Death By Perfection


Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.
Salvador Dali

Perfection is one of the great things about Japan. Its something that, as a foreigner here I really admire. But, perfection is also stifling the Japanese.

Not Everything Can Be Done Perfectly

One of the great things about Japanese culture is the survival of the apprentice system. Young – and not so young – people still have to work up through the ranks under a ‘master’. This is true in traditional arts and crafts and traditional culinary techniques but also in more modern pursuits like some aspects of construction, and even some of the fast food chains employ this idea (especially ‘fast food’ ramen restaurants).

And in these cases perfection is, if not attainable, certainly worth striving for.

When I go to lunch I know that the food will taste great (has anyone ever had a bad meal in Japan??!) and be wonderfully presented. Each dish will be presented as it was intended. A uniformity will come through that has been evolved over time.


But, not everything can be done perfectly. And not everyone can do everything perfectly.

There is such a high expectation here that it is literally killing some people. I believe that a certain percentage of the high suicide rate can be attributed to this striving for perfection.

If you are failing your tests in school, you are not perfect. If you are not perfect in high school your chances of employment or getting into college greatly narrow.

If you are not outperforming at your job, you are not perfect.

If you are not working as much and as long as the company asks, you are not perfect.

I don’t have kids, nor did I go to school here, so I haven’t experienced the first point, and I don’t work in a Japanese company, so I don’t personally experience the others. But certainly people are killing themselves here because of these perceived failings.

 No one speaks English perfect(ly)

Where I have experienced it is in the Japanese reluctance to speak English. Most or at least many Japanese study English for years both in high school and in cram schools. But they are told not to speak it until they learn it perfectly. I mean, the teacher literally said that!

The flaw in the logic is that no one speaks English perfectly. And there are many kinds of English. From American to Canadian to British to Jamaican to Indian, there are many native English speakers.

Which of these is the bar to hold yourself to?

And then you look at all the people who speak English as a second language! There are more people in China speaking English than in Canada. Think about THAT for a minute!

So the Japanese remain terrified of making a mistake.

And how does this relate to business?

There is no way to start or run a business perfectly. The best businesses try and fail. The best creators of anything try and fail. And fail many more times than they succeed. But they don’t stop, go and sit in a cave until they have perfected something and then come out. Because in business we will never be perfect without including the customer in the loop. It is literally impossible. And always has been.

That is why I am surprised at people who think concepts like the Lean Startup are something new. They are not. They may be newly worded or detailed but it has always been our job as commercial creators of anything to find out what the customer wants and make sure we deliver.

Fail fast, fail often

In business, in language, in life, keep failing until you find the thing that works. Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes and move on. I’m not saying anything new here. You’ve heard it before. But maybe you need to keep hearing it! I know I do.

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