Hi. Today’s Blog Post is a Long One. It’s my final lecture at Keio University where I taught for 19 years.
I gave a shorter version of this talk at Roppongi Hills and you can see the video here:
The slides for the shortened version are on slides share here.
There’s info about the courses I taught here.
The Courage To Create, Dr. Bob Tobin, Professor Emeritus, Keio University Faculty of Business and Commerce
January 17, 2012
Believe me when I tell you I didn’t expect to be here today. I came to Japan in 1989 for two months and now 22 years later and after 19 years at Keio, I am still here and giving this talk. It seems that everything I know begins with the letter C: Communication; Creativity; and Change.
Today I want to talk about something else. It also begins with a C, and it’s Courage-and in particular the courage it takes to create something. It’s about the role courage has played in my own life and the role it can play in yours. Courage is not just for people in the army. Courage is the most important ingredient you need in living a life that matters and making a contribution in this world.
You may know the similar words– risk, taking chances, but I want to use the word courage because that’s the word that puts the responsibility where it belongs. Right on me and right on you. When I think back on my 19 years at Keio, although I have taught many courses, given many presentations and written many articles, it’s actually “courage” that has been the most important message that I have tried to get across to people. I have encouraged others to have the courage to dream, the courage to change, the courage to be who they are, the courage to follow their own path, the courage to communicate with others, the courage to take the next step.
My journey to Keio actually started in graduate school at Boston University. I studied organizational behavior. The quickest way to explain organizational behavior is that its a field that involves the study of psychology, sociology and business. This field gave me a very wide view of the world. I learned about people, groups and organizations.
At Boston University, I learned how important it was to have passion about your work. I also learned that being a professor is the best job in the world. It’s a career where you are always learning and have a chance to have an impact on young peoples lives. I also learned about the importance of getting out of your comfort zone.
One professor told me that every year he threw out his notes from the previous year so he would always be up to date. I loved this idea and have always taught each class from scratch, never the same. I took a course in management but it was taught by the accounting professor. I wondered what this accounting professor knew about management, but of course he knew a lot about management. He brought a completely new perspective to the course. He broke out of his own field, his comfort zone and we all learned a lot. Courage is what it takes to get out there.
I taught at Boston University and worked as a consultant and then moved to Long Beach. California and taught at Pepperdine University. I loved California and had no intention of leaving until I had an opportunity to go to Asia and work as a consultant for the U.S. Military. The military asked me twice to go to Asia and both times I said no. The third time they asked me, I had to go. I worked for the military all over Asia–Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and when I came to Japan, I loved it right away.
I wanted to stay as long as I could, but my life and work was based In America. Then I did something that took courage. After about 6 months in Japan, I took a chance and quit the job with the military–and decided to stay in Japan without any job. I was over 40 sharing a tiny apartment and I had no job and I had to start all over. Eventually I got work as a consultant helping Japanese companies expand overseas. Every morning, limousines would come to my small apartment and take me to many Japanese companies for work-any company that began with an N. NEC, Nippon Steel, NTT, NKK, NHK.
I missed teaching and eventually I applied for a position at Keio and started as a part time instructor. I was glad to be teaching again. I taught first in Fujisawa and then at Hiyoshi. Eventually, The Faculty of Business and Commerce hired me as the first full time non-Japanese professor. It took me a long time to find my own way here. Some people told me “be yourself”, others told me “we want you to help the faculty” and others told me “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I didn’t know what to do. I’m not a Roman. I had to find my own way and it was not so easy. I had many culture clashes and culture bumps, but what the hell that is part of life. I didn’t come to Keio to be popular. I came here to do something, to teach something. My motto became, “be great and have fun.” and believe me that was a stretch for me because it was far from how I was feeling.
I wanted to be the kind of professor who inspires people and make a difference at Keio and in peoples lives and I wanted to enjoy it here. After I began to settle in, I started going with my strengths-creativity, innovation, communication and that seems to have worked. I didn’t shore up my weaknesses. In fact, I tell people go with your strengths. That is how you add value. We all have weaknesses, but don’t focus on them. It turns out that what I was best at was creating a good atmosphere for learning.
I created a place here at Keio where where students could achieve more than they believed possible, where students would always be challenging themselves, where students could be themselves, where learning was collaborative, and where students could follow a path different than the usual one. And in the same way I pushed my students I pushed myself.
When new faculty come to Keio University or when my students start new jobs and they ask me for advice, I tell them something very simple, “Be great and Have fun”. That was my motto here.
Good makes you complacent, but if you want to be great at something, you keep at it, you work at it. You have to work very hard it and not give up. When my students tell me something is difficult, I have one answer that they know very well. Difficult is good! And when I had difficult times here, I said to myself too, difficult is good. People think that the road to success is a straight line, but more typically it is up and down. And if you want to create something, you stay with it because it’s worth it. You work through the ups and downs. If you want to create something, you never give up, like a daruma.
This has been my path here at Keio, up and down and always working at creating something new here and trying to make a positive difference. I created an environment where I and my students could do something different, work with very few barriers, go beyond expectations, and take a very broad view of education. What I learned in finding my own way, is that you don’t ask if it’s ok for you to do something, to be yourself. You don’t ask for permission. You don’t follow the rules either, you make the rules and sometimes you break the rules. but you don’t tell anyone. You just do it.
Thankfully there have been people here who have understood what I wanted to do here and worked closely with me. There are many people in this hall today who understand that philosophy. There are people who quit careers in banking to help people in Cambodia and others who just rented a truck and brought food to Touhoku or rescued animals there. They didn’t ask if it was ok to help. They just did it. They went up there and helped. They never talk about themselves and they never complain. They just do it.
I recognize that in Japan it is not easy for people to create something new or even go their own way. The pressure to conform is so strong here. Being great usually means breaking away from the pack, being different from the rest of the group. But I have news for you: You are different than everyone else. And I have another piece of news for you. People break away from the pack all the time here and it might as well be you.
People like Hiroshi Mikitani , founder of Rakuten, who was one of the first guest speakers I invited here, broke away. And Mr. Dyson broke away and created a vacuum cleaner for men, a vacuum cleaner without bags, a vacuum cleaner that cost 5 x more than any other. He didn’t ask for permission. He just did it. And it became a big success.
When you think about taking a new step or a step in a different direction, the question to ask yourself is: “why not?” It takes courage to be first, to break away from the pack, but you pave the way for many other people and you might even create a revolution.
People may tell you you’re crazy, but so what. Crazy people can get things done. Crazy people change the world. The people who criticize you are ones who are really jealous that you are doing what they wish they could do–if they did not have fear. Be the first and you pave the way for others. And if you’re lucky, they will call you a pioneer.
If you want to summon up your courage, there are 3 things you need to do. First, you have deal with your fear. You have to know what is holding you back. The biggest enemy of courage is fear-fear of failure, fear of success, fear of your parents, boss, fear of what other people think, fear of being called a gaijin. Recognize that you have the fear, put your fear aside and make peace with it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Lose money? Be embarrassed? Your mother will be upset? Lose your car?
In teaching at Keio, I have told my students to write down everything they are worried about and throw it away. You can’t give a talk, make a plan, have a dream when you are overcome by fear. Don’t get angry at your fear. Make peace with it. Don’t let it consume you-just keep it on the side and shake hands with it.The absence of fear gives you power beyond your imagination.
I know about fear first hand. When I was younger, I will tell you honestly that was afraid to give a speech in class. I was petrified. I would be absent on days I was supposed to give a speech. Early in my career as a professor, I had a chance to work with Peter Drucker who wanted me to collaborate with him, but I skipped that chance because of fear. So, I know it, but I have learned to put my fear on the side. Sometimes this is what you have to do.
Courage also requires you to have passion, but it’s hard to have passion when you have so much fear. That’s why I talked about fear first. If you have the passion- a fire inside you to do something, to make something happen, to do something that you absolutely have to do, then the courage will come. Some people tell me that they don’t know what they want, they don’t feel any passion. But I don’t believe them. I ask a lot of questions. What do you love? What do you hate? Where do you want to be? What kind of lifestyle do you want? Eventually their passion surfaces. In some cases, we are afraid to recognize the passion we have because we don’t think we can achieve it. Sometimes it’s buried and then our job is to dig it up.
The third thing you need for courage is to be with the right people. Surround yourself with the best people. You will be helped if you get the right people around you. You’ve got to find the right friends and life partner too. I am fortunate that I found someone who loves me and supports me and I found colleagues here at Keio and friends who have done the same. You can do it alone, but It helps if you have someone who supports you, who believes in you. It could be friends, colleagues, a boss, a partner, husband or wife. If you don’t have such a person, find them. If you are with people who are doing nothing or don’t support you , you may need to leave them and find some who will.
Let me tell you how it all comes together. As a consultant and researcher I was working with human resource managers and mid level managers in Japanese companies. I didn’t like it very much. I wanted to do something big–something that would make a difference. One of my best friends told me I shouldn’t be working with mid level managers and supervisors–I should be working with CEO’s. I was scared out of my mind but eventually I started interviewing and working with CEO’s of foreign companies. I needed that push. I’m forever thankful to that friend who saw potential in me. We can do the same for others–especially as professors. we can see the potential of our students and our younger colleagues and provide support to them. Thankfully throughout my career here, I have found excellent colleagues here.
The students and graduates who are here today are a courageous bunch, They work hard, they want to change the world, they want to start their their own companies, they have started pioneering projects, they are volunteering in Touhoku, they have left their own countries to be here, they are on the plane to Silicon Valley to work with start ups there, they are actors, they are a great bunch. They have the courage to create their own path and I’m proud of them and fortunate to be with them. They have made my life better. Students who I work with in my classes now tell me they want to change the world, they reach out to young people in Burma and Bangladesh, they want to create their own clothing brands, they want to combine sport with business, they want to do something for Japan. They want to be great and have fun.
They ask the tough questions:
How can I live a life that makes a difference? Am I willing to let myself be fully alive? Am I willing to put myself out there? To live my values? Am I willing to be honest with everyone? With myself?
When they talk with me, they don’t ask me what’s on the exam, or how can I get an A. They are asking the questions I always ask myself.
About eight years ago, my passion for my work here at Keio was failing and I was not sure I could continue. I had lost my passion–it’s natural and I decided I needed a change. I thought about leaving and returning full time to consulting. Before I changed jobs, I thought I would take a trip. If you ever feel stuck, change the environment–take a trip. The trip I took wasn’t a vacation at fancy hotels basking in the sun.
I took a backpacking trip around SE Asia and stayed in low price hotels and hostels, took only buses and motorbikes and ate only the local food. I ate with people holding chickens and some holding rifles. I was in a bus that was hijacked the day before. I went all around Cambodia, Thailand and Laos carrying only a knapsack. I noticed during this one month trip that I didn’t gravitate towards talking with business people or professors. Instead, I just instinctively went everywhere to see art and meet artists. I had always loved art but in focusing on teaching, writing and consulting, I had pushed aside my interest in art, but your passion for creativity never dies
When I came back from my trip and went home, I knew I had to do something different and it wasn’t about leaving Keio. After I came home, I told my partner Hitoshi that I wanted to open an art gallery. I think i caught him a bit off guard, but to my surprise, he not only said yes, but he said ok , we’ll do it together. [See what I mean about finding the best people who will encourage you?] Believe me this took courage because we didn’t know anything about running an art gallery. I think he knew that if I had the passion to do this, I would have to do this. I had taught business and had been a consultant but it’s not the same as running a business. We started out first in our home and then moved to some smaller spaces and at we now have a beautiful space in Nihonbashi. Together Hitoshi and I created a business.
Many people ask me why an art gallery? Believe me it was not for the money. I also can’t draw a straight line. I tell people I had to do it because I had the passion. I did it because I wanted to change peoples lives with art. I did it because I wanted to help all of the artists I had met in Asia. I also tell people that the gallery is the same as my teaching. In the gallery, we are breaking down stereotypes In the gallery we are changing peoples lives with art. We are providing something that inspires people. In the gallery, we are encouraging people to be bold and courageous and think in new ways.
We help people in the gallery. And not just the artists. We can see how happy people are when they add art to their life. We created a community of art and artists and customers. It took courage to open a gallery because it is our taste out there. we have to say “this is what I think is interesting art.” What is very clear to me now is that the artists have great courage. It takes courage to put your work out there where everyone can see it and say,” this is what I do”. It’s easy to copy other people but to do something that no one else has done before is what the best artists do.
These are the artists I work with. It’s artists who are continuously changing. It’s artists who start with an empty canvas. It’s artists who throw away the manual, who cross borders.
it’s artists who recognize that a struggle is part of life. Although the world seems very far from business, people in business and education can learn a lot from the way artists work, especially about courage. When Muji wanted to improve their business strategy because the old strategy wasn’t working, they burned all of their old stock. Sometimes our past can handicap us. Just like an artist, Muji started again with a blank canvas. Stanford many years ago was not an excellent university. They decided they would be the Harvard of the west. They set a high courageous goal and they achieved it.
One of my favorites is a Brazilian company, SEMCO that my students know about. This is a company where employees decide their own salaries, they decide who will do what job, they decide where the factory will be located and how the products will be priced. They break all the rules, like many artists, and are very successful.
After we started the gallery, my work here at Keio got a second wind. I came alive again and I had more determination than ever to make a contribution to Keio. Running the gallery brought more creativity to my teaching. My work at Keio became more real. My writing got better. My presentations at companies increased. I made major changes in the way I taught, more honesty, more real, clearer, more direct. The classroom was more like a workshop than a lecture class. I often sat in the back. We worked on projects. I talked less and the students took on more leadership. We talked about careers, about meaning in work, about life and about love. We created a community. Students kept sketchbooks rather than notebooks. Students went out in the community for field trips. Students worked on projects that they implemented and we created a community beyond the classroom. Many members of that community are here today.
What I didn’t expect is that the gallery also helped me rethink the way I thought about business and about teaching too. I began to see business and teaching in a very different way. I saw business and teaching too about: Creating Community of Customers and the people we work with; Making a Contribution to the World. I learned that business is about relationships, learning and about trust, honesty and integrity. If you notice that this sounds like a a traditional Japanese way of doing business, you are correct.
This year, my career at Keio comes to an end. It is really tempting to stay on and teach a couple of classes and stay in contact with the students and colleagues who are here. I love it here and I love Keio but to stay here would be to be untrue to my own philosophy and beliefs. Where else can I find such a wonderful community, a community that after every class, some students come up to me and say thank you to me after my classes? It’s very comfortable here but I have always told students, “don’t be too comfortable”. “Difficult is good”, I have told my students. Instead get out of your comfort zone. And that’s what I’m going to do.
And today, it’s my turn to take the next steps, to do something new. People ask me what I am going to do. I am going to do something new, something different”. It’s also my turn to say thank you to you all. Thank you for coming into my life and welcoming me into your community. Thank you for helping me learn so much. I want to tell you that It’s been an honor to be a member of this faculty. I am a better person because of you and because of Keio University. I have everyone in the room to thank for helping me develop my way here and to create something. I thank you all.
This is my least lecture at Keio but before I finish, I want to show you a chart that I sometimes use in my classes. On one side of the continuum is caution and on the other side is courage. Where would you put yourself on this chart? What would it take for you for you to move one or two steps up? Are you going to be someone who does something rather than someone who is going to do something? Someone who will make a difference.
I urge you to find the courage to create something great. And don’t forget to have fun: Be great and have fun. Thank You.