You can do things and don’t need to prove yourself anymore
Yodphet Sudsawad, founder Panyaden International School and the film company Phenomena
It’s a sunny Wednesday morning when I meet with Yodphet Sudsawad in her office. We’re both barefoot and this is the norm at Panyaden, the international school she helped to create in Chiang Mai, some four hundred miles north west of Bangkok.
With sustainable architecture and plenty of nature all around, the school is a gem that integrates Buddhist principles, green awareness and an international curriculum. To tell her age is impossible: her face breaks away with from the parameters we use to gauge maturity. Or maybe, it’s just the fact that she smiles. She smiles a lot, wholeheartedly and she isn’t shy to share her secret.
I noticed that people in Thailand age differently compared to their peers in the West. They seem more laid back, serene and there’s a sort of beauty in they aging. How do you explain it?
I think there are two elements at play: the first one is physical. The climate is agreeable, we do a lot of work around the house and in the garden, plus the Thai women are petite and this makes us look gracious while we age. The second element is mental: we take things easy, and we smile a lot. It is our nature. We go to the temple. We meditate. You see, people focus too much on the appearance and when you try too hard, you get the opposite result.
What can we learn about aging the Thai way?
Aging gracefully is about finding a balance in life. For example, I do not believe in adhering blindly to a schedule, because you must be able to do things with joy. If one morning you wake up and don’t feel like to exercising, it’s fine. But you have to be mindful all the time. You also have to keep the pulse of your well-being: when you feel you are too stressed, go out for a walk.
How do you feel about your aging?
Aging is wonderful. Your body changes to adapt, your perception evolves from when you were young and, although we still focus too much on the downside of this process, we must learn to embrace it. Aging is a part of life, therefore it must be cherished, it cannot be addressed against it, the way the idea of “anti” suggests. Also, if you think about it: all the great personalities are acknowledged as such because of what came from the inside.
What is your philosophy of aging?
Be happy, laugh a lot. When you are young, you might get mad because of work, of politics, your read negative news, watch any type of movies. When you age you have to be more careful: that’s why, for examples, I watch comedies. Problems don’t stop to showing up just because you age and when you are light-hearted it helps you to deal with every issues, to look at things from another direction. For instance, when the school was hit by a flash flood (it happened in October 2017 and resulted in substantial damage to buildings, infrastructure and equipment), I had to smile, to cuddle and support our teachers. Aging comes with stress. A positive attitude is more necessary than ever.
Before opening Panyaden International School, you were already a successful business woman as the founder of Phenomena, one of the most important film production companies in Thailand. How old were you when you decided to open Panyaden and why did you decide to do it?
I was 45. We had bought some land in Chiang Mai and there was a concomitance of events. When we moved from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we realized we wanted a different type of school for our kids and I remember that, a part from being a film producer - a desire I expressed with my father in a rice field when I was very little - I always liked the idea of becoming a teacher and I enjoy the process of training people. Then, there is the fact that opening a school is a way to touch the lives of many people. It starts with the lives of the kids and their parents, but it goes on into their future. You can have a big impact in the world in helping kids to become adults with integrity, principles, and the guts to do things.
Can you explain how aging is related to the desire to give back to society?
One of the best aspects of getting older is that you can do things. When you are young, you have to prove yourself, gain credibility. When you’re old, people look at your face and they immediately know that you have a lot of experience. When you don’t need to prove yourself anymore, it comes natural to make life meaningful by contributing to the society.
How has aging impacted on the way you run your companies?
I realize I listen more. I sit in a board meeting and I don’t have to say a world. If I see someone is going the wrong way, I can calculate where this action is going to end, I let the person do it in order to learn. With age, you’re calmer, if you’re criticized it’s ok, you get bonuses when you age and one of them is being self-less.
On the other hand, how has the experience of opening a school changed your aging?
I realized that regardless our age, every person has a little boy or a little girl inside. When you are in a school, you look at the children, you allow them to be who they are, you feel their kindness, you let them make mistakes. The same applies to yourself: your little girl inside can be stressed, can cry, can like one thing more than another one. So, I would say that the school allowed me to bring my little girl back and create a new balance with my life.
What advice would you give for other women to challenge their idea of aging?
Aging is a process. You can take it the right or the wrong way. It’s up to you. So, first of all, although it’s important, don’t focus on your appearance only. Nurture yourself physically, spiritually. Be humble, don’t feel you’re better than others just because of your age and don’t hold on too much to your opinion. On the contrary, allow people to challenge you, accept criticism and sleep on it. If it’s useful, change, if it’s not, let go. Do something new to get out of your comfort zone, meet with younger people, and travel a lot. But also, do some crazy things, be fearless, let people laugh if they feel like. When you age, people will laugh at you anyway. The advantage of laughter is that it helps you to limit your self-consciousness which, in turn, is the best antidote to becoming a grumpy old lady.
Who would you suggest I talk with next about aging?
You could talk with my sister who’s an artist and made the Buddha statue of Panyaden School.