Category Archives: Work

Entering the Fray

Monday morning, I am poised on the cusp of entering the fray. I imagine that my ancestors would have felt something similar in anticipation of the hunt. What will it bring?

We are at war with perceptions: customers that can never be satisfied, advertisers that seek to disrupt our tranquility to take away our money, Pokemon fantasies that hook into ancient warrior instincts to vy for our attention. The latter are as intrusive or meaningless as pornography, a super normal stimulus that hijacks our instincts. Intrusive when it is a picture of a beautiful woman, meaningless when you see it as a piece of paper.

We are seeking the completion and fulfillment of desire. Breathe and feel safe. Modern battles are waged in a largely abstracted environment, along battlefields that we can largely select. 

Once, I was enamoured of retirement, decided to try it for a year, and quit my job. I soon got so bored that I started training martial arts every day, something that I reveled in, but had not planned. Did I really believe that I could retire from the din of the world?

A bone without stress grow porous and brittle. An unworked muscle withers. An unused bicycle goes to rust.

So then I found myself on the roofs and sides of buildings in Tokyo, erecting and dismantling scaffolding, learning to be in harmony with danger – danger that sharpens the senses. Life happens fast. Pay attention. “Yang!” I would hear, and look to catch a bracket thrown my way. Every afternoon at three the supervisor would yell 「一服!」 (breather!) which we would transmit by shouting to the next man along the wall, and more than once from where I stood, I breathed and looked out over rooftops, and thought – “I am building this city,” before climbing down to have a coffee.

What is the purpose of a break than to become stronger?

A mentor once taught me a story: a young man walked up the mountain to seek out an ascetic. He found the old man carrying firewood on his back. 

The young man asked:”Teacher, please tell me about enlightenment.” 

The ascetic placed the bundle of firewood down, stood straight, and stretched. “This,” he said, “is enlightenment.”

Excited, the young man asked. “What comes next?”

Whereupon, the ascetic took up the bundle of firewood again, and continued on his way.

My mentor’s point was to teach me to ask “What comes next?” so as to keep from becoming fixated on a goal.

I have been looking for the source of this story on the internet, but cannot find it. Instead, there is a similar attested teaching of Zen that the path to enlightenment is「運水搬柴」, literally “to carry water and bring firewood,” which in ancient times were the main chores of the day, which is to say that the path to enlightenment is doing ordinary things.

There are meditations that take us out of the world, and there are meditations that take us into the world, and the goal of becoming human is to be able to wake up not just in the dojo, the dance floor, or the yoga studio, but in the course of the mundane – while we are engaged in our Work.

What comes next after enlightenment? Picking up the firewood again. After the weekend? Going back to Work. After a sabbatical year? Going back to Work. Our souls may stretch to a higher plane, but we are physical beings, and after a time we find ourselves standing where we are, finding the laundry must be done, the furniture dusted, the floor swept.

My biggest spiritual challenge now is to learn better to harmonize with difficulty. I recall several times when I have been in a meeting where someone was being rude, and saw another respond with firmly with respect, and after some back and forth, the rude person volunteered help. The strong harmonizer is my model. Life would be less interesting without rude people.
Harmonizing, not fighting, is the right feeling. Difficulty and danger are ingredients, not waste products. The danger, adrenaline, and exertion of being on the scaffolding let me sleep better, let me better taste my food, and gave me morning wood like I hadn’t hadron with high school. While my white-collar friends paid for gym memberships and cross-fit classes to resurrect atrophied muscle and correct bad posture, buying fitness watches to feel more motivated to walk or climb stairs, I was getting paid to do full body resistance and coordination training, more intense than martial arts boot camps  I have attended, and more spirited in team work. My enthusiasm at the time is well-captured in this Craigslist posting. The posting got us a new teammate for a few weeks, of whom the team leader said 「あいつは日本語が下手過ぎて、面白かった。」 “that guy’s Japanese sucked so bad, it was hilarious” – again, smiling and harmonizing with danger. Laughing, crying, and looking out for each other.

By and by, after a year and a half away, I returned to desk work, but I am nostalgic for scaffolding. In the three and a half years since, I have lost muscle, and my posture is not as good. Can I have both an exercised mind and exercised body?
I began this post this morning on a bus to work. I am ending it this evening over a beer at home. One of my teachers touched off this train of thought because she just left for a month-long trip away from Taiwan to reconnect with people and to reflect, so I dedicate this to her.

Enlightenment is setting down our burden. What comes next is also enlightenment. Can I hold on to this clarity? Probably not. But next time, when faced with a difficult situation or person, maybe I can smile a little inside, and say “That’s interesting. What comes next?”


























Kreativverlust der Identität

Ich lese noch einmal wieder die Jason Bourne Spionageromane, von Robert Ludlum, in denen ein Mann sein Gedächtnis verloren hat, der trotzdem hat alle die Geschicklichkeite eines Geheimagents. Ein zentrales Thema ist die Natur seiner Identität. Es gibt eine Identität als Attentäter, die er geschaffen hat, und auch als Geheimagent, die er war, der Schöpfer der Identität des Attentäters. Die zwei Identitäten entstehen sich allmälich, während er seine Vergangenheit untersucht, und überleben versucht, angesichts derer die ihn tod wollen. Bei der Amnesia und seelische Belastung gibt es kaum eine Linie zwischen den ursprünglichen und erstellten Egos. Um zu überleben, mußte er die Identität, die er geschaffen hatte, übernehmen, und sonst noch neue Rolle spielen.

Ich weiß schon daß es Bereiche gibt, in deren ich kämpfe, weil meine Gewohnheiten und Reaktionen sind im Gegensatz zu der Kultur der Taiwan. Diese Bereiche umfassen Strategien, die ich in meinem vorherigen Leben in Japan und den Vereinigten Staaten gerlernt habe. Viele Strategien laufen aber nicht hier. In Taiwan unterscheiden sich die Arbeitsweise. Zum Beispiel denkt man nicht besser, weniger, sicherer, klassischer, sondern billiger, mehr, schneller, neuer. Was früher für mich um etwas zu erreichen genug war, ist hier nicht mehr genug. Was früher jedoch notwendig war, ist hier nicht mehr notwendig. Hier zählt man Aufmerksamkeit auf andere Dinge. Ich muß nicht nur einfach eine neue Arbeitsweise lernen, sondern eine ganz neue Reihe von emotionalen Reaktionen verinnerlichen, neue Instinkte entwickeln. Ich muß eine neue Indentität übernehmen.

Deshalb habe ich wohl von unterbewußte Wissen vorige Woche die Bourne Spionageromane wieder aufgenommen. Beim Kreativverlust und Lernen wird die Linie zwischen dem Selbst und dem erstellten Ego verwischen, sogar verschwinden. Es wird eine Zeit kommen, wenn der Selbst ist weg, aber der neue
Ego noch nicht klar. Darauf habe ich angst. Darüber hat Jason Bourne auch abgemüht.

Ich muß ein Chamäleon sein: er wird alles und ist immer noch selbst.

The Third Arrow

The Japanese government messed up. Low interest rates and high currency were not a problem. Low interest rates are a consequence of high competition for capital. After all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, what’s left is the opportunities that offer lower rates of return. Low rates are a natural occurrence in a developed market. Even negative rates are not that unusual – the Swiss just issued their first negative-rate government bond. The Euro is so volatile that people are willing to pay the Swiss to keep their money safe. The same status had formerly been accorded to the yen as a reserve currency. Higher inflation rates in Asian economies lead people and governments to be willing to pay in the form of negative interest rates to have their money safe.

Reducing the value of the yen by 50% puts money on the balance sheets of exporters and big companies that already have high overseas sales, but hinders companies from making overseas investments. The economy previously grew through exporting, and the Japanese government is trying to promote growth by promoting exports. This is an inefficient way of promoting export, at that, since all production inputs that must be imported end up costing more. Yet, by simply doing nothing, the high yen would have encouraged foreign investment, as foreign assets looked cheap and banks and companies sought a higher rate of return.

Companies in Japan were dependent on domestic consumption, failed to generate enough demand for products overseas, and failed to invest in production capacity overseas. Companies like HGST, Sony, or Toyota that invested in overseas sales and production capacity continued to do well through the period of high yen and low interest rates. Companies like NTT, dependent on a declining domestic market, have not done well. The effect of inflating the currency has been to benefit those companies who were already doing well, while at the same time to discourage foreign investment by making foreign assets more expensive.

Politically, as China is expanding its soft power with its launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Japan is decreasing its ability to lend or invest abroad by devaluing its currency.

With domestic consumption saturated, no amount of domestic investment will create a larger rate of return. Japan has an excess of capital. It is squandering it by devaluing the currency. Stop. The government should not be concerned with trying to grow the domestic economy, which is already saturated. People already throw away expensive items like large screen TVs in order to make room for new ones. How many more TVs can they use? Instead of playing with numbers and destroying capital with QE, the government should be concerned with enabling the profitable employment of capital.

MNCs get higher return on capital by outsourcing production in developing economies and investing in production capacity there. Think Intel, Apple, Toyota. Allowing the yen to remain high would continue to encourage companies to invest overseas.

Domestically, the government could improve the way capital is employed.

  1. It should be made easier to fire people (companies are ever-hesitant to hire people because it’s hard to get rid of them).
  2. Bankruptcy law should be reformed so that entrepreneurs have true limited-liability. Wide experimentation necessarily leads to a few successes and many failures, as Silicon Valley can attest to.
  3. Retirement age should be raised in order to relieve strain on the pension system. It is currently 60.
  4. Labor practices should be reformed so that it is easier to be a parent, including making it easier to take paternity leave and making it easier for women to rejoin the work-force if they take time off to raise children.
  5. There is a shortage of daycare centers. Access to daycare should be improved by allowing the easier conversion of defunct elementary schools to publicly-subsidized daycare centers.
  6. The cost of raising a child should be reduced by making high-school free. Why spend billions in QE when the same billions can be spent to improve education?

It’s time to learn new tricks. What got Japan here was domestic consumption and domestic investment. Forget about the numbers. What’s important is to keep things interesting for young people. Otherwise, who’s going to have children? I met a college graduate recently who decided to take a job as a hotel concierge. That’s what it’s come to. The system is so locked, there is so little opportunity for experimentation and growth, there are so few positions in society open for people who are coming of age, that college graduates are deciding to take jobs as hotel concierges. The government must make structural reforms to remove obstacles toward the natural redeployment of capital, instead of caffeinating the economy to continue to run in the way of the past.

As for young people with a college education, I would say: leave and get experience elsewhere. A concierge job is fine, if it’s what you want to do, but it was definitely not what the guy I met was hoping for. Why fight in a little world with other college-educated people for a little job that is entirely confined to Shinjuku, doesn’t require a college education, and doesn’t teach you to be anything else? Leave. Is it better to be a concierge in Japan business development manager overseas? You get to choose: comfort or experience? Directly apply to the overseas branch and get some experience at a job that you actually want to do. There are so few people doing this sort of thing that you will actually face no competition.

And after you have gotten foreign language and cultural experience, the long-term demographic trend in Japan will still not have changed. The domestic market will still be shrinking. The excess of Japanese capital will still be looking for higher returns. Companies will be looking for linguistically and culturally competent people to be their face to the outside. You will have new ideas and ways of thinking that you would not have learned if you had stayed behind. It will be hard, but you will have a greater appreciation for what is good and bad about Japan after spending some time on the outside. You will be ready. There will be no competition.






「哦, Chechnya。你不是意思是烏哥蘭?」