In Praise of Teachers

Education is everything. Over the years, I’ve attended global conferences with leading figures–from Melinda Gates to Oprah, Bono to Michelle Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson to Warren Buffett–who all declared that education is the cure to our nation’s, and indeed our world’s, greatest ills. I totally agree.

Growing up, I had my share of challenges, as I discussed in my book Living Wabi Sabi, but I always had the good fortune to attend great schools. Through some of my most difficult circumstances in my youth, I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for my teachers who instilled in me the idea that it isn’t where you come from, it’s where you’re going that matters. They taught me that to become a truly capable person, one must develop a broad intellect and wide range of talents. To be a great “student of life,” one must strive to master a variety of fields–for therein greatness is developed, as one who strives to know something about everything, and everything about something, will excel in any endeavor.

As a teen, I spent much time pondering this concept as I walked the sandy beaches near my home (above) with my friends each day. The ocean waves reminded me that, like a wave, we are each individual expressions of a greater force, of the universe, of God, of love, of Mother Nature. I decided that I would aim to channel my talents to harness the creative power of the universe, for my own growth and to help serve others. Despite (or perhaps because) of the problems I faced, I wanted to live a purposeful life, and I decided I wanted to become a modern Renaissance man.

Thanks to the support of some stellar educators, I grew into a curious mix of equal parts computer nerd, athlete, book worm, and artist. By the time I was in junior high, I programmed and operated a local computer service from a server on my bedroom desk. By the end of high school, I had been class president, a Rotary Scholar, and an exchange student to Australia. I had also enjoyed success in the entertainment industry, performing in television commercials and Broadway musicals, earning the same income as adults around me. Somehow I kept grounded and sane! Totally unimaginable without the foundation my family and my teachers provided for me each step of the way.

Although my family faced major hardships while I was in high school, my grades were high enough to earn me scholarships that allowed me the freedom to pursue higher education. Shortly after graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Soka University of Tokyo, I worked as a volunteer children’s counselor, English tutor, model, real estate broker’s assistant, and newspaper writer. I later returned to school to pursue my Master of Fine Arts at UCLA, aiming to join friends at Lucasfilm and invent special effects, but instead ended up co-founding an internet company, eVoice. I’m proud to say we built a thriving entity with nearly 250 happy employees, which was acquired by AOL.

Tapping the range of business experiences I gained at eVoice, I enjoyed working with several other successful start-ups as well. To keep a healthy balance during my time in Silicon Valley, as my teachers always encouraged me, I painted and wrote as often as I could. During this time I created my first book Open Your Mind, Open Your Life, an instant bestseller that was eventually translated into eight languages. I’ve accomplished a variety of challenging and fulfilling endeavors, and I owe a large part of every success to my incredible teachers. I let them know it too.

Such thoughts of gratitude for my education were with me as I discussed with the presidents of Sony Publishing and EMI/Virgin of Japan some plans for licensing more of my music for video games, too. I enjoyed a fantastic music education as a child, and supporting music programs in our schools is even more vital today than ever.

I feel so grateful for the small army of angels, the talented teachers and coaches, who guided me along my way, who helped my life manifest its inner treasures in myriad beautiful ways. I owe much to them, to the gifts their lessons brought out in me, and that is why I do as much as I can to support teachers, student scholarships, and educational foundations today. I firmly believe that any child, given the proper learning tools, can excel. The topic of supporting our teachers and improving schools is always timely, yet now our nation faces a crisis. There may never have been a more urgent time to give thanks to our teachers and support our local schools than now. (I’m reminded of the emotional documentary that has timeless messages to this effect: Waiting for Superman)

When we give thanks to the people who taught us well by giving back to teachers and schools now, we plant seeds of gratitude that will grow into mighty trees of knowledge and bear fruit for countless generations to come.