It is my last ‘free’ summer—that is, the last summer I have before graduating from St Andrews, and having to enter what everyone has come to see as the ‘real world’. Unlike past summers, where I spent most of my time interning and doing work experience, I decided to take this summer off for myself. I wanted to travel, isolate my mind from the world, and think deeply about what I want to do with my life post-graduation. Going to Laos, I saw a lot of kindness, humility, and gratefulness. The people I met had an appreciation for life and happiness that is not often seen in the privileged world. I always knew it was important to be happy and to be kind, but my travels – specifically a chance meeting with a young monk – brought about a realization: knowing is not enough. It’s putting it into action by maintaining an optimistic mindset, staying thankful, and rolling with the challenges that come your way.
I met a novice monk named Mike during a visit to the Luang Prabang public library. He was studying for an English exam with two of his friends, and eagerly invited my friend and I to help with their revision. In the short hour I spent at the library, Mike surprised me with wisdom I would have never expected to come from a high-school student. Born into a poor farming family with five children, Mike grew up in the rural village of Khongthroum, where there are no secondary schools, roads, or hospitals. Unable to afford his tuition, Mike’s parents suggested that he become a novice monk. Despite the hardships he’s endured, Mike is determined to eventually become a computer programmer or an English teacher. He excitedly quoted Steve Jobs: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Armed with an iPhone gifted to him from an Australian tourist, he proceeded to show me Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech. We have since become Facebook pen pals, where I continue to help him with his English from afar. The following is a simple, but true, nugget of wisdom he sent me recently:
“All human beings in the world need only happiness, no one needs sadness. Some want to be born into a rich family and have the perfect everything… Anyway, we cannot choose where we are born but we can choose our ways… I never thought myself unlucky. I was so proud of what I had.”
[pullquote]We cannot choose where we are born but we can choose our ways.[/pullquote]
Mike is one of many Laotians who make the most of what they have, and their appreciation and understanding of life, happiness, and the world around them shows in their unending optimism and kindness. Although my time in Laos was short, I was reminded of something very important—something that everyone should recognize. As cliché as it sounds, everyone should be thankful for what they have. There will always be someone who seems to have more than you, be it wealth or luck, but there will also always be someone who has less than you. As Mike and the rest of Laos has taught me, a shift in mindset can easily turn a challenge into an opportunity. As graduation approaches, some of us might be tempted to eye our peers with envy as they begin to reveal big life plans or receive their first job offers. We might even look towards post-graduation life with despair. What we should remember, however, is that we are privileged to have even been given the chance to receive an education, and that relative success does not need to imply relative happiness.