The Future of You

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

We all have things that keep us going, conscious or otherwise. Okinawans have the term ikigai, or that which makes existence worthy, to describe their reason for being, and having such clarity of purpose has been attributed to them living longer, happier lives.

Whilst realising your ikigai might come from a long process of soul-searching or major epiphany, just as often, the answers are found in the simple things, such as caring for someone, servicing a mortgage, mastering a craft, etc. Every so often, though, it’s good to evaluate what it is that drives us. For if time is the currency of life, and the truest reflection of our priorities, then are we spending it in the way we ought to, in accord with our purpose in the world?

Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up again

Last October, for the first time in 10 years, I found myself jumping out of bed not so much to get to work on time, but to fire up my manual espresso machine and spend the first 30 minutes of the day practising how to extract and froth myself a respectable cup of coffee.

It’s not that I have “feigned an aversion to achievement and become a barista” (as tech entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel jibes in his book Zero to One) or that I am checking out for an early retirement. Rather, I took the leap to go on sabbatical, a season of enforced rest to realign on my priorities and purpose.

The notion of sabbath itself comes from the biblical creation story, where on the seventh day, God rested, and as popularized by designer Stefan Sagmeister in his TED talk, The Power of Time Off, the act of recreation is exactly that: it helps you create better work.

Time spent is time gained

Taking time off may seem like a luxury, as not everyone can press pause on the state of play in our careers and market endeavours; breadwinners have families to feed, and in business operations, there are fires to be fought, systems to run. Countries need to be governed, markets don’t sleep.

But in an age where the world is changing faster than ever, carving out time for reflection becomes necessary, for leaders and employees, companies and countries alike to think differently about what they are doing and why they are doing it, to move forward meaningfully given the huge shifts happening right under their noses, yet often hidden in plain sight.

Reflection is crucial to doing things differently

2015 was a watershed year for Singapore, marking our crossing into a new era. The nation turned 50; our founding prime minister passed away, sparking a wave of effervescent national sentiment, pride and reflection.

We are entering a season of collective soul-searching: what will it take to maintain success over the next 50 years? For Singapore to stay livable, productive and progressive, do we have the infrastructure, social capital and substance to thrive in a world where emerging norms will be very different from what guided our past planning assumptions?

The world in 2016 throws more uncertainty at us, just as it unearths new possibilities. On one hand we face technical recession, slowing economies, rising interest rates, geopolitical instability and climate change. On the other, transformations in business and technology are occurring at breakneck speed; the game is changing on how industries operate, how companies are run, how people live, work, transact and travel, with implications and opportunities for how we might reallocate our time, energy and resources.

There are no definite answers or guarantees, as many reasons for fear as there are for hope. No one knows how it will all play out. But what we do know is it is onto us now, the next pioneer generation, to establish visions of the future that are as bold and definite as those that have shaped our present, and act in such a way as to make them real.

After all, it is in times of dynamism and unpredictability that we find our opportunities for building the new solutions, systems and cultures that will serve us for the years ahead. We can start by looking around us at the needs others don’t see, and asking, what does the future need me to be?

In The Future of Us, an exhibition to mark the closing celebrations of SG50, one of the key narratives was how “the future is not set, just as the past was not set.” In this open, unsettled era, may you too rediscover your ikigai. Here’s to the Future of You.

From The U Press N˚11 (Singapore edition).