"A path opens to those who are honest."
“You never know who you're gonna talk to, where you're gonna go, what you're gonna see. Every day is different.” Jake Adelstein, Tokyo Vice
In Tokyo Vice, a recent show on HBO, young American expat Jake Adelstein tries to establish himself as a reporter at one of Japan’s most prestigious newspapers. Specifically, he wants to cover the crime beat and Japan’s notorious Yakuza.
Jake is not just an outsider and foreigner, a gaijin, but idealistic and ambitious. As journalists “we get to increase the world's knowledge every day,” he tells a friend. Merely repeating the police statements is not an option. Jake wants the truth, the scoop. He wants the fame, too.
Unfortunately, he has no access, no network of sources. His understanding of Tokyo’s underworld is based on books and public sources. In other words: he has nothing. His early efforts at turning detectives into sources fail. In a rush to rise and leave his mark, Jake is flailing.
His story didn’t click for me until his moment of authentic vulnerability. Visiting the hard-boiled detective Katagiri, who becomes a guide and father figure, Jake admits what is obvious to everyone but himself:
“I want to learn how this city… What’s beneath the surface… how it works. Then I can write what is actually happening. But right now, I can't do that. The truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Katagiri responds with a remark that has stuck with me since:
“A path opens to those who are honest.”
Jake’s path to into the depths of Tokyo’s underworld required two kinds of honesty. Fist, honesty with himself. He had to see clearly his own position. His ego had been boosted by a string of early successes - mastering the Japanese language, navigating a foreign country, obtaining an important job. To go further, he had to accept that he was still at the very beginning.
Second, Jake had to be honest with Katagiri. Only in dropping any pretense could Jake afford Katagiri the respect he deserved. This humility was required for the teacher to accept the student.
The hurdles for Jake were actually quite low. He was a complete outlier. As a foreigner, he was not supposed to work at a reputable newspaper, let alone cover crime or do any investigative work. He was not expected to get it.
As we get older and advance in our lives and careers, it becomes more difficult to create similar authentic teacher-student connections. Not only do others expect us to be masters of our domains, our egos attach to our successes, our compensation, the respect we earned.
This makes it harder to admit ignorance of a new and important subject. It takes courage to admit, to ourselves even, that we have no idea what is going on. Worse, that we will need someone to explain it to us. That we need to step down from our little pedestal and ask for help. Humbly and respectfully no less.
I once wrote about Barry Diller’s reinvention from Hollywood player to dotcom hustler. While this transformation required some humility, Diller had the benefit of a world-class network. He could visit people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and ask them about the trajectory of technology. Still, the first step was for Diller to recognize the importance of a new area that he was completely clueless about. He did his best at mastering the basics, teaching himself how to use a clunky Apple PowerBook. Then he asked for help in understanding it.
“The course of my life has been curiosity and serendipity. I didn't have a single thought in my head other than, I don't know what this is, but I'm fascinated by it and I want to learn it.” Barry Diller
We still have to do our homework. As Sebastian Mallaby once told me, the key to get access to the inner sanctum of hedge fund managers was “to do an unreasonable amount of preparation work.” And Jake did prepare. He went to journalism school, polished his language skills, and read obsessively about the Yakuza. He did what could be done on the outside. But to embark on his journey, he had to leave the comfort of his desk. He had to venture out and ask for help. He had to be honest with himself and with those he sought out as teachers and allies. To have any shot at mastery, he had to start with curiosity, humility, courage, and a desire for connection.
And is that not beautiful? To say: I am here to learn. I’ve gone as far as I could on my own. But I want to learn more and go further. I am looking for a teacher. Will you help me?
That way lies growth. That way lies genuine connection. That way lies friendship.
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