Wherever you are coming from, however you got here, make yourself at home.
This my sacred spot—a place I use to practice an affordable version of cognitive self-therapy. Here I attempt to articulate feelings and emotions, to explore and give shape to ideas, to challenge my own beliefs.
You will find that things around here are kept deliberately simple.
There is no grandiose plan for this site outside maintaining my own sanity. So don’t expect routine, much less structure.
Sometimes I write in English, otras veces en español.
Sometimes I write three posts in a month. Sometimes months go by without a post.
Sometimes posts are long and vivid. Sometimes I briefly long for vivid thoughts.
I have only one ask of you, don’t leave your website/blog/product/service in the comments. There are no ads on this site for a reason. If you really believe I’ll find useful whatever it is you do, send me a private email. And, needless to say, be respectful with your comments.
Hoy, caminando como cada mañana hacia el acceso principal del Centro de Investigaciones y Tecnologías del Espacio de la Agencia Espacial Europea, donde estos días me encuentro, me quedé mirando.
En la entrada y a la vista de cualquiera que ronde cerca ondean las banderas de los 22 estados miembros.
Mientras me aproximaba hacia los tornos de seguridad, me quedé mirando.
Para la agencia cada una de las banderas ahí expuestas simbolizan el reconocimiento al granito de arena con el que cada país contribuye al desarrollo tecnológico del espacio. Cada país aporta lo que puede o quiere; unos más, como Alemania, otros menos, como Estonia. Pero en la entrada no hay banderas grandes ni pequeñas.
Mientras rebuscaba en busca de la tarjeta de seguridad en los bolsillos de una parca empapada por la lluvia, me quedé mirando.
Símbolos, pensé, no son nada sin el significado que cada uno les atribuye.
Al igual que las interpretaciones que hacemos de las experiencias que vivimos, los significados son personales, únicos, y a veces indescriptibles. Y como las experiencias, cuando el significado es compartido a veces une para bien, o a veces une para mal. Pero esto no es de lo que quiero hablar.
Hoy me interesa el significado individual. Me interesa el significado íntimo de los símbolos que a cada uno acompañan, ese que cada uno llevamos tatuado en las costillas para no compartirlo con nadie—ese que nunca cicatriza.
Hoy, al pasar bajo la bandera del país donde nací, me quedé mirando.
Entre estudios de posgrado, prácticas, colaboraciones y demás correrías llevo más de cinco años fuera de España. Cinco años de costumbres nuevas y experiencias inolvidables. Pero también cinco años de caras desconocidas, de desconcierto, de incertidumbre, de no ser de aquí, de no comprender, y de no ser comprendido.
Para mí el rojo y amarillo simboliza hogar. Simboliza familia. Simboliza calma, y comprensión, y calidez, y cariño. Simboliza recuerdos, muchos recuerdos.
No simboliza patria, ni tierra, ni honor, ni gloria, ni valentía, ni euforia.
Estoy seguro que de ser mis circunstancias otras el significado sería distinto o ninguno. Pero en momentos como el de esta mañana comprendo al soldado destinado a pasar el invierno en otro continente, comprendo a la investigadora afincada más allá de la frontera, comprendo al inmigrante que consigo lleva el recuerdo de un casa de caras y olores familiares—recuerdos a los que todos ellos se aferran para no olvidar.
Y es por esto mismo que evito maldecir a la ligera los símbolos de otros, sean de tela o de paja o de madera.
Vaya por delante que no me interesan los símbolos de los que gritan. Me interesan los símbolos de esos que callan y aprietan los dientes.
Me interesa saber de quién son las sonrisas que llevan tatuadas en las costillas; esas que erizan la piel y evocan recuerdos; esas que anegan la boca del estómago cuando se está a solas.
Living in Japan as a foreigner is always quite an adventure. It doesn’t matter how long you have been living here, the sense of curiosity, admiration, and at times even perplexity seem to never cease.
Beyond the distance and the language, it’s a culture that barely resembles anything I’ve seen or experienced before. Different is the adjective often used by foreigners when confronted with the question of how it is to live in Japan; right before highlighting certain patterns and social behaviors that stand out from what we may consider “normal”.
It requires a serious mental effort to put in words how a society, as complex as the Japanese, actually works as a whole. Finding the cause or understanding the historical background that led to certain behaviors is not something we do; we simply give a perspective based on our own personal experience. And that’s ok, but sometimes not enough for the ones listening to fully understand the nuances of what you are trying to convey. A 5-min bar conversation is sometimes simply not enough. Because of this, I’ve created this series.
This is the second part of a set of blog posts through which I’m attempting to describe my experience living in Japan, as well as to bring people closer to and to educate myself a bit more on some of the different hues Japanese society is tinted with. If you just landed here and haven’t read part I, I would highly encourage you to pause and take a look at it first. However, if you just want to keep reading, I’ve made each part self-contained; so you should be good to go.
I dubbed this set of posts “the shikiru series” as a reference to the ritual of demoralization of the opponent that sumo wrestlers go through right before the bout. This is exactly how I feel most of the time when attempting to put in words what has been for me to live in Japan for the last year and a half. Disheartened, I give up before the conversation hasn’t even started. This series is the result of a conscious effort to describe those aspects of the Japanese culture I’ve found to be more distinctive, admirable, and challenging at times. Assisted by the Japanese lexicon, I’ll walk you through my adventures living in and traveling through the land of the rising sun.
In part I of this series I presented the art of giving, or omotenashi, and explained how it is one of the features that has characterized almost every interaction I’ve had with Japanese people, something I will always remember and try to replicate in my personal relationships. In this second part, things may start to turn a little bit more complicated. Today I’m writing about aimai, the concept of ambiguity so widely installed both within Japanese culture and language.
Aimai (曖昧) — when harmony drives me crazy
This might be one of the aspects of Japanese culture I still have a hard time dealing with and probably it is also one of the most difficult to explain. Aimai literally means ambiguous, vague, or unclear. I believe most students of Japanese language would agree with me if I say that often aimai is synonym of scratching foreheads and sighs of exasperation. The first thing we should understand right off the bat is that Japanese language is meant to be ambiguous and indirect. While most western cultures value clarity and encourage directness to avoid misunderstandings, in Japan is almost considered a virtue and in most cases expected of you to express yourself concisely and indirectly. Let me explain.
Japan is a country that has been largely isolated from the rest of the world for long periods of time. During the Tokugata Shogunate in the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese were kept from leaving the country for over 200 years. Beside isolationist policies, Japan is also a geographically isolated country. If to this we add that only 30% of Japan is considered inhabitable (about 95% of the population in Japan is concentrated in just about 30% of the country’s territory) then we are facing a case where survivability might be a direct consequence of coexistence and common understanding. For the different communities to thrive, Japanese had to work together both to make sure they were making the most out of the limited resources available but also to avoid internal conflicts that could potentially bring people against each other. And so, the concept of harmony, or wa (和), within groups of people was born, which implanted within Japanese DNA a need for maintaining the group’s values and ideals over one’s personal interests – a need that, for what I can tell, still persists.
In order to maintain and promote the values and ideals tying a group of people together, the language must be cautious and contained. Most people will tell you that Japanese language is more about what you don’t say than what you say, since words and mostly silences — what in Japanese is referred to as chinmoku (沈黙) — carry enough meaning if chosen wisely. This degree of conciseness has given rise to a level of ambiguity in what is said that even between Japanese oftentimes leads to misunderstandings.
[…] when a person is visiting someone’s house in Japan and it becomes times for supper, people will often say, ‘Won’t you dine with us?’ But this is not really an invitation; rather it is a subtle hint that it is time to go home. To those from other countries, this may seem confusing, but for the Japanese, it is a natural way to interact socially. So the correct response to ‘Won’t you dine with us?’ is ‘Thank you very much, but I am not hungry’.
Japanese believe one’s opinion shouldn’t be openly expressed – deru kui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる), “the nail that sticks will be hammered down”. Speaking openly about one’s feelings and opinions is considered childish and impolite, since, as some authors pointed out, “to express oneself distinctly carries the assumption that one’s partner knows nothing”. In this regard, aimai could be considered as a positive aspect of Japanese style of communication that favors the creation of bonds, facilitates communication, and eases understanding among people while keeping focus and ties within a group.
Although I would partly agree with this statement, in my experience, aimai wares a hidden face — an evil mask that turns agreement, cooperation and peacefulness into their alter ego: alienation, disaffection and resentment.
The need that I believe most Japanese have to fit within certain groups of people, or to the very least the need not to disrupt the group’s harmony, leads to personal opinions to be withheld and individual feelings to be dimmed in benefit sometimes not of the group’s well-being but of the desires and personal interests of the group’s authority. This, combined with the strong consciousness of social hierarchy that resides within Japanese society, makes it common for large groups of people, often within companies and working teams, to be misled by inefficiencies, mistargeted strategies, and selfish motives. People evolve lacking the capacity to fully express themselves, to develop critical thinking, and to improvise when the situation so requires. Aspects that nicely ties to the concept of kata ni hamatta, which I will talk about in part 3 (you’ll have to wait for that).
Harmony is a a double-edge sword. There are times when issues need to be raised and conflicts have to be addressed. Cooperation and agreement are propped by how we, as a group of individuals, solve common problems, not by force of listening to those that speak louder. I wish most of us, Japanese included, were capable of expressing ourselves freely and openly in a regular basis. Harmony might actually be reached faster this way, maybe not within a group but surely within ourselves.
Can you point out moments in your life that had a major impact in who you’ve become?
I bet you can.
I’m sure you recall, in detail, experiences that completely shifted your values, encounters that defined your current passions and fears, decisions that brought you new opportunities and goals, all of which directly made of you a different, better human being.
I’m also sure this rollercoaster of events that is your life, with the painful and the pleasant, make all perfect sense in hindsight. Together they form the story line of your life.
There is only one problem. As Rolf Dobelli wrote in The Art of Thinking Clearly:
“It is safe to assume that half of what you remember is wrong.”
Looking back at the events that shaped one’s life is always disturbing. As humans we nourish association and cherish meaning-ful experiences: those of love and tears, of fight and thrive. We are prone to storytelling and the most stirring story we can recognize is that of our own journey.
This meaning we endow our main character with is built years after the experience or encounter has taken place; thus making our narrative susceptible to the filter of present emotions and beliefs.
I’m interested in what gets caught in the filter.
Meeting my old demons.
We all have been through episodes now forgotten. Aspects of your life you somehow erased from memory some time ago. Events not distressing enough to make your heart throb or the hair on your neck bristle. Moments of your existence that had an impact in who you’ve become, not because of what you did but because of what you missed.
I’m talking about the lack of excitement you felt for years at the prospect of uneventful days, the sadness of lonesome evenings at home, the neglected desire to play to be someone who doesn’t take life too seriously.
These unsettling memories and hidden feelings often resurface while coming back to the place you grew up, by looking at photos or hearing stories about the old ‘good’ days. For me they all came in the form of a video, a not so old video I must have recorded around 2010, alone at night, talking to camera.
It was during my junior year in college. I weighed over 230 lb (~105 kg), I had gone through two different (low risk) surgeries, and I wasn’t doing great in college. I was struggling to keep up the pace of my friends who were advancing steadily while I was still stuck with first-year courses after having failed all but two of them during my freshman and sophomore years (back in the time mechanical engineering degrees at my university had a dropout rate of around 70%). Looking at this video and pictures of that time I appeared overwhelmed, stressed and weary.
My soul shudders every time I look back at those pictures.
The point is I don’t remember feeling this way. Of course I remember the hurdle, the fight, the amount of all-nighters I had to pull to get through college. But those feelings, that look that cries for help, all that is gone. I don’t know what I would have answered back then if you’d asked me whether I was happy. Today, I would certainly answer that I was. I had a dreamed life. I was doing what I wanted to do since I was 14 and I knew you have to fight to get what you want — or so I’ve been always told — so I fought.
It was right before college when I started to hang out with my now wife, Sara. She had demons of her own. Gigantic, bloodthirsty, soul-destructive demons is how I remember them. I’ve always thought I tried my best to help brightness take over her life, fighting the darkness with my goofiness and shyness. The truth is that she was probably helping me more than I will ever realize.
And so they come, the invisible angels.
The angels that shaped who I am.
In giving meaning to our lives we fall to the misconception of making us source of our own fate. My fight, my decisions, my happiness, my life. We often don’t give enough credit — if at all — to all those around us that make us who we are.
The reason my old demons are gone is because I had angels by my side who kept them away. They brought smiles, caresses, kindness, and affection without me noticing, without me asking for it, when I needed it most. You also have them even if you don’t see them. We simply take them for granted as we go through our lives merely focus on ourselves.
Back in 2010 my demons were banished by someone who has kept by my side ever since. I like to think that it was in the heat of these battles where the foundations of our relationship was forged. Back to back, riding together this roller coaster of the painful and the pleasant we have become a hell of a team to beat.
Don’t dwell on the past but look around. Your life is somewhat the product of those demons now lost in memory. The way you are, with your fears, passions and beliefs, is the result of experiences you thought forgotten. The journey is made of angels you don’t see and demons you will forget. Thank the former while you can and hold to them, so at the end of your journey, you will be able to declare that you have become a different, better human being.
*Shikiri (仕切り) is a ritual in sumo fights in which the two wrestlers crouching with their fists on the ground stare intensively at each other’s eyes right before the bout begins in an attempt to demoralize the opponent and win the crowd’s support. Shikiru is the verb form meaning ‘toeing the mark’.
Sendai, Japan (8 min. read).
It’s 10 am.
I’m sitting in the waiting room of place called ハローワーク (“hello work”). Hello Work is a public institution that guides people through the minutiae of job hunting. The waiting room is located in an open space littered with rows of numbered computers and small desks where the job-seekers are called to meet with their assistants. Despite the size of the place, overall, it is incredibly quiet. From where I stand, a slight mumble and a soothing melody is all that can be heard. To my right, a man has fallen asleep in what seems a futile attempt to send an email from one of those old computers. On the other side, sitting right next to me is another man completely immersed in a manga (Japanese comic book) — I wish I could read them too. A kid proudly wearing an Anpanman’st-shirt is constantly staring at me without setting free his mom’s blouse. As a foreigner, I find it amusing how you always get that bewildered look from kids. Every now and then he turns back to his mom, probably tired of me making silly faces, who is too involved trying to sleep a newborn in a baby carrier to pay her older boy any attention. I have also noticed a police officer walking the floor every five minutes or so. He thoroughly looks through every corner of the room while making quick gestures with his hands; almost like reassuring himself that indeed the spot is cleared.
Every once in a while I stop looking around as a recurring thought flashes through my mind — Japan, what a different country this is.
I’ve been living in northern Japan for almost a year and a half. Throughout this time, a recurrent question arises among friends and family. A question I always have a particularly hard time answering. It often takes the form of ‘how’s Japan?’, ‘how’s living there?’, or the always puzzled ‘Japan, huh?’. I’d bet though that what some people really want to know is whether the Japanese are as eccentric and bizarre as dictated by their preconceptions of this too often misinterpreted ancient culture. They would like to know whether the Japanese really work until exhaustion, whether they all watch anime and read manga, or whether one can actually buy used underwear from vending machines and enslave a robot to do the laundry.
Aside from stereotypes, which mostly distorts any culture they refer to, the reason it’s hard for me to answer these questions lies in a personal language deficiency. It is not that I find it specially difficult to spot those distinctive characteristics that make Japanese culture unique. But it is in the explanation of the reasons and nuances that make those characteristics so exceptionally defined when I find myself in the lack of the right words.
This time and at my own pace (which usually implies taking way longer than initially anticipated) I’ve decided to make an effort to find a way in which I can describe to others, those who may have never traveled to Japan or those have never had a single interaction with Japanese culture before, what’s being like for me to venture into the land of the rising sun.
As it so often happens, I find myself committing to this new endeavour while reading a fantastic book called “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture” by Roger J. Davis and Osamu Ikeno. In this book students from the University of Ehime put together a list of Japanese words and expressions, explaining not only their meaning but the historical and cultural context in which they were coined and their implications on today’s social landscape. A highly recommended read to anyone that wants to get a grasp of how hard sometimes is to explain and how easy is to misunderstand the implications of certain aspects of Japanese culture.
Following the structure and the idea behind this book, I’ve decided to make use of the Japanese lexicon by selecting a few words and expressions, some of which are part of this book, in an attempt to describe in a short series of blog posts my experience wrestling with the Japanese mindset.
It goes without saying that first, I’m no expert in Japanese culture whatsoever. I’m just a mere observer. And second, it isn’t my intention to label all Japanese people under the same few categories or words. Japanese, just as any other culture, is a complex conglomerate of people of all different types, with likes and dislikes, traditions, manners, and dialects that change from one region to another. My sole intention with this series is to provide a glimpse into what my impressions are of those defining features I find so admirable and representative, and challenging sometimes, of the part of Japanese culture I’ve been faced with for the last 18 months. I apologize in advance if you are Japanese, or someone living in Japan, and you don’t find yourself, or your experience, faithfully represented by what you’re about to read. So, without extending this intro any longer, here it is the first entry of what I’ve dubbed the shikiru series. Enjoy!
Omotenashi (おもてなし) – the art of giving without expecting anything in return.
Long has been written about omotenashi and its foundations within the roots of Japanese culture and customs. One simply has to google the word to find hundreds upon hundreds of articles describing what in simple terms could be referred to as hospitality, treatment, or service.
Even without knowing the word, omotenashi is one of the first things foreigners notice upon arriving in Japan and often one of the first things they point out when they try to describe their experience through Nippon lands — maybe just right after mentioning the lack of public trash cans, the fact that there is people, lots of people, everywhere, and the Japanese addiction for queuing and pachinko slots (although the number of users seems to have decreased considerably over the last decade).
The truth is that omotenashi has deeper implications in Japanese than that of a cordial and delightful service. Hospitality is an act of generosity that can be found shaped into many different forms all over the world. In Japan, however, the channels through which hospitality is offered are extended well beyond what we would consider to be sufficient. To understand the far-reaching implications of Japanese hospitality, one would only have to look at the well-known saying ‘the customer is always right’, which in Japanese takes the form of the proverb お客様は神様 (“okyakusama wa kamisama”), literally meaning ‘the customer is god’.
Usually people refer to omotenashi in the context of Japan’s extraordinary customer service. Manifestations of this sense of lavish, almost overwhelming hospitality can be experienced from the always smiling faces and constant bowing of hotel employees, the careful treatment and attention to detail of shop assistants, to the fact that they will run to you apologizing even when you were the one spilling tea over the recently restored, hundred-year old tatami mat (…本当にごめんね!).
The people who know me often hear me saying that Japan is one the places where I find it easier to live, which is the way I’ve found to say that Japan has, from my point of view, the highest quality of life of all the places I’ve ever been. The reason I say this is that, as I pointed out before, omotenashi can be found well beyond services and good manners. One will experience it, for instance, in architecture and urbanism, with buildings and public areas specifically designed to favor a more pleasant stay or an effortless passage. Optic centers will dispose of eyeglasses cleaning stations in front of the stores free for anyone to use. Spotless public toilets are always in sight. Vending machines with hot drinks in winter and cold drinks in summer (no underwear that I know of) are found literally everywhere. Bags and umbrella holders are thoughtfully placed in ATMs and bus seats, which you don’t realize you need them until you have them. And the list goes on and on.
For me, however, where omotenashi has really showed up is in personal relationships. It is in my daily encounters with the Japanese when I can feel the profuse generosity I believe the word omotenashi entails. I can think of at least a dozen times where they have gone above and beyond to solve any problem I was having or to just make my lack of problems even more enjoyable. I’m still have to find someone who answers my call for help with ‘今ちょと忙しい…’, “sorry I’m too busy now”. Omotenashi is the main cause of the embarrassment my wife and I feel when we’re incapable of finding ways to give back all the kindness, the warmth, the joy, and the unselfish treatment we always receive when we’re invited to a Japanese house.
Japan is one in a few list of countries where, either due to social obligation or personal morality, other’s well-being is always looked after over one’s own. Omotenashi is definitely one of the things I will always remember about the Japanese and something I will always bear in mind through my interactions with other people.
If you look up the word freedom in the dictionary you will find that freedom can be defined in more than a dozen different ways. Among these, freedom can be regarded as
the absence of or release from ties or obligations;
ease or facility of movement or action.
Now, based on these two definitions of freedom, tell me, are you really free?
I’ve been having a recurrent conversation with myself lately that I need to get out somehow. So here it goes.
You are constantly measuring life in the wrong units, and you are not alone.
It is almost as if in the process of converting your inner needs and desires into outer actions and behaviors you are falling into the common mistake of mixing up metric and imperial units — you are falling short. And that when thinking in terms of what you really want, the whys and for whats behind the things you do and pursue, only then you realize how misled you were with some of the decisions you made.
What do you want to get out of life?
Let me help you, the answer is freedom.
It is the conditions of those we consider ‘successful’ what most of us seek to replicate. It is their state of existence, not their means. It is their freedom.
Freedom to decide what to do, where to be, and how to spend our time.
It is not the fame, the money, the power, the privileges, the pats on the back, the stars in the chest, the laurel crowns, or the crowds of flatterers what you are after.
You want the freedom of not being held accountable. The freedom to leave everything behind without remorse or negative consequences. The freedom to love. The freedom to play. The freedom to fail. The freedom to save yourself from the calendar. The freedom of laziness. The freedom of apathy. The freedom to work nine hours a day inside a fiery kitchen, drenched in sweat, with pain in your feet and a smile in your face, not because you have to, but because you choose to; because in your endeavour of nurturing freedom you wanted to experience a new life and in so doing you filled yourself with an uncontainable joy.
I know it is hard to understand. It is equally hard for me to explain.
If you were to ask me, are you free? I would most certainly answer, yes, I am. At least in this present moment in time, I feel like I am.
I am writing these lines at 4:46 a.m. on a Wednesday. The things I do and the decisions I made are a direct consequence of my present frame of mind. I sleep when I’m tired. I work when I’m excited — just like about now — and I play when I’m frustrated. Do I have obligations and responsibilities? Of course I do. Are those meant to keep me busy while wadding my ego and providing my days with a false sense of importance and purpose? Most certainly not.
Why? Because I have come to realize that in my freedom resides the source of my tranquility. That wealth and means are just tools and methods that if used appropriately can set me free without all the busyness nonsense.
I have realized that the units we use define the outcome of what we measure. And that my tranquility is best when measured in terms of freedom of choice; and so it is towards creating freedom of choice where the majority of my efforts are directed.
Let’s talk about what you’re most likely thinking at this moment. Let’s talk about money.
Money helps, that’s common knowledge. We all know that.
But there is only under the right circumstances that money helps.
When money is regarded as a tool, we don’t need a lifetime to replicate the conditions of those we consider successful. We can easily replicate the outcome of their circumstances within a few months of work, discipline, and clarity of mind. Because remember, it is freedom we are after; no yachts, or feasts, or weekends in Kuramathi.
When money is regarded as a tool, it becomes an asset; when thought of as an objective, or a kpi for those in business, it becomes a liability.
I’m constantly re-evaluating the aim of my efforts to make sure that my wife and I live under very specific conditions. Conditions that allow us to turn our lives up-side-down if we so desire, to steer our days in the direction that we want, and to stop the clock whenever we feel is needed. The decisions we make is only but ours. It is in the execution however, when, well, some money is required.
But how much money would you pay for your own freedom? How much money are you already paying while craving for that eventual unoccupied, unrestricted future?
For us, freedom is found exactly at the expense of six months without income — that’s our “freedom threshold”.
We’ve found that we need, in the worst case scenario, a maximum of six months to be able to generate new opportunities for ourselves. In the course of making sure that we created an environment in which the latter was possible, we decided to set aside part of our salaries until we hit that goal — well, mostly her salary, I work in academia remember? — and then we breathed. How much is that depends on you and your desired way of living. At that point, our assets became tools and our living conditions became the foundation that help us live wherever we want, however we want. Beyond that point, there are no goals, no long-term plans, no ladders, no debts, no dreary jobs, no end of the road.
I may sound delirious and only time will tell whether I am remarkably and publicly wrong. But I can’t help but notice how most people work their ways towards undefined goals, wasting their lives in worthless routines and harmful behaviors. How most people don’t even know why they do what they do; while the source of their tranquility lies within their reach.
We all want to live a good life, a happy life.
And although most of these terms lack of any meaning without definition, in my opinion a happy life starts the moment you hit the road towards your freedom.
Because in freedom resides the source of your tranquility.
Be prepared. Grab some tea. Take a deep breath, and go for it. I should have thought that before sinking myself on the couch. You are about to read one of the most challenging posts – if not the most – I’ve ever attempted to write.
I work surrounded by numbers. Equations, hypotheses, and predictions comprise the basis of my day-to-day life. There is some math in this post as well. Don’t be scared; it is not complex math – it’s just painful math.
The following lines contain the toughest, most distressing numbers I have ever had to run. This post is, without any doubt, the one that has taken me the longest to write. Not because of its complexity or the amount of research required, but because of the reflection and affliction that went into each and every new estimation. In the lines below I find out how much time I have left in this world. But what is even more important, I estimate how much time I have left to spend with some of the most important people in my life. It is striking; it is revealing, and at this present moment in my life it was awfully necessary. So grab some tea, take a deep breath, and dive with me into what is left of the rest of our days.
Oh and mom, you can stop reading here.
The vanishing asset
If there is a statement that almost everyone would agree on is that time is the most valuable currency. Time doesn’t cost us anything and its value tends to increase exponentially over time. I would partly agree by adding that in reality time is also the most volatile currency. When talking about money almost everyone has a well-defined list of spending priorities. Shelter, food, health, clothes, books, tech, the list goes on and on. Our wealth grows, ideally, as a result of our efforts and we know, or should know, exactly how much money we should be spending on each one of these categories. But unlike money, time is given to us at no cost. There are only two conditions: time is limited and you’ll never know how much you’ve been given. Hence, we take it for granted. Even though most agree that time is invaluable, sometimes – more often than most of us would like to admit – we spend it in ways that make it seem otherwise.
While reflecting on the topic of time I found myself re-reading The Tail End by Tim Urban. A highly recommended read to anyone who wants to get a more visual interpretation of a lifetime. In his post, Tim states
“When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.”
Thanks Tim for a few nights of insomnia. Following this statement, he moves on to estimate the amount of time he may have left to spend with some of the most important people in his life. As shocking as these numbers are, I couldn’t help but make a similar estimate based on my own life, laying out how I’m speeding and, more important, how I’m wasting my time on things that lie at the very end of my list of priorities.
The painful math
I am 27. Just as a reference, today’s life expectancy in Spain – luckily one of the countries with the highest life expectancy in the world – is of 79 years for men and 85 years for women. Life expectancy increases between 3.5 and 4 months every year, which means that I will live almost 9 years longer than my dad.
My own life expectancy is 88 years – around 32,142 days (based on Julian years).
Remember that this is not about how much time I’ll be around but about how I am using this time.
Let’s assume, similarly to what Tim does in his post, that between my birth and the age of 24 I spent at least 90% of my days with my parents. After graduating from college and moving abroad I’m spending on average around 20 days back home, among which 75% of the time is spent with my parents. That’s 15 days per year. A total of 60 days as of today, which summed up to the total days spent with my parents yields 7,950 days.
If we assume this will be my modus operandi for the rest of my life and that I am lucky enough that both of my parents live their lives to their fullness,
I have 450 days left to spend with my Mom,
and 345 days left with my Dad
Here is where you can use the deep breath. As of today, I would have already spent 95% of the total time I have left with my parents. These numbers drop even lower in the case of relatives and close friends I don’t get to see that often. While staring at these numbers, it is almost impossible not to wonder how my life would change and how I would make things differently if told that a year – a year! – is all that is left for me to be with some of the people I love the most. What kind of new behaviors and habits would I adopt? How my relationship would change with the people I care about? What aspects of my life would I completely sideline to make room for new, more wealthy time? Would I still be living 10,500 km away from my parents? A realization that is damn hard to swallow. My pragmatic brain forces me to find out how I am spending my time and what are the things that I’m unconsciously prioritizing over the really important ones.
It is about quality not about quantity
We spend a big part of our lives working. This isn’t new, we all know that. But let’s see how big in reality this part is. Assuming that I would retire at the age of 67 and excluding weekends, 20-day vacations and about 10 days of public holidays per year, that’s about 9944 working days over the course of a lifetime (just as a side note, 36.7% of the year is made up of non-working days). This means that a little over 30% of my life is devoted to work. It is funny how we let this part of our life set the course for the other two-thirds.
Let’s say, like it’s my case, that you spend around 1.5 hours commuting every day. Well, that’s 14.45 days a year that you spend just traveling to and from work. Almost the same amount of time I spend with my parents every year. This is just but one example of how we unconsciously use our time without taking into account the things we value the most.
How much time am I taking away from the aspects of life that really matter to me? How much time am I wasting being worried, upset, frustrated, or simply complaining about things I can’t control? What are other things I’m spending a great deal of my days on that if summed up would make the really valuable ones appear to be at the bottom of my list of priorities?
Living abroad one of the hardest things I have to deal with is guilt. I find especially difficult to face missing birthdays, my sister’s successes, friends’ weddings, and overall not being part anymore of the lives of those I care about. Even more so, what I find really painful is knowing that I’ll not be there during the not-so-bright times. And the worst part of it all is to know that this feeling is nothing else but the result of my own decisions. I love my life, don’t get me wrong. This may be the only part of it I haven’t yet completely learned how to deal with – well, to be honest, there are plenty others I haven’t figured out yet. But over time, I have somehow internalized this part of my life as the price to pay to chart my life in the course that I want.
At the same time I know that there is so much more I could do to reduce the amount of pain this generates me. And there is definitely so much more I could be doing with that 66% of free time, most of which I’m certainly wasting on plenty of unimportant, irrelevant, and nonessential things, rituals, and habits. Instead, I could make an effort to be more present around the people I love. I could devote this time to develop habits and behaviors that really help me feel better and improve as a human being. I could pre-arrange short trips with my family every year, which not only means I would get to spend more time with them but also satiate my need for being surrounded by unfamiliar territories. I could once and for all learn how to draw and paint and sculpt, which I’ve always wanted to and for some reason I’ve never done. I could spend less time worrying about how my thesis goes and instead use that same time and effort to solve other people’s problems and to reduce other people’s suffering. Because in the end, time is all about quality not about quantity.
Stoics wrote a lot about how we waste our time until it’s too late. In the wonderful essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca wrote
“It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.”
The pace of the elder
I came up with this apparently unrelated title after witnessing the actions and routines of an old man. We both commute by bike at around the same time every morning. Most days I overtake him without even noticing but this time I decided to stay behind. I remember seeing him enjoying every bit of the cool morning breeze, of the early sun rays hitting his time-worn face, looking up at the hunting glide of hawks and down trying to pick up the peaceful sound of the river. Most people, as I do almost every day, pass by him rushing to get underway with their daily routines. In our world there is no calm, no breeze, no birds or peaceful water. Time is precious and this old man in his old bike treated it like a treasure; a concept that seems to take a lifetime to fully understand.
The pace of the elder is the realization that all that matters in life is the decisions we make on how to treat the present. Making the most of every minute doesn’t mean making most things at once but making just those that really matter. It means squeezing every last minute of those 15 days I spend back home every year. It means saying “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, and “I’m here” more than we say “I want”, “I wish”, and “I will”. It means saying no to the things that don’t bring you any value. It means being caring instead of selfish, grateful instead of demanding, and humble instead of pretentious. Time is our most valuable asset, and most often than not we should be reminding ourselves of the importance of stopping the clock to assess how we’re investing our time and who are the people we should be spending better time with. There is no better time than the present to adopt the mindset of that old man who decides to arrive late in a world that races to treat time as we treat money, showing up first, fast, and cheap.
On emotional intelligence and how to get along with your unpredictable self.
Today was an interesting day.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have completely lost control of your emotions right before realizing how much damage you have caused, how much time you have wasted, and how badly sorry you feel for what just happened? I bet you have, or at least you have been affected by this happening to someone close to you. Allow me to introduce you to our own Mr. Hyde.
Sendai, Japan, 09:45 A.M.
It was raining as it had been for the past two weeks. The atmosphere was gloomy and humid, covered with this now familiar morning haze. One could barely walk outside without getting all drenched in sweat, begging for the light breeze of a fan or an air conditioner. Coming from a country where the sun is one of our most esteemed allies, constant grey skies and stormy weather affect my mood in ways sometimes hard to predict.
We had the usual breakfast before heading out: a bowl of cereal, a smoothie of some sort, and a cup of Chinese red tea, which, given the fact that I do not drink any other caffeinated drink at all, provides just the right amount of stimulant to keep me on my toes throughout the day. We needed to run a few errands on that day. We were going on a trip to Tokyo in two weeks and we still had to book the bus tickets and pick up a couple of museum passes. We had been planning this trip since we moved to Japan almost five months ago and we couldn’t wait to get on that bus. After finishing breakfast, having read the morning news, cleared up our inboxes, and checked each and every social network, we were finally all-systems-go to hit the road. It’s amazing how fast you can catch up with everyone else when you live seven hours ahead of the rest of the world.
We went down street no.2 in the neighborhood no.3 by the Sunmall shopping area (don’t blame me for the Japanese addressing system). Street no.2 is a small but lively alley in which all kind of independent stores, craft shops, and fast-food restaurants piled up on both sides of the street. Even though the smell conveyed the most pleasurable and exotic food of all, I was feeling something was off since we left home. I’d been feeling this way for weeks now. It was as if a volatile mix of frustration and apathy was growing inside of me, patiently waiting to be released. I was constantly living on the edge between anger and defeat. This was not me, nor it matched with the climate of excitement and joy I thought I was living in.
‘What’s wrong with me?’
It might be this never-ending filthy weather I thought. There is actually a rare disease that only seems to happen in Japan during the summer called reiboubyou or ‘air-conditioning disease’, associated to being constantly exposed to extreme changes in the ambient conditions; from the dry and chill environment of your house, public transportation, and stores, to the stifling heat and humidity of the outside. Symptoms associated with this disease range from fatigue and apathy to migraines and even depression. So it matched.
Without reflecting too much on these feelings we finally arrived at our destination. Here is were things started to go astray. A few misunderstandings, things that didn’t turn out as planned, and my whole ecosystem began to fall apart. Depite the level of enthusiasm and excitement caused by the upcoming trip, I couldn’t help but experience a profound sense of discomfort against newly arising aspects that felt completely out my control. Tension was spreading through my jaw, pain was rising in the back of my neck, and my mood was turning dark and irascible as if it was trying to merge with the miserable weather. The day was not coming through as planned and I ended up feeling anxious and vanquished, once again.
The reason for my recent behavior, which by the way had nothing to do with the weather, was clear to me after reading a chapter from Dan Ariely’s NYT bestseller Predictably Irrationaltitled “The influence of arousal”. By revisiting the state of my emotions and what I had been spending time on for the past few weeks, I realized how interrelated some of the concepts presented in this chapter were to the situation that had been driving my life lately. A situation that you may be quite familiar with too.
It seems that as humans we bear multiple personalities, which in essence can be pruned down to two. On the one side there is our, let’s say, steady-state personality. This personality encompasses our fundamental believes, values, and ethics. This is intimately related to the image we hold of ourselves, how we behave in social environments, and how we consciously respond to external stimulus. We are pretty familiar with this version of ourselves to the point that one could say this is our true selves.
On the other side there is a second personality that seems to be buried deep inside us. This personality is characterized by being the part of us taking over under specific situations, usually those in which high-intensity emotions are involved.
The amazing thing about this concealed personality is that most of us seem to fail in predicting how this pseudo-version of ourselves will behave under specific situations.
Its behavior goes against the foundations of our true selves. Those values we so proudly stand by just fall apart on the presence of a given set of emotions. This is our unpredictable self, our Mr. Hyde.
One could associate the fact that we are so bad in predicting how we will behave when this inner self takes control to the reason why high performers and elite military forces train themselves under distinct high-stress situations. They could not expect their steady-state personality to behave properly during a crisis. Instead, they force themselves to become familiar with this alternative personality – they train their unpredictability.
This second personality can have an even greater impact in our lives. Just as happened to Dr. Henry Jekyll in Stevenson’s novel, its manifestation could not only become temporally unpleasant but permanently destructive. When the unpredictable self takes control of our emotions and actions we set free our deepest self-destructive behaviors. Behaviors that often lead us to make the worst decisions we could ever make.
Today was an interesting day because I realized my unpredictable self can be unleashed as a result of the most mundane of the situations. I also realized that we are not just bad in predicting its behavior but also in reading the feelings that precede the appearance of such an injurious personality in the first place. Too often we will think of the wrong reasons for our feelings, reasons that point out to things that lie out of our control. It turned out that we, as humans, are damn good at this. I blamed the weather when the actual reason for such a pitiful behavior was something I had complete control over. For weeks I’d been spending a great deal of my days in something that wasn’t practical or exciting, something that wasn’t bringing me any value, and the objective of which was not quite clear. I was caught up in this life stream I so hard try to avoid, letting myself carried away by routine, passively expecting my state to change. This situation negatively affected my environment, damaged my relationships, and ultimately diminished my performance to the point of emotional cataclysm.
It’s time to get to know each other
The existence of this shadowed version of ourselves is almost undeniable. In the course of our lives we have all found and we will find ourselves coping with overwhelming situations. Situations that bring the most harmful feelings out of ourselves.
I’ve realized that understanding and being aware of the presence of your own unpredictability is extremely valuable. Some of our inner trouble is just a sign that something has to change on the outside, on the way we live, on the way we treat others and in turn on the way we treat ourselves. We need to learn how to better read our feelings and emotions. Embracing what this alternative personality is telling us can become an incredible asset. It makes us more aware of our shortcomings and helps us to be present in each and every moment. The ability to understand the motives of our personality can help us dispel the cloud of fake reasons and complaints that so often prevent us from changing the state we live in, ultimately getting that detrimental personality and our own lives under control.
“Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
A rant on human behavior and life-lasting benefits.
The percentage of people graduating from college is steadily increasing every year. Although some of the latest economic successes led by college dropouts have made an impact on the mentality towards educational attainments, data reveals that trends are still on the rise. Almost 40% of the US population between the ages of 25 to 34 holds some type of post-secondary educational degree. While this percentage goes up to over 50% in countries like Canada or Japan. Looking at these data and with the experience of having been a recent graduate not so long ago, I felt the need to write about an aspect of post-university life that really troubles me these days.
Right after graduating from college everybody seems to be up for the world. We feel enthusiastic, resourceful, and open-minded; unceasingly seeking any opportunity that would make the effort worthwhile. We are thrown into real life blindfolded by a deep-rooted belief of entitlement after having worked hard for the last 4, 5, 6 years, and totally committed to make of the world a better place. At least, I felt that way.
“Now is when the real life begins” we used to tell to ourselves to make the scenery even more Homeric. However, for most, life doesn’t change that much. At some point between the epic narrative of our academic accomplishment and the present, we find ourselves devoting eight hours a day to a dreary job, having to deal with mortgages and loans, and spending the weekends raking leaves out of the porch and watching Game of Thrones. So I wonder,
what is it that make us change that promising envision of our own future for the latter?
I have come to realize that too often we choose the path that is predetermined or, even worse, expected for us to choose. Our environment, that is our family, friends, and the perception that we want others to have of ourselves, dictates in many cases the boundaries of our own decision making process. The outcome of which usually defines the easiest, often less intimidating, roads of should (“The Crossroads of Should and Must” by Elle Luna). Breaking those walls and forcing yourself to look at a bigger picture never comes with ease.
Somewhere down the road we were told that our professional career should be the driving force of our decisions. Searching for the professional upside in almost every choice we make has become a common practice. This has generated a lot of misunderstandings among students who early on were taught to overvalue the consequences of their decisions. To get a better job, to get promoted, or to get a raise is often being perceived as the holy grail of everlasting success. A statement that couldn’t be more wrong.
By travelling the world I have come to realize that by doing the opposite, that is to diminish the professional upside and, as a consequence, to undervalue the effects that your life decisions have on your professional career, I have allowed myself the opportunity to live the most personal, emotional, and professionally beneficial experiences.
I have lived in incredible places, met amazing people, done the unimaginable and tried the unexpected. I have learned and I have grown. I keep learning who I am, what I like, and what I’m good at. I have talked to and met so many different people over these years. Through many conversations I have developed empathy for the unfortunate, admiration for the ordinary, and care for the miserable.
But, how can you do this? How can you break those socially imposed barriers and start to think on your own terms?
Well, let me tell you beforehand that I am not the most resolutive advice giver out there as I’m still figuring things out myself, but I can tell you what I’ve done so far and leave it up to you whether or not to give it a try.
I have simply made enough time to ask a few basic questions and granted myself permission to not be afraid of the answers. Questions such as: who do you want to become? How and where do you want to live? With whom do you want to share it? What do you want to do, try, experience, learn, or create? Is this the life you want to live? If not, what is it? What does the life you want to avoid look like? What variables and values define your good life? Who is actually living this life and what he or she is doing or has done before? Questions that, although trivial, are not being pondered or revisited enough by most of us.
The years that follow college are the perfect time for you to define your own questions and find those meaningful answers that will help you make the best possible decisions to shape out the life you really want to be living. It is just a matter of stopping this frenetic life we all live in, lifting your sights, and looking at your values and priorities from the point the view of an outsider. Assess yourself as you do with others, allowing enough time for you to realize what it is that you want to accomplish. Think of what you would like to be doing compare to what you have done for the last few days, and how you would like the story of your life to be told. Keep in mind, however, that the most important thing is not to ponder forever and instead go be the one who writes that story, find new ways of learning, experience, be curious, build new relationships, try new things, work hard, improve, be happy, but also allow yourself to be sad at times, to fail, to struggle, as it is the best path for improvement.
By doing so you will instantly begin to think and act at a totally different pace; you will start placing your professional ambitions within the grasp of your personal priorities; you will set the long-term above short-term rewards, and oddly enough, you will eventually find your life moving slowly while new opportunities and accomplishments come faster. Forget about the effect that your decisions will have on your career. There is no such thing as a ladder that should be climbed off to be successful, as well as there is definitely not a single definition of success.
Once you realize this, you will understand that by seeking a professional upside on every decision you make, you are dooming yourself to the yellow brick road towards failed expectations and limited opportunities.
I truly believe that college makes us more prepared than ever for whatever life has to offer. It makes you an opportunity seeker, and if you don’t hold onto external expectations, it also makes you an opportunity maker. It is the perfect time for you to try things out and not be crippled by that job you should be after. The good thing about your twenties is that you don’t need a lot of things to be satisfied and there is little at stake. You can make a good living off a scholarship, you can live almost everywhere, eat almost anything, and find fulfillment on the mundane. So go design the life you desire by making of the latter your main asset.
From someone who has wandered around without having had any type of “formal” 9 to 5 job since graduation, I can tell you that no professional experience will teach you more or provide you more personal benefit that the experience of seeking your callings, living by your terms and off your own decisions, work, and effort. I can assure you that other’s expectations is what makes your decision making process sink from the very beginning. As humans we tend to give too much credit to our environment for the things that happen to us. Lack of self-awareness is the Achilles’ heel of most recent graduates. It is hard to put in words the things you learn and the person you become when you turn away from what you should be doing, and commit to go down the road of personal development.
“If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else”