- Stephen A. Metcalf
A Life Well Lived: Drawing inspiration from those we admire to craft a life of purpose
The world has lost a number of legends over the past year: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a world-renowned South African anti-apartheid and human rights activist; Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk known for social activism in Vietnam and for introducing the world to mindfulness; and Paul Farmer, a global health champion who transformed the way we care for others. bell hooks was a Black feminist, author, scholar, and native of my home state of Kentucky, USA, who made theory on race, gender, and sexuality accessible, and Michael Rutter, the “father of child psychiatry,” was among the most foundational figures in my research area, resilience to early-life adversity.
I was immensely lucky to meet one of my heroes, another luminary the world recently lost: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH-ee), a.k.a. Mike. Having fled the horrors of World War II, and having accidentally attended a lecture on UFOs by Carl Jung, Mike was inspired to pursue psychology as a means to understanding the fundamentals of a good life. He is probably best known for recognising and studying the concept of flow, a mental state in which a person is so absorbed in an activity that they lose track of time. After co-developing a method to study people in their daily lives, he went on to co-found positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes life worth living. Known for his understated and somewhat monotone but brilliant speaking, as evidenced by his TED Talk on flow, Mike was not only a distinguished psychologist but also a proud father, devoted husband, and caring colleague and mentor.
As part of a conference in 2018, I had the chance to spend a few hours with Mike one on one. I never quite overcame the feeling of being starstruck. It was fascinating to be up close and personal with someone I had admired from afar. He was both larger than life and down to earth. I had been drawn to his humility, so it was interesting to hear him share a few points of pride—for example, publishing two pieces in the New Yorker soon after learning English. Despite my granting him demigod status, I learned he was human just like the rest of us after seeing the academic stereotype of mountains of papers in his office and talking with him over lunch at his favorite Italian restaurant. Sometimes extraordinary people are really just ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
When I first heard Mike speak in person, it was in a massive, mostly empty auditorium, with a capacity of roughly 1,000 people and maybe 100 or so attendees. He gave a lecture on positive psychology and globalisation; it was even more monotone and even more brilliant than his TED Talk. At the end, Mike received a well-deserved standing ovation. There was no excessive fanfare like you might find at a motivational speaking event or political rally—just a genuine, sustained applause that lasted longer than any I have ever witnessed. The length of that moment was awe-inspiring. It was not only an acknowledgement of his insights from that lecture but also gratitude for a thoughtful, impactful career. When I reflect on Mike’s legacy, this is how I like to think of it: a standing ovation for a life well lived.
The deaths of Mike and the other inspiring figures noted above bring for me a sense of urgency to life, to figuring out why we are here and how we should spend the precious moments we have. What makes a good life? What does it mean to do good? What do we owe future generations—not only our children and grandchildren but generations in the far future as well? Who do we count as our heroes, and why? Who should we count as our heroes?
These are the types of questions—questions of morals and values—that I find most pressing, and I want to make the most of the coming years by continuing to explore them with others, especially in the Gates Cambridge community. As I dive into my research on resilience, I aim to contribute to our understanding of why some people go on to do better than we might expect given histories of hardship, with the hope that this knowledge can eventually be applied to support those who are struggling. Empowering others, especially the people we so often leave behind, might be one of many ways we can address some of the questions above. For those of us fortunate enough to have the option, I believe a life dedicated to others, to a purpose outside oneself, to some greater good may be the most noble path we can forge. Even if we never know the impact we have had, and even if we never make any notable difference at all, I think it is worth trying. (What outcomes and timescales should we care about with respect to our impact? What do we consider a “notable difference”? When does trying to make an impact enhance or conflict with humility? The questions continue.)
Although Mike and these other legends are no longer here, their legacies will live on through the many people they inspired and the visions they had of a better world. There are countless people across the globe whose actions will never receive the standing ovation they deserve but who nonetheless do the hard work of improving the lives of others; we should heed the lessons we can learn from them as well. Perhaps part of our mission, then, is to determine where our predecessors went right and wrong, draw inspiration from their dreams but also revise or even overhaul them as needed, and take steps toward creating a world in which our deepest values are expressed. Maybe this is how we honour those who came before us and those who will come after. Maybe this is how we craft a life worth living.
Stephen A. Metcalf  is exploring questions of resilience to early-life adversity. He is from eastern Kentucky in the Appalachian region of the United States.