I was in Japan for 10 days recently and was again in awe of their “Samurai-infused” culture. A few things spoke to me, such as their disciplined politeness, the unbelievable cleanliness of the city, and the safety Tokyo is famous for. But perhaps the biggest thing I felt was their intense sense of honor—and how this connects to high performance.
In my beloved country where I grew up (America), and the one I now reside in and love (Canada), we have freedoms unheard of in other parts of the world. But freedom comes with a price. Whenever we choose one thing, we are forsaking other things—it’s the nature of choice. In granting extensive civil liberties, for example, we are allowing people to behave more or less how they wish. This is great individually, but not so much when others’ choices negatively affect ours.
Part of the essence of discipline and honor is that it treats everyone as equal or better than ourselves, no matter their social or financial status. The nature of treating everyone like this takes away our inherent self-centeredness in that moment. If you and I are of equal value, I stop comparing myself to you. Without comparison, self-consciousness fades. Self-consciousness is the voice that says, “what will they think of me, or what if I look foolish, or how can I get others to admire me?”
High performance is a by-product of losing self-consciousness, which comes from self-centeredness. Because we are self-centered by nature, we also become self-conscious, and this hurts us when we try to perform under pressure. Peak performers excel in pressure situations when they can step outside themselves and detach from the results and the hype, and become fully engaged in the action.
In every industry and profession I’ve ever come across, I see star performers who have found the same thing. The actor, Johnny Depp, for example, filmed a movie called Public Enemies (2009). He was on the Late Show with David Letterman. Here’s part of their visit:
DL: “Have you seen the movie?”
Depp: “No I have not.”
DL: (slight laugh) “You haven’t seen it?”
Depp: “No, not just yet.” (smile).
DL: “Why not?”
Depp: “In a way, once my job is done, It’s really none of my business.” (everyone laughs though he’s smiling yet serious).
DL: “So you deliberately don’t look at the finished product?”
Depp: “Oh yah, I stay as far away as I possibly can. If I can, I try to stay in as profound a state of ignorance as possible.”
DL “Well you came to the right place.” (laughing)
DL: “Aren’t you a little curious to just kind of get a glimpse of yourself?
Depp: “Not remotely, no.”
DL: “Is that right?” (smirking).
Depp: “Yes, truly, honestly.”
DL: “Wow.” (pause). “Aren’t you a little curious how the work looks that you’re doing?”
Depp: “No.” (with a straight face; audience laughs). I don’t like watching myself. I prefer the experience.”
DL: “I guess that speaks to, first and foremost, you’re an actor, an artist. You enjoy that process.”
Depp: “That’s right. I do very much.”
This line of thinking corresponds exactly to the peak performers and world champions I’ve encountered. They love the process and do everything they can to not lose focus on that process.
It’s backwards from our North American obsession with external success. We love champions and excitement and great movies. But the power necessary for success comes from connecting to your true self, which comes from discipline and honor and respecting others. The positive energy that flows from this allows you to live in the moment, detached from your goals.
How’s it going for you? It’s not how they draw it up in most board rooms or baseball fields. Usually the leader says, “We’ve got to win!” Then they pressure their team to do what it does not know it can. The great leader says, “Let’s give it our best shot, love and support each other, even the opponent, and enjoy this moment, no matter what the outcome.”
My experience in Japan allowed me to get away from my daily North American life and think of the bigger picture. I want to live fully and completely, with freedom and passion. If I can make honor greater than my ever-changing moods, then perhaps I can step away from self-consciousness and closer to fullness of life. So can you.
Photo: This is a picture of my Uncle Kazumichisan’s house in Okyama. The house sits on the same plot of land my mother grew up, as well as the same land her Samurai ancestors lived.