really accepted this mindset, I would lose my hope for happiness. For me, happiness requires time to think and time to write. Pushing yourself too hard in one thing can also blind you from seeing better opportunities. (Sometimes I wonder whether that is actually management’s goal in overloading us.)
Unfortunately, as the world economy trudges along through this long difficult recession, more and more people are falling into this mindset that our nation’s wealth is permanently diminished, its legacy is fading, and its centuries of growth and success that lead the world into a new age of prosperity has ended. Over the past few years, it is plain in the media and in normal conversation that America is anything but optimistic. I have heard is already becoming commonly regarded among Americans that China is the world’s greatest power, or that Singapore with it’s powerful centralized government is a better model to follow. Japan’s image of America as a world leader has deteriorated as well, as they have joined the huge group who criticize U.S. actions from both within and without the U.S. The poor actions and associated criticism of the American government has seriously reduced America’s “soft” political capital. Some think it is deserved, and maybe it is, but I think it is extremely unfortunate that the U.S.’s image has been so badly tarnished. Why? Because for all of its mistakes, the U.S. still stands for freedom and democracy in a way that no other country can. The world will take a drastic turn for the worse if the idea takes hold that because economic output in China is high, maybe China has an OK system of government, or because standard of living in Singapore is measured highly, maybe we need to give up more freedom for the sake of a more orderly and efficient country (Singapore ranks 140th out of 167 countries in Reporters without Borders freedom index). I do not say this to criticize China or Singapore, but the world cannot and must not, move in the direction of relinquishing freedom and allowing governments to become anything less than a system for the people and by the people. Most people making these comments have never even been to China or Singapore and in many cases are just trying to make an exaggerated political statement, but not everyone who hears these comments understands that. The U.S. is the most powerful example of democracy that history has ever known and we must not forget it.
But yesterday’s news that our decade-long struggle to overtake Osama Bin Ladin is finally over felt like a powerful ray of sunshine shining through this mucky fog we have been in for the last decade. Whether you think the struggle was right or wrong, it is over, and the military will have no excuse but to bring our young men home. It is a new day.
Yesterday as I flew over nearly the entire country, from Osaka to Seattle, to Minneapolis, and finally to Washington D.C., I looked down and saw a beautiful, free country that I can feel so proud to call my home. It is clear innovation is continuing, as I watched a large portion of people take advantage of in-flight wireless Internet on iPhones, Android devices, iPads, and Nooks. Just 10 years ago and it would have cost a fortune just to place a phone call from their sky phones, and now you can accomplish almost anything from 10,000 feet up. I was myself really impressed with how fast it was. I was even able to show the high school student next to me (who was with the group on their way to the national computing competition) the beta version of our new business venture. I thought back to when I was in high school and how I loved to hear about people’s big ideas, and told him all about the development process. He was really excited about the idea as he explained how he always wanted to learn Japanese. I remembered how much I loved learning Spanish in high school and how I would have loved to have had a system like the one we are making to help me study. I can hardly wait to add support for other languages and to launch our product. In our own way, we are going to contribute to the wave of innovation which cannot be stopped by this recession.
And when I think of how innovations which forever enhance our way of living continue to be made even in this recession, how we are still accomplishing many good things with an influence that extends throughout the world, and how we have tended to focus on the negative for the past several years as we’ve painfully carried the burden of war, I cannot help but believe that we will overcome all our struggles and emerge as a nation stronger still. Yes, we need to work hard, and yes, we need to look out for each other, but more than anything I fervently believe we need to believe in ourselves as we go on innovating and building a brighter future. Then our generation too will be able to include ourselves in America’s legacy as an example of freedom.