3 Career Lessons from my Year in Japan

3 Career Lessons from my Year in Japan

March 9, 2015
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When I was 24 I fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine which was to go and teach English in Japan with the JET Program.

This followed a lengthy application, intimidating panel interview, and lots and lots of waiting. I can remember when the acceptance and placement letter arrived.  I was so excited and was hoping to be placed in one of the cities that my great-grandparents had lived in which would put me near the ocean.  But much to my surprise, when I opened the letter I read that I’d be placed in a town I’d never heard of:  Annaka City in Gunma Prefecture.  So I Googled it. It was right, smack in the middle of Japan. Land-locked. Totally not what I expected.

This was just the first of many unexpected circumstances. I wasn’t expecting that when I was in Japan, I would feel the most un-Japanese as I had in my entire life. I wasn’t expecting that I’d have a student punch me in the stomach just for attention from a female because his mother neglected him. And I wasn’t expecting that I would freaking LOVE Karaoke.

I learned a lot while I was there. It was a life-altering experience that is difficult to put into words. Others who have lived overseas and returned home can relate to what I’m saying. When you go home, your friends and family ask you what your experience was like, and I could never come up with an eloquent recount of what happened there or what happened to me. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about life in general. It helped me get my priorities straight and taught me some interesting and unorthodox career lessons. Here are a few of them.

1. There will always be someone who works harder than you (or at least pretends to) and you shouldn’t care

Japan is notorious for workaholism. They pull long-ass hours. The school where I taught was no exception. As I left every day, ahead of pretty much the entire staff, I would bid them adieu with a customary phrase which loosely translates to “Excuse me for leaving before you”. But some of the teachers were there, clearly just for show. They’d surf the net. Joke around with other teachers. Basically do no real work, but give the impression they were, simply because of their physical presence.

Really, North American workplaces are no different. There will always be someone who works harder than you or who pretends to and you shouldn’t care. You have your own capabilities, your own work ethic, and your own goals. If they want to spend more face time in the office and expect that this will pay off, that’s on them. Do you, do your job and do what you think is right. Don’t compare your work to others’. Eyes on your own paper.

[Tweet “Do you, do your job and do what you think is right. Don’t compare your work to others’. Eyes on your own paper.”]

2. Sometimes your coworkers see you naked and that’s OK

Some of my female coworkers literally saw me naked, and not by accident. It was Christmas time and we were having our staff Christmas party at a local inn that had an onsen, which is like a hotsprings spa or pool. In Japan, you go into these communal hotsprings N-A-K-E-D. Naked.  Nothing prepared me for this, not even the copious cups of sake I had over dinner.

Luckily in the Western world, being naked with your coworkers is an unlikely situation (thank God). So when I say it’s OK for your coworkers to see you naked, it’s in the figurative sense. It’s OK for your coworkers to see your vulnerable side, in fact, it’s necessary. Like my own business coach, Sarah, mentions in her post about getting vulnerable at work:

“It takes guts to put yourself out there. So, why do we do it? Why bother? The answer is because vulnerability is the key to connection.”

This connection can lead to great things. Better cohesiveness with your team, ability to work through conflicts more efficiently, etc.

So go on, get naked…metaphorically, and see what great things can happen from opening up and being vulnerable.

3. Sometimes you have to suck it up and wear a mask

When you’re sick in Japan, it’s the norm to wear a mask. Working with kids and being in a foreign country, I caught some bug or another many times. So to appease the masses, I wore a mask. I hated it. It was one of the worst parts of being sick. The hot breath would shoot up to my glasses and fog them up, constantly. Not to mention I also felt as though I was suffocating. Was it worth fighting. Not really.

There are certain things that are so ingrained in culture, even corporate culture, that they aren’t worth fighting against. Like the norm of wearing suits at your company even though you work in an industry where casual dress is acceptable. Just go with the norm. Or the fact that your company has instituted a somewhat useless performance review system. That’s annoying, but only slightly inconvenient. Just go with it.

Sometimes it’s easier to save your energy for the bigger battles. Choose accordingly.

I loved my year abroad. It challenged me in ways that I never could have imagined, and it taught me so much.  If you ever have the chance to work in another country, I’d highly recommend it. You never know what you might learn.

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