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