From Kobe to Kobe Inc.

With a single free throw to mark the last of his 33,643 points, Kobe Bryant has cemented himself as a legend in the sport of basketball. His final appearance wasn’t in the NBA finals as he would’ve liked, but his 60-point performance reminded us again of an era he helped define.

The fairy-tale ending for the 18-time All Star couldn’t have been written any better: an emotional tribute, an enchanted crowd, an improbable comeback. Yet for Kobe, his greatest accomplishment that night came after the final buzzer. As everyone celebrated his illustrious career, he did the one thing that many before him could not – he left the game behind.

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Image Source | Kobe during his post-game speech

From a BodyArmor towel draped over his shoulder to his iconic “Mamba Out!” Kobe’s speech after the game was as much a farewell as an introduction. He tactfully showcased his first investment in BodyArmor and left the crowd with a buzz-inspiring slogan. Kobe’s NBA career might be over, but he seamlessly transitioned into his new role as the spokesman for his company: Kobe Inc.

The company, founded in 2014, aims to invest in ideas that redefine the sport industry. In Kobe’s words – to create a medium for story-telling. It is far too early to gauge how much success he will have, but he is only one of a handful of athletes with even a post-career plan.

A single statistic from Sports Illustrated illuminates the severity of this problem – 78% of National Football League (NFL) players either bankrupt or commit suicide within two years of retirement.

It is a daunting figure. But rather than revisiting the age-old question of why professional athletes so often fall from stardom, I think it is worth exploring the question from another angle: what can we learn from professional athletes who have seemingly nothing in common with us?

The answer is plenty. The vast majority of us would not have accumulated enough wealth by our early thirties to entertain business ideas such as Maria Sharapova’s Sugarpova or Wayne Gretzky’s winery, but there is a common denominator. For those of us trying to explore a new profession or take on a new hobby, it is in many ways similar to an athlete trying to prove themselves again.

For them, the difficulty is finding a new passion where they can prove that they are the very best in front of millions of people. And for us, it is convincing ourselves that changes are normal and that we are not just wasting the golden years of our lives.

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Image Source | Maria Sharapova promoting her “Sugarpova” brand

If there is a takeaway to how quickly we turn on our childhood heroes for their poor life decisions, it is that by any measurement of success, our lives are not defined by a singular achievement. We can start strong and end poorly, or the other way around. We may have taken a job for the wrong reasons, or stuck with someone because we were scared of change – and that’s okay.

With life expectancy at over 80 years in most economies, we have every opportunity and resource to reposition ourselves1. We can anticipate the changing world and make ceaseless adjustments to adapt to it. I’m too young to have experienced a career change, but there are other applications of this mindset just within our education system.

For many disciplines at school, there seems to be an invisible hand that ushers us down a certain path. Yet, there is so much more to consider than the reputation of one field (and let’s be real, it’s mostly ranked based on $$). The most sought-after career might be the one for you, but that’s for you to decide. Don’t be afraid to double back or be cynical; our decisions are not final.

So – what can we learn from Kobe’s last game? You can be as close to being the face of basketball as anyone. But if circumstances change, as they often do with age or with anything else, we have to be vigilant for new opportunities. In the words of NFL’s Deion Sanders: “It is important to walk away from the game and not have the game walk away from you.”

1See here for a great lecture on why immortality would suck.

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Japan’s Anatomy of Love

While most people were too busy grappling with the science of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I asked myself this: is love really the one thing that transcends dimensions of time and space?

Ok, maybe not.

But nonetheless, love is often depicted in Hollywood movies as the irrational yet propulsive force that drive our decisions (and plot points). An idea so fundamental to our motivation that without it, it seems, life cannot exist. I am not qualified to debate that assertion – but if anyone is up for it, the examples of Japan would make the perfect supporting argument of the contrary.

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Image Source | A Screenshot from Interstellar

This is the last part of a mini-series on the topics that drew my attention during my exchange term abroad. In part one and two, I described Japan’s workaholic culture and its impending population crisis. Today, I want to focus on the country’s response to the aforementioned problems: an entire industry built on disassembling the components of a relationship.

Part Three: Japan’s Anatomy of Love

Economic stagnation in a shrinking country is a fatal combination. Yet, the biggest hurdle of all is that not everyone sees them as legitimate concerns. Instead of lobbying the government to address the underlying issue that is Japan’s outdated work culture, people grew more receptive to a host of new businesses that sell individual components of relationships.

What constitutes a relationship anyway? Companionship? Sex? Caretaking? The definition varies from person to person, but there are services in Japan that cater to almost all of those categories.

The most common option for foreigners to experience this unique culture of Japan is through one of Akihabara’s many maid cafés, where waitresses serve customers in a maid outfit and engage in singing or dancing performances. The menu selection is very standard for a café, but this is a place where lonely (and mainly older) men can come to replicate the feeling of love.

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Image Source | Maid Cafe

I was also not immune to its appeal. I visited a maid café in Akihabara with some equally-curious students during my term, and it was incredibly awkward. The girls “cast magic” in front of you and you are expected to sing and chant along (I tried). It sounded something like this. I can see the draw of maid cafés as an experience, but I can’t stomach how locals can frequent these places regularly. But then again, you do get called a “master”.

If being served by overly animated girls is not your cup of tea (pun intended), some may choose to visit a hostess club instead. Hostesses are suave talkers who are paid to sit and talk with clients on anything they want. Unlike traditional concepts of the red-light district, there are no sexual favors involved. Instead, these businesses appeal to people with poor social skills and those who are just looking for someone to talk to (without having to worry about getting judged).

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Image Source | Miyabi, a professional rent-a-friend

Maid cafes and hostess clubs are considered mainstream by Japan’s standards. But a few steps further into the love industry, and the scene changes quite remarkably. Due to the obsession with saving face in Asia, there are “rent-a-friend” services that provide human capital for many occasions. Common cases include having someone to cry at funerals or laugh at weddings, but you can also hire a person to be your girlfriend/boyfriend for a day (they will memorize details of your life to blend in). An interesting read here.

From traditional escort services to a long list of Japanese ingenuity, there are plenty of options to recreate the feeling of being in love. But as innocent as they sound, some are a gateway to a much scarier world. Human trafficking and drug rings are a common association with these businesses, where many of them are run by people with connection to the criminal world.

Japan has no shortage of novelty, but these temporary solutions are only delaying the meaningful changes that need to take place. If everyone takes these services as the norm and fall by the fallacy that “things have always been this way,” Japan will be on a steep slope with little to no recourse.

 

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Demographics: A Graying Japan

When a politician has the audacity to propose a plan that includes secretly distributing punctured condoms, it is apparent that something is terribly out of sync. But aside from the blatant disregard for our morality, this incident is a testament to the urgency of Japan’s population crisis.

This is the second part of my three-part series on the themes that dominated my interest during my semester abroad. A few weeks ago, I discussed the shortfall of Japan’s business culture (which you can find here). This time, I want to explore another topic that’s not only relevant to the island nation, but to almost all developed economies around the world.

Part 2: Demographics: A Graying Japan

Against the backdrop of a looming economic disaster, issues with minimal short term impact are often overlooked. For Japan, none is more pressing than a demographic crisis. One in four people is currently over the age of 65, and the country’s population is expected to fall by a third by 20601. The situation is hard to visualize, but addressing it would be fundamental to Japan’s future.

For a country known for its liberal attitude towards sexuality (Kanamara Matsuri), why are people so reluctant to have kids? Low fertility is not a problem exclusive to Japan, but there are a number of reasons why they are the perennial symbol of an aging population.

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Source: IPSS | Japan Population Forecast

Gender Equality – As part of a global movement towards workplace equity, women in Japan are increasingly joining the workforce with the intention of staying. But while this is a hopeful sign for Japan’s gender imbalance, the country’s culture of life-time employment meant that most women will have to pursuit their careers at the expense of their motherhood (and many of them do).

A similar bias also applies to men. If working long hours is not enough of a disincentive for family building, many are now also faced with an identity crisis. Recent economic stagnation in Japan is challenging the viability of men as the sole breadwinners, leaving many of them feeling inadequate as potential parents. In a world where face triumphs above all, this may be a sizable deterrent.

Celibacy Syndrome – Gender dichotomy is deeply rooted in Japan’s history, but a more recent problem facing them today is the romantic apathy of young adults. 40% of singles are reportedly not looking for relationships, with many of them citing “bothersome” as the reason. Part of it may be attributed to the grueling work culture, but 45% of women actually despise sexual interactions2. This aversion to intimacy, I think, is derived from the association of a romantic commitment.

If being married meant having a label and living a life of less fulfillment, most people would prefer to spend their time on hobbies, families, or careers. Not only that, if there is an impulsive need for anything a relationship can offer, there are services available that will not interrupt their lives – or their hard-earned careers (more on that in part three).

Crowded Cities – The last reason is the simple economics of raising a child. I will be the first to admit that Tokyo is a treasure trove of places to go and things to see. But no matter how appealing the city is, living expenses are hard to overcome. Even if families can afford a kid (real income has in fact fallen in recent years), they are likely to only have one.

This acts as a de-facto one child policy and faces the same challenges that China has. Although not to the same extent, male-to-female ratio has been steadily growing in Japan as well. This increase meant that not only is the overall number of newborns lower year by year, they are also skewed in gender, which further magnifies the problem down the road.

 

Image Source | Therapeutic robot at a senior home

Image Source | Therapeutic robot at a senior home

Japan is not alone in this. Most developed countries share a similar trajectory for their population growth (or decline). The biggest difference, however, is that the rate of decline in those places are much slower due to having a more robust immigration system in place to offset the aging domestic population. With Japan’s policy of isolationism, they are far less fortunate.

The three examples that I highlighted are an oversimplification of the situation, but they represent the cultural and economic barriers that are ingrained in the Japanese society. For Abe to revive his dying nation, he will need to embrace immigration reform and advocate for child-support policies for his working class. Politicians can argue all day, but they too, are getting old.

 

(Stay tuned for my “Breeding with Robots” post slated for mid-2040).

National Institute of Population and Social Security Research
Japan Family Planning Association Survey

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The Salaryman Mentality

What is your impression of Japan?

With robots that will soon be in every household, a fashion scene that is religiously followed, and a model of customer service that has become the template for the world, many see Japan as a country ahead of its time. Yet, with a culture of systemic unpaid overtime and a gender gap rating behind places such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia, some would argue for the exact opposite.

As a kid brought up on heavy doses of Dragon Ball Z and Nintendo 64, I have always been drawn to the culture of Japan. But as I come to learn about the unlikely issues that plague the country, I knew that it was a place I had to visit. In this three-part blog, I will talk about a few themes that was most interesting to me during my exchange term at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

Part 1. The Business Culture (Seniority System)

One of the biggest problems facing Prime Minister Shinzō Abe today is a stagnant economy that no number of arrows is going to fix. With powerhouse brands like Sharp and Sony dwindling into a shell of their former selves, is there anything Abe can do to reverse the downward spiral? He is desperate to find a solution, but he is quickly running out of time.

Image Source | Shinzō Abe

The lackluster impact of Abe’s policies is a validation that the core of Japan’s economic woes is not an economic one. Instead, the issue they face is much closer to home – an outdated business culture that predates the Second World War. To understand why businesses are so reluctant to change, we have to look at how the country behaved since the war. How does a resource-starved and nuclear-bombed nation rebound to become the third largest economy in the whole world?

Much can be attributed to its culture of lifetime employment and the keiretsu system (a series of independent companies operating as a conglomerate). Ranks within a company were determined strictly by a seniority system, and every employee knows their role in the hierarchy.

And that is still true today. One detail that fascinated me during my exchange was that when my friends were job-hunting, they were applying for companies and not specific positions. This kind of dedication to a single employer ensured the stability and consistency that propelled Japanese businesses ahead of its competitors, leading to a boom between the 1940s and the 1990s.

Image Source | Salaryman in Japan

At the time, many observers dubbed Japan as the leader in industrial policy and product design. In hindsight, it was both a blessing and a curse. Reliance on this form of governance is well-suited for the manufacturing economy Japan once was, but it does not provide the flexibility required for today’s business landscape. Managers need to take a new look at their corporate structure and be open to adopting new practices from supply chain management to human resources.

This is no easy task. I don’t foresee managers today turning 180 degrees on business practices that they’ve followed for the last 40 years, but there is still hope for the next generation. If Abe’s government is serious about change (and can stomach a divisive nation), they need to loosen the country’s immigration control and create an environment attractive for foreign professionals.

No amount of quantitative easing will change how people think. Defibrillating Japan’s economy will take a combination of western influence and a more modern education. Businesses will need to develop a merit-based system that encourages employees to work productive hours rather than long ones. The seniority system also needs to be scraped altogether. A system of yes-men will not contribute to any meaningful change.

Image Source | Hitotsubashi University

Image Source | Hitotsubashi University

This is a temporary stimulus. In the long run, Japan’s businesses will need to rely on their university students as the new generation of leaders. There is definitely a need for an overhaul of the system. The limited number of professors I met were all very old-school and content with reciting slides after slides of text. I am sure of their good intentions, but old dogs simply cannot learn new tricks.

Without a doubt, this will lead to a huge backlash from the traditional thinkers of Japan. But with South-East Asia’s economy projected to overtake Japan’s by 2025, it is painfully apparent that the current system is obsolete. If drastic measures are not taken soon, Japan, in due time, will follow the footsteps of its dying brands and fade into the distant memory as a once dominant player.

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Millennials: Generation Misunderstood

Heading into the final semester of my prolonged education, the direction of my career path is a recurring question. But between confusion and conflicting advice, one consideration is always in the spotlight – exit opportunities. How is it that we plan for our next steps before we even enter the workforce? For Millennials (19 to 34 in 2016), this narrative sounds all too familiar.

To some employers, we are a generation of job-seekers with unreasonably high expectations. A group who saw every opportunity as a stepping stone for the next, and every resignation as a sign of a healthy capitalism. It’s an observation echoed by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, which described the new age workers as being less loyal than their baby boomer parents. But is it true?

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Not necessarily. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median years of tenure with current employers, for the 20-24 age group, has in fact remained relatively flat at 1.3 years since the 1980s. Why then, do we associate Millennials as being noncommittal?

One possible explanation is our growing interest in entrepreneurship. With the rise of Facebook, Uber, and the rest of the Silicon Valley, stories about job-hopping programmers are often thrown around. But not only is this a small subset of the entire workforce, Millennials are not working at startups any more frequently than they were before.

According to the Kauffman Foundation, a think-tank on entrepreneurship, business creation has not accelerated despite the buzz and optimism. Instead, startup activity tracks the business cycle and is mostly consistent with historical data. Expansionary periods leading up to a recession see an uptick in interest, which fizzles thereafter.

Kauffman Startup Activity Index (1997-2015)

Source: Kauffman Foundation

From us becoming more vocal about our work dissatisfaction over social media to people making assumptions based on our values (sharing economy, fear of ownership), there are several reasons for our lousy reputation. But one thing is for sure: people have always moved around. In my view, we all follow the ebb and flow of the business cycle. It is our motives that define our generation.

An appropriate example of this is how the different generations react to the many financial crises. The market initially panicked and people held on to what they could. But as the bull market began to take shape, people also started looking for other opportunities to better align their self-interests. This isn’t a “Millennial” problem. Our values change over time, but the issue remains the same.

If companies cannot motivate their workers, they will look elsewhere for it. For many Millennials today, it’s about a connection with their work, a career with opportunities, and a better work-life integration (and not balance). In the absence of it, employees may choose to test the labor market or leave to become an entrepreneur.

This is not a rebellion against the corporate world, but a yearning for something under-provided. Jamie Gutfreund, CMO of Wunderman, dubbed the job-seekers today as “venture consumers,” who see employers not just as providers, but also as career mentors. And that makes sense. Our knowledge-based economy doesn’t depend on what we know, but our capacity for learning.

At Grassi Lake with my roommate

This past summer, my roommate taught me a new phrase: FOMO (fear of missing out). While he was using it to describe being absent for the big parties, I thought it applies perfectly to the workplace as well. There is a constant pressure to remain relevant in today’s dynamic market, which makes a supportive employer that much more important.

As demanding as it sounds, the opposite is true too. If companies can create an engaging and challenging environment, Millennials will work tirelessly to rally behind those ideas. Their social awareness and aptitude for technology make for productive employees, but their desire to drive change may be the much needed catalyst for the businesses of tomorrow.

The problem that senior management faces today is not a workforce that is difficult to manage, but one where the two sides don’t speak the same language.

 

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