Despite having made the grades and followed the rules, young Johnny Bunko finds he's become just one more bored corporate drone. Only when he comes into possession of a set of disposable chopsticks that, when snapped apart, summon a fairy that gives him career advice does he begin to turn things around.
Anybody who can bring together seemingly disparate elements of their life and work together to create something new and bold impresses me, just as does a chef who can combine whatever ingredients happen to be around into a meal both unusual and unexpectedly delicious. That's just about what Daniel H. Pink has done here: having written two books about the changing demands of the modern economy and gone to Japan on a fellowship to study the country's comic books, he's put together a book that's essentially career advice manga.
The fairy Diana teaches the hapless Johnny Bunko these lessons:
- There is no plan. Johnny majored in accounting because (a) his dad told him to major in accounting so he'd "always have a job" and (b)
some guidance counselor said that he'd do well to grind his way to
management at whatever firm would let him in, then transfer to "another
company closer to [his] interests." Diana tells him he's living in a
You can do something for instrumental reasons — because you think it's going to lead to something else, regardless of whether you enjoy it or it's worthwhile... or you can do something for fundamental reasons — because you think it's inherently valuable, regardless of what it may or may not lead to. The dirty little secret is that instrumental reasons don't work. Things are too complicated, too unpredictable. You never know what's going to happen, so you end up stuck. The most successful people — not all of the time, but most of the time — make decisions for fundamental reasons.
- Think strengths, not weaknesses. Johnny gets all fired up about repairing his weaknesses, but Diana shoots him down: "Successful people don't try too hard to improve what they're bad at. They capitalize on what they're good at."
- It's not about you. Assigned to come up with marketing ideas for shoes, Johnny doodles some Naruto-lookin' characters. Diana gives him a basic lesson on how the market works: "The most successful people improve their own lives by improving others' lives. They help their customer solve its problem. They give their client something it didn't know it was missing. That's where they focus their energy, talent and brainpower."
- Persistence trumps talent. Johnny and his team get stuck working on more shoe stuff. Frustrated, he summons Diana, who tells them that they might be a talented bunch, but drive matters more: "There are massive returns to doggedness. The people who achieve the most are often the ones who stick with it when others don't. The world is littered with talented people who didn't put in the hours, who gave up too early, who thought they could ride on talent alone. Meanwhile, people who might have less talent pass them by."
- Make excellent mistakes. Johnny comes up with a seed-filled shoe designed to plant trees wherever the wearer walks. The CEO chews him out, reminding him that people wear shoes indoors, too. "Too many people spend their time avoiding mistakes," Diana says. "They're so concerned about being wrong, about messing up, that they never try anything — which means they never do anything. Their focus is avoiding failure. But that's actually a crummy way to achieve success. The most successful people make spectacular mistakes — huge, honking screwups! Why? They're trying to do something big. But each time they make a mistake, they get a little better and move a little closer to excellence."
- Leave an imprint. Diana reminds Johnny that we're none of us long for this world: "Recognize that your life isn't infinite, and that you should use your limited time here to do something that matters."
Unlike some business/management/career books I could name, Johnny Bunko excels by dispensing advice that at least doesn't obviously suck. (Yeah, the bar's that low.) The lessons are broad, sure, but I think they're for the most part sound. Let's take 'em one-by-one:
- There is no plan. This one's worth as much as the other five put together, both for its contrarianism and its truth. (I like both qualities equally, but I usually have to settle for one or the other.) No battle plan survives the first shot fired, they say. This is not to suggest that you shouldn't give any thought to your goals, but attempting adherence to a rigid, step-by-step plot sounds like a recipe for disappointment. I see it all the time in people who were truly excellent in the relatively lab-like conditions of academia, but then break down when they're released into the contaminated, unpredictable non-academic world. Best, I think, to define your goals in a general way, one amenable to heuristics you can use to decide between the countless random choices thrown at you.
- Think strengths, not weaknesses. Sure, why not; comparative advantage and all. I must add that having any kind of glaring, conspicuous weakness does annoy me, so I'd at least want to build myself up in weak areas so that I'm not irritated by my own deficiencies. I may not, say, run a marathon any time soon, but I wouldn't want to have trouble running across campus.
- It's not about you. If nothing else, a reasonable anti-solipsism message. I do notice, though, that certain otherwise intellectually sharp people seem to forget that they live in a world of humans, and that they're going to have to deal with those humans — on human terms — to succeed. I don't particularly resent this reality, but boy, some sure do.
- Persistence trumps talent. This is a fact I see examples of every single day, but so few seem to actually believe it. Maybe there's an appeal in the idea that only the anointed rise inexorably to the top, but it's contradicted by even a cursory survey of who actually succeeds. It's not the far right end of the talent bell curve, but it does look to be the far right end of the persistence bell curve. And I don't mean "persistence" as in some American Dream, up-by-the-bootstraps ideal — indeed, to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps originally meant to do something patently impossible, even faintly ludicrous — but in the sense that they repeatedly, almost stupidly, try again and again. Research some time how many failed efforts even marginally successful individuals have in their pasts; it's stunning.
- Make excellent mistakes. This one doesn't mean so much to me; I suppose it's most usefully parsed as "Try things that give you components, knowledge or experience you can re-use in later iterations", which is nothing to scoff at. "Excellent mistakes" sounds a tad too management-speaky, though. Even just "excellent" has been badly devalued at this point.
- Leave an imprint. Self-evident, to my mind; show me someone who doesn't want to leave their mark.
I doubt following any of this advice could hurt, and I'd be surprised if, dilligently kept in mind, it didn't help. Nevertheless, they're all conclusions you'd have come to in your own head with enough deliberate consideration; then again, your head wouldn't have put them into manga form. Though the combination of career talk and Japanese comics sounds ridiculous, Johnny Bunko is in reality a really slick, seamless piece of work; nothing feels like a kludge, not even the art by Wisconsin's Rob Ten Pas, who perfectly apes the Japanese visual style. (I guess I missed the point, somewhere along the line, when the meaning of manga shifted from "Japanese comics" to "a style of comics with a very specific aesthetic sensibility and conventions from Japanese Culture that even Wisconsinites want to make.")
Also, this is the only comic book you'll ever see that contains a superdeformed Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. And that's a promise.