I met Misha Yurchenko at Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat. Misha is a writer and a traveller. He has lived in Japan for a long time and he is an enthusiast in a wide variety of subjects and we had a few interesting conversations that we’ve ben keeping up by e-mail. Misha has also published two books: The Star Interview: How to Tell a Great Story, Nail the Interview and Land Your Dream Job and Cracking The Amazon Interview: A Step by Step Guide to Get the Job and he writes weekly at Quora, which I’m following and it really inspires me! I encourage you to take look! Skin at Heart is proud to bring you this interview:
1 – What has drawn you into Japan and the Japanese culture?
My fascination with Japan stems back to when I was an awkward, pimply 12-year old boy. At the time I was living in France because my mother had moved for a 2 year MBA program. During my schooling there (middle school) I had to take an extra language class, on top of taking French. Mind you, I didn’t speak any French, so I would be learning a language I didn’t know in a language I didn’t know. My choices were Italian, German or Japanese.
I chose to learn Japanese (instructed in French…) just to see if I could do it, because it was so different than the other Romance languages, and perhaps I also wanted to get some attention or pity from my parents. This should give you an idea of how mature I was at the time. Surely, learning one of the hardest languages in the world in a language I didn’t even understand would be impossible, but I probably didn’t think too far ahead in the future on this one. So I went on a whim and took the class.
I ended up learning both French and Japanese, gaining a deeper respect for both cultures. I had also met a couple of Japanese students during the time and I remember them being the most humble, respectful people I had met in my life at that point. They were quiet, never intrusive, and certainly left an impression. In other words, my initial image of Japan had nothing to do with anime or manga, rather, it was the language and to some extent the people. When I had the opportunity to do a homestay exchange program during high school, I enthusiastically jumped on the opportunity. I visited a city in southern Japan called Fukuoka to stay with a lovely host family. I ended up extending another week because I didn’t want to leave.
There was certainly a joy in being able to put into practice the language I had started learning, but I’m not sure that was the main thing that drew me to the country. I’d like to say there was some particular aspect, but in all honesty it was just a sense of total novelty. Also, perhaps a bit of naive vanity — people were generally interested to talk to me because I was a tall, blond gaijin (foreigner). Most foreigners experience that when they first go to Japan. Eventually that faded, but from that point on Japan had a very special place in my heart.
The years went by and I continued to study the language, harboring an interest in most things Japan — from gruesome Takashi Miike films to obscure Japanese bands like Charanporantan. It was kind of an identity for me. During university I decided to do a 1 year study abroad program in Sophia University in Tokyo to prove I was really serious about Japan — it was certainly a pivotal moment for me. After finishing the program I knew I had to come and work in Japan. All of my friends in the US were stressed about graduating, getting jobs and figuring what they were going to do with their careers. I honestly I had no freakin’ clue what I wanted to do long term and I didn’t have specific goals, but I at the very least knew I wanted to be in Japan.
I decided that I would do whatever it took to to get there and ended up applying for the only two jobs you can get as a foreign in Japan with intermediate Japanese — English teaching and HR/recruitment. It was a nerve racking time for me as graduation time came along and I still didn’t have a job lined up. I would be so nervous during Skype interviews with Japanese companies that I would take 2 shots of whiskey before each vide interview, and sometimes not wear pants (they could only see my chest and above on the camera, of course) to calm my nerves and feel more relaxed. Those were interesting times.
And my tactics worked. I got a job offer for the JET program and several offers from recruitment firms. The JET program is a well-known English teaching program that is run by the Japanese government. They randomly assign you a city and throw you into a school for a year to teach kids. The caveat is they don’t tell you where you’re going to be assigned so it was a bit of a gamble — one I didn’t want to take. I wanted to be in Tokyo as I was drawn to the city life and believed, like New York, that’s where “stuff happens.” I rejected the JET offer and joined a small recruitment firm in Tokyo where I ended up working for 4 years helping consult companies like Amazon and Facebook. I gained some of the most valuable experience in my life and glad I took that path, although my Japanese would probably have been better if I had gone to a smaller city. It’s all about trade-offs.
2 – What is the trait of the Japanese culture with which you identify yourself the most?
Japanese people tend to keep to themselves not because they are necessarily shy or introverted. If you become friends with someone in Japan you’ll find out that they can be extremely talkative, super fun and extroverted. To the eyes of a more “open” or talkative Westerner, where public expression of one’s own beliefs is highly valued, Japanese people might seem quiet or reserved. Rather, not pushing one’s opinions on others and keeping to yourself is seen as a sign of humility in Japan.
If you don’t know someone, if you’re not in the “in group,” then it’s none of your business (honne and tatemae). The idea is that if we were always in each others business, conflict would arise. And on a small island nation, we’re all here together, conflict is to be avoided. Our goal is to live as harmoniously as possible. This is the fundamental difference.
But really it’s not that different than where ever you’re from. There are certain things that are OK and not OK to say in public or in your workplace, like in Japan. This doesn’t mean Japanese people are “lying,” but if you cross the line and make a Japanese person feel really uncomfortable, then don’t expect to talk to them again. They will ignore you. This happens a lot if you speak your mind without taking into consideration the feelings of others and the contextual situation that might offend others around you (eh, especially on Tinder). Aka, reading in between the lines. Japan is a high-context culture.
My Japanese friends have an amazing amount of energy. They’re like the rest of us — they party hard, throw up, get angry with their bosses, and love adventures. They have no problem telling me I am wrong or calling me out on bullshit. They like going to 2-day raves and doing back-to-back karaoke sessions and wearing pasties on their nipples. If you’re living here, I’d say Japan is a great place if you are an introvert because you don’t feel forced to do things or go out. You don’t have the fear of missing out that felt so prevalent when I was in the U.S.
3 – What do you think the whole world should adopt from the Japanese culture?
Japanese people have the highest life expectancy in the world. In particular, certain parts of the Okinawan Islands are home to a disproportionate amount of super-centenarians (people over 100). The key to their happiness is explored in the fascinating book “Ikigai,” and boils down to three things. Diet, lifestyle, and mindfulness.
Diet. The longest living Japanese people drink 2-3 cups of green tea a day, eat an average of 18 kinds of foods a day (small portions, large variety), eat more organ meats than muscle meats, abide by the rule “Hara hachibu” which means to eat until you are 80% full, not stuffed. Check out my friends video who talks about Japanese diet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WiUQtOhfIc
Lifestyle. In Okinawa the centenaries are always on the move (not strennuos exercise, just moving and doing things) and all part of a small community or activity groups, which further gives them meaning, or purpose (“ikigai”) in their lives. Also, people in Tokyo especially tend to not have cars, and in fact have one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the world for a big city.
Mindfulness. Japanese people are very deliberate about their actions. They also tend to focus on one thing at a time. In combination, this creates a really powerful tendency to focus on ‘the now’ and perform most actions with a sense of mindfulness. The simple act of taking your shoes off before you go inside or focusing on just doing the dishes, or cleaning, can be extremely meditative, as long as you put your mind to one thing instead of pretending to multi task. You don’t need to retreat to the Himalayas and sit in awkward positions to attain a sense of peace.
4 – With the constant and fast paced change of markets and the way people position themselves in the working force: how do you think that societies will evolve? What will a typical day’s work be?
I have no idea but we’re definitely continuing to move from a full time employment system to more freelance and contract work, aka the gig economy. That’s exciting because we have a lot of perverse work-practices around the world and so many people simply aren’t happy in their jobs. Ultimately this will change and as people have more free time and control over their lives, we’ll simply have more freedom and I suspect a boost in creativity.
Predicting the future doesn’t really work and the experts are particularly bad at it. But I’ll echo this from other people in tech who share the same opinion like Kevin Kelly, ex-exec editor for Wired: the best skill that one can learn is knowing what your personal learning style is. So, equipping ourselves with the tools and foundations of continuous learning and growth to make sure we are ahead of the curve. Most information is free online nowadays so there’s little excuse not to keep learning.
For example, perhaps you’re a developer. A few years ago you might have been focused on android or iOS development. Now, you need to take those same techniques and learn AI development, blockchain development, or perhaps even AI-assistant development (Alexa) to stay ahead of the game. No doubt this will change over time. As long as you know how you best learn new coding languages in this case, then the faster you can catch up and better setup you will be for success. This goes for all professions, by the way. If you are a truck driver and you know that Tesla has driverless trucks being developed, you might want to start developing other skills over the next 3-4 years in preparation. If you are a lawyer and know that AI tools are being developed to be more efficient than you, then you should start looking at how you can co-exist with these tools and become an expert in using them.
I’m also fascinated by blockchain technology from a philosophical perspective. Most of our lives are dominated by middlemen and agencies, so there are constant breaches of trust (misdiagnosis, fraud, bad advice, misaligned incentives and so forth). It’s going to take a few years but there are so many exciting projects down the line that will disrupt various sectors, including the job industry.
Here are a couple of examples:
A friend of mine is working on a startup that is essentially trying to replace LinkedIn that gives rewards to friends/connectors for introducing people to employers. For example, when a company wants to hire someone and they introduce a person, who introduces another person and who then suggests their friend to apply who gets hired, then all people in that value-chain will get money for helping the company hire. Basically, everyone becomes a recruiter. In the future, making money becomes easier and more diversified.
Currently our salary system is slow and clunky. People get paid a salary every 2 weeks or every month in the case of Japan, for various reasons (bank charges, cash flow, bureaucracy etc.). Why cant people get paid every day? Or every hour? Or every minute? Theoretically, it’s possible and blockchain could allow us to do this. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what our lives would be like if we didn’t have to wait 2 weeks to get a pay check and could literally get paid for every minute of work.
5 – In what did you get inspired to write your two books: The Star Interview: How to Tell a Great Story, Nail the Interview and Land Your Dream Job and Cracking The Amazon Interview: A Step by Step Guide to Get the Job?
I felt compelled to write them; I had to write them. Honestly, I’m not really happy with them — I suppose a writer never is. After quitting my job I wanted to write down a lot of what I had learned about recruitment and the product was these two books, along with all of the content I post on Quora regularly.
6 – After your two books: The Star Interview: How to Tell a Great Story, Nail the Interview and Land Your Dream Job and Cracking The Amazon Interview: A Step by Step Guide to Get the Job, when can we expect your next book and what will it be about?
I’m really excited about my next project. I’m starting to work on a book about life in Japan from the perspective of foreigners. I feel there’s a lot of interest in this but there’s not a comprehensive book that covers it. That’s all I can say about it now, but stay tuned for more updates later!
7 – What’s your background? Where did you grow up? What did you study? What were the most important things you’ve learned from your family?
When I was a kid my mom would always encourage me in all my endeavors. One time I was trying to write a book when I was 12; another time I was building a website; another time I was selling pine-cones; yet another time I was selling knife-sets. It didn’t really matter what it was, she always said “you can succeed if you put your mind to it.” Because I always had permission to try stuff, it’s certainly helped develop a sense of creativity and almost carefree attitude that I take with me today.
My dad would make me do all sorts of chores and yard work frequently. We’d re-wire the house, plant trees, paint walls, dig a hole for a pool, cut trees, build fences, tile roofs, fix the car, and so on. He liked to do things himself and hated calling others for help, so it was hard labor. Often times I hated it and rebelled. I didn’t realize it at the time but it instilled a strong sense of work ethic that I carry with me today.
The freedom to pursue my goals and the sense of work ethic are two lessons that my parents taught me that are a powerful combination that I’d like to take these to my kids in the future.
8 – What is or are your favourite movies? Why?
The original Dumb and Dumber with Jim Carrey. It’s such a goofy movie and I think it’s easy to relate to. It’s also setup the scene for so many future comedies — like the class “toilet” scene which so many others have copied since! It’s a classic. I’ve probably watched it 20 times.
9 – How do you cultivate Health and Wellness in your life? Share with us all the habits or attitudes you take towards that.
As most people can surely relate, life is not this string of great habits. There are always bad days, challenges, ups and downs, failures and success, times of great joy and times of great sorrow. We try and go on the diet but then gorge our faces at our friends wedding. We try to get more sleep but end up having to take care of extra work. I think people take themselves too seriously and beat themselves up over apparent “failure” but often don’t realize that there are simple ebbs and flows of life.
Throughout history we’ve have periods of feast and fast — villages would have huge festivals, drink, dance, and go totally wild. For the next 2 weeks, they would be back at work and in religious cases would abstain from eating. Then they would repeat the process. Nowadays, we’ve gotten into this habit of choosing one or the other. We choose to go all out on 100% feasting, which results in all sorts of chronic illnesses, obesity and unhappiness. Or, we go into this hyper-sensitive mode of always “fasting,” or in other words, being extremely restrictive, health conscious, or over-sensitive. That doesn’t fly, either, and you become the stuck-up vegan that nobody wants to talk to.
Unfortunately, having one without the other doesn’t work. You go to work, then you take a vacation. You have a feast, then you eat healthy. You go party, then you take a break. These are the cycles of life. There is a great quote from a monk who said, “I can’t control the waves of the ocean, but I can learn how to surf.” Often we’re trying to control the waves where in reality we just need to ride things out and not beat ourselves up so much. Or, in short, we need balance.
Here are a few habits that I’ve cultivated which keep me centered and balanced:
Taking periods where I drink zero alcohol for weeks/months at a time. The pther times, I plan lots of nights out and activities with friends — and I don’t hold back. It’s a lot of fun.
Meditation: Daily for 20 minutes using the headspace app.
Sauna/cold bath. I visit the saunas 3-4 times a week and take cold showers/baths. Swedish studies have shown that this combination reduces all rate mortality by something like 30%, which is a crazy figure.
I do a fast every 3 months that lasts between 4-7 days. Throughout most of history It’s a life changing practice and I’ve written a short post about it here: https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-long-term-water-fasting-experiences/answer/Misha-Yurchenko
I read a book 30-40 minutes a day, at least.
Share/give. I try and give a compliment or do something nice for someone weekly, if not daily. That could range from sending them a book, to complimenting them, or catching up over coffee and paying for it.
Daily journaling. Writing my wild thoughts, frustrations and concerns helps tame the beast within.
Occasional random dancing in my room with the lights out and White Panda remixes playing.
10 – Any last words you would like to share with Skin at Heart’s readers?
Feel free to reach out to me anytime in particular if you have questions about Japan :). Thanks!
Skin at Heart is grateful to Misha for this inspiring interview and for sharing exclusively with us a little bit more about his path.
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