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Through the Fire: Evaluating the Job of Life

August 29, 2014

By Bill Watanabe

Most of us have probably had to do an annual performance evaluation at their place of work.  The evaluation is supposed to provide feedback on how well the employee is meeting job expectations, and also help to set goals for the future and make corrective changes to improve.  Being a Nikkei, I found it very uncomfortable to directly talk to employees about their “shortcomings” because I grew up culturally thinking it is rude to say negative things to people (although it seemed to be OK to do it behind their backs!).  Nevertheless, performance evaluations are generally a good thing to do.

Years ago, when I was facing my 40th birthday, I felt I needed to “evaluate my life” and try to determine how I was doing in the “job of life”.  Turning 40 was a difficult milestone for me because I had to come to grips with the fact that I was no longer young and climbing upward but instead, heading on the down-slope and aiming for – gasp – my eventual demise.   Of course, one’s demise could come at any time but I sort of hopefully assumed I would live to be at least 80 years old.   It was not a “mid-life crisis” (I was generally quite happy with my life at the time) but it was a mid-life slap in the face.

I told my wife I needed some time to and for myself and asked her if it would be OK for me to spend some time on a personal retreat as I contemplate my 40th birthday.   She understood my need (she probably thought it was “mid-life crisis”) and said “OK”.

I decided to spend a week up in the mountains – the beautiful High Sierras was my choice of location.  I camped by a stream at Rock Creek Lake in order to devote time for life-reflection, evaluation, meditation, reading and thinking – all while doing some trout fishing surrounded by beautiful and grand mountain vistas.  Some of my fishing buddies probably thought this was just a grand scheme to sneak in some fishing time but I was very serious and focused on the task of life-evaluation.

During my first full day, as I sat in my folding chair by the lakeshore, I thought back to my earliest memories of childhood and I tried to sequentially remember my whole life.   This is not the same as “contemplating one’s navel” but rather to see oneself in those memories and think about what it meant.   My earliest memories were pooping in my diaper and recalling how unpleasant it felt as I tried to walk.   I also vividly remember picking up a handful of dirt and eating it – which was also very unpleasant!   Another very early scene that has remained in my mind is standing outside our house next to my father in a dense early morning fog, reaching up to hold his hand as wisps of fog swirled around us.  I hadn’t thought of it before but that is the only time I remember ever holding his hand – and that new awareness became a part of my life evaluation.

I kept a journal of my thoughts and significant insights as they popped into my mind.  I moved in my memory from childhood to school-age, college, career, family and finally to the present.   Some recollections were painful and embarrassing and I became more aware of how I had been impacted by them in my personality and outlooks.   With advantage of hindsight, I became more aware of why I committed some of the most stupid acts possible.  On several nights, as I lay in my tent alongside a rushing stream, I had extremely vivid dreams that ran through my mind like a continuous movie.   Trying to interpret these dreams gave me even more food for thought as I returned each morning to the lakeside.

By the fourth day, I began to try to evaluate how I felt about my life up to that point of 39 years.  What had I accomplished and did I feel satisfied?   What more did I want to do and accomplish before I died?   By the sixth day, I had created a general list of some goals – some were open-ended and some were specific.  These included goals for my career and work at Little Tokyo Service Center (I was in my third year as the Executive Director), becoming a better husband and father and improving my family relationships, and traveling to far-off places like Egypt and Machu Picchu.

Ten years later, when I was about to turn 50, I reviewed my journal to see how I was progressing on achieving my goals and whether I had attained a better sense of life accomplishment and satisfaction.   Amazingly, some things were accomplished (like going to Egypt) and some were still to be done.  I did the same life-review when I was about to turn 60.

Just this year I turned 70, and once again I pulled out my old journal and looked at my list and the thoughts I had written down 30 years earlier.   I haven’t made it to Machu Picchu yet – and maybe I never will, but all in all, it’s nice to know I can give myself a decent life evaluation score.

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Bill Watanabe co-founded the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, California, and served as the LTSC‘s executive director for over 30 years. He has served on the boards of numerous local organizations, and is a highly respected member of the APA community.

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