By Wes O’Donnell
Failed and then Successful Entrepreneur. Veteran, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Professional Keynote Speaker.
If you are a person that doesn’t buy into abstract ancient Asian philosophies like Shibumi, then you are not alone. I didn’t either, at first.
Shibumi is a very abstract idea. Can you be successful without it? Absolutely.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t share all the tools that I believe have contributed to my success.
Learning Shibumi from an Early Age
When I was a kid in Texas, I had a very strong desire to learn martial arts. But I didn’t want the commercialized, hyped-up Cobra Kai karate that has become so ubiquitous in America. I wanted something more traditional and more ancient.
Back then, there was something appealing about the Japanese approach to martial arts that spoke to my simple, understated and shy teenage personality. I chose Kendo, the Japanese equivalent of European fencing (something completely useless in a real fight). It was during my Kendo lessons that my Japanese instructor told me an old story that I am only now beginning to appreciate. It illustrates the concept of Shibumi in action.
To fully understand the following Shibumi story, a quick familiarization with the class structure of feudal Japan is necessary. The samurai warrior class dominated feudal Japanese society.
Although samurai only made up about 10% of the population, they wielded enormous power. The remaining 90% of the population was made up of merchants, artisans and fishermen. All were considered lower classes than the warrior samurai class.
When a samurai passed, members of the lower classes were required to bow and show respect. If a farmer or artisan refused to bow or insulted the samurai (real or perceived), the samurai was legally entitled to chop off the recalcitrant person’s head. It is in this world where I tell this tale of “The Tea Master,” as it was told to me by my instructor, Sensei Yoshikuni.
“The Tea Master”: A Demonstration of Shibumi in Action
A lone samurai was passing through a small village in Ashu Province of feudal Japan. While making his way through the crowded village square, he turned and banged his sword scabbard, which was hanging at his side, against a tea master’s leg.
The samurai gazed at the tea master and yelled, “You banged my sword. This is a grave insult and I shall kill you for it.”
The tea master understood instantly that the samurai sincerely meant to kill him and was paralyzed with fear.
“I meant you no insult, noble sir. Please excuse my clumsiness and let me live. As you can see, I am no warrior and have no sword.”
The samurai could sense the tea master’s fear and it excited him.
“Then go buy a sword and meet me in the street tomorrow at midday, and I shall let you die like a man. If you don’t show up, I shall hunt you down like an animal and take off your head.”
He turned his back on the tea master and walked away.
The tea master was nearly incapacitated with fear. “I’m a dead man,” he thought. Then he remembered that another samurai, a famous master swordsman, was also in town.
Thinking that the master swordsman would be able to help, the tea master sought him out and explained his story. He stated that he had money to pay for his protection services and would like to hire him.
“I don’t hire to commoners,” the swordsman replied coldly. “Use your money to buy a sword and fight your own battles.”
“Then will you teach me swordsmanship?” the tea master pleaded. “I can pay you very well.”
“I don’t teach martial arts to commoners, either. Besides, what do you think you can learn in a day?” the swordsman asked.
“What do I have to lose?” the tea master said wryly.
The swordsman regarded him for a moment and then relented. Even though the tea master was a commoner, the swordsman understood that the tea master was an innocent victim in need of help.
The swordsman agreed to teach the tea master what little swordsmanship he could in a day. The tea master went and bought a sword. They began practicing that afternoon and soon discovered that the tea master had absolutely no talent for handling a sword.
After several hours of watching the tea master make hundreds of awkward practice cuts, the swordsman shook his head. He spoke with calm conviction: “Tomorrow, you are going to die.”
The tea master was crushed. He was physically and emotionally drained. He dropped his sword and stared at the ground, shoulders slumped.
The swordsman examined him thoughtfully for a moment and said, “Let’s have tea.”
Confused, the tea master looked up, but then began unpacking his tea set. The two men settled in a clearing nearby and the tea master began his familiar routine. The swordsman was amazed as the man gracefully poured water into a bowl containing the bitter, green powder.
As he whisked the mixture into a frothy brew, the swordsman saw a startling transformation occur before his eyes. Absent was the tired, broken man who was before him mere moments ago. Now the tea master’s back was straight, his shoulders square and his head erect.
Sitting in front of the swordsman now was an austere, dignified “master” of an ancient ritual. His face was a picture of calmness. When he looked into his eyes, the swordsman recognized immediately that the man was in shibumi.
“Stop!” the swordsman said firmly. “Do you want to kill your enemy tomorrow?”
“But you said that I was going to die,” the tea master replied.
“Yes, you are. But do you want to die like a warrior? Do you want to kill your enemy?”
“Yes,” the tea master said calmly.
“Then do exactly what you are doing at this moment.”
“But I am doing nothing right now.”
“Precisely! Your mind is empty. You neither desire life nor fear death. When you meet your enemy tomorrow, I want you to empty your mind as you are now. Raise your sword above your head and when he attacks, do nothing but cut and die.”
The tea master, being a “master” of his art, understood.
The next day, the insulted samurai was shocked to find the tea master standing in the street, waiting for him. The samurai had expected the tea master to hide. As he approached, he snickered to himself as he noticed that the peasant had a sword raised in the air.
But as he came closer, he began to feel uneasy. He expected to see the man shaking in fear, but the tea master’s sword was still and his face was grimly calm. The samurai stopped a few paces away and looked into the tea master’s eyes. He saw nothing…only death.
The samurai’s mouth went dry and after a moment, he said, “I cannot defeat you.” He turned and walked away.
This story perfectly illustrates the true power of Shibumi. Shibumi has nothing to do with physical strength or technical proficiency.
Instead, shibumi is a highly sought-after commodity that is separate from political, economic or military power. Shibumi is simply freeing yourself from the fear of failure, no matter what the consequences… even if the result is death. It is a mental focus so strong that your mind is empty.
The most complete definition of Shibumi that I have yet encountered came from a book published in 1979 called Shibumi written by Trevanian (the pen name of American writer Rodney William Whitaker). Here is an excerpt:
“He sounds as though I shall like him, sir.”
“I am sure you will. He is a man who has all my respect. He possesses a quality of . . . how to express it?. . . of shibumi.”
“Shibumi, sir?” Nicholai knew the word, but only as it applied to gardens or architecture, where it connoted an understated beauty.
“How are you using the term, sir?”
“Oh, vaguely. And incorrectly, I suspect. A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality. As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real.
“Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without prudency.
In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is “being” without the angst of “becoming”. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.”
Nicholai’s imagination was galvanized by the concept of shibumi. No other ideal had ever touched him so.
“How does one achieve this shibumi, sir?”
“One does not achieve it, one . . . discovers it. And only a few men of infinite refinement ever do that. Men like my friend Otake-san.”
“Meaning that one must learn a great deal to arrive at shibumi?”
“Meaning, rather, that one must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity.”
What Does Shibumi Have to Do with Being an Entrepreneur?
The benefits to you and your interactions with other businesspeople will be immediately apparent with the power that you project, like the tea master. Depending on your background, for those of us who served, our military experience has likely already given us several key habits — like attention to detail, restraint and the after-action report — that represent certain key aspects of Shibumi.
For you veterans, thanks to your military bearing, you’re already a Shibumi practitioner. But from a nuts-and-bolts business perspective, Shibumi accomplishes four things according to Shibumi expert Matthew E. May:
- Shibumi is a way to strip away all of the non-essential elements of your start-up business so that you can focus on the most important aspects. When things start to get overwhelming, and they will, practicing the ideas of Shibumi allows you the laser-like focus of the tea master.
- It provides a new way of looking at things. Shibumi offers a fresh perspective, like the way an artist looks at their work from many different angles and perspectives to arrive at the “truth.”
- Shibumi is a habit of endless refinement in the Zen tradition of “reflection.” It allows you to perform an action and review the outcome of that action to find a more efficient method of execution the next time.
- And finally, it’s the acceptance that true creativity, the kind that creates disruptive technologies like the original iPhone, comes from active calm, tranquility, solitude and quietude. Silent pauses in music, dance and theater, blank spaces in paintings, the use of negative space in graphic design all illustrate the power of calm in creation.
How to Use Shubumi in Your Daily Life
To begin to use Shibumi, I recommend two important first steps. First, educate yourself about Shibumi by reading two very important books on the subject:
- “Shibumi” by Trevanian
- “The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change” by Matthew May
Trevanian’s book is a work of fiction, but contains, to date, the single closest definition of true Shibumi. Matthew May’s book is much more business-focused and is widely used by several Fortune 500 companies to stay competitive in today’s business landscape.
Second, Shibumi’s obsessive attention to detail is beneficial. Having been in the military, you’re already familiar with this concept.
Taking your attention to detail to another level with Shibumi sets off a chain reaction inside you. You will begin to become more aware and perceptive. Your memory will improve.
In addition, you start to quickly recognize what is a time waster and what is important regarding your business. You’ll begin to see broader viewpoints, rather than seeing inside the narrow lanes that everyone else is caught in.
When you actively pursue the traits that Shibumi provides, the world looks very different to you. That understanding empowers you and gives you an advantage.
For example, you will begin to reach your short-term goals faster. Your long-term goals will become grander and loftier. Nobody will question your conviction or resolve to make a better life for yourself and achieve true freedom — the kind of freedom that only financial independence brings.
Ultimately, there is still much to learn from the Zen masters of ancient times. Try this ancient technique for yourself. You don’t have to go crazy and rearrange your house for minimalism! Start small: Just try to find balance and attention to detail in your daily interactions and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.