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Jun 07, 2016

Japan, Asia & the World The Best Way to Learn from your Mistakes? Ignore Them.

When you’re lucky enough to have had some success in business, people often ask you the same kinds of questions: Where did your original idea come from? What obstacles did you have to confront in the early years? What was the “tipping point” that set your business on the path to growth?

I have ready answers for most of these old chestnuts, but there is one question I am incapable—literally physically incapable—of answering. It is: What were the biggest MISTAKES you made in the course of building your business?

Why can’t I handle such a straightforward question? Because of my mindset: I make a point of proactively forgetting any mistakes that I make.

Baseball fans among you will be familiar with Hideki Matsui, the Japanese slugger who played seven seasons for the New York Yankees between 2003 and 2009. In 2007, Matsui published a book called Fudoshin in Japanese—something like “Staying Cool” or “The Unflappable Mind” in English—in which he reflected on the mental aspects of the game.

In the passage that most impressed me, Matsui discussed the way that, at post-game press conferences, Japanese reporters always tried to get him to talk about mistakes he’d made. His way of dealing with this was to pretend not to have heard or to have misunderstood the question.

Matsui’s philosophy was that putting your mistakes into words—verbalizing them—only increases the chance of them preying on your mind and undermining your confidence. As far as Matsui was concerned, the most important thing for a good ball player was to have a forward-looking and positive attitude and not waste time getting hung up on things that were past fixing.

I apply this same “water under the bridge” attitude to the mistakes I make in my career. They’re in the past, finished, over with—and I won’t allow them to weigh me down.

At the same time, I’m not sure that I even believe in the whole concept of “mistakes.” Mistakes are just part of a process of elimination that leads to a successful outcome. (I like that saying of Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”) If you flip your perception and start seeing mistakes as “experiments” or “trials,” you never need to get caught up in the cycle of regret.

This “flip the equation” approach of consciously seeing positives where other people only see negatives can be valuable in a business context.

For example, when I founded my business school in Tokyo in the early 1990s, I had so many obstacles to overcome that a person with any common sense would probably have just walked away. My long-term goal was to build the “No. 1 business school in Asia,” but at that stage we lacked most of the supposedly key ingredients for success.

We did not have:

(1) The name recognition or prestige enjoyed by business schools that are part of old-established universities like Harvard, Stanford, Waseda or Tokyo

(2)
An existing academic faculty

(3) A leafy suburban campus with old brick or stone buildings

How did I face down these existential obstacles? I simply looked at them through a different lens.

・To compensate for our lack of name recognition, we would build awareness like any normal commercial enterprise—by advertising aggressively in the sort of publications and websites that business people like to read.

・To compensate for our lack of old-school prestige, we would offer a service guarantee: Complete satisfaction or 100% of your money back.

・To compensate for the lack of an existing academic faculty, we would make a point of hiring only professors with real-world business experience.

・Finally, not having an old campus meant that we could locate our classrooms in a highly accessible part of central Tokyo—a model we followed for the four regional campuses later opened in other cities in Japan.

So, our lack of history, far from being a disadvantage, actually freed us to do things in a more convenient, practical and customer-focused manner than our more hidebound competitors. As a result, our audience—young, ambitious MBA students—found our offering very easy to identify with.

Everything that had appeared to be an obstacle ended up working in our favor. These obstacles gave birth to many key aspects of my business school’s unusual character.

To sum up, I don’t believe in obstacles and I don’t believe in mistakes. I believe in the power of positive thinking to transform obstacles into unique selling points and mistakes into valuable lessons.

I recommend everyone who wants to succeed to eliminate the words “mistake” and “obstacle” from their vocabulary. Because often the biggest apparent negatives end up becoming the biggest positives you’ll ever have.

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