Before becoming executive director of UCLA Career Services in 2020, Hassan Akmal had a rather varied resume himself.
A UCLA alumnus, Akmal had been a professional tennis player, head of a nonprofit, professor and author. Those diverse experiences inform his new TEDx talk, which was posted in late May, on strategies for designing a career and a life you can love.
In an interview for UCLA Newsroom, Akmal discusses what he has learned from his unusual path, the power of resilience and the importance of identifying your labor of love. The interview has been edited for length.
What questions should people ask themselves while choosing a career path?
What do you love? What does the world need? What are you good at? What can you get rewarded for? These questions are so important because in answering them, you are answering a much deeper question: What is your ikigai? Ikigai is a Japanese concept that refers to your reason for being, or your purpose.
Answering these questions is no easy task. Most people think they know their “Why,” but are far from it. If you ask yourself, “But why?” enough times, eventually you will get to it, and it will be a game-changer.
Life is full of moments that shake you — some small, some big — and your self-belief and purpose will help see you through. It’s really about career and life alignment, not just career alignment, which is why these questions are so critical.
How did answering those questions influence your career and life?
I had many limiting beliefs growing up. Success was defined for me, but I knew I needed to be in the driver’s seat and write down my definition of success. So I did. Then I realized that success does not lead to happiness; we have it backward. Happiness leads to success.
From pro athlete to nonprofit CEO to UCLA, you have had a pretty nontraditional career path. How did you make those transitions so effectively?
I always spoke to people who had demonstrated success in the roles I was aspiring toward. They became my personal board of directors. They had cracked what I call the “mastermind code”: Reverse engineer from your passions, master those passions, transform them into skills and use those skills to solve other people’s problems.
When you can identify and solve other people’s problems, you have yourself a business proposition.
What are your secrets for career and life success?
It begins with understanding resilience. In my talk, I use a metaphor of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken items and highlighting the repairs with gold. The flaws and scars make you stronger, beautiful and unique. Fail upward. Lift yourself up!
Focus is the next secret. We must train our minds to focus, and know where we are headed. We all need a purpose greater than ourselves, and we need gratitude.
The other secrets are loving yourself, a love for giving back to the world and a positive mindset.
Can you give an example of someone who has incorporated these to have a successful and happy life?
Years ago, I learned about Muhammed Basdag, a calligrapher and musician from Istanbul, Turkey. As a teen, Muhammed saw people playing instruments in the markets and saved money from his calligraphy work to buy his own qanun, a string instrument that plays an integral part in Arabic music. Muhammed found a qanun teacher and eventually started performing with other musicians around Istanbul. While he makes his living from calligraphy, after 5 p.m. each day, he becomes a musician.
Life mastery is about balance. He loves both art forms, and they provide different benefits and creative outlets. He says, “With calligraphy, it’s more about technique and repetitive practice. With music, it’s about allowing your heart and emotions to follow where they lead.”
Thomas Edison said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” In your TEDx talk, you speak about making no distinction between career and life. Is that what you mean?
Yes, exactly, it’s finding your calling. Ask yourself, “What is your labor of love?” If time or money were never an issue, where would you be working? What would you be doing and why? Imagine your career vision and life vision as one vision.
Join a mastermind group — a peer-to-peer mentoring group — with like-minded individuals who share interests and goals. Combine not only your networks but also your unshared best practices. It will serve as a catalyst to accelerate your path toward earning a living from the design of your life.
How is Career Services evolving to respond to today’s job market?
We understood that the pandemic would only compound the issues and challenges students and recent graduates were facing, and we want to focus our efforts on designing careers and lives for all graduates, realizing that the traditional model of career planning was now outdated.
In addition, the consensus of feedback we’ve received over the past year is that to meet students where they are, career centers must be creative and expand services to diverse and underrepresented communities. That is exactly what we are doing. The success of Career Services in the future will depend on its equitable access to connections and experiences for all students, regardless of their background or social networks.
Fortunately, we see encouraging news for those looking for signs of a strengthening economy and improved career outcomes for our students and graduates.
In 10 words or less, what’s your best advice to this year’s graduates?
What’s the best way to predict the future? Create it.