When I first moved to Tokyo to start my job in corporate recruitment, my salary was approximately $35,000 per year. I began apartment hunting and after being turned down by several nice locations for not being Japanese (unfortunately this still happens), I was lucky to find a few good options. Many people chose to commute 30–40 minutes by train from the city (my office was downtown), and while it takes them longer to get to work, their apartments are reasonably priced and spacious.
I could have found a nice place in the boonies, but I was adamant on living in downtown Shibuya, a thriving central district most famous for the droves of people shuffling across the scramble crossing. I craved to be in the center of the action — bars, clubs, restaurants — and a stone’s throw from the office. It just seemed like a chance I couldn’t pass up as a bachelor in Tokyo.
The standard protocol for getting an apartment is that your rent could be no more than one-third of your monthly salary. In my case, I was making 340,000 yen per month before taxes, which meant that I could spend a maximum of 113,000 yen per month on an apartment. I’m not sure if this was a legally enforceable rule, but it sure came off as rather strict when I spoke to the real-estate agents.
I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations and concluded that I’d be fine to max-out the limit and find an apartment that was 113,000 yen. My reasoning: I’d still have a decent chunk of money for bills, food, going out, and even a bit to save. My rather poor attention to detail, failure to grasp high-school algebra, and unwavering optimism probably blinded me to a couple of simple facts; 1) it’s hard not to spend money in the center of Tokyo and 2) don’t forget that you have to pay taxes, dill weed! Not to mention, I had to borrow money in order to put up 3 months rent to cover the upfront fees (it’s typical in Japan). Ultimately, I found a great bachelor-pad (by Japanese standards) in Shibuya, about 5 minutes from the station. I borrowed some money from my parents, and signed the 2-year rent contract knowing I was barely affording it…and didn’t look back.
The first 3 months of my job were fast-paced, full of trainings and sweaty client meetings in the humid Tokyo summer. I was set off into the wild and was trying hard to prove myself in the corporate jungle. Often times this meant taking out prospective clients out to lunches and dinners; although I could use my credit card, save the receipts and expense these meetings, I still had to pay out of pocket and wasn’t reimbursed until the end of the month. The expenses quickly added up, and on top of my basic living costs, I had very little money at the end of the month. In Japan we’re only paid once a month, not every two weeks like in the US. So you really had to manage your money well.
The first several months I was constantly strapped for cash, and by the 24th of each month I typically only had a few dollars (a few hundred yen) left in my bank account. Pay day was a thrill. When the money would hit my bank account on the 25th, I would immediately embark on a hedonistic Redbull Vodka-fuelled night at my favorite clubs in Shibuya. It’s not difficult to imagine how this got out of hand quickly.
One month, I had to actually ask my boss for money to pay rent. This was a low point, bottom of the barrel for me. While my boss was understanding and didn’t seem to mind, I felt a huge sense of shame and failure on my part. The shame quickly passed and turned into action. Then and there I promised myself that I’d never borrow money again, get my shit together, and focus on getting out of the vicious money-spending cycle that I had started.
But what to do? I didn’t have a choice to move locations because breaking the rent agreement would cost me two months rent, and moving into a new place would require additional up-front costs. There was no way out. My job, though, had a large incentive-commissions based component. Like most sales jobs, if I achieved my sales target, then I’d be able to rake in a good bonus at the end of each 3-month quarter. My cash-crunched situation and shift in perspective led me to do some actual calculations, and while there was a discretionary component to earning a bonus, I learned that I still had a chance to almost double my salary from 35k to 70k. All I had to do was over-achieve my sales results by 10–20% — easier said than done!
There were a few things I did that changed my trajectory from a money-spending salaryman to money-saving, results-achieving rookie of the year.
I cut down on the booze. Alcohol was costing me upwards of $150 a week. Thursdays and Fridays were spent in a non-productive state of slight tiredness, and I spent most Saturday’s comatose on my couch, occasionally waking up to munch on some left over pizza I had ordered the night before. I cut down on more than half of my drinking, and limited drinking to once a week (instead of the previous 3–4 days). This not only saved me money but it gave me increased energy (duh!) to actually focus on my work.
I got creative. I still had to take out candidates and clients, which required me to spend money. I came up with two solutions. First, whenever I went to meet someone I started inviting more senior consultants and managers — the more senior person always had to pay. Second, I asked our HR to start an upfront-cash system, where they would give consultants a monthly stipend of $200 that they would then record as expenses. This meant I didn’t have to use my own cash or credit card.
I worked on Sundays. Now that I had more energy from not over-drinking, I knew the only way to get ahead and actually make myself eligible for the bonuses was to out-hustle others. Solution: I simply treated Sunday like a workday. I’d go to a cafe and focus. This further gave me time to reflect and plan the week, instead of coming into work and wasting Monday morning trying to figure out what the hell was going on. So when Monday rolled around, I often found that I had already achieved more than half of my weekly targets — and the week hadn’t even started yet! This concept of “front-loading” your week where you complete the most important, high impact tasks first, made the rest of the week unfold a lot smoother.
My new activities quickly turned into habits and these habits turned into tangible results. Within 3–4 months, before I even finished my first year on the job, I was able to close some record sales deals. No doubt part of this was luck — I remember having stayed late in the office once and picked up the phone, which was incoming sales-lead, that later resulted in a huge sale. I was also surrounded by great colleagues and an encouraging boss who motivated me to push forward despite tough times (luck).
These better habits and good results gave me confidence relatively early on in my career that it was possible to make changes quickly, re-adjust my lifestyle, and put in hard work that would lead to big things. I continued this pattern (occasionally falling off the horse but quickly jumping back on), and I believe that these early events led to a strong career afterwards, including several subsequent promotions in my 4 years at the company.
What’s wrong with me?
Some people might be shaking their heads at how obvious and avoidable my mistakes were. I could have simply rented an affordable place, or just planned a bit better. Or perhaps if I had spoken to more people who’d been through my situation, or had a mentor, then some of these initial blunders could have been avoided.
But looking back, I question whether or not I would have achieved the same level of results, had I not found myself in a challenging situation. Had I chosen an affordable away apartment, away from the city, it would have likely been morestressful and left me less productive. Why? Because it would take me longer to come to and from work, and I’d probably be more tired. Also I knew that there was a correlation between commute times and depression, so that didn’t help. Sure, perhaps I wouldn’t have worried about money as much, and perhaps my growth in the company would have been less stressful and more ‘steady.’ But the pressure I had from living in an unaffordable apartment led me to reflect on my own mistakes, forced me to create a plan, and provided an opportunity for me to be creative in achieving my goals.
If I had to go back in time, I’d do it again. In fact, after going through this I came to see my accidental-conundrum not as something to be avoided, but rather a fine technique to use when we’re trying to achieve tough goals. The biggest culprits that stop us from reaching our goals, or even starting to move towards our goals, are procrastination and the often-cited excuse of “not enough willpower.” Human behavior is funny. Even if we know that we’ll regret eating that half pound of chocolate, or opting to make $10 now vs. waiting a year for $100 are short-sighted options, we inevitably succumb to “short-term ism.” You can thank millions of years of evolution for that.
Simply grasping human psychology on an intellectual level doesn’t do much, though. In the moment, we can choose to do what feels good, or make “reasonable decisions” (like renting an affordable apartment,” and ignore what might actually influence the future. When we’re comfortable and follow the tried-and-true path, it seems like, well, the right path to be on. This is a classic example of availability bias, which simply means we’re going to choose a plan, option or idea that’s available to us. But you see, when we severely limit our options, we trick our normally very susceptible minds into action. Limit those available options and align them with goals, and you have (at least one) recipe for success.
In business this can mean making up front commitments that you know will be tough to meet, but not giving yourself much leeway for failure — the price being potentially detrimental, whether financially or socially. The saying “under promise and over deliver” applies to certain situations, but if you’re always setting your expectations low, with little incentive otherwise, it’s very easy to fall into doing the minimum amount necessary. We can’t expect others to pressure us into moving towards our goals (although that can be helpful), so it’s up to us to make it happen. Of course, there’s a limit to how much pressure we can take, so it’s first important to understand what that is for us individually.
The Yerkes-Dodson Sweet Spot
There’s a principle in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson law which holds that stress (and associated arousal) makes a person more productive, but only up to a certain point. If you find a situation extremely tasking and exhausting you’re not likely to function very well. On the other hand, not enough stress/challenge results in an absence of motivation, and too much stress puts you at risk of cardiovascular and immune problems, anxiety and depression.
If your stress levels are in the optimum range, however, you’re going to be more alert and attentive — “switched on.” You’ll also benefit from enhanced memory function and executive thinking capacities. That’s how I felt when there was shame from borrowing money from my boss and the subsequent pressure to perform at work — motivated to change and work harder. But I didn’t freak out, panic and become extremely anxious. In other words, I hit the Yerkes-Dodson sweet spot.
The question is how/why was I able to remain in that Yerkes-Dodson sweet spot? Well, we all have different levels of optimal stress and there could be any range of factors that influence this. In my situation, along with cutting down on drinking, there were likely a couple of factors:
#1. An authentic environment where I could express myself. One study explored the role of authenticity, and found that employees who were more authentic at work were also more efficient, driven and resilient. I feel that my job fell into this category (for me, personally) as it allowed me to do some things I really enjoyed; namely, I was constantly meeting new people, getting to have real conversations, and I was open with my ignorance on certain topics and valued learning from those more experience then myself. But perhaps if I was working in a toxic environment, or simply in a work culture that didn’t match my intrinsic motivators, then I wouldn’t have been as motivated to work hard. That’s certainly possible, in which case I could have suffered from debilitating anxiety in my cash-crunched situation, and the end of this story wouldn’t have been so pretty.
#2. A growth mindset. The other important factor was perhaps fostering a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset). A relevant study tested participants experienced symptoms of stress/anxiety. Naturally, certain symptoms made it harder for the participants to perform a cognitive task. However, when they were instructed to intentionally interpret their symptoms as signs of excitement (i.e. tricking themselves, in a sense), they were able to overcome the debilitating aspects of the stress and perform the task more effectively. In other words, your outlook on life can determine whether you think something is an exciting task to be a tackled or a stressful/annoying activity to deal with.
When I joined the company I knew that I had a lot to learn. It was my first job, I had only worn a suit once, and I had never properly learned how to use a calendar (I used to write my “to do lists” on my hand). There was so much to learn and I accepted that as a simple fact. It also helped that there were people around me who were successful that I could look up to.
Start Small Before You Jump Into Deep Water
All that said, before you purposefully throw yourself into a sticky-situation like I did, you could first try this technique on a smaller scale. You could, for example, set a goal to become healthier. Place a (big) chunk of money as a bet with your friend that you’ll lose X weight by X date, and don’t allow yourself an easy way out. You’ll find that you’ll have to sit down, plan and figure out how in the the hell to accomplish this goal. It could, perhaps, start with creating a solid morning routine.
In my case, after I quit my job and started a drone-services company in Japan, I flat out purchased several drones that I couldn’t really afford. This might go against the lean-startup method, but the capital investment pressured me to start marketing my services quickly and led to a quick turn around in sales. This can be applied on a lower level, too. When I started my ketogenic diet, I purchased 5 kilograms of butter that effectively took up half of the space in my fridge. I have to eat that butter now.
In any case, before embarking on the journey to achieve your goal, whatever it may be, ask yourself a few questions. Am I allowed to express my ideas and be authentic in this situation? If there’s something blocking me, can I change it? Do I get both positive and constructive feedback that helps me realize my strengths? Do I have a support network, are there people who I can look up to and ask for help when necessary? Do I have a plan B and C? What’s the worst that could happen? Could I get wiped out? And do I really want to do this?
You should be happy with your answers, and if you’re not, then there might be too much risk. Keep in mind that if you’re going to put yourself in a stressful environment that you want to overcome, you’ll need to hit the sweet spot. That will be different for everyone and totally depends on your situation. More often than not, though, you’ll discover that taking the first leap into deep water is scary, but when we limit our options and are confronted with a tough-but-not-impossible task, we’re surprisingly good swimmers.
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