You can sum up Japan in two superlatives.
Super amazing and super unique.
After a befriended couple went there, they told me about the efficient public transport, the crazy food, and the women dressed up as children selling stuff in front of stores. It was a unique experience.
But one thing that stands out above all else is Japanese culture, somewhere between Zen Buddhism and robots serving food.
Intrigued by their stories, I went down the rabbit hole, unearthing many inspiring philosophies I’ve since incorporated into my life.
Most of them are a stark contrast to our modern Western culture, which is probably why I’ve been happier ever since.
Wabi-sabi, The Art of Imperfection
Perfectionism equals fear.
When I first started coaching, I created super-specific plans and documents for my clients. Preparing a session looked like inventing a fusion reactor and building a particle accelerator at the same time. I wanted to leave nothing to chance.
I thought I did it because I wanted to create as much value for the client as I could.
But I did it out of fear – fear of not being worthy and not being good enough if I didn’t do a perfect job.
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” ― Michael Law
Today, my sessions are different. Instead of taking away from the beauty of imperfection, I cherish it. If a call goes in a different direction than anticipated, I let it. It’s not what we planned but without exception, it’s where we needed to go – and both my client and I are happier for it.
The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi is about finding the beauty in imperfections.
Leaving dried flowers as decoration. Working with aged and faded wood. Fixing cracked pottery and painting the seams with silver or gold, an art called Kintsugi.
What you do doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfect.
When you let your fear disguised as perfectionism take over, you disrupt the flow of life. So what if it rains during your date night? Dance in it. So what if you mess up the paint on a wall? Get your kids to chime in with colors and make it one of a kind. So what if you fumble your presentation? Use it as an opportunity to crack a joke and inject some humanity into a robotic work life.
True beauty lies in imperfection.
Kaizen, The Way To Climb Even The Highest Mountains
If you don’t move forward, you stand still. If you stand still, you die.
I did competitive swimming for eight years. Every year, I improved by a few seconds and looked forward to overtaking my competitors at the contest. Every year, they improved as well.
But over time, we all broke our personal, national, and club records again and again.
Had someone told me about it at the beginning of my swimming career, I would’ve never believed it.
But little by little, I got there.
Without knowing about it, I followed the Japanese art of Kaizen – continuous improvement.
When you have a mountain of work in front of you, it seems overwhelming. Building a business? So much to do. Raising kids? So much to consider. Renovating the house? So much work.
Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.
You won’t hit a home run on the first try – that’s fine. Habit expert James Clear says you just need to improve by 1% every day to become 38 (!) times better within a year. 1.01^365 = 37.78
You just have to start.
The Kaizen philosophy assumes that our way of life – be it our working life, our social life, or our home life – deserves to be constantly improved.” – Masaaki Imai
Ask yourself what you’ve been avoiding because it seemed too much.
Find the first small step you can take.
Then keep going and improving, little by little.
That’s what matters.
Kodawari, The Philosophy of Crafting Something Truly Remarkable
Jiro Ono is the best sushi chef in the world.
At 97 years of age, he has been making Sushi for over eight decades and earned his restaurant in Tokyo three Michelin stars. When I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I got an insight into the insane dedication he puts into his craft.
He pays attention to whether his guests are right- or left-handed and places the chopsticks accordingly. For years, he has tweaked the ideal time it takes to cook the rice, massage the octopus, and fry the eggs. He has perfected the presentation, seating order, Wasabi spiciness, and correct amount of pressure it takes to make the rice base firm but fluffy.
Watching him work is a pleasure in itself because he follows the concept of Kodawari – paying attention to every little detail.
This isn’t so much about obsessing over details, but honoring them.
In your relationship, appreciate the small stuff and little gestures. When people talk to you, listen to what they’re really saying. Put in that little bit of extra effort at work – the glass of water I get at my barber’s makes a huge difference.
“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achive more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.” – Jiro Ono
Ichigo Ichie, The Eye-Opening Reminder We All Need
One day was the last day you played with your childhood friends – but you didn’t know.
I had a last day building castles in the sandbox before I grew too old. A last hug feeling the fur of our dog before the vet had to put him to sleep. A last talk with my grandpa before he passed away.
But with all these, I didn’t know they were the last time. None of us do. We just keep doing things until we eventually don’t anymore.
If we knew it was the last time, we’d pay more attention.
But here’s the harsh, eye-opening truth.
Every time you do something is the last time you do it.
People change. Situations change. You change.
This is what the Japanese philosophy of Ichigo Ichie reminds us of.
It translates to one time, one meeting.
“This moment exists only now and won’t come again.” – Japanese Proverb
The next time you’re trying to get through something quickly, your partner annoys you, you want your kids to be quiet or the work to be finally done, don’t distract yourself. Remember that this is the last time you’ll ever experience this exact moment.
Shoshin, The Ability to Stay Excited No Matter What
Whenever I try something new, I go through the same pattern.
I get super excited in the beginning, learn a lot, make great progress – then fizzle out. Some things I stick with, like writing and lifting, but most I drop. Even the ones that survive don’t give me the same excitement anymore after a while.
This isn’t about time but about the decision to stay hungry.
Once you’ve figured out the ropes, it’s easy to do things the same way again and again. Evolution hardwired us to conserve energy and walking the same path over and over is convenient.
That’s where the Japanese philosophy of Shoshin steps in.
It means to approach everything with a beginner’s mind – to stay curious and willing to learn.
When I applied it, I got my excitement back. I tried new writing formats, lifting routines, and ways of talking to people. I started learning from my experiments again.
“The pleasure of rediscovering, time after time, the true nature of the phenomenon we had come to know, is a joy that never wears out.” – Jiro Horikoshi
Where have you been stuck in your routine? Be curious. Ask questions. Become a kid again.
Life is full of never-ending wonders.
You just have to keep looking.
Summary to Help You Live a Happier Life
Happiness lies in every moment – we just have to approach it the right way.
The Japanese wisdom helps you invite it into your life today.
- Wabi-sabi: Find the beauty in imperfection instead of letting your fears drive you into perfectionism.
- Kaizen: Improve in small, tiny steps instead of getting overwhelmed by the mountain of work.
- Kodawari: Honor the details and be present with what you do instead of half-assing it.
- Ichigo Ichie: Treat everything you do as the last time you can do it instead of wishing it to be over.
- Shoshin: Stay curious, ask questions, experiment, and keep a beginner's mind instead of getting bored by the same routines.
Let a little ancient wisdom guide your modern day life.