How to Work Without Fear: Lessons Learned from Samurai

written by  Ryan Seamons
person in black long sleeve shirt and black skirt holding white leather belt

The Hagakure, a practical guide to being a Samurai from the 1600s, shares a concept of the warrior code known as the “way of dying”:

“The way of the Samurai is found in death…This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”

― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

The idea of living as though you are already dead is a fascinating approach to dealing with the natural fear of death. While this could be misinterpreted as meaning that to be a Samurai was to live a code of death, there is power in seeing this as an awareness of death that helps to transcend the natural fear of death, especially as a warrior who had a higher likelihood of dying.

While death isn’t something most people have to worry about at work, failure definitely is. One lesson we can take away is the “way of failure”.

What I find appealing is not the idea that you should assume failure or want to fail, but that you find more success when you move forward fully acknowledging the real possibility of failure.

Failure is common in the workplace. Product management expert Marty Cagan says that even on the best product teams 75% of features launched won’t accomplish their objectives. The Muse ran a survey asking executives what percent of meetings they viewed as failures. The results were astounding at over 60% of meetings resulting in failure.

When we accept the possibility of failure (and adjust decisions accordingly) we can avoid the fear-driven decisions that so often cause our frantic behavior in the workplace.

Samurai lived as though they were already dead. Here are ways you can incorporate that Samurai lesson at work:

  • Speak as though everyone you’re speaking to will be bored
  • Manage as though those on your team aren’t yet equipped to do their jobs
  • Run a project as if what you’re currently doing will fail
  • Listen as if someone is having an awful day
  • Live as though you botched this day up already and had a chance to redeem it

One tactical way to do this is a pre-mortem. Have a meeting assuming your effort failed in the end, but do this at the beginning of a project. You talk through all of the possible ways failure will get you, what it feels like, and how to avoid those possibilities.

May you embrace the reality of failure and ultimately avoid it.

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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