Pico Iyer: What Can Ping-Pong Teach Us About Life? The point of a game is usually to win ... but not for Pico Iyer. After years of playing ping-pong at a Japanese community center, he's learned a different lesson: competition can be "an act of love."

Pico Iyer: What Can Ping-Pong Teach Us About Life?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

PICO IYER: Oh, I'm so happy to hear your voice again, Guy. I was just saying I've missed you.

RAZ: You, too.

IYER: I haven't seen you in the last...

RAZ: This is the writer Pico Iyer.

I think you're probably now - this is probably the third time you're going to be on the show, I think.

IYER: I think so, yes. I'm really glad I can be part of one again.

RAZ: Pico is known for his travel writing, and for part of the year, he lives in Kyoto.

IYER: I'm actually - technically, I'm in suburban Nara, so 20 miles from Kyoto. And yes, for really the last 27 years, I've been spending the majority of my time in this little rented two-room apartment in Nara, Japan.

RAZ: And it's just a place that you kind of fell in love with and that you - I don't know. It just spoke to you, I guess.

IYER: It just spoke to me. I - my first day in Japan, I was just on an unwanted layover, flying back from Hong Kong to New York City, where I was living in 1983. And in the course of that layover, I just walked around the airport town of Narita, near Tokyo. And at the end of my three-hour walk, I had decided to move to Japan. I felt at home there that very first morning, and I still do, even now.

RAZ: And I guess after you moved to Japan, you actually got into Ping-Pong, right? How did that happen?

IYER: Well, my wife is a very keen enthusiast of health clubs, and we used to have a health club just across the street from us. And she saw that I never moved, basically. I'm kind of a lumpish, unathletic creature. But she remembered I'd played Ping-Pong as a little boy growing up in England. So she invited me to come and look in on the Ping-Pong. And within three minutes, I was lost to Ping-Pong for life pretty much.


RAZ: Pico is not exaggerating. He plays Ping-Pong just about every day.

IYER: And I think what was interesting for me initially was that I've never really been engaged very much with Japanese society. But as soon as I was in the Ping-Pong club, I was part of this group of 30 Japanese. I was the only foreigner. And suddenly, I had to learn how to fit into a Japanese community.

RAZ: You get to this club, you start getting into Ping-Pong. And one of the things about it is - is that - I guess, is it an unofficial kind of rule that it's doubles? You - it's not singles Ping-Pong

IYER: Exactly. And then we choose partners by lot. So every five minutes, we're changing partners. And part of that is so that nobody loses for long. If you happen to lose with one partner, six minutes later, you're winning with another. And when we play sets, it's best of two so that there would often be no winners and losers. People are very happy for it to end in a 1-1 tie.

Every day, when I leave the Ping-Pong club after an hour and a half of furious exertion, if you asked me, did I win or lose, I couldn't tell you. I'd probably played seven games. I couldn't keep count of whether I won or lost because nobody keeps track of who's winning the games. But that stands for what the whole Ping-Pong club is about, which is the sense that everybody should leave in an equal state of delight.


IYER: In Japan, it's been said they've created a competitive spirit without competition.

RAZ: Here's Pico Iyer on the TED stage.


IYER: Now, all of you know that geopolitics is best followed by watching Ping-Pong


IYER: The two strongest powers in the world were fiercest enemies until, in 1972, an American Ping-Pong team was allowed to visit communist China. And as soon as the former adversaries were gathered around some small green tables, each of them could claim a victory, and the whole world could breathe more easily through Ping-Pong diplomacy.

What I learned, though, at my regular games in Japan is more what could be called the inner sport of global domination that's sometimes known as life. As a boy growing up in England, I was taught that the point of a game was to win. But in Japan, I'm encouraged to believe that, really, the point of a game is to make as many people as possible around you feel that they are winners. So you're not careening up and down as an individual might, but you're part of a regular, steady chorus.

In Japan, a game of Ping-Pong is really like an act of love. You're learning how to play with somebody rather than against her.


IYER: When occasionally I come back to this country and I play my English archrival, the only thing I notice is whether I've won or lost. If you ask me, how was your game today, I won't say I had fun or it was a great game or whatever. I might say, it was a close game. But usually, I'll just say, oh, he beat me 8-3, or I beat him 9-4.

RAZ: Yeah.

IYER: And somehow, just by saying that, I'm taking all the joy out of it. It's much better to say, it was a wonderful game.

RAZ: Wait, you have an English Ping-Pong archrival?

IYER: I'm sad to say yes. And we've been prosecuting this furious Ping-Pong rivalry. We even once played in front of 600 people in San Francisco, not to their delight. I didn't think they wanted to see two aging English guys flail around on a Ping-Pong table, but we enjoyed it. But I would say that my friend is fiercely competitive.

And so it brings out the competitive instinct in myself. And that really means that after a game with him, I'm very rarely happy because even if I defeat him, all I'm thinking about is, next time, he's going to get revenge, or there's only one thing - way to go from here, and that's down. And of course, if I lose to him, I'm literally up all night replaying, how did I miss that forehand slam in the third game or whatever.

It's radically different in Japan because, at least in the context of a club or a community, the most important thing is everybody to be working together and feeling and thinking together and linked. And there's a sense in which to think about winning and losing is to impose a binary system on a world and lives that are not binary. And if I were to ask you, Guy, have you won or lost in your life, you would probably think of certain things you've achieved and certain things you haven't. But you couldn't say, I've won, or I've lost.

RAZ: Life is full of unexpected moments that shape us and change us, from a game of Ping-Pong to life-altering events that can change our narrative and our identity. And if we're lucky, we might pick up some wisdom along the way. So today on the show, we're going to explore wisdom, in hindsight, how we often learn the most important lessons about life in ways we never expected.

And just a quick personal note. After seven years of being your guide on the TED Radio Hour, this episode will be my last new one. And as you might imagine, over these past seven years, interviewing hundreds of incredible TED speakers, I've received a lot of wisdom, which we'll get to a little bit later. But for now, back to Pico Iyer and finding meaning in Ping-Pong.

I mean, I love this idea that winning and losing are not these binary things, that it's just - there's just so much gray, right? Life is a series of, let's say, wins, losses and draws. And that's the kind of collective experience of those wins, losses and draws that defines our life.

IYER: I love that idea, too, so much - exactly. I think it really liberates you because I think trying very, very hard to win is not a winning strategy and is not the way you come upon happiness. I remember when I was a kid, I was determined I'm going to conquer the world. I'm going to achieve this and this and this and this, as most people in their 20s are.

And then at some point, I noticed, well, this is like Zeno's Arrow, which never reaches its target. In other words, let's say I won the Nobel Prize tomorrow. I'd be thinking, why haven't I won the Pulitzer Prize? Why haven't I got a MacArthur - you know, those - and it never ends. And of course, that's a recipe for dissatisfaction.

And the other thing I noticed, which speaks to what you were saying so wonderfully just now, as I get older, is that it's really hard to assess what the victories and what the losses in our lives are. The bad news is rarely as bad as we imagined, and good news is not as good as we hope. And life is rarely as simple as our ideas of it are.


IYER: Playing Ping-Pong in Japan reminds me why choirs regularly enjoy more fun than soloists. In a choir, your only job is to play your small part perfectly, to hit your notes with feeling, and by so doing, to help to create a beautiful harmony that's much greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, every choir does need a conductor. But I think a choir releases you from a child's simple sense of either-ors. You come to see that the opposite of winning isn't losing; it's failing to see the larger picture.

I once lost everything I owned in the world, every last thing, in a wildfire. But in time, I came to see that it was that seeming loss that allowed me to live on the earth more gently, to write without notes, and actually, to move to Japan and the inner health club known as the Ping-Pong table. Conversely, I once stumbled into the perfect job, and I came to see that seeming happiness can stand in the way of true joy even more than misery does.

RAZ: I mean, it's such a simple idea. It's this simple game. And, like, through that prism, you were sort of able it to gain this profound insight.

IYER: Exactly. As I get older, I notice it's the tiny things in life - the trivia, the stuff that we overlook - that really brings the illumination. I think when I was in my teens and when I was at college - again, I thought I have to read this weighty book of philosophy, and I have to think about the meaning of life, and I have to grapple with all these existential questions to bring life to the floor, to come to terms with it. And I delight in the fact that it's the most ephemeral, silly-seeming aspects of life that are often instructing me. And I would say that Ping-Pong has taught me these life lessons more than all the solemn-seeming books or ideas I've entertained over the years.

And I like it because, of course, it's also experiential. When I'm talking to you now about winning and losing in the Ping-Pong club, I'm really talking about how I feel when I go home every day. And there's no arguing with or speculating about that. I know that I come about every day, regardless of the score, really refreshed and invigorated and eager for the next day.

And of course, this applies to everything. Whether it's being a radio host or playing tennis or being a parent or - you know, this is what contentment is, to be freed from the sense of me against the world.

RAZ: That's writer Pico Iyer. His most recent book is called "A Beginner's Guide To Japan: Observations And Provocations." You can find all of Pico's talks at ted.com. On the show today, Wisdom In Hindsight. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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