In the West, we have a tendency to talk things up.
If we have done something reasonably well, we have ‘crushed it!’.
If we are proficient at something, we have found our ‘zone of genius.’
If we are working hard, we are ‘hustling.’
If there is a challenge ahead, we like to taunt it with ‘bring it on!’, even before we have started taking action towards it.
While positive self-talk has a useful purpose, often giving us the courage to take on challenges we otherwise would feel intimidated by, or putting us in a heightened state of awareness for a competitive sporting event or public performance, over-the-top attention seeking declarations and mantras have almost become second nature, suggesting we are perhaps often trying to prove ourselves.
We all know how cheap talk can be, but this kind of bluster of talking things up may belie a feeling of insecurity that comes from living in such a judgmental, materialistic, capitalistic culture.
This is behaviour and talk that Japanese don’t engage in; in fact, Japanese rarely speak of their achievements and don’t pay homage to themselves.
During my time in Japan, I learned to be more humble and to pursue my goals quietly, rather than talking them up to others. In my first few years living in Japan, I did share my goals, celebrate my wins and talked things up to some degree.
I eventually came to see it was only me talking about plans or goals, perhaps to prove myself in an attempt to connect and be accepted. It wasn’t the real me talking. I found that the less I talked about my plans or goals, the more I could be present and receptive to others. This offloaded a lot of stress. I didn’t have to be worried about how I was perceived. The focus wasn’t on me anymore; it was on others.
More importantly, I observed that my Japanese friends rarely talked of their achievements or ‘wins’ out of consideration for others. They didn’t want their personal achievements to make their friends or the people around them feel any less. This can be a thoughtful gift to others -- to talk less of your achievements, and instead take an interest in what they are doing.
“It is the Japanese spirit to pursue something in a subdued but sustained manner, rather than in a flamboyant fashion seeking short-lived satisfaction.” - Ken Mogi
When we do engage in positive self-talk, we can embrace gambaru – a verb meaning ‘to persevere’, to ‘persist’, ‘to keep at it’, ‘to hang on’, ‘to hold out’. This is an expression used by Japanese who are faced with a challenge or are discussing goals that they are pursuing. You can think of it as saying, ‘I'll give it my best shot.’
Gambaru is a statement of intent, that you intend to do your best with the task at hand. It isn't over-the-top and it doesn't draw attention, but it does encourage the individual to focus. Unlike ‘Bring it on!’, it is tempered, acknowledging that you may not be able to work miracles or succeed.
Focus on the task at handThis is how I understand self-actualization in Japan: focusing on doing your best at the task at hand, rather than trying to be your ‘best self’ or, indeed, thinking that you are The Best. This involves having the discipline to improve yourself for the greater good of others, and it starts with acceptance of your own personal limits as well as those posed by your particular context.
What task can you focus on today?