Be true to yourself

Ryu being true to himself
Ryu showing his true colours

I was walking to work today feeling a little impatient. Half-term is over so there were kids and parents dashing in and out of the school entrances along my route. It’s kind of like if there’s a beehive on a doorway and you have to perfectly time your dash through it to avoid any trouble. Okay, I guess it’s not exactly the same. This is more like a tunnel – door after door of beehives – it takes probably about two minutes to traverse the danger zone. And in my case there are two of them.

Like bumble bees, kids really have no spatial awareness. You’ve gotta walk slowly and anticipate them suddenly changing direction and walking into you. The other day I wasn’t even moving – just sitting down at the pub – and a kid ran over my foot and tumbled head first into the carpet. The girl started crying, then naturally everyone looked at me, their faces instantly suspecting I’d done it on purpose because I hate children. “It wasn’t my fault!” I said. “Tell it to the judge, buddy,” their eyes replied.  “Man, I hate children,” I thought.

So I was walking and feeling more impatient than usual – I just wanted to blast through there with a whirlwind kick Ryu-style. Kids and parents would fly everywhere and my path would be clear. I was just about to do it but then I realised there might be, uh, what do you call it? Repercussions? Yeah, probably get a “criminal record” or one of those phrases that only means something on paper. But the Japanese immigration bureau loves paper, I thought. “Assaulted children” might rock the boat. Best not to rock the boat.

Tatemae and honne

Ever since I found out I might be losing my job in a month, I’ve felt overwhelmed by impatience and impulsivity. It’s like I’ve taken all my carefully cultivated self-discipline, tied it to a brick and dropped it into the ocean. Good going. But then again, the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe I’ve been hiding behind ‘self-discipline’ all along as an excuse not to be true to myself. Hmm.

In Japan there are two interesting words: tatemae and honne. Tatemae is how you act in public – at your work place, at a family gathering and places where you don’t talk your mind. Tatemae literally translates as “façade”. Honne is the opposite: it’s your true self. It’s who you are when you’re on your own or around people you’re totally comfortable with. This concept exists everywhere, but in Japan they take it into overdrive, and consequently they gave it a name.

I’ve had my job for coming up to 3 years. It’s a pretty good job and it’s the whole career package. I could pretty easily stay in this field forever, probably earn a pretty sweet salary one day, and probably not even have to work that hard. It’s cushy. It’s easy. But I’ve noticed that while I’m at work, I’m in a shell. I’m like a little turtle afraid to come out. (That’s not a metaphor for a closet. I don’t think turtles even have closets. Why would they? They have a shell. They probably have pockets in there.)

What I’m trying to say is that the company has values and ‘beliefs’, but they’re not my values or beliefs. But despite that, you’re supposed to hold them anyway. At work you just suck it up and do your job, pretending to be passionate about abstract business concepts. In my case it’s “on-time delivery” and “customer focus”.

Well that all went out the window when the company announced they were ditching 40% of the workforce in my department. Right in that moment I felt a great crack along the wall dividing my sense of tatemae and honne. The effort it takes to preserve that boundary, and the reasons for exerting that effort, suddenly weren’t there any more. I felt the wall crumble. I heard a voice calling from beyond the wall, a voice quietly calling, “IDGAF…”

Business culture

In a western company, from what I understand, you have way more freedom to be yourself than you do in a Japanese company. In the west, you have to be polite, conform to the dress code, etc., but you can still speak your mind if you disagree with a decision and for the most part be yourself. Your boss wants your true feelings as inputs when he (or she) is making his (or her!) decision. In fact, in the west, it’s encouraged to speak your mind in meetings.

I always struggled with that – I’ve always been a workplace turtle. Not necessarily because I’ve been shy – although that has been a factor – it’s more like it’s just easier if you’re gonna be there for years. I never really understood the people who argued with feeling about a decision, as if they had an actual consequential stake in the outcome. Sometimes you will, since maybe you prefer doing one type over the other, but most of the time it’s not going to make much difference to you. No matter what, you’re giving 37.5+ hours of work to the company a week.

The last few weeks have been a bit different for me. I’m liberated. I know I’m probably about to get kicked out and that I’m going on the adventure of my life in a few months’ time, and consequently I can’t stomach pretending to hold the company’s values any more. It makes me wonder, who believes that stuff for real and who’s just playing the game? I think if they use expressions like “end of play” and “going forwards”, you can get a pretty good idea. But it’s only when someone starts talking about how the business has entered “chapter two” that the alarm bells really start going off.

If I continue down society’s scripted path for me, I’ll probably end up a corporate robot. I’ll be sitting at a desk on a Wednesday morning, my boss wanting that TPS report. “Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk… oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.”

Or if my spirit stays strong and can fend off the relentless assault of Dilbertism for a few decades, I’d become entrenched as an outsider gaming the system. I’d talk the talk but secretly on the inside I’d be screaming. Or maybe I’d be in a state of zen calm, having built up a wall between tatemae and honne a mile thick, so that nothing could get through. But I don’t want that. I have my own passions, and I don’t want to spend half my waking hours pretending they’re something else. I want to be myself, and to have the courage not to rely on a job that wants to dronify me and assimilate me into the Borg.

Indulgence versus integrity

For the last few years, one of my life rules has been Integrity – to be the same person on the outside as I am on the inside. I want to be the same person no matter who’s watching. To me, that’s strength of character. I’ve always felt that’s pretty impossible in the workplace – at least at my current workplace.

I also decided last year that I’d avoid telling any lies. (As in real deception, where the other person expects you to be telling the truth.) I thought it’d be really difficult, but it was surprisingly easy for the most part. Except in the workplace. It’s so difficult not to lie at work! It legitimately affects your job security! I’ve talked about this occasionally with friends and I’ve tried to communicate the idea that I think there’s an expectation of deception in the workplace. I didn’t know how to describe it very well, although people seemed to know what I meant. But now I know: tatemae.

The announcement of redundancies lit an ember inside me. I started to feel like I don’t have it in me to wear a mask of lies. Now that job security has become a non-issue, I figure, meh, what’s the point? In that moment that ember welled up inside me into a supreme conflagration and I thought screw it! Down with the system! I threw the mask to the ground in a crescendo of silent cheering.

But unexpectedly, this change in attitude has spilled over into my personal life as well. What it’s manifested itself as most obviously is a lack of patience. The past few weeks, I’ve behaved impatiently – impuslively. I realised on Saturday that I think I’ve always known I was impulsive on the inside – I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve enshrined self-discipline so highly. Lately I’ve been less demanding of myself to do what I think is expected and what’s good for my image.

I don’t know if it’s been a good change or not yet. On the one hand it’s great, but on the other I’ve let loose a bit. I’ve drank more because, hey, I love a drink. I’ve swore more because it’s a lazy way to be emphatic. I’ve also been less patient with other people because I’ve cared less about tip-toeing around my true feelings. These things don’t seem like good things to me, but they do feel good. I’m not sure yet where the boundary is between integrity and simple indulgence.

It’s probably a grey area. Like one of my new favourite YouTubers, tkyosam, put it (paraphrasing): there’s some black and white in the world, but a TON of grey. Most things aren’t black and white. I think each of us has to decide what kind of person we want to be, and keep making baby steps in that direction. Then, as we get closer to that ideal, we have to decide more and more of the details.

Take it from me: you’re a sculptor and your life is your unique sculpture. You can craft it into anything you want, but you start with a block of stone. You might have a pretty good idea of what you want to sculpt that block into, but it won’t be a perfect picture, so as you progress, you’ll have to decide more and more of the details. Self-improvement is a constant adventure. Keep working towards being who you want to be, and work out the details as you go.

And if you can stomach being a corporate robot and want job security, hey, go for it! Some people have kids and responsibilities, so have to be more cautious than others. But if it’s shyness that’s holding you back, or there isn’t much riding on the line, maybe it’s more important to be yourself. But if you have a dream, the real way to be true to yourself is to find a way to make it happen. Don’t give up on being you!

Matt Bowen

Matt is a blogger, budoka and software developer. He sold his things, quit his job and moved to Japan to study Japanese and martial arts. Sometimes he writes about it.

4 thoughts on “Be true to yourself

  1. “For the last few years, one of my life rules has been Integrity – to be the same person on the outside as I am on the inside.” That’s my idea. One of my favourite figures, La Mettrie, did this in a very literal and sharp way (think a Galileo with heavy doses of defiance). But it destroyed his reputation and his social life and it almost (literally) killed him. I don’t know if integrity is worth that much for me. But I do enjoy not having to play the acting game. But it seems to me that if you want something from someone, you are likely to have to go down the acting game.

    “I’ve always known I was impulsive on the inside – I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve enshrined self-discipline so highly. Lately I’ve been less demanding of myself to do what I think is expected and what’s good for my image.” Interesting to see that behind that Seneca there is an Epicurus (or perhaps a wild Dionysus!) waiting to be freed. :)

    1. I’ve not heard of La Mettrie – I think maybe I should have a read up about him. There’s always going to be a limit I think, but I think most of us are miles away from that limit and could do with being a little more courageous when it comes to sharing aspects of ourselves.

      Haha, yeah, I have to rein in my inner Dionysus!!

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