When I was a senior high to university student, I used to enter essay contests and win prizes. When I was 15, I won a trip to Canada. I went to Hawaii for an essay prize at the age of 18.
When I was at the University, Japan was in the middle of the "bubble economy". I did not benefit directly from the frivolous festivities that went on nightly in the clubs and restaurants in Tokyo (at these times my life was really modest, simple, and without excitement, just concentrating on physics). However, I did get some bonuses by winning prize money in essay contests held by corporations and organizations with fat purses. I used the money to go to operas, kabuki plays, and concerts. Thus, I used the essay winnings to cultivate my knowledge and sensitivities. To this day, I think that was a very good investment.
I remember one particular essay contest well. In the essay, I argued that our society needed a project to inspire people for something beyond the realm of the daily experiences. Without such an enterprise, human spirituality would suffocate. After warning against a danger of the closing of the human mind in the modern society, I argued that one of the best projects would be SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).
My essay won the first prize. I was twenty-something then. (Needless to say, all these essays were written in Japanese. I am yet to win my first English essay contest.)
At the prize ceremony, one of the judges said very nice things about my prose. He was a famous critic. He said that "Mr. Mogi writes with fire. His style shows much promises". I was pleasantly flattered. His words were music to my ears. But then he went on to say that "the argument was very well, until Mr. Mogi came to the last part, arguing for the necessity for SETI. I wonder if the project provides an appropriate ending to this essay."
Thus, at the very end, I was discouraged. The judges all nodded in agreement with the critic. Apparently, they did not think that SETI was a proper subject to be discussed in respectable social contexts. Not like building an arts theatre or promoting a sports event.
At that very moment, I think, a theme that continues to run in my life even today emerged. I might be able to come to (or appear to come to) an agreement with the society in general on the surface, but when it comes to things that really matter, I am rarely in agreement with the comfortable mainstream.
I partially regret the situation. Had I been more conformant, I would have led an easier life. But then it would not have been as fun.