Monthly Archives: April 2011

Me and Martha

Earlier this year I interviewed Martha Stewart about her philosophy on new technologies, the nature of making good things, and creative leadership. That interview as a text and audio segment debuted in the inaugural iPad app version of Martha Stewart Living as a 600Mb for-pay download in January 2011 but I was pleasantly surprised that it’s now for free within the MSL app (the rest of the issues are for-pay). My takeaway from this conversation with Martha was that creativity starts at the home when you are growing up, and if you are lucky it will follow you, and serve you well, into adulthood and beyond. -JM

Fictional Inspiration

By some happenstance today, I recalled a Japanese television program (comedy/drama) called “Chance” that I avidly watched when I should have instead been working on my doctoral dissertation (translation: I was procrastinating). It’s in Japanese but I found this first episode:

The protagonist is a rock star that chooses to go on hiatus in the US for a couple of years at the top of his popularity. When he returns to Japan his fans, and the management company he created for his music, have all forgotten him. It’s a silly adventure into the comedy of ego, the importance of artistic integrity, and the fragility of confidence. The rock star’s name is Yuji Honjo, and at the time of my thesis-writing he was truly my hero.

There’s a phrase Honjo uses as a refrain throughout the TV series for whenever he encounters people that interest him where he says, “Chiisaku matomanna yo” which is Japanese slang to say literally, “Don’t reduce yourself into something small.” Said in more of a US-centric way, he’s saying, “Think big!” This of course in Japan is a big deal to say, because it is the country with the famous saying, “Deru kugi wa utareru” which translates as, “The nail that sticks up will get hammered down.”

Japan is a society where thinking big can often get you dressed down very quickly. So to hear this said over and over by the protagonist, “Chiisaku matomanna yo,”  in this drama was quite refreshing. And it literally helped me finish my dissertation because I didn’t want my thinking to be so small … well, I guess I wanted to think big!

So, if you’re thinking of not thinking big thoughts today, just remember, “Chiisaku matomanna yo!” -JM

Father as leader

I have regular open office hours for students — a practice that is often suggested for college presidents and for other leaders — the so-called “open door” philosophy. You learn all kinds of things about your organization when you do so.

A senior came to visit me, and often as seniors do, he spoke about his own wonderings as to what he would / could / should do after graduating. And this student was fairly at peace with the mystery and challenges ahead, as was evident in the fact that he didn’t ask me any career questions. Instead he asked me an odd and interesting question that took me off guard: “In your role as a leader, how has being a father influenced how you lead?”

My response began from where I often stand — that children will inherit a world that you will either make better or worse for their adult lives. We all want better lives for all the future adults so we work in the present to improve the coming world to our best abilities. And we often fall short of success because, well, we are human. But we remind ourselves again to care, and to try again. And that’s whether you are a parent or not — a better world is universally desirable.

I knew that wasn’t really a response to his question, so I tried again. I spoke instead about my own father and how he influenced me as a leader. My father was a cook for many years. He left home (a small fishing village in Japan) at 15 and shined shoes on a boat for passengers as his first job in addition to cleaning the bathrooms and floors. On that boat he did every manner of job, and worked his way up to peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and then finally to becoming the cook of the ship. In the 60s he left the ship, and worked as a cook in a Japanese restaurant in Seattle; a decade later he took over a mom-and-pop tofu-making business and ended his career as a cook.

However Dad stayed active in his cooking craft; he loved to cook for guests at our house. It wasn’t often, but when we would have guests come over he would get a whole fish and cut it as sashimi (raw fish) and arrange all the foods in beautiful ways. In many ways he was my first design teacher with his mastery in meticulously arranging the shapes, proportions, mixtures, selection of plates, and overall visual / textural / temperature balance of a multi-course traditional Japanese-style meal.

One day when I was about 11 or 12, I noted to my father his consistent pattern in how he would give the best parts of the fish to the guests, and for himself eat the scrappiest, undesirable parts. I thought this strange because as a cook he knew what tasted good and bad, so with his more developed taste acuities he should be eating the good parts himself. He plainly explained that a cook doesn’t make food for himself to enjoy — he makes food for others to enjoy. His happiness came from making others happy around him. I noticed this about my father — how giving he was to others around him, and expecting absolutely nothing in return.

I shared this story with the student because it epitomizes what I believe is important in a leader — being someone that consistently gives, instead of just takes, from those around them.

It was nice to think of my father that day, and reminded me of how little moments of inspiration travel with you even through decades of life. I think of how my father shared the fish with others as one of my ideals in leader-behavior that I’ve always admired seeing when it happens. Sharing is caring, and I’m glad to share this thought with you. -JM

When Leaps Are Made

A wise legend in the creative field told me how in his long life he realized there were three basic reasons that he had ever made any significant creative leaps. He enumerated them matter-of-factly:

  1. Having no experience to call on in his past history upon which to base his next move. Being, what he called, “Completely clueless.”
  2. The sands of time in the hourglass going from a few tens of thousand grains to just a dozen or less. When time is running out, there is no recourse but to wish for a miracle and be really, really lucky at that moment.
  3. It’s a matter of life or death. The single decision to be made affected the future health of his company and would take it up or at least stable, or instead all the way down into the abyss.

I thought his perspective to be a bit stark, but in his discrete thoughts I found a snippet in my mind from a sci-fi book (yes there’s life inspiration in sci-fi books sometimes) I read for pleasure while in college that went:

You are
What you do
When it counts.

In summary, we are extraordinary as the situation demands. Luckily the situation in one’s life fluctuates all the time from the challengingly hard to the oh-so-soft to the largely unnoticed, and wonderful quiet of, just plain living. JM

The Professor’s Assistant

I have a friend in Japan who went to graduate school in metallurgical sciences. A few years ago, on a bus ride to Narita, he shared something with me that I once had written somewhere online but it’s now gone, and I want to remember his story so I scribble it here.

He told me a story about his professor there, that to me embodies the epitome of devotion to one’s work — and to those that support it.

His story wasn’t about his professor per se, but about his professor’s longtime assistant. To the graduate students in their research group, this assistant was someone who often took care of key matters for the students as the professor was often traveling to give a lecture or to assist the government and was unavailable. The professor was beloved for his gentle nature and counsel, but the assistant even more so because she was always there — and dependable for the students’ needs. They all thought of her as their mother as they all lived far away from home in the countryside of Japan to study in Tokyo.

After my friend graduated, he kept tabs on his professor, and noted how each year he became more important and promoted to higher positions. And his assistant followed his professor each step if the way. After many years, his professor made it to the top of a national research lab — a symbol of prestige in Japan — and his assistant was of course right there with him. And then one day, the assistant became very ill, and entered the hospital.

With tears in his eyes, which you don’t see so often in Japan, my friend shared how his professor cancelled all of his travel. The professor went to the hospital every day to visit her. In the end she didn’t get well after several months, so this story did not have a happy ending. But it made me happy to know that such relationships at work could exist, and that there are people that uphold such values of devotion for others in their work lives.

I think of this story when things get confusing in my mind. It reminds me that issues can seem awfully important at times and take up your entire field-of-view, but it’s even more important to remember the people around you that quietly move in the periphery on your behalf that enable you to navigate your toughest moments — they are at work and at home, and sometimes are complete strangers on the street as I have found.

Thanks for being one of those strangers that have come to visit this post — you’re the part of the reason I took a few seconds to re-post this. I truly appreciate your interest in my evolving thoughts on creative leadership. -JM