It's 8:00AM on a Sunday morning in Kyoto, Japan. I'm up surprisingly early after a long day of travel from Chiang Mai, Thailand. I decide to go for a walk outside and approach my first traffic light signaling pedestrians not to cross. There is not a car in sight so, naturally, I step into the crosswalk to keep moving when I see a disapproving look from a Japanese man waiting patiently on the opposite sidewalk. I stop and take a step backwards. Oh right, I'm in Japan now, I remember. :)
Can you even imagine this scenario in New York City?
People waiting patiently on the sidewalk for "permission" to cross the street? It would almost be a cultural faux pas to wait. New Yorkers would probably say something to people they saw doing this like: "hey, why are you just standing there wasting time?"
We never stop moving in NYC, no matter how many yellow taxis might run us over. Crossing the street there is similar to my experience in Hanoi, Vietnam where it's expected that in order to get anywhere quickly, sometimes you have to cross the street as 50 motorbikes speed around you.
But I'm not in NYC or Hanoi - I'm in the home of Zen Buddhism and so I try to get myself into a Zen-like state, breathe deeply, and wait patiently on the sidewalk (as no cars are coming!) with a feeling of accountability and respect for the cultural norms.
A few days later I decide to join a gym to burn some calories from all the rice and noodles I've been eating. As I finish my membership application at the front counter, I'm ready for my workout when I see a sign that says that I can't wear my "outdoor sneakers" in the gym.
Do people have indoor only sneakers? Apparently, yes - yes they do!
Well, having two pairs of running shoes isn't convenient as a digital nomad and since I feel bad breaking the rules (potentially unnoticed), my only other option is to rent a pair of indoor sneakers from the gym for 330 yen/day (~$3USD).
After my workout, I grab a banana from the 7-Eleven next door and as I walk home happily eating it, I realize that there is not one trash can on the streets. Not a single one in a populous downtown area of Kyoto. I hold onto my banana peel for 15 minutes until I can dispose of it in my kitchen garbage.
I sat home thinking about these three, among other, seemingly "odd" customs or rules.
I realized that they are all rooted in a collective accountability that, while at first feel frustrating, are actually truly beneficial because:
1). There are very few car/pedestrian/bicyclist accidents in Kyoto because everyone follows the traffic rules.
2.) The gym is so clean that I can lay down on a mat without worrying that I'm getting dog feces on my face from someone's outside shoes.
3.) The 95 degree (fahrenheit) summer heat doesn't make the city smell like hot garbage (like NYC) because nobody eats while walking and nobody throws their trash on the street or sidewalk even though there are no trash cans. The city is safe, clean, beautiful, and organized.
There is something about accountability to others that helps us to execute behaviors that we know are good for us - behaviors that we sometimes doubt the importance of but are ultimately aligned with our goals, values, or how we want to experience the world.
As I write a book about motivation, and find myself not prioritizing writing for a few days, I sometimes doubt if I'm motivated enough to write a book on that topic! I doubt my intrinsic motivation because I want someone to hold me accountable for my book deliverables and timeline.
But then I remember that with a first-time solo project like writing a book, my desire to be held accountable by others doesn't mean a lack of motivation. Sharing my challenges and successes with people who care about me and understand what I'm trying to achieve can help me to solidify the progress I'm making even more so. And, since I've never done this before, it’s easy for self-doubt to undermine my efforts.
To combat this challenge, some of my Remote Year friends and I have created a "goals group" that acts as a support system to help each other stay positive and focused on achieving our individual goals. We hold each other accountable for the actions and behaviors we have each communicated we believe are important.
I've also decided to incorporate collective accountability into the book I'm writing. I don't want my book to be another one that people read, think was helpful in theory, but then don't make any actual changes in their lives. My book is going to ask readers to take specific actions at the end of each chapter for their own career development and fulfillment.
And I will ask readers to create accountability through a support system of a friend or group of friends that are working towards similar goals. There’s a big difference between working toward a goal by yourself, and doing so with the support of others who can help you to sustain and steer that goal during times of self-doubt.
Kyoto, thanks for holding me accountable to follow your cultural norms when I had my doubts about your ways. It was an illuminating month in an incredible city that I hope to visit again soon.
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