Samurai funerals and office politics

Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death.”  -Uesugi Kenshin, 16th century

At lunch with a friend last week, we diverged into a subject that got a lot deeper than we’d intended. He asked me, “has anyone ever told you that you’re too emotionally invested in the business… that you care too much?”

Um, yes? This sent back a flood of memories.

If there’s one trait that people will remember me for at the startup I worked for, it was that I was deeply, tragically invested in the ups and downs of the company. Which isn’t ever healthy, but never less so than when your company is a nuclear meltdown of a startup.

I felt as if I might die if the company went under, if I lost my job, or a whole host of other things that were outside my control. I was anxious, I never slept, and I was profoundly depressed almost all of the time.

That company and those feelings are well behind me now. But when I’m honest, I recognize that I never did figure out how to truly divest myself of that need to attach so deeply. It’s been part of the “passion” package that I bring to the table, right?

Back to the conversation: needless to say, my friend had my attention. Another mutual friend (whom I actually knew from the nuclear startup) had relayed a story, which drove home the point in a way neither of us had thought through before:

Before a samurai goes into war, his family holds his funeral. His memory is laid to rest, his family and loved ones grieve, and he is dead for all purposes. All but the purpose of battle. 

What is left to fear? He is already dead. The only thing to gain or lose is grace and dignity in the face of an inevitable death. The samurai is now unbound by attachments and fears of pain, loss, or death, and he fights with an unmatched fearlessness and fierceness. 

I consider this to be apocryphal until I can source it, but it does create a lovely and profound metaphor for office politics.

You probably care a lot about the projects you’re working on. You want them to be done right, but there are obstacles in your way. Managers, red tape, approvals, deadlines. It’s all so bloody important.

But the thing is, you’re already dead.

When you look your boss, coworker, or CEO in the eye, you’re talking to a person that you’ll eventually have an awkward conversation with. One of you will explain to the other, in the politest terms, why you won’t be working there anymore.

All the things that mattered so much: the deadlines, the approvals, the frustrating coworker, none of it matters one whit anymore.

So what do you have left at that point?

You have the relationships you built and nurtured, the lessons you learned, the impact you made, and maybe a little bit of money for your trouble. But that’s pretty much it.

Relationships. Lessons. Impact. Money. That’s pretty much all you get, and I believe in that order.

If you’re worried about things that you don’t get to take out the front door with you, why?

When you leave, will they remember that you beat the deadline, or that you were kind and invested in the people around you?

When you leave, will they hand you a trophy for “doing it right”, or did you learn ways of doing things you’d have never thought of on your own?

When you leave, will they feel remorse for all the bureaucracy that tied you up, or that you always seemed to make things happen?

So before you stress yourself sick for that deadline, talk down to that coworker, blame that boss, or wait for someone else to fix your problems, remember that you’re already dead. You’re going to walk away with a cardboard box and precious little else, so make damn sure you’re investing in things you get to take with you.


P.S. It’s also interesting to note that life, as a whole, is exactly the opposite. You get to keep nothing, but you get to leave behind relationships, lessons, impact, and money… again, I believe, in that order. So as noble as it is to build these things, hoarding them is futile and sharing them is everything.

  • Jesse Semchuck

    Great post. I learned this lesson the hard way at my last gig. Go in trying to make an impact, and you will forget what’s most important, the relationships.

  • Corbinhoenes

    Woah. This post is gold. Thank you.