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March 2011

Fall down seven times, get up eight: The power of Japanese resilience

Evacuationcenter They say that in times of crisis people show their true character. Anyone can be cooperative, patient, and understanding when things are going well and life is good. But it is the noble man or woman who can behave with grace and compassion and even kindness when times are very, very bad. For many people in Northern Japan in 2011, times could not have been worse. And yet, at least to the outside observer, the manner in which the Japanese people conducted themselves in the aftermath of the calamity seemed remarkable. (NHK image: people receive bread at one the thousands of evacuation centers)

Foreign reporters are amazed
Cooper_japan In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and devastating tsunami in northern Japan, we were inundated with news crews from around the world. Without exception, the foreign news reporters were impressed with the amazing resilience of the Japanese people. CNN's Anderson Cooper went on and on about how impressed he was at the cooperative nature of the Japanese in the disaster zones. He described how he saw people who had waited hours in long lines for water suddenly be told that the distribution center had just run out of supplies. He expected to hear complaining or worse (imagine how this may play out in your own country), but was shocked to see that no one complained, no one became angry or made an incident. Seemingly every media outlet abroad commented on this remarkable aspect of Japanese society. In an article from the Daily Telegraph in Australia (Resilience in the face of catastrophe) touched on many of the themes:

"...the country shows only co-operation between people, generosity, order, industriousness and civilised behavior. No looting, no whining. Very little panic, if any, and no demands for some mythical 'them' to fix it."

Evacuationcenter2 Over thirty years ago when I first started working in Japan, I noticed that transferring many people to different parts of he company was a common practice. It seemed disruptive and a bit of an upheaval to me then, but my boss explained that this kind of change was important for people to learn all aspects of the business. And besides, he said, this kind of tearing down and building up again is all apart of life in Japan. I remember he called it "construction and destruction...and then construction again." He reminded me that Japan is an island nation with a history of calamities including volcanoes, typhoons, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, and in recent history, the horrible consequences of war, including two atomic bombings. No matter the crisis, however, Japan always bounces back. This ability recover and grow stronger has much to do with a culture that values personal responsibility and hard work but also humility and a sense of belonging to and contributing to a community. Wa (和) or harmony, then, is a key value in Japanese society. One can indeed live a life in the pursuit of individual happiness and self-actualization while at the same time living a life that values being a part of a community and contributing to the society in which one lives. (NHK image: people line up patiently outside for bread.)

Fall_down_7times Fall down seven times,
get up eight 七転び八起き

Japanese culture and ways of thinking can not be adequately addressed in a short space, but this Japanese proverb reflects an important and shared ideal: "Nana korobi ya oki" (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) means fall down seven times and get up eight. This speaks to the Japanese concept of resilience. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall one thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts the Zen arts, etc. It is especially important to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. Success does not have to be fast—what’s more important is that one simply does their absolute best and remains persistent.

Never give up!
Gambarou.082 A concept related to the saying "Nana korobi ya oki" is the spirit of gambaru (頑張る). The concept of gambaru is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. The literal meaning of gambaru expresses the idea of sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed—of making a persistent effort until success is achieved. The imperative form, “gambette,” is used very often in daily language to encourage others to “do your best” in work, to “fight on!” and “never give up!” during a sporting event or studying for an exam. You do not always have to win, but you must never give up. While others may encourage you to "gambatte kudasai!" — the real spirit of gambaru comes from within. The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. For the benefit of oneself — and for the benefit of others as well — one must bear down and do their best. Even in good times, behaving uncooperatively or in a rude manner is deeply frowned upon. In a crisis, the idea of complaining or acting selfishly to the detriment of those around you is the absolute worst thing a person can do. There is no sense in complaining about how things are or crying over what might have been. These feelings may be natural to some degree, but they are not productive for yourself or for others.

Lessons for us all?
Recently I was talking to a friend here in Japan who is originally from China. He remarked too how impressed he is with the Japanese people in times of crisis. "This is really a civilized place" he said to me. "There are some things the rest of the world can learn from Japan." I agree with my friend. Indeed, all my friends from outside of Japan have made similar observations over the years. Japan is above all a civilized society. No place is perfect and Japan is no exception; we certainly have our own problems here as well. But when it comes to peaceful coexistence and getting along with others, Japan is a very civilized place to live. (For more see: BBC: Why Are Japanese so Resilient?)

頑張ろう東北! 頑張ろう日本!

Baby Please forgive me if the next update or two are a bit off the usual topics related to presentations, design, creativity, etc. As you all know, at 2:46 pm last Friday Japan received it's biggest earthquake in its recorded history. A devastating tsunami hit many towns and cities in Northern Japan a few minutes later. We're now in day-4 of the rescue and recovery phase; each day reveals that the devastation and loss of life is even worse than feared. Thousands have died, tens of thousands are still missing and feared dead. Parents have survived the quake and tsunami only to learn their children are gone. Children escaped only to learn that their parents did not. Virtually everyone lucky enough to survive in the devastated areas has lost a friend or a loved one, in addition to losing their home and their belongings. In some cases entire towns were washed away. What are the residents to do? The pain must be unbearable. The pain is shared by every single person here in Japan. Our hearts are with the people of Tohoku and our prayers go out to them.

When I first moved to Japan 22 years ago I lived in the Shimokita Hanto in Northern Japan and stayed in many small towns and fishing villages that are quite similar to the ones that were destroyed in the Tsunami near Sendai. I also visited Tohoku University many years ago and visited Sendai several times in those early years. Sendai is a lovely small city surrounded by beautiful nature. Japan is my favorite place in the world; I love this land and this culture so much. It's a special place like no other. That's why this country will be my home for as long as I am alive. And to see its people suffering up north now is too sad for words.

You can help
Japan does need your help. One of the easiest ways to help is to make a donation through the Red Cross. You can also apparently (in the USA) text “Red Cross” to 90999 and $10 will be automatically charged to your phone bill as a donation. If you have an iTunes account you can very easily make a donation that way. I made another donation through the Japan iTunes store today to see how it worked and it could not be simpler. Apparently in the case of Red Cross 91% of the money goes directly to assisting people in need.


Thank you

I want to say thank you to all the people who sent a note or a tweet, etc. to make sure we were OK in Japan. I am touched. Yes, we are fine. We live in Nara which is in Western Japan near Osaka. We are about 600km from the epicenter. We did indeed feel a very large quake, but there was no damage here. Once again thank you to everyone around the world for your kind words and concern. Please do what you can to help Japan and her people recover from this disaster. よろしくお願いします! (Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.)

Note: The AP photo above is of a 4-month old girl who was rescued by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and reunited with her father. There is so much bad news and so many terrible images, I just wanted to put here a reminder that some people are being saved and there are some good bits of news from time to time. See the whole story here. The title of this post (頑張ろう東北!  頑張ろう日本!) roughly means "don't give up Japan/Tohoku" or "hang in there Japan/Tohoku" etc.

The need for participation, compassion, & community in the classroom (and lecture hall)

Sculptors.002 Good teachers are like sculptors. They subtract to reveal what is already there. Bruce Lee once said: "It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential." This is one of the secrets to mastery, yet much of our work lives or school lives are spent on the unessential. Good teachers and good presenters — indeed, good leaders in general — work hard themselves to "hack away at the unessential" to create environments which foster natural engagement, encourage participation and exploration, and in the end lead to simplicity, clarity, and meaning.

Participation In the book Dumbing Us Down, author and award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto speaks on the importance of community. Real communities, says Gatto, "promote the highest-quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation." This engagement and participation happens in many unexpected ways, says Gatto, "but it never happens when you've spent more than a decade [just] listening to other people talk and trying to do what they tell you to do, trying to please them after the fashion of schools." Engagement and participation are indeed elements of the highest quality of life in general and learning and teaching in particular, but this does not happen in an environment of fear, compliance, passivity and "just listening." Real meaning requires openness, empathy, and a clear structure which allows for freedom and discovery, including self-discovery.

Inspiration in a Japanese elementary school
Engagement The award-winning Children full of Life is a remarkable documentary that should be seen by everyone who is concerned with education. I recommend you take 45-minutes and watch this program today (in five parts on YouTube). It will touch your heart and make you think. It does not matter where you are in the world, this glimpse into a single Japanese elementary school is evocative and illuminating. It may just make you question what education is for in the first place. Kanamori-sensei, the homeroom teacher, is a modern day Master Yoda. As described in part one below, Kanamori-sensei is "kind, tough, and funny."

Part 1.
In this clip you will see 10-year olds make class presentations by standing in front of their classmates and sharing their journal entries. The lessons in honest communication, empathy, and compassion are inspiring. Having lost my own father when I was young, it is nearly impossible to watch this clip (and subsequent clips) without tearing up. A valuable lesson in authenticity and speaking from your heart.

Part 2

"Good teachers," says Kanamori-sensei, "connect theory with life." In this clip the teacher makes a stand against bullying (some students are being picked on) not by giving a lecture but by some straight talk and getting the students to bring out the truth themselves. At first the students take the easy way out (by blaming others, etc.). The sensei says this is not good enough. "Just pretty words," he says. "You're blaming everyone but yourself!" In the end, by searching inside themselves, the students learn a valuable lesson in personal responsibility, empathy, and compassion. One little girl in particular learned a valuable lesson in compassion by revealing some of her own painful memories (just try to keep a dry eye through this).

Part 3
In this clip the wise ol' Kanamori-sensei is in the end moved and deeply impressed by the maturity of his 10-year olds. This is a remarkable lesson in team work, responsibility, and speaking up for what is right in order to find a solution that matches the problem.

Part 4
In this clip one of the students loses his father; it's touching and deeply moving how the class reacts to this news. I lost my own father suddenly in my first year of junior high. I must say, my own experience at school after my father's death was very different than what occurs in this clip. Again, here the devastating news is also a lesson in empathy and compassion for one's fellow human being (and group member). It's also a teachable moment: death is a part of life.

Part 5
The students again decide on a group project which communicates their empathy from the heart. At the end of the clip the sensei reviews what was important these past two years together: "It is important to make an effort to make yourself understood and to understand others...."

The contents of this short documentary have many lessons (and reminders) for all of us. Additionally, the documentary itself is a good example of pairing down a large topic to a simple story that is able to express the core essence of the larger topic (education) by focusing on the particular.

Instructors In the whole scheme of things, two years with a great teacher is a short time. Yet, usually we had even less time than that with those who helped us the most to discover what we had all along inside. Are not the best teachers, then, the ones who recognize the ephemerality of the time they have in each student's life, and instead of trying to fill their heads with as much information as possible, work to create a sense of community through engagement and participation that will help the student go on to learn far more on his/her own than they ever could do in a school? The great master Ueshiba Morihei (O-sensei) touches on a similar theme in his writings: "Instructors can impart only a fraction of the teaching. It is through your own devoted practice that the mysteries of the Art of Peace are brought to life."

Dealing with public speaking nerves

Speaking_fear.001 As you become accustomed to public speaking and presenting you will grow more comfortable and able to be more natural and let "the real you" come out. But if you are still quite nervous about the idea of presenting in front of others, don't worry, this is natural. In fact, virtually every confident and engaging presenter you see today was at some point earlier in their careers much less sure of themselves in front of a live audience.

Ipad2_stevejobs I have written a lot about Steve Jobs over the years. He's as a business leader who does a great job of presenting in a natural, comfortable, conversational style. His presentations feature large-screen visuals that  are insync with his narration in a harmonious way that engages his audience. Earlier this week Steve Jobs, who is on medical leave from Apple, gave another good presentation introducing the iPad2 (watch it). Yet, Jobs was not always as comfortable speaking before an audience. This clip below was reported by numerous news organizations last month. The clip features Steve Jobs getting ready for a live TV appearance when he was in his early 20s.

In the clip above Jobs appears to be at least a little nervous, though I think he's more excited and anxious to get started than anything else. Still, this clip is a kind of confirmation that everyone can get better and become more relaxed and comfortable with time. But it is also a reminder that it is perfectly OK and absolutely natural for you to feel nervous in front of an audience.

Can you ever be 100% comfortable?
In a great little documentary called Comedian (a must for any public speaker) Jerry Seinfeld had this to say about getting more comfortable on stage: "You’re never really comfortable. Even though you may think you are... you really aren’t.” But in time, Seinfeld says, "you learn how to open, how to sustain, how to pace...” and you will get more comfortable.

 Jerry  Seinfeld_2
The slides above are from a series of slides available on

In the Naked book I do touch on the issue of nerves. In this chapter a nice two-page callout section was written by my buddy in Australia Les Posen. Les is a Clinical Psychologist practising in Melbourne who uses his knowledge of the cognitive sciences to help presenters deliver their best possible presentations. Below is an excerpt from his contribution to the Naked book which appears on pages 92-93.

Les_posen Five tips for dealing with presentation nerves
by Les Posen

"Starting about 60,000 years ago, our brains developed a marvelous system of providing us with remarkable defenses against environmental threats. Sometimes, those defenses are set-and-forget types, such as automatically blinking when a bug hits your windscreen, even though you “know” you’re protected. Other times, an evolutionary newer part of our brain where we make decisions and plans—the part that makes us most human—warns us of an upcoming threat. In the case of presenting, it might be fears of not connecting, or of our ideas not being accepted, or of going blank in front of 500 pairs of eyes. In historical terms, we still possess the fear of what it means to be stared at by so many people: Either we are the monarch, or more likely, we are the next sacrifice! Through evidence-based research and practice, clinical and performance psychologists have developed ways to help suppress these learned and ingrained fears, especially when we know we can perform well if only we give ourselves the chance. There are five interventions I teach and want to share with you:

1. Chunking and exposure.
Identify and break down your presenting challenges into small manageable chunks, and deliberately expose yourself to each of them step by step.
2. Rehearsal.
Beyond just practicing your slide timings, actually visualize and hear yourself say the words with your slides. You see yourself in front of the crowd and rehearse your presentation to a variety of audience reactions, both positive and negative.
3. Self-talk.
Anxiety grabs onto self-critical talk such as “I’ll do a terrible job. What happens if the slide show fails. What happens if they don’t laugh at my jokes.” Your task is not to feed your anxiety with this type of talk, but to change it into “I can do this. I will follow my rehearsed plans. This is manageable.”
4. Arousal control via diaphragmatic breathing.
Calm your brain’s fear center with slow, deliberate breaths with slightly longer exhales. Slower rhythm (rather than deep breathing) is helpful for fear management.
5. Deliberate practice.
Practice your beginning, identify challenging concepts, and practice, practice, practice—out loud. These techniques work, and I use them myself as well as with clients. They are powerful and will prove useful in scenarios other than presenting."

The tips from Les Posen above are not the last word on dealing with presentation anxiety, but these bits of advice can certainly help. One of the biggest tips to remember as well is to be well prepared. A big source of difficulty comes when speakers simply have not prepared. The only thing scarier than presenting in front of a crowd is doing so while being ill-prepared and unsure of yourself and your content.

Watch Steve Job's latest presentation on iPad 2
Les Posen's blog