My fellow Wharton alum and OPEN Forum Idea Hub columnist Matthew May has a new business fable book out on personal change and leadership called THE SHIBUMI STRATEGY. Here’s a quick 5 questions on it with him.
CR: What is the concept of shibumi?
MM: Shibumi is a Zen concept without direct translation or definition in English. It comes from aesthetic design ideals of art, architecture, and gardening, but it has come to be used to describe those things that exhibit in paradox and all at once the very best of everything and nothing: Understated beauty. Elegant simplicity. Effortless effectiveness. Beautiful imperfection. The height of personal excellence. When you experience shibumi, there’s this ineffable quality to the moment, and there are simply no other better words to express the feeling.
CR: The story, which involves a laid off executive forced to retool his career, is smack in the middle of our current “zeitgeist”. Did the state of the economy play a factor in you writing the book?
MM: In a way, yes. If I know anything, it’s that breakthroughs of any sort require something to break through. And it’s the setbacks, really, that harbor the power to transform our lives. The economy seemed the perfect crisis around which to weave a story, based in reality. The word for crisis in Japanese has two sets of characters: one for danger, and one for opportunity. A sudden, unexpected crisis is an opportunity, and if we view it that way, which admittedly is not easy when you’re simply trying to survive, like Andy is, but it can lead us in new directions,new directions we perhaps should have taken anyway.
CR: The main character, Andy Harmon, is rather skeptical at first of at some of the Zen principles that ultimately help him through his job crisis. What led to your interest in these Eastern practices?
MM: I was exposed to Eastern philosophy and principles through an eight-year-long partnership with Toyota. It changed completely how I view the world. But not immediately. Like Andy, I was skeptical. I struggled, with many concepts, practices and people. And like Andy, somewhere in the middle of my tour of duty, I had a shibumi moment…a moment of utter clarity. I felt wide awake, connected and balanced, like I knew exactly who I was, what I wanted and why I’m here.
CR: How difficult do you think it is for someone to adopt a different way to thinking and how do you see it happen in your coaching work?
MM: It’s always hard to change! But mostly that’s because we come right at it without a workable strategy and tools, so we end up clutching on to our old ways even tighter. Sometimes it’s actually easier to adopt a new way of thinking when you’re thrown a curve ball and you have “the burning platform.” It forces you to think differently. It’s much harder to change when things are going well. That’s why the kaizen mindset of continuous improvement in pursuit of perfection is so important. When every day becomes the chance to do something better than you did yesterday, there’s always a burning platform. You become the creator of change. When I help people adopt kaizen, shibumi is just a matter of time.
CR: Why a fable this time around? It’s a bit of a departure for you.
MM: I think people love stories more than anything. I know I do. I happen to think it’s the most powerful way to capture hearts and minds, make a point, and send a message., I wanted to deliver a reading experience, through a short and accessible story that hit home in a universal way, but also in a uniquely personal way. I wanted to write a story that went beyond the business arena. I wanted to create memorable characters, explore a new voice, and develop my storytelling skills. I wanted to help people in the middle of a crisis. I felt the best way to do this was with a script, a story, with actual characters, that people could identify with. By empathizing with the character, the reader is more emotionally moved and may be open a change in themselves through the story.
Matthew’s The Shibumi Strategy is available everywhere now!